Indiana Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle, front right, reacts during the second half of a preseason NBA basketball game against the New York Knicks, Friday, Oct. 7, 2022, in New York. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)
INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana Pacers open this season with a different goal.
They’re no longer satisfied with just making the playoffs or advancing beyond the first round. Instead, they want to build a long-term contender with young, talented prospects.
Yes, the long journey back won’t be quick or easy and the Pacers are willing to be patient. But make no mistake, building for the future still includes some essential components to winning now — playing hard nightly, defending well and steady progress.
“Young talent in the gym is always invigorating,” coach Rick Carlisle said. “The day Luka Doncic first walked into the gym in Dallas is a day I’ll never forget. I feel that way about our guys. I’ve talked to the staff about metrics that would be useful to measure progress, measure performance but I would say, in general, a lot of this is going to be the eye test.”
From the outside, it looks and sounds like a blueprint for a complete rebuild, maybe even tanking.
The Pacers view it differently.
They see 22-year-old point guard Tyrese Haliburton as the centerpiece of this new project after acquiring him in a February trade that also netted swingman Buddy Hield. They got power forward Jalen Smith, a 2020 lottery pick, in a deal with Phoenix, then re-signed him as a projected starter.
Carlisle and president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard also believe shooting guard Chris Duarte, a second team all-rookie honoree last season, and Bennedict Mathurin, the No. 6 overall draft pick in June, can provide additional scoring punch.
Plus, two-time league blocks champ Myles Turner says he’s healthy after missing the final 39 games of last season with a stress reaction in his left foot.
There’s even solid backup options with point guards T.J. McConnell and rookie Andrew Nembhard, veteran forwards Oshae Brissett and Aaron Nesmith and second-year center Isaiah Jackson.
It’s enough to give Carlisle a solid 10-man rotation and players hope this plan works sooner than most basketball observers expect.
“I think we’ve just got a lot of guys who love basketball, who love to compete and that’s a great place to start,” Haliburton said. “There are so many young guys and they have a lot to prove not only to the media or the naysayers but to themselves.”
ON THE DEFENSIVE
For years, Indiana was considered one of the NBA’s top defensive teams. It lost that reputation over the past two years when it allowed 115.3 and then 114.9 points per game.
Carlisle believes the Pacers can change directions this season, thanks in part to having Turner and McConnell back. The most encouraging aspect may be players prefer playing an up-tempo game and they know there’s only way they can do it.
“You’ve got to defend, you’ve got to get some stops, you’ve got to rebound the ball, get quick outlets, things like that,” Haliburton said. “Of course, we’d love to play in transition as much as possible, I would for sure. But it’s not going to happen unless we get some stops.”
Though Pritchard says he’s not a fan of midseason trades, he made three last season and could be active in the market again, especially if the losses start mounting.
Turner, the 29-year-old Hield and 30-year-old forward Daniel Theis are the team’s highest-paid players. And while Turner has been the subject of trade rumors for years and has an expiring contract, it’s unclear whether Hield and Theis are part of Indiana’s long-term vision.
If Pritchard can add a few more draft picks to the three potential first-rounders he already holds next summer, courtesy of protected picks from Cleveland and Boston, he just might take them.
It was a short offseason for a handful of Pacers players, who competed in this summer’s FIBA World Cup qualifiers.
Hield represented the Bahamas while Duarte suited up for the Dominican Republic. Center Goga Bitadze again played for his home country of Georgia, Thies played for Germany and guard Langston Galloway competed on the American team.
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