Indiana Pacers v Miami Heat - Game 6

Pacers season ends leaving hard questions about next steps

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On paper this was a great season for the Pacers: They won 56 games, were the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and made it back to the Eastern Conference Finals. A lot of teams would take a season like that faster than you can hit the mute button when those DirecTV mannequin commercials come on.

But in reality this Pacers season felt like a missed opportunity. They entered the season with high expectations then exceeded them to start the season going 33-7, but things started to come unglued around the All-Star break, they stumbled down the stretch of the regular season going 9-14 to close out the year. In the playoffs they needed seven games to get by the 38-win Hawks then looked like they might not get by the Wizards, but did.

Then the Heat reminded the again how big a gap there is between the Pacers and contending, particularly with the blowout Game 6 win.

Indiana enters this offseason knowing that if they return with this same core group of players they will get the same result as the last two years (if even that good). It’s fair to argue this team played mentally soft ball. There need to be changes. There are some very difficult off-season questions to answer.

Does Indiana bring back unrestricted free agent Lance Stephenson?

Can Frank Vogel lead this team to the next level?

Do the Pacers need a more traditional point guard/someone who can create more shots for himself and others?

The problem is, it will not be easy to change this core.

The Pacers have committed to $64.9 million in salary for next season, which is already over the projected $63.2 million salary cap (data via Sham Sports). Roy Hibbert is set to make $14.8 million (and no, the Pacers are not going to trade him, they couldn’t get anywhere near equal value back), Paul George is owed $13.7 million, David West $12 million, George Hill $8 million. The Pacers are not going to bring Evan Turner back and Luis Scola could be bought out to save a few million (his deal has a buyout for just under $1 million) but that still isn’t going to open up much money.

All this ties Larry Bird’s hands — there is no easy way to just pick up a free agent.

All those big contracts will it hard to find a trading partner — George Hill has three years and $24 million left and nobody is going to be eager to take that deal on, for example.

Which is why, despite his antics, the Pacers may bring back Lance Stephenson, who is an unrestricted free agent this summer. The question is what does his return cost? He seems like the kind of player some GM will offer four years, $40 million to and gamble on his maturing. Because giving a young player $40 million always helps them mature. Still Stephenson is on the top of everyone’s “guy who is going to get overpaid this summer” list.

If the Pacers bring him back at $10 million a season they will be getting close to the luxury tax line — and all that without having a superstar player on the roster (unless you want to sell that Paul George is one, good luck with that).

But if Stephenson walks, then who will the Pacers count on to create shots? The limitations of George Hill and Roy Hibbert to create their own looks will be all that more glaring. For all his erratic play, Stephenson makes plays, set up passes and he is aggressive… most of the time. In Game 6 against the Heat he was very aggressive up until he got the technical on Norris Cole, then Stephenson largely disappeared.

I think the Pacers could use a more traditional point guard (I wasn’t in that camp until recently), someone who can be a floor general and set up Hibbert better in the post, or create shots for others off the bounce. They need a calming influence.

But they are going to have to give to get — someone like Ian Mahinmi will have to be on the block. The Pacers will have to sacrifice some size and defense to improve their roster.

If they don’t, next season isn’t going to look any better than this one.

Kobe Bryant basks in All-Star spotlight one final time

Kobe Bryant All-Star
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TORONTO — Kobe Bryant is the center of attention one last time.

To get to his final All-Star Game in his final season in the NBA, Kobe received more fan votes than Stephen Curry or LeBron James or any other player. Now that he’s at the 2016 All-Star Game, more people want a piece of his time. More media were crowded around him on Friday than any other player at the NBA’s equivalent of media day. Even the other All-Stars could count on getting peppered with Kobe questions (to their annoyance at times).

Kobe is at peace with his decision to walk away from the game. This weekend he wants to savor being in the All-Star spotlight one final time.

“I’m happy,” Kobe said. “This is pretty cool. I’m looking around the room and seeing guys that I’m playing with that are tearing the league up that were like four during my first All-Star Game. It’s true. I mean, how many players can say they’ve played 20 years and actually have seen the game go through three, four generations, you know what I mean? It’s not sad at all. I mean, I’m really happy and honored to be here and see this.”

Does that mean Kobe has plans to chase the All-Star MVP one last time?

“Zero…” Kobe said. “But, no, I’m really just enjoying this whole thing, being around these players and talking to them one more time, going out and practicing and enjoying that moment in the game and enjoying that moment. So competitiveness in terms of me trying to establish something or prove something, that’s gone.”

What is Kobe’s best All-Star memory?

“My first one in Cleveland was pretty special because you had all the top 50 players,” Bryant said. “I think in ’98 (it was), it was pretty special too, being in my first All-Star Game and being in the locker room with greats, like [John] Stockton and [Clyde] Drexler and all those guys, that was pretty cool too.”

Kobe has a hectic schedule for his final weekend, but much as he has since he announced his retirement he is trying to soak in and fully enjoy this last go around in the NBA. He understands that the life he has known for two decades is about to change. He hasn’t given much thought to his first day of retirement.

“I’ll probably wake up and have some coffee and go back to sleep,” Bryant said.

I don’t think he understands why you drink coffee, but he’s got all of his retirement to figure that out. For now, he just wants to bask in the spotlight one last time.

Zach LaVine wins MVP, Kristaps Porzingis puts on show in Rising Stars Challenge

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TORONTO — Canada’s own Andrew Wiggins was the rock star of the night. “An-drew-Wi-gins” chants broke out in the Air Canada Center as Canada’s native son put on a show with 29 points (and a few dunks) leading a World Team comeback against the USA in the Rising Stars Challenge.

“An-drew-Wi-gins” chants broke out in the Air Canada Center as Canada’s native son put on a show with 29 points (and a few huge dunks), sparking a World Team comeback against the USA in the Rising Stars Challenge.

His Minnesota teammate Karl-Anthony Towns was going to have none of that.

“I gotta see Andrew Wiggins for a long time and I want to rub this in,” Towns said.

He got his wish, the USA beat the World Team 157-154.

It was a glorified pickup game for three quarters, and the level of defensive intensity will make Sunday’s All-Star game look like Tom Thibodeau teams are playing. That led to a lot of high scorers.

Zach LaVine — the other teammate of Wiggins and Towns — led the USA with 30 points and was named the game’s MVP, and said he wanted to steal Wiggins’ thunder at home.

“That’s what I was going for,” LaVine said.

Also from the USA, Jordan Clarkson (Lakers) had 25, Devon Booker (Suns) had 23 and was 5-of-8 from three, D'Angelo Russell (Lakers) had 22, and Towns chipped in 18 points and 7 boards.

Knicks sensation Kristaps Porzingis was the second most popular player in the building, and he had 30 for the World team.

“Not great defense, but it’s about having fun, I guess,” Porzingis said. “And I think we had fun out there. In the second half we got more competitive, as both teams wanted to get the win, and we fell a little short.”

Also for the World Emmanuel Mudiay (Nuggets) had 30 points, Wiggins had 29, and Mario Hezonja (Magic) had 19.

The intensity and defense did pick up in the end, although one wouldn’t call it a thing of beauty. What matters is the crowd in the Air Canada Centre enjoyed it, even if their team didn’t win. It’s an exhibition, and they got a show.

Report: Celtics, Cavaliers talking Kevin Love trade; could include Knicks, ‘Melo

Cleveland Cavaliers' Kevin Love holds the ball away from Boston Celtics' Amir Johnson during the second quarter of a NBA basketball game in Boston Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2015. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
Associated Press
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The Celtics are looking for an elite player to improve their deep cast of role players. The Cavaliers are looking for depth. And Carmelo Anthony may just be looking to win.

All of that has talks between the Cavaliers and Celtics on a potential Love deal progressing, with the possibility of the Knicks as a third team also in the mix, according to Frank Isola of the New York Daily News.

The Daily News has learned that the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers have discussed a blockbuster trade centered around Kevin Love. There were very preliminary discussions about expanding the deal to include the Knicks and Anthony, who would have to waive his no-trade clause in order to facilitate a deal to the Cavs.

The Knicks would receive draft picks and players in return. One of those players is believed to be Timofey Mozgov, who five years ago was traded by the Knicks to Denver in the Anthony deal.

This is a longshot, but the report has some legs.

It’s not clear how far along these talks are. The trade deadline is Feb. 18 (next Thursday) and conversations tend to move past the theoretical/value judging phase and get real come All-Star Weekend, when many GMs and decision makers are in one place (and nobody can go outside because it is too cold in Toronto). This trade works for the Cavaliers if they get a quality stretch four in return — Kelly Olynyk? — plus some depth and a quality pick. The question for the Cavs is simply how much can they get back — this is a win-now team and Love helps that, so how does a trade make them better?

Would Danny Ainge move the unprotected Brooklyn Nets pick to get Love? Jae Crowder? How much would Boston surrender to get an elite star, especially one under a reasonable, long contract?

Carmelo Anthony wants a ring, if he could end up playing with LeBron and be much closer to it than he is now, he would waive his no-trade clause.

That said, this trade sounds like a longshot. At least at the deadline. Next Summer… who knows?

Watch Kevin Hart be Kevin Hart at the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game

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Kevin Hart has a movie to promote decided to come out of retirement to play in the NBA All-Star Friday Night Celebrity Game.

And, he did what Kevin Hart does.

Well, except win MVP of the game, that went to Win Butler (the Canadian lead singer of Arcade Fire). Butler led Canada to a 74-63 win over Hart and the USA.