The Pacers franchise is in its 49th season of business, but probably has never had a team as confusing as the head-scratching version that's mystifying fans this season. Calling them Jekyll-Hyde would be an over-simplification. They're more like a team with multiple personalities.
They play big. They play small. They have an All-Star who played like a superstar in November, but a fading star since then. They have two point guards in the starting lineup, or perhaps none. They have started a variety of combinations, and their rotation becomes more confusing by the game thanks to their quality depth.
"We're in a state of flux," coach Frank Vogel said recently, quickly adding that's not a desired state for a team halfway through the season.
They are 23-19 heading into Friday's game at Golden State, tied for fifth in the Eastern Conference. They are two games back of third place, which would bring homecourt advantage for the opening round of the playoffs, and two games ahead of ninth place, which would bring a seat at home in front of the television for the playoffs.
It's difficult to complain, given preseason expectations. Most predictions from mainstream media outlets had the Pacers on the playoff bubble, finishing eighth or ninth in the conference – which seemed reasonable, given all the off-season roster changes and a shift in style of play. They're on pace to win 45 or 46 games, and their schedule slants downhill following this week's road trip. Of their final 38 games, 22 will be played at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
That November stretch in which they won 12-of-14 games and raised their record to 12-5 altered perspectives, however, making their current status less appealing than it would have seemed when training camp opened.
Their habit of collapsing under the weight of late-game pressure has been deflating, and leaves the feeling they should have another handful of victories. It also raises concerns about their confidence and/or mental toughness. Heading into Tuesday's game at Phoenix, they were 4-9 in games decided by four points or less. They won that game by three, but nearly squandered a lead that had reached 20 points late in the third period. Although a victory, it left a familiar and uncomfortable taste, and elicited no celebration from the players.
When Monta Ellis hit what appeared to be a game-breaking shot with 39.4 seconds left, and when he hit game-clinching free throws with 2.6 seconds left, and when they actually won the game, they showed no emotion. A mass of blank faces, they looked more like they had just blown another one.
They'll have to find the juice for a playoff run somewhere, but until then, how angry can you be? Nobody predicted 50 wins for this team, and that could happen if it recaptures its November vibe. The consensus mid-season grade from national outlets has been a B, and that seems fair. You just have to ignore the shaky performances on the most recent tests.
Some mid-season impressions:
Paul George entered the season declaring his ambition to become the NBA's Most Valuable Player. And he backed it up through most of November and the first week of December, when he averaged 29.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists and hit 47.5 percent of his three-point attempts. That 17-game stretch included nine games of 30 points or more, and two gems of 40 and 48.
The NBA made him its Eastern Conference MVP – for November. It appeared he was well on his way to contending for the season honor, all the more impressive because he had sat out all but the final six games of last season while healing his broken leg.
He's been erratic since then. He had three consecutive 30-plus games to start January, but has had some clunkers as well. He's averaged 20 points over the last 22 games, shooting 37 percent from the field and 31 percent from the 3-point line, and has averaged more turnovers than assists during that stretch.
He says he's fatigued because of the stress his injured leg has endured, and that teams are defending more aggressively and with more bodies as well. Regardless, the Pacers can't achieve their potential without their best player playing his best.
George sometimes gives the impression of a young (25) player grappling with his sudden status as the team's unquestioned star, the fame that goes with that role, and how to go about attacking the games. Should he look to score? Should he look to get his teammates involved?
When your star player is in a state of flux, the team is bound to follow. But his career's body of work and his unfettered ambition evoke optimism.
Ian Mahinmi whiled away his first three seasons with the Pacers as a competent backup, but has taken a major step forward as a fulltime starter for the first time in his nine NBA seasons (one of which was lost to injury).
The trade that sent Roy Hibbert to the Los Angeles Lakers opened a gap for Mahinmi to fill, and he's taken advantage. He put in a diligent summer with George Hill in San Antonio, and has been the perfect fit for the uptempo offense. He's a capable defender because of his agility and quickness, gets points by running the floor or converting rebounds and doesn't care how many shots he gets. Which is good, because he gets fewer than six per game.
He's averaging 8.4 points on 60 percent shooting and 7.1 rebounds in 24 minutes. Last year, he averaged 4.3 points and 5.8 rebounds in 18 minutes. He's even showing signs of life at the foul line, hitting 57 percent of his attempts. That's not much, but it's a major jump from last season's 30 percent follies.
More than any of the roster veterans, Mahinmi has produced more than expected.
When the Pacers signed free agent Monta Ellis over the summer, the assumption was they were getting a proven scorer who didn't care much about defense and wouldn't offer leadership.
He's been nearly the opposite of that. He was said to have taken over the locker room in two days, and in a good way. Although introverted around people he doesn't know well, he consistently encourages and instructs teammates on the court, and sometimes takes Vogel's seat during timeouts to lecture teammates while the coaches are conferring away from the huddle.
He leads the team in assists (5.0), which shouldn't be a surprise given his career history, but his defense has been above average. He leads the team in steals (1.7) and has been more engaged than expected. His scoring, however, has dropped from 18.9 last season in Dallas to 13.6, and his field goal percentage (.433) is the lowest since his rookie season. The Pacers need a consistent scorer to go with George, and he's the best candidate.
For better and for worse, he's been a surprise.
Glenn Robinson III opened eyes in the preseason when he was the Pacers' second-leading scorer, and again in the regular season when he scored 17 points in 20 minutes in a blowout win over Milwaukee.
He languished on the bench most of the season, though, until Vogel put him in the lineup at Miami on Jan. 4. He's played each of the nine games since, starting two. He hasn't had a breakout performance, averaging 4.3 points on 39 percent shooting, but has hung on to his place in the rotation with occasional bursts and solid defense.
He's just 22, and his athleticism and room for improvement give him the look of a savvy free agent signing with a bright future.
Best Reason For Optimism
The rookies, Myles Turner and Joe Young, are coming on, offering an enticing glimpse into the team's future.
Turner, the first-round draft pick, missed 21 games with a fractured left thumb, but stepped back into the rotation upon his return and picked up where he left off. He's averaging 7.4 points on 56 percent shooting, and is coming off his two best games of the season. He scored 25 at Denver on Monday, and 15 at Phoenix on Wednesday. Over the last nine games, he's averaged 9.8 points and hit 71 percent of his shots – mostly from midrange.
With Mahinmi likely out for awhile with a sprained ankle, he'll get more minutes than ever. Nobody who's watched him play will complain about that. He's living up to the billing Larry Bird gave him as the team's best shooter, and has been aggressive around the basket.
Young has played well the last two games with Rodney Stuckey out with a sprained ankle and George Hill out for personal reasons. The second-round pick scored 15 at Denver and 11 at Phoenix, and combined for 12 assists and three turnovers in those games. He's a headache waiting to happen for Vogel when Stuckey and George return. How do you work him in the lineup without sitting a veteran?
That qualifies as one of many of Vogel's "good problems" because of the team's depth. But it's a problem nonetheless. Keeping players satisfied with their roles over the course of the season is never to be taken lightly.
The Pacers are going to have to find chemistry, at both ends, to have a meaningful season. They get along just fine, as they reaffirmed in their bowling outing in Phoenix on Monday, but have yet to get in sync consistently in games. There's a failure to communicate on defense at times, and the offense often grows stagnant.
Vogel was dedicated to his spread lineup, with a center and four wings and guards, heading into the season, but has drifted back toward a more conventional set with two bigs. He's an analytics-oriented coach, and his most successful lineup includes two bigs. George clearly prefers that, too.
They're not a hard-nosed team, too, physically and psychologically. They grow hesitant on offense at crunch time, have "embarrassing" defensive lapses, to use Vogel's word after the loss in Denver, and lack the poise and killer instinct to put teams away when they've earned the opportunity.
That could changed with more time together, but this team appears to need a big brother to sharpen its edge, someone, a bully with the confidence to carry them through the tough moments of games. A guy like Mel Daniels, actually. They don't have one, and you can't manufacture one from within, so, barring a trade that brings one, they're going to have to figure it out on their own.
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