here. Up today, the Indiana Pacers.
INDIANA PACERS (32-48)
Season in a Nutshell: The Pacers appeared to be on their way to a perfectly miserable season and a much-needed relatively high draft, sitting at 22-46 as late as March 17. Then, for reasons unknown to anyone, they decided to make a way-too-late playoff push, winning 11 of their next 14, including win streaks of 5 and 4 games (the latter of which is still active as of April 12). While in certain situations a late winning surge can be a sign of future promise (think a team of youngsters like last season's Oklahoma City Thunder or a team that was decimated by injury that starts to get key players back), Pacers fans can only be discouraged. The roster is devoid of any promising youngsters (with the possible exception of center Roy Hibbert, who has shown flashes of being an above-average big man) as well as any relief from the collection of mediocre talents clogging the payroll.
Danny Granger is a great scoring talent (24.4 points per game), but after two seasons of missing the playoffs with him as the alpha dog, it is apparent that he is never going to be the kind of superstar that can lift a team to postseason success. T.J. Ford found himself (deservedly) yanked in and out of the starting lineup as he struggled to find a balance between getting his teammates involved and wildly chucking up his own shots. Ford's replacements, Earl Watson and A.J. Price, were serviceable, with Watson providing his usual staunch on-the-ball defense and Price providing decent value for a second round pick. None of these three, however, were making anyone forget about Mark Jackson (or Travis Best, for that matter). Jerryd Bayless would probably be an improvement over the Pacers' current crop of PGs, but unfortunately he was traded on draft day 2008 for Brandon Rush, who is on his way to being the worst player to ever lead his team in minutes played. Jeff Foster had a productive season cut short by back surgery.
The rest of the roster is filled mostly with the results of Larry Bird's quixotic quest to find the next him (started in 1997 with the selection of Austin Croshere). Troy Murphy, Mike Dunleavy, and Tyler Hansborough represent the obvious "next Bird" candidates, but Josh McRoberts wants to remind you he's white, too. Hansborough missed a large portion of his rookie season with an inner ear infection that still hasn't cleared up, and his career is actually in doubt. Dunleavy struggled through injuries and his Dunleavy-ness, while Murphy actually produced great numbers (14.8 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 39% 3-point shooting), proving that he can indeed be a useful piece on a winning team. Unfortunately, his $11 million salary (highest on the team) means he's paid to be more than just a piece, but a star, which he'll never be.
Head coach Jim O'Brien failed to get these Pacers to commit to defense like his old Celtic squads, while also losing control on the offensive end to Ford (which led to Ford's benching). It wouldn't shock me if O'Brien was let go, but the question is, why bother now? Indiana's stuck with this roster for another year, so why not just bring him back, too, and then dump him with the rest of the garbage the following summer?
Offseason Outlook: Due to their inexplicable late-season winning ways, the Pacers now sit at the number 10 slot in the draft. Their biggest needs are a point guard and a shooting guard, which are the two most shallow positions in this year's draft pool. John Wall will of course be gone, and number 10 may be too early to take the next best PG prospect, Wall's college teammate Eric Bledsoe. Xavier Henry, a 6-6 shooting guard out of Kansas, could be an option, or the Pacers could gamble and take one of the top foreign prospects (Jan Vesely or Donatas Motiejunas). Larry Bird's dream scenario, of course, is for Cole Aldrich, the white center out of Kansas, to fall to ten, but that isn't likely to happen. The Pacers also have their second round pick, where they will hope to add some cheap replacement-level production on par with A.J. Price.
The Pacers' salary commitments for next season sit at around $67 million, putting them about $14 million over the projected $53 million cap. Earl Watson and Luther Head will be unrestricted free agents, and I assume they will be allowed to walk. A.J. Price and Josh McRoberts have unguaranteed contracts, but they're cheap and young, so I'd expect them to be brought back. T.J. Ford has an $8.5 million player option that he will exercise as soon as he's able to, so the Pacers will have to decide what they want to do with him. If he can't get on the same page as O'Brien (or whoever the coach ends up being), a Jamaal Tinsley scenario may be possible.
When it comes to trade assets, the Pacers may be flush (depending on how much teams are going to care about freeing up cap space for the summer of 2011, when the league may be in the midst of a lockout). Troy Murphy is probably the most desirable piece of the Pacers' expiring contracts, as he would help a contender while representing nearly $12 million of cap relief in 2011. Mike Dunleavy is a less desirable for what he brings on the court, but his nearly $11 million salary would also be coming off the books in 2011. In fact, the only player the Pacers are committed to for big money beyond 2011 is Danny Granger, who would probably bring the most back in a trade. I would be wary of trading Granger, however; the Pacers' goal should be to find a player to complement him, not replace him. In fact, I would advise against trading any of Indiana's expiring contracts, as well (unless, of course, they get a Godfather offer in return). The best bet is to just suffer through another mediocre season, add another lottery pick, and then use the (projected) $32 million of cap space in 2011 to rebuild the roster around Danny Granger. If the Pacers follow a course similar to the one I project, their 2010 opening day roster should look something like this:
PG T.J. Ford
SG Xavier Henry
SF Danny Granger
PF Troy Murphy
C Roy Hibbert
C Jeff Foster
G/F Mike Dunleavy
G A.J. Price
G/F Brandon Rush
G/F Dahntay Jones
F/C Tyler Hansborough
F/C Solomon Jones
F Josh McRoberts
2nd Round Pick
Pretty boring, I know, but Xavier Henry should be an improvement over Brandon Rush just by not being Brandon Rush. Now, here's what 2011's opening day starting lineup could look like if the Pacers are patient and then use their cap space wisely.
PG Mike Conley*
SG Xavier Henry
SF Danny Granger
PF Carl Landry^
C Roy Hibbert
*Restricted free agent in 2011, the Grizzlies have never really liked Conley and may not match the Pacers' offer if they front load it enough.
^Unrestricted free agent, Landry went to Purdue, and Sacramento may be the only city in the NBA more boring than Indianapolis.
Is that a championship team? No, but it should make the playoffs, and would most certainly be more exciting than the current mess that is the Pacers' roster.
NEXT: Washington Wizards