The Pacers' burning questions

Roy Hibbert

The Indiana Pacers had the Eastern Conference's best record during the regular season and are in the conference finals, which most had projected would happen. They're currently losing the series 3-1 to the Miami Heat, a team that generally everyone believes is more talented.

So despite this reasonable achievement, why is Indiana regarded as a team in turmoil?

Because the Pacers had one of the strangest, yet most compelling, seasons of any team in recent memory. They exploded to a 33-7 start, then finished 23-19 after a series of on- and off-court events that captivated NBA fans and raised many questions.

Here are some answers about what happened to the Pacers:


Q: Roy Hibbert's line about a lot of selfish people in that locker room brought the team's turmoil to the forefront. What's that about?

A: Hibbert didn't come out and identify the player directly to NBA.com's David Aldridge, but he was talking about Lance Stephenson on March 28 after a loss in Washington, when he said "there's some selfish dudes" in the locker room.

Stephenson was putting together a strong season for the Pacers, racking up triple-doubles and maturing into their second-best talent behind Paul George. But Stephenson felt jilted when the Eastern Conference coaches did not vote him onto the All-Star team in February. He doesn't always appreciate the ramifications of his actions; his recent attempt to "get inside LeBron James' head" with trash talk during the conference finals is a classic example.

After Stephenson missed out on the All-Star team, he changed. He started a bit of a personal vendetta against East coaches, wanting to personally send a message in those games, which took him further out of the flow on some nights, sources said. Overall, the team noticed a shift in Stephenson from a more team-oriented approach to a more self-oriented focus, where he started obsessing about his statistics. People within the team believed his upcoming free agency was also a motivating factor for Stephenson, who wanted to enhance his value, something he believed suffered when he didn't get an All-Star nod.

As a result, Stephenson started annoying his teammates at both ends. Not only did he start dominating the ball more -- his assist rate dropped dramatically in the second half of the season -- but he was robbing numbers from his teammates. He has always had a habit of so-called "stealing rebounds," jumping in front of or over a teammate who had an uncontested rebound to get it for himself. This phenomenon reached a new level in the back half of the regular season. Hibbert, who had his rebound totals heavily analyzed by the media and fans, was often a victim in these friendly-fire rebounds.

Stephenson's act had long worn thin by late March. When the players had meetings to address issues with the sudden struggles, Stephenson sometimes wasn't involved. Occasionally he appeared to be unaware they were even happening. Most players on the team, now that they were losing, shared similar feelings about Stephenson, but did not vocalize their problems publicly.


Q: Did Hibbert's selfish comment have an impact inside the locker room?

A: Yes, and in a negative way. As one person with knowledge of the situation put it: "It divided the locker room big time." The Pacers didn't become one of the best teams in the league on talent alone. Their chemistry -- until about February -- was a strong bond that appeared unbreakable. But Hibbert, according to sources, defied a core belief of the team, which is to keep dirty laundry in-house.

For several games leading up to the "selfish" comment, Hibbert teetered in interviews with the media after losses. Several times he came to the brink of saying something and then bit his tongue. He was struggling and not getting the ball -- seven times in a month, he scored six points or fewer and his touches had dropped. The loss that night was the fourth time in five games the Pacers failed to break 80 points. Hibbert was in his hometown and had just struggled again in his old college arena and he'd finally had enough.

This "selfish dudes" comment, though, broke the trust of his teammates because he didn't come to them to address it first. Already upset with his play, Hibbert's teammates lost some trust in him after those comments, multiple sources said. "Teams that are tied together don't do those types of things," a source said.


Q: There are rumors that the team has been so up and down because of salacious off-court stuff. Is there any truth to that?

A: ESPN has spoken with numerous sources inside and outside of the Pacers organization, and the answer has consistently been that there is no evidence behind the innuendo about off-court interpersonal issues. It was clear the Pacers were dealing with chemistry issues, and their on-court cohesiveness showed a sharp decline after midseason. Some Internet sites and fans, looking for an explanation for this sudden change, searched for answers and some of the void was filled by lascivious rumors. Team and player sources insisted they were false, but they naturally spread as the Pacers continued to struggle.

George had to publicly acknowledge two incidents during the season. He copped to a relationship with a Miami nightclub worker, and debunked another alleged relationship that was splashed across a few blogs. He handled both with grace and accepted this was part of his more visible life as a star player. However, those close to him told ESPN that he was not prepared to handle the distractions, and the noise sent him into a bit of a depression for a short time during the season.

Rumors also had a negative impact on the psyches of other players, especially Hibbert. An active Twitter user, Hibbert became so upset about what fans were sending his way that he pushed to release a statement with a denial. After consulting with his agent, David Falk, and the team, the decision was reached not to do so, sources said.

The rumors, however, did not stop, and by the second round of the playoffs, the players had grown sick of it. They collectively decided to confront them through social media. George posted a photo on his Instagram account of a fishing trip on his boat with Hibbert and George Hill. He wrote the caption: "These rumors have got to stop! Its getting old now and all you that believe them are ignorant! #Brothers" on May 6.

Not all fans understood the reference to the rumors. George, Hill and Hibbert didn't elaborate much to the media. It was an old photo but Hibbert and George did go fishing during the series with the Washington Wizards to clear their minds. The post quelled the rumors to a certain extent, and the Pacers started to play better, winning that series 4-2 after falling behind 1-0.


Q: Lance Stephenson has been both wonderful and evidently selfish -- is it correct he has been a destabilizing force?

A: Stephenson has become one of the most polarizing players in the league and certainly on his own team. The Pacers have nurtured him for four years and constructed an entire support system aimed at nourishing him and controlling him, from hands-on daily encouragement and review from president Larry Bird all the way to the public relations staff trying their best to keep him from putting his foot in his mouth.

In the past two seasons, Stephenson has blossomed as a player, but he's also more comfortable taking liberties and risks. This has pushed the bounds with the players and coaches.

Putting it in Indianapolis terms, Stephenson is like a race car. The performance can be incredible and awe-inspiring. But he requires constant maintenance by the entire operation, and losing focus for one second can lead to various levels of disaster. This, naturally, can and has grown tiresome.

In the past three years, all of the Pacers' core players -- Hill, Hibbert, West, George -- have been signed to long-term deals. Now it is Stephenson's turn. Bird has always supported him. He stuck his neck out to draft him despite Stephenson's checkered past and red flags. Despite Stephenson's tantalizing talents, sources said there are many in the organization who don't think it's a good decision to give him a rich, long-term contract, given the way he has acted during the season.


Q: Hill was a big factor last postseason, but not this time around. What happened to him?

A: From the outside, it looks like Hill has regressed, as his scoring average has dropped four points a game, and his assists are also down. He's had numerous games where he's seemed invisible. In the first round of the playoffs, he was outplayed by the Atlanta Hawks' Jeff Teague, which was not a good look because both players signed $8 million-per-year contracts.

Privately, Hill has told people he's very upset with himself this season and takes the blame for not being more assertive, and he has vowed to change. But it is not all about his game. He also has been upset about the changing nature of his role and his willingness not to challenge that shift. Hill's shooting and rebounding numbers this season are steady, but as the Pacers have turned the keys of the offense to Stephenson, Hill has been marginalized. His role in the offense is often to get out of the way and stand in the corner as a floor spacer, the kind of role he was relegated to in San Antonio early in his career.

Indeed, if you look at the stats, he is averaging 3.5 fewer shots per game this season. Where did those shots go? One possible answer with some symmetrical evidence: Stephenson is averaging about 3.5 more shots than last season.

Like others, he has been frustrated with Stephenson. During a blowout home loss late in the regular season, he and Stephenson got into a verbal altercation on the bench. But his role reduction to allow Stephenson to grow was an organizational decision that also has had some positive benefits, even if it has the side effect of upsetting Hill.

There's little doubt that Hill has not performed at the highest level, but there have been nights when he has been off defensively. However, his length and defensive skill set are a big part of why the Pacers have been an elite defensive team in the past several seasons.


Q: Former assistant coach Brian Shaw's name still comes up around the team as someone the players respect. Do they miss the assistant who is now the head coach of the Nuggets?

A: One person put it this way: "B. Shaw was always straightforward. If there were any problems, he'd speak up, whether it was yelling, cussing us out or just being there for us, and then we'd move on. This is no knock on Nate (McMillan) because this was his first season with us and the last thing he was going to do was ruffle any feathers."

Players gravitated to Shaw because of his knowledge of playing and coaching on championship teams. George and Stephenson, the team's two most talented players, were Shaw's pupils. He was one of the few who could keep Stephenson in line, and Shaw often went fishing with George, when they would spend hours together just talking about basketball and life.

The team has missed having that sounding board this season, especially when things got rough. Pacers coach Frank Vogel has developed a persona where he is often a voice of positivity and reinforcement. Though he is not afraid to get after players, especially during film sessions, Shaw often acted as the bad cop to Vogel's good cop. Facing issues this season the Pacers had not previously encountered -- especially with George and Stephenson -- not having Shaw there to pull them into a corner and re-focus them was missed during the season.

Ironically, Shaw had issues during his first season with the Nuggets because of his personality, and veteran Andre Miller ended up being dealt, largely because of friction with Shaw.


Q: Larry Bird is widely celebrated as one of the best ever to play, coach or run a team. But is some of this turmoil on him?

A: Even though he took a year's hiatus -- during which Hibbert and Vogel were given contract extensions that he didn't have a part of -- this is a team that Bird has built. He drafted Hibbert, George and Stephenson. He traded for Hill. He made the personal sales pitch to get West to sign as a free agent. He was the NBA Executive of the Year in 2012 for excellent reasons.

When he returned to the franchise last year, though, he was concerned about the team's bench, and he aggressively tried to get his starters help so that Vogel wouldn't play them so many minutes together. His moves to get this done have not been so golden and he's continued to tinker with little concern for chemistry, something that was perhaps a fragile quality of the team he built.

Bird pushed to sign Andrew Bynum in midseason despite not having doctors examine his knees and despite the Pacers' research (including the canvassing of acquaintances in Cleveland) producing numerous red flags, sources said. Bird followed the Bynum signing by trading longtime team member Danny Granger for Evan Turner at the deadline.

Granger's prescience as a team leader was a little overblown on the outside, sources said, because he largely had grown apart from the team during his bouts of knee injuries during the past two seasons. Granger, sources said, also had grown wary of playing in the same rotation with Stephenson, which prevented him from getting as many touches as he preferred. However, with the team struggling with its first significant chemistry issues since coming together, the decisions backfired badly. Neither deal worked out, and in Bynum's case, he appears to have had a negative effect on Hibbert and his sometimes delicate outlook on games.

In the two games Bynum played, he was a featured part of the offense, getting 22 shots in 36 total minutes. This season, Hibbert averaged just 11 shots per 36 minutes he played. Turner is a player who has had limited success in his career, but mostly when he has dominated the ball. With George, Hill and Stephenson, there was little room for that type of play from Turner. Vogel briefly tried Turner at backup point guard when C.J. Watson got hurt, but that didn't work either.

No executive has a Midas touch and Bird's hot streak ran out this year, including his decision to sign Chris Copeland to a $6 million deal, only to watch him sit on the bench all season. That happens. But messing midseason with a team he knew to be fragile had far-reaching effects.

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