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.

Paul George says he “Didn’t know I was gonna be traded”

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As I have pointed out before here on NBC Sports, I really do love watching NBA marketing unfold in front of me. Some of it — like Kobe Bryant’s weird post career legacy massaging — is downright impressive.

Other instances are not quite as sly.

Enter newest Oklahoma City Thunder forward Paul George and his latest sponsored Instagram post.

In a recent video posted to his page, George put up a training montage set to an Eminem song that was essentially an advertisement for the gym and trainer he had been working with over the summer. The gym’s own page also features several of these videos. So far, pretty common stuff.

That is, until you read the Instagram caption and see what George had to say about his training. Let’s see if you can spot the issue.

Screenshot via Instagram:

Of course, the issue here is that George essentially took away the leverage the Indiana Pacers would have had if his trade request hadn’t somehow been made public. Repeatedly.

George knew he was going to get traded because Indiana had no choice but to trade him. Saying otherwise is a hilarious and transparent attempt to reshape recent history.

This is perhaps my favorite result of the platitudes drilled into the heads of players by team PR guys and agent media training. That is, when you talk nonsense for so long and during each and every interview — we just dug deep, it’s a game of inches, you have to want it more — sometimes you just don’t know when to stop trying to spin the story in your direction. Especially because the mantra of media training is to be boring and try say nothing, which is hard if you have something to prove or an opinion to change.

Between this and Kevin Durant openly admitting to having a burner Twitter account (which no doubt sparked a flurry of emails and calls between agents and their clients) this is shaping up to be one of the best NBA seasons in recent memories and that’s just from a new media standpoint.

Gordon Hayward says Isaiah Thomas “ultimately helped win me over”

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Gordon Hayward is now a member of the Boston Celtics, and we are all excited to see how the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference last season checks out with a newly revamped roster.

Of course, Boston has been the subject of much media attention after signing Hayward and trading Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Kyrie Irving. I think there should be some skepticism about how quickly Boston will be able to put things together, but this is a team of former and current All-Stars so they will likely be at least a Top 4 team out East.

Meanwhile, Hayward has written a new blog post on his personal website about the summer, taking on such subjects as the move to Massachusetts, video games, and what to expect this season.

One of the more interesting things that Hayward wrote about was just how much of an influence Thomas had in his decision to come to Boston. Hayward addresses Thomas’ influence in a section dedicated to him finding out about the trade to Cleveland.

Via GordonHayward20.life:

He didn’t just help recruit me to Boston—he was a big piece of that recruitment. He had talked a lot about city and how it was different to be a Celtic. He talked about the intensity of playing in the Eastern Conference Finals, playing at the Garden in the playoffs, and how much fun it was, and how much fun he had playing in Boston.

All of that ultimately helped win me over. And by the time of the trade, I had already started to build a little bit of a relationship with him.

The rest of Hayward’s post was about the subjects mentioned above, but it ended by saying that he understands the history of the organization and that he feels like he has not reached his full potential just yet.

Obviously, in signing him this season that’s exactly what the Celtics and Danny Ainge are hoping.

NBA implementing ‘Zaza Pachulia,’ ‘James Harden’ rules

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NEW YORK (AP) — NBA referees will be able to call flagrant or technical fouls on defenders who dangerously close on jump shooters without allowing them space to land, as Zaza Pachulia did on the play that injured Spurs star Kawhi Leonard in last season’s playoffs.

Officials will also make sure jump shooters are in their upward shooting motion when determining if a perimeter foul is worthy of free throws, which could cut down on James Harden‘s attempts after he swings his arms into contact.

Leonard sprained his ankle when Pachulia slid his foot under Leonard’s in Game 1 of Golden State’s victory in the Western Conference finals. After calling a foul, officials will now be able to look at replay to determine if the defender recklessly positioned his foot in an unnatural way, which could trigger an upgrade to a flagrant, or a technical if there was no contact but an apparent attempt to injure.

“It’s 100 percent for the safety of the players,” NBA senior vice president of replay and referee operations Joe Borgia said Thursday.

The NBA had made the freedom to land a point of emphasis for officials a few years ago, because of the risk of injuries. But the play got renewed attention during the playoffs because of Leonard’s injury, and also one in which Washington forward Markieff Morris landed on Al Horford‘s foot in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal, knocking him out of a game the Celtics rallied to win.

Officials can still rule the play a common foul if they did not see a dangerous or unnatural attempt by the defender upon review. Borgia said Pachulia’s foul would have been deemed a flagrant.

With the fouls on the perimeter shots – often coming when the offensive player has come off a screen and quickly attempts to launch a shot as his defender tries to catch up – officials will focus on the sequencing of the play. The player with the ball must already be in his shooting motion when contact is made, rather than gathering the ball to shoot such as on a drive to the basket.

“We saw it as a major trend in the NBA so we had to almost back up and say, `Well, wait a minute, this is going to be a trend, so let’s catch up to it,”‘ NBA president of league operations Byron Spruell said.

Report: Cavaliers signing Kendrick Perkins

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Kendrick Perkins spent fewer than four months with the Cavaliers, including the 2015 playoffs. But nearly a year later after Cleveland let Perkins walk in free agency, LeBron James was still bemoaning Perkins’ absence.

Are the Cavs righting a wrong?

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

Kendrick Perkins joined the Cavaliers at LeBron James’ minicamp in Santa Barbara, Calif., and will come to training camp next week, sources told cleveland.com.

The Cavs now have 18 players with standard contracts, and 15 – the regular-season limit – have guaranteed salaries. I doubt Cleveland wants to waive the two without guaranteed salaries, Kay Felder and Edy Tavares, either.

In other words, Perkins is a longshot to stick into the regular season.

Perkins was washed up when with the Cavaliers two years ago. The 32-year-old who sat out last season hasn’t produced on the court in several years. He’s tough and well-liked in the locker room, which might give him a chance of sneaking onto the regular-season roster.

But the Cavs should focus on developing toughness and chemistry among their rotation players. Perkins is just a crutch, most likely one who’ll be yanked away by cut-down day a few weeks from now.