Before they can be good, the Pacers truly need to be bad

Though they haven’t won an NBA championship and have only sporadically contended here and there, it’s actually pretty amazing how long the Indiana Pacers have gone without being bad.

Since the late 1980s, when the team picked second (Rik Smits) and seventh (George McCloud) in consecutive drafts, the Pacers haven’t had a team bad enough to score a single-digit pick. Indiana has won at least 35 games in all but one full season since 1989, and even after the infamous brawl in 2004-05 destroyed what might have been the franchise’s best shot at a title, the team never bottomed out.

It’s about time the Pacers strongly consider doing so, because being consistently decent hasn’t gotten the franchise very far.

Aside from making the NBA Finals in 2000, putting together a 61-win team in 2003-04 and giving LeBron James’ Miami squads a half-decent fight from 2012 to 2014, Indiana has been largely irrelevant.

Should they stay the current course, they’ll remain so.

Some fans will point to the adrenaline rush that the team got at the end of the regular season after adding Lance Stephenson and act as if the journeyman who has been with six teams in three years is some magical cure-all.

Let’s be real. He’s not. The Pacers backed into the playoffs and were quickly ushered right back out by James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, who dropped Indiana in four straight.

“But those games were all close,” believers cry.

So what? Eventually, a team needs to finish off a game or two to be taken seriously — and the Pacers don’t have a finisher.

Paul George, you say? Please don’t let that Gatorade commercial fool you. According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Pacers’ supposed superstar has taken 32 potential tying or go-ahead shots in the final 15 seconds of games during his career. He’s made two. Two. You don’t need to be a math expert to know that that’s not good.

George isn’t That Guy that can lead a team to a title. He’s a very good player, a second-tier star who would be a great second or third piece on a contender. (Think Chris Bosh, who was outstanding as the No. 3 guy in Miami but not so much as the center of attention in Toronto.)

So the Pacers need someone better than George in charge if they’re going to be anything more than first-round cannon fodder going forward.

That someone better isn’t coming via free agency — the city isn’t sexy enough and the team isn’t good enough to entice a franchise-altering talent, and there aren’t really any available anyway.

That someone also isn’t coming in the draft. Thanks to the late-season flurry that yielded exactly zero playoff wins, the Pacers are picking 18th this year — at least four spots lower than they’d have been if they just skipped the playoffs entirely.

Keep in mind, too, that George is almost certainly gone when he hits free agency in a year, likely bound for the Los Angeles Lakers. And Indy native Jeff Teague, a free agent this offseason, might re-sign with the Pacers. But he might not.

So there really isn’t a path forward for this team that doesn’t involve going backward first. The only way that the Pacers are going to be able to stockpile championship-caliber talent is by picking at the top of the draft. Winning 30 to 40 games every year isn’t going to accomplish that.

There are cities that qualify as exceptions, like L.A. and Miami, but for franchises in less glamorous cities, the only way to become great is by becoming terrible first. Milwaukee and especially Philadelphia have embraced that reality, and those efforts are beginning to bear fruit. Indiana would be well served to follow their lead.

The bad news for Pacers fans is that new team president Kevin Pritchard appears super dead set on not doing that. “I don’t believe in tearing it down,” he said when being introduced as Larry Bird’s replacement.

Such pride is admirable — but it’s also ultimately self-defeating. The Pacers have proudly avoided being terrible for almost 30 years, an eternity in pro sports. But 10 teams have won NBA championships during that time, and the Pacers aren’t one of them.

Without landing a real top-tier superstar through the draft, like the Spurs did with Tim Duncan, or by stockpiling enough enticing assets to trade for one, as the Celtics did to land Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett, the Pacers will be stuck in basketball purgatory for the foreseeable future.

It’s time to shake the Etch-A-Sketch and start over, guys. You can choose pride or relevance, Pacers fans, but right now there’s no way for your team to have both.

Ryan O’Leary is the sports editor for the Daily Journal of Johnson County, a sister paper of The Tribune. Send comments to [email protected].