Pacers' head coach Vogel reacts during the first half of Game 1 of their NBA Eastern Conference first round playoff basketball game against the Bulls in Chicago

Frank Vogel, the Indiana Pacers, and the “next step”

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The Indiana Pacers snuck into the NBA Playoffs last season thanks to weak competition among the middling teams of the Eastern Conference, but the playoff appearance itself — and the dogfight Indiana was able to give the Chicago Bulls in the first round — still meant plenty to the Pacers’ young, developing core. Then-interim head coach Frank Vogel did a fantastic job of preparing his team to play against a formidable opponent, and Indiana’s group of charming upstarts were able to make virtually every game of Chicago’s first-round series into a coin flip as a result. The Bulls won those coin flips and advanced — as elite teams are ought to do — but the Pacers nonetheless made their case as a team to watch going forward.

With his team’s playoff success in mind, Vogel is expecting big things from his team this season (via 1070 The Fan in Indy with JMV via Sports Radio Interviews):

“I fully expect this team to take the next step. We made some strides in making the playoffs last year and fell short against Chicago. We’re all a little bit bitter about that. We felt we coulda beat the Bulls and what we learned is that we can play with the best team in the NBA. We’re expecting to pick up right where we left off and we feel like we’re only scratching the surface of what we can accomplish.”

What exactly that next step will be is anyone’s guess, as the Pacers are due for an addition of some kind this off-season. Rumors have had Indiana linked to players from Nene to David West to Rajon Rondo, suggesting that when the smoke clears, we could be looking at a significantly upgraded Pacers roster. Most of the current core will likely remain intact, but an addition at power forward seems like an inevitability at this point.

And with a more qualified power forward playing serious minutes, the Pacers look like an incredibly solid team. Tyler Hansbrough is a useful rotation player, but his lack of a pick-and-roll game made him a poor fit alongside Darren Collison. His spastic, energetic style still made him a productive member of the Pacers lineup, but his deficiencies only highlighted what a more capable player would be able to accomplish. Indiana was able to take Vogel’s “next step” regardless of any roster additions, but with the draft-night trade for George Hill and a potential free agent addition, the Pacers look poised to take a hop and a skip in the right direction. The ceiling on this bunch may not be too high (even with a substantial addition, Indy is a far cry from a contender), but they have productive players across the board and a capable coach to put it all together. It could be — and has been — much worse in Indianapolis.

Kevin Durant says he appreciates fans who heckle him to get a release in their lives

LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 15:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors poses for selfies with fans before a preseason game against the Los Angeles Lakers at T-Mobile Arena on October 15, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. 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 Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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Kevin Durant is a basketball villain.

To most fans, NBA players are characters in an elaborate plot that is enacted live and on televisions nightly. Some players are loved, others loathed, for what they do in this grand saga.

Durant committed a basketball sin by leaving the Thunder for the Warriors, the team that eliminated Oklahoma City in the playoffs last season. It was the easy way out. It made Golden State too good.

So, Durant gets booed and jeered. His jersey gets burned. His name is smeared.

But Durant is also a real person who committed no actual ethical or moral violation by switching employers. And unfortunately, too many fans don’t acknowledge the difference between Durant the basketball character and Durant the real person – which means the attacks at Durant the basketball character often venture into personal territory for Durant the person.

At least Durant says he doesn’t mind the fans who don’t make the distinction.

Chris Haynes of ESPN:

He wants all of his fans, including the negative ones, to know that he’s appreciative of their support.

“It’s fun, man, because it’s entertainment,” Durant said. “And I appreciate them letting us give them that opportunity, that experience.

“So if you want to heckle or if you want to cheer, as long as you’re getting a release from whatever is going on in your normal life, that’s cool. That’s what life is about. You have to take the good with the bad.”

This is the healthiest approach Durant can take. Given the criticism directed at him, anything else would have him holed up inside for days.

Iman Shumpert: I won’t go to Donald Trump’s White House if Cavaliers win title

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 07:  Iman Shumpert #4 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks on in the first half against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on December 7, 2016 in New York City. 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 Elsa/Getty Images)
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A couple Cavaliers predicted NBA champions wouldn’t visit the White House with Donald Trump as president. LeBron James was noncommittal.

But Iman Shumpert – who had strong words about Cleveland beating the Warriors in the Finals again – took a hard line.

Shumpert, in a Q&A with Karizza Sanchez of Complex:

Will you go to Trump’s White House if the Cavs win the championship again this year?

I’m not going to the White House.

People started boycotting New Balance after the company seemed to voice support for Trump. Kanye West recently said he would’ve voted for Trump if he had voted. Would you still wear Yeezys?

I understand people’s stance on Trump. I can’t get caught up in the racial, sexist bullshit he’s got going on. That’s his personal thing, ya dig? But I just don’t think he can make anything shake like that. He not finna start no civil war out here. I do think he’s crazy—straight up. I think he did that stuff to get people to think he’s willing to shake it up. But did I vote for him? No. The other stuff that comes with him, I can’t get with. But now that he’s here, I’m not finna drag my feet. I gotta work here, at least until the offseason, if I wanna go get a crib in the Islands.

Remember, Shumpert said he’d kneel for the national anthem before reversing course. Committing to meaningful protest is far easier than following through.

Any NBA champion who declines an invitation to the White House will be labeled as unpatriotic by the type of people who measure patriotism by the quantity and size of American flags and have forgotten this country was founded on a healthy irreverence for the political elite.

I understand why anyone would be leery of glad-handing with Trump, whose rhetoric is white nationalist and anti-constitutionalist. But Trump has also lied at an unprecedented rate for a presidential candidate. We have little idea what he’ll do by the time the next NBA champion is crowned, and given the respect the office deserves, Shumpert might have second thoughts if the Cavs repeat.

Draymond Green: Warriors laughed at Jazz coach Quin Snyder for late timeouts

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After trailing the Warriors by 25 last night, the Jazz cut the deficit to five early in the fourth quarter. Golden State re-inserted starters and pushed lead back to double digits.

Still, Utah coach Quin Snyder called three timeouts in final 1:05 with Utah never closer than seven – a strategy that earned scorn from Draymond Green.

Green, via CSN Bay Area:

“We were laughing at Quinn Snyder who kept calling timeouts,” Draymond told reporters after the game. “Like bro, you’re down 10 with six seconds left, it’s kinda over my man.”

“Just let us go to the restaurant and have a good dinner; just chill,” Draymond added. “That’s what we were laughing at.

The Warriors travelled hundreds of miles to Utah, and the teams battled for hours. What was a few more minutes for the Jazz to maximize their miniscule chance of a comeback? Honestly, I’m surprised how often teams throw in the towel in those situations.

Besides, it was actually an eight-point difference with nine seconds left for Snyder’s final timeout. The Jazz were down just two four-point plays. There was plenty of time for that.

Nine-year veteran Eric Gordon finally chose his team, and he’s clicking with Rockets

AUBURN HILLS, MI - NOVEMBER 21: Eric Gordon #10 of the Houston Rockets tires to get a shot off against the Detroit Pistons at the Palace of Auburn Hills on November 21, 2016 in Auburn Hills, Michigan. 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 Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
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A New Orleans restricted free agent in 2012, Eric Gordon signed a max offer sheet with the Suns and infamously declared his heart to be in Phoenix.

New Orleans matched anyway.

“I knew it wasn’t going to happen,” Gordon said. “I knew they were going to bring me back all along.”

So why make those statements? Why alienate New Orleans fans?

“You just never know what a team might do or not,” Gordon said.

Gordon been around long enough now to know you never know, even when you’re certain you do. But this much he clearly believes: In his ninth NBA season and on the first team he picked, he’s happy with the Rockets.

Gordon was drafted onto the Donald Sterling, pre-Blake Griffin Clippers, who had made the playoffs just four times in the previous 32 years and had developed a reputation for cheapness and disarray. They went 19-63, 29-53 and 32-50 in Gordon’s three years in Los Angeles. Yet he says, “I enjoyed my time there.”

He was traded to New Orleans as the centerpiece of the Clippers’ package for Chris Paul, and he doesn’t look back on his time with the Hornets/Pelicans quite so fondly. “Nobody was on the same page over there,” Gordon said. “It was just different. We had the talent there, and things just didn’t work out.”

Gordon admits he sometimes wonders what would’ve happened if he had gone to the Suns. But they haven’t made the playoffs and are on their fourth coach since his offer sheet. “After looking back on it now, they had a lot of chaos and turmoil there, too,” Gordon said.

So, Houston is a welcome reprieve.

Gordon’s first unrestricted free agency yielded a four-year contract worth more than $52 million. He’s averaging 17.0 points per game, his highest mark in five years. He has been healthy after after missing 173 games in five years with New Orleans. And the Rockets are 15-7, on pace for what would easily be Gordon’s most successful season.

Playing with James Harden and for Mike D’Antoni – whose fondness for Gordon dates back to their gold-medal run with Team USA in the 2010 World Championship – has treated Gordon well. Houston is focused on offense, Gordon’s specialty, and its system accentuates his strengths.

Gordon leads the NBA with seven open 3-pointers per game, which he’s converting at 41.3% clip:

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Notice the other Rockets on that list: Ryan Anderson and Trevor Ariza. Benefitting from playing alongside Harden – an attention-tracker and willing passer – is not unique.

But Gordon does more than just rely on Harden to get him open shots. Since moving to the bench with Patrick Beverley healthy, Gordon has proven particularly valuable when Harden sits.

Houston scores 118.7 points per 100 possessions with Harden on the floor, per NBAwowy!. That mark obviously plummets without Harden, one of the NBA’s best offensive players.

Gordon has prevented it from falling too far, though.

He scores more points per 36 minutes (15.5 to 28.5) and does so with a higher true shooting percentage (56.0 to 62.5) from with Harden to without. He also handles more playmaking, increasing his assists per 36 minutes (2.4 to 4.1), though also, disproportionally, his turnovers per 36 minutes (1.5 to 3.6).

Still, Gordon’s effect on the Rockets’ offense without Harden is tremendously positive.

  • Houston’s offensive rating without Harden – with Gordon: 107.7
  • Houston’s offensive rating without Harden – without Gordon: 86.7

Propping up the Rockets’ Harden-less offense has made Gordon an early contender for Sixth Man of the Year. Here are the win-share leaders among eligible players:

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Given voting history, ranking eligible players by points per game is probably more predictive. It’s at least even more flattering to Gordon:

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Lakers guard Lou Williams deserves to be the early favorite for the award. I’m also quite high on Spurs guard Patty Mills.

But Gordon belongs solidly in the mix.

It might not be the stardom the Clippers predicted when they drafted him No. 7 or New Orleans envisioned when it twice acquired him, but at least Gordon is happily contributing to a winner. After so much controversy – both invited (his Suns saga) and uninvited (being part of the Chris Paul trade) – he sounds happy in Houston.

“You just try to stride it out with whatever team you’re on. So, you know, it’s been a unique situation,” Gordon said. “But here, it’s been good.”