April 6, 2006
Plenty of blame to go around
A couple of years ago, Indiana Pacers president Larry Bird talked about the Three-Year Burnout Rule.
It was like Al Davis' 10-Year Burnout Rule, except it applied to professional basketball rather than football. After three years of listening to a single coach's voice -- whether he was Miami's Pat Riley or Toronto's Sam Mitchell -- players stopped paying attention.
That, one suspects, is where the going-nowhere Indiana Pacers now reside.
They've tuned out coach Rick Carlisle.
They've tuned out the entire coaching staff.
And more and more, it seems like they've tuned out the season.
The seventh playoff spot? The eighth? Does it really matter?
Wednesday night's forgettable 111-103 victory over the Toronto Raptors stemmed a five-game losing streak -- including the unfathomable meltdown in Chicago on Tuesday -- but this is a team that remains completely lost, and will not be found next season unless critical changes are made.
"Give the guys credit for hanging in there and gutting it out,'' Carlisle said after Wednesday's win.
Gutting it out?
Coming into Wednesday night, the Raptors had lost five straight. They were long out of the playoff hunt. They were missing their best player, Chris Bosh. And yet, there were the Raptors, cutting into the Pacers' 15-point third-quarter lead with the likes of Matt Bonner and Joey Graham.
Sure, the Pacers won. They won because they were slightly less inept down the stretch than the Raptors, who shouldn't have been in this game in the first place.
Truth is, this is a slow march to nowhere.
"After all these games, have you figured out this team?'' Sarunas Jasikevicius was asked.
"Nope,'' he said. "We're sort of a strange bunch in a way. . . . We had some amazing wins this year, where we pull through very tough situations, and we've had those games that have put us in the position we're in now.''
The Pacers cannot come back with this coach and this group of players. Emphasis here on players.
Even greater emphasis here on point guard Jamaal Tinsley, with others to follow.
Finally, Carlisle made the move he should have made earlier; he benched Tinsley in favor of Anthony Johnson, a move he said he would have made whether Tinsley was injured or not. Do you realize the
Pacers were 1-8 in their last nine games with Tinsley starting? The guy must go. And he will go. Without question.
To think, Tinsley's finest play as a Pacer came in his first month. It's been downhill since.
CEO Donnie Walsh transformed the Pacers from the veteran-laden 1999-2000 group without taking them back to Lottery Land, a remarkable feat. But with all the changes that are necessary around here, it's hard to imagine how Walsh and Bird can perform the same magic a second time.
Or if they even want to try.
Clearly, Carlisle deserves some of the responsibility for the decline of this season. He has too often coddled his stars. He has made some odd late-game decisions. And as long as he has been here, players have felt constrained by his paint-by-numbers offensive style.
And yet, I'm not ready to say he's at the heart of the problem, or that he should be in any kind of trouble with management. If anything, Carlisle represents the least of Indiana's problems.
Fact is, Carlisle took a good team to 60 victories and an Eastern Conference finals. He took a wounded team and did one of the finest coaching jobs in recent memory, leading them to the playoffs last year after the brawl and all its attendant fallout. As much as everybody wants to blame somebody -- and why not start with the coach? -- the fact is, injuries have forced him to use 30 starting combinations.
Listen, you can't coach intensity, especially in pro athletes. You can pay attention to details, but if millionaires aren't interested in playing defense, it's hard to compel them.
If you want to blame somebody, start at the top with Walsh and Bird, who left the fate of the season in Ron Artest's hands. That blew up in their faces. (This is a recording.)
If you want to blame somebody, blame the players. Nobody on this roster has covered himself in glory this season. We've seen some nice flashes from the young guys, Danny Granger and David Harrison, and for all the screaming about Stephen Jackson, at least he has played through a lot of injuries that have sidelined teammates. But it's a very, very short list.
"What's wrong with this group?'' Carlisle was asked before the game.
He shook his head, the way he's been shaking it all season, the way he did after the Pacers' excruciating loss in Chicago.
"Hard to say,'' he said. "But I still, with (eight) games left, I still believe there's a chance we can pull this thing together and do some positive things down the stretch.''
Based on what, exactly?
Maybe I've tuned him out, too.