Pacers Coach Rick Carlisle Has no Regrets About Taking Over a Star-less Team: ‘It’s Strength in Numbers’

Indiana Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle could care less about his team’s lack of big star power. He is more concerned by how the group performs as a collective.

The Pacers hired Carlisle after he stepped down from his role as head coach of the Dallas Mavericks. The veteran head coach is preparing for his third stint in Indiana, where he was an assistant from 1997 to 2000 and head coach from 2003 to 2007. He will have a lot of work to do in order to make the Pacers bona fide contenders in the Eastern Conference.

The Pacers hired Rick Carlisle after a tumultous 2020-21 season

Carlisle will be Indiana’s second head coach in as many seasons. Yeah, the first one didn’t work out so well.

The Pacers hired Nate Bjorkgren to replace Nate McMillan following the 2019-20 season. That decision proved disastrous, as ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Bjorkgren had somewhat shaky relationships with players and members of his staff.

Indiana still made the play-in tournament as the No. 9 seed in the Eastern Conference and would defeat the Charlotte Hornets in the first play-in game. However, the Pacers would fall to the Washington Wizards in the second game, and the internal turmoil which had developed under Bjorkgren ultimately led to his dismissal.

Meanwhile, Carlisle was enduring some drama of his own in Dallas. Tim Cato and Sam Amick of The Athletic published a story detailing how former Mavericks director of quantitative research and development Haralabos Voulgaris purportedly influenced Carlisle’s lineups and general personnel decisions.

Longtime Mavs general manager Donnie Nelson resigned shortly after the story broke, and Carlisle would soon follow him out the door before being hired by the Pacers.

Carlisle likens Pacers to championship-winning Detroit Pistons team of old

Carlisle got his first break as a head coach with the Detroit Pistons in 2002. Realistically, he was the one who laid the foundations for that Pistons team, which would eventually oust the mighty Los Angeles Lakers in the 2004 NBA Finals.

For those that don’t remember, those Pistons were mostly devoid of that one singular star. Instead, the Pistons of the 2000s had numerous key contributors.

The backcourt consisted of Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton, both of whom could score in various fashions. Tayshaun Prince gave Detroit a long and lanky wing who could handle the ball and was a strong perimeter defender, while the Wallace boys (Rasheed and Ben) provided toughness and rim protection on the interior.

Carlisle sees a lot of those Pistons squads in the current Pacers roster, which he said is more about the holistic makeup rather than a few big names.

“Domantas Sabonis was an All-Star last year,” Carlisle said during his introductory news conference, per J.L. Kirven of the Indianapolis Star. “He’s the guy that people sort of look at as being the main guy, but I really feel like this is a team that, when you’re talking about the best players, it’s a strength in numbers type of situation.”

The Pacers would appear to share at least some commonalities with the 2000s Pistons. Malcolm Brogdon and Caris LeVert form a hungry and dynamic backcourt. Myles Turner swats away shots at the rim and can protect the paint.

There are also plenty of differences. Whereas Ben Wallace was more of a paint-bound center, Domantas Sabonis expands to the perimeter and can be a legitimate playmaker. Unlike the Pistons, though, the Pacers don’t really have that versatile and defensive-oriented wing like Prince.

Is Carlisle delusional about Indiana’s outlook?

New Indiana Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle gestures to the officials during the 2021 NBA playoffs.
Rick Carlisle takes over an Indiana Pacers team that finished ninth in the Eastern Conference this past season | Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The comparisons to the Pistons of old might be moot. Realistically, championship-level teams usually need at least two superstars to get over the hump and win a title.

In this year’s NBA Finals, both teams have star duos, with Chris Paul and Devin Booker leading the Phoenix Suns against a Milwaukee Bucks team anchored by Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. The 2020 NBA champion Lakers had LeBron James and Anthony Davis, while the 2019 Toronto Raptors relied on Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry. Before those two squads, the star-studded Golden State Warriors thrilled the Bay Area with a dynastic run.

The Pacers have an All-Star in Sabonis and a star-caliber talent in Brogdon, but they might lack the high-level talent needed to challenge the best teams in the NBA.

It’s entirely possible Carlisle can help unlock something in this Pacers team. However, Indiana might need to make a splash to truly realize its contender status.

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