Pacers caught in tough place
Not good enough, right now, to make playoffs; too good for a great draft pick
By Mike Wells
The Indiana Pacers are stuck, and it won't be easy to wriggle back into contention, according to one Hall of Fame player.
The Pacers (21-32) are 11th in the Eastern Conference but just two games out of a playoff spot going into tonight's game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Conseco Fieldhouse.
"The Pacers find themselves stuck in the middle," ESPN analyst Bill Walton said earlier this week. "They are right there in the mix of things for a playoff spot, but they aren't that good of a team. They don't have a point guard, they don't have a player in the paint and they don't have a go-to player."
To the everyday fan, the Pacers' easiest solution would be to blow up the current roster -- beginning with making a deal before Thursday's 3 p.m. trade deadline -- and start from scratch.
As enticing and simple as hitting the refresh button sounds, it's not that easy -- for the Pacers, at least. Team president Larry Bird can't just pick up the phone and unload his highest-salaried players because they're either hurt, have had off-the-court issues or are underperforming. He can't swap them for younger, less expensive talent because the salaries being exchanged must nearly match.
Any trade conversation involving the Pacers begins with Jermaine O'Neal. The Pacers and O'Neal have been trying to end their eight-year relationship for some time, but O'Neal's health and contract -- two more years, $44 million due after this season -- remain stumbling blocks. O'Neal has been slowed by knee injuries, again, and hasn't played since Jan. 16. He recently started doing on-the-court work, but his return date is not known.
The Pacers are making and listening to calls about him -- again -- but they have yet to find a deal they like. They've recently spoken with Golden State, New Jersey and Sacramento.
"Who would have predicted the early demise of Jermaine O'Neal, who not too long ago was mentioned as an MVP candidate, was mentioned as an elite force in the league, to now being barely mentioned?" Walton asked last month.
The Pacers received numerous calls about Danny Granger, Shawne Williams and Mike Dunleavy. They are reluctant to trade any of them because those players are seen as significant building blocks.
They've tried to deal Jamaal Tinsley but couldn't find a partner. Tinsley's recurring injuries and off-the-court issues haven't helped. Tinsley looked rejuvenated earlier this season until he got injured again.
"Blowing up the roster is one of the hardest things to do," Walton said.
"To acquire or trade great players, you don't just pick up the phone and say, 'I want one of those players.' The Pacers have good, but not great players. This is going to be a hard, difficult turnaround for the Pacers."
Without a trade, the Pacers don't have salary cap space to acquire a significant free agent this summer. Almost every core player returns.
O'Neal can opt out of the final two years of his contract and become a free agent this summer, but nobody expects him to because it's unlikely another team will pay him that much over a two-span.
Kareem Rush, Andre Owens, Stephen Graham and David Harrison (restricted) are their only free agents this summer. Harrison ($1.3 million) is the only player of that group making at least $1 million this season.
The Pacers may again be looking to make trades after the season. They could get a high draft pick, depending on their record at the end of the season. Bird, in his first season with control of player personnel, said they currently have "guys that probably play a lot of minutes that should be playing less" if the team were better.
"I don't like the word rebuilding because I don't think that's the direction we want to go," Bird said. "Yeah, we want to get better and we'll do that through the draft and we'll add players. . . . Being realistic about it, we have four or five guys that we think are key to what we're trying to do.
"We have to get players in here with high skill level, and we know that."
When that will happen is anybody's guess.
The races are on
Last season at the All-Star break, the Pacers were 28-24 and in fifth place in the Eastern Conference. They finished the season 7-23 and missed the playoffs for the first time in 10 seasons.
This season, the Pacers are 21-32 and in 11th place, two games out of the final playoff spot.
If the season ended today, the Pacers would likely draft ninth.
East playoff watch
|Seed ||Team ||Record ||GB |
|T7 ||New Jersey ||23-30 ||-- |
|T7 ||Philadelphia ||23-30 ||-- |
|9 ||Atlanta ||21-28 ||-- |
|10 ||Chicago ||21-31 ||1.5 |
|11 ||Pacers ||21-32 ||2 |
|Rk. ||Team ||Record |
|1. ||Miami ||9-42 .176 |
|2. ||Minnesota ||10-41 .196 |
|3. ||Seattle ||13-38 .255 |
|4. ||Memphis ||14-38 .269 |
|5. ||New York ||15-37 .288 |
|6. ||LA Clippers ||17-33 .340 |
|T7. ||Charlotte ||19-34 .358 |
|T7. ||Milwaukee ||19-34 .358 |
|9. ||Indiana ||21-32 .396 |
Most analysts predict Indiana freshman Eric Gordon will enter the NBA draft, where he is viewed as a top-five pick, according to several mock drafts. He could be gone before the Pacers select.
|Outlet ||Pick |
|ESPN.com ||3 |
|Hoopshype.com ||4 |
|Draftexpress.com ||5 |
|NBAdraft.net ||5 |
|Insidehoops.com ||6 |
Will it get any better? That's the question. Barring a trade now or after the season, the following players will be back next season:
|Player ||08-09 pay ||Expires |
|J. O'Neal ||$21.3M ||'09-10 |
|Troy Murphy ||$10.1M ||'10-11 |
|Mike Dunleavy ||$9M ||'10-11 |
|Marquis Daniels ||$6.8M ||'09-10 |
|Jamaal Tinsley ||$6.7M ||'10-11 |
|Jeff Foster ||$6.1M ||'08-09 |
|Ike Diogu ||$2.9M ||'08-09 |
|Danny Granger ||$2.3M ||'08-09 |
|S. Williams ||$1.5M ||'09-10 |
: O'Neal has the option to become a free agent after this season. David Harrison, Kareem Rush, Stephen Graham and Andre Owens are not under contract for next season.
-- The Star
Call Star reporter Mike Wells at (317) 444-6053.