KRAVITZ: Teague, then Young and now Jefferson: The Pacers are a serious contender


Nobody, and by that, I mean NOBODY, has done more this off-season to improve than the Indiana Pacers. Eventually, somebody will get Kevin Durant, and that’ll be a monstrous upgrade, but given the Pacers’ $87-90 million budget, given the fact the Pacers had $17-20 million to spend in free agency, nobody has done more to improve its franchise.

They won 45 games one year ago with a flawed lineup, with Paul George one year removed from his horrible injury and a developing rookie center named Myles Turner.

Next year, they will win 50-plus, finish in the top half of the Eastern Conference and put themselves in a position to make some noise in the post-season.

They needed a point guard who could dribble-drive and kick the ball out to shooters, something they haven’t had since, um, Travis Best(?), and then they dealt George Hill for Jeff Teague in a three-team trade. Brilliant.

They needed a power forward who could shoot from the perimeter (not from behind the arc, but from the perimeter) and could help with rebounding, and they dealt the 20th pick in the NBA Draft for solid pro Thaddeus Young.

They needed a backup center who could score and give them low-post toughness off the bench, so Friday, Larry Bird signed Al Jefferson for a mere pittance by NBA standards -- $30 million over three years.

A pittance?, you say? Yes, a pittance. In today’s NBA, where the salary cap has increased exponentially and will increase again in the coming years, three years and $30 million is chump change. Look at Timofey Mozgov – four years, $64 million. Look at Nicolas Batum – five years, $120 million. And we haven’t even seen what LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, Hassan Whiteside and others are going to get.

The Pacers still have needs. They still need a backup point guard; the jury is out on last year’s second-round pick Joe Young. They still need a backup power forward who can offer them toughness defensively and on the boards. And it wouldn’t break my heart if they moved Monta Ellis, who would be half of a very undersized backcourt with Teague, for a taller, rangier shooting guard who provides more of a defensive presence.

But look, we’ve just begun the free-agency process, and Bird has never shown any hesitation about making trades to fill holes on his roster.

The Pacers’ president has had his whiffs over the years, and we’ve chronicled them in this space, but this ranks as one of his most active and productive off-seasons since he joined (and then re-joined) the team.

Understand, running the Pacers is no easy task. You operate with one hand tied behind your fiscal back. It’s especially hard now with the increase in the salary cap. Sure, the Pacers have more money now, but so does everybody else. The bigger and better cap gives a clear advantage to the big-market teams who will have budgets that creep close to the luxury tax, and even beyond. If everybody has big money, will you go to New York and Los Angeles or Indianapolis? (Unless you’re David West, who’s a different kind of cat altogether).

For the Pacers to be competitive, they simply have to be smarter than everybody else, just like the San Antonio Spurs, who’ve cornered the market on basketball intelligence. They have to draft exceedingly well, no small feat for a team that refuses to tank and has just one top-10 pick since Eric Dampier in 1996. (It was Paul George, by the way). They have to make sage trades, understanding they’re not in a position financially to go heavy into big-time free agency. Basically, they can’t simply spend or draft their way to prominence.

Jefferson does have his warts. He’s 31. He’s had some injury issues. He was suspended for five games last season for a third marijuana violation. He’s not an up-tempo center who runs the floor, but rather likes to plod and bang in the low post. He’s on the downside, but remains a significant addition who has averaged 16.7 points and 8.9 rebounds throughout his career.

This probably means that Ian Mahinmi is a goner, unless the Pacers can unload some salary, which seems unlikely. The way the dollar numbers have sky-rocketed this year, Mahinmi figures to ask for a deal somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 million per year, which is just too rich for the Pacers’ blood. Seriously, if Mozgov could get $64 million over four years, what’s Mahinmi worth? And Mahinmi actually played in the playoffs, as opposed to Mozgov.

And that’s too bad. Mahinmi truly emerged this past season, far more than some of us ever expected. A few reporters talked to him after the Game 7 loss in Toronto, and he sounded like he was enamored with the notion of staying in Indianapolis and growing with George and Turner and the others. He wasn’t offering a hometown discount, though, nor should he have. Make it while you can, wherever you can.

There are some other big decisions for the Pacers to contemplate; namely, which of their free agents do they retain?

In my mind, Jordan Hill is a goner. He had some nice stretches during the regular season, but fell completely out of former coach Frank Vogel’s rotation late and into the playoffs. He will be working elsewhere next season.

Same with Ty Lawson. Gone. For good reason.

Solomon Hill poses a perplexing question: Is he the player who showed up out of shape and ineffective the first part of the season, or is he the dogged defender and three-point shooter who played so well late in the year and into the playoff series against the Toronto Raptors? It’s probably safe to say the deed is done; the Pacers failed to pick up Solo’s option earlier, back when he was still struggling. That looks like a mistake now, but what’s to say Hill will return motivated and prepared after getting a lucrative new deal? If he wasn’t ready to play heading into a contract year, how can he be trusted with the money already in his pocket? Figure him finished in Indianapolis.

The one free agent on the roster worth keeping is Mahinmi, but again, too expensive without the Pacers dumping a bunch of salary.

There’s a lot to like about where this Indiana team is currently headed. But there’s more they can, and should, do.