The NBA is a league where personnel shuffles like cards, where rosters shift as abruptly as the weather. But the Indiana Pacers are going with something fresh this year, taking a chance that stability will be more valuable than wholesale change.
Pacers management is betting disposing of coach Nate McMillan, but keeping most of the players who they were banking on to lead the team beyond the first round of the playoffs, can do so with a second chance.
The post-mortem after the Pacers were blown out of the bubble last summer in four straight games by the Miami Heat produced a shell-shocked organization, where the pervasive feeling was “We’re better than that.”
Kevin Pritchard, president of basketball operations, was the front man for the disappointment, someone who said if it doesn’t work this time he will probably be exiled next.
So he hung onto the core of the roster and hired Nate Bjorkgren as new coach, previously an assistant who won a title with the Toronto Raptors. Pritchard said a new man would bring in fresh ideas, install a more up-to-date offense, and mold the same old Pacers into a new-look Pacers.
Of course, when the Pacers were in the bubble they were hobbling. Domantas Sabonis didn’t play because of a left foot injury and Victor Oladipo was not himself. Both are critical pieces. Tuesday they met the press via Zoom and expressed faith in their health and the Pacers.
Sabonis, the 6-foot-11 power forward, said he thought he would have played if the Pacers advanced. Oladipo, who spent months recovering from a torn quadriceps muscle, played, but was not quite himself.
As Oladipo’s injury evolved into discussions of soap opera proportions, there were whispers about the 6-4 guard’s commitment to a future with the Pacers and his ability to regain his past all-star capabilities.
Oladipo did his best to spike such speculation.
“Growing up, I was always taught not to engage in nonsense,” he said of the debate. “I’m focused on here and now.” The entire situation annoyed him, dismissing talk of a chip on his shoulder — “more like the world on my back and I had to hold it up. You can call me Atlas now.”
The Pacers finished 45-28, the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference, and expected a better showing in the playoffs. The Heat roasted them and Atlas said he feels much better than he did in August.
“I would say it’s night and day,” he said. “I feel a lot better, a lot stronger than in the bubble. The little things I can do again.”
Oladipo has reasonably deep Indiana ties, competing for Indiana University before his pro career.
“I never said I didn’t want to play for the Pacers,” Oladipo said. “It’s crazy because I’ve never said that. This is Indiana basketball.”
What constitutes Pacers basketball will be up to Bjorkgren as he breaks in Sabonis, Oladipo, Malcolm Brogdon, Myles Turner, T.J. McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, brothers Justin and Aaron Holiday and T.J. Warren, and blends in a few newcomers.
Warren was a revelation during eight pre-playoff games in the Florida bubble, shocking NBA students with a 53-point game and averaging 31 points.
The Pacers do seem to have the depth and firepower needed to compete with other Eastern powers Toronto, Miami and Boston. Bjorkgren went around meeting holdovers after he was hired, having dinner with Sabonis and watching a couple of days of Oladipo workouts, if only to make sure they both weren’t still limping.
The players proclaim their readiness. Sabonis said he is optimistic about results with a healthy squad and understands Brjorkgren will be looking for a faster pace.
“It’s been a year,” Sabonis said since he last competed. “I just want to get out there. He wants everyone to shoot more threes. We can show everybody what we’re all about.”
This will be a 72-game regular season, starting just before Christmas, starting later in the year, perhaps games played in front of fans, perhaps not, due to the coronavirus, with no one in this time of the pandemic knowing what the next day will bring.
In the Pacers’ offices and locker room, it is all about one thing: Winning an NBA championship.