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The Score - Anthony Schoettle

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Sports Business

New direction high-risk, high-reward proposition for Pacers

July 8, 2015
KEYWORDS Sports Business

The Indiana Pacers next season could be described as approaching a crossroads on a tightrope.

The team that just missed the playoffs last year in the NBA’s weak Eastern Conference is no doubt entering a new era. It must choose carefully which direction it turns and how far to turn the steering wheel. One misstep could lead to a long fall—on the court and in the stands.

Pacers sales executives have spent four long years digging out of a deep ticket-sales hole. The team clawed out of the attendance cellar after a 2010-11 campaign which saw the team draw a meager 13,538 per home game. More than one-quarter of Bankers Life Fieldhouse’s seats went unfilled during the team’s 41 home games, and lots of tickets were sold at a deep discount.

Slowly, Pacers basketball boss Larry Bird put together a winning team and the sales and marketing department doggedly sold it by wooing fans back with creative initiatives and promotions.

Attendance climbed to 14,168 during the 2011-12 season, 15,269 for the 2012-13 season and 17,501 for the 2013-14 season as the team challenged the LeBron James-led Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference finals.

After a bumpy few years with its fan base, the Pacers—and Bird in particular—seemed to gain back the trust of the Blue and Gold faithful.

Then star forward Paul George broke his leg before last season ever started. And starter Lance Stephenson—once Bird’s prized project from the draft’s second round—bolted. The team stumbled off its pedestal and attendance dipped to 16,864 last season.

But the fan base appears mostly patient and awaiting George’s full return. Then the Golden State Warriors happened. And suddenly, the NBA is headed in a new direction.

Big, plodding players are out of vogue. Offense is now the best defense. Bye bye David West and Roy Hibbert.

In fairness to Bird and the Pacers front office, there probably wasn’t much they could have done to retain West, who was bent on chasing a title even if it cost him millions. Still, he and Hibbert no longer seemed to fit Bird’s game plan. And West was clearly miffed by the way Bird cast Hibbert aside after last season.

After West bolted to San Antonio, Hibbert is being shipped to the L.A. Lakers for what appears to be next to nothing.

In two years, the Pacers have parted ways with three-fifths of the starting lineup that propelled the team to within a game of the NBA finals. The Pacers are all in on embracing the new wave NBA. They’re going up-tempo.

Hello Monta Ellis.

Ellis joined the Pacers this month as a star acquisition. He’s everything the Pacers need, say NBA analysts. He’s also everything the Pacers are: A risky proposition. That’s probably why Las Vegas odds makers this week put 40-1 odds on the Pacers winning the NBA title.

Of course, they don’t have to win it all to stem their attendance slide. They just have to be competitive and fun to watch. Ellis certainly could make them both.

He has potential to be the high-energy, high-scoring backcourt player the Pacers need. He can attack the basket in ways Paul George and
George Hill cannot. He led the NBA in total drives and points on drives last season, according to NBA.com.

Like any high-stakes gamble, there are risks.

Ellis, who turns 30 in October, relies on speed and athleticism. The Pacers have to hope those physical attributes hold up over the course of his four-year, $44 million contract.

Team officials also have to hope that Ellis’ freewheeling on-court nature meshes with Pacers Coach Frank Vogel’s more calculated style.

And Ellis isn’t known for playing much defense. George and Hill should help there. But losing Hibbert and especially West puts a dent in the team’s defense.

Ellis isn’t the only risk the Pacers will be managing this season. Nineteen-year-old rookie Myles Turner will be counted on to help replace Hibbert. He’s been a solid mid-teens scorer so far in summer league play, but many of the guys he’s playing against in that league will not make an NBA roster.

Ian Mahinmi, one of the few traditional bigs on the Pacers roster, could be called on to play a bigger role this year and George might even find himself playing some power forward.

There’s also a question of whether Vogel can change directions and coach an up-tempo team.

Either way, a new era is dawning for the Pacers, and Ellis’ arrival is probably the biggest sign of that.

No doubt, this plan could be fatally flawed. Pacers fans certainly won’t like a team that doesn’t defend and can’t win.

Clearly Bird is betting his new roster and an up-tempo style are a perfect fit.

It better be. Pacers fans have proven they’re not infinitely patient. And they won’t necessarily buy tickets while they’re waiting for greatness.

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