The Indiana Pacers are at a turning point both on the court, where they have slowly been transforming into a perennial Eastern Conference powerhouse, and in the front office, where Donnie Walsh and Kevin Pritchard have replaced Larry Bird and David Morway as team president and GM, respectively.
Despite those changes in leadership, the Pacers are still focused on a pretty clear long-term vision.
“Donnie Walsh made it very clear that our goal was to keep the starters together and add to our bench,” Pritchard told HOOPSWORLD in Las Vegas. “[Last season’s finish] was the fifth-best record in the league. We took Miami pretty far in the playoffs and I think won more games than anybody against Miami.”
With that huge step in the right direction—it was Indiana’s first playoff series win since 2005—Pritchard and Walsh felt motivated to be aggressive in free agency, both with maintaining their own players and signing some new guys to help them move forward even more in 2012-2013.
All that started by matching a four-year, $58.4 million offer sheet that All-Star center Roy Hibbert signed originally agreed to with the Portland Trail Blazers at the start of free agency. Those are max dollars, which not everyone is certain Hibbert deserves, but Pritchard had an easy defense for keeping Hibbert aboard and making the trade that sent out Darren Collison and Dahntay Jones for backup center Ian Mahinmi.
“We really felt like length helps in the playoffs. You’ve got to have some size, some bulk, so bringing Roy back was our first priority,” Pritchard said.
“With Ian, we get a guy who can play the five and four, he’s 6’11”, and he’s 27 so he’s still improving. And everybody says he’s a great worker, so we feel lucky to get him.”
The Pacers didn’t only add big men; this offseason’s major moves also included the addition of point guard D.J. Augustin and swingman Gerald Green, both of whom came at very reasonable prices considering their talent.
According to Pritchard, Augustin will probably play a very different kind of a game with the Pacers than he’s used to, which was a big selling point in getting him to Indianapolis.
“In Charlotte, he was so looked upon to score, but with us he can be a facilitator, or be in a pick-and-roll and find players, but he doesn’t have to go in to score to help us,” Pritchard said. “His role will change, but he really embraced that when we talked to him.”
Green, meanwhile, had a standout season in New Jersey last year after spending some time in Moscow. He averaged 12.9 points in 31 games for the Nets, but that combined with a great interview convinced the Pacers’ brass to give him a long-term shot in Indiana.
“We met with him for a couple of days,” Pritchard said. “Kids mature. It’s just a part of the business. He’s really come a long way, but what I like is that he’s really hungry. He’s ready to get after it, and we feel like we get a good signing in him. He’ll help our bench because he can really score and is super talented. He hasn’t put it all together yet, but we hope he can for us.”
This could be a year in which the Pacers as a team “put it all together.” The Central Division is ripe for the picking, especially with Derrick Rose projected to miss most or all of the season, and there’s little reason to believe the Pacers couldn’t end up facing the Miami HEAT again at some point in the 2013 playoffs.
In fact, if Pritchard and Walsh’s free agency moves this summer work out like they hope on the court, the Eastern Conference could come down to those two teams for years to come. For now, though, they just want to grow their young talent and play as well as they can.
“Coach Vogel wants to keep this team together and see them grow,” Pritchard said. “We’ll look for deals and be opportunistic, but it’s not like we have to do something right now.
“It’s never done,” he added, “but it’s time to sit back and evaluate where we are.”
So where are they? In a pretty good place, it seems. They had to spend some money to get there, and more money will get spent down the road as other young guys gear up for extensions in coming years. But for now, the immediate future looks bright as the tide continues to turn in the right direction.