Paul George, Lance Stephenson

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.

Spurs sign 2013 first-rounder Livio Jean-Charles

Cecilio Santibanez
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With the 76ers signing Dario Saric, that left just five players drafted in the first round before this year who are still active but haven’t played in the NBA:

  • Nikola Milutinov (No. 26 by Spurs in 2015)
  • Bogdan Bogdanovic (No. 27 by Suns in 2014)
  • Livio Jean-Charles (No. 28 in 2013 by Spurs)
  • Petteri Koponen (No. 30 in 2007 by 76ers)
  • Fran Vazquez (No. 11 in 2005 by Magic)

San Antonio trimmed the list by one.

Spurs release:

The San Antonio Spurs today announced that they have signed forward Livio Jean-Charles.

Because Jean-Charles was drafted more than three years ago, he’s not bound by the rookie scale. San Antonio could have signed him to a scale or standard contract.

The Spurs could use more length and athleticism on the frontline behind LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol, and Jean-Charles fit the bill when drafted. But he tore his ACL and missed the following season. It’s less clear the 22-year-old is still on track to help.

 

Count on Dewayne Dedmon as a far safer bet to provide San Antonio with that dimension. If Jean-Charles helps, that’d just be a bonus.

DeMarcus Cousins: All-NBA voting ‘absurd,’ ‘joke,’ ‘popularity contest’

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 21:  DeMarcus Cousins #15 of the Sacramento Kings and DeAndre Jordan #6 of the Los Angeles Clippers battle for rebounding position at Staples Center on February 21, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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DeMarcus Cousins was the only All-NBA player on a lottery team this year.

The Kings center made the second team behind DeAndre Jordan.

Credit voters for seeing past Sacramento’s dismal record and recognizing Cousins’ individual excellence. He has only so much power, and it would’ve been unfair to disqualify him due to his subpar teammates and coaching.

Cousins’ voting breakdown:

  • First team: 32
  • Second team: 28
  • Third team: 33
  • Not on ballot: 33

I wouldn’t have picked Cousins for an All-NBA team, but this struck me as voters being open-minded about an unconventional candidate — one from a losing team.

Cousins sees it differently.

Cousins, via Michael Lee of Yahoo Sports:

“I don’t even know what an expert is any more,” Cousins told The Vertical about the all-NBA votes. “I mean, I had some guys, didn’t even vote for me, and that’s absurd. It’s a joke. It really is. It’s a popularity contest. It’s the guys who like them, it’s the guys they like, the guys they get to see on a nightly basis. I still don’t feel I get the respect I deserve. But I’m going to keep grinding. I’m going to stick with it.”

I wouldn’t have voted for Cousins. I put Draymond Green, Jordan and Al Horford at center for the PBT Awards. So, I obviously didn’t find omitting Cousins absurd.

Likewise, I wouldn’t have found including Cousins absurd. He wasn’t far behind in a deep crop of center candidates that also included Andre Drummond, Anthony Davis, Hassan Whiteside and Karl-Anthony Towns.

Though Cousins posted monster numbers — 26.9 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.4 blocks per game — he contributed to the toxic environment that derailed Sacramento’s season. That counts, too. So does Cousins missing 17 games.

But before we get too far down the rabbit hole of sober analysis, remember this: Cousins, for better or worse, always has a huge chip on his shoulder. Of course he thinks he was slighted.

In fact, many voters find that stubbornness endearing. That’s why a popularity contest didn’t keep Cousins off some All-NBA ballots.

His season, while very impressive, just wasn’t overwhelmingly dominant enough to demand inclusion on every single ballot.

DeMar DeRozan didn’t meet with Lakers because he wanted “legacy of my own in Toronto”

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 18:  DeMar DeRozan #9 of the 2016 USA Basketball Men's National Team stands on the court during a practice session at the Mendenhall Center on July 18, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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DeMar DeRozan was going to be one of the Lakers’ free agent targets last summer — an All-Star wing who could come home to Los Angeles and slide right into Kobe Bryant‘s now vacant spot in the rotation. But like the Lakers’ other top targets — Kevin Durant, Hassam Whiteside, etc. — the Lakers didn’t even get a meeting.

Durant’s reasoning was expected: “I really respect their team. I just thought they were a couple years away from where I wanted to be.”

DeRozan went another path — he loves Toronto and wants to carve out a legacy there, as he told Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily recently:

“When you have an opportunity to go home, that’s something that certainly would cross your mind. But it wasn’t anything,” DeRozan told Southern California News Group. “After I finish playing, I’m pretty sure I’ll live in L.A. But I just wanted to do something special and leave a legacy of my own in Toronto.”

DeRozan is big on loyalty — he has the word tattooed on his hands. If he says he’s in for something, he’s all the way in. And he is in for Toronto — he and Kyle Lowry have built what that team has become. The Lowry/DeRozan backcourt fueled the Raptors to the best season in franchise history last campaign — 56 wins and reaching the Eastern Conference finals. Nobody who knew DeRozan thought he would walk away from that, not even for the chance to play for the team he grew up idolizing.

The Daily News story does a fantastic job of showing DeRozan is still loyal to Los Angeles, too — he is a regular at the Drew League to this day. He loves L.A.

But that’s different from leaving an impressive Raptors team for the Lakers.

DeMarcus Cousins looks to make most of chance with US basketball team

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 22:  Roberto Santiago Acuna #35 of Argentina knocks the ball away from DeMarcus Cousins #12 of the United States during a USA Basketball showcase exhibition game at T-Mobile Arena on July 22, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The United States won 111-74.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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LAS VEGAS (AP) — DeMarcus Cousins considers the thought, and one of the NBA’s most recognizable scowls quickly turns into a bright smile.

Without saying a word, it’s clear he agrees: For the first time under Mike Krzyzewski, the U.S. Olympic basketball team has a genuine offensive weapon in the middle.

The Americans might even have the best center in the world.

Cousins had 14 points and 15 rebounds in just 16 minutes of the Americans’ exhibition opener, a 111-74 victory over Argentina. The Sacramento Kings star can score inside and out, and gives the U.S. a dimension it hasn’t had while winning the last two gold medals.

“DeMarcus is going to be a force in Rio,” teammate Klay Thompson said.

The center spot has almost been an afterthought on recent U.S. teams, who much preferred playing small to pounding the ball inside. Then again, none had a “bulldog” like Cousins, as Kevin Durant called him.

“There’s been a lot of great bigs come through this program, so I’m blessed to be in this situation,” Cousins said. “I’m honored to be in this situation. I’m not really in it to say who’s the best at what position, I’m just here to help the team win. So we’ve got one goal in mind, which is the gold, and that’s only thing I’m focused on right now.”

Along with that gold, Cousins could bring back something else from the Olympics.

His NBA career has been six seasons of bad teams and bad moods, the constant losing in Sacramento and the chaos in the organization often overshadowing his play. He doesn’t hide his unhappiness, and many times if he’s not shouting, it’s only because he’s sulking.

The 6-foot-11 center out of Kentucky averaged a career-high 26.9 points last season, fourth in the NBA, and was fifth in the league with 11.5 rebounds per game. But the Kings missed the playoffs again, as they have every season since taking Cousins with the No. 5 pick in the 2010 draft, and his bickering with coach George Karl generated more headlines than anything he or the Kings did on the court.

Now he’ll spend a month around a team that does nothing but win, and maybe that mentality will rub off on him.

“It can only help him,” USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo said.

“I think all the players who play for us are better people for it. They become better players. As a result, they get absorbed in the culture and that culture they bring back to their respective teams, and ultimately they benefit.”

Colangelo wasn’t certain about Cousins as a young player, saying in 2012 that he needed to be “more mature as a person, as a player” and had “a lot of growing up to do.”

He now believes they have a great relationship that’s developed over time.

As has Cousins’ role with the U.S. program. He backed up Anthony Davis in the 2014 Basketball World Cup, but with Davis recovering from injuries, Cousins has a good chance to step into the starting role.

The Americans started Dwight Howard at center in 2008 and Tyson Chandler in 2012. Both are former NBA defensive players of the year, but neither possesses Cousins’ offensive repertoire.

“DeMarcus is a different player,” said U.S. veteran Carmelo Anthony, who then focused not only on what Cousins brings, but what he can bring home.

“He’s a big who can shoot, he’s a big who can post, he’s tough, he’s a hell of a rebounder,” Anthony said. “But the most exciting thing I like about having DeMarcus out here now is he gets a chance to see how everybody else is working. Work ethic. To see him jumping into lines, to see him asking can somebody work with him, staying after, coming in before, that work ethic is something that it spills over to everybody else. When you see your peers working that hard, it makes you want to be a part of that.”

Cousins doesn’t like comparing the U.S. experience to his pro one, but praises the way the Americans do little things that get forgotten in the NBA. He came to camp in great shape and seems committed to being a good teammate, whether he starts or backs up the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan.

“He’s totally invested in what we’re doing,” Krzyzewski said.

Next up for Cousins and the Americans is their second exhibition game on Sunday against China in Los Angeles.

When it’s over, Durant and Thompson will return to an NBA team with title hopes. Cousins’ future might be the usual losing and trade rumors, so he’ll miss being around a winning team.

But maybe he can help build one.

“When you leave winning situations, it’s always going to be hard. I mean, who doesn’t enjoy winning?” Cousins said. “But I’m also always ready to get back. I’m ready to share my experience with my teammates … get the season kicked off on the right foot.”

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