Their wildly inconsistent play notwithstanding, the Indiana Pacers would appear to have the upper hand against either Milwaukee or Charlotte for the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The winner of this spot will have a losing record and be considered one of the weakest playoff teams in recent years. Any of the trio competing for the spot are likely looking at the losing end of a short series with either Chicago or Boston.
So, let’s say the Pacers do qualify for the playoffs. Let’s say Boston gets the number one seed and the Pacers lose the series 4-1. That would certainly be a mark of progress for the Pacers to celebrate.
The question is, where do we go from here?
With lots of expiring contracts coming off the books, the Pacers have set themselves up with significant cap room and the ability to sign or trade for players that would have been unattainable targets in recent years.
Unfortunately, several questions loom before we get to see anything resembling a shopping spree.
Question #1: Does Larry Bird have a future with the Pacers?
My gut instinct tells me that if Bird wanted to stay he would have said so by now. We saw this same melodrama play out when he was coaching the Pacers. In the end, Bird left in spite of the fact that he had just led the Pacers to the NBA Finals for the only time in their franchise history. Bird simply didn’t want to coach again. Now there are strong rumors that Bird and his family are moving back to Florida. Since I can’t see Bird running the Pacers from a beach, I think he’s probably done with his presidency.
Question #2: Who is the next president/general manager of the Pacers?
Rather than throw out a bunch of names, let’s assume that Kevin Pritchard, the former Portland Trailblazers general manager, was not just visiting when he spent time with the Pacers this season. Let’s assume that Pritchard was sizing up the Pacers and owner Herb Simon was doing the same with Pritchard. Pritchard was supposedly criticized for being “loose” with Trailblazers owner Paul Allen’s money. That is probably Simon’s only concern with Pritchard. Yes, not all billionaires want to throw nickels around the way that Mark Cuban does. Pritchard did a good job in Portland and would seem to be a logical pick to run the Pacers.
Question #3: Who is the next head coach of the Pacers?
Remember, Frank Vogel is an interim head coach. Has he done enough to merit a second look? My guess is that Pritchard would not bring back Vogel because he’ll want a fresh start with his own guy.
Question #4: What does a new general manager think about the current Pacers roster?
This is where things begin to get a bit tricky. Pritchard is an avowed advocate of blowing up a losing roster and tanking for a couple of seasons to rebuild. He will have no loyalty to players that he didn’t draft and players that couldn’t produce a winning season. He would likely have to modify his blowing up and tanking views to please Simon. With the cap space available, Pritchard certainly won’t have his hands tied when it comes to making moves, but he will be expected to put a winning product on the floor next year. Simon would likely argue that the Pacers have already been bad — maybe not top of the lottery bad, but in the lottery bad up to this year — therefore it’s not necessary to go through any more pain. Decide who you are going to keep and fix the rest of roster now.
Question #5: How do you fix the roster if there’s an impending lockout?
If there is a lockout this will give Pritchard more time to review the roster. Since he spent time here this season he likely already has formed an opinion on the players. Pritchard will need to make a blind wish list by position of his ideal team. Then, he will evaluate how many players on the current roster fit into this profile. Questions at each position will need to answered. I don’t pretend to have the answers, so you’ll only see questions.
Question #6: Point Guard: Can Darren Collison manage a high enough assist-to-turnover ratio to effectively lead this team into future?
Question #7: Shooting Guard: Can Paul George be an effective scoring shooting guard next season?
Question #8: Small Forward: Is Danny Granger someone that you can build a contender around or is he a big scorer on a bad team?
Question #9: Power Forward: Can you build a winning team around Tyler Hansbrough as a second scoring option on offense?
Question #10: Center: Is Roy Hibbert a reliable starting NBA center?
Question #11: After you’ve made all of these player evaluations, how many projected starters do you need?
This is what faces the Pacers as they head down the stretch of this season. There are lots of questions without a lot of solid answers. Has this roster shown enough for management to think that they can build on top of what’s already here? My guess is no. That makes the process that much tougher. What is there to build around? The likely lockout only complicates matter further, meaning that trades will not happen until a settlement is reached.
The summer of 2011 was intended to be the time that the Pacers felt some relief and could put the finishing touches on a winning roster. Instead it could be a time when the team goes through wholesale changes, including a new general manager, new coach and a new core of starting players.
The stretch run of this season and the upcoming offseason will be the most important for the Pacers in decades. Decisions will be made that will determine whether the team rises to NBA relevance or is mired in lottery-land for years to come.