The Indiana Pacers were eliminated from the 2014 NBA Playoffs on Friday night. For the third consecutive year the Miami Heat purged them. Two consecutive trips to the Eastern Conference finals left stale in the mouths of Pacer fans, a team desperate for their first trip to the NBA Finals in 14 years.
Collapses in March and April dwarfed a scintillating start to the season. The Pacers backed their way into the playoffs, somehow maintaining the top seed in Eastern Conference playoff bracket.
Home-court advantage couldn’t buoy the team, though, and they stumbled to an abysmal 5-5 record at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in the playoffs.
Cataloging seasons a step short of the biggest stage your league provides is a mark of privilege. You honestly can’t be that distraught with success.
It just so happens that the Pacers wrote the most polarizing narrative of the 2013-14 season that waned and surged and rose and fell.
Frank Vogel’s job sat repeatedly atop the hot seat, although he will be back next year. In the immediate aftermath of the season, we turn to what Indiana can look to improve in an effort to take the next step their fans so desperately crave.
Learn how to finish
A lion’s share of Indiana’s well-chronicled collapse of the regular season was attributed to their inability to focus for 48 minutes. They blew two 15-point leads against the Miami Heat; one came in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals. Just as the case often was when shots ceased to fall, Indiana turned to lazy fouls and allowed Miami uncontested jumpers. This lackadaisical demeanor crippled the franchise. Mounting losses late in the regular season pigeonholed Indiana into weeklong folding streaks and short-term collapses.
The Pacer defense found a silver lining this season that cannot go unnoticed, though. Vogel’s defense held opponents 92.3 points per game, second in the league. A trio of Roy Hibbert, David West, and Paul George is as formidable a defense as you’ll find, and will fortunately be sticking around come next season. Hibbert’s inconsistencies will be evaluated, but the core of the defensive unit should remain intact.
Draft a point guard
Removed of a first-round pick, the Pacers will hope to take a point guard when they make the No. 57 pick in the second round of the 2014 NBA Draft. George Hill simply cannot get it done, which is why the Pacers looked to Stephenson or reserve C.J. Watson to handle the rock when he rested.
The Pacers ranked 27th in assists per game (20.1) and their point guard complications ballooned into an inexorable hailstorm during the playoffs.
It’s unlikely that Bird will have the cap space to sign marquee free agent point guards Kyle Lowry or Eric Bledsoe. Signing a cheap veteran like Chicago’s Kirk Hinrich or proposing sign-and-trade options in the offseason might be the most ideal solution.
Drafting a point guard like Providence’s Bryce Cotton, Michigan State’s Keith Appling, or Iowa State’s DeAndre Kane wouldn’t hurt, either.
Craft a reliable bench
Bench scoring was a crux for Indiana all year. Each time they fell at its feet. In Game 7, they had two points through three quarters; in Game 2 they had nine total. West, Stephenson, and George ended up having to score 56 consecutive points between Game 5 and 6. Acquiring Luis Scola, Evan Turner, and the myriad role players that came in the wake of Indiana placing 29th in bench scoring a season ago backfired.
This season, they climbed a lone spot to 28th. Frank Vogel’s solution of playing starters upward of 40 minutes per game served to cripple the Pacers in a majority of late-game situations.
Nobody on Indiana’s bench averaged more than eight points, five rebounds, or two assists per night. Something’s got to give.
Lance Stephenson might be too temperamental to keep. Stephenson is as close to the NBA equivalent of P.T. Barnum we have. The 23-year-old blew in King James’ ear and shimmied over Courtney Lee; shook the ball in Tony Allen’s face and got ejected after screaming in Dwayne Wade’s face.
You can only pour so much vinegar into Stephenson’s baking soda before science takes its course. It’s widely understood that Stephenson plays his unequivocal worst when the notion of control is introduced. Yet control is what Indiana needs down the stretch.
While he has the moves to validate his erratic if not toxic persona, it might not be worth the headache Larry Bird already has druthers stomaching. In the last of his four-year mid-level exception (MLE) contract, Stephenson made $1,005,000 in 2013-14.
He will undoubtedly be looking for more if Indiana were to offer him an extension.
The ball is in Indiana’s court if they want to sign him to an available team option, or they can jettison him into the free agency pool.
Lavoy Allen, Evan Turner, and Rasual Butler are sitting on expired contracts, bringing $11,139,374 back to Indy. But the Pacers are expected to hit $65,708,778 in salary cap in 2014-15, leaving just over $4 million to work with before luxury tax.
These problems and answers aren’t easy to digest for Indiana. But if they want to discontinue hitting the wall inches from a finish line they crave, they’ll have to face them.