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.

Giannis Antetokounmpo: I could never see myself playing for Los Angeles

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All-Star Weekend was (at least) an implicit recruiting tool for the Lakers and Clippers. The host teams could show off Los Angeles – the beautiful weather in middle of winter, the nightlife, the glitz and glamour.

LeBron James‘ praise drew the most attention:

I think L.A. is a perfect place to host All-Star Weekend. It’s one of the few cities that we have in our league that can accommodate all of this. And when I mean all of this, you have over 200-plus countries that’s covering the game. You’ve got so many people from all over the world coming to watch our game and just be a part of All-Star Weekend. And we know the traffic. We understand that. But traffic is traffic and — but L.A. can accommodate that. It’s built for stars. It’s built for entertainment. It’s built for cameras and bright lights, and it’s a great place for it.

Of course, we already knew LeBron was partial to Los Angeles. He has a house there.

But not every All-Star raved about the city.

Bucks forward Antetokounmpo, via Matt Velazquez Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

“I could never see myself being out there,” Antetokounmpo said. “It’s great for two, three days but it’s a little bit — things are going a little bit crazy.

“Of course, because of the All-Star Game, there was a lot of people there. … In Milwaukee — I love Milwaukee — it’s low-key. I can walk down the road, down the streets without anybody bugging me — nobody interrupts my conversation or anything. I love how quiet and calm Milwaukee is.”

The Bucks ought to appreciate this outlook. Antetokounmpo once said he wanted to stay with them forever, and – as rumors swirled about his future in Milwaukee, he tweeted, “I got loyalty inside my DNA.” But he has since explained how important it is for a team to do right by its star player, supporting him with a winning supporting cast.

Maybe Antetokounmpo will eventually leave the Bucks, but it seems unlikely that’d be just to reach a bigger market. Milwaukee can’t change its location. The Bucks can somewhat control whether they put a winner around Antetokounmpo.

Still, other teams will try to poach Antetokounmpo – like Joel Embiid‘s 76ers. Antetokounmpo, via Velazquez:

“He told me I should trust the process and come play for Philly,” Antetokounmpo said with a chuckle, drawing a laugh. “That was my reaction — I just laughed.”

PBT Podcast: What to watch during stretch run of season

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Are the Cleveland Cavaliers for real? And by “real” do you mean best in the East or threat to Warriors?

Who is going to make the playoffs in the West? Is Utah going in? Portland? The Los Angeles Clippers?

Is James Harden going win MVP? Is it Ben Simmons or Donovan Mitchell for Rookie of the Year?

Those are just some of the storylines as the NBA races down the stretch run of the season (most teams have around 25 games left). Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports break down all the things to watch from the end of the season, including if Detroit can climb up into the postseason, and how the top of the East is going to shake out.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

Suns, Hawks say they won’t change strategy to tank

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Phoenix shut down healthy players in a transparent bid to tank last season. But Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said not to expect a repeat.

Scott Bordow of azcentral:

Wednesday, McDonough told azcentral sports that the Suns won’t approach the final 23 games of this season the same way. In other words, Phoenix isn’t tanking in order to improve its chances of landing the No. 1 pick in the May 15 draft lottery.

“We’re planning on doing what we have been doing, that’s playing our young players. For us, that’s not a change,” McDonough said. “… We want to continue to have them improve and get minutes and try to win as many games as we can.”

The Mike Budenholzer-coached Hawks also won’t sit their top players.

Michael Cunningham of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Some other teams near the bottom of the standings have publicly proclaimed they will favor youth over experience for the final four-plus weeks of the season, but Budenholzer said he will stay the course.

“I think we’ve been a mix of young and veteran guys all year,” he said Wednesday. “I think the way we progressed through the season — of course when you start the season you think it could be a little different — (but) right now but I think the way we’ve played, and the way we continue to play, won’t be that much different.”

To some degree, McDonough and Budenholzer are just trying to avoid a Mark Cuban-esque fine. The NBA discourages most talk of tanking.

But Phoenix and Atlanta don’t need to change their rotations to tank. They’re already good at losing! Both teams are a league-worst 18-41.

Some teams will get more serious about tanking down the stretch. The Suns and Hawks are already there. That doesn’t make them more virtuous than the Mavericks.

Still, this is a tight race for the top of the lottery. Four other teams have just 18 wins. Another has only 19, and one more has only 20. If the Suns and Hawks need to get worse to improve draft position, I wouldn’t put it past either team.

By the way, that headline can be read a couple different ways. That’s intentional.

Report: Kyrie Irving requested trade after ‘sloppy’ discussion by Cavaliers’ front office

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The Cavaliers reportedly explored trading Kyrie Irving in June. He requested a trade in July.

Since dealt to the Celtics, Irving has said he’ll never pinpoint his precise reason for leaving Cleveland. But he also said the Cavs “didn’t want me there.”

Did the Cavaliers push him out?

Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

On the day of the NBA draft back in June, just days after Cleveland parted ways with former GM David Griffin, a robust Cavs contingent made up of front-office personnel, coaches and team support staff members held an impromptu, “what if?” discussion about Kyrie Irving’s future, multiple team sources confirmed to ESPN.

The discussion, characterized as “small talk” by one source familiar with its content, was less a formal straw poll of what the Cavs should do with their All-Star point guard should trade opportunities present themselves, and more a thought exercise anticipating what the market could bear for a player of Irving’s caliber.

The talk got back to Irving, multiple team sources told ESPN, and that served as the tipping point that led to Irving formally requesting a trade a little more than two weeks later.

“It was sloppy,” one league source familiar with the draft-day discussion told ESPN, adding that any talk about trading a player of Irving’s ilk — however informal it might be — should be handled strictly between the GM and owner, because of the sensitive nature of its content.

While Altman was involved in the meeting, he and Mike Gansey — at that point officially the head of the Cavs’ G League team — were only keeping the ship afloat on an interim basis and had yet to be formally elevated to their current roles as GM and assistant GM, respectively.

This is one spin on the story. Yet another: Irving initially requested a trade before the draft and considered requesting one in 2016.

Both sides are trying to blame the other for the disintegration of their relationship.

It can be difficult to read how serious the draft-day discussion was. Maybe Irving interpreted ut correctly. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe he just used it to justify a trade request he wanted to make anyway.

What’s more clear: Communication hasn’t been as strong between the front office and players under general manager Koby Altman as it was under Griffin. McMenamin:

While the Cavs were struggling in late December through early January, LeBron James questioned Altman’s absentee status on a long Cleveland road trip, team sources told ESPN.

Altman helped repair that relationship leading up to the trade deadline, looping LeBron in on discussions that culminated with three trades. LeBron appears more invested in the Cavaliers, just in time to keep him next summer.

But some mistakes can’t be fixed before it’s too late. Maybe those Irving trade talks in June were one of them.