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Presenting the Pacers’ Path to NBA Relevance

Indiana’s pro basketball team has been a model of mediocrity, winning between 35 and 45 games every season. How can it break the cycle and connect with a fan base that will always prefer the college game?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There’s always room for improvement. So even though the NBA is now a 12-month league that we can’t look away from, we here at The Ringer have a few humble suggestions to make it even greater. Welcome to League Hack Week—the first of four weeklong series leading up to opening night of the 2017-18 NBA season.

The only time in my life that I ever got suspended from school was in February 2001, when I was a seventh-grader growing up on the west side of Indianapolis. The details of the incident aren’t relevant, but let’s just say that I was framed with a sports bra and a bag of Doritos, and that my dictator of a principal was too big of a wimp to make an exception to his nonsensical zero-tolerance policy. Anyway, when I found out that I was suspended, I went straight to my bedroom and cried harder than I ever have. That’s because my dad, who I was certain was going to kill me when he heard the news, had recently scored tickets to an upcoming Pacers game two rows behind the visitors’ bench. Even if I survived the ass-kicking my dad was going to give me, I knew I was never going to be able to attend the Pacers game, and that was a fate far worse than death. After all, the Pacers were playing the Lakers, and I reeeealllly wanted to see Shaq and Kobe.

I told my dad what happened (I was framed!), he laughed it off, and I got to go to the Lakers game. And yes, I did just purposely refer to it as a “Lakers game,” because that’s what it was. When my principal said the word “suspended,” I sure as shit didn’t start crying because I was thinking about Reggie Miller, Jalen Rose, and Jermaine O’Neal. I cried because I was a basketball junkie, the best basketball team on earth was about to make its annual trip to my city, I had once-in-a-lifetime seats, and I thought I wouldn’t be able to use them.

NBA Preview 2017 League Hack Week

Almost 17 years later, just months after the Pacers traded the guy who was formerly on track to become the greatest player in franchise history (Paul George) for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, very little has changed for Indiana’s professional basketball team. It enters the 2017-18 season in a familiar position of mediocrity, seeming to exist solely so that the real NBA attractions have a reason to come to one of the most basketball-crazed cities in America. Seriously, think about any Pacers team in the last 40 years that moved the national needle. Now consider this: Is the Pacers squad you’re thinking of relevant only because it served as a foil for a team that actually mattered? The answer is yes, because that will forever be Indiana’s role in the NBA. Whether losing to the Magic and Knicks in the mid-1990s, the Bulls in the late ’90s, the Lakers in the early 2000s, or the Heat in the early 2010s, the Pacers have an established ceiling: good enough to be taken seriously, but not good enough to pose a legitimate Finals threat.

The one exception was the mid-2000s Pacers teams that took the eventual champion Pistons to six games in the 2004 Eastern Conference finals, traded Al Harrington to the Hawks for Stephen Jackson, and entered the 2004-05 campaign as a true title contender. But in November 2004 Ron Artest charged into the stands to punch an innocent man in the face, got suspended for the remainder of the season, and essentially took the entire franchise down with him. Indiana has been stuck in NBA purgatory since, winning between 35 and 45 games in 10 of the last 13 seasons. The NBA team with the second-most 35- to 45-win seasons in that span is the 76ers, with seven. The league average of such seasons is four.

As the rest of the league either tanks or tries to get the most out of a title contender, the Pacers stubbornly continue to shoot for the moon despite never having the artillery to do so. And I suppose that’s noble, as it could be argued that tanking isn’t in the spirit of the game. Still, eventually something has to give. Of all the NBA franchises that have stayed in the same city since the ABA-NBA merger in 1976, Indiana is the only one to have both never won an NBA title and never had a single player named to an All-NBA first team. Meanwhile, all signs point to the Pacers winning 30-something games again this year, landing a late lottery pick that won’t make an immediate impact, and failing to attract any big-name free agents in the 2018 offseason. The cycle will probably repeat itself in 12 months.

The Pacers’ past is underwhelming, their future is uninspiring, and their present features a mediocre team without a star player. And this all comes together in a region that’s more obsessed with amateur basketball than anywhere else on earth. Taking all of this into account, I can’t help but ask an uncomfortable question: Would the Pacers have been better off just packing up and moving the moment that Artest ran into the stands?

Myles Turner Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The most optimistic Pacers fan will tell you that Indiana’s front office knows what it’s doing and that a rebuild centered on Myles Turner can get the Pacers back to contention within five years. A more pragmatic fan will acknowledge that the franchise is perpetually in a state of being a year or two away (from being two years away?), and that any attempts to put a Band-Aid on a 40-year-old wound amounts to a lost cause. The Pacers play in a market that will always prefer the college game, which is why fixing pro basketball in Indiana requires more drastic measures than handing the keys to a 21-year-old who wasn’t even a top-50 player in 2016-17. The way I see it, there are only three long-term options.

1. Move to Seattle, Vancouver, Mexico City, or Really Anywhere That Isn’t Indianapolis

Indiana’s relationship with the Pacers is unique in that the fan base apathy is more complicated than it would be if the fans simply didn’t care about the team and/or pro basketball. Sure, Hoosiers clearly prefer the college version, to the extent that I’d wager that at least 70 percent of Indiana natives who went to an in-state school would rather have their alma mater win one NCAA national title than have the Pacers make 10 straight NBA Finals appearances. But the Pacers still matter. After all, what Hoosiers love more than anything else is having the rest of the country think of Indiana as a basketball Mecca. As it stands, Hoosier Hysteria encompasses every level of the sport: an unrivaled high school scene, a college landscape in which half of the 10 Division I schools in the state have gone to a Final Four, and an NBA franchise. Take away the Pacers and suddenly Indiana’s ironclad claim to being considered America’s basketball capital takes a significant hit.

That’s not to say that there aren’t die-hard Pacers fans in Indiana, because there are certainly plenty of those. But most Hoosiers are just die-hard fans of basketball in general, making their relationship with the Pacers more of an arranged marriage than one born from passion. Throw in the fact that the Colts rose to prominence and won the Super Bowl in January 2007 (the state’s only major athletic championship in almost 20 years), right as the Pacers were dealing with the messy aftermath of the Malice at the Palace, and it starts to make sense why Indianapolis isn’t as connected to its pro basketball team as other cities are. Still, the franchise is a status symbol that the city and state can’t afford to lose.

None of this matters from a business standpoint, as owners of professional sports teams have never given a shit what the local populace thinks when it comes to relocation decisions. And a potential Pacers relocation isn’t as impossible as it might seem. Herb Simon, an Indianapolis real estate mogul who purchased the team in 1983 with his now-deceased brother Mel, is 82 years old. He owns a franchise that lost its best player, head coach, and president in 16 months. Maybe those factors will make Simon less likely to sell in the short term, since the value of the franchise presumably dropped after George’s departure. Even so, Simon’s age suggests that the Pacers will have a new owner sooner rather than later, and there aren’t a ton of billionaires out there with ties to Indiana (or at least ones who don’t already own an NBA team). A future move to an NBA-crazed city like, say, Seattle, doesn’t feel entirely far-fetched.

2. Tank While It’s Still Possible

The Pacers are the only NBA franchise to have won 30 or more games in every season since 1989-90. That’s 28 consecutive seasons of recording 30-plus wins (including 22 playoff trips in that span), a streak that seems like an accomplishment that every other fan base should envy. That is, until you remember that those 22 playoff berths have produced zero titles and just one Finals appearance. Meanwhile, the only 82-game season since 1990 in which the Pacers failed to win 35 games (2009-10) led to their only top-10 pick in the past 20 years. And would you look at that: The 2010 pick was George, arguably the most talented man to ever wear a Pacers uniform.

Given that success in the NBA hinges on having at least one superstar and that trading for one is extremely difficult, Indiana’s best hopes for breaking its current cycle are landing a marquee player in the draft or signing one in free agency. But the latter seems unlikely, since history has proved that young, rich, and competitive millionaires don’t exactly jump at the opportunity to join middling organizations based in Indianapolis. That leaves the draft as the Pacers’ lone viable path to success, which means at some point they’re going to have to land top-10 picks. And what better time than now, when the roster has a combined total of zero career All-Star appearances, when its highest-paid player is a shooting guard who can’t shoot (Oladipo), and when its personnel decisions are no longer being made by Donnie Walsh or Larry Bird, two men who were too competitive and/or stubborn to give tanking a second thought?

Unfortunately, Indiana general manager Kevin Pritchard, who filled Bird’s position as the team’s chief decision-maker in April, has taken his new job a little too seriously. Trading George for Oladipo and Sabonis was a brilliant tanking move. But instead of signing any bum off the street with a jump shot to round out the roster, Pritchard brought in Darren Collison, Cory Joseph, and Bojan Bogdanovic, all of whom should help the Pacers win a handful of games this season that they otherwise wouldn’t have. In other words, although the Pacers are blowing an obvious chance to acquire the potential superstar they’ve never had, the good news is that the team’s streak of consecutive 30-win seasons might stay alive! LET’S GO PACERS!!!

3. Assemble a Roster of Local Legends

This is far from an original idea, but it’s worth mentioning nonetheless, because it’s what the Pacers’ plan should have been ever since the Malice at the Palace. Given how much talent comes from the state’s youth and college programs, there will never be a shortage of NBA players with Indiana ties. Maybe creating a roster full of that talent won’t always be enough to form a title contender, but does that really matter? We’ve already established that the Pacers never compete for titles anyway, and the franchise’s real appeal lies in building the mystique of basketball in Indiana. The team’s alternate jerseys are the uniforms from Hoosiers, for God’s sake. So why not just go all in with the “in 49 states it’s just basketball” ethos with personnel decision-making, too?

Think of it this way: If you’re a Pacers fan, would you rather know they could win 50-something games and lose in the Eastern Conference finals, or would you rather have no idea how good they will be but be guaranteed that the entire roster will be composed of guys who share the belief that Indiana is the basketball capital of the world? That’s a no-brainer, right?

What if the team could win a hell of a lot more than the 30 or so games the 2017-18 Pacers are likely to? Check out this hypothetical 12-man roster:

Starters: Mike Conley (Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis), Eric Gordon (North Central High School in Indianapolis; Indiana University), Victor Oladipo (Indiana University), Gordon Hayward (Brownsburg High School; Butler University), Zach Randolph (Marion High School)

Bench: George Hill (Broad Ripple High School in Indianapolis; IUPUI), Gary Harris (Hamilton Southeastern High School in Fishers), Jeff Teague (Pike High School in Indianapolis), Courtney Lee (Pike High School), Mason Plumlee (native of Warsaw), Cody Zeller (Washington High School; Indiana University), Tyler Zeller (Washington High School)

That doesn’t even include Josh McRoberts (Carmel High School), Miles Plumlee (native of Warsaw), Glenn Robinson III (Lake Central High School in St. John), Yogi Ferrell (Park Tudor School in Indianapolis; Indiana University), E’Twaun Moore (Central High School in East Chicago; Purdue University), Shelvin Mack (Butler University), A.J. Hammons (Carmel High School for two years; Purdue University), or a handful of other guys.

And sure, my hypothetical roster would cost almost $185 million in salary, putting it juuuuust above the $99 million salary cap in 2017-18. But I’m banking on players taking major pay cuts when they hear the rest of my plan and realize that they can’t put a price on the experience I’ll provide.

  • Step 1: Poach Brad Stevens from Boston. (He’s from Indiana; I’m not sure if you heard.)
  • Step 2: Convince Gregg Popovich (also from Indiana, not to brag) to retire from coaching and become a front-office figurehead/consultant for the Pacers.
  • Step 3: Play one game a year each in Mackey Arena, Assembly Hall, and Hinkle Fieldhouse.
  • Step 4: Issue an apology to Notre Dame and cite a “scheduling conflict” as the reason for not having a game in the Joyce Center.
  • Step 5: Reserve 10 seats between the Pacers’ bench and the scorer’s table, call it “Legends Row,” and allow only Naismith Hall of Famers with Indiana ties (Bird, Oscar Robertson, Bob Knight, Isiah Thomas, Reggie Miller, Chris Mullin, George McGinnis, Jerry Sloan, Slick Leonard, Jimmy Chitwood, John Wooden’s corpse, etc.) to sit there.
  • Step 6: Have Red Panda perform at halftime of every game. Her act might get stale by the time the 41st home game rolls around, but I have faith that Pacers fans will rally behind her when they find out that she’s from Indiana. (She’s not, but no one needs to know that.)
  • Step 7: Maintain the legacy of Pacers basketball that everybody knows and loves by winning 50-something regular-season games before losing in the Eastern Conference finals.

The Pacers have sustained their cycle of mediocrity for 40 years, so it might seem foolish to suggest that the franchise is at a tipping point where it has to change its approach now. But the Pacers feel completely out of place in the modern NBA, as the league is progressive and exploding in popularity, whereas “progressive” and “exploding in popularity” are the polar opposites of the terms used to describe Indiana’s pro team.

Then again, I suppose there’s comfort in what the Pacers bring to the NBA experience. In these times of burner Twitter accounts, blockbuster trades between contenders, and $70 million Evan Turner contracts, the Pacers feel like an old friend. They are a true constant in a sea of chaos, a marker of mediocrity amid the mayhem. To many, they might be nothing more than another irrelevant small-market team. But I sleep a little better each night knowing that, even when nuclear war blows our planet into a billion pieces, the Pacers will still churn out 43-39 regular seasons, lose in the second round of the playoffs, and dream of one day getting over the hump by landing the big-name free agent they know is never coming.