Ever since the Pacers walked out of Miami last spring, bruised and beaten down from their game seven loss to the Heat, Larry Bird has set the tone for this season: Now is the time.
The Legend traded away the team’s first-round draft pick in this coming summer’s absolutely loaded draft in order to turn Tyler Hansbrough into the older, more seasoned Luis Scola. He jettisoned D.J. Augustin in favor of the playoff-tested C.J. Watson, and added the enigmatic and renowned chemistry killer, Andrew Bynum, midseason. Then, Bird dealt away Indy’s longest-tenured and loyal former superstar Danny Granger in favor of the younger, more athletic Evan Turner.
The message was clear – the Indiana Pacers were no longer in the business of “building something great.” Rather it was time to win a championship.
Thus, one has to wonder what will happen if the Pacers can’t quite get over the hump this year.
On the one hand, the core of their team is still young. Roy Hibbert, George Hill, Paul George, and Lance Stephenson have all yet to reach their 28th birthday, and a core of the four of them with various role players sprinkled in would seemingly contend for the next three to four years at the very least.
Still, just this week, former Indiana assistant coach Brian Shaw questioned this very thing in comments to David Hyde of the Denver Sun-Sentinel.
“If they can’t do it this time with these pieces, maybe they’ve got to think about breaking up the pieces and trying another way. Maybe they’re just not good enough. There’s a lot riding on things for them this year.”
“If there were a fear factor playing the Heat two years ago, it was gone by last year. So this year is the test. You’ve figured out what you need to do. You’ve had the pains that might be necessary to succeed.
“At some point, you’ve got to take that leap. You’ve got to get over that hump. The Pistons back in the late’80s had to ultimately get past the Celtics. The Bulls then had to get past the Pistons. Is this the time for (Indiana)?
“There’s also great teams that, against my Lakers in the early 2000’s, they never did it. Portland had tremendously talented teams. So did Sacramento. They never got by us.
“I talk to Chris Webber all the time, and he’s always saying of Sacramento, ‘We were better than you guys.’ Well, that’s not how it played out. Is that what (Indiana) is going to be saying? If so, maybe it’s time to make changes.”
Indeed, there have been many times this year where I thought to myself that these Pacers and those Kings had a lot in common.
The Kings famously played a unique, yet successful style of basketball that gained more and more acceptance as they became more and more successful. After being bounced in the first round by the Lakers in 2000, the Kings improved by reaching the second round in 2001.
In 2002, the story was to be different.
The Kings finally seized home-court advantage and they were nearly unbeatable at Arco, losing only five home games all year. Even though the officials stole away game six and the series from Sacramento, it only seemed a matter of time before the Kings would get over the hump. After all, the Kobe/Shaq relationship was splintering and Chris Webber, Peja Stojakovic, Mike Bibby, and others still had many years ahead of them.
It was not to be. C-Webb blew out his knee during the next postseason and was never the same. Further, even if they had gotten over that Lakers hump, the Spurs, Mavericks, and Suns were about to overtake them both anyway. The reality is that NBA history is littered with the corpses of teams that seemed to be this close to winning a title only to end up splintering into pieces far sooner than anyone ever realized.
The Pacers’ perch near the top of the Eastern Conference is by no means set in stone. As Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo, and countless others have shown in recent years, every team is only one injury away from taking a gigantic step back. And yet, Shaw fails to acknowledge one important thing: Nobody “broke up” that Sacramento Kings team. They were just plagued by some of the worst luck (officiating, injuries, Shaq/Kobe) a basketball team could have.
It’s possible the Pacers will be unable to get over the Miami hump yet again this season. NBA history shows just how hard it is to beat a transcendent star while he’s at the peak of his powers. As good as Indiana’s defense has been at times this season, their offense is still a turnover waiting to happen and they might be one outside shooter short.
Were the Pacers to lose to Miami yet again, many would classify this season as a failure, and fans all over would wonder if Indiana would ever win a ring. Frustration could set in, team chemistry could fade, and the end might seem to be near. But — and this is incredibly important — nobody would be tearing this team up.
First of all, it’s incredibly difficult to see any realistic path to a rebuild.
Assuming Paul George is completely off-limits and the Pacers were going to rebuild around him, the Pacers really lack many tradable assets. Of course Roy Hibbert is a monster defensively (if not on the boards), but his salary makes it borderline impossible for the Pacers to receive anything close to equal value for him in a trade. Big men in his price range include guys like Andrew Bogut (not as good of a player), Emeka Okafor (not nearly as good of a player and he’s also older than Greg Oden), Marc Gasol (Memphis probably wouldn’t trade him), and Nene (don’t be serious).
Lance Stephenson, for all of his quirks, is already one of the top five players at his position at the age of 23. It’s possible the Pacers could let him walk this summer, but they would have to replace him with a player like Evan Turner — a clear downgrade for the Pacers.
Past that, guys like David West, Luis Scola, and C.J. Watson just aren’t going to net much of anything on the open market at this point in their respective careers. George Hill might profit some value, but the point guard position is currently loaded, and there is a surprisingly low number of teams that have big needs at the point guard slot (especially with Hill’s price tag).
The only plausible solution would be to trade Hibbert and/or Stephenson for a combination of young guys and draft picks. But even under this option, it’s unlikely that many bad teams would be trading high draft picks for a player of Hibbert’s ilk. He is more of a player who can transform a defense and make a good team great, not somebody you build around rather than drafting a younger stud with more basketball tools.
Might San Antonio be interested in Roy given their Duncan-less future? Certainly. But a Spurs team with Hibbert would never be poor enough to net the Pacers a valuable draft pick.
As for Lance, I’m sure you could entice a perpetually incompetent team like Sacramento to give up something for him, but even in the best-case scenario, Indy would be wasting some of Paul George’s best years because of the idea that this team “might not be able to get over the top.”
No, this is mostly just nonsense being spewed by the coach of a struggling team that is currently off the radar.
Is it a certainty that the Pacers will finally turn the tables on the Heat this spring? Of course not. But I think it’s pretty safe to say that at the very least, we will get to watch this core try for another few years.