#5 / Guard / Indiana Pacers
At the end of the 2009-10 season, T.J. Ford pulled himself out of the team’s lineup to gingerly recover from a minor injury. It didn’t register much, but doing so forced Jim O’Brien to play the team’s second round pick A.J. Price in an attempt to assess his skills at the NBA level. It more or less served as a definition of Ford’s entire tenure with the Indiana Pacers, one that saw the star-crossed point guard never truly able to find his place with the team.
Indiana was unable to move his expiring contract the following summer, and along with the trade for Darren Collison, Ford’s fate was all but sealed just in case any doubt lingered. He was given the team’s backup minutes heading into training camp as Price himself was recovering from injury. While Price was well ahead of schedule on his return, it was Ford that earned the playing time in the backup role as the season got underway.
Despite a solid scoring touch in past years, Ford focused his game more defensively and as more of a playmaker for his teammates, a role he achieved to solid success, including big plays in Indiana’s surprising win against the Heat. Unfortunately, as the season progressed, so did Ford’s willingness to make plays. It wasn’t always pretty; overdribbling on penetrating drives and getting trapped with no logical option was something of a norm, but defensively, he provided a more stout option to Collison’s early season struggles.
Ford’s play sparked Indiana on occasion early in the season, but as it grinded on, so to did Ford’s overall play. It became more and more obvious that Ford was not the option Indiana needed for a second unit that had considerable trouble scoring the basketball given his inefficiency scoring the ball. That was a job for Price, who had built himself into an efficient bench scorer the previous season, but like most of Indiana’s concerns, weren’t so easily fixed by a stubborn O’Brien.
When Frank Vogel took over the coaching job, it spelled the end of Ford’s season, as the team not only promoted Price, but also worked to get Lance Stephenson minutes. Ford took the demotion with grace as the Pacers allowed him to travel back home to Houston when the two parties decided a buyout was not going to be possible. While his basketball days in Indiana may have been over, he remained active. He took part in Betty Crocker’s Betty Bracket with his Tex-Mex Enchilada recipe and even took care of invading snakes. However, continuing off the court saga from Stephenson forced Ford back to Indianapolis as the team’s third point guard.
While it was hard to tell what kind of play he would get, his chance came in Game 2 of Indiana’s playoff series against Chicago. With Collison exiting at halftime with an ankle injury, a visibly shaken and overwhelmed Price struggled to make smart plays, turning the ball over time and time again. When Ford came in, the Pacers were given a shot of life that they ran with. Ford’s smart play was nothing if not complete redemption for all the struggles he had been through as a Pacer that peaked on a 65-foot buzzer beater to keep Indiana tenacity alive in their hard fought postseason run.
So how did Ford impress?
Ford played smart at times this year. He seemed to play his best when he wasn’t in a groove, that is to say, when he wasn’t expecting himself to make plays for the team. He upped his assists, played better defense, and worked to put the team in a positive position. But Ford’s play on the court was certainly overshadowed by his professionalism off. Ford handled his demotions throughout the season with solid stripes, even giving himself a wonderful redemption story in the team’s playoff run.
And his play in the postseason was what was most impressive. Not just his three quarter length shot, but the stability and experience he brought the team at a time of their most uncertainty. While the team fell in the end, Ford "stayed ready," a mantra often quoted by coaches to players who aren’t getting time, showing that great things come to those who prepare to make plays when given their chance.
In addition, Ford’s 3-3 from the field is the only perfect shooting performance in Pacers playoff history by someone taking more than one shot, so Ford will always be a part of the team’s history in that sense, as minor as it may be.
And how did Ford disappoint?
Confidence in Ford’s play often equates in trying to accomplish too much, which includes overdribbling, bad penetration, ill advised shots. As much as Ford helped his team by playing smart, he hurt his team by trying to make plays instead of taking the plays that showed up.
Furthermore, he wasn’t a key offensive contributor this season. He shot under 40% on the year, and it hurt a unit that could’ve used a consistent offensive weapon and often got caught with long droughts of scoring, canceling out the solid depth Indiana, and especially the second unit, showed late in the season and into the playoffs.
What’s next for Ford?
Ford’s time in Indiana is over. His expiring deal will provide the Pacers with the cap space they want, and Ford will now have the freedom to find himself in a positive spot moving forward. The 27-year-old still has plenty in the tank, and would be an immediate upgrade over some contenders’ current point guard position, including one that just reached the Eastern Conference Finals.
While Ford never found the desired success intended by bringing him in 2008, he never once caused issues with the team, even as he knew well that his tenure in Indiana would limit his future contract options. Knowing O’Brien’s system didn’t bring out his strengths, knowing he was quickly less interesting to the organization than a pair of second-year players; he took it all in stride. Ford’s veteran professionalism should be his legacy with the Pacers. That or his playoff heroics we can only hope become a Disney movie someday.