ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 Preview: Indiana Pacers

3 Comments

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:

image

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.

After four months off, first NBA teams practice in restart bubble

oe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

ASSOCIATED PRESS — Nikola Vucevic had to raise his voice a bit to answer a question. He had just walked off the court after the first Orlando Magic practice of the restart, and some of his teammates remained on the floor while engaged in a loud and enthusiastic shooting contest.

After four months, basketball was truly back.

Full-scale practices inside the NBA bubble at the Disney complex started Thursday, with the Magic — the first team to get into the campus earlier this week — becoming the first team formally back on the floor. By the close of business Thursday, all 22 teams participating in the restart were to be checked into their hotel and beginning their isolation from the rest of the world for what will be several weeks at least. And by Saturday, all teams should have practiced at least once.

“It’s great to be back after four months,” Vucevic said. “We all missed it.”

The last eight teams were coming in Thursday, the Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers among them. Lakers forward LeBron James lamented saying farewell to his family, and 76ers forward Joel Embiid — who raised some eyebrows earlier this week when he said he was “not a big fan of the idea” of restarting the season in a bubble — showed up for his team’s flight in what appeared to be a full hazmat suit.

“Just left the crib to head to the bubble. … Hated to leave the (hashtag)JamesGang,” James posted on Twitter.

Another last-day arrival at the Disney campus was the reigning NBA champion Toronto Raptors, who boarded buses for the two-hour drive from Naples, Florida — they’ve been there for about two weeks, training at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers — for the trip to the bubble. The buses were specially wrapped for the occasion, with the Raptors’ logo and the words “Black Lives Matter” displayed on the sides.

Brooklyn, Utah, Washington and Phoenix all were down to practice Thursday, along with the Magic. Denver was originally scheduled to, then pushed back its opening session to Friday. By Saturday, practices will be constant — 22 teams working out at various times in a window spanning 13 1/2 hours and spread out across seven different facilities.

Exhibition games begin July 22. Games restart again for real on July 30.

“It just felt good to be back on the floor,” said Brooklyn interim coach Jacque Vaughn, who took over for Kenny Atkinson less than a week before the March 11 suspension of the season because of the coronavirus. “I think that was the most exciting thing. We got a little conditioning underneath us. Didn’t go too hard after the quarantine, wanted to get guys to just run up and down a little bit and feel the ball again.”

Teams, for the most part, had to wait two days after arriving before they could get on the practice floor.

Many players have passed the time with video games; Miami center Meyers Leonard, with the Heat not practicing for the first time until Friday, has been giving fans glimpses of everything from his gaming setup to his room service order for his first dinner at Disney — replete with lobster bisque, a burger, chicken strips and some Coors Light to wash it all down.

The food has been a big talking point so far, especially after a handful of players turned to social media to share what got portrayed as less-than-superb meals during the brief quarantine period.

“For the most part, everything has been pretty good in my opinion,” Nets guard Joe Harris said. “They’ve done a good job taking care of us and making sure to accommodate us in every area as much as possible.”

Learning the campus has been another key for the first few days, and that process likely will continue for a while since teams will be using all sorts of different facilities while getting back into the practice routine.

“We have to make the best out of it,” Vucevic said. “You know, this is our job. We’re going to try to make the best out of it. I really think the NBA did the best they could to know make this as good as they can for us. And once we start playing, you’re not going to be thinking about the little things.”

Zion Williamson’s stepfather accused of taking $400,000 before Zion’s season at Duke

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

ASSOCIATED PRESS — The legal fight over NBA rookie Zion Williamson’s endorsement potential now includes an allegation that his family received $400,000 from a marketing agency before his lone season for Duke.

Prime Sports Marketing and company president Gina Ford filed a lawsuit last summer in a Florida state court, accusing Williamson and the agency now representing him of breach of contract. That came a week after Williamson filed his own lawsuit in a North Carolina federal court to terminate a five-year contract with Prime Sports after moving to Creative Artists Agency LLC.

In court filings Thursday in North Carolina, Ford’s attorneys included a sworn affidavit from a California man who said the head of a Canadian-based firm called Maximum Management Group (MMG) told him he paid Williamson’s family for his commitment to sign with MMG once he left Duke for the NBA.

The documents include a marketing agreement signed by Williamson with MMG from May 2019, a December 2019 “letter of declaration” signed by Williamson and his stepfather agreeing to pay $500,000 to MMG president Slavko Duric for “repayment of a loan” from October 2018, and a copy of Williamson’s South Carolina driver’s license — which listed Williamson’s height as “284” and his weight as “6′06.”

In a statement to The Associated Press, Williamson attorney, Jeffrey S. Klein, said those documents were “fraudulent.”

“The alleged ‘agreements’ and driver’s license attached to these papers are fraudulent – and neither Mr. Williamson nor his family know these individuals nor had any dealings with them,” Klein said. “We had previously alerted Ms. Ford’s lawyers to both this fact and that we had previously reported the documents to law enforcement as forgeries, but they chose to go ahead with another frivolous filing anyway.

“This is a desperate and irresponsible attempt to smear Mr. Williamson at the very time he has the opportunity to live his dream of playing professional basketball.”

The affidavit is from Donald Kreiss, a self-described entrepreneur who worked with athletes and agents in marketing relationships. He had recently contacted Ford then provided the affidavit last week outlining interactions with MMG and Williamson’s family, according to one of the filings.

Ford’s attorneys have sought to focus on Williamson’s eligibility. His lawsuit stated that Prime Sports violated North Carolina’s sports agent law, both by failing to include disclaimers about the loss of eligibility when signing the contract and the fact neither Prime Sports nor Ford were registered with the state.

Ford’s attorneys have argued the Uniform Athlete Agents Act wouldn’t apply if Williamson was ineligible to play college basketball from the start.

Ford’s attorneys had sought to have last summer’s No. 1 overall NBA draft pick and New Orleans Pelicans rookie answer questions in Florida state court about whether he received improper benefits before playing for the Blue Devils. They had also raised questions about housing for Williamson’s family during his Duke career in a separate filing in North Carolina.

A Florida appeals court last month granted a stay to pause the proceedings there, shifting the focus to the North Carolina case.

Duke has repeatedly declined to comment on the case because it isn’t involved in the litigation, but issued a statement in January that school had reviewed Williamson’s eligibility previously and found no concerns.

Russell Westbrook, James Harden do not fly to Orlando with Rockets, will join team later

Russell Westbrook James Harden
Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Houston Rockets have landed in Orlando to be part of the NBA’s restart bubble.

Except for stars Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Neither was on the team’s charter flight from Houston, but both plan to join the team soon. Shams Charania of The Athletic broke the news, with the story confirmed by others soon after.

Just-signed Luc Mbah a Moute and assistant coach John Lucas also did not fly with the team and will catch up soon, reports Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.

Westbrook and Harden are not the only stars to delay their arrival in Orlando, the Clippers Kawhi Leonard did the same for personal reasons. The teams have agreed to this, but with limited practice time in the run-up to the eight seeding games, coaches want everyone in camp to work on rebuilding chemistry as fast as possible.

Coach Mike D’Antoni did fly with the team and was cleared to be in the bubble. D’Antoni, 69, was subject to extra consideration for entrance into the bubble by the NBA due to his age and the risk factors for people older than 65 with COVID-19.

The Rockets are one of the most interesting teams to watch in Orlando because of their all-in commitment to small ball — 6’5″ P.J. Tucker will play a lot of center. In the uncertain world of the NBA’s restart, that unconventional approach could get them upset wins. Or, they could get bounced early. There is no more high-variance team in Orlando than the Rockets.

Knicks’ coaching job frontrunner Tom Thibodeau interviews with team

Tom Thibodeau Knicks
AP Photo
Leave a comment

Tom Thibodeau has been considered the frontrunner for the Knicks coaching job since the day Leon Rose was hired as team president.

New York has done its due diligence talking to other candidates — Jason Kidd, Kenny Atkinson, Mike Woodson, Mike Brown, Ime Udoka, Will Hardy, Pat Delaney, Jamahl Mosley, Chris Fleming, and Knicks interim coach Mike Miller — but through it all Thibodeau remained the frontrunner, according to multiple sources around the league.

Thursday Thibodeau finally got his turn, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Thibodeau wants to return to NBA coaching and his decades-long friendship with Rose appears to give him an inside track.

The big question becomes, is Thibodeau the right fit? Which leads to a couple of other questions: What style of team are the Knicks trying to build? And, how do they intend to build it?

Thibodeau has shown previously to be a win-now coach who leans on veterans and a short rotation. If New York is looking to draft and develop a core of young players that can be a long-lasting foundation for winning in the future, it’s fair to ask if Thibodeau the best coach for that task. Thibodeau says he has grown and will bring a broader perspective to his next job.

The Knicks have a couple of players that could be part of a long-term rebuild, but also feel they are well positioned to trade for a star if one becomes available. As the Lakers did, the Knicks are looking to stockpile good young players, try to win with them, but if the right trade comes along — Anthony Davis for the Lakers — they will send the youth out the door. All of this sounds good, but to make it work, the new coach needs to build a player-development program in New York, something that has never been a strong suit for the franchise.

Whichever way the rebuild goes, and whoever gets the Knicks job, there is a lot of work to do to build a winner.