Inside a strange Pacers practice and what lies ahead as core players are available for trade
As the front office is open to the idea of trading core pieces, Rick Carlisle says the focus is still on winning games. "We want to make this thing work."
Pacers practice on Tuesday was, simply put, strange.
It should have been about the team moving forward, about playing through Domantas Sabonis and getting an inspiring contribution off the bench from Oshae Brissett.
“Building momentum in this league is difficult,” head coach Rick Carlisle said one night earlier, after a 116-110 win over Wizards. “Especially in the East, there’s a lot of parity and a lot of teams that play aggressive and play strong and play angry. We’re gonna need to consistently be one of those teams.”
Instead, it was about none of those things.
Me and the other two reporters on hand were brought in at 12:43 p.m. ET. With a MacBook Pro on his lap, Carlisle was reviewing film with point guard Malcolm Brogdon.
Two minutes later, I was alerted about a story that would be published.
About that time, Pacers president Kevin Pritchard walked down the hallway, dressed like he had just completed a workout, and was headed toward the coaches offices on the north end of the St. Vincent Center. Practice had ended, but many players were still out shooting. Chris Duarte was at one basket, Isaiah Jackson at another. Plus Brad Wanamaker, Torrey Craig and Brissett were finishing up spot shooting in front of us.
Six minutes later, at 12:51 p.m., Shams Charania of The Athletic sent out a tweet reporting that the Pacers “are moving toward rebuild” — which may include trading Caris LeVert and one of their centers.
Five minutes later, Carlisle walked over to Brogdon and interrupted an interview he was doing with another reporter from The Athletic. Myles Turner and LeVert also headed out the east doors of the gym toward Carlisle’s office. Domantas Sabonis had already left the court.
The conversation lasted for about 18 minutes.
Pritchard shared in 2018, his first season since taking over from Larry Bird as president of basketball operations, that the front office would talk with players if they were ever seriously considering trading them. “When players’ names get out in the media, we let them know and we talk to them,” he said then.
Just another day at the office for the Pacers. This is the type of stuff basketball coaches hate dealing with. Instead of coaching and teaching, their time is being spent on business concerns, roster considerations and making guys happy.
After the group met, LeVert returned to the court to shoot. Turner, the longest-tenured player on the roster, went to the training room and scrolled through his phone, aware of what was out there. About 20 minutes later, after completing an interview, he oddly got on a phone call and then walked across both courts to sit down on the opposite side of the courts. I haven’t seen that move before.
Afterward, I spoke with Carlisle and asked what he could share about the conversation with the core of the team. “It’s just communication,” he said. “Letting those guys know that we’re trying to win games. We want to make this thing work. Beyond that, it’s just basic communication and talking to your top players.”
So then I asked him how much have those players expressed their disappointment with the way things have gone and a desire for it to be corrected?
“We’re all disappointed,” he responded. “But we all know that the way this league is, when things are tough, you’re never that far from being on track or vice versa. We got a little bit of momentum last night. We’ve got to work to build on that and that’s how we got to do business.”
The reality is this: The Pacers are 10-16, 13th (of 15) in the Eastern Conference and only ahead of the dreadful Magic and Pistons. They're the worst of the average teams. They’re 1-8 in games decided by four points or less and 0-11 when behind entering the fourth quarter.
They’re without T.J. McConnell for the foreseeable future, T.J. Warren is still a ways away from a potential return (while being overly cautious because he’s in a contract year), veteran Justin Holiday has been away from the team due to Health & Safety Protocols and LeVert, who missed the first month of the season, isn’t completely comfortable just yet.
What the Pacers need is leadership and an identity. Right now they have neither.
Entering Monday’s game against the Wizards, the Pacers had lost eight of their last 11 — including four in a row. The schedule, heavy on road games and light on days off, along with the losses are very clearly weighing on this team.
“It’s tough,” Oshae Brissett admitted. “Even in the locker room, Malcolm (Brogdon) was like, ‘Those four (losses) felt like 10.’ We didn’t know the last time we had won, and that’s facts. I don’t really remember the last time we won, it felt like it was so long (ago).”
The team’s joy for playing basketball and playing together had been zapped. Several times, after games where they were going through the motions, Carlisle said it was a “hard play issue.” That cannot happen, especially not with an experienced group like this one.
So now the Pacers deliberately made their stance known and got ahead of the story. They made it known they’re open for business and for teams to make their best offers. Now 26 games in, they’re a long ways from where they should be and patience with standing pat is running out.
It’s not like they haven’t tried to upgrade the roster via trades. For example: They checked in with the 76ers several times regarding Ben Simmons — including a call before signing Brogdon to an extension, according to league sources.
Meanwhile, apathy has sunk in with the fan base, many (an estimated 15 percent) can’t even watch because of an ongoing dispute between Bally Sports Indiana and the streaming services, and several players are unhappy in their current roles.
Which leads to the question of where the Pacers go from here. Owner Herb Simon is 87 and cannot be happy about the losing record and poor attendance. (He has not attended the last few home games.)
When Carlisle took over as coach in the summer, he wanted to see what he had in this group. He did not have the appetite for a rebuild. Instead, he envisioned a few roster changes and tweaks to how they played. He’s 62 and wants to win. So I asked him if he’s given any thought to a potential rebuild and his willingness to participate.
“No. Listen, I’m am hour-to-hour, day-to-day guy,” he said. “I like this roster. These guys are wonderful people, damn good players. We’ve had some bad luck with a lot of different things. Now it’s injuries and some other stuff.
“It’s all about trying to get it a little better each day. One percent better, two percent better and if you look at our season and all the close games, a lot of it comes down to one or two percent. We just got to keep pushing in that direction to keep doing a little better.”
Nothing is likely to happen very soon and at least for another week once more players become available to be traded on Dec. 15. Of the Pacers’ core, Brogdon is safe because he’s unable to be moved for six months after signing an extension before the season.
The Pacers are not in a good spot and now open to the idea of several significant moves for the first time in Pritchard’s tenure as team president. And now the rest of the league has been made aware.