Amid the most dormant part of an NBA cycle, we at Liberty Ballers will be sizing up the Philadelphia 76ers’ 14 Eastern Conference foes. Next up are the Indiana Pacers.
Under governor Herb Simon, the Indiana Pacers have adamantly refused to embrace a Process-style, multi-year teardown. But after realizing that they had reached their ceiling with their current core, they blew apart their roster at last year’s trade deadline by sending Domantas Sabonis, Justin Holiday, Jeremy Lamb and a 2023 second-round pick to the Sacramento Kings for Tyrese Haliburton, Buddy Hield and Tristan Thompson.
The Pacers scuffled their way to a 25-57 record in Rick Carlisle’s first year back at the helm, but acquiring Haliburton gave them a clear long-term building block. Since then, they’ve spent the past few months reshaping their roster around him, albeit to mixed results.
The Pacers’ first big decision came on draft night with the No. 6 overall pick. Rather than reach on the mystery box that is Shaedon Sharpe, they took Arizona swingman Bennedict Mathurin to pair with Haliburton in their backcourt.
Mathurin justified that leap of faith when he dropped 23 points in his summer-league debut against the Charlotte Hornets. He wound up playing only two more games in Las Vegas.
While Mathurin was dazzling in Sin City, the Pacers were busy tending to other matters. Shortly after free agency began, they agreed to trade veteran guard Malcolm Brogdon to the Boston Celtics for Aaron Nesmith, Daniel Theis, Malik Fitts, Nik Stauskas, Juwan Morgan and a lottery-protected 2023 first-round pick. They later waived Fitts, Stauskas and Morgan to carve out enough salary-cap space to sign center Deandre Ayton to a four-year, $132.9 million max offer sheet, which the Phoenix Suns quickly matched.
Simon is “adamantly opposed to bidding on another team’s player” in restricted free agency, according to Scott Agness of Fieldhouse Files, and had only signed Chris Copeland to an offer sheet prior to Ayton. Given that stance, their willingness to sign Ayton to an offer sheet was notable.
However, the Pacers didn’t do everything in their power to pry Ayton away from Phoenix. Rather than constructing an offer sheet designed to disincentivize the Suns from matching—one with a fourth-year player option, a 15 percent trade kicker and/or frontloaded payments—the Suns gave Ayton a straight four-year offer sheet with no extra bells and whistles.
The Pacers are now left with nearly $30 million in cap space and no obvious target to spend it on. Unless they’re planning to spare Collin Sexton from his ongoing RFA purgatory, they’d be better off using that cap space to absorb a bloated contract without having to send a similar amount of money back.
Although the Pacers aren’t a traditional free-agent destination, taking on unwanted contracts could help them acquire additional draft compensation and/or young prospects. That would give them more bites at the apple in future drafts or extra ammunition to dangle in trades down the line.
They’ve discussed one such deal with the Los Angeles Lakers, where they would send out Buddy Hield and Myles Turner for Russell Westbrook. However, Bob Kravitz of The Athletic labeled those talks as “dead” in late July. The Lakers were only willing to send their 2027 first-round pick with Westbrook, while the Pacers want their 2029 first-rounder as well, per Kravitz.
Perhaps the Lakers will circle back on those talks with the Pacers if they give up on acquiring Kyrie Irving at some point. Otherwise, the Pacers might decide to stand pat for now and keep that flexibility heading into the regular season in case some team needs to shed salary ahead of the trade deadline.
Either way, the Pacers will enter the 2022-23 season as one of the few teams in the Eastern Conference without legitimate playoff aspirations. With the Sixers firmly in win-now mode, the two teams are on opposite trajectories at the moment.
The Pacers’ willingness to take a deliberate step back bodes well for their long-term future, though. Haliburton looks like a star in the making, and they’ll have plenty of financial flexibility moving forward with Turner coming off their books next year and Hield on a descending contract through 2023-24.
In a few years’ time, the Pacers could be on the upswing just as the Sixers begin their own retooling process.