Pacers season ends leaving hard questions about next steps

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On paper this was a great season for the Pacers: They won 56 games, were the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and made it back to the Eastern Conference Finals. A lot of teams would take a season like that faster than you can hit the mute button when those DirecTV mannequin commercials come on.

But in reality this Pacers season felt like a missed opportunity. They entered the season with high expectations then exceeded them to start the season going 33-7, but things started to come unglued around the All-Star break, they stumbled down the stretch of the regular season going 9-14 to close out the year. In the playoffs they needed seven games to get by the 38-win Hawks then looked like they might not get by the Wizards, but did.

Then the Heat reminded the again how big a gap there is between the Pacers and contending, particularly with the blowout Game 6 win.

Indiana enters this offseason knowing that if they return with this same core group of players they will get the same result as the last two years (if even that good). It’s fair to argue this team played mentally soft ball. There need to be changes. There are some very difficult off-season questions to answer.

Does Indiana bring back unrestricted free agent Lance Stephenson?

Can Frank Vogel lead this team to the next level?

Do the Pacers need a more traditional point guard/someone who can create more shots for himself and others?

The problem is, it will not be easy to change this core.

The Pacers have committed to $64.9 million in salary for next season, which is already over the projected $63.2 million salary cap (data via Sham Sports). Roy Hibbert is set to make $14.8 million (and no, the Pacers are not going to trade him, they couldn’t get anywhere near equal value back), Paul George is owed $13.7 million, David West $12 million, George Hill $8 million. The Pacers are not going to bring Evan Turner back and Luis Scola could be bought out to save a few million (his deal has a buyout for just under $1 million) but that still isn’t going to open up much money.

All this ties Larry Bird’s hands — there is no easy way to just pick up a free agent.

All those big contracts will it hard to find a trading partner — George Hill has three years and $24 million left and nobody is going to be eager to take that deal on, for example.

Which is why, despite his antics, the Pacers may bring back Lance Stephenson, who is an unrestricted free agent this summer. The question is what does his return cost? He seems like the kind of player some GM will offer four years, $40 million to and gamble on his maturing. Because giving a young player $40 million always helps them mature. Still Stephenson is on the top of everyone’s “guy who is going to get overpaid this summer” list.

If the Pacers bring him back at $10 million a season they will be getting close to the luxury tax line — and all that without having a superstar player on the roster (unless you want to sell that Paul George is one, good luck with that).

But if Stephenson walks, then who will the Pacers count on to create shots? The limitations of George Hill and Roy Hibbert to create their own looks will be all that more glaring. For all his erratic play, Stephenson makes plays, set up passes and he is aggressive… most of the time. In Game 6 against the Heat he was very aggressive up until he got the technical on Norris Cole, then Stephenson largely disappeared.

I think the Pacers could use a more traditional point guard (I wasn’t in that camp until recently), someone who can be a floor general and set up Hibbert better in the post, or create shots for others off the bounce. They need a calming influence.

But they are going to have to give to get — someone like Ian Mahinmi will have to be on the block. The Pacers will have to sacrifice some size and defense to improve their roster.

If they don’t, next season isn’t going to look any better than this one.

Russell Westbrook scores most points ever in triple-double, 57

AP Photo/John Raoux
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Russell Westbrook led a double-digit comeback in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. Been there done, that.

Westbrook hit a defining buzzer-beating 3-pointer. Been there done, that.

Westbrook posted a historic triple-double. Been there, done that.

All three in one game?

That’s a new level for Westbrook, who lifted the Thunder to a 114-106 win over the Magic tonight while posting an incredible stat line: 57 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists.

James Harden scored 53 in a triple-double just this season, and Westbrook has already one-upped that record.

This MVP race is one for the ages.

Russell Westbrook’s 3-pointer caps incredible Thunder comeback, send Magic game to OT (video)

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The Thunder trailed the Magic by 21 points in the second half and 14 points midway through the fourth quarter.

Russell Westbrook capped the incredible comeback with this 3-pointer to send the game to overtime.

This becoming the norm for Oklahoma City.

NBA: Timberwolves got away with key late foul in win over Pacers

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Paul George expressed extreme dismay after the Pacers’ loss to the Timberwolves last night — the latest cause for concern in Indiana with its biggest star just one season from free agency.

But perhaps George wouldn’t have sounded so disillusioned if that game featured correct officiating down the stretch.

Minnesota’s Kris Dunn got away with fouling Jeff Teague by disrupting the Pacers guard’s speed/quickness/balance rhythm with 21.6 seconds left, according to the NBA’s Last Two Minute Report:

Dunn (MIN) makes contact to Teague’s (IND) arm that affects his SQBR and causes him to lose control of the ball.

Because the Timberwolves were in the penalty, a correct would’ve sent Teague — who’s making 86% of his free throws this season and 84% for his career — to the line. He would’ve had two attempts to build on Indiana’s two-point lead.

Instead, he forced an off-balance shot, which Minnesota rebounded. Ricky Rubio drew a shooting foul on a 3-pointer on the other end, and his three free throws lifted the Timberwolves to a 115-114 win.

The two-minute report featured a few other missed calls: George getting away with pushing off then Wiggins getting away with fouling George on a possession where George missed anyway, Andrew Wiggins getting away with a travel on a possession where Minnesota turned the ball over anyway. But those were effectively wash’s. Dunn’s uncalled foul was the one of consequence — especially if it contributes, even in a small way, to George’s exit from the Pacers.

Edmond Sumner declares for NBA draft despite torn ACL

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Edmond Sumner has grown about five inches since high school.

That has helped turn the 6-foot-5 Xavier point guard into an intriguing NBA prospect — but also seemingly contributed to physical complications. Sumner missed nearly all of his freshman year with knee tendinitis. Then, after a promising second season and start to his third, he tore his ACL in January.

Still, he’s entering the NBA draft.

Sumner:

Rick Broering of Musketeer Report:

Like with Duke’s Harry Giles, medical testing will be huge with Sumner. But at least Giles ended the season on the court. Sumner might not be healthy at all during the pre-draft process.

Sumner looked like a borderline first-round pick before the injury. This probably pushes him into the second round.

His long strides provide impressive speed and quickness, and he’s still shifty. Add quality court vision, and his ability to drive by defenders is even more valuable.

A 6-foot-8 wingspan and good lateral mobility also help make him a quality defender.

But it’s also concerning that so much of his positives could be undermined by his knee issues, especially considering his unreliable jumper. If Sumner can’t move like he did before getting hurt, I don’t see how he sticks in the NBA.

If Sumner’s knees check out, it’s worth rolling the dice on him and hoping his jumper develops. He might even be OK without shooting range, though that’d lower his ceiling considerably.

Again, though, the first thing is examining his knees.