Pacers Finally Free to Speak on Trade for LeVert

It's been a wild week on the West Coast for the Pacers. After an impressive win over the Warriors on Tuesday night on the second night of a back-to-back, Indiana was in San Francisco on Wednesday afternoon getting ready to head to the airport to fly to Portland for their next game.

That's when reports surfaced that the team was trading two-time All-Star Victor Oladipo to Houston in exchange for Brooklyn Nets guard Caris LeVert, part of a four-team blockbuster deal that saw the Rockets send 2018 NBA MVP James Harden to Brooklyn.

Though the deal was reported on Wednesday, it didn't become official until nearly 72 hours later on Saturday afternoon. In the interim, the Pacers picked up another big victory in Portland, had Saturday's scheduled game at Phoenix postponed due to COVID-19 contact tracing within the Suns organization, and practiced in Los Angeles on Saturday ahead of Sunday's game against the Clippers.

The deal was officially consummated as Indiana wrapped up practice, allowing head coach Nate Bjorkgren and veteran wing Justin Holiday to finally address the deal during their post-practice media availability.

"I'm really excited to get a chance to have Caris LeVert here with us and at the same time, (there's) a great player, a great person leaving us in the trade," Bjorkgren said. "Two quality players, two quality individuals."

While it was difficult to trade away Oladipo, who blossomed with the Pacers, winning the NBA's Most Improved Player award in 2017-18 and being named to two All-Star teams, it isn't hard to understand Pacers President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard's thinking in making the deal.

While Oladipo will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, LeVert is under contract on a reasonable deal through 2023. He's a little over two years younger than Oladipo and statistically has been as good a player since Oladipo returned from a ruptured quad tendon last season.

The 6-6 LeVert has averaged 18.7 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 4.8 assists in 57 games over the past two seasons, shooting 42.7 percent from the field and 36 percent from 3-point range. Over a smaller sample of 18 games in the same span, the 6-4 Oladipo has averaged 15.6 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 5.2 assists while shooting 40.1 percent from the field and 33.5 percent from 3-point range.

LeVert is an explosive scorer, capable of getting to the rim at will. He went off for 37 points in the fourth quarter and overtime on his way to a career-high 51 points in a win at Boston in March. Even while sharing the court with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving this season, he still averaged 18.5 points in 12 games with Brooklyn and dropped 43 last Friday against Memphis with both Durant and Irving sidelined.

LeVert and the Nets faced off against the Raptors last season in the playoffs. Bjorkgren was a Toronto assistant at the time and had a front row seat to watch LeVert, who averaged 20.3 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 9.5 assists for an undermanned Brooklyn team. The Raptors swept the series, but LeVert recorded two double-doubles and scored 35 points in Game 4.

"I'm really looking forward to talking with him," Bjorkgren said. "Obviously I'm very familiar with him. Last year, we played against him in the first round of the playoffs, where he was very hard to handle. A very good player and very dynamic. I've watched a lot of him."

LeVert's ability to fill it up should make him an ideal fit in Bjorkgren's system, particularly with his knack for getting to the rim, which is a major emphasis in Bjorkgren's offense. It should also fill a void created by the absence of last year's leading scorer, walking bucket T.J. Warren, who is out indefinitely after undergoing foot surgery.

"I think he's going to help us in so many ways," Holiday said. "The things he can do offensively as well as defensively, his size, things like that."

At the same time, there is a human element to any trade. Oladipo was one of the leaders of the Indiana locker room and his sudden departure in the midst of a road trip created mixed emotions for everyone involved.

Bjorkgren said he had the opportunity to speak to Oladipo in person after the trade was reported, but Holiday and many of his teammates didn't have the chance to see Oladipo before the team left for Portland.

"Unfortunately this is a part of the business," Holiday, who has been traded three times (twice in-season) said. "…I've been in Victor's position many a time, so I know how that feels.

"There's times when you don't get to say bye to people. There's times when you do and that's hard."

Though Bjorkgren only coached Oladipo in nine games, he developed a strong bond with the former Indiana University star in the months since he was named the Pacers' coach last fall.

"He was a man of his word to a T," Bjorkgren said. "(From) when I first sat down with him in October, then here we are three or four months later, he did everything that I ever asked of him. He played extremely hard. He's an outstanding person. He's got a very, very bright career ahead of him."

Oladipo is headed to Houston and LeVert will eventually join the Pacers, whether that's in Los Angeles or back in Indianapolis next week. Bjorkgren said he planned to speak with the Pacers' front office following Saturday's practice to determine when and where LeVert will join his new teammates.

In the interim, Bjorkgren will get his team ready for another stiff test on Sunday against Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and the Clippers. While a blockbuster trade less than a month into the season might rattle a first-year head coach, it's nothing new for Bjorkgren.

"I had to do a lot of this earlier in my career in the (G League) as a head coach," he said. "Your team changes very quickly. Guys get traded, guys get called up to the NBA, guys go overseas to Europe. So there was constant change.

"And that's kind of the season that we have with us here. Games may be postponed and some players may be coming and going and trades can happen. It's just constantly coaching the team that you currently have, not worrying about other things. You've got to coach the guys that you have in the locker room and on the floor with you."

Update on LeVert's Status

Shortly after this story was posted, the team issued the following statements.

Statement from the Indiana Pacers on the status of Caris LeVert:
Caris LeVert will be out indefinitely after an MRI revealed a small mass on his left kidney during a physical prior to finalizing the four-team trade with Brooklyn, Houston and Cleveland. LeVert will undergo further medical tests and more details will follow as needed.

Statement from Caris LeVert:
"On behalf of my family and myself, we want to thank the Indiana Pacers for their support and guidance. We are grateful for their extreme thoroughness during the physical process and I am looking forward to joining the team and being part of this great organization as soon as possible."

Statement from Pacers President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard:
"We acquired Caris because of who he is as a young man first and foremost. His basketball skill and on court play speaks for itself and we know he has a great career ahead of him. We will support Caris through this time and know that he will join us on the court as soon as he is able."