Behind the scenes with the Indiana Pacers' front office: 'We have to find value when it's not there'

Behind the scenes with the Indiana Pacers' front office: 'We have to find value when it's not there'

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Behind the scenes with the Indiana Pacers' front office: 'We have to find value when it's not there'

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In 2017, the Indiana Pacers promoted Kevin Pritchard to president of basketball operations and hired Chad Buchanan as their new general manager. That summer, Pritchard and Buchanan sat down with Peter Dinwiddie, the team’s senior VP of basketball operations, to discuss what kind of culture they wanted to create in Indiana.

After figuring out their organizational approach and style of play, they realized that a certain NBA player epitomized their way of doing things. During training camp, the front office quizzed their players on this individual’s identity.

“I asked our players a trivia question,” Buchanan recalled. “I said, ’Name the player: He’s a combo guard who spent his entire 13-year career with one team, won 60 percent of his games and earned All-Defensive honors twice. His career-high in assists was higher than his career-high in points, and he once had 25 assists in a single game. He was never a full-time starter and he never took more than 15 shots in a single game (but he grabbed eight or more offensive rebounds as a guard on two different occasions). Who is it?’”

Players shouted out guesses ranging from John Stockton to Lou Williams, which amused Buchanan. Finally, he revealed the answer: Nate McMillan.

The players were stunned, since most of them were young children when McMillan’s playing days came to an end. They only knew him as their head coach, which is why Buchanan wanted to highlight McMillan’s achievements and show that he practiced what he preaches to them every day.

“When they put it up on the board and asked who the player was, it took me a minute,” McMillan said with a laugh. “He just said it’s ‘a player,’ so I’m thinking it’s a current player as opposed to a retired player, but they went back in the past and pulled up my stats. It was interesting because most of the players didn’t know. It makes them realize, ‘Wow, this isn’t just something that they’re throwing at us players, it’s something that Coach really believes in.’ We feel it’s important for everyone to buy into this and have both feet in to create that culture.”

The Pacers sum up this culture with the “Three Ts,” which stands for Togetherness, Toughness and Trust. During Pritchard’s playing days, he found that it could be difficult to identify what a new team wanted from him and what they were all about as an organization. Now that he’s running a franchise of his own, he wanted to ensure that everyone was on the same page about the team’s values. 

“Whether it’s corny or not, and it probably is a little bit corny, the guys know what’s important here and what we value,” Buchanan added. “It’s the basis of our whole basketball-operations philosophy and approach. Our Three Ts logo is all over our building and we put it on things like water bottles, sweatshirts, bracelets and hats to give to the players, coaches and staff members.”

Spelling out what they want from their players has made it easier to determine if someone will fit in with their organization when their staff is evaluating talent.

“Even our scouts will now mention the Three Ts when they write up a report about a player like, ‘He is a Two-T player,’ or, ‘He’s a no-T player,’” Buchanan said. “It has become part of our verbiage around here. We challenge our scouts to really know the players they’re evaluating and be able to answer, ‘Is he going to fit in our locker room?’”

“We work so hard before we sign a player, sitting down with them and getting a feel for them,” Pritchard added. “You’re trying to get a feel for whether they’re truly a long-term fit. And if they’re a short-term fit, that’s okay too and you both know that going in.”

Another key to shaping the team’s culture, Pacers executives said, was meeting with each of their players and valuing their suggestions. 

“Looking back, I think the most important thing that we did as a front office was get our players’ input,” Buchanan said. “We asked Darren Collison, ‘What do you want from a front office?’ At the time, Boston had just traded Isaiah Thomas after he had played in the playoffs right after his sister died. Darren said, ‘Do you want the honest truth? Players in our league don’t trust front offices, for the most part. You guys can just trade us – regardless of how loyal we are to the team.’” 

When asked how the Pacers could earn back the players’ trust and improve the dynamic, Collison said, “I want to know ahead of time if I might be traded,” according to Buchanan.

After hearing similar things from veterans like Thaddeus Young, Al Jefferson and Cory Joseph, the front office reached an agreement with their players: If they entered serious trade discussions, they would inform each player involved in the possible deal – but if the deal fell through, the players needed to stay committed to the organization. 

The arrangement worked well. Buchanan said that in 2017-18, two different trades nearly happened and both sides held up their end of the bargain. Indiana’s front office told the two players about the potential trades once the talks became serious and, after the deals fell through, both players didn’t let the news affect their commitment to the team.

When Victor Oladipo joined the Pacers, he was impressed by the front office’s communication with players and willingness to listen.

“I haven’t played on many teams, but based on the teams I have played on, it’s pretty rare for upper-management to take the players’ input and opinions to heart and really try to apply those things throughout the entire program,” Oladipo explained. “For them to do that, it just shows what kind of people they are and it shows what kind of organization we’re trying to build.”

THE MARKET

Among all markets with a major professional sports team, Indianapolis ranks 25th in size as of October 2019 (according to Nielsen data obtained by Sports Media Watch). That presents some unique challenges for the Pacers.

Indiana isn’t a team that has landed stars through free agency. In an underground tunnel that connects Bankers Life Fieldhouse to the Pacers’ practice facility, there’s a large collage that honors every All-Star in franchise history. Interestingly, every single Pacer who’s earned an NBA All-Star nod has arrived in Indiana via the draft or a trade. 

They’ve had some success acquiring underutilized players and then developing them into All-Stars, as was the case with Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis (who was selected as an All-Star reserve for the first time this year). However, most of the stars throughout Pacers’ history were homegrown.

“I think our culture is built around player development,” Pritchard said. “When you bring a player in, you’ve got to figure out – in our system, in our culture – can he come in and be a different player? Could he be a little bit better with us or show a little different skill set? Because we can’t play the percentages. If we play the percentages, we’re just going to be average or below average all the time. We have to find value when it’s not there.”

Because the Pacers have less money to spend than the big-market teams, they have to be very careful when giving out a large deal.

“You don’t have as much of a buffer for making mistakes in a small market,” Buchanan said. “If your budget is not the same as the Lakers or Knicks, one really bad contract on your books can just sink you. We have to be very conscious of signing the right guy who fits in with our culture. If a player doesn’t perform well, but he is a good person and doesn’t disrupt the team? Hey, I can live with that. If we overpay a guy who ends up disrupting our culture, that’s a killer for us. We have to be really smart.”

Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

In July, the Pacers gave Malcolm Brogdon a four-year, $85 million contract. But they’ve loved Brogdon dating back to the 2016 draft, when they tried to acquire a first-round pick to select him. They had done a lot of homework on Brogdon and they couldn’t find anyone who had something negative to say about the guard. Then, what they saw (and heard) during his first three NBA seasons only confirmed their suspicions about who he is on and off the court.

So far, it certainly appears that the Pacers were right about Brogdon.

“This has been the best situation for me since I’ve been in the NBA,” Brogdon said. “This is a working culture here and there are a bunch of guys who badly want to win, and they are guys who go about everything in a humble way. We don’t really have any flashy guys here and we don’t have a flashy coach. Nate McMillan isn’t like that; he just wants to win, he’s no nonsense and he wants to do things the right way. It’s right up my alley. I love playing here. It’s all about basketball; it’s not about the hype, it’s not about the politics. The people here come to work every day, and everybody is part of such a cohesive unit.”

Pritchard admits that luck does play a significant role in landing the right players. However, there’s also a ton of preparation that goes into it as well.

“I think I’m really lucky,” Pritchard said. “Given the choice to be great or be really lucky, I think I’ll choose to be really lucky. How do you predict human behavior? There are so many things that go into it. Chad Buchanan, [VP of player personnel] Ryan Carr and [director of pro scouting] Vance Catlin are consumed by finding players that, in a unique situation, would be better.”

One reality of being a small-market team that doesn’t typically pay the luxury tax is that you sometimes lose players whom you badly want to re-sign. One example for the Pacers was Bojan Bogdanovic, who was a key piece for Indiana before ultimately signing with the Utah Jazz.

“It’s not really ‘small market versus big market.’ When you bifurcate it out, it’s more so teams that are going to spend and teams that have to be a little bit more cautious,” Pritchard said. “Sometimes, it’s really hard to see a player walk when you like them, and we’ve had that happen. It’s just part of the natural progression of this business. Because of that, you always have to have your eye on the future. You’re always looking like, ‘Okay, if we lose this player, then what?’ We spend a lot of time in the room trying to figure out what [Plan B] looks like. Some teams have to do that a little bit more than others.”

There’s no question that there’s less of a spotlight on teams in smaller markets. Despite winning 48 games last season, the Pacers have only six nationally televised games this year (not counting NBA TV broadcasts).

“I think there have been a couple of years where the team really wanted the spotlight,” Pritchard said. “And then there have been some teams that really wanted to stay the underdog like, ‘Don’t talk about us, we’d rather sneak up on you.’”

However, there are some benefits that come with running a team in a smaller market. For example, Buchanan pointed out that it’s easier to sell your game environment when you’re the only show in town. 

“I think we can plant our roots deep here because [owner] Herb Simon allows us to have longevity in this business. That’s one competitive advantage,” Pritchard added. “And sometimes in big markets, there are big egos.”

THE TRADE

Buchanan’s first transaction as the Pacers’ general manager was acquiring Oladipo. That’s because Buchanan took over as Indiana’s GM on June 30, 2017, which is the same day that Paul George was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder (and the eve of free agency). He was thrown in at the deep end, but he learned a lot from the chaotic experience.

“My first day on the job as general manager, we traded Paul George. It was literally my first day and I remember thinking, ‘Oh man, this GM position is going to be tough!’” Buchanan said with a laugh. “I flew to Orlando because we were playing in the Orlando Summer League. Kevin and Peter [Dinwiddie] were at the hotel and they were like, ‘Get your a** over here! We’re getting close to a deal; we have a couple of options.’ When I got over to the hotel, we met in Kevin’s room. We were bunkered up in there to look at some different options. We spent all day in that hotel room.”

Pritchard explained that he wanted to trade George sooner than later (rather than holding onto him until the February trade deadline to see if the offers improved). Initially, he wanted to trade George for multiple draft picks and develop a three-year plan for the Pacers, but ownership made it clear that they wanted to stay competitive rather than completely rebuild. With that in mind, Pritchard started looking for offers that included “a guy who’s underutilized and a high-potential guy.”

When it came time to trade the All-Star forward, Pritchard was surprised that there were only two teams that were seriously interested. In addition to the Thunder’s offer, Indiana strongly considered a three-team deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Denver Nuggets. While Pritchard wouldn’t reveal details, ESPN reported that Cleveland would’ve received George (pairing him with LeBron James), Denver would’ve received Kevin Love, and Indiana would’ve received Gary Harris and a first-round pick (with more pieces possibly involved). 

“We really thought that there was going to be 29 teams throwing the kitchen sink at us,” Pritchard said. “But at the end of the day, the number of teams that were after Paul was very small. I think there were just two offers that were real offers. We were thinking, ‘We want to do this quick and all we have is two offers right now…’ I got back on the phone, and I was talking with Denver pretty significantly and I was talking with Oklahoma City significantly. Cleveland was in there, but it was a three-way with Denver. We had some incredible debates for a couple of hours. I mean, intense, in-your-face, phenomenal debates where we got everything out and discussed the good and the bad. I wish we could’ve recorded those debates!”

When Oklahoma City agreed to add Sabonis to their package, the Pacers’ brain trust pulled the trigger.

“Here’s what happened: When Victor was in [OKC’s offer] and they said, ‘Okay fine, we’ll put Sabonis in too,’ in my mind, the deal was done,” Pritchard said. “When I heard Domantas’ name along with Victor’s name, I felt like that was enough. You can be really, really greedy in this business. But I felt like Sam [Presti] made a really honest, good offer and it was what I wanted to hear. I felt good about it.”

Photo by Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

“We made the trade later that afternoon,” Buchanan said. “We just felt like Victor and Domantas, with their upside and character, were the best option. I remember going back to my room probably around midnight and I was just exhausted. I turned on the TV before trying to fall asleep and we were just getting crushed for the trade. I remember feeling like, ‘Oh gosh…’ My wife called me and she was like, ‘Uh, you guys really aren’t getting much good press for your trade…’”

Now that Oladipo and Sabonis have developed into All-Stars, the return looks excellent – especially since George was poised to become an unrestricted free agent after the season, which limited his trade value. However, the general consensus at the time was that the Pacers had been ripped off – with many critics pointing to Oladipo’s “bad contract” and the fact that Indiana didn’t get back a single draft pick in the deal. While Pritchard knew that the deal would likely be polarizing, he was shocked by the intensity of the criticism.

“After we did the trade, we were thinking, ‘Okay, you ready for this avalanche?’” Pritchard said. “I knew that there was going to be some harsh criticisms: ‘Why didn’t you get another pick? Why didn’t you leverage longer? Why didn’t you go [talk] to Boston? Why didn’t you go to all these other teams?’ I knew it was going to come, but I didn’t know it was going to come that hard. It came hard from the community, it came hard nationally.”

In the face of all that criticism, Pritchard said he received tremendous support from Pacers owner Herb Simon, who called every day to check in and share his optimism about the move.

“You’re not on an island,” Simon said, according to Pritchard. 

“When he said that, I could breathe,” Pritchard recalled.

The day after the trade, Oladipo met with Pritchard and Buchanan at the Orlando Summer League. According to Buchanan, Oladipo told them: “I hear what people are saying about you guys and about this trade. I got you. Trust me. You guys are going to look smart.”

“I remember KP and I just being like, ‘Wow.’ That really made us feel good,” Buchanan said. “I always think back to that conversation with Victor where he basically said that he heard the criticism and that we shouldn’t worry about it because he was going to prove everyone wrong.”

“He was mentally ready to take over a team,” Pritchard said. “I’d never seen a player walk into a season so determined to prove something.”

Sure enough, Oladipo earned an All-NBA selection in his first season with the Pacers, Sabonis made an immediate impact and Indiana ended up making the playoffs. 

“I think we were predicted to win 28 games and we won 48 games,” Pritchard said. “That was literally the most fun season I’ve ever had – as a player, coach or executive. It was the most fun year I’ve ever had in my life.”

Oladipo admits that the negative response to the trade gave him some extra motivation.

“I mean, I was always working hard before they had their criticism and opinions and I’m still going to continue to do that, but they definitely added the fuel to the fire,” Oladipo said. “To this day, everybody keeps adding fuel to the fire. I see people underestimating me as I come back from rehab, and I see people underestimating this team. People are going to have their opinions; it doesn’t really matter. I know my approach, what I’m capable of and what I can become. That’s all I focus on.”

Not only has Oladipo become Indiana’s face of the franchise, his positivity and poise have spread throughout the organization. During his first month with the Pacers, he was constantly smiling and breaking out in song. Pritchard and Buchanan asked him how he’s always in such a great mood and Oladipo told them: “Every day is a reset for me. No matter what happened yesterday – good or bad – I reset myself and just look forward.”

Pritchard and Buchanan were impressed, and they tried to instill this mindset in their other players.

“We actually put a red button on the wall of our training room that is labeled ‘reset,’” Buchanan said. “When the guys are in the training room or walking out to the practice court, you’ll see that some of the guys press it. It obviously doesn’t do anything, but it’s symbolic of how we want our guys to be no matter how things are going individually or with the team. It’s a long year and you’re going to have ups and downs, so just reset every day and have calm waters.”

Photo by Alex Kennedy

Buchanan has many books in his office and one of his favorites is “Built to Win: Inside Stories and Leadership Strategies from Baseball’s Winningest GM” by former Atlanta Braves GM John Schuerholz. In the book, Schuerholz stresses the importance of maintaining “calm waters.” Essentially, whenever someone observed the Braves in their clubhouse, he wanted them to walk away thinking, “I’m not sure if they’re in first place or last place.” This is something that the Pacers have adapted, and Oladipo’s ‘reset’ approach absolutely promotes calm waters.

“As I continue to grow and continue to get older, I realized that every day is a new day. Great people know how to treat it as such,” Oladipo said. “They know not to take the good and the bad [from previous days], no matter what it is, and apply it to the new day. Every day is a fresh start, a new start. You just have to keep the same even-keeled approach no matter what’s going on.”

(Even if people all over the world criticize a team’s decision to add you).

Without Oladipo, the Pacers are currently the fifth-seed in the Eastern Conference. Once Oladipo returns (likely on Jan. 29), the world will finally see what this team looks like at full strength.

“I think we could be really special,” Oladipo said. “I think we could make some real noise, and I think we got a chance to shock a lot of people.”

“I’m super excited,” Brogdon said of Victor’s return. “He’s a perennial All-Star, so adding a guy like that will only make the game easier for me. He’ll make the game easier for everybody. He will make us even more unpredictable and harder to guard.”

The Pacers have been to the playoffs in four straight seasons, but they have yet to advance out of the first round since 2013-14 (although they took the Cleveland Cavaliers to seven games in 2018 and took the Toronto Raptors to seven games in 2016). They have a strong core in place with Oladipo, Sabonis, Brogdon, Myles Turner and TJ Warren among others, but the next step in their development is experiencing postseason success.

Indiana has created a strong culture and assembled a talented team. They’ve seemingly positioned themselves to win a lot of games in the years to come, but ask anyone who works in this league and they’ll tell you that it’s very unpredictable.

“So much in this league is just luck,” Buchanan said. “It’s hard to predict how things are going to go. You can map out what you think you need to do or how you think a trade is going to work out or how a draft pick will pan out, but you just don’t know. Things change so fast. You just have to stay true to what you believe in.”

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