After three sub-.500 seasons, the Indiana Pacers find themselves at what could be a crossroads.
The franchise is building a young, hungry roster, yet speculation is beginning to swirl about its very future in Indianapolis. The 2009 offseason threatens to be one that could lead to Indiana's NBA faithful again being allowed to enjoy playoff basketball.
It could also be one that could one day lead to them no longer being able to enjoy any professional basketball.
Five varying issues loom before this franchise in the summer of 2009.
1. Brother, Can You Spare $15 Million?
It's difficult for a fan to get terribly excited about the No. 13 draft pick and a free-agent crop that's largely too rich for the Pacers' blood when owner Herb Simon is struggling with the Indianapolis Capital Improvement Board over who will pick up the tab on Conseco Fieldhouse.
While Simon is one of the most successful mall developers in America, the team's potential $30 million loss can make even the wealthiest of owners flinch if no long-term solution can be found.
This does not seem to be a situation that will jeopardize the Pacers immediately, but if allowed to fester, other options may be explored, including the rumored interest of Vancouver Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini.
It may come to nothing, but few thought there was any chance of Seattle losing the Sonics, either.
2. Feeling a Draft
As I wrote about yesterday, there are many directions the Pacers can head with their No. 13 pick.
Bruising power forward DeJuan Blair, several lightning point guards like Brandon Jennings, Jeff Teague, or Jonny Flynn, or athletic forwards like James Johnson and Earl Clark could all be attractive fits in the Pacers' high-octane offense.
Rolling the dice on many of this year's point guards may be a high-risk, high-reward proposition. While the point guard is an essential piece of a fast transition team, players like Jennings and Teague may possess too much of a shoot-first mentality to co-exist with budding superstar Danny Granger. They may also struggle with turnovers, which would set the offense back even further.
Johnson and Clark would appear to be productive wing targets for the already-serviceable PG duo of Jarrett Jack and T.J. Ford.
Blair may be the best choice of all, however, being the kind of punishing inside man that the Pacers have lacked since Dale and Antonio Davis prowled the boards.
His straightforward, forceful style may also bring back some of the toughness and attitude to the Pacers. Players such as Stephen Jackson, Ron Artest, and Jamaal Tinsley briefly began confusing such toughness with thuggish on- and off-court behavior, adversely affecting the image of the franchise.
3. Unfortunately, Free Agents Aren't Really "Free"
The draft takes on greater significance in light of the Pacers being right up against the current salary cap, which is expected to either stay static or even decrease for next season.
That lack of funds will make the Pacers entirely dependent on salary-cap exceptions, which hinders their ability to make runs at big names like Lamar Odom.
Agreeing a buyout of Jamaal Tinsley's contract could free up some room, depending on the final figure. Paying him $10 million of the $14.7 million due to Tinsley could free up about $2 million to $2.5 million over the next two seasons.
Another cap-saving move could be refusal of the team option on Tinsley's bar-fight tag team partner, Marquis Daniels. While Daniels has become a very good performer for the Pacers, his $7.4 million option may be too big a horse pill for the cap to swallow.
There may be the wherewithal to make a mid-level bid for players like Dahntay Jones, Von Wafer, Brandon Bass, or a big man like Zaza Pachulia, but it appears the Pacers lack the war chest to attempt any really glamorous signings.
Any room that is freed may also be spent on a new deal for Jack, who is a restricted free agent himself.
4. Play, Hell—How About Walking?
Mike Dunleavy's troublesome knee injury is now expected to keep him out until January 2010, at the earliest.
Dunleavy is another player who is very difficult to move, because he's become known as merely a designated bomber with a bloated contract.
In his absence, the club has discovered several other scoring options, including Brandon Rush and the use of Ford and Jack as a backcourt duo.
It's very likely, and actually quite anticipated by a large portion of the Pacer fan base, that when Dunleavy does return, he could be auditioned for trade bait to a contending team so that the team can rid itself of his contract. This does, of course, seem much easier said than done.
5. We Have Contact...and Lots of It
As far as the returning roster, the biggest concern for the Pacer coaching staff must be in teaching Roy Hibbert how to play defense without mugging people.
Hibbert was third on the team in fouls last season, but ninth in minutes played, averaging 3.1 and 14.4, respectively.
Extrapolating Hibbert's stat line last season out to a per-36-minutes average, the figures look very impressive.
17.6 points, 8.7 rebounds, 2.7 blocks...and 7.7 fouls.
Last time we checked, the NBA only allowed six fouls per game, which would (and last season, did) result in a lot of short nights for Roy.
If he can learn when to position himself correctly and not always go for the block, Roy carries the potential to be a very good NBA center. Until then, however, he'll be pacing (pun intended) back and forth between the court and bench like an expectant father pacing the hospital waiting room.
Another 35- or 36-win season may very well cost Jim O'Brien his job, which would be a bit of a shame.
The Pacers are taking their lumps and building some strong young talent, much as they did in the late 1980s, when their persistent mediocrity had some wags calling them "the Indianapolis .500's."
O'Brien and Larry Bird have several very good pieces in place, and this offseason may the final hurdle to the team getting back into May.
Alternatively, it could also lead to another season of 28th-ranked attendance, and the start of the NBA's triumphant return to Western Canada.