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Pacers season ends leaving hard questions about next steps

May 31, 2014, 2:00 AM EDT

Indiana Pacers v Miami Heat - Game 6 Getty Images

On paper this was a great season for the Pacers: They won 56 games, were the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and made it back to the Eastern Conference Finals. A lot of teams would take a season like that faster than you can hit the mute button when those DirecTV mannequin commercials come on.

But in reality this Pacers season felt like a missed opportunity. They entered the season with high expectations then exceeded them to start the season going 33-7, but things started to come unglued around the All-Star break, they stumbled down the stretch of the regular season going 9-14 to close out the year. In the playoffs they needed seven games to get by the 38-win Hawks then looked like they might not get by the Wizards, but did.

Then the Heat reminded the again how big a gap there is between the Pacers and contending, particularly with the blowout Game 6 win.

Indiana enters this offseason knowing that if they return with this same core group of players they will get the same result as the last two years (if even that good). It’s fair to argue this team played mentally soft ball. There need to be changes. There are some very difficult off-season questions to answer.

Does Indiana bring back unrestricted free agent Lance Stephenson?

Can Frank Vogel lead this team to the next level?

Do the Pacers need a more traditional point guard/someone who can create more shots for himself and others?

The problem is, it will not be easy to change this core.

The Pacers have committed to $64.9 million in salary for next season, which is already over the projected $63.2 million salary cap (data via Sham Sports). Roy Hibbert is set to make $14.8 million (and no, the Pacers are not going to trade him, they couldn’t get anywhere near equal value back), Paul George is owed $13.7 million, David West $12 million, George Hill $8 million. The Pacers are not going to bring Evan Turner back and Luis Scola could be bought out to save a few million (his deal has a buyout for just under $1 million) but that still isn’t going to open up much money.

All this ties Larry Bird’s hands — there is no easy way to just pick up a free agent.

All those big contracts will it hard to find a trading partner — George Hill has three years and $24 million left and nobody is going to be eager to take that deal on, for example.

Which is why, despite his antics, the Pacers may bring back Lance Stephenson, who is an unrestricted free agent this summer. The question is what does his return cost? He seems like the kind of player some GM will offer four years, $40 million to and gamble on his maturing. Because giving a young player $40 million always helps them mature. Still Stephenson is on the top of everyone’s “guy who is going to get overpaid this summer” list.

If the Pacers bring him back at $10 million a season they will be getting close to the luxury tax line — and all that without having a superstar player on the roster (unless you want to sell that Paul George is one, good luck with that).

But if Stephenson walks, then who will the Pacers count on to create shots? The limitations of George Hill and Roy Hibbert to create their own looks will be all that more glaring. For all his erratic play, Stephenson makes plays, set up passes and he is aggressive… most of the time. In Game 6 against the Heat he was very aggressive up until he got the technical on Norris Cole, then Stephenson largely disappeared.

I think the Pacers could use a more traditional point guard (I wasn’t in that camp until recently), someone who can be a floor general and set up Hibbert better in the post, or create shots for others off the bounce. They need a calming influence.

But they are going to have to give to get — someone like Ian Mahinmi will have to be on the block. The Pacers will have to sacrifice some size and defense to improve their roster.

If they don’t, next season isn’t going to look any better than this one.

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