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.

Report: Cavaliers trading Kevin Love ‘not even remotely a consideration’

CLEVELAND, OH -  JUNE 22: Kevin Love #0 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrates with fans during the Cleveland Cavaliers 2016 championship victory parade and rally on June 22, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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Will the Cavaliers trade Kevin Love?

Cleveland’s championship quieted, but didn’t stop, the speculation.

The Cavs’ stance might.

Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders:

While there are no shortage of suitors who would take on Love’s contract, sources close to the Cavs say moving him is not even remotely a consideration.

Some parts of the equation haven’t changed since the last trade deadline:

  • Love is a good, and probably now underrated, player who can’t reach his full potential while playing with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. That’s OK. Most players must sacrifice to fit their team’s needs.
  • Love helps the Cavaliers against most teams. As I said above, he’s really good.
  • The Warriors – the overwhelming championship favorites – present a particularly difficult matchup for Love. The Cavs didn’t quite win the Finals in spite of Love, but his contributions were limited.

But a few things have changed:

  • Cleveland proved it could win a title with Love. There is no longer any doubt.
  • The championship also affects perception. Teams are reluctant to break up their cores coming off a title. It’d be surprising to see Cleveland make a major move until after the 2017 postseason.
  • Specifically, LeBron’s relationship with Love might have improved. Winning cures all ills. After previous reservations, LeBron might feel a stronger connection with Love due to their experiencing a title run together.

So, I buy that the Cavs are firmly against trading Love. The question: Will that stance change once they lose in the playoffs, whether that’s in 2017 or beyond?

Report: Blake Griffin’s camp ‘adamant’ he’ll re-sign with Clippers

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 06:  Blake Griffin #32 of the the Los Angeles Clippers drirbbles past Metta World Peace #37 of the the Los Angeles Lakers during a basketball game at Staples Center on April 6, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
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Doc Rivers said he doesn’t plan to break up the Clippers’ core, and that’s up to him.

For one more season.

Chris Paul and Blake Griffin can – very likely will – opt out of their contracts next summer, and J.J. Redick will also be a free agent. Will they stay?

Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders:

Sources close to Griffin have been adamant that he is planning to re-sign in L.A. and that he’s not open to going anywhere.

Sources close to the situation say win or lose, Rivers is not open to trade talks on Griffin or Paul and that he’s not worried about either walking away in July.

There are two possibilities:

1. Griffin is truly intent on re-signing with the Clippers.

2. Griffin is not truly intent on re-signing with the Clippers.

The second could be true if Griffin wants to spend the upcoming season in Los Angeles before evaluating his options. If Griffin states anything less than a firm commitment to stay, Rivers might trade him.

But let’s take Griffin at his reported word. Even if he honestly plans right now to re-sign, a lot can change in a year. The pressure for the Clippers to advance at least to the conference finals is only mounting. If the Clippers fall short, the resulting fallout could affect Griffin’s thinking.

At minimum, this is bad news for the Thunder – who hoped to pair Griffin with Russell Westbrook – and good news for the Clippers. Griffin leaning one direction now means something, even if it’s not definitive.

The Collective Bargaining Agreement makes it prohibitive for Griffin to sign an extension with the Clippers. So, whatever he thinks today about re-signing, he’ll have to play out the season and evaluate July 1.

Report: Timberwolves signing Toure’ Murry and John Lucas III

CHICAGO, IL - MAY 08: John Lucas III #15 of the Chicago Bulls drives against Elton Brand #42 of the Philadelphia 76ers in Game Five of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2012 NBA Playoffs at the United Center on May 8, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bulls defeated the 76ers 77-69. 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 Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Alert: Kick your Ricky Rubio trade theories into gear.

The Timberwolves, despite saying they’d keep Rubio for now, are acting like they might not. Minnesota is reportedly signing a couple point guards: Toure’ Murry and John Lucas III.

The Timberwolves already have 15 players – the regular-season roster limit – with guaranteed salaries, including three point guards: Rubio, Kris Dunn and Tyus Jones. Keeping Murry or Lucas would require a roster move.

It could be Kevin Garnett retiring, buying out Nikola Pekovic or some smaller trade. But unless that minor deal involves Jones – Dunn, the No. 5 pick in this year’s draft, isn’t going anywhere – Minnesota would still have enough point guards. Most teams carry three.

The Timberwolves obviously aren’t trading Rubio because they have Murry and Lucas. But Murry or Lucas would help if Minnesota trades Rubio.

Lucas had his best season with Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls, and he can create instant offense in Thibodeau’s grind-it-out scheme. Murry has the length to make an impact defensively.* Most importantly, both play extremely hard – an especially big deal to Thibodeau.

*Murry’s size also allows him to play the wing, which offers him another avenue for sticking. But his frame, special for a point guard, is merely ordinary at shooting guard or small forward.

The Timberwolves still might not be quite ready to trade Rubio. But if Minnesota does deal him to slide Dunn into the starting lineup, Murry or Lucas would provide a decent contingency with Jones in reserve.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey: James Harden ‘only a polarizing figure to people who don’t watch’

Daryl Morey, James Harden
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Do you struggle with evaluating James Harden?

I know I do.

Harden’s Rockets, projected by some to contend for a championship, struggled to a 41-41 record last season. A fair share of their downfall could be pinned on him.

His defensive disinterest is appalling, and it sets a tone. His leadership is questionable, which matters a great deal for someone so empowered. He relies on tricking referees to draw fouls, frequently hooking his defender to create contact.

But I still put him on my All-NBA team, because his offense was so darned effective.

Elite individual offensive contributions are incredibly valuable. Harden’s defensive shortcomings can be hidden in a better team scheme. His leadership issues would matter less in a better team culture. But you can’t simply create what Harden provides offensively.

Long story short, Harden can be tricky to assess no matter how deeply you dive into his plusses and minuses.

Unless you ask Rockets general manager Daryl Morey.

Morey, via Oliver Maroney of Basketball Insiders:

“He’s only a polarizing figure to people who don’t watch,” Morey told Basketball Insiders. “Players voted him MVP [in 2014-15] for a reason. He’s had a winning team every season of his career, with multiple Conference Finals appearances.”

Morey has long defended Harden. That’s what general managers do for the superstar they acquired in tenure-defining trades.

But Morey also put his money where his mouth is. The Rockets will pay Harden an extra $20 million over the next two seasons just to get him locked up one extra year – and that extra year will cost about a max salary.

For better or worse, the Rockets are all in with Harden.

I think that’s a good plan given the alternatives, but I’m also not so sold on Harden that I find it foolproof.