Top 5 Priorities for Indiana Pacers This Offseason
What began as a season to savor for the Indiana Pacers ended up right where it did one year ago: sour taste of an Eastern Conference Finals defeat at the hands of the Miami Heat lingering on the lips.
The fall was as abrupt as it was multifaceted. Where there once was rooted real chemistry slowly but surely disintegrated amidst rumblings of rancor within the locker room, poor on-court performance and the ever-mounting pressures part and parcel with teams ostensibly on the rise.
Most ironic of all, it was Indiana’s biggest strength—its defense—that proved its ultimate pitfall. Faced with a seasoned Miami team more than accustomed to adjusting on the fly, the Pacers put far too much stock in their sterling starting unit. The result: a six-game series loss and an offseason rife with pressing questions.
No one expects these Pacers to drop off the map completely. At the same time, their precarious playoff push only emphasized what many had known for months: Indy, for all of its promise, is still very much a work in progress.
Today we take a look at the five biggest challenges facing the Pacers this offseason—everything from free-agent signings to front-office strategies to what’s become something of a common theme in recent years: bolstering that woeful bench.
1. Re-Sign Lance Stephenson
Say what you will about Indiana’s mercurial shooting guard, he was absolutely instrumental to the Pacers’ success this season—on both sides of the floor.
And now, he's going to get paid. Big time.
As an unrestricted free agent this summer, Stephenson is expected to fetch beaucoup offers on the open market.
And rightly so: At just 23 years old, the kid they call "Born Ready" has already launched himself into the upper echelon of NBA shooting guards.
The thinking is that Stephenson will fetch somewhere in the neighborhood of $28 to $40 million over four years. With the Pacers already sitting on more than $65 million in committed salaries, how far they’re willing to wade into luxury-tax territory promises to be one of the offseason’s most underrated storylines.
Then again, perhaps Stephenson will be willing to give Indiana—the team that plucked him from second-round obscurity—something of a hometown discount, perhaps in exchange for a shorter contract duration.
In the Pacers, Stephenson had a team whose culture and foundational stability could incubate and inculcate the hotheaded wing from some of his baser instincts. Like, say, jawing at LeBron James through the media ahead of a critical Game 4 in the Eastern Conference Finals.
That's the kind of thing Lance will have to put squarely in the rear-view mirror if he hopes to recoup anything resembling the free-agent tender his earlier production portended.
Judging by an interview he gave to Pacers.com’s Mark Montieth back in November, even Lance himself seems to appreciate the fit:
“I don't think about that,” Stephenson following a particularly noteworthy game. “It's a long season, I'm not thinking nothing about contracts. I'm going to stay with the Pacers, so I'm not even thinking about the contract.”
That either party would be willing to end such a happy symbiosis seems unlikely, but if the Pacers wind up choosing between Stephenson and a few extra bucks, don’t be surprised if they buck history and side with the former.
2. Get Good Value with the 2nd-Round Pick
You’ve heard it so many times the words are probably beginning to lose their meaning: The 2014 draft promises to be one of the deepest, if not the categorical best, in recent memory.
That means there’ll be plenty of rough-covered diamonds to be had in the second round, where the Pacers will have their only pick (they gave up their first-rounder in the trade that brought Luis Scola to Indy).
With so many high-upside prospects at play, it’s inevitable that a few proven products will tumble down the draft-day ladder. Which is exactly what Indiana should be targeting.
Players like University of Virginia guard Joe Harris, whose two-way abilities—lockdown perimeter defender, knockdown shooter—would seem to fit seamlessly in the Pacers program.
Iowa’s Devyn Marble is another intriguing candidate. Another senior, Marble, who played his college ball at the University of Iowa, is renowned for his ability go get buckets—something Indy could desperately use coming off the bench.
Ditto C.J. Wilcox, yet another four-year standout who averaged 18.3 points per game during his senior year at the University of Washington.
Point being: Indy can ill afford to go with a high-maintenance project over a proven commodity. Not with its roster so set in its ways and certainly not with its title window getting smaller by the season.
3. Build Up Roy Hibbert’s Confidence
Those searching for a scapegoat for Indy’s roller-coaster campaign need look no further than Roy Hibbert, the 7’2” All-Star center whose springtime woes came to define the Pacers’ much-publicized fall from grace.
To be fair, Hibbert eventually rebounded to put up halfway decent postseason stats. Still, the question is bound to resurface during the offseason: Will the real Roy Hibbert please stand up?
There’s little doubt that Hibbert poses one of the most dynamic center skill sets in the NBA. More importantly, he’s been the undisputed anchor of the league’s most efficient defense—the grinder into which teammates are instructed to funnel driving foes.
The reasons for Hibbert’s sudden, startling decline remain the stuff of speculation. In perhaps the most sordid (and as yet unsubstantiated) report, BallerAlert.com claimed Paul George and Hibbert’s fiancé have been romantically involved.
Whatever the root cause, Hibbert’s crisis of confidence needs to be corrected—and fast. At 27 years old, Hibbert is young enough and, as his seven missed games over the last five seasons prove, durable enough to recapture his All-Star form.
In an NBA where skilled, savvy centers are at an all-time premium, the Pacers boast one of the league’s true game-changers. That is, of course, when Hibbert is engaged and enraged, rather than dour and defeated.
4. Bolster the Bench...Again
As a certifiable small-market team, the Pacers have never been too keen on raiding the team kitty, even if it means potentially bolstering a contender.
Still, there are plenty of pressing needs Indiana would be wise to consider addressing if it has any hope of capitalizing on the potential of its homegrown core.
First and foremost—as it’s been for the better part of three seasons now—the Pacers must address their woeful bench, which finished 29th in the league in scoring (24.1 points), per HoopsStats.com.
While not quite the class that 2015 promises, this summer’s free-agent crop nevertheless features plenty of bargain-bin options Indiana could use to bolster its bench.
On the more expensive end, players like Jerryd Bayless, Andray Blatche and—yes—even Nick Young might be convinced to take a bit of a pay cut for the sake of playing for a true contender.
Depending on how the Miami Heat’s Big Three shake out, Ray Allen could be another instant-offense option for the Pacers. Ditto Caron Butler, Ramon Sessions and Patty Mills.
Combined with the aforementioned draft-day diamond, a new Pacers bench weapon could do wonders for an offense that’s consistently struggled to give cover to a top-tier defense.
5. Shake Things Up with a Trade
Despite its precarious cap situation, Indiana does boast a bevy of modest, affordable contracts—some of which will be expiring heading into next season.
Between Luis Scola (due $4.5 million), Chris Copeland ($3.1 million), C.J. Watson (2.1 million) and Ian Mahinmi ($4 million over each of the next two seasons), the Pacers have plenty of fodder with which to initiate some minor upgrades—or even move up somewhat in next month’s draft.
At this level, it’s unlikely Indiana will somehow land the one piece capable of tipping the Eastern Conference scales for good. At the same time, even a marginal improvement in bench play could do wonders, even if most of the dividends are paid out during the regular season.
The question is whether owner Herb Simon is willing to reconsider his categorical disdain for the luxury tax. If he refuses to budge, Bleacher Report’s Adam Fromal sees a lose-lose situation in Indy’s immediate future:
Behind door No. 1 is an identical starting lineup with no bench to speak of. Behind door No. 2 is a starting lineup without Stephenson—who can be credited with much of the team's success, particularly on offense—but a slightly upgraded core of backups.
While either situation leaves enough stellar players for Indiana to have a shot at holding up the Larry O'Brien Trophy, the odds are inevitably going to be worse. Neither choice would make them anything close to the favorites, assuming the Heat stick together or another team takes a big step in the right direction.
The Pacers’ season may not have ended on quite the note fans had hoped for. Yet, Indiana’s status as an upper-echelon team seems secure for at least the next few years. And yet, how the next two free-agent markets shake out will likely play as big of a role in Indy’s near-future success as any prospective trade or offseason coup.
Which is why, given their colossally talented core, the Pacers need not worry about more than improving on the fringes and hoping that George, Stephenson (should he be brought back) and Hibbert have another gear to go to.