With a 106–102 loss to the Cavs in Game 4 of their first-round series on Sunday, the Pacers became the first team eliminated from this season’s playoffs. Despite being swept, they were outscored by a total of only 16 points in the series, with the outcome of three of the four games coming down to the final minute. The biggest difference between the two teams was that one had LeBron James and the other didn’t. For the fourth time in the past six seasons, Indiana’s season was ended by LeBron, who put together a performance for the ages in the series, averaging 32.8 points on 54.3 percent shooting, 9.8 rebounds, nine assists, two blocks, and three steals a game.
Paul George had some great moments of his own, averaging 28 points, 8.8 rebounds, and 7.3 assists a game, but they will be overshadowed by the critical comments he made about his teammates following games 1 and 2, as well as some ugly plays down the stretch in Game 4. It’s tough to ask any player to outduel LeBron, especially when they don’t have nearly as much help. George had to guard LeBron for huge portions of the series, while LeBron was able to hide off the ball; the Cavs doubled and trapped George almost every time he came off a screen, daring his teammates to beat them from the perimeter. For all of the individual talent on the Pacers roster, they were never as good as the sum of their parts: They finished the season with a sub-.500 record and a negative point differential.
With the Pacers’ offseason underway, it’s time for them to conduct an exit interview with themselves. Here are six key questions they need to answer.
1. What Do They Do With Paul George?
George’s future looms over everything in Indiana. He is set to be an unrestricted free agent after he opts out of his contract at the end of next season, and the Pacers can’t feel confident in their ability to re-sign him after losing in the first round in each of the past two seasons. The new CBA was supposed to help teams in their situation by giving them the exclusive option of offering a massive $200 million contract extension, but George would need to make an All-NBA team this season to be eligible for such a deal. Competition for those spots at the forward positions will be fierce, and Indiana’s lackluster season may keep George out of the mix.
The Pacers have done everything in their power to build a contender around George. It just hasn’t worked. Most of the players on this year’s roster are in the prime of their career, and they have only two players in their rotation — starting center Myles Turner and reserve wing Glenn Robinson III — under the age of 25. Without significant progress next season, it will be hard for them to sell George on staying long term, and they don’t have many ways of improving their roster. They already have $68.6 million in salaries committed for 2017–18, even before a possible contract extension for Jeff Teague. If they lose George, not many players on their roster make much sense on a rebuilding team.
The only thing worse than trading a player of his caliber is letting him walk for nothing in free agency. Just ask Oklahoma City, and the Thunder at least had Russell Westbrook to soften the blow of losing Kevin Durant. The Pacers without George could quickly sink to the bottom of the league, a position they haven’t been in often. Indiana hasn’t won fewer than 32 games or picked higher than no. 7 in the draft since 1989. This isn’t a franchise that is going to be interested in something resembling the Process. Trading George could potentially kick-start a rebuild and allow the Pacers to acquire some high lottery picks without the pain of the losing seasons that typically accompany them.
2. If They Do Trade George, How Much Can They Get for Him?
Part of the issue with moving George is that everyone in the NBA seems to think he will wind up signing with his hometown Los Angeles Lakers, who should be able to open up the salary cap room to sign him next summer. Magic Johnson is going to want to make a splash in his new role as team president, and he was brought on board in large part due to his ability to sell the franchise to prospective free agents. No team will give up the king’s ransom the Pacers will want for George if he’s just going to be a rental. Larry Bird might try to cut out the middleman and move George directly to the Lakers for some picks and young players, but how attractive an offer the Lakers can put together will depend on what happens in the lottery.
If the Lakers wind up in the top three, not only will they keep their pick in 2017, they won’t have to trade their 2019 first-rounder to the Magic, who would instead receive two second-round picks. If the Lakers don’t win the lottery, and they lose their picks in 2017 and 2019, it will be hard for them to come up with enough assets to make a trade worthwhile for the Pacers. Even if L.A. gets lucky, it’s just as likely that the franchise decides to play hardball with Indiana, figuring it can lure George in free agency rather than gut the team to acquire him a year early, especially when they probably wouldn’t have enough talent around him to secure a playoff spot anyway. No team wants to make the same mistake the Knicks made with Carmelo Anthony.
The other front-runners in any potential George sweepstakes are the Celtics, who have been sitting on top of a pile of assets for so long it’s starting to give them bedsores. Boston would presumably be more willing to pull the trigger on a trade for George if the pick it received from the Nets winds up being no. 4 overall, but the Celtics may feel the pressure to acquire George if they are upset by the Bulls in the first round, even if it means giving up the chance to draft Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball. It’s hard to say what the Celtics will do from the outside, just as it’s hard to predict whether the Pacers could drum up good offers from other teams looking to go all in if they made George available.
3. If They Keep George, What Is Their Identity Going to Be?
The Roy Hibbert–era Pacers may not have always played the prettiest basketball, but they knew who they were and how they wanted to win games. They slowed the tempo of the game to a crawl, funneled penetration into their big men, and tried to win with defense. Bird saw the writing on the wall with that style of play and tried to modernize their team over the past few years, but all he did was create a bizarre mishmash that doesn’t do anything particularly well. The Pacers had the no. 15-rated offense in the NBA this season and the no. 16-rated defense, and it was never clear how all of the pieces were supposed to fit together.
Trading George Hill for Teague was supposed to push their offense into another gear, but he replicated the strengths of Monta Ellis’s game without covering up any of Monta’s weaknesses (3-point shooting, perimeter size, defense) in the same way as Hill did. The hiring of Nate McMillan was supposed to make them play more up-tempo, even though his teams in Portland were at the bottom of the NBA in terms of pace in an era when the league played much slower than it does now. Players with the ability to guard multiple positions and shoot 3s are the connective glue that holds lineups together, and the only guys with that skill set on the Pacers roster other than George were Robinson and C.J. Miles.
It was as if the Pacers were constructing a fantasy roster. The one thing Teague, Ellis, Aaron Brooks, Rodney Stuckey, Lance Stephenson, Thaddeus Young, and Al Jefferson had in common was the ability to get buckets. Creating your own shot off the dribble is an important skill to have, but it’s not quite as important when you have a player as talented as George. The ideal scenario for building around a franchise player is closer to what LeBron has in Cleveland, with two other players who handle the bulk of the offense, and everyone else stretching the floor and playing defense. There was almost no one on the Indiana roster who could do either of those things.
4. What Is Myles Turner’s Ceiling, and How Quickly Can He Get There?
Indiana’s best chance of internal improvement is Turner developing into a star. He is either going to be the player who keeps George in Indiana or the guy who takes the reins when George leaves. It’s still unclear how good Turner can be in the NBA, since he’s only 21 years old and he wasn’t asked to do much on the offensive end of the floor this season. He went from playing as a power forward next to Ian Mahinmi in two-big-man lineups as a rookie to playing as a center next to Thaddeus Young in lineups where he was asked to do most of the heavy lifting on defense. Turner had the best on-court/off-court numbers of any player in the Pacers rotation other than Stephenson this season, although that might be in part because of the disaster that was the rest of their big-man rotation.
Turner still has a lot of room to get better. He was the third-leading scorer on the team (14.5 points per game) despite having the sixth-highest usage rate, getting most of his points from cutting to the rim, spotting up off the ball, running the floor, and crashing the offensive boards. Turner has the ability to play with his back to the basket and stretch out the defense to the 3-point line, although he was rarely asked to do either given the number of ball-dominant players he shared the floor with. He has shown flashes of the ability to distribute the ball, and plays like this make you wonder what he could do if given a bigger role in the offense:
Turner has even more potential on the defensive end of the floor. He averages 2.1 blocks a game and moves his feet well for a player his size (6-foot-11 and 243 pounds with a 7-foot-4 wingspan), with Synergy Sports rating him in the top half of players in the NBA in terms of defending the roll man and the ball handler in the pick-and-roll. Like most young big men, Turner needs to get stronger and become quicker at reading what the opposing offense will do, but that will come with time. By the time he’s in his mid-20s, he should be one of the best two-way big men in the NBA. But will George still be in Indiana at that point?
5. Who Will They Have to Pay in the Offseason?
Teague will be an unrestricted free agent, and he performed about as well as could have been expected when the Pacers acquired him for Hill in the offseason. He averaged 15.3 points, 4.0 rebounds, 7.8 assists, and 1.2 steals a game on 44.3 percent shooting, numbers roughly in line with what he did in his time with the Hawks. The depth at the point guard position around the league means Teague may not make another All-Star team, barring being a part of another miraculous 60-win season like he was in Atlanta in 2015, but he’s an above-average starting point guard who should be able to command a healthy paycheck on the market.
The Pacers were at their best when they paired Teague with a defensive-minded wing in the backcourt: They had a net rating of plus-7.7 this season when Miles played with other four starters and plus-7.8 with Robinson. Play Monta in that spot, and that number plummeted all the way to minus-0.2, which made McMillan’s decision to start Monta in the first two games of their series with the Cavs all the more bizarre. The Pacers were outscored by 14 points in the 76 minutes that Monta played against the Cavs in a series where they were outscored by only 16 points total. Monta is everything you don’t want in a player next to Teague, and his playing time dwindled to next to nothing as the series went along. He played only five minutes in Game 4, and this sequence in the first half summed up the problem with having him on the floor:
The other key player who could hit the market is C.J. Miles, as he has a player option of $4.58 million for next season. Miles is a 30-year-old coming off the best 3-point shooting season of his career, knocking down 41.3 percent of his shots from long range on 5.4 attempts per game, so it would make sense for him to strike while the iron is hot and secure one last long-term contract. Every team in the league could use a player with his skill set, and the Pacers may opt to let Miles walk and give Robinson a bigger role if they can’t find someone who will take Monta’s contract off their hands. It would be tough for them to let one of the only 3-and-D players on their roster go, but so would paying a ton of money to keep a .500 team intact.
6. Is Lance Stephenson Really That Much Better in Indiana?
It’s no exaggeration to say that Lance saved the Pacers’ season. They went 5–1 after they signed him off the street in the final two weeks of the regular season, following Stuckey’s season-ending injury, and they wouldn’t have made the playoffs without that hot streak. They had a net rating of plus-8.5 with him on the floor in the regular season, albeit in only a tiny sample size of 132 minutes, and they were plus-1.9 with him on the floor in the playoffs, the best mark of any player in their rotation. Lance has always been one of the flashiest players in the league, but he wasn’t just putting up empty numbers in Indiana. He was helping them win.
It’s easy to forget amid all of the chaos that has surrounded Stephenson since he blew into LeBron’s ear during the 2014 Eastern Conference finals, but he averaged 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 4.6 assists a game on 49.1 percent shooting that season, and he even shot 35.2 percent from 3 on a healthy number of attempts (3.1 per game). His shot abandoned him as soon as he left the Pacers, and no one really respects him from the perimeter anymore, but when he’s knocking down 3s like he was in Game 4 (4-of-9) he becomes almost unguardable. Lance had 22 points, six rebounds, and three assists on 9-of-15 shooting on Sunday. However, he still managed to make some fairly boneheaded plays that make you wonder how much he can be counted on over the course of a season:
Stephenson has become more of a meme than basketball player at this stage in his career, playing for six teams in the past three seasons and never seeming to be comfortable outside of Indiana. He needs the ball in his hands to be successful, and the Pacers have been the only team in Stephenson’s career willing to live and die with Lance being Lance. If he can keep his head on straight, he could be in the running for Sixth Man of the Year next season. Of course, that might be the biggest “if” on a team full of them.