Danny Granger, towards the end of Thursday's Game 6 (Getty Images)
What you've got here, Pacer fans, is an odd setup.
The Pacers are a young team, replete with veterans. The Pacers are an incredibly well-coached team, run by someone who made a lot of glaring and worrying mistakes in his first full year on the job. The Pacers have an intense and dedicated fan base, but recession concerns limited its attendance to that of the lower ranks in the NBA. The Pacers have the executive of the year who has had some pretty low lows in his time on the job as top executive, and he might not even be with the team next season. The Pacers have potential double-figure cap space this offseason, but might not use it — and it might not even know when it will get a chance to use it.
The Pacers, once the team and its fans pull themselves from the disappointment of the three-game losing streak that ended their season, have to regard this as a satisfying season. Eight seeds regularly give a top seed a good fight in the first round of the playoffs, and act as everyone's team to watch the following season — only to fall flat under the weight of expectation, bad luck or a regression to that 35-win mean. The Pacers, after acting as a tough eighth seed in 2010-11, made the equivalent of a 16-win jump in 2011-12's lockout-shortened season while moving all the way up to the third seed in the playoff bracket , and yet they're right to feel disappointed that they didn't give the Heat a stiffer challenge toward the end of their run. What happens from here, though?
Even before personnel boss and Executive of the Year Larry Bird confirms his presence on the team moving forward, the franchise's future lies in its finances. The Pacers are in a small market, and they don't draw well. The team has been under the salary cap for two years running, taking in seven home playoff games along the way, but the squad's lackluster attendance means splurging on both unrestricted free agents and the team's restricted free agents will be a tough sell to those who are watching the bottom line. The upshot to these low points is the fact that the Pacers will probably spring out of the gate next season with much improved prospects at the Fieldhouse turnstiles, especially if the team shows commitment to its returning players while working to add to the roster.
That's a dangerous gamble -- assuming that fans will come out in droves in December of 2012 or February of 2013 because you make major transactions in July of 2012 that could end up costing you until July of 2018. Especially when you don't know if it's going to be Larry Bird or some other executive making the final personnel decision, provided that the team's ownership signs off on spending. So much is in flux, and this is easily the team's most important offseason since the summer of 2006, when the squad committed to Al Harrington as its free-agent prize after dismissing the massive expiring contract of Peja Stojakovic.
Before the group can go searching for outside help, the futures of Roy Hibbert and George Hill have to be discussed. Both are restricted free agents, and both are the perfect sorts of players for restricted free agency for two completely different reasons.
Hibbert is one of our favorite players, but because he's a talented center with size you know some other team will break the bank in order to sign him to an offer sheet that the Pacers will have to carefully consider before eagerly matching. He'll be the classic overpaid big man, mainly because teams have to pay centers 150 percent of what they're worth; mainly because about 150 percent of centers are awful, and the position is so tough to fill.
Hill is a different story. Because he's not a star, and "just" a damn good guard, no other team is likely to get giddy at the prospects of signing him, so the Pacers can re-sign him to a reasonable rate should they decide to keep the Indianapolis native. Hopefully the two sides of that Hibbert/Hill coin can balance out, and both player and team can be happy with their respective decisions.
If those two re-sign, A.J. Price plays for his slim qualifying offer, and the team picks up its player option on Dahntay Jones (which it probably should, at just $2.9 million), the Pacers will still likely have a good $12-$13 million in cap space even if Hibbert's contract starts in the eight figure per year category. The team's rotation is more or less set even if Lou Amundson and Leandro Barbosa (both unrestricted free agents) head elsewhere, so assuming the Pacers are willing to break the bank and move up to the salary cap limit (something the team, smartly, declined to do in 2011-12), this is a group with plenty of options.
Unlike the team's offense, in the late stages of games. Because though the Pacers ranked seventh in offensive efficiency this season, the team's need for a natural point guard is glaring. Apsatively glaring.
There are other concerns. Hibbert's plus/minus in the series against the Heat was glaring, and yet coach Vogel still used him like a bit player at times, instead of the All-Star he is. You may not have liked his ability to guard the screen and roll in Game 6 against the Heat, but understand this is the Miami Heat we're talking about, and that Hibbert had done an exceptional job against Miami in the first three games before Heat coach Erik Spoelstra made some smart adjustments. The guy has to play, as much as he can, and he needs a point guard to get him the ball.
There are two fantastic point guards to be had in this free-agent class, but selling either on the Pacers might be a tough go. Steve Nash and Deron Williams would absolutely put this team over the top, but you rarely hear their names mentioned as Indiana-bound despite the fact that they would probably be a better fit for this team than heading to the Mavericks (who, sorry, are relying on the fortunes of a 15-year NBA veteran), Suns or Nets. Still, as much as we'd love it, don't expect to see either in a Pacer uniform next year.
Chauncey Billups could work, but you get the feeling he wants to stick it out in Los Angeles. Aaron Brooks and Goran Dragic are more scorers than anything, though Dragic's assist ratio (the amount of possessions he uses up that turn into assists) shot way up in 2011-12, and he might be Houston's go-to point guard moving forward if the team decides to deal the unhappy Kyle Lowry. Andre Miller and Jason Kidd are two of the purer passers in NBA history, but both made their NBA debuts during the Clinton Administration. And if Raymond Felton couldn't stay skinny in free-range Portland, imagine what a trip to Indianapolis would do.
This is where trades could play a part, though there are just as many shoot-first point guards (a trait we're not knocking, it's just not what the Pacers need) available for trade as are on the free-agent market. Still, it's nice to have an option — to be able to make another team's payroll go down a little easier, after years of smartly minding your own.
It starts with the decision to spend that cash, though, and then Bird's decision to stick or stay. We're just not going to know or be able to anticipate much of anything until those two major tilting points are settled.
Until then, stew a bit over that season's ending, Pacer fans. And then buy your 10-game package for 2012-13.
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