In Frank Vogel's first "full" season as head coach, the Indiana Pacers flew under the radar, finished second in the Central Division at 42-24 and fought their way to the Eastern Conference Semifinals where they were eventually defeated by the NBA champs, 4-2, although they were up 2-1.
The 2011-2012 team exceeded expectations and played the Miami Heat tough, but entered the offseason with heavy-impact decisions looming with regards to both the upper management and the roster itself. How would the Pacers handle their recent success and would they take the next step in building a bona fide contender?
2012-13 Indiana Pacers Offseason Recap
Draft Picks: Miles Plumlee
Free Agents: Gerald Green, D.J. Augustin, Sam Young, Sundiata Gaines, Blake Ahearn
Trade Acquired: Ian Mahinmi, Orlando Johnson (draft -- not currently on roster)
Subtractions: Darren Collison, Dahntay Jones, Louis Amundson, Leandro Barbosa, Kyrylo Fesenko, Jeff Foster, A.J. Price, President of Basketball Operations Larry Bird and GM David Morway
Entering the offseason, the two biggest questions for the Pacers were the status of restricted free agents Roy Hibbert and George Hill. After successful 2011-2012 seasons, the team had to know going into the offseason they were going to attract interest on the "open" market and tough decisions would have to be made about keeping the nucleus of their rising team in tact despite a big hit to the cap.
But before free agency, there was turnover in the front office. The offseason started with Larry Bird announcing that he would be parting ways and handed the reins over to former team president Donnie Walsh, who served as a consultant for the Knicks last season. Walsh returns after leaving the Pacers near the end of the 2007-2008 season. Almost simultaneously, Bird advisor and team GM David Morway resigned, paving the way for Director of Player Personnel and former Blazers "draft wizard" Kevin Pritchard to take over that title.
Despite the changes, the Pacers' priorities remained the same -- they wanted to re-sign Hibbert and Hill, and continue to build around the core of the team that won 42 games in a lockout shortened season. Coincidentally, they did just that using their Bird rights.
Retaining Hibbert and Hill came at a steep price, though. The Pacers had to match the Portland Blazers' offer sheet to hang on to Hibbert, ultimately giving him a lucrative deal that will yield a little more than $58 million over the next 4 years (the fourth year being a player option). Hill was re-signed to a 5-year, $40 million deal, all guaranteed.
In conjunction, the Pacers added free agents Gerald Green and D.J. Augustin. Green had a relatively productive season with the New Jersey (now Brooklyn) Nets in a limited role after being out of the NBA for a couple years and Augustin is an underrated point guard, who was buried on the Charlotte Bobcats for four years, and may wind up even starting in Indiana.
In anticipation of other moves, Darren Collison was traded away with Dahntay Jones to the Dallas Mavericks for extra big man Ian Mahimni. Mahimni and first round draft pick Miles Plumlee are expected to spell Hibbert when necessary, giving the Pacers a little extra depth behind the big man than they had a year ago.
Last week, the Pacers shaped up their roster by adding Sundiata Gaines, Sam Young and Blake Ahearn.
Vogel has hopes that Lance Stephenson, who was anything but productive last season, can step into the back up shooting guard role for Barbosa and Jones, who were less than stellar themselves. Stephenson had a strong summer season and now has Green and Augustin to help create space for him. It's entirely conceivable he can grasp this role in his third year and develop into a net positive, but he and the roster fillers are probably a step back from what the Pacers had a year ago.
That said, the team is another year experienced, including the youngest star of the team, Paul George, who is receiving rave reviews this offseason. With some interesting, but untested pieces surrounding the starters, this could be the year the Pacers surpass the Bulls and retake the Central Division. As Hill said recently, "this team can be scary good." A lot simply depends on how the newcomers mesh with the success the Pacers have already built.