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Where Do The Pacers Go From Here?
Posted By Joel Brigham On May 29, 2012 @ 12:00 pm In All,NBA | No Comments
There is no light in which to hold up this past Indiana Pacers season where it doesn’t look like a resounding success. After making it back to the postseason in 2011 for the first time in five years, the expectation this year was for the team to further develop its young talent, add a few veteran pieces to compete a little more realistically in the playoffs, and preserve the long-term cap space team president Larry Bird and GM David Morway worked so hard to create.
Those expectations don’t sound like much, particularly compared to how dramatically this team exceeded them, but the bottom line for 2011-2012 was some kind of improvement. The players needed to get better. The team needed to advance further in the postseason. The new coaching staff needed to get a full season under its belt.
What we got was Roy Hibbert, NBA All-Star—the first Indiana player to be voted to the team since Danny Granger in 2009—as well as a breakout season for Paul George, a reasonably successful comeback season for David West, and the usual scrappy contributions from George Hill, Tyler Hansbrough, and Darren Collison. Even Granger himself found new depth to his game, overcoming a wretched start to the season while learning to rely more on teammates offensively and still managing to lead the team in scoring.
Coach Frank Vogel established himself as one of the better young coaches in the league, Larry Bird was voted the Executive of the Year, and the fans in Indianapolis were able to bury their disappointment in the NFL’s Colts by escaping to Banker’s Life Fieldhouse for really good, really competitive sports in a town that loves its sports teams.
The season was an undeniable success, yet the Pacers fell short of the Conference Finals anyway. That means there’s still work to do, and this is a team and a front office that has proven it’s willing to do it.
Front Office & Coaching
Normally, when a guy comes off winning the Executive of the Year award, it’s basically a sure thing that he’ll back the next season to continue managing the team in the same fashion that won him the award in the first place. This isn’t necessarily true for Larry Bird, the president of basketball operations for the Pacers, who some speculate could retire from his post sometime in the coming weeks.
This obviously isn’t something Pacers fans want to see happen for the most beloved basketball player in the history of the state of Indiana, but sources continue to insist this Bird really could walk away.
If that seems counter-intuitive, then some further explanation about Bird’s role with the team is probably necessary. For starters, this isn’t a man doing a job for the money. Bird is fine financially, and he maintains his current post with the team because he really enjoys the work he does. Owner Herb Simon has basically given an open-ended verbal commitment to Bird, letting him know that the position is his for as long as he wants it, but reportedly Bird is interested in spending more time with his family, and his body doesn’t handle nonstop traveling as well as it used to.
For now, we’ll assume he’s coming back until we hear otherwise, but if he does step away the question of who fills his shoes is a pretty overwhelming one. Team GM David Morway has helped play a major part in Bird’s plan of clearing the organization of bad contracts and drafting talented kids with pretty undesirable draft picks, but Morway interviewed for the Portland GM job earlier this month and that’s a position that still has yet to be filled. Kevin Pritchard, the Director of Player Personnel for the Pacers, also has plenty of experience running an NBA team, but rumors are surfacing now that he’s up for the open Orlando Magic GM position.
There’s a strong possibility that all three could stay, and there’s also the possibility that all three could leave. Everything hinges on what Bird decides, and like they do every year, the Pacers fandom waits with baited breath for him to make his decision.
The good news is that head coach Frank Vogel isn’t going anywhere. He’s still got two years left on his contract with the team, and based on the success he’s had with this group since taking over for Jim O’Brien towards the end of the 2010-2011 season, two years may not be enough to keep Indiana comfortable. He truly looks like one of the better young coaches in the league, and he still hasn’t ever had the opportunity to run an entire summer training camp and coach for a full 82-game season. Count him among the things going well for Indiana, and his status, at least, is about as far from uncertain as you can get.
The Roster & Free Agency
A year ago, the Pacers were given a lot of credit for a spirited, physical (and ultimately unsuccessful), first round series against the Chicago Bulls, but the knock on them heading into last offseason was that they were too young and too inexperienced to really be much more than an early-exit Eastern Conference playoff team.
That changed when they traded their top-15 pick (Kawhi Leonard) for the more experienced George Hill and signed veteran power forward David West outright in free agency. By adding those two players before the season, and by trading for Leandro Barbosa at the trade deadline, Indiana gave themselves three players that have gone to war in some tough Western Conference playoff battles, and that experience clearly rubbed off on the rest of a Pacers team eager to make a leap this year.
Despite those veteran additions, Indiana still has one of the lower payrolls in the entire league because the majority of their rotation has been playing on rookie deals this season. That will change next year, however, as both Hibbert and Hill will be eligible for extensions this offseason. That means the $21.7 million or so in cap space the team is expected to have this summer is something of an illusion. If the Pacers intend to keep those two players—and they should—that space is going to disappear quickly.
There also will be the issue of dealing with Barbosa, who was an excellent midseason acquisition but who will enter unrestricted free agency in July. It’s not likely he’ll command anywhere near the $7.6 million he earned this year, but he won’t necessarily be cheap, either. Indiana needs the backcourt depth Barbosa provides, but the kind of offer he gets has to be a smart one, because it’s not just Hibbert and Hill Indiana needs to worry about.
In another twelve months, the Pacers will be looking at possible extensions for Collison and Hansbrough, and two years from now they’ll have to consider an extension for Paul George, as well. They’ve got only $18.3 million on the books for 2013-2014, and $0 committed for the year after that, but if they give these players the sorts of contracts they probably deserve (or will deserve by the time negotiations roll around), we can expect a good chunk of that space to go away.
Hibbert is the biggest question mark there for a couple of reasons. You can bet that Indy doesn’t want to give its starting center a max contract, mostly because his performance hasn’t quite warranted it, however there are teams out there hungry for size, and it’s completely possible he gets offered a max offer sheet from somebody. As is always true, size is a premium in the NBA.
Bird, Morway, and the rest of the Pacers’ front office is going to be very protective of their cap space, however, and they’ll do everything they can to exchange a longer deal at slightly-below max dollars to keep Hibbert in Indiana. But they may have to bite a bullet here and pay him more than he’s worth. Franchise centers are hard to come by.
Hill, Hansbrough, and Collison won’t command contracts anywhere near as high, and we don’t know how good George will be in two years, but being smart about their cap space is a high priority for the Pacers—almost as high as the need for keeping this promising young core together. The next couple years’ worth of free agency transactions will have everything to do with balancing those two things as delicately as possible.
As for this offseason, don’t expect the Pacers to make too many changes. Outside of dealing with Barbosa (or some other comparable shooting guard—perhaps Jamal Crawford?) and adding a few smaller-ticket pieces, the only other “major” addition we can expect this offseason is the team’s first round draft pick, the 26th overall.
We’ve been taught several times not to expect big-time talent that late in the draft, but the Pacers do have a few options at 26 that could end up playing reasonable minutes in the rotation next season.
Syracuse center Fab Melo is one player projected to fall right into that 25-30 range, and he’s certainly talented enough (and big enough) to earn some minutes as a rookie. That little bit of uncertainty surrounding Hibbert’s future with the team could certainly warrant taking a stab at another 7-footer in Melo, despite some of the character issues he may have presented in the past.
Other possibilities at 26 include big guys like Royce White and Andrew Nicholson, or swingmen like Doron Lamb, Dion Waiters, or Evan Fournier. Because Indy is so deep, they can afford to take a best-player-available approach with this draft, and Bird almost always takes surprising players with picks people don’t expect much out of. Hopefully he’ll be able to do the same with a later pick than usual this June.
The short answer to this offseason is that the Pacers are in pretty good shape. The Chicago Bulls could be without Derrick Rose for the entire 2012-2013 season, which means the Central Division is pretty much Indy’s for the taking. Outside of Miami, is there a better Eastern Conference team more primed for a trip to next year’s NBA Finals?
That being what it is, this isn’t a team that needs a whole lot of change, so change isn’t something we should expect too much of. Other than just getting better individually and as a team, keeping Bird in charge and re-signing Hibbert are the top priorities this summer, and both of those are reasonably attainable.
The rest, as it was last year, is about building experience. The Pacers got one round deeper into the postseason this season, and they’ll hope to advance further next season. It’s not an unreasonable hope in the slightest.
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