The Return Of Rick

Photo courtesy of Danny Bollinger, Creative Commons

For some reason, I tuned into Indiana’s 1 percent chance at winning the NBA Draft Lottery the other night.

Maybe I was feeling hopeful. That feeling’s been pretty fleeting lately when it comes to the Pacers. Maybe I was just feeling nostalgic, pining for the days of the late David Stern awkwardly ripping open envelopes. The real explanation is probably that I had absolutely nothing better to do on a Tuesday night. The Pacers’ Hail Mary fell several yards short of the end zone, of course, as they settled into what’s now become an all-too-familiar middle-of-the-first-round, late-lottery 13th pick.

I then tweeted out my favorite statistic in sports: the fact the Pacers haven’t owned a first round draft pick outside of the single digits since 1989, a staggering amount of time to go without a top-end selection. It drew the usual responses:

“Always mediocre!”

“We’re cursed!”

“NBA purgatory!”

But just two days later, Pacers fans finally got lucky. Rick Carlisle, the 2011 NBA Champion head coach, is returning to the franchise he parted with fourteen years and several roster overhauls ago, a move met with near-universal approval from the fanbase.

Despite the embarrassment of Nate Bjorkgren’s disastrous, one-and-done trial year, the Pacers’ issues go beyond just fulfilling the head coaching spot. For most of the last seven years they’ve been just… okay. This past season, however, was easily their most unenjoyable since the forgettable Dunleavy-Murphy era of the late 2000s, with the team limping miserably to a sub-.500, ninth-place finish in the Eastern Conference. Bringing in someone like Carlisle — and, what’s more, paying him more than $7 million per year — shows the fans that ownership is fed up, too.

Losing by… 500 points, or whatever the blowout margin was, to a mediocre Washington team in the goddamn play-in round is simply not good enough. Neither is getting consistently swept out of the first round with minimal effort by top-tier Eastern Conference teams. Living in the lottery, like Sacramento or Minnesota, is a frustrating place to be, obviously. But so is residing in GoNowheresVille, where the Pacers have been for most of the time since Carlisle left the team in 2007.

We don’t know for sure how much the Pacers paid Frank Vogel, Nate McMillan, or set on fire and/or flushed down the toilet with Bjorkgren, but seeing how all three of them were promoted from being assistants (McMillan the lone former NBA head coach of the group), it’s safe to say it was an insignificant amount. Fairly or unfairly, every time there’s a big-name free agent or coaching candidate on the open market Pacers fans automatically assume they won’t spend.

They are now. Instead of settling on a middling, uninteresting veteran like Terry Stotts, Steve Clifford, or Brian Shaw, they’re making a splash by bringing in a proven champion with ties to the franchise. For the Pacers, making any sort of splash has been about as common in recent years as their playoff series wins.

Still, making a splash doesn’t mean the Pacers will easily emerge from their seven-year Vortex of Meh. This roster is still full of B-level players, and if you want to get anywhere in today’s NBA you have to have (at the very least) one who grades out as an A. The Hawks and Bucks have that. The Suns have that, and the Clippers have two — hate Paul George forever if you want, but he’s unquestionably a star-level player when healthy.

The closest thing Indiana has is probably Domantas Sabonis, and considering Carlisle’s philosophy when it comes to his bigs you have to wonder if he’ll be a fit. If not Sabonis, then the end of the Myles Turner era might be approaching. The jury is still out on Caris LeVert and T.J. Warren, both of whom are coming off injury-zapped campaigns — and even then, it’s unlikely either player will develop into a true franchise star in their late 20s. Malcolm Brogdon’s durability issues likely mean that’s not in the cards for him, either.

The dynamic between this roster and their new coach will also be something to keep an eye on. While Carlisle seems to be a marriage of the positive traits they had with McMillan (hard-nosed, former player, commands respect) and the positive traits they thought they were getting with Bjorkgren (embraces modern basketball, analytics-friendly), it’s anyone’s guess how that meshes with a locker room that reportedly pushed out one coach in 2020 and bucked against another in 2021. At the very least, parking a Brinks truck in front of Carlisle’s house signals that a rebuild is off the table, but it certainly doesn’t mean this roster is set in stone.

The NBA remains a player’s league, and if the Pacers can’t develop or acquire a star it likely doesn’t matter who the coach is. Still, Rick Carlisle represents the Pacers’ best chance to shatter their glass ceiling and give the team the jolt of energy it so desperately needs while they attempt to put the other pieces in place.

The Pacers are officially interesting this summer, for the first time in forever. Let’s just hope Carlisle & co. can make them interesting in the winter and spring, too.