ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: Indiana Pacers

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Last season: The Pacers continued their upward trajectory – missing the playoffs in 2009-10, reaching the first round in 2010-11, reaching the second round in 2011-12 and reaching the conference finals in 2012-13. With George Hill, Lance Stephenson, Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert, Indiana had statistically the best lineup in the NBA. The Pacers played great defense and good-enough offense, and that got them to a Game 7 against the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. For now, that qualifies as a highly successful season.

Signature highlights from last season:  Forcing a seven-game series with Miami had nothing to do with the Heat overlooking the Pacers. Indiana was just that good and that fearless.

Key player changes: The Pacers’ offseason was all about upgrading their bench. They traded for Luis Scola and signed Chris Copeland and C.J. Watson.

Tyler Hansbrough and D.J. Augustin signed with Toronto, and Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee were traded to get Scola. But if the new bench performs as well as hoped, those players will be just afterthoughts.

Keys to the Pacers’ season:

1) Was last season’s playoff run a fluke? Without doubt, the Pacers deserved to reach Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Indiana played better than its first two postseason opponents, the Hawks and Knicks, and nearly as well as the Heat. But most teams that make it that far have already proven their abilities through sustained excellence during the long regular season.

Indiana had a good regular season, going 49-32, but that still falls well short of the average conference finalist, and perhaps, that indicates the Pacers were playing at their peak form during the playoffs rather than demonstrating a new baseline.

For what it’s worth, none of the last three teams to reach the conference finals without winning 50 games (adjusted for shortened seasons) – the 2012Celtics,2003Nets,2002Celtics – returned to the conference finals the following year.

2) Is David West too old? West is one of the NBA’s most underrated players. Tough and smart, West has been a huge asset to the Pacers both on the court and in the locker room. But he’s 33, an age when many players decline significantly or have already. West’s backup, Luis Scola, is even older. If West takes a step back, that could be a major setback for the Pacers. Nearly as much as their recent All-Stars, Paul George and Roy Hibbert, West is crucial to the Pacers’ success.

3) How well will Paul George and Danny Granger play together? They say they’ll be fine, and they very well could be. But this is really tough to project, because George is like a superhero who just discovered his powers. Until George learns how to stop clumsily shooting spider webs all over the place and when not to show up the local jocks by outrunning their car, there’s little use trying to gel with Granger. Once George stops evolving at a rapid pace, then maybe he can find chemistry with Granger.

For the Pacers, their wish here is a balancing act. They want George to get a lot better  (and he’s already at a high level), even if that means George’s game continuously takes different shapes, but they still want him and Granger to have time to mesh.

Why you should watch the Pacers: This is a team with legitimate title aspirations. The Pacers’ defense is already at a championship level, but their offense must catch up. It seems they have enough pieces to build a better offense, but it’s just a matter of figuring out how the puzzle fits together. Frank Vogel is a good coach, and his tinkering will be intriguing.

Prediction: 54-28. Until they indicate otherwise, the Heat belong atop any Eastern Conference projections. After that, take your pick between the Pacers, Nets and Bulls. The growth of Paul George and the reliability of David West and the bench will determine whether Indiana returns to the conference finals or falls short in a tougher Eastern Conference.

DeMarcus Cousins is set to start practicing with Warriors’ G-League team

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We got a report this week that DeMarcus Cousins was already throwing down alley-oop dunks in Golden State Warriors practices. Now, it appears that cousins could be ready to take an NBA floor sooner rather than later.

According to The Athletic’s Anthony Slater, Warriors coach Steve Kerr says that Cousins will start to practice with Golden State’s G-League affiliate the Santa Cruz Warriors.

Via Twitter:

Reports have said that Cousins is slated to return with the team after Christmas, and so this timeline stays with that thinking. Returns from Achilles injuries can be dodgy, and there will be a lot of question marks about his ability, both due to his size and age.

If Cousins can come back and produce efficiently, he will help bolster Golden State against a shifting Western Conference in the playoffs.

David West on Draymond Green-Kevin Durant dust-up: ‘I could’ve stopped it’

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David West used to be a calming influence in the Golden State Warriors locker room. The former two-time All-Star big man retired in August after a long career, and the Warriors are perhaps worse off because of it.

West was known to be the guy who could sort out the problems of other teammates, acting as an enforcer and mediator, a focuser of will. That might have come in handy this season as the Warriors have had some internal strife.

Draymond Green and Kevin Durant have famously feuded with each other, resulting in a blow up during a game against the Clippers which left Green suspended and Durant miffed.

During a recent interview with The Athletic, West said he felt he would have been able to diffuse the situation during the Clippers game and avoid some of the questions about Golden State moving forward.

Via The Athletic:

“I’m gonna be honest,” West told The Athletic by phone last month. “The only moment (where) I said, ‘Man, I wish I was there,’ was at that Clippers game. When Draymond turned the ball over at the end — and he was going to create the play; he was going to make the play, it just sometimes doesn’t happen — at that moment, when I saw the way he was walking, and I saw KD react, and it was like ‘Oh, I know if I was there that shit wouldn’t have happened.’ That’s the only moment where I felt like, ‘Man I could’ve stopped it.’”

At this juncture it’s hard to know just how much the issues between Durant and Green will cause, playoff time. The question about Durant leaving in free agency isn’t of real concern at this moment, mostly because it’s impossible to predict.

From an outside perspective, it does seem like West would have been a major factor during the Durant-Green tiff if he’d been in a Warriors jersey. West went on to say that the idea that Golden State doesn’t have to deal with adversity is “a false narrative”.

Will the Warriors be cohesive enough come playoff time? We’ll just have to wait to find out.

Report: Lakers trying to add Trevor Ariza via trade

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Phoenix Suns wing Trevor Ariza has been a popular target of topic of discussion for NBA fans, either as a potential buyout candidate or as a trade target for playoff teams looking to add a wily veteran.

On Sunday, we got word of one potential deal with the Los Angeles Lakers that could involve Ariza.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Ariza could be on the move if LA can find a third party to take on Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

Via ESPN:

The teams have been working to reach an agreement with a third team that would take on Lakers guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope as part of a potentially larger deal, league sources said.

The Suns want to land a playmaking guard and a draft asset as the price of unloading Ariza, sources said. Phoenix and Los Angeles have made progress in third-team scenarios, although no agreements are close and both teams remain active in multiple trade discussions throughout the league, sources said.

This is an early report but it clearly signals that the Lakers are going to be bold as they try to solidify be roster around LeBron James heading into the new year. They’ve already added veteran big man is Tyson Chandler, also formerly of the Suns, so trading for Ariza would be in line with that strategy.

Eric Gordon says Rockets are ‘not using some guys the right way’

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The Houston Rockets aren’t who we thought they were. The team that gave the Golden State Warriors a run for their money in the Western Conference Finals last season have looked unsteady to open the year, and despite jettisoning Carmelo Anthony, have not returned to their former glory.

While this has much to do with overall team construction, individual players in Houston have struggled as well. Do-it-all wing Eric Gordon has had a down year, with just about all of his advanced statistics taking a significant drop. Most important has been his 3-point shooting, which is down five percent year-over-year. Even when Gordon has performed well, it’s not always translated to wins for Houston.

The talk around the Rockets has been about their stars struggling, but so too has their lack of comparative bench depth hamstrung them. Gordon’s solid performances lacking an impact on the win-loss column is illustrative of that.

For his part, Gordon says that he’s still not having fun on the floor in Houston, and that he feels the team’s meager roster isn’t being used properly.

Via The Athletic:

“I’m just not having fun man,” Gordon told The Athletic. “I’m just not. This sucks. Even the times where I have good games. We’re just not using some guys the right way. Are we gonna make the right sacrifices? Do we have the right attitude?

“Last year was the best year I’ve ever had being a part of a team,” he added. “We just never had a bad moment. If we ever had a bad game as a team, you knew the next game we would blow somebody out. It didn’t matter who it was.”

The Rockets are 11-14 and have the second-worst record in the Western Conference. There’s many months left in the season, and there’s plenty of time to rebound. But unless Houston can get their internal struggles figured out — or trade for an impact player — it seems possible they finish the year scraping for a playoff spot or missing the postseason altogether.