The 2014-15 season shouldn't matter to the Indiana Pacers any longer.
In the wake of Paul George's devastating injury, one that will keep him out for the entire year, the Pacers said all the right things.
"Have our expectations lowered any?" Larry Bird, the president of basketball operations, said to Bob Kravitz of USA Today. "I don't think so. I think we'll compete hard and do our best to make the playoffs; that's always one of our goals. I can sit up here and sugarcoat it all you want me to, but you just can't replace Paul George."
Figures high up in sports organizations don't often like to admit dirty secrets like the benefits of tanking. The Dana Holgorsens of the sports world don't come around too often, especially because their comments are often met with backlash and followed by backtracking.
Are you surprised Bird wants to remain competitive? Of course he does, and of course he's going to say he does. He's not called "Larry Legend" for nothing.
However, it's not in the Pacers' best long-term interests to make a push for the playoffs, whether they do so by maximizing the talents of the current roster, bringing aboard someone like Shawn Marion or panic trading for an established star to pick up the pieces left behind by George.
Tanking might be an unpalatable course of action, but it's still a beneficial one.
Unsolvable Offensive Woes
How exactly do the Pacers plan on scoring?
This is a team that showed a terrifying lack of offensive competence during the 2013-14 season, often relying on isolation plays and watching as the movement completely stagnated. Things were particularly embarrassing in the playoffs, when a ball-handler would dribble on the perimeter, wait for one lackluster screen and then put up an ill-advised shot.
There was little motion. There was little proper execution.
There was no creativity.
During this past go-round, the Pacers scored just 104.1 points per 100 possessions, per Basketball-Reference.com. Not only did that come well below the league-average mark of 106.7, but it ranked Indiana at No. 23 throughout the Association.
Now, Lance Stephenson—who averaged 13.8 points per game—is gone to the Charlotte Hornets. The Pacers scored an additional 4.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, and their offensive rating when he was on the bench would have beaten only the tanking Philadelphia 76ers.
And that's not all, even though I've already broken down how the loss of "Born Ready" was problematic enough, moving a playoff berth into the realm of nonguarantees.
Thanks to the compound leg fracture he suffered while training with Team USA, George will miss the entire 2014-15 campaign, as mentioned earlier.
George was easily the Pacers' best offensive option last year, averaging a team-best 21.7 points per game. Indiana's offensive rating was 4.1 points per 100 possessions better when he played, and that rating when he was on the bench would once more be better than only the Sixers.
Without PG and Stephenson, the Pacers don't really have any options, and they failed to add truly significant pieces during the offseason.
The top incumbent scorers are now David West (14.0 points per game), Roy Hibbert (10.8) and George Hill (10.3). In other words, an aging power forward who doesn't have much remaining upside, a defensive specialist who was often criticized for his lackluster offense and a point guard who the Pacers have been trying to replace.
With Rodney Stuckey, C.J. Miles and Damjan Rudez serving as the biggest new additions, there isn't much hope on the offensive end of the court. Stuckey—the only true shot-creator—might have to score 25 points per game to keep the offense afloat, and he's going to be the inevitable subject of an inordinate amount of defensive attention.
Sure, the defense figures to be stellar once more, even without George and Stephenson shutting down perimeter players. But without even the ability to match last year's lackluster offensive effort, there isn't much hope at a playoff berth, much less a championship.
Of course, on-court struggles alone aren't cause enough for tanking. Sometimes, suffering through a year of mediocrity—or sheer putridity—is a reasonable route.
But not for these Pacers, even if Bird might have some trouble accepting a strategy that revolves around intentionally lessening his team's shot at victory night in and night out.
The Pacers are already looking to move some of their major pieces.
There was this from Matt Dery, a host on The New Detroit Sports 105.1:
Lots of chatter about Greg Monroe today. Pacers shopping Hibbert and a source tells me they have called the Pistons about him. All I know.— Matt Dery (@dery1051) August 10, 2014
It's worth noting, though, that Dery isn't suggesting a Roy Hibbert-for-Greg Monroe swap; he's merely mentioning the two players in close proximity within the confines of a 140-character limit.
And how about the Pacers going after Goran Dragic? According to Slovenian website Ekipa24.si (per Bryan Rose of Fansided), the Pacers offered Hibbert, Chris Copeland and some cash to the Phoenix Suns while trying to acquire the services of an All-Star-caliber point guard.
Nothing came to fruition, and nothing probably will, but it's significant nonetheless.
Look beyond who the Pacers were attempting to land. The fact that they're willing to part with a player like Hibbert, one inked to a max contract while serving as the centerpiece for the entire defense, says a lot.
That offer apparently came before George went down, but the massive blow to the Pacers' hopes shouldn't detract them from attempting to make moves. After all, they have quite a few pieces who aren't necessarily vital to their future, but could be quite helpful to contending teams.
Hill would be useful as a defensive point guard off the bench for a team in need of depth at the 1, and he's most assuredly not a part of Indiana's future. Well, he might be, but that would be problematic for the long-term upside, since the Pacers desperately need some shot creation.
Luis Scola is another useful bench piece, and West would make some contender quite happy. His veteran leadership and two-way play is invaluable on a competitive team, but the Pacers have to maximize his value. He's simply worth more as a trade asset than he is while serving as a leader on a stagnant team who will be one more year out of his prime when George returns to health.
Indiana, unlike other tanking teams like the Philadelphia 76ers, already has an established superstar to build around. There's no need for a multiyear tankapalooza, just one year of intentional downgrading before picking up with a new core going forward.
Trading these aging assets, ones who aren't essential to the future, is a great way to do exactly that.
Big Needs for the Future
If the Pacers feel as though they can win a title in 2016 with their current core, then they should disregard the tanking strategy entirely.
They've come close over the last few seasons, even with Danny Granger falling out of the lineup due to injuries and Stephenson stepping up to fill his shoes. The Miami Heat haven't allowed them to get over the hump, but there's no doubt they've been a high-quality team for a couple years.
But will that continue?
During the 2015-16 season, the Pacers could very well go to war with the exact same core—George, West, Hibbert, Hill and a hodgepodge of decent-to-subpar role players. With the management still staunchly refusing to spend anything above the luxury-tax threshold, there aren't going to be any huge new additions outside of the draft and trades, after all.
Even if the All-Star swingman returns to his preinjury form and keeps improving, that's not a championship core. Not unless Hibbert benefits tremendously from offseason work and becomes a reliable scorer. With West declining—thanks, Father Time—and Hill not showing much upside, there isn't enough talent there, unless the management reverses course on its financial leanings.
Frankly, Indiana needs help. It needs to find at least one other player who can create offense for himself and his teammates, ideally one who can suit up at point guard and help form some semblance of a working offensive system.
And the best way to find that? Tanking.
No players who fit the description and can make enough of a difference will be added to this current core. The price tags just don't fit together, leaving the best options acquiring one by trading a current stalwart for a high-upside youngster or landing one in the draft.
By trading away pieces and throwing in the towel on the 2014-15 campaign, Indiana should be able to land a few draft picks from other teams. And even if it doesn't, it will still have an impressively high pick in the 2015 selection process, which features plenty of players who could help the Pacers out rather drastically.
Emmanuel Mudiay would be a perfect fit, for example. As Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman writes while comparing him to John Wall, "Mudiay has some serious playmaking potential of his own when you consider his physical tools and burst for a ball-handler."
Even lower down in the order, a guy like Caris LeVert could be a boon to Indiana's offense.
Should the Pacers tank?
Now that the present isn't filled with promise, the Pacers mush shift their focus to the future. And that future can't be simply allowing the same core to stay together, which means the franchise has to find some way to change things up.
I'll help provide a solution.
It's a strategy that begins with "t" and rhymes with "banking."