INDIANAPOLIS — Kevin Pritchard spent the last six seasons speaking his mind privately.
He shared his crazy ideas with Larry Bird, occasionally agreed to disagree with the boss, and might have even tried to persuade Bird to be more aggressive with player moves. Now, the Indiana Pacers are about to see if Pritchard can live up to his word.
“I think you have to be bold in this position,” Pritchard said earlier this week after being given the team’s president of basketball operations job. “I like interchanging pieces, I like moving around in the draft, I want to be aggressive, I want to make deals.”
Pritchard’s attitude may be just what the Pacers need as they enter a transformational offseason.
He has played this game before, though his wheeling-and-dealing ways cost him the general manager’s position in Portland after a little more than three seasons. But the man who was hired to replace Bird acknowledges he’s not the same guy who was fired on draft night in 2010.
Pritchard credits Bird with teaching him about the importance of continuity. After returning to his home state in 2011, Pritchard said he understood that great minds don’t always have to think alike — until a final decision is made and then everyone must present a unified front. He developed an affinity for Bird’s ability to speak plainly, bluntly and meaningfully, and he’s even changing his mind about the thought of Lance Stephenson playing point guard.
But Pritchard still intends to be aggressive with trades, in free agency and with a budget that even made Bird reconsider his plan to step down as the team’s lead decision maker.
“After seeing next year’s budget, I almost want to stay,” Bird joked on Monday. “I think he’s the right guy.”
While the Pacers have a pretty good notion of what they have in Pritchard, it’s the Indiana native who is waiting to see what cards he’s dealt.
Former All-Star point guard Jeff Teague, forwards C.J. Miles and Lavoy Allen, and backup guard Aaron Brooks can all become free agents. Four-time All-Star Paul George has one year left on his contract and could become trade bait if he refuses to commit to playing in Indiana beyond next season. Pritchard said he expects to keep George well beyond 2017-18 and will do almost anything to make it possible.
That will require Pritchard to put a better supporting cast around George, who has made no secret of his desire to bring the Pacers their first NBA title.
Pritchard, born in Bloomington, Indiana, grew up in suburban Indianapolis, and understands.
“This team has been to the playoffs 22 of the last 29 years and we want to be successful,” Pritchard said. “The message (from George) was that he wants to win. We want to win. So we’re on the same page.”
The conventional wisdom last summer, after the Pacers acquired Teague and forward Thaddeus Young in trades, was that they might be on the cusp of returning to the Eastern Conference finals. Instead, they needed to win their last five regular-season games just to make the playoffs, and were swept by defending champion Cleveland in four games.
So Pritchard will begin the revamp from inside the organization.
He’s encouraging promising center Myles Turner to come back bigger and stronger. Pritchard wants Stephenson to get healthy so he can energize the Pacers in a way others cannot. Of course, Pritchard wants to re-sign Teague and George, and he wants the Pacers to get back to some of their more traditional traits.
“Look, we have to be a tougher team,” Pritchard said. “We won at home last year, but when you look at what it takes to win on the road, you have to be physical and you have to play tough. So toughness is what I want to add to the team. We used to be known as a lunch pail team, and we have to get that back.”
And now it’s Pritchard who must finish the job.
“As the No. 2 guy, you make all sorts of recommendations and some are crazy, and then you move into this role,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s OK being the No. 2 guy, too. But Larry and I have had a lot of conversations and he just said ‘It’s time for you.'”