It's no small victory that the 38-44 Indiana Pacers nearly made the NBA playoffs this season without superstar swingman Paul George. The product on the floor wasn't always pretty, but it was surprisingly effective. And the biggest offseason addition won't be via free agency, trade or the draft. It will be George himself—fully mended after playing just a handful of games at the season's end.
But the draft can help. Thanks to Indiana's down season, the organization owns the No. 11 overall pick as well as the 43rd overall selection in the second round of Thursday's draft. That first pick could address some immediate needs, thanks to a relatively deep draft class.
The Pacers need all the help they can get. They're at risk of losing Luis Scola, C.J. Watson and Rodney Stuckey to free agency, and Roy Hibbert and David West both have player options for next season. In a potential worst-case scenario, general manager Kevin Pritchard and president Larry Bird could have some extensive rebuilding before them.
|Pacers' Contract Situation for 2015-16|
|Roy Hibbert||$15,514,031 Player Option|
|David West||$12,600,000 Player Option|
|Luis Scola||Unrestricted Free Agent|
|C.J. Watson||Unrestricted Free Agent|
|Donald Sloan||Unrestricted Free Agent|
|Lavoy Allen||Unrestricted Free Agent|
|Rodney Stuckey||Unrestricted Free Agent|
|Shayne Whittington||$1,045,059 Qualifying Offer|
That's not an entirely bad thing. Newer, younger blood could bring some life to George's supporting cast. And while the draft won't be the only means of adding talent this summer, it's one of the more affordable solutions.
Indiana has some holes. This is a team that's had room for improvement even when George was at his best. For the moment, however, here's a snapshot of the club's most pressing needs as well as some speculation about the kinds of players who might fit.
Lance Stephenson's departure created opportunities for Stuckey and swingman C.J. Miles, but it also created questions about who—besides George and point guard George Hill—can create offense for himself and others. The Pacers ranked 15th in the league last season with a 16.7 assist ratio, according to ESPN's Hollinger stats.
That didn't help an offense that was 23rd in offensive efficiency, scoring a modest 100.8 points per 100 possessions.
The team can blame George's absence for much of the deficit, but it's also true that Indiana needs help on this front. Hill has been a steadying backcourt presence and is coming off a career campaign, but his 5.1 assists per contest last season (a career-best mark) aren't going to keep the offense humming all by themselves.
Stephenson wasn't perfect, but he was valuable in at least one respect: He broke defenses down, made things happen and created scoring opportunities in the process. He was an instigator, someone who seemed to jolt Indiana's offense when it was in need.
The exact skill set will be hard to duplicate at this juncture of the first round, but at least two skilled swingmen should be available: Kentucky's Devin Booker and Kansas' Kelly Oubre Jr. The former is more of a shooter, and the latter is more of an athlete—but either could add another offensive dimension alongside George and Co.
If the Pacers look for some offense in the second round, don't forget about Notre Dame's Pat Connaughton. He's a knockdown shooter who'd help keep the floor spaced at the least.
2. Guard Depth
With Hill in place at point guard through the 2016-17 season, finding an upgrade over Watson isn't necessarily Indiana's first priority. The club could conceivably address it during the second round, especially if someone like Louisville's Terry Rozier slips.
But there's also logic to taking a floor general with the No. 11 pick and allowing Hill to spend more time off the ball, where he would arguably be more empowered to play like the score-first combo guard he is at heart. Should the Pacers go the point guard route, keep an eye on Murray State's Cameron Payne, a 6'2" 20-year-old who can do it all.
Duke's Tyus Jones is also an option, but Payne's draft stock is looking better at the moment. It wasn't always that way.
"I go from not being on a mock draft to being on the mock draft," Payne told reporters recently, per Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star. "The main thing is, if I kept winning, I'll get noticed. That was the main thing, we kept winning games and more people started coming to our games and started to watch us."
Bird has been one of the people watching.
"We followed him all year," Bird said, per Buckner. "We know he can shoot it, he can drive it. He's a playmaker. His size is against him a little bit but he's a nice little player. He didn't play against top schools but that doesn't mean he can't play."
Either Payne or Jones could replace Watson and even adopt a more prominent sixth-man type of role. And either would also address the previously discussed need for offense, particularly from the passing standpoint.
In a perfect world, one of these guys might even be good enough to allow Hill to be the sixth man, a role in which he thrived for the San Antonio Spurs before coming to Indiana. That's getting ahead, but one hesitates to put an early ceiling on a lottery pick's impact.
1. A Big Man
Even if West returns, he'll be 35 when the season starts. And it's hard to say where the enigmatic Hibbert fits into the Pacers future. So as much as this rotation needs more shooting, passing and slashing, it also needs to add someone who can operate in the painted area.
Even in today's uptempo league, big men can make the difference. One such difference-maker may be Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky. "While Kaminsky has traveled the predraft circuit and will have worked out for six teams by draft night, he prefers just three places, and a source close to the player told the Star last week that the Pacers are on that short list," Buckner wrote on Saturday.
That's good news for the Pacers. They could use someone like Kaminsky. He can play either the 4 or the 5, and he'd address some of those offensive needs on account of his exceptional outside touch.
The other advantage to drafting big this year is that there happens to be a deep pool of prospects from which to select. Aside from Kaminsky, the Pacers could also look at Myles Turner, Trey Lyles or Bobby Portis—all solid interior players who might benefit from a year under West's tutelage (assuming West opts in next season).
Indiana has to start thinking about a future that might not include West or Hibbert, and this draft could go a long way toward finding an eventual—or perhaps immediate—replacement.