With every season that ends, for the playoff teams at least, we felt it right to take a look ahead. TNT already has the rights to "Gone Fishin'," and because we're sure that someone, somewhere, still likes that Wyclef song, we're going with "Gone Till November." And, yes, we know the season starts in October. Today? The Indiana Pacers.
Short memories may get in the way of remembering just how many people thought that a Miami/Indiana Eastern Conference final was going to be the expected result of the 2012-13 season when things tipped off last October. Some may have leaned heavily toward New York to put it all together, or Derrick Rose to return for home stretch and lead the Chicago Bulls to the third round, but Indiana was quite a few observers’ expected third round pairing. The Pacers were always going to win the Central, and they always were going to give a good postseason showing after impressive clashes with Chicago in 2011, and Miami in 2012. What was left for them, last fall, was to put that roster and that experience together in order to make the next step.
Indiana made that third round, taking the Heat to its second straight seventh game in the Eastern Conference finals. And because the Pacers are comparatively much younger and come much cheaper than last year’s Miami combatant – the aging and well-financed Boston Celtics – the easy assumption is that things are on the upswing in Indiana. A first followed by second followed by third round defeat, if NBA history is any indication, is prologue to a trip to the Finals and a possible championship. And when you factor in the team’s obvious matchup benefits with Miami, and the possible decline of LeBron James’ supporting cast, the future has to look bright.
Nothing’s guaranteed. The Indiana Pacers still have a ton of work to do. They weren’t lucky to make that seventh game, this team’s starting lineup was that dominant throughout the regular season, and the shortened rotations that the playoffs inspire only fed into coach Frank Vogel’s wildest dreams. The Pacers earned the right to play in June. Still, the squad is still going to have to find a way to fill out a bench that was embarrassingly bad at times throughout the postseason.
Miami won by double-figures on Monday night, and had the game in hand for most of the contest. One could accurately say, though, that Indiana just about gave away the game when it sat both Roy Hibbert and Paul George for a needed three minute spell (because of foul trouble, and fatigue) in the second quarter in Game 7. The Heat outscored Indiana by nine during that stretch, driving home a point that was made all postseason when D.J. Augustin failed to rotate defensively, or Sam Young failed to stop acting like Sam Young.
The Pacers’ bench worked hard and meant well, but Augustin, Young, and to a lesser extent Ian Mahinmi (a good enough backup big man) and Tyler Hansbrough (who, despite his shoot-first instincts, has his moments) just aren’t capable of providing sound reserve minutes at this Conference finals level. We won’t even get into the rest of the Indiana bench, mostly because Frank Vogel made the same maneuver – he barely played guys like Gerald Green, Orlando Johnson and Jeff Pendergraph after the first round, knowing that a tired batch of starters would significantly outplay a daisy-fresh set of reserves.
Even the starters aren’t set, though, for 2013-14. Which is why the offseason begins with David West.
West turns 33 in the offseason, and though he’s been remarkably consistent with his production since his third season through various lineups, coaches, teams and while working through one significant ACL tear … um, David West turns 33 in the offseason. He’s a free agent that in 2013-14 should work for about the same amount ($10 million) he worked for and so greatly earned in 2012-13. It’s what happens from there that tends to cling.
The 2013 offseason will be a seller’s market, and teams will have the money to send a major deal West’s way, either to bait Indiana into matching the terms for the unrestricted free agent, or to pass their own summer off as a success. Indiana can’t be caught paying someone like West something like $13 million a season just months after he turns 34 or 35. His floor-bound game and massive basketball smarts will translate well to his mid-30s, but few are worth that price at that age.
Augustin could be a good rotation piece on a conference finalist, but not as the lead guard off the bench. Indiana doesn’t have to dismiss the free agent outright, but the team badly needs to find guard depth with its capped-out free agency exceptions. Lance Stephenson will return on a very affordable team option, and Danny Granger’s hoped-for return could turn Lance into a much-respected first guard off the bench, but this team still needs someone that can create for others coming off of the pine.
The Pacers also have to hope that other clubs don’t send a wild offer at restricted free agent Tyler Hansbrough, who remains a household name and a player that a desperate general manager can talk an owner into chasing down once all the other unrestricted options go elsewhere. Hansbrough has his merits, but he can’t be paid more than the average salary by a small market team attempting to retain David West and eventually sign Paul George to a contract extension that he’ll deserve.
That’s a lot of juggling. And, for a team that has created its own destiny, quite a few sticking points that will be dependent on other teams making decisions that the Pacers cannot control.
The future remains bright. Miami’s capped-out top three just about guarantees that the team will always be vulnerable, despite the 27-straight wins and the whuppin’ that Indiana tuned into on Monday. Chicago has legitimate championship aspirations, but the team also appears to be in a holding pattern. The Celtics are just about done, and the Knicks are surviving on year-to-year bandages to prop Carmelo Anthony up with. Indiana’s homegrown core has long been to be admired, and in 2012-13 we learned that it’s also to be feared.
All it needs now is a little push over that edge. Internal development won’t be enough. The rotation has to expand.