These lyrics from the Counting Crows song “St. Robinson in His Cadillac Dream” aptly sum up the current state of Pacers Nation.
Indiana entered the summer of 2009 as a team needing to change and improve, but they had very few options to do so. They had the 13th and 52nd picks in a notoriously weak draft. They had a budget of around $9 million to fill out the roster. They had to figure out what to do with restricted free agents Jarrett Jack and Josh McRoberts.
With all of the exciting draft prospects gone by the time the Pacers picked, and all of the attractive free agents out of their price range, the Pacers options appeared to be a choice between “Meh” and “Bored, Now.” Watching Larry Bird and David Morway handle the draft and free agency this summer brought 30-year-old flashbacks of my mom shopping at Zayre’s for my school clothes. They have eschewed the trendier locales and the pricier aisles, instead heading straight to the clearance section — a strategy that seems destined to draw snickers from the cooler, richer kids and an exasperated “Awwww, mom!” from Pacer fans.
It’s hard for Pacer fans to watch that snazzy power forward (Blake Griffin) leaving the store in another team’s shopping basket, just as it was hard last summer when we couldn’t take home that really cool point guard (Derrick Rose). It’s hard for Pacer fans to watch their former nemesis (Detroit) go shopping with daddy’s Gold Card. It’s hard to watch that car they have come to like (Jarrett Jack) be replaced by a cheaper one with more miles (Watson).
It’s hard to get excited about adding a collection of players who scream “serviceable” when “difference-maker” is the most ardent desire. But, again, Pacer fans can find solace in the words of founding father Benjamin Franklin: “He that can have patience, can have what he will.”
Learning to Live “In Between“
In my 43 years of stumbling through life, I’ve come to the conclusion that “in between” is without question the crappiest place to be. That is where the Pacers and their fans find themselves. They are in between the bad and the good. In between the despair and the hope. In between the fall and the rise.
The problem with “in between” is the uncertainty. It’s the feeling that you could go either way. Doubt grows, first making you antsy, then panicky.
Now, don’t mistake my intentions here. I am not saying “Be patient. Everything will be OK.” I have no idea whether everything will be OK. I am simply saying that remaining patient will be crucial for everyone as the Pacers try to get from here to there.
In the meantime, Bird and Morway must avoid confusing activity with accomplishment. It could be reasonably argued that the small moves this summer are proof that the front office is doing exactly that, but I would disagree on two counts. First of all, the acquisitions made this summer (Tyler Hansbrough, Dahntay Jones, Earl Watson and Solomon Jones) all bring qualities that were lacking in last year’s squad, primarily in the areas of defense, toughness and athleticism. Given the tenuous position of both their finances and their reputation, the Pacers must continue to put a competitive product on the floor. While none of these players may be difference makers, they may help players like Granger, Rush and Hibbert to be more effective.
Secondly, none of the decisions made this summer will be difficult to “un-make.” Some may question the length of Dahntay Jones’ contract or the size of Earl Watson’s one-year salary. But, as in all assessments, proper perspective is necessary. To shed some light, I offer the following three financial nuggets:
- Only the contracts of Hansbrough and Dahntay Jones extend beyond two years (with the final two years of Hansbrough’s being team options)
- Over the next four years, Dahntay Jones will be paid $5 million less than the Pacers will have paid Jamaal Tinsley to not play a single game in three seasons.
- The five contracts added this summer (Watson, Jones, Jones, Hansbrough and McRoberts) represent about $27 million in total salary commitments (and that’s including team options). Compare that to the some past decisions that couldn’t be “un-made,” and you’ll see that the price paid to acquire five new players is roughly equal to the Jonathan Bender extension, about $6 million less than the salary burden added in the Murphleavy trade, and about $13 million less than the Tinsley extension.
The moves made by Bird and Morway this summer were designed to address modest, short-term goals without jeopardizing any long-term plans or flexibility. As with all decisions, some will prove wise, and some will prove foolish. But even if they all fail, they won’t cost the franchise as dearly as any one of a half-dozen or more foolish decisions made in the years since the Pacers played in the NBA Finals.
There will be one or two minor deals made yet this summer, the most likely of which will center around the rumored sign-and-trade deal with Boston for Marquis Daniels. It is doubtful, however, that any more acquisitions will cause much more than a ripple in terms of Pacer or NBA news.
A Light at the End of the Tunnel
Patience is crucial for Pacer fans, if for no other reason than to preserve their sanity. It took years to create this quagmire, and it will take years to extricate the team from it. Pacer fans will need to save their energy for next year, when we see the real, foundational moves begin to be made. (Or, at least, I hope will be made.)
There has been a recurring charge over the past few years that Indiana’s leadership, particularly Larry Bird, has the goal of perpetual mediocrity. I’ve always considered this a straw man argument, primarily because I can’t imagine Bird, of all people, embracing mediocrity.
That being said, I think it is valid to be worried that mediocrity may be the final result of Larry Bird’s tenure. Over the past two years, Bird and Morway have demonstrated that they are quite adept at righting the ship, plugging the leaks and navigating the treacherous seas the Pacers blundered into years ago. The bigger question remains whether or not they actually will lead the Pacers back into contention. They have done a wonderful job of bringing in players that the fans can feel good about cheering for, most recently demonstrated by Earl Watson’s charming and engaging performance in his fan chat. This is laudable, but these players will need to be able to win games, too.
Bird and Morway have shown the ability to make sound, conservative decisions when those are appropriate. But do they have a vision? Can they make bold, aggressive moves when the opportunity presents itself? Can they create that opportunity, if it is not forthcoming?
Regrettably, the answers to these questions belong to tomorrow. And tomorrow is not coming today.
So until it does, I leave you with one last quote from The Count of Monte Cristo author Alexandre Dumas Pére: “All human wisdom is summed up in two words: wait and hope.”
Topics: Benjamin Franklin, Blake Griffin, Count Of Monte Cristo, Counting Crows, Dahntay Jones, David Morway, Derrick Rose, Earl Watson, Jamaal Tinsley, Jarrett Jack, Johnathan Bender, Josh McRoberts, Larry Bird, Solomon Jones, The Tinsley Ordeal, Tyler Hansbrough