Entering this offseason, Pacers front office leader Larry Bird was determined to “stay the course” following the infamous stumble in the back half of the 2014 regular season, which carried into a nearly disastrous first round exit at the hands of the 37-45 Atlanta Hawks, a six-game series against Washington which included two home embarrassments, and a six-game series against Miami in which the elimination game was a double-digit onslaught.
A major wrench was thrown into Bird’s plans with Lance Stephenson bolted for Charlotte and All-Star Paul George went down with that stomach-churning leg injury that will likely keep him out the 2014-15 season at the minimum. Given George’s absence, a team that was heading into the offseason with questions about taking a step backwards in a suddenly-stronger Eastern Conference have now morphed into a team with questions about longer-term future and who will be around for it? Will David West? How about Roy Hibbert? Or George Hill? And then there’s head coach Frank Vogel?
Barring a tailspin to the basement of the standings with the current roster, I’d have to think that Vogel will get the benefit of the doubt in a year that will likely be considered a bit of a mulligan. As for the guys on the court that can actually be traded for some real value, there’s a recent report from Slovenian website Ekipa24.si regarding Indiana’s interest in Phoenix combo guard and reigning NBA Most Improved Player Award winner Goran Dragic.
According to the report (and thanks to good ol’ the Google Translate feature), Indiana offered the Suns Hibbert, Chris Copeland “and some money.” In his comments, Dragic mentioned that Phoenix rejected that offer. What’s interesting, however, is that there appeared to be at least a sliver of interest on Dragic’s behalf in the Pacers. Keep in mind, there’s always the chance of a quote being out of context or maybe even getting lost in translation, as good as Google Translate is.
Knowing that this year will look nothing like the last couple from a competitive standpoint sans Paul George, I’m still not a fan of this offer for a couple reasons. For one, it would create a bit of a logjam at the guard spot with Dragic, George Hill, C.J. Watson, and Rodney Stuckey, all of whom are solid point guards, but all a tad undersized at the two-guard spot, and C.J. Miles who albeit can play small forward as well. Second, the Pacers’ best wing defender was George, and Hibbert’s elite shot-blocking, shot-altering and “verticality” ability took the pressure off and cover up the mistakes on the perimeter.
This trade, as advertised, would thrust that role onto career backup Ian Mahinmi, the undersized Lavoy Allen, or undrafted rookie Shayne Whittington. For a team that relied on defense so frequently to bail them out and win games because of a stagnant offense, this improves the scoring in the backcourt, more or less replacing Lance Stephenson, but does more than negatively on defense. And considering the Pacers seem to have no interest in transitioning into tank-ville, losing Hibbert’s defense seems to be a terrible idea even for this season, even if it does cut about $11 million off of Indy’s payroll.
Another reason is that, much like Hibbert and West, Dragic can theoretically become a free agent next summer thanks to a player option in his contract, as he is owed “only” $7.5 million this year and next. Considering he is coming off a career season and will be just 29 years old at that point, I expect that he will opt out and pursue a longer-term, more lucrative contract. And next summer, C.J. Watson, Luis Scola, Chris Copeland, possibly Solomon Hill if the team declines options on his deal, Donald Sloan, and Rodney Stuckey all come off the books, plus potentially Hibbert and West. Even if Hibbert and West stick around, those players combine for about $12 million a year. Not that the Pacers should turn around and give all $12 million to Dragic, but it shows there will be some flexibility next summer, followed by potentially even more flexibility in 2016 when a projected new TV deal might see the NBA’s salary cap numbers spike upwards. If Bird could maneuver another couple moves, being able to add Dragic to that core would be huge. Easier said than done, but huge.
Plus, good luck getting Dragic out of Phoenix. The Suns’ negotiations with restricted free agent guard Eric Bledsoe have no real end in sight and are becoming more tense with each passing day. Between likely wanting to keep Dragic around as insurance and trying to incorporate a slower-footed, more traditional center in Hibbert, I’m not surprised Phoenix passed. To be fair, the same goes the other way with the Pacers trying to plug Dragic into their slower, more methodical offense.
As of right now, I’m more a fan of the whispered conversations with the Pistons surrounding their restricted free agent big man Greg Monroe.
It’s hard to tell when these conversations might have taken place. Dragic to the Pacers was rumored early in the offseason, but taking into account the money it would have saved for Indiana, I’m guessing this was early on in an effort to clear up more bucks for Lance Stephenson. Don’t be surprised to hear rumors pop up throughout the season, especially Hibbert and Dragic attached to them. Either way, the most important thing is to field a competitive team when George does return and not risk him wanting to jump out of a sinking ship when he opt out in the summer of 2018. I shudder to think. There are way more questions surrounding the Pacers now than there were before the 9:33 mark in the 4th quarter of Team USA’s August 1 scrimmage. And we still have two-and-a-half months before they even begin to be answered.