Indiana Pacers' Hibbert and Hill react during Game 7 of their NBA Eastern Conference final basketball playoff against the Miami Heat in Miami

Pacers learn painful lessons on path to much bigger wins

28 Comments

That the Pacers were in a Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals with a young team — one that had to adapt on the fly to losing their leading scorer from last year Danny Granger just days before the season started — is more than just a bright sign for the future.

Monday night sucked for Pacers fans, but they have to know the next few years will not. This is a good team.

Through adversity teams grow — and Indiana has grown into one of the NBA’s best teams. Next season their core will be back , their defense will improve with familiarity and they will grow from this experience.

“We’ve gone through a lot, with Danny being out from the beginning of the season,” Roy Hibbert said in his televised post game interview. “David (West), Paul (George) and George (Hill) really stepped up and we won a lot of games. They matured, we finished strong toward the end of the season and we had one heck of a run.

“It’s unfortunate we lost, but I couldn’t be more proud of this team.”

Teams need to learn to win in the NBA (even Michael Jordan had to get his head handed to him three straight years by the Pistons before he and his teammates learned what it took to win it all). Monday night was one of those lessons, about reaching another level when it is all on the line. These lessons are a punch to the gut, but the best teams grow from them. Miami didn’t fully adopt the small-ball style that got them a title last year and back to the finals this year until Chris Bosh went down against the Pacers in the playoffs last year. Then they did it out of necessity.

Injuries can help a team define who they really need to be. That seemed to happen to the Pacers this season.

The loss of Granger meant Paul George got thrust into a bigger role as the ball handler and primary scorer — and he thrived, putting together his best season as a pro and becoming the league’s Most Improved Player. Then the playoffs became his national coming out party — a guy who played his college ball in little-watched Fresno and his professional ball in small market Indiana burst on the national scene. LeBron James was praising him. He looked like a future MVP.

George Hill took another step forward as the versatile if untraditional point guard. Roy Hibbert struggled early in the season — a combination of a wrist injury and self-imposed pressure after getting a max contract — but by the end of the season and certainly through the playoffs he looked like a center deserving a max deal.

David West is a pro’s pro that gives this team steady professionalism, not to mention steady points and rebounds. He’s a free agent but said after the game he can’t imagine himself anywhere else, and the Pacers plan to bring him back.

There are certainly questions for the Pacers this summer.

West is a free agent and while both sides are saying all the right things a deal still needs to be worked out (and other teams will try to poach him). George is eligible for an extension for his rookie deal and you can expect a four-year max (which would not kick in until the season after next).

But if the Pacers are paying Hibbert and George and West, can they continue to pay Danny Granger and stay under the tax line?

Also, the Pacers need to find depth — in the playoffs their starting five (Hill, George, Lance Stephenson, West, Hibbert) played 415 minutes and were an average of +14.6 per 48 minutes. But their bench lineups were a disaster and so none played more than 35 minutes all postseason. This is really two years in a row the lack of depth has been an issue in Indiana — they need to find some quality depth. Guys coach Frank Vogel can put out on the court and not instantly feel like he needs a single-malt scotch to calm his nerves.

But the core of a contender is there, and that is the hard part to put together. And it’s a young core, one that will just get better and better the more they play together.

Which should make Pacers fans very happy. And the rest of the East very nervous.

Report: Pistons retiring Richard Hamilton’s number

AUBURN HILLS, MI - JUNE 16:  Richard Hamilton #32 celebrates after Linsey Hunter #10 of the Detroit Pistons scored in the fourth quarter against the San Antonio Spurs in Game four of the 2005 NBA Finals at The Palace of Auburn Hills on June 16, 2005 in Auburn Hills, Michigan. The Pistons defeated the Spurs 102-71.  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 Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Pistons retired Ben Wallace’s number last month and Chauncey Billups’ this week.

They’ll soon be joined in the Palace rafters by another from the 2004 championship team – Richard Hamilton’s No. 32.

Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press:

No date has been set but Richard Hamilton will be the next Piston from the 2004 NBA championship team to have his jersey retired, No. 32, according to a person with firsthand knowledge of the organization’s thinking.

I would’ve retired Ben’s and Billups’ number and left it at that from the 2004 team. Despite the myth of a perfectly balanced starting unit, those two were a cut above the rest – Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace.

Perhaps unfairly, Ben and Billups also get credit for exiting Detroit on better terms. They were the first starters to go, so fans don’t associate them with the team’s decline. Plus, both returned to finish their careers with the Pistons.

Hamilton, on the other hand, became whiny as a contract extension locked him into a team that didn’t win as much as he wanted (but paid him more than he was worth). It got so ugly, Detroit bought him out, eating a substantial portion of his salary.

The good far outweighed the bad, though. Hamilton led the Pistons in scoring every season between 2003 and 2010. He provided a seemingly endless supply of energy, running around screen after screen away from the ball. His scoring with then-Ron Artest guarding him during the 2004 Eastern Conference finals – a defensive slugfest at its best – was instrumental in putting Detroit over the top.

This probably opens the door for Rasheed and Prince getting their numbers retired, too.

As someone who grew up in Michigan and cheered those Pistons, I’m not at all upset with this decision. Hamilton is a reasonable choice for number retirement, as are Sheed and Prince.

I just wouldn’t done it if I were in charge.

Dwight Howard says he hasn’t asked Rockets for trade: ‘I’m not running’

HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 25:  Members of the Houston Rockets huddle on the court during their game against the San Antonio Spurs at the Toyota Center on December 25, 2015 in Houston, Texas. 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 Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Rockets are reportedly working with Dwight Howard‘s agent on trading the center.

Spin from the other side…

Marc Stein of ESPN:

Dan Fegan, agent for Dwight Howard, issues statement to ESPN: “I’m not privy to what the Rockets are doing or not doing with respect to Dwight Howard. What I can say, with 100 percent certainty, is that Dwight has not and has never asked the Rockets for a trade. And neither have I.”

Rockets center Dwight Howard, reached Thursday by ESPN, says in reference to earlier statement from his agent Dan Fegan: “Dan’s statement is true. I have not asked the Rockets to trade me. Nor have I talked about right trades. I want to win. I want this situation to work. I chose this team. And I’m not running because we have been faced with some adversity.”

I could believe Howard hasn’t asked for a trade. I could also believe he has. Newsflash: Sometimes players and agents lie to the media.

Howard hurt his reputation with his mangled exit from the Magic and alienated many by bolting from the Lakers. It seems he doesn’t want to diminish his reputation further, which could be accomplished by not requesting a trade – or saying he’s not requesting a trade.

But the distinction matters only so much here, because the ball is in Houston’s court.

With Howard set to become a free agent, the Rockets might want to trade him before having to give him a big long-term contract. And if the Rockets want to deal him, it makes sense for both sides to work together.

Houston can get more return for Howard if he quietly pledges to re-sign with the team dealing for him. He can determine which teams he’d make that promise for and get a larger contract by getting traded and then re-signing rather than just leaving Houston to sign in the summer.

As far as Fegan saying he’s not privy to what the Rockets are doing with Howard, that’s deliberately misleading – maybe he doesn’t know their specific, exact plans – at best or negligent at worst. Who’d want an agent who didn’t know the team’s plans for the client?

Raptors’ DeMar DeRozan becomes bona fide star just in time for Toronto All-Star Game

Toronto Raptors' DeMar DeRozan (10) celebrates scoring during his team's 101-81 win over Miami Heat during an NBA basketball game in Toronto on Friday, Jan. 22, 2016. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP
Leave a comment

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – DeMar DeRozan admits he’s a terrible planner.

“Don’t ask me, are we going to go to dinner next week and what time?” the Raptors wing said. “Because I don’t know. You’ve got to ask me an hour before. … A hour before I’m hungry, I decide.”

That blind spot makes it easier for DeRozan to focus on the task at hand, especially with so much – Sunday’s All-Star game in Toronto, an opportunity for playoff redemption and a max contract in free agency – ahead of him.

DeRozan, already an All-Star and two-time 20-point-per-game scorer, is having his best season by a decent margin. His Raptors are 35-17 and looking increasingly capable of challenging the Cavaliers for the Eastern Conference title many already handed Cleveland.

And it’s because DeRozan never got too comfortable with what he already accomplished nor too caught up in what he could accomplish. Calling himself the “most mellowest person,” DeRozan just tries to stay in the moment.

Toronto coach Dwane Casey credited DeRozan for working on one aspect of his game each offseason, including “just handling the ball in the post and not throwing it in the fourth row” when they first worked together. But saying DeRozan polished only one skill since last year would be selling him far too short.

DeRozan has transformed his offensive game, becoming more effective than ever.

Start with his ability to get to the basket. That had long been a strength, but DeRozan has taken it to another level this year. He ranks seconds in the NBA in drives per game (11.6):

image

And third in free-throw attempts per game(8.3):

image

How does someone so mellow find the aggression to play a style that generates so much contact?

“I grew up different from a lot of people,” said DeRozan, a Compton native. “I grew up in an aggressive area. I had an aggressive lifetime for a long time. I just felt like, I’ve seen a lot of stuff and did a lot of stuff at a young age that make you mellow now, but once you grow up in that aggressive nature, it’s just always going to stick with you.”

DeRozan said he found a difference balance in his life at USC, where he spent only one year, as he hilariously told teammate Kyle Lowry.

DeRozan’s one year in college helped make him the No. 9 pick in the 2009 NBA draft, but he entered the league with one glaring deficiency: outside shooting. DeRozan made just six three pointers at USC – and even fewer, four and five, his first two NBA seasons.

Still not quite to league average, DeRozan has at least become a credible threat beyond the arc this season, shooting a career-high 33.7%:

image

These shots at the rim and from beyond the arc are coming at the expense of long 2s. After peaking at 36.5% three years ago and remaining a far-too-high 33.8% last year, DeRozan is taking just 24.4% of his shots between 16 feet and the 3-point arc:

image

For someone who declared just last year, “I don’t care about analytics at all. I could give a hell about them,” his game has sure become more analytically friendly.

The previous two years, DeRozan had the second-lowest true shooting percentage among 20-point scorers – ahead of only Kobe Bryant last season and LaMarcus Aldridge the season prior. Now, DeRozan’s true shooting percentage (54.8) is above league average for the first time since his rookie year, which – not coincidentally – was the only time his usage percentage fell below league average.

There’s a tradeoff between volume and efficiency, and DeRozan was on the wrong end of it. He was increasing his scoring by taking more bad shots.

His improved efficiency hasn’t come with shifting the shooting burden to less-capable teammates, either. DeRozan’s usage percentage (29.7) is a career high and ranks above Carmelo Anthony‘s, Kevin Durant‘s and John Wall‘s.

The turnaround is all the more stunning considering how limited DeRozan looked as an inefficient gunner.

A whopping 74.5% of his long 2s were assisted in 2010-11. That number fell 47.5% last season, which look more ridiculous if not for the great height from which it fell. For perspective, Isaiah Thomas – another player on both the drives and free-throw attempts leaderboard – has just 34.2% of his long 2s assisted.

image

Essentially, DeRozan was taking too many bad shots – and needed help getting them.

This year, DeRozan looks much more in control with the ball in his hands. Only 26.8% of his long 2s are assisted, not that he’s taking that many shots from that range, anyway.

He’s also using his greater control to dish a career-high 4.7 assists per game. Continuing the trend, it’s a substantive improvement. DeRozan isn’t throwing foolish passes in the hopes of upping his assist numbers. His turnovers remain characteristically low, and his assist-to-turnover ratio is a career best.

DeRozan has looked the part of a star the previous couple years. This season, he has produced like a star, too.

Lowry has watched the process unfold.

“It’s just being comfortable in your own skin,” Lowry said. “He doesn’t worry about what anybody says. He’s going to be comfortable in his own skin at all times.”

Lowry and DeRozan have developed a fun bond in their four seasons together, and it’s special they’ll represent the Raptors together in the Toronto All-Star game.

DeRozan was an All-Star in 2013, when the Raptors became good enough to warrant an All-Star but reserve-voting coaches still seemed bitter at Lowry, a superior player who’d clashed with his coaches when younger. Lowry got his first All-Star appearance last year, fans voting him a starter.

This year, both deserve to be there.

The next step is turning their individual success into team success. Despite holding home-court advantage the last two years, the Raptors were bounced in the first round – by the Nets in 2014 and Wizards in 2015. Toronto hasn’t won a playoff series since 2001, which was also the last time it produced two All-Stars (Vince Carter and Antonio Davis).

With DeRozan playing like a true star, this could be the year the Raptors break the drought.

Individual riches for DeRozan should follow.

He reportedly and logically plans to opt out of a contract that would pay him $10,050,000 next season. The upside? A max deal projected to be worth more than $145 million over five years if he re-signs or $110 million over four years elsewhere.

DeRozan always probably could have pulled at least one max offer in what will be a player-friendly market next summer. But this improvement makes it far more likely he’ll have his pick of max options, and not just from teams as desperate as the Lakers.

Despite not looking ahead often, DeRozan says he has one plan for handling free agency: Calling Lowry.

“I’m putting it on Kyle,” DeRozan said. “I don’t know. I’m going to put in on Kyle when that day comes. So, whatever he says, that’s where I’m going to go.”

So, that means DeRozan will return to the Raptors?

“At the end of the day, I’m his friend first,” said Lowry, who spurned heavy outside interest to re-sign in 2014. “He’s going to make a decision on what’s comfortable for him, and I’m going to support everything he does – just like he did for me.”

That’s very nice, but doesn’t Lowry at least hope that process leads DeRozan back to Toronto?

“At the end of the day, I’m going to support my friend – no matter what it is,” Lowry said.

There was long reason to doubt the relative emptiness of DeRozan’s numbers. But what’s clear: The people around him believe in him.

“He hasn’t reached the ceiling of his game yet,” Casey said, “and that’s the great thing about him, because he is a worker.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo sprints from behind to reject John Wall dunk (video)

Leave a comment

There’s a lot to like about Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Maybe his most impressive ability? How quickly he covers ground.