Chris Copeland’s surprising NBA career now includes even-more-surprising third act

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Chris Copeland is leading an NBA team in scoring.

Chris Copeland – who never led his college team in scoring – is leading an NBA team in scoring.

Chris Copeland – who was cut from two European teams in two months – is leading an NBA team in scoring.

Chris Copeland – who didn’t make even an NBA summer-league team until age 28 – is leading an NBA team in scoring.

Early in a season where the sample is small enough to create more than a few oddities, this one of the more interesting twists. For one, Chris freaking Copeland is leading an NBA team in scoring. For another, there’s at least an outside chance this sticks.

Just two years ago, not even diehard NBA fans had heard of Copeland. He’d toiled overseas after a solid, though unspectacular, four years at Colorado. Then, he got a summer-league invite from the Knicks and played well. That led to a training-camp invitation from New York, and he played even better in the preseason.

For so long, Copeland’s primary goal was just making the NBA. His mom used to hang pictures with the word “NBA” around the house. In his first season in Europe, Copeland said he thought too much about the NBA, and that undermined his focus on the court.

But after the dream looked so distant, a 28-year-old Copeland made the Knicks’ roster two seasons ago.

Since 1970, 2,881 players have broken into the NBA. Just 36 made their debut at such an old age.

If Copeland’s journey ended there, it would have been a great story. He overcame long odds to fulfill his dream. Everyone could have gone home happy.

But Copeland didn’t stop there.

“As you reach one goal, you set new ones,” he said.

Copeland played well for the Knicks. He scored 8.7 points per game and finished sixth in Rookie of the Year voting – the highest place for someone so old since a 31-year-old Arvydas Sabonis ranked second in the 1996 voting.

Last offseason, Copeland signed with the Pacers, where his role shrunk drastically. After expecting to serve as the primary backup power forward, Copeland saw Indiana trade for Luis Scola to fill that role. Copeland ranked 14th on the team in minutes.

Again, if his story ended there, it would have been a satisfying one. Not only did Copeland topple all the obstacles he faced to reach the NBA, he had a little success while in the league. He’d always have that, even if his career fizzled.

But a funny thing is happening this season. The Pacers – who lost Paul George (to injury) and Lance Stephenson (to the Hornets) – need Copeland, and he’s delivering in a way he never has before. The forward is averaging a team-high 16.7 points per game.

Here’s every NBA team’s scoring leader, sorted by their highest-scoring season entering this year:

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Unfortunately for the Pacers, such a reliance on a player of Copeland’s caliber has gone as well as you’d expect. Indiana is 1-6 – the NBA’s worst record, non-Philadelphia division – with its only win coming over the 76ers.

But that’s hardy Copeland’s fault, and it’s scary to think how much worse the Pacers would be without him.

Indiana’s offensive rating, a decent 106.6, with him on the floor collapses to a dreadful 75.6 while he sits. No other leading scorer can match that 31-points-per-100-possession boost.

Here’s each team’s offensive rating with its leading scorer on the court (blue) and off the court (yellow):

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Leading scorer On Off Boost
Chris Copeland (IND) 106.6 75.6 +31.0
James Harden (HOU) 111.7 84.9 +26.8
Stephen Curry (GSW) 107.3 87.8 +19.5
Anthony Davis (NO) 105.1 85.6 +19.5
Greg Monroe (DET) 108.1 90.5 +17.6
Gordon Hayward (UTAH) 111 95.4 +15.6
LaMarcus Aldridge (POR) 111.6 96.6 +15.0
Dirk Nowitzki (DAL) 116.6 105.2 +11.4
Carmelo Anthony (NY) 103 92.2 +10.8
Kevin Martin (MIN) 105.1 95.5 +9.6
DeMarcus Cousins (SAC) 106.4 98.1 +8.3
Marc Gasol (MEM) 101.4 93.1 +8.3
LeBron James (CLE) 103.6 95.9 +7.7
Isaiah Thomas (PHO) 106.8 99.2 +7.6
Joe Johnson (BRK) 111.6 105.2 +6.4
Tony Wroten (PHI) 95.1 89.7 +5.4
Reggie Jackson (OKC) 99.3 94.3 +5.0
Jeff Teague (ATL) 104.6 100.1 +4.5
John Wall (WSH) 102.5 98.4 +4.1
DeMar DeRozan (TOR) 110 107.9 +2.1
Chris Bosh (MIA) 108.8 106.7 +2.1
Jimmy Butler (CHI) 109 108.2 +0.8
Jeff Green (BOS) 107.1 107.1 0.0
Kobe Bryant (LAL) 103.1 104.5 -1.4
Blake Griffin (LAC) 105.3 109.6 -4.3
Al Jefferson (CHA) 95.6 100.1 -4.5
Tony Parker (SAS) 95.5 100.1 -4.6
Nikola Vucevic (ORL) 95.3 101.2 -5.9
Ty Lawson (DEN) 96.3 102.4 -6.1
Brandon Knight (MIL) 89.5 112 -22.5

Not only is Copeland making such a large impact, he’s doing so while learning a new position. He’s mostly played small forward this year after working primarily as a stretch four.

At small forward, his strengths – pulling a big man to the perimeter, taking a defender off the dribble – are less pronounced, maybe even to the point he loses his edge. He’s versatile enough to post up smaller players and take advantage on the offensive glass, but his forte still seems to be playing stretch four.

Pacers coach Frank Vogel believes this experience – serving as a go-to option, playing a new position – will only better equip Copeland once he returns to a smaller role, and that should happen soon enough. Two of last year’s starters, David West and George Hill, have yet to play this this season and are expected to return this month.

When they do, will Copeland maintain his status as the team’s leading scorer?

West (14.0 points per game last season) and Hill (10.3) could take the mantle, and so could Roy Hibbert (10.8), but none of those three returning starters seems particularly great fits in a go-to role at this point. Rodney Stuckey, who averaged 13.9 points per game for the Pistons last season, was a trendy pick to lead Indiana in scoring, though he’s battling his own injury issues.

I’d take the field over Copeland (or any individual), but Copeland has put himself squarely in the mix.

How did someone who doubted his ability to play in the NBA until he actually put on a Knicks jersey come this far?

It’s easy to see how all those setbacks motivated Copeland to reach the league. It’d seem a chip on his shoulder would take him only so far once in the NBA, though.

But Copeland, who said he thinks daily about the lessons he learned in Europe, insists his pre-NBA years have helped him succeed in the league just as much as they helped him reach it.

“If I didn’t play overseas, if I got a real shot early,” Copeland said, “I would have failed.”

Instead, he’s thriving.

Copeland has joined just eight others who’ve played three seasons in the NBA after breaking in at such an old age – Pablo Prigioni, Fabricio Oberto, Billy Thomas, Pat Burke, Zeljko Rebraca, Dean Garrett, Sabonis and Charlie Criss.

In the final season of a two-year, $6,135,000 contract with the Pacers, Copeland, now 30, will again have to convince someone to sign him this summer. But his big numbers this season should ensure that happens.

What could have been a cup of coffee in the NBA has turned into a career.

“I don’t know if this is the best I’ve played. I think I can play better than I have,” Copeland said. “But we’ll see.”

Mike Budenholzer no fan of Drake’s free run on Toronto sideline

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Drake is the Mayor of Toronto.

Actually, he does fewer drugs than some former mayors of Toronto, and Drake was not elected, but he’s The Mayor in any meaningful way. The man can do whatever he wants.

Such as walk up and down the sidelines of a Raptors game with impunity, and give Nick Nurse a massage during the game.

Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer has much bigger things to worry about — such as were Eric Bledsoe misplaced his shot — but somehow during his conference call with the media on Wednesday, before a critical Game 5, Drake was the topic of discussion. Budenholzer is not a fan of Drake getting to patrol the sidelines. Via ESPN:

“I will say, again, I see [Drake talking to Raptors] in some timeouts, but I don’t know of any person that’s attending the game that isn’t a participant in the game a coach,  I’m sorry, a player or a coach, that has access to the court. I don’t know how much he’s on the court. It sounds like you guys are saying it’s more than I realize. There’s certainly no place for fans and, you know, whatever it is exactly that Drake is for the Toronto Raptors. You know, to be on the court, there’s boundaries and lines for a reason, and like I said, the league is usually pretty good at being on top of stuff like that.”

My guess is the league (and maybe the referees before Game 6 in Toronto) will reach out to Drake and tell him he can’t go Joe Biden on a coach during the game, and to stay near his seat. This is precisely the kind of distraction from the game that fans love to talk about and annoys the league office, which wants the focus on the court.

Personally, the more personality around the game, the better. It’s entertainment people, enjoy the show.

Knicks president Mills says Porzingis threatened to return to Europe if not traded in seven days

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If you thought the Knicks thrashing or Kristaps Porzingis on his way out the door was over, well, you haven’t been paying attention to the Knicks.

Team president Steve Mills was at a Knicks fan forum on Wednesday and was asked about the Kristaps Porzingis trade and dropped this bomb: Porzingis gave the Knicks the ultimatum of “trade me or I’m going back to Europe.”

“When he walked into our office, my office, and Scott [Perry, Knicks GM] was sitting there with me, and point blank said to us, ‘I don’t want to be here, I’m not going to re-sign with the Knicks, and I’ll give you seven days to try and trade me or I’m going back to Europe.'”

To be clear, Porzingis had to mean going back to Europe to work out and hang out, he could not have played professionally. European clubs honor commitments to NBA contracts — they will not sign and play a guy under an NBA contract — the same way the NBA does with European clubs (as well as China and all FIBA leagues).

Saying he wasn’t going to re-sign makes things clear, it’s one of the reasons the NBA touted the “super-max” contract extensions because teams would find out earlier about player intentions. The Europe part, if Porzingis really said that, is a toothless threat.

For the Knicks brass, speaking in front of Knicks fans, this was the chance to make themselves look good — “see, we already had a good trade in place” — and thrash the guy they had been selling as the franchise savior a year before. It’s all about perception.

The Knicks have a lot of cap space this summer and their perception as a front office will hinge on what they do — or do not do — with it.

Porzingis landed in a good spot with Luka Doncic in Dallas, and the Mavericks will give Porzingis a max contract. Then it’s on him to earn it.

New Suns coach Monty Williams: ‘I’m here at the right time, and I’m here with the right people’

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PHOENIX (AP) The Phoenix Suns have gone through coaches like tear-away racing visors, the count up to five in five years.

The instability has hurt them on the court, the run of playoff-less appearances stretching to nine straight seasons with this year’s 19-63 finish.

Monty Williams, the man GM James Jones hired to coach the Suns, hopes to change the trend.

“Continuity, having a staff here for a while and putting in a system that the players can rely upon, but ultimately it will come down to James, myself and the players pushing this thing forward,” Williams said during his introductory news conference Tuesday. “The players are going to have to embrace a level of work and commitment that it takes to be a champion.”

Williams was hired on May 3 to replace Igor Kokoskov, who was fired after one season in the desert.

Williams’s arrival in Phoenix was delayed while he finished out the playoffs as an assistant to Philadelphia coach Brett Brown. The 76ers were eliminated from the playoffs last week by Toronto on Kawhi Leonard‘s hang-on-the-rim buzzer-beater in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Williams’ name had been linked to numerous head coaching jobs, including the Lakers, but he wound up in the Valley of the Sun after multiple discussions with Suns owner Robert Sarver.

“In my conversations with Mr. Sarver, I saw someone who didn’t duck the tough questions,” Williams said. “We both had tough questions for each other and in this day and age where people throw each other under the bus, make excuses, blame, I didn’t see that. I saw a man who really wants to bring success to this city and I mean that with all of my heart or I wouldn’t have come here.”

Williams had a previous stint as an NBA head coach, leading New Orleans from 2010-15. A year after he was fired, Williams’ wife, Ingrid, was killed in a car crash.

He didn’t know if he wanted to get back into coaching after her death, but was pushed by his kids to return to coaching the sport he loves.

“When everything happened to my family, my focus was just take care of my children,” said Williams, who has remarried. “That led me to believe I might not ever be able to coach again, and I was cool with that. But they weren’t. And to have your children want you to go back to doing what you love to do gave me even more confidence, more strength. Hopefully that translates and the players can pick up on that.”

The Suns have been known as a dysfunctional franchise, but were lauded for landing Williams, a well-respected, well-rounded coach.

Williams played nine NBA seasons with New York, San Antonio, Denver, Orlando and Philadelphia. He’s been a head coach, an assistant and spent two years in San Antonio’s front office.

“His experience in all facets of basketball as a coach, player development on the offensive side of the ball and the defensive side of the ball, in the front office gives him a unique perspective that I think is well suited for our franchise,” Jones said.

In the Suns, Williams takes over a young team with two star-quality players at its core: Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton.

Booker has developed into one of the NBA’s best scorers, leading the Suns with 26.6 points per game. He had five 40-point games the final month of the season, including 50 and 59 in consecutive games.

Ayton was the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s NBA draft and didn’t disappoint, shooting 59% while averaging 16.3 points and 10.3 rebounds.

Phoenix should add to its talent base with the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft.

“There’s so much room to grow,” Williams said. “I think we have a young team that’s learning how to win and they will and I have to do my job. I have to enhance the strengths but be honest about our weaknesses and get the players to consider a new way of doing some things. I think I’m here at the right time and I’m here with the right people.”

Hornets’ Miles Bridges on All-Rookie: ‘I didn’t get snubbed. I played like a— all year’

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The NBA released its All-Rookie teams yesterday. Hornets forward Miles Bridges missed out, getting only one first-team vote and four second-team votes.

Bridges:

I love this attitude. Bridges didn’t deserve to make it. It’s silly to for anyone, including him, to pretend otherwise.

He’s obviously being too hard on himself. He had an OK rookie year. It just wasn’t one of the NBA’s 10 best this season.

Players often hold inflated opinions of themselves. That might help them succeed in a high-pressure job, and that’s obviously their priority. To be clear: I’m not criticizing them for adopting an approach that helped them reach this high level. But it leaves them as lousy analysts of their own performance.

Bridges doesn’t have that problem. It’s easy to see how this will drive him to improve.

His humility won’t work for everyone. But it works for him, and it’s a refreshing change of pace.