Season recap: The Pacers key to success? Working hard in the summer
Part of what makes a team just that, a team, is everyone doing their part. The Pacers were successful this year because everyone did that in the summer of 2017.
John Wooden is one of the best basketball coaches in history. Beyond being a master of the intricacies of Xs and Os, Wooden was the authority at ensuring his players grew into better people. His famous quote about character — and how it is defined by what you do when nobody is watching — is one of the most prominent sayings in the coaching realm. For the Pacers, it is representative of the story of their season.
Let’s skip over all the Paul George stuff. You’ve heard that story to a nauseating degree. Let’s jump ahead to this team. This Pacers team went into the season a written-off group of castaways with an enumeration of things to prove. Victor Oladipo had been traded during two consecutive summers. Domantas Sabonis had been moved after precisely one year in Oklahoma City. Cory Joseph was less valuable to Toronto than some wiggle room under the luxury tax. Sacramento flat out didn’t want Darren Collison. For Bojan Bogdanovic and the Wizards, we saw the same tale.
And that is just the new guys.
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For Lance Stephenson, he needed to prove he belonged in the NBA after playing for five teams in two seasons. Joe Young had to prove he had a place in the NBA period. Al Jefferson desired to demonstrate that he could still contribute at his old age.
Everyone had an obstacle to overcome. Some of them were more personal than others. But the beauty of it was that they were seemingly everywhere, almost organized chaos. The team was determined to overcome these hurdles, and they chose the Wooden route to overcome them. They were going to work hard when nobody, and I mean absolutely nobody, was watching.
We saw it straight right from the start from would-become team leader Victor Oladipo. Oladipo was always an athletic player and a solid scorer. But next to freak athlete Russell Westbrook, Oladipo just looked like a guy.
Before he was traded to Indiana, Vic decided to work hard and transformed his body. He went from looking like a human being to looking like a machine, which effectively matches his on-court performance metamorphosis:
(I, the author, would like to know how I can undergo that transformation in three weeks.)
Vic didn’t make that transformation as a member of the Pacers. But he set the tone of doing your job judiciously in the summer. Kevin Pritchard did his job correctly in the summer (with EVERYONE watching) by acquiring Oladipo. That mindset trickled down to the Pacers populace. It started with the President of Basketball Operations and navigated through the best player. It was infectious.
Al Jefferson took notice, and he also labored in the offseason.
Big Al was lethargic and aging last year. But he’s a vet on a young team; players look up to him. He knew he needed to put forth the effort in the offseason and show everyone else how it’s done. And he did it, reportedly cutting 40 pounds just by changing his diet. He looked, and still does look, like a new man:
The train kept on going. Bojan Bogdanovic chose to play in Indiana because he wanted to prove he could be a starter in this league. “He wanted a chance to be a starter, to play significant minutes and be a reliable contributor in his prime,” said Nate Taylor of the Indianapolis Star. “The Indiana Pacers intrigued Bogdanovic because they presented those opportunities for him.” Bojan had something to prove, and he chose to come to Indianapolis to work hard to show everyone just how good he can be.
For Darren Collison, it was much the same. He left Indiana originally with a bad taste in his mouth after being benched in favor of George Hill. But he was brought back thanks to his work integrity. “He’s always working, he’s always worked on his shot, he’s always stayed after. And he takes great pride in his D. He’s always had that,” Assistant Coach Dan Burke told Mark Montieth.
Between Oladipo, Jefferson, Bogdanovic, and Collison, the Pacers had begun to form a group of guys who all worked hard when nobody was watching. The Wooden way. Pritchard took a calculated risk bringing all of those guys in, and it paid off big time.
The Wooden Way becomes the Pacers Way
Everyone else took notice. Al Jefferson told me earlier in the year “my role has changed to help teach these young guys”. Between Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, Al is basically a coach. He has two youngsters to which he needs to relay his acumen. And in the summer, he did that. He described helping Turner improve when he has a smaller guy switched onto him. Now, Turner is in the 72.8 percentile scoring on post-ups league-wide, thanks to his and Jefferson’s work in the offseason.
For Sabonis, the change was more obvious. In Oklahoma City, he played power forward and spent time away from the rim. In Indiana, he had to work on being a post player; skills his body was better suited for. His improvements, thanks in part to his work with Al Jefferson and coach McMillan, are innumerable.
Give McMillan credit too. Knock him for whatever you want, but one thing you can never take away from Nate is that he is excellent at player development, dating back to his days in Seattle. In Portland, he helped develop guys like LaMarcus Aldridge, Brandon Roy, Rudy Fernandez, Nicolas Batum, and Wes Matthews. In Indiana, he is continuing that remarkable skill. Just look at what he has done with Myles Turner, Victor Oladipo, and Sabonis already. Those young guys all took steps forward this year, and look set up to be talented NBA players for years to come.
Speaking of young guys, let’s not forget to give Joe Young some credit.
Closing the discussion of this Pacers’ team and its considerable character has to go through Joe Young. Young and Myles Turner are the longest-tenured Pacers, both joining the team on the same draft night, though they have had drastically different NBA careers. Myles has been an impactful guy for three seasons. Young, like everyone else, has had to continuously work his butt off. What everyone did this summer, Young has been doing for years.
He had to work to even make the final roster. But for Young, the hard work did not stop once the summer ended. Perhaps the most emblematic event to sum up this Indiana team’s work ethic was when Young slept on the court of the St. Vincent center, where he would take shots every time he awoke:
Maybe that was a little bit for show, but it is obvious Young put in the work. You can see all the time he has put in on his jumper. All of his shooting percentages are career highs, and he played well in the absence of Darren Collison throughout February.
It travels from the president of basketball operations, down to the head coach, navigates through the team’s star, and affects the masses. Character. Everyone displayed it in the Wooden way by working hard in the offseason. When nobody was watching.
Some people still don’t watch. That’s okay. The Pacers overcame a lot to get here, and with the playoffs on the horizon, the sky is the limit. They have shown limitless resilience so far to prove everyone wrong. Perhaps, thanks to their work this summer, they could continue to continue to do so. Time to Shock the World.