The Indiana Pacers are going to hold up the Larry O'Brien Trophy at the end of the 2013-14 season, or they're going to go down swinging with all their might.
According to Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, the current No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference has officially added Andrew Bynum to the roster. The same Bynum that flamed out with the Cleveland Cavaliers and sat on the open market for three weeks before there was much interest.
Whether or not you like the move (I don't), you have to admit that it's the clearest sign yet the Pacers are placing all their eggs in one basket. This is a team that could have a one-year title window, and it's recognizing that and acting accordingly.
It's not the first time Indiana has decided to go all in on the 2013-14 season, though.
Far from it.
Latest Move in a Series of Win-Now Decisions
Indiana's rise to prominence has been the result of a series of long-term investments.
This team has been able to achieve so much because it banked on the growth of Roy Hibbert and Paul George, as well as because it made prescient signings like the David West one a few offseasons back. The Pacers were allowed to develop together, and the long-term plan was always kept in mind.
But lately, you can start to see a series of win-now decisions.
The front office has realized that its key players have reached the point where they're truly capable of winning a title, and it's acting accordingly. Also impacting these decisions is the unfortunate truth that they may not be able to keep everyone together following the conclusion of the 2013-14 campaign.
According to ShamSports.com, Indiana already has $65,846,933 committed for the 2014-15 season, although that total could drop to just under $60 million if only the guaranteed portions of the contracts of Luis Scola, Donald Sloan and Orlando Johnson are picked up.
Problem is, that's the total with Lance Stephenson and Danny Granger coming off the books. The latter isn't a huge deal because the Pacers have reached lofty heights even without the former leading scorer, but Stephenson is a piece they can't afford to let get away if they hope to stay at the top of the NBA totem pole.
Stephenson, even though he didn't make the All-Star team in the East, is going to command a huge contract. It might not reach max levels, but it won't be far off now that he's proved his two-way value.
"Now I'm going to kill everybody who is in front of me," the man known as "Born Ready" told the New York Daily News' Stefan Bondy after he was snubbed. And if he's going to play with even more passion, maybe he actually will deserve that max deal.
He's integral to the Pacers' cause, to the point that B/R's Poch de la Rosa argued Indiana must re-sign him, but there's a chance he escapes to another team. After all, re-signing Stephenson would push Indiana over the luxury-tax threshold, and that's an area that Larry Bird and Co. have been unwilling to tread into.
He made that very clear in an article by IndyStar.com's Bob Kravitz, and that's not likely to change any time soon. It's what made B/R's Dan Favale write extensively about why the Pacers are operating on a one-year title window.
"But these Pacers, the league-best Pacers, are on the clock," said Favale.
So, how about those moves that indicate the Pacers are going all in? What are these win-now decisions?
First was the trade for Luis Scola, one that was made official on July 27, right in the heart of an offseason that kept the Pacers near the top of the Eastern Conference. Indiana gave away Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee and a future first-round pick, all of which are valuable assets.
Just not for right now.
Little did the Pacers know that Green would experience a resurgence in the desert. Little did they know that Plumlee would break out and immediately become an above-average starting center.
These weren't pieces that were expected to make big impacts in the current quest for a title, so they were shipped off for someone who could. And that someone was Scola, who has performed adequately off the Pacers bench.
The second indicator actually came through sheer inactivity.
Indiana could have chosen to trade Granger for a collection of expiring contracts, young players and draft picks (though probably not all three at the same time) but instead chose to keep him. Why?
It's essentially the same reasoning as the Scola trade: Granger has the potential to help the team out in a big way during the 2013-14 season, and the other assets are more beneficial for the future. That doesn't work for a team insisting on winning now.
Signing Bynum is the latest move in this same vein.
As much as Bird doesn't want to admit it, this is a reaction to the Miami Heat watching Greg Oden start to become slightly more valuable. The oft-injured center has now played in five games for the defending champions, and his minutes are beginning to climb slowly up toward a respectable spot in the rotation.
If Oden becomes a prominent piece in South Beach—which is, admittedly, still a big if—he can help counter the impact that Hibbert has always had in the teams' head-to-head clashes. Well, a healthy and motivated Bynum would give the Pacers another step up.
"Between Bynum and Greg Oden, both the Pacers and the Heat have incredibly talented yet injury-prone big men," writes Sim Risso for Bleacher Report. "The acquisition of Bynum could be more of a boon to Indiana than Oden has been to Miami, though."
It's all about staying ahead of the competitors. Not in the future, but in the present.
Cracking the Chemistry Code
The Pacers are a basketball team built on two main principles: defense and chemistry.
You've heard about the former plenty, but the latter doesn't get talked about much. Well, it does by the actual members of the blue-and-gold squad. Here's what Paul George had to say about his teammates before the start of the season, as relayed by Pacers.com's Scott Agness:
Everyone is some comfortable with one another that before our practice or our day starts, everyone in our locker room has a conversation with one another. We enjoy one another’s company outside of basketball.
Again, where I’m at—I’m a happy player and I’m in a happy place right now.
Remember this exchange and how seamlessly the baton was passed into George's hands?
This is a team built around its chemistry, and B/R's Ethan Norof tacitly indicates that Bynum has the ability to change that:
He played his way out of Philadelphia without ever stepping on the floor, he was suspended indefinitely by the Cavs before being traded to the Chicago Bulls earlier this season, and now he takes his talents and all of the baggage that comes with him to a team that prides itself on its camaraderie and chemistry.
Zach Buckley, a National NBA Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report, takes it a step further. He doesn't just explain the discrepancy between the two sides, but he also claims the red flags made Bynum unworthy of the gamble Indiana is taking.
Whether he's right or wrong, the important thing is that there is a gamble. The Pacers are taking a risk by signing the troubled big man, and that goes against everything they've so carefully cultivated over the last few years.
George himself weighed in along similar lines, via IndyStar.com's Candace Buckner:
He'll have to prove a lot to himself, whether he wants to play or not. If he comes in ready to go, ready to put in the work, really buying into our program, we have no problem being there for him.
But with him, it's 'ifs' because he's been through so many programs in the early stage (of his career). Whether he wants to stay committed to us is...a big gamble on our behalf.
As the swingman acknowledged, this is more than a gamble. It's a big gamble.
Nothing could be a clearer indicator that the Pacers are in win-now mode than a willingness to take such a big risk, especially when one isn't necessarily needed. It's worth noting that when Bynum was officially added to the roster, the Pacers were sitting pretty at 35-10.
Not only does that leave them trailing only the red-hot Oklahoma City Thunder throughout the entire NBA, but it puts them three games clear of the Heat in the race for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
It's not just the move—it's the timing of the move. Especially when the Heat struggled through January, closing the month with a 5-5 stretch that didn't allow them to close the gap between themselves and the Pacers.
It reeks of gambling to win now.
"I ain't worrying about next year and I haven't all year," Bird told Buckner after signing the former Laker Sixer Cav. "We're in the now, and we're going to do whatever we can to go as far as we possibly can."