It was clear after Joakim Noah wildly flailed his elbows causing Roy Hibbert to pick up a foul they weren’t going to win game 5 of their opening round playoff series against the Bulls. Derrick Rose came off the bench with 4 fouls in the third quarter and promptly administered the death blow with a barrage of 3-pointers. So ended the Pacers first venture into the NBA Playoffs since 2006.
In a season that saw coach Jim O’Brien dismissed in the middle of the season and replaced by an assistant, Frank Vogel, who had never been a head coach at any level, the Pacers showed grit and determination by grinding out the regular season for the final playoff berth and then playing the top-seeded Chicago Bulls far tougher than anyone anticipated. The Pacers now turn their attention to the off-season and what they can do to improve heading into next season (assuming there is one.)
The first moves come in the front office. GM Larry Bird should be allowed to return, if that’s his desire. Bird has recently indicated that 30 plus years of the NBA grind as a player, coach, and GM may be wearing on him. Still, Bird has shown enough acumen as a talent evaluator to rebuild a Pacers team decimated by Reggie Miller’s retirement and the departures of several high draft picks, but bad apples. He has put together a nucleus of a team that can be very competitive for years to come. That Bird won’t be attending a ceremony involving ping-pong balls is a sign of the organization’s progress.
Whomever is in the GM’s seat, Frank Vogel should have the “interim” tag removed from his office door. Vogel took over a foundering squad, browbeaten by Jim O’Brien and transformed them into a tough unit that stood toe to toe with the Bulls. In pro sports, especially basketball, the bottom line for coaches is whether players will respond. The Pacers clearly showed they will play hard for Vogel. It wouldn’t hurt to allow Vogel to hand select a veteran basketball guy to bring in as a mentor. After all, even Phil Jackson had Tex Winter sitting by his side. This would allow the younger Vogel to opportunity to lead this squad while having some experience on hand to help Vogel navigate his first full NBA season and all it entails.
Personnel-wise, the Pacers are set with their starting lineup. Darren Collison, Danny Granger, Paul George, Tyler Hansbrough, and Roy Hibbert are a young, but talented five who have shown good chemistry together. Outside of Granger, though, consistency is missing. Collison was steady at the point, but disappeared at times, and the team usually went with him. Hansbrough played well in his first full healthy season, but too often a graph of his performance resembled a design for a new Kings Island roller coaster. Paul George was wasted for a half season in Jim O’Brien’s doghouse. Once Vogel let him out, he proved he could score and provided outstanding defense. Roy Hibbert was mercurial as well. He needs to improve his upper-body strength and develop an attitude in the off season. Granger was a consistent presence, night in, night out, but is a great second scoring option playing on a team without a first option. He’s Scottie Pippen without Michael Jordan. The Pacers need to get him some help through the draft or free agency. We’ll take a look at those options after the playoffs finish.
Things look promising down at Conseco Fieldhouse. The Pacers turned in an admirable, if not spectacular performance this season. They return the nucleus of a club that can and will battle the Bulls for supremacy in the Central division for the foreseeable future.