INDIANAPOLIS – It was a season unlike anything Kevin Pritchard has seen in his NBA history.
“The most unique and challenging year I’ve been part of,” is how Pritchard describes the season that just ended for the Pacers, one in which they battled injuries and went 34-38 and didn’t win a playoff series for a 7th straight season.
Pritchard and the Pacers now face quite the offseason ahead.
During his season-ending presser on Monday, Pritchard said he was being evaluated by Herb Simon, and the Pacers organization was still making a decision on whether or not head coach Nate Bjorkgren would return for a second season.
Decisions on those are not expected to be imminent.
Here are some of the highlights of what Pritchard had to say:
-On head coach Nate Bjorkgren: “For me, that position in the NBA is the most challenging position that there is, and it’s getting more challenging as we go forward. The financial impacts of players. Egos. Back in the day, you had a couple of players that were star players and that’s how you had to manage 2 or 3 players. Well, now you have to manage 17 players. There were some good things that Nate did this year. You don’t win 34 games with a decimated roster without doing some good things. But there’s some things that we need to do better, he needs to do better. Right now, no decisions have been made. We are not making a decision today. We don’t make decisions in a vacuum. We take our time. To be honest with you, I’m being evaluated. I’m being evaluated every day by and I take that very serious. Herb has to decide whether I’m fit for his job and if I am, what are the things I need to improve on every year. I try to do that. Sometimes I do it better. Sometimes I don’t. And then Nate and I will have a long conversation over many days of what he needs to improve on and we’ll go from there. To make a decision on Coach B this quick with not as much information, I’m just not prepared to do that and I’m not going to make the recommendation to do that yet.”
-On the Bleacher Report article stating player issues with Bjorkgren: “I thought a lot of it was BS. I’ll tell you this. Individually, in that locker room, they got along very, very well. When we got on the court, to be brutally honest, it wasn’t that way. There was a little bit of a disconnect with the team. But you have to give the guys a little bit of a break because one night you had one role and then the next night you had a different role and we were always mix/mashing up a team. At the end of the day, as a player, one night Aaron Holiday was a starter. The next night, he didn’t play because of injuries. And then the next night we needed him to be a defender. There wasn’t that continuity that I wanted so badly, because continuity over time is success, if you have enough talent. We’ve always gone by this. There’s some challenges to be in this market. Getting the top players is the most important thing. If you can’t get that, then my thought has always been, bring 5 really quality players, they might not be the superstars, but really good basketball players and those five together can overcome some of the top-level talent because we can’t get those. I wanted to see if this group was that 5-group. When you take Malcolm (Brogdon), Caris (LeVert), T.J. Warren…let me say something about T.J. first. We missed his offense, but what really no one is talking about is we missed his defense. He became a very good defender. And in this league, if you don’t have a big wing defender, you’ve got no shot. That’s the story in my mind told every night. We were asking Justin (Holiday) and then later in the year Oshae (Brissett) from the G-League to guard Giannis (Antetokounmpo) and (Jayson) Tatum and (Jimmy) Butler and those kind of guys. You can’t do that. We needed T.J. Warren out there to play those guys.”
-On if Bjorkgren micromanaged and was heavy handed: “In the exit interviews, no one said they were unhappy. Yes, they said he does micromanage. To me, as a new coach, trying to set your ways, I’m pretty sure Bill Belichick micromanages. Nate has to find his identity. I think he would be the first to say he’d be willing to give up some of those responsibilities and improve. That is to be determined. I need to have those conversations with him.”
-On his concerns about Nate Bjorkgren: “I think the biggest thing, without going too much into it, is you have to be willing to learn and adjust. I believe that he’ll be very self-reflective and learn from it. But I have to sit down and have that conversation. To me, it’s the learning ability, to learn to change, to learn to figure out what you’re good at, what you’re not, try to get the best people to do it and trust those people. Around that is the core of what is important for me and Nate going forward.”
“There’s no doubt that Nate has this incredible science of coaching, Xs and Os, what play to call and how to manage the Xs and Os within a game and teaching. Then there’s the art. And I’ve been lucky to be around some emotionally intelligent coaches and I think that’s there for Nate. I really do. But that’s got to be improved. I had a 15-minute conversation with Nate and he said, I know I’ve got to get better at this and I want to get better at this. So I have a young coach, who has some super talent in Xs and Os but needs some improvement in human management…He wants to be a great coach and I think there’s something there.”
-On if Pritchard could have discovered Bjorkgren’s ‘micromanaging’ style during the hiring process: “We probably did 15 interviews around Nate. We knew he was very specific in the way he likes things. We knew that. But you have to give a coach some flexibility on what he likes to do. If we would have had our healthy team and we would have flip flopped and been 38-34, everyone would have said, ‘He’s very specific in the way he wants to do things.’ But when you lose, it turns into micromanaging. It’s a balance. But I’ve never been through a more exhaustive search. Here’s the thing, to go from a first assistant on a championship team to sitting in the head seat, you never exactly know how a guy is going to react, but you hope. That 12 inches is huge. It’s just like going from GM to president. You can say that you are going to be prepared and everything, but it’s a total new stress and a total new responsibility. It’s challenging. The thing I like about Nate is sometimes when you lose and you don’t have that early success, you learn more about yourself. I think Nate is going to be very self-reflective and hopefully he’ll be a better coach in the future.”
-On the defensive issues for the Pacers this past season: “I thought the defense really suffered when Myles *Turner) didn’t play. But even before that, last year we were 4th or 5th in defensive efficiency. We knew we were going to give up some on the defensive end, but we went from 4 or 5 to I think 12 or 11. To be perfectly frank, where we’ve made our hay in this league is when you came into this building, you got defended. The feedback we got from other players and other coaches is that we weren’t as good. That is, by far, the most important thing we have to look at. That being said, I think we ran more creative offensive sets. I felt like that just in the numbers proving out that we scored so much more points. Is that a reflection of what the league is? I can’t believe how many points are getting scored in this league. But I felt like when we defended well, it gave us an opportunity to win. We need to get back to that defensive identity. I think it’s a balance. But we didn’t defend as well. I had a quick conversation with a couple of our assistant coaches and we all agreed, we have to get back to our identity that’s been there in the past. We are sort of that hard hat and lunch pale but we didn’t do that this year. Was that a factor of not having T.J. Warren? I just said the most important thing in this league right now is having rim defense and a big wing who can guard those guys. We didn’t have a lot of that for a lot of the year.”
-On running it back with the same starting 5 personnel: “I would have loved to have seen this starting 5 together. I go back to what Larry Bird has always told me in this business. If you have 3 guys that can go get 25 on any given night, you have a chance to be successful. Well, Malcolm can. Caris certainly can. T.J. Warren was one of the best players in the bubble and averaged 28 or 30 points and Domas, although he can score, I think his best thing is setting screens and passing and that fits with those first four. And then, quite frankly, Myles with his defense…what I don’t know is, if this team came together how good could they be? Or not good. From an evaluation standpoint, that’s difficult for me. I’ve got to make some assumptions and I’ve got to figure out some things. But I would have liked to have seen…everybody says go small, go small, go small, but you have to be different at something. If we are going to be good, we have to take the appropriate risk, which I think we’ve done with some trades and you have to be a little different. You can’t be like everybody else because everybody else tends to get more talent. The larger cities are attractive. There’s one sort of thing that has changed the game in acquiring high-level talent and that is the large cities, the Brooklyn’s and the Lakers, they are willing to put 5 and 6 first-round picks because they feel that they can keep those players. That’s not a tool in my shed right now. We have to get as many good players and get them synergized and hopefully they overachieve and then make our decisions. I don’t want to make excuses. I want to look at what we have, make the best decisions. As we go into the offseason, there’s going to be activity. Hopefully there’s opportunities to get better. We don’t want to go backwards. I don’t want to be in this sort of middle ground. I want to be in or get out. And getting out means looking for picks and I’m not prepared to do that. I think we have enough talent to work out way back up to the top, but that’s yet to be seen.”
“I’ll say this, I didn’t know how important T.J. Warren and his 20 points, but also his defense was. If you bring back a healthy T.J., which we fully expect and you have a healthy Caris. I think Caris is a really, really good basketball player that can sort of help carry an offensive load. You are bringing T.J. back. You are getting a healthy Caris. We did not have a healthy Caris. When you have that surgery, that major cancer surgery, that’s no joke. He wasn’t his best. He’s the first to admit it. So now you have two players that we are adding to our team. I guess you could say it.s 1.5. You are bringing back T.J. You are bringing back a half better players in Caris. Then can we make some moves? Can we draft? Can we make a trade that potentially helps this team to get in it? I’m hopeful. And then if we can’t, you’ll know it because we’ll got in a completely different direction and look towards the future. One of the things in the last four years is you have a lot of time to build up a team. But when I took over it was ‘We are going to keep winning.’ So we did the Victor trade, the T.J. Warren trade, we did the Brogdon trade. And that team won 50 games last year. So I think we have enough foundational pieces to allow us that we can take it and get back to that sort of 50-win season just by bringing those guys back. I’m not making that promise. If we can improve on any position, we’ll take a look at it. But we are not going to be desperate to just make deals to just make deals.”
-On free agents Doug McDermott and T.J. McConnell: “We had good conversations with them. They are core to what we’ve done. They are two feet in on the Pacers. One of the things that I got which was really important to me was they were super thankful for Nate and the way that he used that talent. It sure was special for me to watch those guys blossom. Quite frankly, we don’t win 34 games if those guys aren’t playing well, night in and night out. There’s certain roles that they are good at. Quite frankly, at times, we probably played them too much. But they both stepped up and proved that they are important NBA players. And more importantly than that, they know who they are and can look in the mirror. They’ve given all indication that they want to be back and we’ll have those discussions. They played so well, they are going to have suitors. There’s no doubt about it. In a summer when fere agency is not as good this year, they are going to have some suitors…Both of them feel great about being here, the community and they fit us. We are hopeful that they’ll be back.”
-On the financials of the Pacers amidst a pandemic: “The biggest thing I have to manage is the players budgets. And we’ve done a good job with that. To be honest with you, I’m waiting and hopeful for the day when I can go to Herbie and say, ‘Let’s go all-in.’ We haven’t had that opportunity to go get that player yet. But Herbie wants us to be a great organization. We try to do that the best we possibly can. It’s a smaller market. That has some challenges. But we are never going to make that excuse and try to go get the best players and the best staff…”
-On Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner: “It’s interesting. They literally bring a different set of skillsets. One can make plays and one is great defensively. I was talking to Herbie today. We like them both. We like them individually. We like them on the court at times. That doesn’t mean they have to play 40 minutes a game together, but they can definitely play together. And you can stagger him. I thought this year where Domas really popped and was playing well and then there were times that there’s no doubt when Myles wasn’t on the court that we were really hurt. Our defense really suffered with the way we pressured the ball. And Myles had an incredible year. I think both can play together. There’s a way to stagger them. Again, they like each other and want to see it work. You just don’t throw away one because it fits what you are doing. They both are good players and we have to figure out how to maximize them.”
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