3. INDIANA PACERS
CURRENTLY: 20-43, fifth place, Central, 28.5 games behind Cleveland
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Traded Jermaine O'Neal to Toronto for G T.J. Ford in 2008; traded 2008 first-round pick (Jerryd Bayless) and F Ike Diogu to Portland for G Jarrett Jack and F Josh McRoberts; long-term injuries to F Mike Dunleavy; losing Jack to Toronto via free agency in 2009
GROWTH OPPORTUNITIES: F Danny Granger, second-year C Roy Hibbert, rookie F Tyler Hansbrough, 2011 cap room
It's not that trading the oft-injured O'Neal was wrong, but the Pacers did so believing that Ford was going to be the long-term solution, and that Jack would be his backup. Because of that, the Pacers felt comfortable letting Jamaal Tinsley sit out the last two months of the 2008 season after several transgressions, and reached a buyout settlement with him last summer. But Ford never won over coach Jim O'Brien, and quickly fell out of favor (he's only played in 44 games this season). Ford was so unhappy this season and was reportedly doing a dance in front of teammates at the trade deadline when Indiana got close to dealing him to Charlotte for D.J. Augustin. And the Pacers wouldn't match the four-year, $20 million offer sheet the Raptors put on Jack, leaving them back at square one -- no point guard.
Long-term injuries to Dunleavy, veteran center Jeff Foster and others have also put Indiana behind the eight ball. Which is why the Pacers are trying to preach patience with their fans.
Like Milwaukee, Indiana is looking to 2011 as the year it can be a free-agent player, in a much less crowded field. The Pacers will rid themselves of $40 million in combined salaries (Troy Murphy, Dunleavy, Jeff Foster, Solomon Jones and Ford) that summer, with only Granger and guards Dahntay Jones and A.J. Price under non-option contracts. Some of the Pacers' potential room may get tied up in extensions for Hansbrough and Hibbert, but Indy will still have plenty of space to make a deal.
Even though co-owner Mel Simon died last year, the family is still running the show, and continuity is one of the hallmarks of Indiana's ownership. Team president Larry Bird has the job for as long as he wants, recently receiving a strong vote of confidence from Pacers Sports and Entertainment president Jim Morris (and Morris, being a smart man, I'm sure, knows that saying anything less about Mr. Bird would be folly.)
OUTLOOK: Expect the Pacers to do whatever they have to this summer to try to land Augustin from Charlotte. If that doesn't happen, Indiana has enough enticing parts to find the point guard it needs. (And doesn't Minnesota have, like, eight point guards on its roster?) That should be the only thing on GM David Morway's to-do list.