SA: You lost your first four after his injury in January, then won nine of the next 12.
KP: That’s a real credit to Nate McMillan. You think about juggling as many lineups and dealing with as many changes as we’ve had the last few years, he has done a great job of maximizing the talent. Our staff has great cohesion and this is a tribute to the job they’ve done.
SA: Nate’s getting mentioned as a Coach of the Year candidate. Why is he good at his job?
KP: Just the consistency. He prepares. He brings the same work ethic every single day and that trickles down to the team. He sees the game in a way he wants it to be played. When it’s not played that way, he lets them know. And I think Nate has had a little bit of a rebirth with his third team now. He’s able to make adjustments.
SA: According to some analytics I’ve seen, some of your most efficient five-man lineups have been ones without Oladipo. How does that work?
KP: Yeah, I’m not sure I would subscribe to the theory that we have more better lineups without Victor. My eyes would tell me we’re a lot better team when he plays.
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I can’t even lie the last few months have been really tough for not only me but for my family as well. You give it your all, literally your blood, sweat and tears to the game you love and things like this happen. No matter how much hard work and effort you put into perfecting your craft you cannot predict the challenges you’ll face ahead. But there is always that point in time where you wonder why it’s happening to you. You even wonder if there was something you could have done differently to prevent the outcome. The confusion, the contemplation, the anger, the sadness and the tears that flow frequently come, but they never last. The amount of support, love and prayers that I have received over the past few days have been breathtaking and has truly inspired me to come back even better than before. Thank you to everyone including all my teammates, pacer fans and staff. Thank you to all the NBA fans around the world and all my brothers around the league who texted, called, tweeted and posted me I am truly thankful. It’s going to be tough but tough times don’t last tough people do. It’s time for me to truly practice what I preach and trust my God in heaven and the plan he has for me. I will be back better than ever and if you question that well, thank you. Greater is he that is in me than he that is in the world! I am #UnBreakable.
SA: How is Oladipo doing in his rehab?
KP: Great. He has hit the reset button and attacks every single day the best he can. He’s getting shots up sitting down in a chair. Whatever Victor can do, he will do — times a factor of 10.
I spent two days with him down in Miami. During that time, he was texting and calling a lot of our guys. I think he stays in really close contact with our team on a daily basis.
SA: In his absence, have you seen any other individuals step up and take more responsibility?
KP: It feels like Thad [Young] has really stepped up into that captaincy role and become more vocal. We have a leadership group with Darren [Collison] and Bojan and now Wes Matthews, along with Myles Turner and Sabonis, they’ve all stepped in. I’m not sure we have one guy who has a dominant voice — it feels like this team polices itself in holding everybody accountable.
SA: What was your sales pitch to Matthews?
KP: He saw opportunity, right? We needed a starting two. And there was continuity with just knowing Nate and how he coaches, his style [Matthews and McMillan were together in Portland for 1 1/2 seasons]. And from what he’s told us, he saw us, he played against us and he liked the way we play. But it became a recruiting process, for sure. He had a lot of options.
SA: The Pacers are at or near the top in a number of defensive metrics, from defensive rating and points allowed per game to opponents’ field goal percentage and sheer fouling. What’s the secret of that success?
KP: Dan Burke is our defensive coach. He should get a lot of credit. And it’s the fabric of what we are. Before we walk out to practice, I can assure you all of our coaches have thought about defense first. It’s their nature, it’s the way we evaluate film, it’s the way we look at players. It’s kind of who we are.
SA: So how has this gone for you in Year 2 in your current role?
KP: I think this is my ninth year here. It seems short but it’s been a while. I work with Donnie Walsh and Larry Bird [advisor to the Pacers president] on a daily basis, and both guys are true mentors for me. Donnie’s in the office every day. Larry’s here in the fall, then he’s back for the Draft and free agency — he’s very involved. I think he really enjoys this team.
SA: OK, but what have you learned about the job and the business? For instance, you deftly navigated a situation that has gotten a lot of league attention lately — the star player who wants out. I know you called it a trade that worked out for both teams, but the challenge initially was to move Paul George without taking a serious step back.
KP: I think the biggest thing is, you’ve got to get in a room with your staff and your coaching staff, and have a good, hard debate about everything you do. You have to board out the noise and try to do what’s right.
SA: There’s a lot more noise as you call it than there used to be. It’s unfathomable now, for example, that Kareem Abul-Jabbar could have asked for a trade back in 1974 and his boss in Milwaukee, Wayne Embry, could keep it quiet for a whole season.
KP: Oh my gosh, [the noise is] almost infinite now. You can almost guarantee tomorrow that there’s going to be more [off-court] stories.
SA: What’s your assessment of the group you added last summer: Tyreke Evans, Doug McDermott and Kyle O’Quinn?
KP: They fit in nicely. They all made it clear that they wanted to come in, play a role and do it as well as they possibly could. Kyle is a great backup center, and we’ve asked him to be the third center. We’ve needed him, because Sabonis is going to be out for a little bit. McDermott, as he gets comfortable here and learns to seek out his offense, the better he’s going to be. And Tyreke, he’s had some ups and downs. But when he plays well, we’re a different team. We need that punch off the bench, and that’s something we focused on when he got him.
SA: How do you know from night to night whether he’s going to provide that?
KP: I can’t tell that for the whole team. You just never know.
SA: [TJ] Leaf had a big game against Minnesota Thursday [18 points]. He was the No. 18 pick in 2017 [ahead of prospects such as Brooklyn’s Jarrett Allen, Toronto’s OG Anunoby and the Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart]. Do you still see in him the player you projected?
KP: We’re really high on him. He has paid his dues. He got stronger last year. The physicality of the game was a little bit of a challenge — that’s not his challenge anymore. He’s got a real offensive feel. He’s one of our best in the post. He has a patience about him. He can go either way — he can pass. We think he’s got a shot to be a really nice NBA player because he just works so hard. The game is slowing down for him.
SA: Bogdanovic got a lot of attention on the Timberwolves broadcast as a player who could help a bunch of teams. With six or seven of your top 10 heading into free agency, what impact is that having on your immediate and longer-term futures?
KP: It’s good in that guys are pretty motivated. I’ve believed in this team. We’re going to be challenged in the playoffs and it will be fun watching them, but we’ve got to get there first. I don’t want to look too far in the future. We know we’re going to have some tough decisions this summer. But I believe 40 percent of the league will be free agents, so it’s not only our issue. It’s a league issue and an opportunity.