From the time he was named the Indiana Pacers’ interim head coach five years ago, Frank Vogel has relentlessly exceeded expectations in virtually every challenge he’s faced.
He turned around what was a sub-.500 team, built it into one of the league’s elite defenses and made a pair of respectable appearances in the Eastern Conference finals. Last year, he even managed to win 38 games with a team that replaced the injured Paul George with Solomon Hill for 82 games.
For all the basketball magic he’s worked, though, this season has offered perhaps his toughest challenge to date. Following the offseason edicts of “smaller” and “faster” from team president Larry Bird, Vogel was tasked with converting the once big-and-tall Pacers to a sleek offensive machine. Team overhauls typically take more than a single offseason, and despite the success of most of Indiana’s summer moves, Vogel’s roster remains a work in progress –– their new “spread” starting lineup has the 6-7 C.J. Miles guarding power forwards on a nightly basis.
The Pacers never “tank” or pursue an outright rebuild. Management and ownership would rather rebuild on the fly with moves like the summer’s Monta Ellis signing, and as a result, there are always competitive expectations. That would apply to this year’s team as well, especially with the return of George, so Indiana’s 0-3 start to the season was extremely disappointing by those standards. Vogel made his come-up on the backs of giant defensive teams, so there was also a certain degree of question regarding his ability to sculpt a great offense.
Since then, Vogel and his team have turned it around completely, winning 10 of their last 12 games and doing so with one of the league’s best point differentials. Their resilient start was at first fueled by a defensive resurrection, but the Pacers’ offense has since come around as well. George has re-emerged with his game at an MVP level, Ellis has become an important tempo-pushing catalyst, while Miles and George Hill have gotten off to career-best starts from three-point range. With the team about to head out on a four-game West Coast trip before coming home to face the juggernaut Golden State Warriors, Vogel has this team humming both on and off the court, ready for the chance to cement its legitimacy.
The balancing act has surely not been easy for Vogel, who found himself, by default, as the man in the middle of his star player and his boss, as George and Bird were publicly not on the same page regarding the part of the transition where Bird wanted the recovering star to switch to power forward. When George admitted his hesitance regarding the move, Bird got a little bullish and quipped to the media that “[George] don’t make the decisions.”
After a couple more public back-and-forths, the trio had a preseason meeting to get George “clarification” on his role, and then the talk stopped. Whether by design or necessity, Vogel has managed to walk the difficult line of pleasing both parties so far. Although George is technically the starter at power forward, Vogel has kept his responsibilities essentially that of a small forward, allowing him to guard the opposing team’s best player and play the perimeter on offense. Opposing squads haven’t given the Pacers that matchup anyway, electing to have their 4s chase Miles instead of PG, but that hasn’t stopped Vogel from sticking with the team’s small-ball approach despite those lineup’s early struggles. He’s effectively juggled Indiana’s smaller, quicker starting unit with a more traditional, big-style bench and the team has recently found success with both types of lineups, which surely makes Larry Legend happy.
Vogel has pretty much alleviated any worries about his ability to make this team work on offense, as the Pacers have an offensive rating of 105.2 over their last 10 games and are working together effectively on offense. Everyone looks comfortable with George’s ascendance on offense and have embraced their other roles accordingly.
In the backcourt, Ellis has been patient in finding his own offense for the sake of setting up his teammates with his valuable penetration and passing, while Hill, coming off a career year, has been happy to simply fill in the the gaps on offense with his versatility. Miles has been a great soldier on defense and thrived with his offensive matchups.
Even on the bench, guys like Rodney Stuckey, Chase Budinger, Jordan Hill and Lavoy Allen have all been willing to fill niche roles and submit their stats for the sake of the team. Part of the team’s great attitudes can certainly be attributed to the culture Vogel, an untiring optimist and player-friendly coach, has fostered in Indiana.
The Pacers’ defensive tenacity has returned during the same span with a rating of 90.5, and Vogel deserves a ton of credit for that as well: the team no longer relies on a conservative defense predicated on size. Instead, Indiana now employs an aggressive style that relies on quick rotations and quick hands. After being near the bottom of the league in steal rate for years, this year’s Pacers have shot near the top, and it’s helped their offense when they get out and run.
Based on personnel alone, Indiana is a weird team this year, half-transitioning and vacillating between two playing styles in almost every game. Vogel has made it work in a big way, buoyed by George’s ridiculous play but also by Vogel’s ability to get everyone to buy in. Indiana has played like a real team so far, with the requisite ball movement and defensive communication to make a small-ball system function effectively.
Once again, Vogel has found a way to exceed expectations, and if he can continue to successfully navigate this team’s surprise success –– not a surprise to Vogel, who obviously might start to get some deserved credit as well.