By Michael Pina
What you're about to read is not meant to be a postmortem for the 2013-14 Indiana Pacers. Those who watched their agonizingly empty push to win a championship fall short -- for a third straight time at the hands of LeBron James and the Miami Heat -- are well familiar with the warts that led to their downfall. (Horrendous offense, individual inconsistencies and an unforgettable two-month long nervous breakdown just about sums it up.)
The more meaningful discovery is that this team (more specifically, Indiana's starting five) has smacked squarely into its apex. The Pacers aren't good enough, and won't be anytime soon. Zero regrets should ever come with three straight years of title contention, particularly if winning it all simply wasn't meant to be. This era of Pacers basketball will be remembered for their defensively rugged (and retro) style. They were bruisers from another era who forced the champions to do some introspective soul searching every season.
Now, David West and Roy Hibbert are either stagnant or declining, George Hill is as flavorless a floor general as any title contending team can possibly have and guaranteeing Lance Stephenson millions of dollars over the next four years is akin to willingly removing all the locks from your house after moving into a dangerous neighborhood. Paul George is the only variable with dependable upside, but how much better can he really be, especially as key members of Indiana's supporting cast begin to deteriorate around him?
It isn't often a No. 1 seed whose best player is only 24 years old enters an offseason with serious doubt, but three straight disappointing exits spawn a natural follow up question: What's next? Indiana's windshield will stay foggy until James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh decide their own immediate futures, but assuming those three are back in Miami next season, what are Larry Bird, Donnie Walsh and Kevin Pritchard's options this summer?
Here are three different doors they can open. Each one is grounded and rational in its own way, depending on how team owner Herb Simon ultimately wants to proceed.
1) (Partially) tear the house down
Indiana can't win a title with its current core, so what's the point in keeping the band together? Evan Turner, Stephenson and Rasual Butler are entering unrestricted free agency, and Luis Scola's $4.8 million deal can be bought out for under $1 million. Besides that, everybody else is on a guaranteed deal.
Turner and Butler are already gone, but the question of letting Stephenson walk is far more complex. He's only 23 years old, probably should've made the All-Star game this season and has tremendous physical ability. In these playoffs, he led Indiana in assists and was its third leading scorer; Stephenson's upside on the court is humongous, even if he's shown negligible growth as a human. Letting him go would be Indiana's way of announcing it values empty cap space over committed millions to a sensational malcontent. Stephenson is gone if the Pacers choose to start over.
From there, they'd make an honest attempt to enter the 2014 draft. (Indiana surrendered its first-round pick to the Phoenix Suns when it acquired Scola last summer.) George isn't going anywhere, even though he's far and away Indiana's most valuable trade chip. This leaves Hibbert, who could draw interest from either the Sacramento Kings (No. 8 pick) or Charlotte Hornets (No.9), two teams that want to win now and should be willing to take on the $14.8 million Hibbert's due in 2015 before his $15.5 million player option the following summer. Pairing Hibbert's rim protection with the offensive guile of DeMarcus Cousins or Al Jefferson would make a fascinating -- albeit taxing in several ways -- frontcourt. The Orlando Magic at No. 12 are also a possibility.
That's a deep draft's lottery pick to pair with George and roughly $23 million of wiggle room beneath the tax. From there, Indiana should search high and low for trade partners willing to take Hill and/or West off its hands. This won't be the easiest thing in the world, but all Indiana wants here is to acquire shorter contracts and slash pay roll. If it really wants to start over, now would be a perfect time to do so.
PROS: Start fresh and build around George, a budding franchise superstar.
CONS: Kiss title contention goodbye, along with benefiting off George's max contract with a competitive outfit.
2) Change identities on the fly
The Pacers align themselves with defense. It's what they're really, really good at: length, height, prodigious individual talent and a conservative system that sucks the smile out of every game they take part in. This team knows how to limit scoring.
But what if they dramatically switched their fundamental identity without surrendering a realistic hunt for the championship? The Pacers finished this season with the ninth worst offense in the league, logging the 11th slowest pace. Hibbert isn't the main reason Indiana's offense is so putrid, but in the playoffs, the team tallied 5.5 more points per 100 possessions with him on the bench.
Hibbert is also one of the league's premier rim protectors, and the prime symbol of Indiana's "defense-first" mentality. But what if the Pacers placed a philosophical emphasis on scoring the ball instead, by trading Hibbert, swapping head coach Frank Vogel with an offensive genius like Mike D'Antoni or George Karl (this part isn't happening) and essentially becoming a different team?
Here's an offer: Hibbert, Hill and Indiana's 2016 first-round pick to the Boston Celtics for Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green. The Pacers would then re-sign Stephenson, giving them a Rondo-Stephenson-George-West-Ian Mahinmi starting five, with Green coming off the bench as a probable Sixth Man of the Year candidate.
Some depth at center is necessary (is Spencer Hawes willing to take a pay cut and fill Indiana's mid-level exception for a shot at winning it all?), but the upgrade at point guard is absolutely staggering and makes this worthwhile. George is wonderful, but allowing a perennial All-Star point guard like Rondo to assume the bulk of his offensive responsibility could do wonders for his inefficient attack. Rondo and Green are basically both expiring after this season (Green has a $9.2 million player option in 2015-16); if nothing else, this deal would provide plenty of experimental amusement.
(This hypothetical probably isn't enough to pry Rondo away from Danny Ainge's iron claw, but its purpose is to highlight the type of haul Indiana might like in return for Hibbert.)
CONS: Many things, and any legitimate success here would be unprecedented.
3) Run it back
Pending whatever Miami's Big 3 decides to do in free agency, this option is predictable, boring and Indiana's best shot at winning the title. In order to do so: George and Stephenson need to accelerate their maturity and talent levels on and off the floor, a 34-year-old West needs to be just as good or better than he was at 32, Hibbert can't devolve into an inconsistent offensive player and needs to make several improvements that go beyond scoring (i.e. passing out of a double team and while moving on the pick-and-roll). Even if all these wonderful improvements are made, it's all but required that a devastating injury ensues for someone on Miami, or the Heat still probably win.
That's the only way the Pacers get to the Finals. From there, they probably lose to a Western Conference power house. Is banking on all these different factors to fall the right way worth it? For Simon, the answer is probably yes. Owning one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference is better than owning a loser.
But unlike last summer, when the Pacers brought in Luis Scola, this time they're stripped of all expendable assets. They can sacrifice the future by dealing a future first-rounder, but that's about it. Anything else compromises the present. Regardless of whether the Pacers choose to buy out Scola and/or re-sign Stephenson, their non-tax mid-level exception or room mid-level exception (they won't have a bi-annual exception to throw around because they already used it on C.J. Watson last season) won't improve the roster by that much. They also have the draft's 57th overall pick.
PROS: This option represents Indiana's best shot at winning a title.
CONS: If insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, then rolling out the same group next season makes Indiana crazy.