Larry Bird's Pacers' Rebuilding Project, At Long Last, Nears Its End

The Pacers have a talented core of young players and more than $27 million in expiring deals coming off the books this summer. What's next for the success-starved franchise from the Hoosier State?

The Indiana Pacers, as they've been since 2003, are in a state of transition, but that period is on the verge of ending. Firing coach Jim O'Brien midway through his fourth season with Indiana was a solid way to speed up the process, and the contract of team president Larry Bird is due to end this summer. With fresh faces leading the team on the sideline and in the front office, Indiana is poised to take its next step forward.

Few young, mediocre teams have a future as bright as that of Indiana. In addition to franchise centerpiece Danny Granger, the Pacers boast young talents at point guard (Darren Collison), center (Roy Hibbert), small forward (Paul George) and power forward (Tyler Hansbrough and Josh McRoberts). That's an enviable group of budding stars, despite Hibbert's season, which has trended downward after a strong start.

But where the Pacers can really make their mark is via trade. Bird has said he wants to parlay his sizable expiring contracts -- Mike Dunleavy, T.J. Ford, Jeff Foster and Solomon Jones combine to create a whopping $27.2 million in ending salary this summer, according to ShamSports, the web's most authoritative salary database -- into another impact player before the trading deadline, and given the uncertainty about what the next collective bargaining agreement will bring, it's likely that more than one team will be interested in shedding salary by dealing a talented player to Indiana for at least one of those deals.

Bird's problem is that he can't really afford to let those contracts come off the books, hoping to land a free agent. The CBA comes into play here as well, but mostly the issue is that there are few stars to be had in the forthcoming free-agent class. Perhaps he could sign Greg Oden, an Indianapolis native, to an offer sheet and hope the Portland Trail Blazers don't match it, but he'd seem to be redundant with the young Hibbert healthy and contributing from the center spot. No, it's imperative for Bird to act before the trading deadline to make sure his assets don't go to waste.

But making a trade at the deadline simply for trading's sake also has its own risks, as Bird can't content himself with acquiring a middling player, as doing so would only repeat his sad pattern of aiming for a win total in the low-40s each season. That means veteran retreads like Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince should be off the table, as they'd do little to improve the Pacers' fortunes now or going forward.

What sort of player should Indiana pursue? Given where they stand, it's clear an offensively-minded performer should top the list, as the Pacers ranked just 24th in offensive efficiency before Wednesday's games, scoring only 103.4 points per 100 possession; on defense, they rank eighth, giving up 104.6 points per 100 possessions.

Having established their need for offense, we can look closer. What need emerges? Someone who can shoot the three-pointer and get to the line. The Pacers have connected on 36 percent of their three-point tries this season, exactly the league average, and have four players taking at least three per game. Foul-drawing is a higher-priority concern, as only Granger attempts more than five foul shots per game. Hibbert, for all his size and skill around the basket, only earns 3.1 free throws. And Collison, despite his speed and quickness, lags behind at 2.8 per game.

The Houston Rockets' Kevin Martin is the gold standard as far as combining those two skills, but it seems unlikely the Rockets would be willing to part with their hyper-efficient two-guard for mere financial savings, especially not when they have solid trade assets of their own and could be sellers at the deadline in order to strengthen themselves for a playoff push. Digging deeper, J.J. Redick of the Orlando Magic might be an option, though he doesn't draw fouls at a great rate.

Regardless of how Bird reshapes the team, it's clear that doing so is only one step in a much larger process. With the right move, or moves, Bird can take the Pacers from "okay" to "good." But that next step, from "good" to "great," requires more time, patience, and some internal development, which makes it a more difficult proposition. Nevertheless, the Pacers have slowly maneuvered themselves into this position. Bird has them in great shape to take another step forward, but it's up to him to make the most of this great opportunity.

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