Thanksgiving Dinner, Pacers Style
As we take a break from our busy lives to give thanks for all of our blessings, the basketball loving little Hoosier kid inside of me can’t help but consider how lucky I am, as a Pacers fan, to be cheering for the 2013-14 Indiana Pacers.
A quick look around the league tells you just how quickly things can turn sour. The Bulls’ hopes have debilitated along with Derrick Rose’s knees. Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and the Nets are actually worse than the Celtics – a team that was supposed to be rebuilding. The Pistons, Cavs, and Pelicans have not had the breakthrough seasons they were hoping for. And the Black Mamba himself has yet to play a game.
Of course, a lot can happen between now and the end of the season – but barring a season-ending brawl (frantically knocking on every piece of wood around me), the Indiana Pacers have a real, legitimate shot at an NBA Finals run.
Being a fan is sometimes heart wrenching, and it’s easy to focus on the negatives of individual players, teams, and coaches. Some people can’t even appreciate a monster George Hill dunk without needlessly complaining that “he still isn’t worth 8 million a year.”
But today, it’s all about the positives. Remember where this team was four years ago and be thankful. If the Pacers were a Thanksgiving Meal, I think they would look something like this.
The Chef: Frank Vogel
It’s easy to gush over the chef at the beginning of dinner, praising him/her for how delicious everything looks and smells. You may even express your appreciation for the many hours of work by clearing the table and doing the dishes upon the meal’s conclusion. But minus those two instances, the chef often goes overlooked as we stuff our faces with mashed potatoes and gravy. Frank Vogel is a defensive mastermind, a growing offensive coach, and a Coach of the Year Candidate. But it’s easy to just acknowledge that in passing while giving Larry Bird, Paul George, and Lance Stephenson the majority of our attention. Don’t undervalue him. The team’s chemistry and body language is fantastic. After a deep run last year, every player appears to have added something specific to his game this season and is driven to succeed to the highest level. It’s ridiculously difficult to get an NBA team to play hard every single night, especially when the real evaluation will be made come playoff time. But this year’s squad is on a mission, and it’s hard to imagine it would be possible with nearly any other coach.
Sweet Potatoes: Lance Stephenson
Maybe you like your sweet potatoes baked once, twice, cut into fries, or mashed. Maybe you are a true Southerner and can’t live without a good old-fashioned Sweet Potato Pie. The point is, no matter how you serve them, sweet potatoes always add that extra something to Thanksgiving Dinner. In a similar fashion, you never really know which Lance Stephenson you are going to get. Maybe Lance Person, the lights-out 3-point shooter from the first several games shows up, stretching the floor and scoring with ease. Other times, Lance Kidd balls out, recording triple-doubles and and asserting himself all over the floor. Almost always, the Born Ready Rifleman will be good for one or two “No, no no!!!! YESSSS!!!!!!!” plays per game. And of course, there is the Eighth Grader Lance, or the “Bad Lance” to many Pacer fans. Fortunately, this season has seen far fewer Eighth Graders and far more Born Ready Rifle Person Kidds. It has also seen Stephenson be able to shake off Bad Lance at halftime and contribute late in the game. It’s easy to highlight Lance’s flaws, but he brings far more to the table than he takes from it. He’s a fearless defender, improving playmaker, and fantastic teammate. Take away the sweet potatoes, and the Pacers lose that extra something.
Gravy: Roy Hibbert and David West
The Thanksgiving gravy goes on last, but it’s actually one of the most important ingredients. It touches everything on your plate, coalesces every separate piece of food, and adds its distinct flavor to the meal. No better description could be given to Hibbert and West, the defensive wall that makes the Pacers’ engine run. Roy Hibbert has (deservedly) received most of the recognition this season and currently is the slam dunk choice for DPOY. But quietly, David West has improved his defense as well. He’s upped his blocks per game to the highest of his career, even though he’s only playing 29 minutes a night. Together, West and Hibbert have more blocks than all but eight teams in the entire league (and if you throw in Ian Mahimni, the threesome would stand in fifth place). Offensively, West and Hibbert complement each other perfectly, throwing a devastating high/low post combination at every team they face. Perhaps most importantly, the rest of the team seems to get its entire identity from the Pacers’ big men. Hibbert and West are the very flavor of this Pacers’ squad. Gravy is sometimes under appreciated, but as soon as it’s gone, people notice.
Stuffing: George Hill
The plain truth is that stuffing isn’t for everyone. At nearly every Thanksgiving Meal I’ve ever attended, half of the table dismisses the stuffing as an afterthought, perhaps even postulating whether it’s even a necessary staple to the meal; meanwhile, the other half voraciously devours it, defending it at every turn. Regardless, stuffing is essential to Thanksgiving Dinner, whether you choose to enjoy or decline it. George Hill may not be a true point guard in the traditional sense, but the Pacers don’t really need a ball-dominant point guard because the offense thrives on ball movement from everyone. Like the Heat, the Pacers play better when they change the point of attack on each offensive possession. Sometimes Hill gets them into their offense, while other times, Paul George and Lance Stephenson run the show. Each player is an above average passer for his position and as a unit, the Pacers benefit far more from Hill’s versatility and shooting than they would if they had, say, Travis Best out there pounding the rock for 15 seconds on every possession. As you eat today, lay off the stuffing – even if you prefer not to eat it. It’s essential to the meal, just like George Hill is to the Pacers.
The Rolls: The New and Improved Bench Mob
Can you enjoy Thanksgiving Dinner without stuffing your face with three or four rolls? Maybe. Is that a world I want to live in? Absolutely not. The rolls by themselves don’t make a complete meal, but mixing your rolls with turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, and everything else is nearly as essential as the actual turkey itself. We no longer need to bemoan last year’s atrocious second unit when discussing this year’s version, because the fact is that this year’s bench isn’t just good in relation to last year, it’s good, period. Mahimni and Scola couldn’t possibly be a better “Poor Man’s Hibbert and West” if you were trying to create them in a lab. CJ Watson is running the second unit expertly, and has even filled in admirably at times for George Hill as part of the starting unit. Orlando Johnson and Solomon Hill have provided grit, toughness, and energy. Some day, Chris Copeland should be able to join in as well.
And when Danny Granger comes back? Now those rolls have butter…and the rest of the league should watch out.
The Turkey: The Five
You may have thought that Paul George would be the main attraction of this meal, or maybe even Roy Hibbert because of his unbelievable defense; but the fact is this – the Pacers’ real superstar is its entire starting lineup. As Tim Donahue highlighted here, while the improvement in Paul George has been the most discussed early-season development, the Pacers’ dominance this year can be directly attributed to its starting lineup as a whole. You can’t have a Thanksgiving Meal without turkey, and the Pacers would simply not be the same without even one member of its starting lineup. There is no better unit defensively in the league and its not close. The Five can’t be touched – just like a good Thanksgiving Turkey.
Mashed Potatoes: Paul George
You thought I forgot about the Pacers’ MVP candidate? Think again. Mashed potatoes are my own personal favorite Thanksgiving course. My plate is often 60% mashed potatoes and 40% everything else. Every year, the potatoes seem to change a little bit. One year they are thicker, the next year they have garlic and parmesan in them, and still the next, they are delightfully simple with the perfect amount of gravy. Similarly, Paul George has added something to his game every single season and has turned himself into the second best two-way player in the entire league. The Pacers Five is its Superstar, but Paul George is its brightest light, and the league’s best individual hope at matching LeBron for an entire series.
Of course I could go further, discussing how Rasual Butler is our cranberry sauce, Donald Sloan is our green bean casserole, and Larry Legend is our pumpkin pie.
Feel free to let your imagination run its course today as you enjoy your time with friends and family. Just remember to count this year’s Pacer team as one of your blessings this year.