ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 Preview: Indiana Pacers

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Last season: The Pacers jetted to a 33-7 start, the NBA’s best record. They looked every bit a championship contender, and some went as far to label them favorite.

And then they collapsed.

What happened? You name it. Infighting, finger-pointing and the loss of a mental edge.

Indiana barely beat the eighth-seeded Hawks, a team with a losing record, in the first round. They did enough to get past the Wizards in the second round before succumbing to the Heat in the conference finals.

On paper, the Pacers’ season – an Eastern Conference-best 56 wins, two playoff series victories – met preseason expectations or came very close. But their late losses were so inept, the team frequently faced questions about its implosion.

Signature highlight from last season:

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How about Pacers president Larry Bird burying his face in his hands as Indiana struggled through the first round-round of the playoffs?

Or, if you want to back to a simpler time, it’s Paul George’s 360-degree dunk:

 

Key offseason moves:

Keys to the Pacers season:

Making do without Paul George and Lance Stephenson: George suffered a season-ending injury during a Team USA scrimmage, and Stephenson signed with the Hornets.

How will Indiana cope without its minutes leaders from a season ago? History, as well as common sense, suggests not well.

George is a bona fide NBA star, and Stephenson’s all-around game nearly made him an All-Star season. They were paramount to what the Pacers did on both ends of the floor, and their losses will be felt – hard.

The only question just how much Indiana will miss those two.

Finding scoring: In the last eight years, these last couple Pacers teams stand alone for their success despite their lackluster offense.

And that was with George and Stephenson.

David West can score inside and from mid-range, but he’s 34. George Hill is more of a complementary player than a true lead guard. And Roy Hibbert is prone to disappearing.

Indiana’s offense – already a weak spot – is really trying to dig itself out of a hole.

Roy Hibbert stepping up: If the Pacers are going to overcome their offensive issues, their defense must remain stout, and that starts with Hibbert in the middle. For much of last season, he was the NBA’s most-impactful player. Even when he slumped in the second half, his offense fell far more than his defense. The responsibility remains with Hibbert to anchor Indiana’s defense, this time with even less resistance in front of him.

Hibbert must juggle that task with re-gaining his footing offensively. When confident, Hibbert uses his size to score inside at a helpful clip. But in last year’s playoffs, Hibbert lost his way. The Pacers are no longer good enough to win when he plays like that.

Frank Vogel coaching better or differently: Indiana had one of the NBA’s strongest identities last season, always playing big lineups – even when offensive spacing suffered and the defense was too slow.

When the Pacers played well, that style looked forceful. When they didn’t, it looked stubborn.

It didn’t have to be that way, though. Chris Copeland was buried on the bench, and George could have played some small-ball four. But Vogel refused to shift his system.

This year, with a sudden talent disadvantage, Vogel will either have to coach his desired scheme more effectively or show more flexibility.

Why you should watch: The Pacers couldn’t handle success last season, falling apart in can’t-look-away fashion. How will they handle failure? Barring some surprising developments, we might soon know – and that could be even more dramatic than last season.

And if there are surprising developments – Hill showing a more expansive offensive game? Hibbert dominating inside? West defying aging? – that will be interesting, too.

Prediction: 33-49. This team just doesn’t have the talent to compete anymore. Maybe the Pacers, with the right breaks, could make the playoffs. But where is that going to get them?

Larry Bird was already testing the market for Hibbert. George’s injury could put him over the edge.

If the Pacers struggle early, don’t be surprised to see the Pacers president punt on this season in order to better equip the team – both through trade and tanking – for when George returns.

Kings’ De’Aaron Fox: ‘I don’t crave to be in a big market’

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De'Aaron Fox was the breakout star of the Kings’ breakthrough season. The future looks bright in Sacramento.

But we’ve seen this story play out so many times. A young player excels in a small market then eventually moves to a more desirable destination. LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George.

Will Fox be different?

Fox, via Corban Goble of ONE37pm:

“I don’t crave to be in a big market,” he says. “After last season, there was a buzz in Sacramento. Everyone in Sacramento is a Kings fan. If we start making the playoffs, or if we become a championship contender, the entire city is going to go nuts. That’s the difference between a big market and a small one.”

I’m glad Fox is happy in Sacramento. He had minimal say in getting there. The Kings picked him in a draft that gives teams massive control over top young prospects. That he landed somewhere he likes so much was largely coincidental. He could’ve easily wound up with Boston, Phoenix, Orlando, Minnesota or any other team picking in that range.

Some of this is Fox’s attitude. I suspect he would’ve found joy nearly anywhere. Now, he’s with the Kings and feeling positively about them.

They’ll have to continue to keep him happy as he approaches free agency. Unrestricted free agency is still several years away. A lot can change between now and then.

But Sacramento ought to feel good about Fox’s outlook now.

Damian Lillard on leaving Trail Blazers for super team: ‘We would win it, but what is the challenge or the fun in that?’

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Kevin Durant left for the Warriors for many reasons. LeBron James left for the Heat for many reasons. Anthony Davis and Paul George forced their way to Los Angeles for many reasons.

Those are life-altering moves. Nobody does something so consequential for a single purpose.

But whether or not it intended, each of those stars took an easier route to a championship. That’s just the reality.

Damian Lillard, on the other hand, has done so much to elevate himself then pull up the Trail Blazers with him. Lillard has often touted his loyalty to Portland. He showed it by signing a super-max extension that locks him in through 2025.

Lillard, via Adam Caparell of Complex:

“To leave, what did I invest all this time for just to leave, you know?” he says. “If I go play with three other stars, I don’t think that many people would doubt that I could win it. We would win it, but what is the challenge or the fun in that?”

I disagree with Lillard’s certainty about winning a title if he teamed with other stars. Not every perceived super team has won. A championship still must be earned. It’s not easy.

But it would be easier.

It also probably wouldn’t be as rewarding.

Durant has admitted winning a championship with Golden State didn’t fill the void he thought it would. Maybe for other reasons, but it’s easy to see the Warriors’ talent advantage as a reason. He joined a title contender and made it even better. He didn’t build that team. Perhaps, a championship with the Nets would mean more to him.

Lillard is less likely to win a title by staying Portland. I think he knows that. He enjoys the city, and the $196 million he projects to earn on his four-year extension doesn’t hurt, either.

But if Lillard ever wins a championship with the Trail Blazers, it would be so gratifying. That’s what he’s chasing.

Lillard made clear he’s not criticizing stars who chose an alternate path. He’s doing what’s right for him, just as they did what was right for them.

His quest should earn him plenty of fans. For everyone who disliked Durant joining Golden State because it offended their sensibilities of how a title pursuit should work, Lillard is a great foil.

Andre Iguodala recalls Draymond Green doubling Kevin Durant in practice: ‘he was mad … We was tryna win’

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Devin Booker complained to his opponents for double-teaming him during a pick-up game.

That has sparked a Great National Debate: Is it right or wrong to double-team during pick-up games?

Kevin Durant:

That’s a reasonable conclusion. The primary defender is missing an opportunity to work on his defense by getting help. But I also think it fails to address the main point. Booker wasn’t complaining to help the defender. Booker wanted the ideal training environment for himself, the offensive player.

How should the offensive player feel about it?

It’s a reasonably interesting question that’s getting taken far too seriously because the NBA is in a dead period. But to give it more juice, let’s add the Kevin Durant-Draymond Green relationship to the equation.

Andre Iguodala:

Durant:

It seems Durant can laugh it off now, but this story feeds into what so many people think they know about these players – that Green is a relentless competitor (accurate) and that Durant is soft (inaccurate).

NBA players spend so much time playing basketball. Sometimes, it’s helpful to face game-like conditions, where double-teams can happen at any point. Other times, it’s helpful to have more-relaxed conditions.

I don’t know enough about Booker’s pick-up game or the Warriors’ practice to say what was appropriate in each.

Report: Executives expect Thunder to say they are not trading Chris Paul (but they are)

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It’s all about leverage.

Right now the vultures are circling the Oklahoma City Thunder, hoping to get a free meal. Everyone knows the Thunder are moving into a rebuilding mode and want to trade Chris Paul for picks/young players, so other general managers — the vultures — are throwing out lowball offers hoping to get a steal of a trade. And by steal we mean making the Thunder throw in a first-round pick as a sweetener to get CP3 and the three-years, $124 million left on his contract off their books.

Oklahoma City’s response? Say “we’re not trying to trade him” and be patient. Here is how Brian Windhorst phrased it on ESPN’s The Jump (hat tip Real GM):

“Here’s what executives expect to happen: they expect the Thunder to put out a message that we’re not looking to trade Chris Paul…We want him to work with our young guys. Because they don’t want anybody to think they’re panic-trying to trade him, and they want to hope that somebody has something happen where they need Chris Paul,” said Windhorst.

Royce Young, who covers the Thunder for ESPN, added that he believed the Thunder would hold on to Chris Paul rather than surrender a draft pick.

This is the smart play. CP3 is still a top-flight point guard in the NBA, even if he has taken half a step back, and there are at least eight NBA teams going into this season thinking they have a shot at a title, and a few more looking at deep playoff runs. Some team is either going to realize they are not as good as they thought they were, or are going to suffer an injury, and be looking for an All-Star level player and replacement. Enter the Thunder and Chris Paul.

What this ultimately means is expect this to drag out. Not just through the summer and through training camp, but maybe all the way to the trade deadline.