Pacers training camp primer: Franchise turns to Rick Carlisle for stability and to restore credibility
He's tasked with getting the organization out of Round 1 for the first time since 2014. Plus health concerns, team updates, an offseason roundup and renovations to BLF.
The NBA is a players league — make no mistake — but a coach has a significant impact on a franchise.
The Pacers and the other 29 teams get things started this week, first with media day followed by training camp on Tuesday. For the Blue & Gold, it’s the start of a new era.
The Rick Carlisle Era. Part II.
It’s a fresh start for the second straight season, and some players on the roster are going on their third Pacers different coach. Myles Turner, the longest-tenured Pacer, is on his fourth head coach since being drafted by the franchise in 2015.
Carlisle’s time in Dallas was coming to an end and he needed the Pacers, a place where grew a ton professionally as a young coach, as much as they need him. So they both swiped right, and matched on their history and unfinished business more than anything.
“It’s going to be a lot of work, it’s going to be an amazing challenge,” he said one week on the job. “I’m humbled for this opportunity once again.”
The Pacers were just beginning their coaching search, scheduling interviews at the pre-draft combine in Chicago. But those never happened. Carlisle spoke with Larry Bird, who is still paid by the organization as an advisor but has mostly been away from the team since stepping down as president in 2017.
As I reported in August, he’ll be around and involved more once again. It was Bird who brought Carlisle to Indianapolis in the first place, on his coaching staff in 1997 and handling the offense.
Did you notice how after abandoning their rich past over the last few years, the Pacers turned to Nancy Leonard for the draft lottery and now to Carlisle?
The organization failed to qualify for the postseason last season and they’ve yet to win a playoff series since 2014 when it was led by Paul George’s team. Their draft history has been poor since the special George-Stephenson duo in 2010.
This is a huge, necessary first step in restoring the franchise’s credibility.
“The Donnie Walsh and Larry Bird culture doesn’t exist in Indiana anymore,” a source with knowledge of the situation told Fieldhouse Files during the coaching search. “They decided that they were going to establish their own culture.”
That has been done for the most part — it’s now the Three T Culture — but then the Pacers’ front office quickly pivoted from their coaching search once Carlisle resigned from his post with the Mavericks after 13 seasons. He spoke with Kevin Pritchard and they soon came to an agreement — all on the phone.
There were a half-dozen coaching vacancies at the time and Carlisle chose the Pacers, and it required an eye-popping investment to bring him here.
He’s getting over $7.25 million per season when factoring in possible bonuses. That’s roughly three times what outgoing head coach Nate Bjorkgren was being paid per season, and still will be paid out for one more season. He has not joined another coaching staff.
"Rick is a proven winner with a championship and will be a Hall of Fame coach,” Pritchard said of his hire. “He has demonstrated throughout his career an ability to build something with sustainable success. He has great respect for our franchise and our fans from his previous times here. We are very happy to welcome him back to Indiana."
There’s no need for an introduction when he walks in the room, no need to describe what he’s about. Carlisle is well-known across the league with players and coaches alike.
And where Bjorkgren struggled to hire a decent staff, Carlisle had three core individuals hired in a few days. He just had to land a top assistant, finally doing so in Lloyd Pierce — the Hawks’ head coach the past two and half seasons.
The Pacers and the rest of the league will also be welcoming fans back this season. To fully capacity, and that’s a big thing here. Bjorkgren was gone before he could even coach without a mask or in front of a full crowd. It was a bizarre season and one the team quickly moved on from.
Things are as normal as they’ve been in two seasons, but not quite completely back. The NBA says approximately 90 percent of players are vaccinated, and staff members are already required to be. Several teams are fully vaccinated, like the New York Knicks. The Pacers aren’t quite there, per league sources. Those who are unvaccinated must test daily and twice on game day.
“As we move forward for the next three years, we have a good roster I think,” Pritchard, who is firmly secure in his role as team president, said this summer. “I think we've got a team that can compete, maybe not at the top three right now — I think three or four, but we're in that next group — and if healthy, I think we can compete with any of those teams. Once you get into that area, assume health assume the team comes together, I think we're tough out.”
See Also: One-on-one with GM Chad Buchanan
They were eager to see what this core group could finally do together when healthy, but that’s already derailed due to T.J. Warren’s slow recovery. (More on that below.) Still, it is more likely than not that they tweak the roster during the season once Carlisle has a feel for his team.
“Role identification is huge, role acceptance is bigger,” Carlisle stressed. It was his most memorable line since taking over.
How does he use two-time All-Star Domantas Sabonis and Turner, the backbone of the defense? Defense is where it starts; they’ll never be the most-talented team or the best-shooting team, but they can defend again. That was mostly absent last season as well.
There’s plenty more questions, like rotations, how much does he play guys Chris Duarte, Jeremy Lamb and Torrey Craig, and does Goga Bitadze finally get an opportunity?
Carlisle has reviewed the roster, met with every single player — and the majority of the roster returns from last season. The one notable absence is forward Doug McDermott, who understandably signed with the Spurs in free agency for big money and to play for Hall of Fame coach Gregg Popovich.
The young guys started to arrive to Indy at the beginning of the September and all but a few guys have been at the team facility for the past two weeks. Three starters returned for good one week ago.
Many members of the staff got together over the weekend for a night at Top Golf. Some players have hung out as well. Those type of things, which are crucial in a group coming together and building chemistry, were not allowed in the last year.
Opening Night for the NBA, which is celebrating its 75th season, is Oct. 19 and the Pacers tip-off the following night in Charlotte. But first, four preseason games — two on the road and then two at home. And beginning on Tuesday, Carlisle begins putting his imprint on this team.
Play hard. Defend. Be accountable. No bullshit.
Health Concerns Already
As mentioned above, Warren isn’t available to start camp as his foot, which was operated on in January, needs additional time to heal. That’s an unfortunate setback for the team’s leading scorer from the 2019-20 season. Remember his magic in the bubble?
He appeared in just four games last season and now it’s uncertain how soon he can get back in the mix of things. In the meantime, there will be supreme competition for his starting role.
Meanwhile, another tough break for Edmond Sumner. He was in a good place, physically and mentally, ahead of the year and hoping to take off. He, too, is in a contract year — which will now be spent rehabbing from a painful injury.
The Pacers used 23 different starting lineups last season and had 250 games lost due to injury. You just cannot be successful with those numbers. Teams need player availability and stability with their lineups.
“As a player gets more fatigued, injury becomes more probable,” Carlisle said during his introductory press conference. “There are certain things about managing the rotation that you can do to help guys stay fresh over the course of a season.
“I know (head athletic trainer) Josh Corbeil is on the cutting edge of everything having to do with player health and physical therapy. We’ve had some discussions. We’ll have more as we move forward and once we get closer to the season and start looking at exhibition games and regular-season games, this is one of the sciences of coaching now.”
Turner had a productive offseason, traveling and getting trim. He also admitted faces challenges mentally, especially while sidelined for the final month-plus of the season, and taking command of those thoughts.
Roster & Staff Changes
Players out: Amida Brimah (waived, playing for Puerto Rican team), Aaron Holiday (traded to Wizards), Doug McDermott (signed with the Spurs in free agency), JaKarr Sampson (free agent), Cassius Stanley (not re-signed, joining Pistons on a camp deal), Brian Bowen II (waived, signed camp deal with Timberwolves).
Players added: Torrey Craig, Chris Duarte, Isaiah Jackson, Duane Washington Jr., DeJon Jarreau, Terry Taylor, Keifer Sykes, Nate Hinton.
Coaches out: Nate Bjorkgren, Bill Bayno (Pistons), Kaleb Canales, Greg Foster.
Other changes: Earl Barron and Moses Ehambe were not retained. Scott Simpson was promoted from Mad Ants assistant coach to advance scout, replacing Gary Schmidt after one season. Nick Fleder left to become the Knicks’ manager of data science. He was replaced by Brady Baker, who once was an intern with the franchise. Zach Chu came with Carlisle to serve as the manager of game strategy and analytics. Jon Christopher, who was added mid-season last year, remains as the team’s full-time massage therapist. Brian Levy was promoted to NBA pro scout from Mad Ants general manger and Chris Taylor takes over as GM. Tim Brown was promoted as well, to Mad Ants assistant GM.
Key Offseason News
Added Duane Washington Jr. from Ohio State on a two-way deal.
Re-signed T.J. McConnell on a four-year deal worth up to $35.2 million, including bonuses.
Added free-agent wing Torry Craig for $10 million over two years. Fully guaranteed.
Signed guard Keifer Sykes to an Exhibit 10 contract.
Signed guard Terry Taylor to an Exhibit 10 contract.
Mad Ants will be based in Indy and play nine home games at The Fieldhouse — all in the afternoon.
Domantas Sabonis married Shashana Rosen in Nice France.
Cassius Stanley, their 2020 second-round pick, was not brought back after one season.
Signed guard DeJon Jarreau to a two-way contract.
Pushed back Kelan Martin’s contract guarantee date not once, but twice. They now must decide on him by Oct. 19.
T.J. Warren out indefinitely to start camp while his left foot continues to heal.
Edmond Sumner suffered a torn left Achilles during a workout at the team facility on Sept. 9. He then had surgery on Sept. 13, performed by Dr. Martin O’Malley at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. … Fortunately for him, the team had already picked up his team option for this season.)
Sumner got engaged to his girlfriend while vacationing in The Bahamas.
The front office did apply for the disabled player exception.
Signed Nate Hinton, who was with the Mavericks last season, to a camp deal.
Acquired 6-foot-5 wing Justin Anderson for the Mad Ants, their G League team. He was the Mavericks’ first-round pick in 2015 and played in summer league with the Rockets.
Michael Preston takes over as the head of basketball public relations. It is the 28th and final year for David Benner, who is retiring after the 2021-22 season.
The NBA switched over to a Wilson basketball from Spalding. I’ve played with one and it feels almost exactly the same. No screw up this time.
New Feel (and Name) to The Fieldhouse
Since the spring, renovations have continued at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. They’re currently on phase two (of three), which focuses on the club level, concourses, entry pavilion and lot just north of the building that will be a hangout area.
If you’ve driven past recently, you’ve been able to see a lot of work being done. The box office was ripped out, as were those windows behind it. Even the “Bankers Life Fieldhouse” letters had to come down. And it will now be known as Gainbridge Fieldhouse after Pacers Sports & Entertainment struck a multi-year partnership with the national company that is headquartered in Indianapolis.
Inside, seats on the second level were replaced with gray ones like the lower level. As you walk up the stairs to the main concourse, you can look right into the bowl. It’s an open space, as is The Varsity Club. The Team Store is getting its most significant makeover, a new bar area is being built on the south end and the players are getting hooked up as well.
Down on the event level, the locker room, which was last updated in 2015, has been completely overhauled. They’re going from a circular look to more of a rectangle with a huge logo on the ceiling and carpet. The lockers are larger and each one also has its own television above for the first time.
Although they spend the majority of their time across Delaware St at the practice facility, it’s important to have first-class facilities where players want for nothing.