It’s early in Kevin Pritchard’s tenure as the President of Basketball Operations for the Indiana Pacers, but things couldn’t have gone much better over his first seven months considering the hand he was dealt shortly after he took over for Larry Bird.
In the summer, it didn’t look like it was going well to most outside the Pacers organization.
Originally, Pritchard’s plan was to build around Paul George and create a contender that would entice George to remain in Indiana. George seemed willing to let Pritchard try until about a week before the draft and the beginning of the off-season when he had a change of heart and told the Pacers organization that he would not re-sign with the team.
“We had multiple conversations, we talked about players we wanted to add to this team, and it felt like we were in agreement on that,” Pritchard said after the draft. “Not that a player dictates that, but I wanted him to (give) some feedback. We had conversations about players and how we want to go forward. So, for me it was a shock.”
One week before the off-season and all of the Pacers plans were for naught. That gut punch made for a unenviable scenario for Indiana as they quickly turned their focus to creating a completely new plan.
“It couldn’t have come at a worse time for me,” Pritchard said after the draft. “Had we known this a while ago we could have been more prepared. And then the way it got out… we struggled with that.”
Pritchard was unable to find a deal to his liking during the draft and preached patience on waiting for the right deal to materialize even as George’s agent was making it clear to all potential teams that he wanted to be in Los Angeles. Pritchard found the deal he was looking for with Oklahoma City Thunder, but no one seemed to agree that he made the right call.
The return for Paul George of Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis, and no draft picks was laughed at and mocked without mercy by nearly all from police departments, fans, media, even other teams. (Myself included in the puzzled-over-Pritchard’s-decision camp to choose this deal and not one that included Gary Harris from Denver in a 3-team deal with Cleveland or waiting for Boston to know whether they would sign Gordon Hayward and trying to snag that juicy Nets pick that would only be in the late lottery if the season ended today.)
No one is laughing now. Except the Pacers.
Pritchard has put together a team that plays hard every night, is more fun than ever and has chemistry that usually takes teams years of playing together to develop.
“My teammates are phenomenal people,” said Oladipo. “When you surround yourself with people that care about you, chemistry comes natural. It’s a special locker room.”
None have been more important to this team transformation than Victor Oladipo, who leads by example, cares for his teammates immensely, and has hit big shot after big shot in the clutch for the Pacers so far this season.
It’s likely that Oladipo makes an All-Star team this season, while George probably does not. Not many would have predicted that when the trade was announced this summer.
“He should be an All-Star starter,” Darren Collison said after a recent practice. “I think he deserves it. Since day one, he’s been the leader that we’ve asked him to be.”
And Sabonis has been a big part of the Pacers emerging chemistry as the guy that seemingly everyone loves to play with.
But the deal that netted the Pacers two key pieces for their bright future is only one move that Pritchard made this off-season. He’s looked to have hit on just about every transaction to this point including signing Darren Collison and Bojan Bogdanovic and trading for Cory Joseph.
In total five of the eight players that play the most minutes for the Pacers were added by Pritchard this off-season and another (Thaddeus Young) was widely looked at as someone they should have looked to trade away after the George news instead of keep around.
Instead of being a lottery-bound league bottom feeder that many expected coming into the season, the Pacers sit at 19-14, good for 4th in the Eastern Conference, and have been a much improved team from last year’s version.
The Pacers looked for players that had the following traits in the George deal and seemed to have carried that over into their free agency moves as well: motivated, toughness, hardworking, togetherness, unselfishness, intelligence, athleticism and chemistry.
““It’s chemistry,” said Lance Stephenson after the Nuggets game, “sticking together and believing in one another. We’re bringing it every night. … There’s no hate. You know what I mean? Some guys get mad about somebody doing good. This team wants their teammates to do good. I feel like that makes this team even better.”
Resilient is another word that should have been added to the list as the Pacers come from behind seemingly every game, especially at home.
The only question so far for Pritchard is how his draft picks of TJ Leaf and Ike Anibogu will turn out, but neither player is even 20 years old yet and it’s too early to jump to any conclusions about them this early in their careers.
“We know that he can score the ball,” McMillan said about Leaf after practice. “We want to see him defend and continue to work on, certainly scoring, but really his first year is about just playing. There’s no pressure, no expectations, other than getting out there to play.”
A big difference between Bird and Pritchard’s style in recent off-seasons is the lack of long-term deals that Pritchard handed out.
Both guys spent most of the cap space that they had available nearly every year, but Bird’s long-term bets in consecutive years on the likes of Rodney Stuckey, Monta Ellis, Al Jefferson not only didn’t work out in the immediate sense but gave the Pacers less wiggle room in following off-seasons to improve the roster.
The Pacers will now still be paying Monta Ellis, who was waived in the off-season using the stretch provision, when the NBA All-Star game makes it long-awaited return to Indianapolis in 2021, and neither Ellis or Stuckey have even found a team willing to sign them at all since they were waived by the Pacers. They aren’t the only players from the 2016-17 roster that are now out of the NBA: Lavoy Allen, Kevin Seraphin, Rakeem Christmas, and Georges Niang.
Pritchard, however, kept the team’s future cap space open while going after overlooked veterans that would take short-term deals with partial guarantees in the final year of the contract.
Collison and Bogdanovic both are making about $10 million this season and at this point look likely to complete their 2-year deals next season with the team, but if they didn’t pan out Indiana could have cut the cord with little cost to their salary cap for next season as the second years had a very small portion of guaranteed money. These contracts also could be used as potential trade sweeteners for teams looking to shed salary to make room in FA for a max contract slot.
Right now, it doesn’t seem like these fail-safe options will be necessary, but Pritchard put the organization in good position either way.
The challenge will eventually become what to do with many of the team’s current players as their contracts end either this summer or the next, including Joseph, Collison, Bogdanovic, Young and Glenn Robinson III, but so far Pritchard has been the gift that keeps on giving for the Indiana Pacers.