Derek Schultz: Pacers big bet

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Two years ago this month, the Pacers were in shambles.

In the middle of a 1-10 stretch that tanked their record to a miserable 15-29, it became clear there was no path forward for the franchise with the then core of Domantas Sabonis, Caris LeVert and Malcolm Brogdon.

It was time for a teardown—an act that an executive in his 11th year in the front office and fifth as president of basketball operations, like Kevin Pritchard was, normally would not survive. Patience is not reality for most of the NBA, where big-market behemoths like the Knicks and Clippers churn through executives, but the Pacers stood by him. Keeping things afloat after Paul George’s abrupt exit and Victor Oladipo’s quick rise and even quicker fall, the Pacers were allowing their lead evaluator and decision-maker to revamp the roster yet again.

Dealing Sabonis, the team’s lone All-Star entering his prime years, for Tyrese Haliburton, a 20-year-old barely halfway through his second NBA season, required more patience. So did discarding known veterans for fledgling castoffs like Aaron Nesmith and Jalen Smith, along with a pile of draft picks. Over those 18 months, Indiana ran off 10 straight losses to finish 2022, then topped that skid by dropping 16 of 18 games in early 2023 to sink the next season. Again, patience.

As the calendar turns to 2024, Pritchard and the Pacers aren’t waiting around any longer.

An unexpected run to the championship of the inaugural In-Season Tournament and Haliburton’s meteoric rise to national prominence have turned the Pacers’ light bright green. Pritchard slammed on the accelerator last week, pouncing on a blockbuster opportunity to secure Raptors All-Star Pascal Siakam, a fantastic finisher who will thrive in an offense that loves to attack the rim in transition. The 6-foot-8-inch forward is also a lengthy defender (with a 7-foot-3-inch wingspan) and can guard multiple positions, coming to the rescue of an Indiana team that has languished at the bottom of the league in points and field goal percentage allowed. Siakam should immediately become the second-option scoring threat and versatile wing defender the Pacers had lacked. The move fills a glaring deficiency and solidifies Indiana as a bona fide playoff-caliber team.

Siakam cost the Pacers Bruce Brown, last summer’s pricey free-agent prize who was always going to be a short-term stay; Jordan Nwora, a throw-in as part of a Milwaukee salary dump last February; and three middling first-rounders, two of which are virtually certain to land in the back half of a lousy NBA Draft class this summer. Pritchard didn’t have to tear anything down, break up the team’s core pillars, or part with an integral future asset to land the former NBA champion and two-time all-league performer.

Unlike many of the Pacers’ recent acquisitions, which have assumed a payoff would be down the road, the Pascal Siakam deal comes with expectations that he’ll have an immediate impact. (AP photo)

Although Indiana didn’t pay a hefty price, this big swing carries significant risk, especially if Siakam walks into free agency this summer. However, it’s something that Pritchard had the guts to make this deal at all. Most of the Pacers’ splashy moves over the last decade have been made out of desperation—at the mercy of a disgruntled star or resetting a failed blueprint—but this deal was done from a position of strength.

That’s why it is significant for Indiana just from a perception standpoint. It’s unlikely the Pacers are ready to truly contend for a title in the next few months, but they aren’t awshucks-ing away from that label, waiting and seeing like they have for so many years. For a small-market team historically incapable of luring marquee players, aggressively pursuing and landing a talent like Siakam is the kind of bold wager Pacers fans were waiting for. It’s this barely noticeable franchise loudly dragging its chair up to the table and having the cojones to hang around to see what else it gets dealt. Pritchard already has a team on the rise with a franchise cornerstone in Haliburton, and like the NFL when you have your quarterback, it makes gambles like these easier to justify.

More deals are certain to follow. Siakam creates a log jam in the front court. Important rotation players like Obi Toppin and Jalen Smith (player option) are both technically in contract years, and fellow big Isaiah Jackson has shown considerable growth in his third NBA season.

You can put “we have too many capable players to give everyone minutes” into the Good Problems to Have category, but it’s still a problem that will have to be sorted. The NBA trade deadline is less than two weeks away and, while no impending deal is likely to be as seismic a change as Siakam’s joining the fold, more changes—Toppin? Smith? Buddy Hield?—seem to be a logical guarantee.

The Siakam trade or any other imminent trade(s) Kevin Pritchard pulls the trigger on have to pay off. The Pacers are a decade removed from their last playoff series win, and while vibes around the franchise are strong now, tangible results have to follow eventually.

The good news for Indiana fans is that Pritchard has won more often than not when it comes to wheeling and dealing. He maximized a zero-leverage situation by getting Sabonis and Oladipo when Paul George wanted out in 2017, then flipped Sabonis to acquire a higher-ceiling player in Haliburton four years later. The Pacers enjoyed Oladipo’s best years before his first major injury and dealt him before his career crumbled, netting LeVert, who they then parlayed into draft picks. Pritchard took in Nesmith and Smith as trade throw-ins, and both have become key pieces for the Pacers. Toppin, who was acquired for two second-rounders last summer, has been enjoying a career year to this point.

However, the Siakam deal is the first Pritchard has made with immediate expectations attached. Siakam is nearing his 30th birthday and expected to be a pillar piece for the Pacers now—not three to four seasons down the line. If the Pacers were looking for baby steps when they acquired Haliburton two years ago, they’re now looking to get into a full-grown sprint with Siakam. The franchise is already on an upward trajectory, and the All-Star forward needs to enhance rather than interrupt that rise.

It was time for Pritchard and the Pacers to make this move. With Siakam in tow, perhaps the Pacers can actually accomplish something meaningful again; for Pritchard’s and the fan base’s sakes, you hope they can do it soon. A teardown two seasons ago created a rare opportunity for a franchise like Indiana to acquire a player with an All-Star pedigree. Now, we’ll see if the patience and faith given to Pritchard will be rewarded with results, because fans in this town are tired of waiting.•

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From Peyton Manning’s peak with the Colts to the Pacers’ most recent roster makeover, Schultz has talked about it all as a sports personality in Indianapolis for more than 15 years. Besides his written work with IBJ, he’s active in podcasting and show hosting. You can follow him on X, formerly Twitter, @Schultz975.

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