Author: Rob Mahoney


The enduring value of the Pacers’ undeserved playoff berth

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As third parties have banded about all kinds of system-related ideas in light of the lockout, I’ve seen the 2010-2011 Indiana Pacers, who finished the regular season with a 37-45 record, categorically used as evidence in support of an altered playoff system. As much as I understand the sentiment that teams so far under .500 shouldn’t be able to compete in the postseason, I feel as though that notion ignores a tremendously important fact: despite their regular season record, the Pacers actually played quite well in their first round series against the Chicago Bulls.

That series only lasted five games, but the first four were decided by a total of 20 points; each and every one of those initial four contests went down to the wire, with the Pacers falling because of their inability to manufacture points against Chicago’s late-game defense. The games were competitive and intriguing, to a degree that makes me legitimately curious if the current playoff system’s harshest critics were able to tune in to see one of the league’s most understated young teams do battle with a finished product. It’s something we often forget when discussing the NBA’s up-and-comers; Indiana may not be able to match the terrific potential of a team like the Oklahoma City Thunder, but the Pacers have nonetheless amassed a group of quality players that just so happen to be climbing toward their basketball primes.

Danny Granger, in an interview with Zach Lowe for’s The Point Forward blog, talked about the Pacers’ youth, and the team’s late-game performance in those tightly contested games — games that weren’t supposed to be so competitive, and games that, according to the aforementioned dissenting group, shouldn’t have involved the Pacers in the first place: You guys pushed the Bulls in the first round. Four of the five games were really close. But one theme that kept popping up was the trouble you guys had scoring down the stretch. What happened?

Granger: I think that was our immaturity. I agree with what you say happened. We didn’t execute or run our plays the way we wanted. A lot of it had to do with the Bulls having the best defense in the league. But we have to be able to produce plays in crunch time. The team ran a lot of pick-and-rolls down the stretch of those games — you screening for Darren Collison, you taking a screen from Roy Hibbert and other combinations. But the numbers say you guys were one of the least efficient pick-and-roll teams in the league. How can you get better?

Granger: It’s just a matter of working it in. To be an effective pick-and-roll team, you have to have good decision-makers. I’m not saying that we didn’t have them, but I think we were just inexperienced in that scenario. We switched coaches during the middle of the season, and we switched our whole offense to implement more pick-and-rolls. Frank Vogel did a good job getting us on the same page, but you have to remember: In that series, we started Paul George, who was a rookie. Tyler Hansbrough was basically a rookie, since he was hurt his first year. Darren Collison was in his second year. Roy Hibbert is young.

Considering how closely Indiana kept pace with one of the league’s top teams, do the ends justify the playoff structuring means in this instance? Not solely; there’s no question that the Houston Rockets (43-39), Phoenix Suns (40-42), and even Utah Jazz (39-43) were screwed over by playing in the deeper Western Conference. The fact that the series was entertaining and competitive doesn’t really do much for the players on any of those three squads, who all were cut off after 82 games despite posting better records than Indiana.

But consider those quotes from Granger. That Bulls-Pacers first round series wasn’t exactly an all-timer, but it was pretty special nonetheless. The team that shouldn’t have qualified for the postseason played as valiantly as one could possibly hope, and though decision-making issues really did end up being their downfall, we were still able to witness a fun, young roster legitimately compete against an elite club. Maybe that result doesn’t justify the process in itself, but it should at least factor into our retrospective analysis of it.

Essentially, there were two lessons to be learned from that hotly contested series. First, that Indiana wasn’t just the team that lost 45 games and yet still managed to secure a playoff spot. They’re also the team that tested the top-seeded Chicago Bulls much sooner than expected, and — along with the Memphis Grizzlies — represent the potential of No. 8 seeds, even in this allegedly broken system, to cause some mayhem. The conference playoff structure may not be perfect, but in this case it created a commendable product undeserving of criticism or ire. Second, that the only way to frame the Pacers’ struggles is in the context of their youth. Indiana may have been unable to execute down the stretch against Chicago, but the series still showcased a dynamic Pacers roster with plenty of talent and lots of potential for further growth.

Dark clouds linger over Jonny Flynn

Jonny Flynn

Jonny Flynn is only 23 years old, and has just two NBA seasons to his name. He has yet to play in a system that suits him, or for a coach with a legitimate ability to elevate the play of his roster. He was drafted into an unfavorable situation, undercut before he even began by his general manager, and thrown on the floor with largely inferior players. His underwhelming production has every caveat in the world, as thus far virtually nothing has gone right in the basketball sphere immediately surrounding the former No. 6 overall pick.

So why is it that, even when armed with rationalizations aplenty, it’s so difficult to shake off the unmistakable gloom that seems to come part and parcel with Flynn’s career trajectory?

The simplest answer I can conjure: Flynn is a player with a good feel for the ball, but not for the game. There’s demonstrable skill in the way Flynn handles and passes, but his play nonetheless seems oddly discordant with the way team basketball functions. It’s not even a matter of being a ball hog; something about the success in Flynn’s game is just slightly out of phase with our reality, as if he were a star in some distant dimension but simply hasn’t translated his game to ours.

And that’s the simplest answer I can conjure.

To watch Flynn is to see talent, but there’s an undeniable peculiarity in his moves and decision making. He has a good handle, but doesn’t really create quality shots. He’s quick, but remains incapable of getting to the rim. He has good form, but shoots below the league average from virtually all of Hoopdata’s preset ranges. Everything he should do well turns in on itself, and though the situation in Minnesota earns Flynn one hell of an asterisk, there remains an unshakable feeling that he may never quite figure things out.

That’s a shame to say, because it’s hard to find a more charismatic player; Flynn is sincere and natural, with a confidence that puts anyone near him at ease. Yet as easy as it should be to find reasons to like Flynn on the court, here we are, contemplating the possibility that even with considerable growth, he may never lock into the role and responsibilities his talent level had always hinted he would be able to take.

Flynn does have time on his side, and he has a clear love of the game and a desire to improve. He’s laced with intangibles, but we have yet to see them make an actual on-court impact. Intangibles are supposed to live in an incalculable space, but Flynn’s supposed best attributes evade even the qualitative. He says all the right things after the game and displays the perfect attitude, but whether his team benefits from his presence on the court is a matter up for debate.

Flynn will nonetheless compete for every second he can get on an NBA court, even though his current situation (Flynn will likely serve as a third point guard for a pretty solid Rockets team) and slight projected playing time seem strangely appropriate. He could grow into a role as a backup, but for now that kind of position should not just be gifted to him. Botched defense (he gives up 0.31 more points per defensive possession than he manages to score per offensive possession used, per Synergy Sports), inefficient scoring (see above; plus, his shooting percentages went from bad to worse in his second season), and unimpressive playmaking (just 5.8 assists per 36 minutes despite playing for the third fastest team in 2009-2010 and the league’s fastest team in 2010-2011) have ensured that much. Flynn has lost whatever built-in capital is to be had for young prospects, and will be forced to earn back everything he’d previously just been given. He’ll no longer benefit from his draft status or repute, but will be required to actually produce in whatever role Houston has for him.

Though he was given considerable playing time, Flynn has yet to show anything at all to coaches and general managers in search of reasons to believe. He hasn’t even found a way to appease NBA fans who, really, don’t ask for all that much. The game’s die-hards will cling to players who offer them even a glimpse of what joys may come, but Flynn toils away without so much as a spark.

It doesn’t have to stay that way, and in the NBA world, things so rarely do. Players evolve constantly, and Flynn would need but a subtle shift to morph into a solid player. Yet for now, his game is filled with shortcomings, to the point that manufacturing any kind of real hope for his career is an actual struggle. Giving up on a player of Flynn’s ilk isn’t even a reasonable option so early in his career; it would be both cruel and unwise to put him in a box so early, as even now his nebulous potential is worth too much to cast off. Some NBA players simply develop later than others, or rely on an the alignment of factors in a specific situation to grant them a rebirth. Both of those outcomes are possible for Flynn…but not predictable.

That’s an important distinction. Maybe Flynn will pan out better than anyone ever expected, but if that’s the case, he gave no indication of it — not with film, not with numbers, and not even with the demonstration of specific in-game skills. We’ve seen Jonny Flynn only as a struggling NBA point guard, and at this point, it’s hard to even imagine him as anything else.

Players have avoided getting their hands dirty, but will the PR high road pay off?

Derek Fisher, Spencer Hawes, Maurice Evans
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A dozen radio shows play soundbites of his voice on loop. There’s talk of competitive equity, of the struggling economy, and of players with inflated contracts. One calm voice meanders through accusation after accusation, and countless listeners on a dozen frequencies swim in the carefully manufactured bile. Somewhere, David Stern cracks a slight, sly smile.

The NBA has been on an all-out offensive over the last 48 hours, with Stern acting as a mouthpiece for the league’s owners. He’s been on major media channels of all kinds offering something that only vaguely resembles the truth, all while Billy Hunter, Derek Fisher, and virtually all of the members of the NBPA have remained civil. The attack rhetoric has been largely one-sided, and the players — by design — have opted to maintain an air of professionalism. Dwyane Wade noted as such to Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press:

Wade said the NBA has done an “amazing” job in getting its message out to basketball fans during the lockout. Players, he said, have not wanted to take the same approach as the NBA on the battle of perception.

“We haven’t done a great job of complaining,” Wade said. “That’s what the NBA has done, they’ve done a great job of complaining. We haven’t done a great job of that so no one sees our side. They more so see the owners’ side.”

…”Not at one point have we asked for more money,” Wade said. “I’ve heard people say ‘The players are being greedy.’ How are we being greedy? … People need to get in a room and understand what really needs to be done so everyone – not just the owners, not just the players – can continue to grow with the game. That’s where we’ve got to come to an agreement.”

The players’ general lockout strategy may not be perfect, but there is some nobility in this particular element of it. Compromise is a tough sell when one group is publicly antagonizing the other, and though both parties agreed to a more peaceful media approach just weeks ago, Stern has already reverted form. The man creates rules and violates them, just as he knows the facts and chooses to publicly skew them. That kind of disingenuous behavior isn’t a good look for Stern, but it may not matter; the owners’ message is the only message, and a general public with quick tongues and a poor understanding of the lockout (as evidenced by the many still calling this a “strike,” or citing player greed) will soon replicate Stern’s soundbites. The players are trusting the fans and remaining professional, but that path could end up burning them. The high road has its costs, and we’ll soon find out if the players are willing to continue paying them.

It’s unknown exactly how the lockout’s PR front has or will affect things at the negotiating table, but it seems fairly unlikely that those outside of an informed minority will ever know of Stern’s insidious spin. He’ll continue to spew falsehoods at little risk, and it’s up to the Union to decide if they’re willing to sink to Stern’s level and play his game. Derek Fisher and Billy Hunter appeared fairly frustrated with the nature of Stern’s comments and gestures after the Union meeting on Friday, but whether their reactions were a brief slip or the beginning of something more remains to be seen. The NBPA’s leadership has some soul-searching to do.