Children of the Corn
With sound management and a deep roster, the Indiana Pacers are ready to make noise.
The Pacers haven’t been very bad lately, so lottery luck was never going to play much of a role in their rebuilding process; to wit, Indiana hasn’t picked higher than 10th since 1989. So they’ve had to get by on good old fashioned smarts, which GM David Morway and President of Basketball Operations Larry Bird have applied by nonchalantly ripping doubles down the line while their higher-drafting counterparts were swinging for the fences and, more often than not, striking out.
More specifically, the Pacers have gotten strong value from five of their past six drafts; not only is that incredibly difficult to pull off in a vacuum, but it’s happening when most of the premium talent is already off the board. It began by opportunistically pouncing on Granger, a top-10 talent somehow available at No. 17, in 2005 after 16 other teams were dumb enough to pass on him. Three years later, in 2008, they drafted Jerryd Bayless 11th and flipped him along with Ike Diogu to Portland for Jarrett Jack, Josh McRoberts and the rights to Brandon Rush; Jack and McRoberts turned into solid rotation players before leaving in free agency (the latter, it should be noted, also would have fetched OJ Mayo at last year’s trade deadline had a paperwork snafu not scuttled the deal) while Rush served as a quality perimeter defender before being surrendered this offseason to bring in McRoberts’ replacement, Lou Amundson. Tyler Hansbrough came aboard with the following year’s 13th overall pick while the uber-talented George arrived the year after that at No. 10. This past year, with the 15th pick, they poached another top-10 caliber player in Kawhi Leonard and, because the Pacers already had two stellar wings in Granger and George, were able to trade him to San Antonio for a better fit in George Hill, an Indiana native who’s added firepower and professionalism off the bench. Even the one draft they didn’t hit on could have been worse, as 2006 first-rounder Shawne Williams is still in the league and his development stalled on account of off-the-court issues more than anything he did on the hardwood. [The Pacers did not have a pick in 2007, hence their six most recent drafts spanning seven seasons]
Factor in the savvy four-way trade that netted Collison for the pittance of also-ran Troy Murphy, and the Pacers assembled a talented young core without the stigma of tanking games and bereft of excessive fortune. That nucleus was the main factor West cited when he opted to sign with Indiana this offseason on a two-year, $20 million dollar deal instead of big market Boston, in the process disproving the myth that small market teams can’t compete in free agency. LeBron didn’t leave Cleveland because of the city itself; he left because he was saddled with a terrible supporting cast accumulated by years of incompetent personnel moves. Conversely, the Pacers convinced one of the most coveted free agents on the market to set up shop in Indiana by demonstrating that they had a sustained, long-term vision, and that they are adept at executing it.
There is a flaw in this plan, though. At some point, the Pacers will hit their ceiling as a good-but-not-great team unless they find a franchise player to build around and barring George unexpectedly becoming that guy – improbable, but not impossible given his T-Mac-ian blend of length and athleticism – there’s nobody on the books that fits that bill. Tougher still, there are less than a dozen such players in the game right now and for all the lottery’s warts, it’s also the most surefire way to acquire one – and the way Indiana will continue its march away from as the young core continues to marinate.
But franchise players have a funny way of becoming available every once in a while and as the recent Paul and Carmelo Anthony deals reveal, the currency for procuring them is talented, young, reasonably priced talent, which further appreciates now that harsher luxury tax penalties have been written into the new CBA. A cynic would point out that the success of those deals was due in no small part to both the Clippers and Knicks being big market teams, but the Lakers’ dearth of similar assets is the reason they haven’t been able to swing a deal for Dwight Howard without gutting their roster, irrespective of clout. The Pacers are stocked with such assets, hence why the offseason rumblings linking them to possible trade for Rajon Rondo were tantalizingly plausible and why it won’t be the last time they’ll be rumored to make a big splash on the trade market; at the end of the day, how many teams could offer up a collection of talent better than some combination of Hibbert, Collison, George, Hansbrough, or possibly even Granger?
Given the choice, there isn’t a sane person on the planet who would turn down an opportunity to swap Indiana’s roster for Oklahoma City’s. Yet when tasked with examining which franchise has a better model to imitate, it’s just as easy a call to make for the opposite side. Oklahoma City’s rise is a once-in-a-decade type phenomenon, intelligence augmented by kismet. Indiana’s stems from the patient, shrewd decision-making that’s accessible to every team that grasps the significance in maximizing the relative value of every transaction rather than hoping the dice hits snake eyes several times in succession.
Only time will tell if the Pacers approach eventually secures their first-ever NBA title, but one thing is for certain: we’re talking about them again for all the right reasons.