In retrospect, the decision not to renew Frank Vogel’s contract following Indiana’s exit from the 2016 playoffs can loosely be compared to the dramatic structure of a five act play.
- Prologue: Paul George’s outward hesitancy to transition to the power forward position during his first-full season back from a career-threatening injury.
- Conflict: Capitulating to Larry Bird’s designs on playing faster by making C.J. Miles — not George —- the sacrificial lamb. The roster’s flaws ensured the small-ball experiment would have a low ceiling, but the bland offense prohibited the spread lineup from reaching its modest potential.
- Rising Action and Climax: An uninspiring, 117-95, loss to the Charlotte Hornets prior to the All-Star break, the time period in which Bird now admits he first began to ponder the possibility of making a coaching change. With opposing stretch-fours wreaking havoc on Indiana’s traditional frontcourt, Monta Ellis reportedly led a “close door meeting” where he “admonished teammates to take more responsibility for the rest of the season,” per the Indy Star’s Candace Buckner.
- Falling Action: Indiana's late season match-up with the Orlando Magic, in which it was difficult to distinguish the team mathematically eliminated from playoff contention from the one playing at home with a berth on the line.
- Denouement: Nine points, Twelve minutes. After a season chalk-full of fourth-quarter meltdowns, Vogel (again) opted against staggering his rotation. Without George Hill, Monta Ellis, or Paul George on the floor to act as the reserve unit’s fulcrum to start the final frame, Toronto mounted a furious fourth-quarter rally to take a 3-2 series lead. Coaches can’t prevent the type of mental miscues that were routinely perpetrated by the Pacers in the waning moments of games last season, but they should have a better handle on their team’s psyche in pressure packed situations. Following Indiana’s post-season elimination, Larry Bird decided it was time to look for a new voice.
Unfortunately, the epilogue to this saga has yet to provide the Pacers with a happier ending. Bird’s press conference announcing that Vogel would not return, wherein he downplayed the exiting head coach’s role as the architect of Indiana’s elite defense and publicly aired that he had asked him to reconsider his decision, was inartful.
"For him at the moment, his heart is probably burning," George Hill told the Orlando Sentinel’s Josh Robbins of his former coach’s return to Banker Life Fieldhouse before commenting on his ouster. "Just the way that the organization treated him towards his exit was very unfair. I think the guy did a phenomenal job. I think he deserved a little bit more respect than what he got. But that's how they handled it. Vogel took it like a man and moved on. I'm just happy that he had another opportunity to come in and change another program around."
The way in which his tenure ended was unfair, even if the rational behind why it ended was not. Vogel’s offense lacked the imagination necessary to make playing with pace work without space. Still, the read offense hasn’t been the free flowing escape from stagnation it was supposed to be. Granted, the Pacers are generating more possessions, but the speed and movement within those possessions is still sluggish. Conversely, the defense is a mess, but that does not guarantee that Vogel could have been able to fix it with George Hill’s wingspan, Ian Mahinmi’s rim protection, and Solomon Hill’s versatility now all on different teams.
As such, Vogel’s coaching style probably was no longer the right fit for what the Pacers are hoping to accomplish this season, but it is yet to be determined whether Bird’s roster construction is either. While the former coach’s return should tie up any lingering loose ends following the conclusion of last season’s five act play, the outcome of the evening’s contest will provide additional context clues as to whether the season will turn out to be more tragedy or comedy.
"So I'm going to try to do a lot of my prep work ahead of time, get that stuff ready to go, because I know I'll be shaking a lot of hands and catching up with a lot of familiar faces. It's going to be emotional,” Vogel told Robbins. “But, look, when we get out there, I'm going to be focused on one thing, and that's getting a 'W.' "
Indiana, coming off a 1-3 week lowlighted by an overtime loss to the previously winless Sixers, needs to do the same.