An Ensemble Affair?
by Mark Montieth | email@example.com
October 26, 2012
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It was a simple question, but it inspired furrowed brows and scratched chins.
"Who's the leader of the Pacers?"
David West paused. "You mean players?"
"I don't know," he said. "Um ..."
How about you, Roy Hibbert?
"I don't see it as one person's team," he said.
"This is a player-owned team," Frank Vogel said.
The vague uncertainty of who leads the Pacers could be a good thing or a bad thing for them in the upcoming season. In the NBA, there's a fine line between a democratic, self-governed team and a rudderless ship, and the Pacers could go either way. So far, however, there are no indications they'll stray off course and ground themselves in shallow waters. The way they ended last season, when they took Miami to six games in the Easters Conference semifinals, and the way they have conducted themselves throughout training camp and the preseason, gives the impression of a team capable of pulling in the same direction.
Most contending teams have an obvious alpha dog or two. With the Lakers, Kobe Bryant has reigned since Shaquille O'Neal was traded to Miami in 2004 after they refused to share joint custody of the team. The arrival of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash will dilute some of Bryant's power this season, but he'll still have the loudest voice, since he's the one with the championship rings. With the Heat, it's LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. With Oklahoma City it's Kevin Durant first and foremost, and Russell Westbrook following close behind. With Boston, it's Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, although Rajon Rondo's emergence seems to have complicated things.
This year's Pacers' roster only includes one player who has played on a championship team (Mahinmi) and no one who has been a first-, second- or third-team all-NBA selection. But it does have three recent All-Stars (West, Hibbert and Danny Granger) and another player, Paul George, who has stated his intention to become one this season, and is taking a more assertive approach. The remaining starter, George Hill, plays point guard, a position that has leadership thrust upon it.
So who navigates amid turbulence?
"I would consider myself one of the leaders," said West, who is the team's older player (32), but also a relatively new arrival, having played just one lockout-shortened season with the team.
His teammates agree, pointing toward him as the most powerful locker room voice. West doesn't talk a lot, and therefore commands an audience when he does speak up. But, he's not campaigning for anything, and is quick to spread the wealth of leadership.
"Danny's been here the longest," West said. "I know guys look to him for leadership. Big Roy, guys look to for leadership. I think everybody sort of feels they have to assume a leadership role."
The parity is so blatant that Vogel has yet to decide who will act as captain this season. He talked as if he'd just as soon send out all five starters for the pregame center circle chat with the officials, although that has obvious practical drawbacks. He has been putting all five up front when the players stretch at the start of practice. He envisions a leadership council of sorts.
"I think our starting five, each of them has leadership attributes," Vogel said. "They're five parts equal leaders."
Perhaps it's an indication of the validity of the team's integrated approach that last year's solo captain, Granger, looks forward to sharing the role.
"I think it's great," Granger said. "I don't have to be the only one now. Our whole starting lineup is in a leadership position."
"Captain's just a title," Hibbert added. "We're grown men."
High marks in chemistry will be crucial for the Pacers, given the nature of their lineup. Not having an obvious leader goes hand-in-hand with not having a superstar. They have a rotation of players ranging from good to very good, but no truly great ones who might contend for first-team all-league recognition. They also have no role players, a Dale Davis or Jeff Foster type, who are willing to focus on defense and rebounding without complaint. That can be a good thing, if they remain satisfied to take turns stepping forward and backward offensively, depending upon the opponent and the match-ups.
That's not how the vast majority of championship teams have done it, though. If nothing else, it's extremely difficult to accumulate five talented offensive players, and pay them all for long. If you have a star or two pulling down a major contract, there isn't going to be enough money left to pay the other starters their market value for long, especially without diving deep into the luxury tax.
The Pacers are striking a delicate balance this season, one that will be difficult to maintain. Hill, West, Granger and Hibbert will earn between $8 and $14 million each. George, still working on his rookie contract, will earn $2.6 million. The Pacers have picked up the option on George's contract for next season, when they'll owe him $3.3 million.
If George has the kind of season he's planning, something will have to give. He'll command a large contract. West becomes a free agent in June, and if he remains healthy he will, too – from someone. Granger has one year left on his deal after this one, at $14 million.
Changes are likely coming, which means the opportunity awaiting this season's team is all the more unique. Competing for a championship might only become more difficult in seasons ahead, if financial realities force major roster changes. It could be similar to the situation the Pacers faced in 2003, when Brad Miller's market value soared well beyond expectations and they were unable to keep him. They overcame that, however, with Foster filling in nicely as a role player and helping the team to a 61-win season.
Collectively, the Pacers have to be in win-now mode, because collectives can be difficult to keep together.
"I don't think there have been many teams like this over the years," West said. "Obviously there are teams that have one or two individuals that are better than what we have, but we're confident in our collective approach. We feel that's where we have advantages."
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