Tag Archives: Frank Vogel

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.

The Indiana Pacers and Crunch Time Failure

The Indiana Pacers have made progress this season, one could say significant progress from this time a year ago. One area where they are struggling this season, however, is coming out on top in close games. Indiana hasn’t won a game decided by three points or less since early November…that’s over two months and 29 games ago. In that same span, they have lost four such games – three of those coming in the last two weeks. One benchmark of good NBA teams is typically a good record in close games.

The theory here is that there are a lot of closely contested battles in professional basketball, and those teams with the most experience, heart and will to win tend to make plays in “crunch time” and find a way to win these nail-biters. The Pacers are not doing this so far in 2015-16, and it has been a particular thorn in their side recently. Indiana lost a game at home to Sacramento on December 23 (108-106) after leading very late.

A week later, Chicago continued the trend, holding the Pacers off 102-100 at the United Center…and earlier this week, the Pacers blew yet another late advantage, eventually falling to the Miami Heat 103-100. The specific reasons for these failures have varied. One game it was failing to make an offensive play as time expired. In another, it was failing to get a defensive stop as time expired…and poor fourth quarter free throw shooting was the culprit in yet another of these close defeats.

The thing that ties all this together is mental toughness, which is why true upper-tier teams come up with that key rebound, make that key steal or hit that game-winning shot more often than not. The Pacers still have a chance to get there, but their recent failure in these situations just further proves that despite heading in the right direction, Indiana is not displaying the qualities of a contending team at this juncture. It should be mentioned that coaching plays a role in this as well.

The Pacers have relied heavily on forward Paul George in these end-of-game situations, and that approach has been too predictable. A bit more creativity from head coach Frank Vogel would give his club a better chance to make plays late in games…”give Paul the ball and everybody else get out of the way” is not the work of a master strategist. Another interesting area of strength/weakness for the Blue and Gold has been the amount of rest between games.

On two or three days rest, the team has a .778 winning percentage so far this year. However, when they have to play back-to-back games, they’ve only won at a .286 clip after not having time off between contests. With the Pacers going to a more uptempo offense this season, those results are predictable…it takes a lot of energy to play fast on offense and also defend well on the other end of the court, so Indiana is finding it tough to keep up the pace if they haven’t had time to recover between games.

To a degree, players can try to push through that fatigue, but the Pacers have a deep roster, so a coaching adjustment should help. When Indiana has a back-to-back coming up, coach Vogel would be wise to use his bench more liberally in the first of those ballgames – the winning percentage in the second of those contests would likely increase. NBA basketball is a game of constant adjustments, both within games and during the course of a long 82-game season.

For the Indiana Pacers to move up a notch (or two) in the Eastern Conference, improvement in the areas discussed here – late-game strategy, execution and desire, as well as more adept management of players’ minutes – would go a long way toward that goal.

The Case for a Rookie Head Coach

On a slow Monday afternoon last week, news broke that David Griffin would be kept as the Cavaliers’ full-time General Manager and that head coach Mike Brown was being fired. The news interrupted talk about the Browns’ draft class and the struggles of the Indians as Brown was let go after just one year in his second coaching stint with the Cavs. It was a semi-shocking move, but also one that make sense, given that Griffin’s fast-paced offensive philosophy clashed with Brown’s heavy defensive philosophy. Now the only question is, who will Griffin hire as the new head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers?

Over the past week, many names from many backgrounds have been floated around as possibilities to be the head guy for the Cavs. You have the veteran head coaches such as Mike D’Antoni, George Karl, Alvin Genrty, and Lionel Hollins. Then you have assistants or college coaches that have never been a head coach in the NBA. This list includes guys like Mark Price (Bobcats/Hornets), Adrian Griffin (Bulls), Jay Larranaga (Celtics), Kevin Ollie (Connecticut), and Fred Hoiberg (Iowa State). Whichever direction Griffin decides to go in, he has plenty of options.

Now comes a separate topic. Of course, Griffin will be looking for a guy that fits his style better than Mike Brown would have – though Griffin did state he would like to meet in the middle of offensive and defensive philosophies. Nonetheless, there will be fans pining for another veteran head coach like the Cavs have had since Byron Scott was hired in 2010. There will be fans that don’t want to start over and go through the possible learning curve that a rookie head coach could go through. There will also be a group of fans that have no qualms with going out and hiring a rookie head coach, given he fits the team well. As for myself, I believe that first and foremost, whomever Griffin brings in has to mesh well with what this team is good at doing. Although Coach Brown did a good job of increasing this team’s defensive numbers, it was painfully obvious at times that the Cavs, including All Star Kyrie Irving, struggled thriving in Brown’s offensive system, or lack thereof.

All that said, I’m not against hiring a first-year head coach. In fact, as I look at some of the candidates, I may actually be in favor of it. If you look around the league, especially the lowly Eastern Conference this year, you see how many teams hired rookie head coaches and the success that they have had. Of the eight playoff teams in the East this year, six of them were led by coaches who had no previous NBA head coaching experience (Vogel, Spoelstra, Thibodeau, Kidd, Clifford, and Budenholzer). Of the seven teams in the East that didn’t make the playoffs, five were lead by guys with previous head coaching experience (Woodson, Brown, Cheeks, Vaughn, Drew), three of whom were fired. Granted, some of these teams, like the Bucks and Magic, were flat out bad and lacking talent. But the Knicks, Cavs, and Pistons had arguably enough talent to get into the playoffs over teams like the Hawks (especially without Al Horford), Bobcats, and Wizards.

These statistics aren’t necessarily purely advocating hiring a rookie head coach and/or rejecting the idea of hiring a veteran head coach. However, any fans that are afraid of hiring a first-time NBA head coach just need to look at what happened in the Eastern Conference this year. First-year head coaches can succeed in the NBA, especially in this conference where the third-seeded Toronto Raptors wouldn’t even have made it into the playoffs if they were in the West. If there were ever a time to “risk” going through a possible learning curve with a rookie head coach, this is the time.   Obviously, no head coach can win without talent. It can be argued that head coach Frank Vogel of the Indiana Pacers doesn’t succeed without the emergence of Paul George and Roy Hibbert, just like it can be argued that head coach Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat fell into a great situation. However, head coach Tom Thibodeau of the Chicago Bulls somehow led his team to the fifth and fourth seeds in back-to-back years after star point guard Derrick Rose played only ten games the last two years combined.

One possible option for the Cavs if they decide to go in the direction of a rookie head coach is Iowa State head coach Fred Hoiberg.

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  (h/t shotanalytics.com)

The image above is the short chart from Iowa State’s basketball team this past year, which made the NCAA Tournament as a nine seed, losing to eventual National Champion Connecticut in the Sweet Sixteen. This chart is extremely efficient, showing a heavy amount of shots behind that arc and in the paint. Most importantly, there’s a lack of mid range two jumpers, which is an attractive thing. If you’re like me, you’re sick of seeing Jarrett Jack passing up open three’s only to miss a contested mid-range jumper. Hoiberg’s philosophy is predicated on pushing the ball, efficient passing which leads to good, quick shots, and rebounding on the defensive end – all of which are highlighted in this well-done piece on Fear The Sword.

The bottom line with the Cavs coaching search is that Griffin will have plenty of options to choose from, including some names I didn’t even mention such as Mark Jackson, Vinny Del Negro, David Fizdale (Heat), and John Calipari (Kentucky). If David Griffin decides to go with a rookie head coach, don’t fret. The time is now to hire a highly thought of offensive mind to help this young team – led by Irving and Dion Waiters – develop.