The Pacers MVP? Larry Bird

The Indiana Pacers front office, led by Larry Bird as Team President, is undergoing a culture and style change.  They are also starting over with a new coach. They made two big trades before draft night. These trades, along with the remaining offseason moves, should improve on last year’s run, in which the Pacers took the second-seeded Toronto Raptors to seven games.

Before last season, it wasn’t clear if the Pacers would be able to compete in the Eastern Conference but now with the emphasis on playing faster and smaller, they are looking to get back to the Conference Finals.

The controversial firing of established coach Frank Vogel behind them -they let go of a career .508 coach who brought them to back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals in 2013 and 2014 and were within one win away from the Finals in 2013- the Pacers have executed the first step in the process of playing a smaller lineup. This differed from the big lineup that Vogel favored.  The next step towards that process was replacing George Hill with Jeff Teague in a three-team deal with Atlanta and Utah.  Finally, they  traded draftee Caris Levert for the veteran Thaddeus Young.

The Pacers are trying to win now.

George Hill reflects the culture change as much as anyone from the current roster.  The core of those Eastern Conference contending teams started to form in 2011.  During that year’s draft, the Pacers traded the draft rights of an athletic wing from San Diego State (Kawhi Leonard) for Hill, who played for the Spurs.  Since coming to Indiana, Hill had been a very solid two-way player and an almost perfect fit.  He stabilized the point guard position and fit their “defense first” mentality while providing spacing and playmaking.  However, the move for Hill wasn’t a complete success. The player he was traded for turned out to be the 2014 Finals MVP and back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year award winner.

The same year the Pacers acquired Hill, they gave a two-year $20 million contract to veteran forward David West and then re-signed him in 2013 for three years and $36 million.  Along with developing future All-Stars, Paul George and Roy Hibbert, the Pacers defense-first core of Hill, George, West, and Hibbert was put in place.  This core, along with Lance Stephenson, became the formative Eastern Conference opponent to LeBron James and his last two Miami Heat teams.

The Pacers drafting history, apart from missing out on Leonard, is generally very good and characterized by finding NBA-level talent with late lottery picks or picks outside the lottery altogether.   In 2010, they drafted future star Paul George at number 10 and future contributor Lance Stephenson very late in the second round.  In re-drafts, both players would go earlier even if Stephenson hasn’t played up to All-Star level.

The 2015 Draft demonstrated Bird’s ability to draft well. He picked Myles Turner, who fell to them at the 11th pick after a poor freshman season at the University of Texas.  Turner exceeded expectations, averaging ten points and grabbing five rebounds in 22 minutes while playing terrific defense during the 2015-16 season.

The biggest question mark going forward is the starting shooting guard position.

Monta Ellis has declined in his three point shooting and in his ability to get to the line. He is probably best suited as a sixth man at this stage in his career.  The acquisition of Teague also makes Ellis’ role more awkward because starting two guards who can’t shoot only creates difficulties in the modern NBA.  The other shooting guards on their roster, Rodney Stuckey and Glenn Robinson III, are both unfit to start too.

Assuming the Pacers want to re-sign the much improved starting center Ian Mahinmi, they will not have the max contract space to sign guards like DeMar DeRozan and/or Bradley Beal.  They can, however, make runs at guys who still fit stylistically such as Courtney Lee and Arron Afflalo.  Neither player is a great option long term, especially with the amount of money they might receive, but the Pacers need an upgrade at that position and signing either of them to $15 million longterm will be their best win-now option.

Overall, Larry Bird will have his work cut out for him in order to get the Pacers back into contention.  He’s already done the hard part of finding a two-way superstar on the wing in George and a young big-man in Turner, whose game fits perfectly into the future NBA.  Bird now has to make sure he solves the remaining problems on his roster as he puts the Pacers back into the discussion as Eastern Conference contenders.


photo via llananba