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.

Warriors say Kevin Durant doing non-contact drills, could return before end of season

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Kevin Durant has been working out on the court before the last couple of Warriors road games, and people watching have taken note — he was moving well, shooting, and generally looking healthy for a guy coming off a grade 2 MCL sprain and a bone bruise.

Reports were out that Durant was on target to return before the end of the season.

Wednesday the Warriors confirmed that.

Teams are vague, realistically what is that timeline?

Durant likely would be on a minutes restriction for those game, but just getting to shake the rust off and work on his conditioning in a real game would help Golden State heading into the playoffs.

Not that they need much help, having won eight in a row. The Warriors have a 2.5 game lead over the Spurs for the top seed in the Western Conference heading into the game between the two Wednesday night.

Check out Lakers’ stretch of hitting 15 straight shots to end third quarter (VIDEO)

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The Lakers lost to the Wizards because they are young, inconsistent, and defend like traffic cones at times.

But that young Lakers core also has its moments.

Los Angeles strung together 15 straight made buckets to end the third quarter Tuesday night. Some of it was flukey, like Corey Brewer driving and finishing contested layups like he’s Kyrie Irving, but there were things Lakers fans should want to see such as D'Angelo Russell draining threes, Jordan Clarkson working hard off the ball and his teammates finding him, and Julius Randle just attacking.

After this run the Lakers led by 13 going into the fourth, but lost the game.

It’s official: Joakim Noah cleared to play, 20-game suspension starts tonight

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What this ultimately means is next season the Knicks should have Joakim Noah available just before Thanksgiving.

Noah has been suspended 20 games for testing positive for a banned substance, but because he was out due to knee surgery the suspension did not start until he was “physically able to play.” Noah said on Tuesday that he had been cleared, but that was just by the team doctors. He also had to be cleared by the NBA’s doctors (because if teams could cheat they would).

That happened Wednesday, according to Ian Begley of ESPN.

Noah’s first season in New York after signing a four-year, $72 million deal has been a disappointment. To put it kindly. He’s not been completely healthy, and any observer of him the past few years had to wonder if he would ever be fully healthy again. He had lost a step from the 2014 Defensive Player of the Year before the Knicks signed him. The Knicks don’t need him to necessarily be that dominant a force again (although it would be nice), but they need to get more out of him and see if he is a fit next to Kristaps Porzingis for now as the Knicks try to build a roster for next season that can play a little defense. And the triangle.

Report: Pacers bring back Lance Stephenson in time for playoffs; deal for three-years, $12 million

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The Indiana Pacers need healthy bodies for their playoff run, and they had three rotation guys injured between Al Jefferson, Glenn Robinson III, and Rodney Stuckey. Wednesday, the Pacers waived Stuckey to create an open roster spot to bring in some help (they were not going to pick up his option for next season anyway).

Who are they bringing in? The prodigal son Lance Stephenson returns, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports.

The surprising part of the deal was the security Stephenson got, as first reported by Adam Zagoria at his blog — three years, $12 million, with a player option for the final year. (This has since been confirmed by other sources.) Other teams were looking at giving Stephenson a 10-day contract, the length of the Pacers’ offer is a surprise.

Stephenson played in six games for Minnesota recently, averaging 3.5 points per game off the bench, but an ankle sprain kept the Timberwolves from really having to decide whether to keep him for the season. Stephenson knows how to create shots for himself and can be a good defender when focused, something we saw with the Pelicans at the start of this season — he became a key part of their rotation averaging 9.7 points and 4.8 assists per game until he tore his groin.

It’s a little strange to see him back in Pacers colors. It will be particularly strange if the Pacers stay in the seven seed and the Cavaliers remain the two-seed setting up a first-round playoff series. Because I don’t think any of us need to see this again.

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