NewsWelcome To The NBA’s Purgatory

Welcome To The NBA’s Purgatory

From No. 1 seed to completely off the radar. Where are the Pacers now?


Were it any other team, dropping from the No. 1 seed to outside the playoff picture would be a big deal. Even if their best player incurred a crippling injury in the off-season, derailing their season before it even began, we would at least be talking about the Pacers and their fall from grace if they were any other team.

Instead, the Pacers have managed to make it all the way to the All-Star break with nary a mention of their names this season, only just yesterday making a wee bit of a noise – a whisper, really – when they appeared to have interest in former Thunder point guard Reggie Jackson. Nothing materialized, of course, and the Pacers will now dredge on down the stretch with a decent shot at the post-season without anyone noticing.

We’ll check in on them when Paul George returns, which is reportedly going to happen some time in March, giving him enough time to make some kind of an impact on the playoff race provided the Pacers are still in the picture by then. But as good as George is, his return isn’t going to shoot Indiana up the standings, and even when he is back at full strength next season, I doubt we will ever see this particular Pacers group ever challenge for a top seed again.

There are a lot of reasons that I believe that to be the case. Mainly, I don’t think that the No. 1-seeded Pacers managed to last one full season upholding that reputation, so banking on them to recalibrate everything and get back to the top seems outlandish, not with LeBron uniting another super team, Washington and Toronto taking another step, Chicago adding more talent and Atlanta doing Hawks things.

Yes, Indiana was an incredible team last season, but it didn’t last the entire year. After having the best net rating in basketball before the all-star break, the Pacers finished their final 30 games of the season with a negative net rating and the second worst offense in the league. After the break, the team fell apart, hitting rock bottom offensively while their prominent defense slipped down a few notches, making them look like a pretty average Eastern Conference team.

In the playoffs, they barely managed to beat the 8th seeded Hawks, a team that was without Al Horford and still far from developing into anything close to what they are today. Then they dispatched the Wizards, which wasn’t an easy feat given the dynamism of Washington’s starting five, but that was a young team that was still learning about what it takes to win in the post-season. Nonetheless, despite their horrid second half of the season, the Pacers had crawled their way to the spot that they had waited all year to be in: the Eastern Conference Finals against the Heat, with homecourt advantage on their side.

There seemed to be hope for the Pacers after they took Game 1, but the Heat then won four of the next five, with their final game of the season being a 25-point blowout loss on Miami’s home floor. It was an ironic defeat, as their defense faltered fatally on Miami’s homefloor, two things that Indiana had worked to stay away from all season long.

Not long after, one of the most cohesive starting fives in the league was broken up, with Lance Stephenson opting for greener (and tealer) pastures. Much worse, George’s gruesome injury during his time with Team USA left Indiana without its two best scorers, giving guys like C.J. Miles and Rodney Stuckey a ton of offensive responsibility coming into the season, which is never a recipe for success.

What’s fascinating to me is how quickly Indiana fell out of relevancy. The George injury is a big reason why, but it doesn’t totally explain how Indiana has gone from having their entire starting five and their head coach interviewed on SportsCenter together – that privilege has been passed on to the Hawks – to them becoming a total afterthought everywhere outside of Indiana.

This led me to an interesting question: Did we ever really care about the Pacers?

I don’t think we ever did. I think that we were so intent on finding a rival for one of the best teams ever assembled that the Pacers became our deeply-flawed darling. Once the KG Celtics began to disperse, it seemed that we were in such a forceful stretch of dominance from the Heat that, as entertaining as that team was to watch, the season would be boring until they got to the Finals, which was always a foregone conclusion.

That’s where the Pacers came into the picture. They had tested the Heat in the semi-finals in 2012 (although Chris Bosh missed that series due to an injury) and they played a bogged down, physical game that contrasted them stylistically with the flashy and flavorful Heat, so we propped them up as the up-and-coming challengers for King James’ throne.

And, to their credit, they forced us to believe. They took Miami to seven games in the conference finals in 2013 before LeBron saved David Stern’s legacy as commissioner by preventing a Spurs-Pacers Finals with a big Game 7, and they accomplished their goal of being the best team in the East during the regular season last year.

But even as they lived up to the billing as a legitimate threat to Miami, the Pacers still managed to be overrated. Their defense was legitimately great, but this has always been a putrid offensive team that could scrape just enough points together against the Heat because Miami had no interest in dealing with their size. If we swapped superteams and made the Heat the Kobe-Shaq Lakers, then the Pacers never would have been given any kind of a chance in the playoffs regardless of their regular season success. They would have struggled to score 80 points a game with Shaq inside to neutralize the size of their frontline.

The Pacers made the most out of being a matchup problem for the Heat, but now that Miami’s big three has been dissolved and a new one has been formed in Cleveland, and with other, more well-rounded, Eastern Conference teams making the leap into relevancy to challenge them, Indiana’s 15 minutes of fame appears to be up.

They’ll be noticed again, surely. Paul George is a superstar talent that could find up as a top-five two way player in the league in a few years if he can back to his usual form post-injury. But collectively, it seems to me that the Pacers would be best off starting anew and building a team with a different identity around George. Because, as it stands, the Pacers seem destined to toil in NBA purgatory, a place where mediocrity is prevalent no matter how hard you work to escape its confines. A place where the Davids of yesteryear are buried while we search for the next heroes capable of casting stones on the NBA’s Goliaths.

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