The Extra Pass: Indiana’s Strange Success

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The Extra Pass is a new daily column that’s designed to give you a better look at a theme, team, player or scheme that could use another glance. Today, we swing our attention to Indiana, where the Pacers are putting together one strange season.

I wish there were a more aesthetically pleasing comparison available, but the Indiana Pacers are the cockroaches of the NBA. They are an ugly team, scattered about on the offensive end, waiting for the shot clock to tick down to the skinnier numbers so they can rush to the rim for scraps. There is very little sex appeal or sophistication here — just resiliency.

You chop off their head, and they live for 35 games and counting. Last year’s leading scorer Danny Granger hasn’t played a single minute.

You take away what they’re looking for, and they find something else. 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert is shooting 40 percent from the field and averages less than 10 points a game.

You eliminate the new addition to their ranks, and they still keep coming. Gerald Green has an 8.2 PER, good for fifth worst in the league of players who average more than 20 minutes a night.

The Pacers are 29th in offensive efficiency, 28th in field goal percentage and 29th in points per game. They should be finished already, planning their trip to Secaucus, New Jersey to watch lottery balls bounce around with the rest of the inept offensive teams in the league.

But instead, the Pacers are 21-14, fourth in the Eastern Conference, and just three games back of a Miami Heat team they vanquished last night. Three games out of first place. The Indiana Pacers. With all that going on.

How?

The best defense can be a slow offense

The Pacers have evolved in the best way– they know that they’re terrible offensively without Granger (and with Hibbert missing layups), so they’ve adapted by helping themselves on the other end. The offense, as brutal as it may be, serves a purpose for the defense by playing purposefully slow.

The Pacers play at the league’s 25th slowest pace, but they also rank 10th in offensive rebounding percentage. The victory over Miami was a wonderful example of how these two things work together. The Pacers absolutely bled the clock with the lead, and combined with their 22 offensive rebounds, they made that 8-10 points feel like 18-20 instead. The opportunities for Miami to come back in the fourth quarter were extremely limited.

Of course, taking the air out of the ball, so to speak, would mean nothing if the Pacers weren’t defending the way they are. For as every bit as bad as they’ve been offensively, the Pacers have been even better defensively.

It starts inside

Hibbert has used his own struggles at the rim as a way to exact revenge on his opponents, blocking the third most shots in the league (2.7 a game) and altering countless others. From 9-feet and in, the Pacers hold their opponents to the league’s lowest shooting percentage.

Although Hibbert isn’t fleet of foot, he’s a space eater for a defense that rarely gambles (26th in turnover percentage). The Pacers as a whole are very conservative defensively — their guards like to go under screens, and their big men rarely hedge or trap on pick-and-rolls. As a result, the Pacers are rarely scrambling to recover or asking their bigs to make lightning quick rotations.

And although he’s not noted as a defensive force, David West uses that thick chest of his as the wall to Hibbert’s sentry tower arms — opposing power forwards notch a PER of 12.2 against West, and the Pacers are about 2.4 points better defensively per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor (and a whopping net 13.5 points overall).

Thanks to West and Hibbert, and the crazy size of Paul George, the Pacers are also the 6th best defensive rebounding team in the league. Opposing teams go one-and-done offensively quite a bit.

Length on the perimeter

Another thing the Pacers do extraordinarily well defensively is defend the 3-point line. The average team this year shoots around 35.7 percent from behind the arc, but the Pacers hold their opponents to a stingy 31.6 percent shooting. That’s the top number in the league, and the length of guys like George Hill (who owns a ridiculous 6-foot-9 wingspan), Lance Stephenson (6-foot-10 wingspan) and Paul George (near 7-foot-wingspan) play into that heavily. According to Synergy Sports, the Pacers are the number one defense in the league defending against spot-up jumpers — a testament to the ability of their wings to get a hand up and contest every shot.

Coach of the Year?

There’s a reason Frank Vogel just got a contract extension, folks. The Pacers have a lot of plus individual defenders, but no one in their right mind expected them to have the league’s most efficient defense 35 games in. This is a core that has benefitted a great deal from playing together, and give Vogel credit for allowing Indiana’s starting five (Hill-Stephenson-George-West-Hibbert) to play the second most minutes together of any unit in the league — even if Indiana’s bench has been a question mark ever since he grabbed the big seat. If Tom Thibodeau can win a Coach of the Year for the defense he brought to Chicago, Vogel should at least be seriously considered if this keeps up.

Thank you, David

And here’s the reason why it might not keep up. Indiana’s Dr. Jekyl defense and Mr. Hyde offense is unlike anything we’ve seen, but a very soft schedule certainly has played into that a bit. Indiana’s strength of schedule is dead last in the league, and their SRS, a rating that factors point differential into that equation, is just 15th. Although more recent wins against  Memphis, Milwaukee and Miami are impressive, their wins prior to that came against sub .500 clubs almost exclusively. Some regression should be expected as the quality of opponents spikes back up.

But even with that said, it’s tough to deny the staying power of the league’s most resilient team to date. Things can’t possibly get worse offensively, especially since Stephenson has made such a positive impact lately. With Granger targeting a February return, there is hope on the horizon.

It’s not often we see a contender so painfully one-dimensional, but if this defense holds on to the distinction of being the best in the league, the Pacers will be awfully hard to ignore any longer.

Vince Carter wins NBA Sportsmanship Award

Hawks forward Vince Carter
Jason Miller/Getty Images
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Vince Carter’s 22-year NBA career ended amid the chaos of coronavirus, preventing him from getting the deserved fanfare.

But fellow players will send Carter into retirement with the NBA Sportsmanship Award.

NBA release:

NBA players have selected Vince Carter as the recipient of the 2019-20 NBA Sportsmanship Award, the NBA announced today.

Carter, who spent the 2019-20 season with the Atlanta Hawks, announced his retirement from the NBA in June after playing a league-record 22 seasons.  He receives the Joe Dumars Trophy as the winner of the NBA Sportsmanship Award.  Dumars, a two-time NBA champion and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer, played 14 NBA seasons and won the inaugural Sportsmanship Award in the 1995-96 season.

Each NBA team nominated one of its players for the NBA Sportsmanship Award, which is designed to honor a player who best represents the ideals of sportsmanship on the court.  From the list of 30 team nominees, a panel of league executives selected one finalist from each of the NBA’s six divisions.  Current NBA players selected the winner from the list of six finalists, with more than 250 players submitting their votes through confidential balloting conducted by the league office.

Full voting (with first-, second-, third-, fourth-, fifth- and sixth-place votes and voting points):

1. Vince Carter (Hawks): 143-70-34-13-4-2-2,520

2. Garrett Temple (Nets): 22-78-63-52-25-26-1,746

3. Steven Adams (Thunder): 34-57-41-52-58-24-1,632

4. Harrison Barnes (Kings): 24-25-75-48-35-59-1,418

5. Langston Galloway (Pistons): 23-22-29-60-79-53-1,244

7. Tyus Jones (Grizzlies): 20-14-24-41-65-102-1,016

What a nice honor for Carter, who gracefully aged from high-profile star to veteran mentor.

Heat: Bam Adebayo, Goran Dragic doubtful for Game 2 of NBA Finals

Heat players Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic
Jim Poorten/NBAE via Getty Images
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Bam Adebayo‘s and Goran Dragic‘s injuries… not looking great for the Heat approaching Game 2 of the NBA Finals.

Heat:

This is a disaster for Miami. The Lakers dominated Game 1, and now the Heat have two starters hobbled at best. At worst and more likely, Adebayo and Dragic are out.

Adebayo would be the bigger loss. Miami was completely overmatched when facing Anthony Davis without a center. Kelly Olynyk and Meyers Leonard can try to keep up, but they’re far from great solutions.

At least the Heat have more options at point guard. Kendrick Nunn can get an elevated role (especially after excelling in garbage time of Game 1). Jimmy Butler can become the de facto point guard. Tyler Herro can also play the position. But Dragic was playing so well during Miami’s run through the Eastern Conference. This is also a major setback.

 

Report: Tyronn Lue ‘early favorite’ to become Clippers head coach

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Doc Rivers is gaining momentum in the 76ers’ coaching search.

As for the job Rivers left behind with the Clippers… Clippers assistant and former Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue, unsurprisingly, has the inside track.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The Clippers are planning to interview other candidates, starting soon, sources said.

The New Orleans Pelicans are planning to interview Lue in the near future too, sources said.

Lue would be a sensible hire. He has championship experience, which would help the Clippers hit the ground running in a make-or-break season before Kawhi Leonard and Paul George can become unrestricted free agents. Lue managed stars in LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. The Clippers must improve their chemistry around their stars. And the last time Lue got promoted from assistant to head coach, his team won a title.

New Orleans also has an appealing job. But the Clippers are far closer to championship contention. And if both teams want Lue, I bet Clippers owner Steve Ballmer would outspend Pelicans owner Gayle Benson.

Still, the Clippers are conducting a coaching search. Other candidates could emerge. This isn’t necessarily Lue’s job for the taking.

How long would he wait on L.A. if the Pelicans make an offer? Lue has shown he values being entrusted.

Report: 76ers focused on Doc Rivers and Mike D’Antoni in coaching search

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The 76ers appeared focused on Mike D’Antoni in their coaching search.

Then, Doc Rivers surprisingly became available.

The former Clippers coach met with the 76ers and is now in the center of the conversation.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

For the Sixers now, the focus is on Rivers and D’Antoni, a source told ESPN. A decision is expected this week.

Rivers would be an easier fit with this roster than D’Antoni, whose style doesn’t appear to work as well with both Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Rivers also looks like he’d help Philadelphia take the next step.

But that seemed like it’d be true with the Clippers and wasn’t.

Tyronn Lue’s candidacy with the 76ers has clearly faded. Could he join the Clippers, Rockets or Pelicans? If Philadelphia hires Rivers, maybe D’Antoni still lands with the Pacers?

Rivers’ availability has definitely thrown a wrench in the coaching carousel.