What’s the Plan? is a weekly series where we look at the long-term outlooks for teams that aren’t immediately contending for a championship. This week, we examine a team that was a borderline favorite in the East less than two years ago: The Indiana Pacers.
If you’re a Pacers fan who just got out of a coma that started around the 2014 All-Star Game, you’re probably a little confused. You might be wondering how the Pacers went from being an Eastern Conference juggernaut to a rebuilding team that traded away the second-best player from that juggernaut for a second-round pick. Well, it’s been a long, strange trip for Indiana, but let’s start from the beginning of the downturn.
Before the All-Star break, the Pacers went 40-12 and looked just as good, if not better, than the Miami Heat. Afterwards, they went 16-14, struggled to beat the eighth-seeded Hawks in the playoffs, and ultimately lost to the Heat in the conference finals. There were rumors of internal discord between players and there was a lot of public criticism of Roy Hibbert’s production. The common narrative was that the young team had buckled under the spotlight. However, despite the stumbling, they had still made the conference finals with home-court advantage, and the hope was that the team would learn from the experience and come back the next year to build on what they’d done.
Unfortunately, the offseason took a bigger toll on the team than the regular season ever could. The team failed to re-sign Lance Stephenson, and while it looked like the Pacers dodged a bullet as Stephenson was god-awful for the Hornets, the team felt the loss of his production on the offensive end. This was especially true after Indiana lost Paul George to a devastating leg injury during a Team USA scrimmage. After losing the team’s two best perimeter scorers, Indiana was unable to make the playoffs and decided to completely alter its basketball strategy moving forward, opting to play smaller and faster in an attempt to generate more offense.
With this in mind, the Pacers traded Hibbert to the Lakers for effectively nothing. The Pacers received a second-round pick (which ended up going to the Cavaliers for Rakeem Christmas), but in reality, the Lakers basically just agreed to take on Hibbert’s contract. The Pacers also lost David West in free agency; West turned down a $12.6 million player option to play on the Spurs for a league minimum deal. This means the Pacers are returning only two starters from their 2014 playoff run.
This team is going to need to make a lot of changes if they want to remain competitive in the league. They’ve drafted Myles Turner to be the big man of the future and brought in Monta Ellis, Jordan Hill and Chase Budinger this offseason. There’s talk of George playing a good amount of power forward in small ball lineups, which will take some getting used to, especially for a player coming off such a serious injury.
There’s a lot more work to be done, and the Pacers are nowhere close to a championship contender as currently constructed. However, Indiana will have cap space next summer, and if they can look like an appealing destination by winning a good amount of games next season, they could add some meaningful pieces for the 2016-2017 season.
Tanking is out of the question for this team as George is too good for them to lose that many games, so they may as well try to build with what they have. If they were to try to trade George and gut the roster, they’d at best be making a lateral move, as he’s exactly the kind of player you try to tank for anyway. The Pacers have to play as well as they can next season to try and impress players around the league. Then they have to hope that, for once, the offseason will be kind to them instead of cruel.