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Draft Talk: Should the Pacers Trade Up? It's Complicated

An investigation, spanning two decades, into what the Pacers should expect from their draft pick, and whether or not they should make other plans.

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The last time the Pacers had a first-round pick was 2013. I'm guessing you remember the night well, probably for the wrong reasons. Or maybe--with the right amount of therapy--you've managed to expunge it from your memory. If option No. 2 sounds like you, then I suggest you exit the screen immediately. For re-visitation is about to commence. 

We were only one year removed from the controversial selection of Miles "You're not Jeff Foster" Plumlee. It also happened to be the night of David Stern's final NBA Draft, which had him in a predictably chipper mood. Twenty-two picks went by and the Pacers were finally on the clock. Commissioner Stern walked up smugly to the podium, chided the crowd for already losing its booing vigor, and read, "With the 23rd pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, the Indiana Pacers select, Solomon Hill, from the University of Arizona."

Don't let the scattered cheers on the broadcast fool you. Among Pacers' fans, an explosion of don't-draft-Hansbrough proportions immediately followed the announcement. And for good reason: at the time, Hill was regarded as a second-round-to-undrafted prospect.

The Pacers tried their best to soothe the unrest, claiming multiple teams had tried to pry Hill away via trade. But Pacers' fans would not be deterred. They were angry, frustrated yet again by the franchise's reluctance to take a risk; especially that late in the draft.

While it's too early to say whether or not Hill was the right pick, the early results are surprisingly positive. After a rookie season in which he played sparingly, injuries forced him into the rotation in year two. He went on to lead the team in minutes played, started almost the entire season, and was the only Pacer to play in all 82 games. At times, his wayward shot marked him as a fringe NBA prospect, but by the end of the season, there were enough moments of solid defense and playmaking potential to envision him as a solid backup. 

But what really strengthens Hill's anti-disaster case is to look at the players drafted after him. Count Rudy Gobert as a glaring whiff four spots behind, but I think most reasonable folks would agree the Pacers were never going to draft Gobert, not with rim protectors Roy Hibbert and Ian Mahinmi already on the roster. Beyond Gobert, is an unsightly glut of no-names, maybes, and  nevers: Tim Hardaway Jr., Reggie Bullock, Andre Roberson, Livio Jean-Charles, Archie Goodwin, Nemanja Nedovic, Allen Crabbe, Carrick Felix ... I think you get the point.

In truth, the Hill pick was never going to be an outright disaster. Not in that draft, at that spot, on that championship-contending roster.

Fast forward to 2015: the Pacers literally limped their way to a Lottery pick, and are prowling once again for some talented youth.

We all witnessed it throughout the season: the age and injuries, the talent deficit, the lack of potential. Based on the current roster construction, one could make a strong argument that sans the very bottom of the bottom dwellers, the Pacers need to hit this draft pick more than any other team. They need a young difference-maker to pair with Paul George; someone who can convince George and the fan base that there's more to the future than a still-shaky prospect (S.Hill), an undrafted FA (Whittington), and a bunch of soon-to-be 30-somethings (G. Hill, Hibbert, C.J. Miles, Stuckey). 

The question becomes: will they find such a player at 11 (assuming, of course, the Lottery plays out accordingly and that's where they're slotted)? The answer: probably not.

I did some digging recently. For the sake of relevance, I investigated the last 20-years' worth of 11th picks in the draft. I broke them down according to average number of seasons played, starter percentage, and All-Star selections (one of five Hall-of-Fame predictor variables used by Basketball-Reference). Frankly, it wasn't a very faith-promoting exercise. See for yourself:

Seasons Starter % All-Star #
G. Trent 10 26% 0
T. Fuller 5 10% 0
T. Abdul-Wahad 6 61% 0
B. Wells 10 47% 0
T. Langdon 3 4% 0
J. Moiso 5 2% 0
K. Brown 4 25% 0
J. Jeffries 11 53% 0
M. Pietrus 10 31% 0
A. Biedrins 10 60% 0
F. Vazquez 0 0% 0
J.J. Redick 9 31% 0
A. Law 4 4% 0
J. Bayless 7 14% 0
T. Williams 4 6% 0
C. Aldrich 5 9% 0
K. Thompson 4 88% 1
M. Leonard 3 10% 0
M. Carter-Williams 2 98% 0
D. McDermott 1 0% 0
5.7 29% 0.1

Ugh. I haven't seen anything that offensive since a Lance Stephenson hip thrust. Sure, Klay Thompson looks nice, so does Carter-Williams to a degree, but historically speaking, 11 doesn't offer much more than a rotation player/sometimes starter. And for many, that won't be enough. Just ask, MillerTime31, who wrote this recently of the Pacers' pick:

"...Being a starter in the NBA would be a hell of an accomplishment, but I want more."

It's hard to disagree with the sentiment, but the above evidence suggests in order to get 'more' the Pacers are going to have to get creative i.e. trade up ... right? Whatever it takes to avoid contracting the next Trajan Langdon Disease or Todd Fuller Palsy. 

I reasoned through the trade-up scenario as realistically as possible. For example, the Pacers are unlikely to make Paul George available in any draft-day deal, yet any smart team in the top-five would likely demand Paul George in return. Therefore, I quickly crossed the top-five off my list. Instead, I settled on the range of 6-10. Surely, history would uncover a sweet spot there in which to find a difference-maker ... right? The answer: yes and no.

Using the same 20-year model, I broke down those players selected between 6-10. Below are the mean calculations:

Seasons Starter % All-Star #
6th Pick 6.5 58% 0.5
7th Pick 8.5 68% 0.4
8th Pick 7.5 49% 0
9th Pick 7.6 57% 1.7
10th Pick 8.8 54% 1.2

Fascinating, isn't it? In some ways, six and eight are as depressingly unreliable as 11, whereas in some ways, nine and 10 are as golden as 3-5. Don't believe me? To the tables we go again:

Seasons Starter % All-Star #
3rd Pick 8.8 62% 1.6
4th Pick 8.9 65% 1.5
5th Pick 9 65% 2.5

So, what does this tell us? Probably nothing. Go back another 10 years to include Reggie Miller, Terrell Brandon, and Alan Houston, and the 11th spot suddenly looks more respectable. Or add Johnny Dawkins, Rumeal Robinson, and Adam Keefe to the 10th-pick crop, and it suddenly loses a bit of its shine.

What this exercise does help illustrate, however, is just how daunting of a task Larry & Co. have in front of them. At this point, there's no way to account for what deals may be on the table come draft night ... or if the Pacers' pick will be consistent with historical precedent ... or if it'll turn out to be one of those exceptions to the rule. And, honestly, that aspect of the unknown is part of what makes this fun.

But one thing I will guarantee is that no matter who the Pacers draft, or whether or not they trade up or down, the reaction from fans will be the same as always: it's complicated.