Philadelphia, PA – The Indiana Pacers fought valiantly.
How many smart people like myself saw the Eastern Conference Finals going to a Game 7? Very few, that's a fact.
But now the Pacers season is over. They'll take some time to lament and celebrate a fantastic 2012-13 campaign, which ultimately ended in the sting of not just defeat, but a heartbreaking one.
To take the Miami Heat to seven games was no small accomplishment under the best of circumstances. This season wasn't even the best the Pacers can offer as an organization.
Danny Granger, a former All-Star, missed all but five games during the regular season. In his last five healthy seasons, Granger has averaged 21.7 points per game. That's a massively impactful guy to be sitting on your bench in a custom- made suit.
However, things won't be as easy as just plugging Granger back into the lineup and hoping for the best. NBA basketball is a business and team president Donnie Walsh and general manager Kevin Pritchard have some work ahead.
First on that list is the future of David West. The bruising forward's value to the Pacers can't be understated. He is the veteran leadership, the calming influence, yet also the physical enforcer. West is an underrated player in a lot of respects. While he's known as a punisher, West has developed a beautiful fadeaway jumper. He is the perfect complement to Roy Hibbert.
West is an unrestricted free-agent this offseason. After somewhat successful years in New Orleans, West bolted to the Pacers for a two-year, $20-million contract in 2011. That's a reasonable deal, but one that should increase after proving his worth.
West will be 32 in August. He tore the ACL in his left knee in March 2011, so a long-term commitment, on its face, is probably not prudent. A two- or three- year deal is fair and West wants to be back.
"That's something I'll sit down and discuss, but this is my group. These are my guys," West said after Monday's loss to the Miami Heat. "You know, I can't see myself going anywhere else. We're the second-best team in the Eastern Conference, one of the top four teams in the league, in my estimation, based on this year."
West is probably correct in his analysis of the Pacers. They proved they're better than the New York Knicks, but the Chicago Bulls, with a healthy Derrick Rose, loom.
The Pacers have some wiggle room under the cap, although not a ton. Granger and Hibbert are locked into $14 million contracts, George Hill makes $8 million next season, and Ian Mahinmi, Gerald Green and Paul George all earn over $3 million each.
West isn't the only player the Pacers will need to address long-term when deciding how to handle his contract situation. George is getting perilously close to becoming a max-contract guy and his contract runs out after next season.
The Pacers also have some other free agents to worry about. Tyler Hansbrough is a restricted free agent and a decision will have to be paid on him. D.J. Augustin and Sam Young are both unrestricted.
Those are three key bench players on a team devoid of much bench talent. Augustin and Young could walk, no sweat. There are better backup point guards available and Young is expendable. Hansbrough is trickier. If he's willing to come back at a reasonable rate, bring him back. Don't pay too much money for Hansbrough.
Letting guys like Augustin and Young go shouldn't be too traumatic. Indiana's bench was weak, not just in the playoffs, but throughout the regular season. Upgrading the second unit needs to happen. It should organically with Granger's return. That'll shift Lance Stephenson to the bench.
And the Pacers definitely need help in the backcourt.
George Hill had a fine regular season and comparable numbers in the playoffs, but is he strong enough to be the team's point guard in a point guard-driven league? Probably not. Hill is ideally suited to be a great combo guard off the bench.
But it's doubtful the Pacers will seek a starting point guard. How could they get one? If it's the organization's intention to bring back West (it is), the Pacers couldn't afford an upgrade from Hill. They have the 23rd and 53rd picks in the upcoming draft. It's a weak draft - maybe the Pacers get Shane Larkin from Miami (Fla.) at No. 23 - but he's not an immediate improvement.
They do have one chip at their disposal and that resides in Granger's contract. He's due a little over $14 million next season, but is a free agent after the 2013-14 season.
Trading Granger for a point guard or a shooting guard might not be the craziest notion in the world.
The Pacers proved they are a capable bunch without Granger. They came within one game of going to the NBA Finals. There is room for improvement. Granger can bring that on his own, but trading him for someone who will be in Indianapolis longer, or at a more-needed position, might make more sense.
Granger and George are both natural small forwards. George would probably shift to the shooting guard if Granger is back next season, assuming the Pacers want him back.
They do. They want everyone back.
"Our intent as a franchise is to try to bring back our whole core for next year and, hopefully, get Danny Granger back," head coach Frank Vogel said after the Game 7 loss.
The heartache from the Eastern Conference Finals won't wear off anytime soon, but the Pacers have to get to work immediately if they want to overtake the Heat.
"They're disappointed. They felt like we could have won this series," Vogel said. "They wanted badly to win this series. So I think disappointed, but encouraged about the future."
Encouraged, yes. But there is work to be done.