When Danny Granger’s game winner clanked off the rim at the end of Indiana’s game in Washington D.C. on April 14th, that was it. The 2009-10 season is over. No books will be written, no documentaries compiled. The season will be remembered by a number of negative things, maybe some positive things, but certainly one of the most heartbreaking things is this: The Pacers lose 50 games for the first time in 21 years.
In the franchise’s 43 year history, this marks only the seventh time such a dubious honor has befallen the blue and gold. The 1998-99 team, which only played 50 games won more than this year’s team. It’s difficult to put into perspective an event which hasn’t happened since I was five years old.
As difficult as it is to put into words, it’s almost more difficult to want to put into words. In that stretch, 28 of the other 29 teams have suffered through a 50-loss season, half the league has had five such seasons in that time, four teams 10 times or more. To lament over something everyone but the Lakers have had may be a bit shortsighted. After all, Clippers fans have 13 to hang their hat on. Does that make mourning over the first 50-loss season in 21 years a bit excessive?
For those who grew up in Winning Time, 50 losses should be a big deal. It’s not much more than the 46 or 47 the Pacers have had the past three years, but yet, 50 marks something that 46 cannot. It sums up a crucial point for a franchise just entering its domain, a one and done, or a long term investment. The Bulls and Hawks spent five years in the 50-loss territory before seeing the progress of playoff berths and winning seasons. Meanwhile, the Spurs, Jazz, Rockets, and Suns were all able to return to prominence after one 50-loss season.
Of the teams who have spent the least amount of time wandering in this range, an upper tier management team has been more than a catalyst to success. Donnie Walsh provided stability to the franchise that allowed for one of the best on the fly rebuilds of a franchise ever from 2000-2003. When he left the team in Larry Bird’s hands at a similar crucial point, the results have not been so kind.
During the final game of the season, Chris Denari and Clark Kellogg likened the franchise’s attempt to rebuild to the dark days of the early 1980’s, where the Pacers missed the playoffs for 9 of their first 10 NBA years. As the team heads for a fourth straight offseason without postseason play, the situation sure looks similar: a team struggling to piece together talent in a market that may threaten a move while low attendance create an arena so empty it blackens one’s soul in the deepest crevices, but while I pause to point out that I have no intentions of doubting something Clark Kellogg played through, the rebuild itself doesn’t appear to be all too similar.
As the Pacers suffered through their worst season in franchise history in 1982-83, they did so on a team with five returning players, without their leading scorer from the previous year (Johnny Davis), and with a top ten pick rookie as the team’s leading performer (Kellogg). The Pacers had begun their youth movement with Kellogg and previous year’s pick Herb Williams, but would trudge through three more years of top five picks before finally seeing results in 1986-87.
The difference is, that team bottomed out. The current Pacers, much like the rebuild in 2000, haven’t bottomed out. The Pacers are set to earn their first top ten pick in an NBA record 21 years as well, and unless fortunes favor Indiana, they’ll be picking tenth. The new youth movement for Indiana is in place, but unlike the movement in the early 80’s, there are no top tier talent and no top tier picks. While Roy Hibbert and especially Danny Granger have proved to be valuable players taken in the middle of the first round, they’re not the true franchise altering talent found in the very top portion of the NBA Draft. When the team held the fourth worst record in the league in early March, that talent appeared to be well on its way, until the Pacers finished out the year 10-4 and "dropped" all the way to tenth.
Even though franchise talent can quickly change fortunes, as to can good trade and personnel moves. Bird has made it an effort to stick through his three year plan despite cries on the side of confusion and displeasure, and it now enters a crucial point as year three looms. While the rest of the league readies themselves to focus on LeBron James and the Summer of Fortune, Pacers fans should focus on the value of numerous contracts that will expire at the end of 2010-11.
The NBA is cyclical. The good teams return to the top and the bad teams return to the bottom. For the Pacers and its current management team, we’ll know for sure whether they’re up to the task by this point next year. We’ll know for certain whether it was a good idea for Bird to hold onto Troy Murphy, whether it was smart for him to not move T.J. Ford with Brandon Rush to Charlotte. As we look forward to payoff from the contracts, the sky should be the limit for what can be accomplished in this next year to get back on track. The long term prospects of the team need to cause us to shelter our eyes from burning our retinas. If any of us can see well enough to make out the tipoff for the 2011-12 season, Pacers management will have failed us at the crossroad of 50 losses.