They Can't All Be Winners, Part 6: Indiana Pacers

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To say the Pacers might be getting fun again is a stretch. Even when they were a revelation, before sudden, curious dysfunction felled them, they were still a team anchored by Roy Hibbert, a man whose primary skill was jumping perfectly vertically while holding his arms high, and they were still coached by Frank Vogel, who spends his summers managing a Jewel-Osco with a military zeal. (Lotta bag boy turnover in those summer months. Lotta bizarrely emotional speeches about cold cut thickness.) The Pacers were sort of unpleasant even when they were enjoyable. Then they bickered themselves to death, Paul George’s leg snapped like a celery stalk in the offseason, and they became the league’s least watchable team in 2015. That they refused to be outright awful by dint of coaching competence and effortfulness felt like the hostile flourish of an artist who hates his audience. At least the post-Mike Malone Kings were kind enough to be pathos-tastic.

Things have gotten better, though. Hibbert has gone to Los Angeles to fulfill his lifelong dream of being compared favorably to Shaq in a preseason Lakers broadcast before going on to average a regular season 11-and-7 so unremarkable Staples-goers are preemptively forgetting it will ever have happened. Vogel—fortunately, because he’s a good coach, and unfortunately because, again, that face has definitely been hemorrhoid-red and two inches from a teenaged cashier’s nose on many occasions—is heading into his fifth full season as head coach. He’ll take their fun quotient down a few pegs, teach it a lesson it’ll never forget about personal responsibility and man defense with zone principles.

But Vogel hasn’t yet figured out how to wire a dimmer switch to the sun, so he won’t be able to keep Paul George and Monta Ellis from playing joyfully. Before his gruesome injury, George was this magnificent great blue heron of a wing, not quite fully refined, but more entertaining for it, because he would occasionally survey the floor, and, like a ten-year-old inventing his own sport out of boredom, sail turbulently toward the rim or break off his drive with the kind of showy, in-the-face-of-the-defender midrange jumper that only stars are allowed to shoot anymore. And Monta’s illustrious track record of car alarm-tripping freelance work is thoroughly established. He’s the best to ever do it, because if you say you are and you play like you believe it, it’s true.

I read Paul Beatty’s first novel, The White Boy Shuffle, last week. Gulped it down like half a remaining pint as your friends are going for the bar’s door. I’m not sure it’s a great book while also being completely positive that it is. Whether it works as a satire about black identity and self-loathing is something I’ll think on when I reread it, but on the first run-through, I lost track of the book’s broader architecture because I was enthralled with the simple and satisfying activity of Pac-Manning Beatty’s words into my mind’s belly. So many great metaphors! So many funny jokes! Dude puts a stunner like “we splashed in the postcard blue of the ocean and stuck out our Slurpee blue tongues at the girls two towels over. Eileen’s light-saber blue eyes cut through me like lighthouse beacons lancing the midnight” a few paragraphs away from an ignorant preteen gag like “black was being a nigger who didn’t know any other niggers. The only black folks whose names I knew were musicians and athletes: Jimi Hendrix, Slash from Guns n’ Roses, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the Beastie Boys, and Melody the drummer from Josie and the Pussycats.” There’s temerity on every page; there’s panache.

And if a book has that, it’s great, whether it works on every level or not. The same is true of an athlete. Even at his lowest ebb—that Milwaukee interregnum was tough on the eyes—Monta Ellis has been a brave, exciting, occasionally erratic bass drop of a player. Even if his body of work doesn’t hold together—it doesn’t; he’s got way too many conscienceless jumpers and lazily blown defensive assignments on his CV—from moment to moment, his career has been thrilling in the sense that his every harebrained drive is an argument that starts and ends simultaneously. I am great, he insists, more as a matter of fact than a topic for discussion. The why? of it all is up to you to figure out; Monta doesn’t feel an obligation to explain himself. I think it’s because his on-court charisma is such that, even when he’s foundering, you must surrender to him. The pyrotechnics are so dazzling—there is such pure pleasure to be had in watching him do the things he’s good at—that to condemn him is to make far too much out of peccadilloes.

Paul George lacks Monta’s crushed-out-heavenly delusion, because miracles can’t be xeroxed, but he has starry-eyed endeavor in him, which we saw when the Pacers were at their collective peak, and that ambition has room to grow on a team that’s set to start Ian Mahinmi and Jordan Hill. Who else besides Monta is going to get this squad shots? Who’s going to take them? George has all the talent to assemble an absurdly entertaining season for a fine but ultimately doomed team. That’s Monta’s specialty. This is PeeGee’s chance to learn to be great, at the feet of the master.

Previously on TCABW: Charlotte Hornets Philadelphia 76ers Houston Rockets Los Angeles Lakers | Dallas Mavericks

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