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Shaun Powell

Can Roy Hibbert (left) and Danny Granger (right) lead a hoops revival in Indianapolis?
Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

Sleepy-eyed Pacers wait for star to lead them back to top

Posted Jul 31 2010 12:12AM

Their inactivity this summer gave new meaning to the term "Naptown," the unflattering nickname slapped on Indianapolis and its lack of cosmopolitan nightlife.

While the rest of the league was swept up in the free agent and trading whirlwind, remaking on the fly, the Pacers groggily rolled over, yawned and copped some Zs. It wasn't necessarily their choice to count sheep, but given the realities of their situation, what's a strapped salary-capped team supposed to do?

It's a pretty boring existence, being in the Pacers' world. The franchise is still sweeping up the debris caused by the Malice at the Palace six years ago. Suffocated by a handful of long and expensive contracts which came as a result, the Pacers have been stuck in a holding pattern since the latter half of the decade. They're unwilling to deal with the luxury tax, mainly because it won't make them winners and justify the bottom line. Conseco Fieldhouse, easily the best arena in basketball, sadly lacks passion because the Pacers are trapped in neutral.

And they must sit tight this upcoming season, refusing to add significant payroll while waiting for $38 million in bad contracts to vanish next summer.

Doesn't this sound like what the Knicks just went through? Just substitute "Isiah Thomas" for the Malice and it is exactly the kind of life the Knicks led until they were finally awakened by free agency, which arrived like a cold shower. There's no fun in waiting with your nose pressed against the glass, watching others frolic toward a new season. It's almost like life is passing you by.

Danny Granger, the Pacers' only All-Star, must sacrifice another year in his prime for a team in transition. Larry Bird, the beleaguered general manager, is mostly handcuffed, unable to do anything until next summer, unwilling to go for the quick fix.

Bird recently was non-committal about his future; his contract runs through next summer. His only goal is to improve the team for the next GM, or for himself if he sticks around. Jim O'Brien, the coach, has the backing of Bird but you wonder if he'll be the right coach for a remade team. So there's no promise of stability regarding the front office beyond this season.

Making matters even murkier, the league's labor negotiations could throw a wrench into any grand plans the Pacers might have. And anyway, the summer of 2011 will hardly be a free-agent bonanza. Other than Carmelo Anthony -- and don't expect him to give Indy much thought -- the pickings are slim.

So this is what it has come to, for the Pacers: Pray for steady development from the young players on the roster, wait for the six players on their roster (Mike Dunleavy Jr., T.J. Ford, Jeff Foster, Solomon Jones, Josh McRoberts and Troy Murphy) to come off the books next summer, hope to hit it big in next summer's Draft and try to add a piece or two through the trade market.

Above all, ask a restless fan base for more patience.

The Pacers need to stockpile assets, which won't happen unless two or three young players have a breakout season. Can Roy Hibbert overcome clumsiness to emerge as a defensive presence? Is Tyler Hansbrough the impact player he was at North Carolina, or is he a pick-setter in the NBA? When will A.J. Price heal from his unfortunate off-season injury, and is he a starting point guard in the NBA? Does Paul George, the first-round pick, need a few years of growth or can he make the All-Rookie team? Just the same, did the Pacers get a steal in Lance Stephenson, or do his past character issues make him a public relations risk?

This is a star-driven league and until someone on the roster proves otherwise, the Pacers are made up of Granger, role players and bad contracts. Perhaps the one player who'll make a difference, who'll snap the franchise out of its lifeless slumber, isn't on the roster yet. And if that's the case, when does he arrive?

Indianapolis isn't exactly a choice destination for an A-list free agent with options. The question, then: Is Bird the right man for the overhaul? Or do the Pacers thank him for his effort and find somebody else next July?

His performance record is mixed, although to be fair, he was dealt a bad hand by mixed martial artists Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson, then by Jermaine O'Neal's massive contract. And once Donnie Walsh left for the Knicks and Bird went solo, his track record brightens.

Whether it's Bird or someone else, the next moves made by the Pacers must awaken a sleepy franchise. Problem is, the hibernation must wait another 12 months. Or more.

Naptown better grab a pillow and a blanket. This could take awhile.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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