By BEN SIECK | Managing Editor
The NBA offseason is upon us, and the Indiana Pacers are at a crossroads. They could once again make minor tweaks to their roster and hope the stars align for another run at the Finals, or shake things up and perhaps build a championship caliber team.
The Pacers’ last three seasons have ended at the hands of the Miami Heat. President of basketball operations Larry Bird and GM Kevin Pritchard should acknowledge the pattern and accept these Pacers aren’t coming out of the East with the Big Three in Miami.
Here’s a brief recap of Indiana’s recent attempts at reloading.
After taking the Heat to seven games in last year’s playoffs, the obvious solution was to upgrade a bench holding back the Pacers tremendous five-man unit of George Hill, Lance Stephenson, Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert. So, the Pacers let D.J. Augustin, Gerald Green, Tyler Hansbrough, and Miles Plumlee go, while bringing in Luis Scola, C.J. Watson, and Chris Copeland.
However, in a cruel twist of fate, the Pacers’ newcomers only slightly improved their secondary units’ plus/minus, while their castaways became immediate contributors elsewhere. Green finished fourth in most improved player voting, Plumlee became a legitimate starting center for the Phoenix Suns, and Augustin helped fill the void in Chicago left by Derrick Rose averaging 15 points and five assists per game.
With their offseason adjustments coming up short, Indiana began making midseason tweaks. The Pacers became the latest team to sign up for the Andrew Bynum experience, and shipped a banged-up Danny Granger for Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen. Bynum played just two games before his recurring knee injuries shut him down for the season. Allen was a complete nonfactor, and Turner looked as lost on the court as Maureen Dowd at a Schoolboy Q concert. He became almost unplayable by playoff time.
Granger may have looked washed up himself on the Clippers, but the Pacers stumbled to a 15-13 regular season record after the trade. Turner never seemed to mesh within the Pacers system, and Granger’s presence might’ve helped right the ship.
Once again, Indiana will go into the offseason with a need to shore up its bench. However, the disjointed play by the Pacers’ starters makes the starting lineup a point of emphasis as well.
Without a pick in the first round of this year’s draft, the Pacers will be forced to look at trade options and free agency as a way to improve. The Pacers front office has done well to get the franchise to this point, and I’m here to outline just how the Pacers can remodel a contender without missing a beat.
Lets start with Indiana’s upcoming free agents and whom they should re-sign.
Stephenson, Turner, Allen, Rasual Butler, Orlando Johnson and Donald Sloan are all free agents this summer. The Pacers should let each player walk with the exception of Stephenson.
He may or may not be the NBA’s next great head case, but Stephenson has the talent to make up for any headaches. His antics on the court in the playoffs may have embarrassed the Pacers organization, but they should thank Stephenson for cheapening the cost of resigning him. Acting like a fourth grader trying to get his crush’s attention in the Miami series has left NBA teams wary of giving him the big contract his play warrants. The Pacers can fit him under the cap for about $10 million per year—a figure other teams won’t risk on someone of Stephenson’s ilk leaving Larry Bird’s watchful eye.
Still, I’m sure some Pacer fans can’t get past Stephenson’s immature streak. It’s a reasonable concern. There hasn’t really been an explanation for the Pacers’ melt down, and there are murmurs Stephenson’s presence contributed to it. His teammates certainly didn’t give his return a ringing endorsement either.
Putting the off-the-court issues aside for a moment, lets take a look at his past season on it.
Stephenson averaged 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 0.7 steals per game.
He turns 24 in September.
Here’s the list of NBA players who put up those same stats or better before their 24th birthday: Magic Johnson, LeBron James, Grant Hill, Kevin Garnett, Charles Barkley, Lamar Odom, John Williams, Tracy McGrady, Alvan Adams and Chris Webber.
That’s good company to keep.
Stephenson has two big things going for him: his age, and the league-wide weakness of the shooting guard position. Stephenson’s potential to contribute across the board is tantalizing. Add in the dearth of quality shooting guards, and getting him for four years, $40 million is a steal.
So now that we’ve handled the upcoming free agents, it’s time to shift the focus to the rest of the Pacers roster.
CJ Watson, Luis Scola, Chris Copeland and Solomon Hill are all guaranteed through 2015, and Ian Mahinmi’s contract runs through 2016. Buying out one or more of those contracts remains a possibility, but they’re staying put for the time being.
George may not be the superstar we thought he was going to be coming into this past season, but he still has shown flashes of becoming Scottie Pippen 2.0. For the first two months of the season, George was clearly third in the MVP race behind LeBron James and Kevin Durant. His inconsistency dropped him to third team All-NBA, but his youth and a contract that runs through 2019 means he’s staying in Indiana.
West will be 34 by the start of the next season with two years, $24 million left on his contract. It’s not inconceivable the Pacers could trade him, but there won’t be a substantial market with West as key piece. If West is going to be moved, it will have to be part of a larger deal. For now, West stays.
This leaves us with Hibbert and Hill. Hibbert is signed through 2016 with roughly $30 million due his way, and Hill is owed $8 million per for the next three seasons.
Whether it was post concussion symptoms from LeBron’s elbow, Fatigue, a compromised mental state or a combination of the three, Hibbert’s sporadic degeneration into a poor man’s Hasheem Thabeet is concerning. The Pacers relied on Hibbert’s rim protection as the foundation of their defense. When he could barely manage that—let alone any other basketball related activity—the team went into a tailspin. The Pacers need a more reliable frontcourt player, and Hibbert needs a change in scenery.
Luckily for both parties there is still a market for Hibbert. His value isn’t nearly high as it was in 2012 when Indiana signed him to his current deal. The Pacers must also convince their trade partners they’re getting a rejuvenated Hibbert. But, Hibbert’s size and skill set can fetch reciprocal value back.
George Hill is a quality NBA player. He’s athletic, a strong defender and shoots the ball well. However, he’s not a great facilitator—a must for his position and role with Indiana. This can be easily managed on a team filled with playmakers at other positions like his former club San Antonio. However, this is a significant problem on an offensively challenged team like Indiana. The other Pacers’ inability to create their own shot and subpar offense in general are doomed to struggle without a point guard that specializes in setting his teammates up.
Just like Hibbert, Hill needs a better fit for the benefit of both sides.
Both players are overpaid, so finding fair value will be difficult. Fortunately for Indiana, I took the liberty of playing ESPN’s Trade Machine to determine the different trade routes the Pacers could take.
Trade Scenario No. 1
Indiana Pacers get: Omer Asik and Austin Rivers
New Orleans Pelicans get: Roy Hibbert
Houston Rockets get: Ryan Anderson
It’s a new spin on the Asik-Anderson trade that should have happened this past season, but didn’t.
Ryan Anderson is a perfect fit alongside Dwight Howard in Houston. Anderson’s ability to stretch the floor at power forward worked wonders when the two were teamed in Orlando. I don’t think he’s the missing piece the Rockets need to emerge from a loaded Western Conference, but he’s the perfect fit for the Rockets three-point chucking offense.
The Pelicans were concerned about Asik’s offensive limitations, and Hibbert’s post game satisfies those concerns. He doesn’t rebound like Asik, but can you imagine opponents trying to score inside on a frontcourt of Anthony Davis and Hibbert? Teams would have better luck convincing Dan Snyder to change the Redskins’ name.
Indiana now gets a rim protector they can rely on. Asik’s offensive shortcomings are disconcerting, but he has a better motor than Hibbert and comes without consistency issues. Rivers is a throw in here—he won’t be more than a rotation player—but there are signs he might not be a bust after all. His sophomore season was markedly better than his dreadful rookie campaign.
Trade Scenario No. 2
Indiana Pacers get: Anderson Varejao, J.J. Barea, Ronny Turiaf and Ricky Rubio
Minnesota Timberwolves get: Roy Hibbert, George Hill, Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters
Cleveland Cavaliers get: Kevin Love
This would be a dream scenario for the Cavs. Cleveland gets its second superstar in Love—which gives LeBron pause before returning to Miami—making the Cavs a contender in the East regardless. Once they draft Joel Embiid No.1 overall, Cleveland’s potential starting lineup could be: Kyrie Irving, Jarrett Jack, Luol Deng, Love and Embiid (the Cavs have plenty of shooting guard options to choose from in free agency if they want to bring Jack off the bench). This is the best-case scenario Cavs fans could hope for outside of a King James homecoming.
Potential snags in this deal would come from Minnesota’s end. They already have a center they love in Nik Pekovic. However, he lacks in the rim protection department, Hibbert and Pekovic would at least mesh on the defensive end. Thompson and Waiters are both nice players, who are still developing, but neither is a future star. Hill would replace Rubio at point guard, giving the Wolves a floor general that can shoot.
However, Kevin Love is still Kevin Love. He’s a top ten player—borderline top five. This deal only comes about if the Wolves are 10,000 percent sure he’s bolting at the end of next season.
This trade gives the Pacers a big man who fits in well with David West and brings similar attributes as Asik would. Varejao has had a checkered past with injuries, but at full health he’s one of the best defensive centers in the game.
Rubio would give the Pacers an excellent facilitating point guard, and he’s on par with George Hill defensively. His shooting ability leaves a lot to be desired, and that’s being kind, but his ability to direct traffic will breathe life into a stagnant Indiana offense. Barea is a source of instant offense off the bench that the Paces have sorely missed over the last three seasons. Turiaf’s only here to make the money work, but you could do worse for a fifth-string post.
Trade Scenario No. 3
Indiana Pacers get: Robin Lopez, C.J. McCollum and Joel Freeland
Portland Trail Blazers get: Roy Hibbert
Just two short years ago the Blazers were offering Hibbert a max deal. Now Portland gets the center it wanted to pair with LaMarcus Aldridge in the first place. It’s not the tour de force on defense Hibbert-Anthony Davis would be, but Aldridge is an accomplished interior defender himself.
Hibbert gets his change in scenery and Indiana gets a pair of young, intriguing players in return. Lopez has come along way since he entered the league in 2008, and has strung together two straight 11 point, 5 rebound, 1.5 block seasons. He’s can’t reach Hibbert’s highs, but he does offer a model of consistency.
McCollum is still an unproven entity. He missed more than half his rookie season due to injury, and was average when healthy. Still, I’m firmly planted on the C.J. McCollum bandwagon. I was very high on him leading up to last year’s draft, and I’m fully convinced he’ll be a starting two guard at some point in his career. Indiana could be getting a steal here. Freeland’s just here to make the money work.
The market for George Hill will become clearer after the NBA Draft. It’s much more likely the Pacers explore a straight salary dump with Hill than Hibbert. Once teams have a chance to address needs at point guard through the draft, those still lacking could become suitors for Hill.
A lot can, and will, happen between now and the end of the offseason. This is just a starting point. The draft on June 26 will give us a glimpse at many team’s plans for the rest of the offseason. Who knows, Miami’s Big 3 might all take a collective pay cut and open up space for Carmelo Anthony to make it a Big 4. Should that happen, we’ve all wasted our time with the Pacers, South Beach is going to host its fifth straight NBA Finals.
But just in case the NBA world doesn’t come crashing down for the second time in four years, Indiana has a blueprint to mount its title charge with.