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Michael Conroy/Associated Press
For a long time, the Indiana Pacers have been known around the league as a franchise that won’t tank and won’t spend into luxury tax territory—a challenging spot for a team in one of the NBA‘s smaller markets.
The Pacers aren’t a clear free-agent draw, haven’t been bad enough to get top talent in the draft and won’t attempt to outspend their opponents. The team is hamstrung without a clear superstar, able to advance to the playoffs in five of the last seven years but unable to get a single series win.
Meanwhile, the East has grown to be the more competitive of the NBA’s two conferences, and the Pacers (10-16) have stagnated. Beset by injuries and flagging attendance, per a recent story from Shams Charania and Bob Kravitz of The Athletic, Indiana may be ready for a seismic shift.
In addition to the headline that the Pacers may be open to trading Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner and Caris LeVert, the most noteworthy line is that team governor Herb Simon “has gotten onboard with the idea of a rebuild.”
That’s not to suggest the Pacers will follow the path of the Philadelphia 76ers under former executive Sam Hinkie or the current Oklahoma City Thunder with executive Sam Presti. Indiana won’t look to bottom out for a virtual monopoly of draft picks. But further investigation has the Pacers open to moving out of three of their four highest-paid players, including both big men, if the return is sufficient.
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AJ MAST/Associated Press
It’s essential to understand the market before getting into the speculative nature of where the Pacers may find trade partners. Very few teams will have cap room this offseason.
That list may include the Detroit Pistons, Memphis Grizzlies, Orlando Magic and San Antonio Spurs—that’s it. And while it could grow if a star like Bradley Beal opts out of his contract with the Washington Wizards, he would have to pick from one of the aforementioned teams to get paid (only the Pistons are in his price range, and they’re much further away from contention than Beal’s current squad).
While other teams could get to cap space by trading players, that only emphasizes that the trade market is everything to the NBA. Free agency won’t be as impactful this offseason, and only a shortlist of prospects in any draft become franchise players.
With that in mind, the Pacers are believed to be looking for a combination of veteran players on value contracts, pending free agents whose Bird Rights would give Indiana the advantage in re-signing, and prospects on economic multi-year deals (including recently drafted first-round picks).
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Rick Bowmer/Associated Press
While Sabonis is a two-time All-Star, Turner may draw the biggest interest from the Pacers. The 26-year-old center blocks 2.8 shots a game while shooting a career-best 39.5 percent from three-point range.
Sabonis is the better scorer, but Turner can fit into more teams as a low-usage contributor. He doesn’t need the ball in his hands to contribute. At $18 million for this season and next (with up to $2 million in unlikely incentives each year), Turner is not an expensive option for a team looking to add rim protection with a floor-spacing big.
The Charlotte Hornets (14-12) could be a natural partner with veteran Mason Plumlee to Indiana to match salaries, along with at least one of the Hornets‘ young prospects like PJ Washington, James Bouknight, Kai Jones and JT Thor.
With 15 players under contract, Indiana might need to shed players either through trade or waiver (perhaps Brad Wanamaker, Kelan Martin and/or Jeremy Lamb). The Hornets owe their 2022 first-round pick with protections through 2025 to the New York Knicks for Jones, limiting their ability to send a first to the Pacers.
The Los Angeles Lakers (12-12), who are struggling defensively, might be open to sending Talen Horton-Tucker (in January, when his trade restriction lifts on the 15th) and Kendrick Nunn (currently out with a knee injury). The Pacers would have to value Horton-Tucker highly; otherwise, the Lakers might need to offer one of their few available first-round picks (2027 or 2028).
The Golden State Warriors (20-4) do not seem willing to part with any of their top prospects, but James Wiseman and filler looks like an interesting return for the Pacers.
The list could grow long with teams like the Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs, and others testing the water.
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AJ MAST/Associated Press
Sabonis is also a young (25), gifted big man, but he’s better suited as a primary focus of a team’s offense and doesn’t have a stellar reputation around the league as a defender. Scoring is often more valuable to teams than defense—he’s arguably worth more in trade than Turner but may have fewer suitors able to make room for his style of play.
The Spurs (8-14) struggle in the Western Conference but are loaded with young, talented players on friendly contracts. Along with Thaddeus Young, who has a $14.2 million expiring contract, San Antonio could offer (some, but not all) Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV, Devin Vassell, Josh Primo and Keldon Johnson. The Spurs also have all of their first-round picks, along with one from the Chicago Bulls that could convey in 2025.
While the Thunder appear to be a patient franchise, the team certainly has enough assets to make a play for Sabonis. Be it their long list of upcoming draft picks and prospects like Aleksej Pokusevski, Darius Bazley and Theo Maledon (among others), Oklahoma City could find the opportunity to add a young All-Star worth the change in course.
Additionally, the Hornets could go for Sabonis over Turner if they feel the team needs scoring more than a defensive presence. The list is longer than three teams, but Sabonis is a little harder to merge into a roster with a set identity than Turner.
If there’s a glaring omission, it’s the Portland Trail Blazers who are in serious flux with the recent firing of their top basketball executive Neil Olshey. The franchise needs a little time to get its business in order, but the opportunity to bring in the son of Blazers legend Arvydas Sabonis could hold significant appeal.
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Darron Cummings/Associated Press
While LeVert is a talented scorer, the Pacers may find he has the smallest market out of the three. Nearly all teams have established ball-handling guards, and since LeVert is shooting just 25.9 percent from three-point range, he may not be a fit for most squads.
In addition to his $17.5 million for the current campaign, LeVert will earn $18.8 million next season. He’s also a little older (27) than Turner and Sabonis.
The Cleveland Cavaliers lost Collin Sexton for the season to a knee injury. Ricky Rubio has stepped into a larger role alongside Darius Garland. If the Cavaliers aren’t set on bringing back Sexton next season (restricted free agent), LeVert could be an alternative. Cleveland could build packages around several players, including Isaac Okoro, Lauri Markkanen, Cedi Osman or even Sexton—which would give the Pacers his full Bird rights this offseason in a favorable market.
Many around the league expect the Atlanta Hawks to move out of Danilo Gallinari’s contract before the deadline (he’s only guaranteed $5 million of his $21.5 million next season). The Pacers could have interest in Cam Reddish—LeVert would give the Hawks another scorer, secondary playmaker. Jeremy Lamb might be needed for salary matching to Atlanta.
The Denver Nuggets are beset with injuries (Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr., P.J. Dozier). Still, any package for LeVert probably starts with one of Will Barton, Monte Morris or JaMychal Green (who can block a trade) for salary matching purposes. The Nuggets have prospects like Bones Hyland, Bol Bol and Zeke Nnaji, but none make enough to acquire LeVert directly.
Naturally, LeVert could be packaged with either Turner or Sabonis. For years, competing executives have expected the Pacers to break up their big-man tandem. While both players are still young, Indiana may pivot and part with both, along with LeVert.
The NBA trade deadline for the 2021-22 season is Feb. 10.
Email Eric Pincus at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.