After a three day break for the Holidays, the Indiana Pacers were back in action Saturday night. Facing the Atlanta Hawks at Conseco Fieldhouse, the Pacers failed to delight the Indianapolis crowd, losing 110-98. With the team in the midst of a monumental nose dive — they’ve lost 16 of their last 20 games — Indianapolis sports fans who follow the blue and gold are beginning to bail on the team. And with good reason.
In their three games prior to Saturday’s failure, they blew a 15-point halftime lead against the Celtics, squandered countless opportunities in an ugly 84-81 loss to a bad Bucks squad, and allowed the Spurs to rally from a 13-point 4th quarter deficit. They’ve found ways to lose that I didn’t even know existed, and Jim O’Brien clearly has no clue what to do about it. Can you blame Indianapolis basketball fans for not wanting to pay their hard-earned dollar to support such a mess of a team? I sure can’t.
With that in mind, I figured with Christmas just passed and 2010 a mere five days away, now would be an appropriate time to plop down on the lap of Basketball Claus and tell him what I hoped to get from the Pacers in the new year. Consider this my official wish list:
Wish #1: Don’t fire Jim O’Brien…yet
I’m a firm believer in giving a coach three seasons to prove his worth to a franchise. It takes at about that amount of time to assemble the right type of players, implement a new offense and defense, and learn the strengths and weaknesses of your team. O’Brien’s nearing two-and-half years in Indy, and after compiling a 72-92 record in his first two years, his team has regressed significantly this season.
So why shouldn’t Larry Bird fire him? Because, as I’ve stated in this space in the past, the best thing Indiana can do is lose as many games possible in order to land a good selection in the June draft. And keeping O’Brien around is the best way to ensure that. Known for his capabilities as an offensive coach, he’s been unable to utilize a fairly talented roster, standing by as the Pacers have gone from averaging 105 points a game last year (good for 5th in the league), to 97 points this season (21st in the league). He’s indecisive at best, incompetent at worst when it comes to managing his lineup (leaving Brandon Rush and T.J. Ford in the starting lineup for about four weeks too long, and failing to give Roy Hibbert and Tyler Hansbrough consistent minutes are two prime examples).
To be fair, he’s had to juggle some pretty significant injuries, but who in the NBA hasn’t? The team hasn’t quit on him yet, but they’re certainly starting to tune him out, and as history has shown us, once the players stop trusting and listening to the coach, it’s not long before their will to compete is broken completely.
So like I said, if the Pacers want to have a shot at adding a franchise-changing player in the upcoming draft, they need to continue their losing ways. And O’Brien is just the man to lead them. Of course, as soon the Pacers finish up the season on April 14…he gone!
Wish #2: Hire a Pacers legend to coach the team at the end of the season
No, I’m not referring to Reggie Miller or Larry Bird here. I want Mark Jackson, the former point guard whose experience and leadership helped lead to the Pacers to the 2000 NBA Championship, to return as the head coach. He’s young, outspoken, and is a proven leader. During his playing days, Jackson made up for a lack of athleticism and speed by relying on his immense knowledge of the game to exploit the opponent. Jackson always knew precisely when and where to feed his teammates in order to maximize their strengths, a talent that would serve him well coaching a young team looking to establish an identity. At the very least, Jackson’s hiring would prompt renewed interest in the team, something that is very much needed considering the current economic state of the franchise.
Wish #3: Make a trade
I don’t care who it’s with, or who it’s for, just as long as Bird abides by these stipulations, I’ll consider the trade a success:
1). It can’t involve Danny Granger, Hibbert, or Hansbrough. Those guys are the foundation, the players Indiana should be building around. Mike Dunleavy isn’t one of the untouchables, but considering his injury history and the $9.7 million due to him over the next two years, he’ll be nearly impossible to move. That’s a good thing. The 29-year still has plenty of heady basketball left in him.
2). It must clear major cap space for this summer. Guys like Dunleavy ($10.5 million), Troy Murphy ($11.9 million) and Jeff Foster ($6.6 million) are slated to make serious bank over the next two years, and while I’m a big fan of all three, the Pacers could desperately use the cash for the summer of 2010, and what’s expected to be the greatest free-agent class in NBA history.
3). TJ Ford has to be involved. Ford has a player option for 2010-11 that would force the Pacers to pay him over $8 million. He’s already lost his starting spot to Earl Watson, and rookie 2nd rounder A.J. Price has shown signs he should be playing over the inconsistent Ford. For the teams sake and for Ford’s sake — the boo birds have been attacking him with increasing frequency at home games — Larry Legend needs to do everything in his power to end the “Ford Experiment” before T.J. has a chance to exercise his player option.
Wish #4: Play Roy Hibbert 30 minutes every night. No stipulations.
I understand that he struggles with fleet of foot big men, and his propensity for committing dumb fouls can be problematic, but there’s no reason his minutes should be fluctuating so wildly. It’s killing Hibbert’s confidence, and if it continues, it could derail what’s looking to be a very promising career. The coaching staff needs to accept that Hibbert is, and will remain, what he’s always been; a slow, 7’2″ center with a dominating post game, and an ability to protect the rim.
He’ll never be a great pick-and-roll defender, and certain types of players will always pose matchup problems on the defensive end for Hibbert. Offensively however, the Pacers are at a similar advantage when he’s guarded by smaller players, so it’s pretty much a wash. Besides, the only way he’ll ever learn to thrive in the NBA is by being subjected to anything and everything on a nightly basis. He’s not learning anything sitting on the bench with a towel over his head in a sulking pose, which is what he does when O’Brien sits him for quarters at a time.
It seems a little odd wishing for the Pacers blossoming stud center — and the only reliable post player — to see 30-plus minutes a night for a team with no shot at making the playoffs, but that’s where we’re at with Indiana.
Wish #5. Take one of these two players in the draft.
John Wall: The future. One of the top point guard prospects in the last 20 years, and his addition to the team would immediately make winning a championship within the next five a realistic possibility.
Evan Turner: Turner is what Larry Bird hoped Brandon Rush would be. Only better. He was in the midst of an All-American campaign, averaging 20.5 points, 12.8 points, 6.7 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.1 blocks, before a scary back injury knocked him out for at least 8 weeks. The 6’6″ shooting guard is a do-it-all type player who can get to the hoop at will. Turner would be the perfect complement to Granger; freeing Danny up on the outside with his drive-and-pass ability, and helping to guard the opponent’s best wing player. Plus, his proven track record and high-major pedigree fit into Bird’s criteria for the new look Pacers.