Indiana Pacers: Poised to pounce in the NBA’s new financial landscape

It was a quiet trade deadline for the Indiana Pacers, but fans should still be very excited about what the future holds this summer.

Through Friday night, Russell Westbrook is the only NBA player with more points in 2018 than Lou Williams of the Los Angeles Clippers, with 486 to Sweet Lou’s 485.

You might have seen Williams’ name in the news for a different reason recently. As first reported by Yahoo Sports‘ Shams Charania, he just signed a three-year, $24 million contract extension. Really though, it’s a two year extension with a glorified team option, as the third year is only partially guaranteed for $1.5 million.

As has been pointed out by a few outlets, the annual value of the contract is less than the NBA’s non-taxpayer mid-level exception. This means that even teams over the cap could have signed him for more money in the offseason.

Williams’ rationale for signing what appears to be a below-market deal is that he’s comfortable in L.A. and just wants to stay put for a while.

If you believe that, I invite you to come see my bridge for sale at a wonderfully discounted price.

Players have agents for a reason. Williams’ people surely did their homework, and this contract is an indication of his market value. Even if Lou could have gotten more on the open market, it probably wouldn’t have been that much more.

Meanwhile, as all this was going on, halfway across the country, the Indiana Pacers had a Cheshire Cat grin plastered across their face.

An enviable position

Compared to most teams, the Pacers had a rather quiet trade deadline. Darren Collison‘s name popped up in a few trade rumors, but that was about it, save for one interesting tidbit from the Dalai Lama of the deadline:

As ESPN‘s Adrian Wojnarowski implies, Al Jefferson‘s contract was a particularly attractive trade chip because only $4 million of his $10 million salary for next season is guaranteed. For teams facing a cap crunch, such an asset could have potentially come in handy during a summer in which very few teams figure to have significant cap room.

The Pacers are one of the few who will. According to Hoopshype.com, if Indiana waived Jefferson, Lance Stephenson (who has a $4.3 million team option for 2018-19 that is fully non-guaranteed) and Joe Young ($1.6 million team option), they’ll have just under $80 million in committed salary.

That number could get lower if either Thaddeus Young ($13.7 million) or Cory Joseph ($7.9 million) decline their player options and instead become unrestricted free agents. Despite the low number on the Williams’ contract, there’s a chance one or both could opt out in the hopes of sacrificing some immediate money  for long-term security.

Even if both opt in, the Pacers figure to be one of only 10 teams with more than $10 million in cap space this summer (assuming the Orlando Magic bring back Aaron Gordon and the Houston Rockets re-sign Chris Paul).

Of those 10, only Indiana and the Philadelphia 76ers are currently in the playoff picture.

Buyer in a buyer’s market

Reading the tea leaves, it’s pretty easy to see the approach that the Pacers are going to take moving forward.

President of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard seems smart enough to know that despite this season’s success (the Pacers currently sit sixth in the East with a record of 31-25), Indiana is still a few years away from possibly contending for the ultimate prize. As such, Pritchard would have been more than happy to take on some bad money in exchange for a first round pick that could have paid dividends down the line.

That no one took the bait doesn’t leave the Pacers any worse off. The Lou Williams deal just gave the basketball world a glimpse into the NBA’s new financial reality, as did the hesitancy of teams to part with first round picks, the NBA’s best source of cheap labor. The summer of 2016, when backup centers were signing for the net worth of small nations, is a distant memory.

Well, distant unless you’re one of the unfortunate teams with one or more of those bloated contracts on your books. The Pacers, thankfully, have none.

In this new world, a competitive team on the rise with some money to burn can do a lot of damage in a down market. Indiana has never been seen as a free agent destination, but that could change very soon.

Possible Targets

Looking back at that landscape, it’s fair to assume that many of the teams with space — the Chicago Bulls, Sacramento Kings, Atlanta Hawks and Brooklyn Nets, to name four – won’t be looking to add win-now veterans to their books. Dallas is always a wild card, and Philadelphia and the Lakers figure to go big-game hunting with their space.

That leaves Indiana and the Utah Jazz as competitive teams primed to jump on a group of very solid mid-tier free agents.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Tyreke Evans, Trevor Ariza, Will Barton, J.J. Redick, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Nerlens Noel, Wayne Ellington and Seth Curry are all unrestricted free agents that could be attractive to the Pacers for various reasons. The same goes for restricted free agents Rodney Hood, Julius Randle, Marcus Smart and Kyle Anderson, all of whom are on teams that might not match a signifiant offer.

It’s fair to ask: If the man who’s led the league in scoring for the last six weeks is only worth $8 million a year, what can any of these dudes really expect to get? The Pacers could easily come away with one or two difference-makers at bargain-basement prices.

Even if Indiana doesn’t end up with a single name on this list, its cap space could still come in handy. Teams may have been reluctant to deal away first-rounders to open up cap space at the deadline because that space is still just an amorphous void. Come July 1, when the actuality of a living, breathing NBA player replaces that void, teams become desperate in an effort to free up the cap room necessary to fit the contract on their books.

All in all, it’s an enviable position to be in for a franchise that was in anything but not too long ago.

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