Pritchard Keeping Open Mind as Coaching Search Commences

Kevin Pritchard is paid to make difficult decisions and last week he had to make one of the toughest calls in his professional career.

Pritchard, the Pacers' President of Basketball Operations, decided to relieve Nate McMillan of his duties as head coach on Wednesday, two days after Indiana was swept out of the first round of the playoffs by the Miami Heat.

It was not a decision Pritchard took lightly. He and McMillan have worked together for over a decade between their time together in Indiana as well as Portland, where Pritchard was the general manager of the Trail Blazers for much of McMillan's tenure as head coach.

Pritchard addressed the decision to make a coaching change on Monday in an hour-long Zoom call with the media. He opened the call by thanking McMillan for his contributions to the organization.

"Nate brought a lot of dignity," Pritchard said. "No one could ever question his hard work. I feel like I'm a better person for working with him...He's someone I consider a friend and hope to have (as) a friend for a long time.

"I give Nate a ton of credit for instilling a tough, hard-nosed culture here. I really believe he'll get another job and get another job quickly if he wants to."

Ultimately, Pritchard decided to move in a new direction out of a desire to see the Pacers reach a new level in their pursuit of winning a championship. Indiana has not advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs since 2014 and was swept out of the first round in three of McMillan's four seasons as head coach.

Injuries, of course, played a significant part in those results. The Pacers were without two-time All-Star Victor Oladipo when they were swept by Boston in 2019 and did not have All-Star forward Domantas Sabonis or scoring guard Jeremy Lamb in this year's series with Miami.

Still, Pritchard was left with a lingering feeling that the Pacers were capable of more than what they were able to accomplish.

"It's felt like the last couple years it's ended with a bad taste in our mouth," Pritchard said. "For me, that is something that there had to be some changes. I take full responsibility. We're going to look at some of our departments and how we can do things better.

"As the President of this organization, I want us to be better than four-and-out in the playoffs."

Pritchard said the front office has "just started" the coaching search. They have discussed a number of potential names internally and want to look at "a big pool" before even beginning the interview process.

Pritchard said one area of focus in the coaching search is finding someone with "a little bit of a modern approach," particularly when it comes to offensive concepts.

Under McMillan, the Pacers were last in the NBA in 3-pointers attempted per game despite ranking in the upper half of the league in 3-point percentage. In 2018-19, Indiana ranked fifth in 3-point percentage but 29th out of 30 teams in 3-point attempts.

Pritchard also expressed a desire for a "modern approach" to dealing with players, citing the differences in speaking with a younger generation of athletes that have grown up with social media.

For the coaching search, Pritchard will rely heavily on his brain trust, which includes General Manager Chad Buchanan, Senior Vice President of Basketball Operations Peter Dinwiddie, and Assistant General Manager Kelly Krauskopf, as well as former top executives Donnie Walsh and Larry Bird, who remain with the organization as consultants.

Pritchard has also had discussions with others outside the organization. He said that he reached out to Colts General Manager Chris Ballard to discuss their 2018 coaching search that resulted in the hiring of Frank Reich. Pritchard also had a "long conversation" on Monday with former Pacers forward David West, who offered insight into how to interact with the new generation of NBA players.

Just as was the case with the decision to let McMillan go, Pritchard will have the final say on who is the next coach of the franchise, but he is keeping an open mind as he goes through the process.

"I'm not ruling anything out," Pritchard said. "We could go with experience, we could go with an up-and-comer, we could go outside the box."

The new coach will have "full autonomy" when it comes to their staff, Pritchard said, just as McMillan did. The status of assistant coaches Dan Burke, Bill Bayno, and Popeye Jones likely will not be known until the next head coach is named.

Pritchard Remaining Patient as Oladipo Approaches Free Agency

Aside from the coaching search, the most popular questions Pritchard received on Monday were regarding the contract status of Oladipo, who is entering the final season of a four-year contract.

Oladipo is eligible to sign an extension with Indiana during the offseason, but if he does not, he will be an unrestricted free agent following the 2020-21 season. In that scenario, the Pacers still would be able to offer him an extra year and more money than any other NBA team.

Pritchard said Monday that he has a "good dialogue" with Oladipo and is comfortable with the idea of the star guard entering free agency in a year if it comes to that.

"We don't feel any rush to make any quick decision on Victor," Pritchard said. "We have him for another year. After next year, we can engage in negotiations and you have to realize we have some advantages in getting into those negotiations. But it will be up to him.

"I think he's been pretty consistent in saying that the most important thing for him is to win. And I do believe that we can have a team that can do some good things in the playoffs."

Pritchard also praised Oladipo for deciding to play in the NBA restart in Orlando after initially planning to travel with the team but not take part in the games in the bubble.

Oladipo played in six seeding games and all four playoff games in Orlando. He left Game 1 against the Heat after being poked in the eye but returned for Game 2 and topped 20 points in each of the last three games in the series.

Arguably his best game came in the season finale last Monday, when Oladipo tallied 25 points, eight rebounds, five assists, and five steals in Game 4 while going 5-for-11 from 3-point range. Most impressively, Oladipo played 44 minutes, reaffirming his growing level of comfort playing on his surgically repaired right knee.

"I do believe he made a huge sacrifice in coming back and playing," Pritchard said. "And I thought it was really beneficial for him to come back and play because he kind of dusted off some rust. I felt like he started to look like the old Victor."

Pacers fans still have fresh memories of being spurned by All-Star forward Paul George, who surprised the organization with a trade request a year prior to free agency in the summer of 2017 – a trade request that ultimately resulted in Pritchard acquiring Oladipo and Sabonis from Oklahoma City. But Pritchard said on Monday that there are no parallels between Oladipo and George.

"I have not heard anything other than he does want to be here, that he does want to make it work here," Pritchard said.

Pacers Have Talented Roster, But Questions Loom

The Pacers' roster enters the 2020-21 season with remarkable stability, a marked change from a year ago, when seven players were set to enter free agency.

Just two players from the 2019-20 Pacers will be unrestricted free agents this summer — Justin Holiday and JaKarr Sampson. Indiana has the option of extending a qualifying offer to third-year forward Alize Johnson.

That means that barring a trade, the Pacers will largely remain intact heading into next season. As it stands now, the Blue & Gold have all five starters and their top eight scorers from last season under contract for next year.

Indiana's cap number will rise as a contract extension (and $15 million raise) kicks in for Sabonis, but the Pacers will still have the full mid-level exception available to use in free agency.

That exception could potentially be used to bring back Holiday, who emerged as a veteran voice in the locker room and a key player off the bench last season, averaging 8.3 points per game and shooting 40.5 percent from 3-point range.

"I like this group coming back," Pritchard said. "I think we have a foundation of good players. Do there need to be some changes made? Maybe. But those won't be made without a lot of thought behind it."

Questions remain about the Pacers, who were not able to get a complete look at their full roster last season due to myriad injuries. Pritchard's intended starting five of Malcolm Brogdon, Oladipo, T.J. Warren, Sabonis, and Myles Turner logged just 86 total minutes together as Oladipo did not play until Jan. 29 due to his rehab and Sabonis was unable to participate in the restart after developing plantar fasciitis.

The age-old question with the Pacers remains the frontcourt partnership between Sabonis and Turner. After two seasons with Sabonis coming off the bench, Indiana committed to starting him alongside Turner this season.

While starting a pair of 6-11 big men seemingly runs counter to a league that is trending toward smaller starting lineups, the Pacers found success with the lineup. The Pacers outscored opponents by 2.1 points per possession with Turner and Sabonis on the floor this season.

Sabonis blossomed as a full-time starter, earning his first All-Star selection. There was a learning curve for Turner as he adjusted to more of a floor-spacing role, but he became more comfortable as the season progressed and remained an anchor of Indiana's defense with his shot-blocking abilities.

Pritchard said on Monday that both Sabonis and Turner recently expressed support for continuing the two-center experiment next season.

"When talking to Myles and talking to Domas, both of them the very first thing each (one) said is 'I want to play with Domas' and 'I want to play with Myles, we can make it work,'" Pritchard said. "I was a little taken aback by that, but I think they really appreciate each other's skill set.

"I think one can be a spread and one can be a post and they can do well. We're still studying the numbers. But also as we go through this interview process, I'm going to learn from a lot of coaches how they would play those guys."

While the focus remains on the Pacers' frontcourt, Pritchard is also anxious to see if Indiana's backcourt partnership between Brogdon and Oladipo can live up to his high expectations.

The Pacers acquired Brogdon last summer with the hope that his playmaking abilities could compliment Oladipo's All-Star skill set. Oladipo's return from injury prevented the Pacers from getting a look at the duo at full strength, but Pritchard remains optimistic about what they can accomplish next season.

"When you look at it on paper, it fits," Pritchard said. "You have two attacking guards who both can make plays for other people.

"We put a lot of load on Malcom this year. (His) usage rate was through the charts. I think if you can balance that out more, I think it will look a lot better and it will take away that major load of one person having to carry the offense."

But the Pacers, along with the rest of the NBA, head into next season with greater-than-usual uncertainty. The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting four-month hiatus have thrown the league calendar out of whack.

The league tentatively scheduled the NBA Draft for Oct. 16 and the start of the 2020-21 season for Dec. 1, but there is growing uncertainty around those dates. It also remains to be seen how lost revenue from the pandemic will impact the salary cap for next season.

As such, Pritchard isn't sure exactly what to expect this offseason, though he did offer one prediction for the coming offseason.

"It seems like the trade market will be the way that teams really try to improve their chances in the short term," Pritchard said. "I would not be surprised if when the trade market opens that that actually gets super active this year."