Kirk Hinrich, Paul George

How the Pacers’ slump could cost Paul George more than $6 million

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When Paul George signed a  contract extension with the Pacers before the season, it seemed nearly a foregone conclusion he’d take advantage of the Derrick Rose Rule and receive the higher of the two possible salary paths he could take in the next five years.

All he had to do this season: Make at least the All-NBA third team (or win MVP, but achieving the latter without the former is essentially impossible).

George made the All-NBA third team last season at age 22. Previously, 43 of 56 players ever to make All-NBA so young made it the next year. And nearly half the exceptions can be explained at least in part by injury (Derrick Rose in 2011-12, Chris Bosh in 2007-08, Amar’e Stoudemire in 2005-06, Stephon Marbury in 2000-01, Michael Jordan in 1985-86) or other extenuating circumstance (Rick Barry in 1967-68).*

*Barry signed with the ABA’s Oakland Oaks that year, and though he was barred from playing due to his Warriors contract, he obviously wasn’t going to make All-NBA in the ABA, anyway.

It seemed as long George remained healthy, he’d get there – and he’s remained healthy. George has played in all 76 of the Pacers’ games this season. He’s played pretty well, too, making his second straight All-Star Game.

But that might not be enough in a season that has seen the NBA’s first-class forwards both improve from within and expand from the outside.

LeBron James and Kevin Durant will take the two All-NBA first-team spots at the position. Blake Griffin should, and likely will, also place ahead of George. That means George can fall behind only two of these players and get his higher salary:

  • Kevin Love
  • Anthony Davis
  • Carmelo Anthony
  • LaMarcus Aldridge
  • Dirk Nowitzki
  • Maybe Tim Duncan

There’s a chance Neolithic voters will punish Love for racking up empty stats while playing for a non-playoff team, but I really want to believe we’re past that. Yes, Love sometimes targets rebounds rather than contesting shots at the expense of Minnesota’s defense. Yes, the Timberwolves will miss the playoffs. But he had a fantastic season overall, and Minnesota still has a chance to finish with a winning record in a loaded Western Conference. Despite George’s defensive advantage, I would absolutely choose Love over George.

Davis’ candidacy, the next-strongest of the group in my eyes, will depend on his health down the stretch. He’s been incredible these last few weeks, really appearing as if he turned a corner. And his start to the season was solid enough to serve as a base for his closing fireworks.

If New York makes the playoffs, Anthony’s stock will go through the roof. Somehow, he’s quietly worked his butt off (even more than usual defensively) for a Knicks team that appeared to be going nowhere. Regardless of whether New York outlasts Atlanta and Cleveland, Melo has certainly given the Knicks their money’s worth heading into free agency.

Aldridge appeared to be a shoe-in earlier in the season, even an MVP candidate in the circles intent on applying the word “valuable” in an extremely team-specific manner. But the Trail Blazers and Aldridge have collectively slipped, though not so far to eliminate him from the discussion.

Nowitzki is having his best season since leading the Mavericks to the 2011 NBA championship, and Daallas’ place on the playoff fringe will draw eyeballs. If Nowitzki steps up and leads the Mavericks into the playoffs, he’ll get All-NBA consideration.

As always, Duncan has been quietly excellent. Maybe a 19-game winning will actually get voters to notice, though that accomplishment will likely have faded out from view by the time ballots are submitted. It’s possible, though, Duncan gets more All-NBA votes than George and takes a center spot. Until last season, he’d been a forward for all 13 of his All-NBA selections. That’s why Duncan is listed with the “maybe.”

The appeal of the Pacers – and by extension, George – was their team-first attitude and team-wide success. The former is headed out the window, and the latter might be going with it. Fairly or unfairly, Indiana’s late-season slump could cripple George’s All-NBA hopes.

There will be another time for more thoroughly analyzing the candidacy of George and the other forwards – and each has a couple more weeks to build their cases – but it’s definitely conceivable at least six of the bunch could finish ahead of him in All-NBA voting.

And if that happens, it would be quite costly to George.

What’s at stake? Using the latest salary-cap projections: $6,755,943 during the next five seasons.

Typically, a player’s rookie-contract extension can begin at only 25 percent of a slightly adjusted variant on the salary cap. But if he meets what are called the “5th Year 30% Max criteria,” he can negotiate a contract that starts at up to 30 percent of the adjusted cap. (Hat tip: Larry Coon for providing adjusted cap estimate)

Zach Lowe of Grantland:

The two sides struck an interesting compromise, according to several sources who have seen George’s deal: If George makes an All-NBA team this season, triggering the raise, his salary will settle at 27 percent of the cap level, instead of the full 30 percent.

The Pacers also gave George an opt-out after Year 4 of the new deal,which Mark Deeks of ShamSports.com has reflected in his salary database. Indiana was reluctant to do the opt-out, but ultimately yielded on the issue, per sources close to the talks. They’ll have the advantage of George’s Bird rights as long as he’s on the team, regardless of the opt-out clause. The main point of the “designated player” provision is to give teams the chance to lock up a franchise player they drafted for a year longer than usual. George’s deal subverts that principle, and allows him to hit the open market earlier than expected.

Here are the different versions of George’s contract –  25 percent max in blue, 27 percent max in gold – based, again, on the latest salary-cap projection.

image

Season 25% max 27% max
2014-15  $14,686,832  $15,861,779
2015-16  $15,788,344  $17,051,412
2016-17  $16,889,857  $18,241,045
2017-18  $17,991,369  $19,430,679
2018-10  $19,092,882  $20,620,312
Total  $84,449,284  $91,205,227

So, George has more incentive than the typical player to finish the season strong.

The Pacers, with a No. 1 seed on the line, probably wouldn’t mind if he does. But if he doesn’t, that might be OK, too.

On the flip side of a George-focused analysis, Indiana would have to pay him more if he makes an All-NBA team. On an obvious level, that would cost Herbert Simon real dollars. It would also limit the Pacers’ ability to re-sign Lance Stephenson and remain under the luxury-tax threshold.

Here’s how much money – using a $76.7 luxury-tax-limit estimate and assuming the Pacers 2014-15 roster is comprised of George, Stephenson, Roy Hibbert, David West, George Hill, Luis Scola, Ian Mahinmi, Chris Copeland, C.J. Watson, Solomon Hill, Donald Sloan, and two minimum-salary players – the Pacers could have under tax limit for Stephenson, depending on George’s contract.

  • George at 25 percent max: $8,985,162 starting salary,$51,664,682 over five years
  • George at 27 percent max: $7,810,215 starting salary,$44,908,739 over five years

Either way, the Pacers might be able to clear more room by waiving Scola, whose salary is only partially guaranteed depending on incentives. Indiana could also carry fewer than 13 players for portions of the season.

George, in his quest to trigger a higher salary, doesn’t have so many options. Thanks to the Pacers’ slump and a strong pool of forwards, his All-NBA candidacy is pushed further against the ropes than ever seemed possible.

It’s up to George to step up in these final six games and leave a lasting impression for All-NBA voters. A lot is at stake.

Raptors hold on in overtime, even series with Heat

TORONTO, ON - MAY 03:  Kyle Lowry #7 of the Toronto Raptors hits a half-court buzzer beater to tie Game One and send it into overtime during the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Miami Heat during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 3, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  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 Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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It wasn’t pretty, but the Toronto Raptors came away with a win and salvaged a tied series in their first two home games. For the second consecutive game, they went to overtime with the Miami Heat, only this time, it was the Heat that came up cold at the end, and Toronto prevailed, 96-92.

From an efficiency standpoint, Kyle Lowry wasn’t much better than he’s been thus far in the postseason, shooting just 7-for-22 from the field, but he hit two key jumpers in the final minutes of regulation that extended Toronto’s lead, forcing Miami to play from behind and tying the game on threes from Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic.

But it was Jonas Valanciunas who proved most effective late for Toronto. He finished with 15 points and 12 rebounds, and for long stretches, the only reliable offense for the Raptors was dumping the ball in to him. Valanciunas bailed the Raptors out late with a rebound and tip-in to break an 80-80 tie after DeMar DeRozan (who shot a forgettable 9-for-24 on the night) missed two consecutive free throws.

The Heat failed to score in the first three minutes of overtime, and their continued penchant for turning the ball over did them in several times down the stretch as they failed to execute.

A bright spot for Miami was Dragic, who scored 20 points on 8-for-12 shooting despite receiving eight stitches to his lower lip after catching an elbow in the first half.

Splitting the first two home games isn’t ideal for the Raptors, but they had every opportunity to go down 2-0 after controlling most of the first three quarters and managed to prevail. Plus, Lowry’s late-fourth-quarter heroics could be enough to get him going again.

Damian Lillard gets tested by Warriors, looks for rebound

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 03:  Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers stands on the court during their game against the Golden State Warriors in Game Two of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs on May 3, 2016 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, 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 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) First it was a chest cold, then it was a fourth-quarter dry spell. The start of Damian Lillard‘s playoff series against the Golden State Warriors has been rough.

And as Lillard goes, often the rest of the Trail Blazers follow.

Portland is down 2-0 in its Western Conference semifinal series against the defending NBA champions. And it certainly won’t get much easier when the series shifts north Saturday – even though presumptive league MVP Stephen Curry is unlikely to return from a knee injury.

But Lillard and his team have a history of stepping up after getting knocked down. In fact, that’s been the theme of their whole season.

“I know the kind of guys I’m running with. Besides that, we’ve answered the call all season long. We’ve been in bad positions time and time again, and we’ve never shied away. We’ve never not answered the call. I don’t see why this time it would be any different,” he said.

Lillard, who averaged 25.1 points and 6.8 assists during the regular season, scored 25 points in the Blazers’ 110-99 loss in Game 2 on Tuesday night, including 17 points in the third quarter. But the Warriors held him scoreless (0-for-3 from the field) in the crucial final period when they came from behind to win, outscoring Portland 34-12. Portland only scored six points over the last 5:21.

With a day off on Wednesday, Lillard let the loss digest.

“After the game I was pretty frustrated by not being able to finish that game. Yesterday I didn’t even want to see a basketball,” he said. “I wasn’t even gonna watch the playoff game until I heard Cleveland was hitting a bunch of 3s. So I wanted to see for myself, but I didn’t even want to have nothing to do with basketball after that game.”

In the series opener, Lillard started cold but eventually scored 30 points in a 118-106 loss. The Oakland native admitted later to battling a cold afterward. On Thursday, he said he was healthy.

Lillard made a playoff splash in 2014 when his buzzer-beating 3-pointer against the Rockets sent the Blazers into the second round for the first time in 14 years.

But he was the lone starter left with the Blazers this season after the departures of LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Robin Lopez and Wesley Matthews. Some expected the Blazers to only win about two dozen games.

Lillard tends to rise when he’s the underdog, however. Led by Lillard and backcourt teammate CJ McCollum, a first-year starter, the Blazers overcame a 2-10 stretch in November to wind up the fifth seed in the West.

A two-time All-Star, Lillard was snubbed this year. How did he respond? By dropping 51 points, including nine 3-pointers, in a 137-105 victory over – wait for it – the Golden State Warriors. Lillard shot over Curry at will in that Feb. 19 victory, one of just nine losses for the Warriors in a record-setting 73-win season.

Knowing the Blazers are capable will be key Saturday night.

“We’ll have bounce. We came back after 0-2 against the Clippers (in the opening round) and came with a lot of energy in Game 3. We know how important Game 3 is,” Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “Having energy, having bounce, at the Moda Center, with our crowd? That’s the least of our concerns.”

Lillard also struggled in the opening two games against the Clippers in the first round. Portland came back to win the next four to win the series, but the Clippers were hurt when their top two scorers, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, were knocked out with injuries.

The Warriors also get credit for Lillard’s struggles after making defensive adjustments on both Lillard and McCollum, particularly the play of Festus Ezeli.

“They are so explosive and they run really good stuff, I mean, it’s hard to guard. You have to cover a lot of floor against Portland, and I thought between Festus and Draymond (Green), those guys did a great job of protecting the feed and moving and handling the pick-and-roll on top,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr.

Lillard said the Blazers would learn from it.

“It hurts to go back in the locker room after you play so well for so long and you come back in there with the L. But it is a part of growth,” he said. “The entire season has been growth for us.”

Erik Spoelstra calls Frank Vogel’s firing “disturbing”

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MAY 28:  Head coach Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat reacts as he coaches in the first half against the Indiana Pacers during Game Four of the Eastern Conference Finals of the 2013 NBA Playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on May 28, 2013 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  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 Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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One thing that’s a constant in the NBA: coaches always stick up for each other. That’s what happened on Thursday, when Pacers president Larry Bird announced that he was letting Frank Vogel go. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who coached against Vogel in three memorable playoff series during the big three era, was unhappy to hear the news of Vogel’s fate and lamented the state of coaching, which has very little job security.

Via Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel:

“I think it’s really disturbing, actually. I’ve only been a head coach for eight years. So what am I, the second-longest-tenured?” Spoelstra asked, with Casey in his sixth season as Toronto coach and only Gregg Popovich, in his 20th season with the San Antonio Spurs, on the bench longer. “That’s a sad state of where the coaching profession is right now and stability of organizations.”

Spoelstra and Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle are the second longest-tenured coaches in the league, behind only Gregg Popovich. Already this offseason, there have been five coaching changes in addition to Vogel’s: Luke Walton replaced Byron Scott with the Lakers, Tom Thibodeau replaced Sam Mitchell with the Timberwolves, Scott Brooks replaced Randy Wittman in Washington, and the Rockets and Kings jobs are still unfilled. The Knicks job could potentially turn over as well, if Phil Jackson opts not to bring back Kurt Rambis.

This is on top of five coaches who were fired during the season: Kevin McHale in Houston, Derek Fisher in New York, Jeff Hornacek in Phoenix, Lionel Hollins in Brooklyn and David Blatt in Cleveland. That’s a third of the league since the 2015-16 season began. Spoelstra is right about the instability, but that’s part of the business.

Photos: Bucks unveil interior of new arena

BOSTON, MA - FEBRUARY 25:  Jabari Parker #12 of the Milwaukee Bucks runs down court during the third quarter against the Boston Celtics at TD Garden on February 25, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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The Milwaukee Bucks are set to open their new arena in time for the start of the 2018-19 season, and now they’ve unveiled the first renderings of the inside of the building. They’re pretty nice.

Here’s the court:

There will also be several public bars out in the concourse:

It’s decidedly more modern than the aging BMO Harris Bradley Center, although that building is one of the most fun atmospheres in the league to watch a game in. Hopefully the new place can recapture that vibe.