The Indiana Pacers and Player Development

Oct 25, 2013; Dallas, TX, USA; Indiana Pacers small forward Solomon Hill (9) warms up before the game against the Dallas Mavericks at the American Airlines Center. The Pacers defeated the Mavericks 98-77. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 25, 2013; Dallas, TX, USA; Indiana Pacers small forward Solomon Hill (9) warms up before the game against the Dallas Mavericks at the American Airlines Center. The Pacers defeated the Mavericks 98-77. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports /

It is hard to criticize the player development strategy of Indiana Pacers. Lance Stephenson is arguably the best example of a nobody turning into somebody. He played a measly 115 minutes in his rookie season and 442 in his second year, or roughly the equivalent of the burn Donald Sloan saw in 2013-14. That postseason, he was a sideline spectator watching the Pacers take a 2-1 series lead against the Heat in the second round.

It wasn’t until Danny Granger’s legs let him down that Stephenson got a chance in the NBA. By the time he got that shot, he was ready, playing stellar basketball for two straight seasons and nearly making an All-Star team.

It’s hard to believe he could have done this anywhere else. Most of the credit goes to Larry Bird for believing in him and being a mentor, but giving Indiana’s president of basketball operations all that credit is short sighted. Brian Shaw, the other coaches, and his teammates were integral in Stephenson’s development.

Roy Hibbert, too, has developed beyond what most envisioned when the lanky, clumsy behemoth fell to the 17th pick in the 2008 NBA Draft. His reputation has taken a big hit since he played in the 2014 All-Star Game in February, but he was widely considered the most feared defender in the league prior to the tailspin. Frank Vogel, when he was an assistant coach to Jim O’Brien, reportedly taught Hibbert verticality and helped him develop the confidence, consistency and mind set to become the player he did.

Even Paul George has reached a stratosphere never expected. As the 10th overall pick, people knew he had talent. But who could have predicted he would ever be a top three MVP candidate, as he was around Christmas last season? A lot of this has to do with Paul George’s drive, skill set and determination. But plenty of it has to do with the Pacers ability to groom players as well.

Despite all this, the Pacers are routinely — and rightfully — knocked for not using the D-League as a tool for development. They are, arguably, the franchise that has embraced it the least.

It took more than a decade for Indiana to send down its first player, Miles Plumlee in November 2012. The Developmental League began in 2001 and was expanded to 15 teams in 2005. At the start of 2014-15 NBA season, the D-League will have 18 teams.

Most teams now use it regularly and almost every franchise except the Pacers has at least one success story, however minor, from using it as a resource. By contrast, according to Real GM, Indiana has only ever sent down three players: Plumlee (eight times), Orlando Johnson (four times), and Solomon Hill (once). Worse still, they have called up zero players.

C. Cooper of Indy Cornrows recently discussed the Pacers lack of concern with the Developmental League. You only need one fact to show how few cares they give: thePacers now share t heir D-League affiliate, the Ft. Wayne Mad Ants, with 12 other NBA teams.

This cements the Pacers’ status as a willful laggard, putting them at a competitive disadvantage against the 17 NBA franchises that have a single-affiliation relationship with their D-League teams. Those others can actually use the D-League as a farm team, whereas the Pacers are just tenuously connected in name only.

For Indiana, and the other teams that lack their own minor league team, Cooper took the following position.

"It brings to question whether the “D” in D-League should really stand for dysfunctional rather than developmental for the thirteen teams choosing to remain independent and effectively share access to the Mad Ants."

The front office has insinuated in the past that it simply doesn’t see the value, in a player development sense, that the D-League offers. Without a unified system where the players are, for example, learning Frank Vogel’s defensive schemes, the executives believe the players can learn more about being a Pacer by being around the team. The soft benefits — watching video or listening to vets like David West talk — trump the glorified pick-up ball of the D-League.

Solomon Hill, in a quote Cooper used (and originally from, reflected a similar view about his stint in the D-League.

"“The D-League is for developing talent and I didn’t get a chance to play,” Hill said. “I sat the whole fourth quarter. It’s like, is it really a developmental league? I’m very grateful for the opportunity to play with the Mad Ants organization, but in order for me to try to develop, I have to be on the floor. That just makes me think about my next trip, if I want to go back down there. I’m kind of not tempted to go back down there now just because if I go down there and play 25 minutes after a two-hour drive, it’s like, am I really developing?“I can really practice here and get better than playing 25 minutes in the Developmental League. It was good. It was good to see shots going in. It was good to compete still at a high level and I felt all in all, I [got] something from it.”"

While the team and Hill have valid concerns about the current state of the Developmental League (at least when it comes to the way Indiana uses it), I believe the Pacers would love to have an affiliate of their own. One that they could mold into a JV version of their own team from a strategic and educational perspective. One that does run Vogel’s defensive system.

There is, however one major reason the Pacers aren’t investing to make that reality: money.

According to the team, the Pacers lost money in several seasons during the 2000s, and it wasn’t until the new owner-friendly CBA was inked that the franchise saw a real road to profitability.

Thus, Herb Simon isn’t exactly excited about tossing the small profits the team is making now into something like the D-League, which has potential benefits but may also never pay off in a meaningful way. Perhaps you find a Troy Daniels and he wins you a playoff game. Perhaps the likelihood of this balloons when you run a D-League team that mimics your style, as the Houston Rockets do with the 3-point-bombing Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

But even that (so far) best-case scenario isn’t going to move the needle from a fiscal outlook. His playoff exploits didn’t exactly put the Rockets over the top, and the list of uncovered D-League gems that have turned into difference makers is small.

Sitting inside the Pacers front office in 2014, such an outlook is defensible from a budget outlook. I mean, the team just let a talent as good as Lance Stephenson walk away over luxury tax concerns. So now may not be the time to add a line item to the expenditures side of the balance sheet — however small this specific line item is in the grand scheme of things.

While defensible, it is also almost certainly being penny wise and pound foolish.

Winning in this new-CBA era is harder than ever, and every small advantage is significant — especially when you’re a small-market team that doesn’t attract free agents. And the longer it takes before the Pacers invest in the D-League, the longer it will take before they have a good farm team to use for development. In the interim, the Celtics, Rockets and more than a dozen other franchises are already well along the path to having a helpful minor league version of themselves.

Eventually, some team will develop a player who crawls out of D-League obscurity to become a star. It is inevitable. Some unheralded player will combine Linsanity with sustainability.

It’s impossible to know who that will be or when it will happen.

But we do know it won’t be a Pacer.