The Indiana Pacers are staring the end of the Larry Bird era in the eyes right now.
The 2011-12 NBA Executive of the Year announced his decision to step down as team president Thursday, but he’s not quite done yet.
Bird will conduct the Pacers’ draft alongside Donnie Walsh, who returns to Indiana as president, and newly promoted GM Kevin Pritchard.
The trio could go several different directions, including standing pat with their No. 26 overall pick or wheeling and dealing to move up.
First of all, Bird is leaving the Pacers — and Walsh and Pritchard — in a nice spot. Indiana has cap space and a couple of players who could make interesting trade pieces. This plays well into Pritchard’s GM style; he was known for his aggressive dealing during his tenure as Portland’s main decision maker.
Frankly, that might be exactly what the Pacers need right now.
While Indiana has a talented, competitive roster that can be a perennial 50-win team in the Eastern Conference, its overall ceiling still might not be high enough to beat the likes of the Miami Heat or a fully healthy (big if) Chicago Bulls squad and be a legitimate championship contender. True enough, the Pacers have a cohesive and relatively deep group of players, but they still need someone who can consistently beat defenders off the dribble and create his own shot.
Does Paul George have the potential to be that guy down the road? Absolutely. Will he realize that potential and become that guy? I can’t answer that in the affirmative with the utmost confidence right now. George has a long way to go, particularly in becoming a consistent scoring threat and a smart passer. Therefore the Pacers would be best served to find another player with star potential — or ability.
Who might that be?
As far as veteran free agency is concerned, Deron Williams and Eric Gordon probably are out of the equation for Indiana. Williams, a bona fide superstar at point guard, plans to sign with either Brooklyn or Dallas only, per ESPN, and New Orleans reportedly will match any offer for restricted free agent Gordon, an Indianapolis native.
Either player would’ve been the Pacers’ best bet at a superstar from the free-agent pool. Without either in the mix, we turn to tonight’s draft.
Let’s be real, folks: the Pacers will NOT find a potential star with the No. 26 pick. If the franchise wants to feel like it’s taking the next step after tonight, it has to move up, and there’s one such move that might do the trick.
Trade up to 10th pick for Austin Rivers.
New Orleans, who owns both the first and 10th picks, has been open about its interest in bringing back Darren Collison to pair with rookie Anthony Davis, whom the Hornets are sure to draft No. 1 overall. Knowing this, the Pacers must seriously consider dealing Collison, who finished the 2011-12 season as the backup point guard to George Hill, and their 26th pick to New Orleans if Duke freshman Austin Rivers is available at that spot. Indiana long has coveted a capable scorer off the bench, and not only can Rivers fill that role early on in his career; he eventually can start at the two once Danny Granger’s contract comes off the books (Paul George would slide over to the three).
The son of Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, Austin averaged 15.5 points in one season with the Blue Devils. He demonstrated a supreme level of confidence on the floor in creating shots off the dribble and hitting big shots, including a game-winning buzzer-beater at Chapel Hill on Feb. 8, downing rival North Carolina. There are a few concerns about Rivers, including his assist-to-turnover ratio (he averaged 2.3 turnovers to 2.1 assists) and, consequently, his attitude — whether he’s a selfish player. I think such questions are exaggerated; in fact, I think Rivers would be an ideal fit on this team-oriented Pacers squad, especially given that George, Indiana’s current potential star, is so keen on deferring to others. Rivers would be confident right away in taking shots were George wouldn’t be. Those two guys could be quite a duo for the Pacers for many years if they could be joined tonight.
Of course, Rivers needs to stay on the board until the 10th pick if such a deal is to be made. Speculation is that he could be in play for the Toronto Raptors with the eighth pick, along with a few other lottery-caliber wings. If the Pacers are unable to land Rivers, there’s not much they can do to put themselves over the top on draft night.
If that’s the case, another player for whom the Pacers could move up is North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall, viewed by many analysts as the best pure passer in the draft. Why, then, would Marshall be available outside the lottery? Simple. He offers next to nothing in the scoring department; he averaged 8.1 points per game for the Tar Heels last season, a lower number than his whopping 9.8 assists per-game average.
However, the Pacers might not be scared away by his scoring deficiencies as they have plenty of guys who can score. What they seem to have lacked all these years is a guy who can see the whole floor and put playmakers in position to score. Marshall potentially could make the Pacers’ offense, which has shown plenty of potency, even more fluid. But, like Rivers, acquiring the UNC floor general would require moving up from pick No. 26.
What if Indiana has to stay put at No. 26?
The Pacers’ chances of making serious headway among the NBA contenders would have to wait, but they probably could find a nice bench player. Here are some possibilities:
- Draymond Green, F, Michigan State. This is a popular projection in mock drafts. The 2011-12 Big Ten Player of the Year did it all for the Spartans — score, distribute, rebound — but there are questions as to how his game translates to the NBA. He’s a 6-7, 230-pound specimen, which is an odd combination for a pro. Is he a big three or a short four? Green projects as a role player in the NBA, but he does fit Bird’s mold of three- and four-year college players and is a terrific leader. He’d put some heat on Tyler Hansbrough.
- Will Barton, G/F, Memphis. Barton is a long, athletic wing with nice scoring potential as a pro. He could provide some depth and productivity off the Pacers’ bench. He needs to bulk up if he is to defend on the perimeter, but he’d be a nice get at No. 26.
- Fab Melo, C, Syracuse. The Pacers have coveted a backup center for Roy Hibbert since Jeff Foster was forced to retire midway through 2011-12. Melo is a true center — a legitimately big body — and has demonstrated potential to be a disrupter on the defensive end (2.9 blocks per game in 2011-12), but analysts wonder whether he can pick up the nuances of NBA game plans. Spelling Hibbert could be good for him.
- Tony Wroten, G, Washington. Wroten put up some good numbers in his freshman season with the Huskies (16 points and five rebounds per game) and some not-so-good ones (3.8 turnovers per game). The consensus on Wroten seems to be that he’s hit-or-miss. The Pacers probably could afford to gamble on him.
- Doron Lamb, G, Kentucky: Lamb would be a safe bet at No. 26. He was productive during his two years for the Wildcats; he averaged 13.7 points per game as a sophomore while never really standing out among his high-profile teammates at UK. Sounds Pacer-esque, right?