Since losing to the Miami Heat last year in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Indiana Pacers have been crowned the number one contender to the Eastern Conference crown. What was once a band of young players looking to prove themselves on the big stage had become a juggernaut of a team, poised to push the defending champions to the brink and become the core of a perennial contender. At the beginning of the season, Paul George was hailed as an MVP contender. Roy Hibbert was a potential Defensive Player of the Year candidate, Lance Stephenson was an early candidate for the league’s Most Improved Player award, and David West was the veteran glue guy who held it all together. At first, they seemed to have all the ingredients of a team that could win the NBA title. Lately, though, they seem to have lost the chemistry and synergy that made them look like the next model franchise.
The first and most obvious reason for the recent dip in performance is the inconsistency of Paul George. What made the Pacers so dangerous was their dominant defense and the improving offensive capabilities of Paul George. In the beginning of the season, George was able to rise to stardom by embracing a team concept while taking the big shots when the team needed them. But with this new-found success came celebrity, and with that celebrity came individual expectations. Since we've started to expect superstar performances from Paul George on a regular basis, we've been disappointed. Paul George doesn't have to be a superstar for the Pacers to contend, but if his team decides that he should carry superstar responsibilities, he needs to pick up his game and his team.
The second issue holding the Pacers back from championship contention is the lackluster play of Roy Hibbert. He has been a poor rebounder this season, and he still hasn't refined his scoring abilities. At 7’2”, it is unacceptable for a player of his size and skill-set to shoot 44% from the field and less than 50% around the basket. He has seemed disinterested during recent stretches, and he has made comments about his teammates being selfish in recent weeks. He needs to look at himself when apportioning blame for what’s been going on lately in Indiana.
When the Pacers entered the discussion as a possible championship contender, they did it as underdogs that played inspired defense with a team-oriented offense. In today’s NBA, however, we love stars. We made players like Paul George and Roy Hibbert bigger names than their respective games called for. Egos are now interfering with what made them unique. A team that fed on emotions is wasting emotional energy on individual agendas. When this group was successful, what made them dangerous was the fact that you didn’t know who you had to stop in order to neutralize them. Now this group has become predictable. When this team was successful, they were a squad that hung their hat on being a dominant and aggressive defensively-minded team. Now, they seem emotionally drained and uninspired. The hungry underdog is fast becoming the jaded veteran. A wise man once said that the NBA is a marathon, not a sprint. The Pacers sprinted out of the gates, and they can barely walk down the home stretch now.