With their comeback attempt coming up short against the Toronto Raptors in game 7, the Indiana Pacers head into the offseason with several key questions. Among them, head coach Frank Vogel still has not received a contract extension, and the Pacers' front office does not appear to have offered one. Will the Pacers really jettison the coach who brought them to two straight conference finals?
In the NBA, a truly great coach is hard to come by.
It is nearly impossible to stumble upon a coach as great as Gregg Popovich or Phil Jackson. In this league, the average coach is capable of producing a finite number of wins that is typically determined by what personnel his front office has used to construct their team. The select group of coaches that do elevate their team over what is expected should therefore be valued greatly by their organization's executives. Sadly, when a team does underperform to the level that a shakeup is needed, the head coach is the easiest piece to change and is often the first target of removal. The swapping of coaches throughout the league leads to incredibly fast turnover for the position, and over time becomes a symbol of organization instability.
Take the Sacramento Kings for example. Since letting Rick Adelman walk after the 2005-06 season, the Kings have failed to reach the postseason, and they have cycled through 8 different head coaches. Soon the vacancy will be filled with its 9th different coach in 10 years, but unless Red Auerbach is walking through the door, it's difficult to envision the playoffs are on the horizon. Looking at the opposite end of the spectrum, teams that allow coaches to establish their philosophy over the course of several seasons typically see more success.
The constant coaching turnover in the NBA is a gigantic problem, and the Indiana Pacers are dangerously close to furthering the trend. Monday evening, Indianapolis Star columnist Gregg Doyle unveiled a piece detailing how team President Larry Bird has not yet reached a decision on if head coach Frank Vogel will receive a new contract to be with the team. While the specifics of what Bird said are not as foreboding as some media outlets would lead one to believe (ESPN's Brian Windhorst impulsively declared that Vogel will not be back in Indiana), the nature of his comments is worrisome. Bird has given no timetable as to when he will discuss Vogel's future with owner Herb Simon, and he also said he didn't want to keep Vogel waiting from any other job offers. While he did not blame the Pacers' occasional lack of offensive production on Vogel, Bird indicated he "wants to score more points" in the coming years, whether it be from a coaching change, roster change, or both.
Not re-signing Vogel would be among the worst decisions Larry Bird can make as team President.
Since taking over for former coach Jim O'Brien in 2011, Vogel has only failed to lead Indiana into the postseason once, and that was the season in which All-Star Paul George missed all but 6 games due to a fractured left leg. A 20-18 record as an interim head coach led Indiana to the postseason for the first time since 2006. He has amassed a win-loss record of 250-181 (.580) in that time span, and has an overall playoff record of 31-30 (.508). Where Vogel truly shines is the defensive side of the ball. Since becoming the interim head coach, Indiana has allowed a league-best 99.3 points per 100 possessions as a team (h/t Tim Donahue, 8points9seconds.com), and they haven't had a team defensive rating above 100.8 since his first full season as a head coach. Two seasons in row from 2012-2014, the Pacers led the league in this category, so the consistency on the defensive end has truly been staggering.
The other area in which Vogel excels as a head coach is player trust and commitment. Too often you hear of a coach "losing the locker room" or players "not showing up to play" before that coach is shown the door. With Vogel, it is evident how much the Pacers enjoy having him as a coach through Vogel's effortless ability to get players to buy in to new playing philosophies. Indiana was not necessarily a poor defensive team under O'Brien, but Vogel taking over truly pushed them into that elite category, and they were proud to be known as the hard-nosed, grinding team in the East. Before this season, Bird stated he wanted a more up-tempo, small-ball offensive philosophy. For the first month, the players were all on board, dominating the month of November before coming back down to Earth. Once it was realized that style of play could not be sustained over the rest of the year, Vogel adjusted his rotations to play with bigger lineups, and the players responded by finishing in the top three of defensive rating. Getting your players to overhaul their playing style twice in the same year is remarkable, and truly shows how valuable to the players and to this franchise Vogel can be.
Vogel can truly turn this team into a deep playoff contender if given the correct personnel. In the postseason, George Hill proved he could be a reliable option, but the Pacers' front office needs to find the true number 2 scoring option to complement Paul George. It remains to be seen if Myles Turner is that guy, but his offense showed great potential throughout the year.
If the Pacers do the unthinkable and actually let Vogel go to another team, then who left in the pool is capable of managing Indiana better than him? On top of that, Indiana would be letting an upper-tier coach go to potentially another Eastern conference team where they will have success against the team he just left.
Instead of making the mistake of letting one of the brightest young minds in basketball leave, Indiana needs to do the right thing and offer a new contract to Vogel as soon as possible, and then focus on impending roster changes that are to come in the offseason.
All stats courtesy of stats.nba.com unless otherwise noted.