Paul George, Lance Stephenson

The Extra Pass: Indiana’s Strange Success


The Extra Pass is a new daily column that’s designed to give you a better look at a theme, team, player or scheme that could use another glance. Today, we swing our attention to Indiana, where the Pacers are putting together one strange season.

I wish there were a more aesthetically pleasing comparison available, but the Indiana Pacers are the cockroaches of the NBA. They are an ugly team, scattered about on the offensive end, waiting for the shot clock to tick down to the skinnier numbers so they can rush to the rim for scraps. There is very little sex appeal or sophistication here — just resiliency.

You chop off their head, and they live for 35 games and counting. Last year’s leading scorer Danny Granger hasn’t played a single minute.

You take away what they’re looking for, and they find something else. 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert is shooting 40 percent from the field and averages less than 10 points a game.

You eliminate the new addition to their ranks, and they still keep coming. Gerald Green has an 8.2 PER, good for fifth worst in the league of players who average more than 20 minutes a night.

The Pacers are 29th in offensive efficiency, 28th in field goal percentage and 29th in points per game. They should be finished already, planning their trip to Secaucus, New Jersey to watch lottery balls bounce around with the rest of the inept offensive teams in the league.

But instead, the Pacers are 21-14, fourth in the Eastern Conference, and just three games back of a Miami Heat team they vanquished last night. Three games out of first place. The Indiana Pacers. With all that going on.


The best defense can be a slow offense

The Pacers have evolved in the best way– they know that they’re terrible offensively without Granger (and with Hibbert missing layups), so they’ve adapted by helping themselves on the other end. The offense, as brutal as it may be, serves a purpose for the defense by playing purposefully slow.

The Pacers play at the league’s 25th slowest pace, but they also rank 10th in offensive rebounding percentage. The victory over Miami was a wonderful example of how these two things work together. The Pacers absolutely bled the clock with the lead, and combined with their 22 offensive rebounds, they made that 8-10 points feel like 18-20 instead. The opportunities for Miami to come back in the fourth quarter were extremely limited.

Of course, taking the air out of the ball, so to speak, would mean nothing if the Pacers weren’t defending the way they are. For as every bit as bad as they’ve been offensively, the Pacers have been even better defensively.

It starts inside

Hibbert has used his own struggles at the rim as a way to exact revenge on his opponents, blocking the third most shots in the league (2.7 a game) and altering countless others. From 9-feet and in, the Pacers hold their opponents to the league’s lowest shooting percentage.

Although Hibbert isn’t fleet of foot, he’s a space eater for a defense that rarely gambles (26th in turnover percentage). The Pacers as a whole are very conservative defensively — their guards like to go under screens, and their big men rarely hedge or trap on pick-and-rolls. As a result, the Pacers are rarely scrambling to recover or asking their bigs to make lightning quick rotations.

And although he’s not noted as a defensive force, David West uses that thick chest of his as the wall to Hibbert’s sentry tower arms — opposing power forwards notch a PER of 12.2 against West, and the Pacers are about 2.4 points better defensively per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor (and a whopping net 13.5 points overall).

Thanks to West and Hibbert, and the crazy size of Paul George, the Pacers are also the 6th best defensive rebounding team in the league. Opposing teams go one-and-done offensively quite a bit.

Length on the perimeter

Another thing the Pacers do extraordinarily well defensively is defend the 3-point line. The average team this year shoots around 35.7 percent from behind the arc, but the Pacers hold their opponents to a stingy 31.6 percent shooting. That’s the top number in the league, and the length of guys like George Hill (who owns a ridiculous 6-foot-9 wingspan), Lance Stephenson (6-foot-10 wingspan) and Paul George (near 7-foot-wingspan) play into that heavily. According to Synergy Sports, the Pacers are the number one defense in the league defending against spot-up jumpers — a testament to the ability of their wings to get a hand up and contest every shot.

Coach of the Year?

There’s a reason Frank Vogel just got a contract extension, folks. The Pacers have a lot of plus individual defenders, but no one in their right mind expected them to have the league’s most efficient defense 35 games in. This is a core that has benefitted a great deal from playing together, and give Vogel credit for allowing Indiana’s starting five (Hill-Stephenson-George-West-Hibbert) to play the second most minutes together of any unit in the league — even if Indiana’s bench has been a question mark ever since he grabbed the big seat. If Tom Thibodeau can win a Coach of the Year for the defense he brought to Chicago, Vogel should at least be seriously considered if this keeps up.

Thank you, David

And here’s the reason why it might not keep up. Indiana’s Dr. Jekyl defense and Mr. Hyde offense is unlike anything we’ve seen, but a very soft schedule certainly has played into that a bit. Indiana’s strength of schedule is dead last in the league, and their SRS, a rating that factors point differential into that equation, is just 15th. Although more recent wins against  Memphis, Milwaukee and Miami are impressive, their wins prior to that came against sub .500 clubs almost exclusively. Some regression should be expected as the quality of opponents spikes back up.

But even with that said, it’s tough to deny the staying power of the league’s most resilient team to date. Things can’t possibly get worse offensively, especially since Stephenson has made such a positive impact lately. With Granger targeting a February return, there is hope on the horizon.

It’s not often we see a contender so painfully one-dimensional, but if this defense holds on to the distinction of being the best in the league, the Pacers will be awfully hard to ignore any longer.

Watch Pelicans’ Anthony Davis drop 33 in his return to court

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Anthony Davis missed a chunk of the preseason after spraining his ankle in a game against the Rockets during the league’s tour of China. He was considered questionable to return for opening night.

He came back faster than that, in time for New Orleans’ final preseason game Thursday night — and he looked good doing it. Very good.

Davis had 33 points, 13 rebounds and four assists’ in the Pelicans’ 114-111 overtime loss to Orlando. He was red hot from the start as he scored 16 points in nine minutes of the first quarter.

This is a good sign for the Pelicans, who are going to need Davis (and rookie Buddy Hield) to carry the scoring for the team to start the season as they are without Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans for an extended period.

Hawks like their new-look lineup with Howard, Schroder

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ATLANTA (AP) There was a buzz in the Hawks’ locker room after their long-awaited first look at their new starting five together.

Clearly, Atlanta’s new big man has generated big expectations for the season.

The Hawks’ final home preseason game on Tuesday night provided the first chance for forward Paul Milsap, who has made three straight All-Star teams, to play beside center Dwight Howard, an eight-time All-Star and three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year.

Milsap was brought along slowly following a non-surgical procedure before training camp to reduce swelling in his right knee before making his first start in Atlanta’s 96-89 preseason win over New Orleans.

Seeing Howard and Milsap finally playing together boosted small forward Kent Bazemore‘s enthusiasm for the season.

“The ball moves really well for us,” Bazemore said. “Paul and Dwight have really good chemistry and they’re going to be passing the ball a lot to each other … so they looked really good tonight.”

Howard signed a three-year, $70.5 million deal in July, giving Atlanta the legitimate center it lacked through much of the Al Horford era.

Horford, now with Boston, was a big reason the Hawks reeled off nine straight playoff seasons, but even he said he wasn’t a true NBA center. No one has ever said that about Howard, whose defensive rebounds and blocked shots have coach Mike Budenholzer thinking about fast-break opportunities.

Howard, entering his 13th NBA season, is still only 30. He sees his move to his hometown as a fresh start and an opportunity to repair his reputation following eight seasons with Orlando, one with the Lakers and the last three with Houston.

“I really want to show the Hawks fans how dedicated I am to winning,” Howard said. “I think a lot of people have probably got it twisted with the things that have happened in my past but I’m very dedicated to this sport, very dedicated to myself and winning and being whatever I can be for this team.”

Here are some other things to know about the Hawks:

NEW POINT: The other new piece in Atlanta’s lineup is point guard Dennis Schroder, who moves up after playing behind Jeff Teague for three years. Bazemore said Schroder, like Howard, boosts the Hawks’ defense. “Defensively he’s a stud and that’s where it starts,” Bazemore said. “We’ve got one of the best on-the-ball defenders in the league at point guard. It’s just a pleasure playing with him and the grit he brings every night. It’s huge for us.”

JACK NOT READY: Schroder’s backup to open the season will be rookie Malcolm Delaney, because veteran Jarrett Jack is still recovering from surgery to repair torn ligaments in his right knee last season with the Nets. Delaney, from Virginia Tech, has played in Europe for five years. Budenholzer said Delaney “is not your typical rookie” and could be headed for more than a short-term role as Schroder’s backup. “I just feel very good about the way he has progressed and fit in with the group,” the coach said.

KORVER’S ROLE: Kyle Korver, 35, likely will open the season as the starting shooting guard, but for how long? The 3-point specialist saw his scoring average fall from 12.1 in 2014-15 to 9.2 last season. The Hawks could bring Korver off the bench if they opt for a bigger lineup with Bazemore at shooting guard and rookie Taurean Prince (6-8, 220) or Thabo Sefolosha (6-7, 220) at small forward.

FOR OPENERS: The Hawks open at home against Washington on Thursday. After trying a later 8 p.m. tipoff for most home games last season, most night games will start at 7:30 p.m. this season.

THE TRY FOR 10: The nine straight playoff seasons is the longest in franchise history and the longest active streak in the Eastern Conference. The Hawks set a franchise record with 60 wins in 2014-15, when they made their first appearance in the Eastern Conference finals. They fell back to 48 wins last season.

In the East, it’s the Cavs and then everyone else – again

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The Cleveland Cavaliers know what it feels like to enter the season as Eastern Conference favorites.

They begin this one with an entirely unfamiliar label – defending champions.

The rest of the East has spent the last six years unsuccessfully trying to unseat LeBron James from the throne. Whether he has been in Cleveland or Miami, James has led his team to the NBA Finals every year since 2011. But his crowning achievement came last season, when his Cavaliers captured the city’s first pro sports championship in 52 years by defeating the record-breaking Golden State Warriors.

Now the Cavaliers are wearing an even bigger target on their backs.

“It’s the same mindset: Let’s win a championship,” James said. “We just want to be able to put ourselves in position to do that. We have the ability, we have the personnel, but we have to work now. We can’t expect for it to happen just like we didn’t expect for it to happen last year. We put the time into it.”

The Boston Celtics finally found a star in Al Horford to team with a lunch pail group that has overachieved under coach Brad Stevens. The Toronto Raptors are back for more after falling to the Cavs in the Eastern Conference finals and Chicago and New York brought in aging stars in a desperate attempt to change the balance of power in the league’s weaker conference.

James’ reply: Bring it on.

“We can’t be entitled to anything we’ve got to go out and get it and work for it,” he said. “We’re a team that’s very driven and we look forward to all the challenges the season holds.”

A look at the East:


1. Cleveland – Championship hangover? No one expects that with the Cavs. There is one certainty in the NBA: LeBron will make it to the finals.

2. Boston – Horford and Stevens appear to be the perfect match.

3. Toronto – Keep doubting the Raptors. Kyle Lowry wants you to. Should be nip and tuck with the Celtics all season.

4. Washington – Here’s where it starts to get dicey. Wiz are betting Scott Brooks will be able to push the buttons Randy Wittman couldn’t.

5. Atlanta – The Hawks took a step back last season, then swapped Horford for Dwight Howard. Things could go either way in Hotlanta this season.

6. Charlotte – Mostly stood pat this summer after a surprising sixth-place finish last year. A healthy Michael Kidd-Gilchrist sure could make a difference.

7. Detroit – Would have picked them higher, but Reggie Jackson‘s injury is a concern.

8. Indiana – Pacers swapped out the underrated George Hill for Jeff Teague, traded Frank Vogel for Nate McMillan and brought in Thaddeus Young and Al Jefferson to funk things up.


9. Chicago – Dwyane Wade‘s homecoming is a great story. But the severe lack of shooting figures to hold the Bulls back.

10. Miami – With Wade and Chris Bosh gone, it’s rebuilding time. Don’t expect Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra to be down long, though.

11. New York – Manhattan is all excited about the star power that Phil Jackson brought in. The reality is Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah have not been completely healthy for years.

12. Milwaukee – Khris Middleton‘s injury is a killer that prompted scrambling for wing help. The Greek Freak at point guard, thought? That will be appointment viewing.


13. Orlando – Vogel landed with the Magic and he has all kinds of defensive weapons at his disposal. That will be essential because scoring may be difficult to come by.

14. Philadelphia – You have to be kidding us with the Ben Simmons injury. Hey, at least Joel Embiid is healthy. Please keep it that way.

15. Brooklyn – Move over Philly, there’s a new basement dweller in the East! Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson are well thought of, but it’s going to take time to get this thing turned around.


LEBRON’S LEGACY: The last time James did not appear in the NBA Finals was 2010 when the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Celtics. James’ Cavaliers were eliminated in the East semifinals by the Celtics, and he signed with the Heat that summer.

WALL AND BEAL: Much has been made of the chemistry, or lack thereof, in Washington’s backcourt. If John Wall and Bradley Beal are on the same page, the Wizards are dangerous. If they can’t find a way to harmonize, Washington could plummet down the standings.

NEW FACES: Brooks in Washington, McMillan in Indiana, Vogel in Orlando, Atkinson in Brooklyn and Jeff Hornacek in New York start their first seasons as coaches after a summer of upheaval in the conference.

SCHRODER TIME: The Hawks traded Teague to Indiana to open the door for Schroder’s slashing game. He’s been waiting for this chance, and his ability to run the team, play defense and knock down the occasional jumper will be critical to Atlanta’s chances.

ROOKIE WATCH: Only three of the top nine picks in the draft went to teams in the East. Youngsters to keep an eye on include Jaylen Brown in Boston, Jakob Poeltl for Toronto, Thon Maker in Milwaukee and Denzel Valentine in Chicago.

AP Sports Writer Tom Withers in Cleveland contributed to this report.

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Wade, Rondo bring intrigue if not title hopes to Bulls

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CHICAGO (AP) No matter how this season plays out, this much is clear about the Chicago Bulls: They’re worth watching.

They jettisoned one hometown superstar and welcomed another when they traded former MVP Derrick Rose and signed three-time NBA champion Dwyane Wade.

They also handed the keys to an All-Star guard in Jimmy Butler who called out his coach last season. And on top of that, they added mercurial point guard Rajon Rondo to the mix.

Coming off a flat season that ended with them missing the playoffs for the first time since 2008, the Bulls at least spiced things up in the offseason. Now, it’s time to see if interesting also means better.

“I love the vibe of this group,” Hoiberg said. “I love the competitiveness of this group.”

The Bulls clearly had to do something after a year that began with high expectations ended with a 42-40 record, a fractured locker room and all sorts of questions about team leadership.

Gone is Chicago native Rose – derailed by injuries after leading the Bulls to heights they hadn’t reached since the Michael Jordan Era – after being dealt to New York for center Robin Lopez and guard Jerian Grant. So is Joakim Noah, who signed with Knicks not long after the big trade. Pau Gasol went to San Antonio as a free agent.

Wade shocked Miami when he chose to come home to Chicago and accept a two-year deal worth about $47 million.

Here are some things to look for this season from the Bulls, who open at home against Boston on Oct. 27:


The Bulls thought Hoiberg’s fast-paced tempo and soft-spoken style were just what the team needed when he was hired. They just didn’t think the learning curve would be as steep as it was. Hoiberg got called out by Butler last season for not coaching the team hard enough. The system and the roster did not mesh.

So does Year 2 bring a better Hoiberg?

Executive vice president of basketball operations John Paxson said he expects it. So does Hoiberg, who came to the Bulls after a successful five-year run at Iowa State.

But is this the right roster for him? After all, Wade and Rondo are both in their 30s. And if the Bulls struggle, who takes the fall?


Who knows what might have happened had Wade signed with the Bulls six years ago rather than form a superstar triumvirate with LeBron James and Chris Bosh in Miami? But he’s here now, coming off a strong season and being counted on at age 34 to set the tone for the Bulls’ younger players. The 12-time All-Star has been doing just that, speaking up in practice and meetings.


It’s been a steep climb for Butler from low first-round draft pick to bench warmer to two-time All-Star with an Olympic gold medal. But his success hasn’t translated to team success. Butler’s first All-Star season ended with Tom Thibodeau’s firing. Last year, the Bulls dropped into the lottery. And while Wade and Rondo have said the Bulls are Butler’s team, it’s not clear exactly how far he can lead them.

“I can learn from (Wade and Rondo), the winning culture they’ve built,” Butler said. “I’m excited because there’s so much growth I can handle in that aspect of the game. You look at what Wade has done for his career, a future Hall of Famer. I think that I can model the way I do things around him.’


While the Bulls added scoring punch and the reigning assists-per-game leader in Wade and Rondo, they still lack a starting guard who can consistently hit from long range. That was a problem last season with Rose and Butler, who moves to small forward.

Spacing could be a problem when Rondo, Wade and Butler are on the court together, though the Bulls do have solid shooters in Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott. Gasol’s departure also creates a scoring hole in the paint.


Rondo is coming off a resurgent season with Sacramento that saw him average 11.9 points and a league-leading 11.7 assists. It was the fourth time he averaged a double-double in a season and the first for him since the 2012-13 season. The four-time All-Star has clashed with coaches, most notably Dallas’ Rick Carlisle, and his relationship with Hoiberg could be one to watch.