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Pacers can’t recreate past, but can move forward, with Rick Carlisle

Pacers coach Rick Carlisle and draft pick Chris Duarte

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - JULY 30: Head Coach Rick Carlisle of the Indiana Pacers looks on before the press conference on July 30, 2021 at Ascension St. Vincent Center in Indianapolis, Indiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2021 NBAE (Photo by A.J. Mast/NBAE via Getty Images)

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Pacers – the NBA’s play-it-safe franchise – just missed the playoffs for the first time in six years and only the second time in 11 years. Indiana’s season was defined by coaching turbulence. A lack of wing depth stung.

So, the Pacers ran toward comfort.

Indiana re-hired Rick Carlisle (who coached the team from 2003-07) and used the No. 13 pick on Oregon wing Chris Duarte (one of the most polished players in the draft).

But if the Pacers feel a sense of security, it’s a false one.

This is the 19th time an NBA team re-hired a former head coach with the franchise. Of the prior 18, 15 had a worse record than in their previous stint,* though a couple others won a championship in their second stint.**

*The three exceptions: Cotton Fitzsimmons with the Phoenix Suns (the second, not the third, time), Lenny Wilkens with the Seattle SuperSonics, Alex Hannum with the Syracuse Nationals/Philadelphia 76ers

**Phil Jackson with the Los Angeles Lakers, Pat Riley with the Miami Heat

Indiana can’t assume it’ll get the Carlisle who won 55% of his regular-season games and three playoff series in his first stint there, let alone the Carlisle who guided the Mavericks to a championship. These reunions are too often based on familiarity, the misguided notion that success of years ago will be recreated.

That said, when teams re-hire an old coach, it’s rarely someone who has flourished during the seasons apart. In Dallas, Carlisle looked like one of the NBA’s best coaches. He should be a massive upgrade over Nate Bjorkgren, whose tenure imploded in Indiana.

It’s just important to set reasonable expectations, especially with cracks showing late in Carlisle’s Mavericks tenure.

Likewise, Duarte carries a historic flaw: He’s 24.

That makes him the oldest lottery pick since Melvin Ely, the Clippers’ No. 12 pick in 2002.

Though the last couple turned out well, the larger sample of old highly drafted players in this era is pretty discouraging. Lottery picks who were 23 and up in the previous 20 years: Cameron Johnson (No. 11 in 2019), Buddy Hield (No. 6 in 2016) Ekpe Udoh (No. 6 in 2010), Tyler Hansbrough (No. 13 in 2009), Al Thornton (No. 14 in 2007), Rafael Araujo (No. 8 in 2004), Melvin Ely (No. 12 in 2002), Fred Jones (No. 14 in 2002), Courtney Alexander (No. 13 in 2000).

I still rated Duarte in the 17-23 tier, not that far below where the Pacers took him. But there’s a somewhat-significant risk he exploited inexperienced college opponents in ways that won’t translate to the NBA.

Indiana might have to count on Duarte with Caris LeVert and T.J. Warren both injured, Edmond Sumner injured and traded and Doug McDermott departed for the Spurts. At least the Pacers signed Torrey Craig (two years, $10 million).

In what looks like a more daring move, Indiana traded up for No. 22 pick Isaiah Jackson. The Pacers must have really liked Jackson to add another center to a team with Myles Turner, Domantas Sabonis and their 2019 first-rounder, Goga Bitadze.

But the cost of landing the athletic Kentucky big – who ranked No. 25 on my board – was fairly low. Indiana surrendered just Aaron Holiday and four second-rounders (including the Nos. 54 and 60 picks this year) in a pair of trades with the Bucks and Wizards. Holiday was expendable with the Pacers re-signing their more-productive backup point guard, T.J. McConnell (four years, $35 million).

This is the first year Indiana had two first-round picks since 2008, when leaving the draft with deals for No. 13 pick Brandon Rush and No. 17 pick Roy Hibbert. As much as the Pacers are (always) prioritizing the present, they’re building well for the long-term.

My biggest quibble with Indiana’s plan is the sense it’s failsafe. It’s not.

But that doesn’t mean the Pacers made poor bets.

Offseason grade: C+