Frank-ly I’m Expecting a Playoff Berth

February 4, 2011 – 5:11 pm by Kevin Johnston

Fear not Pacers fans, it’s now safe to take the paper bags off your heads. Last weekend Larry Legend finally wrote Obie a “Dear John” letter blaming all their marital problems on the oft-criticized coach. Every failed operation needs a fall guy, albeit in this case O’Brien probably deserved to be sent plummeting from the top of Olympus Mons.

The once proud franchise that has seen its fan base completely erode within the last few years is now ready to embark on a new era. Bird has stated he will wait until the season is over to determine his future with the team. The general consensus around central Indiana is that Bird needs to jump on the first train out of town with Obie, which I don’t necessarily disagree with, but I feel like the wheels are already churning in the direction of winning, and things are looking much brighter for the Pacers whether Bird stays or goes.

Between Bird and O’Brien, Obie was the much bigger headache. His constant tinkering of the rotation, the continual head games he played with the young talent on the roster, and his overall ineptitude in distributing minutes proved to be his undoing. Bird specifically cited O’Brien’s public calling out of Roy Hibbert and the lack of playing time for Tyler Hansbrough as the two main reasons for O’Brien’s firing. Had Bird not been feeling so cheerful that day, he might have pointed out how Obie was by far the most god awful coach in the league. Oh wait, Larry Legend stood by Obie’s side when he should’ve been canned 1-2 years ago. Hmmmm.

Now that the nuclear winter is behind us, it’s time to focus on the positives. I love the body language the team has shown so far under interim coach Frank Vogel. Granted, the Pacers might have beaten Toronto and Cleveland had O’Brien still been the coach, so it’s a little early to jump to conclusions, but I like what I see. It’s a very small sample size, but I know the look of a playoff team in the “Dolly Parton” Eastern Conference (aka characterized by extreme mediocrity), and by golly the Pacers seem to have it.

All sarcasm aside, Vogel is already doing wonders for the young guys. Hibbert is showing improved confidence and Vogel is committed to getting him the ball on the low block instead of at the elbow, where O’Brien often had Big Roy setting up. Vogel also said he wants Collison to have the ball in his hands much more while working the pick and roll with regularity. Paul George is getting plenty of clock now and has been nothing short of impressive. Hansbrough is recovering from pneumonia which has affected his playing time lately, but Vogel has promised that he will be a staple in the rotation once fully healthy.

The early returns are promising and everything about the Pacers just feels warm and fuzzy right now. I don’t think Vogel will become the permanent head coach at season’s end unless the Pacers finish above .500 or pull a huge upset in the first round of the playoffs, but for time being he’s our guy and I like his approach in every aspect of the game.

It’s no secret the Pacers are quite fond of Mike Brown, and his track record as an assistant under Popovich in San Antonio, as an assistant under Carlisle in Indy, and as a head coach in Cleveland is nothing to bat your lashes at. True, he did have a prime Tim Duncan, a prime Jermaine O’Neal/capable Reggie Miller, and a god-like King James, but the man had a record of 341-201 as an assistant coach and was 272-138 as a head coach. He had great players, but a winner is a winner.

I am in full support of hiring Mike Brown at the end of the season, although I’d love to keep Vogel around as an assistant if possible. If not, I hope Vogel can land a job as a head coach on down the road because I think he will show that he absolutely deserves it. In the short term, I think Vogel will rack up wins based on a soft upcoming schedule and a now solidified rotation playing with defined roles and confidence.

The Pacers play at home to Portland tonight, and then at New Jersey, at Miami, vs. Charlotte, vs. Minnesota, at Milwaukee, vs. Miami, at Detroit, at Washington, followed by a 4 game home stand against Detroit, Utah, Phoenix, and Golden State. A record of 8-5 or 9-4 is certainly possible over these next 13 games. March will be a tough test for this young team with several difficult road games on the schedule, but then they conclude the season with 6 of their final 8 games at home.

I’m calling it right now: this Pacers squad will be in the playoffs. 36-39 wins and the 7th or 8th seed is not only within the realm of possibility, it’s expected.  They’re already sitting in 9th place in the top heavy East, and the arrow is only pointing up. Maybe in a year or so when I walk into Dick’s Sporting Goods the Pacers section will be more than just two racks. I love the Colts as much as any Hoosier, but it’s downright depressing when half the store is Colts gear and the Pacers “section” looks like a shadow cast from the dozen racks of Manning jerseys.

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