The Extra Pass: Indiana’s Strange Success

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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.

How?

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.

LeBron James game-time decision for Cavaliers-Celtics opener

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INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — LeBron James may miss Cleveland’s opener Tuesday night against Boston because of a sprained left ankle.

James injured his ankle in practice on Sept. 27 and played in just one exhibition game. He participated in the team’s morning shootaround, and a team spokesman said it will be a game-time decision whether he faces the Celtics. James is officially listed as questionable.

James took some outside shots but did very little lateral movement when the media was permitted to watch the Cavs work out.

It’s hard to imagine James missing the first opener of his career and a chance to play against former teammate Kyrie Irving, who was traded this summer to Boston after telling Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert that he wanted out. James and Irving had a sometimes rocky relationship during three seasons together, but they made it to three straight NBA Finals and won the title in 2016.

 

Why did Kyrie Irving request trade from Cavaliers? ‘I will never pinpoint anything, because that’s not what real grownups do’

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Kyrie Irving said he requested a trade from the Cavaliers because he wanted to be happy and maximize his potential.

But why did he feel that couldn’t happen in Cleveland?

Irving hasn’t come close to directly answering that question, saying things like, “My intent, like I said, was for my best intentions.” Returning to Cleveland with the Celtics, Irving was again pressed to explain.

Irving, via MassLive:

Going forward, I kind of wanted to put that to rest in terms of everyone figuring out or trying to figure out and dive in and continue to dive into a narrative that they have no idea about and that probably will never, ever be divulged, because it’s not important. This was literally just a decision I wanted to make solely based on my happiness and pushing my career forward. I don’t want to pinpoint anything. I will never pinpoint anything, because that’s not what real grownups do. They continue to move on with their life and and continue to progress, and that’s what I’m going to continue to do.

Perhaps, Irving is just following Dwyane Wade‘s advice and taking the high road. But that won’t ease our collective curiosity. Fans will continue to speculate about why Irving wanted out, and reporters will continue to dig into it. Reporting and speculation have both centered on LeBron James.

If Irving eventually wants to set the record straight – and he doesn’t sound interested, lending credence to the theory he wanted to leave LeBron behind – everyone will be all ears.

Cavaliers to honor Kyrie Irving with video during tonight’s game

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Kyrie Irving requested a trade from the Cavaliers, stated no regard for LeBron James‘ feelings about it and slighted Cleveland as a sports city.

Yet, when Irving returns with the Celtics for tonight’s regular-season opener, the Cavs will honor him.

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

The Cavaliers intend to honor Kyrie Irving on Tuesday night with a video tribute during Cleveland’s season-opening tilt against Irving’s Boston Celtics.

According to a team source, the video is a “thank you” to Irving intended to show appreciation for all he accomplished in six seasons here.

Irving had a fantastic six-year run with the Cavaliers, and he hit the biggest shot in franchise history to end Cleveland’s title drought in 2016.

But he’s now a sports villain there (not to be mistaken for a bad person). Let the fans enjoy unconditionally booing him for a night. There will be time to honor him when the wounds of his exit aren’t so fresh.

If I were the Cavs, this would be the video I’d show to commemorate Irving’s return:

LeBron James: I think Dan Gilbert’s letter was racial

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LeBron James left a job for a more appealing one in 2010. His previous employer, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, infamously published a letter that called LeBron’s decision a “cowardly betrayal,” “shameful display of selfishness and betrayal,” “shocking act of disloyalty” and “heartless and callous action.” Most ridiculously, Gilbert wrote, “Some people think they should go to heaven but NOT have to die to get there.” Perhaps most hurtfully, Gilbert added LeBron’s choice “sends the exact opposite lesson of what we would want our children to learn. And ‘who’ we would want them to grow-up to become.”

Remember, LeBron completed his contract with Gilbert’s Cavs then signed with the Heat. Gilbert’s reaction was beyond over the top.

It was also probably rooted in racial attitudes that persist since a time rich white men held complete control over the lives of young black men.

LeBron, via Mark Anthony Green of GQ:

Did you feel like Dan Gilbert’s letter was racial?

“Um, I did. I did. It was another conversation I had to have with my kids. It was unfortunate, because I believed in my heart that I had gave that city and that owner, at that point in time, everything that I had. Unfortunately, I felt like, at that point in time, as an organization, we could not bring in enough talent to help us get to what my vision was. A lot of people say they want to win, but they really don’t know how hard it takes, or a lot of people don’t have the vision. So, you know, I don’t really like to go back on that letter, but it pops in my head a few times here, a few times there. I mean, it’s just human nature. I think that had a lot to do with race at that time, too, and that was another opportunity for me to kind of just sit back and say, ‘Okay, well, how can we get better? How can we get better? How can I get better?’ And if it happens again, then you’re able to have an even more positive outlook on it. It wasn’t the notion of I wanted to do it my way. It was the notion of I’m gonna play this game, and I’m gonna prepare myself so damn hard that when I decide to do something off the court, I want to be able to do it because I’ve paid my dues.”

We’ve obviously come a long way since slavery, but the racism used to justify that evil practice lingers. In 2017, few want to be racist. Many more do racist things. Racism is basked into our society, and it will require thoughtful recognition of it to eradicate it.

Gilbert’s letter contained racial undertones, Gilbert attempting to assert a control of LeBron he didn’t rightfully possess. If Gilbert considered how his letter fit into historical context, maybe he wouldn’t have written it. Whether or not Gilbert intended to be racist matters only so much. He danced in racist tones to vilify LeBron.

Now, maybe Gilbert has progressed. He apologized to LeBron for the letter (while trying to woo LeBron back to Cleveland in 2014) and said he’s learning more about the level of racism in this country.

But there’s still an apparent lingering distrust by LeBron toward Gilbert, and LeBron saying he still sometimes thinks about the letter only enhances that. That could matter as LeBron heads toward free agency.