Cap Room and Player Evaluation: Summer Keys For The Pacers

Ian Levy is a Third-Grade teacher by day and amateur basketball analyst by afternoon (he usually sleeps at night). Ian suffers from a rare psychological condition known as Anti-Homeritis which renders him incapable of rooting for hometown teams. He grew up in Upstate New York and has therefore been a lifelong Indiana Pacers fan. He writes his own basketball blog, Hickory High, and is a contributor at IndyCornrows and The Two Man Game. You can also find him on Twitter, @HickoryHigh.  Ian currently lives in Boise, Idaho, where he roots against the Boise State Broncos.

I wrote a post for this forum last August, called “Once Again the Pacers are Hoping Players Get Better.” The Indiana Pacers had just completed a trade sending out power forward Troy Murphy, bringing back second-year point guard, Darren Collison, and veteran swingman James Posey. Troy Murphy was a disaster this season, splitting time between New Jersey and Boston, but had been terrific for the Pacers, producing 13.7 Wins last year. At that point, the Pacers were left with a roster which had combined to produce just 22.3 Wins in 2009-2010. With dreams of making the playoffs, the Pacers’ were relying on significant improvement from several players. The dreams came true and the Pacers were able to reach the playoffs, mostly due to some new and renewed contributions from several players.

The table below shows the numbers for the Pacers’ roster this season, and what we would have expected given last year’s performance.

The Pacers compensated for the loss of their most productive player, Troy Murphy, and still won five more games than last year. Jeff Foster and Mike Dunleavy were healthy, returning to levels of production they had provided in the past, combining to produce 6.7 more Wins than their respective performance last season would suggest. Josh McRoberts continued to prove he deserves considerable playing time and Darren Collison’s production held steady as he grappled with the challenges of running a new team and a new offensive system.

After losing a surprisingly competitive than series against Chicago in the first round of the playoffs, optimism will likely be the prevailing mood of Indiana’s summer. The optimism is not unjustified, but should be tempered with caution as the Pacers have some difficult questions to answer moving forward.

With just over $25 million in salary committed for next season, the Pacers have considerable flexibility. Mike Dunleavy, Josh McRoberts, Jeff Foster, T.J. Ford and Solomon Jones are all free agents. A.J. Price’s contract is not guaranteed for next season, meaning he could also be jettisoned at no cost. Price was actually fairly impressive as a rookie last season, but an absolute mess in 2010-2011. Even if his true abilities lie somewhere in between the two seasons, he’s probably not worth a roster spot. Price, Ford and Jones played a combined 2,096 minutes for the Pacers this season, producing -1.5 Wins. Happily waving goodbye to all three should be a no-brainer.

Jeff Foster’s situation is complicated by the possibility of retirement. The chances of him leaving for another team, after spending his entire career with the Pacers, seem pretty slim. Basically, if Foster wants to continue playing he should and will, be welcomed back with open arms.

The way Pacers’ fans view Mike Dunleavy is largely colored by his large contract and injury history. Dunleavy produced 8 Wins this season at a cost of $10,561,984. In the grand scheme of things paying $1.3 million in player salary per win is not a bad deal. It’s vastly preferable to the $1.5 million the Pacers spent on Solomon Jones’ -0.7 Wins. The problem is that the market for player salaries is not built around Wins Produced, it’s built around scoring. In that context it feels to many, that the Pacers have vastly overpaid for Dunleavy’s production. Throw in the fact that he’s missed 100 games over the past four seasons and it’s hard to disagree. Still, for the past four seasons the Pacers have usually been at their best with him on the floor.

Josh McRoberts was very productive for the Pacers this season, but lost his starting job because of problems with turnovers and missed defensive rotations. Between McRoberts and a steadily improving Tyler Hansbrough, the Pacers have a fairly solid power forward rotation. Unfortunately, neither is the low-post scorer or interior defender the team has publicly coveted. McRoberts will likely be due a raise this season, but certainly not more than the Pacers can afford. Even if the team doesn’t believe he is their long-term answer at power forward, his price-tag shouldn’t be unreasonable for a back-up.

The Pacers’ have some young talent in place, particularly in the backcourt with Paul George and Darren Collison. However, there is the possibility of them losing their three most productive players. Foster, Dunleavy and McRoberts should all be in Pacers’ uniforms next season. They may not be, each for different reasons. The team will have a considerable amount of money to spend in free agency. But as we see time and again, spending money unwisely doesn’t actually improve teams. The Pacers’ front office will certainly feel the urge to go find some shiny new players on the open market. Before spending that money, they should take an accurate accounting of what they have. Foster, McRoberts and Dunleavy are all very productive players and should be available at reasonable prices.

The team can’t head into next season simply hoping for player development to take them to them to another level. After three seasons, it’s unlikely the Pacers will ever get above-average production from Roy Hibbert. Brandon Rush and Danny Granger.  At this point, each should be considered a known commodity.

They could make some improvement in just filling the roster spots vacated by Solomon Jones, T.J. Ford, and possibly A.J. Price, with positive contributors. However, if Foster, Dunleavy and McRoberts aren’t brought back the Pacers’ could find themselves in roughly the same position they were in this season, trying to replace double-digit Win Production, and hoping someone steps up to fill in the gaps.

- Ian Levy

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