INDIANAPOLIS -- The All-Star break comes at the right time for the Indiana Pacers. The team has dropped six straight games, its longest losing streak of the season. Players look fatigued, energy is close to zero and injuries to the front court have decimated what little depth the team has.
While CJ Miles will travel with his wife to Mexico, Myles Turner, Glenn Robinson III and Paul George will represent the team in New Orleans during events throughout the weekend.
But the break gives players more than a chance to travel, decompress and compete in exhibition events. It gives them a few days to stay the hell away from one another.
As George sat at his locker Thursday after Indiana daydreamed its way through a 111-98 loss to the Washington Wizards, the four-time All-Star was visibly frustrated by the team’s lackluster play and spoke openly about his concerns.
His first complaint seemed like a barb aimed at team president Larry Bird, who spent the summer assembling a misshapen roster replete with redundancies and inefficient skill sets.
“We’re losing the same way every game,” George said. “We’re letting shooters getting off in any pick-and-roll set. I just think we’re not adapting to the new NBA. A lot of shots teams are shooting, they wouldn’t shoot two, three years ago. It used to be more about getting it out to shooters and shooters putting (the ball) on the deck. Now shooters are shooting regardless if you’ve got a hand in their face or not. That’s what we’ve got to adapt to. The new NBA and learning how to slow them whipping or zipping past us in some of those pick-and-rolls, because that’s what's hurting us right now.”
The Wizards are a part of the new NBA. They torched the Pacers from downtown, connecting on 15 of their 29 attempts. Otto Porter Jr. buried five buckets from behind the arc in the first quarter alone, one better than the Pacers made during the entire game. Every time Washington looked to attack from long range, Indiana obliged.
The Pacers’ inability to guard the perimeter has been one of it’s major flaws during this up-and-down season. The team allows almost 30 attempts a game from 3-point range, fifth worst in the NBA. A league full of trigger-happy ball clubs has no problem lighting up the Pacers.
Such porous defense contrasts achievements made by Indiana during the height of it’s Smash-Mouth era under former coach Frank Vogel. During the 2012-2013 season, the Pacers allowed a little more than 16 attempts from long range, second fewest in the league. They also limited opponents to shoot a measly 44 percent inside the arc, a recipe that called for a lot of ugly basketball, but a back-to-back trips to the Eastern Conference Finals. The Indiana teams of yesteryear were big and lengthy at every position, bullying teams with a defense so impenetrable it flirted with basketball history.
Since then, Bird has sacrificed size for speed, length for small ball and replaced the offensively-challenged Vogel with the are-we-sure-he’s-the-right-guy-for-the-job Nate McMillan. All in hopes of playing faster, scoring more points and competing in the new NBA that George spoke of.
But Bird has largely missed the mark in his execution. Proper small ball calls for a bevy of shooters to space the floor and create mismatches, not an abundance of combo guards who hoist bricks from anywhere beyond 10 feet and a rotation of backup bigs who routinely get burned by opposing stretch forwards. Bird rightfully wants to transition into the NBA’s new era, but has split the the difference between the past and present. The result is an offensively stunted, defensively gutted team that ranks in the bottom half of the league in both statistical categories, one absent any chemistry.
“It’s been a missing piece all year,” George said of the Pacers’ inability to coalesce on the court. “We can say it’s here when we start winning, and when we lose it’s gone. I never really felt we’ve been connected since the season started. That’s what we were trying to find. We were trying to get to that point. I haven’t felt like we’ve been connected all year.”
And the team’s losing streak is only compounding the issues. Winning, as the saying goes, solves everything. But dispiriting loss after dispiriting loss has left this Pacers team, who just 10 days ago were winners of seven straight, with an an All-Star player tired of being asked to do too much.
“I can’t do everything. I can’t do everything,” George said. “I’m (going to) bring everything and put everything I have into it. But, collectively, we gotta have the whole team change this environment and make it live in here again.”
The answer, the spark, the energy the Pacers desperately crave may come in a position change for George. With traditional power forwards in Thaddeus Young (wrist) and Lavoy Allen (knee) out due to injury, George may need to slide to the four and bring his athleticism and shooting touch to that part of the roster. George was asked about a possible move to the position and said he would play power forward if the situation didn’t improve. George was asked to undertake the same task a season ago but was apprehensive after coming off a severe leg injury. This year finds George more receptive to playing outside his traditional small forward position.
McMillan also wants to see change on the court and within the psyche of his players. Win or lose, the first-year Pacers coach is the same after nearly every game. He answers questions in a calm, thoughtful and monotone voice that doesn’t always convey what’s really on his mind. After Thursday’s loss, McMillan was once again casual in tone, but blunt in assessment.
“We’re expected to win. This is not a rebuild,” McMillan said. “We’re expected to win this year with the guys we brought in. Losing, and accepting that, is not part of it. We dropped games early in the season, and I would hear the conversation, ‘We’re going to be O.K.’ Well, we gotta make it O.K. You can’t accept that. We’ve had this stretch where we’ve dropped some games, and you expect, after one loss, your play, your sense of urgency to pick up.”
Though George spoke of his fatigue and anxieties regarding his usage rate on the court, he did play the part of team captain, shouldering the entirety of the blame for Indiana’s losing streak. But he also called out his teammates when asked how the Pacers plan to find connectivity on the court.
“It’s not going to change,” George said. “You have to learn how to play with one another. I don’t know what ‘whatever,’ is, but just in general, you don’t have to like somebody or like something, but you gotta learn how to work together and how to play together. Not saying that’s the case in this locker room, but that’s how you gotta approach it. Everybody's gotta like playing with each other on that court. And it should show, chemistry should definitely come out of that.”
So far, all that’s coming out is frustration, and an ever-brooding All-Star weary of being left behind by the new NBA.