For the past two years, the Pacers entered the offseason convinced an upgraded bench was all that stood between them and the next step.
It was a reasonable supposition then, but not so now.
They’re no longer knocking on the door, they’re banging their heads against the wall.
The starting lineup has remained intact for two years, and four-fifths of it for the past three. Each of those seasons ended with a shameful closeout blowout in Miami, the final margins now totaling 60 points. Add in the 27-point closeout loss in Chicago in 2011 (with three of the five current starters), and you have a full-fledged trend of coming up woefully short in the biggest moments.
Larry Bird should need no more evidence the core is flawed, both in terms of personnel and philosophy. What Bird has assembled is a good team, maybe even very good. But the goal, Bird’s only goal, is to bring a championship to this franchise, and it is more clear than ever that the team as presently assembled lacks the mettle.
Paul George isn’t going anywhere. Neither is David West. Take away either of those linchpins and the whole thing falls apart.
Where best, then, to make substantive change?
As the Pacers point guard, George Hill is borne by legacy to be the focus of the fans’ discontent. For decades, with only rare lapses, the offseason cry has been “get a better point guard,” as if that is so easily done. Should he be a more aggressive offensive force? Absolutely. Is he a pure point guard capable of making something out of nothing? Absolutely not.
But Hill is well-suited to be the point guard within this offense, because George and Lance Stephenson dominate the ball and thus the playmaking responsibilities. Hill also is an above-average defender at both guard spots. If a move is made here, it must be made very carefully because while Hill is not an All-Star, he is a sound, quality veteran – and this team needs more of those, not less.
Stephenson, of course, is a lightning rod for opinion; some believe he should be allowed to walk as a free agent, others believe he is indispensible. It remains likely the Pacers will sign him, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will keep him. A 23-year-old coming off a season with five triple-doubles would be a workable commodity on the trade market, even with the questions about his inability to get along with teammates and coaches. But the return would likely be modest.
The change of greatest impact would be in the middle. It isn’t that Roy Hibbert is a bad player, or a problem in the locker room. It’s what he is not: a dominant, even consistent, low-post offensive threat. In six NBA seasons, he has never averaged as many as 13 points nor shot as high as 50 percent. His numbers, in fact, have been in steady decline since 2011-12.
It would be a mistake to overreact to the most recent postseason and suggest you need a stretch-five to win in today’s NBA, but it’s clear you must at least be able to contend with teams that do. Those spread lineups cause major defensive problems that must be exploited offensively, and that’s where Hibbert came up woefully short. The Pacers played 13 playoff games against teams with stretch fives (seven against Atlanta’s Pero Antic, six against Miami’s Chris Bosh) and Hibbert averaged 7.8 points and shot .396.
Of course, they only played six regular-season games against stretch-fives (three against Bosh, two against Antic and one against Andrea Bargnani), so a balance must be struck. But with the shift from the old smash-mouth, inside-out offense that played through the post to a more wing-centric scheme, Hibbert has been rendered moot, offensively.
“The league is changing so I really believe you have to take advantage on the offensive end because that’s what they’re trying to do, they’re trying to stretch you out, especially against Roy to try and make him come out (of the lane),” said Bird. “It’s tough. I think you can play two (big) guys but you’ve got to use it to your advantage.”
The Pacers do not necessarily need to trade Hibbert for a stretch five, but they do need to acquire a player or players that make them better suited for the current trend toward offensive flexibility. Having two big, strong, plodding big men has become anachronistic.
“I think we have to further our ability to be diverse defensively in light of the spread-five offense with the 3-point shooting five man,” Frank Vogel said. “We’ve got to be creative in how we’re going to handle that type of attack better than we did. We struggled against Atlanta and obviously Miami plays with that approach but you have LeBron James and Dwyane Wade out there and the spread five is Chris Bosh. Certainly they cause problems for us and we’ve got to work to come up with a better plan.”
Though Hibbert carries a big contract (two years and $30.4 million remain) that includes a player option for 2015-16, there seems little chance he would leave $15.5 million on the table in return for free agency. Though centers are increasingly rare, and the league is involving away from the traditional profile of that position, healthy, young big men will always be a relatively hot commodity.
Tweaking the bench won’t get it done this year. If Bird is serious about hanging a banner, he must alter the nucleus. Acquiring Hibbert in 2008 signaled the franchise’s biggest step toward rebuilding credibility as a contender. Trading him in 2014 would signal the next.