First, a quiz.
• Who Am I?
• Only bench player to lead the NBA in steals
• Only bench player to make an All-Defensive team
• As a rookie, I had 25 assists in a game
• Twice I had 8 offensive rebounds in a game as PG
• I never took more than 15 shots in a game
• I played over 800 games and won 61 percent of those games
The clues are scrawled on a whiteboard inside a conference room overlooking the Indiana Pacers' practice floor. Below, nearly a roster full of players participates in drills a week before training camp opens.
Seventeen players are in attendance, and not one of them can guess the mystery player, who it is revealed is their coach, Nate McMillan. Goga Bitadze, the Pacers' 2019 first-round draftee, had not been born when McMillan called it a career. "They don't watch [Hardwood] Classics," McMillan says. "That's the only way they're going to see me."
The statistics reflect a player who not only gave for his team but also benefited from those sacrifices. In a 12-year career spent entirely with the Seattle SuperSonics, McMillan played defense like an NFL safety, gobbling up the errant passes teammate Gary Payton harassed ball-handlers into. A willing passer himself, McMillan set up All-Stars like Payton and Shawn Kemp on more than a few occasions on the offensive end.
"That guy understood his role, and he embraced it," Pacers general manager Chad Buchanan says. "It helps put Nate in a different light with our guys because they were too young to remember him as a player. ... And the fact he played for the same team his whole career, too, says a lot about what an organization thought about him."
Those days, of course, are gone. Players across the league now are flexing more autonomy than ever. They team up with who they want, where they want, and develop their own routines, often while working with their own medical staff and trainers.
In Indiana, the Pacers offer that same autonomy, but in exchange they are asking players to accept the accompanying responsibility—to take "ownership" in a franchise that solicits and values their input beyond what they can do on the floor. It's a philosophy that underlies the principles written out on the whiteboard next to McMillan's stats—togetherness, toughness and trust—and borne out of extended conversations with their own players.
"They're very interactive," Victor Oladipo said during a telephone call later in the week as he continues his rehabilitation from a ruptured quad tendon in his right knee. "Some of the other organizations I've been in, I go a whole year without talking to any of them. ... [Here], they want us all on the same page."
Team president Kevin Pritchard and Buchanan recall a particularly crucial interaction, an early conversation with the recently retired Darren Collison. Boston had just jettisoned Isaiah Thomas to Cleveland after he had performed brilliantly in the playoffs, despite the death of his sister and debilitating injuries, and players were concerned.
"There's a sense in the culture of players today that you can't trust the front office," Collison said, according to Buchanan. "How are we supposed to trust you guys? We all have families. We have people. This is our lives. This is our livelihood. We realize it's part of the business where you could get moved. But we don't want to hear about it from somewhere other than our employer."
Pritchard and Buchanan let the words settle. They made sense. They talked to other veterans on the team at the time—Cory Joseph, Al Jefferson and Thaddeus Young. Then they promised players that they would be informed if a deal neared fruition.
"But there's a second part of that," Pritchard adds in an interview with B/R alongside Buchanan. "There's a little bit of quid pro quo, because if we do that and then the trade doesn't go through, guys can check out. When we say it's at the 5-yard line, you're going to hear it from us. But if it doesn't work out, you still have to have both feet in on the Pacers."
Pritchard turns to Buchanan: "We had to come up twice so far and have difficult conversations, but we did it. The trades didn't happen, did they?"
"No," Buchanan says. "One was Al. One was Darren."
'Yeah, but we let them know," Pritchard says. "Their agents probably appreciate it as much as the player, [but] there's downsides to it. There's no doubt there's potential downsides. But I think there's an upside in that if you come here, that you're going to be told the truth."
That matters to Oladipo, who, like a lot of players, has seen his career cast about as part of NBA business in two separate trades.
"They know we're human beings," Oladipo said. "They know that, at the end of the day, things are taken personal. Embarrassment is a real thing. They're going to go out their way to make sure that no one would ever be blindsided to where they'll be on a plane and get traded twice like I did. … It just shows their character and what players mean to them and what people mean to them in general. I'm not saying that the other two organizations that traded me when I was on a plane are bad people or anything like that. It's just they have a different way of approaching things."
Maybe that's because they lived it. Pritchard recalls his journeyman playing days ricocheting around the NBA, CBA and overseas. A coach once cut him five minutes before a game. The sting remains. "I don't want that culture here," Pritchard says. "Maybe I'm too sensitive to it, and could it backfire? Sure. But there's opportunity to gain some trust. There's not one person as part of that selection process, where we go on and say, 'Hmm, you know what? He's going to be a great future trade asset.' Never.
"A lot of people thought we did that with Goga [in the 2019 draft]. I still don't understand that. There's been some teams that drafted and it's like, 'Look, I know he's going to get moved.' We felt like Goga was the best player on the board. In the draft, you don't want to hit a single. If you're hitting a single in the draft and keep hitting singles in the draft, you're going to be average at best in a low-revenue market. Big-revenue market, it's still important, but not quite as."
When you're working at the margins, though, as Indiana sometimes is, you need to be nimble and adjust to the NBA's market forces. In the wake of the roster shake-up following the blockbuster exchange of Paul George for Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis two years ago, Pacers owner Herb Simon insisted he wanted the team to be competitive.
"Let's get the best players, but let's get some flexibility for the future," Pritchard told Buchanan. So they tried to round out the roster by signing Collison and Bojan Bogdanovic with team options for their second seasons.
"They both came in here reluctantly," Pritchard says. "I didn't like that. [Chad] didn't like that. Then we started talking about trust and how do we get our players to understand. There's never been a time and there will never be a time where we look and say, 'Listen, we're going to sign you, but you may not be here this year.'"
It's a noble idea, but one that has its limits.
"That's not an easy thing to say," says former Suns GM Ryan McDonough, now an NBA analyst for Radio.com. "'Oh, we love you. You're our guy … and by the way, we were very close to trading you and we would have done it if the other team was willing to do a deal.' It's hard to straddle that line sometimes, but kudos to them for trying, because I'll be honest with you, most teams won't even try."
The training center is spotless, equipped with all the bells and whistles of a modern NBA practice facility. Tradition remains. Donnie Walsh, the franchise's longtime general manager, is now a consultant with an office overlooking a practice court named after him. Larry Bird is an adviser. "Larry is like clockwork," McMillan says. "Every morning at 10 o'clock. I can set my alarm by it. He goes and he gets on the treadmill every day, and then he comes out and he watches us every day. We don't have to bring speakers in here to motivate you or to talk to you about what this life is about. That guy's sitting right there on the treadmill. Use him, he's a resource."
On this day, players are scrimmaging, working with a truncated 18-second shot clock in order to speed up the pace. Games are to 11. Whoever makes the game-winner is required to seal the victory with a free throw.
Buchanan watches the scrimmages, not looking for anything specific. Minutes will eventually be up for grabs and fluctuate. Justin Holiday or Doug McDermott? TJ Leaf or JaKarr Sampson? "The guys who don't get the role that they want, that's where your culture is really tested," Buchanan says. "Because now you got three or four guys who aren't playing, and how do they handle it? The last two years, we've had guys who have handled it well. But with a new group, who knows?"
T.J. McConnell races up and down the court, playfully talking trash. Bitadze shoots effortlessly from deep. Malcolm Brogdon directs traffic.
Brogdon is one of nine new faces. This is a hard-nosed team that plays defense, that plays together on offense, Brogdon thought when he played the Pacers the last few seasons in Milwaukee. No matter their talent, no matter your talent, they are going to give you a run because they stay together. Brogdon is enjoying the inside view early on. "I've been on teams where people don't show up on time and where it's been kind of rough, and this team is sort of no-nonsense where everybody comes to work," he says.
With Oladipo still sidelined, Indiana essentially will start the season with one returning starter in Myles Turner, though he is quick to note that his status doesn't give him say over the team. "There's not just one designated leader on the team. That's one thing we have preached in the past," Turner says, adding that his goal is to be the league's Defensive Player of the Year. "You have your title as a captain and whatnot, but there's a lot of vocal leaders out here on the floor, especially a lot of the guys that got experience, like Jeremy [Lamb], T.J. [Warren], all those guys have played in the league longer than I have, longer than me and Malcolm have as well. For the most part, I think we just have to give each other up.
"One thing we say is that we can't be afraid to get on each other. If someone's making a mistake, you got to call them out. The person getting called out can't take it personally."
That requires building a roster based not only on talent, but also on personality."They do a great job of identifying players who fit their culture," McDonough says. "When I say culture, I mean their identity, especially on the defensive end of the floor. They're tough. They're rugged. They're physical. Usually that's been a staple of the teams that Kevin Pritchard has assembled and Nate McMillan has coached."
There's a red reset button that players can tap before entering the practice court. It's just a prop, but it's also a symbol of Oladipo's optimism that each day is a new one, much like the locker room walls at the practice facility that do not absorb sound reflect the franchise's desire to be open with its players. "A locker room has no secrets," Pritchard says. "You can walk out and whisper, but not in that room. You better be prepared to back up what you're saying in that room."
The discussions with onboarding players are designed to be two-sided. What do you want from the medical staff? What kind of schedule do you want? What kind of equipment do you prefer? "Some guys will just talk and talk and talk, and some guys are, 'Just tell me what time practice is,'" Buchanan says.
"They're a very transparent group," says Brogdon, who asked to be a vocal team leader coming off his experience in Milwaukee. "I think in the NBA, it's hard to find a front office with an NBA team that's as transparent as this one. ... It's like a well-oiled machine here."
In their conversations with the team, Warren and Lamb requested time to acclimate to their new roles, teammates, coaches and systems. "We've got to be good listeners," Buchanan says. "If T.J. Warren comes out and just plays like crap the first month, we can't evaluate him on that because he's learning. And now he's trying to put some effort in the defense, which might affect his ability to score on the other end."
In turn, the team asks new arrivals to not resort to comfortable habits. "Like, T.J., don't come in here with a mindset, OK, I was five years in Phoenix. All I did was come in and score every night, and I'm moving to Indianapolis; I'm coming in and I'm just going to score every night," Buchanan says "Try to expand yourself a little bit. Because I think that's how guys make a jump."
As it seems to be across much of the league right now, culture is the buzzword here, and Indiana is trying to build one that isn't dependent on the free-agent splashes the Pacers aren't likely to make.
To Pritchard, it's not about being a "small market," a phrase he dislikes. "What it really comes down to is there's high revenue-generating markets and then there's medium and then there's small, and that's never going to end," he says. "The New Yorks and LAs and Chicagos [are] always going to be high-generating. So we have to come up with some unique things about what makes us special."
Currently, the Pacers' most enduring trait is their consistent success. Only the Spurs have been to the playoffs more in the last nine seasons than Indiana's eight appearances. "Boringly good" is how one rival executive described the franchise to Pritchard. And yet the team wasn't on the short list for any of this past summer's top free agents. "When Anthony Davis says, 'New Orleans isn't a spot for me; I'm all about winning,'" McDonough says, "did he look at Indiana or Utah? You and I both know the answer to that. The answer is no, he didn't. But if he's about winning, those two franchises are very well run."
Yet for all of their sustained competitiveness, the Pacers have not made it out of the first round of the playoffs in each of their last four appearances.
The Pacers were expected to take a leap last season following a seven-game first-round challenge to LeBron James and Cleveland in 2018. While Oladipo struggled at times adjusting to playing with a full spotlight on him, he appeared to be shaping into form when he went down in January against Toronto. Buchanan's heart sank when he saw Oladipo look toward the team's bench. Oh shit, this is something bad, he thought.
"You get into a routine of the NBA season," Buchanan says. "It's traveling, it's games, you win, you lose, you get a feel for the rhythm of your team and your season. Then something like that happens and just sets you back. You just lose sight of where you're going, and you lose sight of what you've done. It rocked the whole team. To their credit, we still won that game that night, which I don't know how he did. I was in a fog and everybody was in a fog. But we went through like a week, where we were just, like, Whoa, I don't recognize our team. They aren't playing with the same heart. They look lifeless. They look defeated."
That changed, Buchanan says, during a close loss to Orlando. "Thad and Cory and Bojan and those guys were like, 'Screw it. This is what we got. Let's go and play.'" They reeled off six straight wins.
They should be better prepared for life without Oladipo this season. "Personally, just stepping up, being a leader with this team," Turner, who played in this past summer's World Cup, said in a telephone call about his added responsibilities. "I'm the guy who has been here the longest, tenure-wise at least. And just bringing these guys together. It's a brand-new roster; our chemistry has to come together pretty quickly here."
The staff has told the team that Oladipo will return when he is ready, but the franchise has also mapped out a three-part path for what it hopes the year ahead will look like: without Oladipo, Oladipo's acclimation and lastly, the team together at full throttle. A chart in McMillan's office features two versions of his team's three-deep lineups, one featuring Oladipo and one without him.
Whenever he returns, if the Pacers are to make any sort of surge into conference contention, they'll need Oladipo at his most assertive on the floor, the guy who stared down James for seven games, not the guy searching for his rhythm last season.
"Obviously, I got more attention, scrutiny now out there," Oladipo says. "So it was just learning how to pick my spots, learn how to take advantage of any situation, learning how to make the game easier for myself, learning and watching other games and watching other players and just trying to be the best version of me I can be."
The Eastern Conference is open for business as several teams look to rise into the conference's upper echelon. "To have a chance to win a championship, you got to have at least one guy who's in discussion for an MVP," Buchanan says. "We've taken the approach of, if we have a really good culture where guys feel they can grow as players and develop as players, can we turn Victor Oladipo or Myles Turner or Malcolm Brogdon, whoever it might be, into an MVP-caliber-type player? Because we just can't get those guys in the trades. They respect our organization, but we're just not even an option for them. So, we've tried to get as many good players we can, and hopefully we get one or two of those guys who really pop, and the other guys will continue to grow and develop and do what Toronto did."
LeBron is gone. So is Kawhi Leonard. There is room for a team in the East, with a little luck and careful planning, to rise from nowhere.
Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the best-selling author of All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire—available right here, right now. Follow him on Twitter: @jpdabrams.