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Shaun Powell

Donnie Walsh returns to the comforts of Indiana after dealing with the pressure cooker in New York.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

Big decisions face Walsh in return to Indiana

Posted Jul 6 2012 10:25AM

He's 71 years old, can't move around like he used to and works in an NBA front office, with all of its stresses and challenges.

But really, what else was Donnie Walsh going to do that would be more fulfilling and satisfying than returning to the Pacers?

After a tumultuous two-year run with the Knicks, almost anything would be a relief. Like, transporting hazardous waste by hand. Yes, his Knick tenure was that rocky. But this new gig ... well, this is what you'd call a rebound. For Walsh, nothing can compare to succeeding Larry Bird as president and working for an owner he knows and having a general manager, Kevin Pritchard, he respects.

"To me," said Walsh, "it's all good."

So the regime change in Indiana should be a smooth one for owner Herb Simon because it begins with Walsh, who ran the Pacers for 22 years in his first tour of duty with the club, and who insists he still has the stamina and stomach for deal-making.

"I really liked doing nothing," during a year off from the Knicks, said Walsh, but that changed when Simon called. With Pritchard doing most of the scouting legwork, Walsh is more like the final-say guy.

His first decision could dictate the immediate future of a franchise that's finally headed in the right direction: What to do with free-agent center Roy Hibbert, who received a massive offer sheet from the Blazers?

Most likely, Simon will sign off on whatever Walsh suggests. Yet Walsh must convince the owner that matching the four years, $59 million for Hibbert will be worth it for a small-market team that doesn't generate huge profits and ranked near the bottom in attendance last season. Or that letting Hibbert go and finding a Plan B won't be a setback to a team that had the fifth-best record in the league and took eventual champion Miami to six games in the second round.

Already on Walsh's recommendation, the Pacers extended George Hill five years rather than chase free agent Eric Gordon. Any other additions to the roster will likely be mild because the Pacers' core is virtually set. And they're not in the business of flirting with the luxury tax anyway. Never have, and probably never will. That's the challenge for a team like Indiana, which must be careful with the payroll or else pay the price by taking a few steps backward.

The best thing Bird did during the Pacers' rebuilding period was make the most of the Draft. He grabbed Hibbert and Paul George and swung a deal to get Darren Collison on the cheap. That's three players in their 20s who were able to contribute almost immediately. And that's not including Tyler Hansbrough, who may never be a star but is a keeper in the rotation.

Eventually, though, the bill would come due for stockpiling that young talent, and it's collection time for Hibbert.

He presents an interesting decision for Walsh. Hibbert is still developing offensively and might never be a first- or second-option. Plus, for being 7-foot-2, he's not an exceptional rebounder. Overall, Hibbert isn't an overpowering center who creates matchup hell for anyone. But he does get a measure of respect from the other team. And he's becoming a solid defender. Because big men are always tough to find, do the Pacers dare let a 25-year-old go before he even reaches his prime?

Or is $15 million a year too rich for the Pacers, especially since they'll have to pay David West after next season (or let him walk) and also George in another year or two? Won't Hibbert drive up their asking price?

It's tough for the Pacers to justify three or four players making eight figures, in the Indianapolis market, unless those players are stars who'd make Indy a solid championship contender.

The option would be to find a cheaper center, someone like Chris Kaman, who might be had in the $9-$10 million range. Either way, the risk is two-fold for Walsh and the Pacers. One, they can't afford to overload their payroll. Nor can they afford to damage the momentum they built last season in the playoffs, where they finally reawakened the fan base. They could see a surge at the ticket window next season as a result.

What Walsh does with Hibbert will be the only real move the Pacers make this summer. They are one of the few teams whose rotation is unlikely to change much, if at all.

"What we have here now is a true team, all five guys working together and guys coming off the bench," said Walsh, who added that he didn't want to screw that up. "To me that's the best basketball you could put out there."

Walsh is comforted now by knowing he won't be over-ruled by his boss. He had no such luxury in New York, even after being promised he'd run the show. Walsh won't discuss the Knicks but everyone knows the atmosphere for Walsh turned toxic under owner Jim Dolan, partly because of the shadow of Isiah Thomas, who still had Dolan's ear. When Walsh thought the asking price for Carmelo Anthony was too steep, and Dolan intervened and made the trade anyway, Walsh felt disrespected, that his tireless work to clean up the Knicks' salary cap was all for naught.

But he's back in Indiana now. If there's any consolation, the Pacers just might have a better future than the Knicks.

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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