Continuity is important.
In all but solo professions, a long-standing familiarity with your co-workers is essential to success. You learn their tendencies, directing interactions towards their strengths and away from their weaknesses. Avoiding points of friction or contention becomes easier as previous experiences teach you when and where those should be expected. Those become stewing cauldrons of nostalgia, to be served on a cold and gloomy day.
Basketball is no different. As the years pass, you learn when and where a teammate likes to get the ball, which off-ball cuts he sees and which are useless wastes of energy, and how to coordinate your movement on defense to fit even the most generic “on a string” cliché. The Spurs are hailed for nearly every attribute within their organization, but perhaps none have been more effective at elevating the franchise than their perfect synergy. That doesn’t happen without of Duncan, Ginobili and Parker learning each other and growing together on the court, and Buford and Popovich off it.
The Indiana Pacers have utilized the fine art of continuity in their favor for the lion’s share of this latest era. Roy Hibbert and Paul George officially solidified their starting spots in 2009-10 and 2010-11, respectively; David West and George Hill joined via free agency and trade a in the summer of 2011. At the time, the fifth starter was franchise player Danny Granger, in tow ever since 2005; his eventual replacement, Lance Stephenson, joined the franchise in the same draft as George.
Over the past 3 seasons, the team’s starting lineup was consistently built from 5 of these 6, with Stephenson replacing Granger in 2012 when the latter badly hurt his knee. Throughout that stretch, Indiana’s starting 5 was an all-around juggernaut, fueled mainly by their defense. With Hibbert at the rim, 3 stretchy and athletic contributors on the perimeter, and West’s brawn and brain tying it all together, Indiana developed into a well-oiled smashmouth machine.
That spell was broken last year, as the Pacers imploded in a smoldering heap of finger pointing and stagnation. Somehow, continuity flipped from essential to excessive, as the previously tightly-knit fivesome switched from loving lifers to grumpy old couple miserably waiting to be put out. Suddenly, those little quirks and idiosyncrasies that previously meshed so well together slipped out of cohesion and became jagged irritants, painfully stuck in the Pacers’ side.
Where Hill and George’s length on closeouts once funneled opponents into Hibbert’s rim protection, Hibbert’s inability to deviate from the paint clashed with the perimeter players’ unwillingness to leave their players for a popping Pero Antic. Where Hill’s grounded game managing once so beautifully complemented Lance’s erratically powerful ball handling, the former’s structured, imagination-depleted approach to running an offense couldn’t make up for the latter’s volatility. George’s burgeoning perimeter offense and David West’s unique mix of mid-range acumen and post-up brutality canceled each other out as they migrated two steps into the arc and two steps out of the post, respectively, without enough surrounding movement to create the illusion of space between them.
As a tricky offseason following a results-acceptable but process-deplorable 3rd consecutive playoff loss to Miami unravels, Indiana has lost Stephenson to the Charlotte Hornets and their 3 year, $27 million offer. With limited means to replace Lance (C.J. Miles and Rodney Stuckey represent), it would seem that the Pacers’ strength of continuity has been shattered beyond repair. But last season’s late collapse may have shown us that continuity was no longer the answer. There were still glimpses – the kind of which is easier to observe on the dense background of the atrocious 2014 Eastern Conference – but the consistent application of it was no longer available.
It’s a disappointing end to a fun mini-era, and perhaps not the preferred way to end it, as trade rumors regarding Hibbert and Hill are sure to go nothing but gain momentum over the next few months. But it may have been time.