The Indiana Pacers have taken a total nosedive since the All-Star break, but this relatively small sample size shouldn't alter the overall direction of the franchise.
That's not to downplay how poorly the Pacers are playing, of course. Only the Philadelphia 76ers have had a worse offensive efficiency since the All-Star break, according to NBA.com's media stats site (subscription required), and that's pretty telling considering a lot of teams have already packed it in for the year.
Indiana certainly has problems to solve, and it's hard to say what the solution is. Paul George has really struggled with his shot as of late, David West isn't as potent on the low block as he once was, and Roy Hibbert has been wholly inconsistent. The Pacers look to be out of gas, and as Matt Moore at CBSSports.com explains, this kind of collapse by a contender is relatively new:
Finishing strong isn't a prerequisite to making the Finals. But having the experience to know how to perform once you get to the playoffs is, if you struggle down the stretch. The Pacers have made the playoffs the past three seasons with this core. They took Miami to a Game 7. Is that enough experience to overcome their struggles and reach the Finals? The Conference Finals?.... The second round?!
Either way, we're headed for history, with an unprecedented run or a legendary collapse.
While it's understandable that there's plenty of reason to panic for the immediate future, the Pacers aren't really in the position to make drastic changes this offseason.
Honestly, that might be a good thing. It's easy to forget that this is still an incredibly young core with plenty of bright years ahead. The Pacers have Paul George locked up for four more years, George Hill for three more years and Hibbert for two more seasons. This is still the league's best defense, and despite the poor play as of late, it's pretty impressive that the Pacers are challenging the Heat for the East's top seed.
The only real decision the Pacers have this summer is how much money to offer unrestricted free agent Lance Stephenson. There are no illusions of cap space if the Pacers decide to let Stephenson go elsewhere, as Indiana has $60 million guaranteed on the books and Luis Scola's non-guaranteed deal worth $4.8 million likely to bring back.
Again, the options here are very limited, and Stephenson is one of Indiana's most dynamic offensive players. Indiana has his Bird rights, meaning it can go over the cap to re-sign him. What seems most likely is that Stephenson will command a contract that will take Indiana's total payroll right up to the projected luxury-tax line of $75.7 million, per Larry Coon and ESPN.com's Marc Stein, but not past it.
That would give Stephenson a deal right around $9 million a year, which may be a slight overpay but not one the Pacers should be unwilling to make given the lack of future cap flexibility going forward and Stephenson's vast improvements.
For what it's worth, it seems as though re-signing Stephenson has always been the plan. The important thing is that Stephenson has said in the past that he wants to stay, which is the second-biggest hurdle (next to the money) for Indiana to overcome in order to retain him. Here's what Stephenson told Candace Buckner of USA Today:
I wouldn't want to leave a good team like this. I definitely would love to come back," Stephenson said. "I just love the city. I love the team. I love who I play with and I feel like we're a young group and I think we should stick together.
That loving feeling is mutual, as this is what Pacers team president Larry Bird told Scott Agness of Pacers.com earlier this season:
Well, the books are never right for us because we're always under the tax," Bird said when I asked if he's confident in the team’s ability to re-sign the guard. "It's hard to compete with teams. But we're going to do whatever we can to keep the young man. He's worked as hard as anybody has ever worked here and you'll see it on the court because he's had a great summer.
"Our goal right now is to keep everybody we have. We think we have got a strong team. When the time comes when we have to do something, we'll do it.
So long as the Pacers can retain Stephenson and not go over the luxury-tax line, there shouldn't be any issues. While it's possible Indiana will choose to pay the tax at some point, it doesn't sound like that day is here quite yet. Here's what Bird told Shaun Powell of Sports on Earth:
My owner will let me spend up to the (luxury) tax," said Bird. "Will he ever let me go over the tax if we had to? I don't know, but we don't even want to go there. We're going to do whatever we can to stay under the tax and build the best team we possibly can. With all the rule changes lately, it makes the playing field level with the big market teams. I like that. It gives us a chance although there will always be a couple of teams who'll always deal with the tax.
It's hard to imagine that Indiana's poor close to the season will change much in regard to this offseason, if anything at all. Instead, it might only solidify some of the expected decisions the team was probably going to make anyway, like not offering deadline acquisition Evan Turner his pricey qualifying offer worth $8.7 million.
Depending on the size of Stephenson's deal and how close the Pacers are to the apron ($4 million over tax line), Indiana will either have the full mid-level exception ($5.3) or the taxpayer mid-level exception ($3.2 million) to use to find more offense, which could be a big weapon. Point being, there will be ways to improve even without making a major move.
There are other assets to work with as well. Indiana doesn't own a first-round pick in this year's draft (to Phoenix via the Luis Scola deal), but it does have all its future picks. The Pacers may not have a ton of flexibility, but they aren't stuck without the means to "fix" the roster and find ways to score, especially considering the projected development of George and Stephenson.
Even if this season ends up being a failure due to the inability to produce offense consistently, the Pacers have to believe in the improvement of the young stars on the roster and have faith that the assets remaining can be maximized to supplement an elite defense.
Truthfully, that was probably the plan for the 2014 offseason six months ago, and it should still be the plan now.