After the Pacers traded away Paul George in the summer of 2017, expectations were low. Indiana won 42 games in George's final season and bowed out of the playoffs in the first round. They then shipped George to the Thunder, pushing their Vegas over/under win total for 2017-18 to 31.5. The prevailing wisdom at the time was that Indiana was in for a long rebuild.
We now have the benefit of hindsight with the knowledge that Victor Oladipo blossomed into an All-NBA Third Team calibre player his first season in Indiana, but remember that the Pacers were heavily criticized for receiving much too little in return for a player of George's calibre. The Pacers blew that 31.5 game win total out of the water this past season en route to 48 wins and the 5th seed in the East. They took LeBron James and the Cavs to seven games in the first round of the playoffs, a series where Indiana actually outscored Cleveland by 40 points over the seven games combined.
While all eyes are on the Cavs, Celtics and 76ers this offseason, the Pacers have positioned themselves to become a power player in the Eastern Conference for years to come. Indiana is armed with a promising young trio under considerable team control, as well as cap flexibility to be major players in free agency this summer, next summer, or both.
The cap situation
The Pacers are a rare team that has cap space this summer and still has the ability to have significant cap space in the summer of 2019, even if they sign long-term contracts in the coming weeks. Declining Lance Stephenson's team option for next season was step one toward opening substantial space for the summer of 2018.
There is a real advantage to having cap space this summer since there isn't going to be much money available to players in the marketplace. Only a few have the ability to open up a decent amount of cap space, and even fewer will be aggressive in building a team to compete in 2018-19. The Bulls, Kings and Hawks - and perhaps Magic, Mavericks and Suns - may look to use their cap space as a dumping ground for bad contracts to acquire assets.
Over-the-cap teams looking to be competitive that could offer the full midlevel exception, worth nearly $9 million per season, might be reluctant to do so due to a desire to avoid the salary tax. This tight market is going to lead to two things:
- Players taking one-year deals to get back onto the market in 2019 when there will be much more money available.
- Teams locking players into three or four years deals at bargain rates.
Thaddeus Young has exercised his player option for the 2018-19 season, at a salary of $13.8 million dollars. This made the pathway to the Pacers having significant space a little more challenging, but Indiana still has options.
Al Jefferson, for example, only has $4 million of his $10 million salary for this upcoming season guaranteed, with a late guaranteed date of Jan. 10, 2019. Darren Collison has only $2 million of his $10 million salary for this upcoming season guaranteed. Cory Joseph, a capable backup point guard, has one year left on his contract and will make a salary of $7.9 million.
The Pacers have already declined Joseph Young's team option worth $1.6 million, and could move on from the non-guaranteed contracts of Alex Poythress and Ike Anigbogu to create $2.9 million extra in cap space.
|Player||2018-19 salary||2019-20 salary|
|Victor Oladipo||$21 million||$21 million|
|Thaddeus Young||$13.8 million||-|
|Bojan Bogdanovic||$10.5 million||-|
|Darren Collison||$10.0 million||-|
|Al Jefferson||$10.0 million||-|
|Cory Joseph||$7.9 million||-|
|Myles Turner||$3.4 million||-|
|Domantas Sabonis||$2.7 million||$3.5 million|
|T.J. Leaf||$2.4 million||$2.8 million|
|Alex Poythress||$1.5 million||-|
|Ike Anigbogu||$1.4 million||$1.6 million|
At present - with an estimated salary for Aaron Holiday of $2.0 million for next season, minus Young, Stephenson, Trevor Booker and Glen Robinson III - Indiana is looking at about $11.3 million of cap space. Waiving and stretching Jefferson gets the team to $19.9 million in space. Waiving Bogdanovic ($9 million) and Collison ($8 million) would create $17 million more.
The Pacers also have the option of trading Joseph now that they have Collison and Holiday under contract at the point guard position, and they could even move Young. Parting ways with just Joseph would get the Pacers to $27.9 million in space. Trading Young or waiving Bogdanovic and/or Collison would move them into the $30-$40 million range.
The icing on the cake is nearly all of the team's contracts line up to expire after this season. Indiana only has four players currently under contract beyond this upcoming year, and only Oladipo's is guaranteed. If the Pacers added only one-year deals, then Indiana is looking at potentially north of $70 million in cap space in the summer of 2019, giving them an opportunity to be aggressive in free agency and still have significant cap space next summer.
So who should the Pacers target this summer?
One option is Magic forward Aaron Gordon. Gordon made great strides shooting 3s, hitting a decent 33.6 percent from distance. It remains to be seen if he can sustain his new accuracy level, but he did so on six attempts per game, which is significant volume.
Potential offer sheet target for Indiana Pacers' anticipated $20M-plus in salary cap space, league sources tell ESPN: Orlando Magic restricted free agent forward Aaron Gordon.- Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) June 28, 2018
Where Gordon is killer is at the rim. We talk about non-3-point shooting bigs now as needing to be vertical spacers in the mold of Clint Capela; guys that screen, roll to the basket and finish lob passes. Imagine Gordon doing this with Oladipo:
But what this team desperately needs is more shot creators. The Pacers' offensive rating plummeted from 109.3 with Oladipo on the court, which would have nearly ranked 6th best in the league, to 103.3 when Oladipo sat last season, which would have ranked right ahead of the Magic for 25th in the standings.
That is why if the Pacers could target Julius Randle. Randle is a 65.5 percent shooter at the rim in his career, but topped out last season at a phenomenal 72.8 percent. Due to his efficiency at the rim, Randle posted a true shooting percentage of 60.6.
Randle is the counter punch to a modern switch-everything defence. If a traditional big is switched onto him, Randle is simply too explosive and quick for such a large individual to keep up. If Randle gets a smaller guy on him, he is too strong and powerful for the defender to slow him down.
Just watch Randle drop his shoulder and send all 280 pounds of Jusuf Nurkic flying through the air in the possession below, as if the Lakers forward was just doing some light dusting to tidy up his apartment. Randle has a legitimate claim as the strongest dude in the NBA this side of Steven Adams.
Randle averaged 1.16 points per possession as the pick-and-roll roll man last season, one of the higher marks in the league among players that played in at least 41 games and had at least one such possession per contest. He averaged 0.85 points per possession in isolation, too, a decent mark for a player his size. He produced points on 64.7 percent of his drives last season, once again one of the better marks in the league among players that played at least 41 games and attempted at least three drives per contest.
Randle is a nimble-footed switch-everything small ball centre as well, and while he doesn't provide much in the way of blocks, he defends shots within six feet of the basket similarly to Sabonis and Turner, ranking 27th in the league.
Given Turner's shooting ability, the Pacers won't have to worry about spacing issues in lineups featuring both Turner and Randle. In fact, Turner would help draw the team's best shot blocker out of the lane, giving Randle more room to attack the rim.
Randle could also come cheaper than Gordon and be more obtainable. Should the Pacers give Randle an offer sheet when free agency opens, the Lakers will at that point be preoccupied chasing LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. They may let Randle walk to preserve maximum cap space.
Another potential target for the Pacers? Jabari Parker. Due to the Bucks' tax issues, Parker may wind up in a new uniform next season. He brings more injury concerns to the table than Gordon and Randle, but he's an explosive playmaker when healthy who can split time at small forward and power forward.
What about unrestricted free agency?
As is the case with every team in the league, the Pacers could use more on the wing.
Two targets for the Pacers could be Tyreke Evans and Will Barton. Both may want to lock in some financial security this summer given their injury histories instead of taking a one-year deal to hit the open market again in 2019.
Evans is coming off his best professional campaign that saw him post career-highs in points per game, 3-point percentage, effective field goal percentage (eFG%), true shooting percentage and player efficiency rating (PER). Evans shot 40 percent from the perimeter last year on a good volume of 5.5 attempts per game. Over the past three seasons, he has shot a cumulative 38.7 percent from distance.
Barton is the exact bench scorer to bridge the gap when Oladipo sits. Barton also posted a career-high in points per game last season with 15.7, the fourth-best mark among players who started fewer than half of their team's games and played in at least 10 games. He has shot 37 percent on 657 attempts the past two seasons and posted career-highs in assists per game, eFG%, true shooting percentage and PER last season.
Remember, the only contracts that would be on Indiana's books next summer would be Oladipo, Gordon/Randle, Evans/Barton, Sabonis, T.J. Leaf and Turner's cap hold. The Pacers could attempt to get into the Kyrie sweepstakes or take a much more realistic run at Kemba Walker with that much space.
Add some combination of those players to Indiana's current core, and they'd be far more than the feel-good story they were last season.