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 Knicks center Joakim Noah: ‘I’m too lit to play in New York City’

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When Joakim Noah signed a four-year, $72 million contract with the Knicks in 2016, his father – former tennis star Yannick Noah – boasted about how well his son would fit in New York:

“He knows the city,” Yannick Noah said. “He was born here. It’s not like he’s coming from the countryside and he’s coming to New York City. He lived here for a long time. Of course, it can be dangerous for an athlete. But he knows and he’s so motivated. It’s a great opportunity for him. He’s going to give all he has for the city.”

Oops.

Noah played terribly, got suspended for taking a banned substance and feuded with his coach. Before this season, the Knicks cut him, preferring to pay him out than have him continue to occupy a roster spot.

Noah, who previously played for the Bulls, signed with the Grizzlies. He’s now addressing what went wrong in New York.

Noah on the Chris Vernon Show:

I could look back on it and say I thought I was ready for New York City, but I wasn’t. And it’s something that I’ve got to live with.

Not just the pressure. I remember after the first game, I probably had, like, 60 people in my house. I’m too lit. I’m too lit to play in New York City. I’m too lit to play in New York City. Memphis is perfect for me.

We were lit in Chicago, but I was young. So, you recover faster, you know? You recover faster.

I respect the honesty. Not many players would have revealed so much about their partying.

But I’m also not convinced a smaller market will fix Noah.

The 33-year-old might just be too worn down to help an NBA team.

Anthony Davis doing it all for Pelicans

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DETROIT – Anthony Davis repeatedly entered and exited the visitors’ locker room after the Pelicans win over the Pistons on Sunday. At a time most players go from their locker to the shower and back then leave, Davis was busy. He visited with people in the hall. He breezed back by his locker then left to attend to other matters. He returned again and, before showering, turned to the assembled media.

“Y’all need me?” Davis asked.

Davis is used to getting pulled in every direction and still being needed even more.

The superstar is having another MVP-ballot-caliber season. Yet, New Orleans is just 15-15, 11th in the Western Conference.

It’s for a lack of effort by Davis. He has expanded his game offensively. Playing center regularly, his defensive responsibilities are as great as ever. And he leads the NBA with 37.0 minutes per game.

“You don’t have Secretariat run half the race then step out because it might be too far,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “No. You’ve got a great player, you use him the best you can.”

New Orleans has little choice but to lean heavily on Davis. With him on the floor vs. off, the Pelicans score 9.7 more points and allow 6.2 fewer points per 100 possessions.

Put another way: New Orleans plays like a 59-win team with Davis and a 20-win team without him.

Here are the leaders in win-rate difference with off-court on the left, on-court on the right and difference between (minimum: 300 minutes):

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It helps Davis plays a large majority of minutes with Jrue Holiday, who actually rates better by this metric. But Davis is clearly driving New Orleans’ success.

Not only does Davis lead the NBA in real plus-minus (+7.11), he does so with an unparalleled two-way efficiency. Nobody nears his combination of offensive (+3.73) and defensive (+3.38) real plus-minus.

Here’s every NBA player by offensive and defensive real plus-minus with the positive outliers’ photos:

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Davis is producing in all his usual ways – 28.1 points, 12.4 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and 1.7 steals per game. But he’s also averaging 4.7 assists per game, more than double his previous career high.

The Pelicans increased their pace and passing last year, and the system did wonders for setting up Davis. But they lost key component Rajon Rondo in free agency last summer, and replacement starting point guard Elfrid Payton has missed most of this season due to injury.

So, Davis has stepped up.

He’s done it while continuing to protect the ball, an overlooked but important aspect of his game. His assist-to-turnover ratio is better than 2-to-1, impressive for a big.

Davis faces frequent double-teams and generates many of his assists by passing out of those:

After scoring so well in transition for so long, Davis is now taking advantage of his speed by playmaking in the open court:

Davis has also become adept at flipping short passes to a teammate then walking into a screen ball screen. That threat has sparked more creative options with Davis’ improved distributing abilities:

Davis’ teammates appear invigorated to receive his passes.

They run the court with him on fastbreaks. They cut actively. They re-position themselves around the 3-point arc to create passing angles.

With Davis attracting so much defensive attention, openings abound.

“He just finds me, and it’s an easy look,” said Nikola Mirotic, who’s shooting 70% on 2-pointers and 52% on 3-pointers off passes from Davis.

Davis keeps putting more on his plate. He said he has to play nearly perfectly for the Pelicans to win, and he hasn’t shrunk from that responsibility. In fact, he keeps raising his personal standard.

New Orleans is trying to keep up. The Pelicans are reportedly one of the most active buyers on the trade market, but they lack trade chips beyond their draft picks. Davis is propping up a mediocre supporting cast.

Of course, Davis will be eligible for a super-max extension – which projects to be worth about $240 million over five years – this offseason. That will be the moment of truth for his future in New Orleans.

Most players so good on teams so bad would have left already.

But Davis – for now, at least – is still with the Pelicans, still doing everything he can to carry them.

“Being the guy on the team, the leader, franchise player you say,” Davis said, “the team asks a lot of me. So, anything less than what they expect, it’s on me.

“Anybody who wants to be that great player, it comes with the territory.”

Jimmy Butler may miss 76ers-Pacers

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Coming off just their second home loss of the season, a 127-124 defeat to the visiting Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday, the Philadelphia 76ers now have to deal with the freight train that is the Indiana Pacers at 7:30 p.m. on Friday at Wells Fargo Center.

Indiana has won five straight, including a 16-point win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night, the team’s seventh win in nine games. The Pacers have crept up to within a half-game of Philadelphia in the standings at 18-10 (the Sixers are 19-10) by relying on one of the deepest offenses in the league.

On Wednesday in the 113-97 win over the Bucks, Indiana had six players in double-figures (Milwaukee had four) and the Pacers’ reserves outscored the Bucks’ 34-25. Indiana’s backups also stifled a Milwaukee offense that shot 41 percent from the field and 25 percent from 3-point range, with Giannis Antetokounmpo finishing with just 12 points.

“That second unit is back intact and we want to continue to build off of what we are doing and establish ourselves as this team that keeps guys out of the paint and focuses on limiting rotations so that teams are trying to beat us over the top,” head coach Nate McMillan said. “That way we can stay at home with our man, box out and rebound.”

With Victor Oladipo back from a knee injury that sidelined him 11 games, Indiana is back at a full complement of players and climbing in the East.

“Guys stepped up and played huge,” Oladipo said after his first game back. “Myles (Turner), Thad (Young), D.C. (Darren Collison) hit big shots down the stretch. I’m just glad to be back to help.”

Oladipo’s return complicates things for the 76ers, who could be without star Jimmy Butler for the second straight game with a strained groin. Butler’s absence was missed against the Nets on Wednesday as Brooklyn shot 51 percent from the field, with Spencer Dinwiddie contributing a career-high 39 points off the bench.

“When you look at the bench scoring, we got hurt there tonight; I give their bench credit,” Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said. “I give Brooklyn a lot of credit. I think that they are a good team to begin with. I do not feel like their record reflects how good they are, I especially know that no matter what their record said, we struggle with that type of team and we did tonight. It doesn’t discount for me that we do struggle with that type of team.”

Even with Joel Embiid‘s 17 rebounds to go along with 33 points, the Sixers still managed to just tie the Nets in boards at 41 while Brooklyn made it to the free-throw line for an absurd 43 attempts, making an even more impressive 37 of them.

“I think that some of it was bad defense, some of it was let down schematically, some of our good shooters still getting off shots, I think it’s a hybrid of them making some shots, us being a C- at times with our aggression and maybe a C schematically trying to execute a game with their individual players. I would put some blame proportionally all over the place.”

Lakers defend Rockets with hands behind their backs (video)

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James Harden made 18-of-19 free throws in the Rockets’ win over the Lakers last night.

Think that got to the Lakers? At times, they defended with their hands behind their backs.

LeBron James, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN:

“Just trying to defend without fouling,” said James, who briefly locked his hands behind his body on a Rockets possession in the third quarter. “That’s a point of emphasis any time you play Houston. They got guys that can sell calls really good — Chris [Paul] and James [Harden] — so you got to try to keep your hands out of the cookie jar.”

This is what Harden – and, to a lesser extent, Paul – do. Harden is so good at drawing fouls. That’s a skill – one that pays off in numerous ways.

It generates efficient free throws. It puts opponents in foul trouble. And it irritates opponents.

The Lakers sabotaged themselves to prove a point. That’s how in their head Harden and the Rockets got.

Maybe it’ll pay off in the long run, with referees second-guessing fouls Harden draws. But last night, it just exposed the Lakers’ frustration.