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Pacers rebuilding, not tanking

From the chaos of the past three weeks, there is now some clarity, when it comes to this next generation of Pacers.

They are rebuilding, but they are not tanking.

These concepts are widely thought to be mutually inclusive, but can be very different.  

At least the Pacers hope so.

In acquiring 25-year-old Victor Oladipo and 21-year-old Domantas Sabonis from Oklahoma City in the Paul George trade, and subsequently adding 28-year-old Bojan Bogdanovic and 30-year-old Darren Collison, the Pacers are mixing youth with experience, certainty with potential.

This is not to suggest they will be a contender next season, although in the Eastern Conference a playoff berth is seemingly always within reach, but the Pacers will put a representative team on the floor while growing the nucleus.

“The biggest thing we know about the trade is we got two players who are lottery players who were part of a 47-win team (in Oklahoma City) and they started,” said team president Kevin Pritchard. “There’s been speculation that we want to go back and start over and that’s not the case. We went after these guys. We identified these two as players we felt great about and that we wanted to be a part of this program and that we wanted to grow with. We didn’t want to go down to the bottom. We want to be a competitive team next year. Everybody’s saying we’ve got to go back to the bottom, that’s not true. … We think we’re going to be very competitive next year and we have a team we feel like we can grow over the next few years.

“The Pacers don’t start at the very bottom. Very rarely in (our) storied history have we gone to the bottom. We have athletes, we have toughness and we have guys that are willing to play unselfish and at the end of the day Indiana fans believe in that. We believe in that. There’s a right way to play and we’re going to play the right way. We’re excited about this. We have to turn the page and the Indiana Pacers are going to compete next year and we’re going to move on.”

The reality of the situation is even if they wanted to tank -- trading away veteran players in exchange for future draft picks, abandoning all pretense of competing in order to chase the highest possible lottery odds -- they could not. All those draft picks that were rumored to be on the table? The only ones truly up for discussion were lottery protected -- so they’d be mid-round  selections at best.

Pritchard estimated that “less than five” percent of the trade rumors linking the Pacers to a half-dozen teams were true. Teams knew Paul George had put Pritchard’s back to the wall, and they weren’t about to offer their most prized possessions -- future lottery picks -- for a one-year rental, no matter how good the property.

And so Pritchard did the next-best thing. He got two lottery picks. Oladipo was No. 2 overall in 2013. Sabonis was No. 11 overall last year. Neither has fulfilled his potential, and there is no guarantee either will. But at least the Pacers have young players with an NBA body of work.
“We can grow with these guys,” Pritchard said. “What we didn’t want to get was a situation where we were capped out financially and also with the growth of our team. For us it was about starting and growing together and letting this team get a chemistry and that doesn’t happen overnight.

“To me, these two are the best of both worlds. They’re the second pick in the draft and the 11th pick in the draft. We got two lottery picks. What you have to understand is that picks are just people. You get abstract in the way you look at it in the future.  The reality is we know these kids now. The certainty of their character, the certainty of what we know we’re getting, the certainty both these players, along with Darren, are starting-caliber players. Maybe you don’t have the complete superstar but I’m not willing to say that. This organization wants to build teams that you put out on the floor and five guys play together. You obviously need top-level talent. We feel like these guys are top-level talent.”

Tanking takes years and more than a little bit of luck, beginning with the lottery process itself. Putting a franchise’s fate in ping-pong balls is a risky proposition. If you wind up with the right pick in the right draft, you can strike it rich. If you don’t, well, ask the Lakers and Sixers and Kings and Nets and Magic.

Rebuilding, at least the way Pritchard is approaching it, is not a quick fix, by any means. But the chances for a quicker recovery are strong. Because of the way many of their remaining contracts are structured, the Pacers could have approximately 1.7 boatloads of salary cap space next summer, which means they could swing for the fences with a max contract offer for just the right free agent.

For now, not even Pritchard will speak of making the playoffs this year. If it happens, great. If not, well, that’s another lottery pick to build with, another asset to use.

“For us, it’s about how we grow,” he said. “Whether it’s X wins or X plus 10, I want to know this team comes together, they play for each other, they build a chemistry that has a chance for sustained success. At the end of the day that what we want, having six out of seven years in the playoffs and having longer runs in the playoffs. 

“Sometimes you can be in the middle and that can be as stressful and as challenging as taking it down and then building it back up.  I’m not so sure yet what the goals are. I don’t want to define that because it’s not appropriate with an incomplete roster. I like what we have. We have good coaching, we have players that are up and coming and haven’t reached our potential.”

Here’s another word he won’t use: rebuilding.

Pritchard is calling this a “rebirth.”

Of course, that implies it will be messy, painful and laborious.

Also worthwhile, eventually.

Photo of Kevin Pritchard and Victor Oladipo by 1070 The Fan

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