It's often said that the worst thing to be in the NBA is mediocre. If you have a really good team, that's obviously great because it means you're really good, which is good. (Read that sentence five times. I enjoyed writing it). But if you can't be really good, it's often better to be terrible than mediocre, because at least you have a better chance at a high draft pick and a transformational player.
If you adhere to that principle, you probably think the Indiana Pacers have been the least successful team in the NBA over the past half decade. Since 2006, the Pacers have won 32, 36, 36 and 32 games, respectively. They've received the 11th (traded to Atlanta), 13th, 11th and 10th pick in the NBA Draft, respectively, meaning they aren't getting that kind of transformational talent in the draft. It all adds up to a vicious cycle, where the team is mediocre and drafts the kind of talent that keeps them mediocre.
That could change this year, for reasons that go beyond the on-court performance. For the first time, the Pacers have a staple of decent young talent and expiring contracts. A summer trade for New Orleans' Darren Collison was a major coup. The Pacers sacrificed Troy Murphy, one of the best players on the team last year, but Murphy didn't fit into the rebuilding effort. Collison is young, and was among the NBA's most productive rookies filling in for Chris Paul last year. Combined with Roy Hibbert, Tyler Hansbrough, Josh McRoberts and rookie Paul George, the Pacers have something resembling a young core. Throw in about $30 million in expiring contracts, and the Pacers could be in position to actually start rebuilding.
But before then, there's a season to play out. SB Nation's Pacers blog Indy Cornrows writes that Pacers need to be thinking both about the playoffs and about the future.
The primary goal for this Pacers team is to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. The team has a thin margin for error and any injury issues similar to last season will make that goal difficult to attain. Even if fully healthy the Pacers will have to play their best to be in the mix for the playoffs since the East has several improved teams that will likely require more wins this season to qualify for post-season play.
Another goal of the team has to be to continue developing the core talent on the roster that has come together over the past couple of years. With tons of cap space coming off the books after this season, understanding which players they can rely on among the young core to carry the team forward in the future is important. That will also help the front office plan how to use that cap space to add talent in the right spots to keep a young team on the rise in the East.
It's true: the Pacers are a team in transition. That said, the season will be key in figuring out who belongs in the team's future. The Pacers should fundamentally be the same kind of helter-skelter up-tempo team, especially with Collison taking over for the awful point guards the Pacers trotted out last year, but they need to figure out who fits into their future. Certainly, Danny Granger does, but beyond him, a lot is up in the air.
Indy Cornrows is concerned that could lead to a lack of team cohesion.
Those expiring contracts have faces attached to them and they'll be in the Pacers locker room until the season ends or they are dealt. Varied agendas and player demands could make things difficult around Conseco Fieldhouse when the team bumps into the inevitable adversity the long NBA season brings.
Indy Cornrows notes that most of those expiring contract players are "pros," but it's still a concern, especially if the Pacers are fighting toward the playoffs. It's a necessary challenge, of course, because a clean rebuild is often the only way to get out of mediocrity. But in the meantime, it could lead to some interesting chemistry issues.
Will the Pacers be a playoff team? Indy Cornrows predicts a 36-46 record, which puts them a couple games short. I'll agree and say 37-45. They don't look imposing on paper, but I really liked the Collison trade and think they'll be able to replace Murphy. Don't be surprised if they're right there at the end of the season.