What the Pacers should do when the lockout ends

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This is the latest installment of PBT’s series of “What your team should do when the lockout ends.” Up next is the Indiana Pacers. You can also check out our thoughts on other NBA teams here as we work our way through all 30 squads.

 

Last season: What a start! Oh, things fell apart. Oh, but they’re better! Oh, but they fell apart again. Oh, but we fired our coach! Oh, hey, things were pretty good. Oh, no, we’re against the Bulls! Oh, hey, we actually held our own despite losing in five games.

So it went for the Pacers.

Such an up and down season, but there was no way to walk away from 2010-2011 and not feel a little hopeful about the future. They finally started building around a young core, with the veterans helping instead of holding promising players back. Roy Hibbert came out like a man on fire and then was promptly extinguished, languishing in “Will he ever become the franchise center?” land again. Darren Collison was awful quiet for most of the year and then bam, turned into a beast in the playoffs. While everyone was gushing about Derrick Rose, Collison was blowing by Rose on subsequent possessions before the Chicago defense could get set, until Thibs put the handcuffs on him with help defense.

Paul George looks like a great all-around contributor, defensively and from the perimter. Tyler Hansbrough continues to impress as a starting-caliber forward, and Brandon Rush is still nowhere to be found.

There’s hope for the future, but things have to go right for Indiana when the lockout ends, or they’re going to stumble backwards like Philadelphia, or your drunk uncle on the treadmill.

Since last we saw the Pacers: The biggest news was the Pacers trading their draft pick (Kawhi Leonard who inexplicably dropped to 15) to San Antonio for George Hill. Hill gives the Pacers a competent combo guard and someone who can decently play the 2 for the first time in six years. Leonard would have been redundant with George and Granger both combo forwards, and Hill’s playoff success and upside make the deal a solid win for Indiana.

The Pacers also brought on Frank Vogel as their head coach, finally, after making him sweat a while. Vogel’s not locked in as the guy with just a three-year deal, but he’s getting his chance, which he earned in the second half of the season and in the Bulls series.

The Pacers will look different when the lockout’s over. Mike Dunleavy, Jeff Foster, Jamal Tinsley, T.J. Ford, all are off the books. Even if some return, the Pacers will have quite a bit of money for free agency and extensions of their young players.

When the lockout ends, the Pacers need to… not rush into anything. There’s a lot of talk about the Pacers pursuing either David West or Nene in free agency, to capitalize on the momentum they had going in. Adding a veteran sub-star with a massive free agency contract in a comparatively weak year is not the smartest way to go about it. The Pacers have star potential in several spots and a valuable, tradeable star in Danny Granger if they want to get hyper-aggressive. Gunning for the moon now is only going to trap them in purgatory. Good enough to make the playoffs as a six seed, not good enough to keep all the young talent or improve. Compare that with 2012 when the agents after the max stars (who will either stay home or go to bigger markets) will be value gets because of the money spent on the top guys. 2012 is when the Pacers should swing for the fences. 2011 needs to be about developing chemistry, seeing just how good their guys can be, and filling in with role players. The veterans they’re losing didn’t play a big enough part last season to need replacement with a high-profile signing, and they still managed to impress.

Patience is a virtue, and one the Pacers need to exercise when the lockout ends.

Report: Utah “frontrunner” to land Mike Conley Jr. if Memphis trades him this week

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Utah feels like it is close — a 50-win team two seasons in a row, an elite defense, an All-NBA center in Rudy Gobert and an elite shot creator in Donovan Michell. They look at the West next season, with a depleted Warriors team, and see an opening.

Yet when Utah fell to Houston 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs this year, it was reminded of what is keeping the team from being truly elite, and another shot creator and shooter is at the top of that list.

Enter Mike Conley Jr. He averaged 21.1 points and 6.4 assists per game last season, shot 36.4 percent from three, and plays strong defense. Conley would be an upgrade over Ricky Rubio at the spot.

The almost All-Star point guard out of Memphis is available via trade. He’s the kind of veteran floor general, shooter, and shot creator Utah could use. The Jazz and Grizzlies talked but couldn’t come to an agreement at the trade deadline, but the sides are talking again and conversations are “intensifying” in the run-up to the NBA Draft Thursday, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

The Grizzlies are intensifying talks to potentially move franchise cornerstone Mike Conley Jr., league sources told The Athletic. Memphis has been in conversations with the Jazz and Utah is a frontrunner to acquire Conley should the Grizzlies trade the point guard during draft week, league sources said.

What would be in a trade package? Certainly the No. 23 pick in this draft, plus some young players the Grizzlies like (maybe Grayson Allen, Royce O’Neal, and even someone like Jae Crowder. Reports say Derick Favors is not part of the discussion.

While anything can happen the week of the draft — and things change quickly — don’t be surprised if some version of this trade gets done.

Kawhi Leonard wins day with last laugh — his viral laugh — at end of speech

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Kawhi Leonard just won again.

He won his second NBA title leading the Toronto Raptors to the franchise’s first crown. He earned his second Finals MVP in the process.

Then on Monday he had the last laugh and won the Raptors’ championship parade in Toronto by ending his speech with his laugh, the same one that went viral at the start of the season.

Of course, what Leonard will do on July 1 was a cloud hanging over the parade, Leonard is a free agent this summer. Kyle Lowry at one point started a “five more years” chant during the parade, which is the maximum number of years Toronto can re-sign Leonard for.

Leonard, exactly as we all should have expected, dodged the question, while praising his time in Toronto.

Unfortunately, this was a parade marred by more serious concerns.

How corrosive is tension between James Harden and Chris Paul in Houston?

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Golden State is not going to be contending for a title next season. Sorry Stephen, but you’re just not.

That throws open the doors to the West crown and, eventually, the NBA title, and teams will be lining up to take their shots. The Lakers just added Anthony Davis to go with LeBron James. Denver should improve and is looking for wing help. Utah feels just one playmaker away. The Clippers are big game hunting, and if they land one they become a threat.

Houston, however, should be at the front of that line… if they don’t shoot themselves in the foot. Contract extension talks with coach Mike D’Antoni are stalled, and at ESPN Tim MacMahon put together a fascinating inside look at the tension between at his isolation-heavy and at his peak James Harden and the intense but declining Chris Paul.

But Paul noticeably lost a step last season, as evidenced by analytics and the eye test. Paul pushed for more plays and sets in the Houston offense, more screening and deception, despite Harden being in the process of putting together a historically dominant individual offensive season.

“Chris wants to coach James,” says a source familiar with the stars’ dynamic. “James looks at him like, ‘You can’t even beat your man. Just shut up and watch me.'”…

It has reached a point, team sources say, where Paul cherishes the chance to play without Harden on the floor. On several occasions, according to team sources, Paul barked at D’Antoni to keep Harden on the bench while he was running the second unit. Harden simultaneously would lobby — or demand — to check back into the game.

There’s tension there, but is it corrosive to the point of the team unraveling? Or, as GM Daryl Morey and everyone else with the Rockets says, is this just blown out of proportion? Time will tell.

Two things to point out.

First, tension between two stars and alpha personalities is far from new in the NBA (or any other professional sport), and it does not mean a team is in trouble. These things can be worked out, they just flared up more in the wake of the round two loss to the Warriors.

Second, these guys are stuck with each other. Obviously, the Rockets aren’t trading Harden. They would be open to trading CP3, but at age 34 and owed $124 million over three more seasons, there are no takers (unless the Rockets want to throw in a sweetener, which they don’t). The players around them may change, the coach could change, but Harden and Paul have years left together.

This team is so close to a title, it’s hard to envision them really coming apart at the seams next season. These guys are too professional for that… although in wild NBA crazier things have happened.

Report: Bucks trying to trade Tony Snell or Ersan Ilyasova with draft-pick sweetener

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Coming off their best season in decades, the Bucks will send four quality players into free agency – Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic.

How will Milwaukee keep its core intact?

Maybe by unloading Tony Snell ($11,592,857 salary next season, $12,378,571 player option the following season) or Ersan Ilyasova ($7 million salary next season, $7 million unguaranteed the following season).

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

With Bird Rights for Middleton, Brogdon and Mirotic, Milwaukee faces no salary-cap restrictions on keeping just those three. The only cost is real dollars, including potential luxury-tax payments.

It’s trickier with Lopez. Giving him the non-taxpayer mid-level exception (which projects to be about $9 million) – the most they can pay without opening cap space – would hard-cap the Bucks at a projected team salary of about $138 million. That could be a difficult line to stay under.

Unless Snell or Ilyasova are off the books.

Neither player has a desirable contract, which is why Milwaukee is shopping them with a draft pick attached. But both can still contribute. Ilyasova is a smart veteran power forward who shoots well from outside and takes a lot of charges. Snell is also a good outside shooter, and though his all-around game is lacking, there’s a dearth of helpful wings around the league.

The Bucks have the No. 30 pick in Thursday’s draft. They could select on behalf of another team then trade the draft rights. The Stepien rule applies only to future drafts.

Beyond that pick, Milwaukee is short on tradable draft picks. The Bucks have already traded two protected future first-round picks and their next three second-rounders. Dealing another first-rounder would require complex protections. Perhaps, a distant second-rounder is enough.

It’s important for Milwaukee to figure this out. Giannis Antetokounmpo likes this core group, and everyone is watching his level of satisfaction with the Bucks as his super-max decision approaches.