The Extra Pass: Fixing Pacers offense not simple, easy

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The Indiana Pacers are a mess.

A second place in the conference mess. The team’s month-long swoon — one that has gone from “oh, these stretches happen to every team” to “maybe we should really be worried here” — finally caught up with them when the Pacers’ loss to the Spurs Monday night allowed the Miami Heat to pass the Pacers for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

A team that looked like a legit title contender the first months of the season has been 8-10 since March 1 and in the past couple weeks their game has smelled like organic fertilizer. The most points the Indiana Pacers have scored in their last five games is 84 (their lone win in that stretch, vs. Miami). Against the Spurs Monday night the Spurs put up 77 points on 37.7 percent shooting. It wasn’t pretty.

While the Pacers’ vaunted defense has slipped (102.1 points per 100 possessions in their last five games, 11 more than they surrendered on average in first 30 games of the season) it is their offense that has been painful to watch. In the first 30 games of the season they were scoring 103 points per 100 possessions, which wasn’t exceptional (would be 18th in the NBA for the season), but with their defense it was enough.

In their last five games the Pacers have scored just 85.8 points per 100 possessions. They are pointing fingers at each other over it.

The rut their offense is in, the problems in their game, are just not ones easily fixed. Here’s a short list.

• Lack of elite ball handling/shot creation. Against the Spurs 22.9 percent of the Pacers’ shots came from the pick-and-roll ball handler (the largest single way they generated shots), and they shot 5-of-14 on those and turned the ball over on 22.7 percent of those plays (stats via Synergy Sports). Because a lot of guys with questionable handles have the ball in their hands, when the defensive pressure picks up — as it did against the Spurs — they struggle. And that defensive pressure is only going to get more intense as we get into the playoffs.

• Early in the season the Pacers adjusted for that lack of ball handling by creating shots through good ball movement, spacing and moving better off the ball. Those days are gone. Their offense is often stagnant and too often guys seem to overload the strong side and not space the floor to create driving lanes. When they cut it seems to be going through the motions, not with a purpose. The Spurs in particular also did not really respect the three point shooting of the Pacers and packed the lane at points.

• The Pacer really miss C.J. Watson — the solid, veteran point guard has played just 8 minutes since March 4 due to a combination of elbow and hamstring issues. With him leading the way the Pacers bench had been a strong suit early in the season (or at least not the black hole it had been last season) and Watson was a key reason. He could be back within the next week and if so that would be a big boost — he can provide some of the ball handling they need, help stabalize the offense. He could also lead a bench where Luis Scola and Evan Turner have not looked good of late.

• The Pacers screen setting and use of screens has been unimpressive. The number of screens set where the guy setting the pick doesn’t make contact with the defender (because he rolls out too early or because the ball handler leaves space to get through) is entirely too high.

• Their slow pace of play lets the defense get set, so they get no easy baskets in transition.

• When Roy Hibbert talks about selfish players, he is talking about Lance Stephenson and Evan Turner. As Tom Haberstroh of ESPN pointed out on twitter, in the 149 minutes Turner and Hibbert had played together since the trade deadline move to bring Turner to Indiana, he has gotten one assist passing to Hibbert. One.

• Turner has not been a fit, he played less than 7 minutes against the Spurs. Meanwhile, Danny Granger has thrived in Los Angeles given more freedom in an offense and as he got his legs back under him (although he is out injured, and you have to wonder if he can stay healthy).

• The Pacers are not working inside out with Hibbert, not getting him the rock when he does establish position. That said, he’s grown frustrated and is now part of the problem, not the solution.

The list could go on, but you get the idea.

Indiana had made their offense work thanks to Paul George playing at an elite level, Lance Stephenson not being selfish (is it just me that thinks after the All-Star Game, and in a contract year, he has looked out for his numbers a lot more?) and some solid bench play. No more.

It’s not that they can’t get back to sharing the ball, spacing the floor, to hitting some of the jumpers they are missing now (which is an issue). They can. But can they do those things at a level that would lift them past the Miami Heat over the course of seven games? I picked the Pacers to do that (to win it all, actually) before the season but I’m no longer sold. I’m not sure they can fully pull out of this skid.

The good news is they have not only the next 16 days to figure it out, but also they have the first round of the playoffs (which in the East will essentially be a tune-up round against an inferior opponent, a team like Charlotte will fight but can’t beat even these Pacers).

However, if they can get back to a Game 7 against the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, now that game will likely be in Miami (a team that has won 10 of their last 11 when Dwyane Wade sits and rests). The Pacers have surrendered their home court.

Not that it will matter if they keep playing like this.

As Sunday winds down, Miami heats up talk of Jimmy Butler trade

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There has been much speculation over the past 48 hours about where disgruntled Minnesota Timberwolves star Jimmy Butler will end up once owner Glen Taylor finds a suitable trade partner for him. We have already discussed at length where Butler might fit best, and Sunday morning saw an influx of new teams ready to come to the Timberwolves with an offer now that it is known that Butler is on the table.

As Sunday came to a close, it became apparent that yet another team is trying to work their way into the Butler sweepstakes.

According to multiple reports, the Miami Heat have been active and are trying to get a deal done for Butler. Once thought of as a middle-of-the-pack suitor, the Heat have apparently been one of the more engaged teams as a deal for the Timberwolves guard is sought before the team opens training camp on Tuesday.

Via Twitter:

Miami joins the Washington Wizards, Portland Trail Blazers, Brooklyn Nets, Detroit Pistons, Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers, and Cleveland Cavaliers in teams looking to exchange parts for the next season on Butler’s contract.

No doubt league GMs are trying to weigh the risk vs. reward when it comes to Butler. His contract has a player option for the 2019-20 NBA season, which he will almost certainly opt out of in order to become a free agent. That means that without a guarantee that Butler will re-sign, any team trading for him will need to be careful with what young assets they leverage for the present.

For example, one report out of Portland says that the Blazers are unwilling to give up who they see as their young main core for a one-year rental on Butler. Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, and Jusuf Nurkic are all off the table for the Blazers.

We still don’t know what the asking price for Butler will eventually be, or how the Timberwolves prioritize getting a solid return for him vs. shipping him outside of the Western Conference. For now, we have to wait and see what happens.

At least until Tuesday.

Elton Brand on 76ers contending for a championship: ‘I think we still need a piece’

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Elton Brand last played in the NBA in April of 2016. Now, in September of 2018 he is the general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers.

The 17-year NBA veteran helms one of the best young teams in the NBA, and takes over a GM position that has previously been under turmoil. Brand has perhaps been blessed with the departure of LeBron James from the Eastern Conference, but so too will other teams try to take over that perennial top spot.

The Boston Celtics have similar assets to Philadelphia, with proven stars mixed with an excellent supporting cast and young players who could develop into stars themselves. The Toronto Raptors are a very good team who just added a Finals MVP in Kawhi Leonard. The road ahead will be tough.

But the Sixers still have cap space and they are still looking for a third star to fill a necessary role on their team. Brand said as much during a recent appearance on ESPN, and from all indications it looks like he’s not going to be shy about pulling the trigger either in free agency or in the trade market if he feels he can solidify the Sixers’ position in the east.

Via ESPN:

Everyone talks about free agency, but we may have to pull the trigger on something else before free agency. If we feel we can’t get one of those stars that I can’t name. I still think we need a piece. We’re close. If you ask Joel [Embiid] we have enough and if you ask Ben [Simmons] we have enough, because that’s the chip they have on their shoulder … they don’t want to hear that, but I think we still need a piece.

Brand went on to say that he felt like development was also important in this process, and that it’s possible that Philadelphia has their additional star in Markelle Fultz, Dario Saric, or both.

Philadelphia has reportedly been one of the teams that has jumped into initial conversations with the Minnesota Timberwolves about trading for Jimmy Butler. Whether or not Butler is the right move for the Sixers notwithstanding, that Brand appear is ready to wheel and deal certainly is interesting.

Anthony Davis picks new agent, signs with LeBron James’ rep Rich Paul

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The NBA offseason isn’t over just quite yet, so people are naturally ready to jump at any rumor they can get their hands on. On Sunday, it was announced that New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis had signed with Rich Paul’s Klutch Sports Group, and the Twittersphere exploded.

Davis, 25, has two seasons left on his current contract until he can use a player option to end his deal early and choose another location if he pleases.

Of course, the rampant speculation here — which is baseless, I might add — is that Davis could be looking to jump ship from the Pelicans, with Paul helping to create pressure for such a deal.

Via Twitter:

There is some speculation that Davis could become trade bait as soon as next summer if the Pelicans fail to meet the expectations foist upon them after their first round sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers during last season’s playoffs. New Orleans no longer has the talents of DeMarcus Cousins, although they played spectacularly without him following his Achilles injury going into the end of the year. The West got tougher, and the Pelicans will also have to play without Rajon Rondo, currently of the Los Angeles Lakers.

The coming season will be Davis’ seventh in Louisiana, and it has long been rumored that he could be a trade prospect or might want to sign in a different market. Signing with Klutch Sports Group puts Davis at the center of speculation that he could join LeBron James on the Lakers, as James is a good friend of Paul and a fellow Klutch client.

Players exchange agents all the time, and just because an agent has a specific track record doesn’t mean that anything is set in stone. The NBA is weird like that. However, It’s not completely unreasonable to raise an eyebrow at Davis joining up with Paul after leaving longtime agent Thad Foucher earlier in September. What Paul does have a rep for is getting his players paid handsomely, which is probably the main thing Davis will be looking for.

New Orleans can offer Davis the vaunted super max contract once he is up for an extension.

New lottery rules change tanking incentives, starting this season

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This is the latest of NBC’s NBA season preview stories, and we will post at least one a day on these pages until Oct. 16, when the NBA season kicks off. We will look at teams and topics around the NBA throughout the series, and today we focus on the impact of the new lottery odds.

To paraphrase Jerry Tarkanian, the NBA is so mad at the 76ers, it’ll keep the Hawks losing another couple years.

The NBA finally enacted lottery reform that will take effect this season. The measures appeared designed to curb Sam Hinkie’s ambitious multi-year tank, but Philadelphia has already reaped the rewards of The Process. The 76ers, led by former high draft picks Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, are one of the league’s top teams and extremely unlikely to land in the lottery. It’s the next generation of losing teams, like Atlanta, that will feel the brunt of these changes.

Generally, the new rules reduce incentives to chase the league’s worst record. The very-bottom teams face greater variance and worse expected outcomes than previously. The top six seeds in the lottery became less valuable than before, the 7-14 seeds more valuable than before.

In the previous system, the three worst teams had 250, 199 and 156 of 1,000 lottery combinations. The top three picks were drawn then the next 11 picks were slotted in reverse order of record.

Now, the three worst teams each have 140 of 1,000 lottery combinations. The top-four picks are drawn then the next 10 picks are slotted in reverse order of record.

There are several ways to measure the changes, but here a few based on lottery seed in the old system (orange) and new system (blue):

Odds of No. 1 pick:

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Odds of top-four pick:

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Expected pick:

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The “big” change is the bottom three teams all have the same odds of getting drawn, creating an illusion there’s no difference between finishing last or third-to-last. But the last-place team still gets slotted ahead of the second-worst and third-worst (and second-worst ahead of third-worst) if none get drawn in the lottery.

Simply, teams are still incentivized to chase the league’s very worst record. The incentives aren’t as strong as they once were, but they still exist.

And the upside remains just as high. Top draft picks are so valuable – a chance to add elite young talent on a relatively cheap contract that comes with five years of team control that, practically, extends much longer.

So, how will teams handle this changing structure?

Decisions will be fascinating among more than just the lowest of cellar-dwellers. Several teams have traded first-round picks this season that contain protections within the lottery. The Mavericks owe the Hawks a top-five protected first-rounder. The Cavaliers owe the Hawks a top-10-protected first-rounder. The Grizzlies owe the Celtics a top-eight-protected first-rounder. The Nuggets owe the Nets a top-12-protected first-rounder. Those owing teams all face a new batch of decisions of when to give up on trying to make the playoffs and aim to keep that pick.

I mostly share the view that lottery reform won’t change much, particularly on a year-to-year basis. But the cumulative effect could be larger on some teams.

Hinkie’s 76ers were an anomaly. Few teams set out to tank for that long. Many more tanked for a season, knowing that would result in a high draft pick. With a new touted prospect in hand, those teams usually attempted to ascend.

But now, far less is guaranteed. Before, the second-worst team was likely to land a top-three pick and was guaranteed a top-five pick. Now, the second-worst team is likely to pick between No. 4 and No. 6. In that lower range, the team might get stuck with a lesser prospect who leaves it stuck losing again the following year.

At minimum, lottery reform adds uncertainty to a league that had grown familiar with the previous system and how teams proceeded within it. We can all guess how teams will act in the new system, but this season will provide much more tangible clarity.