The Indiana Pacers found themselves between a rock and a hard place with several key free-agent decisions this summer. If they re-signed those players, they would risk clogging up their salary cap to maintain the core of a good, but not great team. If they let those players go, they would sink back into irrelevancy after working so hard for so long to build their franchise back up. I don't envy their position one bit.
In the end, new general manager Kevin Pritchard chose to keep their core together, but he also made a couple interesting free-agent moves to shore up the team's bench. The moves were certainly creative, but on the whole, were they the right ones to make? Let's look at each decision.
RE-SIGNED ROY HIBBERT
You have to feel for the Pacers' position here. Hibbert is a developing, productive big man, but he's not really a maximum-contract player in the classic sense. If you're going to win a title with Hibbert on your team, it'll be with him as the third- or fourth-most important player. But because of the current system that features a ceiling on how much a player can earn, sub-max players like Hibbert become max players by association. (I could go on, but this piece from last July pretty much covers the topic).
This is to say that the Pacers really had no choice but to match the Portland Trail Blazers' four-year, $58 million offer to Hibbert. Hibbert can be taken out of games with aggressive fronting. and he can still occasionally be exploited by smaller centers in pick and roll coverage. But if you take him away from the Pacers, they're a significantly worse team. He's their advantage against teams like the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics that lack size, so without him, the Pacers become a much more ordinary team. He's also still relatively young, especially for a big man, and the improvements he made as a post scorer, passer, rebounder and defender demonstrate that he's still developing his game. Even if he settles in as this kind of player, he's still valuable.
At the end of the day, the Pacers had to choose between slightly overpaying Hibbert to keep their mix together or letting him go and having no means of replacing him. They chose the lesser of two evils, and it was the right choice.
SIGNED D.J. AUGUSTIN
Augustin's had a strange four-year career. He started off really poorly, but had a career year two years ago, especially with his jump shot. Last year, he shouldered a heavy load for a woeful Bobcats team when he was healthy, and the result was a career-high in assists but a drop in his shooting percentages and a significant rise in his turnovers. The Pacers signed him to a one-year, $3.5 million deal, which seems like an acceptable price given the odd swings in his production.
I suspect that Augustin will be used off the bench to provide a jolt of offense and playmaking, with steady George Hill getting the start. Augustin is a pretty crafty pick-and-roll player, especially if defenders go under the screen. He shoots very well off the dribble, especially going to his left. If he can cut down the turnovers, he can also provide the kind of playmaking the Pacers really lack at the position. He'll definitely help the team going forward.
That seems like a perfect segue to the next transaction...
TRADED DARREN COLLISON FOR IAN MAHINMI
I'm still struggling to explain this one, especially in conjunction with the Augustin signing. The contributions that Augustin is expected to provide are the same contributions that Collison provided beautifully once he moved to the bench, especially during the playoffs. Augustin was signed for one year and $3.5 million. Collison had one year and $2.3 million left on his rookie contract, and the Pacers would have retained his Bird Rights. Perhaps Collison wasn't a fan of being benched and made it clear that he would not accept a sixth man role this season. That's the only plausible explanation I can come up with here.
If that is the case, the Pacers did well to at least get more frontcourt help. Tyler Hansbrough's poor season really left the Pacers shorthanded behind Hibbert and David West, and the Pacers clearly felt that Hansbrough's struggles were not an aberration. At worst, Mahinmi is a slight upgrade, though his game is very different than Hansbrough's. Mahinmi doesn't have too many post moves, but he does a really good job of catching and finishing in the paint, especially off pick and roll. He isn't a great rebounder, but he will help make the Pacers' offense less stagnant.
It just seems like the team's frontcourt problem could have been fixed without surrendering Collison and handing Mahinmi a four-year contract.
RE-SIGNED GEORGE HILL
Hill's insertion into the starting lineup helped provide some stability to the Pacers, but he is not worth a five-year, $40 million contract. Ideally, he's a team's third guard that plays 25 minutes off the bench. Any more, and his limitations as a playmaker show against good teams.
To a certain extent, the same "rock vs. hard place" dilemma the Pacers had with Hibbert applies here. Lose Hill, and the Pacers have to replace him with someone cheaper. Keep Hill, and they risk overpaying. But it's far easier to replace a mid-level player like Hill than a near-max player like Hibbert. If I were running the Pacers, I would have tried to sign-and-trade Hill, keep Collison and sign Augustin to compete for the starting point guard job.
SIGNED GERALD GREEN
Green was a revelation at the end of the year for the Nets, scoring nearly 18 points per 36 minutes and doing so efficiently. Even last year, he didn't contribute a whole lot anywhere else, but the Pacers need dynamic scorers off the bench. Last year's bench unit was incredibly stagnant, and generally, the team's nominal point guard (either Hill or, later, Leandro Barbosa) would hog the ball and take errant shots. With Green in tow, the Pacers can open up their playbook, running him off baseline screens to get him shots.
DRAFTED MILES PLUMLEE
This pick surprised everyone ... but Plumlee was very good in the Orlando Summer League, so maybe the Pacers know something we don't.