NBA Season Preview: The Indiana Pacers

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96271311.jpg.7473_crop_340x234.jpgLast season: The Pacers went 32-50, which puts them a step above the downright tragedy of the Nets, Timberwolves, and even the Wizards, but still among some pretty miserable company.

Head Coach: Jim O’Brien will again have the Pacers running (they were the second fastest team in the NBA last season), running, running. This time, however, his system has the benefit of a more gifted point guard.

Key Departures: Troy Murphy, Earl Watson, and Luther Head, though T.J. Ford isn’t far behind them.

Key Additions: Darren Collison, Paul George, hopefully a healthier Tyler Hansbrough, Lance Stephenson, Lance Stephenson’s rap sheet, and possibly Magnum Rolle (an unsigned second round pick).

Best case scenario:
The Pacers improve by leaps and bounds with Darren Collison running point, and mount an improbable surge for the East’s final playoff spot that ultimately falls short.

For that to happen: The aforementioned Collison needs to be just as good as (actually, probably better than) advertised. He made the most of an opportunity in New Orleans, but Collison is the lovable backup/injury replacement no more. This is his team to run, and though Collison showed his maturity as both a player and a person last season, that’s a lot to hinge on a second-year point guard.

However, the Pacers’ best-case outcome relies on factors stretching well beyond Collison. He remains a vital to Indiana’s improvement, but the loss of Troy Murphy is exactly the kind of understated move that could end up docking the Pacers a handful of wins. Replacing Murphy will be some combination of Danny Granger (playing out of position), Tyler Hansbrough, and Josh McRoberts. That’s troubling.

Murphy was second on the team in three-pointers made, second in three-point shooting percentage, and tops among the Pacers in rebounding by a huge margin. Don’t underestimate the impact of the first two (particularly since Indiana was actually a below-average three-point shooting team last season, in spite of their run-and-gun reputation), but it’s Murphy’s rebounding that could be missed most. Hansbrough showed a knack for grabbing the stray board during his abbreviated rookie year, but it remains to be seen whether he can do so against first-string competition.

That kind of uncertainty is worrisome for a squad that was already 29th in the league in offensive rebounding rate, and 22nd in defensive rebounding rate. Indiana was so worried about pushing the pace last season that they forgot the ball altogether, and I’m not sure that’s likely to change given the acquisitions made. If it does, however, it’ll be a credit to Hansbrough, McRoberts, a grown-up Roy Hibbert, and probably Jeff Foster.

More likely the Pacers will: Streak up the court while puttering along. Indiana has made some serious moves for the future, but this roster is obviously incomplete.

We already know what to expect from Danny Granger, who will likely see a slight bump in his overall production/efficiency, even if he’s more or less the same player he was last year. Guys like Collison just have that effect on people. Or really, maybe it’s that guys like T.J. Ford and Earl Watson have that effect on people. Granger will benefit from having a better distributor running the show, even if his game won’t be notably more diverse or explosive than before. ‘He is who he is,’ as they say, and honestly, that’s just fine.

However, talented though Granger and Collison both may be, it’s Indy’s other rotational holes that stand as a bother. Plenty of people are expecting Roy Hibbert to take a great leap forward, but he may just be content to clunk around in his space boots on the launchpad. His per-minute numbers from year one to year two were nearly identical — fairly strong, mind you, if still not indicating much overall improvement — but Hibbert continues to work against himself by racking up fouls.

Per 36 minutes, Hibbert averaged 16.7 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks last year. Not too shabby, right? Here’s the thing: Hibbert only actually played 36 minutes in a game three times in the entire season, despite starting in 69 games. Hibbert has had his chances, but a push in the post here and a late rotation there have sandbagged him.

Brandon Rush is solid. Paul George is promising. Dahntay Jones is…still pretty surprising, honestly. The Pacers have talent, it’s just of the complementary variety and a little on the green side. 

Prediction: 35 wins. Darren Collison will be this team’s clean, well-lighted place. He’s the type of player through which to run O’Brien’s offense, and Indiana, who has been a bit overrated on that end of the court due to it being a supposed stylistic strength, may actually have a competent attack once again.

Of course, I’m not exactly sure who’s going to be playing much defense at the 4, who’s going to be grabbing the boards, and where the Pacers’ perimeter shooting is going to come from, but hey, these things happen with teams on the mend. Even teams that have been on the mend for the last four seasons.

As long as Indiana is fine with another year of development, a Pacers squad with a bit more order is a proper start.

Former Kings selection Georgios Papagiannis leaves NBA historically quickly for lottery pick

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Even if he were talking about hot yoga, then-Kings star DeMarcus Cousins perfectly captured the feeling of Sacramento picking Georgios Papagiannis No. 13 in the 2016 draft: “Lord give me the strength.”

Ranked No. 46 on Chad Ford’s board – which attempted to show league-wide consensus – Papagiannis was an old-school plodding center. He flashed interior skills during his limited playing time with Panathinaikos in Greece, but athleticism was a major concern. He was the type of player teams learned over the previous two decades not to fall for.

While an NBA team picking someone so high should be a positive indicator, it did little for Papagiannis. The Kings’ draft record had been miserable under owner Vivek Ranadive and general manager Vlade Divac. They didn’t get the benefit of the doubt (though their draft-night trade with the Suns that landed the No. 13 pick used on Papagiannis turned out well).

Every concern about Papagiannis and Sacramento proved justified.

The Kings waived Papagiannis during his second season – absurdly quick for any first-rounder, let alone a lottery pick. His agent blamed the team. Nobody came out looking good.

Papagiannis signed with the Trail Blazers, though he played only one game for them. Portland waived him earlier this summer.

Now, Papagiannis will return Panathinaikos on a five-year contract, the Greek team announced. Will this conclude the 21-year-old’s NBA career? It seems more likely than not.

If so, it will be one of the shortest ever for a lottery pick.

Papagiannis’ 477 career minutes are the sixth-fewest ever by a lottery pick, excluding 2017 and 2018 picks, who haven’t had time to play more.

Fran Vazquez (No. 11 pick in 2005 by Magic) continued playing overseas and never signed in the NBA. Len Bias (No. 2 pick in 1986 by Celtics) tragically died of a cocaine overdose after the draft.

Among lottery picks who actually made the league, only Aleksandar Radojevic (No. 12 pick 1999 by Raptors), Yaroslav Korolev (No. 12 pick in 2005 by Clippers) and Mouhamed Sene (No. 10 pick in 2006 by SuperSonics) played less than Papagiannis.

Here are the fewest minutes played by lottery picks between 1985, when the NBA instituted the lottery, and 2016:

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Papagiannis could still drop down the list.

After all, Radojevic left the NBA after two seasons, spent three years in Europe then somehow returned stateside to play 12 games for the Jazz. That NBA comeback seemed unlikely as he shuffled between the Raptors, Nuggets and Bucks while playing only three games (all with Toronto).

Nothing precludes Papagiannis from returning to the NBA, even if he must complete his entire Greek contract first.

But just because one unlikely thing happened before, I wouldn’t bet on another happening with Papagiannis.

Isaiah Thomas to Danny Ainge: ‘If the opportunity is there, I would just like to let you know that I’d love to come back’ to Celtics

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Isaiah Thomas had a rough year.

The Celtics traded him to the Cavaliers. He missed most of the season with a hip injury. In between, he played destructively bad for the Cavs and Lakers and got run out of Cleveland, in part, for making waves in the locker room. Free agency was especially cruel, Thomas’ Brinks-truck dreams ending in a minimum salary from the Nuggets – a historically low figure for someone who finished top-five in MVP voting just two seasons prior.

On a bright note: Thomas ended his feud with Celtics president Danny Ainge. In fact, those two spoke during Thomas’ free agency.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Before finalizing the agreement with Denver, Thomas had reached out to Boston GM Danny Ainge. They talked for 15 to 20 minutes, Thomas says, and he told Ainge: “If the opportunity is there, I would just like to let you know that I’d love to come back.”

Ainge says his mind was open to the idea, but the Celtics needed to work through Marcus Smart‘s restricted-free-agency discussions before they could consider making an offer to Thomas. Ainge was willing to continue the conversation, but Thomas accepted the Nuggets’ offer before Boston had reached its new deal with Smart.

“S—, I’d have gone back,” Thomas says. “I don’t hold grudges.”

Thomas played his best basketball in Boston. Brad Stevens empowered Thomas as a go-to offensive player and successfully hid him on defense. I understand the appeal of going back.

But that Thomas could never return to those Celtics. He’s older, and his hip injury might have sapped his athleticism. Boston acquired Kyrie Irving, and Terry Rozier broke out. Marcus Smart remains.

A reunion would have likely ended in disappointment.

Instead, Thomas will try to prove himself in Denver, backing up Jamal Murray. Thomas is aware of his standing, and his interview is both endearing and sympathetic. He wears his emotions on his sleeve and carries a chip on his shoulder – the reason so many of us are drawn to him. And he’s keenly aware that, in a league where so many players are paid based on past performance, he’s judged by a hip injury teams believe will hinder him going forward.

Thomas, as always, seems driven to prove himself. And maybe he will. Returning to a reserve role isn’t glamorous, but there’s an opportunity with the Nuggets.

But I also fear, no matter how well Thomas plays next season, teams will be apprehensive of a 30-year-old 5-foot-9 point guard with a history of hip problems in 2019 free agency. He might be stuck in a no-win situation and just can’t get his big payday.

Especially after this interview, though, I’m excited to watch him try.

Report: Carmelo Anthony to sign minimum contract with Rockets

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Carmelo Anthony signing with the Rockets has been a near-certainty for a while.

The final steps – the Thunder trading him to the Hawks, Atlanta waiving him, Anthony clearing waivers – are close enough that specifics are emerging.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

Carmelo Anthony is planning to sign with the Houston Rockets upon clearing waivers in coming days, according to two people with knowledge of his plans.

He is expected to receive a one-year deal from the Rockets at the league’s veteran minimum salary

The Rockets have the $5,337,000 taxpayer mid-level exception available, but clearly wary of an expensive payroll, they’ll get Anthony for much less.

Anthony will count just $1,512,601 toward the cap and luxury tax. He’ll pocket pocket an extra $1,871,635 – in addition to the $27,928,140 paid by the Hawks. Not a bad summer for him, as he’ll get all his money plus a little more and get to join his desire team.

For the Rockets? It’s a classic tale. They let more expensive players – Trevor Ariza ($15 million from Suns) and Luc Mbah a Moute ($4,320,500 from Clippers) – leave and settled for minimum-salary players: James Ennis and Anthony.

Ennis fits well in Houston, but he lacks the talent of the departing players (who also fit well). Anthony brings name recognition, but unless he works to complement James Harden and Chris Paula huge question mark – this won’t go well. That’s why he’s leaving Oklahoma City, and there are many reasons to be skeptical he’ll acquit himself better with the Rockets.

You get what you pay for.

John Wall calls Washington’s off-season moves “pretty interesting”

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After another season where the Wizards underwhelmed — due to injuries, due to chemistry issues, due to a lot of things — what were the bold moves of this summer in our nation’s capital? Well, they signed Jeff Green. And in a trade they got Austin Rivers.

The other part of that Rivers’ trade was the big news — they sent center Marcin Gortat to the Clippers. That cleared the way to sign Dwight Howard this summer. The idea of adding Howard to a locker room with questionable chemistry is a bit of a punch line.

In a podcast with Chris Miller of NBC Sports Washington, Wall called the Wizards’ summer “pretty interesting” and praised Howard.

“Even though [Howard] is older, he’s still an athletic big averaging 16 [points] and 12 [rebounds],” Wall said in the pod. He talked up Howard as a pick-and-roll threat lob threat as he rolls to the rim, saying defenses can’t cheat off of him.

“Not only do you get more layups, probably, you get more wide open threes.”

That’s great, but Howard got the ball back as the roll man on 12.5 percent of his possessions last season — it has never been something he wants to do a lot. Post-ups, however, accounted for 40.1 percent of his possessions, once you include his passes out of the post (and the Wizards scored a rather meh 0.85 points per possession on those post ups). Howard has long been better as the roll man, he just dislikes to do it.

Last season, Marcin Gortat got 20.9 percent of his shots out of the pick-and-roll and just 18.2 percent on post-ups. The Wizards don’t want to take the ball out of Wall’s hands. Nor should they.

Howard, even at this point in his career (when he is not the force of nature he was back in Orlando), can be an upgrade for the Wizards at center, but not a massive one. Nothing else GM Ernie Grunfeld did this summer moved the needle in Washington.

It’s all “pretty interesting” I guess. The Wizards look like another middle-of-the-pack team just not living up to all the potential on the roster, and it’s hard to see what changes about that this season.