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.

Watch LeBron James’ top highlight from each of his postseason appearances (video)

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LeBron James and Tony Parker are the only players to play in the last dozen postseasons.

(If you’re wondering, Manu Ginobili missed the 2009 playoffs due to an ankle injury.)

It’s fair to say LeBron was a bit more spectacular than Parker in that span. As LeBron enters his seventh straight Finals, the NBA released this awesome video showing LeBron’s best playoff highlight from each year:

There’s no entry for this year. Here’s betting it comes against the Warriors in the NBA Finals.

David Stern: We thought we could re-work Chris Paul-to-Lakers trade until Mitch Kupchak ‘panicked’

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NBA commissioner David Stern – acting as New Orleans’ owner representative, he says – infamously vetoed a potential Chris Paul-to-Lakers trade in 2011.

But that didn’t close the possibility of Paul going to the Lakers.

The New Orleans Hornets (now the Pelicans and not be confused with the current Charlotte Hornets), Lakers and Rockets tried to rework the three-team trade that would’ve sent Paul to the Lakers, Pau Gasol to Houston and Lamar Odom, Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Goran Dragic and a first-round pick to New Orleans. But talks fell apart around the time the Lakers dealt Odom to the Mavericks.

Stern on Nunyo & Company (hat tip: Harrison Feigen of Silver Screen & Roll):

In fact, in the course of the weekend, we thought we could re-do the deal. We really thought that Houston would be ready to part with Kevin Lowry, and we had a trade lined up for Odom that would have gotten us a good first-round draft pick – not we, but my basketball folks. But Mitch Kupchak at the time panicked and moved Odom to Dallas. So the piece wasn’t even there for us to play with at the time. So that was it — just about what was good for the then-New Orleans Hornets.

Remember, Stern – roundly criticized for his handling of this episode* – has blamed the Lakers and Rockets for the lingering perception. This could just be him again trying to shift responsibility.

*Somewhat fairly, somewhat not. Owners veto general manager-approved trades often enough, and Stern was acting as New Orleans’ owner after George Shinn sold the franchise back to the league. But Stern had an agenda as commissioner. He never should have assumed such a large conflict of interest. What he did with the Paul trade was reasonable for an acting owner, but because Stern was also commissioner, it’s fair to question how much New Orleans’ interests and how much the league’s interests factored into the decision-making.

But let’s take Stern at his word – that he and the Hornets thought they could re-do the trade and send Paul to the Lakers. That doesn’t mean they were right. Maybe the Lakers and Rockets (who had Kyle Lowry, not the “Kevin Lowry” Stern named) were never going to part with enough to get Stern’s approval.

And maybe New Orleans didn’t properly convey its interest in still completing a deal. Perhaps, Kupchak acted reasonably by trading Odom to Dallas – for a first-round pick, a deal Mark Cuban would ultimately regret – rather than wait around for the Hornets, who eventually sent Paul to the Clippers.

It’s easy to blame Kupchak, but he might tell a different story.

Isaiah Thomas makes it clear he wants to stay in Boston

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It’s been a long time since there was so much discussion about whether a team needs to trade or just let go of an All-NBA and All-Star player at his peak who is clear and away a fan favorite.

Yet that’s where the Boston Celtics and Isaiah Thomas find themselves. After landing the No. 1 pick in this year’s draft — where they will almost certainly take point guard Markelle Fultz — and with the Celtics looking a full couple steps behind the Cavaliers in the playoffs, the question about whether Thomas is part of the future in Boston has come up. He is a free agent in 2018 and are the Celtics willing to pay the big money it will take to keep him?

Know this, Thomas wants to remain a Celtic and win a Celtic. You can listen to his full comments above, but Gary Washburn of the Boston Globe has the money quote:

Outside of chasing Gordon Hayward, this summer the Celtics are going to focus on getter some frontcourt help, someone to help with rebounding and rim protection. They will look to get better, but Danny Ainge isn’t going to push all his chips into the middle of the table to make a gambit on immediate massive improvement. He will remain patient, building this team so that in three years and five years they will be a force in the East.

And the Thomas discussion likely gets put on hold for a year (unless there is a change of course and contract extension talks come up, but that’s only if Boston misses on Hayward and any other big targets).

Stephen Curry says talk of lack of competitive balance “disrespectful” to Warriors, Cavaliers

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This year’s NBA playoffs have been horribly lopsided and they lacked drama because we all knew where it was headed: Golden State vs. Cleveland. They were so dominant that between them they lost one playoff game so far. This has brought up discussions of competitive balance — we have seen the same Finals three years in a row, and we will almost certainly head into next season expecting a fourth. Then maybe a fifth.

Not surprisingly, Stephen Curry isn’t a fan of the lack of competition argument, saying it disrespects the Warriors and the Cavaliers.

“That almost is kind of disrespectful, because it’s not like it’s easy for us to get here. It wasn’t that at all. Us and Cleveland worked our butts off all year to put ourselves in a position to be playing for a championship. The league is as strong talent-wise across the board as it’s ever been. Every night we get challenged. Obviously, we had that one stat I guess, point differential, all year. We had a pretty solid showing in that respect. But, every night was hard. Every night was challenging. You can’t just sleepwalk through a season and sleep walk through the playoffs and expect to be here. You got to do something. You got to come out every night and prove yourself. Granted, anybody who was betting on who was gonna be in the Finals probably picked those two. It’s easy for them to say that and just wake up in June and see it happen. We had to put that work in all year long to make it happen.”

Curry is right in that nobody should question the work the Warriors and Cavaliers put in to get to this point, and that the other teams did not just roll over for them. Also, both teams did get a little lucky with injuries.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that right now there is a dominant team in each conference, and that sucks the drama out of the postseason. (Maybe a healthy San Antonio team could have pushed the Warriors, we didn’t get to find out.) Golden State has four of the top 15-20 players in the NBA, and that makes them a juggernaut — again, regardless of the work put in. Other teams don’t have much of a chance if the Warriors are healthy and focused, not in a seven game series. The fact that it was flukey circumstances that put a dominant team in each conference — there isn’t another LeBron James returning home, and out West it took a one-time salary cap spike to add Kevin Durant to a 73-win team — doesn’t change the fact this season has felt like a foregone conclusion from the start.

Right now we’ve got what we wanted and expected, the trilogy between the Warriors and Cavaliers. But if we head into next season expecting (and maybe getting) round four of this matchup in the Finals, is that good for the league? Why watch the movie if you know how it ends before it starts?