Free Agents, Lowered Expectations, and the Indiana Pacers

“The Indiana Pacers never sign big-time free agents.”

Or so every fan has told me since I traded boxing gloves for basketballs as the medium by which my sportswriting reaches a computer or mobile device in the hands of you, the willing reader, back in 2015.

It started back in dinosaur times when I playfully suggested Kevin Durant take his talents to Indiana alongside Paul George, pointing out that for Durant, if he were truly done with Russell Westbrook and Oklahoma City, it’d be a prime chance to create a legacy that was truly his own in a market where he could get bigger than Reggie Miller has ever been. Reggie never won a chip.

Pacers fans clapped back at me with a combination of bemused dismissal and open hostility, the latter coming from a place of “don’t even let us think about this, it’s a pipe dream, we’re a bridesmaid on our best day” pessimism.

Watching the last year of George’s tenure in Indy was an absolute slog that made me wonder why I even bother rooting for this team sometimes. Ownership, and especially president of basketball operations and living deity Larry Bird, seemed no more convinced than any of the fans that Paul George was staying no matter what, so why bother putting a competitive team around him only to be left in salary cap hell when PG13 and the Lakers came to Bankers Life Fieldhouse once a year in the regular season thereafter?

Now granted, I’m not from Indiana, so maybe my sports fan experience was shaped a little bit differently—I was born and raised in Boston, a city that has in recent months been given to complaining about the front office of a baseball team that just won the World Series and that back in December suggested that Bill Belichick and Tom Brady didn’t have “it” anymore, whatever “it” they don’t have clearly not a prerequisite “it” for making it to the Super Bowl.

And Celtics media…you’d think Gordon Hayward belongs in the G-League and Kyrie Irving is going to force Danny Ainge to trade him to the Lakers to get buddy-buddy with LeBron James again to hear Celtics media talk about their fifth-place team.

The point is that some cities expect and demand excellence at all times, settling for absolutely nothing less.

Other cities, especially small-market teams, seem to live in a world where championships are for other people, where the entire city the team is in has an inferiority complex, and where ownership and management are more than happy to simply set the second round of the playoffs as a ceiling, let an eager and compliant local media push the narrative that “good is good enough”, and that’s why the national guy who talks about the Pacers from a home office in the suburbs of Seattle is the only consistent voice calling for Nate McMillan‘s ouster and expecting better from Kevin Pritchard.

One of the side effects of this hometown inferiority complex, at least in Indianapolis, is this over-reliance on the idea that anyone else who’s from there must naturally want to play, so whether he’s good or not, if he’s a big name, let’s go get him.

Get a Pacers fan on the right day and they’d have you believe the team should trade Myles Turner straight-up for Gordon Hayward, any other players simply there to match salaries.

Never mind that Turner is (finally, and not a moment too soon considering the Elephant In The Room that is Victor Oladipo‘s season-ending knee injury) growing into a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate while Hayward is basically PG13’s worst-case scenario in Indiana circa 2015-16 playing out for Boston.

Hayward is a big name, he’s from Indiana, he’d re-sign here, let’s trade for him.

This is also how Jeff Teague got wildly overvalued by Pacers fans, although to be fair, Teague did have one of his best statistical seasons in 2016-17 and started all 82 games at the point.

There are 20 active players currently in the NBA or on two-way contracts from the Hoosier State, and of those, only Hayward is what any reasonable person would call a big name.

Additionally, there are six draftees from Indiana University in the league; Oladipo is the best of the lot, but the list also includes OG Anunoby, Eric Gordon, and Cody Zeller. Many a Pacers fan probably thinks the team should target those guys.

All of this is an interesting little thought experiment, but what it’s done for team management is create an echo chamber in local media and among fans that creates that self-reinforcing “you can’t build a team here” mentality.

If that’s the case, you might as well just move the Pacers to Seattle or Vegas or El Paso.

If being a small market in a podunk town means your team will never be competitive, what are they doing in a professional basketball league?

And what part of “if the Thunder hadn’t botched the James Harden situation in 2013, they might’ve gone to at least one more Finals and possibly won a title” don’t you understand?

It wasn’t that they had to dump Harden’s salary, it’s that what they got back for him was Kevin Martin.

But then again, Paul George isn’t on the Lakers. He re-upped to play alongside Russell Westbrook, and again, the only thing keeping that team from being better than it is isn’t a lack of star power. It’s the front office tripping at the finish line by paying too much money for Carmelo Anthony, and in part it’s Westbrook’s shameless counting-stat gunning obscuring the fact that he’s possibly the worst pure shooter in the league right now.

And if star power is so important, how did the Celtics come one LeBron away from the Finals last year? Yes, LeBron’s star power carried the day right up until the Golden State Warriors showed up and beat Bron and his Canton Charge team wearing Cleveland Cavaliers uniforms for 94 feet and 192 minutes, but the Celtics were fielding a pretty wretched bunch without Hayward and Kyrie Irving and ended up making Jayson Tatum into a star and Terry Rozier into the world’s most interesting trade chip.

The Pacers and their fans are content to be mediocre and make excuses. It’s what keeps Kevin Pritchard from seeing through the friendship goggles and firing Nate McMillan in favor of someone who will install a modern offense.

It’s what tamps down the fires of fan unrest when the Pacers don’t even try to attract marquee free agents, never mind a city with a consistent winning culture and a team that’s always trying to win will always attract players for whom winning matters.

And it probably lines owner Herb Simon’s pockets since the Pacers are almost never a luxury tax team.

And it could certainly be worse; at least the Pacers aren’t a total Dumpster fire franchise like Memphis, Phoenix, or Chicago (at least those latter two have something resembling a great history, as do the Pacers. Memphis is just a riverboat sinking.)

But Pacers fans need to stop acting like “we’ll never attract or retain a great free agent.”

If the Pelicans will take anyone not named Oladipo for Anthony Davis, roll the dice.

If there’s a chance at landing Bradley Beal from the Wizards and thinking the unthinkable about Oladipo’s explosiveness being permanently gone, then call up Ernie Grunfeld and see if you can snooker him.

But stop with the “nobody good wants to play here, and if they do we should cling to them like a desperate boy who finally gets noticed by a girl in high school” weakness. It’s unbecoming.

Go Pacers.