The Pacers organization has worked hard to make the franchise competitive once again. I would like to address some of the questions regarding this team in the upcoming seasons; free agency and team development. Now that they have a talented young nucleus to build around and money to spend to add pieces in free agency, it is important that decisions are made prudently if this team is to reach elite status. The future is bright and as this young group develops, if the organization makes one or two sound moves financially, this franchise will contend for a championship soon.
This off season the contracts of T.J. Ford, Solomon Jones, Jamaal Tinsley, Jeff Foster, Mike Dunleavy and Josh McRoberts all expire, shedding 33 million against the cap. Ford, Jones, and Tinsley are not in the organizations plans going forward. Foster will likely retire. Mike Dunleavy will not be able to command anywhere near the salary he has made the last few seasons. But when considering bringing him back, even at a reduced salary, the team already has players at his position that need more playing time. Brandon Rush, in particular, needs to either prove himself a part of the nucleus or be traded. Josh McRoberts looks as though he will never be anything more than a bench player and shouldn't get any more than 3 million a year. If another team is willing to pay him more than that, let him go. Otherwise he has good size, is a local kid, and gets along well with the other young players on the roster. He should be the only free agent re signed. Looking forward to the next off season, the contracts of Lance Stephenson and James Posey will expire and should not be extended. Neither should be part of the active roster this season. Posey was a necessary inclusion in the trade to acquire Collsion and is not part of the organization plans moving forward. Stephenson is not talented enough to warrant locker room disruptions and his off court behavior has already attracted too much negative press. A case of addition by subtraction. This two expiring deals would clear an additional 7.5 million in cap space.
Having made the decision about their own free agents, they will have a good deal of money to spend against the salary cap on other players. So let's adress thier needs. They need a banger in the low post, athleticism in the backcourt, and players with experience that provide leadership. The most obvious problem with the team last season was in defending and rebounding in the low post. There are a couple of intriguing big men that should be available in free agency. Nene, Tyson Chandler, Andre Kirilenko, and Carl Landry are some of the most often mentioned. But do any of thier skill sets match what this team needs at a manageable price? No. The power forward who best fits is Kenyon Martin. He has always known exactly what his role has been on every team he has played for. And while he is entering the downside of his career, that is actually a good thing. He will not be able to command the high salary of his last contract, but can still be productive for three years and should warrant about 20 million dollars, a manageable contract. The Pacers should not pay a high salary to a young player based upon his potential. They already have enough guys who fit that bill. In the near future, all these players will need contract extensions and while they are bargains under thier current deals, it will take a much larger portion of the salary cap number to keep them. Therefore, Morway should not overspend this summer. He should sign one mid level free agent deal this year and save the rest for the 2012 free agent class which provides them the flexibility to address other needs.
While Martin would addressed the teams' greatest need in free agency, he would only be a short term fix. The long term future of the power forward postion must be addressed in the draft. I see Roy Hibbert becoming a player very much like Rik Smits. A player who at times could dominant because of his size and skill level, but at times will struggle because of a lack of athleticism. This poses the question, who will be the Dale Davis for Hibbert? I think JuJuan Johnson is the player, in this draft, who most closely resembles Double D. He will face the criticism of being a four year player who lacks the upside of some of the underclassmen in the draft. But Larry Bird has done well in recent drafts by selecting Hansbrough and Hibbert, both four year college players who continue to develop. Johnson has a tremendous work ethic as witnessed by his development of an offensive arsenal while at Purdue. If he continues to grow into his sizeable frame and improve the strength in his lower body, he could be a formidable low block defender. He also grew up playing basketball locally, so fans would welcome his addition to the roster.
The other need that must be addressed, if this team expects to complete with the elites in the Eastern Conference, is point guard. Darren Collison is a good player who is only in his second season. But there is a tremendous gap in athleticism between him and Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose, and Dwayne Wade. All three play in the Eastern conference and have long careers ahead of them. The elite athlete who could fill our point guard position is a also local kid, Eric Gordon. He is currently miscast as a shooting guard. But there is a precedent for moving a shooting guard to the point. Russell Westbrook moved over three seasons ago and is considered one of the best young point guards in the league. Gordon will be a restricted free agent in the summer of 2012 and would seriously consider an offer to come back home. He continues to spend time here in the off season and was in attendance for both home playoff games.
The plan for free agency is in place. Now that Bird is back as president, he should remove interim tag from Frank Vogel's title and reward him with a three year 6 million dollar contract. Vogel's most important task is to find chemistry within his rotation and getting the players to understand their roles on the team. He did not have time to figure this out last season, but his rotation left much to be desired. While he received some credit for making adjustments within the playoff series, Vogel could learn much from Bulls Head Coach Tom Thibadeau. First, Thibadeau got his players to buy into the importance of team defense. Second, he found the right balance of players within his rotations. His starting five are not his best five but they compliment each other extremely well because they all know thier individual responsibilities within the team concept. The Bulls do not have a roster full of overwhelming talent, but the sum is greater than the parts. They have one star and the rest of the team knows exactly what their role is on the team. The Pacers must find balance and know thier roles, if they are to improve at closing games out.
What would an ideal rotation for the Pacers be? First, let's view the rotations for the Pacers in the playoffs last season. Collison, George, Granger, Hansbrough, and Hibbert were the starting five. Who amongst this group fills the role of providing defense and rebounding? Noone really. A starting five of Collison, Rush, Granger, Martin, and Hibbert would allow the strengths in each players game to better compliment the others. Offensively establishing Hibbert is paramount. His low post presence, would open up the floor for the other players as defenses would have to rotate down to help out on Roy. Now your three point shooters, Granger and Rush, would have more open opportunities. Collison would penetrate, distribute, and score the ball. Martin would clean up the boards and get his points on second shot opportunities. Defensively, Martin and Rush would step up and anchor this rotation. Your second unit would be Price, D. Jones, George, Hansbrough, and either McRoberts or Johnson. In this group, George and Hansbrough would take the majority of the shots, while D. Jones and the center would do the dirty work. Ideally, you get every player to embrace thier role by instilling a sense of pride in what they provide to the team. Developing an identity for each of the units could go a long way to establishing comeradery and developing a winning chemistry. Then, as the season progresses, Vogel would have to decide which five players strengths constitute the teams best chance to close games out. If this happens, this team's record could improve by as many as ten games next season.
There is a tremendous opportunity lying ahead for the Pacers in the next few seasons. As a long time fan of the team, I have never been this excited about the future. The front office has acquired a nucleus of talented, high character individuals that if given time to grow as team, can make Indianapolis extremely proud of thier accomplishments on and off the floor.