You see Frank Vogel for the first time since things turned really ugly for his Indiana Pacers team, your initial thought is to commiserate.
Then you hear Vogel talk about the Pacers and what awaits them in this 2014-15 NBA season, and your next thought is to apply a cold compress.
Vogel bounced through the early going at the annual coaches meetings in Chicago with a mile-wide smile and an optimism that had you wondering if, somehow, he had missed July and August. That’s when, in a span of two weeks, Indiana suffered a 1-2 gut punch in the form of Lance Stephenson‘s surprising decision to leave as a free agent and Paul George‘s gruesome, season-crippling injury at Team USA’s scrimmage in Las Vegas.
Yet to look at and listen to Vogel last week, you’d have thought Larry Bird had dialed a time machine back three decades with the idea of reassigning himself from team president to starting small forward.
“We’re going to be fine,” Vogel said. “We’ve got more than enough to compete with the best and we’re going to have another great season. Our approach is, we’re going to try to not skip a beat.”
Vogel’s fingers were not crossed. There was no whiff of rum in the room, and he wasn’t talking in Comic Sans.
He continued: “Two guys being gone – Lance being gone, Paul not being with us because of injury – creates opportunities for other guys. Both at that position and also at other positions to carry a bigger role.”
Ah, OK, so maybe it was the whole interview thing. So you switched off the recorder, looked the Pacers coach in the eye and said, now Frank, how do you really feel?
“I really feel that way,” Vogel said. “I think we’re going to be OK.”
It was time to find a chair for Vogel. Or maybe several so he could lie down. Indiana, despite its 56-26 record last season and berth as the No. 1 playoff seed in the East, ranked 29th in offensive efficiency, according to NBA.com stats. The Pacers were 28th in field-goal attempts, 27th in assists, 24th in points per game and 23rd in offensive rebounding.
George and Stephenson, the team’s dynamic two-way wings, generated an outsized portion of that attack. They combined for 45.5 points and 28.2 shots per game, which was 47 percent of Indiana’s scoring and 35 percent of its field-goal attempts.
George would have been a starter for Team USA in its gold medal-winning effort in the FIBA World Cup tournament. Stephenson would have been a worthy NBA All-Star reserve in February and was expected to remedy that miss this season. Together, the two Pacers were the likeliest sources for some Indiana improvement offensively, while pestering opponents like Dobermans defensively.
Into the breach step retreads Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles.
“Those guys are solid NBA veterans,” Vogel said. “It’s not like we’re going to fill the spots with guys who were in the D League last year. And we feel [2013 first-rounder] Solomon Hill is going to be an elite defensive player and a guy who can knock down open shots. We could have played him 25 minutes a game last year and we would have been all right. We just had such depth.
“Chris Copeland is going to get a chance to play more. Damjan Rudez, one of the best shooters in Europe, is coming over to play at the ‘three’ or the ‘four.’ So we’ve got answers. You look at that, combined with our point guard rotation’s intact with George Hill and C.J. Watson, our big rotation’s intact with [Luis] Scola, [Roy] Hibbert and [Ian] Mahinmi. There are reasons to be optimistic.”
Hibbert, for instance, has shed 14 pounds in a plan to be more mobile and not so easily shaken when a team with “stretch fives” like Atlanta vacates the middle. Hibbert also spent a week immersed in court time, meals and movies with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, adding the NBA’s all-time leading scorer to his list of illustrious tutors (Bill Walton, Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan). Hopefully the Pacers center and The Captain screened film other than “Airplane!” and “Game of Death.”
It’s understandable that Vogel might want to stay upbeat, because the alternative wouldn’t do him or his team any good. His biggest concern is defensively, where Indiana has excelled in recent seasons. Hibbert still is the anchor at 7-foot-3 but in George it lost a Scottie Pippen-like shadow for the other guys’ most dangerous point guards and wings. Covering for that with double-teams and help might stress the seams of the Pacers’ schemes overall.
Stephenson did more defensively, too, than just blow in guys’ ears. It seems reasonable to think that, had George’s ghastly leg fractures happened before Stephenson signed with Charlotte, the Pacers might have kept him for a deal better than the three-year, $27 million one he accepted. Or that, given the dire need and urgency, Indiana might have upped its initial offer from five years, $44 million.
Still, if Vogel wasn’t about to bemoan the roster hits with which he’ll have to live all season, he wasn’t going to if-only himself into a blue mood over unfortunate timing.
There is, at least, some encouraging news on George.
“He’s on one crutch now – almost full weight-bearing,” Vogel reported. “He’s got a boot. He still has to have the one crutch. He’s doing really well.
“It’s a challenge for him. But he’s not coming in with a frown on his face, sulking around. He’s doing a lot – lifting weights, doing a lot of core work. He works out five times a week.”
The brink of a new season, on the heels of the FIBA gold medal in the first year of his five-season, $91.6 million extension, makes this one of those tough emotional times for George. He’s stuck on the side as the Pacers prepare to tackle 2014-15 without him. Presumably without him anyway, with George a long shot to return any sooner than next fall.
“I was concerned about it when it first happened, where he was going to be [mentally],” Vogel said. “It’s going to be a long process, once he starts getting out running and learning to trust [the leg] again. But he seems to be of the mindset that his expectations are for a full recovery, and a full recovery as soon as possible.”
George has high expectations. His team now has lower ones. That might explain some of Vogel’s buoyancy: Indiana thrived on its way up, feeling underrated and overlooked in its pursuit of the Miami Heat, and only ran into trouble last season when it got far in front of the field with its 33-7 start.
Dialing down the projections and slipping back into the underdog role it knew so well might be a comfortable fit. Already the Pacers have proven wrong skeptics who suggested they take it down to the studs in a full-blown rebuild. Never was broached, Vogel said.
“Nope. There was some talk about ‘Can you believe people are saying that? Do they understand how long it takes to build a winning culture?’ ” he said.
“We have enough to be really good. Are we the preseason favorites to win the East? No, we’re not anymore. Some fans think the season’s over already. But some fans are like me, like, ‘Hey, they’ll still be pretty good.’ ”
The Pacers will find out soon enough, with neither Vogel’s cheeriness nor Kool-Aid at the concessions stands covering up the results on the Fieldhouse court.