The Indiana Pacers have been the toast of the league in 2013-14, ripping through opponents behind a stifling defense, the continued development of Paul George and Lance Stephenson and a bench that suddenly goes more than two guys deep.
However none of that—not their elite point differential, not their spot at the top of the Eastern Conference, not even George’s participation in the All-Star Slam Dunk Contest—matters as much to the team as beating the Miami Heat and making the finals.
By any measure, the Pacers are an excellent team, but its contender status means that everything about this team warrants more scrutiny.
The offense looks decent at times, but they are ranked just 20th in points per game at 98.4 and when George is struggling from outside, Indiana can have some serious trouble scoring.
The Pacers remade bench, featuring Luis Scola, C.J. Watson and a healthy Danny Granger, has been far better last year’s Tyler Hansbrough-anchored squad, but it hasn’t been perfect.
Additionally, the regression of George Hill, who is shooting well (37.4 percent from three-point range), but averaging just 10.5 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.3 assists in 31.2 minutes, despite a virtuoso performance against the Portland Trail Blazers.
This makes it worth wondering if Indiana needs a true point guard instead of one who is mostly a spot-up shooter.
Make no mistake, the Pacers, as currently constructed, are an elite team that has as good of a shot at the championship as anyone, but that doesn’t mean a trade is out of the question.
With the trade deadline only a short ways away, let’s take a moment to consider the kinds of trades Indiana could swing and whether shaking things up is ultimately the right move for one of the league’s top squads.
There is no denying that Watson has been an improvement over D.J. Augustin, and that the development of Stephenson as a playmaker has been huge, but the Pacers could use another facilitator to offset the struggles of Hill.
Indiana ranks just 21st in the league in assists per game at 20.5, and while part of that is due to their methodical, inside-out style of play, but the reality is that the team relies a ton on George and Stephenson creating offense off the dribble.
The need for more playmaking is amplified by the fact that Granger is being used essentially as only a scorer. His assist percentage of 8.6 is below Luis Scola and Chris Copeland and tied with seldom-used rookie Solomon Hill, according to Basketball-Reference.
Turnovers can be a problem for Indiana—they are 19th in the league at 14.6 giveaways per game—and that pressure to take care of the ball only gets magnified in the postseason.
In the playoffs the past two years, Miami’s swarming, trapping pick-and-roll defense gave the Pacers trouble, and while the Heat have dialed their defensive aggression back a bit, it is still something they could break out at the drop of a hat.
One possibility that the Pacers could explore is dealing for veteran Andre Miller, who could provide them with plenty of stability in the halfcourt passing game and provide the offense with a heady presence it currently lacks.
Miller is expensive though, and as you can see by the Pacers salary sheet they are paying George, Hibbert and West a hefty sum in the next few years, and that is before even factoring in an extension for Stephenson.
The team could always cut Miller after the year, but they would still need to give up a decent amount of salary to acquire him in the first place.
Udrih is not much of a scorer, but he has a decent mid-range jumper and can competently run the pick-and-roll. He is averaging 5.6 points, 1.8 rebounds and 3.5 dimes on the year and shooting a solid 42.5 percent from deep.
He is also a bargain at just the veteran’s minimum, although his horrendous defense (opposing points guards average an 18.4 PER against him, per 82Games) might not make him a good fit with the Pacers.
Ultimately, there aren’t many great options for a pure playmaker, unless Indiana wants to try and nab someone like Kyle Lowry to supplant Hill as the starter.
Instant Offense Scorer
This was supposed to be Copeland’s role, and Gerald Green’s before him, but neither of them was able to make any real impact off of the Indiana bench.
Obviously Granger is supposed to be playing this role, but he has yet to find any real rhythm.
The former All-Star is averaging a decent 8.6 points in 22.2 minutes, but it’s coming on 7.7 field goal attempts and he is shooting just 36 percent from the floor.
Recovering from nearly a full season lost to injury, Granger has yet to regain his form as an elite scorer, and his numbers reflect it.
According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Granger is shooting just 30 percent on isolation plays, 35.2 percent on spot-up jumpers and 29 percent coming off of screens.
Those numbers will improve as Granger rounds into shape, but it stands to reason whether or not Indiana could use another irrationally confident, instant offense guy off the bench.
It would be tough to nab someone like Jamal Crawford, who has been playing phenomenally well in Chris Paul’s absence, but a guard like Louis Williams or Ramon Sessions who could provide bursts of scoring off the pine could be huge for the Pacers.
While George is capable of making some incredible shots, including difficult step-back mid-range jumpers and contested threes, he is guaranteed to have at least one or two off nights in a playoff series, and the Pacers could use someone else to step up and take those shots.
Obviously if Granger can become a productive double-digit scorer post-All-Star break then this is a non-issue, but the Pacers could use a fearless guard who can put his head down and get to the basket if needed.
A Stable Big Man
The Pacers signed Andrew Bynum, but the mercurial 7-footer hardly fits anyone’s description of stable in any sense of the word.
Scola has been decent, shooting well from mid-range and doing some nifty things offensively with his high-post passing and ability to run dribble handoffs, but in order to keep pace with the top of the league Indiana may need another more athletic big man to contest.
As we’ve seen in the playoffs before, less mobile big men have a hard time keeping up with the Heat defensively, and it’s unlikely Scola or Bynum will be able to move well enough to be effective defensively against Miami’s hybrid, small-ball lineups.
One option to pursue would be the Boston Celtics’ Brandon Bass. Bass is expensive at $6.5 million this season and does carry some long-term money, but he has always played well against the Heat and has plenty of familiarity with the way that Miami plays.
If the Pacers are willing to offload Granger they could maybe pick up Kris Humphries, another Boston big man without much future in green. Humphries has been producing well this season in limited minutes and could give Indiana another rebounder and interior banger who can fill Hansbrough’s role off the pine.
Still, the frontcourt is hardly the main concern of the Pacers, and it would be foolish of them to deal anything major for yet another big man.
It would be irrational of Indiana to turn down a low-risk, high-reward move obviously, but the Pacers don’t need to be a buyer at the trade deadline.
If a cap conscious team is willing to trade something of real value for Granger that is one thing, but Indiana has proven over the course of the year that they are good enough to win with the pieces that they have.
Additionally, clogging up the cap sheet when a lucrative extension for Stephenson is due would be unwise and potentially hurt Indiana’s ceiling more than dealing for another rotation piece.
There are lots of would-be contenders that need to go into the trade deadline looking to improve if they want to win a title, but the Indiana Pacers really are not one of those squads.