Kevin Pritchard and Donnie Walsh were walking out of Bankers Life Fieldhouse Thursday night after Indiana’s 122-115 victory against Minnesota. Its record went to 41-22, no small feat considering All-Star guard Victor Oladipo’s season ended on Jan. 23 with a ruptured right quadriceps tendon.
The Pacers, without their best player, had beaten a bunch of contenders -- Boston, Philadelphia, Houston, Oklahoma City-- to 40 victories and still were going.
So as the two men left the building -- Pritchard, 51, Indiana’s president of basketball operations and Walsh, 78, the lifer now serving as a consultant -- Walsh turned to Pritchard and said, “Well, Kevin, you’re not going to have a losing season.”
That’s pretty much the Pacers’ way. No sweeping pronouncements about the season, no predictions of playoff success. Just a snapshot of the moment, simple math in a one-day-at-a-time approach.
For the rest of us, it’s entirely legitimate to assess Indiana’s 2018-19 season overall, to respect the Pacers’ consistency and to marvel at their ability to absorb the blow of Oladipo’s loss and keep going. Pritchard, the native of Bloomington, Ind., nearing the second anniversary of when he took over for Larry Bird in the team’s basketball hierarchy, spoke recently with Steve Aschburner of NBA.com about another overachieving season.
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Kevin Pritchard: I really think it starts with what we’re about. Our guys, on a consistent basis, do a couple things: they play hard and they play together. That’s really a testament to [coach] Nate [McMillan] and our coaching staff. Every night, I feel like we give ourselves a chance. We may be not the most talented team, but we try to make up for it by doing the small things well. They’re a competitive group. They believe in each other, and I think they believe in playing the right way.
There haven’t been but a handful of games this year where I thought, “Man, we didn’t play super-hard tonight.”
SA: No offense, but the Pacers -- in this era of multi-star Super Teams -- aren’t very “sexy.” Is there room for a serious contender going about its business like this?
KP: What we evaluate is, when we look at players, we look at what we’re about. We have some things we feel very strongly about in our culture, and that kind of drives every decision. Sometimes that maybe knocks out the “sexy” pick, but it makes us take a hard look at what fits. Our players have done a great job also of establishing what they’re about and holding the locker room accountable.
SA: So the Pacers sometimes get to do the choosing, rather than always hoping to be chosen, by a talented free agent?
KP: I don’t think it comes down to turning down anybody. I think we know what we are in Indianapolis. That doesn’t mean we won’t go after the big names, but when we do our evaluations, we ask ourselves a few questions and if they don’t fit, we mark that. “OK, let’s evaluate the rest of the talent pool.” I’m not sure it’s the right way, but it’s the way we do it.
SA: In games Oladipo was hurt last season, your team was 0-7. As we speak this season, you’re 16-11. What’s the difference, as far as dependency?
KP: We overachieved overall last year. We made a pretty big trade [Paul George for Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis] and it worked out for both teams, and that made my job easier coming into this season because we wanted to keep some continuity. Continuity has allowed those guys to get comfortable with each other and gain some confidence. After we had a few wins without Victor, they had a better sense they could win if they played the right way.
We’ve had great fans the last two years. ... And our fan base is educated. They know basketball, and I think they respect when they see a team play hard, whether it’s a win or a loss. You can’t fool ‘em. And we don’t try to fool anybody."
SA: You lost your first four after his injury in January, then won nine of the next 12.
KP: That’s a real credit to Nate McMillan. You think about juggling as many lineups and dealing with as many changes as we’ve had the last few years, he has done a great job of maximizing the talent. Our staff has great cohesion and this is a tribute to the job they’ve done.
SA: Nate’s getting mentioned as a Coach of the Year candidate. Why is he good at his job?
KP: Just the consistency. He prepares. He brings the same work ethic every single day and that trickles down to the team. He sees the game in a way he wants it to be played. When it’s not played that way, he lets them know. And I think Nate has had a little bit of a rebirth with his third team now. He’s able to make adjustments.
SA: According to some analytics I’ve seen, some of your most efficient five-man lineups have been ones without Oladipo. How does that work?
KP: Yeah, I’m not sure I would subscribe to the theory that we have more better lineups without Victor. My eyes would tell me we’re a lot better team when he plays.
SA: How is Oladipo doing in his rehab?
KP: Great. He has hit the reset button and attacks every single day the best he can. He’s getting shots up sitting down in a chair. Whatever Victor can do, he will do -- times a factor of 10.
I spent two days with him down in Miami. During that time, he was texting and calling a lot of our guys. I think he stays in really close contact with our team on a daily basis.
SA: In his absence, have you seen any other individuals step up and take more responsibility?
KP: It feels like Thad [Young] has really stepped up into that captaincy role and become more vocal. We have a leadership group with Darren [Collison] and Bojan and now Wes Matthews, along with Myles Turner and Sabonis, they’ve all stepped in. I’m not sure we have one guy who has a dominant voice -- it feels like this team polices itself in holding everybody accountable.
SA: What was your sales pitch to Matthews?
KP: He saw opportunity, right? We needed a starting two. And there was continuity with just knowing Nate and how he coaches, his style [Matthews and McMillan were together in Portland for 1 1/2 seasons]. And from what he’s told us, he saw us, he played against us and he liked the way we play. But it became a recruiting process, for sure. He had a lot of options.
SA: The Pacers are at or near the top in a number of defensive metrics, from defensive rating and points allowed per game to opponents’ field goal percentage and sheer fouling. What’s the secret of that success?
KP: Dan Burke is our defensive coach. He should get a lot of credit. And it’s the fabric of what we are. Before we walk out to practice, I can assure you all of our coaches have thought about defense first. It’s their nature, it’s the way we evaluate film, it’s the way we look at players. It’s kind of who we are.
SA: So how has this gone for you in Year 2 in your current role?
KP: I think this is my ninth year here. It seems short but it’s been a while. I work with Donnie Walsh and Larry Bird [advisor to the Pacers president] on a daily basis, and both guys are true mentors for me. Donnie’s in the office every day. Larry’s here in the fall, then he’s back for the Draft and free agency -- he’s very involved. I think he really enjoys this team.
SA: OK, but what have you learned about the job and the business? For instance, you deftly navigated a situation that has gotten a lot of league attention lately -- the star player who wants out. I know you called it a trade that worked out for both teams, but the challenge initially was to move Paul George without taking a serious step back.
KP: I think the biggest thing is, you’ve got to get in a room with your staff and your coaching staff, and have a good, hard debate about everything you do. You have to board out the noise and try to do what’s right.
SA: There’s a lot more noise as you call it than there used to be. It’s unfathomable now, for example, that Kareem Abul-Jabbar could have asked for a trade back in 1974 and his boss in Milwaukee, Wayne Embry, could keep it quiet for a whole season.
KP: Oh my gosh, [the noise is] almost infinite now. You can almost guarantee tomorrow that there’s going to be more [off-court] stories.
SA: What’s your assessment of the group you added last summer: Tyreke Evans, Doug McDermott and Kyle O’Quinn?
KP: They fit in nicely. They all made it clear that they wanted to come in, play a role and do it as well as they possibly could. Kyle is a great backup center, and we’ve asked him to be the third center. We’ve needed him, because Sabonis is going to be out for a little bit. McDermott, as he gets comfortable here and learns to seek out his offense, the better he’s going to be. And Tyreke, he’s had some ups and downs. But when he plays well, we’re a different team. We need that punch off the bench, and that’s something we focused on when he got him.
SA: How do you know from night to night whether he’s going to provide that?
KP: I can’t tell that for the whole team. You just never know.
SA: [TJ] Leaf had a big game against Minnesota Thursday [18 points]. He was the No. 18 pick in 2017 [ahead of prospects such as Brooklyn’s Jarrett Allen, Toronto’s OG Anunoby and the Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart]. Do you still see in him the player you projected?
KP: We’re really high on him. He has paid his dues. He got stronger last year. The physicality of the game was a little bit of a challenge -- that’s not his challenge anymore. He’s got a real offensive feel. He’s one of our best in the post. He has a patience about him. He can go either way -- he can pass. We think he’s got a shot to be a really nice NBA player because he just works so hard. The game is slowing down for him.
SA: Bogdanovic got a lot of attention on the Timberwolves broadcast as a player who could help a bunch of teams. With six or seven of your top 10 heading into free agency, what impact is that having on your immediate and longer-term futures?
KP: It’s good in that guys are pretty motivated. I’ve believed in this team. We’re going to be challenged in the playoffs and it will be fun watching them, but we’ve got to get there first. I don’t want to look too far in the future. We know we’re going to have some tough decisions this summer. But I believe 40 percent of the league will be free agents, so it’s not only our issue. It’s a league issue and an opportunity.
I think we know what we are in Indianapolis. That doesn’t mean we won’t go after the big names, but when we do our evaluations, we ask ourselves a few questions and if they don’t fit, we mark that."
SA: Did your fan base need to be persuaded, after Oladipo went down, not to bail on this season? Or did they remember how plucky the Pacers were in nearly upsetting Cleveland last spring and sign on for more of the same?
KP: That’s a good question. We’ve had great fans the last two years. We’ve been a tough out at home. And our fan base is educated. They know basketball, and I think they respect when they see a team play hard, whether it’s a win or a loss. You can’t fool ‘em. And we don’t try to fool anybody.
SA: We haven’t seen Indiana opt for the “race to the bottom” approach to team building.
KP: You’ve got to give Herb [Simon, team owner] a ton of credit. He’s not the kind of guy who says, “Let’s tank and look to the future in three years.” We’re not about that.
SA: This is such a bottom-line business. But considering everything that’s happened already, can you take satisfaction now in what your team has accomplished? Or does it necessarily have to wait until the end, with so much determined by your last game?
KP: I’d rather you ask me at the end of the year. I know we’re not going to have a losing season, though.
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