No one ever told Frank Vogel this NBA head coaching stuff would be easy. But he could have been forgiven had he started to think that way, given the arc of his first 22 months on the job.
Vogel landed the job on Jan. 30, 2011 when he took over for fired Jim O’Brien. He steered a team that had played 10 games under .500 to a 20-18 finish and a playoff berth, and that – coupled with the Pacers’ feistiness in their first-round series against Chicago – shook the “interim” tag loose from in front of his title.
Last season, Indiana won 16 of its first 22 games, chased the Bulls in the Central Division with a 42-24 mark and put a scare into the eventual champs from Miami by grabbing a 2-1 lead and homecourt advantage in the second round.
Everything seemed to be onward and upward again this season after the Pacers re-signed free agent center Roy Hibbert, committed to George Hill as starting point guard, brought back talent czar Donnie Walsh and added pieces they valued such as D.J. Augustin, Ian Mahinmi and Gerald Green.
What has followed, though, has been the first hiccup of the Vogel era. Indiana sputtered to a 3-6 start. At the season’s quarter pole, things have perked up somewhat, but 10-10 still is well below expectations. The Pacers hardly have seized control of the weak NBA Central.
“We’re trying to get a feel,” forward David West said the other night on a stop in Chicago. “We’re trying to pick up wins and put together complete games. We’re just going through the everyday ups-and-downs of the NBA season. Y’know we believe in what we have.”
The defense has been strong – Indiana ranks first in defensive field-goal percentage (40.9) and second in defensive rating (99.6) – but then, it has needed to be considering the Pacers’ offense. They are shooting just 41.5 percent with an offensive rating of 99.1 (both stats rank 28th). They’re not getting to the foul line much and turnovers have been a problem.
Yes, Indiana misses forward Danny Granger, its most potent scorer who is in the midst of a three-month layoff (left knee injury). And it has played 12 road games already, seven of its setbacks coming away from Indy.
But it’s been more than that. Augustin – averaging just 3.2 points and 2.4 assists – has been low impact, generating low confidence from Vogel or teammates and not nearly the dream backup imagined when the club jettisoned Darren Collison. The whole bench has been disappointing, as in the 92-89 loss to Denver Friday. The Pacers subs managed just 12 points, eight rebounds and three assists in nearly 71 combined minutes.
Tyler Hansbrough‘s scoring is down, beyond his dip in minutes. Ditto for Green, sputtering to play within Vogel’s system in ways he didn’t last season in his NBA return with the Nets. Mahinmi has been fine in relief of Hibbert, but Pacers fans bemoan the loss not just of Collison but of A.J. Price, with some lobbying for rookie Ben Hansbrough to get a shot at Augustin’s role.
Among the starters, West has been close to his former All-Star form, but Hibbert, Paul George and Lance Stephenson have been inconsistent.
Then there is Vogel, who has kept a calm about him but hasn’t been shy about changing up plenty during these doldrums. Defensively, he doesn’t ask Hibbert to show as much on pick and rolls, content to keep him as a paint factor. The Pacers have tried to pick up their pace, too, and to get away from iso plays for Hibbert, West or others; with Granger and his shooting out, defenses are more effective sagging or digging in such situations.
“Dramatic shift in philosophy,” Vogel called it. “A work in progress.”
The key for the Pacers is to keep seeing progress while, in themselves or in their head coach, not seeing too much stress. The education continues Sunday in Oklahoma City.