Pritchard, Pacers Set Sail In New Direction

Speaking to the media at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on Friday afternoon after an incredibly active trade deadline, Pacers President of Basketball Operations Kevin Pritchard made several allusions to steering a boat when referencing the direction of the franchise.

After years of paddling against a strong current, Pritchard decided it was time to chart a new course, overhauling Indiana's roster with three significant trades over the past week.

In his first four years in his current role, Pritchard had traded exactly one player during the season — Victor Oladipo in Jan. 2020. But in a major change in philosophy, he dealt away five players at this year's deadline, including Indiana's two leading scorers (Domantas Sabonis and Caris LeVert), a third starter (Justin Holiday), and two veteran bench contributors (Torrey Craig and Jeremy Lamb).

The moves were all about adding young assets. Trading LeVert to Cleveland netted a 2022 first-round pick and two second-round selections (as well as Ricky Rubio's expiring contract). Dealing Torrey Craig to Phoenix brought in Jalen Smith, the 10th overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, and another second-round pick. And shipping Sabonis, Holiday, and Lamb to Sacramento netted Tyrese Haliburton, a 21-year-old rising star, as well as capable veteran contributors Buddy Hield and Tristan Thompson.

The decision to steer in a new direction wasn't made on a whim. It came after lots of honest and frank conversations between the front office, the coaching staff, and team owner Herb Simon. As the Pacers struggled to stay healthy and pick up wins, spending virtually the entire season in 13th place in the Eastern Conference and well out of the playoff picture, the path forward became clear.

"We knew that if we were going to do one, there was a very good chance that two and three trades were going to happen," Pritchard said. "It wasn't going to be one trade in a vacuum. Instead of moving the ship a little bit, it had to be moved a little bit more...at the end of the day, we felt like there was going to be some significant moves."

Pritchard said he challenged his front office — consisting of General Manager Chad Buchanan, Assistant GM Kelly Krauskopf, and Vice President of Basketball Operations Ted Wu — "to be super aggressive." They hit the phones hard and were able to identify trades that, as Pritchard put it, "pulled us into a really nice direction."

There was one player in particular that the Pacers coveted — Haliburton, an All-Rookie First Team selection last season with the Kings. Pritchard said Indiana was "knocking on the door a lot" with Sacramento, aggressively pursuing a player they view as a potential All-Star caliber point guard. After much persistence, they finally landed him.

"We have a point guard of our future," Prichard said of the acquisition. "And if you have been in this business a long time, getting a point guard that is young with upside and you feel like you can build around for the next 10 years, those don't come around very often.

"Tyrese is that guy. We feel like not only on the court, but off the court, he brings a persona that we need."

But acquiring Haliburton didn't come without a significant cost. The only way to get him was to trade away Sabonis, who had blossomed into a two-time All-Star over his five seasons in Indiana.

Pritchard has plenty of fondness for Sabonis, whom he acquired from Oklahoma City in the Paul George trade in 2017, his first major move since taking the reins in the front office. But when he put his emotions aside, the deal made perfect sense.

"We're going to miss Domas," Pritchard said. "We're going to miss how hard he plays and his passing and his rebounding, but this league is trending towards guards and wings and those kind of things. And I feel like we have a foundational piece in Tyrese."

Trading Sabonis also creates a new opportunity for Myles Turner. Turner and Sabonis started together in the frontcourt for the last three seasons, a pairing of two players best suited as centers that worked to some degree but was always going to be an awkward fit.

Now, the 25-year-old Turner has the chance to potentially take on a larger role offensively. Already one of the NBA's preeminent shot-blockers, Turner has taken a back seat to Sabonis on the other end of the floor. That won't be the case any longer.

"I think the guys wanted it to work, but it just was a little clunky at times," Pritchard said of the Sabonis/Turner pairing. "There was about a month ago where I thought, you know, there's an opportunity to maybe let one stand up and lead and one get to another place and have his opportunity."

While Sabonis and Turner had plenty of time on the floor together, injuries prevented the Pacers from getting a real chance at ever seeing the team's full potential. T.J. Warren's foot injury stopped the team from ever fielding its intended starting five of Malcolm Brogdon, LeVert, Warren, Sabonis, and Turner during LeVert's 13-month tenure with the franchise. Even the four players minus Warren were only able to play in 16 games together this season.

The same problems existed prior to LeVert's arrival when Oladipo was the team's starter at shooting guard.

"The truth is if all healthy we don't know what this team could have been," Pritchard said. "And that's unfortunate. But you can't keep saying, 'Well, if we're healthy we're going to be a good team.' There's a point in time where you say, 'Enough is enough, let's go in a different direction.'"

Chris Duarte, Tyrese Haliburton

Chris Duarte (left) and Tyrese Haliburton (right) high-five during their first game as teammates on Friday, Feb. 11, 2022 at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. (Photo Credit: Matt Kryger)

That different direction led Indiana down an exciting, yet unfamiliar path. Haliburton forms the centerpiece of a new young core that also includes rookies Chris Duarte and Isaiah Jackson, 2021 first-round draft picks that have had promising starts to their NBA careers.

At 19-38 after Friday's loss to Cleveland, the Pacers would have the fifth-best odds in the NBA Draft Lottery if the season ended today. There is a strong chance that the Blue & Gold will have a pick higher than 10th in the draft this summer for the first time since they took George McCloud seventh overall in 1989.

The Pacers also acquired a lottery-protected first-round pick from Cleveland in the LeVert trade, as well as a second-round pick that originally belonged to Houston and projects to be at the beginning of the second round. And they added Smith, an athletic 6-10 big man less than two years removed from being a lottery pick, as well as another 2022 second-round pick in the deal with Phoenix.

And while the Pacers have stockpiled young players and draft picks, they also have a number of capable veterans still on the roster. Brogdon, Turner, Hield (a career 40-percent 3-point shooter), and T.J. McConnell are all on reasonable contracts through at least 2023. Warren will be a free agent this summer, but is expected to return at some point after the All-Star break and could potentially re-sign with Indiana in the offseason.

"We feel like we've got young players we can take a look at and grow, but also we have some players that are accomplished," Pritchard said. "And if you blend them together, it may be a pretty good team."

In reshuffling the roster and accumulating draft picks, Pritchard said he has created a "ton of optionality" moving forward. They will play out the final two months of this season with the current group, see how everyone meshes, and then determine their next moves in the offseason.

As of now, they will have four picks in the draft, including three likely in the top 35 selections. They can keep those picks or perhaps attempt to package them in another trade. They will also have the cap space to be players in free agency or to take on a larger contract in an unbalanced trade.

"To me, that's what you want," Pritchard said. "If we sit back, we get to the end of the season, we get into the draft, we get into free agency, I think there's a lot of opportunity. I think that we're going to be opportunistic.

"If we see something, usually we pounce and we go all in. I think we'll make big changes to help this team."

Whatever direction they ultimately decide to go, Pritchard remains confident in the franchise's ability to develop players. He cited the breakouts of George, Oladipo, and Sabonis over the past decade, all of whom blossomed into multi-time All-Stars during their time in Indiana.

In Pritchard's mind, Haliburton (or another new addition) could be the next name on that list.

"That's something that I'm very proud about (that) this organization does," Pritchard said. "We bring in these players, we identify them maybe with other teams, and then we think that there's more value here than where they are...We can get them to where they want to play at."

While the Pacers are setting out in a new direction, the intended destination remains the same. Pritchard said that Simon, who he speaks with multiple times a day, remains "perfectly clear" about his goals for the franchise.

"He wants to be a championship team," Pritchard said.

That's always been the goal, but the Pacers have come up short in that regard. After reaching back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals in 2013 and 2014, Indiana has failed to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs over the past seven seasons. With that streak likely to extend to eight, it was time to steer the ship another way.

The Pacers are embarking on a voyage into uncharted waters. What exactly lies ahead remains to be seen, but they set out feeling the same as any traveler setting sail on a new adventure — hopeful.