Can Pacers afford to keep Hibbert?

INDIANAPOLIS — Three days to match, two weeks to stew.

When news leaked on July 1 of Portland’s plans to offer Roy Hibbert a maxed-out contract, it put the Indiana Pacers’ new management team in a precarious position.

During this NBA moratorium period, teams are free to negotiate but deals cannot be consummated or discussed publicly, which fuels the 24-hour speculation cycle. Once the moratorium is lifted on July 11, assuming the Blazers do as planned, the Pacers will have until the 14th to either match the max or allow Hibbert to walk.

Welcome back, Donnie Walsh.

On the job less than two weeks since replacing Larry Bird, Walsh returns to the team presidency along with new general manager Kevin Pritchard, and must immediately confront a potentially franchise-shifting decision:

Whether the Pacers can afford to keep Hibbert more than they can afford to lose him.

From a basketball standpoint, the obvious choice would be to retain Hibbert.

He is relatively young, coming off his first All-Star appearance and still improving. He won’t ever be a dominant low-post scorer but teams do have to respect him, which is half the battle. His biggest strides in 2011-12 were as a rim-protector and rebounder. He is the player around whom coach Frank Vogel built his “smashmouth basketball” identity for the team.

Hibbert also has all the intangibles any franchise would ask. He works tirelessly, is fully committed, has a positive personality and is well-liked both inside and outside the locker room. The most boisterous fans in Bankers Life Fieldhouse are those in “Area 55,” the section Hibbert sponsors.

In a league with so few quality centers, Hibbert represents a significant advantage for the Pacers against most of the teams they face.  While it is true the final four teams in the playoff bracket (Miami, Oklahoma City, Boston and San Antonio) lacked pure centers, all would jump at the chance to have a player like Hibbert in the middle.

An Indiana team that considers itself on the brink of joining those elite contenders can ill afford to lose a vital part of its nucleus.

When studied from a business standpoint, however, the decision becomes much less obvious.

Financially, Portland might actually have done the Pacers a favor. As the team holding Hibbert’s restricted free agent rights, Indiana could have offered a maximum of five years and $79 million. If the Pacers choose to keep him, they need only match Portland’s offer of four years and $58 million.

Even so, it represents a substantial investment for a franchise struggling for financial solvency.

Although max contracts are nowhere near the burden they were before the current Collective Bargaining Agreement tied them directly to the salary cap, they still are supposed to be reserved for elite players.

And then there is the not-so-small matter of the future. Maxing Hibbert would raise the financial bar for every other contract the Pacers negotiate.

Consider a year from now when David West is an unrestricted free agent; how can the Pacers make an argument West should make even a dollar less than Hibbert? How about in two years, when Paul George comes due? If the big contracts start piling up, they’ll be right back where they were a few years ago, with an overstuffed payroll and an understaffed roster.

Make no mistake, this is not an easy decision. Strong arguments can be built for both sides.

The idea is to make a decision that favors neither basketball nor business, but benefits both.