Pacers' Culture Helped Pritchard Stand Pat at Deadline
As last Thursday's trade deadline approached, six players on the Pacers' roster went to Kevin Pritchard with a singular request: keep us together.
The season is exceeding expectations, the camaraderie in the locker room is outstanding and the opportunity for improvement is legitimate. So why, they said, mess with a good thing?
"Unless we knew we could really help the team I wanted to make sure there were no disruptions," Pritchard said at an informal media gathering before Sunday's game against New York at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
"Our culture means everything."
For Pritchard, standing pat was a change of pace. During his four seasons as the director of basketball operations in Portland, he had made a minor move every year. He, his executive staff and owner Herb Simon narrowed the options to three worth considering, none of which would have involving trading a current player.
"My history has been to make a lot of changes," Pritchard said. "But at the end of the day there was one thing that came back to me from one player. He looked me in the eye and said, 'We deserve to see this thing through. No one believed in us, no one thought we would be any good, we deserve this.'
"Man, that was powerful."
The Pacers entered Sunday's game with a 31-25 record, already reaching the win total projected by many media outlets before the season began. Pritchard would not say what record he would have predicted then, but acknowledged the team is exceeding his expectation "by a factor of six, seven, eight games right now."
The record isn't what has impressed Pritchard most, however. It's the bond that has players pleading with him to keep the roster intact. Pritchard sees it by how they stay together after falling behind by large margins – the Pacers have come back from 19 points or more five times this season – and he sees it when he looks at the photographs in the locker room in the team's practice facility.
"The strength of this team is they look out for each other all the time," said Pritchard, who was meeting with the media for the first time since the opening of training camp. "We take pictures of the bench and then we hang them up in their locker room. We've got 2,000 pictures of Myles (Turner) getting crazy when (Domantas) Sabonis gets a dunk, or Victor (Oladipo) going crazy when Lance (Stephenson) makes a layup and hugs Lance.
"There really is a thousand moments of those that give you great encouragement for the future."
Pritchard will have ample opportunities to improve his roster, both in the remaining months of the season and over the summer. The Pacers have $5.8 million in cap space and an open roster spot, so it's still possible for them to add a current NBA player who clears waivers, a player whose season in China or Europe has ended or a player from the G League. He said he'll look first at the players on the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, the Pacers' G League affiliate.
More options will become available in July. Then, the Pacers will have $30-$50 million to spend on free agents. The fluctuation is dependent on whether they pick up on the options on the contracts of Darren Collison and Bojan Bogdanovic, and whether Thad Young and Cory Joseph exercise their player options.
"That's when you can do some really good trades and signings," Pritchard said.
Pritchard reiterated that Simon has given him the freedom to exceed the luxury tax threshold for the right deal.
"If there's opportunities to make our team significantly better, he's given me the green light," he said.
Pritchard said he'll use his promising core of players, featuring Oladipo, Turner and Sabonis, and the team's sparkling new practice facility, St. Vincent Center, to try to lure free agents.
"We're an attractive destination," he said. "We might not be the beach city, but if you want to become a better basketball player, come here, work on yourself, be a part of a culture where you're put first, we can do that."
Regardless of what happens over the summer, Pritchard can look back on a success summer in 2017. Then, he had to trade perennial all-star Paul George. He had two options, and took the one with Oklahoma City that brought Oladipo and Sabonis and turned out remarkably well.
Pritchard said it was a unanimous decision.
"I looked around the room and I asked (general manager) Chad Buchanan which one he wanted to do and he said, 'Victor and Sabonis.' I looked at (senior vice president of basketball operations) Pete Dinwiddie and said, 'Which one do you want to do?' And he said, 'Victor and Sabonis.' I asked Herb, who do you want to do and he said, 'Victor and Sabonis.'
"If I was going to go against those three, I would have been in big trouble."
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Mark Montieth's book, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," covers the formation and early seasons of the franchise. It is available at retail outlets throughout Indiana and online at sources such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
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