51 Q: Can Pacers transition to smallball?

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In 2013 and 2014, the Indiana Pacers became a title contender by playing a hyper-traditional style that was at odds with the more free-flowing, position-fluid direction the league was heading. Now, they’re ripping it up and doing a complete 180 overnight while still trying to contend. They’ve moved on from David West and Roy Hibbert, and Frank Vogel has announced that Paul George will be the Pacers’ starting power forward (which George doesn’t love).

It’s a good idea in theory. Hibbert and West are hard to replace, and things felt like they had just run their course with the core that went to two straight Western Conference Finals before George’s brutal leg injury wiped out most of last season. But implementing a completely different style this fast is going to be a challenge for Frank Vogel.

Offensively, playing power forward shouldn’t be too much of an adjustment for George. The league is trending in a direction where big men are asked to play on the perimeter, and there’s potential to create mismatches inside with the speedier George against slower bigs. Defensively is where playing George at power forward can cause problems. He should do fine on the perimeter, where he can still switch onto wings. But the absence of Hibbert’s rim protection is going to result in George having to do more defensively in the paint, and that’s something he hasn’t really been asked to do over the course of his career.

Unfortunately, for all of George’s reservations about changing positions, the Pacers basically have no choice. Unless rookie center Myles Turner is ready to contribute right away, the Pacers’ roster of bigs is comprised of Ian Mahinmi, Jordan Hill and Lavoy Allen, exactly none of whom are starter-caliber players on a good team. The loss of Chris Copeland hurts — he’s another player who would have fit well in a smallball identity.

On the bright side, the Pacers have gotten George some actual offensive help this offseason. Monta Ellis is a perfect fit on this roster, a second shot creator who can also act as a pick-and-roll partner for George. Having a secondary offensive weapon like Ellis is going to free up a lot for George, and between George Hill and the re-signed Rodney Stuckey, their backcourt rotation should be solid.

Still, it’s going to be a while before this new-look Pacers team is seriously contending. They’re probably the fourth-best team in their own division, and asking George to learn a new position after sitting out almost an entire year with a horrific injury is a lot. He’s already voiced his concerns about it, which are valid, but he’s indicated that he’s open to giving it a shot. If he truly buys in, that will go a long way towards shaping the Pacers’ new identity. But the reality is that they’re still likely a few years off from the vision being realized.

Knicks’ Obi Toppin out at least 2-3 weeks with knee fracture

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Obi Toppin is a fan favorite and Knicks faithful were hoping to see more of him as the season progresses.

However, they are not going to see any of him for at least the next 2-3 weeks due to a fractured knee, the team announced.

Toppin suffered the injury in New York’s win Wednesday over Atlanta, the same game that saw Dejounte Murray sprain his ankle leading him to be out for a few weeks.

Toppin — the reigning All-Star Weekend Slam Dunk contest champion — is averaging 7.7 points in 25 games off the bench. With him out, coach Tom Thibodeau suggested he could lean more on RJ Barrett, asking him to play up at the four.

Report: Zach LaVine not available for trade from Bulls

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Front offices of potential contenders from Los Angeles to Philadelphia have their eyes on the Chicago Bulls — will the struggling Bulls pivot to chase Victor Wembanyama and the top of the lottery, making them sellers at the trade deadline? Teams have interest in Chicago’s three stars: Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic.

Except just-extended LaVine isn’t currently available, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski said Wednesday on his network’s pregame show discussing the Knicks.

“The Knicks will be watching Chicago. Is Zach LaVine a player who before the deadline possibly can become available? He certainly isn’t now.”

Chicago is not yet ready to pivot to tanking, so none of its stars are truly available. That said, the Bulls don’t look like a playoff team, they miss Lonzo Ball, and even if things do come together where do they stand in the East hierarchy? If the Bulls do become sellers, they aren’t going to tear this team down to the studs, it would likely be trading just one star. Possibly a second if the offer was strong enough.

LaVine — who signed a five-year, $215 million extension this past summer — is the least likely to be available, league sources have told NBC Sports. The expectation is that Vucevic would be the Bull first made available if the Bulls decide to start seriously listening to offers. And that remains an “if.”

That said, front offices around the league have their eyes trained on Chicago.

Dejounte Murray added to growing Hawks injury report, out 2-3 weeks with sprained ankle

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John Collins is out for at least another week with a sprained ankle. DeAndre Hunter has been out with a strained hip flexor.

Now you can add Dejounte Murray to the Hawks’ growing injury report, he is out at least 2-3 weeks with a sprained ankle, Shams Charania and Sam Amick of The Athletic report.

The injury happened on a closeout from RJ Barrett of the Knicks.

The Hawks have already had chemistry and fit issues this season, and missing key players for an extended period only exacerbates the problem. Atlanta looked flat getting their doors blown off by the Knicks Wednesday night, 113-89, a game that added to a string where they have lost 5-of-7. Now they will have to find a way to right the ship without their second-best playmaker.

There also is an update on the Hawks’ play-by-play announcer Bob Rathbun.

NBA, WNBA players react to news Brittney Griner coming home

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Brittney Griner is finally coming home.

The WNBA and USA Basketball star has spent 10 months in Russian prisons — including being convicted and sent to a Russian penal colony — for having vape canisters with small amounts of cannabis oil in her luggage as she went through Russian airport security back in February. She became a political pawn in the tensions between the United States and Russia, mostly surrounding Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, and was freed via a prisoner swap announced Thursday.

The basketball world — WNBA players in particular — had worked to keep her name front and not let Griner be forgotten during this ordeal, pushing President Joe Biden and the government to reach a deal. With the news Griner was freed, NBA and WNBA players took to social media to react.

“Brittney has had to endure an unimaginable situation and we’re thrilled that she is on her way home to her family and friends,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. “We thank the members of the NBA and WNBA community who never wavered in their efforts to raise awareness of Brittney’s unjust circumstances.”

“We are overwhelmed with relief and gratitude that our sister Brittney Griner is finally coming home,” the NBPA said in a statement. “Her strength and courage throughout this last year have been truly remarkable, as have the efforts of her wife Cherelle, our WNBPA sisters, Terri Jackson and the WNBPA staff, who have been relentless in their call to bring Brittney home. We know this homecoming would not have been possible without their unwavering support and continued work to keep BG always top of mind, and our players are honored to have contributed to those efforts. While this is a celebratory moment for our sisters and us, we must not forget the other political prisoners who remain in dire circumstances all over the world. These individuals must be remembered and fought for every single day as BG was so that they too can have this moment. Welcome home Brittney, we are so happy to have you back! #WeAreBG”