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.
- Acquired cash from the Knicks in exchange for 2014 pick No. 57.
Rookie Contract Option Decisions
It can be argued that Indiana’s 2014/15 season was effectively scuttled on August 1st, the day that the team’s star, Paul George, broke his leg during a Team USA intrasquad scrimmage. With George likely to miss the entire season and the franchise’s second-best offensive weapon, Lance Stephenson, having defected to the Hornets via free agency, it’s going to be a difficult year for Pacers faithful.
While it’s hard to fault Pacers president of basketball operations Larry Bird for the team’s current state, since George’s injury was not an event that could be anticipated, the team’s roster was already flawed before George went down. Indiana nearly played itself out of the top seed in the Eastern Conference during the second half of last season, and though the Pacers made it to the Eastern Conference Finals for the second straight year, it appeared by the end of that series that the Pacers had taken a step back.
Letting Stephenson go was a difficult call and one that Bird likely would have rethought if George’s injury had occurred prior to the start of free agency in July. Stephenson’s talent level has always been weighed against his propensity for odd and sometimes disruptive behavior, but the 24-year-old shooting guard out of Cincinnati had a fan in Bird, and Stephenson himself signaled his desire to return to Indiana. But as John Steinbeck wrote, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”
The Pacers appeared to move on from Stephenson rather quickly after he turned down the team’s initial five-year, $44MM offer when the team inked C.J. Miles, Damjan Rudez, and Rodney Stuckey. These deals largely eliminated any wiggle room the franchise had underneath the luxury tax threshold, a line that the team has been adamant about not crossing.
Miles was the team’s most lucrative expenditure, and while the deal feels like a bit of an overpay for a 27-year-old, one-dimensional role player, he would have been a nice complementary piece to the team’s rotation if Paul wasn’t injured. Indiana needed to add an outside threat to spread the floor for Roy Hibbert and David West, which Miles certainly can do when he’s “on,” but as a player the team is relying upon to carry a heavy offensive load, the flaws in his game will be exposed. I like the idea of a one- or two-year deal for Miles, but four years is stretching the bounds of good sense.
The deals the Pacers gave to Stuckey and Rudez are ones that I am fonder of. The Pacers had a need for more depth and production at the point, and while Stuckey is more of a scorer than a distributor, he certainly can help the team, and there’s a decent chance that his one-year deal will have been a bargain. Indiana brought Rudez from overseas with the hope that he could compete for minutes at small forward, but a guaranteed three-year pact is a risk for an NBA-unproven European talent. Still, his near-minimum salaries are not amounts that will hamstring the team moving forward.
What is hurting the Pacers is the $14,898,938 chunk of cap space that they allocated to Hibbert. Bird must have had a flashback to the NBA of his playing days, an era when teams needed a dominant big man to have a shot at contention, when he signed Hibbert to a four-year, $58.37MM contract in 2012 to keep him from jumping to the Blazers. Hibbert is a staunch rim protector, something that is still quite valuable, but his offensive game hasn’t developed as the team had hoped and his career 6.8 rebounds per game average is shameful for a player of his size. It also doesn’t help that he doesn’t match up well with smaller, athletic centers and the team is forced to sit him for long stretches, as occurred numerous times during last season’s playoffs. Indiana should pray that Hibbert declines his 2015/16 player option, worth more than $15.514MM, though that is highly unlikely.
Indiana doesn’t have much in the way of movable assets it can use to turn around its fortunes this season. David West would be a likely candidate, since his veteran leadership and ample skills could help many a contender, but West has yet to play this season courtesy of an ankle injury he sustained back in October. His $12MM salary would also make a trade difficult, and Indiana would be unlikely to garner any game-changing pieces in such a deal. West also has a player option for next season, when he is slated to make $12.6MM, but he has also hinted at retiring rather than continuing his distinguished career. A change of scenery and a chance to be part of a contending team could motivate him to keep playing, but moving him wouldn’t be advisable for Indiana unless the Pacers could somehow net some combination of an expiring contract, a younger player, and a draft pick.
One rumored deal the Pacers should revisit is the idea of a Chris Copeland-J.R. Smith trade with the Knicks. Copeland is currently Indiana’s leading scorer, but that isn’t saying much on a squad averaging a paltry 91.9 PPG. Smith would bring headaches of his own, though nothing in the realm of Stephenson’s nightly oddities. The Knicks have a glut of shooting guards and would be all too anxious to rid themselves of Smith and his 2015/16 player option for nearly $6.4MM. Smith could offset some of the loss of George, and while he wouldn’t thrust the team into contention this year, he would at least make the Pacers watchable on the offensive side. Smith would also pair nicely alongside George next season, which should be the team’s focus this year anyway since it isn’t moving up in the standings anytime soon. Still, the Pacers would have to add more salary to any such deal to make it legal.
The Pacers are almost assuredly heading toward the NBA draft lottery and will have a chance to nab a valuable young piece for the future. Indiana has about $36MM in guaranteed salaries on the books for 2015/16, but Hibbert’s and West’s player options could inflate that by about another $28.1MM. That will not leave the franchise with much in the way of cap space to make a splash in the free agency market next summer. So unless Bird can work some trade magic this season, it is looking increasingly likely that the Pacers’ window to contend has shut. Indiana must hope that George can return to his pre-injury form, the team can score big in the draft, and both Hibbert and West are off the roster by next season. Otherwise, it will be at least a few years before Indiana becomes relevant again in the Eastern Conference title race.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images. The Basketball Insiders salary pages were used in the creation of this post.