What's Next for Indiana Pacers After 2013 Playoff Breakthrough?
Their magical run appeared over before it ever got started. Forward Danny Granger, the eighth-best scorer in franchise history, started the year sidelined by a bothersome left knee and remained off the floor for all but five games.
With one All-Star plucked from the rotation, though, the Pacers relied on a first-year All-Star (Paul George) and a pair of former All-Stars in the middle (Roy Hibbert and David West) to push the organization to sights largely unseen for the past decade.
Indiana's prolonged postseason push finally came to a close with a humbling Game 7 loss to the defending champion Miami Heat.
But rather than get bogged down by thoughts of what could have been, the Pacers took comfort in their new standing among the league's elites.
Their work is only beginning, though. A strong offseason bolstered by a savvy showing on draft night and the free-agent market could make this year the expectation, not the exception to the rule.
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Coach Frank Vogel created a recipe for success built with rugged, hard-nosed defense and an inside-out offensive attack that sometimes struggled with efficiency but never had problems with selfishness.
Now Vogel needs his front office to keep one of his key ingredients in the loop while he figures out a way to reintegrate a powerful part without disrupting the final product.
West, one half of Indiana's intimidating twin towers, is headed for unrestricted free agency. A bounce-back season (17.1 points and 7.7 rebounds) from a disappointing 2011-12 campaign (12.8 and 6.6 respectively) has put the two-time All-Star at or near the top of the power forward free-agent class.
He's undoubtedly pushed himself to the top of Indiana's offseason to-do list. His gritty defensive effort blends seamlessly with Vogel's style, and his ability to score away from the paint frees up space for Hibbert and George to attack.
The question, though, is whether he's pushed himself out of the Pacers' price range.
Indiana won't want to lose him, but he's far from the only line on that checklist. The Pacers were crippled by untimely turnovers and desperately need a backcourt upgrade to bring any scoring punch to the second unit:
Indiana starting 5: +46 vs. Heat, ECF. With anyone else on floor: -74. Bench 1 of hurdles for bright-future Pacers. on.nba.com/18R0sqm— Steve Aschburner (@AschNBA) June 4, 2013
Once the front office does its job, then it's up to Vogel and the training staff to do their part with Granger's rehab.
He had surgery in early April and could be ready for the start of training camp, but the team he'll be joining is nothing like the one he left behind. Either Vogel finds a way for George and Granger to efficiently coexist on the perimeter, or it's time to seriously consider any trade offers that come in over the summer.
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The Pacers don't have the luxury of limitless dollars to throw at free-agent targets, so the importance of consistently adding talent on draft night cannot be overstated.
Indiana's enjoyed a strong draft record in recent seasons as George, Granger, Lance Stephenson and Tyler Hansbrough were all former selections.
But general manager Kevin Pritchard and his staff will have their work cut out for them this year, holding a pair of late-round selections in what's widely considered a weak class. Still the standing of the class probably reflects more on the upper-tier prospects than the second-tier players, so the Pacers could well strike gold with the 23rd pick of the first round.
Indiana could stand to bolster its perimeter attack, but with such little production coming from the second unit, a best-player-available mindset may be in the team's best interest.
Using several consensus mock drafts as guidelines shows there's little consensus with regard to who will be available at that slot and whom the Pacers will ultimately choose.
But there are a few intriguing names worth noting.
Kansas center Jeff Withey emerged as Indiana's first-round pick in two of the four experts' mock drafting at HoopsWorld.com, and the shot-blocking artist would certainly fit well with Vogel's defensive system. If Pritchard and Co. opt for offense, Georgia shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has the sweet shooting stroke that the Pacers are missing and North Carolina wing Reggie Bullock could bring athleticism and defensive effort.
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Granger's future in Indiana is a bit murky, but not nearly as blurry as his potential value on the trade market.
On one hand, he's a career 18.1 points-per-game scorer, which would have slotted him 22nd on the active scoring leaders had he played enough games to qualify. He's also just two years removed from a three-year stretch during which he held his scoring average above 20.0 points per game.
But this season wasn't the first time that he's experienced knee problems, and the degenerative effects of his ailment suggest he may never be the same player again.
Indiana needs to figure out if Granger's more valuable as a $14 million expiring contract or as a movable asset that can bring back a perimeter scorer who doesn't move George away from his natural small forward spot.
More than likely, Granger's employer for next season (Indiana or elsewhere) hopes that he can contribute but values him most for that contract. The 2014 free-agent class is potentially loaded, so all teams will be looking to free up as much financial space as possible between now and next summer.
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Unrestricted Free Agents
West won't be on the free-agent market for long. He's a proven winner who plays with a contagious energy.
Whether that means the Pacers will be the team taking him off the market, though, remains to be seen. All signs point to his return, according to Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today, but Indiana may have to pony up some serious cash to keep this relationship alive.
One Eastern Conference executive told Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix that West might command a three-year, $36 million deal. With $36 million already committed to Hibbert, Granger and George Hill next season, and Paul George reportedly thinking max money, via Chris Thomas of Fox Sports, West's return may not be as much of a guarantee as both sides think.
Augustin was added to provide a three-point threat to Indiana's attack. In that regard, he was adequate (35.3 percent), but a lowly field-goal percentage (35.0) speaks volumes about his ability to contribute in other ways.
If the Pacers can snag a point guard in the draft (Miami's Shane Larkin perhaps), then Augustin might be taking his talents elsewhere.
Young is still trying to carve out his niche in the league, and while he's a solid defender, he's not strong enough defensively to stomach his sub-40 field-goal percentage in each of the past two seasons.
He's played for three different teams in four seasons, and was waived and later re-signed by Indiana this season. The Pacers can probably keep him around on a minimum contract, and that alone should help his chances of sticking around, with Indiana searching for cheap talent.
Restricted Free Agents
Hansbrough has played all four of his NBA seasons in Indiana since the Pacers made him the 13th selection of the 2009 draft.
As a lottery pick, he's been a bit of a disappointment. He peaked statistically in his sophomore season, but slid down the depth chart after West's arrival.
As an energy player on the reserve unit he's, well, energetic. His per-36 minute career averages are respectable (16.3 points, 8.7 rebounds), but he has to learn how to defend without fouling and could stand to improve his field-goal percentage (42.7).
Assuming he hasn't blown away another scouting department or Indiana's isn't enthralled with 2012 first-rounder Miles Plumlee, Hansbrough might be worth keeping around on a budget contract.
Pendergraph made some mild improvements in limited action during the regular season, but he had a postseason he'd like us all to forget. He got Mozgoved by Carmelo Anthony's Timofey Mozgov in the second round, then earned an unsightly ejection in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.
He's lacking Hansbrough's polish (which is saying something) and might not be a better athlete than Plumlee. He's expendable.
Wait, there's another Hansbrough? Tyler's younger brother, first a Mississippi State and later a Notre Dame product, worked on a minimum salary this season and served mostly in garbage minutes.
He's worth taking another look at in summer league, but might be fighting an uphill battle in making an NBA roster for next season.
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Indiana only trims about $10 million off of this year's payroll (assuming its restricted free agents return), and most or all of that money could be headed toward the save-David West fund. Not to mention the Pacers might be hesitant to approach luxury tax territory with the front office less than impressed with the regular-season attendance levels.
So bargain shopping is a must for the Pacers, meaning it might be time to get familiar with these not-so-familiar faces.
The Pacers would love to upgrade their perimeter attack (34.7 percent, 22nd in the league) and might have enough financial wiggle room to bring Foye into the mix.
He's a career 37.7 percent shooter from deep and just posted his second career of 40-plus percent three-point shooting. He's also a creative scorer who could help Hill or George when the offense breaks down and a capable distributor in spot duty.
He doesn't play the kind of defense that Vogel covets, but that should keep his price tag reasonable. And if he's raining in triples consistently, Vogel could probably stomach a few defensive mishaps.
If West bolts, the Pacers could do a lot worse in their replacement search than Landry.
He can score near the basket, stretch defenders with his mid-range jumper and makes up for mediocre defensive instincts with athleticism and effort.
Landry holds a $4 million player option next season, but could leave the Golden State Warriors for a lower-salary, multi-year deal if he feels that the Pacers provide a better chance of winning.
Even if West sticks around, Blair is well deserving of consideration.
He's constantly produced when given the opportunity (14.9 points, 11.1 rebounds per-36 minute career averages), but chances have come few and far between in a crowded San Antonio Spurs frontcourt.
Coming from San Antonio, though, he's grown up in a winning system. And that limited exposure could make him a clear low-risk, high-reward candidate.
On the Rise
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No player made greater strides in the postseason than budding superstar Paul George.
He stood toe-to-toe with the reigning scoring champion, Carmelo Anthony, and the best player on the planet, LeBron James, and often delivered as many punches as he withstood.
He's made dramatic strides in each of his three NBA seasons and effectively freed himself of any looming projected ceiling. He finished 13th in the league's Most Improved Player award voting in 2012, took home the hardware this season and should be in the running again next year.
He averaged better than 19 points, seven rebounds, five assists and a steal in the postseason, and still left great room for improvement. His offensive outbursts weren't quite what you'd call efficient (43.0 percent field-goal shooting and 3.9 turnovers per game), but a more balanced Pacers' offensive attack would help both of those numbers.
What makes him such a dynamic court presence, though, is that his tremendous skill set extends to both ends of the floor. He has the size (6'8", 221 lbs) and athleticism to fit the physical profile of an NBA superstar, and the mental makeup to realize that potential.
That is, of course, if he hasn't already.
Biggest Question Going Forward
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Will David West be back with the Pacers next season?
The fact that Indiana enjoyed the level of success that it did with minimal contributions from the second unit speaks to the supreme talent level of the starting five.
So it's of utmost importance that that group of players (or at least George, West and Hibbert) remain intact for a similar (or even stronger) showing next season.
But even with both parties interested in giving it another go, his future remains in jeopardy at this point.
The Los Angeles Clippers will be chasing West hard over the summer, if for no other reason than to help bolster their chances of keeping Chris Paul in L.A. The Atlanta Hawks have the cap space to pursue whichever free agent(s) they choose, and West's toughness and leadership would be a welcome addition if Josh Smith signs elsewhere.
And the Memphis Grizzlies could even join the conversation if they decide to dangle Zach Randolph on the trade market. There's been a rumored rift for some time between Z-Bo and coach Lionel Hollins, via Ronald Tillery of Commercial Appeal, and one or both parties could be finding a different home over the summer.
It's hard to imagine that West, 32 years old, walks away from the chance at another few championship runs in Indiana, but the Pacers will have to offer close to market value to keep him satisfied.
Once West's future is settled, then the Pacers can worry about Granger's role, their second-biggest question for the summer. A George-Granger-West-Hibbert lineup could put enormous pressure on opposing teams trying to match size and strength, but Indiana might be (should be?) worried about tinkering with George's role.
Projected Power Ranking: Fifth
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Few teams have aligned themselves better for the future than the Pacers have.
West was the only starter above the age of 27, and even he showed he's got more left in the reserve tank than most experts thought.
That being said, it isn't easy finding them a spot above fifth on the early power rankings for next season.
Assuming Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook return with little to no effects from their knee injuries, the Chicago Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder should reclaim their spots among the league's best teams. The Miami Heat hold the top spot until LeBron James says otherwise, and the San Antonio Spurs are perhaps weeks away from another championship season.
If everything goes right (West stays, Vogel handles the Granger addition or the front office finds a productive replacement), the Pacers might be able to crack further into this exclusive group. If things don't go as well (West leaves, Granger's swapped out for pennies on the dollar or stays but can't coexist with George), Indiana could well fall out of the top 10.
But there are more reasons to believe in this group than to doubt it, so a top-five finish just might be in the cards.