There’d be no reason for Pacers president of basketball operations Larry Bird to tinker with his roster if basketball were the only matter at hand. Indiana is a league-best 31-7 and has a legitimate shot to win its first NBA championship. The starting five is outscoring teams by 14.3 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com, and longtime starter Danny Granger isn’t complaining about his role as a bench player. The one-time All-Star returned last month after missing the first 25 games with a strained calf. Alas, revenue constraints on the small-market Pacers may prove the team’s greatest obstacle to sustained success.
Retaining Lance Stephenson will undoubtedly be the team’s top priority this summer, a task that proves more difficult by the day as the former second-round pick plays his way into consideration for an All-Star nod. Stephenson’s career took off last year when he went into the starting lineup to replace Granger, whose left knee trouble forced him to miss all but five games in 2012/13, a season in which Indiana came within a game of the Finals. That created the perception that Granger is expendable, particularly given his expiring contract. Bird resisted the notion of a trade this summer, and while he said last month that he isn’t seeking to trade Granger, he added that he’d consider the right deal if it came along.
The Pacers have $60,055,974 committed for next season, which doesn’t include the bulk of Luis Scola‘s partially guaranteed contract. Keeping Scola would add close to another $4MM to the books. Rival executives believe Stephenson will command $7-9MM on the market this summer, so an $8MM salary for him would leave the Pacers with roughly $3.7MM left below the $75.7MM projected luxury tax line, with three roster spots to fill. Indiana’s ownership has been adamant that it doesn’t want to pay the tax, so that doesn’t leave much room to re-sign Granger, a career 17.9 PPG scorer who’s used to eight-figure salaries, like the more than $14MM he’s making this season. The Pacers can create more room if they release Scola, meaning the choice may come down to whether they think Granger or the Argentinian power forward is the better bench piece.
Granger hasn’t done much to convince the Pacers or any other teams of his worth so far this season, but his drop-offs in per-36-minute production are to be expected given prolonged absences over the past year and a half. He’s only two seasons removed from serving as the leading scorer on a Pacers team that challenged the Heat in the second round, but even then, his scoring average had declined for the third straight year. Granger is only 30, but with his injuries and the drop-off that preceded it, he seems to have prematurely hit the downward arc of his career.
He figures to play better as the season goes on, and he could still serve as a valuable contributor off the bench for a title contender, whether it’s the Pacers or another club. I’m not sure that Bird would consider swapping him to a team that could derail his own championship hopes this season, so I’d imagine a landing spot for Granger would have to be a team that’s safely out of the running.
Granger’s expiring contract would be a valuable chip for a franchise intent on clearing cap space for next summer. The Lakers might fit that bill, but most of their players are on expiring contracts anyway, and Indiana probably wouldn’t want the mercurial Nick Young or the broken-down Steve Nash. The Mavs are seemingly always in the business of making a splash in the summer, whether they wind up doing so or not, and perhaps they could construct a deal around some of their younger players on cheaper contracts. The Pacers would no doubt want the bulk of the salary to come in the form of expirings to preserve room for Stephenson, but I’m not sure the Mavs, with hopes of sneaking into the playoffs, would give up Shawn Marion, their only $5MM+ expiring contract aside from Dirk Nowitzki. Dallas doesn’t appear eager to make a trade happen, anyway. The Hawks could accommodate many hypothetical trades, but a Granger deal isn’t one of them, since Atlanta’s largest expiring deal is Elton Brand‘s $4MM contract.
The 2014 free agent market doesn’t look as promising as it once did, meaning teams won’t be as motivated to take on a large expiring contract as they might have been. Bird could sweeten the pot with a future first-rounder, since even though this year’s pick is heading to Phoenix, Indiana has otherwise kept all of its own draft choices. Still, another team would have to offer quite an attractive prize to motivate Bird to make such a deal.
Ideally, the Pacers would find a player capable of serving as a game-changing sixth man with a price that won’t be that high for next season. Such a commodity is hard to find, but perhaps Granger himself is just the man to fit that bill. Granger’s performance over the five weeks between now and the deadline will be key. If he can shake off the rust and play like a reasonable facsimile of his former self, the Pacers are probably better off keeping him and going all-in for a title this season. If not, there’s certainly no guarantee a worthwhile deal will come along, even if Bird would be willing to take it.