Both team President Larry Bird and head coach Frank Vogel verified Monday the Indiana Pacers’ coaching staff will return intact for next season.
What the remainder of the roster looks like is anybody’s guess.
Bird and Vogel conducted individual news conferences at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, agreeing in effect that improving the team’s core unit of Paul George, David West, Roy Hibbert, Lance Stephenson and George Hill remains the top offseason priority.
Stephenson, the 6-foot-5 swingman whose lack of on-court common sense often overshadows his many athletic gifts, is the lone free agent.
“He can do whatever he wants to do. We’ll talk in the next week or two about our game plan. What we’re going to do and how we’re going about it. He can talk with any team he wants. And when it comes down to it, it’s up to him whether he wants to be here or not,” Bird said.
Asked if he wants Stephenson back, Bird did not hesitate.
“I always want him back. You just don’t let talent like that walk away. Last summer Lance worked as hard as anyone we’ve had come through here. On a consistent, daily basis, Lance was here lifting, he worked with a shooting coach. ... He was here every day. It was really good to see knowing going into the year he was going to be a much better player.”
Stephenson’s attempts at tormenting Miami superstar LeBron James during the six-game Eastern Conference Finals won by the Heat placed him in a negative light in the eyes of some.
At 23, Stephenson remains the roster’s second-youngest player (behind rookie Solomon Hill) despite this having been his fourth NBA season.
Bird understands this and would like to see Stephenson continue his rise as one of the league’s emerging talents in an Indiana uniform.
“I think his ceiling is what he wants it to be. As a basketball player you can’t find much more talent than what he has. And when he’s dedicated to working out, he works out very hard,” Bird said. “Lance can get himself in jams at times with other things he does. But once he matures as a person and his game matures more, his ceiling’s unlimited.”
Stephenson’s salary of $981,349 is below that of the Pacers’ other starters and most of the team’s reserves.
Even if Stephenson elects to chase what’s certain to be a more lucrative payday in another market, the 7-2 Hibbert likely will return.
Plagued with inconsistency issues throughout the regular season and playoffs, Hibbert became the target of Pacers fans’ ire and a national punchline as the East’s No. 1 seeded squad needed seven games to dispatch Atlanta and six to eliminate Washington.
“Roy’s got to put in another good summer. Around the time he made the All-Star team and even before that he didn’t play well for a long time. Why I don’t know. I talked to Roy briefly a number of times. He would always ask me what I see, and I would tell him,” Bird said.
“I would like to see Roy more consistent. I thought the first half of the season he was very active. He contested a lot of shots. When Roy loses his confidence he struggles at times. I hope he can come back strong and do the things necessary to get better.”
Bird loves the way point guard George Hill defends the perimeter but admits the former Broad Ripple High School and IUPUI standout must look to score more frequently.
“You’re not going to find a better defender at point. I would like him to be more active on the offensive end. I think George turns down a lot of opportunities to score,” Bird said. “Lately I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about our point guard situation. ... I like George. But you never know what’s going to happen this summer.”
Bird’s 30-minute question-and-answer session with media members included one instance when he bordered on becoming agitated.
Those postseason rumors about Vogel being let go if the Pacers didn’t achieve this or that preseason objective were, according to Bird, completely unfounded.
“There’s never doubt (about Vogel returning). When the media 800 miles away or 1,000 miles away just writes a story and everybody gets all excited about it, it makes no sense to me. If you had come and asked me I would have told you. And I did tell you, ‘His job is safe.’ But, no, you want to push it, push it, push it. His job was never in jeopardy,” he said.
Team chemistry also appeared to suffer once Bird acquired free-agent center Andrew Bynum and in February traded veteran swingman Danny Granger to Philadelphia in exchange for Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen.
Bynum’s balky knees prevented him from being a factor, as he took part in only two regular-season games. Turner struggled making the transition from go-to player to someone playing 12 to 14 minutes a game off the bench.
Indiana’s ability to re-sign Stephenson promises to go a long way toward what other offseason moves should or should not be made. If he’s back, the simple fact a young team grew a year older together might just be enough for the Pacers to take that next step.
“Sometimes growth just comes with more experience. I think we were mature enough to achieve our ultimate goals. This year we were going against a (Miami) team that had more maturity and more experience and more know-how,” Vogel said.
“We take the disappointment and the bitter feelings and we use that to try to motivate you to improve next year. Everybody’s got to come back better than when they left this year. Everybody on the team has to have that mindset.”