With the Heat and Spurs moving on for their Finals rematch, the Indiana Pacers and Oklahoma City Thunder are going home disappointed once again. Both teams had high hopes for the year, but fell short. I expect there to be changes made in both franchises, since neither team is in a market that can really compete with New York or Los Angeles or Chicago. Both teams are close, but neither team can afford to stand pat this summer.
The Indiana Pacers went into the season talking about the need for the home court advantage in an inevitable playoff rematch with the Miami Heat. They exploded out the gate and earned that advantage, with the best regular season record in the Eastern Conference, despite struggling the last couple months of the season, but were nearly eliminated by the lowly Atlanta Hawks in the first round. After taking seven games to dispose of Atlanta, the Pacers had their hands full with the young and fearless Washington Wizards. Indiana made it past Washington, but there was no reason to be confident in the team heading into their showdown with Miami. They were in the Eastern Conference Finals, but it didn’t feel like this team belonged there. Miami disposed of the Pacers in six games, one game less than it took last year.
The Pacers have a good collection of talent, but it hasn’t translated into being a great team in the playoffs yet. It’s unclear who the leader of the team is and who the star is. There is a lot to like about Roy Hibbert, David West, George Hill, and Paul George, and I’m not ready to give up on Lance Stephenson just yet, despite his antics, but there is no one on that roster comparable to a LeBron or a Durant or a Garnett or a Pierce or a Duncan or a Nowitzki that history shows you need win a championship in the NBA (the Detroit Pistons team headlined by Chauncey Billups and Ben Wallace, two very good players who belong in the Hall of Fame but are not quite on that level is the exception to that rule). The Pacers have already announced that head coach Frank Vogel is keeping his job, but that is far from the only tough decision that Pacers team president Larry Bird will have to make this summer.
Basketball is to Indiana what football is to Texas and hockey is to Canada, but the passion and appreciation for the game at the high school and college levels has yet to translate to championship glory in the NBA. Larry Bird is perhaps an even more revered figure in his home state of Indiana than for his playing days at Indiana State than he is in Massachusetts for his legendary NBA career with the Boston Celtics, but if he can succeed in leading the Pacers to a championship, he might get elected governor on a write-in campaign without even trying. Larry has his work cut out for him.
The Oklahoma City Thunder, on the other hand, have the elite talent already. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are among the best players in the NBA, with Durant winning the MVP for the first time in his career a couple of weeks ago. While they are both very good players, as long as they do not win a championship, questions will be asked about their compatibility. Perhaps OKC could benefit from a shakeup. Perhaps Durant can better maximize his potential with a more pure, pass-first point guard rather than the high-scoring Westbrook. Perhaps Rajon Rondo would be the perfect guy to dish the ball to Durant, and perhaps Rondo would love the idea of reuniting with his old buddy Kendrick Perkins in OKC. Perhaps a trade between the Thunder and Boston Celtics that would bring Rondo and Durant together and make Westbrook the centerpiece of the next great Celtics team is the best thing for all parties involved. Is it wishful thinking as a Celtics fan? Absolutely, but stranger things have happened. The more I think about it, the more I would love for it to happen.
Neither the Pacers nor the Thunder had what it took to reach the Finals in a season dominated by the two remaining teams from a year ago, and while both teams were close last year, they can’t afford to hold steady for another one. Time waits for no team, and these opportunities don’t just grow on trees. Just ask the Utah Jazz of the late 1990s or the New Jersey Nets of the early 2000s. Those were really good teams that came away from it without championship banners when they were playing their best basketball. John Stockton and Karl Malone top-ten players of all time at their respective positions, but are always mentioned with the qualifier of being one of the best never to win a championship. I’d hate to see that happen to these teams and these players that are so fun to watch, but it could very well happen of they don’t make the right moves this summer.