The Extra Pass: Fixing Pacers offense not simple, easy

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The Indiana Pacers are a mess.

A second place in the conference mess. The team’s month-long swoon — one that has gone from “oh, these stretches happen to every team” to “maybe we should really be worried here” — finally caught up with them when the Pacers’ loss to the Spurs Monday night allowed the Miami Heat to pass the Pacers for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

A team that looked like a legit title contender the first months of the season has been 8-10 since March 1 and in the past couple weeks their game has smelled like organic fertilizer. The most points the Indiana Pacers have scored in their last five games is 84 (their lone win in that stretch, vs. Miami). Against the Spurs Monday night the Spurs put up 77 points on 37.7 percent shooting. It wasn’t pretty.

While the Pacers’ vaunted defense has slipped (102.1 points per 100 possessions in their last five games, 11 more than they surrendered on average in first 30 games of the season) it is their offense that has been painful to watch. In the first 30 games of the season they were scoring 103 points per 100 possessions, which wasn’t exceptional (would be 18th in the NBA for the season), but with their defense it was enough.

In their last five games the Pacers have scored just 85.8 points per 100 possessions. They are pointing fingers at each other over it.

The rut their offense is in, the problems in their game, are just not ones easily fixed. Here’s a short list.

• Lack of elite ball handling/shot creation. Against the Spurs 22.9 percent of the Pacers’ shots came from the pick-and-roll ball handler (the largest single way they generated shots), and they shot 5-of-14 on those and turned the ball over on 22.7 percent of those plays (stats via Synergy Sports). Because a lot of guys with questionable handles have the ball in their hands, when the defensive pressure picks up — as it did against the Spurs — they struggle. And that defensive pressure is only going to get more intense as we get into the playoffs.

• Early in the season the Pacers adjusted for that lack of ball handling by creating shots through good ball movement, spacing and moving better off the ball. Those days are gone. Their offense is often stagnant and too often guys seem to overload the strong side and not space the floor to create driving lanes. When they cut it seems to be going through the motions, not with a purpose. The Spurs in particular also did not really respect the three point shooting of the Pacers and packed the lane at points.

• The Pacer really miss C.J. Watson — the solid, veteran point guard has played just 8 minutes since March 4 due to a combination of elbow and hamstring issues. With him leading the way the Pacers bench had been a strong suit early in the season (or at least not the black hole it had been last season) and Watson was a key reason. He could be back within the next week and if so that would be a big boost — he can provide some of the ball handling they need, help stabalize the offense. He could also lead a bench where Luis Scola and Evan Turner have not looked good of late.

• The Pacers screen setting and use of screens has been unimpressive. The number of screens set where the guy setting the pick doesn’t make contact with the defender (because he rolls out too early or because the ball handler leaves space to get through) is entirely too high.

• Their slow pace of play lets the defense get set, so they get no easy baskets in transition.

• When Roy Hibbert talks about selfish players, he is talking about Lance Stephenson and Evan Turner. As Tom Haberstroh of ESPN pointed out on twitter, in the 149 minutes Turner and Hibbert had played together since the trade deadline move to bring Turner to Indiana, he has gotten one assist passing to Hibbert. One.

• Turner has not been a fit, he played less than 7 minutes against the Spurs. Meanwhile, Danny Granger has thrived in Los Angeles given more freedom in an offense and as he got his legs back under him (although he is out injured, and you have to wonder if he can stay healthy).

• The Pacers are not working inside out with Hibbert, not getting him the rock when he does establish position. That said, he’s grown frustrated and is now part of the problem, not the solution.

The list could go on, but you get the idea.

Indiana had made their offense work thanks to Paul George playing at an elite level, Lance Stephenson not being selfish (is it just me that thinks after the All-Star Game, and in a contract year, he has looked out for his numbers a lot more?) and some solid bench play. No more.

It’s not that they can’t get back to sharing the ball, spacing the floor, to hitting some of the jumpers they are missing now (which is an issue). They can. But can they do those things at a level that would lift them past the Miami Heat over the course of seven games? I picked the Pacers to do that (to win it all, actually) before the season but I’m no longer sold. I’m not sure they can fully pull out of this skid.

The good news is they have not only the next 16 days to figure it out, but also they have the first round of the playoffs (which in the East will essentially be a tune-up round against an inferior opponent, a team like Charlotte will fight but can’t beat even these Pacers).

However, if they can get back to a Game 7 against the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, now that game will likely be in Miami (a team that has won 10 of their last 11 when Dwyane Wade sits and rests). The Pacers have surrendered their home court.

Not that it will matter if they keep playing like this.

Former Cavaliers president candidate Chauncey Billups: Kyrie Irving’s trade request unsurprising, ‘alarming’

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Chauncey Billups declined an offer to run the Cavaliers’ front office. A few weeks later, word emerged Kyrie Irving requested a trade. LeBron James can become an unrestricted free agent and leave next summer.

If Billups dodged a bullet, it wasn’t by luck.

Billups on Altitude Sports Radio:

No, it didn’t really surprise me. Obviously, I knew as they were doing their due diligence on me, I was doing the same thing on them. So, obviously I knew so much about the situation that the rest of the world doesn’t know.

But that’s unfortunate, man, because he’s a special talent. And, in my opinion, so much of what he’s been able to accomplish on and off the floor has been – he’s been a beneficiary of having LeBron James, man.

That would be alarming to me if I was a team looking to get him, because if it’s all about winning, man you’ve got a chance to win every single year, man. Every single year, you’ve got a chance to win.

And not only that, you’re getting the ball still. You’re getting everything you want. You get all the shots you want. You’re playing for a great coach who’s letting you go to work. The game is on the line, they’re coming to you. You’re playing on TV every week.

To me, I don’t get it. I just don’t get it. But everybody has their own desires.

I mean, he’s won a championship already. Maybe he’s saying, “I won a championship. I did this. I did that.” Maybe he wants to be Russell Westbrook, man, and go try to win the MVP and get all the shots.

That’s the only sense I can make of it. And, to me, that doesn’t make sense, because all I cared about was winning. That’s not anything. That’s the only sense I can make out of it.

I didn’t talk to LeBron until after. And I deliberately did that, because I go into a situation, and I’m going into it because of how I feel. And the whole LeBron leaving the next year – I’ll be honest with you: That didn’t bother me that much, and here’s why.

When you have an opportunity to really put something together and put your imprint on it, rebuilding is a beautiful thing. It’s a beautiful thing if they’re going to have the patience with you. That really didn’t bother me. What bothered me a little more than if LeBron left or not was that I just didn’t think they had great assets if you have to do a rebuild.

So, it was more that than Bron. So, I didn’t speak to Bron until afterwards, even though Bron and I have always had an amazing relationship.

This adds new insight to a few existing storylines:

  • When did the Cavaliers know Irving wanted to leave, and what did they do about it? If Billups knew weeks ago, acting Cavaliers general manager and eventual long-term general manager Koby Altman should have known, too.
  • Maybe LeBron didn’t leak Irving’s trade request. That’s not to say Billups – who works for ESPN, whose Brian Windhorst broke the story – did. But numerous people clearly knew about Irving’s discontent and could’ve provided Windhorst with information.
  • Perhaps, the Cavaliers’ inability to lure Billups was about more than salary.

Moving ahead, I’m curious how many front-office leaders share Billups’ view that Irving wanting a trade is “alarming” about Irving’s priorities. I think teams positioned to land him will be more enthralled with nabbing a young star than anything else, but the trade request could give them pause.

It would have been very interesting to see Billups handle this challenge if he were in charge. Would he have tried to get Irving back on the same page, as former general manager David Griffin repeatedly did? Or would Billups have seen Irving’s mindset as troublesome and wanted him gone?

Billups’ point about rebuilding, both in Cleveland and generally, is a worthy one. The Cavaliers’ lack long-term assets, because they pushed in to contend for a title with LeBron. They won one, making the payoff well worth the cost. But the bill is already coming due, and coming years could be rough. If ownership realizes that and approves a rebuild, that could lead to tremendous job security and freedom to craft a roster for the front-office leader. But most owners, including Dan Gilbert, aren’t that patient.

Hawks GM Travis Schlenk: ‘We just don’t want to dip down 2-3 years in a row’

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The Hawks let their best player (Paul Millsap) leave without offering him a contract. They traded their second-best player (Dwight Howard) in a salary dump that reduced the payroll only slightly. They also watched other key contributors (Tim Hardaway Jr. and Thabo Sefolosha) depart in free agency.

At least Atlanta could rebuild around Dennis Schroder, Taurean Prince, DeAndre’ Bembry, John Collins and what appeared increasingly likely to be a high first-round pick.

Except the Hawks signed veterans Dewayne Dedmon (1+1) and Ersan Ilyasova (one-year) to contract that help the team this year without providing long-term value.

What is Atlanta doing?

New Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk, via Shaun Powell of NBA.com:

“We want to continue the success we’ve had, but realize we might have to take a step back,” Schlenk said. “We just don’t want to dip down 2-3 years in a row. We realize that young players in this league take their lumps but we don’t want to send the message that we’re (fine) with losing.”

Competitive people involved in running NBA teams and casual fans don’t want to tank. But it seems the Hawks are missing an opportunity.

Their young core is fine, but hardly inspiring. An additional high first-round pick could bring everything together, but Dedmon and Ilyasova just make it less likely Atlanta bottoms out – without significantly increasing the odds of gratifying short-term success. Even in this Eastern Conference, it’s unlikely the Hawks sneak into the playoffs. Picking in the middle of the lottery could doom Atlanta onto the treadmill of mediocrity.

To be fair, the Hawks aren’t reliant on only their own first-round pick. They’re also owed protected first-rounders from the Rockets, Timberwolves and Cavaliers. But only the Houston pick can ever land in the top 10, and it’s just top-three protected for 2018. Most likely, the Rockets win a lot next season and convey a pick in the mid-to-high 20s in the upcoming draft.

Atlanta’s own pick is, by far, the team’s most valuable mechanism for adding premier young talent. But the Hawks have downgraded the value of that pick in the name of not wanting to sink too low in the short term. That’s not a tradeoff I would have made.

Otto Porter says he’s not bothered by John Wall’s Paul George comments

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John Wall said he wanted the Wizards to acquire Paul George, explaining:

“Look at our team. We are one piece away,” Wall said. “We have the point guard, we have the shooting guard, we have the center, we have the power forward. Our 3-man, [Porter], did great for us. You can’t take nothing away from what he did. But, [George] is a guy that can guard LeBron and go back at LeBron. It’s a piece that you’re going to need to win. If you don’t have a guy who can do that, you don’t have a chance. …

You got to add another star. You got to add another piece. You got to have three guys. And that’s what it’s looking like.”

That’s kind of a slight to Otto Porter, no?

Wall said his words created no problems, but that’s not really for him to say. How did Porter feel about it?

Porter, via Chase Hughes of CSN Mid-Atlantic:

“We’re talking about Paul George here. If we could get him on our squad? We could definitely contend for a championship,” Porter said after the press conference to announce his new four-year contract worth $106.5 million on Wednesday.

“It’s just motivation. I will continue to get back into the gym. I didn’t take anything personal. I’m just going to continue to go out there and work and play my game,” Porter said.

George is better than Porter. That’s just a fact. So, I have no problem with anyone saying so or proceeding based on that truth.

But I’m also not Porter.

I would completely understand Porter chafing at Wall recruiting George to replace Porter. I’d definitely understand Porter chafing at Wall talking publicly about recruiting George to replace Porter.

Porter so easily moving past this just speaks to his way of quietly contributing. It also doesn’t hurt that the Wizards will pay him about $107 million over the next four years. That buys some willingness to fall in line.

LeBron James denies wanting to fight Kyrie Irving, eagerness for Cavaliers to trade guard

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According to one report, LeBron James wants to fight Kyrie Irving. According to another, LeBron is eager for the Cavaliers to trade Irving.

According to LeBron…

So, maybe there’s a chance LeBron and Irving can reconcile. It’s not too late until a deal is completed.

But it seems Cleveland is moving toward trading Irving, so the clock is ticking.

LeBron might not be inclined to persuade Irving to drop his trade request, anyway. It really seems LeBron wants to stay out of this – or at least give the impression he’s staying out of this. LeBron denying bitterness toward Irving is one thing. LeBron connecting with a teammate who has cited problems with him as a reason for leaving is another.