The 2022-23 Pacers season may not have ended with a playoff appearance, but there’s no doubt that the Blue & Gold took significant strides forward. Indiana improved from 25 wins in 2021-22 to 35, saw significant development from up and down its young roster, and heads into the offseason with an optimistic outlook.
“I thought it was a very positive year in many ways,” Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle said in his end-of-season press conference on Monday. “We’ve established a style, a culture. We’ve established the importance of team. We’ve won a lot of our fans back.
“We know we’ve got a long way to go to get to where we want to go, but it’s been a very productive year.”
Heading into the season, Carlisle and Pacers President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard met to outline their goals for this season. Pritchard, addressing the media on Tuesday afternoon, harkened back to that meeting,
“I think the first thing that came up is we wanted to have a fun style of basketball,” Pritchard said. “We wanted these guys to come in and play open and free…We really wanted to get our players playing on a high level on the offensive end.”
If that was the primary goal for this season, then mission accomplished. The Pacers established themselves as one of the most exciting teams in the league on the offensive end, thanks in large part to star point guard Tyrese Haliburton.
In his first full season in Indiana, Haliburton blossomed into an All-Star. He averaged 20.7 points and 10.4 assists over 56 games, shooting 49 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point range, and 85.7 percent from the free throw line. Haliburton – who just turned 23 last month – shattered the franchise record for assists per game and became the first player in NBA history to average 20 points and 10 assists while shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc.
With Haliburton leading the point of attack, so many players on the Pacers roster enjoyed the most offensive success of their careers.
Myles Turner, the full-time center for the first time in five years, averaged a career-best 18 points per game and broke Reggie Miller’s franchise record for true shooting percentage. Buddy Hield broke another of Miller’s records, knocking down a career-best 288 threes. T.J. McConnell, with his relentless energy, proved to be the ideal backup to Haliburton, keeping the pace up and showing off an improved shooting stroke.
It wasn’t just the veterans that flourished in Indiana’s high-octane offense. Rookie guard Bennedict Mathurin was one of the league’s top scorers off the bench. Fellow rookie Andrew Nembhard started over 60 games. Aaron Nesmith and Jordan Nwora made the most of increased opportunities after being acquired in trades with championship-contending rosters. And other young players like Isaiah Jackson, Jalen Smith, and Chris Duarte had strong showings at different points throughout the season.
Haliburton said that the biggest success this season was the Pacers establishing a clear offensive identity where any time they took the floor, “we (knew) we could score against anybody.”
Backup big man Daniel Theis referenced talking with opposing players after back-to-back road wins in Boston and Miami just before Christmas and having those players marvel at Indiana’s pace and free-flowing offense.
“It’s impossible to scout you guys,” Theis recalled them saying.
The Pacers have so much firepower on offense, but as the players filed through the Ascension St. Vincent Center for exit interviews on Monday to meet with coaches and the front office, there was one consistent theme – they must improve defensively.
Kevin Pritchard End of Season Media Availability
The Blue & Gold ranked 26th in the NBA this season in defensive rating, allowing 117.1 points per 100 possessions. They were 26th in opponent 3-point percentage (.373), 27th in points in the paint allowed (53.7 points per game), and 29th in second-chance points (15.4 per contest).
While Turner has established himself as one of the league’s best rim protectors, the Pacers struggled to keep players in front of them on the perimeter. The message in exit interviews was clear – everyone on the roster needs to dedicate themselves to improving on the defensive end this summer.
What that means may vary from player to player. For instance, Mathurin said that his biggest focus is on becoming a better defender off the ball, working on his communication and trying to limit mental lapses. Haliburton considers off-ball defense and jumping passing lanes to be his strength, but knows he needs to spend time in the weight room to get stronger so that he can be better built to battle with bigger guards.
Pritchard said he will be looking for players who can help defensively at the point of attack in the draft and free agency, but also expressed optimism that the young players on Indiana’s roster will demonstrate “organic improvement” on the defensive end next season.
“When we’ve had deep playoff runs, we had a defensive culture,” Pritchard said. “…The game has changed. You have to put it in the hole. But I think we’re going to become such a dynamic offensive team with Ty and what we put around him. If we can just go from 26th (in defensive rating) to 15th and then 15 to 10, keeping that offense, you project that out a little bit and you realize, man, it’s not as far away as we think.”
It promises to be an active summer for Pritchard and the front office. One of the main priorities will be Haliburton, who is eligible to sign an extension on his rookie contract this summer. While negotiations haven’t started yet, both parties did not exhibit any stress about a deal getting done, with Pritchard insisting “Ty is our guy.”
“I’ve never been around a more complete, empathetic, understanding of what the real world is, loving, taking care of the small people, truly committed to community leader like him,” Pritchard said. “I’ve never seen it. I’ve never seen a connector like Tyrese ever. Like ever. He connects with our ball boys, he connects with the president or the CEO of some company. He just has this ability to make people feel comfortable around him.”
Tyrese Haliburton End of Season Media Availability
The Pacers have just three free agents on the 15-man roster – long-time veterans George Hill and James Johnson as well as fourth-year forward Oshae Brissett. But the Blue & Gold will have five picks in the 2023 NBA Draft, including their own likely top-10 pick (pending the results of the NBA Draft Lottery on May 16), two late first-rounders acquired in trades from Cleveland and Boston, and two second-round selections.
Pritchard made clear on Tuesday that “I don’t want to bring in five young kids to this organization.” He and the front office have run lots of models as to how the offseason could unfold and will continue to do so over the next two months leading up into the draft. Pritchard said there are “almost infinite models” when it comes to potential moves.
“I think there’s some opportunities for us to look at our draft picks and cap space and maybe put a bunch together and make big packages and go after some players,” he said. “Now I can’t say for sure that’s going to get done, but I want to be really creative with how we go after the right players.
“I think we’ll be pretty aggressive in the market place. I think I told you guys we made some big offers at the trade deadline. Quite frankly, I’m itchy. I’m a little itchy. We have this unique player Tyrese who has maybe put us way ahead of schedule. We won 25 games, we won 35 games. Can we get to 45? Can we take that to a bigger team?”
Pritchard said that he has and will continue to consult with Haliburton when it comes to potential offseason acquisitions. He also believes that Haliburton can be a valuable recruiter in free agency, both with his ability to make other players better on the court as well as his infectious personality.
Before turning the page completely to the offseason, Pritchard couldn’t help but reflect on the 2022-23 Pacers, insisting “Of my 30 years in the league, I’ve never been around a more fun (team).”
“This team was so fun to be around,” Pritchard said. “And I wanted them to get a taste of the playoffs, but I’m not sure that it was the right thing (for the franchise in the long-term).”
The Pacers have now missed the playoffs the past three seasons, but don’t expect that drought to last much longer. Being around this year’s team only reinforced his belief that the Blue & Gold deserve to return to the postseason.
“As a goal, I really want to get this team in the playoffs,” Prichard said “…I want it for our organization, I want it for our community. But when you’re around a really good group of kids, you just want it to happen because they deserve it, because they’re doing the right thing, because they came in and they worked hard and they came together and they were for each other.”