The Indiana Pacers looked like the best team in the NBA for more than half the season before the wheels unexpectedly started to come off. The offense went missing and the stout defense started to become less reliable. Paul George looked like he took the leap from star to super-duper-star before coming back down to Earth to join the mere mortals.
Roy Hibbert looked like the most intimidating big man in the NBA and then morphed into a temperamental mess who forgot how to rebound. Lance Stephenson's game took a big step forward but the already volatile player looks like he might be a casualty (or instigator) of the powder keg that has gone off within the Pacers locker room.
This is all caricature, mind you. The broad notion from outside observers who don't know the team and are looking to match a narrative to the team's suddenly lackluster play. What become an oddity became a worrisome trend and that trend has morphed into a crisis.
Now, a piece from ESPN's Marc Stein indicates that head coach Frank Vogel might be "coaching for his job" and could be the fall guy if the Pacers don't right the ship.
After Indiana's 101-85 triumph over Atlanta in Game 2 of the teams' first-round playoff series, sources told ESPN.com that coming back to win the series against the Hawks would not automatically ensure Vogel's safety. After a 40-11 start, the Pacers went just 16-15 the rest of the way before a humbling loss in the series opener to the eighth-seeded Hawks.
The decision on whether to retain Vogel at season's end ultimately rests with Pacers president Larry Bird, sources said, but frustration throughout the organization has been mounting thanks to a nose dive that began in February with a loss in Orlando just before the All-Star break and has shown few signs of abating.
If you read the rest of the link it looks like it might be either Vogel or Stephenson who is going to end up being the scapegoat if this team disappoints, but Stephenson is said to be a Larry Bird favorite so he might win out. If the Pacer do indeed fire Vogel he should be first on the Pistons list of coaching candidates.It might seem like an odd choice -- hiring a coach that lost his talented, combustible locker room to head up a rebuilding project full of a talented, combustible locker room.
But in many ways the plight of Frank Vogel reminds me of that of a former Pistons (and Pacers) head coach Rick Carlise. The similarities are uncanny. Both would be coming from the Pacers organization. Both would be let go after remarkably successful runs with their former team. Both have the receding hairline and perpetual bags under their eyes of an overworked coach (though to be fair Carlisle had quite a head of hair in his Detroit days). Both preach defense first and foremost.
Before being hired by the Pistons, Carlisle was a well-regarded assistant with the Pacer who was hired to take the reins of a listless Detroit team full of unheralded players, installed a defense-first system, got his players to buy in and won 50 games each of his two years at the helm.
Carlisle was let go by Detroit for two primary reasons: 1. The team felt like it was ready to contend for a title and doubted that Carlisle had it in him to take that next step with the team. 2. He reportedly had a frosty relationship with some of the higher-ups and was fired at the insistence of then-owner Bill Davidson for how he treated some of the staff.
Vogel, meanwhile, was a well-regarded assistant thrust into the head coaching job in 2011 after Indiana let go of Jim O'Brien. He took over a team that was 10 games below .500, emphasized defense and got them to buy into his system. They went 20-18 the rest of the way. In three seasons since, Vogel won 42, 49 and 56 games. Now his current employer might be letting him go because they believe they are a championship contender and are unsure if Vogel is the right guy to take them to the title.
After being fired by the Pistons, Carlisle got scooped up by Indiana (coincidences abound!) where he took control of a veteran team that was still fighting to stay relevant. He won 61 games his first year but had diminishing returns for three more seasons as the team aged and eventually needed to go through a serious overhaul.
He latched on with Dallas, however, built an offense and defense around his superstar in Dirk Nowitzki and won the NBA title in 2010. Now he is thought of as perhaps the best coaches in the game aside from Greg Poppovich. I'm not saying that the Pistons or Pacers were necessarily wrong to let go of Carlisle when they did, but I am saying that his skills were always there and when the right players were in place he delivered.
And, honestly, if the Pistons could do it all over again, knowing that it had the title but also the Larry Brown drama and an endless revolving door of forgettable coaching hires since, I'm not so sure they wouldn't wish that they never fired Carlisle in the first place.
Vogel could be the same way. Losing a locker room is obviously not the same as getting on the owner's bad side and getting the pink slip, but Vogel has shown that he has the talent to build a championship caliber NBA defense and get his players to buy into his system.
That is what Detroit should be looking for as it tries to build a contending team around superstar Andre Drummond. Vogel can build a defense around Drummond that plays to his current strengths and hides (and allows him to grow out of) his current weaknesses. The same case could be made for Greg Monroe. And if the team is unable or unwilling to trade Josh Smith in the offseason, Vogel is someone who has the resume, (albeit brief) to play Smith off the bench or reprimand him for poor shot selection and not get steamrolled by Smith or his teammates.
Vogel's Pacers currently allow the fewest points in the pain in the NBA, and lead the league in opponent's shooting efficiency. The problems with his club are mostly on the offensive end and can be traced to a lack of consistent perimeter shooting and a lack of a low-post presence.
In Detroit, Drummond can make up for a lot of offensive mistakes with his (historic) offensive rebounding, and Monroe has a lot to learn as a defender but he already provides a reliable, half-court ready, back-to-the-basket game.
I don't think the team could install Vogel and turn the roster as it currently stands into this year's version of the Pacers. But it could put the team well on its way to being this year's version of the Toronto Raptors -- a 45+ win club finally putting it together and making a run.
So if the Pacers are indeed dumb enough to fire Vogel, their loss could be the Pistons gain. Of all the potential coaching candidates he certainly belongs on the top of the list.
H/T to Ron MarsHall who had it first as a FanShot. Needless to say, I spent 1,200 words to basically agree with Ron's 30-word post.