We thought it would never come down to this.
The Pacers had high aspirations entering the 2013-14 NBA season. Instead, they went down as arguably the most underachieving No. 1 seed in league history, succumbing to their usual tormentors, the Miami Heat.
Several suggested upgrades should serve as a blueprint not only for the upcoming season, but for the next few years to come. Indy's starting nucleus has been intact for the past two seasons, but with another failed title bid, that has to change.
One of the most obvious needs is a playmaking point guard. George Hill has done all he could ever since he was called up after Darren Collison was traded along with Dahntay Jones to the Dallas Mavericks for Ian Mahinmi two years ago, but it's plainly clear Hill is a combo guard.
More on that in a moment.
Indiana's bench also needs an upgrade. Evan Turner was never a huge factor while an aging Luis Scola battled stretches of inconsistency in the 2013-14 season. Guys like Donald Sloan and Lavoy Allen were never fully utilized.
The team's lack of depth took its toll once again in the postseason. Wouldn't it be great for the Pacers to have a reliable bench like they did years ago when the likes of Antonio Davis, Derrick McKey, Travis Best and Byron Scott were still around?
This, along with several other tweaks, must be done for the Indiana Pacers to be in the title hunt for 2014-15.
As previously mentioned, George Hill had his chance to be the long-term starting point guard.
His time is up.
When Indiana acquired Hill for Kawhi Leonard in 2011, Pacers president Larry Bird told Pacers.com's Mark Montieth in a Dec. 2013 interview he had former Boston Celtics teammate Dennis Johnson in mind:
George isn't a pure point guard, but I played with a guy who wasn't a pure point guard in Dennis Johnson. If I didn't play with Dennis Johnson, I probably wouldn't have made that deal. I played with a two-guard who played point guard, and we did fine. He did fine.
Well, George Hill did fine.
However, a playmaking point guard instead of a combo guard would be better for the Pacers. Hill did a credible job, averaging 10.3 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists. On top of these, he's also a very solid defender.
It's just that the Pacers offense tends to stagnate. Some players—Paul George and Lance Stephenson in particular—tend to dribble the ball way too much. As a result, the flow of the offense is stymied and shots are are forced or hurried as the shot clock winds down.
Indy struggled with this during the course of last season, making its offense predictable.
Just imagine a Mark Jackson-type of player who has great leadership and playmaking skills. Pinpoint passing and movement without the ball are cornerstones of the offense. These were things Reggie Miller thrived on back in the day and George and Stephenson would thrive as their game matures while playing with a legitimate, pass-first point guard.
Montieth also makes a solid point when he wrote Hill's player review for the 2013-14 season:
Still, it seems problematic for a contending team to have a point guard who doesn't really want to be a point guard. Hill adamantly clings to his notion that he's simply a 'guard,' a combo player who is as much as shooter as playmaker.
His skill set confirms that, but the Pacers would seem to benefit from having a willing and able quarterback.
The Pacers can trade Hill for a backup combo guard and then sign unrestricted free agent point guard Kyle Lowry, who averaged 17.9 points and 7.4 assists and made $6.2 million with the Toronto Raptors last season, per HoopsHype.com.
Here we go again.
Bird told USA Today's Phil Richards in Nov. 2013 that he had his eye on the Pacers during his one-year hiatus during the 2012-13 season. He felt the one glaring need for Indy was a deeper bench.
Bird said, "I watched them all year and every time I'd say, 'Where's the bench? I talked to (Pacers owner) Herbie (Simon) and (Pacers consultant) Donnie (Walsh) throughout the year. I knew if I got back in, the first thing I was going to do is try to completely redo the second unit."
The Pacers president finds himself in the same predicament again.
Once again, the bench failed to produce and meet expectations. Nobody was a bigger disappointment off the bench than Evan Turner, the second overall pick of the 2010 NBA draft. Turner was a scorer and slasher with the Philadelphia 76ers, but was lost in the overall scheme of things in Indy. He also couldn't play a lick of defense.
It's a safe bet Turner won't be back in a Pacers uniform next season.
Scola had an up-and-down campaign in 2013-14. He showed he can still hustle and run the floor. With Turner fading into oblivion, Scola had to carry the brunt of the scoring load off the bench on occasion. For a 34-year-old who was adjusting as a bench player, that was too much to ask of the power forward.
Perhaps Scola's load would have been eased had Chris Copeland played more. It makes no sense for Pacers head coach Frank Vogel to hold off on Copeland because of his defense.
First, Copeland can defend when called upon (like he did against Paul Millsap in the first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks). Second, Copeland, a consummate pro, can easily improve defensively on a team that preaches it as hard as Indiana.
Copeland should be be given a shot at redemption for his ability to spark a putrid bench offense which ranked just 28th in the NBA, per 1070TheFan.com's Conrad Brunner. C.J. Watson did a credible job as the No. 2 point guard. He can run the offense and hit the outside shot, although he did disappear for a prolonged stretch against the Heat in the playoffs.
It's hard to imagine Lavoy Allen and Donald Sloan returning to Indy in 2014-15. For his part, veteran Rasual Butler deserves a pat on the back for making his limited minutes on the floor count.
Ian Mahinmi had his best season as a Pacer, but it would also be best for Bird to get a backup center to provide some scoring punch in light of Roy Hibbert's struggles the past two years.
Spencer Hawes would be a nice free-agent pickup for the Pacers. And get this: Jermaine O'Neal is also another unrestricted free agent, per HoopsHype.com. He did well as a backup for the Golden State Warriors last season. On that note, how about signing him up for a second tour of duty with Indy and eventually retiring as a Pacer?
Please make it a reality, Larry Legend.
The Parting Shot
No discussion about upgrades on the Pacers roster would be complete without Hibbert and Lance Stephenson, two players who grabbed their share of headlines in the 2013-14 NBA season.
Brunner offered his take on Hibbert in a separate article:
Though Hibbert carries a big contract (two years and $30.4 million remain) that includes a player option for 2015-16, there seems little chance he would leave $15.5 million on the table in return for free agency.
Though centers are increasingly rare, and the league is involving away from the traditional profile of that position, healthy, young big men will always be a relatively hot commodity.
Brunner's assessment couldn't be more accurate. Hibbert's situation can really go either way and Bird trading him has to be considered a possibility. But one has to ask just how hot a commodity would the big man be after his epic struggles last season? But if he returns, are Indy's fans ready to endure his inconsistencies once again? Especially with a big man like Marcin Gortat (who gave the Pacers fits in the playoffs) on the free-agent market?
It would be difficult to be in Bird's shoes.
As for Stephenson, who himself will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, both Vogel and Bird adamantly said during the Pacers year-end press conference on June 2 they want him back, per Pacers.com's Scott Agness.
Bird was more blunt, telling Agnes, "I always want him back. You just don't let talent like that walk away if you can help it."
That's well and good if Stephenson stays. But what if he bolts and tests the market? Certainly, Turner should not be considered an adequate replacement considering how he fizzled in Indy's system.
Despite his on-court theatrics, the versatile and talented Stephenson was one of Indy's most consistent forces. If he leaves, it would leave a huge void at shooting guard. Bird is sure to be hard-pressed to upgrade at that spot.
For now, it's all on Bird to take the Pacers to the next level.