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Pacers' problems more peripheral than core-related

Photo: Heinz Kluetemeier/SI

After earning the East's No. 1 seed, the Pacers fell in the conference finals for the second straight year.

Four minutes into his season-ending press conference, Pacers president Larry Bird addressed one of the dumber story lines of Indiana's tumultuous year: Frank Vogel's job security. For weeks, rumors had circulated, rumors fueled by Indiana's end of the season struggles, that support for Vogel in the front office was waning, that Bird was enamored with the idea of replacing Vogel with the recently fired Mark Jackson. Addressing a roomful of local reporters on Monday, Bird was emphatic: Firing Vogel was never an option.

"There was never any doubt," Bird said. "When the media 800 miles away or a thousand miles away writes a story and everybody gets excited about it, it makes no sense to me. If you had come and asked me, I would have told you. His job is safe. His job was never in jeopardy. The day [the rumors] happened, I went down to Frank and all his assistants and I said, 'Hey, I want you all back next year.' That was it for us."

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No, Vogel isn't the problem in Indiana. Frankly, neither is the core. Indiana has one of the best frontcourts in the NBA in the intimidating duo in Roy Hibbert and David West. West had another West-like season, averaging 14 points and 6.8 rebounds during the regular season and 15.1 points and 7.1 rebounds in the playoffs, numbers on par with his production in each of the last three seasons. Hibbert needs to solve his annual crisis of confidence and a summer spent working with a top big man coach -- Bird, an ex-Celtic, suggested Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, an ex-Laker, if you can believe it -- wouldn't hurt. But when Hibbert is on his game, he ranks among the top-five NBA centers, as demonstrated by his All-Defensive Second Team selection Monday.

Paul George's limitations -- creating his own shot, for example -- were exposed in the second half of the season, but George remains one of the game's best young players. And despite the immaturity Lance Stephenson showed at the end of the year -- behavior that Bird made no secret was irritating him -- Stephenson, at 23, is too good to just let walk away. There will be offers for him, maybe as high as $10 million per season. But Stephenson is a rapidly developing two-way player who emerged as a workhorse this season. Letting him walk for nothing would be disastrous.

The Pacers don't need to be torn down. Just tweaked a little. The point guard position needs to be addressed. Miami, with its roster full of stars, can get away with not having a dynamic playmaker at the '1' position. Indiana can't. Too many times the Pacers' offense stagnated in the playoffs and didn't have the safety valve of a point guard who can get into the paint to turn to. George Hill is a plus defender and would thrive in a combo guard role off the bench. But Hill is too passive to be a starter, especially on a team with championship expectations.

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The bench -- a constant source of concern in Indiana -- needs an upgrade again, too. The Pacers retooled the reserves last summer, flipping Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee and a (gulp) a 2014 first-round pick for Luis Scola, who was uneven offensively and a liability in the pick-and-roll defensively. They badly need a shooter, too. By the end of the year, Evan Turner was stapled to the pine and those clamoring for more Chris Copeland need to understand just how bad Indiana's team defense is with Copeland on the floor.

The Pacers will have to be creative to improve. The draft won't help, though Bird indicated its possible they could make a deal to sneak into the first round. They will have to hope that a team isn't crazy enough to think Stephenson is worth $13-plus million per year (don't laugh, it's the NBA) and they can re-sign him in the $8-$10 million per year range. It helps Indiana that teams are wary of what he might look like outside of Indy, away from the Bird/Vogel structure that has kept him mostly in line. But even at the smaller number, the Pacers, who will begin paying George his max money next year, will be close to capped out.

Trades, which Bird brought up on Monday, seem the likeliest path, though Indiana isn't exactly flush with assets. The Pacers dumped their best pieces last summer in the Scola trade and shipped off their biggest expiring contract (Danny Granger) midseason. Last season's first-round pick, Solomon Hill, was a non-factor last season and C.J. Watson and Ian Mahinmi have little trade value. The reality is the Pacers will have to hope that a quality veteran is available late in the offseason or Bird gets lucky with Indiana's second-round pick.

The Pacers core is young, talented and bound to get better. But they need some help. Bird's ability to supplement his current crop of stars will determine if Indiana can make the jump from Eastern Conference contender to a title one.

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