Ever hear the expression "keeping up with the Joneses?"
In the Eastern Conference, it's all about keeping up with the Jameses.
LeBron James and the Miami Heat are undeniably the team to chase, and each contender to the throne made significant moves this offseason to try and shorten the gap.
The Brooklyn Nets pushed all the chips, car keys and first-born sons to the middle of the table to acquire Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry from the Boston Celtics, and in the process, the Nets instantly became a threat to the Heat.
As for the Indiana Pacers? Getting Danny Granger back in the lineup was supposed to be the biggest addition, but once again, his return will be delayed.
In what's become a painfully familiar theme, Granger will miss at least the first three weeks of the season, this time with a calf strain. It's a bit of a blow for a team battling for home-court advantage right from the start, even if the Pacers have proven they can survive and succeed without Granger's services.
Luckily for Indiana, all the eggs weren't put in Granger's basket this offseason. Maybe the trade for Luis Scola and the signings of Chris Copeland and C.J. Watson weren't headline grabbers, but they were solid moves to shore up a bench that let leads evaporate last season.
Without a healthy Granger, though, it's still fair to ask if the Pacers did enough to cement their status as a true title contender this offseason.
The Pacers may need some additional help in the wake of Granger's absence, but how flexible can they be in a trade?
Like many other teams around the league, Indiana is very, very concerned with the luxury tax. As it stands right now, it has 12 players guaranteed for $68.1 million this season. The tax line this year is $71.6 million, so the Pacers have a little over $3 million in wiggle room(if they want to keep just 12 players on the roster) to add in a potential trade.
That's enough not to limit Indiana, but the cap concerns won't go away next season. Yes, Granger's $14 million dollar salary will finally come off the books, but Paul George's max extension will absorb almost all of that space.
Including Scola's partially guaranteed deal, Indiana will have nine players due roughly $64 million next season, which puts them over the expected salary cap of $62.1 million for next season and only $11 million away from the dreaded luxury tax line.
Unfortunately, that's not factoring in unrestricted free agent Lance Stephenson at all. Team president Larry Bird said that the Pacers would do "whatever they could" to keep Stephenson with the team next year, so any hopes of big space underneath the tax line can probably be put to bed.
What's all that mean? If Granger is dealt, Indiana would need to bring back a fully expiring salary in return or a package made up almost solely of expiring money. Of course, that package couldn't put the Pacers over this year's luxury tax, either.
It's hard to find the incentive for a team to do a straight swap of expiring players in a Granger trade, especially with Indiana's first-round pick in 2014 already owed to the Phoenix Suns. There are some serious roadblocks to a big deal here.
Where Are the Holes?
With Scola, Chris Copeland and Ian Mahinmi off the bench for Indiana, frontcourt depth isn't an issue. C.J. Watson is a capable backup point guard as well, so really, the only holes are on the wing behind George and Stephenson.
The Pacers have addressed those holes with Orlando Johnson and Solomon Hill in the last two drafts, but if neither pans out early on, perhaps the team would consider trading from a position of strength.
Because the salary issues complicate a potential Granger trade, maybe it's more likely that the Pacers would move Copeland when he becomes available to trade after December 15 if he struggles to sap up minutes at the 3.
Targeting Dallas Mavericks guard Vince Carter straight up for Copeland might be interesting to both teams, but Dallas would likely require more in return.
Dangling Mahinmi to the Los Angeles Clippers makes a lot of sense as well. The Clippers are starved for a third big, but also need to get under the tax, and this trade would satisfy both of those needs.
The Pacers, meanwhile, would add a legitimate scorer off the bench at shooting guard, but could also clear money thanks to Crawford's deal only being guaranteed for $1.5 million next season.
Clearing that extra $2.5 million in salary could help the Pacers keep Stephenson next year in addition to improving this year's offense. Leaving the backup center duties to Scola may be a little risky, but this is an offense that will need help if Granger remains out.
Another potential target could be Jimmer Fredette. He's buried in a crowded Sacramento Kings backcourt and might fit Indiana's positional needs better than Copeland does.
Giving Up On Granger
While the previous deals are smaller ones, it's going to be difficult for the Pacers to make a big move that involves Granger. Even without dealing him, the Pacers have to prepare for a season without the former All-Star forward. Granger's injuries simply might be too much to overcome at this point.
That doesn't mean Indiana needs to make a deal to remain a contender, however. Copeland, Hill and Johnson will all get chances to prove their worth during a lengthy regular season, and the continued development of Stephenson and George should make up for quite a bit once again.
The Pacers are moving in the right direction, even if it looks like they haven't improved as much as other contenders. With or without Granger and a trade to replace him, Indiana is still firmly in the mix for a title.
Every contender has a few holes, some bigger than others, and Indiana is no different.
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