When looking over the NBA landscape, there are several key factors which separate the real contending teams, from the pretending teams. What is the difference between a team like the San Antonio Spurs, and say the Sacramento Kings? What is holding back Indiana from achieving the same level of success? In this 3 part series I will discuss key areas I feel the Indiana Pacers must improve upon in order for them to make that jump back into title contention.
I spend a lot of time thinking about the 2000 NBA Finals, and while the Pacers were just another team for Kobe & Shaq to stomp through, they took two games. I still hold a belief that Pacers team wasn’t an elite group, yet something made them stand out and separated them from the rest of the Eastern Conference? What propelled them to take two games? Simple. Coaching. Larry Bird was the coach of the Indiana Pacers from 1997-2000, and overall, finished his time with the team with a 147-67 record. He also held a post-season record of 32-20. His Pacers never fell short of the conference finals and were a threat every year in the East. So what happened?
Bird would retire from coaching, citing back issues, and Isiah Thomas would take the reigns. He was a decent coach for the team, however, following him was our (in my opinion) third best coach, Rick Carlisle. He finished with a 181-147 record, and was a solid coach and leader for the team, but struggled in the post-season, finishing 18-17. Following him would be the utterly terrible Jim O’Brien, who wouldn’t even break .500 in his coaching career with us. Then, we were graced with Frank Vogel, who in my opinion is the second best coach to take the job. He finished 250-181, with a playoff record of 30-29, however, following a first-round loss in 2015-2016, he was fired.
His replacement? Nate McMillan. Let me start off by saying that in his debut season, Nate led us to 42-40, which isn’t terrible nor is it great. However, the devil is in the details. Nate, having coached at Seattle and Portland, has only finished a season one of three ways: by missing the playoffs, a first-round elimination, or a conference semi-finals elimination (and this was only once). We were also swept (lost four straight games in the playoffs) last year. Nate is 14-24 in the post-season, which is atrocious and is best comparable to Jim O’Brien, who had a better record of 14-17 with the teams he coached during his career.
Now, I am not blaming Nate McMillan alone for our coaching woes. What I am pointing out (and what I hope is obvious) is the Pacers have not had a conference finals appearance since 2013, and in the conference finals, the Pacers are 1-6 overall. This suggests that the Pacers have a very difficult time winning games in the post-season, and since the departure of Bird (and to an extent, Vogel) the Pacers are little more than an entertaining first or second round exit.
Solutions? Hard to say. Last year, I would have suggested firing McMillan. However, with the way the team is performing right now, he’s definitely earned the rest of the season as a second chance. I’d say if we don’t make the playoffs this year, his job should be evaluated. I’d also be questioning the firing of Vogel, if I was the owner. One could argue that the firing of Vogel was the straw that broke the camel’s back in relation to Paul George. However now that Larry Bird’s time running the team has faded away, its up to Kevin Pritchard to find his man, whether that is McMillan or not, and everyone in the front office must be on the same page.
Anyway, this is part one of a three-part series. Part two will be evaluating the small-market and apathetic owners. I’m taking suggestions for part three, so feel free to leave a comment!