Two years ago, the Chicago Bulls rolled into the Eastern Conference finals behind Derrick Rose and looked like a team on the cusp of being a perennial Championship contender. The Heat dispatched the Bulls in five. Then Rose shredded his ACL in the 2012 playoffs and didn’t play a minute this season.
Last year was Boston’s final run at a title with the aging KG and Paul Pierce, and the Celtics pushed the Heat to seven games in the Eastern Conference finals, ultimately losing to LeBron’s heroics. This year, Rajon Rondo tore his ACL and the Celtics were bounced in the first round by New York. A major rebuilding project awaits the Celtics.
And now we come to latest team to ascend in the East, the Indiana Pacers. After dispatching the Hawks and Knicks, they pushed the Heat to seven. In an odd quirk, the Pacers did this without Danny Granger, who was universally deemed their best player the last few years. How can the Pacers avoid what happened to the Bulls and Celtics before them? (You know, besides freakish injuries.)
1) Indiana has to make a decision on free agent David West, who made $10 million this season. It shouldn’t be a difficult one. Although he turns 33 in August, West is one of the team’s most pivotal players. From toughness to his 17-7 averages, he’s got to return. The question will be at what cost. Will there be a bidding war on West? Would Indiana pass on him if the price gets too high? There’s one tiny caveat to West …
2) … He’s tight with Chris Paul, who happens to be a free agent. They were boys in New Orleans. I wonder if Paul thinks that right now, David West is as good of a power forward as Blake Griffin. Could West possibly lure CP3 to Indiana? I’d say that is highly unlikely, but there are other point guard options. George Hill is a very nice player, but not a traditional point guard and he only averaged 4.7 assists per game. The Indiana offense bogged down at times against Miami, which one could attribute to the lack of a bench, the lack of Granger, or possibly the lack of a point guard. (Random, unrelated note: Does Steve Nash wish he signed with the Pacers instead of the Lakers?) Paul George handles the ball well – he has some Scottie Pippen point-forward in his game – and averaged 4.1 assists per game last season. This is when someone is supposed to mention that when the Bulls had Jordan, their “point guard” at times was John Paxson, Steve Kerr or Ron Harper.
3) The Danny Granger question is a challenging one, and there are many options. Could Indiana amnesty him?
Sure. [UPDATE: Nope. Although it doesn't show up here, the Pacers did amnesty James Posey in 2011.] Taking that $14 million off the books would allow them to get creative in free agency. But, Granger is an expiring contract next year. Could they trade him? I’m not sure what the market is for a 30-year old shooter coming off a knee injury. Anyone need a hired gun for one season? (I’d mention Memphis, but they’re trying to do things on the cheap.) I’m sure someone will propose Cleveland as a landing spot – with the 2014 summer in mind (ie, clearing cap room for LeBron). West is an easy decision. Need him back. Granger? I’m not so sure. At some point, fans will compare the Granger situation this year to the Rudy Gay one in Memphis (better without him).
4) DJ Augustin, who was the backup point guard, had a couple nice game in the postseason, but he’s a free agent and probably won’t be retained. I’d let Sam Young walk as well.
How does this sound for next season: Sign Chauncey Billups (turns 37 in September) to be the starting PG. You lose a lot defensively, but how much does his postseason experience matter? Round out the starting lineup with George, Granger, West and Hibbert. Then, your bench suddenly is led by George Hill and Lance Stephenson (who both can play heavy minutes). Looking a veteran frontcourt guy to come off the bench for 15 minutes a night and get you some buckets? How about Antwan Jamison? Sure he too turns 37 (in a few days), but for a team this close to reaching the Finals, he’ll bring more to the table than Jeff Pendergraph or Miles Plumlee at this point. So your depth chart:
C – Hibbert, Mahinmi, Plumlee
PF – West, Tyler Hansbrough, Jamison
SF – Granger
SG – George, Stephenson, Green, Orlando Johnson
PG – Billups, Hill, Ben Hansbrough
Plus 2 draft picks (23, 53) only one of which probably makes the team. In a weak draft, I doubt the Pacers could package 23+53 to move up a few spots, but maybe that’s worth a shot. At 23, I’d target a point guard just in case this longshot scenario unfolds – they don’t amnesty Granger and next year Hill regresses and you want to amnesty Hill in 2014 – or a power forward in hopes of finding the next West, or a small forward shooter to replace Granger. My thoughts:
PG: Nate Wolters, South Dakota State. Very underrated. Greivis Vasquez, but a better shooter? Other option: Shane Larkin, Miami. I doubt he’ll be available.
SF: Reggie Bullock, UNC. Good defender. Good shooter. Other option: DeShaun Thomas, Ohio State. Doubt he’ll fall this far.
PF: Tony Mitchell, North Texas. Rough sophomore year, and raw, but talented. Other option: Kenny Kadji, Miami. He’s 25, but so what? Indy is close.