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Pacers owner Herb Simon breaks his silence, shares his thoughts on the team and desire to rebuild 'on the go'
He invited several writers into a conference room for a discussion about his team and where they're headed.
Herb Simon is tired of reading what he supposedly said and decisions he reportedly made about the Pacers, the NBA franchise he’s proudly owned in 1983. So he decided to do something he can’t remember the last time he did.
“This is my first discussion with the press in three years, four years, five years…”
I’ve been on the beat since 2012 and let’s just say, it’s been a while.
He invited Fieldhouse Files, along with four other media outlets, for an open conversation about the organization inside the still sparkling $50 million practice facility on Wednesday.
We were on the fourth floor and fittingly, inside the Simon Conference Room. We filled every other seat, ready for Simon to arrive on a warm, yet gloomy winter day with clouds filling the downtown Indianapolis skyline.
He arrived a few minutes early, sharply dressed with a navy sport on top of a black sweater and blue button-down shirt. He had coffee in a white cup and a green glass bottle of Perrier water on the table to his left, and three Justin’s dark chocolate peanut butter cups sitting in front of him.
Simon, who turned 87 years old in October, sat down at the head of the table — of course — removed his mask and had a lot to share.
“I don’t think my job as owner is to be involved with the press all the time, but not to avoid it either,” he began. “And to be quite frank, I was a little concerned about some of the articles in the paper that said what I said to this and that — without calling me and asking me did I say that or did I do that.”
One week ago, The Athletic published a story reporting the Pacers are “are moving toward a substantial rebuild…” That led to president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard and head coach Rick Carlisle gathering the core four players into the office for a conversation after practice.
“It’s the reason why we’re here,” Simon said.
He was asked about the story and whether the organization is moving toward a rebuild or retool? “That’s not correct,” he said to the reporter. “And I would have told you that if you called me.”
So at last, he made himself available to answer any questions. During a 41-minute conversation, he answered 38 questions ranging from his willingness to rebuild the roster to poor attendance and challenges of being in a small market.
To start, he was seemingly disgusted with the idea that his team would tank or consider a serious rebuild.
“We are not a franchise that is going to dump to get a better pick,” he said. “We’re going to try to win every game. Sometimes we’ll develop rookie players, which may cost us a game, but we’re never gonna to go into a game to lose while I’m an owner. I don’t believe in it. Some teams do, but I don’t believe in that.
“If you remember, going back to Donnie Walsh, we always built without tearing down. We built on the go. We can do the same thing. We can have a good team and get better rather than break it up to get better. As a fan, I don’t want to do that. And I don’t believe our fans deserve to see a team that’s purposely losing. I don’t ever want to be accused of that.”
And more, even later: “I just don’t play the game that way, I just can’t do it. Maybe I’m making (a mistake), maybe I should but I can’t think like that.”
Tensions have be high at the team facility. It doesn’t help that during a tumultuous week, they were without two of their most stable voices inside the locker room. Veteran Justin Holiday — who has been through just about everything from playing overseas, having to earn a roster spot and play on one-year deals — was away from the team due to health & safety protocols. And T.J. McConnell had surgery on his wrist.
So it’s good Simon is talking now because, as I had planned to write this week, it’s time ownership took ownership of this situation.
Fans and media alike haven’t known how Simon felt about the current team and the direction basketball operations may be headed because he hadn’t shared. He watches every game, stays informed with everything on the basketball side through daily conversations with Pritchard and while Simon has the final say, he empowers those he hires.
And so the longest-tenured owner in the NBA has chosen to remain in the background. It’s the opposite strategy of many owners — like Mark Cuban of the Mavs and Joe Lacob of the Warriors. To his credit, Simon hires smart people and gets out of the way.
But sometimes it’s time to speak up and, again, take ownership of the situation. Now is one of those times because the silence has been deafening.
“I’ve always felt as a non-basketball person — theoretically, I mean I love basketball but technique or the details are not in my style — that’s why you hire professionals,” he said. “Even in my other businesses, you hire professionals. You hire attorneys, you hire architects, people who know what they’re doing and why interfere with them?
“Now you can question them and push them a little bit, but those are the guys that really should make the decisions.”
So how does he feel about this team that, as of this interview, is 12-17 and 13th in the Eastern Conference standings?
“I love our little team,” he said. “We’re missing our little spark plug (McConnell) and a few other players, but I’m not looking for excuses. I think we have a very good team. The grass is always greener somewhere else, but I think this team can go pretty far. We have to show it. So far, we haven’t shown what I think we can show.”
He “definitely” thought they would be a playoff team this season. And still does.
They should be in the playoff picture, even despite the injuries and a challenging first month of the season. Because of their lack of success, both this season and since 2014, many fans are the organization are wanting to see change. They seem willing to tolerate it now for a potential payoff in a few years.
The team failed to qualify for the postseason last season and hasn’t advanced in the playoffs, and thus has been irrelevant in the NBA community, since the season before Paul George suffered a compound leg fracture. George and Victor Oladipo wanted to go elsewhere and now they’re on their third coach in three seasons.
The Pacers were scheduled to play on national TV just once this season — but TNT recently changed course, removing their Dec. 21 meeting at Miami from their schedule. So now there’s zero appearances. And the concern for Pacers fans to watch games on local TV is another issue, one I’ll address in another story.
Dec. 15, the day of this meeting, is the first day a significant portion of the league becomes eligible to be traded. Many believe the Pacers are due for a shakeup, even if it’s limited to the frontcourt pairing of two centers: Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis.
“We’re not in a panic mode to make changes,” Simon affirms. “Every team looks for opportunities, but I think Kevin put together a hell of a team. I think we’ve had some bad breaks by losing some of these close games, but what he’s been able to do with some of the problems we’ve had with some players that wanted to leave, I think he’s recovered and put together, on paper, a very good team.”
And yet, sources around the league told Fieldhouse Files they expect for the Pacers to be active before the trade deadline. They have a real opportunity, too, with many value contracts and most other teams feeling as though they are in the playoff picture. One way the Pacers could maximize their future is by dealing players.
Guard Caris LeVert is most likely to be dealt, league sources said. After missing all of the preseason, he's coming off his best week of the season. He's averaging 18.7 points and shooting 39 percent from distance in December. And he was a nominee for the Eastern Conference Player of the Week award for last week, which was won by Sabonis.
The Pacers continue to make calls around the league and several teams have called to check in, league sources said, but it’s nothing more than that. They wanted to complete a deal for Gordon Hayward in 2020 and they’ve tried to acquire Ben Simmons from Philly. The reality is their roster consists of many good players and just one All-Star. And T.J. Warren, their top scorer from the 2019-20 season, hasn’t played in a year after having surgery.
Asked about his relationship with Pritchard, Simon said, “I don’t make a lot of changes. I’ve had three major (changes). In 38 years, I’ve had Donnie, Larry (Bird) and Kevin. And they’ve all been special to me and I have a very, very strong relationship with Kevin. He’s very open, very sharing and I really enjoy working with him.
“In the beginning, I didn’t even have time to mess with the Pacers. I was busy making a living. (Laughs) I would call Donnie once in a while. Now, I have more time, I’m more involved, I’m on the phone a lot with Kevin and I really like the group he’s put together. I’m having fun, even though losing is not fun.”
Even after a failed coaching hire in Nate Bjorkgren and the team posting a losing record at home last season for the first time since 1989, Simon gave Pritchard a contract extension in the offseason, league sources told Fieldhouse Files.
Later, when I asked Simon about the culture and the lack of identity now without Walsh, Bird and even Dan Burke, he said, “I think we have the right people here at the right time.”
(Walsh left the payroll at the end of 2020, choosing to retire after spending a lifetime in basketball.)
Pritchard, who took over as president in 2017, has done well in trades, but recent drafts have been poor and they have little to show from them. TJ Leaf will soon play in China, per league sources, they dealt Aaron Holiday in the offseason and third-year center Goga Bitadze is playing in G League games this week to get reps.
“We stubbed our toes on a couple of picks, there’s no question about it,” Simon admitted. “But we’ve also made some pretty good picks. I think the last draft was pretty good. Kevin and the boys did a great job.”
He’s excited about the potential of rookies Chris Duarte and Isaiah Jackson. And he seems to be content with the current roster, including Myles Turner who recently expressed his desire for a larger role. “Myles is wonderful,” he said. “He speaks his mind and we’re very happy with him and he’s happy with us.”
The one area where Simon is misguided is in his belief that this organization can attract All-Stars and even superstar talent in free agency. So far, it hasn’t happened.
“I don’t believe in the premise,” said Simon, who referenced David West signing in 2011.
“If the right situation came along, almost any player … will go where their opportunity is. We’ve done pretty well without getting a top three player in the world, but it would be nice to have one one of these days.”
And yes, he’s willing to go into the luxury tax if they have a roster to contend. Otherwise, why bother?
Simon has been at many home games this season, in his usual seat next to Pritchard. He was there Monday when the fieldhouse was nearly filled to capacity, even though it loudly consisted of fans wanting to see Stephen Curry make history. (He did one night later in New York City.)
“It’s a mixed feeling,” he said. “There were too many Golden State fans. I remember in the beginning, when Bird came into town with Boston, it was all Boston fans. We’re used to that. As long as they come and pay for their tickets, we’re happy to have them there.”
“The few games that I’ve been at, it’s been pretty exciting. I see every game on TV and I’m here as many times as I can be. I’d like to see more people but I think our crowds are pretty good if we give them a good game.
“Boy, those close ones are really wearing me down a little bit,” he continued. More than half their 17 losses — nine — have been by four points or less.
And so now the Pacers front office continues to have discussions with other teams. They’re hopeful to go on another run before the New Year, to finish strong during this home-friendly stretch of games. There are willing takers for several of their players, but it will all come down to the price and whether they want to make midseason changes.
“We will always look for opportunities,” said Simon. “It depends on where we are at that moment. If we’re on an upswing, we’ll probably be more likely to hold the course. If we’re still struggling, we may be looking (for trades). That’s something that we don’t plan to do. You don’t plan that, you got to work with what you have.”
Simon once again made his position abundantly clear. As long as he owned the team, there will be no tanking or significant rebuild. It’s not because fans may turn away and attendance would suffer.
“It’s (because) I don’t want to see it,” he said passionately. “If I don’t want to see it, I’m sure the fans don’t want to see it. Why would we want to go through a rebuild when we can rebuild on the go? That’s a talent, Donnie did it all the time. Larry did it. Kevin will do it. We can do it.”
After all questions were answered, he had one more thing he wanted to say.
“This team is not only a Simon team, it’s a community team. I’ve always felt a responsibility beyond just owning the team. Therefore, I’m very sensitive to making sure we are good community people and we try to do the best we can to make everyone feel part of it.”
He loves Indianapolis, he loves his franchises and looks forward to both renovations to Gainbridge Fieldhouse being completed in a year and then hosting the 2024 NBA All-Star game.