Contest or Tank? The Dilemma Facing the Indiana Pacers

Pace MillerCorrespondent IJanuary 10, 2010

NEW YORK - JANUARY 03: Head coach Jim O'Brien of the Indiana Pacers watches on from the bench against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden January 3, 2010 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

We're not even at the half-way mark of the 2009-2010 NBA regular season yet, but sadly for the Indiana Pacers, it's not too early to start thinking about the next draft lottery.

To keep contesting every game and miss the playoffs anyway, or develop the young players and possibly get a top draft pick?  This is becoming a serious dilemma for the Indiana Pacers.

All-Star Danny Granger and Troy Murphy both returned to action last game, a 116-109 loss to the lowly Minnesota Wolves, one of the three teams in the NBA with a worse record than the 11-24 Pacers.

To say this season has been a disappointment is a massive understatement.  Let's not forget, 2009-2010 was meant to be the season the Pacers finally turned things around. 

The existing core of players were supposed to have gelled, the young players were supposed to become solid, consistent contributors, and the new guys were supposed to fill in the remaining gaps and bring in a defensive mindset that had been sorely lacking in past seasons. 

Forget just squeezing into the playoffs: the Pacers were aiming for a top six finish!

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However, reality has been both brutal and sobering. 

Currently, the Pacers are 13th in the East, five games out of the eighth and final playoff spot.  Of course, they could still make an unexpected run and get back into the mix - but at this point, would it be worth it? 

Sure, injuries have played a significant role once again, but with the disoriented and passionless way the team has been playing this season, can anyone honestly say the Pacers would make the playoffs even without the injuries?  And even if they did, would the result be anything but a first-round sweep?

Consider this: the Pacers have not had a top 10 draft pick for 10 years, when they traded for fifth overall pick Jonathan Bender (who has recently signed with the Knicks) in 1999. 

The last top 10 pick the Pacers earned with losses was 20 years ago, when they selected George McCloud seventh overall in 1989.

As bad as things have gone thus far, this season presents a tempting opportunity.  In the last three years, the Pacers have finished 13th last, 11th last and 12th last in the league.  In other words, they had less than a 3% chance of landing a top three pick in any of those years. 

Now consider the Pacers' position this season.  If they finish fourth last, as they are now, the Pacers will have a greater than 37% chance of acquiring a top three pick, and in any case no worse than the seventh overall pick.

Given that the Pacers need a decent point guard more than anything else right now, how good would, say, a John Wall look on the team next season?  Or at least have something valuable to use as a catalyst to blow the team up and start over?

A top draft pick is not good enough to turn around a franchise like the Pacers immediately, but it's a start.

Why not give more playing time to Tyler Hansbrough, Roy Hibbert, Brandon Rush, AJ Price and Josh McRoberts?  Even if they don't develop into the players that the Pacers want, at least they'll make better trade bait.

Not to say the Pacers should be giving up (well, not more than they are now), but a top three pick is starting to look very appealing right now.