2011/12 Payroll: $36.9 million
2011/12 (Projected) NBA Salary Cap: $54 million
Roughly: $17.1 million under cap
Highlights: The Indiana Pacers are in excellent shape when it comes to their salary cap. Huge, overpriced contracts from the likes of Mike Dunleavy, T.J. Ford, and Jeff Foster are gone and the team is now filled with mostly smaller contracts from younger players. The only high-paid player on the team also happens to be their best player, Danny Granger. The Pacers are getting pretty good value from Granger. He led the team in scoring by a wide margin at 20.5 per game, chipped in with 5.4 rebounds, and shot decently well from the three-point and free throw lines. Those numbers are worth the $12 million he’ll be paid next season and he has $13 and $14 million coming the following seasons. But Granger isn’t really in the same class of player as Dwayne Wade or Kobe Bryant, signature talents who can carry a team deep into the playoffs. He is in danger of falling into the Tracy McGrady zone; a guy high on numbers but low on team success. If he truly wants to earn the rest of his contract, Granger will have to start winning playoff games for the Pacers.
After Granger, the team is loaded with high-value players. Taken 10th overall, Paul George looks like one of the gems from last year’s draft class and has a chance to become an even better version of Danny Granger. He’s still raw offensively but improved as the season went on and has elite level talent and athleticism. Just 21 years of age, George averaged 7.8 ppg as a rookie and has a promising future.
Roy Hibbert continued to improve in his third season and looks to be a pretty solid center. He was able to put up a respectable 12.7 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per game. Hibbert will be paid just $2.5 million next season and since usable centers are hard to find, he has been practically untouchable in any trade talks concerning the Pacers.
Darren Collison has two more years under his rookie contract and so far he looks like a steal. He led the team in assists by averaging 5.1 and was second in scoring at 13.2. Collison played so well that it was a bit strange to hear they acquired George Hill from San Antonio. Hopefully Collison will continue in his starting spot so we can see more of what he can do.
Brandon Rush is owed just under $3 million next season and he has proven to be an excellent three point shooter, hitting 41.7% of his bombs last year. He seems to fill a niche as a role player, as does Tyler Hansbrough. The darling out of North Carolina is contributing decently well with 11 points and 5.2 rebounds per game while improving his shooting from last season. Like the others, Hansbrough also has a cheap contract. All of these deals give Indiana a good return on their investment and valuable trading chips if the right deal comes up.
Lowlights: The only player on the roster who can be considered overpaid is veteran James Posey. He is the second highest paid player on the team at $6.9 million next season, even though he only played in 49 games last year and couldn’t manage more than 4.9 points, 3 rebounds, and horrendous 33% shooting. At least this will be the final year on his contract, which makes him a somewhat tradable asset.
The Pacers made an interesting trade by sending the draft rights to Kawhi Leonard to San Antonio for guard George Hill. While Hill is a decent, young, efficient point guard, he doesn’t seem to be any better a prospect than the Pacers’ current point guard, Darren Collison. Sure, the team was lacking for depth at the point, but will either player be allowed to thrive with the other one breathing down their neck? Time will tell, but it was a safe move, which the team is know for, considering Hill is an established player. Kawhi may have been a more valuable long term asset, but with George and Granger there, they didn;t see a need for him.
The Future: This is a team with one good (but not great) player, a promising player coming off his rookie season in Paul George, and some good role players, and that’s about it. They are one or two Danny Granger-level talents away from forming a pretty special team. Thankfully, the Pacers have the cap space and assets to do it. In order to compete in the playoffs, they will need to add a couple more alpha males alongside Granger. Indiana may not be a hotbed for star free agent activity, but nobody knows what the new collective bargaining agreement may bring. If many teams are hamstrung with a hard cap, Indiana’s dollars are going to look a lot more enticing. The team’s financial outlook is excellent with only five players under contract after next season. They will have free reign to spend, or possibly make a blockbuster trade since they can easily absorb a large contract.
There is a catch, however. Simply having cap space and assets doesn’t guarantee that a team will use them wisely. Hibbert, Hill, and Rush will be free agents next summer and they aren’t the kind of players you want to overpay to keep. A possible hard cap will make it more difficult to resign your current players if you spend all your cap space on new, pricy talent. As we saw in the NBA Finals, your supporting cast means everything. The Pacers will have to be very careful with their decisions as one or two wrong moves could put them right back into salary cap hell and out of playoff contention.