Last week, the Miami HEAT mercifully put the Indiana Pacers out of their misery, finally ending one of the weirdest seasons in league history. No team was hotter coming out of the gates in 2013-2014, and considering the team had advanced one step further in the playoffs every year for the last three seasons, it really was starting to look like the time had arrived for a promising young team to unseat the mighty HEAT.
That, of course, changed almost immediately following the All-Star break, which was when Indiana entered an embarrassing and frustrating skid that sent them into the postseason limping. A lot has been written about the Pacers in the last few weeks explaining why, exactly, things went down the way they did for Indiana, but mostly it all comes down to a combination of Roy Hibbert’s lack of confidence, Paul George’s inconsistency and Lance Stephenson’s selfish vendetta to prove Eastern Conferences wrong for not voting him onto the All-Star team.
Whatever the reason, the Pacers are left a bit of a mess despite finishing among the league’s final four teams, meaning some changes should be expected this summer, so here’s a breakdown of what’s next for Indiana moving forward:
Give Vogel Another Year to Figure This Out
Despite rumors that he may be ousted in favor of a new head coach, namely former Golden State Warriors skipper Mark Jackson, who has ties to both Larry Bird and Donnie Walsh from his playing days in Indiana, Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports reported on Saturday that Frank Vogel would be returning next season as head coach of the Pacers.
Vogel was extended during Bird’s year off, so there were rumblings that a replacement may be in the works, but the fact that Vogel muscled through the team’s struggles to get them to the Eastern Conference Finals is worth lauding, and he’s proven to be a good enough coach in his young career to at least deserve another season to work out the kinks. He’ll have an entire offseason to game plan how to better use his guys, and if he’s lucky, some smart roster maneuvering could give him better guys to use.
Either way, Vogel’s already on the payroll and deserves another shot. With that little bit of ambiguity cleared, Bird, Walsh and Kevin Pritchard can fry other fish this summer.
Decide What To Do With Hibbert and Stephenson
For most of the season, the biggest issue with regard to Lance Stephenson’s free agency was whether the team would be able to afford him. With league interest reportedly already drying up for Indiana’s volatile swingman, finding the money for him probably won’t be as big a problem as initially assumed. The new problem is deciding whether or not to bring back the unrestricted free agent in the first place.
More likely than not, Indiana will keep Stephenson, as the raised cap gives them about $9 million to lock him down. At his talent level, that’s an appropriate number, and to let an asset that talented walk away for nothing would be silly, even with the behavior issues.
It will be interesting to see how he plays when there’s no longer a first big contract looming. Stephenson has played for around $1 million a season the last few years, so this is his first opportunity for a massive raise. Maybe he’ll play less selfishly once he’s got his money. Indiana better hope so, because it’s looking more and more like they’ll be holding onto him.
As for Hibbert, there are plenty of people that believe a fresh start would be good for him, but he’ll earn over $30 million the next two seasons and, based on his regression the last third of the season, that could make him hard to trade. Indiana has plenty of needs—mainly acquiring a facilitating point guard and some bench depth—but Hibbert might be a tough sell right now.
All that said, Hibbert not only is a sensitive guy whose play is affected when his confidence gets rattled, but he’s also very active on Twitter and does read all the negative press. He’s affected by it now, just as he was last season after getting off to a slow start and delving into a funk when the press railed him for “not earning his new max contract.”
When he breaks out of these funks, he plays like an NBA All-Defensive First Teamer, and that combined with his low trade value at the moment means it’s likely Indiana holds onto Hibbert, as well.
Make Some Changes
So if they’re keeping Vogel, Stephenson and Hibbert next season, how are they supposed to make any tangible improvements? Without question, the team does have some work to do with their roster. The bench this past year was not good and George Hill took a huge step backwards not only as a point guard, but as a player. Indiana needs to find themselves some depth and a more natural point guard, though managing that could prove challenging with their salary cap and draft constraints.
They don’t have a first-round draft pick, for starters, as it was moved to Phoenix along with Miles Plumlee and Gerald Green in the trade for Luis Scola. Getting both players and that pick back would actually go a long ways toward fixing this team (as would a reversal of the Kawhi Leonard/George Hill trade), but what’s done is done and the Pacers front office will have to find ways this offseason to improve their two largest areas of need.
If we’re going to look at this dramatically, one option would be a long conversation with the Boston Celtics about Rajon Rondo. Indiana could package David West with a signed-and-traded Lance Stephenson as the basis for a Rondo deal, which would give the Celtics a talented young guard to add to their rebuilding effort, as well as a veteran Danny Ainge has always liked in David West. Other pieces would have to be included to make the money work, obviously, but it’s not the worst offer Boston would see.
Rondo fits in well with Indiana’s defensive identity and is a much better distributor than Hill. Stephenson, in this scenario, doesn’t walk away for nothing, yet Indiana is able to purge the personality in favor of a bona fide All-Star.
If that’s too out there, however, Bradford Doolittle of ESPN.com recommends giving Patty Mills a decent-sized chunk of midlevel exception, then trying to get guys like Jordan Hamilton and Anthony Tolliver to help bolster the bench on the cheap.
In either scenario, Indiana gets their “true” point guard, while the bench is going to have to be replenished with minimum or near-minimum guys, especially if they use their cap space to re-sign Stephenson.
Stay the Course With Small Tweaks
Ultimately, with so much of the core still under contract and no first-round pick, the Pacers aren’t going to be able to do a whole lot unless they make a splashy trade, let Stephenson walk or convince non-minimum players to play for the minimum.
That means they’re probably going to have to pull up their boot straps and work hard over the summer to get themselves right again. This season didn’t end well, but how it started proved how good this core can be. A real point guard, a better bench and an offseason to figure things out should be enough to keep Indiana among the Eastern Conference’s elite.