INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Indiana Pacers president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard spoke one-on-one with AllPacers this week about an abundance of topics, including the state of the team, developing continuity and the recent trades and movement on the roster and with the coaching staff.
Pritchard has been the Pacers' president of basketball operations since Larry Bird resigned from a similar post in 2017. He is an Indiana Hoosier since birth, being born in Bloomington.
Pritchard played his college basketball at the University of Kansas and was chosen by the Golden State Warriors in the 1990 NBA Draft. In 2005, he was the interim head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers and later spent time as their general manager.
Since taking over the Pacers in 2017, the team has made playoffs every season.
Here's what Pritchard had to say:
Dealing with injuries, protocols
The Pacers have had several critical injuries this season. Center Myles Turner is currently out indefinitely and Forward T.J. Warren is out for the remainder of the season.
"We sort of worry every day about how the team is doing mentally," Pritchard told AllPacers in a phone call. "We work on it, but being on the road, not being able to go out of your hotel as much, the restrictiveness of the season has proved to be more challenging than anybody probably accepted.
"Going into the year, we knew it was going to be challenging, but I don't think anybody from the management perspective and the people that I talk to had any idea how challenging it was going to be."
It's not as hard as last year was, concluding the season inside the bubble in Orlando. The Pacers were the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference last year, but were swept in the first round by the Miami Heat, who then advanced all the way to the NBA Finals.
"Being away from your family is hard, but being with the guys, we tried to make it as fun as possible," he said.
Pritchard said the team played a lot of pickleball, cornhole and other games in Orlando. The experience, he says, helped the team grow together.
"That's what will try to remember from it," he said. "Will make it a good memory for our future."
Are expectations being met this season?
Pritchard and the Pacers decided to move on from coach McMillan after last season's first-round sweep, and hired Nate Bjorkgren, the former well-regarded assistant with the Toronto Raptors. In his first season, the Pacers are currently 27-31 and are the ninth seed – which does qualify them for the new play-in tournament – but remain only 4.5 games back of the fifth seed, which is currently the 32-27 Atlanta Hawks.
"You are what you are. You are what your record is," Pritchard said. "We thought we would be a little bit better here, but as we go into these last 16 games, we're not too far out, so that gives us a little hope. I want to evaluate this team in its entirety and not make too many judgments now."
One of the biggest struggles that has held the Pacers back has been their performances in the fourth quarter most nights. Missing Warren, who was the team's leading scorer at 19.8 points per game last season, makes a big difference, especially when they're trying to close out game late and could use a basket.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Pacers are in the top-12 in the league in points per game, but it's another story on the defensive end, where they ranked No. 23 out of 30 teams.
That's something of a surprise because, historically, the Pacers have always been a defensive organization.
"We've hung our hat the last 10 or 11 years that I've been here on being a hard-hat lunch-pale team," he said. "We knew we had to improve our pace, but we're going to have get back to those days of defending every position. You look at some of the best teams in the league, they defend night in, night out, and you can't have one and not the other, it's always a balance.
"You can't have a great offensive team and a terrible defensive team and you can't have a great defensive team and a terrible offensive team. It's a balance, and I don't know if we have the right balance yet. We're searching for that, I know Nate is looking for that every game, and you are what you emphasize every day.
Embracing that defensive mindset is a must, Pritchard said.
"We've had such a defensive culture that it's different and we know that we're going to have to get back to that,'' he said. "We're trying to emphasize it every day from here on out and will put an emphasis on it next year too because defense has served us well. Even though we haven't done as well in the playoffs, we've gotten there, we've been competitive, and if it wasn't for a couple injuries, who knows where we would have been? We're not going to use that excuse. We've gotta get back to that hard hat and lunch-pale type of mantra."
Continuity among the Pacers
Turner, forward Domantas Sabonis and guard Malcolm Brogdon are all under contract for several seasons now, and the Pacers have been able to keep several pieces together for some time.
"Continuity makes a difference when you're healthy," he said. "I don't know how many games that we saw what we anticipated our starting five being this year to what has happened actually this year. We've had major injuries, so we haven't seen that starting five altogether," he said.
The bench has been steady, but the starting lineup has been flux this season.
"Without Victor [Oladipo] for some, Caris [LeVert] coming in and going through his situation with T.J. Warren being out the whole year, that has been challenging."
Thoughts on Nate McMillan
Nate McMillan was Pritchard's coach in Indiana for four years and at Portland for two more during his roles as president, so it was a hard call for him to make in moving on from the veteran coach.
After parting ways, McMillan signed on with the Atlanta Hawks as an assistant coach, and after Lloyd Pierce was fired, McMillan took over as the head coach of the Hawks and has them currently as the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference.
"He's the only one I ever had," Pritchard said. "Nate and I have a great relationship. One of the things when you work together for 11 or 12 years, you've been through it. You've been through the wars, you've got the scar tissue, you know each other's strengths and weaknesses, and we could really have straight-up conversations. I felt like that was our big advantage."
The Hawks beat the Pacers this past Sunday in Atlanta.
"Nate will do very well, and I'm super happy for him," Pritchard added.
The aquisition of Caris LeVert
The Pacers found themselves involved in the James Harden trade that sent the disgruntled former Houston Rockets star to the Brooklyn Nets. As part of the multi-team trade, the Pacers traded Victor Oladipo to Houston and got 26-year-old Caris LeVert from Brooklyn.
"I'm not sure if anything surprises me anymore in this league," Pritchard said, laughing when asked if being able to get LeVert was surprising. "I think you've just got to stay prepared as much as you possibly can.
"We evaluate talent all the time, we're trying to plug in and model different players here and there, but it feels like about 99.9 percent of it doesn't happen. It just so happened that we were able to get Caris, and we're thrilled to death with him.
LeVert was diagnosed with a tumor in his kidney during his routine physical as part of the trade. It forced him to miss several weeks, but it also probably saved his life since he was unaware of the tumor. He's played 22 games thus far for the Pacers after returning to action on March 13.
"He's just now getting his legs; I don't think he really had his legs the first five, 10 games back, but how can you?'' Pritchard said. "I don't think we're going to see his best basketball till next year."
Trading Victor Oladipo
Victor Oladipo spent three and a half years in Indiana – the same state he played his college basketball at IU – and with the Pacers, he made only two All-Star appearances. He was a fan favorite because of his Hoosiers ties, but he also missed significant time in 2020 with a leg injury and was in the last year of his contract this season.
The Pacers traded him to the Houston Rockets on Jan. 15 in the three-team deal that brought LeVert to Indiana.
"With any player that's a super high-level player coming up on his last year, for small markets like us we're always trying to balance the thought of 'can you keep him?' If there's a chance, you're balancing that with what is the option to get instead of that player.
"I don't like making a lot of changes because that's not necessarily the recipe for success. If you're not playing your best basketball, then you can. We don't really love trading players. That's not our objective. We try to sign players and keep them long-term. When Caris came available – and he had multiple years (on his contract) – we felt that could be a foundational piece of our organization it was too tempting to resist. We felt that it had a long-term cost-benefit analysis. It was much higher than lower."
Similar to Paul George trade?
In 2017, the Pacers traded All-Star Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder for Sabonis and Oladpio. Since George, Oladipo had been the biggest star the Pacers have had.
George was forcing a trade at the end of his contract too, so Pacers fans certainly felt like they had been through this before
"I think with the first trade with Paul, our real objective was could we get two players that were undervalued that we felt like in our system – in a different system – could really blossom," Pritchard said. "We had hoped it was three players, but we felt like both Victor and Domas could be A-level players, and they both wildly exceeded that.
"It was a win-win for both sides. At this level, there's never really a win-lose trade anymore. What happens is it's a win for one side now and a win maybe later for the other team. Nobody goes into deals trying to make a bad deal for either side. We're just trying to put deals that help each other, and if it comes out that there's a fair point in the middle, then you do it, and for us, we try to create a culture here that players enjoy being here.
Sabonis and Oladipo were great fits for Pritchard and the Pacers.
"We become obsessed with player development, and we try to do everything we can to develop them here. We tell players if you come here and you focus on basketball, you'll get better, you'll be noticed, you'll have an opportunity to win at a high level, and we've done that for 10 or 11 years."
The media's impact on trades
All the discussion about trades and trade rumors is tough on players and front offices these days. Pritchard said it definitely affects they way they have to do business.
"I think it probably has," Pritchard said when asked if leaks in the media have ever messed up a trade. "We're sensitive to how players feel, throwing names around. We don't do that. We don't really have as much exploratory talks. If we're going to do it, we already know we're probably going to do it.
"There's a uniqueness to trades. Something comes in that happens quick, but we try to do the best we can in making sure when we sign or trade or draft a kid, we try to let him know he's going to be here long-term and that we're taking the long-term approach. It's just like buying a stock. You can buy a stock, and today you don't know what it's going to do, but if it's a good company and it's a good long-term hold, then at the end of the day, its value will be recognized. It just may not be today."
Reviewing recent drafts
In last year's draft, the Pacers did not have a first-round pick, but they did draft Cassius Stanley in the second round out of Duke.
In 2017, they drafted T.J. Leaf with their first-round pick, and he is not on the team anymore, the next pick in 2017 after Leaf was John Collins in that same draft.
"We need to do better," Pritchard said of the draft. "You have three ways of getting players, a trade, a signing, or the draft, and to do all three well is nearly impossible. When we drafted T.J., through no fault of his own, we had Thad Young at the time, but then we did the Paul George trade and that brought in Sabonis.
"Through training camp and through games, Sabonis had emerged as a player that could help us a little more than T.J., so T.J., even though he may have close to the talent and abilities, he wasn't given an opportunity. One of the things you know is an opportunity doesn't mean he can't play. What it means is he didn't get an opportunity. He may get an opportunity somewhere else, and the butterfly effect from that is unpredictable. Sabonis and Victor may have not played as well in Oklahoma City, but they were good players. They just needed opportunity. Opportunity in this league is everything."