Fueled by Larry Bird's decision to replace Jim O'Brien with Frank Vogel as head coach, the Pacers have surged into the All-Star break with seven wins in 10 games to climb back into the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. The franchise's President of Basketball Operations sat down with Conrad Brunner of Pacers.com to discuss the team, its present and future in this exclusive question-and-answer session.
Q. Understanding how difficult it was for you to make the decision to fire Jim O'Brien, how pleased are you with the results Frank Vogel has been able to generate?
A. I think Frank’s done an excellent job. It’s always tough for me to get rid of any coach and there’s a number of reasons. One of them is when Jimmy came in here we needed some leadership, some direction, needed to change the culture and he helped us do all that. He played the young guys early on, got them some experience.
You can sit here and talk about if it’s the right time, the wrong time but, obviously, Frank stepped in and did a good job. In our market, we can’t be in a situation where we fire coaches every time things go bad because we don’t have the money like the other teams do and we’re not going to do that. So every time something goes wrong, we’re not just going to eliminate the coaches because it’s more than just the coach most of the time.
Q. Why do you think the team has responded so quickly to Vogel?
A. It’s confidence. At this point in our season, Frank took over at a time when we had some games, no matter who was coaching the team, we had a good chance of winning – and we did. Frank goes about his business sort of the way I did when I was the coach: very positive, always worrying about the players.
I tried to make it as easy and simple as I possibly could for them. And as he’s doing that, he’s getting the confidence out of our young guys and they’re playing better. You can just see the growth in some of our guys. So Frank’s pushing a lot of the right buttons right now.
Q. How do you view Vogel as a long-term candidate for the head coaching job?
A. I told Frank the day I talked to him about the job, "When the season’s over, no matter what happens, you’ll be my first interview." The other day I got the question, "Should we re-sign him right now?" No, we’re not doing that. We’re waiting until after the season to make all the decisions around here. But Frank will be one of the first to be interviewed for the job.
Q. Has the team's performance in recent weeks and the shift in player rotations had an impact on how aggressively you are approaching next Thursday's trade deadline?
A. We’re talking with a lot of teams right now but I always said if I can improve this team through a trade I will do that. It’s no different now with some of the players we have under contract and some we have that’s expiring. We’ll look at everything and if I can improve this thing, I will.
Q. You mentioned at the press conference announcing the coaching change that trade talks had been fairly active, even if no reports or rumors had circulated in the media. Is that still the case?
A. We talk to a lot of different teams. Today, I think I talked to three. It varies from two to three to five sometimes. But right now, it seems like in this business they wait till the last minute and they try to force your hand to get the players they want out there. I’m pretty reluctant to do that because I don’t want to read about my players in the paper. But if the right deal came up and the right mix of guys, I would make a deal.
Q. Are there any untouchables on the roster?
A. I’ve got a lot of guys it would be very hard for me to trade. I can’t see me trading Danny Granger. That doesn’t mean it’ll never happen, I don’t know. But three years ago I brought Danny in and sat him down and told him exactly what I was going to do here. I expect to hold my end of it and I expect him to hold his end of it. For me to go out there and trade him after he’s been such a trooper would be really difficult for me to do.
Q. Are the veterans with expiring contracts (T.J. Ford, Jeff Foster and Mike Dunleavy) more valuable now as trade chips or at the end of the year when their salaries come off the books?
A. The way I look at this and the way I set this up three years ago is we’re going to be sitting at around $36 million and we’ve got a lot of good players – I don’t care what anybody says – good, young, talented players that are going to get better. We’ve got our draft picks. And not only next year do we have money but the year after that another $10 million comes up. Some guys say it’s not a good free agent class but there’s a couple guys I’ve got my eye on I think could help us immensely and we’re going to go after them when the time comes.
Q. Though it's still very early in Vogel's tenure, the team has showed very strong signs in the past three weeks. How much better does this make you feel about the next step?
A. I feel very good about it. I think this franchise is sitting in a perfect situation to move to the next level. I said that three years ago and I say it today. We’re going to have between nine and 11 young players with a lot of cap room to go out and fill out our roster. Can we do it all in one year? Hey, if there’s guys out there we want, we will. Can it be the next year? Obviously it can, and eventually we’re going to have to start signing our own players if we want to keep them. But we get to look at all of our young players and see their development plus we get to go into free agency, which I have never done since I’ve been here.
We’ve picked up some players but every year I’ve been here we’ve cut our salaries down. We went from a (luxury) tax-payer with Jermaine (O’Neal) at $76 million, plus the six extra (tax penalty) for $82 million, and without (Jamaal) Tinsley this year we’re under $60 million and next year we’re going to go down to $36 million and the following year we’re going to go back down. So I think the light is at the end of the tunnel. I know a lot of fans are frustrated, they don’t understand all of it like I do but I’m going to do exactly what I said I was going to do and this franchise is sort of like the stock market when it’s at the bottom – it’s going to start going up.
Q. It's not uncommon for fans to argue the franchise would be better with another lottery pick than to enter the playoffs as a low seed and heavy underdog. Clearly, your goal is making the playoffs this year. Why do you consider that such a priority?
A. It’s great experience for these young guys. You can’t build by going from a non-playoff team to the NBA Finals. It just doesn’t happen that way. You’ve got to go in and take your licks, you’ve got to go in and try to win games, you’ve got to find out the different atmosphere of these playoff games. It’s different at every level. We’ve got a lot of young guys that haven’t been in the playoffs. I think it’ll be a great experience for them, show them how much more they have to work in the offseason, and it’ll show them what to expect.
When the season’s over and you don’t have a good year, everybody wants you to be in the lottery. I don’t want to be in the lottery. I would take my pick, because I don’t know what’s going to happen next year, how many players are coming out, but I would be looking around to maybe trade my first-round pick this year and I don’t usually do that.
Q. As you identify the core of your team moving forward, how many pieces do you think you need? Is it two guys? Is it three?
A. Well, I’m pretty bullish on Lance Stephenson. If he’s going to be what I think he’s going to be – I already know Paul (George) is going to be there – maybe it’s just two. I think the kid’s got a chance to be very special. And I think Paul’s going to be special. And we’ve got the money to go fill out this team and be very competitive in this league.
Q. It sounds very much as if you, like the team, have been re-energized.
A. If we don’t make the playoffs this year, it’s our own fault. We’re playing well, the guys seem happy, they’re giving the effort every night, they want to get there and everything’s driven to get to the eighth or seventh or sixth seed. Our schedule’s favorable. We’ve got some tough games in there but we’ve also got some games we know we can go out and win if we play to our max and I think these kids will do that, based on what I’ve seen in these last few games.
So it’s up to them. Obviously, injuries play a key role but we’re pretty stacked in every area. I think people are probably surprised by what (Tyler) Hansbrough and (Josh) McRoberts have done to hold down the four position and if they continue to play at that pace and we get the energizing we need off our bench, there’s no reason we can’t make the playoffs and it’s up to our players to do that because we’re sitting in a good position to do it.
Q. How would reaching the playoffs impact your personal decision at the end of the season when your contract expires?
A. I don’t know. I just want to do what I said I was going to do. I wanted to rebuild this thing with everything that’s happened and in the third year get in the playoffs and have that group of 10 or 11 guys and have plenty of money for whoever’s here to have the opportunity to take this franchise to the level I think it needs to go. And we’re not that far away.