Change in culture was just what the franchise needed for growth
For the second consecutive postseason, the Pacers and Miami Heat clash — this time, with the right to play in the NBA Finals on the line. While both teams’ cores remain the same, the Pacers’ growth over a year’s time is immense.
The biggest change in this franchise’s recent history occurred on Jan. 30, 2011 when Frank Vogel was named interim head coach. Vogel, an assistant for three and a half seasons, already had a great rapport in the locker room.
In the summer of 2011, after Vogel guided the Pacers to a winning record and to the postseason for the first time since 2006, team officials removed his interim tag. They also signed free agent David West — an absolute game-changer in the locker room.
“It’s all about culture and how we go about our business,” Roy Hibbert said. “Before coach took over, we weren’t built for deep playoff runs, we were built for shooing threes and getting up as many threes as possible [under Jim O'Brien].
Unlike O’Brien, who often clashed with players, Vogel expressed genuine enthusiasm and optimism, which was contagious — and appreciated. Vogel cleared the hurdle of being the good guy assistant coach to being the task master. He has the full respect of everyone within the franchise.
“He really just changed the whole locker room,” said Paul George, the Pacers’ draft selection in 2010. “It’s positive vibes, it’s positive energy. We’re all pulling for one another. And I think that’s the biggest thing out of anything he’s done.”
Assistant Dan Burke has seen the growth of Vogel, who joined the team in 2007, better than anyone.
“Frank is always positive, even as an assistant,” Burke said. “When started being positive as the head coach, it took big leaps with the team. As the years have gone by, he’s become more confident and assured of himself with after timeout plays and game plays, demanding more from our guys.
Vogel has won three of the five playoff series in which he’s been the head coach, and he’s advanced deeper in the playoffs each season.
“Every game you play, you gain in-game experience,” he said. “And that’s the one thing when you go from assistant coach to head coach that you can’t replicate, and you can’t study until you go through it. Having another 100 games or so under my belt helps me be a better game coach.”
Growth goes beyond the head coach. Every single player on the Pacers’ roster has improved. From Paul George, the NBA’s Most Improved Player, all the way down to Orlando Johnson, who’s received solid playing time for a rookie.
Lance Stephenson’s improvement can go back to last summer where he remained in Indianapolis and could be seen at the Fieldhouse daily. He elevated his work ethic and started listening to guys rather than thinking he knew everything. The talent is certainly there. He’s having to learn to be under control and maintain his confidence. He’s no longer always the best player on the floor like he was in New York, but he can be one of the most impactful when he’s focused.
Hibbert has made great strides becoming what Vogel describes as “the best rim protector in the game.” In their second round series with New York, a great argument could be made that Hibbert was the teams’ MVP. He locked down the paint, forced the Knicks settle for jumpers, and had the play of the series — a block on Carmelo Anthony late in Game 6 that changed the tide of the game.
“Just the attitude, the culture of the team changed to a tough, gritty team,” Hibbert said of the team’s development. “Paul [George] really played well. Lance [Stephenson] came into his own this year. G-Hill brought his experience from San Antonio.”
Most of a player’s development is dependent on how much work he’s willing to put in, but he can also benefit from playing in the right system. The same way a player can also bottom out and sit the bench in the wrong opportunity. Vogel’s demeanor has been infectious and his system puts the players in the best possible situation to succeed.
West, the oldest player and the backbone of this team, has come up in big moments when the team needed something. He’s been as steady as they come, and will be a highly sought after free agent come July 1. He keeps the locker room in check and was the one that huddled the players together after beating the Atlanta Hawks in the first round. There, he reminded the guys that the win was great, but the ultimate prize was still 12 wins away.
The Pacers have made it to the NBA’s Final Four without a megastar on their roster. They are the first team to reach the conference finals without a top-five draft pick since the Utah Jazz in 1994. D.J. Augustin, the ninth pick in 2008 (selected by Charlotte), is the highest-drafted player on their roster.
Instead of seeking revenge from last season, the Pacers are approaching it like it’s next step on their quest for a championship. Due to the fact that they nearly had a hold of the series last year – they led 2-1 and were ahead by eight points at halftime of Game 4, in Indianapolis – and have had tremendous growth this season, the Pacers are a confident, together group heading into Game 1 on Wednesday.
“When we were up 2-1 last year [against Miami], we dropped the ball,” said West. “We felt all year that we were in that top two in the East, even though we started off slow and we had different lineup changes. Once we solidified our front-five, adjusted some of the things we were doing offensively and became the together group defensively, things have been building towards this.
“Everything with this group is about growth.”
There’s no fear in their eyes with the task of facing the defending champions. Instead, they relish the opportunity to not only play for a conference title, but have to beat the NBA’s best to advance to the franchise’s second NBA Finals in history, and the first since 2000.
“I write the word ‘Believe’ on the board every game,” Vogel told his team Saturday after topping the Knicks. “I believed you guys were going to beat New York and I believe we’re just getting warmed up.”