For the past 36 hours, criticism has been raining down on Frank Vogel and his decision to keep Roy Hibbert off the floor for the two final defensive possessions of Wednesday night’s loss to the Heat. That rain of criticism has also sprouted a veritable forest of Vogel defenders, arguing that the ability to switch everything on those possessions was imperative and thus necessitated gluing Hibbert to the bench. I’m assuming that anyone who finds their way to Hardwood Paroxysm early on a Friday morning already knows that both possessions resulted in layups for LeBron, securing their one point margin of victory. I’m also assuming that you’ve already read at least a handful of various opinions falling on both sides of the issue.
The argument about whether Vogel properly evaluated the situation, weighed the variables and made the correct tactical decision is irreparably influenced by the results. Even in such a simple and brief situation, there were a hundred different scenarios that could have manifested, leaving the Pacers’ lead intact. If any of those had actually happened, criticism of Vogel’s decision would been rendered almost entirely moot. In that context it’s a little unfair that he’s under the microscope because Paul George overplayed LeBron so badly on the catch and that Sam Young volunteered no resistance to his layup attempt.
If Hibbert had been on the floor he very well may have been unable to prevent a basket. LeBron had an angle, a head of steam and all the prerequisite finishing ability to lay that one in, regardless of who was in front of, or beside him. Even if Hibbert had been able to get his body between LeBron and the basket, dissuading him from a shot, he could have easily dumped it off to Bosh for 12-footer. Here’s the rub, those two outcomes are exactly what the Pacers’ defense is built on. If there’s going to be a shot at the rim, they’ll make it difficult. But if they can force you to take a mid-range jumper they’re even happier.
But that’s neither here nor there. Evaluating the situation in either direction seems defensible to me, although the ultimate outcome lends more credence to the argument for keeping Hibbert on the floor. I think arguing this point misses the main issue – I’m not sure Vogel should have been deciding based on the exact confines of this situation. If that statement feels ludicrous to read, trust me, it feels just as ludicrous to type.
By looking at that scenario and making a decision on just what lay in front of him, Vogel forced the Pacers away from their principles. Not their micro X’s-and-O’s principles, but their macro ‘this-is-how-we-do-business’ principles. All season long the Pacers’ defense has been playing the percentages. They make opponents to take tough shots and they live with the results. They survive miraculous makes because they know that in the long run the percentages will settle in their favor. However he evaluated the X’s-and-O’s, Vogel’s option to adjust for the Heat went counter to how the Pacers have approached nearly every opponent all season long.
It may be somewhat obtuse and short-sighted for me to suggest ignoring the very real demands of a specific situation in pursuit of higher, over-arching ideals. But that’s precisely what the Pacers have done this year. They don’t adjust to you. You adjust to them. The run their best five guys out there and dare you to beat them. If you do, they dust themselves off and dare you to run it back. They make you shoot over and around them. They take what you do best and make you uncomfortable doing it, in a way that’s splendidly predictable. Everything the Pacers defense has stood for this season would have been represented by parking Hibbert in front of the rim and letting the chips fall where they may.
When Vogel pulled Hibbert he was delving into a world of philosophical and tactical dabbling that he’s mostly stayed away from in his brief coaching tenure. The Miami Heat are an entirely different animal than the Knicks or Hawks. Moxie, fortitude and resoluteness may not be enough. But when Vogel started tinkering with his team’s identity, it made me more than a little uncomfortable. The Pacers are a process team, but I think the moment got the better of him and he was caught chasing results.
As I said above, criticizing this decision after the fact is complicated because we all know what happened. Perhaps Roy Hibbert’s presence wouldn’t have made a bit of difference and the Pacers were doomed to failure on that possession, regardless of what decision Vogel made. But if their destiny was set, I’d rather have seen them take the loss while holding fast to their principles and not compromising their basketball core.