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Continuity Errors: Why the Blazers and Pacers May Have to Start Over

It wasn’t that long ago that Indiana and Portland were going to ride a wave of cohesion into the conference finals and beyond. That was the old NBA. Welcome to 2015, when everyone will be rebuilding all the time.

In a league that stoked fan interest by slicing away at roster continuity, it’s fitting that the two teams that prized it most are on the verge of traumatic and sudden reconstruction.

Way back in the fall of 2013, not even 20 months ago, the Pacers were NBA darlings — a young team with a fierce defense and a starting five that was about to spend its second season playing together more than almost any lineup in the league. They knew each other’s quirks, forming a classic “greater than the sum of their parts” lineup. Indy appeared ready to challenge LeBron James for at least a half-decade. Multiple general managers told me around that time that Roy Hibbert’s rim protection alone made him worth $25 million — much more than even his maximum salary.

It is incredible how fast the Pacers blew apart. Chemistry issues and a turgid offense undid them in 2013-14; Lance Stephenson bolted to lay bricks in Charlotte; Paul George shattered his leg; and this week David West opted to get the hell out of town. As we reported last night, Hibbert opted into the $15.5 million final year on his deal, and the Pacers are shopping him across a cool NBA landscape that has pulled a total 180 on a player it once adored. Indiana officials essentially told Hibbert in April that he no longer fit their vision of a modern NBA team, nudging him to opt out, and Hibbert responded last night with a well-timed nudge back: You’re gonna have to pay me, or trade me — after the draft.

Hibbert and the Pacers are at the epicenter of the new NBA — the NBA of shorter contracts, constant roster turnover, and smaller ball. Even in a down, despondent season, Hibbert was a plus rim protector — a crucial NBA skill. Opponents shot just 42.6 percent on close shots when Hibbert was nearby, one of the best marks in the league for a frontline defender, per NBA.com. Team officials with access to secret-sauce stats tell me that number masks some slippage, but even so, Hibbert’s strength remains strong. He has value.

And nobody, at least for now, seems to want him. That will change once the musical chairs for free-agent centers leaves someone left out. That is probably the Pacers’ end game here: trading Hibbert into the unused cap space of the Knicks, Lakers, Mavericks, Blazers, Celtics, Pelicans, Bucks,1 or anyone else chasing the centers that have vaulted above Hibbert: DeAndre Jordan, Tyson Chandler, the Lopez twins, and maybe even Brandan Wright and Omer Asik. There will be competition for that leftover cap space, including the Warriors’ dangling of David Lee’s contract, and some of those teams are posturing for now that they have no interest in the Pacers’ defensive linchpin.


1.

The Cavs were once a popular suggestion, but they have a glut of bigs now.

Most of those guys are better offensive players than Hibbert has been in any context beyond going Godzilla against Miami in the playoffs. Chandler and Jordan are classic rollers — speedy 7-footers who can slice down the lane as fast as guards, catch the ball, and dunk it in one motion. Hibbert isn’t fast enough to do that. He has always been a secondary player in Indiana’s pick-and-roll game, well below David West, and help defenders swarm him as he slowly gathers the ball around the foul line. He’s a skilled passer who can occasionally catch and plop little floaters over smaller help defenders, but scoring on the pick-and-roll is a slog.

Hibbert has shown promise as a post-up player, but he has never been consistent enough to work as a go-to cog there. His closest comp might be Andrew Bogut, an ace defender — better than Hibbert last season — who has become so tentative on offense, so afraid of the ball and the foul line, that he sometimes just gets in the way.

Bogut is a really good player, a better passer and screener than Hibbert, but he’s almost a situational player at this point. If the Warriors go through three or four playoff series again next season, they will meet an opponent who strangles Golden State’s spacing to the point that the Warriors have to sit Bogut — just as they did in the Finals. That was an extreme, but there were plenty of games this season in which Bogut watched during the fourth quarter as Draymond Green or even Marreese Speights manned the middle.

If you want to play the sexy five-out offense that just won Golden State the championship, you can’t play Hibbert huge minutes. He doesn’t seem like Alvin Gentry’s sort of center, and Brad Stevens would have to sacrifice a lot of his offensive vision for Hibbert’s rim protection, which is a huge need in Boston.

On the flip side, those spread offenses can run plodders off the floor. The Heat could never quite manage that against Hibbert, but the Hawks damn near did in pushing the top-seeded Pacers to the brink in the 2014 playoffs. And Hibbert is not a good enough offensive rebounder or post scorer to tilt the big-versus-small equation back in his team’s favor.

There are games in which Hibbert’s skills will be essential, and others in which it’ll be tough to play him heavy minutes. The latter situation might grow as teams get braver with small ball. A max salary for a semi-situational player is hard to justify.

It will be surprising if the Pacers can snag a real asset for Hibbert. Few teams in the new NBA are starved for cap relief, and that has sucked away most of the trade value that expiring contracts once carried. Everyone will have room when the cap skyrockets next summer, and most contracts under the new collective bargaining agreement are so short, teams can see their expiration date from the moment they are signed.

That has made it hard for teams to build the kind of long-term togetherness that Indiana once prized, and it will get harder over the next two seasons, as more players take one- and two-year deals so they can dive into the cap orgies of 2016 and 2017. First-round picks represent the best way to keep a player for the long haul, and that’s precisely why no one will give one up for Hibbert.2


2.

They are also cheap, since the rookie-scale salaries won’t rise as fast as the cap.

(As an aside, that’s the main reason I didn’t love Milwaukee and Atlanta dealing first-round picks for, respectively, Greivis Vasquez and Tim Hardaway Jr. The value of first-round picks has normalized over the last six months — teams aren’t hoarding them like gold anymore — but it feels like both of these guys should have been obtainable for a lower price. Again: The potential fit is there for both teams, and they each had extra picks to use. But I’d still rather have the picks.)

Teams used to flip expiring contracts for good players who were on long-term deals and no longer fit their teams, but there just aren’t many of those anymore. The Wolves might entertain a Hibbert–Nikola Pekovic swap to get out from under the three years left on Pekovic’s deal, but those three years would scare Indiana, and Pekovic isn’t exactly the poster boy for the modern NBA. The Magic might consider swapping Channing Frye and Ben Gordon for Hibbert, but they already have Nikola Vucevic, and most prior attempts to pair Vooch with another center-ish player went badly. Teams always have the stretch provision in the bag if they really want to dump someone and can’t find a trade they like.

Indiana may have to wait out free agency, or even keep Hibbert for one more season. And they could be a solid Eastern Conference playoff team with Hibbert, George (assuming a full recovery), George Hill, and a power forward replacement for West. The Pacers will have about $11 million in cap space as long as Hibbert is on the books, and that includes a tiny cap hold for Lavoy Allen — a valuable bench guy the Pacers could re-sign after using their cap room on other players.

They could chase Amir Johnson, a solid defender and pick-and-roll finisher who could slide to center in smaller lineups. They could go with a cheaper pick-and-pop guy, like Brandon Bass, or nab a couple of small-ball power forward types among Jared Dudley,3 Dorell Wright, Mirza Teletovic, Al-Farouq Aminu, Ed Davis, and others.


3.

If he exercises his early-termination option and considers leaving the Bucks.

Rodney Stuckey is a monkey wrench, since the Pacers don’t have Bird rights on him. They would have to dip into that $11 million of cap room to re-sign Stuckey, who is due a big raise after busting out on a minimum contract. Dealing Hibbert is the path to more flexibility, but it will be exciting to watch these guys rebuild either way. Larry Bird has always drafted well in the middle of the first round, and they will have a ton of cap space starting next summer to build around George — a two-way star. Everyone will have cap space next summer, so the Pacers should spend what they have now, while it’s a rarer commodity.

The Pacers have a path, with or without Hibbert but holy cow is it different from the one it looked like they were on less than two years ago.

Neil Olshey, the Blazers GM, was ready to max out Hibbert three summers ago, and he could have enough space for two max-level players if all of Portland’s outgoing free agents bolt. Olshey last night denied reports that LaMarcus Aldridge has told the Blazers he’s leaving, but he’s certainly behaving like a GM in rebuild mode.

There were rumblings that Portland was worried Nicolas Batum would leave in free agency a year from now, and nabbing the no. 9 pick from last year’s draft — Noah Vonleh — in exchange for Batum’s expiring contract is a great get. Vonleh may break out, but he’s still just 19, and buying low on a mid-lottery pick is solid value.

It’s also a clear present-day downgrade for Portland, even with Batum coming off a horrendous year. Gerald Henderson, the other piece of the trade heading to Portland, is a crafty two-way player, but he’s a nonthreat from 3-point range and isn’t on Batum’s level as a passer/playmaker. Henderson is good, but he doesn’t fit Terry Stotts’s flow offense as well as Batum does.

By the way: That looks like a benign trade for Charlotte, but it’s a big gamble that Vonleh won’t amount to much. They get the best player in the deal, and Henderson is on an expiring contract — a flight risk this summer, just like Batum. But there is zero guarantee that Batum will stay, and the Hornets may have sacrificed a lottery pick for a rental who won’t jolt them from mediocrity. Yes, they get Batum’s Bird rights, but those don’t hold as much value in an exploding cap environment where players of Batum’s age can recoup money by dipping in and out of free agency. They also have, like, almost nobody on their team beyond this coming season. Hooray for the new NBA!

Portland coughed up Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, the 23rd pick last night, to Brooklyn for Mason Plumlee, but Plumlee is a starting-caliber center who gives Portland the kind of explosive pick-and-roll dive man that Damian Lillard hasn’t had as a partner. Aldridge prefers to pop for buttery jumpers, and Lopez is a slow-mo-style roll guy — like Hibbert, but with more touch and polish. Plumlee has flashed some smart passing skills; he sees the floor well enough to keep Stott’s offense moving the right way.

Plumlee is already 25, but he has two years left on his cheap rookie deal, and the odds are good that even with a raise in 2017, he’ll provide more value over the next half-decade than the typical 23rd pick. He’s also a hedge against Robin Lopez receiving a crazy offer in free agency — a center good enough to start whether Aldridge stays or leaves. The Nets wouldn’t need Plumlee if Brook Lopez returns, and this deal signals that they are confident that he will indeed re-sign. The Nets need draft assets, and this deal could work as a nice win-win.

If Aldridge leaves, the Blazers will have an interesting young group around Lillard: Plumlee, Meyers Leonard, Vonleh, and C.J. McCollum. That’s good enough to intrigue fans, and limited enough that Portland, without nailing free agency this summer, could fall almost to the bottom of the Western Conference. If worst comes to worst with Aldridge, the Blazers will go hard for prime-aged star free agents: Kevin Love, who grew up in Oregon, and DeAndre Jordan, an Olshey pick from the GM’s time helming the Clipper Ship. The Blazers are also flexible enough to sign-and-trade their own free agents for other players and picks.

But if they strike out, they can ink Lillard to a max extension and let Olshey supplant the young roster with at least one high draft pick. That’s not a terrible crisis scenario, but it’s so, so far from where Portland was just four months ago. They were Pacers West, with their own seamless starting five that developed a mind-meld over two years of playing huge minutes together. They grew into a borderline top-five defense to support a killer offense.

The Blazers at midseason weren’t the best team in the West, and they probably weren’t no. 2 or no. 3. But they had coalesced into a better team than almost anyone expected — a mature outfit who knew exactly who they were and what they wanted accomplished on every possession. If things broke right — like, say, good health, and the Clippers and Spurs meeting in the first round — Portland had a chance to take its shot against Golden State in the conference finals. (It also had the benefit of stupid divisional rules, and thank the basketball gods that Adam Silver is finally scorching those.)

And it all went to hell so fast that it was jarring, and they may have levels of hell yet to reach. Wesley Matthews, the team’s heart and soul, tore his Achilles. Aldridge and Lopez hurt their hands, Arron Afflalo suffered a shoulder injury, and suddenly you couldn’t even keep track of everything that had gone wrong.

They were a shell of themselves against Memphis in the first round, and if things go where they appear to be heading, the Blazers will be gone before they had any chance to reach their peak.

What a sad little NBA chapter, if it plays out that way. Portland would have to rebuild, but the Blazers could at least take solace in the fact that almost every team will be rebuilding all the time.