With the highly anticipated NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder now under way, a thought randomly popped into my head: It wasn’t very long ago that I was thinking the Pacers could conceivably be playing in this series.
That, of course, was when the Pacers had taken a 2-1 lead in the Eastern Conference Semifinals after trouncing the Heat 94-75 in Game 3 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Miami then won the next three games, thanks in large part to superstars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade going off, and brought my expectations back down to Earth.
The Pacers boast a talented young roster, but it’s evident they don’t have that one player that can do what James and Wade can do — not yet, anyway. If that player isn’t already on the team, can Indiana find him this offseason? If so, who might he be?
A lot of Pacers fans want to believe Paul George eventually will develop into the superstar the franchise needs to contend for titles. There’s absolutely a lot to like about George, who progressed from his rookie season in most ways. He averaged 12.1 points per game, pulled down 5.6 rebounds per game and notched 2.4 assists and 1.6 steals per contest in 2011-12, all improvements from his initial campaign in the league. While his 44-percent average from the field was down a bit, he took well over 200 more shot attempts as a second-year pro. George also greatly improved his 3-point shooting this season; he hit 38.5 percent of his shots from beyond the arc compared to his rookie percentage of 29.7, and this improvement came with 96 more 3-point attempts.
While George’s offensive game is developing slowly but surely and his length makes for strong perimeter defense at times, he’s still far from the player he can eventually be with his skill set. He has to get more sound in his defensive positioning, and he has to learn to pass better. For all George does well, his passing hurt the Pacers quite a few times this season, particularly in the final three games against the Heat — a lot of errant dishes led to easy fast-break points for Miami. It’s been said a superstar can create for others, so George will need to elevate this part of his game significantly to attain star status. Furthermore, he just needs to get more consistent. There were games he’d absolutely go off like a star does, like his 30-point explosion in Dallas in February, and there were as many nights he’d go without much more than a peep.
Looking at the big picture, it’s impossible to know now whether George can become a superstar, and, consequently, the Pacers head into the offseason unsure if they really have a guy who can create his own shot off the dribble or drive to the lane at any given time, or if they have a guy who can facilitate offense for teammates.
They do have one guy who can do the latter down in the low post — center Roy Hibbert. Hibbert is set to become a restricted free agent this summer and is believed to be coveted by several other franchises, including the Dallas Mavericks and the Portland Trail Blazers. Hibbert, who was named an All-Star for the first time in his career this season, has said he wants to stay in Indiana, and the Pacers absolutely need to keep him in the fold. All indications are that they will do so, but one has to wonder where the team turns if an outsider signs Hibbert to a maximum offer sheet. The Pacers probably will have to pay Hibbert a bit more than he’s worth, but can they afford to spend max dollars on him?
From there, the Pacers probably turn their attention to another restricted free agent, guard George Hill. Hill ascended to the starting point guard spot late in this, his first season with his hometown team, but it’s unclear whether he’ll be back for sure. If he were to re-sign and the Pacers were to move forward with both Hill and Darren Collison on the roster, it would create depth at a crucial position, but it also could create unrest. Either point guard conceivably could start, and the Pacers are no strangers to such a situation at that spot. That said, I don’t see the Pacers letting Hill get away unless they somehow could sign Deron Williams — a superstar point guard who instantly would make the Pacers a championship favorite — and that’s likely a pipe dream.
Looking even further, do the Pacers use their projected cap space to re-sign role players like Lou Amundson and Leandro Barbosa, or do they roll the dice on the bench and pursue another free agent with starter potential? There’s been much talk of Eric Gordon being brought home, but would the Pacers be able to afford him without having to surrender one of their current starters? Maybe a sign-and-trade with New Orleans involving Danny Granger? That’s what it could take. The Pacers generally haven’t pursued other team’s restricted free agents, but if there’s a change within the front office — be it Kevin Pritchard replacing David Morway as GM or Pritchard taking over for a retiring Larry Bird — so too could that policy change.
We’re only beginning to scratch the surface of what could be a very interesting offseason for the rapidly emerging Pacers.