INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana Pacers President Larry Bird spent most of his offseason trying to stitch together a championship contender.
He made two trades to create versatility. He added bulk by signing free agent Al Jefferson. He watched the Pacers’ biggest star, Paul George, return from the Olympics with a gold medal around his neck and a new perspective about making the Pacers a better team. And Bird hired a coach who shares his vision of what it takes to win in today’s NBA.
Now Indiana is about to find out if this bold, new look will produce better results than last year’s awkward attempt to use a smaller lineup with more 3-point shooters and putting some players, such as George, out of position.
George became a star at small forward but started the season playing power forward, an experiment that didn’t last long.
“Last year, we tried to play that spread-four and we tried to turn Paul and C.J. Miles into that spread four. Now he (Bird) has brought those guys in,” new coach Nate McMillan said Monday during the team’s annual media day. “Look, you’re going to have to be able to play half-court basketball because you can’t run for 48 minutes. I think the better teams will be able to slow you down, but I think we can play both ways now.”
How much and how quickly things change remains unclear.
Unlike last season, when it seemed Bird and George weren’t always on the same page and former coach Frank Vogel often wound up playing middle man between his best player and his boss, the second year of this transition already is off to a smoother start. George acknowledged Monday he’s willing to do whatever it takes to win this season — even if that requires playing some minutes as a stretch-four. McMillan even called the three-time All-Star and all-league defender a “versatile three.”
But the biggest difference will be George’s supporting cast.
Bird began the latest overhaul by acquiring All-Star point guard Jeff Teague in a three-team deal that sent George Hill to Utah. The trade left the 26-year-old George, now entering his seventh year with the team, as the longest-tenured Pacers’ player and the only remaining starter left from the 2013 and 2014 Eastern Conference runner-ups.
Then Bird sent Indiana’s first-round draft pick to Brooklyn for the nimble Thaddeus Young, who will play that stretch-four role, and plugged in second-year pro Myles Turner at center. He brought in the 60foot-10, 289-pound Jefferson to give the Pacers a bigger inside presence off the bench.
“It’s completely different. Last year, you had true bigs in the paint and scorers who would post up,” Young said. “Now you’ve got guys who can step out, make plays, make moves. We’re definitely going to try to push the tempo, push the pace.”
Everyone in this locker room seems to embrace the small-ball concept.
When Teague was asked about the prospect of teaming up with George and bringing the trendy new style to his hometown team, he responded with a beaming style. Turner and Young had similar reactions Monday, and George sounds as eager as anybody to see how everything will work.
“Hopefully, we’ll get a little faster,” George said. “I know that Jeff is a coast-to-coast guy, and I haven’t really played with a coast-to-coast guy before, so hopefully I can make it easier for him.”
Clearly, Bird believes he has the players to operate his preferred style, even if doesn’t look quite right when the Pacers open the season Oct. 26 against Dallas.
So McMillan will spend most of the next month trying to get all these new guys and the new lineups working together, in sync. And McMillan believes that if given time, the Pacers new style will be a good look.
“The game has changed,” McMillan said. “You’re seeing more pace teams that are trying to get between 90 and 100 possessions per game. How do you create that? You put together a roster that you can do that with, and I think the Pacers have done that. I think those (new) guys put us in position to pretty much paly any style we want to play.”
Note: George was asked whether he had any desire to re-do his contract, which can now be extended, and said: “Right now, it’s all about the season. I’m not even thinking about contract stuff. Everything is about going into the season.” Last week, Bird said he was willing to give George a new max contract whenever he’s ready. George’s current max deal runs through the 2018-19 season.