Indiana Pacers: Losing to win?

It’s not a great time to be a fan of professional basketball in Indianapolis. The Indiana Pacers, who started the season with visions of playoffs dancing through their heads, have lost 10 of their last 11 games, and appear to be regressing rather than progressing as the season goes on. Injuries, inconsistent lineup rotations, and a failure to grasp Jim O’Brien‘s up-tempo offense have plagued Indiana all season long.

The lone bright spots (Tyler Hansbrough and Dahntay Jones‘ aggressive play, the return of Mike Dunleavy, and flashes of big-time potential from Roy Hibbert) have far been outweighed by the negative of so many uncompetitive losses. The poor play has O’Brien on the hot seat, and Larry Bird contemplating the path the team is currently on. Attendance is hovering right around 14,000 people per home game, which ranks the Pacers 26th in the league, and a figure that will undoubtedly drop the more this squad continues to lose. Not a good thing for one of the more cash-strapped franchises in the league. Not good at all.

To be honest though, as bad as it would be for the economics of Indianapolis business magnate Herb Simon‘s team, a disastrous season full of losing may not be the worst thing in terms of the Pacers long-term future. If you’ll allow me to rant for a few paragraphs, I’ll explain what I mean.

…getting my game face on…

Did anyone see the Pacers box score two nights ago? They lost to Portland (what’s new?), but what really caught my attention was a glowing disparity in the plus/minus category for our “point guard.”

The Pacers lost by 11, and somehow T.J. Ford managed a minus 17 while playing 31 minutes. To put that in perspective, Dunleavy was minus 1, Hansbrough was even, Hibbert was minus 4 (keep playing Jeff Foster Jimmy-boy, seriously, keep trotting out a 32-year old with an injured back over the future franchise center. No really, keep doing it). The most startling number? A.J. Price, who was filling as the backup PG for Earl Watson, played 16 minutes, shot only 2-10 from the field, and still managed to have a PLUS SEVEN! Even while he was missing shots, he did so within the flow of the offense, and the team was better off for it.

The point I’m trying to make is, by continually micro-managing the lineup, and giving heavy minutes to players who clearly don’t factor into the Pacers future (and who aren’t even performing at a high level), O’Brien is stymieing the growth of the team’s young players. With Danny Granger out for lord knows how long, Dunleavy still playing his way back into game shape, Hibbert and Hansbrough a few years away from reaching their potential, and Ford running the show, there’s no hope for 2009.

And that’s why, as sacrilege as it sounds, rooting against the Pacers this season is not such a bad idea for Indianapolis sports fans who support the team. Ok, “rooting for losses” may be a bit strong of a statement, but secretly cheering when they blow a 23-point fourth quarter lead (as they did against New York earlier in the year), isn’t something fans should be ashamed of. Some may view this as selling out the home team, but to me, it signifies that you care immensely about the franchise, and someday hope to see a championship banner hung in Conseco Fieldhouse. Again, allow to me explain.

If we can continue to come up on the short end of the stick in games on a regular basis, there’s a chance the Pacers could finish with one of the worst records in the league (Indiana currently sport the 5th stinkiest). And there just happens to be this one-and-done point guard at the University of Kentucky who’s all but guaranteed to be the first pick in the draft. Goes by the name John Wall. Maybe you’ve heard of him? Dude is franchise changing PG, and all the Pacers have to do to acquire his services is continue losing ballgames.

The point guard position is essential to running the fast-paced offense O’Brien and Bird advocate, and it’s clear (see: rant, first paragraph) that Ford and Watson are not capable of successfully operating it. If they can somehow land a high enough draft pick to take Wall, who’s been described as the best point guard prospect in the last two decades (he’ll be visiting Assembly Hall to take on Indiana University on Saturday, the future of professional basketball in Indy would indeed be bright.

Imagine a rotation of Wall, Dunleavy, Granger, Troy Murphy and Hibbert as the starters, with Hansbrough, Jones, Brandon Rush and Price coming off the bench (admit it, your heart rate just increased ten-fold).

Put simply, if you’re interested in ever rooting for team whose floor is .500 rather than its ceiling, allowing a small smile to escape your lips when you see the Pacers drop another game isn’t something to apologize for. In fact, I’ll be right there next to you, smiling and hating myself for it, but understanding it’s for the best.

Alright, I’m done ranting. I feel better now.

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