Bad luck, injuries and hope Sabonis ... the stop of the Pacers post Larry Bird

The Pacers have five straight losses in the first round. Larry Bird remains an advisor, but his step back has left the franchise stagnant.


In the last 44 years, specifically since 1976-77, the Pacers have been part of the NBA. That year they made the leap after conquering the ABA three times at the hands of Slick Leonard, being a quick reference in American sport and making a place for themselves in a country that already had Lakers and Celtics as references, after both teams dominated with ease. almost the first three decades of the life of the best league in the world. First the Angelenos with Mikan and then the Celtics with Russell, a domain that contrasted with the one that the NBA itself was beginning to lose, thanks to the competition of an ABA that was gaining strength thanks to Julius Erving's dunks or the good work of people like David Thompson, George Gervin, Moses Malone and company. The direct competition originated by both estates resulted in the dissolution of the ABA and the absorption of four teams from it, heading for what would be from then on (and still) the largest North American professional basketball competition.

The intense fight for the basketball monopoly took a frazzled Walter Kennedy in 1975, just a year before the union. He was succeeded by Larry O'Brein, that name that also carries the NBA champion award today and that meant much more than is remembered, introducing measures such as the salary limit and allowing the largest television contract in history ( with CBS), who resurrected a League that was in the water in the seventies and recovered with the arrival of Magic and Larry and the magic of David Stern, which came in 1984 after O'Brein paved the way with such useful measures as (unfortunately) little remembered. And curiosities aside, the third commissioner of the NBA signed the agreement by which four new franchises came to the NBA, from the ABA: New Jersey Nets, San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets and, of course, Indiana Pacers.

It has been 44 years since then, and the Pacers have established themselves as a classic, small market, resident team in one of the states that understands the sport best. You know that "in 50 states it's basketball but this is INDIANA." That banner was the one most seen at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse, where the franchise played its home games in the 2000 Finals against the Lakers. It was the high point of the project built around Reggie Miller, a chimera who faced Jordan and Shaq and Kobe's Lakers without actually touching the glory, but a process that put Indiana definitely on the map. Previously, Slick Leonard didn't have the same success in the NBA as he did in the ABA, but the Pacers were patient. They did not play their first playoffs until 1981, and then they were out of the fight for five more years until 1987. The arrival of Reggie Miller ushered in a new era that lasted until today, creating an easily recognizable identity and culture that It has moved onto the court and been competitive enough to make the playoffs in 25 of the last 31 seasons, an achievement within the reach of very few.

Of those 25 times, they have played once in the Finals, seven in the Conference finals, two in the semifinals and ... 14 in the first round. A very large slab that has represented the roof of a market that is struggling to bring free agents. Traditionally and since the arrival of Larry Bird to the bench in 1997 (it could be extended to Larry Brown, his predecessor), the Pacers have built good projects and have had competitive teams that have had good regular seasons. They have had coaches who have gone from being good (McMillan, Vogel) to very good (Carlisle or Bird himself) and their assiduity to the playoffs has been something difficult to alter and a life insurance that has always rescued the franchise and has sustained over time to projects that took (a good thing) longer than usual to dissolve. However, the usual team ceiling, that first round in which they also stayed the three times they qualified for the playoffs in their first 13 seasons, has gone from being recurring to becoming, who knows, a problem.

Satisfaction, disappointment ... or nothing?

It is very difficult to grade the Pacers, although it would be fair to give them a thumbs up. Of course, it is difficult to know if the coin comes out heads or tails when analyzing everything. On the one hand, the injuries have been primed with a team that has practically not been able to count on Víctor Oladipo, who lost Bogdanovic in the summer (whom he has not supplied badly) and who has run out of Sabonis in the bubble. On the other hand, it is the fifth consecutive season that they have lost in the first round, something that only four teams had done before them. It is also the second in which they receive a sweep and some wonder what the solution is for the Pacers to go from being an East team that has great regular seasons (fourths this year, great) but that says goodbye to its options to the First of all, a rival to consider who may be capable of, beyond presenting a real candidacy for the ring, win over any of his adversaries in the East. Something that does give us the feeling with the rest of the positions that go from second to seventh (Heat, Celtics, last year's Sixers and, of course, Raptors) and that is even repeated with the Bucks, although with a point of view reverse. After all, more than winning anyone, they can lose to anyone. But that's another matter, of course.

This is not the case with the Pacers, a complete and competitive team that is diluted in the playoffs. There are excuses in the last two seasons, in which injuries have stalked the franchise, but McMillan's position is back on the lips of some two years after certain flaws came to light in the first round against the Cavs. Especially in the fifth game, when he did not request a time-out in LeBron's (controversial) stopper to Oladipo, prior to the forward's triple. And in the seventh, when pairing problems and environmental pressure saturated the technician himself. McMillan is a good guy, a basketball connoisseur who played the Sonics' best golden age since Lenny Wilkens and as a coach, he has had 50-win seasons and played the playoffs in Seattle and Oregon with the Blazers. He has managed to build an interesting project in the Pacers and make it competitive, but it seems he is missing something to move his team forward. It is possible that everything will be seen in a new season without the bad luck of injuries, but a new loss in the first round could redirect the project.

And then there is the template. Some will think that it does not give more of itself, but the explosion of Sabonis and his subsequent injury could have changed things. With 18.5 points, 12.4 rebounds and 5 assists on average, he is already a consolidated star who will have to be seen alongside the healthiest Oladipo to draw conclusions. If the escort follows the progression he had before falling (something we do not know if it will happen), a duo could form called to do great things in the East, but bad luck has prevented drawing conclusions beyond all that. And for that alone, it would be (still) unfair to advance events with McMillan, who will have to test with all his pieces to know his true level and if he is truly a coach for the playoffs or if he lacks certain resources (almost intangible but key in the playoffs) of those that Frank Vogel has already shown to lack (when he was in Indiana, we will see in the Lakers) in that opposition to LeBron that he did from 2012 to 2014 with a Paul George who left the franchise through the back door, at the head.

The Shadow of Larry Bird

It is strange that the biggest reference in franchise history, beyond Reggie Miller, is someone who has never played with them. Bird is the quintessential basketball connoisseur, with awards as player, executive and coach, responsible (one of them) for the most golden decade in NBA history and also for putting Indiana on the map for good and becoming there the same institution that before had been in the Celtics as a player. He was one of those who bet most on a genius like Carlisle at the beginning of his career, and he knew how to correct the course of Jim O'Brein's mismanagement and bring in a neophyte Frank Vogel. The knowledge of the idiosyncrasies of the franchise and his know-how, making the right social decisions such as letting Reggie Miller retire whenever he wanted, earned him the fame of hero in Indianapolis, being focused on his usual seat on the benches with certain frequency. And the project that he built around Paul George had prospects for the future, although in the end the precipitation could, letting out a Danny Granger who was a spiritual reference and signing a Bynum whose knees (and behavior) only gave for two games . And there, in the season in which they were called to step on the Finals, the project ended, no matter how much George, broken leg by means of, endured in the franchise until 2017.

His departure coincided with that of a Bird who already made the feint in 2012, leaving him for a few months due to health problems. He made it effective five years later, remaining as an advisor to a franchise that longs for him and now has a correct Kevin Pritchard as General Manager. In that one-year absence from Bird, by the way, the Pacers traded to the 15th pick in the draft (made by Bird) ... by George Hill. And besides, they gave Davis Bertans (yes, the now-hitting 3-pointer for the Wizards) and the rights to Erazem Lorbek. Do you know who that anonymous round was? Kawhi Leonard. The only decision Bird didn't make in that time was the worst of all. Of course, his mind is more than privileged, just like that of a Popovich who took what he wanted to be the next jewel in his crown, but who ended up going through the same back door as George on the Pacers. Today, they both play together, in Indiana they continue to blame their former star and Pop, however, has one more ring in his windows and sits down to watch the playoffs from home for the first time since 1997.

Now, without Bird but with a future as promising as it is uncertain, the Pacers are still on their way no one knows where. They continue to be reliable and always comply with what is expected of them, less with that part of taking another step that they are still waiting to take. And they have the future assured, but slightly compromised, with Oladipo and his guaranteed 42 million, the 85 of a Malcolm Brogdon who has performed very well and the 80 of a Sabonis who, at only 23 years old, has a contract until 2024 and represents the future. . Perhaps a trade with a Myles Turner (72 million, eye) who has not finished becoming the dominant defensive mass that was initially expected, could be beneficial for them. That decision, of course, will no longer be made by Larry Bird. And until the franchise moves (if it does) we will have to wait if McMillan's ability is enough and the future of a Sabonis who can be everything in this sport. After all, it is in the genes.

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