Ever since team president Larry Bird threw them out at the end-of-season press conference, “smaller” and “faster” have been the two words hovering over the Indiana Pacers’ offseason, their new strategic direction, as well as much of the rest of the league’s.
For the last half-decade, the Pacers had been built around size and length and defense, with center Roy Hibbert anchoring one of the league’s premier units on that end of the floor. With one year, $15 million remaining on his contract and some low stock, Hibbert seemed like a strong bet to put off Indiana’s shift in strategy for a year, as did power forward David West, who also had player option worth $12 million and change.
In a surprising flip of the roster, though, Indiana’s squad got smaller a lot, uh, faster than they anticipated.
West kicked off the transition by surprisingly, but not shockingly, opting out of the final year of his contract to find a contender and get after a ring, then signing with the San Antonio Spurs on Monday for the veteran minimum. In doing so, West took an insane $10.5 million discount for a chance to chase a ring that he would not have had with the Pacers.
It seemed crazy to some, but West is playing his final years and actually discussed retirement frankly on several occasions last season. It makes sense that he would want a chance to win, especially since his Indiana experience has been a steep decline since last spring. West didn’t look like he could have enjoyed the Pacers’ injury-riddled season less last season, so between his recent past and imminent future, his desire to find a stable situation with a legitimate shot at a championship makes sense.
His departure was unexpected, though, given his price tag, which meant Indiana’s front office suddenly had some money to spend. The West vacancy also increased their desire to move Hibbert, who was perfectly suited to play with West. If there was any doubt as to Bird’s desire to cut ties with Hibbert––from the scorched earth at that press conference, there shouldn’t have been––it was eliminated when, with the Pacers’ first-round pick, he selected Texas center Myles Turner, a 7-foot “stretch-five” whose skillset on offense represents the antithesis of Hibbert’s anemic efforts with the ball in his hands.
Despite Hibbert’s low stock and high price-tag, not to mention Bird’s open disdain for the player he was shopping, Indiana eventually found a suitor for their fallen big man: the desperate Los Angeles Lakers, who couldn’t convince any of this year’s free agents to take their money and come see what it’s really like to play with Kobe Bryant. It seems like a safe bet that Hibbert won’t like it.
Once the Lakers were KO’d one-by-one by every meaningful free agent on the market (sorry, Lou-Will), they called up the Pacers and offered to basically take Hibbert for nothing, since LA is under the salary cap and can fit his salary without matching. The details of the trade can’t be finalized until Thursday, and Woj has implied a player could get involved (Ryan Kelly? Robert Sacre?), but as reported, the trade is currently Hibbert to the Lakers for a second-round draft pick and cash.
It’s an unceremonious ending for a guy who was an All-Star just 18 months ago, but the Pacers got exactly what they wanted, which was to make room both strategically and financially for guys who didn’t fit a style conducive to Roy Hibbert. Indiana was sick of bending their strategy to accommodate the slow-footed, offensively-deficient big man, and his liabilities had begun to increasingly outweigh his rim-protecting benefits as teams starts to go five-wide and pull Hibbert far away from the hoop.
Meanwhile, his style of play fits perfectly with the also-slow and soon-to-be-37-year-old Bryant, the Lakers get a much-needed big man, and their front office gets to say they acquired a former All-Star this offseason. It’s wins all around.
The deal wouldn’t be such a resounding victory for the Pacers if they hadn’t been able to spend the money on quality players to replace Hibbert. As has been pointed out on Twitter by some NBA writers, Hibbert’s rim protection remained strong last season, so he’s not totally useless, the way the world viewed him during his Atlanta meltdown last summer.
Roy Hibbert's defensive shot chart. That rim protection! pic.twitter.com/D3q31i6iYq
— Drew Garrison (@DrewGarrisonSBN) July 5, 2015
But he’s not the asset he used to be either, and the Pacers seemed more than ready to move on from a player who had totally failed to live up to his expectations the last two seasons and thrown other guys under the bus in doing so.
In any case, Indiana, long considered a non-factor on the free-agent market, has been able to cobble together an interesting team as they head into a transition year. Bird managed to make good use of their newfound cap space, signing Monta Ellis to a 4-year, $44 million contract and keeping Rodney Stuckey and Lavoy Allen around on 3-year deals worth $21 and $12 million, respectively. Allen is a solid backup big who has come along well during his time with the Pacers, but convincing Ellis and Stuckey to sign with the team was not only an impressive move, but a necessary one.
Playing smaller and faster requires a lot of offensive firepower, and, no offense, a scoring top-three of Paul George, George Hill, and C.J. Miles probably won’t light up the scoreboard in June. They found the point-getters the needed in Ellis and Stuckey, small combo guards who are both scorers, and more than that, slashing playmakers, the type of guys that Indiana had been lacking until last season. That was when Stuckey came along and had his best year since 2008 in Detroit, shooting putting up 17 points per 36 minutes on 39% three-point shooting and 44% overall, both career highs, per NBA Stats.
Keeping him around became a priority, and now, along with Ellis, he gives Indiana a small-ish but very interesting backcourt of Hill, Ellis, Stuckey, and Miles, a group that complements one another well and will definitely score some points.
It’s certainly a new era for the Pacers, and it will be interesting to see how they wind up filling in the gaps on this roster. Currently, George, Damjan Rudez, and Ian Mahinmi seem like the best bet to be opening-night starters at the three, four, and five spots, with Stuckey, Miles, and Turner coming off the bench. That would leave just Solomon Hill and Shayne Whittington as backups at the three and four spots, and they’ve both been hard to watch during Summer League so far. Hill seems to have regressed as a ball-handler, while Whittington has not been consistently able to put the ball in the hoop at all, which is supposed to be his MO.
It seems as if Bird might be forcing coach Frank Vogel to play more Paul George at the four by not addressing the obvious gap there, and that’s not a bad thing. George would be the most obvious pick-and-roll partner on the roster right now for Ellis, at least under Turner is ready, but that won’t be this season. A Monta-PG combo sounds like more fun than Pacers fans have had on offense since Reggie was wearing blue and gold, but giving George too many minutes at the four could have negative ramifications over the course of an entire season, especially since he’ll be in his first year back from a serious leg injury.
Three-and-D guys are a commodity in today’s NBA, but there are still a couple of big forward options who could play a part in the Pacers’ rotation, someone like Dorell Wright, Darrell Arthur, or even Chris Singleton. Indiana could also simply bring back Luis Scola and give Rudez more minutes at small forward. Whatever they do, it probably won’t be drastic, as it seems like this roster is pretty set for now, but they need to do something for the sake of having frontcourt bodies.
The rest of this offseason has been drastic enough for Indiana, a wave of change that will continue with their different style of play next season. They might struggle for a season, but the Pacers’ methods had become antiquated, and Bird has already done an admirable job of switching gears and laying a solid foundation for this new 180-degree direction.
The moving-outs of West and Hibbert allowed that to happen this offseason, making it the abrupt end of an era, as well as an on-the-fly start to a new period that they hope will end better than this last one did.