In the ever-shifting quest for a true contending team blueprint, the Indiana Pacers offer one of the sharpest outlines to come into focus in recent years. The teardown was long and painful and the reconstruction required a slow and steady hand, but it presents a more reasonable path for small-market franchises than say, Oklahoma City's dramatic creation story.
Unlike the Thunder, the Pacers never really bottomed out, forcing team president Larry Bird to work the middle of the draft while slowly stripping the roster of bad contracts. Years of adding solid, yet unspectacular players were balanced with a careful eye on the bottom line. Bird never lost sight of who they were, and just as importantly, where they were trying to go.
Despite their mid-range selections, the key additions came in the draft, as the Pacers hit big with Roy Hibbert, Paul George and second-round pick Lance Stephenson. They also acquired steady point guard George Hill in a draft-day deal. When the time was right, they made a substantial, but hardly obscene free agent investment in David West. To top it off, they installed Frank Vogel as coach at just the right time on the learning curve.
Things came together so quickly last season that it's easy to forget perhaps the most important lesson of the Pacers renaissance: patience. That's actually one of the advantages a small-market franchise can have over its more heavily media-saturated brethren. They were allowed to learn and grow on their own time, and it couldn't have worked out more perfectly.
The Pacers let Hibbert hit restricted free agency, which effectively let the market decide his contract. That, in turn, allowed them to take care of George on their own terms, locking him up for a five-year max deal. George's extension is conveniently scheduled to kick in next summer at exactly the same time that Danny Granger's deal will come off the books.
Remarkably, George is still just 23 years old, and it's worth remembering that he didn't really blow up until the second half of the season. He's still improving and making Vogel's Scottie Pippen comparison look more prescient by the day. Hibbert, meanwhile, is entering his prime, meaning the Pacers have their two most important players locked up for the next few years.
Because everything has progressed so logically, it's tempting to overlook the often tricky exercise of adding complementary pieces to the existing core. That proved difficult last season, as players like Gerald Green, D.J. Augustin and Ian Mahinmi didn't provide the necessary bang for their bucks. Bird may have rectified that situation with a savvy offseason haul that includes C.J. Watson, Chris Copeland and Luis Scola.
It took six years, but the Pacers finally have everything they could want with a flexible roster that will stay under the luxury tax without having to get rid of a core player. That's important, because if there's one thing the Pacers have established, it's a culture. West especially has been vitally important in this regard as a rock-solid vet who steadied the ship through some early-season turbulence. Call it an intangible if you want, but it's not an accident that West wanted to return for a reasonable three-year deal rather than seek out a more lucrative offer elsewhere.
All of this is essentially the ideal for a small-market club: build through the draft, spread out your free agent dollars and if at all possible, have everything line up just right to avoid any huge financial hit. And what do you get for all that? A two- to three-year window if you're lucky, that just so happens to coincide with the budding Heat dynasty.
The Pacers took the Heat to seven brutal games in the conference finals last season. The pieces are in place and the reinforcements have arrived to take that next step. The rest is up to them.