Wilson's Word: Where do Pacers go from here?

President Larry Bird has plenty of offseason choices to make in how he wants to rebuild team around All-Star Paul George.

Until the final night of the NBA regular season, the Indiana Pacers had us thinking they just might make the playoffs.

They shouldn’t have been in the hunt really, not without Paul George for 76 games, nor several other players who contributed to a combined 219 games lost to injuries. There’s a point when reality inevitably sets in, and as the old saying goes, it bites.

Coach Frank Vogel probably did the best job of his life to keep these guys focused and most of them playing hard. He had the players and many in the fan base believing any adversity could be overcome.

Despite their shortcomings, these guys had a final shot to achieve their modest playoff objective. Then they lost to a better team, 95-83 at Memphis Wednesday night, and the Grizzlies reminded why Indiana won’t be in the playoffs for a fifth consecutive postseason.

At some point, a weakened team has its limits. That it took 82 regular-season games to reach that conclusion is a testament to those who refused to quit. The Pacers finished tied with the Brooklyn Nets for the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot, but lost out on the head-to-head tiebreaker. The margin for making it and missing out couldn’t have been slimmer.

When dealing in harsh realities — and making it to the last day then not qualifying for the playoffs certainly qualifies — the Pacers couldn’t defend center Marc Gasol, who scored a season-high 33 points. He’s a talented player, but either forward David West or center Roy Hibbert should have been able to do something to slow the man down. And they didn’t.

When analyzing how this team moves forward, it starts with those two guys. West looked tired near the end of his 12th season. He had hinted at retirement, way back on media day in September, because he realized not having George would change this team’s dynamic dramatically. As much as veteran leadership is important, perhaps he should retire instead of taking the final-year contract option and returning.

Hibbert is more of an issue because, presumably, president Larry Bird has been unable to get much in return from a trade. He’s been inconsistent at best, this enigmatic “rim protector.” Bird had said earlier in the season that he thought Hibbert would assert himself more and put up more consistent offensive numbers with George out of the lineup. The team needed it. But that wasn’t the case.

Some nights, you couldn’t help but question if Hibbert had the desire this team so desperately needed. That’s been the same storyline with this guy for years. If there’s any way the Pacers can move on without him, they should do it. He won’t get a better deal anywhere else, which means he’ll likely take the team up on his final-year contract option. But keep him and a year from now, he’s leaving anyway.

When we knew the Pacers were going to have to survive without George, Bird understood this season would be a process to determine who should stay and be part of the rebuild when the two-time All-Star was healthy. Hibbert isn’t a long-term option. The Pacers need inside muscle and strength. They need guys who play like their lives depend on every possession.

That Indiana made it this far was because of point guard George Hill, shooting guard C.J. Miles and reserve guard Rodney Stuckey. It’s also true that second-year forward Solomon Hill showed progress, too, enough to reaffirm he’s a keeper.

Hill had his best scoring season as a pro, which was hoped for all along although the team had to do without him for 39 games due to injuries. When Hill played, the Pacers were 26-17. When he didn’t, they were 12-27. He averaged a career-best 16.1 points, 1.9 more than his previous best two seasons ago.

Miles is a streaky shooter and has defensive lapses, but the team needed his 3-point shooting when he got hot. And he played his best basketball in the second half of the season. He can’t be the go-to guy every night, but was thrust into that role at times because of this team’s scoring issues. His 163 3-pointers were the most in his 10-year career.

Stuckey, the other free-agent added last offseason, was an exceptional burst of energy off the bench. From Feb. 11 to season’s end, he scored in double digits in 18 of 25 games. He thrived in leading a Pacers bench that was outscored in just 22 games (they were 5-17 when that happened). The Pacers reserves were second in scoring and first in rebounding.

Stuckey has said he wants to return to the Pacers, who should take him up on that. Most of the other free agents probably won’t be retained. If any of them should be back, the team should try to keep forward Lavoy Allen, who was a great rebounder when given the minutes. He’s a decent reserve who plays hard.

Forward Luis Scola was a solid reserve, so the Pacers might opt to keep him, too. But if he wants too much money, he won’t be back.

Beyond that, the Pacers have holes to fill and, depending upon what happens with West and Hibbert, we’ll see how much money Bird has to spend.

A healthy George makes them better next season. But he can’t do it alone. It will be interesting to see what Bird does to give his best player that help.

The Pacers will pick 11th or 12th in the NBA Draft, so they have a shot at a player who can make an immediate impact. As stated, the team needs size and strength inside.

And the Pacers need more guys who play with the intensity displayed for much of this season. That’s why the Pacers were able to get to the final day with a playoff berth on the line.

They stayed in the fight, as Vogel kept urging. Now it’s time to get more fighters who will ensure the Pacers aren’t in this predicament again next season.

Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.

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