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Pritchard sees bright future in Pacers run

by: COURTESY OF INDIANA PACERS - Kevin Pritchard (right), former Trail Blazers general manager, just finished his first season as GM of the Indiana Pacers, working with team president and NBA veteran Donnie Walsh (left).Less than 24 hours after Indiana’s ignominious Game 7 defeat at Miami in the Eastern Conference finals, Kevin Pritchard surveys the damage and pronounces the patient alive and kicking.

“You have to put things into perspective,” says Pritchard, the personable former Trail Blazers general manager finishing his first year in the same position with the Pacers. “We didn’t get to the (NBA) finals, but it was a successful season. We’re a young team with a chance to get better. We have to get better to get to where we want to go.”

Pritchard, who turns 46 next month, became Indiana’s director of player personnel in July 2011, working under Larry Bird. Last July, after Bird left and the venerable Donnie Walsh took over as the team’s president, Pritchard moved into the

GM seat.

“I’ve already had a chance to work with a pair of Hall-of-Famers,” says Pritchard, who has kept his house in Lake Oswego but makes his home in Indianapolis. “Larry’s one of my good friends. I learned a lot under him. Now Donnie. I’ve been able to learn from and work with two guys who are icons in our business.”

Walsh, 72, had served more than 20 years as general manager and president at Indiana before leaving for New York in 2008. After four years with the Knicks, Walsh returned to his old stomping grounds, active as ever.

“We talk every day,” Pritchard says. “Our offices are right next to each other. He’s in every day from early morning ‘til late at night. He’s a basketball lifer. His biggest skill is he has a great way about making people feel phenomenal about being a part of the organization.

“For me personally, it’s been amazing. We talk 3-4 hours a day. On the plane flight back from Miami, we sat and talked the whole time.”

Pritchard loves the fact that both are members of the Dean Smith coaching tree. Walsh and Larry Brown were roommates at North Carolina, a starting backcourt playing for Smith, who played at Kansas and

began his coaching career there. Pritchard played at Kansas under Brown, with whom Walsh worked when Brown was coaching of the Denver Nuggets.

“I guess one thing you could say about Donnie and me is that our syntax is the same,” Pritchard says. “It’s a unique relationship. We’re really close. He has been a great mentor to me, as was Larry.

“There’s a saying I’m always reminded of when I’m around Donnie or Larry — ‘When a student is ready, the teacher will appear.’ ”

Pritchard has also enjoyed his relationship with Indiana coach Frank Vogel, who turns 40 on June 21.

“A terrific young coach,” Pritchard says. “He cares deeply about having a relationship with the players. He’s one of those guys who sees the glass as half full every day.

“I’ve admired his positive influence on our team. Every single day, he comes in with a great attitude. He makes guys believe they’re really good. That doesn’t mean he can’t be tough, but his greatest attribute is he instills confidence in everyone. Not only the players, but those people around him.”

Almost immediately after joining forces last summer, Walsh and Pritchard had a major decision to make. Portland had tendered a four-year, $45-million offer sheet for restricted free-agent center Roy Hibbert. Indiana chose to match. Hibbert rewarded the Pacers with some of the best post play in the league, especially at the defensive end.

“Donnie was really the one who said, ‘We just have to keep Roy,’ ” Pritchard says. “As the season progressed, Roy got better and better. He was a big reason we were able to move as far as we did in the playoffs. His size is so important in the way we defend and protect the rim.

“Any time you give out a max contract, you have to go through the process and make sure he’s the right guy. But we knew early we didn’t want to lose Roy, and we’re very thankful we didn’t.”

Indiana made it within a game of the NBA finals without small forward Danny Granger, who missed all but five games with a knee injury this season. What kind of difference could a healthy Granger have meant to the Pacers?

“Danny was our leading scorer the (previous) five years,” Pritchard says. “He can defend, and we felt like we needed another defender. If we’d had him, it would have put a lot of players back into their natural positions and strengthened our bench. To get 35 minutes a night from a guy who has been an All-Star, with his shooting, leadership and ability to defend, would have been huge. We’re looking forward to getting him back next season.”

Pritchard believes camaraderie and togetherness carried the Pacers to success this season.

“It’s a great group of guys,” he says. “We’re a true team. It’s a great locker room. Guys cared about playing the right way, about each other. They like each other. Their closeness is a big part of why we had some success in the playoffs. That’s been fun to watch.”

Pritchard and Walsh will have some major decisions to make this summer.

Do they trade Granger?

“We have no intentions,” Pritchard says.

Will they re-sign unrestricted free agent David West?

“He’s a top priority,” Pritchard says.

The Pacers can sign All-Star small forward Paul George to a contract extension after July 1. Will they do that?

“Those guys you have mentioned are core players to what we’re pointing toward in the future,” Pritchard says. “We know our priorities. We have to keep all our guys.”

The Pacers also have their own draft picks — No. 23 in the first round, No. 53 in the second round — and about $8 million in salary cap room with which to work. What Pritchard never got done in Portland, he aims to accomplish in Indianapolis. After what happened this season, it’s clear he is on the right track.

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