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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.

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.

Paul George says Lakers were ‘pissed’ he didn’t give them meeting

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The Lakers won the summer — they landed LeBron James.

However, the Lakers had room for two max salaries, and a year before Paul George‘s people were trying to scare off other teams by telling them he was going to sign with the Lakers when he became a free agent. (George’s hope was the Lakers would trade for him, but thinking they could get him as a free agent the Lakers trade offer was pretty lowball, so the Thunder won out sending Victor Oladipo to the Pacers). Los Angeles thought they were going to lock PG13 up.

After a season in Oklahoma City, George decided that was the place he wanted to be, playing next to Russell Westbrook. He was so sure he made a quick decision on July 1 and didn’t bother to meet with Magic Johnson and the Lakers.

And that ticked the Lakers off, George said on Chris Pfaff’s Short Story Long podcast (hat tip Chris Walder):

“L.A. was pissed at me. I didn’t give Magic a shot, which I understand. But at that point, I knew I wanted to give it another shot. I didn’t want to prolong it and waste people’s time.”

First, you can’t fault George. Things change, perspectives change, feelings change. He was looking for a place he felt wanted and where he could win, and Oklahoma City provided that for him before Los Angeles ever got the chance to. So he decided to stay, and he didn’t play around with the decision and drag it out.

That’s not necessarily an omen for the Los Angeles teams and the Kawhi Leonard situation. Yes, Leonard is rumored to be keeping an open mind (does anyone really know what he’s thinking?) but the situations and the people involved are very different.

Magic Johnson is going to get the Lakers in the door for a lot of free agent interviews in the coming years — he has the pedigree that will get players to listen, he represents the biggest brand in the NBA, he oversees a team that plays in a city where a lot of players already own homes and live in the off-season, and the weather is great. Magic has some built-in recruiting advantages, but he’s not going to get everyone.

Or, sometimes, even get a meeting. And that’s just business.

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.