Finding the Right Fit…On and Off the Court

Each morning when Pacers players enter the St. Vincent Center, Indiana's state-of-the-art practice facility, they have to take an elevator from the parking garage up to the second floor, where the practice courts, locker room, training room, and coaches' offices are located.

Inside the elevator, emblazoned above the door is a logo featuring three capital T's inside a circle. Lining the upper half of the circle are the three words those T's represent: Togetherness, Toughness, and Trust.

Stepping through that elevator door is the first of many moments each day that players are reminded of "Three T," a concept that has become a franchise mantra in recent years.

Kevin Pritchard adopted the concept when he replaced Larry Bird as President of Basketball Operations in the summer of 2017. That summer, Paul George's unexpected trade request put the franchise at a sudden crossroads.

Pritchard dramatically rebuilt the roster, trading George to Oklahoma City for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis and signing veterans like Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison, and Cory Joseph.

In meetings with that new core (which also included returning center Myles Turner and forward Thaddeus Young), Pritchard and General Manager Chad Buchanan outlined their vision for a team-oriented culture built around the principles of "Three T."

To a man, that team bought in. They quickly formed a tight bond on and off the court. While most preseason predictions had the Pacers pegged as a lottery team in the year following George's departure, Indiana instead won 48 games for two straight seasons, thanks in part to the quick chemistry they developed under head coach Nate McMillan.

"That was a big part of our team's success the last two years," Buchanan said. "Guys really knew their role. They liked each other, which makes a big difference in our league."

But last summer, the Pacers' front office found itself at another crossroads. The team entered the offseason with over half the roster headed into free agency, including Bogdanovic, Collison, Joseph, and Young.

Over the course of a few days at the beginning of July, the roster underwent another dramatic rebuild.

Collison surprisingly retired to focus on his faith and family, Bogdanovic signed a substantial deal with the Utah Jazz, and Joseph and Young moved on to Sacramento and Chicago, respectively.

With much of their veteran core gone, Pritchard and his staff (including Buchanan, Assistant General Manager Kelly Krauskopf, and Senior Vice President of Basketball Operations Peter Dinwiddie) brought in nine new players. They acquired T.J. Warren from Phoenix, did a sign-and-trade with Milwaukee for Malcolm Brogdon, and added Jeremy Lamb, Justin Holiday, T.J. McConnell, and JaKarr Sampson in free agency. They also drafted Goga Bitadze with their first-round pick and signed Brian Bowen II and Naz Mitrou-Long to two-way contracts.

Aside from the 30-year-old Holiday, everyone on the new-look roster is 27 or younger, with almost every key piece locked in to a multi-year contract.

In addition to youth, the front office also valued character in deciding which players they wanted to bring to Indiana, knowing they wanted players that would embrace the "Three T" ideals. But with so many veteran leaders leaving the organization, they admitted that bringing new faces into the locker room can be an inexact science.

"When you make as many changes as we did, it's definitely in the back of your mind that you're not just necessarily going to pick up where you left off," Buchanan said.

"You're always hoping that chemistry comes together, but you just never know. All we can do is try to put together the guys that fit our culture with both character and basketball talent and then it's just got to work its way out organically."

The early returns, however, have been promising.

Perhaps the biggest reason has been the addition of Brogdon. The Pacers made a significant investment in the 6-5 guard, signing him to a substantial four-year deal.

At Brogdon's introductory press conference in July, Pritchard called Brogdon's addition "an epic day for our franchise."

Indeed, Brogdon has quickly emerged as a leader for Indiana both on and off the court. Despite being new to the team, Brogdon was voted by his teammates as one of the team's captains.

Buchanan said the franchise saw leadership potential in Brogdon dating back to when he was an All-American at the University of Virginia. While the Pacers didn't land him in the 2016 NBA Draft, they were able to bring him to Indiana three years later.

"Everything we heard about him before he got here and now that we've had him here for a couple months, he is exactly who you think he is," Buchanan said. "A genuinely good human being who is very bright. He's very driven, got clear-cut goals for himself, and understands what we're asking of him."

Malcolm Brogdon and Justin Holiday

Photo Credit: Matt Kryger

One of the things that drew Brogdon to Indiana was the allure of greater opportunities not only as a leader, but also as a player. Brogdon played a supporting role for the Bucks, who were built around 2018-19 NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. With the Pacers, he has moved back to his natural position of point guard and will be more of a focal point in the offense.

"It's an elevated role from what he had in Milwaukee and I think that he wants that," Buchanan said. "I think it will take some time for him to get comfortable with that, but it's something that he wants and we're confident in him in that role.

"I think he's going to be a great, great Pacer for us."

Brogdon was just one of three players the Pacers added in the offseason who averaged over 15 points per game last season. The other two – Warren and Lamb – did so for teams that missed the playoffs (Phoenix and Charlotte, respectively).

"Both those guys are coming from situations last year where the team wasn't as successful as they hoped and so they're hungry," Buchanan said. "I think that's a big piece of a team that comes together. You've got a group of guys that want to win and play well."

Warren and Lamb are both quieter by nature, but Buchanan said that both quickly bought into the "Three T" approach. Each player is family-oriented and was drawn to the culture the Pacers have built in recent years.

Warren's mentor is NBA veteran David West, who was the no-nonsense leader of the Pacers teams that reached the Eastern Conference Finals in 2013 and 2014.

Lamb, meanwhile, welcomed his first daughter to the world days before signing with Indiana.

While Brogdon, Warren, and Lamb were all promised major roles, there are only so many minutes available during the season. The trickiest part of filling out a roster can be finding players who are willing to sign with a team without the guarantee of significant playing time.

The Pacers, however, don't sugarcoat anything.

"Kevin, myself, Nate – when we talk to a potential free agent, we're very transparent on what their role will be," Buchanan said. "Sometimes it's not what players want to hear."

Three players who heard that pitch and still wanted to come to Indiana were Holiday, McConnell, and Sampson. All have been rotation players in years past, but were willing to buy in to Indiana's culture without any promises of playing time.

"We told all three of those guys we can't guarantee you a significant role with us," Buchanan said. "We need you to be a great teammate, we need you to push the guys in front of you and be a solid guy in our locker room every day.

"And those three guys have been awesome. All three of those guys bring it every day, they've got a great attitude, they're very vocal in a good way."

The Pacers' front office is optimistic that this new group of players can continue to build on the "Three T" foundation that the previous group laid.

But the real test of this team's togetherness, toughness, and trust won't come until the team faces adversity. In those times when the team's bond is tested, Buchanan said they hope that that the guidance of McMillan – who has won over 600 games as an NBA head coach – will help keep the team together.

"Nate's obviously an established, successful, well-respected coach in our league, so that helps from the very beginning," Buchanan said. "Players have a perception of what the Pacers are about.

"His leadership and the returning players helping the new guys learn what our coaches want, what our team needs from them, and what the expectations are, definitely helps."

Win or loss, after every home game the Pacers players shuffle out of the locker room and walk through an underground tunnel that links Bankers Life Fieldhouse to the St. Vincent Center. At the end of the tunnel, they take that same elevator back up to the parking garage.

As they head out to their cars, they walk under the "Three T" logo – one final reminder of the culture they're helping to build.