To find the NBA’s countercultural capital, you must eschew both coasts and venture deep into the heartland. There, the Indiana Pacers stand, proudly rejecting the boom-or-bust philosophy employed by so many of the league’s high-profile teams.
Winning titles always has required superstars, but the battle for top talent has never been fiercer or more consuming. The Los Angeles Lakers spent multiple years clearing the way to entice LeBron James, then sacrificed this season in a vain pursuit of Anthony Davis. The New York Knicks dumped rising star Kristaps Porzingis to set the table for Kevin Durant or Kyrie Irving or both. The Los Angeles Clippers have expanded their front office and painstakingly tracked top targets such as Kawhi Leonard.
The small-market Pacers, by contrast, have prioritized respectability. Rather than futilely take part in the rat race for A-listers, owner Herb Simon has given his front office simple instructions: win as many games as possible every year.
That mandate, simple as it might be, encourages two types of restraint. First, Indiana has no interest in mortgaging its future by sacrificing young players and draft picks as a short-term stimulus. The Philadelphia 76ers might part with three quality rotation players and two first-round picks to rent Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris for a title push but not the Pacers.
Second — and perhaps more importantly — Indiana has ruled out racing to the bottom to collect draft lottery ping-pong balls. The Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers and Phoenix Suns might stomach atrocious seasons for a ticket to the Zion Williamson sweepstakes, but not the Pacers — not even after they lost all-star guard Victor Oladipo to a season-ending quadriceps tear in January.
“I hate the word tank,” Pacers President Kevin Pritchard said. “You’ll never see a Pacers team look to the future and not try to win as many games as we can. When Victor went out, we weren’t going to try to do anything different. We’ve been so competitive, and the players have been so unselfish. I couldn’t picture myself walking into the locker room and telling them I was breaking it up. A successful season for us doesn’t have to do with absolute wins or losses. If we are maintaining a positive culture and a culture of development, we’ll have a chance at sustained success.”
Indiana’s moderate philosophy has been, well, moderately successful. The Pacers (44-29) haven’t won a playoff series since 2014, but they have clinched their fourth straight winning season and their fourth straight playoff appearance despite acquiescing to Paul George’s 2017 trade demand. Their roster lacks a household star to support Oladipo, but young big men Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis have established themselves as major difference-makers. Their season hit a snag with Oladipo’s injury, but they kept their heads above water by targeting Wesley Matthews on the buyout market and doubling down on a defense-first approach under Coach Nate McMillan.
During their shared time with the Portland Trail Blazers, Pritchard and McMillan experienced an endless series of highs and lows. The Blazers dreamed about winning titles with a big three of Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Greg Oden, but career-altering injuries intervened. Pritchard and McMillan were fired before Portland advanced in the playoffs. After reconnecting in Indiana, Pritchard and McMillan have ignored hype and mood swings in favor of steadiness. “We play hard and play together,” McMillan said when asked to explain the Pacers’ impressive staying power.
That’s a trickier proposition than it seems. Just ask the Boston Celtics, whose effort level has fluctuated all season. Or the Chicago Bulls, who established a “leadership committee” to share their grievances with Coach Jim Boylen. Or the Lakers, who imploded after a month of fierce trade rumors and free agency speculation.
Although the Pacers have numerous key players headed to free agency, including starters Thaddeus Young, Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison and Matthews, they have yet to devolve into self-interested play. The unified front can be partially explained by a focus on proactive communication in response to the recent leaguewide rise in player movement. “It’s a natural tendency for players to look at their own careers,” Pritchard said. “The best thing you can do is to be willing to talk about their situation at any point of their contract. With these short contracts, you’ve got to be prepared to make it a conversation every year.”
With a reasoned organizational philosophy, a no-nonsense coach and clearly defined roles, the Pacers have been free to blossom at their own pace. Turner, the league leader in blocks, has grown into a stalwart center and will receive defensive player of the year votes. Sabonis, a highly skilled and efficient finisher, is a leading sixth man of the year candidate. Young, a versatile forward, has stepped up as team captain and delivered strong two-way play. Despite a four-game losing streak entering the weekend, Indiana has allowed the fewest points per game in the NBA this season and McMillan has received some coach of the year buzz.
When it comes to this summer, James Dolan might hint at a splash for the Knicks, Magic Johnson might promise a second Lakers star and Doc Rivers might lay out the Clippers’ free agency pitch in detail. But the Pacers, true to form, are more concerned with taking their best shot in the playoffs and keeping their options open.
“If you pigeonhole yourself into thinking this or that in March, you’re probably not managing things right,” Pritchard said, noting that his predecessor, Larry Bird, stressed the importance of preparedness and flexibility. “Sometimes that can lead to making a bunch of trades and changing the team up, or sometimes it means being comfortable enough to keep the continuity. I can make the case for either side.”
Whichever path Pritchard chooses in July, this much is certain: There might not be a superteam on Indiana’s horizon, but there won’t be a “Process” either.