Trying to Forge an Identity in Indiana

In recent years, the Indiana Pacers have had a strong, recognizable identity. With players like David West and Roy Hibbert in the starting lineup, the Pacers ran a deliberate offense built around set plays. Defensively, they played aggressive, effective team defense and had the benefit of stellar rim protection from Hibbert.

Once David West opted out of his contract and decided to sign with San Antonio, Pacers President of Basketball Operations Larry Bird decided the team should go to a more uptempo style. He proceeded to trade Hibbert and make numerous other tweaks to the roster to suit the style he wanted the team to play.

The plan hit a snag early on, when Paul George balked at playing “small ball” because it could mean he’d be spending significant time at the power forward position. Despite this, Bird and head coach Frank Vogel went ahead with the plan.

Initially, the Pacers really took to the new style, getting off to a fast start as the season began. Over time, however, the Pacers have slowly shifted back toward a bigger, more traditional lineup. One of the reasons for this has been the emergence of rookie center Myles Turner. Turner can run the floor and shoot well from the outside, allowing the Pacers to space the floor and play more uptempo, but still have plenty of size in the lineup.

As long as Turner is starting and playing well, Indiana has the best of both worlds when it comes to meshing their old and new styles. The problem here is that the Pacers are caught in the middle – Bird maintains his interest in playing faster and smaller, while Vogel is more comfortable with a bigger lineup, although he does use a smaller lineup from time to time.

Flexibility is a good thing, but only up to a point. The Pacers don’t have an identity right now…no one from the outside really knows what they are, and those within the organization are just as unsure about what kind of team this is or what direction they are taking.

Another consequence that has come from the attempted style change is that the Pacers’ defense has become very inconsistent. At times, their defense has been among the best in the NBA, but other times, their defense has been very porous.

The team is now in a position of having no direction or identity on either end of the floor. On top of that, the individual roles of the players are in flux as well.

In the early part of the year, Paul George was the team’s go-to guy in late-game situations. He wasn’t coming through, and the Pacers were losing nearly all the close games they were involved in. Of late, Monta Ellis has been moved into the “closer” role, but the results haven’t been much better.

So, the team is grasping at straws trying to find a guy who can hit big shots in crunch time…and that situation also creates uncertainty in terms of leadership among the players. NBA teams tend to function best when they have a go-to guy and/or established leader, and Indiana has neither at this point in the season.

Despite all this uncertainty, Indiana is still having a better year than they did in 2014-15. The team shows a lot of promise, but their performances have been up-and-down and they’re hovering just above the .500 mark as a result.

In order to get the most out of this roster, Bird and Vogel need to settle on a rotation and offensive style of play. The inconsistency in the style of play and inconsistent results go hand-in-hand…and establishing an offensive identity will help the defense perform more reliably as well.

Leadership is a more organic parameter, but generally, your best player needs to be your strongest leader. Paul George is still evolving in that role, and has struggled at times to carry the burden of leadership. This element is a shared responsibility among Indiana’s players right now, and the Pacers won’t reach their potential until that area is solidified.

Going into this season, everyone knew this team would be a work in progress. Now that we are about 50 games in, however, the issues they need to work on and resolve have been identified. If the Pacers can make further progress in these areas by April, they’ll be a tough out when playoff time rolls around.