Business as usual for the Pacers as Bird decides on Vogel’s future

Frank Vogel and Larry Bird talk after nearly every practice.

Frank Vogel and Larry Bird talk after nearly every practice.

Here we are. The Pacers 2015-16 season came to a screeching halt Sunday night as they came up short in Game 7 of their first-round series against the Toronto Raptors.

This was supposed to be a retooling year with seven new players added to the mix, including three rookies. It was Paul George’s first full season back from that horrific leg injury, and the team was entirely in his hands for the first time. Team leader David West moved on, and Roy Hibbert was traded.

Instead of talking about George’s magnificent return — where he confidently and effectively played in every game when called upon, finishing 10th in the NBA in regular-season scoring and the Pacers’ top scorer in six of seven playoff games — instead of talking about the team reaching expectations and how they pushed the second-seed to the brink, all eyes are on Bird. The leadership of this team moving forward is unclear.

Will head coach Frank Vogel be back? That will be up to President Larry Bird, with the approval of owner Herb Simon.

See, Vogel’s contract expires in June, the end of the league’s fiscal year.

Vogel with his star, Paul George.

Vogel with his star, Paul George.

Vogel received a contract extension on Oct. 8, 2014 during training camp of a season I dubbed “The Year of Discovery.” George would miss all but six games with that leg compound fracture so their chances of reaching the conference finals for the third straight year weren’t a realistic possibility. That year, they lost in Game 82 and finished ninth in the conference — one game out of a playoff spot.

Vogel and the Pacers were quiet about the extension, declining several times to say how many years were tacked on and at what cost. Well, it all makes sense now.

It was business as usual at Bankers Life Fieldhouse Tuesday for the basketball staff. Frank Vogel and the coaches were there to conduct exit interviews before the players go on vacation. One by one, players went from meeting in the front office with Bird and general manager Kevin Pritchard, to Vogel’s office down in the locker room.

A few days after the Pacers’ season ends, Vogel and Bird usually meet with the media for an end-of-the-season press conference. Players are not made available to reporters, so it’s an important time to get their thoughts on the season, individual players, and the plan of attack in the offseason. For now, this is on hold until a decision is made.

When reached Tuesday night, Vogel did not want to comment publicly. Understandably so, he has been quiet since his post-game press conference in Toronto.

“I couldn’t be more proud of our guys and how far we’ve come this year,” Vogel said after a 89-84 loss. “We remade our franchise this year, completely recreated an identity, worked through several shifts this season and played our best basketball down the stretch when it mattered, played a great series and hung in there and fought to the end.”

[Quotable: Pacers and Raptors after Game 7]

Less than 24 hours after watching his team lose a decisive Game 7 on the road at the Air Canada Centre, a game in which they scored 84 points and attempted 16 fewer shots than the home team, Bird communicated his current feelings about Vogel’s future to the Indianapolis Star.

In short, he wants to be better offensively resulting in more points, isn’t sure Vogel is their coach of the future, and he needs to go over his ideas with Simon. It sounds like Bird has made his mind up about what he wants to do, but he needs the longest-tenured NBA owner — his owner — to sign off on it.

Several things to consider here:

  • When Vogel received his first extension, Bird was on a year-long sabbatical where he addressed the pain in his back stemming back from his playing days. Donnie Walsh, who’s still on staff as a consultant, stepped in as the President of Basketball of Operations and he gave Vogel the extension in January, 2013.
  • Vogel received a second extension before the 2014-15 season and it prevented him from being a lame duck coach.
  • This time last year, Bird made clear how he wanted to overhaul the offense, play faster, and move George to power forward. That was something Bird considered months before he finally made his thoughts public. It makes you wonder how long Bird has been considering a potential chance in coach.

An interview request with Vogel’s agent was declined through the agency’s publicist.

Bird stated several times last offseason how he wanted the team to score six to eight more points per game. They almost got there, scoring 102.2 points per game (17th), 4.9 more than last season. They moved up one spot in their offensive rating to 23rd, at 102.4.

Vogel’s known for his defense and it has been great in his five and a half seasons as head coach. The Pacers’ defensive rating for the 2015-16 season was 100.2, third-best behind only San Antonio and Atlanta. They were eighth the year before, without George, their best defender, and No. 1 in defense in both 2013 and 2014 when they made back-to-back appearances in the conference finals.

[Frank Vogel leads Pacers to 6-1 record in April, named Coach of the Month in the East]

However, the Pacers’ poor late-game execution was obvious. They were 9-9 this season in games decided by three points or less and were the least effective team at making a field goal, 1-for-25, in the final 10 seconds of one possession games. (Sometimes it was simply a young player forgetting the play call.)

In overtime games, they were 1-7 during the regular season.

In theory, Bird’s goal to play George at power forward made sense but when the season came around, the team didn’t have the appropriate parts to do so.

Bird dealt Vogel the cards for the season — no stretch four, no true point guard, and an inexperienced bench. As George preferred to play his normal wing spot, the 6-foot-6 C.J. Miles slid down and did an admirable job — but his body paid the price and it cost him late in the season.

Myles Turner poses with coach Frank Vogel and team President Larry Bird.

Myles Turner poses with coach Frank Vogel and team President Larry Bird.

A few months into the year, and as rookie Myles Turner returned to the lineup after missing 21 games for thumb surgery, Vogel went back to playing a traditional lineup with two bigs. No way he was going to keep Turner on the bench.

No matter how this ends, Vogel will be all right. He would absolutely like to remain in town and continue on with the organization for a 10th season. And this year is huge for the franchise, with plenty in the works as they celebrate their 50th season.

Vogel’s a smart guy — just don’t ask him about his college GPA — and he surely understands what might happen. And what might happen is Bird wants a change.

If that’s the case, Vogel would almost certainly be considered for the other job openings out there, although none are too exciting at this point. Maybe he’d have to sit a year out, go around and visit with some teams and do some guest appearances on national NBA shows. It worked out nicely for Tom Thibodeau (Timberwolves) and Scott Brooks (Wizards), didn’t it?

Also, the cost of getting a successful head coaches are way up, in the range of six to eight million. That’s probably twice what Vogel is currently making.

So when Bird meets with Simon, he’ll need to sell him on the next move. If that includes a change in head coach, Bird better have someone in mind and be able to convince Simon to pony up more money for him.  Remember, Simon refuses to go over the luxury tax each July during free agency.

Vogel has led the Pacers to the postseason in five of six years, the one exception being last season without George for all but six games. Vogel has 250 regular-season wins, the most in NBA franchise history. With 31, he is one playoff win short of his boss, Bird (32), for most all-time in NBA franchise history.

Vogel has the respect of his players but he can also play hardball. He is the perfect guy when it comes to being a face of the franchise, appearing at golf outings, meeting with season-ticket holders, and in accommodating various requests around the building.

But basketball is business. The players and coaches know that. Vogel is the fourth-longest tenured head coach in The Association (six seasons) behind Gregg Popovich (20), Rick Carlisle and Erik Spoelstra (eight). There’s something to be said for continuity, especially in a league when leadership has a short leash on its coaches.

So, Larry, what are you going to do?

One Response to Business as usual for the Pacers as Bird decides on Vogel’s future
  1. Dan Lewis
    May 4, 2016 | 1:51 pm

    Please keep Vogel!

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