Last Friday, the balance of power in the Eastern Conference shifted due to unfortunate circumstances. Pacers forward Paul George broke his right leg in a gruesome sequence after his foot became trapped under a basket stanchion following a chase-down block in a Team USA scrimmage.
The rising star will hopefully make a full recovery, but George will need to sit out the next nine to 18 months to fully heal and return to basketball activities, according to The Associated Press.
That reality puts the Indiana Pacers in quite a predicament as they look ahead to the 2014-15 season. George, who is easily Indiana’s best player, will not suit up for the team in a single game next year barring a miraculous recovery.
The Pacers were already going to be weaker on the wing this year with Lance Stephenson leaving for the Charlotte Hornets in free agency, but the loss of George turns them from an Eastern Conference contender to a borderline playoff team with their current roster.
So how will Larry Bird address this gaping hole at the small forward position?
Indiana has a few in-house options off the bat, but none of them are very appealing. The team’s depth chart behind George at the small forward position consists of a sparingly used Chris Copeland and second-year forward Solomon Hill.
Copeland had his moments as a rookie with the New York Knicks a couple of years ago, but could not crack Indiana’s rotation regularly last year.
It goes without saying that neither him nor Hill could come close to replacing George’s production and minutes.
Asking Copeland to even play 25 minutes a game would probably be a stretch given his lackluster defense, and Hill played in just 28 total games during his rookie year.
If there isn’t an adequate replacement on their own roster, where can the Pacers look for help?
The team could apply to the NBA for an injured player exception, which would be worth just $5.3 million. Assuming it’s granted, the team could then sign a player for one year with the $5.3 million exception or trade for any player whose salary fits within the exception.
The $5.3 million seems like a decent amount but doesn’t actually provide much help, especially when the free-agent market is fairly barren right now on the wing—outside of Shawn Marion.
It would give Indiana another option through which to add a player or two, though, which is needed since the team is over the salary cap and has already used its full mid-level exception.
According to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports, Indiana is going after Marion to fill the void, but the 37-year-old will be looking to land with a contender like Cleveland whenever he signs this offseason.
Unfortunately, the Pacers are closer to missing the postseason than being a contender for the time being, which limits the appeal for Marion in Indy unless he simply wants playing time.
If Marion does pass and Bird wants to give his team serious help on the wing, he will need to look for help via trade, as the only other remaining wing free agents are guys like Hedo Turkoglu and Michael Beasley.
Knowing this, the Boston Celtics may be one of the first teams making a call to Bird and selling the Pacers on a great small forward they have. You see, general manager Danny Ainge has a logjam on the wing right now and Bob Finnan of The News-Herald suggests he has tried to trade away Jeff Green for some value over the past couple seasons.
However, he has failed to find an adequate match.
On the surface, the Pacers would appear to be a great match for Green. They need a veteran wing that can handle big minutes, and the Celtics would love to cash on the Pacers’ desperation by adding more future assets (a young player or draft picks).
But once you dig deeper into the numbers and players on both sides, a Celtics-Pacers deal involving Green looks to be a bit of a reach for a couple of reasons.
First and foremost, there’s Green’s salary. The small forward will earn $9.2 million next season and has a player option at the same salary for the 2016-17 season. That’s larger than Indiana’s disabled player exception ($5.3 million), but the problem runs deeper than Green’s salary not fitting into the exception.
The Pacers have a full roster right now and are roughly just $2 million shy of the luxury tax. The Indianapolis Business Journal's Anthony Schoettle reported that Pacers owner Herb Simon has been adamant about not paying the luxury tax in the past, so adding significant salary to the payroll appears to be a non-starter.
If Indiana wants to bring in Green, it is going to have to send out at least $7 million in salary to avoid the luxury tax or look for other ways to lose some salary.
So, could Indiana find a way to dump salary in a trade with Boston in order to handle Green’s $9.2 million deal? It’s hard to find a realistic match that makes sense for both sides when you look up and down the Pacers' roster.
Luis Scola has a $4.87 million non-guaranteed deal, but he’s a valuable part of the Pacers' bench attack. Ian Mahinmi earns $4 million next season, but he is Indiana’s top reserve big man and under contract through 2016.
Losing either one of those guys would create another glaring hole within Indiana’s depth chart, even if the team were able to add Green.
The rest of the roster doesn’t hold many solutions either. Six players are earning $1.1 million or less, and other high-salary players are key parts of the team’s rotation (George Hill, David West, Roy Hibbert, C.J. Watson).
When you consider that Green is overpaid at $9.2 million, it’s hard to envision the Pacers wanting to give up any parts of their rotation and/or a first-round pick to bring in Green.
The truth is, adding Green wouldn’t make Indiana a contender anyway, so why even bring in a big-money guy like that unless he’s going to push you into the top level of the Eastern Conference?
The Celtics will likely continue to look around for Green destinations this offseason, but when you look at all of the underlying factors involved with a potential Green-to-Pacers swap, I have a strong suspicion Indiana will choose to look elsewhere to solve its wing problem.
All salary information provided by ShamSports.com unless otherwise noted.
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