Offseason In Review: Indiana Pacers

November 10 2013 at 10:24am CST By Chuck Myron

Hoops Rumors is in the process of looking back at each team’s offseason, from the end of the playoffs in June right up until opening night. Trades, free agent signings, draft picks, contract extensions, option decisions, camp invitees, and more will be covered, as we examine the moves each franchise made over the last several months.

Signings

Extensions

Trades

Draft Picks

  • Solomon Hill (Round 1, 23rd overall). Signed via rookie exception.

Camp Invitees

Departing Players

Rookie Contract Option Decisions

  • None

The Pacers made plenty of upgrades this summer, but the most important one might have happened the day before the draft. That’s when Larry Bird came back from a year away from the game to return to his role as the team’s president of basketball operations. Bird had been Executive of the Year in 2011/12 before stepping away, and he was a sought-after commodity, as witnessed by the Kings’ attempt to woo him out of retirement and into their front office. There were rumors that discord between Bird and ownership helped prompt him to walk away from the club, but ultimately, Larry Legend chose to come back to his native state.

Veteran executive Donnie Walsh, who oversaw the Pacers front office in Bird’s absence, is no slouch, but the bench he assembled lagged far behind the starting unit. Bird aggressively attacked that weakness, acquiring Luis Scola from the Suns. The cost was relatively cheap, even though Gerald Green, one of the underachievers on Indiana’s bench last season, and Miles Plumlee have performed well so far for Phoenix. The 2014 first-rounder the Pacers gave up is likely to be no higher than the mid-20s. Scola addresses two deficiencies that were perhaps the team’s most profound last season, as he provides much-needed depth while boosting an offense that finished 19th in points per possession last season.

Scola has been a starting power forward for the vast majority of his six seasons in the league, but he’ll be a backup for Indiana because the Pacers re-signed David West. There was no drama to the negotiations, as both team and player made it clear before free agency that there was mutual determination to get a deal done. They reached an agreement on the second day of free agency, and West wound up with a contract that pays him an annual salary similar to what Kevin Garnett, Serge Ibaka and Tim Duncan make. All are power forwards who might not be the best players on their respective teams, but play integral roles on squads that are eyeing a championship.

Even before West returned to the fold, the Pacers made an upgrade at backup point guard, a role in which D.J. Augustin flopped last season. They signed C.J. Watson on the first day of free agency, giving him a raise from the minimum-salary contract he’d signed with the Nets a year earlier. Watson seemingly had an off year in Brooklyn, as his per-minute scoring and assist production fell off from his time with a renowned Bulls bench. Still, Watson posted higher PER and win-shares-per-minute figures in Brooklyn than he had in Chicago. Indiana’s front office isn’t too concerned with advanced statistics, and yet the Pacers saw value in a player who fit so well with the Bulls, a defensive-minded team with plenty of similarities to Indiana.

Bird spent more money on another free agent pickup, rewarding Chris Copeland for an out-of-nowhere season for the Knicks with a part of the Pacers’ mid-level exception money. The 6’9″ Copeland was a 28-year-old training camp invitee with no NBA experience when he arrived in New York last year, and he combined his 6’9″ frame with a 42.1% clip from three-point range to give the Knicks a dangerous floor-stretching forward. The Knicks had only Non-Bird rights at their disposal if they wanted to re-sign Copeland, and chose to retain fellow Non-Bird free agent Pablo Prigioni instead, declining to make Copeland a formal offer. Still, the Pacers won out over a half-dozen other teams interested in the John Spencer client. Copeland hasn’t been a part of the rotation to begin the season, but he, like Scola, gives the Pacers another offensive weapon along the front line. His ability to find playing time may come down to his improvement on defense, since coach Frank Vogel may be hesitant to play Copeland together with Scola, another defensive liability.

Even before Scola and Copeland came aboard, the Pacers cut ties with former first-round pick Tyler Hansbrough, rescinding his qualifying offer and allowing him to become a unrestricted free agent. West’s presence had contributed to declining minutes for Hansbrough in each of the past two seasons, and Psycho-T wound up signing with the Raptors for slightly more money than the Pacers gave Copeland. Toronto also wound up with Augustin, apparently hoping he and Hansbrough will perform better on the Raptors bench than they did in Indiana.

Bird’s final major move of the offseason was his richest expenditure, as the Pacers anointed Paul George as the team’s designated player with a five-year max extension. That means Indiana can’t give a five-year rookie scale extension to any other player until 2019 as long as George remains on the roster. Of course, it’s unlikely they’ll want to make a similar commitment to Solomon Hill or any of the players they’ll draft in the next two years, so that part of their deal with George probably means little. The financial outlay of at least $80MM is of greater importance for a franchise unwilling to pay the luxury tax. There’s a strong chance George will make an All-NBA team this season and trigger a higher maximum salary via the Derrick Rose Rule, which would mean a difference of roughly $10MM over the life of the deal. The presence of George’s lucrative extension on the team’s books could have a profound effect as soon as next summer, when Lance Stephenson and Danny Granger will both be free agents.

Granger’s ability to bounce back from a season lost because of injury will be critical to Indiana’s title hopes, and Bird’s decision to hold on to perhaps his best trade chip is a gamble that leverages the present against the future. Bird could have dealt for a younger, cheaper asset or perhaps a first-round pick while Granger’s value was still relatively high this summer. The former All-Star remains plagued by injuries as the season begins, and it could be difficult to find takers for him until he proves he can regain his health. The Pacers are off to a fast start without him, and if Granger can return and contribute, Bird may again revisit the notion of trading the 30-year-old.

Still, Granger’s continued presence on the roster signals that the Pacers are going all-in for a championship this season. There’s plenty of reason for that approach following strong performances in the playoffs against the Heat during Miami’s title runs the past two seasons. It’s clear that the Pacers think they can overcome the Heat and come away with the franchise’s first Larry O’Brien trophy. Of course, LeBron and company aren’t the only threat Indiana will face among a strong field of Eastern Conference contenders. That’s why Bird must keep the future in mind even as he focuses on this season. The Pacers have a pair of All-Stars less than 27 years old in George and Roy Hibbert, along with the fast-rising Stephenson, who’s still just 23. Indiana can remain in championship contention for years to come, but Bird must wisely handle the team’s limited finances. That’s why his decision on Granger is so important, and why the roster Indiana put together in the offseason might look different by the time the playoffs begin.

Luke Adams contributed to this post.

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