Offseason Blueprint: Indiana Pacers

Our offseason plan for the Indiana Pacers

 

The playoffs are here and we should all be soaking up every minute of that. However, there are a few teams that have already entered their offseason — 14 lottery teams (that we’ve already covered) and 8 more teams that got sent packing in R1.

I covered the L.A. Clippers recently, although I stupidly posted it about an hour before the games tipped off, so a lot of people may have missed that. Today, we’re going with another intriguing team on the verge of blowing it up themselves:

INDIANA PACERS

In this day and age, we see people fighting for power at the expense of everyone else around them. When they don’t get their way, they’ll point fingers and blame everyone but themselves.

Thankfully, Larry Bird isn’t from this generation. When his attempt to transition the Pacers from Frank Vogel’s defensive-minded teams into a faster breed of animal didn’t quite work, he accepted the blame himself and stepped aside. Even if that wasn’t his choice, necessarily, he exited stage left quietly and didn’t go around leaking reports and nasty rumors to the media about how it wasn’t really his fault. Bird’s proven himself at every level — as a player, coach, and GM — so he doesn’t need a scapegoat to excuse himself. A class act.

Of course, that (coupled with the Paul George drama) does leave the Indiana Pacers in a state of flux this offseason. Let’s play our best version of GM and see how we may help them:

(1) Start the search for a new coach

Like many fans, I was surprised by the decision to fire Frank Vogel (although he certainly didn’t look like a miracle worker in Orlando) and underwhelmed by the decision to replace him with old hat Nate McMillan. McMillan wasn’t an inspired pick and didn’t inspire much better play in his Pacers. He tried to push the pace, but all that did was make the defense suffer (their opponents’ FG% ballooned from 44.0% to 45.1%). As a result, McMillan actually ranked as my worst coach in the league this past year.

Normally I wouldn’t encourage a first-year coach to be fired, but it seems inevitable here. McMillan was Larry Bird’s pick, and Bird’s gone. New GM Kevin Pritchard should be allowed the leeway to pick his man for the future.

In theory, the coaching decision should be predicated on what happens with Paul George, but I actually don’t think it matters all that much. Personally, I always gravitate to a specific breed of coach: the battle-tested, veteran assistant who’s ready to take the reins of his own club. Kenny Atkinson (BKN) and David Fizdale (MEM) fit that mold this past season and did well as rookies. Oftentimes, a “big name” coach comes with his own baggage, his own big salary, and a stubborn idea of what works in the NBA (usually whatever worked for him in the past.)

When I think of this Indiana Pacers job, the candidate that keeps jumping to mind is Nick Nurse, a lead assistant for Dwane Casey in Toronto. I bet there are some Raptors fans who would prefer to keep Nurse over Casey if need be, but chances are he’ll leave for his own post. Nurse has paid his dues and is ready for his own chance in the spotlight.

But that’s actually what I like about Nurse for the Pacers: he’s not a “spotlight” kind of guy. A native Iowan, Nurse has stayed humble and low-key, which could play well in this market. Indiana fans don’t need a splashy hire or a flashy personality; they just want to play good basketball. Whether the Pacers keeps George or not, Nurse would be a good shepherd for the team’s future.

(2) TRY to convince Paul George to stay

It wasn’t exactly LeBron ripping off his Cavs jersey in 2010, but Paul George certainly had the look of a player with his eyes elsewhere. He didn’t appear particularly attached to his team, his coach, and this franchise in general. With George in the last year of his contract, there’s a very good chance he’ll be moving on.

But the Pacers should do everything in their power to stop that. This isn’t a Carmelo Anthony situation where an aging star needs to be moved to usher in a rebuild; George is still only 27 years old. His primary virtues (including his length and shooting) should age well. He should continue to be an elite player for the life of his next contract.

The Pacers can pay George more than any other team, but to keep him, they’ll need to convince him that they can contend. I don’t think George needs a guarantee of a title contender, necessarily, but the club needs to make a compelling case that it’s equipped to challenge for the Eastern Conference Finals again.

To do that, a drastic overhaul may not be necessary. The team’s attempt to play “pace and space” was well-intentioned, but not well executed. Bringing in Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young helped with the “pace” part, but the “space” was an issue when you play Young and Monta Ellis (two non-shooters) heavy minutes. An upgrade at coach should help some, but an upgrade in talent is necessary as well.

Even if the Pacers re-sign Jeff Teague (a free agent this summer), the team needs to add another piece if they’re going to take a step up the East standings. I’d target an upgrade at SG and a possible stretch PF as two areas of need.

In terms of power forwards, there are a few on the market that would be appealing. I love the fit, basketball-wise, of free agent Paul Millsap. Millsap could slide right in between George and Myles Turner to be a killer frontcourt. Unfortunately, Millsap would be quite expensive and is already 32; that’s more of a short-term play than a smart long term investment. Vets like Patrick Patterson or Ersan Ilyasova would be cheaper alternatives, although on their own they’re unlikely to convince Paul George to stay.

To upgrade at shooting guard, I’d give the Portland Trail Blazers a call. Their payroll is massive ($137 million this year) and that’s not even counting the extension that new center Jusuf Nurkic could receive when he’s a free agent next summer. Perhaps the Blazers are regretting their big contract for SG Allen Crabbe (due around $18 million a year).

If I was the Pacers GM, I’d absolutely entertain a trade for Allen Crabbe, regardless of that salary. Crabbe’s a longer and better defender than Monta Ellis, and he’s a much better long range shooter (hitting 44.4% of his threes last year). Better still, Crabbe’s only 25 years old, which fits in line with the Paul George and Myles Turner timeline. The Pacers could feasibly acquire Crabbe for cap relief (or maybe for their draft pick), given the Blazers’ logjam.

Would adding Allen Crabbe really move the needle for the Pacers? Maybe. Keep in mind you’re going from Monta Ellis (arguably the worst rotation player in the league) to a solid 3-and-D player. That’s an upgrade that may move the team up near the 5th or 6th seed in the East.

Now the ball moves into Paul George’s court. Would he accept a massive extension with the Pacers if the team looks like a 5th or 6th seed? You have to hope so. If not, you’re going to have to bite the bullet and trade him for as much of a return as you can.

(3) If you can’t keep him, trade George for as much as possible

The Pacers absolutely, positively, can NOT let George walk away next summer without getting anything in return. Well, in theory, they can, but it’d put them in a much longer rebuild. If they’re convinced George is going to walk away, you need to acquire some assets right away to accelerate that process.

If George demanded a trade, here would be my top targets:

1) BOS (or whoever has the #1 or #2 pick), if you’re able to draft Markelle Fultz. I actually love Kansas SF Josh Jackson more, but there’s no denying Fultz would be a wonderful fit on Indiana. If George leaves, the team will need to replace a boatload of scoring, which is something the do-it-all scorer Fultz can do. He’d also be a dream pairing with Myles Turner. Surround those two with 3 shooters and you’re going to have a DEADLY offense in a few years.

2) LAL. If Boston doesn’t feel like they need Paul George (perhaps they’re going to keep their pick and sign Gordon Hayward instead), the Lakers jump out as my next option. The George to the Lakers rumors have been floated steadily, with everyone agreeing that it makes sense for them to wait until next summer to land him. But will Magic Johnson and the Lakers have the patience to wait? Maybe not. A lot can change in a year, so maybe they’re desperate to make a move and lock in Paul George now. I’d try to convince the Lakers to trade D’Angelo Russell AND Brandon Ingram, with the idea that they can extend George to a massive deal now, and then lure in a superstar like Russell Westbrook or Demarcus Cousins the following summer.

Of the two young Lakers, I like Ingram’s potential more (and Russell more than Julius Randle as a second piece). Ingram was ineffective this season, but that’s simply because his body is so far away. He plays smart basketball and makes the right reads; coupling that with his amazing length and shooting potential, and you may have yourself the next Paul George or more.

3) POR. Them again? Yep. In this scenario, George is gone, so we’re not looking to add Allen Crabbe — we’re looking for a bigger fish in C.J. McCollum. The rationale is similar to the Crabbe deal; the Blazers have a lot of money tied up in their small backcourt and may want to diversify with a bigger player (presuming George agrees to an extension there.)

From the Pacers’ perspective, McCollum would be a nice fit. He’s only a little younger than George (25 vs. 27), but he’d replace his production and name on the marquee. There’s still untapped potential with McCollum as well. With the ball in his hands full-time, he could average 25-30 a game. Best yet, McCollum is already signed to a long-term extension that locks him up for the next four seasons. The Pacers wouldn’t have to deal with this circus again until 2021.

The future is murky in Indiana, given the uncertainty with their coach and with their superstar, but there’s a path forward here (actually, two paths forward), that make sense to me. Whether they decide to contend or rebuild, Pritchard and the Pacers need to nail this offseason, their most crucial one in years.

 

 

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