Sometimes there’s a little truth to the old adage of addition by subtraction. If the 2017-18 Indiana Pacers showed us anything this past season, it is that there is truly no “I” in team.
The Pacers pushed the reigning Eastern Conference champs and this year’s favorite Cleveland Cavaliers to seven games in the opening round of the playoffs and had numerous chances to send four-time league MVP LeBron James home packing. A first round loss would have been the first in James’ storied career in 13 appearances. But the Pacers suffered from a healthy dose of James and their inexperience ultimately sealed their fate of packing for summer vacation.
The direction Pacers president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard decides to take over the next few months could catapult this unit further into contention. As we constantly have stated in this space, there are three ways to improve in the NBA and that’s through the annual draft, free agency and the trade market.
Today we’ll evaluate all three areas and see if Indiana is strongly positioned to take advantage of these three channels in order to capitalize on their unexpected success of this past season. Most didn’t expect the Pacers to win 30 games after the loss of All-Star forward Paul George via offseason trade. But never underestimate what a change of scenery can do for a young player and a revitalized training regimen. Shooting guard Victor Oladipo entered into the All-Star realm this season, and from his recent commentary it appears he has no plans to ever be considered a one hit wonder.
The Pacers hold the No. 23 pick in the first round of the 2018 draft. While there is yearly value available in the 20s (Los Angeles Lakers standout Kyle Kuzma was picked No. 27 last year), most of this talent will take multiple seasons to develop before becoming a contributor on a playoff team.
When it comes to free agency, according to the basketball Insiders Indiana Pacers salary page, the Pacers could create $59 million in salary cap space. That’s a huge number and Indiana could take an aggressive buyer’s stance, but to get to that figure the team would have to make some tough personnel moves involving the core members of the group that played so hard this season.
Veterans Darren Collison ($10M), Bojan Bogdanovic ($10.5M) and Al Jefferson ($10M) all have non-guaranteed contracts for next season in the eight-figure range. Bogdanovic and Collison both averaged over 30 minutes per game in the playoffs this season, while Jefferson never left the bench. Bogdanovic’s contract for next season guarantees on June 29 and Collison’s guarantees on July 1. Jefferson’s contract doesn’t become fully guaranteed until January 10, 2019.
However, the Pacers aren’t exactly a hotbed for top free agent talent. Veteran forward Thaddeus Young can test free agency or exercise his $13.5M player option to remain on the team for next season. According to ESPN, backup point guard Cory Joseph has exercised his $7.9M player option for next season. Indiana needs a long-term solution at point guard. Collison has played well during his numerous stops around the league, but who is truly the Pacers’ point guard of the future to pair alongside the dynamic Oladipo? Being slotted in the middle of the draft typically means a team won’t be drafting a player ready to contribute right out of the cereal box. The Pacers could look to turn the offense over to Joseph, acquired last offseason from the Toronto Raptors, who has career averages of 10.3 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.7 assists in 86 contests as a starter.
The trade market could be an intriguing option to explore as well.
As a veteran big man and former All-NBA player, Jefferson’s deal could be an attractive option for a team looking to shed some salary. While the newest CBA doesn’t make expiring contracts as lucrative as they once were, there are teams that are still able to get solid value by leveraging players in the last season of their deals. The same would apply to the duo of Bogdanovic and Collison as well.
The worst place for an NBA franchise to reside is the middle of the pack.
While this Pacers team was tough, gritty and ultra-competitive, it would still slote out to be in the middle of the league’s hierarchy. But the team’s front office is seemingly in a position of strength and have multiple options to jump a few notches in the pecking order. The team has an emerging star in Oladipo, a strong locker room dynamic, the ability to create excellent cap space and numerous tradable assets.
What a difference a year makes when it appeared the Pacers franchise was on its way to a massive rebuild and plenty of losing.
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