- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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Five burning questions and answers about the Indiana Pacers' immediate future in the wake of their season-ending loss Friday night at Miami in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals:
1. Is there any sort of positive spin that the Pacers can put on their 2013-14 season?
Not really. Not from this seat.
Not according to the Power Rankings committee (of one) that had the Pacers in the No. 1 spot nine times in the first 12 weeks of the regular season ... until they uncorked one of the all-time nosedives.
I would submit that the Pacers, who were only one loss away from tying the league record of six home defeats in a single postseason, just wrapped up the most unfulfilling campaign in NBA history in which the team in question posted the best record in its conference and advanced to the conference finals.
An overstatement? Maybe you'll try to shout me down with reminders that LeBron James' Cleveland Cavaliers, as recently as 2009, lost to Orlando in six games in the East finals when they weren't supposed to, which was the prelude to LeBron's free-agent exodus to Miami just a year later. But I won't budge. The depths of Indiana's second-half slide were historic. Home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference finals against Miami, their big goal coming into the season, couldn’t have counted for much less.
These Pacers somehow managed to leave you with the distinct impression that they backed into the East's top seed, then backed into the second round after a way-too-long series with the shorthanded Atlanta Hawks and then backed into the conference finals with an unconvincing second-round dismissal of the inexperienced Washington Wizards.
Which is a rare (and deflating) trifecta.
2. How safe is Frank Vogel's job now?
NBA coaching sources continue to say that Vogel, as ESPN.com reported during Indiana's first-round struggle with the Hawks, was indeed coaching for his job in that series when the Pacers were unexpectedly stretched to seven games. It's widely presumed that a second-round exit to the Wizards would have led to the same unhappy outcome.
Now? The situation isn't as clear. The Pacers have been engulfed in turmoil for months and still found a way to reach the NBA's Final Four. But the bigger boost to Vogel's quest to stay is the fact that Indiana has obviously revealed itself since the All-Star break to have a number of issues.
Issues that surely stretch beyond coaching, which seemingly gives Vogel hope of hanging on.
Yet there's no escaping the fact that Vogel was awarded his current extension -- which runs through the 2015-16 season -- when team president Larry Bird was on a one-year hiatus. The fact Bird openly questioned Vogel's player-friendly approach during the regular season has only added volume to the belief that Vogel's seat is warming. That he’s not stern enough for Bird’s liking.
And there's more.
The whispers have already started in Indy about Bird turning to his old point guard, Mark Jackson, to take over. Jackson and Reggie Miller were the leaders when Bird was the Pacers' coach ... and Bird isn't the only big fan in the organization of the man Golden State just ousted. Fellow Pacers exec Donnie Walsh is another huge admirer who has long maintained privately that he wouldn't consider Jackson for the Indy job unless he had coached somewhere else first.
But that's a box Jackson obviously can check now.
3. Does Lance Stephenson still have Larry Legend's unwavering support?
When the week began, "Larry will stick by Lance tooth and nail" was still the way it was being put to us.
By week's end, after too many ill-conceived attempts to mess with LeBron's psyche to list, it was impossible to resist the suggestion that even Bird has to be fed up with Stephenson.
But here's the thing: Stephenson has turned off potential free-agent suitors with his unreliability -- ever since being snubbed for the Eastern Conference All-Star team -- as much or more than he's annoyed fellow Pacers. His free-agent market, according to the latest rumbles on the personnel grapevine, is already drying up. And it's not even June 1 yet.
It's pretty instructive to hear that the Dallas Mavericks, as ESPN.com has been reporting since Dallas' first-round playoff exit to San Antonio, do not intend to pursue Stephenson come July. The Mavs could certainly use Stephenson's athleticism, versatility and playmaking and showed everyone last summer -- with the signing of Monta Ellis -- that they're not afraid to take a perceived gamble. It's pretty telling when the risk-taking Mavs, after the combination of Dirk Nowitzki and Rick Carlisle brought the best out of Ellis, have shown no interest in finding out if they can do the same with Lance.
4. What about Roy Hibbert's future?
There is said to be some thought on both sides -- management and Hibbert's -- that a fresh start would be beneficial for everyone after the big man's second-half decline.
Hibbert's camp hasn't outright asked for a trade, sources say, but word is that it wouldn't exactly oppose one if the Pacers decide to actively shop their center.
The problem, of course, is that Hibbert has two years on his contract valued at more than $30 million. Not only would it be tough to move him with that much guaranteed money left on his deal, but he also possesses the ability to opt out after next season if he has a big bounce-back year, which could give interest teams additional pause. So, it's tricky.
5. Is anyone on this Pacers roster untouchable?
Yes. Sources close to the situation will tell you Paul George unquestionably qualifies.
Expectations are only going to rise next season. The 2014-15 season will be Year 1 of the 24-year-old's new five-year max contract extension that will eat up 27 percent of Indiana's salary cap after the contract benchmarks George reached.
The total value of the contract will be at least $83 million, which puts the onus on George to address his offensive inconsistency. He's an absolutely elite two-way player when you factor everything in, but the fact remains that there isn't a single Pacer on the roster who can conclusively carry his team to a big road win in the playoffs with his scoring.
Other issues for the Pacers: They traded away their 2014 first-round to Phoenix in the Luis Scola deal, suffer from a serious lack of bench scoring after Bird's failed experiments with Andrew Bynum and Evan Turner and are said to realize they have to address the lack of a traditional ballhandler and floor leader after such uneven guard play throughout the postseason.
So bank on the busiest of offseasons for a team that just found out how empty 56 wins can feel.
40dMarc Stein and Mike Mazzeo