A long lockout has led into a very short offseason. After several years of forced trades and punishing patience, the Indiana Pacers have suddenly become the apex of nearly every NBA rumor. They have the cap space to sign free agents and young players that intrigue others via trade.
Their financial flexibility also lends itself to inclusion in multi-team deals. If two teams want to swing a major deal, they often need a third to take on unwanted contracts to make the agreement work. Maybe they could get a few draft picks in the process, but the Pacers aren’t likely to stunt their progress and mortgage their future by helping other teams get better.
With 10 players under contract, the Pacers will have to make some subtractions if they decide to make multiple additions, but their payroll is still incredibly low. They have roughly $37 million tied up in their roster for the upcoming season. Kobe Bryant will make $25.2 million alone for the Lakers this season.
Here is a look at what the Pacers have heading into free agency:
Guards: Darren Collison, George Hill, Brandon Rush, A.J. Price, Lance Stephenson
Wings: Danny Granger, Paul George, James Posey, Dahntay Jones
Bigs: Tyler Hansbrough, Roy Hibbert
No longer under contract are: Mike Dunleavy, T.J. Ford, Jeff Foster, Solomon Jones and Josh McRoberts.
Dunleavy, Ford and Jones aren’t coming back, but Foster and McRoberts could return.
Larry Bird and David Morway have planned their attack differently than other clubs because they aren’t going to attract household names like big-market, iconic franchise can do with relative ease.
They also have to be careful with how and where they spend their money. Indiana doesn’t want to ruin their budding chemistry or add an ugly contract to a fairly affordable roster. Granger may not quite be worth the $39 million he’ll make over the next three seasons, but aside from Posey no other player on the roster will make over $3 million this year. Also, Granger could see his production jump and efficiency increase if the pieces around him continue to mature.
So who will the Pacers target?
They have just two big men under contract and one is unconventional (Hansbrough). Frank Vogel could also use a two-guard that can create his own shot. The Pacers thought they may have solved that need in February when they nearly landed O.J. Mayo in a trade with the Grizzlies, but the deal was never consummated.
There are two ways in which they can go about constructing their roster this month.
1. Target the biggest names on the market and shuffle their core significantly.
2. Sign and acquire players to add depth and compliment the young group they have.
Given how they have operated in recent years, a significant overhaul is unlikely. Bird and Morway could easily throw money at guys like David West, Jamal Crawford and Nene (amnestying James Posey to create even more cap space), but that would mean sparse minutes for Hansbrough and maybe even stunt the growth of their young wing players.
The smarter move would be to decide which big man they would most like to add to their roster (West or Nene), giving them a three-man rotation of Hibbert, Hansbrough and the newcomer. Add in Foster and maybe a minimum-salaried prospect with size and the interior is set.
On the perimeter and wing, the Pacers have been linked to Rajon Rondo, Crawford and most recently Andrei Kirilenko.
The Rondo rumors exploded last week and should have never been taken seriously. From the Boston angle, why would they alter their aging roster by dealing the youngest (by far) member of their Big Four? From the Indiana side, the cost for a guy like Rajon would be incredibly high. We’re probably talking at least George, Hibbert and first-round pick, perhaps even Collison as well.
Barring a related move, Kirilenko doesn’t fit as well as Crawford. Kirilenko would improve their defense and his assault on a box score can be eye-popping, but Indiana might have an emerging threat of the same caliber in George. One thing Kirilenko would allow Vogel to do is play Granger at shooting guard with greater frequency, giving the team a bigger backcourt.
Crawford can score points in a hurry and would help the team run smoother offensively with his shot creation. Granger is the team’s best player, but we’ve seen him receive a pass at or dribble himself to the corner for a contested 20-footer all too many times.
The Pacers have the opportunity to add fringe All-Stars in Crawford, Nene and West, but the player that could have the biggest influence on their season is already on the roster.
Hibbert worked out hard and often during the lockout and even spent time recruiting Nene to bang in the paint with him at Conseco Fieldhouse. If Hibbert can be the player we saw in October/November 2010 (16.1 points, 9.5 boards and 2.5 blocks per game while shooting 49% on more than 13 attempts) in addition to helping sign Nene, the Pacers would improve in more ways than through any other route.
Nene would work well alongside Hibbert because of his superior agility, good defensive skills and improving offensive game. Many believe he is the top free agent on the market and that the Pacers are even in the discussion to sign him is a sign of how players view the turnaround in Indianapolis.
I’m not a huge fan of predictions, especially in this landscape where basically every team in the league has been linked to every active player, but here are the best, worst and most likely scenarios for the Pacers:
They sign Crawford and Nene, while trading Brandon Rush to a team with a high-second rounder in either 2012 or 2013. They amnesty Posey to ensure they don’t tie up all their money. Foster is re-signed for depth. Shane Battier is brought in for his veteran presence. Remember, this is the absolute best case and is extremely unlikely.
They miss on Crawford, Nene, West, Marc Gasol and even Kirilenko. The roster on Opening Night is almost the same one we saw give the Bulls more than expected in the first round of the playoffs with new imports (think Carl Landry) not representing much of an upgrade over the players whose minutes they would take. Foster signs elsewhere. No notable veteran with a past of winning is added.
They sign one player to a contract worth more than $10 million annually. Depending on whether that guy is a big man or perimeter scorer, they trade to help fill the other hole. Foster re-signs to retire with the team and a roster spot is filled by a minimum-salaried player that will allow them to take on players and contracts at midseason. Plenty of cap space is left for long-term flexibility.