Players urged Pacers front office to let the same group finish out the season

The Pacers’ front office, now directed by Kevin Pritchard, believes little things can have a profound impact on the results. Beyond talent and energy level, there’s body language, support for one another, and how they take criticism.

One specific area Pritchard and his front office are constantly evaluating is the bench. Are players intently listening in huddles? Are they helping one another out? How do they react to a positive and negative play on the court?

Yes, yes, and very well.

“I feel like the strength of this team is that they really look out for each other,” Pritchard said when he spoke to the media for almost 26 minutes before the Pacers (32-27) beat the New York Knicks at Bankers Life Fieldhouse Sunday afternoon, 121-112.

It was his first time addressing reporters since in 140 days, since media day back on Sept. 25.

One of the ways they keep tabs on this group is by reviewing photos. Thousands of them, in fact.

“We take pictures of the bench all the time,” he shared. “It’s one of the things we feel like is really important. And then we hang them up in their locker room, and you see — literally, we’ve got 2,000 pictures of Myles [Turner] getting crazy when [Domantas] Sabonis gets a dunk, or Victor [Oladipo] going crazy when Lance [Stephenson] makes a layup and hugs Lance. There really is a thousand moments of those that give you great encouragement for the future.”

About a week before the trade deadline — Feb. 8 at 3:00 pm ET — a half-dozen players had communicated to Pritchard that hoped no changes were made.

“I had six players come up to me before this trade deadline – which had never happened in basketball for me in a executive position – say ‘Keep this team together.’ They feel like that they were overachieving and they’ve got a little bit of chip on their shoulder and they wanted to have the opportunity to finish this out and try to get into the playoffs.”

This group had won 30 games … with 27 games still left, despite many projecting them to win 30 or fewer games over the 82-game season. Many felt they wouldn’t be a playoff team, yet here they were in a tie for sixth … and just a half game out of fourth.

“My history has been to make a lot of chance, quick change, and not be scared to turn over a roster quickly,” Pritchard said. “… There was one thing that came back to me from one player and he looked me in the eye and he basically said, ‘We deserve to see this thing through. No one believed in us, no one believed we’d be any good. We deserve this.’ God, that held a lot of weight with me.

“What I noticed about this team is they have this foundation of respect for each other. And that’s what we’ve always wanted. … A lot of times, we haven’t seen small issues because big issues.”

Appearing in 56 of 57 games, Thad Young is a consistent performer. [Frank McGrath/PS&E]

Veteran Thad Young was one of those players. Over his 12 seasons in the NBA with four teams, he has seen his team make moves that don’t pan out and make them worse.

“We talk all the time,” Young said of Pritchard, “through text messages or walking past each other. We try to hold conversations a lot about what goes on with the team.

“I’m one of the guys who definitely thought we should keep everything together and protect how we are. I felt like at the trade deadline if we made a trade for a star power, then we would drastically change our team because we would have to give up some pieces.

“I felt like if we did make a trade, it wasn’t going to significantly make us that much better so I’m fine with the guys who we have on this team. I’m happy that we didn’t have any moves. Right now, we’re just getting better each and every day. We come in here and we fight for each other and we have that brotherhood thang going right now.”

First time All-Star Victor Oladipo, is having a career year, averaging 24.3 points (up from 15.9 last year), 5.3 rebounds (up from 4.3), and 4.0 assists (up form 2.6) per game. He would not reveal whether he was one who approached Pritchard, but said it showed “that we love playing with each other. We love being around each other. We love the chemistry in the locker room, and we love the mentality of everybody.”

Typically the Pacers might have ten potential deals on their whiteboard to consider a few days before the deadline. They are always on the phone, but mostly listening. This year they had just three options that they had zeroed in on, but Pritchard kept coming back to the message reiterated by the players and another thing, fit.

“You have to have the right fit first. I can’t underplay how important we look at fit. We talk about fit for hours on one player. … It just didn’t make sense to make any moves.

“One specific conversation I had with a player was basically ‘We’re comfortable with each other. We like each other. We love the locker room and we’ve had some great wins. We’re not perfect, but we’re going to give it our all to make the playoffs.’

“That carried a lot of weight with me going into the week up to the trade deadline.”

Transparency isn’t something that should be taken for granted, and should be appreciated. And maybe the Pacers learned from their mistake. Paul George was not happy at this time last year when his name was floated. While he filmed a new Gatorade commercial at Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse, the Larry Bird-led front office was listening to offers.

Al Jefferson’s contract that is not fully guaranteed for next season was one potential option. Pritchard gave Jefferson — who, at 33 years old, is the old hat of the team and he hears about it daily — a heads-up.

“Every trade deadline, a lot of teams doing a lot of talking,” Jefferson said. “A lot of names be popping up but nothing really ever happen. If it did happen, I know KP and them was going to do what’s best for the team, so it wasn’t going to be personal either way. But I’m glad it didn’t happen.

“He always makes it clear to me that I’m a big part of the team success, mentoring these young guys and staying ready. He’s seen it, he knew what we had here, and he wanted to keep it here.”

What the Pacers have is flexibility. Just four contracts are fully guaranteed for the 2018-19 season. Several have player options, several more have non-guaranteed deals. Things will get interesting in June before the NBA Draft. Their $5 million in cap space can be incredibly valuable when another team wants to shed a contract or get under the luxury tax. In doing so, a draft pick or young talent could be attached.

On top of that, the Pacers project that they will have between $30 and $50 million in cap space come July 1, the start of free agency. That’s enough room to add a max contract, or add multiple key role players. As many teams’ books are strapped until 2020 when they are done with contracts handed out like candy during the summer of 2016, benefitting former Pacers Ian Mahinmi and Solomon Hill, there’s less money available for free agents.

Until then, the focus remains on this group and maximizing their results. There’s obviously not enough talent to compete for a championship or even get to the finals. Not yet anyways. But nobody imagined Pritchard hitting the reset button and still finishing in the top five of the Eastern Conference.

Myles Turner felt strongly in the fall that this team would outperform expectations. This telling quote stuck with me.

“I’m surprised how competitive the group is. Everybody is out here really hungry, just ready to compete every day. It’s rejuvenating feeling walking into such a great facility like this and everybody’s ready to go from the jump. It’s refreshing.”

There’s a belief and a togetherness — Hi Frank! — with this group, mostly surprising because of their newness with one another. Remember, just six players were brought back from last year’s team; Glenn Robinson III hasn’t played yet because of left ankle surgery, and Lance Stephenson was added to the roster with six regular-season games left.

“We all believe in one another,” said Young (12 points and 5.9 rebounds per game), a starter and consistent performer each night. “We’re exceeding expectations right now and we’re going to continue to do that because we feel that we’re a top four team in the East.”

And that’s a snapshot worth framing.

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