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.”

James Harden ties career best with 61, Rockets beat Spurs 111-105

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HOUSTON (AP) — James Harden matched his career high with 61 points, including 27 in the first quarter, to lead the Houston Rockets to a 111-105 victory over the San Antonio Spurs on Friday night.

Harden hit three straight 3-pointers to give the Rockets a 103-100 lead and scored all of Houston’s points in a 13-2 run late in the fourth quarter.

Harden topped the 50-point mark for the eighth time this season, compared with 10 such performances from the rest of the league combined. He matched his career-best total set earlier this season against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.

The NBA’s leading scorer surpassed the 30-point mark in the second quarter and the 40-point mark with 9 minutes remaining in the third.

Before Harden’s late surge, the Spurs led by six points with 4 minutes left in the game. The Spurs had overcome a 15-point halftime deficit to tie the game at 81 entering the fourth quarter.

Harden was 7 of 10 from the field in the first quarter, including 3 of 4 from the 3-point line, and also went 10 for 12 from the free throw line. His 27 points in the period were the second-most in franchise history, trailing only Vernon Maxwell’s 30 in 1991.

Harden finished 9 of 13 from 3, 19 of 34 from the field and 14 of 17 from the free throw line.

Houston has won 13 of its last 15 games and eight of its last nine at home.

Bryn Forbes led San Antonio with 20 points, while Derrick White added 18 and DeMar DeRozan had 16.

Houston led 36-24 at the end of the first quarter and 62-47 at halftime.

 

LeBron James’ playoff streak ends at 13 years

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The last time LeBron James missed the playoffs, YouTube hadn’t yet launched to the public.

LeBron had reached the postseason every year since 2005, when his Cavaliers went 42-40 and finished ninth in the East – another good marker. The last time LeBron missed the playoffs, it was so long ago, an Eastern Conference team could be that good and not qualify.

But his Lakers were officially eliminated from the playoff race Friday with a loss to the Nets.

That ends LeBron’s postseason streak at 13 years – tied for the 13th-longest of all-time. Karl Malone and John Stockton hold the record, each playing in 19 straight postseasons.

Here are the longest playoff streaks of all-time:

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Obviously, LeBron joining the Western Conference put his playoff streak in greater jeopardy. And the Lakers’ fate has been known for a while.

Still, it’ll be a little jarring to watch a postseason that doesn’t include a player who ruled half the bracket for so long.

That said, LeBron might not have the longest playoff streak snapped this year. Tony Parker, who reached the playoffs in all 17 of his seasons with the Spurs, could fall short in his first season with the Hornets.

If Charlotte misses the playoffs, 76ers guard J.J. Redick is in line to hold the longest active streak at 13 years.

Here are the players with the longest active streaks that could continue this season.

Players are listed with the teams they made the postseason with during their streaks. If they haven’t reached the playoffs in their stint with their current team, that team is listed in brackets.

Players whose teams are currently in playoff position are in teal. Players whose teams are currently outside playoff position but not yet eliminated are in purple. Free agents who’d be eligible for the playoffs if they sign before the end of the regular season are in white:

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There’s no reason to believe Manu Ginobili will come out of retirement. But he has played in every postseason since missing the entire 2009 playoffs due to injury. It’s technically possible for him to play in the 2019 playoffs and keep his streak alive.

Which is more than LeBron can say.

Knicks’ fans chant “Free IT” as Isaiah Thomas sits on Nuggets bench

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Well played, Knicks fans.

Denver went into Madison Square Garden Friday night to be the latest team to defeat the Knicks. Isaiah Thomas, out of the rotation in Denver, was the only dressed player not to play for the Nuggets. That did not sit well with Knicks fans.

Denver has better on court options than IT — Monte Morris should get Most Improved Player votes — but I hope he gets fully healthy and lands somewhere next season where he gets a chance to show what he can still do.

Lonzo Ball severs ties with co-founder of Big Baller Brand

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LaVar Ball is the face of the Big Baller Brand, the shoe and apparel line that sponsors the Lakers’ Lonzo Ball and has been a successful marketing brand.

Alan Foster, a co-founder and part owner of BBB, served as the business manager, the guy behind the scenes. He has been a long-time friend and confidant of the Ball family.

Now Lonzo Ball has cut ties with Foster over inappropriate use of funds, something Ball confirmed in an ESPN story by Ramona Shelburne and Paula Lavigne.

Los Angeles Lakers guard Lonzo Ball has severed ties with a co-founder of Big Baller Brand over concerns that the longtime family friend has a criminal past and also has not adequately accounted for the whereabouts of roughly $1.5 million from Ball’s personal and business accounts.

Ball told ESPN that he believes that Alan Foster, a friend of Lonzo’s father for almost a decade who owns 16.3 percent of Big Baller Brand, had “used his access to my business and personal finances to enrich himself. As a result, I have decided to sever all ties with Alan, effective immediately.”

According to documents and emails reviewed by ESPN, questions about Foster’s business decisions and communication were first raised last fall to Lonzo and LaVar by Lonzo’s financial adviser.

That advisor noticed the missing $1.5 million, and as Lonzo and others started to pull on that thread everything unraveled. If you want the details, Shelburne and Lavigne did great reporting on the issue.

A lot of players have family members or close friends as part of their “team” in one capacity or another. There’s nothing wrong with that — LeBron James has used that model to great success, although his friends worked, learned, and became well qualified in the areas they handled.

What’s smart is what Ball did — have someone independent who checks the books, does the taxes, and makes sure that the family/friends actually have the players’ best interest at heart. The stories of those that don’t are long and legendary, unfortunately.

Ball remains out for the rest of the season for the Lakers, recovering from a grade three ankle sprain and bone bruise. He will recover and be able to work out this summer.