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Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis turning heads after being panned in Paul George trade

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DETROIT – Victor Oladipo is playing like an All-Star, hitting big shots, leading the surprisingly competitive Pacers and – along with Domantas Sabonis, who is suddenly showing why he was a lottery pick last year – forcing us to rethink the Paul George trade.

It has been just a dozen games, but if this is Oladipo’s and Sabonis’ new baseline, their careers – and Indiana’s future – look much brighter. Or this could be just a hot start in a small sample.

“I think this is who I am,” Oladipo said. “I think I can bring that every night, and I’m going to. At the end of the day, this is what it is. People might think it’s a high. It’s fine. Hey, I guess I haven’t proven myself yet. So, I mean, they’re going to think that. But just going to go out there and play as hard as I can every night.”

Oladipo and Sabonis have escaped Russell Westbrook‘s orbit. The Thunder rightfully built their scheme around the ball-dominant superstar, but that probably didn’t benefit Oladipo and Sabonis. Both spent far more time spotting up on the perimeter than optimal for them.

A Maryland native who played for the Indiana Hoosiers, Oladipo says he’s back in his “second home” – and looks far more comfortable. The ball is in his hands more, and he’s sparking a zippy attack. Oladipo is scoring a career-high 22.8 points per game, meeting the biggest role he has ever held with, by far, career-best efficiency.

Sabonis is attacking in the paint far more tenaciously, both as a scorer and a rebounder. He’s averaging a double-double with 3.0 assists per game, helpful halfcourt playmaking for a big man.

Neither player chafes at their role in Oklahoma City. “You’re in the NBA. You’re not the best player on your team anymore, in college,” Sabonis said. “You’ve just got to adapt to the role that you’re given and take advantage of it.” Oladipo says he learned a lot from Westbrook, especially his relentlessness. “You can have that mindset, but there’s levels to it,” Oladipo said. “He definitely hits the ultimate level, and it’s something I learned.”

But spending so much time trying to fit around Westbrook bottomed out Sabonis’ and Oladipo’s value. Oladipo looked like he wouldn’t provide surplus value on his $21 million annual salary, and Sabonis appeared to be more bust than boom.

That’s why the consensus, including me, labeled the Pacers big losers in the George trade.

“It doesn’t really bother us,” Sabonis said. “Maybe we want to show everyone on the court that we’re not just those other guys.”

Said Oladipo: “I was already motivated even before I heard that.”

That’s a very Russ answer. But can Oladipo sustain the Russ-lite production?

He might be coming down to Earth. The Pacers have lost four straight, and in his last three games, Oladipo has shot 7-for-21, 6-for-17 and 8-for-21. With a previous career high of 36%, Oladipo probably won’t keep making 45% of his 3-pointers.

Sabonis’ performance seems more reliable. He’s younger, and he’s now playing with the style it appeared he’d bring from Gonzaga.

At minimum, both players have shown the jury is still out on the George trade.

“I’m just happy I’m somewhere where the team wants me,” Sabonis said.

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim: ‘NBA has never drafted a player for defense’

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Syracuse lost to Baylor in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

So, now Syracuse returns to recruiting. That means convincing prospects with NBA aspirations that Syracuse’s infamous zone defense won’t interfere with their pro path.

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, via ASAP Sports:

What I do when I start out, I say the NBA drafts for one reason: Offense. The NBA has never drafted a player for defense. At any position, even at center. Like when they drafted Tim Duncan or David Robinson, or Olajuwon or Shaq, they didn’t get one of those guys because of their defense. They didn’t draft Steph Curry, James Harden, LeBron James, go down the list. They didn’t draft one guy because of defense; they draft because of offense.
We had more first-round picks in the old Big East than any school because they draft guys based on their offense. That’s what we tell recruits and that’s the truth.

There are degrees of truth here. NBA teams generally value offense more than defense and more than they should.

But defense absolutely affects players’ draft position. Some players are drafted primarily for defense.

Maybe Syracuse’s zone helps players look good to NBA teams. But it’s a tough sell the zone actually prepares the players for the next level.

Syracuse’s first-round picks since Carmelo Anthony:

  • Tyler Lydon (No. 24 in 2018)
  • Malachi Richardson (No. 22 in 2017)
  • Chris McCullough (No. 29 in 2016)
  • Tyler Ennis (No. 18 in 2015)
  • Michael Carter-Williams (No. 11 in 2014)
  • Fab Melo (No. 22 in 2013)
  • Dion Waiters (No. 4 in 2013)
  • Wesley Johnson (No. 4 in 2011)
  • Jonny Flynn (No. 6 in 2010)
  • Donte Greene (No. 28 in 2009)
  • Hakim Warrick (No. 19 in 2006)

We can’t know how those players would have turned out if they played elsewhere in college, but that’s an extremely uninspiring list. I would not advise a recruit on track to make the NBA to pick Syracuse.

Obviously, Boeheim is strongly incentivized to spin it the other way. He has made millions of dollars by convincing good players to help him win games.

There’s something to his sentiment here. But he goes way too far, to the point he’s wrong – as per usual.

Court reverses nearly $1.5M oil-spill award to David West

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) A federal appeals court says former NBA star David West is not entitled to a nearly $1.5 million award stemming from BP’s 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Court records show West submitted a claim under the terms of a settlement BP entered after the spill to avoid prolonged litigation with those claiming spill-related losses. The claim was based on his compensation as a member of the NBA’s New Orleans franchise having dropped after the spill.

BP challenged the award, saying West earned what he was expected to earn under a “front-loaded” contract he signed years before the spill. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed Wednesday that there was no loss. West’s attorneys did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comment.

James Harden: I want to play in 2019 World Cup

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James Harden skipped the 2016 Olympics.

But he sounds ready to rejoin Team USA for the 2019 World Cup.

Harden, via Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:

“Of course I want to play,” Harden said. “It’s an opportunity to represent your country, go out there and play basketball. It’s something I love doing. If that opportunity presents itself, I’ll be in. Not everyone gets that opportunity. As a basketball player, that’s one of the highest points you can get for basketball.

Harden is among 35 players listed as in consideration for a roster spot, but the MVP candidate is likely a lock if he wants to play. He won gold at the 2012 Olympics and led Team USA to another gold medal in the 2014 World Cup.

With the World Cup being held in China, where there are lucrative marketing opportunities, expect many other stars to participate. The competition for Team USA roster spots could be intense.

But Harden is good enough and has proven his commitment to USA Basketball. He’s probably safely in.

Celtics’ Kyrie Irving says he’ll rest before playoffs: ‘Makes no sense’ to emphasize regular-season games

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Remember when Kyrie Irving asked whether a November 2014 Cavaliers-Bulls game felt like a playoff game?

He has come a long way since.

Before LeBron James returned to Cleveland, Irving hadn’t made the playoffs. Three NBA Finals and a trade to the Celtics later, Irving is focused on the postseason.

Irving, via Chris Forsberg of NBC Sports Boston:

“I’m definitely taking some games off before the playoffs,” Irving said at Boston’s morning shootaround at the Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday. “Makes no sense, the emphasis on these regular games, when you’re gearing up for some battles coming in the playoffs.”

Irving will probably be more effective in the playoffs with additional rest.

But will the Celtics be more effective in the playoffs if Irving rests now?

Boston is fifth in the East. If that holds, that’d mean not having home-court advantage in any Eastern Conference playoff series and likely facing the Bucks – who’ve been the NBA’s best team throughout the regular season – in the second round.

That might not daunt Irving. After all, when asked why he’s so confident about the Celtics’ postseason chances, he said, “Because I’m here.”*
*That sounded a lot like LeBron.

But his teammates might benefit significantly from a better seed. Without Irving, Boston went 10-1 at home 1-7 on the road in last year’s playoffs – a historic split.

Catching the 76ers for the No. 3 seed is probably farfetched. But the Celtics are only a half game behind the Pacers for the No. 4 seed and home-court advantage in the first round.

Boston’s closing schedule is easier than Indiana’s. The teams even face each other twice. So, there’s an opportunity for the Celtics to clinch the No. 4 seed and rest Irving.

But little has gone to plan this season in Boston. If the Celtics’ seed is still up for grabs late in the regular season, will they rest Irving or keep pushing for a better record?