OVERTIME: Pacers faced with crucial offseason

BY WESLEY BRYANT | STAFF COLUMNIST | wdbryant@butler.edu

The NBA regular season has come to an end and the Indiana Pacers are home. For the first time since the 2009-2010 season, the Pacers failed to make the NBA playoffs.

With the eighth and final postseason spot in the Eastern Conference within reach, the Pacers failed to punch their ticket to the playoffs last Wednesday against the Memphis Grizzlies. A win at Memphis or a Brooklyn Nets loss against the Orlando Magic would have secured Indiana’s sixth straight appearance in the playoffs.

But after a 38-44 campaign, the summer has begun for the Pacers, and they have some health issues to address. Just six games after returning from his broken right leg, Paul George suffered a left calf strain in the last regular season game.

The injury isn’t serious, but it should make the front office contemplate whether it was a wise move to play George this season.

Even without a playoff appearance and injury problems, the Pacers can return to being an elite team if they handle this offseason the right way and if George can return to all-star form in the fall.

The offseason is going to be tough to handle. Aside from injuries the Pacers have seven unrestricted free agents as they enter the offseason, including Roy Hibbert and David West, who have player options. However, both will likely return.

People could argue for keeping Hibbert, but he has failed to live up to expectations.  He never was a consistent scorer and is not the most reliable rim-protector.

As Shaquille O’Neal said last week on TNT, “He’s going to have to do better than this.” Expect for his role to diminish next year, as the Pacers should look to commence a smaller play scheme.

One position that could be the main focus is a shooting guard. Losing Lance Stephenson to the Charlotte Hornets has left somewhat of a void in the team’s production.

Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Watson had a decent year in terms of their scoring production from the bench. These two did all that they could in the aftermath of the Stephenson departure.

But they are unrestricted free agents. If the Pacers end up losing them, and they want a full blown starter, there are plenty of reasonable options to sign at that position this offseason.

The Portland Trail Blazers’ Arron Afflalo, Charlotte’s Gerald Henderson and quite possibly even K.J. McDaniels of the Houston Rockets could be potential free agent targets for the Pacers this offseason.

And for the first time in a while, the Pacers own a lottery pick. This year’s NBA draft has plenty of talent at the guard position.

With a pick likely somewhere around the teens, there are some viable options at shooting guard that could still be on the board at that point. Suitable picks would be Kelly Oubre of Kansas University, Devin Booker of the University of Kentucky or Stanley Johnson of the University of Arizona.

It will be interesting to see what general manager Kevin Pritchard does with his first lottery pick in such a stacked draft. Only one of his four draft picks since 2012 are still on the Pacers’ roster. Two of them were traded on draft day, and Miles Plumlee, the 26th overall pick in 2012, never panned out with Indiana and is now in Milwaukee.

The only remaining player drafted under Pritchard is Solomon Hill. The Pacers traded 2011 draft pick Kawhi Leonard to San Antonio — where he won last year’s Finals MVP. Granted, they received George Hill, but this is a pivotal draft year for Pritchard and the Pacers.

Furthermore, it is going to be a long summer for Paul George. That also gives him time to get better physically before the 2015-2016 season. As said before, his calf injury doesn’t look to be too serious.

On the bright side, hypothetically, if George hadn’t gotten hurt, and had the Pacers made the playoffs, George could have possibly been put at further risk in a more brutal playoff atmosphere. He probably would have seen an increased workload that might have been more of a burden on his body and potentially even his right leg.

It looks as if the Pacers might have really dodged a bullet with them, albeit at the cost of leaving the fan base already waiting for October.

In some ways, missing the playoffs could be positive. Instead of worrying about the playoffs, the Pacers have a head start in planning for next season, and they can focus on Paul George’s rehabilitation process.

At the end of the day, if George can return to the 20-plus points per game scorer he once was, the Pacers should be back near the top of the Eastern Conference next year.