Pacers have big decision to make on Hibbert

INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana Pacers’ first priority in free agency is to keep their starting lineup intact by re-signing center Roy Hibbert and point guard George Hill, both restricted free agents.

That may prove more challenging than anticipated.

With the free agent market opening today, Portland team President Larry Miller and General Manager Neil Olshey reportedly visited Hibbert at his Washington, D.C., home and communicated their intent to make a maximum contract offer. Another unidentified team may also be willing to offer a max contract, according to the SI.com report, while the Pacers’ initial offer fell short of that level.

Should a formal offer sheet be extended and signed when the NBA contract moratorium is lifted on July 11, the Pacers will have three days to decide whether to match. Other teams can offer Hibbert a contract that extends to four years, while the Pacers can offer five. The raw numbers are not locked because they are tied to the 2012-13 salary cap, which has not yet been announced.

“When you talk about free agency, the number one priority of teams that have had a good year is to try to retain their own players so that will be our priority,” team President Donnie Walsh said Friday. “And then we’ll try to add to the team from that point on.

“Everybody talks about players going out and developing skills but a team by being together over time develops into a better team. Everything gets sharper, everything gets better.”

Indiana used its first-round pick in the NBA Draft this past Thursday on 6-10 Miles Plumlee but he is not viewed as a potential replacement for Hibbert. Indiana’s two veteran backup big men, Lou Amundson and Kyrylo Fesenko, are unrestricted free agents, as are guards Leandro Barbosa and A.J. Price.

The Pacers tried to sign Hill to an extension during the 2011-12 season but he reportedly turned down an offer that averaged $6 million.

“You want to keep the same guys because for whatever reason they learn each other better,” said General Manager Kevin Pritchard. “You look at the elite teams that have had sustained success, they’ve stayed together year to year with some small changes.

“This isn’t about blowing it up and starting anew. We’ve got to keep the same pieces in place and we’ve got to keep growing. We’ve got to continually learn, get better, and that’s our challenge, we have to grow as a team. That’s that organic that comes within the team because we’ve been together.”

The Pacers have been among the most prominent teams in the rumor mill, linked by various media reports to free agents Steve Nash, Eric Gordon, Brandon Roy, O.J. Mayo, Deron Williams and Jamal Crawford.

“We’ll be active,” Pritchard said Friday. “Our jobs as general managers is to make sure we look under every stone. That’s the good part of the business, exploring all the opportunities. You look at 99 things and maybe one happens but for me that’s the exciting part.”

Nash, 38, is being courted most heavily by the Toronto Raptors, who hope to bring him to his native Canada to finish his career. Gordon, an Indianapolis native, is a restricted free agent and the Hornets have said they will match any offer to retain the young shooting guard. The Pacers do not appear to be on Williams’ short list.

The most feasible targets are Roy, Mayo and Crawford. While the G.M. in Portland, Pritchard drafted Roy and the two have a strong relationship, giving the Pacers the upper hand in the pursuit of the former All-Star shooting guard who retired last year due to knee problems but is considering a comeback.

Indiana came close to trading for Mayo two years in a row at the NBA trade deadline but both deals fell through at the last minute. Memphis did not tender a qualifying offer, making him an unrestricted free agent. The Pacers also pursued Crawford last summer but he opted to sign with Portland and is coming off a disappointing season.