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.

After four years out of NBA, Pacers give Damien Wilkins chance to return

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Consider this the most unexpected signing of the summer.

The last time we saw Damien Wilkins in the NBA, the 6’6″ wing out of the University of Georgia was finishing his ninth NBA season, averaging 6.4 points per game and shooting 33.3 percent from three. He looked like a guy who was done at the NBA level. Since then he has played in China, Spain, and the D-League.

The Pacers are giving him another crack to make an NBA roster. They have signed 37-year-old Wilkins to a non-guaranteed deal, reports the Indy Star.

The Indiana Pacers agreed to a one-year, non-guaranteed veteran minimum deal for close to $2 million with small forward and shooting guard Damien Wilkins, a league source confirmed to IndyStar.

The Pacers have 14 guys on the roster already, and they have at the wing Victor Oladipo, Lance Stephenson, Rodney Stuckey, Bojan Bogdanovic, and Glenn Robinson III, it will be tough for Wilkins to crack that rotation.

But he’ll get his chance, and having a desperate veteran pushing guys in camp never hurts. Maybe he can impress enough in camp that if the Pacers don’t want him another team might. It’s a foot in the door, and that’s all Wilkins can ask at this point.

Watch the Top 10 dunks from the NBA Summer League

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Summer League, at its core, is athletic young players in sloppy games.

That leads to massive dunks. Here are the top 10, which John Collins deserving the top spot.

Report: Carmelo Anthony willing to waive $8 million trade kicker for Rockets

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Carmelo Anthony does not want to return to the Knicks. The Knicks want to trade Carmelo Anthony. The Houston Rockets would like to trade for Carmelo Anthony.

So far all that will has not gotten a deal nearly as close to done as has been reported, I was told by sources. There are major hurdles, and the Knicks don’t like the offers they’ve gotten so far, which is why they pulled back (not because of the Scott Perry hiring or some desire to change Anthony’s mind). As has been reported before, Anthony is willing to waive his no trade clause for the right team to get the deal done, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN said on The Jump.

“My sources tell me he’s willing to waive the trade kicker, which is worth around $8 million, so that makes a little easier for Houston to do a trade.”

That’s nice. It doesn’t solve the core problem with a Rockets’ trade.

The Rockets are over the cap so the only way this trade gets done is they send out enough salary to match and create space for Anthony. The Rockets could do that with a combination of Eric Gordon, Clint Capela, Trevor Ariza, and some expiring deals, but that cuts way too deeply into the roster and hurts the Rockets more than it helps. What the Rockets need to do in this trade is move Ryan Anderson, and his three-years, $60 million — except the Knicks don’t want that contract on their books (even though Anderson is a good player when healthy). So now the two sides are trying to find a third team that would take on Anderson’s contract, but the Rockets are going to have to give up sweeteners — a couple first round picks or a pick and a quality young player — that they don’t have to get the deal done. So enter a fourth team to get the sweeteners, but that team will want things back, and quickly the house of cards falls apart.

On top of all that, the Knicks still don’t think they’re getting enough back in the trade to want to do it. Yet, anyway.

Over on the left coast, there is Portland saying “look at us, look at us!” They would be willing to trade for Anthony, as C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard have made clear.

One massive problem with that: Anthony has not been interested in waiving his no trade clause for anyone but Cleveland and Houston.

If he changes his mind — and that’s a huge, unlikely “if” — maybe a deal could be found. The Blazers already have a top-five payroll in the NBA (may be top two when all is said and done) and that means they have to send out salary as well, someone like Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard (moving Allen Crabbe is the dream, but also highly unlikely). The Knicks could have interest in Turner, the Blazers have picks to throw in, and if a third team picked up Leonard maybe we’re close to something. But until Anthony makes it clear he would accept a trade to Portland, something he has yet to do, this is all a moot exercize.

But hey, Anthony will waive his trade kicker. So there’s that.

Can Stephen Curry shoot the ball into the sun roof of a car? Did you even need to ask?

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Stephen Curry has been getting up buckets the past week, working on his game. Sort of. It’s been a bit unconventional.

First, he finished off an alley-oop pass from Tony Romo on the American Century golf course in Lake Tahoe.

Then on Thursday he was filming an Infinity car commercial and had to shoot one into the sun roof from what looks to be 15-20 feet away. He drains it.

Of course he made that, he’s basically the Meadowlark Lemon of a new generation, but without the hook shot.