ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: Indiana Pacers

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Last season: The Pacers continued their upward trajectory – missing the playoffs in 2009-10, reaching the first round in 2010-11, reaching the second round in 2011-12 and reaching the conference finals in 2012-13. With George Hill, Lance Stephenson, Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert, Indiana had statistically the best lineup in the NBA. The Pacers played great defense and good-enough offense, and that got them to a Game 7 against the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. For now, that qualifies as a highly successful season.

Signature highlights from last season:  Forcing a seven-game series with Miami had nothing to do with the Heat overlooking the Pacers. Indiana was just that good and that fearless.

Key player changes: The Pacers’ offseason was all about upgrading their bench. They traded for Luis Scola and signed Chris Copeland and C.J. Watson.

Tyler Hansbrough and D.J. Augustin signed with Toronto, and Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee were traded to get Scola. But if the new bench performs as well as hoped, those players will be just afterthoughts.

Keys to the Pacers’ season:

1) Was last season’s playoff run a fluke? Without doubt, the Pacers deserved to reach Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Indiana played better than its first two postseason opponents, the Hawks and Knicks, and nearly as well as the Heat. But most teams that make it that far have already proven their abilities through sustained excellence during the long regular season.

Indiana had a good regular season, going 49-32, but that still falls well short of the average conference finalist, and perhaps, that indicates the Pacers were playing at their peak form during the playoffs rather than demonstrating a new baseline.

For what it’s worth, none of the last three teams to reach the conference finals without winning 50 games (adjusted for shortened seasons) – the 2012Celtics,2003Nets,2002Celtics – returned to the conference finals the following year.

2) Is David West too old? West is one of the NBA’s most underrated players. Tough and smart, West has been a huge asset to the Pacers both on the court and in the locker room. But he’s 33, an age when many players decline significantly or have already. West’s backup, Luis Scola, is even older. If West takes a step back, that could be a major setback for the Pacers. Nearly as much as their recent All-Stars, Paul George and Roy Hibbert, West is crucial to the Pacers’ success.

3) How well will Paul George and Danny Granger play together? They say they’ll be fine, and they very well could be. But this is really tough to project, because George is like a superhero who just discovered his powers. Until George learns how to stop clumsily shooting spider webs all over the place and when not to show up the local jocks by outrunning their car, there’s little use trying to gel with Granger. Once George stops evolving at a rapid pace, then maybe he can find chemistry with Granger.

For the Pacers, their wish here is a balancing act. They want George to get a lot better  (and he’s already at a high level), even if that means George’s game continuously takes different shapes, but they still want him and Granger to have time to mesh.

Why you should watch the Pacers: This is a team with legitimate title aspirations. The Pacers’ defense is already at a championship level, but their offense must catch up. It seems they have enough pieces to build a better offense, but it’s just a matter of figuring out how the puzzle fits together. Frank Vogel is a good coach, and his tinkering will be intriguing.

Prediction: 54-28. Until they indicate otherwise, the Heat belong atop any Eastern Conference projections. After that, take your pick between the Pacers, Nets and Bulls. The growth of Paul George and the reliability of David West and the bench will determine whether Indiana returns to the conference finals or falls short in a tougher Eastern Conference.

Watch the top 60 clutch shots from last NBA season

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It’s that time of the year when there is no basketball, so we fill the time with idle Kyrie Irving speculation and video highlights of last season.

Along those lines, above you can out the top 60 clutch shots from last season, as determined by the folks at NBA.com.

The great thing about the clutch shot list is the ball is in the hands of stars at the ends of games, so there is plenty of Russell Westbrook, John Wall, LeBron James, Devin Booker, Kevin Durant and more. Personally, I would have switch No. 1 and No. 2 on the list, but it’s all fun to relive.

Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert: Pacers ‘could have done better’ on Paul George trade

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Kyrie Irving has requested a trade. LeBron James could leave next summer. The Cavaliers keep churning through general managers, the newest – Koby Altman – the reason for today’s press conference.

But Cavs owner Dan Gilbert looked past his own team’s turmoil and potential turmoil to take a shot at the Pacers, who traded Paul George to the Thunder for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis.

“I will say Indiana could have done better than they did,” Gilbert said after Altman refused to directly address a question about George trade talks and shifted the discussion elsewhere.

This didn’t strike me as Gilbert trying to distract from Cleveland’s troubles. He just seemed to want to take a shot at a foe, something he’s no stranger to doing. The Cavaliers are particularly salty about their trade offer for George, which included Kevin Love, not being accepted.

For what it’s worth, Gilbert is right. The Pacers should have done better. Oladipo is now on a lucrative contract extension, and Sabonis spent his rookie season showcasing the reasons people doubted him the draft. That’s a piddling return for a star, even one on an expiring contract with dreams of joining the Lakers.

Report: Kings meet with former Magic GM Otis Smith about front-office job

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The Kings lost Scott Perry to the Knicks, so Sacramento is seeking someone else to aid Vlade Divac in the front office.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Former Orlando Magic general manager Otis Smith has met with Sacramento Kings officials about the franchise’s vacant vice president of basketball operations job, league sources told ESPN.

Smith has plenty of experience, which Divac lacks. But it’s not all good experience.

Running the Magic, Smith made numerous errors – including drafting Fran Vazquez (who has never played in the NBA) No. 11, overpaying Rashard Lewis and then trading Lewis for Gilbert Arenas’ even worse contract. If Smith’s Orlando tenure is predictive, he’ll indulge the Kings’ worst tendencies to mortgage the future for the present.

That said, Smith might have learned from his time with the Magic (though working under Stan Van Gundy with the Pistons the few couple years isn’t exactly the best place to hone long-term-planning skills). What amounts to an assistant general-manager role might be a better fit for him, too.

Usually, this opening wouldn’t garner so much attention. But Perry was lavished with praise for Sacramento’s offseason, raising the profile of this job – which already carried relative prominence. The No. 2 in the Kings’ front office is now perceived, somewhat fairly, as more important than the typical assistant general manager.

Lakers sign Tyler Ennis to minimum contract

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Jut before the trade deadline, the Lakers took a flier on Tyler Ennis, who had struggled in two-plus seasons with the Suns, Bucks and Rockets.

The former No. 18 pick finally looked like an NBA player in Los Angeles, so he’s returning.

Lakers release:

The Los Angeles Lakers have signed guard Tyler Ennis, it was announced today by General Manager Rob Pelinka.

Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

This is fantastic value for the Lakers. Ennis is probably worth a minimum salary, and if he is, they have him for two years at that price. If not, they can drop him for no cost next summer, when their cap room will be at a premium. This is the type of bet smart teams make, which bodes well for the Magic Johnson regime.

Ennis’ productivity in Los Angeles might not be sustainable. He shot well above his career marks on 3-pointers and free throws in a small sample. But he looked more comfortable on the court, showing some of the savvy he was expected to bring from Syracuse. He’s also just 22, and point guards tend to develop later than other positions.

The Lakers still have their room exception, which they could use on another point guard. So, it’s uncertain whether Ennis will back up Lonzo Ball or fall to third string. I’m not sure any remaining free-agent point guards – Ty Lawson, Deron Williams, Brandon Jennings, Ramon Sessions – will command more than the minimum or playing time over Ennis, though.