Sports

The Indiana Pacers Don't Need to Rush

Armed with a young star and cap flexibility, the Pacers will enter free agency in the driver's seat for the first time in forever. Here's how they can avoid screwing it up.
Photo by Brian Spurlock - USA TODAY Sports

The harsh reality of life in an overlooked market, less than one year removed from a seemingly devastating and strained trade that stripped away a franchise-lifting talent, is indefinite irrelevance. This is where the Indiana Pacers are supposed to be. Instead, after they nearly (and should've) unseated LeBron James in the postseason's first round, the Pacers head into the summer as one of two playoff teams that can open enough cap space for a max contract. They’re hopeful, serious, and worthy of deep analysis for the first time in a long time.

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Before we look at the future, let’s first acknowledge why Indy is so encouraging. Victor Oladipo just made his first All-Star, All-NBA, and All-Defensive teams, led the league in steals, averaged more points than everyone except James Harden, Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Damian Lillard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and Kyrie Irving, and won a Most Improved Player trophy. He just turned 26, is guaranteed a comparatively small $63 million over the next three seasons, and possesses invaluable skills that make life easier for everyone around him.

This is Indiana’s Sun God; the fact that his ability and upside far surpass his price tag affords the Pacers' front office more time than they’d otherwise have to surround him with expensive talent that doesn’t absolutely have to be home grown. This really matters and can't be overlooked. But it also doesn't protect Indiana from doing irreversible damage in the face of growth. Belief is a good thing, but over-confidence is the kiss of death. (For evidence, look no further than the Charlotte Hornets, and how they tried to build around Kemba Walker.)

The Pacers can't afford to cut corners or rush the organic, even as they step into the summer's marketplace as a buyer facing little competition. So far, so good. They will reportedly decline Lance Stephenson’s team option, guarantee Bojan Bogdanovic’s non-guaranteed contract (which doubles as a quality trade chip), and watch Thaddeus Young opt out of his $13.7 million player option. After those become official, if they so choose, the Pacers can waive Al Jefferson and Darren Collison—whose contract is only $2 million guaranteed next season—and enter free agency with over $30 million to spend.

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In other words, this can be the sexiest offseason Indiana has ever enjoyed, an opportunity to grab talent at a decent price they’d otherwise need to overpay for. If this sounds too good to be true, it's probably because it is. With Kevin Pritchard—the same general manager who coined “treadmill of mediocrity” as a dreaded label that should be avoided at all costs—behind their steering wheel, the Pacers need be weary about hopping on.



The good news is they have internal upside on their side. Every member of Indy's true core—which is currently Oladipo, Myles Turner, and Domas Sabonis—will almost certainly be better next season. T.J. Leaf and Aaron Holiday—two 21-year-old college teammates!—may emerge as stable pieces off the bench, and a case can be made for them to preserve as much cap flexibility as possible, run it back next season with a similar rotation, (maybe) win a playoff series, and enter the 2019 offseason as aggressive buyers with tangible momentum. That's a best-case scenario.

Turner’s next contract can complicate matters, but whether they give him something like a four-year, $80 million extension or even match a maximum offer sheet, Indiana can still have max space next summer if they don’t lock into any multi-year deals over the next few weeks. There’s risk both ways. What if the Pacers disappoint next season without the element of surprise shouldering their success? This team encroached on the rest of the league last year in a way nobody expected, and did so with some luck. They outscored opponents by 17.7 points per 100 possessions in the clutch—only Houston and Cleveland had higher net ratings—while zero teams were better on the defensive end. Trim it down to how teams performed in the final three minutes of games in which the scoring margin was three points or fewer, and the Pacers were a charming 23-14.

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Otherwise, they were about average on both sides of the ball and didn’t suffer any serious injuries outside of the 17 games Turner missed (seven of which came during Indy’s first eight of the season). How much of last year's success is replicable, especially without Young—who by far had the highest fourth-quarter point differential on the team?

They've been linked to Tyreke Evans, Will Barton, Marcus Smart, and Rodney Hood, each of whom is hunting for a raise and long-term security. All are major upgrades over Stephenson and complement the team's most important pieces that are already in place, but none are likely to ever make an All-Star team and, depending on the price, come with some risk for an organization that's on the rise. Evans, Barton, Smart, and Hood make more sense playing for teams that already know what they are. The Pacers still aren't that.

Where they go from here will probably align with Oladipo’s individual ceiling. There’s always a chance (however small) that his 2017-18 season was unsustainably great, an abrupt ascent that’s more Fetty Wap than Cardi B. He shot the ball slightly worse after the All-Star break and forgot how to finish at the rim in the playoffs, but the most important elements of Oladipo’s game—speed, a menacing pull-up jumper, defensive instincts, etc.—have staying power.

That’s more good news for Indiana, and crosses off the most important box every roster needs in order to maintain legitimacy. But no matter how good Oladipo becomes, if the Pacers want to sit on the same perch as Boston and Philadelphia, they either need a randomly awful season (preferably in 2019) to strike gold in the lottery, for Turner to immediately mutate into the LaMarcus Aldridge 2.0 Pritchard thinks he can, or package some of their young assets (like Sabonis, Turner) for another star.

This franchise should be understandably antsy right now, and if they're content with humdrum playoff appearances they should go ahead and sign one of those aforementioned names, plus a logical replacement for young (Mike Scott? Ersan Ilysasova?). But building on what they've already accomplished to achieve something more doesn't require a splashy signing right now. It's a delicate balance, but the avenue to a higher tier may materialize next summer, when they pitch superior but realistically attainable talent—think Kevin Love or Khris Middleton instead of Kawhi Leonard or Jimmy Butler—on being apart of something special.

It's an exciting time for the Pacers, and what they do this summer will ultimately determine how long the party lasts.