Here's a look at what's in store for the Pacers this offseason after their loss to the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals.
• What’s the biggest priority for Indiana this offseason?
Shoring up that god-awful bench. The tried-and-true Pacers starters outscored opponents by 14.8 points per 100 possessions in the playoffs, and if it were possible to run that unit for all 48 minutes, Indiana would likely be entering the Finals as a decisive favorite. Instead, the Pacers are left to pick up the pieces after a Game 7 heartbreak, and look to make the kind of minor, conservative additions that should vault Indy even higher on the list of 2014 title contenders. This team was held back only by its shallow ranks and inconsistent offense, and both of those flaws could be remedied considerably by the start of next season.
The first part of that process is the re-integration of Danny Granger, who is scheduled to be cleared for full basketball activity in time for training camp this fall. Paul George took such incredible strides as a shot creator that Granger's injury-induced absence wound up forgettable, but every pan over to the Pacers bench showed a valuable scorer clad in summery suits rather than blue and gold. Granger averaged 21.1 points per game over his previous three seasons, and while the Pacers no longer demand his services in such volume, they would surely benefit from some of the offensive dynamism he provides. Depending on how Frank Vogel manages Granger's minutes, he could potentially spell Indiana's starters at three positions -- as a stretch power forward option, in his natural small forward slot, and by way of shifting George into the backcourt to relieve Lance Stephenson.
Otherwise, the most problematic contributors among Indiana's reserves -- Tyler Hansbrough, D.J. Augustin, and Sam Young -- are all free agents. The former was at least useful, if erratic. But Augustin and Young proved to be huge liabilities, and aren't likely to be re-signed on that very reasonable basis. Granger is capable of sopping up most of the minutes afforded to Hansbrough and Young, but finding a superior replacement for Augustin stands atop the Pacers' itinerary. Indiana had little choice but to rely on Augustin for 16.6 minutes per game in the postseason, but he was so lacking as a playmaker and so detrimental a defender that his presence on the floor resulted in a swing of 27.2 points per 100 possessions. That makes him something of a walking blowout, a force so unhelpful that he could fritter away a hard-earned lead in just a few minutes of playing time. Shifting Augustin's minutes to a more viable player is a remedy in itself for much of what ailed Indiana's bench, but a few more cost-effective additions could do wonders for an already excellent team.
• How can the Pacers improve this offseason? Through free agency? The draft? Trade?
Free agency, first and foremost. David West has thus far gone unmentioned, if only because his re-signing can be fairly assumed. Both parties have expressed considerable interest in extending their relationship, and it seems doubtful that either West or the Pacers would move on after so successful a postseason. There's a danger inherent in assuming any free agent decision to be a done deal before an agreement is formally made, but West's return to the Pacers seems an incredibly safe bet at this point.
Regardless, West's cap hold or eventual salary will put Indiana over the projected salary cap of $58.5 million, leaving them to rely on the mid-level exception for the bulk of their offseason movement. That exception can either be used to acquire a single player for a league-average salary or be split among several -- though given Granger's return and Indy's experience with marginal rotation types, I'd bet on the former. There are a number of eligible ball-handlers in that salary range who fit the Pacers' bill, including Jose Calderon, Nate Robinson, Mo Williams, Devin Harris, and Beno Udrih. If they'd rather invest in a wing player, O.J. Mayo, J.J. Redick, Kevin Martin, and Kyle Korver may be the most reasonable options. The Pacers might also be in the market for an extra big man, though Granger's ability to fill minutes at the 4 and Ian Mahinmi's decent play make that a far less pressing concern.
Otherwise, the Pacers have the 23rd and 53rd picks in this month's draft, the higher of which could conceivably land an end-of-the-rotation wing. Most current mock drafts have the Pacers within range of North Carolina's Reggie Bullock, Michigan's Tim Hardaway Jr., or California's Allen Crabbe, each of whom could potentially add to the Pacers' second-unit scoring. None is so promising as to be a dependable NBA contributor from day one, but they at the very least give Indiana some options to consider as they go about stocking their bench.
Trade scenarios would seem far less likely, as most of Indiana's players under contract are either of nominal trade value or qualify as essential personnel. Hibbert and George may as well be untouchable, while George Hill seems unlikely to be dealt due to the slim probability of landing a functional point guard in return. Lance Stephenson is potentially movable, but he's on such a team-friendly contract (he's slated to make $930,000 next season) that the Pacers would 1) naturally want to keep him around, and 2) be unlikely to get good value in return without a more complicated package deal. Otherwise, Mahinmi ($4 million), Miles Plumlee ($1.1 million), and Orlando Johnson ($0.8 million) are the only Pacers under guaranteed contract going into next season, and between them they wouldn't score much at the league's bartering table.
• How should Indiana go about utilizing Danny Granger next season?
Being in the starting lineup is typically assumed to be a statement of worth, as players around the league take pride in the very notion of being in the first five. Yet the roster dynamics of particular teams often make it far more sensible to shuffle a top-five player to the bench, solely for the sake of building better lineup balance. From where I sit, that's the best choice for Granger, by no fault of his. One could very easily build an excellent starting lineup out of George, Hibbert, Hill, West, and Granger, though doing so would likely entrust Stephenson to be a primary creator among Indiana's reserves. That simply won't do, and might otherwise hedge the Pacers' other roster improvements. Stephenson has such a wild game at this point that it makes sense to couch him in a starting lineup of dependable players -- a position from which he can contribute spottily at little cost to the team.
As a result, Granger might come off the bench or play fewer minutes with the Pacers' best players. But he's proven without doubt that he can create decent shots on his own, as was the case when he was filling up the scoring column for some pretty mediocre Pacers teams just a few years ago. On the strength of his all-around scoring game, Granger could potentially drag Indiana's reserves toward sustenance -- a seemingly modest goal, but one that would maximize the impact of the Pacers' better lineups. Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.