Critical and potentially expensive off-season decisions loom for Pacers

Former Indiana Pacers coach Larry Brown said in 1994—following the team’s first run to the Eastern Conference Finals—that the team and its followers wouldn’t know how difficult it was to scale so high up the NBA playoff mountain until years later.

Brown was right. Getting to the NBA conference finals isn’t easy. Getting to the seventh game, as the team did in 1994 and this season, is more difficult yet. Taking the final two steps up the mountain to the NBA championship could be even more difficult.

It’s easy to surmise that this year’s iteration of the Pacers is young, hungry and destined for great things. But the franchise has some hard work ahead of it. Some of that hard work will take place this off-season.

“I’m looking forward to seeing what this team looks like in three months,” West told reporters following Monday night’s game-seven loss at Miami.

A lot of people are looking forward to that. It remains to be seen if team executives can finish what former basketball operations boss Larry Bird started a few years ago. Bird left the team following the 2011-2012 season.

To take the final steps of this quest, Pacers owner Herb Simon will have to open his wallet a bit wider. West, in many respects the heart and soul of this Pacers team, is a free agent this off-season, and league executives think he will be able to fetch $12 million to $13 million per year over the next three years.

West, 32, is currently finishing the second season of a two-year deal that paid him $10 million per year. For his part, West says he wants to remain with the Pacers.

Budding superstar Paul George—sooner or later—will be looking for a max-level contract extension. That will cost Simon another $15 million or so annually. Reserve forward Tyler Hansbrough this off-season becomes a restricted free agent. While certainly not as coveted as West and George, Hansbrough is going to be looking for a low-seven-figure pay raise.

The Pacers also are in need of a top-notch point guard, an on-court quarterback who can get his own shot, and more important, get everyone else into place and distribute the ball accordingly.

That critical move allows George Hill to play his more natural position of shooting guard, and possibly allows Lance Stephenson to come off the bench, giving the Pacers some needed punch for the second unit. Better point guard play should cut down on the Pacers’ turnovers, which hampered the team all season and especially in the Eastern Conference Finals against Miami.

Getting a high-quality point guard won’t come cheap. Simon and Pacers player personnel bosses Donnie Walsh and Kevin Pritchard this off-season will think hard about trading Danny Granger, who has one year left on his contract and is due to make $14 million next year.

While Granger’s knee injury, which kept him out most of this season, will likely downgrade his trade value, he might be attractive to a team looking for a short-term front-court boost and salary cap flexibility after his contract expires following next season.

What the Pacers accomplished on the court in recent years—and especially this year—has been truly remarkable. The 2004 brawl in Detroit has nearly faded out of sight in the team’s rearview mirror.

Now everyone on this team and its fans have their sights firmly fixed on the incline out the front windshield. It won’t be easy. And it won’t be cheap. But vying for a championship never is.

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