Children of the Corn
With sound management and a deep roster, the Indiana Pacers are ready to make noise.
by Mike Piellucci / @mikelikessports
You know it’s a strange season when people are talking about the Indiana Pacers.
I mean this in the most literal way possible. For the better part of the past half-decade, the Pacers have sat outside our collective consciousness, a fact directly attributable to their sustained mediocrity. If they were stellar, they would be plastered all over the airwaves, impossible to avoid. Were they putrid, along the lines of the pre-Blake Clippers, post-JKidd Nets, or pre- and post-LeBron Cavs, we’d be forced to marvel at their ineptitude, condemned to ponder which college star they’d gobble up in next year’s lottery. Yet Indiana has been neither of those things, mired in basketball purgatory to the tune of five consecutive finishes between eighth and tenth place with a solitary playoff berth to show for it.
They are the rice in the NBA’s burrito, a key ingredient in the meal’s composition yet hardly one to enliven the palette. We would certainly notice if the Pacers suddenly disappeared from the league, a fact that has as much to do with their 50-plus year existence as anything else. But they’ve woven precious few threads into the league’s tapestry for a franchise of such tenure, and the most significant of which – Malice in the Palace – reads far more gruesome than glorious, an awkward distinction for any franchise to bear. For many, they aren’t so much a brand as they are a locale, the place where Reggie Miller plied his trade; considering Miller has been retired since 2005, that isn’t a good thing.
Things finally appear to be looking up, however, which consequently has people casting eyes on the Pacers organization. In a grueling campaign where depth is king, Indiana boasts seven good to very good NBA players, highlighted by an honest-to-God balanced starting five featuring a talented if erratic young point guard (Darren Collison); a pair of athletic, scoring wings (Danny Granger and Paul George); a grizzled veteran with playoff experience (David West); and one of the handful of true centers remaining in the NBA (Roy Hibbert). They lack pizzazz but there aren’t half a dozen teams in the league that trot out a more complete opening lineup on a given night
As a result, the Pacers were anointed the East’s trendy sleeper pick entering the season, the group seemingly every savvy and semi-savvy pundit tabbed to give Miami and Chicago a scare and perhaps even garner a top-4 seed in the process.
Which is completely missing the point.
There is nothing to be gained by pontificating on where the Indiana Pacers will be seeded in four months’ time because they are not winning the NBA title. We know this because history shows us that the vast majority of championship teams from the past three decades featured a Grade A superstar, steady play at point guard, and a core of veterans; Indiana has exactly none of these things, and that’s before getting into the considerable number of teams that right now are just better than them.
Yet the outcome, for the time being, is tangential to the process. The real story lies not in the roster, but in its construction. Because while everyone justifiably raves about the work Sam Presti has done in Oklahoma City, Indiana is the franchise that’s constructed the real blueprint for how to build a team from the ground up.
That sounds counter intuitive given that the Thunder, not the Pacers, are the ones with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, a conference finals appearance, and well-earned contender status in their conference. To amass that type of talent, though, you have to be bad. As in, “picking in the top five for three consecutive seasons”-bad, which the Thunder were en route to snagging Durant, Westbrook, James Harden, and Jeff Green (via a trade with Boston for Ray Allen) from 2007-2009. In theory, replicating that formula is relatively straightforward. All a GM has to do is strip the roster threadbare of assets in exchange for young players and picks, then use the resulting windfall of lottery picks gained from losing three games out of every four to restock the cupboard with premium talent. Wizards owner Ted Leonsis copped to doing exactly that earlier this month, and his club is hardly alone in that process.
In practice, more than being bad, you have to be lucky. Lucky enough to pick in the top two in a year when two can’t-miss franchise guys are at the top of the board, and lucky enough for Portland to use the first pick on the guy that did (Greg Oden) instead of the guy that didn’t (Durant). Lucky enough to find a second star in Westbrook to pair with Durant the very next draft when so many franchises hunt fruitlessly for the right sidekick for years and often never find one at all. Luckier still to nab Harden the year after that as the perfect third scorer, one who can handle the ball, space the floor and connect from deep but cognizant of his place in the pecking order. Luckiest of all, each plays a different position and none has ever missed more than eight games in a season.
For every Oklahoma City that hits the power ball jackpot, though, there are three teams like Golden State, Charlotte and Minnesota, perpetually mired in the upper reaches of the lottery because they never hit pay dirt in the form of that elusive savior. Toronto and Milwaukee landed the top pick in consecutive weak drafts, and wound up with solid, unspectacular building blocks in Andrea Bargnani and Andrew Bout, respectively. Conversely, Atlanta gambled on Marvin Williams’ superstar potential and wound up with a sixth man, a damaging misfire unto itself but one that came at the even greater cost of losing out on both Chris Paul and Deron Williams. The Blazers were Oklahoma City’s forbearer as the West’s next great contender, but knee injuries doomed Brandon Roy’s career before its apex and Oden’s literally before its start, leaving LaMarcus Aldridge to forge ahead alone. The Bulls have finally returned to contender status and the Clippers are inching there by cashing in on a pair of top overall picks that did work out in Derrick Rose and Griffin, but it only came after years of futility apiece. Pore through enough examples and it becomes increasingly evident that the lottery concept applies as much to the picks themselves as it does order of ping pong balls that determine them, hardly the panacea for every non-contender’s maladies.