We're Halfway There ... But Where, Exactly, Is There?

In June, 2008, the Indiana Pacers made the opening gambits of what has been hailed as the “Three-Year Plan.”  They said goodbye to Jermaine O’Neal and his max contract, and welcomed T.J. Ford, Jarrett Jack, Brandon Rush, Roy Hibbert, and an assortment of expiring contracts.

Upon hearing about the “Three-Year Plan,” I was immediately reminded of a quote from John McKay, the former USC and Tampa Bay Buccaneer coach.  After making the playoffs in his fourth season, he was complimented on the success of his “Five-Year Plan,” to which he responded:

“I had a five-year plan because I had a five-year contract. If I had a six-year contract, it would have been a six-year plan.” – John McKay

The end of the “Three-Year Plan” (“TYP”) coincides with the expiration of the contracts of Troy Murphy, Mike Dunleavy, T.J. Ford, Jamaal Tinsley, and Jeff Foster.  Therefore, a cynic might say that the “TYP” was really just a pretty way of telling the fans, “Look, don’t expect anything momentous to happen, and certainly don’t expect much improvement, until we get out from under these contracts.”

Well, that’s fair enough.  Even so, that doesn’t mean that taking the long view was just pablum to get people off their backs.  The emergence of Danny Granger provided an All-Star to build around. The thought of using serviceable vets (like the guys mentioned above) to help the team compete for a playoff spot, while developing young players over the next three years is far from outlandish.  Ideally, the summer of 2011 would arrive with the Pacers featuring a bona fide star (Danny) and a cast of young role players, and needing only to use their now ample financial flexibility to bring in a second star — another difference maker.

However, the realities have changed significantly since the Pacers started down this path:

  • Declining BRI
    At the time of the JO & Bayless trades, the salary cap had experienced years of 5+% annual growth, and there was no compelling reason to believe that the trend would reverse.  The luxury tax threshold (which the Pacers use as a “hard” cap) was about $71 million for the 2009 season.  The historical trend projected that the 2009-10 threshold would be just shy of $75 million and that the 2010-11 threshold would be just over $78 million. But given the ongoing recession (which really hit after the JO trade), the actual 2009-10 luxury tax threshold is just a tick under $70 million (which is $5 million less than expected). And next season’s (2010-11) threshold has been projected at anywhere between $60 and $65 million (which is between $13-18 million less than expected).  While following the same 5+% growth curve would have probably been optimistic even during that summer, I think this is still a useful illustration of how much the financial situation for the league has changed.  The drop for 2010 almost certainly cost them Jarrett Jack.  And the continuing decline means that the Pacers will need to find a way to permanently reduce their payroll — perhaps by as much as 15%-20%.  None of this is helpful to a plan that involves spending future money.
  • Other Trading Assets
    The Pacers execs probably expected to that they could use some of the 2011 expiring deals in trades if they so desired. Though to get quality talent, you usually need to add assets to sweeten the deal.  With the departure of Jarrett Jack, they lost one of those, and they are hampered by Rush’s struggles.  We may like Hansbrough, but it’s unlikely that he’ll have a ton of demand from GMs leaguewide.  This basically leaves only Hibbert as a quasi-desirable trading chip.  Using him, or future first rounders, will leave the cupboard bare and hamper Indy’s other avenues of improvement.  This greatly reduces the chances the Pacers will get a high quality player through trade.
  • Poor Team Performance
    In order to attract a free agent, the Pacers need both the money (aka, cap space) and at least the illusion of being close to contention.  With the way the team has played, they are slipping further away from that.  Again, I used to think trade was most likely, but that view has shifted over to us needing to be able to get something out of free agency.
  • Injuries and Other Complications
    At the kickoff of the “TYP,” Mike Dunleavy had missed only 11 of 492 possible career games due to injury, while Danny Granger had missed only 6 of 246 possible games in his three years in the league.  Since then, they’ve missed 77 and 34 of a possible 116 games, respectively.  T.J. Ford was acquired in the hopes that he might stabilize the point guard position, but his performance was somewhat disappointing last year and has dropped precipitously this year.  Comparisons to the Tinsley situation have been made, but I consider them to be gross exaggerations.  However, he has been banished from the rotation for the time being, and he does represent another large contract that is giving Indiana no return.
  • Jamaal Tinsley
    Some might argue that Droopy McTinsleberry’s exile late in the 2008 season was actually the first move in the “TYP” — and they might be right.  The Pacers spent over a year trying to unload the unreliable point guard and his all-too-reliable contract, but close calls were all they could manage.  Last Summer, they decided to be shot of him, and bought him out.  The following months illustrated exactly how little value he had, as he went unsigned until Memphis picked him up as a replacement for A.I. about two weeks into the season.  Despite no longer being with the team, Tinsley will still have a larger cap figure for the Pacers this season and next than Jarrett Jack will have for the Raptors.
  • Dwindling attendance
    This is a function of some of the others, but the empty green seats in Conseco are basically screaming “do something” at the Pacers.  It’s also likely resulting in financial reports with more flowing red than an abattoir.

To continue on the “TYP,” these are the things the Pacers will have to address.  The chances of them being successful at this seemingly become more remote by the day.  Eighteen months into the TYP, the Pacers (and Herb Simon, specifically) will have to decide if they can survive the next two years regardless of basketball and financial difficulties, and if they are sanguine that there will be a good return at the end of it.

But…

What happens if Herb decides that they cannot survive the next two years?  The financial losses are too great to bear, and, even if they weren’t, the chances of success down that path are not all that bright.  What will they do then?

Just for the sake of my sanity, let’s set aside the obviously darker possibilities that involve the Indiana Pacers no longer being the “Indiana” Pacers.  Much like Tombstone’s Johnny Ringo, the strain would be more than I could bear.

Assuming, more brightly, that Herb Simon is committed to finding another way to keep the “Indiana” in “Pacers,” he tears the whole thing down and starts over.  The “Three-Year Plan” is out the window, due to necessity, and it becomes a long, torturous process.  The last three to four years will have been wasted, but how much of that is just 20/20 hindsight is hard to tell.  It is important to note at this point that “tearing it down” means getting rid of as much payroll as possible, and that almost certainly means using Danny Granger as the incentive to get somebody to take a whole bunch of the other onerous contracts.  It means clearing the field and starting from scratch.

In this world, Roy becomes more or less the foundation.  Indy almost certainly expects a high draft pick both this year and next.  The hope/plan would be that we follow one of two paths.

The first path would be that of Oklahoma City or Portland.

This means collecting talent in the draft, then using cap flexibility to fill out the roster.  This will take years and a significant amount of luck.  OKC’s path looks considerably different if they had not ended up with Kevin Durant.  Portland’s looks considerably different had Brandon Roy not turned out the way he has.  (And, remember that in this scenario, we may have just traded away that type of boon in the form of Danny Granger.)

If you want a nightmare scenario for this, then look north to Chicago.  Since tearing down after Jordan’s second retirement, the Bulls have only won 38% of their games, which equates to about 31 wins in an 82-game season.  They have seen the playoffs, but they currently stand 14-19 — a scant 3-1/2 games ahead of a Pacer team that has a stretch of one win in eleven games so far this year and another stretch of one win in ten games.

The second path would be the Houston path.

This would, IMO, require the termination of Bird, et al, and getting people in who are basically going to be Daryl Morey clones.  The “Moneyball” approach requires an absolute commitment to advanced statistics and analytics.  It has the potential, in my opinion, to have a quicker turnaround, and has the advantage of being, at this point, a “cheaper” way to run a team.  Houston is clearly having success with a roster that raises many eyebrows, and it could be ideal for a small market team like Indy.

All things being equal, I would like to see the Pacers head down this path, whether we “tear it down” or not.  For illustrative purposes, consider this year’s Rockets.  It is true that they have a larger payroll than the Pacers, clocking in at about $73.3 million.  However, it is imperative that you recognize that 53% of that payroll is tied up in Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming.   Neither of these guys are playing, and Houston fields a starting line up of Shane Battier, Trevor Ariza, Chuck Hayes, Luis Scola and Aaron Brooks.  They have recorded a 20-16 record (currently good for 7th in the West) while playing with an effective payroll of $34.4 million, or about 55% of the payroll for the 15 players currently on the Pacers’ roster.

Even more encouraging is the fact that they haven’t done it by getting lucky in the lottery.  Shane Battier was the 6th pick in the draft, and he was acquired in a trade for the 8th pick in the draft (Rudy Gay).  Other than that, their starters were drafted (in the above listed order) 43rd, undrafted, 55th and 26th.  Their top four bench players are Carl Landry (31st), Kyle Lowry (24th), David Andersen (undrafted) and Chase Buddinger (44th).

However, it is an open question as to how successfully it can be replicated.  The problem with stealing systems is that it undervalues the human element.  It seems to me that Morey would likely be able to be successful in a wide range of environments, so how much of it is system and how much of it is Dork Elvis?  It is also questionable whether the ability to find productive players on the cheap will be an evergreen process.   How quickly will the league catch up to you?  More to the point, how quickly will the dummies in the league start offering stupid contracts to the Shane Battier’s of the world?

But again, it is not something that I believe Bird will be able to run.  I would consider his departure/termination a necessary first step.  I don’t rate him as a bad executive, but I don’t believe that this would be an approach he would embrace or make work.

Regardless of who would be at the helm, returning the Pacers to contention is going to be an extremely difficult task.  It will be much, much harder than any columnist (including myself) or internet board discussion will make it seem.

Those are the two hopeful paths, but now we should talk about the feared path.

The path of least resistance, as it were, would be to essentially become the Clippers.  Reduce your costs to a sustainable level, allow young talent to walk away, and hope to catch lightning in a bottle in the form of a megastar draft pick that would prove franchise altering.

A bean-counter might find this tempting, but not a forward-looking one.  I don’t think it’s sustainable in a city like Indy.  I could argue that the only reason the Clips have survived (and thrived, financially) is that they share a building with the Lakers (a huge benefit), and they live in a metropolitan area with a population that is many multiples of Indianapolis.

This approach certainly could be seen as a betrayal to the fans in one light, but as I type this, I’d have to say that I think I might prefer the Indianapolis Clippers to nothing at all.  After all, the only decision that would absolutely guarantee that the state of Indiana would never have a successful NBA team again would be the decision to move.

In the meantime, I’m reminded of another John McKay quote.  When explaining why he thought coaching the expansion Bucs was a religious experience, he deadpanned:

“You do a lot of praying, but most of the time, the answer is, ‘No.'” – John McKay

That seems to be applicable to the life of a Pacer fan these days.

al-swearengen

“I was as gentle as I was able, and that’s the last we’ll ****ing speak of it…” – Al Swearengen (Deadwood)

Back to scrubbing the blood stain.

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Tags: Danny Granger Deadwood Herb Simon John McKay Larry Bird Three-Year Plan Tombstone

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