The Indiana Pacers in their last three games don’t look like a team that can compete with reigning NBA champion Miami Heat—not in a seven-game series anyway.
That’s a problem for Pacers basketball operations boss Larry Bird. Some would say that barring some type of miraculous turnaround, this season will represent a regression from last season.
The Pacers lost in seven games to Miami last year in the Eastern Conference Finals. Down 3-1 heading into tonight's game at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse, it’s difficult to imagine the Pacers getting that far this year.
But with this enigmatic bunch, who knows?
One thing is certain. The Heat aren’t going to roll over like the Atlanta Hawks or Washington Wizards, the teams the Pacers beat in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
After speculation erupted last month that Pacers Coach Frank Vogel was coaching for his job, General Manager Kevin Pritchard tweeted that Vogel’s job was safe. In professional sports, safety is a relative thing—and relatively short-lived.
You have to believe that if the Pacers flame out against Miami, everything will be up for review. I think Pacers fans would be upset it there wasn’t a comprehensive review by Bird.
And I don’t think any of the team’s supporters would object to tweaking—or even possibly overhauling—this team. The Blue and Gold faithful have become a little more than merely frustrated watching this team stumble through the playoffs this year. More than a few are ready to tune out. In fact, the TV ratings for Monday’s game in Miami showed they did just that. About 153,000 central Indiana households watched Monday's Game 4 at Miami on TV. Just eight days earlier, more than 225,000 central Indiana households watched Game 1 of the Pacers-Heat Eastern Conference Finals Series.
All of the Pacers home playoff games have sold out. Ticket sales for Pacers home playoff games on the secondary market are lagging league averages, according to national ticket brokers and analysts Vivid Seats and TiqIq.
Vogel, who became Pacers head coach in 2011, isn’t the only one who will be under review. But surely that’s where Bird will start. Some of Vogel’s decisions during this year’s playoffs have been, well, curious. His decisions about who to play, when to play them and what strategies to rely on have been questioned often by fans and ABC/ESPN analysts. And the buck always stops with the man at the top, and when it comes to play on the court, that’s Vogel.
Pacers players Lance Stephenson and Roy Hibbert also are likely to be the subject of a good bit of scrutiny.
Some fans and observers think Stephenson’s shenanigans—including his trash talking with LeBron James—is more trouble that the young player is worth. His upside is undeniable, but Stephenson is as unpredictable on the court as he is off it.
It seems like with this player, you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop. The Pacers could decide to part ways with him before it hits the ground.
Hibbert, as personable a guy as there is in the Pacers locker room, has become terribly inconsistent on the court. Watching him throughout this year's playoffs has to make Bird wonder if he’s going to be able to be the kind of consistent big man he would like at the center of his championship team.
Hibbert still has two years on his contract, but because he can rebound, block shots and anchor a defense, a handful of teams would consider a trade for him.
Stephenson’s contract expires at the end of the season, so he’ll have to be dealt with one way or another. Despite the criticism of Stephenson, Bird has remained in his corner. So right now, it wouldn’t be surprising if he is re-signed and given the chance to play one more year, or at least part of the year, in a Pacers uniform. There's likely always going to be trade value for someone as young and talented as Stephenson, so re-signing him in the near term wouldn't necessarily be a sign of a long-term commitment.
The third big area of scrutiny for Bird after this season ends does not involve a particular player. It involves something the Pacers don’t have—a true point guard.
The Pacers have had way, way too many turnovers, far too few assists and a lack of leadership—the type a good point guard can provide—not to try to improve at the position. Not to shortchange the Pacers current starting point guard, Indianapolis native George Hill, but he may be best suited to coming off the bench.
Change is always difficult. But in the case of this Pacers team, not changing would be more difficult for the team’s fans to take.