Early finish may help Pacers’ long-term title hopes
INDIANAPOLIS — Pacers coach Frank Vogel walked off the court staring at the floor and contemplating what this April would be like.
Instead of preparing for the playoffs, he will be working on the draft. Instead of worrying about LeBron James, he will be devising a plan to help his team re-emerge as a title contender.
For the first time in five years, the Pacers didn’t make the playoffs.
"It’s disappointing," Vogel said Wednesday night after the loss to Memphis. "We gave ourselves a chance to get in (the playoffs) but I certainly am very disappointed."
The Pacers (38-44) may not be on the outside for long. They defied the critics who said there were too many obstacles in their path after losing Lance Stephenson in free agency and Paul George with a broken right leg last August.
At times, it showed. They endured four losing skids of six or more games and occasionally complained about the constant questions regarding George’s return.
But that was only part of the problem.
Forward David West missed the first 15 games with a sprained right ankle and the 34-year-old never really found his old rhythm. His average of 11.7 points was his lowest in a decade.
Roy Hibbert’s enigmatic play continued. The two-time All-Star never became the consistent scorer Indiana needed and, at times, he hardly resembled the dynamic rim protector who finished second in the defensive player of the year voting in 2013-14.
While point guard George Hill certainly proved he could thrive with a heavier workload by leading the Pacers to a 23-14 record when he started, the Indianapolis native missed 38 games with a variety of injuries.
Somehow, the Pacers headed to Memphis needing only one more win to land the No. 8 seed in the East. Asking them to hit the road for the second game of a back-to-back, less than 24 hours after a double overtime victory against Washington, finally proved too much.
"I think we accomplished more than what anyone thought we were going to accomplish with all that has happened, you know with Paul’s injury, and my injury, and D-West, Roy," Hill said. "You know everyone getting injured here and there throughout the whole season. You’ve got to be proud of what the guys accomplished."
West and Hibbert both have player options, and Vogel has repeatedly said he expects both to return next season. Indiana needs both to play like their old selves next season.
George came back from his injury sooner than anyone anticipated after last summer’s gruesome scene in Las Vegas. Despite throwing a scare into fans Wednesday when teammates carried him off the court and into the locker room with a strained left calf, Indiana went 5-1 with George on the floor. And the six-game test run gave George a glimpse into what he still must improve upon this summer to regain his All-Star form.
The addition of C.J. Miles helped Indiana to stretch the floor, and second-year forward Solomon Hill demonstrated he is a capable NBA defender. If either is replaced in the starting lineup by George next season, it will only make one of the league’s best benches even better presuming they re-sign Rodney Stuckey.
But the consolation prize for not playing now, a lottery pick, may eventually provide the missing piece to their title hopes, especially if the Pacers continue to play with the grit and tenacity they showed over the final two weeks of the season.
"I’m not into the moral victories, but we definitely showed that we are about winning basketball games," Miles said. "We stayed the course and really we put ourselves in a position that really no one thought we would be in the first place."