The theme for the season is right there in front of you, in bold, black, all-caps letters above the practice courts in the new St. Vincent Center next to Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
WE ARE ONE
It’s a boilerplate motto for a basketball team, similar to those for all the other NBA teams. But for the Pacers it’s also a rebuttal to last season, when a team predicted by many to win about 50 games won 42 and barely qualified for the playoffs.
They put up a good fight down the stretch, after Lance Stephenson arrived, winning their last five regular season games and giving eventual championship Cleveland a legitimate challenge in the opening playoff round. But something was missing – something the players believe will be recovered this season, which begins with the start of training camp on Tuesday.
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Coach Nate McMillan and the returning players explained it in a variety of ways during Media Day on Monday, but they boil down to chemistry, leadership and motives. Nobody was critical of any of the individual veterans who have departed – namely Paul George, Monta Ellis, Rodney Stuckey, Jeff Teague, Kevin Seraphin and Lavoy Allen – but everyone seemed to agree the attitude of this team will be improved.
With so many new faces, and so much renewed opportunity, that only stands to reason.
Coach Nate McMillan didn’t consider it his most challenging season as an NBA head coach. Generally, his players competed. But not as consistently or as cohesively as he would have liked.
“Sometimes you have people with different agendas,” McMillan said. “The timeline is different as far as what they want out of life or (the season) and I think we had that. There were probably five, six, seven, eight games we dropped that we shouldn’t have dropped. If we were a more unified unit, we would have won those games.”
McMillan considered the issues mostly a result of the roster makeup, typical of a team in transition. Some veteran players accustomed to a longtime role had to try to adjust to a different role, with mixed results.
“The balance of the roster was a little challenging,” he said. “I thought they tried to do the best they could. I had a lot of meetings and we talked about where they were and where we wanted to go. Monta was a veteran who has always been a starter, probably averaged 40-plus minutes. Well, we don’t need you to play those minutes. He had always got the ball late in the game of close games. We had Jeff Teague, who had always been an All-Star. Jeff was used to playing with the ball in his hands. So was Paul. So was Monta. Myles (Turner) needed it. Thaddeus (Young) sacrificed. Kevin Seraphin and Lavoy (Allen) wanted to play more.
“The balance was a little bit challenging.”
Young, now one of just two players with 10 or more years of experience (along with Al Jefferson), has witnessed improved energy in the informal pre-camp workouts in August and September, and predicted a carryover into the regular season.
“We’re going to play hard each and every night,” he said. “We’re going to continue to fight and be there for one another. We’re all together as a team, we’re a family and we want to succeed.
“It’s a lot different than last year. The situation that was circling around certain guys on our team last year, we don’t have that hanging over our head. We can just go out there and play and we can focus on this season and do the things we need to do.”
What were those issues?
“We had so many vets, we didn’t hold ourselves accountable last year,” he said. “This year we’re ready to hold ourselves accountable. We’ve already been doing that with each other, policing each other. We didn’t want to step on anybody’s toes last year, and sometimes that has to go out the window for the betterment of the team.”
One of the younger players, Glenn Robinson III, agreed. Toes can be stepped on this season, he said.
“We could have done a better job as far as being on the same page with everything,” he said. “This team, we have a great group of guys, we don’t care if the coaches or another teammate gets on you. We look at it as we’re going in to compete, play hard and try to get better every day.”
McMillan hopes the mutual “timeline” of his roster will result in a happier group. Young will start, and take on a greater leadership role as a returning player. Jefferson, slimmed down by 40 pounds from this time last year, has a renewed commitment. Stephenson, the generator of so much enthusiasm late last season, is back and satisfied with his projected sixth-man role. Myles Turner is excited about an improved environment for scoring and leading. Darren Collison, Victor Oladipo and Bojan Bogdanovic have starting positions and fresh opportunities awaiting them.
Robinson, Cory Joseph and Domantas Sabonis are penciled in for prime backup minutes, securely in the rotation with opportunities to win starting positions. Aside from Damien Wilkins, brought on with a non-guaranteed contract to provide additional veteran leadership, everyone else is young and simply excited to be with an NBA team.
McMillan sees a group with less potential for conflict and frustration.
“I think these guys can grow together,” he said. “They can look at the future and see that they will be a part in creating that future.”
However, he also sees a group that is largely new to one another. The better NBA teams have experience, and chemistry doesn’t come overnight. How long will it take for this group to mesh?
“I don’t know,” McMillan said. “I haven’t experienced most of these guys in adversity. As soon as we drop a game or two, how will we respond to that?
“There’s a lot of unknowns with our group. That’s going to take a while.”
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