As the Indiana Pacers have begun their smaller, faster makeover this season, the team has sacrificed some serious depth in its once-towering frontcourt.
Sure, David West and Roy Hibbert both vacated the Indiana locker room during the summer, but even following their departures, the Pacers’ brass sculpted a purposely shallow frontcourt that features more youth and potential than proven contributors.
Coming out of training camp with a mind to become a more perimeter-oriented team, Indiana kept only six big men among its 15 roster players, then sent two of the six –– Rakeem Christmas and Shayne Whittington –– to the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, the Pacers’ new D-League affiliate. That left the team’s game-night roster with just four traditional bigs: Ian Mahinmi, Myles Turner, Jordan Hill and Lavoy Allen. Most teams keep a fifth “emergency” big on their roster, but Indiana elected to keep another perimeter player instead to aide the team’s style change. With Paul George remaining at his natural small-forward spot, C.J. Miles has effectively been the Pacers’ fifth big man.
That hadn’t really been a problem through Indiana’s first dozen-or-so games, but recently, injuries, foul trouble and a West Coast road trip have done more than enough to expose the frontcourt as an area where this team could really use some help, definitely right now, and maybe the rest of the season as well.
Since losing the first-rounder Turner three weeks ago to a thumb fracture, the Pacers have made it clear that they won’t be calling up Christmas or Whittington as a replacement and instead have pressed on with Mahinmi, Hill and Allen as their only three big men. While Mahinmi has been strong so far this season during his first extended action as a starter, and Hill and Allen have even surprised, they’re still a limited trio, especially on a team that is by nature susceptible to size and rebounding.
Predictably, then, Indiana’s recent back-to-back losses to end its road trip came at the hands of the Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz, a pair of top 10 rebounding squads with big, young, athletic front lines. On top of Turner’s absence, Hill was dealing with a sore lower back, and the Pacers’ lack of able bodies around the rim was painfully obvious. Both Portland and Utah destroyed Indiana on the glass for second-chance opportunities to keep them in the game and quality chances from the paint late in the game. While the Blazers out-efforted the Pacers in many ways during the second half, the Jazz pounded the ball deep with Derrick Favors and Trevor Booker to simply overwhelm Indiana’s front line, and by the start of overtime –– which Favors induced with a late-game and-1 –– both Mahinmi and Allen had fouled out.
The Pacers have started playing more small-ball with untraditional bigs, but their situation is clearly problematic even for a smaller team. Turner will be out for at least another three weeks, so it’s not a problem that’s going away any time soon either. Mahinmi has a career foul rate of 5.8 per 36 minutes and can’t be trusted to stay on the floor enough against good bigs. Neither Hill nor Allen have the mettle to anchor Indiana’s spread units on their own, but if and when Mahinmi gets into foul trouble, that’s currently the route Frank Vogel has been forced to go, which makes one understand why Vogel has opted to play traditional “big” lineups off his bench this season, with Hill and Allen on the floor together.
The issue for the Pacers here is two-fold: one, finding an available big man whose playing style (and contract) fits their short- and long-term plans, two, finding a roster spot for said big man. Indiana currently has the maximum 15 players under contract, so a current roster player would have to leave in order to bring in frontcourt help.
Not to mention, with this team in transition and the NBA’s free-agent “Supermarket Sweep” coming around this summer, finding a good fit both strategically and financially would be paramount. The Pacers don’t want to compromise their future roster flexibility to chase a playoff run with no real championship chances.
Obviously this all makes a potential move very complicated. The most likely scenario would seem to involve the recent reports that Indiana is shopping third-year swingman Solomon Hill, but even that’s complicated by the fact that Hill’s $1.3M rookie-scale salary is difficult to match in a trade, at least in a way that yields Indiana something meaningful in return. It’s not like Hill’s value is all that high to begin with.
Assuming that they won’t be trading with any of their playoff competitors out East, there aren’t a ton of options for the Pacers as it stands in terms of frontcourt help. Guys who could help Miles fill his role are at a premium right now in the NBA, as are rotation-worth bigs who cost as low as Hill. Although the New Orleans Pelicans apparently inquired about him, they don’t actually have anything Indiana would want, it wouldn’t appear at least, with over-priced and ill-fitting options in New Orleans’ frontcourt.
So the most likely scenario would seem to be that Indiana stands pat, doubles down on its team effort, and rides out the next few weeks until Turner can return to the lineup. Injuries happen, though, and if another were to strike, this team would be right back in this problem spot, with only three viable bigs and not enough personal fouls –– or rim protection –– among them.
Still, the “how” of it remains thorny. Unless the Pacers want to give up a draft pick (unlikely), any trade involving Hill will be difficult to navigate in order to grab a viable fifth big. Signing a free agent like Carlos Boozer, Earl Clark or Jeff Ayres also seems like a stretch, since Indiana has explicitly invested time and energy in developing the young guys at the end of their bench like Christmas, Whittington, Glenn Robinson III and Joe Young.
Hill’s availability suggests that the team is indeed considering the possibility, however, so a move seems possible. With more than 60 games of work still remaining on the schedule, it might be necessary for the health of this roster.