INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - A few days ago, I received a tweet from an enraged Pacers fan who opined that the Indiana Pacers would not win an NBA Championship in his lifetime.
Now, I have no idea how old this gentleman is, but it’s safe to assume he’s good for another 30 or more years on this planet, so a lifetime seems like an awfully long time. But, then, the Pacers have never won a title during their 41 years as an NBA franchise.
So I got to thinking about it – that is, when I wasn’t on the golf course during my vacation – and I reached this conclusion:
I’ll put it this way: I’m 57 years old and hope to have a long, productive, triple-bogey-free life, and I don’t think the Pacers will win a title for as long as I’m annoying people on this Earth.
For this simple, straightforward reason: Small-market teams rarely, very rarely, overcome their circumstances and win NBA titles.
In the last two decades, the only small-market team to enjoy the ultimate success is the San Antonio Spurs, who began to build a behemoth with No. 1 pick David Robinson, then had one bad year when Robinson was hurt, earned the top draft choice and got some guy named Tim Duncan. Beyond that, though, they were smarter than everyone else. They drafted Tony Parker one selection after the Pacers selected Jamaal Tinsley. They grabbed Manu Ginobili with the 57th pick in 1999. More recently, they fleeced the Pacers by dealing George Hill in exchange for a 15th draft choice by the name of Kawhi Leonard. The Spurs have won five titles, in 1999, 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2014.
The Oklahoma City Thunder came close, reaching the NBA Finals in 2012, but that team was blessed by three homerun draft choices, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Of course, that team couldn’t maintain its momentum, as is true of so many small-market teams. Harden was traded and Durant left OKC to join the Warriors this season.
Can the Pacers do that?
Well, it should be noted that Kevin Pritchard has worked as a scout for R.C. Buford and the Spurs, and it should be noted, too, that the TrailBlazers aka the JailBlazers were one of the worst, most dysfunctional teams in the NBA when Pritchard took over. A few years later, they were winning 54 games in 2008-09, and may have competed for a title eventually had Greg Oden and Brandon Roy stayed healthy.
The bottom line being, the Pacers cannot afford to make mistakes, not in the draft, not in trades, not in free agency. The margin for error is remarkably thin. Easy job for Pritchard, right?
As one Pacers executive told me recently, “While everybody zigs, we’ve got to zag.’’
I like we’re they’re headed now, though, which is right down the tubes, at least for the next few years. That’s not what Pacers’ fans want to hear, but this is a lottery team next year and likely beyond. And that’s the tonic for the troops because this is a franchise that has not had a top-nine draft choice since 1989 (they chose George McCloud with the No. 7 pick). The direction of the franchise became clear when the Pacers allowed Jeff Teague, the hometown guy, walk in free agency and sign a lucrative (aren’t they all lucrative?) contract with Minnesota.
It’s going to get worse before it gets better.
And that’s the way it should be.
That’s the way it has to be.
We are in the era of super-team construction, an arms race the Pacers can’t hope to enter, at least not at this point. This is the AAU-ization of the NBA; specifically, top players all connect and cross-pollinate during their AAU days and plot ways in which they can all end up together in one high-profile market. It wouldn’t shock me if Paul George’s decision to ultimately land in Los Angeles with the Lakers ends with him playing alongside LeBron James and some other superstars (Westbrook?).
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that; players have the freedom of movement, and it’s only natural for the best to want to play with the best. But it puts teams like the Pacers in a very difficult position.
A super team will never be constructed, at least not through free agency, here in Indianapolis. As much as we love our city, NBA players do not look at Indy as a basketball destination. Paul George said he tried to convince other stars to join him in Indy, but nobody bit. History tells the story here: The best free agent ever to sign with the Pacers was David West, a fine player and terrific leader, but hardly a franchise-changer. Beyond that, I’m hard pressed to think of past Pacers’ free agents who’ve made a significant impact on the team’s fortunes.
It’s not necessarily a matter of refusing to pay the freight for a top-level free agent; I believe that if owner Herb Simon had a shot at someone like Gordon Hayward – and the Pacers would have chased the Brownsburg and Butler grad had George not decided he wanted out – he would spend the cash. Would he go into the luxury tax? Probably not. But he’d stretch the budget if a game-changer somehow became available.
The Pacers, then, have to do it the hard way, the hardest way…do it through the draft, plus some smart trades and maybe some second-level free agents who can round out the roster. There are no quick fixes in Indianapolis, and it’s heartening to see they’re finally embracing the once-toxic notion of rebuilding.
For Indiana to reach the top – and they came close twice in recent years with back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals appearances against the Miami Heat – they CANNOT miss in the draft.
Look at how the Golden State Warriors’ nucleus was built: Steph Curry was a 7th pick in the 2009 draft. Klay Thompson was taken 11th in the 2011 draft. Draymond Green, who was passed over by the Pacers and so many other teams in 2012 draft, was chosen 35th. Harrison Barnes was a seventh pick in2012. We think of them as a super team like the Big Three Miami Heat, but except for Durant, who bolted OKC and signed with Golden State, they are largely home-grown.
Then there’s the matter of retaining big-name players who are entering free agency. George’s agent told the Pacers his client was a goner at the end of next season and wanted to join the Lakers, which immediately squeezed the trade market and left Indy with Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis – hardly a significant haul, but likely the best they could do under the trying circumstances. The collective bargaining agreement gives the existing team several avenues for keeping stars in their original cities, but it’s not quite enough – obviously. At some point, the money figures become so stratospheric, a player would just as soon take a little less to play in a city he loves and with a team that has serious championship aspirations. Look at George: He would have made more money if he had stayed here, but what real difference does a couple million make when you’re in that tax bracket?
One less luxury car in the garage?
Nobody is saying there’s no hope. The Pacers have shown they can compete at the highest levels throughout the last 20-plus years. They’ve come close, coming closest in 2000 when they took the Shaq-Kobe Lakers to six games in the NBA Finals. But in the modern NBA, it takes superstars, multiple superstars, whether they are transcendent draft choices or marquee free agents. It takes money, lots of it, and it takes unmatched foresight.
The Pacers, and other small-market teams, are playing this game with one hand tied behind their back.
Put it this way: If Indiana wins an NBA title in my lifetime, I will get a tattoo of the championship trophy etched on lower leg.
I don’t like pain.
But I’m not worried, not at all.