The Paul George injury changed everything.
It was August 1st of last year, in the final stages of an intra-squad exhibition game between Team USA players training for the World Championship tournament. A pointless and unnecessary affair in the minds of many. George wanted to give the crowd a little extra effort when James Harden had an open court layup, and flew in to make a spectacular swat as he’d done hundreds of times before. The leap, as everyone knows, turned into something else entirely, and as George’s right leg bent in a direction that should not be physically possible, the Indiana Pacers had their season lost.
After making consecutive Eastern Conference Finals runs, the Pacers currently find themselves at 17-31, 12th in the conference, going into tonight’s match-up against the Sacramento Kings.
Although it is expected that George comes back next year, it is not certain that he immediately comes back as the All-NBA performer he was right off the bat. However, the Pacers cannot afford to play much of a long game with David West turning 35 this year. This gives them only a season and a half to re-tool the roster, building up a more stable supporting cast to greet George for the 2016-17 season, when he’ll have had an injury-free year under his belt and theoretically should be closer to his former status as an elite player.
Getting started at this year’s trading deadline might be the best course of action, but that in itself presents some pretty severe challenges. In fact, re-tooling this Pacers team entirely might prove extraordinarily difficult.
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The pressing problem here is a lack of assets, both outside of their playing roster and from those within it. West, for example, is currently earning $12 million with another $12.6 million off a player option coming in 2015-16. He is thus difficult to trade unless the Pacers are willing to take on a contract that extends further than that of West’s, which does not seem likely. No team is in the market for a 34-year old power forward unless said player is either of All-Star quality, or expiring. West is neither, as he is surely not expected to waive his option year and forego almost $13 million.
Cap space, or even the idea of cap space, is for many an attractive option. But even big market teams, or teams with rich histories, have been burned despite having oodles of cash to spend but no players to give them to. As of right now, the Pacers distinctly lack it. In addition to West and the max salaries owed to George and center Roy Hibbert, starting point guard George Hill has another $16 million coming his way over a two-year period after this season. Even with a higher cap number looming in the distance, Hill, who will be 29 by next season, seems to have peaked at averageness. He never quite picked up the offensive slack for the Pacers in recent years when they struggled scoring, nor did he force his way to the basket a ton even with a healthy Paul George around. Last season, playing 32 minutes a night, Hill averaged a measly 2.6 shot attempts within 10 feet, according to NBA.com. And this season, he has appeared in only nine games due to injuries.
West, Hibbert, and Hill take up a combined $34.9 million this season and $36.1 million next season, assuming both West and Hibbert pick up their options. Hibbert might consider opting out for a moment, but given that the cap isn’t expected to rise as significantly this summer, as opposed to in 2016, it might make more sense for him to wait it out another year. At 7’2, and still being a huge defensive presence, there’s a chance some team will break the bank for him, and holding that option open is smart on his part. Despite his 41% shooting and apparent inability to play more than 30 minutes per game, Hibbert is coveted to a degree because of his significant defensive effect on the interior. However, precisely because of this effect, Hibbert’s next contract will be a significant cost. And precisely because of that, his hypothetical trade value is limited.
$36.1 million, plus Paul George’s $17.1 million, is a lot of money for a core that is slightly old, severely offensively limited, and frankly no longer elite. While the Pacers have been struggling, the Atlanta Hawks, Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards have taken a larger hold on the Eastern Conference, and it would be unwise to discount the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers as well. Even the Milwaukee Bucks have a plus .500 record these days, and their young core is bound to further improve over the next few years. Indiana is a non-factor in the East without George, and yet even with him, they would have merely a point guard who has peaked at average, a power forward steadily dropping below average, and a center who only plays on one end for only half the game.
If the Pacers decide to ride it out with their established core for 2016, they’d have to hope they can score big in free agency that season, or at least pull off a trade at the deadline in February that emphatically improve their on-court product, neither of which is all that realistic, especially if George looks rusty and inconsistent. This is not a team that makes big free agent splashes, nor is it one that makes an operating profit, and the aforementioned core four pieces of the team are poor trade options for various reasons. To further complicate matters, the Pacers signed C.J. Miles last summer to a near $18 million deal over four years which, given Miles’s offensive inefficiency (a true shooting percentage of .486% on the year), looks to have been slightly optimistic and will only help in clogging up the cap with negative assets during this period.
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As it currently stands, the Pacers possess one of the most inflexible rosters in the NBA. They can’t attach young, productive players to larger contracts in trades to make an offer seem more appealing, seeing as they don’t have any to attach. Solomon Hill, the second-youngest player on the roster at 23, is currently making an argument for being one of the worst starters in the league, averaging 31.6 minutes but displaying a PER of only 10.0 and a true shooting percentage of .494 – both significantly below average. On the Pacers roster, only Hill, George and third string center Shayne Whittington were born in the 90’s, and Indiana’s average age is 28.2 years, more than a year over the league’s average.
It is worth noting that the Pacers have only themselves to blame for this. They decided to go all-in on acquiring Luis Scola in 2013 – who was coming off a pedestrian year in Phoenix no less – and hastily handed the Suns Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee and a future first-round pick for someone who was only ever going to be a backup for them. Green and Plumlee would have been excellent long-term tools for the Pacers with George on the mend, and would have brought quality depth to the Pacers. Instead, they’re either paying almost $4.9 million next year for the services of a 34-year old much declined backup power forward, or waiving him and paying him a fraction of that to go away. Even with Plumlee’s struggles this year, the deal was one of the worst trades made in the NBA in recent times, three assets needlessly traded for no assets whatsoever.
That very same summer, the team also decided David West was worth $36.6 million over three years, hoping their window would be open long enough for them to not regret cutting that check. Since then, West’s PER has dropped four points and his True Shooting Percentage by 3.4 points. Most telling of West’s decline is the type of shots he is taking. Only 13.9% of his shots are now coming from within three feet of the basket, by far a career-low, and his average shooting distance is 13.1 feet, by far a career-high. Whereas he’d previously get his hands dirty and mix up his inside/outside game, West is now playing similarly to Carlos Boozer, picking and popping his way through a game. 44.6% of West’s shots are from beyond 16 feet, a 9.9 percentage point increase from his previous career-high in that category. This is not a trend that is going to reverse, and so, without ever showing three point range, West is an aging and expensive power forward who shoots mostly highly inefficient two point jump shots, does not protect the rim and rebounds poorly. $12.6 million is a lot of money for Malik Allen.
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It didn’t help matters that Lance Stephenson left without the Pacers getting anything in return, as he left for the Charlotte Hornets last summer in free agency. And if one dared, an argument could be made that Evan Turner – who also left as a free agent for Boston – might even have been able to secure some depth long-term, shooting struggles aside. When both bolted, Indiana had to give Solomon Hill extended minutes which, as noted previously, hasn’t turned out that well. Hill could be a decent long term rotational wing piece as a defender, timely slasher and tertiary ball handler, but he projects only as a backup. And yet he is the Pacers’s best young player asset.
Put simply, even if the Pacers were willing to offer up teams young assets, it isn’t even possible as they have none. And with them being in the Jahlil Okafor hunt this summer, shopping their pick should be a non-starter, even if they protect it. On the plus side, Indiana own all their future draft picks (the first dealt in the Scola deal was conveyed in 2014; the second dealt for Turner and Lavoy Allen was the Warriors’s 2015 second rounder, currently slated to be #60). But they need those picks more than they need to deal them. Even if George picks up exactly where he left off, Indiana have extremely little to flank him with. And if he doesn’t, the situation becomes a little desperate.
The Pacers are an interesting case of a team going all in for a championship roster, including sacrificing long-term assets and overpaying for declining veterans, and dropping it all on the floor. Less than a handful of their players are tradeable, some are pending free agents who might leave on their own this summer, and the rest of the roster is tied up in large contracts that make little sense to move, if they even could be. Should general manager Kevin Pritchard and team president Larry Bird come up with something that effectively helps the Pacers moving forward, by using the pieces at their current disposal, they should be in next year’s NBA Executive Of The Year race. As it is, until West and (potentially) Hibbert expire after the 2015-16 season, Indiana has very little options available. When things aren’t going well, 18 months is a long time to wait.
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