The Pacers won 56 games last season in a rather unimpressive way. The Eastern Conference had one of its worst years in history, and Indiana collapsed down the stretch, finishing the regular season 10-13 and eventually falling in the Eastern Conference Finals to the Miami Heat.
The bad fortune has carried into the offseason.
First, Lance Stephenson took off for the Charlotte Hornets and a three-year, $27 million deal. Then, George shattered his leg during a Team USA scrimmage, one of the most gruesome sports injuries in recent memory. And with their two most valuable perimeter threats from last year now gone, the Pacers' best interest might be to consider 2014-15 a wash.
As David Aldridge of Turner Sports reported Wednesday, the Pacers have filed for the disabled player exception.
Under the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, the Pacers can apply for the exception between now and next January 15. The NBA would then designate a physician who would examine George. If the physician determines George, as everyone currently believes, will not be able to play at any time in the 2014-15 season, the league would grant the exception to the Pacers.
Indiana could then either sign a free agent for one year at either 50 percent of George's salary for next season, or for the non-taxpayer midlevel exception amount, whichever is lower. In this case, with George on a max contract, the Pacers would get a $5.3 million exception to use on a free agent.
The Pacers have $74.8 million on salary for next season, according to Basketball Insiders’ Eric Pincus, meaning full use of the disabled player exception would send Indiana into the luxury tax, something it clearly was trying to avoid by letting Stephenson leave.
Is it time for the Pacers to take a page out of the Chicago Bulls’ playbook?
After the Bulls lost Derrick Rose for the second consecutive season, they started to plan for the future. That doesn’t mean full rebuild mode. The Bulls didn’t exactly go all Sam Hinkie on us. But they did start to make moves with an eye on the 2014-15 season, when Rose would (presumably) be back and healthy.
So, the Bulls dealt Luol Deng and his expiring contract for Andrew Bynum and picks, an unpopular move with Tom Thibodeau, but a necessary one from the front office's perspective. If the Bulls didn’t want to dish out loads of money—a trait that’s been consistent throughout Jerry Reinsdorf’s reign as Bulls owner—they’d have to break it all down for at least one season.
Today, Indiana isn’t in all that different a position for the upcoming year.
Look at who’s going to be on the wings for the Pacers: George Hill, Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles. Meanwhile, we’re talking about a team that finished just 22nd in points per possession last season, when it had Stephenson and George. Even when the 56-win Pacers were winning at an 80 percent clip early in the season, they weren’t scoring at elite rates.
Without shooting or playmaking, where is this offense going to rank? Would it be at all surprising to see Indiana churn out a bottom-three offense next season?
Indiana still has a chance to compete in the East with its current roster, though that depends on how you want to define “compete."
Contend for a playoff spot? Sure.
But challenge for the title? Or even win the conference? That’s probably not so likely.
The offense lacks shooting and playmaking (that's kind of a big deal), and the loss of both George and Stephenson presents major issues on the defensive side of the ball, as well.
Sure, the Pacers have Roy Hibbert, who deservingly finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting last season, but the league’s tallest starting center can’t prevent baskets completely on his own. They also have Frank Vogel, who has earned a reputation as one of the most reliable defensive coaches in the league.
The Pacers scheme funnels opposing ball-handlers toward Hibbert, as reliable a pure rim-protector as the NBA has. Hibbert won’t necessarily come out and attack penetrators as a Joakim Noah would.
He’ll wait for them to come to him, and then let his “verticality” win the matchup. But it takes skilled—and even dominant—wing defenders to pull off such a high-risk strategy which directs offensive players to the middle of the floor. Without George and Stephenson, that scheme becomes much harder to execute, even with the game-changing Hibbert still toe tapping in and out of the paint.
The Pacers have tradable deals, valuable contracts for other teams that may not hold much value for Indiana right now.
They could get young talent for David West, who has two years and $24 million remaining on his deal. They could send off Luis Scola, a free agent in the summer of 2015, who might be exchanged for something of value that could apply to Indiana beyond this season.
Rebuilding, though, isn’t always about on-court talent, and the Pacers have been an organization that’s an example of that. Sometimes, small-market teams simply can’t assume the risks that come with a rebuild, even if it’s just a short-term, one-year, non-tanking venture.
Remember how long the Pacers treaded water after 2004's Malice in the Palace? Ownership feels like it has to give its fans some incentive to show up, one that wouldn’t be there if the team fell out of a playoff race.
The Pacers simply don’t have an easy time getting crowds to come to the arena. Actually, it got to the point where George Hill was calling out the fans last year (per The Indianapolis Star, h/t to B/R's Jesse Dorsey):
It sucks. It was 70 (Lakers fans) – 30 (Pacers fans) out there. These are the same people that wants autographs after the game. We’re out there in the community. We’re doing our job, doing what we’re supposed to do on and off the court. Something has to change. I tip my hat to this team. We’ve been trouble free. Been out in the community shaking hands, we’re winning. It shouldn’t feel like an away game, especially with an important like this. Tonight, that’s what it felt like.
The Pacers finished 15th in attendance last season, according to ESPN.com, up from seven straight seasons in the league's bottom six before that.
The team simply doesn't draw unless it's absolutely dominant, in which case, it brings out an average number of fans to the arena. Keep in mind the Pacers are posting this sort of dreadful attendance with some of the NBA's cheapest ticket pricing.
Gunning for the first pick—like the San Antonio Spurs did in '97 when they lost David Robinson for the year and ended up taking Tim Duncan first overall because of it—probably won’t be in the calling cards. The Pacers likely can't afford such a strategy. But trades that make sense for the future while keeping the team afloat during the short-term could still happen.
Declining veterans like West and Scola are just that: declining. And a team that isn’t built for 2014-15 has to concentrate on when it can return to contention. For the Pacers, that’s not this year. But if they play this season right and George comes back healthy, as expected, it could be soon.
Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com, WashingtonPost.com or on ESPN's TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.