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Loaded with expiring contracts, Pacers still scraping and clawing together

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Thaddeus Young faced a tough decision last summer.

Coming off the best season of his career, he held a $13,764,045 player option with the Pacers. Opting in probably, though not definitely, maximized his salary this year. But opting out would have allowed him to sign a long-term deal with more total compensation.

Young opted in.

“Obviously, I had a few teams that wanted to pay me some money and stuff like that,” Young said. “But I figured that playing another season and going into it with these guys is better for me.

“We’re a family. We built something. We have some unfinished business.”

That decision, several others and Victor Oladipo‘s season-ending knee injury sent Indiana toward its identity – a tough, balanced team full of players incentivized to look out for themselves.

Several key Pacers – Young, Bojan Bogdanovic, Wesley Matthews, Darren Collison, Cory Joseph and Tyreke Evans – are on expiring contracts. But they don’t play like it. Indiana has remained cohesive amid obstacles, including the contract situations.

Don’t expect that to change with the Pacers trailing the Celtics 2-0 in their first round series entering Game 3 tonight.

Indiana proved its mettle last season. Largely written off after the Paul George trade, the Pacers became the NBA’s surprise team by winning 48 games. Victor Oladipo broke out as a star.

This season brought a new complication – players on the verge of getting compensated for their success. It could have happened more gradually, but circumstance created a rush.

Young opted in. Indiana exercised a $10.5 million team option on Bogdanovic and a $10 million team option on Collison, locking this in as the final year of their contracts. Matthews got bought out by the Knicks and signed for the rest of the season with a Pacers team that presented major opportunity with Oladipo sidelined. Evans, finding an underwhelming market in free agency last summer, prioritized a one-year deal. Joseph was the only one who was clearly entering the final season of his contract in Indiana.

The Pacers have given 68% of their minutes this postseason to players on expiring contracts. That’s a close second to the 76ers (only because I counted a few players with sure-to-be-declined player options – Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving and Khris Middleton – as having expiring contracts).

Here’s the percentage of minutes given to players on expiring contracts this postseason:

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In the regular season, Indiana trailed only the Wizards.

Pacers coach Nate McMillan said he addressed the contract situation before the season. His message, as summarized by Joseph: “We’re better when we play together, and if we do, then everybody will get rewarded.”

Players clearly bought in. Indiana surged to a 32-15 start. But Oladipo’s injury tested the Pacers’ cohesiveness.

They clearly wouldn’t be as good without their star, and they went just 16-19 since his last game. It would have been a logical time for players to go their own ways and start playing for themselves in what looked like it’d be a lost season.

Instead, they tightened their bond. This team has been quite competitive without Oladipo. The schedule got tough in March, but the Pacers stuck together.

“We don’t have big names, big stars on our team,” Bogdanovic said. “But we are fighting every single night.”

The delicate balance of Indiana’s offense – especially considering contract-year motivations – is quite stunning.

The Pacers averaged 5.4 double-digit scorers per game this season – the most in nearly two decades. Not bad for a team that finished 22nd in the NBA in points per game. Though scoring is up this season, 69 other teams averaged more points per game since another team had so many double-digit scorers per game.

“There’s a lot of players on the other teams that play for their own stats,” Bogdanovic said. “…We have this season, eight or nine players with expiring contracts, and we are still playing the right way, sharing the ball. We don’t care who’s going to score. That’s why we are successful.”

Unconcerned about their scoring numbers, Indiana players exert their energy on other things – defending, rebounding, screening. The Pacers impose a hard-nosed style, just as they did last year.

Indiana’s professionalism and focus on winning is a tribute to its players and organizational culture. This is a veteran team with the right priorities.

As much as he believed in this group, as well as he has guided it, McMillan wasn’t quite certain how the contract situations would affect his squad.

“That can go either way,” McMillan said. “It can be good or bad. It’s been good for us. Our guys have committed to playing together.”

Nets GM says he’s unsure if Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving would return for playoffs (don’t bet on it)

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The idle hands of time forced by the NBA’s coronavirus hiatus has lead to everything from conspiracy theories to outright fantasies about the future of the NBA when play returns.

One of the favorites: the delay allows Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving to return when the NBA playoffs start, and the Brooklyn Nets become the most dangerous seven seed ever and a potential contender.

When asked about that idea Wednesday in a conference call, Brooklyn GM Sean Marks took the diplomatic “there’s no way we can know” approach.

If you’re reading this, seeing the odds of the Nets as 66-1 as NBA champions and thinking “that’s not a bad bet” let me help you out:

Save your money. Spend it on a takeout dinner from a struggling local restaurant, that will help far more people than giving away your money to a casino. Marks saying it’s too early to tell is the GM being diplomatic and deferential to his stars. They are not returning this year, something NBC Sports has heard from sources, plus it just makes sense. Let’s get into why.

The second part of that Tweet, the idea that rehab has been slowed a little because of facilities being closed, is one reason not to expect KD and Irving.

That ties into the bigger issue: Injuries often occur when players find the load on them and their activity level spiked. Sports science has shown leaps in stress levels on muscles leads to fatigue and more injuries, that returns need to be ramped up slowly (why you see minutes limits on guys when they first come back). Durant and Irving are the faces of the Nets franchise and they need both of them to be contenders. So are the Nets going to take those guys, who have missed extended time due to injuries, and throw them straight into an NBA playoff game with that intensity? Let’s politely say that kind of return has not worked well for Durant in the past. Two weeks or so of a condensed training camp will not be enough to have them ready for playoff basketball.

On another note, Marks said the suspension of the league also has brought to a stop the Nets search for their next head coach after Kenny Atkinson was let go.

The front office will pick the next coach, but if that “blue chip, veteran” coach does not get a thumbs up from Durant and Irving, the interview is over.

Regional TV challenges with moving NBA season to a mid-December start

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Before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the NBA to think about playing games deep into the summer, that idea was already on the table. At the Sloan Sports Analytic Conference hosted by MIT, Atlanta Hawks CEO Steve Koonin proposed moving the NBA to a mid-December start. Essentially, Koonin wants to move the entire NBA schedule back by two months. Currently the NBA regular season starts in mid-October.

Koonin’s idea is to move away from the NFL season as much as possible. He said at the time “Relevance equals revenue. We’ve got to create the most relevance, and the revenue will fix itself.”

Under Koonin’s proposal, the NBA schedule would tip-off in mid-December and the NBA Finals would wrap up in August. Koonin’s hope is that with less competition from the NFL, the NBA ratings would go up. He said “A big piece is you don’t have to reinvent the wheel to enhance ratings. Sometimes, moving away from competition is a great way to grow ratings.”

This is far from the first time a proposal has been floated to move the start of the NBA season. Many suggest that casual fans don’t really care about the NBA until Christmas anyway. That’s when the NFL season is winding down and the NCAA football season is just about wrapped up. Currently, the NBA season overlaps with the NFL season, including the NFL playoffs, by three-and-a-half months from mid-October through January.

The NBA, and the NHL, have the winter months of February and March mostly to themselves. In mid-March, the NCAA gets the shine for the NCAA Tournament, but that’s only for a few days a week.

Starting in late-March/early-April, the NBA shares the sports calendar with MLB. Baseball’s Opening Day usually comes two-to-three weeks ahead of the NBA Playoffs.

By getting clear of the NFL, the NBA avoids a ratings monster that now dominates Sundays, Monday nights and Thursday nights. In addition, the NBA would avoid college football’s foothold on Saturdays. Overlapping more with the less-popular MLB could give the NBA a ratings boost.

Yet, it’s with MLB that a seemingly overlooked challenge lies for pushing back the NBA schedule.

While the focus generally lies on the NBA’s nationally televised games on ABC, ESPN and TNT, the vast majority of games are broadcast on regional sports networks or RSN’s. The national TV contracts pull in billions of dollars to be sure, but the RSN deals make up a big portion of the television pie as well.

When you remove games broadcast on NBATV, which usually pick up an RSN feed, the best NBA teams generally play between 20 and 30 games on national TV. That leaves over 50 games to be broadcast by the RSN. And those RSN’s pay tens of millions of dollars to do so.

Unfortunately for the NBA, many of those RSN’s pay tens of millions to also broadcast games for the region’s MLB team as well.

As of the 2020, here are the markets that share an RSN for both NBA and MLB games:

  • Atlanta Hawks and Atlanta Braves – Fox Sports South/Fox Sports Southeast
  • Brooklyn Nets and New York Yankees – YES Network
  • Charlotte Hornets and Atlanta Braves – Fox Sports Southeast
  • Chicago Bulls and Chicago White Sox – NBC Sports Chicago
  • Cleveland Cavaliers, Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds – Fox Sports Ohio
  • Dallas Mavericks and Texas Rangers – Fox Sports Southwest
  • Detroit Pistons and Detroit Tigers – Fox Sports Detroit
  • Golden State Warriors and San Francisco Giants – NBC Sports Bay Area
  • Houston Rockets and Houston Astros – AT&T SportsNet Southwest
  • Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Angels – Fox Sports Prime Ticket/Fox Sports West
  • Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Dodgers – Spectrum SportsNet
  • Memphis Grizzlies and Atlanta Braves – Fox Sports Southeast
  • Miami Heat and Tampa Rays – Fox Sports Sun
  • Milwaukee Bucks and Milwaukee Brewers – Fox Sports Wisconsin
  • Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Twins – Fox Sports North
  • Orlando Magic and Miami Marlins – Fox Sports Florida
  • Philadelphia 76ers and Philadelphia Phillies – NBC Sports Philadelphia
  • Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks – Fox Sports Arizona
  • Sacramento Kings and Oakland A’s – NBC Sports California
  • San Antonio Spurs and Texas Rangers – Fox Sports Southwest
  • Toronto Raptors and Toronto Blue Jays – Sportsnet
  • Utah Jazz and Colorado Rockies – AT&T SportsNet Rocky Mountain

All told, only eight NBA franchises don’t share an RSN with an MLB team.

It’s not a challenge for RSN to move a handful of games to an alternate channel for a handful of weeks in late-March/early-April. In addition, the early part of the baseball season regularly features day games that wrap hours in advance of the NBA game that evening.

When you start talking about RSN’s choosing how to handle months of overlap, months that baseball has had to themselves for years, things get messy. Not every television provider offers the alternate channels. Some contracts have specific language on when, if and how often their games can be bumped.

Moving the NBA calendar to run December-August vs October-June has a lot of pitfalls. It will involve negotiation between the NBA and NBPA as well. Some prominent players, like Damian Lillard, don’t like the idea of giving up the warm summer months to play basketball. You also have the challenge of attendance in arenas during the nicest parts of the year weather-wise. Some fans may not want to be inside on beautiful spring and summer evenings.

However, this will ultimately come down to TV and their money. And the RSN’s will have just as large a say in that process as the major networks.

Mark Cuban backs off belief NBA season could resume in mid-May

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Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has backed off his belief that the NBA season could resume in mid-May. In appearance on ESPN’s Get Up, Cuban said, “I have no idea” when the NBA could resume the 2019-20 season.

Last month Cuban said he thought a return to play could happen as soon as mid-May. That timeline likely included the NBA Finals being played in late-July, after the two-month suspension of play.

Cuban’s Mavericks were on the verge of making the NBA playoffs. That would have been the Mavs first postseason appearance after a three-year absence. Dallas hasn’t advanced out of the first round since winning the NBA championship in 2011.

Cuban also added about returning to play: “I mean, I haven’t had any conversations where anybody discusses an actual date.”

The NBA season has been suspended since Wednesday, March 11. That night games in Oklahoma City and Sacramento were postponed after players and officials were tested for coronavirus. The league was already prepared to play games without fans present, but suspended operations after positive COVID-19 tests.

Four Nets players who tested positive for COVID-19 showing no symptoms

Kevin Durant
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On a conference call with the media Wednesday morning, Brooklyn Nets general manager Sean Marks shared some good news. The four Nets players who had tested positive for coronavirus are no longer showing symptoms.

Kevin Durant was one of the four Nets to come forward and say he had tested positive for COVID-19. Durant said at the time that he was feeling fine, but this report clarifies that he’s now clear of symptoms. Durant has been out for the entirety of the 2019-20 season as he rehabs from the torn Achilles’ he suffered during the 2019 NBA Finals.

Over a dozen NBA players tested positive for coronavirus since mid-March. About half of those players have been identified. Multiple reports have surfaced over the last two weeks of players being cleared of symptoms.

Marcus Smart of the Boston Celtics was recently cleared of COVID-19 after a positive test. Reports are that he plans to donate his blood plasma to National COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma Project for research on the blood of those recovered from coronavirus.