When the Indiana Pacers come through San Antonio on Monday night, it’ll be the first time the Pacers have seen David West since he left them for the Spurs during the offseason. West was a huge part of Indiana’s successful run during the early part of the decade, and his decision to turn down his $12M player option for this year came as a bit of a surprise. But despite his decision to opt out and his outgoing issues with team president Larry Bird’s comments about former teammate Roy Hibbert during the summer, there shouldn’t be any hard feelings between the two sides.
Not only was West a key member of the Pacers squads that challenged the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, he was the kick-starter for that run in many ways. Coming off knee surgery in the 2011 offseason, West took a chance in signing with a feisty, rebuilding Indiana team, as he spurned his alternative option to join the Kevin Garnett-Paul Pierce-Ray Allen triumvirate with the Boston Celtics, who were trying to make one last championship run. The respected West immediately legitimized the Pacers both on and off the court, giving them a versatile scoring option in the high and low post, as well as an influential veteran presence in the locker room.
For one, Paul George told the Indy Star’s Candace Buckner how much he’s missed West this season, especially as he tries to fill that leadership role:
“I called him Uncle West,” George said, “just (his) knowledge of the game and the conversations we would have away from the game. For me being 21, 22 years old, that was stuff that stuck with me and has helped me with this unit having younger guys. A lot of stuff that I’m going through now … I was able to vent to David about. About officiating, about play calls, what’s going on out in the court. That was my person I vented to and he was the one who set me straight.”
West’s impact in Indiana is virtually impossible to overstate. His big, bad style of play helped birth the Pacers’ smash-mouth mentality that provided the foundation for their successful run, and more important, he gave them a legitimate star at his position, although West’s numbers in Indiana always wound up more team-oriented. He gave the team a rock when it needed it, and partly as a result, other players like Paul George and Roy Hibbert were able to blossom around him.
Many believe that West’s departure was a foregone conclusion by the team decided to make it official, that he was simply not in the team’s new strategic plans, and that Indiana was happy to let him walk. That’s not really true, however. West himself said later that his desire to win a championship was his main reason for leaving to join the Spurs, and he also mentioned Larry Bird’s negative public comments on Roy Hibbert during the end-of-year press conference as making his decision easier. Had West given the Pacers the option, they would’ve loved to keep him around, especially since his size, scoring and smarts would be valuable to Indiana’s recently depleted frontcourt.
Given everything West spoke on, it’s understandable why he would’ve wanted to leave his environment in Indiana. He spent several seasons helping establish a culture and leading a locker room. Following the Pacers’ drama-filled collapse to end 2013-14 and their miserable lost season in 2014-15 thanks to Paul George’s injury, the chance to spend his last couple years competing for titles in an incredible team atmosphere probably seemed like a no-brainer for the 35-year-old West. Who could blame him, even for $11M?
Once West moved on, though, he did help expedite Indiana’s small-ball switch. With the leftover money from West’s eight-figure deal, the team was able to go out and sign Monta Ellis, who’s been a catalyst for Indiana’s new offense this season. The rest of the room from the expensive departures of both West and Hibbert were used to help fill in the gaps with guys like Lavoy Allen, Jordan Hill and Chase Budinger, as well as spend the end-of-payroll money to take chances on young prospects like Glenn Robinson III, Joe Young and Rakeem Christmas.
It certainly would’ve been nice to have a versatile leader like West in the frontcourt for another season, but by leaving, he did give the Pacers the opportunity to get a year ahead on a team-wide transition that’ll likely take a couple years to complete. That matters for Indiana, even if it didn’t necessarily matter for West’s decision.
His choice, to be fair, is paying off in a big way too. Although West may have underestimated the Pacers’ capabilities this year, he’s correct in thinking that they’re not ready to take home a championship, while the Spurs are making good on that potential. San Antonio is 23-5 and nipping at the net rating of the abominable Golden State Warriors, putting them in the NBA’s elite class right now. West’s role has drastically changed with the Spurs, but he’s getting what he wants: a role on a contender and a real chance at a title.
The Pacers miss him, though, and that’ll be obvious when they meet tonight. Even if the two sides are probably better off, losing a veteran like West is tough, especially when he meant so much to the team. For Indiana, it’s a nice test: a chance to try its mettle on the road against a legitimate contender and not get caught up in the narrative against an old teammate. For West, it’s simply another game on the road to a championship goal, a chance that he’s always deserved.