Of all the teams to bow out in the first round of the playoffs, perhaps none have more upside than the Indiana Pacers. The 2017-18 season was a miraculous run for Indy, pushing the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round behind the great play of Victor Oladipo and a strong supporting cast of misfits.
Now the Pacers are primed with not just a young core of Oladipo, Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, but the possibility of having a great deal of cap space. That cap space, and when the Pacers try to open it up, could be the key to the franchise taking a step towards elite status.
5. Will the Pacers try to clear cap space this summer?
With the way their current roster stands, the Pacers have two open guaranteed roster spots, roughly $5.94 million in cap space, and the 23rd overall pick in the draft. Thaddeus Young has a $13.76 million player option he could exercise, which could raise the number to $19.7 million but leave a starting spot vacant.
There Pacers also have two team options in Lance Stephenson ($4.36 million option) and Joe Young ($1.6 million option) to open up more cap space; though both are team-friendly deals.
If Indiana’s front office gets Young off the books, they have five partially guaranteed contracts and three large deals they can use to clear more cap space to target some big names on the market. Al Jefferson ($10 million with only $4 million guaranteed), Darren Collison ($10 million with only $2 million guaranteed) and Bojan Bogdanovic ($10.5 million with a $1.5 million guaranteed) could all be cut and open up an additional $23 million in space.
Even with the extra cap space, Bogdanovic and Collison would be difficult to replace. While cap space might sound appealing, the thought of having to spend it on players that move the needle forward isn’t easy.
GM Kevin Pritchard has a dilemma this summer: should he use the non-guaranteed deals for flexibility now or punt it until 2019 and have more than $60 million in cap space next summer?
The best maneuver might be a middle-of-the-road split from Pritchard and company, cutting the players that don’t help them next year or beyond. Getting rid of Al Jefferson and trimming $6 million would give the Pacers about $10.5 million to fill out their roster with before going over the cap. In this year’s market, where many teams are relying heavily on the Mid-Level Exception to attract new players, being able to outbid the MLE by a few million could be the difference in swinging a good player to Indianapolis.
There is another path the Pacers could use without eating too much into their 2019 cap space: trading their non-guaranteed contracts. Many franchises are butting up against the luxury tax and struggling to keep costs low. For that reason, a player like Jefferson might have some trade value, as a team might want to swap bad contracts, throw in a sweetener to the Pacers, and then cut Jefferson to lower their salary. Could the Wizards throw in a draft pick to swap Gortat for Big Al? Would Denver do the same with Kenneth Faried?
There are options beyond simply cutting or keeping all these players. The bottom line: Pritchard and the Pacers operate from a bargaining position of power with cap space is a major premium right now.
4. Will Thaddeus Young exercise his $13.76 million player option?
Pacers point guard Cory Joseph has already opted into his contract for next season and now the organization is only waiting on Thad Young to make up his mind. It seems highly likely Young will exercise his $13.76 million player option to return to Indiana. In a year with a market crunch, Young isn’t likely to recoup that amount of money anywhere else this summer.
3. Can the Pacers draft a quality player?
Indiana has the 23rd pick and a great deal of flexibility to potentially trade up or into another selection. The Pacers need for depth on the wings and one more multi-positional defender to compete, but that shouldn’t detract them from taking the best player available.
Creighton’s Khyri Thomas, Boise State’s Chandler Hutchison, Miami’s Bruce Brown and Cincinnati’s Jacob Evans could all be in play here as immediate impact guys. In this year’s draft, there’s a clear top 14 or 15 players. After the lottery, there’s little difference in talent through the rest of the first round.
2. Who should the Pacers target in free agency?
The answer to this question is obviously complex and driven by how much cap space they end up with and how many starting spots they need to replace. It also changes based on whether the organization goes over the salary cap and if they decide to use the Mid-Level Exception. Still, there are names that the Pacers can reasonably expect to target with a solid $11 million budget, in the aforementioned scenario where they outbid teams with the Mid-Level Exception.
Guys like Will Barton, Avery Bradley or Tyreke Evans could be great additions since they have size and would shoulder some of the offensive burden from Victor Oladipo. Even a restricted free agent like Marcus Smart could be within reach for Indiana if they operate this offseason under the cap.
Indiana is pretty well set when it comes to big men with two foundational young bigs and a depth flier in Ike Anigbogu. They should focus on adding more switchable wings and pieces this summer, either through the draft, free agency or trade. That’s the formula that over the long term would help them against teams like Boston, Cleveland and Philadelphia.
1. Will the Pacers pay Myles Turner and lock him up long-term?
Turner is extension eligible this summer and the big man has made only minimal strides over the last season and a half. After starting out as a draft steal for the Pacers, Turner lost some footing to Domantas Sabonis down the stretch this year and might not be the franchise-caliber center the team hoped for. Still, Turner has more value to the Pacers on an extension and long-term contract than simply letting him shop around and see who else believes in him.
Expect Indiana to work diligently to get Turner locked in long-term. Not only is the hope to get him below market value by doing so, but that signing him this summer or fall would give the team a clearer picture of exactly how much space they’ll have to attract new names in the summer of 2019. He may have underwhelmed a bit this season, particularly in the playoffs, but he’s a great piece to have for the long-term.