If you think Indiana Pacer coach Frank Vogel has a skull-grabbing decision to make in determining the best way to slow LeBron James in tonight's Game 4 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals, you would be correct. However, defending James might prove to be elementary compared to what Pacer team president Donnie Walsh has to handle over the next 12 months, as he determines the future of this franchise.
As much as the NBA analysts have praised Indiana for being “a great young team,” the truth of the matter is, due to the structure of its contracts, this group could be built for today only. So enjoy it, while it lasts.
Indiana's success very well may extend long-term, but given the nature of this business, there is no guarantee that “Gold Swagger” doesn't end up being “Gold Stagger.”
By this time next year, Walsh will have made four critical decisions, each of which will impact significantly, an incredibly easy one.
When training camp opens this October, Indiana needs to have figured out, not whether it loves forwards David West and Tyler Hansbrough (everyone does), but to what degree. That is because paying those two critical players too much money in extensions will affect what the team can do for its free agents (Paul George, Danny Granger, and Lance Stephenson) next year.
West made $10 million this past season, which in the final minute of Game 2 in Miami Friday, seemed like a bargain. But he will be 33 years old later this summer, so how much of a raise does serving as the unquestioned team leader merit?
In the case of Hansbrough, the positive for Indiana is that it can keep the gritty fan favorite for a modest $4.2 million qualifying offer through next season.
Easy choice, you say? Not so fast.
The catch to signing Hansbrough to that qualifying offer is that he'll then become an unrestricted free agent following next season, and the Pacers will run the risk of losing him to a team willing to overpay for toughness, if not production (see Charlotte).
So possibly, right when West would become an aging veteran that needs to be brought off the bench, Indiana would be losing his replacement.
Tough call for Walsh.
A year from now, however, is when Walsh will truly determine to what level of success that this franchise achieves over the next decade.
If he mishandles the situation, the Pacers could become the New York Knicks of the past decade, which was an aging group hamstrung by really bad play; really, really bad attitudes; and really, really, really bad contracts.
If Walsh makes astute choices, then multiple banners could eventually be hung at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
It will be challenging to properly manage Danny Granger and Lance Stephenson's deals.
Granger has been the club's best player over the past seven seasons. However, he has missed a significant number of games in four of the past five of those, and he just turned 30 years old. His $14 million contract comes off of the books in 12 months, so Walsh needs to determine if that is more valuable of an asset, moving forward, than the forward's actual play is.
If Granger was healthy, which he isn't (he played in five games this season), then his talent, plus the expiring contract, would make him an incredible trade commodity. But his history of injuries, coupled with the fact the Pacers have seemingly improved without him, hinders his value tremendously.
Re-signing Granger may remain a possibility, but at what cost is prudent? And will Granger's ego allow him to accept a significant salary cut?
Stephenson's value to Indiana varies from possession to possession. There are multiple times where Walsh has to believe that the mercurial guard has demonstrated he deserves a significant raise, while other times he risks being waived – all in the same game.
His inconsistent play literally ranges from unfathomable (in a good way) to unfathomable (in the other direction). But at just 23 years old next season, he simply has way too much ability and potential for development for Walsh not to re-sign him. It'll cost Indiana, for sure. Having potential is the undisputed champion of the world in the game of salary negotiations.
If Walsh manages to have kept the franchise competitive on the court, as well pleasing its accountants, he will have done his job, which leaves him just one final task – signing the face of the franchise.
Before reading this next sentence, swallow to ensure that you don't choke.
Paul George currently makes $1 million less than Gerald Green and D.J. Augustin.
Due to his age (George just turned 23 this month); George made a miniscule $2.5 million this season and will make a NBA-best bargain salary of $3.2 next year. That will most assuredly change seismically.
Indiana needs to offer George a “maximum contract” following the 2013-14 season, which will be in the ballpark of $14.5 million. However, a lack of fiscal discipline in dealing with the other four players could hamper Indiana's ability to secure its star.
After watching George blow past James (I missed Sunday's Game 3, so don't confuse me with facts) on Friday and thunder home a dunk of epic proportions, he has earned this pay day (call it the $11 million dunk, if you will).
George is the future of the Indiana Pacers, and all indications are that he'll go down in Pacer lore with the greats (of course, I said that about Jermaine O'Neal also). Signing him to a deal – a maximum deal – is a no-brainer.
Pacer coach Frank Vogel may lose a few more hairs tonight, as well as a game. But in the large scheme of things, his test pales in comparison to that of his boss.