NBA Season Preview: Indiana Pacers

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Last season: The Pacers made moves to become a top-tier team in the East and they worked out. Roy Hibbert and Paul George both took some big steps forward, while David West added the consistent scorer they were looking for and George Hill provided balance with Darren Collison, though the two didn’t work well together.

The playoffs were kind of a proving grounds: Could this team, as constructed, compete? The answer was yes, to a point. The Pacers managed, in part on the back of the injury to Chris Bosh, to go up 2-1 over the Heat. They had them right where they wanted them.

Then LeBron James and Dwyane Wade took over and that was that. But the Pacers learned a lot, and established themselves last year. The question is if they can take that to the next level this year.

Key Departures: The Pacers traded Darren Collison to the Mavericks in a suprise move. Collison had been the better guard offensively than George Hill. But attempts to play the two together drew disappoinging results. With Collison headed for a big extension and Hill locked up at five-years, $40 million, it made sense to move Collison, but there may be a drag on the Pacers’ offense if Hill can’t become more of a playmaker and distributor.

Dahntay Jones was underused in Indiana and was sent off as a tag-along in the Collison trade. The Pacers also elected to let A.J. Price go, a pretty surprising move considering Lance Stephenson’s boneheadedness and Price’s underrated production in limited minutes.

Key Additions: Miles Plumlee, anyone? No? No? OK, then.

The Pacers traded Collison and Jones for Ian Mahinmi, a center who saw time behind Brendan Haywood as backup center in the Mavs’ championshp run and who actually played a big part in those Finals. Mahinmi gives the Pacers another true big to throw at Miami, and a better replacement center for Roy Hibbert, something crucial when the big guy gets in foul trouble.

They brought in D.J. Augustin on a cheap deal, getting a starting point guard (yes, it was the Bobcats) for a discount. Augustin will provide more of a pure-shooter point gaurd and can work with the second unit to help bridge the gap. Augustin’s also not a bad defender.

Gerald Green showed that he’s learned how to play last year and had a fantastic half-season with the Nets. The Pacers added him and he gives them an athletic three to bring off the bench, something that was missing last year. They have a fast, sleek second unit now, the opposite of last year’s reserve crew.

Three keys to the Pacers season:
1) Finding something that works offensively. The Pacers are yet another East team with a terrific defense and a horrid offense. They’re also yet another team with a lot of versatile, young talent and no superstar. Danny Granger keeps regressing in a distressing manner, Paul George is still a complimentary player, and David West is no longer at an age or health to carry a team. They need to find something consistent to turn to offensively they can rely on, and that may wind up having to be Hibbert. That idea is met with a lot of chair-squirming across the league.

2) George Hill has to figure out who he is. He was a jack of all trades in San Antonio and did a little of that last year. But the Pacers need him to be excellent in some regard. It can be defense, it can be off the dribble scoring, it can be perimeter shooting, but he’s going to have to give them consistent, excellent play in some regard. They need something to spark them and Hill may have to be it. They’ve committed to Hill as “the guy” at point guard. He has to play like it.

3) Let the big dogs eat. David West is a cold blooded assassin. Roy Hibbert had several games last year that he absolutely dominated the opponent. Too bad no one saw them. They have Mahinmi for depth, a more veteran Tyler Hansbrough, they’ve got some muscle. The Pacers are one of the few teams in the East with legit size. They need to rely on that and not be a team of perimeter wing jump shooters. They’ve got to create more efficient offense, and they’re without a real playmaker. So that means high-percentage buckets close to the rim. The bigs have to get possessions.

How it likely works out: This is the second best team in the East going into the season. Not Boston with its new bench or the Nets with their deficit-buster payroll or the Knicks with their drama. It’s quiet, consistent Indiana, and there is no reason going into the season that they shouldn’t make the Eastern Conference Finals. They landed third last season and wound up with the unfortunate second-round match-up with Miami. They need to get the second seed, make the ECF, then see what they can do against a tired Miami team. No more growth. No more development. The Pacers have arrived. Sink or swim time.

Prediction: 56-26. There’s no reason the Pacers can’t play at a higher level with a more versatile roster and less of a dropoff on the bench. Superstars may dominate the postseason, but great team defense and size advantages help you win any ballgame. The Pacers should be the No.2 team in the East.

Pat Riley: Friend talked me out of going Dan Gilbert when LeBron James left

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When LeBron James left Cleveland, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert released his infamous letter.

When LeBron left Miami, Heat president Pat Riley issued a classy statement.

The difference was nearly not as stark following Riley’s final meeting with LeBron in 2014 in Las Vegas.

Wright Thompson of ESPN:

Riley told his lieutenant, Andy Elisburg, to get the two championship trophies LeBron had won and pack them in their hard-shell carrying cases. Elisburg also brought charts and an easel for a presentation about the free agents the Heat would pursue. The day of the meeting, a hotel bellhop followed them with a luggage cart carrying the presentation and the two trophies. Riley brought wine from a Napa vineyard named Promise. It was the same label Maverick Carter had presented Riley with when they did the deal four years earlier. Riley respects Carter, and when he walked into the suite and saw James with agent Rich Paul and friend Randy Mims but no Maverick, part of him knew the meeting wasn’t sincere. He told Elisburg to keep the trophies and easel in the hall. James and his associates were watching a World Cup game, which they kept glancing at during the presentation. At one point, Riley asked if they’d mute the TV.

Riley flew home worried and got a text telling him to be ready for a call. About 15 minutes later, his phone rang and Paul was on the other end. The agent handed the phone to LeBron, who started by saying, “I want to thank you for four years …”

“I was silent,” Riley says. “I didn’t say anything. My mind began to just go. And it was over. I was very angry when LeBron left. It was personal for me. It just was. I had a very good friend who talked me off the ledge and kept me from going out there and saying something like Dan Gilbert. I’m glad I didn’t do it.”

The most shocking element of Gilbert’s letter wasn’t that he wrote it. People say dumb things, especially in the heat of the moment. But it was surprising nobody stopped Gilbert from publishing it. Of course, he runs the franchise. But nobody felt empowered to tell him it was a bad idea?

Riley was obviously fortunate to get that message and wise to heed it. But even he has let his disdain for LeBron leaving slip out a couple times.

John Wall doesn’t sound super enthused about Dennis Schroder’s summer-workout request

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The Wizards and Hawks are knotted in a 2-2 first-round series.

A subplot: John Wall vs. Dennis Schroder. They have a history – Schroder starting random trash talk and then telling a teammate to hack Wall’s recently injured wrist, according to Wall – and Wall stared down Schroder after a dunk in Game 2.

A sub-subplot: Wall’s and Schroder’s summer plans.

Chris Vivlamore of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Wall, via Chase Hughes of CSN Mid-Atlantic:

“I’ve never heard of that going on in the middle of a series,” Wall said Monday after shootaround for Game 4 later tonight at Phillips Arena. “I’m not talking about it right now. I’m locked into a series competing with a guy that’s playing well for his team, competing for his team. That’s probably a conversation I’ll have later on, but I’m locked into Wizards versus Hawks.”

Aside from that, Wall tends to be a loner during the summer when he’s getting ready. He was supposed to work out with Damian Lillard a few seasons ago, but even that didn’t come to fruition. Teammate Brandon Jennings sensed that about Wall.

“I really don’t work out with anybody, to be honest,” Wall said. “Brandon said the same thing, ‘You’re the type of guy that don’t like to work out with people.’ I just always worked out by myself a lot.”

Maybe Schroder thinks Wall will see himself in the Atlanta point guard – a fearless young player trying to prove himself by standing up to established players. And maybe Wall does.

But I suspect Wall just sees Schroder as a pest.

If that’s the case, it certainly won’t change until this series ends.

Marcus Smart responds to Jimmy Butler: ‘It ain’t hard to find me’ (video)

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Jimmy Butler said Marcus Smart is “not about that life.”

Smart, via MassLive:

Laugh at that. This about the Celtics versus Chicago Bulls, not Marcus Smart versus Jimmy. I ain’t got to sit here and say this and that. I’m this. I’m that. I ain’t that type of guy. My actions speak louder than words. It ain’t hard to find me. But, right now, I’m focused on my teammates and this series.

That led to a few excellent follow-up questions:

Are you about that life?

Like I said before, I ain’t got to talk about what I am about. I just show you. I can show you, but I’m not going to tell you. Like I said, it ain’t hard to find me. You heard him. He said, “I don’t think Marcus Smart is about that life.” Last time I checked, if you’re going to say somebody ain’t about that life, you should know, right? But like I said, we’re going to keep this Chicago Bulls vs. Boston Celtics, not Marcus vs. Jimmy.

Has anyone accused you not being tough before?

Never.

What was your reaction to that?

Haha.

Smart flops too much. He gets overly emotional.

But he’s way too tough to let Butler’s comments pass without rebuttal.

The real test will come on the court in Game 5 tomorrow.

Damian Lillard ‘obsessed’ with beating Warriors

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The Warriors just eliminated the Trail Blazers for the second straight year.

Portland star Damian Lillard sounds hardened by the experience.

Chris Haynes of ESPN:

After the Portland Trail Blazers were swept by the Golden State Warriors on Monday, point guard Damian Lillard told ESPN he’s developed a newfound obsession with trying to take down the Warriors.

“You have to be obsessed with that because you know that they’re so good that they’re going to be there,” Lillard said after a 128-103 loss in Game 4. “That’s who you’re going to have to get through to get to where you want to get to. That’s what it is.”

I have no doubt this will drive Lillard. He just finds way to lift himself.

But will the rest of the Trail Blazers keep up with a team that features Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson?

C.J. McCollum is a solid co-star, but it gets dicey beyond that with several players locked into expensive long-term contracts. Portland will have to pry enough production from Jusuf Nurkic, Al-Farouq Aminu, Maurice Harkless, Allen Crabbe, Noah Vonleh, Ed Davis, Meyers Leonard and the Nos. 15, 20 and 26 picks in the upcoming draft.

The Trail Blazers have a path upward, but needing to climb as high as Golden State, the road is narrow.