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Vogel, Bird Review 2013-14 Campaign, Look Forward

by Scott Agness | @ScottAgness

June 2, 2014

The Indiana Pacers' 2013-14 season has come and gone over the last eight months, providing basketball fans with a number of highs. But all good things come to an end and unfortunately for this team, their season finished a series sooner than they had hoped.

The Pacers were the last unbeaten team (winning their first nine games of the year), sprinted out to a 33-7 start, sent two players plus the coaching staff to the All-Star game. They finished a league-best 35-6 at home, won their sixth Central Division title, met the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals just as they had been gunning for—and this with homecourt advantage.

But yet again, for the third straight season, the Heat were too much to overcome, and they sent Indiana home for good. As Pacers head coach Frank Vogel faced the media Monday morning to put a wrap on the year, he said his team must continue to keep getting better.

“(The players) still have room to grow just with their proficiency on the basketball court and their toughness in the biggest moments.”

The Pacers hit a slide in early February just before the All-Star break. Around that time, Roy Hibbert’s production began to tail off. Hibbert, an All-Star selection and one-time frontrunner for the Defensive Player of the Year award, recorded six scoreless games over the Pacers' last 23 contests – 19 of which were postseason games. Pacers President Larry Bird said Monday that he'd like to see Hibbert work with someone like Bill Walton, as he has in the past, or even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Through all the late-season struggles, this team managed to overcome a trying March schedule, internal disruptions, and outside voices.

“I think there was a sequence of little things,” Vogel offered. “It’s something that we managed. There were some turbulent times but our guys had every reason to separate and crack.

"This collection of players stayed together and didn’t let those issues, however many, separate them. Players insisted that the culture was great and they were as close as they had been all year."

Come playoff time, they escaped the Atlanta Hawks in seven games, beat out the Washington Wizards in six, and their season may have been different if they held on to Game 2 of the Conference Finals and took a 2-0 lead in the series.

Individually, Paul George elevated his game yet again and was voted an All-Star starter. George was also the second-leading vote-getter for the NBA All-Defensive team, which landed him on First Team trailing only Chicago’s Joakim Noah in votes.

Like never before, George had to deal with the growing scrutiny and the pressures that can weigh on a budding star. He felt the team hit a wall in the spring.

Vogel’s message to George this offseason is simple: Keep getting better in every facet. Bird recently told George that he’d like he see him take his man on in the post more often.

“In this league, every player is a star,” Bird added. “When you start separating the men from the boys, you got to be playing at a high level all the time.

“Do I think Paul George can get there? He’s got to be more consistent.”

Though the wound is still fresh and Bird is disappointed for it to be over, he is encouraged by the way his team stuck it out.

“As far as the season goes, I’m very proud of them,” said Bird. “I’m not ready for the season to end. I don’t know what happened in that last game. I was caught off guard by being down early. When I look back, I think the year went extremely fast for me. I know before the season I was asked if this was going to be Frank’s easiest year as a coach by a number of people. I always felt it was going to be his hardest season and I think it was. Even though he grew as a coach, he was challenged at times but he prevailed and ended up doing a great job for us.”

Like any failure in one’s path, Vogel believes his team will learn and build off of what they were able to do going all the way back to September.

“Part of falling short is learning how to win, learning how to get over that hump,” he said. “We take the disappointment and the bitter feelings of losing again and you use that to motivate you to try to improve next year.”

What Will Lance Do?

That’s the number one question for the Pacers this offseason. Starting shooting guard Lance Stephenson is a free agent, free to hear any and all offers sent his way. He has publicly stated that he wants to be back, but the price has to be right for both parties.

“I’d like to see him back, clearly,” Vogel said. “But he’s a free agent so it’s going to be up to him and what the rest of the offers look like. I’m certainly hoping that he’s back.

“I think he has the ability to be a multi-year All-Star at some point. He’s got to make sure that he puts it all together.

Bird also noted that the ball was in Stephenson’s court. After four years on a rookie pay scale, it’s finally time for the second-round pick to cash in.

“He could do whatever he wants to do but obviously we’ll talk about it the next week or two, our game plan and what we’re going to do and how we’re going about it,” said Bird.

“I always want him back. You just don’t let a talent like that walk away if you can help it.”

Then, Bird was sure to highlight a key reason for Stephenson’s growth.

“Last summer, Lance worked as hard as anyone we’ve had come through here in the summer time. Now, Roy worked very hard when he was here but on a consistent and daily basis, Lance was here lifting, he worked with a shooting coach. He was here every day. It was really good to see and knowing going into the year he was going to be a lot better player. “As a basketball player, you can’t find much more talent than what he has and when he’d dedicated to working out, he works out very hard. He loves to play. Lance can get himself in jams at times for other things he does, sort of immaturity. But once he matures as a person and his game matures more, his ceiling is unlimited.”

Bird said he hasn’t sat down with owner Herb Simon to figure out what their ceiling price is for Stephenson.

“There’s going to be a price that we’re going to and we’re not going over. That’s the way it is,” Bird said. “Obviously our No. 1 goal in here is to talk to Lance and see what he is going to do.”

Bird Staying

Larry Bird returned from his one-year sabbatical a little more than 11 months ago. While he has a handshake agreement with owner Herb Simon and he sounded poised for the year ahead, he wouldn’t get into whether he would see this team through at least the next few years.

“I don’t know,” Bird responded. “I don’t want to get into ... It’s not about me. It’s about this team. That’s why I don’t talk during the playoffs to the press very often. It’s not about me. I’ve been there, I’ve been through all of it. It’s about these players—their time to shine.

“I had a great year. I was so proud of these guys. Now you got to go through the rough patches, too. The one time I was really disappointed in them is when they went to Dallas, Houston and (Charlotte). … They kept working and they kept battling. When they had an issue they worked it out. In my job, you do the job but if you’re around people you like, it makes it a lot easier and I like every one of these guys.”

Midseason Moves Reviewed

Bird admittedly was “all-in” on this team from the very beginning. Since rejoining the team, he worked to improve the bench and give Vogel the best talent he court afford under the salary cap.

On Feb. 1, he opted to give center Andrew Bynum a chance. When healthy, he’s one of the best centers in the league. But he has chronic knee issues and that limited him to just two games in a Pacers uniform.

“The Andrew Bynum deal was you have to take a shot,” Bird said. “He just played 20-something games in Cleveland. Good kid. Really enjoyed him. I was around him quite a bit. In the Detroit game (on March 15), he tweaked something in his knee, in his so-called ‘good knee.’ He went ahead and played through it, and then couldn’t keep the swelling down. To me that was a no-brainer move.”

A few weeks later, a last-minute deal with Philadelphia came together at the trade deadline. That deal sent longtime Pacer Danny Granger, who had been hampered by injuries, to the 76ers for Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen.

“It was really a last-second deal and in the deal, we got Lavoy Allen, which I didn’t know if Andrew would be able to go and I wanted another big,” Bird said. “We got a trade exception and we saved a lot of money. It wasn’t a money deal but we did save money for a guy that I know if he plays 30 to 35 minutes can average at least 17 points a game and probably six rebounds. The problem you get into when you do these deals is when you bring guys in that used to playing 30 to 35 minutes and are all of a sudden down to 12 or 14, are they going to be able to handle that?”

Bird doesn’t believe this deal broke down the team’s exceptional chemistry.

“I never had one player – and I talk to them all the time – come to me and say anything about the trade,” he recalled. “They might have talked to you about it but they were cool with it.”

Bird Praises Fans

The Pacers recorded 28 sellouts during the 2013-14 season, the most since all 41 regular season games were sold-out in the first year at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (1999-2000), plus another 10 during postseason play.

“They gave us everything they could give us,” Bird said. “It was incredible in the building during the playoffs, especially the last two rounds. Game 5 was as good as I’ve ever seen any building get. They were great. They were absolutely fantastic during the playoffs.

Draft Options

The Pacers sent their first round pick to Phoenix last summer along with Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee in exchange for Luis Scola, who has a nonguaranteed deal next season. Because of that, the Pacers’ draft plans are very different than usual.

If they do wish to get into the draft, perhaps they’ll makes a move into the late first round or early second. They have a few assets that could help lead to a transaction. The club will have players in over the next few weeks leading up to draft on June 26, but they will likely be fringe guys.

“It’s going to be tough because we got the 57th pick,” he said of draft approach. “We feel we could possibly get a pretty decent player there. They talk about how great the draft is. I don’t necessarily buy all of that. You never know.”

With the Pacers limited in their flexibility, Bird reminds everyone to keep reality in check.

“It’s always good to sit here and daydream and have a wish list,” he said, “but how are you going to play these guys? If you know the collective bargaining, you know we can’t just go out and we are not going to have $20 million to spend. Everything we do is going to be through trades.”

Bird likes the team and believes further experience will help this group get to another level. But he’s always listening.

“I don’t want to make major changes but we’re going to take a look. Obviously it takes two guys to make a deal but we’re open. We’re going to listen and we’ll see what’s out there. You never know.”

Role for Solo?

One player’s potential that excited Vogel and Bird was that of rookie Solomon Hill. The 6-foot-7, 225 pound forward played in just 28 games, 16 of which were before 2014, and but the moment seemed too soon for him – especially on championship focused team.

Before games he was always one of the first guys on the floor working and he tried to soak in as much as he could from the guys in the locker room.

Obviously a lot could change with the roster, depending on free agency and any moves the Pacers make. But might there be a bigger role for him moving forward?

“I think so,” Vogel said. “I’m really excited about what Solomon Hill can do for us.”

“Oh yeah,” Bird said with an excited pause. “I was talking to Frank, maybe a month ago and I said, ‘If Solomon Hill had to play right now, I think he’d handle himself pretty well.’ He’s improved a ton. He’s a hard worker. He’s out there every day beating it. He’s going to be valuable next year. I thought earlier in the season he wasn’t ready for it when he got to play. But he’s ready now. He’s going to put in a hard summer. We’ll have a shooting coach back in, Hal Wissel hopefully, and work with him. His shot has gotten a lot better but there’s other things he needs to work on and I think he’s going to be a good player for us.”

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