After losing to the Spurs on Monday night, the Pacers have dropped five of their past six games and now trail the Heat by percentage points for the top spot in the East. Is it time to hit the panic button in Indiana?
1. On a scale from 1 to 10, how concerned are you about the Pacers?
Amin Elhassan, ESPN Insider: 9. Since Feb. 20, the Pacers have gone 11-10, with only two of those wins coming against playoff-hopeful opponents (Chicago on March 21, Miami on March 26). Every other team they've played with playoff hopes has resulted in a loss. The significance of Feb. 20? That's the day they acquired Evan Turner.
Andrew Han, Clipper Blog: 7. The sky isn't falling in Indiana, but what's penultimate to atmospheric collapse? The Pacers were flirting with historic levels of defense in the first half of the season (93.6 points per 100 possessions). But since the All-Star break, their defensive rating has stumbled by 7.4 points (101), suddenly making their adequate offense a liability.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, TrueHoop: 6. If they played in the West, this would probably be a 10. Playing in the East is like owning a very expensive insurance policy. They've fallen from a seeming lock to make the ECF to a team that could lose in Round 2. It doesn't sound like a huge difference, but it's a big drop off for a squad that looked like the title favorite at times this season.
Jared Wade, 8 Points, 9 Seconds: 10. This is the worst stretch of basketball the Pacers have played during the past three years. Even good teams have troubling slides, but this is something altogether different. They appear to have forgotten how to play basketball. They are ripping apart at the seams. And I don't know that they can fix it.
Mike Wells, ESPN.com: 9: The Pacers are simply collapsing. They didn't handle their success well at the start of the season when everybody looked at them as the NBA darlings, and they're definitely not handling their current adversity well. It starts with coach Frank Vogel, who's not holding his players accountable for their mistakes. And it ends with the players -- the same ones who wouldn't let anything break their bond earlier this season and last season, who are now pointing fingers at each other in the locker room. This is the Pacers' best team since the 2003-04 season. They won't have anything to show for it if they can't get things figured out.
2. What's the Pacers' biggest problem to date?
Elhassan: Well, we can point to an already anemic offense that has dropped to 29th in the league over that 11-10 stretch, just ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers. I think when you look at the Turner acquisition, there's been some adjustment as far as getting him indoctrinated to the Pacers' style on either end of the floor.
Han: Indiana's offense has crashed down to earth. With the third-weakest scoring bench, the Pacers rely heavily on their starting unit to put points on the board. Those starters have collectively shot about 4 percent worse from the field since All-Star Weekend, from 46.8 to 42.9 percent. Indiana's inability to create easy shots instigated the shooting slide, and the slide only exacerbated their ability to get clean looks. It's a flat circle.
Strauss: They still haven't fixed the offense. It was mediocre at the outset this season, but they managed to obscure that with some historically great defense. The defense has come back to earth some, revealing a congested offensive attack. Additions like Evan Turner and Luis Scola generated buzz as scoring punch off the bench. Both players haven't been efficient in that respect, and they also hurt the defense.
Wade: Nobody knows. That's the scariest part. Their inability to score is currently paramount, but the largest issue is a cloud of funk hovering over the team. I've watched a ton of film and can't point to any one thing. It's everything.
Wells: Their offense and their chemistry is atrocious. George Hill and Lance Stephenson had heated words and needed to be calmed down during a timeout in the second half of their game against San Antonio on Monday. I haven't seen things get that heated in the huddle since Dahntay Jones went after Stephenson during a timeout in a game in Houston in March 2011. On offense, they used to be a group that was unselfish and willing to pass up a decent shot for a better one earlier this season. They've replaced that with the wing players pounding the ball on the perimeter while everybody stands around watching until a bad shot is taken. The Pacers have failed to crack 80 points in five of their last six games. They scored at least 80 points in their first 69 games of the season.
3. What's your reaction to Hibbert saying some teammates are "selfish"?
Elhassan: You'd like for those sort of comments to stay in house, but Hibbert's a bright kid, and I get the feeling he went public with his feelings because keeping it in house wasn't achieving anything. If that's the case, and Hibbert wasn't pulling a "Gortat," then this is of grave concern for the Pacers because it indicates a greater rift than playing poorly down the home stretch.
Han: Could we get a SportVU stat on locker room chemistry? It seems like a lot of the unrest in Indiana coincided with the departure of Danny Granger and a once tight-knit group humming on all cylinders has ground to a near halt. To Hibbert's point, the Pacers' assist ratio is down almost a full point since the trade deadline, from 16.1 to 15.2. That's enough to drop Indiana's assist ranking from an anemic 20th to a death knell of 28th.
Strauss: I'll mostly defer to Hibbert. If he says people are being selfish, there's probably some truth in that. The Pacers are 27th in assist percentage, in part because their wings tend to stop the ball. I'm not sure it's all selfishness, though. The Pacers are in a tricky spot offensively because George Hill doesn't create much, plus Lance Stephenson and Paul George might be a little overmatched for full-time playmaking at this point in their careers.
Wade: He has a point in the sense that Indiana's perimeter players settle for jumpers rather than working the ball around. But my actual first thought? Maybe Hibbert should work on shooting more than 42.6 percent or averaging more than 4.5 rebounds per game for the whole month of March before he starts publicly calling out his teammates.
Wells: I give Hibbert credit -- somebody had to speak up. It just shouldn't have been him. Vogel continues to be positive, shying away from publicly criticizing his team. It's not his style to go about things that way. David West is the only player on the roster who should speak up like that. He's struggled from the field lately, but he still manages to factor into the game in other ways. Hibbert takes you on too many emotional roller-coaster rides -- one game good, three or four games bad -- to be speaking up and calling teammates out.
4. Is Paul George who we thought he was?
Elhassan: I mean, he is who I thought he was: an excellent defensive player on the perimeter and an OK offensive player. But somewhere along the lines, George's defensive brilliance was conflated with a couple of months of tough shot making (November and December), and some people let their emotions get the best of them.
Han: The buzzword of the season has been small sample size, and this is no different. Paul George unexpectedly elevated his level of play in last year's postseason -- the operative word being "unexpectedly." He's still on a rookie contract and has already put together at least a third of an MVP-caliber season. George's potential is a promise not of what he will be, but what he can be. "Who is Paul George?" is a fixed question to a moving answer.
Strauss: Not really, but he's still an awesome player. He might be the best defensive wing in basketball, on account of his incredible skill at evading screens and denying his man the ball. He's also a plus offensive player, albeit one with an odd, glaring flaw. George is shooting only 47 percent on layups this season, worse than Ricky Rubio. So much focus is on his "shooting woes," but a lot of the shots George is shanking are right at the rim. His lack of balance around the hoop is the principle difference between George and other elite offensive wings.
Wade: Depends on who you thought he was. George is a premier defensive talent who has forgotten how to score, mainly because he is over-thinking the game. It's possible that he never reaches the full potential he showed in November, but it's also quite likely that at just 23 years old, he's still figuring out how to be great.
Wells: George has let his off-court issues distract him on the court. Denver coach and former Pacers assistant Brian Shaw called George the best two-way player in the league earlier this season. That's no longer the case. George said he wants LeBron James to mentor him. George needs to talk to James or Kobe Bryant, an idol of his who is also the mentally toughest player in the NBA, about what it takes to block out distractions because he hasn't handled his well. I still believe George is one of the best two-way players in the league. This is just an obstacle he has to overcome as he continues his journey to try to reach the top.
5. Which team will represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals?
Elhassan: I'll give you their address: 601 Biscayne Boulevard, Miami FL 33132. This season has always been about Indiana proving they're good enough to beat the Heat, not the other way around. I think the Pacers sacrificed some of the chemistry needed to achieve that when they decided to tinker at the trade deadline.
Han: Title hangover. Disinterest in the regular season. All those storylines have come and gone and yet the defending champions sit perched atop the Eastern Conference with nine games remaining. All year the Pacers stood as the lone obstacle in the East. And their untimely stumble has only reinforced the perceived supremacy of South Beach.
Strauss: The Miami Heat, who are vulnerable, but a little less vulnerable than Indiana. Miami's also been losing games, but they've done so against a harder schedule. Also, they have LeBron.
Wade: The Miami Heat. Again. They may not be at their best right now, but the East is weak and they have LeBron James. Right now, that looks to be enough -- and it might still be enough even if the Pacers do regain some semblance of the dominance we saw earlier this season.
Wells: Miami. From August until early March, I repeatedly said the Pacers would represent the East in the NBA Finals. It took less than a month for me to change my mind. The Pacers have the best talent in the East, but they're mentally weak. They continue to show that they do not know how to handle adversity. The Heat are getting up there in age, but they've been through adversity. They have the mental capacity to overcome things that get in their way, especially in the playoffs. And they've also got that player named LeBron James.
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Mike Wells writes for ESPN.com. Amin Elhassan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. Andrew Han, Ethan Sherwood Strauss and Jared Wade are part of the TrueHoop Network.
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