Success looks as if it has turned Indiana into a team not ready to take the Heat.
Larry Bird might not be watching the best NBA team this season unravel, but it sure seems as though his Indiana Pacers aren’t the same team that thrilled basketball junkies from October through January.
Look, no team goes through an NBA season without its share of ups and downs. Even the best of the Chicago Bulls teams during the Jordan era didn’t go 82-0, and the Pacers weren’t going to go undefeated either. The chances of that happening are like the odds for the perfect NCAA bracket: 9.2 quintillion-to-1.
But after its impressive start to the season, Indiana has looked no better than the also-rans of the league. Think Cleveland Cavaliers here if you’re searching for a comparison.
Indiana, 40-12 before the All-Star break, has become the Bickering Pacers or the Half-Stepping Pacers or the Team-in-Need-of-a-Pacemaker Pacers, because these Pacers have no heart. Their locker room smells of discord, and the way they are performing on the floor, they are not a threat to reach the NBA Finals.
Forget that Roy Hibbert called his teammates out; forget that coach Frank Vogel might be fighting for his job; and kick the thought of missing Danny Granger out of your mind. The Pacers face the same problems a lot of NBA franchises face when their front offices try to outsmart everybody else.
Bird, the team president, pulled off a deal at the trade deadline that sent Granger to the Philadelphia 76ers for, essentially, Evan Turner.
Turner wasn’t a bad pickup, because he does have game. But throwing him and a misfit like Andrew Bynum, another in-season pickup, into the locker room has wrecked whatever made the Pacers a legitimate title contender. They had chemistry once, and chemistry is a wonderful trump card when a team has talent, too.
Without Granger, though, the Pacers have been falling apart. Bynum can’t play, which is why the Cavaliers released him. And Turner and Lance Stephenson have traded punches, an indication of the friction that has transformed the team into a confederacy of craziness.
With an NBA title there to win, the Pacers have displayed the maturity of a team without ambitions. They have allowed “selfish dudes,” as Hibbert has put it, to undermine what had been their hallmark: selflessness.
None has been more selfish than Lance Stephenson.
Yet to blame only Stephenson, an immature, talented, 23-year-old shooting guard, for what ails the Pacers misses the mark. The team had all the pieces it needed before Bird started tinkering back in February. He upset the team’s balance, and the Pacers have yet to steady themselves. They might never.
If they don’t, the talk shouldn’t be about firing Vogel; instead, the talk should be about Larry Bird and the mistakes he made. Maybe it should be Bird’s job that is at risk and not Vogel’s.
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(Photo: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)