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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+

Rookie contract extensions: Devin Booker got paid, who else is likely to sign?

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At this point in the summer, NBA rosters are settled, save for maybe a final spot at the end of the bench or a two-way contract. Front office personnel are taking vacations or just getting back from them, while players are in the gym getting ready for training camp to open.

However, one bit of unfinished business hangs out there: rookie contract extensions

The draft class of 2015 is eligible for an extension this summer — one player has his money, a couple of others are likely to, and then there are a lot of question marks. The deadline is Oct. 15, players need to sign an extension by then or become a restricted free agent next summer. Extensions can be for up to 25 percent of the salary cap (or 30 percent if the player meets the Rose Rule) but most are for less than that.

It’s going to be an interesting set of negotiations: For any player not locking down a max, looking ahead to all the cap space available next summer, will these rookies (and their agents) want to push teams for a big contract, and if they don’t get it bet they can on the open market next summer?

One player has already got his extension, here’s a list of who else will get one and who to watch as negotiations start.

SECURED THE BAG

Devin Booker (Phoenix Suns). The shooting guard out of Kentucky fell to 13th in the 2015 draft but ended up being the biggest steal in it. Knowing they have a franchise cornerstone, in early July the Suns locked him up with a five-year, $158 million max extension. As they should have. While we can debate if Booker is as good as he or the Suns think he is, the guy averaged 29.4 points per game last season, shot 38.3 percent from three, has been the best player on the team and a borderline All-Star (he would be but he plays in the ridiculously deep West). Booker deserved a big payday and the Suns are banking on him and Deandre Ayton to return them to the playoffs and more.

PAY THE MAN HIS MONEY
(Players going to get max extensions)

Karl-Anthony Towns (Minnesota Timberwolves). The No. 1 pick in the 2015 draft has become the cornerstone in Minnesota, and the two sides have already started talking extension (while those talks went quiet this summer it will get done). The only question is will it be a $158 million extension, or will Towns make another All-NBA team (as he did this past season) and thereby trigger the Rose Rule making him eligible for up to a $186 million deal. Either way, this signing will work out better than the massive extension Minnesota gave Andrew Wiggins (the Timberwolves tried to test the trade waters for him this summer, to no avail). What a Towns extension means for the future of Jimmy Butler and Tom Thibodeau with the Timberwolves is another question, there is tension in the ranks, shakeups are coming, and the Timberwolves are about to place their bet on Towns.

• Kristaps Porziņģis (New York Knicks). Selected fourth by the Knicks (don’t forget Phil Jackson tried to trade that pick away rather than take him), Porzingis has become more than just the best player on the Knicks, he is the beacon of hope for the future in the eyes of fans. There is some concern because he is coming off an ACL tear that will keep him out for at least part of this coming season — it’s fair to question if you want to give him $158 million off that injury. But the Knicks have a star and a cornerstone to their rebuild, they have to pay up here. And they will.

WE’RE WATCHING YOU
(Other players who could land extensions, we’re doing this in order of the draft).

D'Angelo Russell (Los Angeles Lakers, traded to Brooklyn Nets). Los Angeles didn’t love his fit, drafted Lonzo Ball, and shipped Russell to Brooklyn as the sweetener in the Timofey Mozgov salary dump. The Nets think they have something in Russell — just not something they are going to lock up yet, so don’t expect and extension. Two reasons for that: 1) The Nets want to be sure Russell has matured into the player they saw for part of last season who averaged 20.9 points and 5.7 assists a game, a high-quality point guard; 2) the Nets want to be big players in free agency next summer and a Russell extension would tie up some of that money.

Willie Cauley-Stein (Sacramento Kings). He was drafted to be a modern defensive force, a shot blocker/rim protector who could switch out on smalls on the perimeter and hold his own. It hasn’t really worked out that way. He has shown more offensive skill than expected (he passed the ball well last season) and his individual defense in the post and rim protection have been good. Some nights. He’s been inconsistent. The Kings are betting on Marvin Bagley III (and are excited about the progress and return of Harry Giles), meaning if Cauley-Stein gets an extension it will be at a discount, at a number the team likes.

Stanley Johnson (Detroit Pistons). Don’t expect to see an extension here unless Johnson does it at a very team friendly number. The past couple of seasons Johnson has been inconsistent, and with a new coach and front office in Detroit, they are more likely to watch him for a season then let the market set his price as a restricted free agent next summer. However, it’s not impossible a deal gets done.

Justise Winslow (Miami Heat). It’s hard to see an extension getting done for two main reasons. One, what is Winslow’s value? He’s versatile — by the end of 2016 he was closing games as the team’s center, but last year he was playing backup point guard for them — and he is a strong defender. However, he’s not consistent and has not come near his potential, how much would the Heat want to bet he does? Second, Miami already in the tax this season and likely to be again next season unless they find a new home for Hassan Whiteside and/or Tyler Johnson. With that the Heat likely don’t want to be locked into more money for Winslow, they can let the market set his price as a restricted free agent.

Myles Turner (Indiana Pacers). This is Victor Oladipo’s team but the Pacers are betting on improvement from Turner to help them take the next step forward. Turner averaged 12.7 points and 6.4 rebounds a game, showed he can hit the three now (35.7 percent last season) and he has been a good big man. Can the two sides find a compromise number that works for them, something less than the max? Or, would Turner rather bet on himself and count on a good season heading into restricted free agency? Expect there to be talks, whether the sides can agree is another question.

Kelly Oubre Jr. (Washington Wizards). He can get lost in the shadow of Otto Porter, but Oubre has developed into a solid NBA rotation player on the wing. There is not going to be a max offer, but can the Wizards and Oubre find common ground on a figure that keeps him with the team for years to come? Or would Oubre rather test the market?

Terry Rozier (Boston Celtics). He boosted his value at the end of last season and through the playoffs when Kyrie Irving went down injured. With the future of Irving in Boston a little uncertain, GM Danny Ainge would like to keep Scary Terry around this season. However, an extension is unlikely. The Celtics just gave Marcus Smart a chunk of change (four years, $52 million) and they see the big deals for Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum looming on the horizon, so how much are they going to commit to Rozier? Most likely he’s a restricted free agent next summer, but this is at least worth watching.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (Brooklyn Nets). Last season he averaged 14.7 points and 6.6 rebounds per game, and some nights was the best Nets player on the court. His name comes up in trade rumors all the time, but would the Nets rather keep him around if the sides can agree on a number? He has real value as a quality rotation player.

Larry Nance Jr. (Cleveland Cavaliers). This is an extension that could get done, sources say there is interest from both sides to keep the son of a Cavaliers’ legend as part of whatever is next for this team post-LeBron. Drafted by the Lakers 27th and sent to Cleveland in the Isaiah Thomas trade, Nance was a steal in the draft and can be a quality rotation player on both ends. It’s not a max deal, but don’t be surprised if this one gets done.

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.

LeBron James scores 45 as Cavaliers edge Pacers in Game 7

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The best team may not have won on Sunday as the Indiana Pacers and the Cleveland Cavaliers played in a deciding Game 7, but the most impressive player certainly did. In a stunning performance, LeBron James played 43 minutes as The King advanced yet again while the Cavaliers beat the Pacers, 105-101.

The game started quick for Cleveland as they jumped out to an impressive 31-19 lead after one quarter. Indiana’s defense struggled, and their offense reverted to some of their worst habits — poor ball movement, one-on-one dribbling, and a lack of rebounding. The Pacers settled in the second quarter as Darren Collison helped lead the way.

Indiana remained unafraid of the Cavaliers as they have all series long. Despite needing to surmount an 11-point lead to start the third quarter, the Pacers rallied back. Their offense looked more fluid, and their switches on defense pristine. Indiana finally took the lead off an Oladipo steal and quick outlet to Bogdanovic with 7:12 left, setting the table for an exciting finish at The Q.

Cleveland fans had to hold their collective breath to end the third quarter as James exited the game for the first time to head back to the locker room. He soon returned to the bench for the start of the fourth, and reports from the sideline were that he was suffering from cramps. Perhaps the most critical stretch of the game for Indiana came with James out of the lineup. The Pacers failed to make up any ground with LeBron out, and when he finally did check back in 8:25 the game felt all but decided.

Kevin Love was magnificent, particularly in the fourth quarter where he scored eight of his 14 points. Love hit clutch 3-pointers and midrange jumpers as the Pacers rotational defense began to break down. Indiana’s defensive chances took another hit when Myles Turner fouled out on a questionable call with 4:33 to go in the fourth.

The deciding plays of the game came three minutes to go. Bojan Bogdanovic lost his handle on a ball, creating a scoring opportunity that the Cavaliers turned into free throws. Oladipo would hit a jumper 30 seconds later, but Collison missed an opportunity to hit a 3-pointer and make it 98-95 in favor of the Cavaliers with two minutes remaining. Domantas Sabonis fouled LeBron on the rebound, and Indiana never recovered.

Oladipo led the way for the Pacers with 30 points on 10-of-21 shooting, adding 12 rebounds, six assists, and three steals. Collison provided 23 points and two assists. Bogdanovic, a strong performer for Indiana throughout the series, was limited to just three points.

For Cleveland it was all James, who scored 45 points to go with nine rebounds and seven assists. Tristan Thompson finished with 15 points on five-of-six shooting, grabbing 10 rebounds. LeBron’s 45 points are the second-most all-time in a Game 7 of the playoffs.

They probably don’t deserve it, but the Cavaliers are moving on to the next round to face the Toronto Raptors. Game 1 will be in Canada on Tuesday, May 1 at 5 p.m. PST.

Three adjustments LeBron James, Cleveland should consider for Game 2

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Cleveland’s regular season woes followed them into the playoffs — they were a terrible defensive team all season (29th in the league), so when they didn’t adjust well to slowing Victor Oladipo or Myles Turner in Game 1, it was to be expected.

However, the Cavaliers had a new problem that cost them Game 1: Their offense was terrible, scoring just 0.84 points per possession. LeBron James had a triple-double but his performance still felt just okay. Jeff Green was a disaster. So was the Cavaliers three-point shooting overall. Kevin Love was a non-factor. The Cavs didn’t get good looks and missed the ones they did get.

Indiana is up 1-0 heading into Game 2 Wednesday, so what do the Cavaliers have to do now? Here are three things to watch.

1) LeBron James has to set the tone early by scoring. To open Game 1, the Indiana Pacers put Bojan Bogdanovic on LeBron — that should have been an open invitation to go into attack mode. Bogdanovic is a better defender than you may think, but he’s nowhere near ready to handle aggressive and attacking LeBron.

Except he didn’t have to. LeBron spent the first quarter trying to set up teammates and getting everyone involved, and as a result LeBron was 0-of-3 shooting for the first quarter (he had two points from a couple of free throws). Cleveland as a team shot 25 percent for the quarter and was down 19 just 12 minutes in. LeBron was more of himself after that and finished with 24 points, but the opportunity was lost. So was the game, the Cavaliers never got all the way back in it.

LeBron has to carry more of a load with this team than any team he has been on in years, probably since he left Cleveland for Miami. Fair or not, that’s the reality. He can’t be passive and set guys up early, he has to shoulder the burden from the start and put up big numbers, then hope as the defense overloads to stop him someone else can step up with a few buckets.  Expect to see LeBron attacking from the opening tip on Tuesday.

2) Get Kevin Love the ball. Love had nine points on eight shots in Game 1, and took only two shots inside the arc in his entire 34 minutes of play — and he had 6’8″ Thaddeus Young on him much of the night, a guy Love can take down to the block and score over and around. It simply was not enough touches and looks for the second best scorer on Cleveland.

Tyron Lue needs to call some sets for Love early and get him the rock down on the block and let him go to work — if the defense collapses or the doubles come, Love is a very capable passer out of the post. But let the man work. The Cavaliers were struggling to get buckets in Game 1 and were leaning more on new guys like Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson, and Jeff Green to take the shots. Basketball can be a simple game — get your best shooters/scorers the ball more and let them work. That means more LeBron and Love, less from the other role players.

3) Lineup/rotation changes: More J.R. Smith and Cedi Osman (maybe even Tristan Thompson), less of the new guys. Cleveland started Larry Nance Jr. and he looked a little lost in the moment. Jordan Clarkson played 20 minutes, however, all but two of those came when LeBron was on the court, which is not ideal (Clarkson needs the ball in his hands to create to be effective, but when LeBron is on the court the ball should be in his hands). The Cavaliers second best player in Game 1 was J.R. Smith off the bench — the veteran looked comfortable in the moment.

It’s time for Lue to consider lineup changes, or at the very least significant rotation changes. Start Smith and bring Rodney Hood off the bench. Get more run for rookie Cedi Osman, who is a good defender plus plays well off the ball and can knock down threes (36.8 percent from beyond the arc this season). And I like seeing the lineups with Love at the five, but maybe more Tristan Thompson as a physical, board-crashing change of pace (although it will be tough to play him if the Pacers have the stretchy Myles Turner at the five). Despite the roster shakeups, there are Cavaliers who have been in these moments before, lean on them.