The Pacers begin the 2021-22 NBA season sounding like a team that has hit rock bottom and is ready to work their way back in a positive direction.
Mind you, when I say this team has hit rock bottom, I don’t mean the organization has hit rock bottom. I mean this current team, with generally the same core players under the direction of Kevin Pritchard that has battled together over the past few years. They have hit rock bottom thanks to the physical and mental toll of the past two years which forced the group to imbibe a crazy cocktail filled with far too many injuries (physical) and coaching changes amid fluctuating COVID concerns and restrictions (mental).
Now they are trying to get that nasty taste out of their mouth and if it takes positive reinforcement to get going in the right direction, so be it.
On Media Day, Rick Carlisle said since he arrived in early July, there has been a lot of productive communication about where the team is and where they want to go. But he also didn’t sugar coat the situation for a team that has to come together to play at a level greater than the sum of their parts.
“It’s a young veteran team, that I think is an exciting group, a lot of really terrific players,” Carlisle said. “But, we’re going to have to be a team that does things together at a high level to do what we want to do, which is to become a team that is relevant in the East, again. It’s going to be work. It’s going to be an everyday thing.”
The march back to relevance will start with the basics, according to Carlisle. Simple ideas that require a full commitment from all involved to set the foundation to get where they want to go.
“The two things that we are really going to concentrate on are a high level of togetherness and we’re going to be concentrating on the defensive end.”
In other words, just like the newly renamed Gainbridge Fieldhouse was completely gutted and renovated, this Pacers team is being demoed down to the studs and rebuilt, with the basic building blocks of a cohesive team unit and defensive accountability.
Gone are the bells and whistles of last season under Nate Bjorkgren when crafty SLOB plays, offensive pace and a wide variety of defensive approaches were delivered without the preparation or commitment required to execute consistently.
After hearing what Carlisle is preaching, the players are remaining positive that they can follow their new coach’s lead. The roster has plenty of excuses to lean on for the frustrating finish to the last two seasons. But now it is on the players to come together and make it happen, fulfilling the promise the bulk of this roster has shown they can deliver when things are going well.
“We’re not happy with the way the last two seasons ended, especially last year,” TJ McConnell said about the frustrations facing the team, which were exasperated by COVID restriction keeping them in their hotel rooms on the road and making it difficult to tighten that team bond.
But just like KP and company running the team, McConnell is not ready to give up on the depth of talent on the roster.
“Pretty much everyone from two years ago is back, and before COVID hit, I think we were about to win 50 games that year. We’ve proven that we can win at an elite level,” McConnell said.
So now they can spend more time together, which has already started, with much of the roster, except Domas Sabonis (in Europe) and McConnell (free agent at the time). answering the call of Malcolm Brogdon and meeting for a few days in Southern California to reassert their commitment to each other to improve under new coach Rick Carlisle.
“When you come off a season where you don’t (make the playoffs), you have all this time,” Pacers center Myles Turner said. “You have a lot of time to think, a lot of time I guess to let your thoughts wander. But when you bring the group back together, the group that you’re going to be going to war with in a sense, it just helps gather camaraderie early.”
So while the physical issues are not all resolved with T.J. Warren out indefinitely, Edmond Sumner out for the year and Caris LeVert with a (hopefully) minor preseason back issue, it appears the mental issues facing this team have been addressed and they are ready to build the collective confidence needed to move forward in search of playing to their full potential.