Walsh, Pritchard thrilled, already eyeing next year
When the Pacers braintrust sat down atop the platform in the interview room at Bankers Life Fieldhouse Thursday morning, they weren’t thrown off-guard at all by the first question sent their way. The question, of course, centered around them and whether Larry Bird may be walking back in through the door to resume his role as team president.
Before answering, president Donnie Walsh requested a high-five from general manager Kevin Pritchard because Walsh had just won a side bet that the news conference would be open in that fashion. Then he offered the following:
“I don’t know what Larry wants to do,” Walsh reiterated what he said seven days ago. “It remains what I’ve said since I got here and probably every other day since. I’d love to see him come back. He knows he can come back.”
Walsh hasn’t talked to Bird in more than a month, since the Pacers went deep into the playoffs. Should Bird wish to return and an agreement can be made with owner Herb Simon, Walsh said he’s prepared to step away. A three-headed monster with Walsh, Bird and Pritchard would be just that, and wouldn’t be good for the organization.
“I love the Pacers,” Walsh said. “Really, it’s the place that I considered my home team. … I looked at [this situation] as something that I could help for a certain amount of time, until Kevin and Peter [Dinwiddie] got acclimated to how it works here.”
In the meantime, the Pacers are focused on the upcoming draft, to be held on June 27 at the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. The Pacers have the 23rd and 53rd picks. Coming off the franchise’s best season in nine years, Walsh says their success doesn’t change the way the view or treat the draft.
“[It's] exactly the same as you approach it when you need players and you’re in the top of the draft,” he said. “You approach it and basically try to make a determination if there’s going to be a player there that can help your team.
“Every year at this time, everybody says this is a terrible draft. And yet when we get down to the draft, we’ll all be fighting over these players. I guarantee it.”
A few tweaks to this Pacers squad that was one win away from NBA Finals could be just enough to propel them to the Finals next season. Pritchard said that while everything is on the table, they like where they’re at.
“Our opportunity is that we’re pretty young and so not necessarily an individual weakness or one certain thing,” he said. “The biggest thing for this team is we have to collectively grow. … A lot of the needs of this team can be handled by the players that are on the team already if they improve. The coaching staff puts a lot of emphasis on development.”
Last summer, Lance Stephenson and Paul George locked in to their workout plan and did everything they could in the offseason to prepare for their third season in the NBA. And in doing so, the Pacers’ two 2010 draft picks had career years and their potential is still incredibly high.
Four days after the draft, on July 1, free agency begins. Last July, Pacers officials kept the core intact by re-signing point guard George Hill and center Roy Hibbert. Thursday, they once again made it abundantly clear that re-signing power forward David West atop their to-do list.
“He’s our priority No. 1,” said Walsh. “We want David back. We think he’s one of the anchors of our team. He’s a terrific player and we want him back as much as you could want anyone back.
Pritchard added: “He knows that we’re in a great position moving forward. He’s priority No. 1 and July 1 we’ll have a lot of conversations [with him].”
Decisions will also have to made with at least five other roster spots. Like West, D.J. Augustin and Sam Young are free agents. Tyler Hansbrough, Jeff Pendergraph and Ben Hansbrough are restricted free agents, meaning the Pacers can match any offer made by another team.
A big question mark for next season is the status of Danny Granger, who’s entering the final year of his contract worth $14.2 million. He tried all kinds of treatment on his left knee over the last 12 months before opting for surgery on April 4, which removed scar tissue on the patella tendon. He traveled throughout the playoffs to support his teammates and provide any tips he could to the young team. After the season, head coach Frank Vogel said if Granger is healthy again, he’ll be the starter. Though, he also challenged Lance Stephenson, who started all but nine games, to take the spot away from him.
“We’re optimistic,” Walsh said of Granger. “Very optimistic. It comes from the medical opinions we’ve had that Danny will be back for training camp and should be at 100 percent. You say that about every player on the team and something could happen. That’s how we’re looking at it.
“We had a great year. We all had a lot of fun. Now it’s on to next year.”