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Two rights trump one wrong for Pacers

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

If you recall my epically bad assessment of the Pacers’ 2017 offseason and stopped reading this year’s follow-up, I wouldn’t blame you. I gave Indiana an ‘F’ for trading Paul George for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis then constructing a roster that appeared doomed to miss the playoffs without landing a high draft pick. Of course, the Pacers had one of the NBA’s very best summers. Oladipo became a star and led Indiana to 48 wins. The Pacers even took the Cavaliers to seven games in their first-round series – the furthest an Eastern Conference team had pushed LeBron James in several years. I learned a lesson in overreacting.

But I once again see Indiana’s offseason as a tale of extremes.

The Pacers had two of the NBA’s best signings and one of its worst.

Evans is coming off a career year with the Grizzlies. Developing into a good 3-point shooter increases his value exponentially due to the off-ball threat. His playmaking will be particularly important in Indiana, as he could punish opponents for trapping Oladipo, a common Cleveland tactic in their playoff series.

O’Quinn is a savvy defender who strikes the right balance between protecting the rim and positioning himself for rebounds. He shoots well from mid-range and has become more comfortable as a passer.

And then there’s McDermott. He’s a very good spot-up shooter, but he’s pretty one-dimensional and a complete defensive liability. The 26-year-old should help this team. But at that cost? I wouldn’t bet on it.

Really, the question looming over the Pacers’ offseason was opportunity cost.

They also guaranteed hefty salaries for Bojan Bogdanovic ($10.5 million) and Darren Collison ($10 million) next season. Could that money have gone to better use? Or would waiving Bogdanovic and Collison and trying to re-sign them for less have just presented too much risk of them leaving?

Could Indiana have done better than Aaron Holiday with the No. 23 pick? He’s relatively established for a rookie after three years at UCLA, but higher-upside options were available.

The Pacers played it safe and emerged with an upgraded version of last year’s breakout squad. The only rotation players lost were Lance Stephenson and Trevor Booker. Evans and O’Quinn should be major upgrades. That makes McDermott just – very expensive – gravy.

Indiana is on track to enter next offseason with a massive amount of flexibility. Oladipo and McDermott are the only players guaranteed more than rookie-scale salaries, though Myles Turner could receive a contract extension this fall.

If the Pacers build on last season as they appear set to, they could be even more appealing to free agents next summer.

Offseason grade: B+

Pacers coach Nate McMillan ‘happy’ LeBron James left Eastern Conference

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The Pacers fared better than any Eastern Conference team had in a half decade against LeBron James in a playoff series.

All Indiana got for its breakthrough performance was a first-round loss.

LeBron ruled the East the last eight years. Just by pushing his Cavaliers to seven games in the first round, the Pacers hit a rare achievement. (The Celtics later lost to Cleveland in seven, too.)

Indiana won’t have to worry about LeBron anymore, as he left the Cavs for the Lakers.

Pacers coach Nate McMillan, via Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe:

“Our approach has always been work on us and not be concerned about what is happening in the league,” McMillan said. “The people wrote us off last season, and now people are going to write Cleveland off. We won’t do that. We know that team is still going to be competitive. Boston is going to get all of their guys back and they’re deep. Toronto is hungry after the season that they had, so the East is going to be very, very competitive.

“Is it open? With LeBron [out]? Yes. We’re happy that he’s gone west. But we know that it’s still going to be a challenge and we have to make sure we work on us and not assume anything. It’s going to be a challenge for us to do the things we did last season and do it better.”

This speaks to LeBron’s stature. I believe McMillan truly believes in focusing on his own team, not outside factors. But LeBron is so powerful, discussing him is unavoidable.

The East is more open now. The Celtics, Raptors and 76ers are first among potential heirs. The Bucks and Pacers comprise the next tier.

So, I certainly wouldn’t pick Indiana. But the Victor Oladipo-led squad – which added Tyreke Evans, Kyle O'Quinn and Doug McDermott over the summer – has a fighting chance.

Victor Oladipo: ‘I play nothing safe now’ because ‘that really didn’t get me anywhere’

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Victor Oladipo transformed last season.

Traded to the Pacers, he showed up to camp in better shape than he had ever been before, and with a new confidence in his handles and shot making. Coach Nate McMillan realized what he had, put the ball in Oladipo’s hands, and got out of the way. The result was a 48-win Pacers team where Oladipo was the league’s most improved player, made an All-NBA Team, the All-Defensive Team, and was an All-Star for the first time.

Oladipo, after going to the USA Basketball mini-camp in Las Vegas, is back in a Miami gym with the same team of trainers and staff who transformed his body and game a year ago. In a fantastic profile by J. Michael of the Indianapolis Star, Oladipo talks about the mental transformation he has undergone as well.

“I push the envelope. I play nothing safe now,” Oladipo says. “I’m the guy if we’re down two, I’m pulling up for three. I work too hard to not push the envelope. I used to be conservative but that really didn’t get me anywhere.”

His trainer, Al Watson, talked about getting Oladipo better prepared for defenses that focus on him and late-game situations.

“Last year we started doing a lot of tightening up his ball-handling skills. This year we took it to another level because I watch a lot of film on him,” Watson says. “In the fourth quarter, he’s like the point guard. Wanted to focus on a lot of combination moves, working on traps. It’s no secret now. They’re going to be double-teaming him.

“You look at the great players, Kobe, they had to do a little bit of everything. His shot from the perimeter may be off so he’s got to learn, ‘Let me get myself going, get to the mid-post, get some fouls.’ He’s got to be able to attack with all different facets of the game. We do a lot of sprinting, getting to your spots. Got to get open. I touch everything with in-game situation stuff.”

Oladipo’s team includes an off-the-court group trying to better position himself to make money off his stardom. He doesn’t want to play it safe off-the-court, either.

Indiana is going to lean heavily on Oladipo again. They added some depth — Doug McDermott, drafting Aaron Holiday — and are counting on more from players such as Myles Turner. However, by and large, the Pacers are running it back, and they are sneaking up on nobody this season. Internal improvement will be their key.

Oladipo is ready. He’s not playing it safe anymore.

Report: Pacers to extend contract of coach Nate McMillan

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Nate McMillan is not exactly the most praised coach by others scouts/executives/coaches around the league. They respect him, but his teams play slowly, are not running the most complex sets, and do not excel defensively. McMillan is seen as a bith of a throwback.

Last season, however, everything came together for McMillan and the Indiana Pacers. Well, mostly Victor Oladipo came together and the Pacers, who most expected to be one of the worst teams in the East but ended up with 48 wins and the five seed. McMillan deserved credit for trusting Oladipo and putting him in good positions to succeed, getting the roster to gel around Oladipo, and with that McMillan earned some Coach of the Year votes (he came in sixth in a crowded field).

Now it is about to get him a contract extension.  Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the news.

We don’t yet have the details on this contract. NBA coaches with one year left on their contract often get either an extension or let go, having a guy in that “lame duck” year tends to undercut their authority with players and is less than ideal talking to free agents who want to understand the direction a franchise is headed. Indiana is going to stay the course.

McMillan got a largely new roster to come together quickly last season, and he stuck with the lineups that worked well. He earned the extension.

Now the real challenge comes, the Pacers got better this summer.  GM Kevin Pritchard added Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott to the roster to provide shooting and depth, and they drafted well with point guard Aaron Holiday (who impressed at Summer League). This is a deep team, it’s up to McMillan now to fit all the pieces together and get the Pacers to take another step forward.

 

J.J. Redick: I nearly signed with Pacers until 76ers improved offer

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J.J. Redick re-signed with the 76ers for one-year, $12.25 million.

But he apparently drew another suitor before Philadelphia offered such a favorable contract.

Redick on The J.J. Redick Podcast:

I almost signed with Indy. I was an hour away, two hours away. I was very close. I had a 5 p.m. deadline. Basically, it was 12:30, 1 o’clock in the afternoon when Philly changed the offer.

It was important for the 76ers to keep Redick, who carries value as a shooter and veteran leader. They did well to get him on a one-year deal and maintain flexibility, but losing him would have been a significant setback for next season.

The Pacers rebounded by signing Tyreke Evans to a one-year, $12 million contract. Either Redick or Evans would have helped, but Evans – younger and more of a playmaker – might be a better fit in Indiana. The Pacers already had solid deep shooting on the wing between Bojan Bogdanovic and Doug McDermott.

Maybe the Pacers didn’t know they could get Evans and wanted to lock up Redick if given the opportunity rather than waiting for Evans, but this seems to have worked out better for everyone involved.