51 Questions

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51Q: Will Larry Bird’s renovation of the Pacers pay off?

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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. For the past few weeks, and through the start of the NBA season, we tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season.

There are two types of basketball analysts: Those who believe the Pacers improved by swapping George Hill for Jeff Teague and those who believe Indiana got worse in the trade.

Teague uses his superior quickness in the pick-and-roll to score and assist more. Hill defends better, commits fewer turnovers and shoots more efficiently.

I prefer Hill. Larry Bird opted for Teague.

I can’t wait to see who’s right.

Though I’m inclined to value Hill’s less-flashy contributions – and like his lead-guard skills if he were called upon for that role – I’m also not arrogant enough to believe I certainly know better than Bird. An all-time great who has excelled as a player, coach and executive deserves some benefit of the doubt.

Bird is leveraging it now.

Seemingly unsatisfied with the team that reached consecutive conference finals in 2013 and 2014, Bird has now fully torn down the roster to build a more dynamic offense around Paul George. The Pacers president has long talked about the change, and we’ll learn this season whether his vision will bear fruit.

In addition to trading Hill for Teague, Bird let Lance Stephenson leave in free agency, deemphasized and traded Roy Hibbert, offended David West into leaving and fired Frank Vogel. In came Monta Ellis, Rodney Stuckey, Myles Turner, Thaddeus Young, Teague and Nate McMillian.

And Bird hasn’t stopped after jettisoning everyone who regularly started with George in those conference-finals runs. Indiana will miss Ian Mahinmi‘s defense – maybe more than Al Jefferson works as a change-of-pace in the low post. But Bird is fully embracing the course of trading defense for offense.

Debate how he addressed it, but the team’s identity was clear. In the last four years, the Pacers stunk offensively and thrived defensively. Their rank in points per possession:

  • Offense: 20th, 23rd, 23rd, 25th
  • Defense: 1st, 1st, 7th, 3rd

The beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I see an excellent defense propping up an offense that could have been better. Bird saw a struggling offense and couldn’t look past it.

Indiana now has a deep squad of players who can break down opponents off the dribble. They will have matchup advantages – if they pass well enough to find the player in favorable position. The ball will move plenty between the hardwood and the dribbler’s hands. Between players? That’s a major question mark.

It’s one of numerous hitches in Bird’s plan.

He tried to fast-track the offense last year by moving George from small forward to power forward. Despite Bird’s demands, George resisted. The plan was largely scrapped early in the season.

McMillian was also a curious choice given Bird’s stated goals. McMillian’s Trail Blazers and SuperSonics teams usually played slow. Still, perhaps the coach can adapt his scheme to fit his players (and appease his boss). Bird chose McMillian for a reason, after all.

Bird chose it all.

This is the team he long desired – for better or worse.

51 Questions: Will Giannis Antetokounmpo at point guard be as cool as we hope?

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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. Between now and the start of the NBA season we will tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season (we’re taking some weekends off). Today:

Will Giannis Antetokounmpo at point guard be as cool as we hope?

Yes.

Yes, he will be.

We will get into the details (like he’s a point forward), but there is an easy answer to this question because we’ve seen the results already — and they are impressive. In the final 20 games of the season (after Michael Carter-Williams went down injured and coach Jason Kidd went all in with Giannis Antetokounmpo at the point) he averaged 18.6 points, 7.8 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.9 blocks, and 1.4 steals per game. In that time he had a true shooting percentage of 57.2 (well above the league average), and he assisted on 32.4 percent of his teammate’s buckets when on the court.

And there were highlights. Check out his triple-double against the Rockets.

What you see in that game is what makes Antetokounmpo so dangerous and amazing as a point guard. Or point forward. Or as Kidd would say, a basketball player. He’s not a traditional point in that Antetokounmpo is not going to guard Chris Paul or Stephen Curry (except on the occasional switch), he is more like LeBron James (or peak Kobe Bryant) initiating the offense and being the primary playmaker, regardless of position.

What makes Antetokounmpo unfair as the guy with the ball in his hands is he’s 6’11” with a fantastic feel for the game — he can see over the top of most defenders and throw passes to cutters or guys open in the corner that other guards struggle to make.

Try to guard him with a smaller, quicker backcourt player (like the Rockets did in the video above with Ty Lawson) and the Bucks will just post Antetokounmpo up and let him go to work. Or he can overpower them in an isolation set from the wing. Use a bigger player, and Antetokounmpo has the handles and the long strides to blow by his defender and, if the rotation is late, just go the rim and finish. Antetokounmpo can’t shoot the three, but he has a respectable midrange game that is hard to take away. Expect to see a lot of tall wings (around 6’8”) be the defensive choice on him.

Where Antetokounmpo is most dangerous is transition — he can grab the rebound, lead the break, and either finish himself (knifing around a defender with an impressive Eurostep) or finding the open man. You could see the other Bucks adjusting by running to the arc or filling the lanes on the break — they knew if they ran they would be rewarded.

With Antetokounmpo at the point, but Bucks are going to be fun to watch — yes, this is going to be as cool as we think.

Will it mean wins and a return to the playoffs for the Bucks? That may be another question. Last March, with Antetokounmpo running the show, the Bucks were 6-9. Now their offense was about three points per 100 possessions better than it had been during the season, and their net rating said they should have been around a .500 team, but even with that the Antetokounmpo show was fun but not dominant.

The Bucks brought in Matthew Dellavedova this summer to be the new point guard, which should add some defense and feistiness to the backcourt. He can work well off the ball (the man played with LeBron, he knows how this point forward thing works).

Where the Bucks need to improve most is defense — that is the end of the court that got them to the playoffs two seasons ago and made them look so promising. Antetokounmpo is a big part of that — his freakish 7’3 wingspan lets him block shots and make steals that others could not get to. The Bucks need to lock down on that end, force turnovers, then use that to get Antetokounmpo the ball leading the break.

With Dellavedova at the one, Kris Middleton at the two, and Jabari Parker up front, and Antetokounmpo running the show, the Bucks have a solid lineup (especially once they figure out how to use, or trade, Greg Monroe). There is not a lot of depth, but this is a team that should be in the mix for one of the final few playoff slots in the East.

Of that group, they may just be the most fun to watch. Thanks to Antetokounmpo.

51 Questions: Three things Golden State must do to repeat as champs

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PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:

What do the Warriors need to do to repeat as champs?

Say the Warriors got lucky to win the franchise’s first title in 40 years and they take umbrage. Stephen Curry gets sarcastic, Draymond Green gets testy, and as a team you can see the Warriors have a little chip on their shoulder. Which is a good thing if they are going to repeat as champs — they will need that fire.

Make no mistake, the Warriors certainly can repeat. They should be the favorite.

But if I had to bet on the Warriors or the field in a brutal Western Conference, I’ll take the field. There are just so many things that have to go right in a chase for a title, and in this West there is little margin for error.

What has to go right for the Warriors to win it all again?

1. Stay Healthy.

Sorry Warriors, but you were lucky last season. That’s not a slight — not even Michael Jordan won an NBA title without some luck on the health front — it’s just a fact. The Warriors stayed healthier than any other contender, and that was part of their success.

Now they just have to do it again.

On this front, the Warriors have an advantage over some other contenders (hello San Antonio) in that much of their core is young — Curry is 27, Green and Klay Thompson are 25, Harrison Barnes is 23. But still this team needs to avoid a freak injury to those young players while keeping older guys like Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala rested for the playoffs. The Warriors can survive a regular season injury to anyone and still make the playoffs, but once the postseason arrives they will need all hands on deck to repeat.

2. Keep on sacrificing.

Pat Riley calls it the “disease of more” — where individual players start putting themselves ahead of the team after winning a title — and it tears apart championship teams in every sport. Look at the Seattle Seahawks this season, who had to get their quarterback a new contract, had Kam Chancellor holding out, have had trouble fitting in new pieces, plus the distraction that is Marshawn Lynch’s mother — and they are 2-3 to start the season.

Is Iguodala going to remain happy coming off the bench? Will Barnes’ contract extension talks become a distraction? Will the fact that Curry is the fifth highest paid player on this team become an issue? Does Green try to do too much to live up to his $82 million contract? Will Jason Thompson fit in?

Maybe none of this slows the team down. It is very possible everyone keeps buying in and willingly making sacrifices for the betterment of the whole. Steve Kerr knows how to guide them through these pitfalls. But if the Warriors stumble, they would not be the first team to be undone by the disease of more.

3. Avoid complacency.

So far through the preseason, the Warriors have looked disinterested and a little sloppy. It’s preseason, so nobody should read much into that. The problem is that after the euphoric highs of winning an NBA title the slog of an 82-game regular season can seem even more dreary, and teams get complacent. They lose focus. They stop building good habits during the regular season, thinking they can flip the switch. Then they can’t.

When I asked Curry about staying hungry this coming season, he almost blew the question off.

“That’s going to be easy,” Curry said. “We’re all competitors, we’re all proud of what we did last season, but once you enter a new year, we’ll get our rings on opening night, and that’s the end of the celebrating of what happened and you look forward to the next journey, the next goal, which is to win another one.

“I’m hopefully going to lead that charge, and we have such a great core of guys that are young and hungry and want to relive that intoxicating feeling of winning a championship. You look at the history of the league, you understand how hard it is to win one, but the challenge of winning multiple is something that I’m happy to be gunning for now, that I’ve got one under my belt. But that’s the mission.”

Going from the hunter to the hunted is a transition that trips a lot of teams up.

Maybe the Warriors are the exception ready for every one of these challenges. But it will be harder than they realize. They don’t need just to be as good as last season, they will need to be a little better — because the Spurs, Clippers, Rockets and Thunder are all better than a season ago (at least on paper).

There is no margin for error in the Western Conference. The Warriors need to pick up speed, not just make sure they didn’t lose any.

51 Questions: Is this the final year of the Tim Duncan Spurs?

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PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:

Is this the final season of the Duncan era Spurs?

Tim Duncan will turn 40 during this season, his 19th.

That’s a lot of miles on his legs.

The past couple summers, after the Spurs’ season ended, Duncan would take some time off — likely to hang out at an auto shop — and collect his thoughts. He considered walking out on top after 2014. He thought about it again after the Clippers bounced the Spurs in the first round last spring. Both times he chose to return.

Will it be different this time? Is this the final season of the legendary Tim Duncan era Spurs?

Probably. But it’s not like Duncan is tipping his hand.

If this is it, like Gregg Popovich himself, we will all be a little sad.

But nobody knows if this is it — not even Duncan. He may have a sense of what he wants to do, but he is going to see how this season plays out, how he feels next spring, then make a decision. Last season he was so consistent, was given enough rest, and the Spurs were still contenders, so he felt he could keep going — and more importantly keep contributing at a high level.

It’s not just Duncan, if he walks away Manu Ginobili likely steps away. Ginobili is physically fading faster; this is likely his last season regardless.

Duncan’s career stats are mind-boggling. He has played 18 seasons and never once missed the playoffs. The Spurs have won at least 50 games every one of those seasons except for the lockout 1998-99 season when they only played 50 games — that season they won 37 (a 60-win pace in a normal season) and won the NBA title. Duncan has won five championships, two MVPs and three Finals MVPs. He’s a 15-time All-Star and 15-time All-NBA team member.

He will go down as the greatest power forward to ever play the game when he steps away (with all due respect to Karl Malone, Kevin McHale, and whoever else you want to throw in the conversation). His legacy is set.

This is a transition year, as the Spurs evolve from the Tim Duncan/Tony Parker/Manu Ginobili Spurs to the Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge’s version. Duncan can hang up his sneakers after an unprecedented run of success and know that the Spurs winning tradition will continue (especially since Gregg Popovich says he will continue to coach beyond when Duncan retires).

But Duncan isn’t going to decide until the Spurs season ends — he hopes in mid-June after another boat parade down the Riverwalk. Whenever he decides, the Spurs will likely announce it in a press release and Duncan will try to avoid any fanfare around it.

But that’s how we’ll all find out.

51 Q: Can Hassan Whiteside repeat last year’s out-of-nowhere success?

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Hassan Whiteside‘s rise last season was almost unprecedented. Given the basketball world’s collective obsession with athletic big men, it said a lot that Whiteside had completely flamed out of the NBA for several years by the time the Heat picked him up. He wasn’t even on the league’s collective radar after spending several years overseas — and then, seemingly overnight, he had turned into a double-double machine, saving Miami’s season.

It wasn’t enough: once Chris Bosh‘s blood clots were discovered and he was sidelined for the year, Miami’s playoff hopes were effectively dashed. The much-hyped post-trade deadline lineup of Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Bosh and Whiteside never got to play together. The idea is that this year, they will, and on paper, this Heat team is one of the few in the east with enough talent and depth to seriously challenge Cleveland and make a deep playoff run. But a big part of that potential is the notion that Whiteside’s success is sustainable, that the paint monster he was in the 48 games he played last year is the player he is, full-stop.

Theoretically, he has a great skillset to compliment Bosh in the frontcourt. His ability to finish at the rim will give Bosh plenty of space to play around the perimeter, which is where he’s most comfortable. It’s a good fit, and when everybody’s healthy, Miami should be very effective on the offensive end. On defense, he’s a shot-blocking machine, but has a tendency to get into foul trouble. Whiteside will be highly motivated to keep his more erratic tendencies in check this year, since he’s due for a major payday next summer if he has another good year.

But Whiteside hasn’t started training camp healthy. He’s been out with a calf strain during preseason, which isn’t a great sign. Questions about his attitude have also never entirely dissipated despite his success last year in Miami — Whiteside had a couple of incidents last season where he was ejected for excessive hard fouls, which prompted Wade to call him out publicly. Even if he’s healthy, there’s plenty of reason to expect that there’s at least a small regression coming.

Still, if Whiteside is even close to what he was last year, the Heat will be extremely dangerous. His combination of size and athleticism make him a game-changer, and he fits well with the Heat’s other starters. It’s far from a sure thing that he’ll continue to produce the way he did last season, but he’s too talented for there not to be a good chance he’ll continue at something resembling that level, at least enough to make the Heat a contender in the East.