Kevin Pritchard has had a long career working in NBA front offices, but this year’s deadline was different than the rest.
Six players came to the Pacers President of Basketball Operations and told him to keep this team together, which be said had never happened before in his basketball life. One player in particular made a strong plea for the group.
“We deserve to see this thing through,” said the mystery player according to Pritchard. “No one believed in us. No one thought we’d be any good. We deserve this.”
The Pacers have exceeded expectations so thoroughly that their 32 wins are greater than or equal to what most outlets predicted for the entire season (including this one). They still have 25 games left to play.
“We got underestimated this whole season,” said Lance Stephenson. “… We’ve shocked a lot of people.”
The Pacers roster wanted the opportunity to finish this season the same way they play every game: together. Every player in the locker room that spoke to the media after Sunday’s victory against the Knicks was thrilled that no changes were made.
“We all have a common goal and all have that mentality of something to prove,” Victor Oladipo said. “Everybody just likes each other. It’s very hard to be in a space where everybody genuinely cares for the person next to them. We enjoy being together. Enjoy playing with each other, going out there and competing with each other. It’s fun, man, and we still haven’t been together even for a year.”
The chemistry of this year’s Pacers squad is incredible, especially considering this isn’t a group that has been playing with each other for years like it normally takes teams to build solid togetherness. It’s the first year for a team with only six returning players from the 2016-17 roster.
“I think one of the reasons we gel so well is that guys lead at different times,” said Oladipo after his stat-stuffing performance against New York. “As a leader, you have to know when to follow as well as know when to lead.”
Oladipo named nearly everyone on the team as guys that lead in their own way and explained why that’s a big part of what makes the team so special.
“When somebody has something to say and has the floor, then everybody listens and takes it in,” he continued. “I think that’s what’s great about this team is that there’s a respect level for everybody.”
The team’s first-time All Star has exceeded every reasonable expectation the team could have had for him.
“We felt Victor in a different situation with a little more responsibility and a little more playmaking duties could take the next step,” said Pacers General Manager Chad Buchanan on a recent pre-game broadcast. “Now, I didn’t expect him to take three steps like he’s done, but Kevin, Nate and I all felt like there’s more to this guy’s game. In the right situation and the right role, he could really blossom.”
Pritchard had plenty of praise for both players that the team acquired in the trade with the Oklahoma City Thunder, citing Oladipo’s “infectious positive energy” that makes everyone have a positive attitude and saying Domantas Sabonis, who he also said was the team’s target in the 2016 NBA draft before they realized he was going to go well before their 20th pick that they ended up trading for Thaddeus Young, is Indiana basketball with his hard-nosed, all-effort play style.
“Domantas has really just been a pleasant surprise for us,” Buchanan said in that pre-game interview. “We knew he had instincts, intelligence, toughness, high character. Both of those guys … bring a workman’s attitude and a lot of positivity to our gym every day. They’ve been tremendous for our culture.”
Darren Collison and Bojan Bogdanovic, two of the Pacers newcomers on the roster that were among the six to talk with Pritchard about keeping the group together, are also among those that have exceeded expectations for even the Pacers themselves.
“Darren and Bojan have exceeded our expectations at such a high level,” Pritchard said about the pair with contracts that could make them appealing for other teams to trade for at the draft, “that the questions [we] have to ask is, ‘What replacement player is better than that?'”
While Pritchard said things are subject to change and did mention that they’ll be able to be aggressive during the draft with possibly taking on contracts and picks, he also said that he values continuity and doesn’t want to have the huge roster turnover that the team has had in the past few off-seasons.
Stephenson was with the last Pacers squad that seemed to have tremendous chemistry in the 2013-14 season and knows from experience that year that additions to a group that gets along so well can disrupt everything in a locker room.
“There’s been years when you make a trade and it messes with team chemistry,” said Stephenson when asked if he was glad if there were no changes. “I feel like we didn’t make any trades because our guys are all tied in. We know what we need to do to win games. Everybody knows their role. When you establish that at the beginning of the season, you just keep it going.”
Al Jefferson, who was mentioned in rumors at the deadline, wasn’t one of the six players that talked with Pritchard but he had a pair of words for the executive when he saw him for the first time the deadline had passed that summed up the entire roster’s feelings and probably a large portion of the team’s fanbase: