The Indiana Pacers’ offseason is already in full swing with several days to go before the opening bell of free agency. They’ve already made one of the better trades of the pre-July process when they took on T.J. Warren in an inexplicable salary dump from the Phoenix Suns, which netted them No. 32 in last week’s draft. They immediately flipped No. 32 into three future seconds from Miami, though the details of those picks aren’t known at this point, at least publicly. It’s possible one of those is a “fake second”, a top-55 protected pick that is highly unlikely to convey, but given the general price of picks in that area, it wouldn’t be surprising if Indiana got three unprotected seconds from Miami to get that deal done. Their final major move so far has been to take Goga Bitadze with the No. 18 pick in the draft, a pick that is puzzling with their other center options but perhaps indicate further moves are on the horizon.
For offseason planning purposes, Indiana is almost certainly going the cap space route. They’ll need some way to take Warren’s salary and they currently have no way of doing so through a requisite Traded Player Exception, though they could create one in a sign-and-trade on July 6 before officially completing the Warren deal. The likely outcome, however, is that they will need to create more than $34.1 million in space off their current books, which they can accomplish by renouncing free agent cap holds for two or more of their incumbent free agents.
The answer won’t come any time soon, as the Pacers have until July 6 to figure out which of their free agents are returning to the team and at what price. They don’t have to stop at $34.1 million to take on Warren, either, as they can clear another $33.9 million in space to actually use on free agents, both outsiders and their own. There are many, many paths the Pacers can take with the remainder of their offseason, from max cap space to staying as close to the cap as possible to re-sign a couple of key free agents using Bird rights. As things stand, I project them to have $20.6 million in space, which includes renouncing all of their own free agents except for Bojan Bogdanovic, whom they can leave on the books at $13.7 million and re-sign after using up the rest of that space.
The only area Indiana doesn’t need reinforcements is at center, where they already have three players who will all compete for minutes this season. Myles Turner is the best of the bunch defensively and their top option overall, while Domantas Sabonis provides an offensive punch Turner can’t quite match, particularly from a self-creation point of view. Bitadze looks ready-made to step into an NBA offense and mimic some of the best things Turner and Sabonis bring to the table, but how they find significant minutes for him with the two bigs ahead of him in the rotation is unclear. The likely outcome, should all three remain on the roster next season, is that the Pacers will play a lot of two-big alignments.
Lineups with two traditional centers have mostly gone out of style in the NBA, though when the entire league is zigging one way, it can sometimes behoove teams to zag the other. Turner and Bitadze can shoot the ball to some extent, though you’d certainly like to see more intelligent spacing from Turner before you can pencil him in as an outside threat. The bigger lineups can work for them if they can get the spacing right, as different as they are from the modern NBA.
Investing as heavily as they have in their big men has left them somewhat needy in other areas. Going into the offseason, they have just one point guard on the roster, last year’s first-round pick Aaron Holiday. Holiday showed enough in his rookie year that the team was apparently unwilling to part with him in a Mike Conley trade in addition to everything else they would have had to give up to match the Utah Jazz’s offer. He’s not quite ready to step in to be the team’s full-time starting point guard, which is why they’ve been heavily linked with ex-Jazz playmaker Ricky Rubio.
Putting starter or near-starter money into Rubio, who doesn’t exactly help their already-present spacing issues and is a poor fit next to star guard Victor Oladipo, would be a curious decision. Rubio has the ball handling and playmaking chops to take some pressure off Oladipo in that department, but they’re still going to want to play through Oladipo a majority of the time and there are better secondary point guards on the market who bring a level of shooting that would be a better fit with the Pacers. Names like George Hill, incumbent starter Darren Collison, Patrick Beverley, Tomas Satoransky, Terry Rozier, Seth Curry, Quinn Cook, Malcolm Brogdon, and Jeremy Lin would all be interesting names for Indiana to pursue with the financial flexibility they have. Some of these guys could be had for very cheap and aren’t necessarily high-end starters, but bringing in two of them would give the Pacers options at the position to go with Holiday. Putting more of their money into Hill, Beverley, or particularly Brogdon would also be very worthwhile, as those guys bring a level of defensive acumen that can match what Rubio brings in addition to their higher level of offensive play.
Indiana’s other primary need is on the wing. Right now, Warren, Doug McDermott, Edmond Sumner, Alize Johnson are their wing and forward rotation, which is to say that they don’t really have a wing and forward rotation, particularly if they think of themselves as real competitors with some of the other teams near the top of the Eastern Conference. Bogdanovic is an unrestricted free agent with the ability to walk away to another team for nothing in return, though he’s reportedly their top priority in free agency, leading me to project that they’ll keep his cap hold on the books and pay close to whatever it takes to retain him. They’ll need some more investment there as well, which may be another reason to perhaps go with a cheaper option or two at point guard rather than invest heavily in Rubio.
Depending on what they do at the point guard spot, they could be in the market for a number of cheap wings, either through cap space or their Room Exception. A few names to watch there are Iman Shumpert, Garrett Temple, Jeremy Lamb, James Ennis, Dorian Finney-Smith, David Nwaba, and Danuel House.
At some point, the Pacers will run into roster spot issues. They have ten players under contract, including Sumner and Johnson, and with one roster spot saved for Bogdanovic and at least one spot saved for a point guard. Sumner and Johnson provide depth at the wing and forward spots that they’ll want next season; it’s really going to be among the big guys to find someone to cut, if they have to do so. The natural answer there is T.J. Leaf, who has shown next to nothing after being drafted in the first round in 2017 and may see his fourth-year option declined by the team. With Turner, Sabonis, and Bitadze rotating through the big man spots alongside Warren and Johnson in stints, Leaf is the odd man out and they can always decline that option and waive him if they need the spot for someone else.
The Pacers still have significant holes to fill in their rotation as July rolls around, though they’ll have the financial flexibility to make that happen, even after completing the Warren trade with Phoenix. There may be a trade at some point as well – moving Sabonis as he goes into the final year of his rookie scale contract and is coming off a great year may make sense, though they seem committed at this point to the multi-big approach with their three centers. Still, if Sabonis could net them a wing and/or a point guard, they could balance their rotation a little better, particularly if they believe Bitadze is ready to step into the backup role from Day 1. There are plenty of paths they can still take and it will be very interesting to monitor what Kevin Pritchard and his staff prioritize as free agency opens next week.