Kurt Helin

PBT Extra: Bulls’ Fred Hoiberg is on hot seat? Really?

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Is Chicago’s Fred Hoiberg a quality NBA coach?

The book is still being written on that, because in his season-and-a-third at the helm of the Chicago Bulls he has not been given a roster that fits the style he wants to play, nor one that has better than .500 talent.

But the latest reports are that Hoiberg’s seat is getting warm after the Bulls fell to 6-10 in December (after a Friday afternoon loss to the Pacers, this video was taped before that game ended). But how is the fact this team has no shooters — they are shooting 26.8 percent from three in December — on Hoiberg? He wants some pace and space, and he got a roster with guys who prefer to attack the rim.

In this PBT Extra, I talk about how the blame for this Bulls team being at .500 and fighting for its playoff lives should fall farther up the Bulls’ food chain, not on Hoiberg.

Russell Westbrook: “I feel like I don’t get the benefit of the doubt” from referees

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Russell Westbrook is going to be writing a check to the league for this.

Westbrook was ejected from the Thunder’s Thursday night loss to Memphis when he argued a call and wouldn’t let it go. It what should be a surprise to nobody, Westbrook wasn’t going to let it go after the game either — he said he didn’t understand this ejection, and that the referees have it in for him anyway.

“Honestly, I don’t know, man. Honestly, it’s crazy to be ejected like that, especially when I didn’t do nothing. It’s just crazy, man. Especially for me, because I feel like I don’t get the benefit of the doubt most of the time, especially throughout the game with refs.

“I get so many techs just for talking. I can’t even say nothing when I’m getting hammered every time I go to the damn basket throughout the games and previous games. Not tonight, but every night. I just don’t get ref’d the same way as other people, and I don’t appreciate it.”

Someday, I would love a superstar to say “The refs are really fair with me, I get a lot of borderline calls to go my way, especially late in games.” But alas, they all feel persecuted.

Westbrook is averaging 10.8 free throw attempts per game, with the highest free throw rate (free throws attempts to shot attempts) of his career. None of that should be surprising considering the offensive load on him, and how much he attacks the rim. And in the NBA, the calls usually go to the aggressor.

Against the grit and grind of Memphis, maybe Westbrook was not getting the calls he wanted, but the reality is he’s a superstar and with that comes more attention from defenses. He gets fouled a lot on the attacks, he gets a lot of calls, but not as many as he’d like. Welcome to being a superstar. From Shaquille O’Neal through LeBron James, Kobe Bryant probably stretching all the way back to George Mikan, good luck finding an elite player who things they get the calls they should. Westbrook is going to have to learn to live with it.

And pay the fine when he complains like this.

Paul George: “It’s been one of the most frustrating seasons I’ve been a part of”

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The Indiana Pacers are a disappointment. I’ll admit I misjudged them, I thought they would be the fourth best team in the East, but if the playoffs started today they could be booking tee times in Cancun because they would have that kind of time. They are 15-18, with a bottom 10 offense that is putting up similar points per possession numbers to a year ago, but their now pedestrian defense is well off the top 10 (often top three) pace it was for years under Frank Vogel. The biggest issue is a lack of consistency — there seems to be two versions of this team, and you never know which one will show up on a given night.

Paul George isn’t enjoying the losing — the Pacers are on a four-game losing streak. Or the lack of identity this team has.

George spoke after practice Thursday and said this Pacers team doesn’t know how to close games, and just isn’t having fun.

“(This season) hasn’t been (fun). We’re trying to work through it. It’s been one of the most frustrating seasons I’ve been a part of…

“Maybe I’m just living in the past of how good we used to be, the personnel, the guys I had around. I’m still living in that moment, maybe. I gotta put myself into a different team and maybe I have to do more, maybe that’s just what it is, maybe I have to do more now. But whatever is, I’m going to figure it out…

“I just have to continue to enjoy playing this game. I’ve been caught up with officials, getting caught up with on-court stuff. And losing sight of how fun this game is to me,. As long as I’m approaching each game to enjoy it … whatever happens on the court, I couldn’t care less. As long as I’m having fun and enjoying what I’m doing.”

First things first: If you read this and thought “George is unhappy, I bet the Pacers try to trade him” you can kiss that idea goodbye. Right now, Larry Bird is hanging up the phone when people call about George. There is no pressure on the Pacers to make a move right now, George has a player option for the summer of 2018, so there is time. The Pacers plan to keep him — if he makes the All-NBA team this season or next the Pacers can then offer him the new  “designated player” super-max contract and make it very difficult to leave. Even if he doesn’t qualify for that offer, the Pacers can still offer more than anyone else. Plus, they know they’re not getting another elite superstar that easily, they are going to fight to keep the one they have.

As for this years’ Pacers, George needs to own up to being part of the inconsistency on this team — he shoots 48.4 percent in the Pacers wins, below 40 percent in the losses, and he struggles from three.

Maybe George is living in the past. A handful years back, the Pacers were regulars in the Eastern Conference Finals, riding an elite defense and a George/David West/George Hill offense that was good enough. The roster is not the same. Jeff Teague started slow, hasn’t shot well from three, but has begun to come around. Myles Turner is developing into a special player. And then… Monta Ellis is looking older, Thaddeus Young hasn’t been as good as hoped, and the bench has struggled.

Under Vogel, the Pacers had a defensive identity. Larry Bird wanted to play faster (they are playing just one possession faster a game) and thought Vogel’s message had gotten old (or Vogel wasn’t doing what Bird wanted). The drop off with Nate McMillan has been steep, mostly because what is this team’s identity now? They don’t play that fast, they don’t defend as well, the Pacers don’t have one area where they excel.

George can be part of the solution, but he’s going to need help. Not just from teammates, but from the front office.

Report: Rockets want to add big man, talking to Kings about Kosta Koufos

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Center Clint Capela is out injured, and the Houston Rockets miss him. They have gone 3-2 without him thanks to a soft part of the schedule and the offense still being impressive, but the defense that had done so well during their win streak is back to bottom 10. Nene and Montrezl Harrell are getting the run, but it’s not been the same.

Capela is expected to be out another month or so, which has the Kings looking into the trade market, reports Marc Stein of ESPN, and they are looking at Sacramento.

The Kings can afford to move Kosta Koufos. Right now they are starting him at the four next to DeMarcus Cousins, and while that can be a bit lane clogging at times the Kings basically play their opponents even when those two bigs are paired (their defense improves over their season average when paired). If Koufos were moved, the Kings could put Rudy Gay at the four (if they don’t trade him), give Omri Casspi more run at the four, use Matt Barnes in some combinations — the Kings would go a little smaller but add some shooting.

But remember that the Kings desperately want to make the playoffs — opening a new building and having a 10-year playoff drought — and they are not going to make a move that makes them worse now. Corey Brewer for Koufos would make them worse right now, it’s going to take something more to move them.

Expect the Kings to make some moves as the trade deadline nears — Koufos, Gay, Casspi all can be had for the right price (Gay would take a lot to get, even if they are going to lose him after this season, because he is their second leading scorer and they need him). And I would say keep an eye on the Rockets, too, but you should always keep an eye on Daryl Morey.

Three things we learned on Thursday: Boston improving, not at Cleveland’s level yet

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It’s the last “three things we learned” of 2016, we tried to make it a good one.

1) Boston is improving, finding its groove, but there is still a gap to Cleveland. Boston players may have tried to deny this was a measuring stick game in the run up to it, but this was a measuring stick game. After stumbling to start the season, the Celtics had won six of seven and looked more like the team we expected before the season — one on par with Toronto in the East’s second tier.

It didn’t look like that early on Thursday night. For three quarters, this was a blowout, with the Cavaliers offense carving up what has been lately a solid Celtics defense. Kyrie Irving was the head of the snake and finished with 32.

Cleveland was up 15 early in the fourth and seemed to be cruising in for the win before Boston started a comeback that eventually cut the lead all the way to one. Boston’s fourth quarter run was sparked by Marcus Smart/Tyler Zeller pick-and-rolls, which the Cleveland bench — specifically Channing Frye — struggled to stop when he had to switch. This was also an efficient night from Isaiah Thomas, who finished with 31 points on 8-of-13 shooting (he got to the free throw line 13 times).

Boston is showing signs of life, but they are not at Toronto’s level yet — and they are certainly not at Cleveland’s. Maybe the Celtics can get to a spot where they are a threat to the Raptors in the second round of the playoffs, the fourth quarter comeback shows that kind of spark, but the first three quarters reminds us of the real pecking order in the East.

2) Russell Westbrook gets ejected, and with it dreams of a Thunder comeback died. Oklahoma City Thunder was already down by 16 points to Memphis when Russell Westbrook lost it midway through the third quarter and got sent to the showers early. Meaning OKC was well on its way to racking up a loss. The ejection just killed the idea of a comeback, and the Thunder ended up getting beat by 34, 114-80.

The Oklahoma City Thunder star was ejected with 6:41 remaining in the third quarter after complaining during a trip to the free-throw line for the Memphis Grizzlies.

The first technical came after Andre Roberson fouled Memphis’ JaMychal Green — officials said after the game Westbrook was arguing about whether the ball had touched the rim before the foul, and he was hit with his first technical by Brian Forte for not relenting when the official said the discussion was over. That continued through the ensuing free throws, and finally, the officials had enough and gave Westbrook a second.

You can be sure a fine is coming for Westbrook, not for the ejection but his postgame comments.

As noted above, that was the end of any comeback, the Thunder have no offense to speak of without Westbrook on the court. He finished with 21 points, 5 rebounds, and no assists, but he is still averaging a triple double.

3) Another ugly second half shows how teams have adjusted to Lakers, and they have not progressed. That fast 10-10 start for the Lakers seems so very long ago. They have gone 2-14 since, a slide that began with some injuries but has morphed into much more than that — and there is a lot of frustration in the locker room. The Lakers have played slightly better of late as they have gotten healthy, but it’s hard to see a path to a lot of victories — they don’t have the defense, and they don’t have easy answers to how the league has adapted to them.

The latest evidence of that was Dallas — with no Dirk Nowitzki all game and no Andrew Bogut most of the second half — blowing out the Lakers after the break and winning 101-89 in Los Angeles.

On defense, the Lakers just do not have answers for teams that can attack with a good pick-and-roll and have athletes who can space the floor. Coach Luke Walton was frustrated with his team’s focus and effort after the game, and it’s hard to argue with him.

That said, the Lakers problems on defense or more than effort and focus — I’m not sure they have enough plus defenders out there to make a difference consistently anyway. They certainly could be better with more effort, but do they have the players to get the job done?

On offense, you don’t see the ball movement — or movement off the ball — needed to handle the pressure and ball denial tactics they are seeing. Try to pressure a good offense like defenses now pressure the Lakers and that offense responds with strong weak-side action, counters that open things up, and the ball moves to get good shots away from the pressure. The Lakers aren’t doing that, and they are not a team loaded with guys whose instinct is to pass like that anyway.

There is real frustration in Los Angeles with this team’s progress — from the players, the coaching staff, and the fans. But welcome to rebuilding — it’s a frustrating process. One that is long, has setbacks, and is just difficult all around. It takes time and patience. I think Charles Barkley may be right that despite all that talent the Lakers do not have a Top 10 player on that roster, something they will eventually need to get to contend for another banner. However, this core of potentially good to very good players — D'Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram in particular — have a ways to go before that kind of elite free agent thinks “I want to play with them.”

Bonus thing we learned Thursday: Dan D’Antoni gets it. Dan D’Antoni is the brother of Mike, a former NBA assistant coach who now coaches college ball at Marshall. But he gets it. And he shot down an old-school, pound-it-inside reporter beautifully.