When Nate McMillan took over as the Pacers’ head coach in 2016, the organization was undergoing a transition. After a first-round loss in the playoffs to the Raptors, then-Pacers President Larry Bird decided it was time for the Pacers to adopt a new style of play to keep up with the league.
“The biggest thing for me (in accepting the job) was the commitment that Bird had to changing the style of play. That was really the main reason I accepted the job,” McMillan told Stadium.
“I saw the organization transforming from a physical, grind-it-out style of basketball to wanting to play more up-and-down, faster tempo.”
Prior to his three years of serving as an assistant coach for the Pacers, McMillan had 12 seasons of head coaching experience, including relatively successful stints in Seattle and Portland. Although he had never led a team past the second round of the playoffs, McMillan had proven that he was capable of developing a winning NBA team from the ground up.
Luckily for McMillan, the Pacers had an All-Star to build around in Paul George. But after another first-round exit, George decided the organization did not improve to his liking and demanded a trade.
“When we made the trade for Paul, it was somewhat of a surprise. Throughout that year, Paul was talking about staying and wanting the organization to improve,” McMillan said. “I didn’t really see a trade coming. It wasn’t something that we were talking about, it was forced on us.”
When Indiana dealt PG-13 to Oklahoma City, many around the league thought the Pacers were going to take a major step back. McMillan said the organization saw an opportunity “to create the future” with new President Kevin Pritchard, who had replaced Bird, at the helm.
“He talked about his vision for this team and this organization moving forward, and last year what we tried to do was build on that,” McMillan said. “We made the trade and we were able to bring in two young players that we felt had talent and potential.”
One of those players was Victor Oladipo.
Oladipo emerged as a two-way star during his college career at Indiana, averaging 13.7 points per game his junior season. He also helped resuscitate IU’s storied basketball program, leading the school to back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances and its first Big Ten championship in a decade.
As the second overall pick in the 2013 draft to the Orlando Magic, Oladipo became a solid contributor on both ends of the floor. Although he wasn’t the primary option offensively, he averaged 13.8 points, 4.1 assists and 4.1 rebounds per game as a rookie. He earned an All-Rookie First Team selection and appeared primed for a breakout year in his second NBA season.
His numbers did improve as a starter in year two, but Oladipo remained confined to a peripheral role as the Magic added more wing players in free agency. Eventually, his numbers became stagnant in his third season due to his inconsistent role and logjam on the wing, which resulted in him being traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
After one season as the Thunder’s secondary option behind All-Star PG Russell Westbrook, OKC dealt Oladipo to the Pacers in the surprising George trade that was the talk of NBA Twitter.
“There was a lot of negative talk about the trade as far as what we got and what OKC got in Paul George,” McMillan observed. “He (Oladipo) came in hungry and feeling that he had something to prove.”
Oladipo’s arrival finally allowed McMillan to establish the fast-paced style of play the franchise had been dreaming of.
“When Victor came in, I was surprised at the speed that he played at. Immediately, it changed our style of play,” McMillan revealed. “I think he has similar speed to a Westbrook — a John Wall — when they are pushing the ball up and down the floor, and we didn’t have that. He was able to help us establish a faster tempo.”
Not only did the Pacers see upticks in pace, shots per game, offensive rating and points per game with Oladipo on the court, but the guard had the best season of his career, averaging 23.1 points per game while earning his first All-Star appearance and winning the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award.
The Pacers won 48 games, a six-game jump from the season before, and captured the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference. Considering that Indiana’s over/under for wins was set at 31.5 before the start of the year, it was an eye-opening season for the new-look Pacers.
“As he was able to make the All-Star team and we’re now playing to get into the playoffs, the approach that teams were taking towards him was a little different,” McMillan said. “They were more physical, they were trapping him a little bit more so he had to continue to adjust and adapt to what teams were doing.”
Oladipo acknowledged his coach’s sentiments while looking ahead to the new season.
“I feel like I got a lot more room to grow,” Oladipo told reporters at media day. “I think the role is definitely going to be similar, definitely want me to lead a little bit more and be a little bit more vocal like I was the second half of the year, overall just continuing to lead by example.”
After coaching NBA stars like Ray Allen, LaMarcus Aldridge and George at his previous stops, McMillan feels Oladipo is ready to be a part of that group. “He’s right with those guys,” McMillan said.
“Those guys had a confidence about themselves, they have the talent. He is a kid that is hungry to be one of the elite players in this league.”
McMillan also cited Oladipo’s desire to get better as another positive for the guard moving forward in his career. “He wants to grow, he wants to improve,” McMillan said. “He is doing everything that he can to help himself improve his game.”
Oladipo reiterated those comments at media day. “I’m going to be honest with you, I haven’t done anything yet, so the best is yet to come,” he said. ““When I do my Hall of Fame speech, then I’ll be satisfied.”
Along with Oladipo, the Pacers also added Domantas Sabonis in the George trade.
A modern big man in the making, Sabonis’ shooting played a key role off the bench for Indiana last season. Sabonis shot 35 percent from deep last season, while fellow big man Myles Turner connected on just under 36 percent of his three-point attempts.
Although both Sabonis and Turner have the ability to shoot the ball, McMillan said he doesn’t know how much they will be paired together on the court in 2018.
“They’re different. They both are 5s in the league with the ability to play some 4,” McMillan discussed. “I think they can play together. When teams are playing big, it allows us to play big and really not step out of our system.”
It’s unclear how much the Pacers will use both players together. Sabonis and Turner played 269 minutes together last season and posted a -6.0 net rating. Of Indiana’s 13 five-man lineups that played at least 48 minutes together last season, eight posted a positive net rating, although Sabonis and Turner didn’t appear together in any of those eight lineups. With the presence of Thaddeus Young as power forward, Indiana might be better off staggering its two centers.
If you look further down the roster, Bird and Prtichard’s transformative vision goes beyond the frontcourt.
The duo also continued their pursuit for ball-handling and shooting this offseason by drafting Aaron Holiday and bringing in Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott during free agency.
Evans was originally a trade target for multiple contenders last season, but the Memphis Grizzlies demanded too much in return. After struggling from deep early in his career, Evans eventually developed into a lethal shooter. He’s hit 38 percent of his three-pointers in the last five seasons.
McDermott, on the other hand, has always been a threat from behind the arc. He shot 45.8 percent from deep in college, which translated to a 40.3 percent career mark in the NBA. At 6-8, McDermott will give the Pacers another shooting option in smaller lineups.
The rookie Holiday gives Indiana another ball-handler to deploy, and he’ll likely be tasked with keeping the Pacers’ bench units efficient.
McMillan knows how important these players will be in order for the Pacers to replicate last year’s success. “We have to create this all over again,” he said. “We do have some momentum, but we do have some new players on this roster that are going to play important parts.”
Although Indiana is currently projected to finish fifth in the LeBron James-less Eastern Conference based on Westgate’s win totals, McMillan and Oladipo both expressed cautious optimism when asked about their expectations this upcoming season.
“I feel like we have a great chemistry, first and foremost, our main nucleus is back, and we added some guys who can fit right in,” Oladipo said at media day. “Sky is the limit of us, we just got to keep getting better.”
“Everybody feels they have an opportunity,” said McMillan. “We feel we have an opportunity, but we know that we have to go out there and prove that.”
The Pacers already proved they weren’t going to fade away despite losing an All-Star. Now, with a newfound continuity and a modernized NBA roster, will they prove to be a Finals contender?