A first-round sweep is certainly not what the Pacers were expecting at the beginning of the season. Trading for Jeff Teague and moving on from George Hill was mistakenly (even at the time to many observers) considered a move that would put them closer to being able to compete in the playoffs. Flipping their 2016 first-rounder, a 20th pick which ended up being Caris LeVert and a protected second-rounder for Thaddeus Young was another win-now move. With big names in their new starting lineup expectations were lofty.
Truth is, Indiana didn’t have much of a choice in trying to build a winner quickly around George, who is a free agent in the summer of 2018 and has been linked to the Lakers and other teams better suited to compete for a championship.
However, the theory behind this season’s team was somewhat flawed. Players like Teague, Young, Monta Ellis, Rodney Stuckey, Aaron Brooks and Al Jefferson bring most of their value to a team as scorers who can get 16-18 points in a game with the ball in their hands. We know enough about what wins basketball games that getting a team of pretty good scorers who need the ball to succeed doesn’t work. Around your best player, complementary skillsets become more valuable.
This was also reflected in the lineup data. The Pacers’ most played lineup of Teague, Ellis, George, Young and Myles Turner had a negative -0.2 net rating on the season. Replace Ellis with a spot-up shooter in CJ Miles and that number was a solid +7.7. With Glenn Robinson III in the fifth slot, the Pacers were +7.8 points per 100 possessions. Some of the Pacers most played lineups were actually quite good, but it was the bench that struggled to contribute. Every single player who came off the bench for Indiana (except for Miles who started 29 games) had a negative scoring differential when they were on the floor. Units with Brooks, and Jefferson playing with another big were poor on both ends of the court.
The Pacers were an average team overall and the path to improving isn’t a straightforward one. Drafting Turner 11th in the 2015 NBA draft was a great move by Indiana and may end up as some sort of a saving grace for the team since Turner is the player who has upside on both ends and could be the driving force in pushing Indiana to the next level.
Heading into the summer, depending on the contracts the Pacers decide to guarantee, Indiana will have roughly $13 million in cap space before deciding what to do with Miles’ and Teague’s cap holds. It’s a safe bet the Pacers traded for Teague with the intention of re-signing him and locking up Miles will likely eat into the remaining cap space (Miles has a cap hold of $8.7 million which is counted against the cap until a new contract is signed or the Pacers renounce their rights to him). Also, Indiana has two $10 million contracts in Jefferson and Ellis they could look to move if the opportunity presents itself.
Those numbers don’t leave the Pacers with much room to play with unless they can entice one of the top free agents to join the team. After signing Lance Stephenson, they are filled up on the wing and the biggest needs for the team are for a backup point guard and finding a big man who could play together with Turner and at center. Among free agents this summer, the best options that could potentially (maybe) be available to Indiana are Patrick Patterson, Patty Mills, Jonas Jerebko, Nenê and Ersan Ilyasova.
The most important day for the Pacers franchise for the foreseeable future will be when the All-NBA teams are announced. If George makes one of the three All-NBA teams, he will be eligible for the “supermax” extension worth over $200 million over the next five seasons and about $70 million more than any other team would be able to offer. George put together a wonderful two-way season averaging 23.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.6 steals per game, but there’s a significant chance that won’t be enough to make it. The forward spot is loaded, and with Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo as locks to get in and Jimmy Butler and Gordon Hayward having career years, George may well end up not filling the criteria for the big contract.
Indiana may be forced to play the same game of dice next summer and hope George doesn’t leave in unrestricted free agency a year from now. The Pacers have precisely one good young player on their roster in Turner, Robinson III may end up as a solid role player, and trading George would start a multi-year rebuild not guaranteed to succeed in a small market. The paradox in trading a superstar like George is that any team trading for him expects to compete for a championship, so any draft picks received aren’t likely to be any good.
By draft night, the Pacers will have a better view of George’s future with the franchise, and at that point there’s always the Celtics who could be available for a deal. The Celtics’ Nets pick will be in the Top 4, and has a high chance of being the first selection. If the Celtics were to make that pick available for George, that is something the team would have to seriously consider.
Best case scenario for the Pacers would be George gaining an All-NBA spot this season, Turner taking the next step and becoming one of the premier big men in the league, getting lucky in the draft, free agency and waiver wire and finish in the high-40s in wins next season.
Worst case, George walks in the summer of 2018 and the Pacers are left with nothing but Turner and a few veteran role players to start a long and painful rebuild.
You can find Mika Honkasalo on Twitter @mhonkasalo.