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.”

Carmelo Anthony has 18, but Giannis Antetokounmpo’s triple-double leads Bucks to win

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Giannis Antetokounmpo had his second triple-double of the season and the Milwaukee Bucks beat Carmelo Anthony and the short-handed Portland Trail Blazers 137-129 on Thursday night.

Antetokounmpo had 24 points, 19 rebounds and a career-high 15 assists to lead the Bucks to their sixth straight victory. Antetokounmpo, who also had a triple-double in the season opener, has 16 career triple-doubles. Milwaukee is 14-2 in those games.

Eric Bledsoe added 30 points and six assists in the Bucks’ highest-scoring game of the season.

After scoring 10 points on 4-of-14 shooting in 24 minutes in his season debut Tuesday night against the Pelicans, Anthony had 10 points in the first half Thursday. The 10-time All-Star finished with 18 points (6-of-15 shooting) and seven rebounds for the Blazers, who were without Hassan Whiteside (hip), Damian Lillard (back), Zach Collins (shoulder) and Jusuf Nurkic (leg).

CJ McCollum scored a game-high 37 points and Skal Labissiere added 22 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks off the bench for Portland. The Trail Blazers lost their third straight game and seventh of the last nine against the Bucks, including sixth straight in Milwaukee.

The Bucks made their first seven shots, including three 3s, and led 17-6. Milwaukee never trailed.

The Bucks also had their highest first-half total, leading 72-58.

Report: Knicks not looking to make early-season coaching change with David Fizdale

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It didn’t take a Kremlinologist to read into what Knicks president Steve Mills said at his forced by the owner impromptu press conference 10 games into the NBA season:

Coach David Fizdale was in trouble. Big trouble.

It may not just be immediate, reports Marc Berman at the New York Post.

Mills wanted to see “consistent effort” and he’s gotten it. Indications are the coach’s hot seat is cooler halfway through this 10-game trial. Their record is 2-3 since the James Dolan-inspired conference, but could easily be 4-1 (they blew big leads to Charlotte, losing on a last-second 3-pointer, and, of course, had Philly dead in the water)…

The Knicks had to really sink south for a coaching change to be made by Game 20. Indications are it was far-fetched for a change to be made this early anyway. Was owner James Dolan, who has given Fizdale private reassurances, really going to let president Mills hire a new coach from the outside on a long-term deal with Fizdale still having at least one season fully guaranteed on his pact for 2020-21? Sources indicated the major deterrent to making a change at Thanksgiving was the sketchy alternative of promoting one of the assistants – Jud Buechler, Keith Smart or Kaleb Canales.

Good luck finding anyone who thinks Fizdale is safe long term in New York (and for the record, Smart has been an NBA head coach before, there are worse choices).

However, making a mid-season coaching change should really only happen for a couple of reasons. One is that the situation is so bad, so toxic, that it could poison the team into future seasons. The other is that there is a coach available on the sidelines that the team sees as “the man” going forward and they want to snap him up before someone else does (the Kings hiring George Karl comes to mind, although he turned out not to be “the man” they needed).

Not sure either of those situations applies to the Knicks and Fizdale. A move is more likely in the offseason.

However, predict James Dolan’s moods at your own risk.

Cavaliers’ new jerseys feature a big ol’ feather

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The Cavaliers rank near the top of the NBA by taking 19% of their total shots outside the restricted area while still in the paint. But Cleveland has converted just a middling 41% of attempts in that floater/runner range.

Maybe these uniforms will help the Cavs find a more feathery touch.

Though not in so many words, the Cavaliers actually stuck a feather on their jerseys and called it macaroni.

Jarrett Allen denies Kyrie Irving rumors, “He acts like a normal teammate”

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It hasn’t taken long for the “Kyrie Irving isn’t a good leader in Brooklyn” rumor mill to start up. The Nets 6-8 start combined with a desire in some corners of the NBA (and NBA Twitter) to pile on Irving has started the talk. Whether those rumors are just smoke or there’s some fire there depends on who you ask.

It was ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith who brought the topic to the forefront again on First Take.

Just as a refresher, anything Smith says should be taken with a full box of Morton’s Kosher salt. His job is to stir things up. That doesn’t mean he has no connections.

Nets center Jarrett Allen did an AMA on Bleacher Report and shot down the idea Irving is a bad influence in the locker room.

He acts like a normal teammate. People say that he has mood swings, but that’s a complete lie. He wants to see us succeed and do well if anything.

Allen added this when asked to compare playing with Irving vs. D'Angelo Russell.

They’re kind of different. Kyrie can score from anywhere, even without me setting up the pick-and-roll. DLo…we worked well; if he didn’t score, he’d kick it to me to score.

The Nets are a franchise inhabiting a strange space this season. First, this ultimately is Kevin Durant‘s team, but he doesn’t really get the keys until he can play, which almost certainly means next season. That makes Irving an interim Alpha on that team, but that’s an unusual dynamic.

Second, this is a Nets team that has rebounded from as low as it can get in the NBA to being a place Irving and KD wanted to play by establishing a culture, an identity. This is a lunch pail group of players who were selfless and bought into the team’s ideas and concepts. Nobody was a superstar, it was team first. Except, in come two superstars who bring their own ways of doing things — and the Nets can’t mess with that. There are compromises that need to go on for both sides, with Irving/KD bending to the Nets some, but the Nets giving them superstar treatment.

All of that creates friction that is going to rub some people the wrong way. Plus, Irving is a unique personality who is going to do things his way, and that will bother others. Some of those people will talk to the media, but that doesn’t mean everyone — or even a majority — feel the same way. It’s usually people who feel aggrieved who want to vent.

How all this plays out in Brooklyn is going to be something to watch. But the ultimate test is next season, not this one.