By CLIFF BRUNT
The Pacers are poised to reach the top of the heap in the Eastern Conference within the next few years.
This offseason will decide if they’ll ever get there.
Indiana challenged Miami before losing the second-round playoff series 4-2, and the Pacers aren’t afraid of the Heat now. Boston is aging and Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen are in the last year of their deals. Chicago could be without Derrick Rose for most of next season with a torn ACL. Atlanta appears to be caught in a cycle of being just pretty good, and Philadelphia might never again be as lucky as it was in the playoffs when Chicago’s Rose and Joakim Noah were injured.
Pacers president Larry Bird, the league’s executive of the year, is ready to take things a step further. He has young talent, salary cap space and players with trade value at his disposal.
The East is ripe for a takeover, but a few things have to happen. Here are a few things the Pacers need to deal with in order to make the move to the top complete.
The Pacers need to keep Roy Hibbert and turn him into a dominant player.
The Pacers need to re-sign the restricted free-agent center. If they lose him, they have enough tradable pieces and money available to find a serviceable replacement, but why risk losing a talent like Hibbert’s and worse yet, risk having to play against him in the East? There are very few bigs who are game-changing defenders and even fewer who have the skill and potential to score on the low block like Hibbert. NBA executives often pay for potential, then pray that it is realized. Hibbert is worth keeping.
If the Pacers pay big for him, he needs to step up in a few areas. He needs to own the paint. He needs to learn how to better position himself so those hook shots fall. He needs to think SportsCenter dunk whenever he’s within five feet of the rim. No more botched layups. And he needs to stay out of foul trouble in big games. For an All-Star, there were way too many times when the Pacers needed to rally and he wasn’t even on the floor because the team flowed better without him. That’s not the case if he finishes at the rim.
Indiana needs to find a franchise player or a capable scorer with an attack-first mentality.
Danny Granger is maddeningly close to superstar status, but he’s 29 and his ship to the next level might have sailed. The Pacers need a player who strikes fear into opponents by driving from the perimeter. Such a player would have taken pressure off of Hibbert in the Miami series. Granger is capable of being that player and has been dominant at times when he has chosen that route, but he’s just good enough at shooting 3-pointers to remove himself from it. He also isn’t consistently good in the clutch. He missed a golden opportunity in Game 1 against Orlando, and he disappeared at times against Miami. As good as LeBron James is, you can’t disappear, especially if you’re the best player on your team. So the Pacers need to find a player who complements Granger to free him up, convince Granger that he needs to attack first to set up the rest of the team or find a player to replace him as the lead scorer.
Indiana needs to figure out its point guard position.
If the Pacers re-sign George Hill and Darren Collison remains around, there will be a battle for the starting job. Another option here is Houston free agent Goran Dragic, a potential star who won’t be too expensive because he emerged late in the season. Dragic was very good in Phoenix behind Steve Nash. He was very good whenever called upon in Houston. He creates for his teammates and himself. He’s bigger than Collison and a better passer than Hill. He seems to be a team player. He’s a piece that could make a difference.
Paul George’s production needs to match his potential.
George made strides this season. He received votes for the all-defense team and Vogel constantly touted him as one of the best defensive wing players in the league. His 3-point shooting improved significantly. He was in the slam dunk contest and the rookie-sophomore challenge at All-Star weekend.
He also disappeared at times late in the season and was replaced early in games by Leandro Barbosa far too often because he was in foul trouble or demonstrated poor judgment. His mental development must jump significantly for the Pacers to put a large part of their future on him. His occasional recklessness actually could be good because he’s naturally aggressive and needs to be reined in. Frank Vogel appears up to the task. George won’t shy away from big moments – he just needs to better understand when to go and when to wait. But again, it was just his second year.
Tyler Hansbrough needs to become more consistent.
Hansbrough has come a long way since he entered the league. He developed a solid mid-range jumper and fouls less frequently. He’s learned how to be that whirlwind without destroying everything in sight. Now, he needs a move. He needs a go-to move inside to make defenders respect him more so the offense flows better when he’s on the floor. He has a modified baby hook, but it hasn’t reached go-to status yet. He’s already done more than many expected coming out of college. Now, we know he’s an NBA player. The next step is for him to become a better-than-average one who can take pressure off the aging David West. He needs to become a more versatile and trustworthy offensive player to do that.
Make the most of your money.
A lot of locals want to see Indiana get a big name, but big names don’t usually come here. Reggie Miller was an exception. And big names sometimes mess up your flow. Indiana won last season because it played defense and team ball. The wrong superstar ruins everything Bird has created.
Bird won’t make the popular move just to do it. Local hero Eric Gordon seems to be the popular choice for the Pacers to chase, but he’s injury-prone and hasn’t won on the NBA level. Bird doesn’t seem like the type to take that sort of risk. What Bird does might surprise people. Hansbrough and George were not popular draft picks and they turned out pretty well. He goes his own way.
So, prepare to be disappointed with whatever he does. Then, prepare to be cheering for the move a year from now.