Over four years ago the Indiana Pacers began the process of completely re-inventing themselves after spending years in a post-Malice at the Palace funk. They traded away major pieces (Jermaine OíNeal, Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson) in an attempt to control spending, they prioritized the acquisition and development of younger assets (Danny Granger, Roy Hibbert, Darren Collison) and earmarked the summer of 2011 as their re-entry into the sphere of competitive NBA basketball.
Fortunately for them, they got a sneak-preview of what that future was going to look like last spring when they made it to the Playoffs for the first time five years and put up a serious fight against the winningest team in the Eastern Conference, the Chicago Bulls. They got major production for guys like Granger, Collison and Tyler Hansbrough, and were given a peek at the kind of player Paul George could be if he continues to develop his game at both ends of the floor. It was a perfectly-timed opportunity for management to assess what they had on their hands before they opened up nearly $23-million in available cap space.
For many teams, though, that is also the time when things get dicey.
When teams make the jump for bad to mediocre, they often underestimate how easy a jump that can be. To go from bad to mediocre usually only takes one breakout season or a relatively injury-free campaign, and it pales in comparison to the difficult of going from being a good team to a great team in the NBA. Nonetheless, teams sense an opportunity to make a significant leap and they overextend themselves financially without fully considering the advisability or longterm impact of such an action.
Consider the Chicago Bulls in 2006. Theyíd had a couple of competitive first round seriesí against Washington and Miami and thought that they were a team in a position to make a big leap with a big investment. That summer they signed defensive stalwart Ben Wallace to a four-year, $60-million deal that paralyzed them financially and had them out of the Playoffs by 2008. Or consider the 2008 Philadelphia 76ers, charged-up after making the Playoffs for the first time in three years, they unloaded all of their free agent cash on Elton Brand, a signing that has strapped them financially and kept them fighting for the eighth spot ever since with middling .500 records.
The fear was that the Pacers would opt to follow a similar path this summer. As a franchise they had waited a LONG time to get financially stable and the fear was that they would overestimate their proximity to elite status and spend themselves right back into oblivion this offseason. Fortunately for the club and its fans, however, thatís not what happened.
Instead of trying to unload all of their free cap space on a single free agent (like New Jersey tried to do with NenÍ or Golden State tried to do with Tyson Chandler and DeAndre Jordan), they went a more conservative route. They inked former Hornet David West to a modest 2-year, $20-million deal to shore up their weak power forward position and sat tight. West is a stellar performer, but coming off of knee surgery he is also an unknown commodity and the Pacers did well to get him on a short deal that doesnít dilute all of their financial flexibility. It wasnít about landing the biggest name for the Pacers, it was about making choices that were best for the roster, even if that meant less flashy acquisitions than some other teams might be able to manage. For smaller market teams like Indiana the ability to stay financially nimble is essential, and getting an All-Star to shore up your weakest position for only $10-million per year over a short two-year span is a perfect move for that reality.
It also helps that Indiana is realistic about a few things: one, the big name free agents are almost always going to use them as leverage rather than as a destination. Two: The club has several players (Hibbert, Collision, George) who are going to need extensions in the next few years, and that money is going to have to come from somewhere and can just as easily become unavailable without diligent spending in other areas. Three: The team still has a ways to go to build and develop internally. Power forward may have been the biggest need today, but more needs are going to become apparent as their development continues and not having the resources to address those areas is what sunk Chicago and Philly in recent years, and Indiana looks well positioned to avoid those fates after demonstrating diligence this winter.
It can be frustrating for fans of small market teams that they are rarely players for big-name free agents and that if they arenít winning then their own stars are likely to look to bolt to a bigger market as soon as possible. However, GMís in these cities are growing savvier about how to balance their spending against the needs of a competitive organization and as Memphis proved last spring you can build with that model and satisfy fans, too. The Pacers wonít get much attention this season for their efforts to be conservative while keeping an eye on improving, but if they can stay the course for the next few years people will have to start talking about them because theyíll be climbing towards the top of the Eastern Conference.