At this time last year, things were going pretty well for the Indiana Pacers.
The team hadn’t even lost 10 games yet, standing at 35-9 and leading both the Central Division and the Eastern Conference. Both Paul George and Roy Hibbert were playing like All-Stars, while Lance Stephenson was campaigning for his own spot in the game as Sir Lancelot. The Pacers’ starting five, rounded out by David West and George Hill, was leading the league in plus/minus as a unit, and coach Frank Vogel had his squad atop the league in defensive rating as well. Indiana had been playing well all season, and they were finally starting to garner attention as a legitimate title contender.
Then, everything went south. After losing a funky, one-point game to the Magic in early February, the Pacers suddenly weren’t the same team. Indiana went just 17-15 during their final 32 games after that loss in Orlando before sort-of bouncing back in the playoffs. They battled and beat both the Hawks and Wizards in the first two rounds, then wilted against their rival Miami Heat and got run off the court in six games.
Things got even worse for the Pacers during the summer, when leaks of discontent among the team haunted them even after their elimination. Lance Stephenson, framed as the root of the problem by many, left for Charlotte, and soon after, Paul George suffered his infamous compound fracture at the Team USA scrimmage in Las Vegas.
Already down their top two playmakers from the previous season, morale was low entering training camp. West talked about changing the team’s frame of mind and altering their expectations after what transpired during the summer, then he soon found himself the victim of a badly sprained ankle that has caused him to miss 15 games this year. Hill soon suffered an injury as well, which led to torn quadriceps that has kept him out of all but seven games. Altogether, the Pacers have had six players miss 10 or more games this season: West, Hill, George, Ian Mahinmi, CJ Miles, and CJ Watson. At full strength, those are six of Indiana’s top-8 rotation guys, and on a team without great depth––especially offensively––losing that many guys to injury is a huge blow.
The Pacers’ record has suffered accordingly, and they are currently parked in basement of the Central Divison at 16-30. While Indiana has remained laudable on defense, still 7th in the league in defensive rating, this team doesn’t have anyone who can score, and that combination has yielded a messy slog that has simply not been fun to watch. Case in point: the Pacers’ overtime loss against the Hornets from a couple weeks ago, during which they scored just 71 points and set the record for fewest points scored in an overtime game during the shot-clock era.
With less than a month until February’s trade deadline, Indiana’s current status as one of the half-dozen worst teams in the league has many fans suggesting the team should be selling off pieces at the deadline and start thinking about next year.
In a vaccuum, that would be the optimal strategy for the Pacers. Paul George won’t return until next season anyway, and, depending on what David West decides to do with his player option this offseason, Indiana could very well be capped out for 2015-16. Taking this opportunity to shed superfluous salary, acquire some assets, and give yourself a chance to pick up an immediate contributor in the top-five choices of the draft would be long-term strategy, especially for a small-market team.
However, the Pacers are currently closer to the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff seed than they are to the Knicks or 76ers, two of the three teams still below them in the standings (the Magic are the other). Given their proximity to a playoff spot––meaning potential playoff-game revenue!––and the imminent All-Star break to get Hill and West healthy, Indiana seems unlikely to brazenly throw away the rest of this season by trying to unload the likes of Chris Copeland or CJ Watson at the deadline. Not to mention, owner Herb Simon has never tanked during his time in charge of the team.
Certainly, there are fans who favor this approach as well. Bulls fans rallied big-time around Tom Thibodeau’s scrappy, defense-first teams without D-Rose from the last couple years, and one of those squads even upset the Nets in the playoffs. However, the Pacers are not the Bulls, not in market nor payroll nor attendance nor resources. The Bulls don’t really have to worry about D-Rose sticking around, or even their ability to attract star free agents. The Pacers, meanwhile, find themselves on an even tighter timeline with regard to their superstar’s contract, as PG will have just three years guaranteed left on his deal. Indiana needs to maximize their winning potential while George is still here so that he’ll stay.
Even George, sadly, is a huge question mark when he returns. His recovery time has seemingly been super-human so far, but ultimately, the questions about his ability to come back both mentally and physically from such a devastating injury won’t be put to rest until he can step onto the court and prove he belongs. He represents the Pacers’ best bet, however. Teams like the Pacers don’t find players like him anywhere.
Indiana knows it has some assets already in the fold. Coach Frank Vogel, for one, has shown he can certainly coach at the NBA level, and the fact that he’s been able to wrangle anything out of such a thrown-together, untalented group of players has been a good sign for the front office, who awarded Vogel with a contract extension last offseason that caused some to raise an eyebrow.
Hibbert, too, can still defend the rim, and West provides scoring and leadership when he’s healthy. Both will probably be back next season for Indiana, considering they’d be vacating almost $28 million between them otherwise (unless moved via trade, obviously). Both of the Hills, George and Solomon Hill, have shown improvement during their time on the floor this year as well. Outside of CJ Miles, signed basically as a niche shooter for a contender, that’s what the Pacers will essentially be working with next year, aside from whatever player they wind up drafting. Now you can see why picking in the top five would be such a boon for this team’s rotation.
Unfortunately, their money is spent, so Indiana’s front office will have to get creative if they want to bring in new personnel during the offseason. One player to keep an eye on is Phoenix’s Goran Dragic, who has been relentlessly targeted in trade talks by Larry Bird during the last couple years. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, and although the Pacers can’t sign him outright, expect Bird to do everything in his power to make a move for the point guard. Even when this team was at full strength, they lacked true playmaking point guard, and with so many question marks currently, Bird values the addition of a player like Dragic this team more than ever.
That is the reality of the Pacers right now, though, a team with a lot of question marks in its future. Being in a small-market and stuck in the purgatory between the 8-seed and the top of the lottery, they need to be very careful going forward, which is why this next half-season could actually be so crucial. Screw a first-round exit, no matter how inspiring––a top-five pick could do wonders for this team for years.