Indianapolis (Nov. 28, 2011) -- Operating in a land-locked, cold-weather, small-market city, the Pacers historically haven't had done too much investing in the free agent market.
It tends to be too expensive and too risky. Make one mistake and your team can be hamstrung for years. The Knicks, Celtics, Lakers and Bulls can afford to eat a bad contract or two; not so the Pacers.
This is not to say the Pacers have not dabbled occasionally. Their history in free agency is not bedazzled by stars, but rather illuminated by a few hidden gems. Here's my list of the five most significant in franchise history.
5: Gus Johnson (1972)
A future Hall-of-Famer at the end of a proud, injury-wracked career when the Pacers signed him in December 1972, the 6-6, 230-pound player nicknamed "Honeycomb" was an undersized power player with bad knees who averaged 6.0 points and 4.9 rebounds in 50 games during the regular season. Despite those modest numbers, the Pacers couldn't have won the 1973 ABA championship without him. With Artis Gilmore a dominant force for Kentucky and Mel Daniels in foul trouble in Game 7, Coach Bob "Slick" Leonard played a hunch and inserted Johnson to guard the 7-2 Gilmore. Using his remarkable strength to keep Gilmore from establishing deep post position, Johnson played a major role in disrupting the Kentucky offense as the Pacers rallied to win 88-81. That proved to be the last game of Johnson's career and it left a lasting impression on the Pacers and their fans.
4: Sam Perkins (1999)
Another proud veteran nearing the close of his career when he joined the Pacers in 1999 after playing his first 15 seasons with the Mavs, Lakers and Sonics, Perkins played a major role off the bench. His strong post defense and remarkable 3-point shooting proved a perfect complement to starting center Rik Smits. His veteran leadership and postseason experience were invaluable in the locker room and on the court as the team reached the NBA Finals in 2000. Perkins averaged 5.3 points and 3.1 rebounds in three seasons with the Pacers but his impact went well beyond those numbers.
3: Micheal Williams (1990)
A remarkably quick point guard who failed to stick with Detroit, Phoenix and Charlotte in his first two NBA seasons, Williams signed with the Pacers in August 1990 and his career took flight. He averaged 11.1 points and 2.4 assists in the 1990-91 season, taking over the starting job from Vern Fleming down the stretch. He then took his game to an entirely new and unforeseen level in the memorable five-game first-round playoff loss to Bird's Celtics, averaging 20.6 points and 2.8 steals. The full-time starter in 1991-92, Williams averaged 15.0 points and 3.6 assists but the team struggled. Williams was very much a scoring point guard; on a roster otherwise filled with players that demanded the ball, something had to give. Williams and Chuck Person were dealt to Minnesota for Pooh Richardson, a point guard perceived to be more of a pass-first creator. After one solid season with the Timberwolves, Williams' career was derailed by injuries and he totaled just 37 games from 1994-99 before retiring.
2: Byron Scott (1993)
For a reserve that played just two seasons in Indiana, Scott had monumental impact. After winning three titlaes in L.A., the Lakers cast him adrift after the 1992-93 season and when the Pacers faced an assortment of backcourt injuries early in Larry Brown's first season on the bench, they signed Scott in December 1993. At the time they were 5-10 and had never won an NBA playoff series. At the airport upon arriving in Indianapolis, Scott offered these words: "This team's been to the playoffs a number of times but hasn't won. It's going to be my job to make sure we get there and win." The Pacers went 42-27 the rest of the regular season with Scott averaging 10.4 points as Reggie Miller's backup and mentor. He then hit arguably the biggest shot in franchise history, a 3-pointer to stun the heavily favored Magic (of Shaq and Penny branding) in Game 1 of the first-round series in Orlando, giving the Pacers the confidence that carried them all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals. It also launched the most successful NBA decade. Small wonder Miller referred to the signing of Scott as "the best move the Pacers have ever made in their NBA history." Other than drafting a certain spindly shooting guard from UCLA in 1987, of course.
1: Roger Brown (1967)
The first player signed by the fledgling franchise not long after it formed in 1967, Brown proved to be the standard-bearer for the ABA's most dominant group, hoisting three banners in four years. A player with incomparable one-on-one skills, Brown was playing amateur-league ball in Dayton when the Pacers came calling. He averaged 18.0 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.9 assists in eight seasons with the Pacers, but his biggest mark was made in the playoffs. In 1969 he averaged 27.0 points and shot 51.4 percent in 1969 and then willed the team to its first title in 1970, averaging 28.5 points. In the championship series against the L.A. Stars, Brown averaged 45.7 points in the final three games. One of four players to have his jersey retired by the Pacers, Brown is the only member of that group to join the franchise as a free agent.