Monday, August 4, 2014

With Paul George Out, Should the Pacers Tank?

Pacers star Paul George suffered a gruesome leg injury during Friday's Team USA scrimmage.
By Bennett Corcoran (@CorcoranNBA)

After a stellar start to the year in which the Pacers won 16 of their first 17 contests, Indiana self-destructed at the end of last season. Despite earning the top seed in the Eastern Conference, the Pacers were just 12-13 after the beginning of March.

Indy began the season as the NBA's best defensive team by a considerable margin, posting a defensive efficiency of 93.6 before the All Star break (per NBA Stats). However, the team finished with just a rating of 102.3 after that mark, and their offense continued to trudge inefficiently with a limited selection of shot-creators.

A large reason for this implosion was the strange disappearance of Roy Hibbert, who shot a putrid 37.5% over that 25 game stretch. His 4.5 rebounds per game over this same stretch was particularly head-scratching for someone as tall as 7'2''. Hibbert was still one of the best defenders in the league last season, posting a defensive rating of 98 (per Basketball-Reference), but with the team's defense struggling, Hibbert was nowhere to be found. This was not the Hibbert that torched the Miami Heat in the 2013 playoffs with 22.1 PPG and 10.4 RPG on 55.6% shooting.

Hibbert received plenty of criticism for his comical box scores in April, but the decline of Paul George throughout the season also contributed to their unprecedented collapse. According to Kirk Goldsberry, George was hitting 46% of his field goals at the beginning of the season, and 41% of his three point attempts. This pace proved to be unsustainable, as George shot 39.6% from the field after the All Star break and 35.1% from distance over that same span.

George has cemented himself as a defensive force capable of checking the opponent's best player, and this ability will be sorely missed by the Pacers next season after he sustained a gruesome leg injury in the Team USA scrimmage Friday night.

This is even tougher to swallow for Indy fans after the departure of Lance Stephenson. The Pacers reportedly offered Lance a lucrative five-year, $44 million deal at the beginning of free agency, but Stephenson sought a shorter-term deal with a higher annual value, leading him to the Charlotte Hornets for three years at slightly more than $27 million, the third season being a team option. The deal gives Stephenson more flexibility, as he seems destined to prove himself as a two-way player for a Hornets team that desperately needs a competent two-way wing. With a new television deal set to take effect in two years, and the league's cap expected to jump, Stephenson seems poised to capitalize at the right time in an ideal situation.

With George expected to miss the season and Stephenson headed to Charlotte, Indiana does not boast a single player capable of creating his own shot (Rodney Stuckey doesn't count). Even with that pair, the Pacers offense predictably waned. George Hill would almost immediately defer to a one of the two upon bringing the ball up the court. Indy valiantly stuck by this strategy even when George's jumpshot fell off a cliff. This is a team that rested firmly in the bottom half of the league in offensive efficiency at 101.5, and just lost 36.6% of its points per game last season between two guys.

It's pretty clear that none of their offensive additions are moving the needle. Stuckey was one of the few Pistons to have a productive year last season, but his three point range is nonexistent (28.6% from deep for his career) and his limited defense doesn't fit the core values of this team. C.J. Miles is a volume spot-up shooter, but it is unclear who will be getting him those looks without PG or Born Ready in the fold.

The Pacers were ready to move on from Stephenson after he dismissed their offer, but the loss of George begs the question: should Indiana attempt to compete in a wide open Eastern Conference and hope that George miraculously returns for a playoff push (think Derrick Rose/Chicago Bulls media circus in 2013) or hit the breaks for a season and "tank"?

Before asking this question, it is important to consider the current debate within the league in regards to the NBA Draft lottery, including preliminary discussions floating around to modify the current system. Understandably, teams are wary of any major changes in the immediate future, as future picks have already been swapped under the current rules in place. However, there is no question that Commissioner Adam Silver is actively exploring possibilities to rectify a flawed system, and the odds of winning the lottery for cellar dwellers seems almost certain to decrease from the current 25%.

That being said, doesn't it make sense for the Pacers to take advantage of the current lottery structure while it is still in place?

Indiana has the rare opportunity to throw away a season while maintaining a superstar talent in George, similar to the 1997 San Antonio Spurs after David Robinson managed just six games. Remember how that worked out for them, as they secured the top pick in 1997 draft and selected Tim Duncan. So, clearly that plan of action warrants some serious consideration.

Despite the parity throughout the Eastern Conference, there's just no way this team makes any noise without George. Even with George, it is difficult to envision this team achieving the success they had with Stephenson. I had pegged the Pacers as a bottom-half playoff team before the injury, as teams like Chicago, Cleveland, Washington, Toronto, and Charlotte look poised to overtake the Pacers.

In the NBA today, teams are wary of being caught in the middle of the pack. The no man's land that exists between very good and very bad can prevent teams from building a champion. A mediocre team is not quite good enough to compete for a ring but is not rewarded with the same assets as the bottom feeders, incentivizing teams to be bad.

But racing to the bottom of the standings is not something the Pacers are accustomed to doing. In fact, Indiana prides itself on finding talent in the later part of the draft. Hibbert was drafted seventeenth in 2009. The next year, the Pacers scooped George with the tenth pick, and Stephenson in the second round.

That fact alone makes a complete overhaul unlikely, but not completely out of the question. With George still on the roster, Indiana could sell some of their assets in exchange for future picks, with the hope of capitalizing in the draft just as they did in the past.

Team president Larry Bird has voiced his displeasure with Hibbert throughout last season, and moving him would be the first step to solidifying their place in the bottom tier of the league. Hibbert has a player option after 2015 that is slated for the maximum salary, so he seems likely to opt in and join the 2016 free agent class already receiving plenty of hype. With so few true centers in this league, and even fewer containing the elite defensive ability of Hibbert, the Pacers would likely get a first round pick and then some.

Hibbert's value around the league clearly isn't at it's peak now, but I could see Hibbert earning a better return than the Tyson Chandler trade netted the Knicks. In that pre-draft swap, Dallas reacquired Chandler from the Knicks along with point guard Raymond Felon... err Felton. In return, the Mavs dealt center Samuel Dalembert, seldom-used Wayne Ellington, former first round pick Shane Larkin, and two second-picks. New York probably could've got a first round pick outright if it hadn't attached Felton to proposals, but Larkin and two second rounders seems like a decent amount for Chandler, who looked like he lost a step last season and has only played more than 70 games once in the past six seasons.

After all, Omer Asik just landed the Houston Rockets a first rounder structured so that it must fall between picks four and nineteen. This same type of structure was a key asset in the James Harden trade with Oklahoma City. Asik didn't even log 1,000 minutes last season after the signing of Dwight Howard, but is a known defensive commodity, and therefore the Pelicans felt comfortable making the deal.

Even after all of the merciless internet gags poking fun at Hibbert towards the end of the season, there's still a market for defensive centers on short term contracts. Teams see the value in paying up for a big man to patrol the paint because there are so few of them today. In terms of elite defensive centers, I've pretty much name dropped all of them in this article already, aside from Joakim Noah and Marc Gasol.

If the Pacers can acquire the right assets in return, it would be worth considering a Hibbert trade. Of course, there are two sides to every trade, and finding an team to agree with might prove to be difficult. The Lakers are one of the more puzzling teams in the league as they continue to stockpile power forwards, but they do possess the required expiring contract in Steve Nash. Perhaps Indy could sell the Buss family on a Bryant-Hibbert tandem in an effort to poach Julius Randle or a set of picks. Boston also has the requisite contracts to send out, and plenty of picks from the Nets to sweeten a deal. It looks like the Celtics are striking out on trading for Kevin Love, and maybe they believe the creativity of Rajon Rondo could reignite Hibbert's offensive game.

Teams like the Hawks and Suns could use a center, but it's unclear if Hibbert would thrive in that kind of up-tempo environment, so the fit is questionable. Portland originally signed Hibbert to a max offer sheet, but should really be more focused on building depth at this point after Robin Lopez's strong campaign last season.

If the Pacers really wanted to do a full-scale firesale, there are other pieces they could attempt to sell at the deadline as well.

Without George and Stephenson around, Stuckey should see plenty of opportunities to score and could bring back a return at the deadline given his minimum salary contract.

C.J. Watson is a steady backup with a nice three point shot, and has already played for his fair share of contenders. For a team looking to spread the floor and bolster the second unit, Watson represents an inexpensive option.

Luis Scola's contract for this upcoming season is reportedly non-guaranteed. It is unclear the exact guarantee date of his contract, but Scola could represent some value for a team looking to gain more flexibility. Similar to the three-way trade that netted Boston Tyler Zeller as Cleveland cleared room for LeBron James, the Pacers could get an intriguing young piece by cooperating with the agendas of other teams.

Certain guys would have to stick around so that when George is finally healthy, he'll have a strong core in combination with whatever assets the Pacers accumulate while he recovers. David West has a player option after this season, and a Hibbert trade could throw a wrench into his decision. As the heart and soul of this team, West is a veteran leader the Pacers cannot afford to lose.

The status of other teams around the NBA also suggests that punting the season might be Indiana's best long term play. Aside from the dreadful Sixers, most of last year's lottery teams will be improved. The Bucks scored Jabari Parker in the draft, and his presence along with the reemergence of Larry Sanders and Ersan Ilyasova could propel Milwaukee into the playoff conversation. Even though Jameer Nelson and Arron Afflalo are gone, it looks like the Magic are trying to win now with the signing of Channing Frye, and Victor Oladipo is ready for a breakout campaign.

Kobe Bryant alone will elevate the Lakers out of the basement (but if Kobe plays six games again this season, expect Los Angeles to be a serious threat to snag the top pick). The Celtics have just enough replacement-level veterans from salary-dump trades to be a notch above a wounded Indiana team. The young foundational players on the Jazz either recently inked an extension or are due in the next year, so Utah can't really afford to be bad anymore (although they inevitably will be in the West this year). Minnesota will endure a difficult season after trading Kevin Love, but if they hold him until the deadline, his presence alone could carry them to a few unwanted wins.

The point is, while last season felt like a rush to the bottom, this season has a different feel to it. It's also the offseason, where most teams have a concrete plan in place to improve. But for now, I'd say Philly and Minnesota are the only locks to be awful next year, with the Lakers, Magic, and Celtics possibly looming as threats to battle a depleted Indiana team for the top pick. Obviously nothing is guaranteed in the lottery, especially with the 76ers gunning to out-lose anyone, but this appears to be the most logical method for the Pacers to improve their core.

The race to the bottom is always an interesting subplot throughout the NBA season, especially as unexpected teams join the sprint when expectations aren't met. After the George injury, it looks like the Pacers should get a head start.

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