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The photo that cursed the Pacers, Revisited

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An important discussion about the back-end of the 2013-14 season and how (or if) it applies to today’s team. Very important.

Original images (left to right): Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports; Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images; Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports

February 25, 2014 — The day it was revealed that the Pacers’ starting lineup had posed for a steely-eyed fashion spread in GQ magazine, and a promising season took a negative turn.

Starting out 42-13 and leading the league in defensive efficiency (94.5) before the infamous photo became the source material for internet mockery, the Pacers surrendered 102.4 points per 100 possessions and stumbled to a 14-13 record thereafter.

And many of the losses weren’t just losses, they were shellackings.

Take for instance the 19-point drubbing dealt to them by the Hawks when they scored a grand total of 23 points in the first half and recorded one assist on seven made field goals while committing nine turnovers.

The fact that Roy Hibbert suffered a prolonged crisis of confidence, including finishing that particular game against Atlanta with zero points in nine minutes, certainly was one factor in the team’s bizarre meltdown.

But there were many, many others:

  • Paul George, who averaged 22.7 points on 44 percent shooting before the photo debuted, dropped down to 19.5 points on 38.5 percent shooting while dealing with salacious rumors.
  • With his touches plummeting (40.5 per game to 34.9), Roy Hibbert told reporters there were “selfish dudes” in the locker room.
  • Once the league cracked the code to their funneling defense (i.e. pace, drag screens, stretch-shooting), the increased pressure on the already anemic offense created an environment ripe for a vicious cycle of self-reliance and short-cuts.
  • Hampered by Evan Turner’s awkward fit as well as C.J. Watson missing 18 of the last 27 games while Luis Scola’s shot was bothered by an elbow injury, Indiana’s reserves posted an aggregate net rating of minus-7.1 (down from plus-2.9).
  • Andrew Bynum, despite only appearing in two games, was there just long enough to be a distraction.
  • Having made it clear from Day 1 that they wanted to secure home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, they put themselves in the position to be drained by the burden of trying to hold onto the top spot.
  • Evan Turner and Lance Stephenson reportedly came to blows.

We’re not saying all of this stuff went wrong because of the photo, but we’re also not not saying it went wrong because of the photo.

In honor of the upcoming season being the first without any of George Hill, Lance Stephenson, Paul George, David West, or Roy Hibbert since the 2013-14 collapse, we invited SB Nation NBA’s Whitney Medworth over to dissect the realness of the curse and its origins.

Has it been lifted? We’re about to find out.

Caitlin: Before we get started, I think we need to acknowledge that there were subtle signs of trouble prior to when the Pacers decided to dress up like Joey on that episode of Friends when he’s trying to prove he can pass for 19. I mean, given how dependent that squad was on their half-court defense, I remember finding it more than a little ominous when they gave up 105-plus points at every stop on a three-game west coast road trip while getting absolutely shredded by the dribble penetration of Isaiah Thomas (38 points) and Goran Dragic (21 points). And that stretch, by the way, preceded when Danny Granger got traded by nearly a month.

So, what was the earliest point in which you recall thinking that something was off? Also, please tell me you have a better pop-culture reference for how they looked in that photo than man-child Joey?

Whitney: They definitely looked like a 2000’s R&B group. That photo gave me massive B2K vibes for anyone reading this who knows who that is. But that’s also probably giving that photo more credit than it deserves. What’s sad is I believe the guys really enjoyed that shoot. It just ... didn’t go over well.

So after the incredible start to the season, I think by January things were already coming unhinged. There were two bad losses to the Suns. A bad loss to the Nuggets. And an OT win against the Kings. It felt too early in the season at that point for the team to be in a rut. This team was too young and too good to be having bad nights like that.

Many blame the photo, or Lance’s All-Star campaign, or signing Bynum. But it started long before that. Those were just symptoms of a bigger problem brewing.

Caitlin: Oh wow, I googled B2K (yes, I realize how washed that makes me) and now I’m really hoping that one day the 2013-14 starters go on Lip Sync Battle and perform some of the choreography from You Got Served, if for no other reason than I just want to be reminded of Roy Hibbert going Gangnam Style at Circle Center Mall.

As for the cracks in the foundation, I think part of the reason why it’s become easy to forget some of the concerning X’s and O’s stuff that was going on pre-trade deadline is because the second-half of the season swoon didn’t go full-on “selfish dudes” until after the album cover was a thing. It’s basically a demarcation of time now, which is why I need to get your read on this photo Victor Oladipo shared from the workouts he organized in Miami:

Looking past Vic’s hipster fanny pack, I feel like this could be dubbed the anti-GQ photo.

Whitney: Yeah, this photo doesn’t concern me one bit. The photo curse has hit three teams that we know of. The Pacers, the Seahawks, and the Warriors. Those were all staged photo shoots, with wardrobes picked out by a stylist, meant for some publication. All three of those teams had a lot to lose at the time ... and they lost it!

This is just Vic getting the boys together for a good summer workout. It’s pure and good. The fanny pack is fine because we’re talking about Victor Oladipo here and he can do what he wants. He learned that from Russell Westbrook. And if you don’t post it on Instagram, did it even happen?

Caitlin: I’ll leave that question to Damian Lillard’s hilarious parody video. In this case, however, perhaps documenting this “completely natural” moment on social media will be the basilisk tooth that destroys one of the GQ horcruxes.

The reason I brought this up — and, I’m going to tread lightly here to avoid speaking something into existence — is because I think there are parallels that can be drawn between last year’s team and the 2012-13 squad that took the Heat to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Along with Roy Hibbert’s block against Melo and Paul George’s dunk over Birdman, one of my enduring memories from that season is the starting five sharing the podium after they came up big in Game 6 against the Knicks. To a lesser degree, the whole team rushing to help up Cory Joseph after making a hustle play stands out as a similar season-defining moment.

The current iteration hasn’t accomplished anything yet, but relatively speaking they’re entering the upcoming season facing heightened expectations after pushing LeBron to an elimination game, a la the reality that greeted the 2014 team.

That being said, today’s Pacers seemed to be making a purposeful effort at Media Day to insulate themselves from that type of external chatter by emphasizing their intention to sort of live in the moment and focus on getting better whereas Paul George’s team stopped just short of shouting it from the rooftops that it was their No. 1 priority to finish the season with the East’s top seed.

Transparently gunning for home-court advantage really seemed to compound their struggles at the end of that season, so maybe this is a positive sign?

Whitney: Everything seems different to me with a Victor Oladipo led Pacers team. Ya know, he could have this team do a GQ photo shoot and I don’t think it would be a problem.

The vibe around media day felt genuine. It still feels refreshing to see this team even after a year of getting used to this new look. And it looks like Oladipo has had an impact on Myles Turner ... that I’m just going to go ahead and say it ... he’s had an impact on Myles Turner that Paul George wasn’t able to provide.

I feel like this team’s unity is authentic and real when I think we all knew deep down that the 2013-2014 Pacers team, that unity always felt just a bit off. Something flipped from that unassuming team in 2012 that had the whole world ahead of them.

Will this iteration be as successful as that team was? I do not know. I hope. But it doesn’t feel like this team will crumble in the spotlight if they get the chance.

Caitlin: On that note, I have a confession to make. As painful as watching Pero Antic torch Roy Hibbert was, I’m not sure how much fans would really care about how that team closed the regular season or narrowly escaped that series if LeBron had not been in the Eastern Conference.

The East was so, so top heavy that season. Even with the Pacers going 14-13 over their last 27 games, there was still an eight-game cushion between them and the Raptors, which at the time was the team immediately trailing the Heat in the standings.

Obviously there’s a butterfly effect involved here, but what they were in the second-round against the Wizards still might have been enough to advance past a non-LeBron team in the Conference Finals, especially since those squads started more traditional centers: Amir Johnson, Joakim Noah, Al Jefferson, etc.

Facing the Beautiful Game Spurs most likely would have been like running into a buzz-saw; nonetheless, making a trip to the NBA Finals would have cast that team’s history in a drastically different light.

All of which is to say that it remains to be seen how the current squad will fair against whichever team or teams slide into the competitive vacuum left by LeBron. One thing we know for sure though is they won’t be coming up short against the four-time MVP and generational talent for the sixth time in eight seasons.

I don’t want to tempt fate, but that’s not nothing.

Is it time to let go of the curse?

Whitney: Before I answer if the curse is over, I want to get one thing in. All I truly wanted from that 13-14 season was to get swept in the NBA Finals by the Spurs. We deserved that, didn’t we? The Heat that year were begging to be sent home and we just couldn’t do it. Siiiiiigh.

Anyway.

Yes, the curse is over. We can let go. We can move on. We were lucky enough to be blessed with Victor Oladipo via that exact curse and we have to take that and run.

Like I’ve said before, I have no idea if this team will ever be as good. But I do know we’re gonna have fun.