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.

Kevin Knox won over Knicks and now expects to win over their fans

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GREENBURGH, N.Y. (AP) — Kevin Knox took a call from someone who knew exactly what he experienced on draft night.

New Yorkers didn’t welcome Kristaps Porzingis with open arms, either.

“He asked me how the fans reacted and I told him I got the same amount of boos as he got,” Knox said Friday. “He just laughed and he said it’s all motivation and fuel to the fire, and he said just work and he said sooner or later they’ll be cheering for you.”

That’s what happened with Porzingis, who quickly won over those who loudly booed his selection in 2015 with his talent, competitiveness and work ethic.

The Knicks see the same traits in Knox, convincing them that the Kentucky freshman was not only the player to take with the No. 9 pick but that he’s ready to start and match up with the NBA’s best small forwards next season.

That’s why they decided a day before the draft they were taking Knox if he was available and didn’t waver from that even when Michael Porter Jr. was still on the board – disappointing some at Barclays Center who chanted for Porter and then booed Knox.

“I love the fact that he wanted to be at Kentucky, that he wanted to be a Knick,” Knicks coach David Fizdale said. “Says a lot about that kid that he wants challenges and so I think he’s going to fit exactly the way we want to build our culture.”

Beyond the 15.6 points he averaged last season while sharing SEC Freshman of the Year honors with Collin Sexton – drafted one pick earlier by Cleveland – Knox impressed the Knicks with his confidence. He chose to play at Kentucky out of Tampa Catholic in Florida and compete for playing time with the other talented players in Lexington, then agreed to play 3-on-3 in workouts when many top prospects prefer to do them individually.

And the annual outsized expectations faced by John Calipari’s teams should help Knox prepare for the pressure of New York, perhaps giving him a quicker adjustment period than Frank Ntilikina, the Knicks’ lottery pick last season, had after coming to the U.S. from France.

“That actually is going to be up to Kevin, what the learning curve is and how long the adjustment takes,” team president Steve Mills said. “But what I will say is that while all college basketball programs prepare guys to play in the NBA, the sort of pressure and the limelight and the spotlight you’re under when you make a decision to play at Kentucky I think does prepare you in a different way to play in a place like New York. So I think some of the things that are tougher for rookies to make adjustments to are some things that he’s already been through.”

The adjustment is likely much longer for 7-footer Mitchell Robinson, who the Knicks took with the No. 36 pick. A high school All-American in 2016-17, he enrolled at Western Kentucky but never played, instead leaving school and opting to train for the draft. He said he worked out daily, but hasn’t played competitively in a year so it’s unknown how soon he could contribute.

But Fizdale sounds ready to put Knox on the court right away on a team that used Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee as undersized small forwards last season.

“They’re both 6-5 and he’s got to guard LeBron and (Kevin) Durant and those are the 3s in our league,” Fizdale said. “So I feel like it’s a very good opportunity to have a chance to start.”

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

As expected, Denver’s Wilson Chandler to opt into $12.8 million next season

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Wilson Chandler played a workmanlike role for the Nuggets last season — more than 30 minutes a game (in 74 games), 10 points a night, shot 35.8 percent from three. His efficiency and value slipped from previous seasons but he still played a role for the team.

Not the kind of role that’s going to earn him a big payday as a free agent, so he will opt into the $12.8 million for next season, a story broken by Chris Haynes of ESPN.

Denver Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler will exercise his player option for the 2018-19 season, league sources tell ESPN.

Chandler, 31, is opting into a $12.8 million salary instead of entering free agency this summer. Denver was notified of his decision on Friday.

Chandler’s name has come up in trade discussions in recent years, and no doubt the Nuggets would be happy to move his salary now, too. However, in a tight financial market it’s unlikely that’s happening without Denver throwing in a sweetener, and that’s not likely either. So it will be another season of Chandler in Denver.

Deandre Ayton arrives as symbol that Suns are on the rise

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PHOENIX (AP) — Since the heady days of Steve Nash came to an end, there have been few signs of joy from a dwindling fan base that watched the Phoenix Suns tumble to the bottom of the NBA standings and miss the playoffs for the eighth year in a row.

Then came the announcement that Deandre Ayton would go to the Suns with the first overall pick. A huge cheer went up from the several thousand fans at Talking Stick Resort Arena on Thursday night for the draft party. General manager Ryan McDonough, owner Robert Sarver and coach Igor Kokoskov came out of their meeting room to watch and bask in that rare moment of sheer joy from the fans.

“It was a pretty special moment for our franchise,” McDonough said.

Not only that, but McDonough engineered a last-minute trade for swingman Mikal Bridges of Villanova, the 10th pick. It was a spendy move because Philadelphia demanded and got Miami’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick. But the Suns are weary of stockpiling assets. It’s time to cash in, they figured, and did it with that trade.

“We weighed the pros and cons of trading it heavily and carefully,” McDonough said. “We were only going to put it in play if we had a chance to get a special player and that’s how we feel about McKell.”

All four of the Suns’ picks showed up on a crowded dais in Phoenix on Friday – Ayton, Bridges, French point guard Elie Okobo (chosen 31st) and forward George King of Colorado (the 59th selection).

The 7-foot-1 Ayton towered over the others, in a white unbuttoned collared shirt and a sharp blue suit, but he looked and sounded a bit weary from the whirlwind of being the No. 1 draft pick. His only sleep lately, he said, was a couple of hours on the plane ride from New York on Tuesday.

“I’m just excited to finally get a jersey on and be able to play five-on-five again,” Ayton said.

Ayton had been the frontrunner for the No. 1 pick ever since the draft lottery and any doubts were erased when he went through an individual workout with the Suns, the only team which he did so.

McDonough said that Ayton’s workout “in and of itself was as impressive as I’ve ever seen in my 16 drafts in the NBA.”

Ayton is seen as strictly a center, so how does he fit in the modern style of the NBA, when center plays is diminished and players are essentially interchangeable, is a question. Ayton replied that he’s no ordinary center.

“I don’t like it when people think I’m just a guy down low,” he said. “They haven’t watched me shoot the basketball.”

Ayton and Bridges say they got to know each other well at the college awards ceremony in Los Angeles but never figured they’d be on the same team.

“It’s like I’ve known him my whole life,” Bridges said.

Now comes the hard work, molding a team with Ayton, Devin Booker and Josh Jackson. A billboard of those three already has been erected downtown.

The Suns, so bad for so long, seem on the brink of being relevant.

“We’re very hungry,” Ayton said. “I think the great team chemistry and the work ethic that we have, especially us guys coming in, we’re going to bring it to the next level. We’ve got young lets. We can run all day. … We can really start a winning legacy.”

And Ayton is the reason for the sudden leap in optimism, even though he won’t turn 20 until next month.

“I embrace it a lot,” he said of the expectations placed upon him. “Through my career I’ve always had that on my shoulder, the expectations. I represent a whole nation (Bahamas) I just do that the best that I can and just help this community start over and be the best player I can possibly be. I just want to be the best great player.”

Kokoskov says Ayton possesses “a unique talent for the decades.”

Ayton said he wants “to be the best person on and off the court.”

Now the Suns move on to the next phase. Free agency starts July 1 and McDonough wants some veteran players to add to this very young core. He said the team should have $15 million to $20 million to spend.

“We were aggressive last night with the picks and the trade up to get Mikal,” McDonough said. “We’re going to continue to be aggressive for the next couple of weeks in free agency. We’ve got some money to spend and we’re looking to spend it on the best players we can get.”

Hornets GM Kupchak: Kemba Walker focal point of franchise going forward

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — General manager Mitch Kupchak wants point guard Kemba Walker to end his NBA career right where it started — with the Charlotte Hornets.

Kupchak said Friday that Walker is “revered” in the Charlotte community, and that he and owner Michael Jordan look at the two-time All-Star as “the focal point of this franchise going forward.”

The 28-year-old Walker has been the subject of possible NBA trade talks as he prepares to enter the final year of his contract with the Hornets. That speculation has amped up recently because it is a practical impossibility for Charlotte to sign Walker to an extension before he becomes a free agent in July of 2019 since the Hornets are so tight under the salary cap.

“I think everybody is aware of the situation, if you follow basketball a little bit, it is unique that he is on an extension that may make it a challenge going forward to figure out before he becomes a free agent,” Kupchak said.

At $12 million per year, Walker well underpaid when compared to the other top point guards in the league.

But that doesn’t mean Kupchak is giving up hope the team can keep Walker in Charlotte.

“I don’t think it is anybody’s goal to lose him in free agency,” Kupchak said. “But going forward, in the community, in the franchise, this is a player that we hope is with us – not only for the next couple of years, but ends his career here.”

The Hornets don’t have much experience behind Walker at point guard.

They have last year’s first-round draft pick Malik Monk and drafted Devonte Graham from Kansas in the second round on Thursday night.

Graham said he is excited to pick Walker’s brain when it comes to basketball.

“I have never met him, but I remember watching him play when he was at UConn though,” Graham said. “I’m just excited man to learn from someone like that and just be around someone like that who is winner, and knows how to win and compete. I am looking forward to being able to learn from him.”