Mark's Mailbag: Looking Ahead to Next Season

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Q. What do you think about the Pacers electing not to renew Frank Vogel's contract? Wrong move? Right move?

— Kyle

A. This obviously was a tough call for Larry Bird, who was as emotional as I've ever seen him during Thursday's press conference. Bird was a hard-nosed player, but he's a sensitive man who cares about other people's feelings.

Let's start with the obvious fact Vogel is a good person, a unanimous opinion. His story is impressive, lifting himself from Division III point guard to NBA coach through initiative, persistence and years of grinding in the darkness of the video room. And, his record speaks for itself. He had fortunate timing with the Pacers, taking over a team on the rise, one that got a lot better his second season when they signed David West, but his teams generally performed to expectations and sometimes beyond. He took consecutive teams to the conference finals, no small accomplishment, and, in my opinion, lost both times to a better team. The 2013 team was too young to beat the Heat, and Roy Hibbert's collapse made it nearly impossible to get to the Finals in 2014.

There were legitimate reasons for concern going forward, however. The halfcourt offense didn't click. It was too often stagnant, even in Game 7 of the playoff series with Toronto this year. His teams often failed to come up with good shots on crucial late-game possessions, and struggled to hold fourth-quarter leads. Not all of that can be placed on the coach, but some of it can. I also saw a lax atmosphere around the team at times. Not enough discipline, and not enough energy. It didn't even take the court together for pre-game warmups.

And, there's Bird's argument that players tune out a coach after awhile. He says he saw some of that. I can't speak to that, because I didn't watch practice and I wasn't in the locker room when he was talking with the players. Contrary to what some have written, I think that's a valid argument. It's not just what Bird experienced as a player, it's what he experienced as a coach. Keep in mind, no Pacers coach before Vogel had lasted more than four years. And in each case, their last season wasn't pretty. They had burned out or been tuned out, and the next coach nearly always made things better right away. I'd say that supports Bird's argument.

People need to understand, the question wasn't whether to bring back Vogel next season, it was whether to bring him back for three or four more seasons. His contract was up, so the choice was whether to make another longtime commitment or not. You couldn't just give him a one-year extension.

I think reasonable people can agree it's a really tough call, and can be argued either way. There are nuances to it, which is why the enraged vitriol from columnists and radio talkers blasting Bird surprised me, although it shouldn't have. It was almost amusing to read or hear the passionate anti-Bird screeds from some of the same people I heard criticize Vogel so frequently throughout the season. And let's be honest, had Vogel been signed to a long-term contract and the team didn't improve next season, those same people would have criticized Bird for bringing him back.

There's also the fact Bird and other front office members know more than we do about what goes on within the organization. They have access to more information, see more, hear more. Rather than point out all those things publicly, a good manager falls on his sword and takes the heat. There have been several times I wondered about a decision made within the Pacers organization but years later learned something that made it easily understood. This happened just the other day, in fact, when Donnie Walsh gave me the background of his decision to fire someone in the 80s.

No question, Vogel did a good job. No question, no coach is perfect. The next one might be better than him in some areas, but could be worse in others. It's a demanding, difficult job, and even the Hall of Famers had flaws. The bottom line is that not giving Vogel a new contract was the right move if the next coach makes things better, and the wrong move if he doesn't. Or, maybe it would only mean the wrong coach was hired. This all will take time to learn.

Q. Do you think this series with the Raptors opened the Pacers' eyes about playing with a spread four? It seemed they were much better with Myles at the center spot and Solomon Hill running the four position?

After a long year for the Pacers, one thing is evident and that is Paul George still doesn't have the Robin to his Batman. Is it time to bring Monta off the bench and secure a three and a defensive two-guard?

— Jeremy

A. I don't think any eyes were opened. The motivation to play a spread lineup and a faster tempo came largely as a result of needing to trade Hibbert and losing David West. They had already decided to trade Roy Hibbert, but West leaving forced their hand. They played small pretty successfully early on, until C.J. Miles got beat up. Then, as Myles Turner emerged, it only made sense to start him and go with a bigger lineup. I think Vogel remained flexible, going smaller when match-ups called for it, as any coach would do.

Ultimately, it depends on your personnel. There's more than one way to win; it comes down to having the right players for whatever style you play. I wouldn't be surprised to see a smaller lineup next season, but only if it makes sense for their personnel.

I think the Batman and Robin thing gets overplayed. You need more than one great player to contend for a championship, that's the point. Myles Turner certainly appears to have the potential to be part of such a tandem. Whether or not to start Monta Ellis will have to play itself out. If his performance drops off too much, he'll have to come off the bench. George Hill is a good defensive two-guard, and Paul George is already the "three," although we get too hung up on numbers.

The challenge simply is to find the best five-man combination they can get and build chemistry. That could be a "small" lineup or a "big" one, but we'll have to see how the roster breaks down.

Q. I think everyone would agree that Paul George had a terrific comeback season. My concern while watching him this season was that he wasn't elevating and finishing at the rim like he used to. It's reasonable to think that would be the case considering the injury he had. Has there been talks about this being a concern moving forward? Appreciate your work.

— Jordan

A. I don't think the drop-off was too great. You probably saw a few 360-degree dunks this season, so he can still get up. As the season went on, it seemed he was more willing to attack the basket and draw fouls, especially in the playoffs.

I haven't heard of any great concern about his future health. George said during the season he didn't have all his explosiveness back, but expected to have it by next season. What he has now seems to be enough.

Q. When will the Pacers give more minutes to Glenn Robinson and Joe Young?

— Turk

A. In Summer League for sure, and next season, perhaps.

I understand people wanting to see more of them. Both showed great potential, at times. But I don't believe either was a better choice for playing time in the playoffs or other important games than whomever was ahead of them. You can go back and practice revisionist history and say they should have played in place of whichever guy had a bad game, but that's not qualified criticism.

I thought Robinson had a chance to be in the rotation this season after watching him become the second-leading scorer in the pre-season. I wrote a major story on him, and kept going back to his "intrigue." He had his chances, even starting four consecutive games on a Western road trip in January, but didn't take advantage. He hit 6-of-21 shots in those games, and seemed to lack confidence. That's understandable, but the knock against him has always been that he defers too much. He'll need to overcome that at some point, without becoming selfish. A fine line, I know. He's a genuinely nice man, but he would be well-served to be less nice on the court.

Young played well off the bench in the first three games of the same road stretch in which Robinson started in January, scoring in double figures each time and accumulating 20 assists against six turnovers. He faded after that, and he certainly wasn't a better choice at point guard than Monta Ellis, George Hill or Ty Lawson late in the season. Experience counts for a lot, particularly with point guards. He remains a promising player, but needs to gain maturity and toughness.

Q. I am curious about your take on the future of Solomon Hill and if you think he figures in the Pacers' future plans? Personally, I really hope he remains part of the Pacers' plans going forward, here is why.

Firstly his demeanor, his attitude, his basketball IQ, his leadership (yes I think he has on/off court potential leadership). He is a great professional, he is a hard worker, has great energy and is a very good and flexible defender. If you look at how he has played himself back in the rotation and proven himself an important part of the Pacers. He has been really good over the last half of the season and is actually shooting really good percentages post-all star (50% from the field and 41% from 3-point range). I think they should offer him a reasonable contract.

What is your take on his future with the Pacers, or if not with the Pacers where could you see him fit in?

— Jacob

A. Hill had one of the more interesting seasons I've ever seen from a player.

His poor performance in Summer League didn't help, but Larry Bird knew better than to put too much emphasis on that. It's sometimes difficult for more established players such as Hill (who started 78 games last season) to blend in with rookies and younger players. It's almost as if they know they don't belong there and either feel awkward about it or don't want to try too hard for fear of showing up the kids. Bird saw that happen with Jalen Rose, who volunteered to play in Summer League shortly after Bird took over as coach in 1997, but then played poorly. It didn't predict how Rose's career with the Pacers would go, though, just as Hill's Summer League didn't predict his upcoming season.

Bird said in Thursday's press conference that Hill's attitude and work ethic waned over the summer and fall. You also have to consider that Glenn Robinson III and Chase Budinger were full of intrigue at the time. Robinson was young and athletic and seemed to have vast potential. He backed that up by being the second-leading scorer in the pre-season. Budinger reportedly was the star of the September intrasquad scrimmages and was a more established player than Hill and seemed to be recovered from his two knee surgeries.

The Pacers elected not to offer Hill an extension to his rookie contract. I was surprised, given what he had done the previous season as a 78-game starter, but there were things I didn't know at the time. I don't remember an outcry of protest on his behalf. In hindsight that looks like a mistake, but Bird's comments on Thursday offer perspective.

Q. Do refs get fined (for mistakes in playoff games)?

— Eric (via Twitter)

A. You are referring to the NBA's admission after Game 7 in Toronto that a couple of mistakes were made in calls that went against the Pacers. The NBA has become more transparent this season, providing reports about missed calls in the final two minutes of games. The Pacers seemed to be on the wrong end of those mistakes far more often than the right end.

The NBA does not announce fines and suspensions, but occasionally word gets out. Marc Stein once wrote about Steve Javie getting fined. Referees also can be suspended for inappropriate behavior. Joey Crawford, for example, was suspended in 2007 for shouting at Tim Duncan on the bench in San Antonio. Crawford also once kicked Reggie Miller out of a game in Atlanta, when Miller was on the bench.

So, I believe the answer to your question is yes.

Q. Did you forget about the overtime loss to L.A. In Game 4 of the 2000 Finals, or the Game 7 loss to Chicago in the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals? In my 25 years of traveling to Indy to watch the Pacers, the worst loss for me was Game 5 of the 2004 Eastern Conference Finals to Detroit at home with the series tied 2-2. I actually went to Detroit with my son to watch us even the series at 2-2. Then we played poorly at home to lose Game 5. Huge disappointment, monumental loss.

— Jhensel

A. You are referring to my article after the Pacers lost Game 5 in Toronto, when they blew that 13-point lead in the fourth quarter. I wrote that yes it was, to use your terminology, "huge" and "monumental." But it wasn't nearly as bad as any loss in the conference finals or finals, especially those on the home court, and the Pacers had a history of bouncing back from those losses.

They did this time as well, winning Game 6 in Indianapolis and nearly winning Game 7 in Toronto.

Q. Any chance Paul George is traded?

— Derric

I bet they would, indeed. But I think the odds of the Pacers making such a deal are infinitesimal. And yes, I had to look up the spelling of infinitesimal. George is a star, maybe a superstar depending on your definition of "superstar," and is just 26 years old. You need great players to contend for a championship and the Pacers have one in George. You don't get rid of those guys unless you're getting greatness back.

You never say anyone can't be traded. I imagine we could come up with some deals that make sense for LeBron James or Steph Curry, but we know it's not going to happen. It's not difficult to get good players in the NBA, but it's very difficult to get great ones. When you have one, you hang on to him for dear life for as long as you think he's not in decline.

Q. When are the kid gloves gonna come off with Bird?

— Travis (via Twitter)

A. This was a random comment on Twitter, but I thought it was worth discussing.

I've never understood the opinion that Bird is treated with kid gloves. I can make a better argument he's unfairly criticized. That's often true for all general managers and team presidents in the wake of a frustrating or disappointing finish to the season, but let's review:

Bird took over the team when a major rebuild was inevitable. He was patient, made a few good moves, caught a break or two (such as David West wanting to come to the Pacers) and put together a team that reached the conference finals in consecutive seasons. Nobody was complaining about him then.

Then Paul George had a major injury and other players had lesser injuries, and they missed the playoffs last season. Most people understood that. Then Roy Hibbert grew frustrated with his role, thinking his All-Star status made him deserving of more touches, spoke out about it and went south. Bird traded him, to the delight of most Pacers fans. Then David West decided to finish his career with a team more likely to contend for a championship, forcing a major rebuild. The Pacers reached the playoffs this past season, and exceeded the expectations of most. I didn't hear of anyone predicting more than 45 wins or progressing beyond the first round of the playoffs.

So, what did Bird do wrong? Public sentiment – at least that part of it on social media – is against him at the moment, and the reaction to Thursday's announcement that he was not renewing Vogel's contract has inspired invective from every corner of the media – including some members who had plenty of criticism for Vogel throughout the season but now see him as a victim.

To say Bird is treated with kid gloves is a tired cliché and laughable when explored. He's been hammered every season but a few, and often for things outside of his control. His fame makes him a target far more than it grants him immunity.

You can go back and pick over drafts and find mistakes. You can do that with every team president. Ultimately they all stand on their record, but people at least need to be able to discern what's within and beyond their realm of control.

Have a question for Mark? Want it to be on Pacers.com? Email him at askmontieth@gmail.com and you could be featured in his next mailbag.

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