From the outside looking in – which is how most people, if they keep up at all, get their Indiana NBA news – the Pacers had a dud 2022-23 season. They went 35-47 and finished 11th in the Eastern Conference, neither good enough to challenge for a Play-In Tournament berth nor bad enough to dredge their way to serious Victor Wembanyama lottery odds.
Zoom in a bit, though, and there was some juice to the Pacers’ season. Through the schedule’s first half, they went 23-18, good enough for sixth place. They ranked in the league’s middle offensively and defensively, boasted some depth and competition for playing time, used their first-team All-Rookie Bennedict Mathurin as an effective sixth man and got a leap in impact from point guard Tyrese Haliburton, who became an All-Star in his first full season in Indianapolis.
For those reasons, along with some solid summer improvements, there’s a bounce to the Pacers now. During the recent National Basketball Coaches Association meetings in Chicago (and before reports of failed contract talks that sparked Buddy Hield trade speculation), coach Rick Carlisle spoke with NBA.com about what’s next for his team.
Editor’s Note: The following 1-on-1 conversation has been condensed and edited.
NBA.com: What excites you the most about this fresh start?
Rick Carlisle: We like the direction we’re headed. There has been a lot of change to the roster, obviously, over the last few years. Haliburton has changed everything for us. He’s not only a tremendous player but someone other people are going to want to play with. Without him, we don’t get Bruce Brown in free agency.
— Indiana Pacers (@Pacers) September 12, 2023
Brown left the champions in Denver to sign with your team. Haliburton planted his flag by signing a five-year, $206 million extension. You like your two first-rounders, forward Jarace Walker and Ben Sheppard, on the heels of the Bennedict Mathurin-Andrew Nembhard draft in 2022. All signs pointing up?
Our draft has been terrific the last two years. And the acquisition of [Knicks 2018 lottery pick] Obi Toppin is going to give him an opportunity and gets us one of the best transition players in the world on a team that led the league in fast-break points [18.1 per game] last year.
Are you counting on Toppin being driven to prove doubters wrong?
Look, since T.J. Warren’s injury three years ago, the Pacers have been in search of a 4-man. A starting 4 and a legitimate backup. So with Toppin, with the drafting of Walker and with Aaron Nesmith back this year, we’ve got three guys that have played that position effectively. Not to mention Jordan Nwora, who played very well at the end of the year. So all of a sudden we’ve got a lot of possibilities there.
What is the key for Haliburton to go from an All-Star to a player who wins?
Had Tyrese not gone down for 12 or 13 games in January … we were 23-18 when he got injured, then he missed the better part of a month. We went 1-9 right after he got hurt. That speaks to the importance he has to our team.
He’s been described, last season and most recently in the FIBA World Cup tournament, as someone who definitely makes teammates better.
Oh yeah, yeah. He allows those around him to achieve at a high level. That’s one of the consistent definitions of greatness of NBA players. So he’s very special.
Will Myles Turner still be hearing trade rumors at his retirement ceremony?
That stuff’s gone away since we signed him to his two-year extension. He’s with us. We’ve been very careful that his name is not thrown around out there after the rumors from early last year. We signed him to be our center.
Turner has said that trade speculation initially stung but eventually toughened him up.
He had the best year, statistically, of his career. He rebounded better, scored better, shot 3s better – he did everything better. That fact ought to eliminate a lot of the rumors.
Was there anything in particular Mathurin worked on this summer?
Overall game. We’ve been very consistent with him, that he needs to be a great two-way player. He has the ability to do that. He continues to work on his rhythm, his feel, but he’s a special talent. You don’t see many guys that come into the NBA that get to the free-throw line as often as he did [5.8 per game] or score as effectively as he did.
Where will the Pacers find value in the In-Season Tournament?
This is another trophy. The Premier League in soccer has been doing this for decades with a high level of success, so it’s time to jump in. It sounds to me like it’s very well-organized and makes a lot of sense. I’m sure a lot will be learned in Year 1 that will be adjusted for Year 2 as needed.
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