It was obvious enough for anyone to notice. The Pacers' offense was so sluggish and point-starved at times last season that fans were pointing it out to team president Larry Bird – who didn't need to be told.
"There's a gentleman who sits behind me who said, 'Boy, I wish they'd push the ball up a little faster,'" Bird said Friday when he met with the media for his season-ending press conference. "And I agreed with him."
To that point, Bird and coach Frank Vogel plan for the Pacers to play at a faster tempo next season, a strategy that could have ripple effects. That will mean playing smaller at times, which could mean Roy Hibbert playing less, which potentially could impact Hibbert's decision whether to opt out of the remaining year on his contract.
The Pacers ranked 24th in scoring and averaged 97.3 points last season, which ended with a 38-44 record and a tiebreaker shy of a playoff berth. Paul George's expected return to at or near 100 percent after missing all but the final six games with a broken leg should provide a significant boost offensively and defensively, and Bird wants to exploit that as much as possible.
The options include playing George at the "four" position occasionally, to force defenses to guard wider areas of the court and increase the tempo.
"I'm not saying we're going to go out there and go crazy up and down the court," Bird said. "But we want to play a little smaller at times."
Bird hopes offensive adjustments will bring three or four more points per game. The Pacers lost 12 games by three points or less, or in overtime, this past season.
"I'm excited about it," Vogel said. "We've been in the bottom third offensively for a couple years now. Our style of play is based on how our roster is set up and playing to personnel strengths, but using Paul at the four spot some could, A, make us faster and, B, give us better spacing."
Offensive improvement will require more than a different scheme, however. Bird wants better execution, too. He predicted a few weeks ago that the Pacers would make the playoffs if they moved the ball, but that never happened on a consistent basis.
"It's a pretty simple game," Bird said. "If you move the basketball to the open player and you cut and you set picks, you'll get open shots every time down the court. And we don't do that. We don't set our guys up to receive the passes on the wings where we should. We don't set good, hard picks. We slip every pick.
"That's why you see George Hill dribble from one side to the other side and then back. Because nobody is setting a pick for him. You set a pick to get an advantage. It don't matter if it's a small advantage, but it's got to be set. When we do that, we get open shots."
The player most likely to be affected by a shift to a faster tempo is the 7-2, 280-pound Hibbert. The two-time All-Star (2012 and 2014) averaged 10.6 points over 25.3 minutes per game last season, shooting .446 from the field and a career-best .824 from the foul line, and 7.1 rebounds. Those numbers are down from his peak season, 2011-12, when he averaged 12.8 points over 29.8 minutes with a .497 field goal percentage, and 8.8 rebounds.
Vogel defended Hibbert's effort and "care level," and said his reduced production owed to less playing time resulting from his desire for a quicker defensive team.
"I think it's inappropriate to dump on him or mention that his numbers are down," Vogel said. "I think the league has adjusted some and we may adjust some next year, but we've got to go into the season with the mindset that he's going to be as improved as possible."
Bird expressed disappointment in Hibbert's play.
"I didn't think he played that well," Bird said. "He always played hard. He's very durable. But I don't think he had a great year."
Why the drop-off in production?
"Well, Lance ain't stealing his rebounds, I can tell you that," Bird said, referring to the idea that last season that Lance Stephenson was grabbing rebounds away from him. "That's all I heard last year.
"With Roy a lot of times it's confidence. I think he's got the talent. He gets down on himself and worries about a lot of things that have nothing to do with the way he plays. If he just goes out there and plays, he's a lot better. But he did not have the season he probably wanted, that we wanted, so we have to build on that, and when he comes back try to do things that put him in position to be successful."
Bird, who conducted exit interviews with the players on Thursday, said he's unsure of Hibbert's plans regarding his contract option.
"I don't know what he's going to do," Bird said. "We assume he's going to be back. If he comes back we're going to come back and play a different style. I can't guarantee him anything, he's going to have to earn it."
Vogel also acknowledged the possibility of a reduced role for Hibbert.
"There's a possibility Roy's role will be diminished, if we're trying to play faster and trying to play smaller," he said. "We'll see how the roster shakes out."
Tempo also could affect power forwards David West and Luis Scola, the team's oldest players. Bird, however, expressed a desire to bring both back. West, like Hibbert, has a player option on the final year of his contract while Scola is a free agent. Scola turns 35 on April 30, while West turns 35 on Aug. 29.
West missed 15 games with a sprained ankle and another with an allergic reaction. He never seemed to settle into a groove with the George-less lineup, and his offensive numbers suffered. He averaged 11.7 points on 47 percent shooting and 6.8 rebounds in 28.7 minutes per game.
West left the impression in his exit interview that he plans to return.
"I'm sure he's going to come back," Bird said. "And we're glad, because we can put him into position to do a lot better next year."
"My gut is telling me that he'll opt in," Vogel said.
Scola's options won't be known until the free agency period begins, but he also has talked of wanting to return. Bird said he hopes to be able to resign him. Vogel hopes it happens, and believes Scola would fit into a faster-paced offense.
"He's certainly shown that he's got a lot left in the tank and fits our culture," Vogel said. "Great leader, great worker, really takes care of his body. He commits to running. He's not the fastest guy, but he's a committed runner. He's always changing ends at a very, very high level. I'm hopeful that he comes back."
Bird, however, recognized the brewing dilemma at power forward.
"I'd like to see (West and Scola) play more together and I'd like to see Paul George play there. So we've got a problem, don't we?," he said.
Rodney Stuckey, Chris Copeland, C.J. Watson, Lavoy Allen and Donald Sloan also are free agents. Bird did not want to address each one individually, but said he expects to re-sign Stuckey and does not expect to re-sign Watson.
"You never know," he said of free agency. "We've (only) got so much money to spend. It's according to what they're going to want. Some guys they told me they don't care what they get … they want to get paid, but they want to be here, too. That makes you feel good."
Bird and Vogel were firm in their belief the Pacers can once again become an elite team next season, with a healthy roster.
"It depends on Paul George," Bird said. "I think we can be one of the top teams in the East. You've got to be lucky to make it to the finals. We had a couple opportunities and then didn't play well enough. Our season next year depends on Paul and how much improvement we get out of (reserves).
"We're going to have a better team next year. If we can stay healthy, we're going to have a good run next year."
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