From the moment the new-look Indiana Pacers came together for offseason workouts last August, Thaddeus Young was confident that this squad would exceed expectations. As outsiders mocked the Pacers’ trade of Paul George for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis and projected the team would miss the playoffs, Young and his teammates developed an us-against-the-world mentality.
Indiana silenced their doubters by winning 48 games and putting up a hell of a fight against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round. While the Pacers ultimately lost in seven games, Indiana actually outscored Cleveland by 40 points in the series. Young averaged 11.3 points, 7.7 rebounds and 1.7 steals and did a terrific job defending on Kevin Love and LeBron James. After their postseason showing, the Pacers will enter next season with a ton of confidence and league-wide respect.
HoopsHype caught up with Young to discuss the Pacers’ success, how good this young team can eventually be, Oladipo’s breakout season, his upcoming player option and more.
At what point did you realize that this Pacers team could be special and exceed all expectations?
Thaddeus Young: Going into this year, I had already seen it. We all came together and started working out as a group in August, so I had a chance to see how some of our new guys played and that’s when I realized how good we could be. I’d like to think that I’m a pretty good evaluator of talent since I’ve been in the NBA for over 10 years now. I remember seeing a few things that stood out to me. I saw that the way our new guys play the game fit really well with the way that our returning guys play. The other thing I saw was that we had a lot of guys who had a chip on their shoulder and they were ready for the season to start so they could show everyone what they can do. Once I saw those things, it was kind of easy for me to envision this team doing well. I thought we could be pretty good, especially playing in the Eastern Conference since a lot of the teams aren’t as tough as they are in the Western Conference. I remember last offseason, I told [team president] Kevin Pritchard and [general manager] Chad Buchanan, “Man, I think we could be really good.” And Kevin was like, “What do you mean?” And I responded, “I mean that we could be really, really good. We’ll either be really bad or we’ll be really good; there’s no in between for this team.” Kevin asked me what, specifically, I was seeing. I told him that this is a group that would play with a big chip on our shoulder and play hard every single night. Then, he told me, “Well, go out there and prove it.”
Shortly after that, we were ending practice one day and I told the team, “Everyone is talking about how this is a rebuild. People keep saying ‘rebuild,’ ‘rebuild,’ ‘rebuild.’ Well, we are not rebuilding. We’re just reloading the clip!” From that day forward, we all treated it like that. Nobody viewed this as a rebuilding season. We expected more from ourselves. When everyone was picking us to win 30 games, we felt like that was a total slap in the face and disrespectful to who we are as players. We had that in mind when we went out to play each night, and we were focused on getting better every game. And with this squad, we play together. One of my favorite things about this team is that we play for one another each and every game. There was no selfishness, no focus on individual accolades. We all felt like if we put the team first and played together, then we’d all reap the benefits.
Victor Oladipo was outstanding this season, becoming an All-Star and averaging 23.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 2.4 steals. What did you think of his breakout campaign and how much did he impress you behind the scenes?
TY: He’s one of the most positive individuals that I’ve ever been around. He really helped our culture. Our head coach, Nate McMillan, said it best recently. He was quoted as saying, “No matter how your day goes, no matter what’s going on in life, Victor taught me that you can always hit the reset button. His positivity pulls everybody up.” That’s the way Victor is and that approach was so good for us as a team. If we’d be losing at halftime, we always felt like we could get back into the game and that was due to his positivity. Vic is a great player, of course, but he’s also a great leader. Every single night, he goes out there and gives it his all. You never have to worry about Vic giving less than 110 percent. He also believes in his teammates and instills confidence in you. If you miss a jump shot or a free throw, he’s the first guy to tell you, “Don’t worry about that, you’re going to hit the next one.” Those are the positive things that you want from a teammate, especially when it’s your star player.
Vic is really coming into his own and he improved by leaps and bounds this season. He made so many strides this season. He improved way more than I expected him to in one year. But even with all this success, he’s the same guy. He’s keeping it all together and, without a doubt, he’s one of the most unselfish players I’ve ever played with. In fact, there are times where I’ll scream and yell at him to be more selfish. I’d tell him, “Stop letting the defense off the hook! Shoot the ball! We got here on your back, so keep going!” I would have to reel him in sometimes, but he does a good job listening. He’s going to be in this league for a long time and he’s going to be playing at a high level for a long time, just because he works so hard.
You guys were one of this season’s feel-good stories, but this team should only continue to get better since the franchise’s cornerstones are still relatively young. Victor turned 26 years old today, while Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis are only 22. And the veterans – you (29), Bojan Bogdanovic (29) and Lance Stephenson (27) among others – are all in your prime. How good can this Pacers team be if you guys continue to develop and play to your full potential?
TY: Man, I think the sky is the limit for us. As a team, we’re already pretty good, but I think we’ll be so much better entering next season because we’ll all have another year of experience under our belt and we won’t be a new-look team that just got together anymore. This year, we did our best to try to figure things out on the fly and get everyone on the same page, and it worked really well. But now that we all know each other and have played together for a year and have our chemistry down? Next year, it should be 10 times easier. There’s not much learning and acclimating that we’ll need to do; we can just pick up right where we left off and focus on getting better.
Is it frustrating watching the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Toronto Raptors in the second round? It’s looking like Cleveland will advance, but you guys were so close to beating them in the first round. Is it tough to watch this series after how close you guys came to beating the Cavs?
TY: It’s funny that you asked me that because I was just texting Vic, Darren Collison and Cory Joseph last night [after Game 2] and I said, “Man, so they’re just going to let Cleveland walk into the Eastern Conference Finals? They’re letting them walk into the next round.” I told them, “Man, this is crazy. We’re supposed to be out there right now.” We all understand that we lost the series and there were self-inflicted mistakes on our part. But, at the end of the day, Toronto has to at least win a couple games. The first game could have gone either way, but the second game? You can’t come back like that. To answer your question, it’s damn frustrating to watch these games. We’re sitting at home and watching these games like, “Man, we would’ve at least been in the game. We would’ve at least gotten ourselves back into the game and made it a fight.” The series isn’t over – it’s a long series – and Toronto is definitely a good team. They can bounce back and win some games. But right now, it’s not looking too good for them, being down 0-2.
You have a $13,764,045 player option for next season, so you could opt out and become an unrestricted free agent in July. Have you made a decision regarding your option yet?
TY: I know I have to make that decision by the end of June, but I haven’t made a final decision on what exactly I’m going to do yet. I’m still in the process of sitting down with my agent and my business manager and my wife and my kids, and we’re talking about every opportunity and situation possible. We’ll look at everything that could happen. I’m kind of just enjoying my time off and not thinking about it right now, but I do need to start thinking about it over the next couple of weeks. But as of right now, I haven’t decided what I’m going to do or even thought too much about it.
Looking at your career, you’ve scored in double-figures in 10 straight seasons and you’ve averaged 13.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.5 steals (while shooting 50 percent from the field) since entering the NBA. You’re incredibly consistent you’ve been so important to every team you’ve been on – on the court and off the court with your leadership and professionalism. I’ve talked many of your former teammates and coaches who all rave about you. I’ve always considered you somewhat underrated. Do you feel that you don’t always get the credit you deserve?
TY: I mean, yeah, I do think I’ve been a little underrated. I feel like I’m overlooked a bit. But at the end of the day, like I said, I’m not playing for fame or individual ratings or any of that stuff. I’m playing to win basketball games. That’s what my mindset has always been: Do whatever it takes to win the game; win at all costs. That’s the mentality I have when I enter each and every game. My teammates know that I’m always going to be there for them and do whatever I can to help the team. For the most part, I’ve been healthy; I’ve played 75-to-80 percent of every season and I do whatever I can to make sure I’m out there and producing. I just want to be there for my teammates, and I want to remain consistent as a player and do the things that I do. I do want to continue to grow as a player and get better too, but at the very least, I know I’ll remain steady and produce [at this level]. That’s the way I look at it. If I were to let being overlooked dictate how I play, I think I’d struggle. That’s how you end up falling off. When guys start caring what people say about them, they get away from playing their game and struggle. I just focus on what I need to do each time I step onto the court and I don’t worry about how I’m perceived.
Nate McMillan is getting some Coach of the Year love and deservedly so because he did a great job this season. For people who don’t realize his impact or who aren’t giving him the credit he deserves, can you break down how much he helped this team?
TY: Everyone within the organization respects him and all of us players give him and his staff a lot of credit for what we were able to do this season. Around the league, I’m not sure if people realize how good of a job he did and how important he was to our success. To have this kind of year, especially after losing so many of our main veteran players from last year’s team [such as Paul George, Jeff Teague, CJ Miles, Monta Ellis, Rodney Stuckey and Aaron Brooks] and then bouncing back this year with all of these new guys, there’s a lot of work behind the scenes that goes into that. He put our scheme together and put the right mixture of guys together on the court. Coach did a hell of a job this season, putting us in a great position so we could go out there and win a lot of games. Coach and his staff played an integral part in our success.