About a year ago, when the Indiana Pacers made the trade to acquire Darren Collison, the NBA world almost immediately felt as though they'd put together the foundations of a really good team. By the time the season started, however, most of us changed our minds. Indiana was very underwhelming, Jim O'Brien didn't seem to be using his point guard or his power forwards to their strengths, and they looked set for more lottery mediocrity.
But then that first-round series with the Chicago Bulls happened, and everybody changed their minds. Again.
With interim head coach Frank Vogel bringing the best out Collison, Paul George, and Tyler Hansbrough, the Pacers showed the Bulls more than anyone thought they would, and those players along with Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert are enough to make Indiana look more than a little promising again.
They're not winning a championship as currently constructed, however, which means they've still got a lot of work to do…
1 – Get a coach
There's no questioning the Pacers were a different team as soon as they made the midseason coaching change, but the question now is whether Vogel is the right guy to move forward with, or whether or not there's a better man out there to take the Pacers to another level.
With coaches like Chuck Person and Mike Brown—both very qualified and very familiar with the Indiana organization—it's not a sure thing Vogel is the guy who ends up helming the Pacers next season. But despite his relative lack of pedigree, he's probably the guy they go with, and that's not a bad thing. He's a confident young coach who clearly had a positive influence on this group, and they'll respond well to him should he be given the opportunity to coach the team without the interim tag.
2 – Let the veterans walk
Indiana has quite a few expiring contracts this summer, three of which are veteran players that don't carry quite the value that they once did. Mike Dunleavy, Jr., Jeff Foster, and definitely T.J. Ford all have run their course as Pacers, and considering Indiana's strength is their youth, there's little reason to keep those guys around.
If they're going to keep any of the three, Foster has the best chance to be useful as an enforcer, but his better years are far, far behind him. For anything much more than the veteran's minimum, he's probably not worth keeping, either. This team is young, and it needs to stay young. Of course you'd like to see some veterans on the team to help bring the young guys along, but these three vets aren't game-changers.
3 – Figure out how to spend your free agency money
The Pacers will have the second-most cap space in the entire league this summer with all those expiring deals, and no matter what the new CBA ends up looking like, they're going to be in a good place to spend some money on guys who can help the team.
While Indy has put together a reasonable starting lineup, they could still use a more natural shooting guard and definitely need an upgrade at the power forward position. Hansbrough has shown flashes of brilliance this past season, but still has issues with consistency, and there are players available that could help shore up that frontline, especially if they're going to lose Jeff Foster and possibly Josh McRoberts.
Depending on how much money they want to spend, Jason Richardson and Jamal Crawford are the best unrestricted shooting guards on the market, with younger restricted free agents like Wilson Chandler and Shannon Brown also probably worth taking a look at. As for the power forward situation, the top guy in this class is David West (if he opts out), though he's not likely to end up a Pacer. Someone like Carly Landry, Glen Davis, or Luc Mbah a Moute could start for this team, though, and all are young enough to be part of the burgeoning core.
Not that they need much help at the three with Paul George and Danny Granger, but if Granger gets moved (see #4), someone like Shane Battier would be a great fit, too. He'd be a perfect veteran for this team.
Whatever they do, though, expect Indiana to hit free agency hard. There isn't much by way of superstars this year, but there are guys who can help, and that's what the Pacers need.
4 – Trade Danny Granger
It's a tough call because the man is and has been Indiana's franchise player. With George looking so good, however, and with Granger's contract and output not exactly lining up the way Pacers fans would like, it might be time to look into moving him.
It should be noted the Pacers value Granger highly and would only move him for a player or package of players that included someone they felt had similar All-Star potential or pedigree. They aren't going to dump him for expiring contracts and draft picks; they've got to get real value in return. Knowing that, it's hard to imagine a lot of teams willing to give up All-Star quality talent to get him. The Clippers would happily surrender Chris Kaman to get him, but Indiana has little need for a starting center. That particular deal would need a third team, and goodness only knows who that might be.
The bottom line, though, is that it would be nice to keep Paul George in the starting lineup alongside a more natural two guard. That means moving Granger, and if there's a cost-effective move out there that also makes basketball sense, they've got to pull the trigger.
5 – Let the kids play
It's a young group, and what they need more than anything is time to grow together and get a full year with a new head coach's system. Get a coach that can hang around for a while, and then set a starting lineup that's maintainable for a few seasons, and turn them loose. Let 'em marinate, and hope that in two or three years you've got a group that's grown into itself, ready to compete for real in the Eastern Conference.
It's not all that crazy, really. They showed the world quite a bit in the 2011 postseason, and with the money they've got to spend to add some new pieces, they should be even better next season. This franchise is in a good place, and Larry Bird and David Morway get to continue their vision, see it through to the end. Let's keep our fingers crossed that what they've worked so hard for comes together the way they hoped. They've got the potential to be very good, but a few pieces are missing. In a year's time, we might feel a little differently. The Indiana Pacers have certainly showed us how easily they can change our minds.