Tough 2014 in Indiana
Let’s face it: 2014 has been almost as bad a year thus far for the Indiana Pacers franchise as 2004, year of The Malice. After posting a fantastic 40-12 record before the All-Star break (a 76.9% win percentage), Indiana swooned to a 16-14 record the rest of the way (a 53.33% win percentage) amidst rumors of infighting and an unprecedented decline in performance from 2014 All-Star Roy Hibbert, the foundation of the Pacers’ stifling defense (they finished the season with the best defensive rating in the L, 99.3). Hibbert was so awful in the first two rounds of the playoffs that he posted two double-bagel games (zero points, zero rebounds). A rumored in-practice battle between Lance Stephenson and Evan Turner in late April sent them reeling into the first round of the playoffs. In that series, the Pacers barely squeaked by the upstart Atlanta Hawks — the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference, who had gone 38-44 in the regular season and took Indy to seven games, who killed Indiana several times with a pass-happy, long-range bombing offensive attack. After Stephenson and Paul George cranked up the wing defense and terrified the Wizards’ John Wall into some hilariously misguided decision-making and Roy Hibbert randomly had a few decent games, the Pacers snagged victory from the jaws of defeat in the second round and moved on to face the Heat. For a final in-season indignity, the Pacers were absolutely thrashed in a 25-point annihilation during the close-out Game 6 of the ensuing Eastern Conference Finals.
Losing Lance Stephenson
And then summer began. And things went from bad to worse — the Pacers tendered a very reasonable five-year, $44 million-plus offer to unrestricted free-agent Stephenson, but he turned them down point blank. His reputation across the league as a severe head case cooled the market for his services somewhat, and he saw inferior fellow wings Chandler Parsons and Gordon Hayward rewarded with near-max deals (three years, $46 million for the unrestricted Parsons, four years, $63 million for the restricted Hayward). He wound up signing with Charlotte for three years and $27 million, signifying an incrementally better annual rate than the Indy offer, and Pacers President Larry Bird responded by trying to replace his production via the mediocre piece meal signings of Cleveland three-point ace C.J. Miles and Detroit off-guard Rodney Stuckey. NBA fans collectively held their breaths, as these were certainly inferior basketball talents to Stephenson (his ceiling on both sides of the ball is unreal; he’s bulldog on defense and a creator on offense; he was a borderline All-Star with an atypically low usage rating on a talented Indiana team who’s about to get way more touches in Charlotte), albeit without the baggage of his prickly personality. Maybe just having a top-15 NBA stud in two-way All-NBA swingman Paul George would be enough, and Indiana could recharge for next year, a bit diluted in their A-list talent but also deeper with contributors than ever before.
Paul George Injury
Alas, it was not to be. George went down on August 1st, with a gruesome right leg injury during a Team USA scrimmage in advance of this month’s World Cup, fracturing his tibula and fibula while chasing down a James Harden fast break. He is projected to miss most or all of the 2014-15 NBA season. I would not advise watching the video of George incurring the fractures, unless you’re a fan of the “Saw” franchise. It was so gruesome, in fact, that it terrified Kevin Durant to the point of withdrawing from this year’s inaugural basketball World Cup.
What Next for the Pacers?
So what happens now, with the two best wing creators from the 2013-14 Pacers gone from their roster this season? Currently, Indiana is rallying to use its injured player exception money to lure free agent Dallas Maverick Shawn Marion onto the Pacers this year, but if Marion opts to sign with, oh, I don’t know, the Cleveland Cavaliers for the veteran’s minimum, Miles and Stuckey will most likely be the Pacers’ starting 2- and 3-guards now (Chris Copeland also has an outside chance at the starting 3-spot, but his lack of defensive ability did seem to impugn him for regular rotation minutes on Frank Vogel ‘s roster last season). This team, with zero bench depth outside C.J. Watson, Luis Scola and (if we’re being charitable) Ian Mahinmi, will be hard-pressed to win much more than 30 games. Even in a mediocre Eastern Conference, the Pacers as currently constructed are doomed for the 2015 lottery.
But don’t cry for them just yet. Hibbert (two years, $30.4 million) is on a semi-movable deal, and though starting point guard George Hill is somewhat overpaid at $8 million per into 2016-2017, he could be moved as part of a larger deal. Hibbert, despite an ugly end to his regular season and an up-and-down Playoffs performance, is still considered a great defender around the NBA. The Pacers have needed a point guard update since forever, and it’s starting to look like their center needs a change of scenery. Under these criteria there are two teams out there that would swerve as natural partners in a swap: the rebuilding Boston Celtics and the rising Phoenix Suns.
Now that Boston has freshly drafted point guard/off-guard Marcus Smart in the 2014 Lottery, it seems that they have a back-court redundancy: All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo, at 28 years of age and a $13 million/year price tag, would seem to be expendable. Boston has very little rim protection as currently constructed, and can afford to take some time to develop an offensive game for perennial Defensive Player of the Year contender Hibbert. Boston could move, say, Rondo and Tyler Zeller (who stands to make $1.7 million in 2014-15) for Hibbert and a second-round pick. In Zeller, Indiana gets a more mobile starting center prospect, a legit 7-footer in only his third year in the league. In Rondo, they get one of the great distributors in the NBA, an All-NBA point guard on the final year of his contract. They would immediately become mid-tier contenders in the East again, especially if they were able to move Hill for supplemental perimeter shooting. Rondo could experience the Pacers culture and, both sides could test each other before Rondo hits the 2015 free agency market — if things work out, and Rondo likes what he sees from George’s recovery and the Larry Bird/Frank Vogel brain trust, he could be a great cog for an immediate 2015-16 Eastern Conference contender. If the situation sours, the Pacers will have oodles of cap room in a deep free agency class.
Eric Bledsoe’s current contract stalemate with Phoenix’s front office, and that team’s war chest of quality point guards (beyond Bledsoe, they also have Isaiah Thomas and 2014 All-NBA Third Teamer Goran Dragic) has paved the way for a potential deal. Bleds0e and redeemed former Pacer Mason Plumlee, now Phoenix’s starting center, could be swapped with Hibbert and Stuckey. Sure, the run-and-gun identity of the Suns last year might change with the slow-footed Hibbert suddenly playing heavy minutes, but a high-upside project like the Pacers’ two-time All-Star may be worth the effort, especially in a big man-loaded Western Conference.
Ultimately, the Paul George injury has opened up Larry Bird and the Indiana Pacers think tank to the possibility of roster tinkering. I think the possibilities are exciting, and I hope Pacer fans can appreciate that their championship window may stay open longer than they think with the right moves.
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