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 SI.com’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:

SI.com: 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.

SI.com: 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.

San Antonio Spurs retire Tony Parker’s number

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Tim Duncan went up first. Then Manu Ginobili.

Monday night it was Tony Parker’s turn — all of the Spurs’ big three have now had their jerseys retired.

This is obviously well deserved.

The No. 28 pick of the 2001 NBA Draft, Parker went on to win four NBA titles, was named Finals MVP with one of those, plus was a six-time All-Star and four-time All-NBA player. He was part of core that turned the Spurs into a dynasty.

Everyone was on hand for the ceremony, with coach Gregg Popovich, Duncan, and Ginobili all speaking before Parker, and all of them talking about their bond.

It was an emotional and touching night.

The next stop for Duncan, Parker and Ginobili? The Hall of Fame.

 

Kings’ point guard De’Aaron Fox out at least 3-4 weeks with ankle sprain

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The Sacramento Kings — everyone’s League Pass favorites — have been snake bitten this season. First it was Marvin Bagley III, who broke his right thumb in the season opener.

Now point guard De'Aaron Fox will be out at least 3-4 weeks (that’s when he’ll be re-evaluated) after suffering a grade three ankle sprain in practice Monday. From the official Sacramento press release:

An MRI conducted this afternoon on Kings guard De’Aaron Fox confirmed that he sustained a left ankle sprain at the end of practice on Monday. He will be re-evaluated in 3-4 weeks and his status will be updated as appropriate.

After a breakout season a year ago, this season Fox had come back to earth a little in new coach Luke Walton’s system — his turnovers were up and his efficiency had slipped, a 52.8 true shooting percentage that is close to the league average, for example — but he was still putting up 18.2 points and dishing out 7 assists a game. He has been the focal point of the Kings’ offense.

This is a blow to the Kings and their development. Sacramento had won 3-of-4 and seemed to be finding more of a groove.

Sacramento does have depth at the point guard spot, however. It signed Cory Joseph over the summer to a three-year, $37 million contract, plus it picked up a team option on Yogi Ferrell. They have some depth at the spot.

However, those players do not have Fox’s explosiveness. The Kings just will not be the same until he returns.

Greece coach Rick Pitino plans to enter 2020 Olympic qualifying without Giannis Antetokounmpo

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ATHENS, Greece (AP) Greece coach Rick Pitino is planning on trying to qualify for the 2020 Olympics without Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Pitino officially took over as coach of the Greek national basketball team on Monday. He said he would leave a roster place open for Antetokounmpo in qualifying games but is not sure if he will be able to rely on his best player.

Greece will try to reach the Tokyo Olympics by winning a qualifying tournament. But the dates could clash with the NBA schedule, probably ruling out Antetokounmpo.

“It is a possibility he will not be playing with us in the qualifying round if he goes far (in the playoffs). I understood that coming into this situation, and that’s why it’s such a high mountain to climb,” Pitino said. “But Giannis is something, it’s a bridge we have to cross later on. But we are going to leave a roster spot even if he has to take my place.”

Pitino said he hoped to meet Antetokounmpo and his brother, Milwaukee teammate Thanasis Antetokounmpo, in March when the Bucks travel to Miami.

The 67-year-old Pitino is a veteran of the college game and the NBA, coaching the Boston Celtics and the New York Knicks as well as Kentucky and Louisville. He has returned to Greece after coaching Athens club Panathinaikos last season and remains popular.

Pitino said he also felt that attachment.

“(Coaching Greece) is the crown jewel for me as a basketball coach,” Pitino said. “This is one of the greatest honors I’ve had as a coach. I consider this so special because it’s a mountain that is so worth climbing.

“And for the next eight months. I’m not American. I’m not Italian. I’m Greek. And that’s the way I’m going to carry myself. You won’t see anybody who will bleed every possession like I will bleed to try and win a game.”

LeBron James rips AAU workload: ‘AAU coaches couldn’t give a damn about a kid’

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Last week, during the pointless debate about Kawhi Leonard missing a game for load management, the most salient point came from former Suns coach Earl Watson.

He echoed a must-read story (from Baxter Holmes at ESPN) that reverberated around the NBA this summer (but for many fans got lost in the shuffle of player movement): How NBA team medical staffs — as well as just doctors working on young athletes — were noticing the extreme wear and tear on the body of AAU basketball players. The volume of games, often without enough training and conditioning to properly strengthen their young bodies or let them recover, sets young players up for injuries later in their playing career. NBA teams and doctors, with their load management techniques, are trying to make up for damage that started long before.

LeBron James, with two sons playing AAU ball right now, is in full agreement.

LeBron ripped the volume of games played in the youth basketball culture, speaking to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports.

“These kids are going into the league already banged up, and I think parents and coaches need to know [that] … well, AAU coaches don’t give a f***,” James told Yahoo Sports. “AAU coaches couldn’t give a damn about a kid and what his body is going through…

“I think [AAU] has something to do with it, for sure,” James told Yahoo Sports. “It was a few tournaments where my kids — Bronny and Bryce — had five games in one day and that’s just f- – -ing out of control. That’s just too much… So, I’m very conscious for my own son because that’s all I can control, and if my son says he’s sore or he’s tired, he’s not playing.

“Because a lot of these tournaments don’t have the best interest of these kids, man. I see it. It’s like one time, they had to play a quarterfinal game, a semifinal game and a championship game starting at 9 a.m., and the championship game was at 12:30 p.m. Three games. I was like, ‘Oh, hell no.’ And my kids were dead tired. My kids were dead tired. This isn’t right. This is an issue.”

It is an issue. A big issue. The NBA can talk about reducing the number of games — they are, and they should, the season is too long, but cutting the number of games becomes a complex financial issue — but it goes beyond just the NBA level.

There needs to be fundamental changes in youth basketball in the NBA, down to the AAU level. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has talked about this.

“So, where historically it’s been an area, particularly AAU basketball, that the league has stayed out of, I think these most recent revelations (from the NCAA scandal) are just a reminder that we’re part of this larger basketball community. I think ultimately, whether we like it or not, need to be more directly involved with elite youth basketball,” Silver said a couple of years ago. Since then, the league has taken steps in that direction.

However, like shortening the NBA season, there are a lot of competing interests in a complicated situation. A lot of people are making money the way things are now and don’t want them to change.

For the health of players, it needs to.