Team Dreams: Lifes Rich Paul George

The most obvious angle into the 2016–17 Indiana Pacers is an R.E.M. album

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The summer of 2016 was marked by two major things: the transformation of the roster of the Indiana Pacers and the 30th anniversary of R.E.M.’s Lifes Rich Pageant, an album recorded at John Cougar Mellencamp’s Belmont Mall Studio in Belmont, Indiana. What better way to celebrate both events than to analyze the roster of the 2016–2017 Pacers through the lens of R.E.M.?

Starting Five

Point Guard, Jeff Teague — “Lightnin’ Hopkins”
The Pike High School product replaces fellow Indy-native George Hill at the point guard position. Teague joined the Pacers as part of a three-team trade that sent the Jazz’s draft pick to the Hawks, Teague to Indiana, and George Hill to Utah. All a part of super villain Quin Snyder’s attempt to recreate the Frank Vogel-era Pacers. He already has a small forward drafted in the top 10 of the 2010 draft and rim-protecting center with a name ending in -bert.
This R.E.M. song seems an odd fit at first glance but there is perfect internal logic (not to mention that The Shocker, like the pope, is infallible). Teague is wearing #44 with the Pacers, a number both he and his older brother wore in high school. #44 was also worn by small forward Solomon Hill, now playing for the New Orleans Pelicans. The newly-fledged Pelican shares a name with a bluesman: King Solomon Hill. Joe Holmes has been identified as the real King Solomon Hill, though others like Big Joe Williams claimed to be him. King Solomon Hill knew Blind Lemon Jefferson. It was Blind Lemon Jefferson who awakened an interest in the blues in a young Lightnin’ Hopkins when Hopkins made his acquaintance at a church picnic in Buffalo, Texas.

New Orleans is of course steeped in decades of tradition in blues and jazz music and it was in Louisiana that King Solomon Hill passed away in 1949. Hopefully the same does not happen to the former Pacer, whose feasibility as a rotation-level NBA player was speculated upon prior to him catching fire from three-point range near the end of the regular season and in the Pacers’ first-round series against The Drakes, a fact that netted him a good-sized contract in year one of the cap explosion.

Indiana has its own ties to jazz and the blues. Indianapolis was a stop on the chitlin circuit, guitarist Wes Montgomery was an Indy native and bluesmen Scrapper Blackwell and Leroy Carr forged a partnership in Indianapolis. And it was in Richmond, IN that some of the earliest recordings by artists like Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, and Hoagy Carmichael. The latter was a Hoosier and the tune for one of Carmichael’s most famous songs, “Star Dust,” came to him while he was on campus at Indiana University.

Document as an album is a point of contention among R.E.M. fans, some like critic Rob Sheffield hated it and even blamed it for the dissolution of a relationship. “But things started to wobble around the time R.E.M. put out a truly wretched album called Document, the one that made her reconsider whether she could continue to worship Michael Stipe. I blamed R.E.M. for not saving us by making a better record. That, I realize now, was unfair.”

So I forgive Solomon Hill his faults during his time as a Pacer and I can even find it in my heart to forgive him for this tweet following Game 7 of the Pacers/Hawks 1st round playoff series in 2014.

Shooting Guard, Monta Ellis — “Monty Got A Raw Deal”

Going into this NBA season, there were three things I was absolutely positive about:

1. Live by the Monta, die by the Monta. 
2. “Nobody gives a rat’s nipple about me.” 
3. Monta Ellis no longer had it all.

It’s clear that a combination of age and injuries have dimmed the shine of Mr. Have-It-All, who is no longer the whirling dervish that relentlessly attacked the rim and transformed the Dallas Mavericks’ offense into a thing of beauty. Naturally being coached by Rick Carlisle, a man who can get positive minutes out of a spent case of Zima, and playing with Dirk Nowitzki, probably helped him out a lot.

But last season with the Indiana Pacers was not great for Monta. He had a tendency to settle for mid-range jumpers, aka the preferred shot of noted basketball genius, Byron Scott. It’s the sort of shot Frank Vogel’s defense was designed to force: chase opponents off the three point line, corral them toward the big man waiting at the rim and force them to take middling little jumpers.

Vogel is gone, the Hick from French Lick decided one Bird was enough in Bankers Life. But now is an opportunity for Monta Ellis to show he has a little bit more left in the tank, perhaps a new head coach and a new offensive philosophy that will likely not lead to Ellis three-point attempts at the end of the shot clock will help him out. Apart from taking shots that make me grimace and peer through laced fingers to numb the horror, Monta seems like a nice guy. His delusional comparison of himself to Dwyane Wade has given him a permanent place in my affections.

All reasons why “Monty Got A Raw Deal” is the perfect R.E.M. song for him and not just because I tried to make the pun happen on Twitter every time there was a bad call against him last year. “Monty Got A Raw Deal” comes from an album dealing in themes of mortality and change. Guitarist Peter Buck said it came from the feeling of turning 30. In David Buckley’s 2002 biography of the band Buck describes the mindset of the group going into making the record. “The world that we’d been involved in had disappeared, the world of Hüsker Dü and The Replacements, all that had gone […] We were just in a different place and that worked its way out musically and lyrically.”

Monta Ellis will turn 31 on October 26, which will put him on the wrong side of 30 as far as the NBA is concerned—it is the right side of thirty for the timeless endeavor of dying, of course. It’s possible to find continued success as the years and miles pile on, but it takes the right skillset. And for Ellis, that may not be possible.

Ellis is viewed as expendable and with a tendency to wear out his welcome. And like actor Montgomery Clift, who the song is about, he too got a raw deal.

Small Forward, Paul George — “All The Way To Reno (You’re Gonna Be A Star)”

If you’re anything like the protoypical Indiana Pacers fan, you’re probably a white person and there is pretty much nothing more white people like than The Beatles. Which for a certain portion of the fanbase led them to connecting the dots between the Liverpudlian foursome and the Pacers All-Star small forward.

The author is one such sap who owns said shirt.

One man to make that comparison is Matt Asen, the Pacer guy also known as the Flamingo Guy. Asen is a restaurateur in Florida who at one point worked as a fishmonger.

Paul George loves fishing and it was a fishing trip with George Hill and Roy Hibbert in the middle of the team’s playoff meltdown that gave the Pacers a temporary stay of execution.

Not to speculate (though I’ll go ahead and do it anyway) but it’s probably not likely that Paul George is a massive Beatles fan.

But he’s probably not as hostile to them as Michael Stipe was circa the 90s.

“I’ve always referred to the Beatles as elevator music because that’s exactly what they were. I’ve never sat down and listened to a Beatles record from beginning to end. Those guys didn’t mean a fucking thing to me.”

“All The Way To Reno (You’re Gonna Be A Star)” is from R.E.M.’s 2001 album, Reveal. It’s one of their more challenging albums with several underrated tracks, including this one. This is the polite way of saying it kind of sucks, but “All The Way To Reno” and “Imitation Of Life” are both pretty decent songs. And “Beachball” even does a good job capturing a Beach Boys type of vibe.

“All The Way To Reno” is an underrated cut and the choice of it as the Paul George song is a little cruel on my part. Reno is located in Nevada and as far as gambling in the desert goes, functions as a little brother to Las Vegas. That city of course is where Paul George broke his leg in that meaningless scrimmage with Team USA, which altered the course of the Pacers franchise and threatened a promising career. Paul George came back to us on Easter Sunday (not the first time something Beatle related got tangled up with Jesus) and went to Rio and won a gold medal. Reno also sounds vaguely similar to Rio and I am vaguely prejudiced as well as lazy and hacky as a writer.

This season, the team is finally Paul’s with no Frank Vogel, George Hill, or Ian Mahinmi to act as security blankets. He’s a potential dark horse MVP candidate and could have a great season, provided things fall the right way. The taste of gold in Rio has him desiring a whole lot more.

Power Forward, Thad Young — “These Days”

Finally, a song that’s actually from Lifes Rich Pageant, but like all preceding entries, the connection is tenuous at best! There’s a line in the second verse that goes “We are young despite the years” which seems an apt description for a nine-year veteran whose name becomes more inaccurate a descriptor as he gets older. Young still has a little bit in the tank and being a member of a team with with realistic playoff ambitions is a nice change of pace from the duo of sad-sacks that are the Brooklyn Nets and the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Though born in New Orleans, Young considers himself a Memphisonian. He has a connection to both the Pacers and R.E.M. For example, Booker T. Jones of Booker T. & The MGs has a music degree from Indiana University, something he earned during the 60s. He’d drive up to Bloomington for classes and then back down to Memphis on the weekend to record. He was the commencement speaker for the class of 2012. R.E.M. recorded “Bittersweet Me” for their album New Adventures in Hi-Fi at Pyramid Arena in Memphis. It’s the arena that was home to the Memphis Grizzlies until they left for the FedEx Forum in 2004. Another R.E.M./Memphis connection is Ardent Studios, home of beloved cult band, Big Star. That certainly factored in to the group’s decision to record the basic tracks for their 1989 album, Green, at the studio. R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills is a huge fan of Big Star and wrote the liner notes to reissues of #1 Record and Radio City. Mills befriended Big Star drummer Jody Stephens while recording at the studio and plays regularly in an all-star band that plays all of Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers

The Pacers are his fourth team in four seasons so the stability should do Young a lot of good. As far as “These Days,” it’s a solid song on Lifes Rich Pageant, but not one that really stands out in comparison to the rest of the album. It fits Young. He’s a productive frontcourt player worth having on a roster in the right situation. You wouldn’t necessarily break the bank to sign him, but he’s a very welcome addition.

Center, Myles Turner — “Wall Of Death”

This is a cheat as it’s a Richard & Linda Thompson cover, but it fits for Myles Turner, who was born the year it came out: 1996. “Wall Of Death” comes from the E-Bow The Letter EP. “E-Bow The Letter” is also a track found on R.E.M.’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi. It was an album that came out of a tumultuous period in the group’s history. Drummer Bill Berry collapsed onstage at a show in Switzerland in March 1995 due to a ruptured brain aneurysm and left the group two years later to pursue other things. “Wall Of Death” was recorded for a 1994 Richard Thompson tribute album and was repurposed for the EP.

Myles Turner came to the Paces purely by accident, in multiple senses. Foremost was Paul George breaking his leg on August 1, 2014 at the Team USA scrimmage. That led to a completely different outlook for a franchise that had just made back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals. The 2014–2015 season was a miserable, injury-riddled slog and despite all that, the Pacers were one win shy of making the playoffs as an 8th seed. They were bad enough to be a lottery team, slotting in at the 11th spot. They drafted Myles Turner who turned out to be a revelation in his rookie season, particularly when he was inserted in the starting lineup and especially in the playoffs when he put up great numbers against the Raptors. He slipped so low in the draft because of a mediocre one-and-done season with Texas as well as questions about his gait and running style. Upperclassmen got more playing time and the system didn’t make ideal use of Turner’s abilities as a player.

And like the album that came out the year he was born, the esteem for Turner has only grown. He turned heads during scrimmages this summer with Team USA. Some members of the press even suggested that Turner should have been playing for the Varsity squad over the Select Team. And fellow players sang his praises to Paul George. Turner marks a point of transition for the league, he has the attributes of the classic big man such as shot-blocking, with the features valued by a league enraptured with small ball, like his increasing comfort with shooting from range.

If Turner has a big year and makes the leap, he could be a huge part of making the Pacers contenders and more importantly convincing Paul George to stay when his contract is up in 2018.

Certainly doesn’t hurt that Turner is willing to laugh about himself a little.

Bench

Center, Al Jefferson — “Sad Professor”

Albus Jefferson is nicknamed Professor Jefferson for his skill in the low post and also probably because he shares a name with a deceased Hogwarts professor and folks our age will never pass up an opportunity to make a Harry Potter reference, am I right.

Jefferson had a rough year in Charlotte and battled injuries throughout the season, but if he can be healthy he should offer a great low-post option for the Pacers’ second unit, not to mention he can school Myles Turner in the ways of postology.

“Sad Professor” comes from a phase in R.E.M.’s career where they were considered washed-up, out-dated dinosaurs. It was the band’s first album without Bill Berry and they attempted to forge ahead on a new path. It got mixed reviews, though there are few memorable songs, such as the Pet Sounds pastiche “At My Most Beautiful” and “Sad Professor.”

Al Jefferson is at a stage in his career where traditional big men have been written off. This season provides him an opportunity to remind the rest of the league of what he can do in the low block, as well as a chance to teach the next generation of ball players.

Forward/Guard, C.J. Miles — “I Am Superman”

This is a cover of a song originally performed by The Clique, a Texas band. C.J. Miles is from Dallas, Texas and this offseason, he spent some time working with Bob King, a strength and conditioning coach based in Dallas who has worked with athletes for four decades. King’s training approach is fairly grueling and designed to help athletes better stand up to the punishment and grind of the sport. C.J. Miles took a beating last season after he stepped up to play stretch 4. He was effective early on and shot well from beyond the arc, but getting matched up against bruisers like Zach Randolph and the like took its toll on Miles and a series of injuries made him less effective for much of the season.

The goal of King’s training was to leave Miles with a physique resembling an NFL defensive back, just the right combination of speed, alacrity, and resilience to the physical demands of playing stretch 4.

Which is why “I Am Superman” is the perfect match for C.J. Miles. If Miles can stay healthy and shoots well and consistently, he could play an important role in the success of the Pacers in the regular season and beyond.

Forward/Center, Kevin Séraphin— “Burning Down”

Seraphin is the plural of seraph in Latin, it’s a name meaning “burning one” and is the highest rank in the hierarchy of Christian angels. “Burning Down” is a B-Side to the “Wendell Gee” single from Fables Of The Reconstruction. It’s an underrated and jangly tune that most people made the acquaintance of on Dead Letter Office, R.E.M.’s 1987 collection of B-sides, rarities, and outtakes.

Kevin Séraphin had a rough 2015–16 season with the Knicks, but Larry Bird hopes he can find his way with the new look Pacers. Séraphin actually shares a birthday with Larry Bird, albeit years apart. Séraphin showed flashes as a rim protector in his time with the Wizards, but his confidence eroded with lack of playing time, and injuries and poor conditioning led to a down year with the Knicks. Séraphin was a low-risk, high-reward signing and if he can find his form again, it’s a relationship that will benefit both him and the Pacers.

Guard, Rodney Stuckey— “Indian Summer”

“Indian Summer” is a Beat Happening cover. Beat Happening is an indie pop group from Olympia, Washington. The same state Rodney Stuckey was born in and attended college in. “Indian Summer” was the B-side to R.E.M.’s “Hollow Man” single, released in June of 2008, just days after Stuckey’s rookie season with the Detroit Pistons ended in a 4–2 loss in the Eastern Conference Finals to the eventual NBA champion Boston Celtics. Stuckey came off the bench and scored 13 points in game 2 in Boston and caught the attention of Paul Pierce, who said “I thought Stuckey really gave us problems, I think he was the X factor in the game.”

Stuckey played for the Pistons from 2007–2014 and signed with the Pacers that offseason amid rumors that he was a bad locker room presence. In his time with the Pacers, when healthy, he’s provided a decent scoring punch off the bench. The only downside is that with the signing of Monta Ellis in the summer of 2015, there are now two players with virtually the same skillset. But Stuckey can surprise you on some nights, just as R.E.M. occasionally surprised late in their career, like with this great Beat Happening cover.

Guard, Joe Young— “King Of Birds”

Joe Young was regarded by some pundits as a steal when the Pacers drafted him in the second round, particularly after his performance in the 2015 Orlando Summer League. Young had the talent of a first round pick, but fell to the second round likely due to an ankle injury that precluded him from working out for more NBA teams.

Young can score, but there are still questions about his ability to defend at a high level. Young won the Pac-12 Conference Player of the Year while playing for the Oregon Ducks. And in a strange bit of coincidence, he is a distant cousin of Paul George, a fact that wasn’t known until after Young was drafted by the Pacers. “King Of Birds” gets the nod for his song, for Young’s time as an Oregon Duck and for his scoring ability. The latter of which could come in quite handy for the Pacers this season as they attempt to play faster and score more points.

Guard/Forward, Glenn Robinson III— “Little America”

The son of Glenn Robinson, Jr., the first overall pick in the 1994 NBA draft, some people call him Little Dog in reference to his father’s nickname of Big Dog. Which is why he gets “Little America” as his R.E.M. connection. He’s shown flashes of potential in his time in the league. Larry Bird seems high on what he could do and promising play in this year’s Summer League makes Robinson a bench guy to watch this season.

Forward, Rakeem Christmas— “Orange Crush”

An obvious connection, Christmas played for the Syracuse Orange in college. He’s gotten plenty of playing time with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants and done well there, but has only played in one NBA game so far. He remains an interesting prospect, but his value as a rotation level player is still very much up in the air.

Forward/Center, Lavoy Allen — “Pop Song 89”

Lavoy Allen joined the Pacers as part of the Danny Granger/Evan Turner trade as a way to make the salaries work out. Evan Turner didn’t work out and was gone from the Pacers after the season. Allen was an afterthought but has turned out to be a solid addition to the team, providing big man depth and rebounding. He’s a good locker room guy with a nice sense of humor and fan-friendly personality. Everyone at The Shocker is completely obsessed with him. We can’t talk about it yet.

He gets “Pop Song 89” because he was born that year. It’s not one of R.E.M.’s greatest songs, but it doesn’t grate like “Shiny Happy People” and it’s hard to hate if it’s on in the background.

Forward, Georges Niang— “White Tornado”

Georges Niang has been compared favorably to Boris Diaw for his playmaking abilities at the forward position and basketball IQ. He was a second round pick for the Pacers in the 2016 draft after playing four years for the Iowa State Cyclones. He impressed Larry Bird with his play at the Orlando Summer League. As a second round pick, it’ll take him some time to adjust to playing at the NBA level, but his ability to shoot threes and make plays could make him a valuable addition to the Indiana Pacers.

“White Tornado” is the obvious R.E.M. connection due to the name of Niang’s college team. It’s a name that dates back to 1895, a year when an unusually large number of tornadoes struck Iowa and at the time, it was what tornadoes were called.

Guard, Aaron Brooks— “Find The River”

Signing Aaron Brooks indicated that Joe Young might not be ready for the role of backup point guard quite yet. Brooks is a veteran and a stopgap measure, hopefully allowing Young to develop more without added pressure. “Find The River” is the song that Automatic For The People ends on. Brooks will bolster the second unit, add shooting, and provides insurance until either Joe Young is ready to play backup or a long term replacement can be found.

Forward, Jeremy Evans — “Nightswimming”

Jeremy Evans was part of deal to help the Mavericks get cap space. They traded Evans, cash, and the draft rights to Emir Preldžić in exchange for the draft rights to Stanko Barać. Go ahead and prove whether I made those names up.

The most notable occurrence in the NBA career of Jeremy Evans was winning the 2012 Slam Dunk contest. It’s possible Evans will be waived after training camp as the Pacers roster currently has 16 players with guaranteed contracts.

“Nightswimming” is the choice here, because like the members of R.E.M., Evans is a southerner. The song deals with a group of friends who were skinny dipping; it was inspired by real occurrences and events in the lives of the band members. And like Jeremy Evans, those swims likely involved a dunk or two.

Thanks guys.

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