It wasn't easy watching Chris Copeland ride the pine all season for the Pacers. After a few years playing abroad and briefly in the D-League, Cope landed with the Knicks partway through the 2012-2013 season and charmed the New York faithful. A shooter of Novakian abilities with much more skill, athleticism and toughness than Steve, Copeland flourished in New York's three-point heavy offense.
When Indy picked him up this summer, I tipped my hat to the Basketball Jesus -- yet another shrewd move in a career of them as an executive. Bird had just watched Cope torch the Pacers in the playoffs and I like to think that Larry Legend picked him up because he saw a bit of himself -- an infinitesimal speck of his game and grit -- in the 6'8", deadeye shooter.
After the Pacers traded for Luis Scola in the offseason (in hindsight, not Bird's best move), Vogel demoted Copeland to head cheerleader. In mid-February, with a 40-11 mark, no one could question Vogel's decision to keep this offensively-gifted, but ultimately limited player at the end of the bench. We figured the Pacers must be so talented and deep that they couldn't spare any minutes for a guy who averaged almost nine points in only 15 minutes a game for the Knicks last season, started 13 games and shot 42% from downtown. A guy who in two late season games when he actually got some run scored 18.5 points per contest -- including this game winner -- and made nine of his 16 threes. But with the Pacers comfortably in first place earlier this year, it seemed Vogel had the machine finely tuned with each part in it's right place. How could anyone second guess him?
Then came the precipitous fall and with every loss, quote, TMZ tabloid, trade and personnel move, the avalanche gained momentum and the team kept toppling uncontrollably -- right into tonight's game 6 against the Hawks, their season on the line against an eighth seed.
I predicted that the Hawks would upset the Pacers in the first round in seven games. But even back two months ago, when the Pacers started their decline, I told my friend Scotty that Indy -- plagued by an inability to score -- needed to play Copeland (Don't believe me? Just ask him).
Finally, in the second half of game 5, after taking a barrage of three-pointers straight to the chin, Vogel roused from his punch-drunk stupor and put Cope in. And what happened next? ...Copeland missed his first five shots. But then what happened? He went two-of-two from downtown, improved the Pacer's spacing because his defender had to respect his outside shot and the Pacers went on a 30-11 run that cut an insurmountable 30 point lead to nine with about four minutes left in the game -- the closest the Pacers would get to a comeback.
With Copeland on the court, the Pacers were plus-17 . I don't often value the traditional plus/minus stat, but in this instance the numbers illustrate Copeland's value. Cope is a true stretch-four in an NBA that now favors a player's quickness and shooting-ability over their size -- especially at the power forward position. When he plays with shooters around him and with David West anchoring the defense, the Pacers morph into a better version of the spread-em-out team that's killing them on the other side of the ball.
Elite slashers like Paul George and Lance Stephenson need open driving lanes to get to the rim -- pathways that Hibbert clogs up with his lumbering and often ineffectual post game. George Hill, supposedly a deep-ball threat, has shot 27.8% from downtown during this series and has done basically nothing to space the floor. The Pacers need Copeland out there to draw a big man away from the basket and relieve the congestion in the middle of the floor, leaving PG and Lance more room to do what they do best -- attack the basket -- and providing David West with more one-on-one opportunities in the paint.
Copeland may be just as beneficial to the team on defense as he is on offense. Faster and more nimble than the lead-footed Hibbert, Cope is better able to close out on shooters like Pero Antic and Paul Millsap. And considering Roy Hibbert's well-documented scoring and rebounding woes, Vogel needs to look past Copeland's occasional defensive lapses as well as the offensive rebounds he may give up and simply let him play some extended minutes so he can get his rhythm back after sitting all season.
Copeland echoed this sentiment in game 5. After swishing his second three in a row, he yelled at Vogel, "I told you!" as he ran back on defense. He later told reporters that he wasn't yelling solely at his coach, but at the whole bench, reminding his entire team (as he often does) that he is a big-time shooter in this league.
Regardless of who he was speaking to specifically, Pacer die-hards hope that Vogel was listening to the big man (like New Yorkers before them, Indy fans love Copeland and often chant for him to get into the game).
The best coaches in the NBA are open-minded and flexible in their methods -- Greg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra come to mind. Last year, Vogel seemed poised to enter that class. He zigged when the rest of the league zagged and seemed avant-garde for sticking to traditional power forward and center lineups while other teams experimented with a positionless-style. And in so doing -- by following that old basketball adage, "You can't teach height" -- he had the Pacers on the doorstep of the NBA Finals.
But when the ship started sinking about midway through this season, Vogel could not or would not adapt and now he may be coaching for his job. Can a Vogel change his stripes? Now, with the season on the line, is he smart enough to see what Knicks fans have seen all along: the secret, long-range weapon at the end of the bench collecting dust?