A GM in a big NBA market like Los Angeles or New York is under tremendous pressure to bring home the truly epic prizes, guys like Kawhi Leonard and Kevin Durant, and with all the advantages in the world, any fool can close the deal—the Lakers, after all, got LeBron James for no better reason than because LeBron wanted to be closer to his media empire during the season.
A GM in a small NBA market has to operate on the margins, bringing in value talent, drafting well, and winning trades in order to build even a perennial first-round playoff exit team, never mind a contender.
And nobody plays that game better than Pacers GM Kevin Pritchard.
Pritchard brought in T.J. Warren from the Suns for virtually nothing. He got Milwaukee to sign-and-trade 2016 Rookie of the Year and 50/40/90 guy Malcolm Brogdon, by miles the best possible option the Pacers had at point guard. He got T.J. McConnell for peanuts (2 years, $7 million, with a second-year team option)
And then, not content to stop there, he went out and got Jeremy Lamb to be the stopgap shooting guard until Victor Oladipo is healthy again, at which point Lamb will slide into the backup role that was filled at points by Tyreke Evans and Wesley Matthews last season, hoping to be better than either of those guys were.
On draft day, he wheel-and-dealed the 32nd pick in the draft into three second-rounders that were instrumental in the Brogdon trade, then lucked into Goga Bitadze—a guy who was projected as a late lottery pick—falling all the way to 18th.
Bitadze could be Nikoloz Tskitishvili. Or he could be Nikola Jokic. But at 18, well outside the range of where surefire talent projection lives on draft night? Well, that’s how Milwaukee ended up with Giannis Antetokounmpo, isn’t it? And we saw how that turned out for them.
Brogdon had .171 WS/48 on the Bucks last year, a 70-win player. Part of that is the fact that he was on the Bucks, but Milwaukee was just a 60-win team. Brogdon was a better-than-average player in terms of win shares while playing a position that stat is biased against (WS/48 tends to be higher for power forwards and centers and lower for guards). That’s the stuff that supermax contracts are made of when players do it consistently for years, and Brogdon is making a very reasonable $85 million over four years, not much more than Myles Turner was given last year.
Throw in Oladipo’s $21 million and what you’ve got is a core of three young players making just around $60 million between the three of them.
In another place and time, that’s the cap room to go after the likes of a Durant or Klay Thompson, but this is Indiana and Kevin Pritchard has no time for your foolish contract shenanigans when instead he can build a team that goes deep instead of top-heavy.
The more you look at this team, the more you realize just how built-for-competence it is. Everyone is at least a 50-win player on paper when you look at their advanced stats. Everyone has a role that meshes well with the other available roles on the team, at least in theory—let’s not talk about the contract Domantas Sabonis will command if he decides he’s not happy with being a perennial Sixth Man of the Year and decides he wants to be a big-bucks starting power forward or center on another team.
But then again, when Paul George did that, that’s how Indiana got Oladipo and Sabonis and won 48 games in back-to-back seasons.
The point is, when you look at things in terms of roster construction, this is an absolute masterpiece of small-market team building.
Sure, there are injury concerns—Oladipo’s quad tendon, Brogdon’s foot, Turner’s weird tendency to pick up contact injuries like the broken nose and bruised hip he suffered at points last season. But healthy, this was a 55-win team on paper last year and it sure looks like a 55-win team on paper this year. People are calling them an Eastern Conference dark horse.
There are plenty of valid reasons to criticize Kevin Pritchard, most of them involving the continued employment of Nate McMillan when the team would be a lot better off having a coach that doesn’t suffer from Scott-Hollins Syndrome.
And Pritchard can occasionally be downright Charles Barkleyish when it comes to not understanding or embracing analytics himself.
But as an old-school “put the best team that money and market allows on the court and let them compete for a deep playoff run and maybe a couple of breaks going just right?” That, at its most basic, is the best that Pacers basketball can be.
Long live the king of the offseason.