The Pacers have gone through a complete metamorphosis since jumping out of the gate to a 40-11 start to the season. They faltered badly down the stretch and barely eked out the No. 1 seed in a ramshackle Eastern Conference. Then they lost Game 1 at home against the sub-.500 Hawks and the fire alarms blared even louder. Now comes word that coach Frank Vogel is “coaching for his job” with anything short of an NBA Finals berth a possible cause for dismissal.
Sources close to the situation told ESPN.com that Vogel, despite a 56-win season that secured the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, is “coaching for his job” in the wake of a prolonged slide that has stretched into its third month.
After Indiana’s 101-85 triumph over Atlanta in Game 2 of the teams’ first-round playoff series, sources told ESPN.com that coming back to win the series against the Hawks would not automatically ensure Vogel’s safety. After a 40-11 start, the Pacers went just 16-15 the rest of the way before a humbling loss in the series opener to the eighth-seeded Hawks.
Part of the tenuous nature of Vogel’s job stems from the offseason acquisitions of Luis Scola and Earl Watson, the in-season trade for Evan Turner and the signing of Andrew Bynum made it clear that this Pacers team was title-bound or bust.
Pacers President Larry Bird was taking a year-long sabbatical when the Pacers decided to give Vogel a two-year extension during the 2012-13 season. That contract pays him through next season, but the decision to keep Vogel around through the end of the deal rests with Bird now.
There’s friction on the team, though, and some of that rests on Vogel. Fisticuffs kicked off their 2014 Playoff run, after teammates had to be separated on the sidelines during a late-season loss to the Spurs, and one starter called guys out in the media (side note: it seems Roy Hibbert was referring to Lance Stephenson — not Paul George, as we originally wrote — when he mentioned unnamed selfish teammates).
Bird told a local CBS affiliate in Indianapolis in the final week of the regular season, “I back Frank 100 percent,” but he also appeared to question Vogel’s leadership tactics when speaking with the Indianapolis Star in March (by way of ESPN):
“A lot of times, we don’t take the fight to [the opponent]. A lot of times we sit back and wait and see how it goes. And that was the case even when we were winning a lot of games early in the season. We’ve got to be mentally prepared to really go after the teams we’re playing against. We can’t have the mindset it’s just another game; it’s a very important game. All of them are.
“I’m sort of going to Frank’s side because he’s had so much success by staying positive. We do have to stay the course. But I also think he’s got to start going after guys when they’re not doing what they’re supposed to do. And stay on them, whether you’ve got to take them out of the game when they’re not doing what they’re supposed to do, or limit their minutes. I will say, he hasn’t done that enough.”
If the Pacers get eliminated before the Eastern Conference Finals, then you can pretty much guarantee Vogel’s tenure in Indiana is done. But what if the Pacers again get knocked out by the three-time defending Eastern Conference champion Heat? All signs point towards Vogel still getting the axe unless his Pacers get over the Heat hurdle and reach the 2014 NBA Finals. First though, before Vogel contemplates the ECF’s matchup we’ve all been waiting for since last season’s series ended in a Game 7 win for the Heat in Miami, the Pacers still have to get by Atlanta and a second round opponent.
Will Frank Vogel get fired if he doesn’t reach the Finals?
Follow Spencer on Twitter at @SpencerTyrel.
Follow Dime on Twitter at @DimeMag.
Become a fan of Dime Magazine on Facebook HERE.