It’s easy to forget that the Pacers have only four players left from the 2013-14 Eastern Conference Finals Team. Lance Stephenson left after that series, Paul George broke his leg, and the team launched into a rebuild without actually rebuilding. Suddenly they’re back in the playoff picture with an entirely new set of players.
Yet there’s a sense of incompletion with this Indiana team. They have only one star player in Paul George and nobody else on the roster even comes close. They are at least a year or two away from championship contention, but their roster isn’t particularly young. Their four other starters are all between 28 and 30, and only Monta Ellis is locked in beyond next season. The same is largely true for Indiana’s bench as Rodney Stuckey (29), Jordan Hill (28) and Chase Budinger (27) are all set to hit free agency in their primes either this summer or next.
George is a building block and rookie Myles Turner has shown enough to be considered close to untouchable, but nobody else on the roster appears set as a part of Indiana’s future. Figuring that out is key. The Pacers are going to enter this summer with max salary cap space and a superstar locked in to sell to free agents. They just can’t decide who they’re going to chase until they know who they want to keep.
Deciding whether or not to keep Ellis is going to be a major indication of what kind of team that Pacers want to build. Monta thrives in very specific environments. He has to defend point guards as most shooting guards are too big for him. He can’t shoot from distance. He needs to have the ball in his hands on almost every possession.
That’s fine with the players the Pacers have now. George Hill is largely an off-ball point guard who can shoot three’s and defend just about everyone. But keeping Ellis likely precludes the Pacers from chasing high level guards at either slot. He can’t play with most other point guards, but he’s not enough of a distributor to play point guard himself. He has to be scoring at close to an elite level to justify keeping him.
So far this season that hasn’t happened. In fact, the Pacers are better offensively when Ellis is off of the floor (101.6 points per 100 with him and 101.9 without). The box score stats don’t do much for him either. He’s averaging only 14 points on 41.6% from the field. At this point Monta Ellis just can’t be a starter for a contender.
Someone will always gamble on Monta Ellis. The Pacers won’t get anything back for him, but they should be able to move on from him easily enough. He’s not part of Indiana’s future. In fact, if the Pacers wanted a similar player at a lower cost, they’d be better off taking another shot at reviving Lance Stephenson. They do many of the same things, but Stephenson actually plays defense.
No team should willingly get rid of George Hill. San Antonio got Kawhi Leonard for him and it still collectively took us two or three years to realize that they won the trade. Hill is the perfect three-and-D point guard. He can handle the ball well enough to lead an offense, but slots perfectly next to a high-usage wing or two. He’s one of the only point guards in the league big enough to switch onto any perimeter player, and with Paul George playing power forward that’s something Indiana wants to try long term.
Indiana’s main target this summer is probably going to be Mike Conley. He’s from Indianapolis, he’s on the same general timetable as Paul George, and the Grizzlies are quickly being proven obsolete as a team. He can play with Hill. The better question is whether or not he’ll want to. Conley is an All Star caliber player, and if Hill stands between the Pacers and Conley, they’ll trade him in a heartbeat.
If Indiana has its choice George Hill will stick around for another contract. His skill set should age fairly well and he’s a great roster fit no matter what the Pacers decide to build. But if moving him becomes a necessity in adding Conley, he’ll be gone.
Miles is on such a cheap contract that it’s largely ignored, but he has actually underperformed pretty significantly as a Pacer. He hasn’t made 40% of his field goals in either of his seasons in Indiana, and his three-point shooting is down significantly from his time in Cleveland. Volume hasn’t done his game any favors, and he’s likely a bench player on a contender.
But there is such a scarcity of shooting that some team will talk itself into overpaying Miles. That will probably end his time with the Pacers, and it’s a loss they can swallow. Hill and George are both fluid enough in position that the Pacers won’t need to overpay a wing to replace him. They could conceivably play two big men with those two and another point guard. Indiana will try to keep Miles, but won’t break the bank for him knowing how replaceable he is.
Mahinmi is the opposite of Miles. He probably deserves to be overpaid this summer and he probably deserves to be a starter. But there’s a glut of free agent centers this summer at a time when teams just don’t want to pay for them. The few teams that do are going to call Dwight Howard, Hassan Whiteside, Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol, Zaza Pachulia, Al Jefferson and Timofey Mozgov before him. Considering the market, the Pacers are probably going to get Mahinmi back at a discount.
And it’s a good thing too, because as Mahinmi goes, so too does Indiana’s defense. When he plays they give up 97.4 points per 100 possessions and when he sits that balloons to 101.5. Myles Turner projects as an above average defender but he’s a rookie with serious injury concerns. Mahinmi is cost-effective insurance that also allows them to play competitively without overplaying Turner. They can develop him at a more reasonable pace without sacrificing wins.
And hey, he’s actually evolving into a somewhat useful offensive player! This is a significant development for someone who struggled to even catch the ball early in his career. Now he makes 70.3% of his shots within three feet. The Pacers score 1.2 points per possession with him as the roll man. You can build on that. At least he has functions within an NBA offense now. Not that the league is paying it much attention. He’s become a poor man’s DeAndre Jordan and he will be much poorer than Jordan.
The Pacers are in a weird spot with Allen. Getting rid of him now would be impractical. They have team control over him for another two years, but only one of those seasons is guaranteed. Even if they pick up his 2017-18 option he’ll make only $7 million over the next two seasons. He’s a useful player off of the bench and he’s cost controlled for two years.
But if the Pacers are committed to playing Paul George at power forward, it would probably behoove them to find another stretch-4 to back him up. Ideally most teams prefer not to drastically change their playing style because one player is sitting. If Myles Turner develops into a decent three-point shooter they could somewhat mitigate the loss of George by staggering their rest, but Turner is several years away from playing 30-plus minutes anyway. No matter how you slice it, there are probably going to be minutes where Allen is paired with Mahinmi in a lineup with limited spacing.
So Allen will probably remain with Indiana for the duration of his contract, but the Pacers will make every attempt to find a backup who makes more sense.
There just isn’t a good reason for Indiana to keep Hill. He’ll be more expensive than Allen as a free agent, but isn’t a better player. Unless the Pacers lose Mahinmi and need another backup big man Hill will likely leave this summer.
The Pacers are paying Rodney Stuckey $7 million per year to be a below-average backup point guard. They’d trade him in a heartbeat if anyone wanted him.
Budinger is the last of the expendable bench player Indiana needs to decide on. Unlike Stuckey and Hill, he serves a meaningful long term role as a bench shooter. He’s bad defensively and will likely be relatively cheap, so there’s a good chance he sticks around for another few years.