Sources close to the situation told ESPN.com that Vogel, despite a 56-win season that secured the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, is "coaching for his job" in the wake of a prolonged slide that has stretched into its third month.
After Indiana's 101-85 triumph over Atlanta in Game 2 of the teams' first-round playoff series, sources told ESPN.com that coming back to win the series against the Hawks would not automatically ensure Vogel's safety. After a 40-11 start, the Pacers went just 16-15 the rest of the way before a humbling loss in the series opener to the eighth-seeded Hawks.
The decision on whether to retain Vogel at season's end ultimately rests with Pacers president Larry Bird, sources said, but frustration throughout the organization has been mounting thanks to a nose dive that began in February with a loss in Orlando just before the All-Star break and has shown few signs of abating.
Expectations were raised not only externally but also internally after in-season moves Bird made to acquire Evan Turner from Philadelphia and add Andrew Bynum for bench depth on top of last summer's additions of Luis Scola and C.J. Watson. All of Bird's moves, sources said, were made with the intent to get the team at least one step further and back to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2000, when Bird was the coach.
Lance Stephenson acknowledged Wednesday that he and Turner got into a practice "scuffle" last week before Game 1 against Atlanta but denied the two threw any punches.
Vogel and Indiana's players concurred with Stephenson's version of events, though the descriptions were different. Yahoo! Sports first reported that Turner had to be "dragged out of practice" last week after the argument and that fists were flying.
Turner denied that, saying simply that they got tangled up but that there was no fight. Vogel and All-Star center Roy Hibbert said every team has similar scrapes during practice but neither considered it a fight
But sources told ESPN.com it wasn't the first time in recent weeks that Stephenson has clashed with a teammate.
Sources said that Stephenson and guard George Hill had to be separated on the bench during a 26-point home loss to San Antonio on March 31. And when Roy Hibbert made his well-chronicled complaints to NBA.com in late March about "some selfish dudes in here," sources say he was essentially referring to Stephenson, who ranks as one of the league's most improved players this season as he approaches free agency in July and is well-known to be a Bird favorite.
Vogel and his staff coached the Eastern Conference All-Stars in February on the strength of Indiana's fantastic start, but questions about his job security began to bubble in coaching circles in March after Bird told The Indianapolis Star that he's been disappointed at times with the team's approach this season.
"A lot of times, we don't take the fight to [the opponent]," Bird told the newspaper. "A lot of times we sit back and wait and see how it goes. And that was the case even when we were winning a lot of games early in the season. We've got to be mentally prepared to really go after the teams we're playing against. We can't have the mindset it's just another game; it's a very important game. All of them are.
"I'm sort of going to Frank's side because he's had so much success by staying positive. We do have to stay the course. But I also think he's got to start going after guys when they're not doing what they're supposed to do. And stay on them, whether you've got to take them out of the game when they're not doing what they're supposed to do, or limit their minutes. I will say, he hasn't done that enough."
During the last week of the regular season, though, Bird told local ABC affiliate WRTV-6 that "I back Frank 100 percent."
Vogel received a two-year contract extension during the 2012-13 campaign that has him under contract through next season. Yet it should be noted that Vogel received the extension while Bird was away from the Pacers on a one-year sabbatical.
ESPN The Magazine's Chris Broussard reports that sources with knowledge of the Pacers' locker room dynamic have been insisting for months that Indiana would miss the presence of assistant coach Brian Shaw, who left the club last summer to become the Denver Nuggets' head man.
Broussard reports that, with Vogel known for being "completely positive" in his approach to dealing with players, Shaw often played the role of "bad cop" and helped keep the Pacers' potentially volatile locker room from imploding. Shaw's absence didn't appear to be an issue early this season, but some insiders think it has been felt during the Pacers' splintering over the past few months.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
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