Indiana Pacers Entering Free Agency Period With Low Resources And High Expectations

NBA free agency is here. Just mere hours after the NBA Draft, teams are preparing to bolster their rosters for the upcoming season. The truncated league calendar has made the team building process fast and furious.

The Indiana Pacers drafted Cassius Stanley with the 54th pick on Wednesday, so the team is now staring free agency in the face. The pivot was quick, but the organization is ready.

“We’ve been preparing for a while,” Pacers General Manager Chad Buchanan said Thursday. “You’ve got to make quick decisions.”

Indiana’s front office did much of the work constructing its roster last summer, when the team added over a half-dozen players. Many of them signed multi-year deals, so the Pacers have most of their squad filled out already.

The blue and gold currently have 12 guaranteed contracts for the 2020-21 season, which means the Pacers only have three roster spots to fill, and they only have $5.7 million under the luxury tax to do it. It’s a doable feat, but it will be hard to meaningfully improve the team within those parameters.

Indiana has other ways to get better, though, and the front office has a few key moves that could be made on the margins to improve the team. There are a few headlines to monitor that could shape this entire free agency period for the Pacers.

Are the Pacers going to retain Justin Holiday?

Justin Holiday is undeniably Indiana’s best player from last season who is entering free agency. The 6-foot-6 wing proved himself to be one of the squad’s best bench players in 2019-20: his three-point percentage skyrocketed over 40% for the first time in his career and he was one of the better defenders on the roster. His value was immeasurable.

When the playoffs rolled around, Holiday was promoted to be a starter in the absence of Domantas Sabonis. His steady play throughout the entire season and his seamless fit in any lineup made him the perfect candidate to start for the team when the games mattered, and he made the most of the opportunity.

Three-and-D wings who can perform in the postseason are extremely valuable players, and the Pacers would certainly like to keep Holiday for that reason. J Michael of the Indianapolis Star reported that the two sides are expected to come to an agreement. But given how close Indiana is to the luxury tax, that could be difficult. Holiday is deserving of a deal worth $7-8 million annually, which would require the team to dip into their non-taxpayer mid-level exception and take the team over the luxury tax line.

It is unlikely that the Pacers will be willing to pay the tax, so the front office might have to clear some money from the books in order to retain Holiday. He is worth it, which leads into the next Pacers free agency headline.

Will the Pacers make a cost-cutting move?

Indiana might have to make a move to clear some salary from the books if they want to retain Holiday or add a similarly priced free agent. The question is: are they willing to do it?

“We did look at some opportunities to try and give us a little breathing room,” Buchanan said after the draft. “But at the end of the day, we didn’t feel like the price we had to do to make that happen was worth it.”

The most likely player to be axed in a money-saving transaction is T.J. Leaf, who is entering the final season of his four-year long rookie deal. Indiana could waive Leaf and use the stretch provision to save ~$2.9 million this offseason. Additionally, they could attach draft picks to Leaf and trade him to a team for no money in return in order to free up $4.3 million in luxury tax space.

Both moves are fine options, but they come at a cost. A player who is waived and stretched cannot be traded, and that salary cannot be removed from the books. Thus, Pacers owner Herb Simon would be paying Leaf to not be on the team for multiple years, which some owners find undesirable.

The alternative is that the team cuts ties with some draft capital to move off of some salary. That would save the owner money, but would cost the team assets. Both of these cost-cutting moves come with a price, but if the Pacers want to keep Holiday or add a similarly priced player, they might need to pay that price.

That isn’t the only way the team could save some money, though. Other players could be moved into another team’s cap space in exchange for nothing. A large trade could happen in which Indiana sends away significant salary and takes back less in return. There are multiple cost saving paths that exist should the front office want to keep Leaf.

The question remains though, will the Pacers make a cost-cutting move to bring back a key free agent? That could define much of the team’s offseason.

What other free agents could the Pacers pursue?

If Justin Holiday comes back to Indiana, the team will have no obvious holes that they need to fill with a free agent signing. The rotation will be filled out, youth will have been added via the draft, and internal growth will set up competition for playing time. The Pacers won’t need much else.

One potentially departing player is JaKarr Sampson. Sampson played a ton of roles for the Pacers this past season; he toggled between the center position and the forward spots. Part of what made him so valuable to the team was his ability to play multiple roles.

Bringing back Sampson for a similar opportunity would be a fine move for the Pacers, and if he is willing to take a minimum contract then there is an agreement to be made. Indiana’s tax concerns prevent them from offering much more than minimum deals for anyone signed this offseason as a depth piece. But there are some other options who could play a similar role to the one Sampson had last season.

One such player is Noah Vonleh, a six-year veteran who has played for many teams in his career. Vonleh doesn’t possess Sampson’s perimeter defense talents, but he makes up for it with better rebounding and a similar skillset elsewhere. He’s also two years younger than Sampson and went to college at Indiana University, so he could be agreeable to a deal in a familiar state.

One other player who is less skilled but has much more potential than Sampson or Vonleh is Harry Giles. The former Kings big man was a first round pick just three seasons ago and could be worth taking a flier on in this role if he is willing to take a small deal with a better team.

If Holiday departs, then the budget to bring in new faces increases, albeit not by much. The Pacers would have some of their mid-level exception to spend on talent if they don’t use it to retain Holiday, though it is plausible that the exception would be used to add a player of a similar skill level.

On top of that, it is likely that the player would be a wing/power forward like Holiday since those are the two positions the Pacers are the weakest at. One potential target could be Courtney Lee, who quietly shot 44.7% from three point range this past season.

Lee, 35, went to high school in Indianapolis and has been known for being a solid defender. He has lost a step on that end of the floor as he has aged, but he is still capable enough to fill a role for the blue and gold.

Another guy the Pacers could pursue if they lose Holiday is JaMychal Green. Green declined his player option with the Clippers on Thursday and became an unrestricted free agent.

Indiana tried hard to get Green last offseason, but they were ultimately unsuccessful. The 6-foot-8 forward can be a stretch four and is a useful defender; that’s a player archetype that the Pacers have been chasing for years.

Green makes a lot of sense for a Pacers team that could use a player that can be a forward or a center. The fit is so good that the Indiana front office could be willing to overpay Green somewhat to bring him to Indiana.

While all of the players named here would help the team, none of them are much more than rotation players that add depth. Those players are useful, but they don’t substantially raise a team’s ceiling, which often leads fans to asking a key question.

How can the Pacers meaningfully improve?

If the Pacers keep Holiday and run it back with largely the same roster, they will still be better than they were last season. The team upgraded at head coach. All of their players will develop in the offseason. Health will improve. Even without any splashy additions, Indiana will probably be slightly better in 2020-21 than they were in 2019-20.

But fans see it differently. The Nets are getting Kevin Durant back from injury and are reportedly trying to get James Harden. The Bucks acquired Jrue Holiday. The 76ers made multiple draft night trades. Fans see those moves and think that teams are passing the Pacers.

It’s a fair thought. Those teams might be improving more than Indiana this offseason. They also might not be; it is too early to tell. But those fans frequently ponder the question proposed above: how can the Pacers get meaningfully better?

Given the organization’s limited resources, they won’t be able to sign anyone outright who pushes the team up a tier in the Eastern Conference. But there is a free agency adjacent move the team could make that might help the team be better next year.

They could complete a sign-and-trade for Gordon Hayward.

Hayward opted out of his contract for next season on Thursday, and soon after Marc Stein of the New York Times reported that Indiana is pursuing him via trade. It would require sign-and-trade cooperation from the Celtics, but the Pacers could acquire Hayward this offseason.

What Indiana would need to send out to make a trade work is unclear. It is largely based on how much Hayward would make in the first season of his new deal, and that is not known at this moment in time. Any trade package would likely be centered around one of Myles Turner or Victor Oladipo.

Hayward, who grew up in the Indianapolis area, was one of just 14 players to average 17 points, six rebounds, and four assists per game this past season, and Hayward did it while being the fourth option on offense for his team. Of those 14 players, 11 were All-Stars. It’s easy to see why the Pacers would trade for Hayward; it’s rare to find an All-Star level talent that has a connection to a small market.

The trouble here is putting together a trade package that Boston likes enough to help facilitate a deal and doesn’t destroy Indiana’s cap sheet. Any team that receives a player in a sign-and-trade becomes hard capped, which the Pacers would have to deal with if they acquired Hayward, and taking on salary would make it hard for the blue and gold to add more players without being a tax team. Perhaps a third team would be necessary to facilitate a deal, but as things stand right now, Hayward is the Pacers’ best chance to add big time talent to the roster in this free agency period.

Keep an eye on Danilo Gallinari as well. There have been no reports linking Indiana to the Italian forward, but the Pacers would want him for the same reasons that they would want Hayward. Finding a trade between the Pacers and the Thunder is difficult, but he would be a good fit with Nate Bjorkgren’s team.

Will the team prioritize short-term deals?

This question is more about the long-term future of the Pacers, but it is something worth monitoring now.

Victor Oladipo isn’t entertaining extension offers, per Shams Charania of The Athletic, so he will enter the season on an expiring contract. T.J. Warren only has two years left on his contract as well. That’s two key players that will be up for new, more lucrative deals soon.

In response to this, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Pacers prioritized shorter contracts this offseason. They will need all of the room they can get to spend more on one or both of those guys in future seasons since the salary cap isn’t projected to rise by much in the coming seasons. It would be savvy of the team to plan ahead and ink some short term deals, if possible.

How will Cassius Stanley be signed?

The final piece of the free agency pie belongs to the Pacers’ second round pick from Wednesday night, Cassius Stanley.

In a bit of boring free agency minutiae, it will be interesting to see what kind of deal Indiana signs Stanley to. The team could ink him to a two-year long minimum contract in order to have him be as cheap as possible now. But the Pacers could also dip into part of their mid-level exception to give Stanley a three-year contract that still starts at the minimum. Adding an extra year would allow Indiana to have full bird rights on Stanley at the end of the deal and they could still add team options/non-guaranteed seasons on the end of the deal to make it less risky. But it would cost a portion of the mid-level exception to do that, which could impact other signings.

Additionally, the team could look to add Stanley on a two-way contract. “We could look at a two-way situation potentially, which we will talk to his agent about more,” Buchanan said.

Given how cheaply the Pacers can roster Stanley ($898k), it is exceedingly likely that he does not receive a two-way contract and is instead on the Pacers full time. But the length of his deal, and the number of options on the back end, will be fascinating to see unfold.

Packaging it all together

Where the Pacers go next is pretty straightforward. They are locked into their current core for the next year or so, and it makes sense to build around the infrastructure they already have. “I don’t think there’s one player that we’re necessarily trying to build around,” Buchanan said. “We’ve got a core of players that we feel are a great core to move forward with that are all kind of in their prime or entering the prime of their careers right now. To put it all on one player, whether that’s Victor or Domas or Malcolm or TJ or whoever it might be, I think is not really how we necessarily built this team. We wanted a lot of depth, guys who complemented each other that were all high level players.”

Armed with that information, it would appear that the front office is going to try and build a team around that group of players. Most of the pieces for the coming season are already in place. Once Oladipo’s future is more clear, the pieces for the next iteration surrounding that core can take shape. But in the meantime, Indiana has a lot of choices to make in an attempt to improve their roster and build toward that next great Pacers basketball team.

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