David West’s Impending Free Agency Raises Questions for Pacers’ Future

David WestHe is the Pacers’ locker room leader, their best clutch scorer and a sneaky defender. Yet come July, David West could be somewhere other than Indiana.

In a lot of ways, the upcoming season should be an intriguing one for the Pacers. Danny Granger, who missed this entire season with a knee injury, will be back for the final year of his contract, provided he is not traded. Roy Hibbert will arrive with renewed confidence after his dominant showing against the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. Paul George should continue to get better, although more gradually than the leap forward he made this year.

With all those pieces in place, the Pacers are assured of being out of the draft lottery conversation for at least the next three to four years. They will be a playoff participant for the foreseeable future. The question is how significant of a participant they are, and that is where West is the key.

West’s two-year, $20 million deal expires, effectively at the end of June, when he becomes an unrestricted free agent. He will have many more suitors than he did in 2011, when he weighed two below-market offers coming out of the lockout before settling on the Pacers over the Celtics. Coming off a season in which he averaged 17.1 points and 7.7 rebounds for a conference finalist, West will not have to “settle” this time around.

West sounds like a man who wants to stay put.

“I’m not [expletive] dumb,” West told reporters after Indiana’s Game 7 loss. “I don’t plan on going anywhere. These are my guys.”

The Clippers might find that comment discouraging. With fellow unrestricted free agent Chris Paul in “win now” mode, the Clips are well known to be interested in signing West, Paul’s former pick-and-pop partner in New Orleans. While Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan‘s development leveled off under departed coach Vinny Del Negro, West could be the reliable frontcourt scorer Paul would demand in re-signing in Los Angeles. The Clippers are due to have some payroll flexibility thanks to Lamar Odom and Chauncey Billups‘ expiring contracts and Grant Hill‘s retirement.

Of course, the Clippers are not alone. As the big man positions continue to be redefined, a player with West’s unique skills has become more valuable. At 6-foot-9, 240 pounds, West has an automatic jump shot within 15 feet of the basket, is bullish around the rim and can find teammates when he is double-teamed in the post. Whatever teams fail to sign Dwight Howard will look at West as a suitable consolation prize.

George’s emergence was simultaneously a great thing and an unfortunate thing for the Pacers. Without that emergence, the Pacers do not push the Heat to the brink of elimination, and the team has George for one more season on his team-friendly rookie contract. But now Pacers general manager Keith Prichard has to wonder: What is George’s ceiling? This is directly tied to the team’s decision on West. If the Pacers believe George will continue to mature into one of the league’s elite players, West may simply muck things up for the gifted slasher. If the Pacers believe George still needs time to develop into a No. 1 scoring option — assuming they believe that he will at all — they will still need West to pair with Hibbert in their post-oriented attack.

Standing pat or taking a step backward in the short term is not really an option for the Pacers, because the East is sure to get tougher. Derrick Rose and Rajon Rondo will be healthy next season, the thrown-together Nets will not have to work all season to develop team chemistry and young squads like the Cavs and Wizards could nudge into the playoff picture. Meanwhile, Miami could be angling for its last hurrah with the trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Indiana’s bench must improve, and not just with the inevitable boost it would get with Granger’s return bumping Lance Stephenson out of the starting lineup. Hustle only got the Pacers’ overmatched reserves so far against the Heat.

West sounds like he wants to be back, but remember, so did Ray Allen after the Celtics were bounced in seven games last year. No one ever thinks about his exit strategy in the heat of battle. The Pacers, in the wake of their most successful season in nine years, face numerous questions this offseason, starting with whether West stays or goes.

Have a question for Ben Watanabe? Send it to him via Twitter at @BenjeeBallgame or send it here. 

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