NBA Season Preview: The Indiana Pacers

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96271311.jpg.7473_crop_340x234.jpgLast season: The Pacers went 32-50, which puts them a step above the downright tragedy of the Nets, Timberwolves, and even the Wizards, but still among some pretty miserable company.

Head Coach: Jim O’Brien will again have the Pacers running (they were the second fastest team in the NBA last season), running, running. This time, however, his system has the benefit of a more gifted point guard.

Key Departures: Troy Murphy, Earl Watson, and Luther Head, though T.J. Ford isn’t far behind them.

Key Additions: Darren Collison, Paul George, hopefully a healthier Tyler Hansbrough, Lance Stephenson, Lance Stephenson’s rap sheet, and possibly Magnum Rolle (an unsigned second round pick).

Best case scenario:
The Pacers improve by leaps and bounds with Darren Collison running point, and mount an improbable surge for the East’s final playoff spot that ultimately falls short.

For that to happen: The aforementioned Collison needs to be just as good as (actually, probably better than) advertised. He made the most of an opportunity in New Orleans, but Collison is the lovable backup/injury replacement no more. This is his team to run, and though Collison showed his maturity as both a player and a person last season, that’s a lot to hinge on a second-year point guard.

However, the Pacers’ best-case outcome relies on factors stretching well beyond Collison. He remains a vital to Indiana’s improvement, but the loss of Troy Murphy is exactly the kind of understated move that could end up docking the Pacers a handful of wins. Replacing Murphy will be some combination of Danny Granger (playing out of position), Tyler Hansbrough, and Josh McRoberts. That’s troubling.

Murphy was second on the team in three-pointers made, second in three-point shooting percentage, and tops among the Pacers in rebounding by a huge margin. Don’t underestimate the impact of the first two (particularly since Indiana was actually a below-average three-point shooting team last season, in spite of their run-and-gun reputation), but it’s Murphy’s rebounding that could be missed most. Hansbrough showed a knack for grabbing the stray board during his abbreviated rookie year, but it remains to be seen whether he can do so against first-string competition.

That kind of uncertainty is worrisome for a squad that was already 29th in the league in offensive rebounding rate, and 22nd in defensive rebounding rate. Indiana was so worried about pushing the pace last season that they forgot the ball altogether, and I’m not sure that’s likely to change given the acquisitions made. If it does, however, it’ll be a credit to Hansbrough, McRoberts, a grown-up Roy Hibbert, and probably Jeff Foster.

More likely the Pacers will: Streak up the court while puttering along. Indiana has made some serious moves for the future, but this roster is obviously incomplete.

We already know what to expect from Danny Granger, who will likely see a slight bump in his overall production/efficiency, even if he’s more or less the same player he was last year. Guys like Collison just have that effect on people. Or really, maybe it’s that guys like T.J. Ford and Earl Watson have that effect on people. Granger will benefit from having a better distributor running the show, even if his game won’t be notably more diverse or explosive than before. ‘He is who he is,’ as they say, and honestly, that’s just fine.

However, talented though Granger and Collison both may be, it’s Indy’s other rotational holes that stand as a bother. Plenty of people are expecting Roy Hibbert to take a great leap forward, but he may just be content to clunk around in his space boots on the launchpad. His per-minute numbers from year one to year two were nearly identical — fairly strong, mind you, if still not indicating much overall improvement — but Hibbert continues to work against himself by racking up fouls.

Per 36 minutes, Hibbert averaged 16.7 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks last year. Not too shabby, right? Here’s the thing: Hibbert only actually played 36 minutes in a game three times in the entire season, despite starting in 69 games. Hibbert has had his chances, but a push in the post here and a late rotation there have sandbagged him.

Brandon Rush is solid. Paul George is promising. Dahntay Jones is…still pretty surprising, honestly. The Pacers have talent, it’s just of the complementary variety and a little on the green side. 

Prediction: 35 wins. Darren Collison will be this team’s clean, well-lighted place. He’s the type of player through which to run O’Brien’s offense, and Indiana, who has been a bit overrated on that end of the court due to it being a supposed stylistic strength, may actually have a competent attack once again.

Of course, I’m not exactly sure who’s going to be playing much defense at the 4, who’s going to be grabbing the boards, and where the Pacers’ perimeter shooting is going to come from, but hey, these things happen with teams on the mend. Even teams that have been on the mend for the last four seasons.

As long as Indiana is fine with another year of development, a Pacers squad with a bit more order is a proper start.

Back to the drawing board for Thunder against Spurs

SAN ANTONIO,TX - APRIL 30: Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs scores against the Oklahoma Thunder during game one of the Western Conference Semifinals for the 2016 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center on April 30, 2016 in San Antonio, Texas. 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. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
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There was a possession where LaMarcus Aldridge grabbed a defense rebound, outlet-passed to Manu Ginobili, who then turned and fired a 70-foot strike to Kawhi Leonard for a dunk.

The whole play took about 3 seconds. And the ball never touched the floor.

Not everything came that easily for San Antonio in the opener of the Spurs’ Western Conference semifinal series against Oklahoma City. It only seemed that way, as they rolled to a 124-92 win and will now look to take a 2-0 lead when the series resumes in San Antonio on Monday night.

“Now we’ve got to get back to the drawing board and see what we’ve got to do better to get ready for Game 2,” Oklahoma City guard Russell Westbrook said. “Come out and play with a different mindset.”

That would be a start.

The three worst playoff losses of Kevin Durant and Westbrook’s time together in Oklahoma City all have one thing in common – they all happened in San Antonio.

The Spurs won by 35 on May 21, 2014, followed that up eight nights later with a 28-point win and now added a 32-pointer for good measure. And the Game 1 margin was the biggest defeat Thunder coach Billy Donovan has dealt with in more than 17 years.

It was Feb. 10, 1999 – 660 games ago for Donovan – when his Florida Gators lost 91-56 to Tennessee. That Gator team recovered and won four of its next five games, and if the Thunder are going to get out of this series they’ll have to do something similar.

“I think the guys in that locker room are pretty competitive,” Donovan said. “I think they’re going to want to come back and respond.”

The key for the Thunder in Game 2 will be stopping Aldridge. They had no answers for him in Game 1; Aldridge scored 38 points and didn’t even play 30 minutes.

When the Spurs acquired him, it was evident that San Antonio would again be a major title favorite. It’s working out exactly as San Antonio planned.

“I don’t know an exact date,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said when asked how long it took Aldridge to get comfortable with the Spurs. “It was a progression. Any new player in a new program, it’s a progression. It takes a little bit of time to get comfortable with the system and secondly, with teammates – who does what, when, where, how, all that kind of thing. It was just a steady kind of improvement and recognition as the year went on.”

If players get asked to play big minutes Monday, that shouldn’t be an issue. Game 3 isn’t until Friday night in Oklahoma City.

A look at Game 2:

Thunder at Spurs, San Antonio leads 1-0. 9:30 p.m., TNT

It’s been long established that Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are one of the league’s all-time trios. But the sheer margin by which they’re separating themselves from some of the others on that list is getting to be staggering.

Consider:

Magic Johnson, Michael Cooper and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won 600 games together for the Los Angeles Lakers. Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish won 632 in their days as Boston Celtics teammates.

It took a long time for those numbers to be passed. It’s going to take a real long time before anyone even comes near what Duncan, Parker and Ginobili have done – now with 700 wins together after Saturday’s Game 1 triumph.

Everything worked for the Spurs in the opener. They had 39 assists and all but one of their players who got minutes had at least one – the exception being Andre Miller. And the Spurs are now 43-1 at home this season, 34-0 when Duncan is in the lineup.

And for all the adjustments Oklahoma City will make, figuring out how to get better against Leonard’s defense probably should be foremost. Leonard spent much of Game 1 guarding Westbrook, helping force him into a 5 for 19 night from the floor. Meanwhile, Leonard and Aldridge combined to make 28 of 36 shots.

NBA report admits referees missed Raptors’ DeRozan’s foul on Pacers’ Mahinmi

TORONTO, ON - MAY 01:  DeMar DeRozan #10 of the Toronto Raptors is congratulated by Paul George #13 of the Indiana Pacers following the final whistle of Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 01, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  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.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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It was one of the most discussed plays in the final minutes of Toronto’s thrilling if sloppy Game 7 win against Indiana. The Pacers were down three with less than 20 seconds left (after Frank Vogel had taken a poor timeout messing up a four-on-two transition chance) and ran a play for a quick two that resulted in Paul George driving on the right side and Bismack Biyombo coming over to help. George could have gotten off a shot but instead threw a lob to Ian Mahinmi at the rim.

Except that DeMar DeRozan can in and fouled Mahinmi, pushing him out of the way. The ball flew over Mahinmi’s head and became a turnover on what was Indiana’s last decent offensive possession of the game.

Monday the league admitted DeRozan committed a foul, saying:

DeRozan (TOR) makes body contact with Mahinmi (IND), dislodging him and affecting his ability to catch the alley-oop pass.

This, of course, changes nothing.

There were a number of other questionable calls in this game, but the league said every other one in the last two minutes of the game was correct, save for the fact Myles Turner should have been called for a foul on Biyombo with 2.6 seconds left, but that would not have changed the outcome. The NBA’s report does not look at close calls outside the final two minutes, such as Paul George’s offensive charging foul on DeRozan with 3:51 left.

Ultimately, it’s not the referees that decided this game. If Pacers fans want to be frustrated, they need to look at the fact their team let Toronto grab the offensive rebound on 35 percent of their missed shots, and the seven George turnovers (including a couple of key ones late). Those are the things that turned the game.

Report: D-League All-Star, Magic call-up Keith Appling arrested with loaded AK-47 in strip club

Orlando Magic's Keith Appling (15) makes a shot in front of Philadelphia 76ers' Jerami Grant (39) and Nerlens Noel (4) during the first half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
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If you’re on the fringe of the NBA, trying to get teams to take a chance on you, this is the opposite of what you should do.

Former Michigan State star Keith Appling, who last season was a D-League All-Star for the Erie Bay Hawks and got a couple of 10-day contracts with the Orlando Magic, has reportedly been arrested and is still in jail in Dearborn, Michigan, for allegedly taking a loaded assault rifle into an area strip club. (Dearborn police have not yet responded to NBC’s request for confirmation. Some Michigan outlets with sources in the area do have confirmation but few details.) This is how the story broke:

If true, Appling has much bigger problems then getting an invite to an NBA training camp next fall.

Byron Scott says he felt “a little” blindsided by Lakers’ firing

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 29:  Los Angeles Lakers head coach Byron Scott watches play against the Los Angeles Clippers at Staples Center on January 29, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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Lakers fans were demanding it. Logic dictated it — even the questionable talent did not fully explain why Byron Scott could not get the Lakers to defend, they had one of the two worst defenses in the NBA each of his two seasons as coach.

Still, Byron Scott said he was blindsided by his firing by the Los Angeles Lakers, something he said on the Dan Patrick Show this morning (video above).

Scott makes a couple of valid points. First, the Lakers did take their time after the season (letting good coaches get snapped up elsewhere) while making this call, giving the impression Scott might be safe.

Second, the Lakers did not give Scott much talent to work with. I don’t care if you resurrected Red Auerbach and John Wooden and had them tag team as the coach, these Lakers were not making the playoffs. Scott was brought in to both shepherd the Kobe farewell years — he did that exactly as management wanted — and start to develop the young talent on the team, building a foundation for the future. That is where he fell short, both in terms of building a defensive foundation or forming a strong relationship with the young Lakers, most notably D'Angelo Russell.

Scott discussed his relationship with Russell, too.

It’s far too early to say how good a coach Luke Walton will be for the Lakers, but it’s safe to say he’s an upgrade over Scott. In that way, the Lakers made the right move.