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Golden State Warriors 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Warriors run as title contenders may be over. With injuries, wear, roster change and free-agent, this may be a ho-hum year by Warriors standards, but will they fall out of the playoffs? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Golden State Warriors in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

Basketball Insiders

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It’s been the summer of change for the Golden State Warriors. After helping them to back to back championships and three straight NBA Finals appearances, Kevin Durant left to the Brooklyn Nets. Not only that but longtime veterans Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston, who were key players on title teams, are also gone. To make matters worse, Klay Thompson is expected to miss a good portion of the season while he recovers from an ACL injury.

It’s not all gloom and doom for the Warriors, however. Stephen Curry and Draymond Green are still around. Thompson is probably going to be back sometime after the All-Star break. D’Angelo Russell, one of the top rising stars in the league is now in the Bay Area. There is enough left to still make the Warriors a formidable team. There’s going to be some question marks regarding the bench, but there’s no reason to believe this team still isn’t one of the better teams in the Western Conference.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

How the mighty have fallen. The Warriors were seemingly set to rule the Western Conference, and the NBA, for quite a while. But a couple of injuries later, and everything changed. The Warriors have fallen back down to Earth and have rejoined the rest of the pack. That’s not to say they won’t still be among the NBA’s elite. As long as they have the core group of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, they will be a contender. Thompson will likely be out until the All-Star Break at the earliest, but they have a replacement in D’Angelo Russell. The main area of concern, however, is going to be the bench. Their depth has been one of their strengths in years past, but this season it’s a bit of a question mark. They have players capable of playing big roles off the bench with Willie Cauley Stein, Alec Burks, Omari Spellman and Glenn Robinson III, but those players haven’t exactly been the models for consistency. Steve Kerr has seemingly managed to get the most out of his players though it’s possible they end up forming a good second unit.

2nd Place – Pacific Division

– David Yapkowitz

The Warriors dynasty seems to be a thing of the past. But that does not mean they’re in need of a rebuild. They still have their big-three under contract for the foreseeable future (Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green). And while none of them are as durable and effective as they were a few years back, they are still all top-5 league-wide in their respective positions. They also made out pretty well in Durant’s departure – returning D’Angelo Russell; especially considering Durant could have walked for nothing. Unfortunately, that move also cost the Dubs Andre Iguodala. Shaun Livingston left, too – recently announcing his retirement. While the Warriors might be taking a wait-and-see approach with Russell, it might be in their best interest to swap him out for additional depth if they hope to continue to compete for championships with their current team.

3rd Place – Pacific Division

– Drew Maresca

With Kevin Durant off to Brooklyn, Andre Iguodala idle in Memphis and Shaun Livingston retired, the Golden State Warriors have had some major losses. Even Klay Thompson, who tore his ACL in the NBA Finals, is out until late winter or early spring. So the question everybody has is: Is the dynasty over? The Dubs don’t think so. We’ll see an unfamiliar duo with Stephen Curry and a rising star in D’Angelo Russell, which should make for a blazing backcourt. Looking at the additions of Willie Cauley-Stein and Omari Spellman – along with the return of Kevon Looney – the big man situation is solidified on both ends. Draymond Green is still the straw that stirs the drink. There’s a possibility that Jacob Evans breaks out as a second unit sensation, in addition to Summer League starling Alen Smailagic and Villanova standout Eric Paschall. Steve Kerr still has two-thirds of his original core to work with, so let’s not be foolish and eliminate Golden State from the playoffs in our minds. The five-game NBA Finals appearance streak though? That could be in jeopardy.

3rd Place – Pacific Division

– Spencer Davies

Eventually, every NBA dynasty comes to an end. While the Warriors still have Steph Curry and Draymond Green and that is a ton more than some teams have, the juggernaut is no more and the Warriors are mortal again. Klay Thompson will likely miss most if not all of the 2019-20 NBA season, which means if the Warriors are smart about their long-term future, this season will be more about “load management” with an emphasis on developing their newfound youth. The surprise addition of D’Angelo Russell gives the Warriors an interesting All-Star level guy to look at before the trade deadline, so it’s not as if the Warriors will head to the NBA basement, but winning more than 45-50 games seems unlikely given the circumstances.

4th Place – Pacific Division

– Steve Kyler

It’s unfortunate that the Golden State Warriors were hit with several devastating injuries to key players in the 2018-19 playoffs. In the aftermath, Kevin Durant is now a member of the Brooklyn Nets, Klay Thompson is still a Warrior but will be rehabbing well into the season and Golden State is now led by just Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. Any team would be thrilled to have Curry and Green leading the team, but these are the Warriors, who have been historically dominant and talented over the last few seasons. Despite having very little depth on the roster, I do believe that Curry, Green and new addition D’Angelo Russell could lead the Warriors into the playoffs. However, I also will not be surprised if this team underperforms or is edged out of the postseason by a dangerous, fringe playoff team like the Sacramento Kings. The first six spots in the Western Conference place are, as of now, seemingly locked in by the top teams in the West. There are two spots open for a few teams to fight over and I’m just not sure where Golden State will end up. A lot will depend on how quickly Klay Thompson can return to action and play at his usual levels.

3rd Place – Pacific Division

– Jesse Blancarte

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Warriors responded quickly to Kevin Durant’s intention to leave for the Brooklyn Nets, orchestrating a dual sign and trade that brought in All-Star D’Angelo Russell on a five-year $117.3 million max contract. The goal is to integrate Russell into the team’s core, but if he doesn’t fit their style of play, he can be traded after December 15. The Russell deal also triggered a hard cap for the Warriors at $138.9 million, which is why the team felt compelled first to deal Andre Iguodala to the Memphis Grizzlies.

Golden State will pay the repeater tax after this season, should they remain over the $132.6 million threshold. Currently, the team has roughly $138.6 million in guaranteed salary in just 13 players. Should they finish the year at $138.9 million in payroll, they’ll pay $16 million in tax. Given the team had initially prepared to pay Durant the maximum (while retaining Iguodala), the tax bill is probably a relief to what the team had originally expected.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Stephen Curry

Curry remains a top 5-6 player in the league and one of the most explosive offensive threats. He is a threat to score from literally anywhere on the court. He is the motor that has kept the Warriors running the past few seasons and the driving force behind their championship teams. He obviously hasn’t had to shoulder the offensive load as much when Durant was on the team, but this season is going to be different.

This past season, at the age of 30, he continued his efficient scoring, He averaged 27.3 points per game while shooting 47.2 percent from the field, 43.7 percent from the three-point line, and 91.6 percent from the free-throw line. During the 2015-16 season, the season before Durant arrived, Curry vaulted himself into the vaunted 50/40/90 club while averaging a career-high 30.1 points per game. Now with Durant gone, and Thompson out to start the season, don’t be shocked to see Curry return to those levels of scoring. Sure he has a little more wear and tear on his body, but he’s still in the prime of his career. Look for some big offensive performances from him this season.

Top Defensive Player: Draymond Green

There’s no question about it, Green is the heart and soul of the Warriors defense. He’s been the catalyst that’s made the Warriors one of the best defensive teams in the league. He’s arguably the most versatile defensive player in the league right now, capable of bodying up big men in the post, being an interior shot blocker, and able to cover guard and wings on the perimeter.

Green will also have some help behind him with Kevon Looney expected to be the full-time starter at center. Together the duo will be one of the best defensive frontcourts in the league. Green will have a legit shot blocker behind him, so he can afford to be a little bit more aggressive on the perimeter. Green has never been one to shy away from a challenge, and with many predicting the Warriors demise, it’s just the sort of thing to light another fire under him and see his name mentioned again in the Defensive Player of the Year race.

Top Playmaker: D’Angelo Russell

Yes, I know Curry is still on the team and is one of the best in the league with ball in his hands. But things are different in the Bay this season. Adjustments are going to have to be made and Steve Kerr is going to have to put his players in the best possible situations to succeed. Curry is also one of, if not the best off-ball player in the NBA. It’s a nightmare for defenders to chase him around multiple screens as he looks to get open. Russell has emerged as one of the better playmakers in the league. It’s not at all farfetched to imagine Russell being the primary ball-handler.

Russell thrives with the ball in his hands and he averaged 7.0 assists last season; more than Curry. He also isn’t as good a catch and shoot player as Curry is, nor is he as efficient moving without the ball. It might be in Golden State’s best interest to shake things up a little bit and allow Russell to facilitate the offense while Curry plays more off-ball. If that happens, look for Russell’s assist numbers to shoot up.

Top Clutch Player: Klay Thompson

Sure he’s going to be out for the first half of the season, but Thompson is arguably the most clutch player on the team, and certainly one of the best in the league. His 41 points in Game 6 of the 2016 Western Conference Finals, with the Warriors facing elimination, is legendary. Last season, before he got hurt in Game 5 of the Finals, he was well on his way to another amazing elimination game performance.

Clutch doesn’t just mean hitting big shots in the fourth quarter — clutch is also measured by a player’s overall performance in big games. Thompson is certainly capable of hitting big shots down the stretch, he’s done it multiple times. But he seemingly rises to the occasion in the playoff when the Warriors have needed a huge game. He’s going to have that extra motivation when he returns to the court, and the Warriors will be well off for it.

The Unheralded Player: Jacob Evans III

Evans rarely saw the court last season as a rookie and he spent most of his time in the G League with the Santa Cruz Warriors. But with the overhaul of the Warriors bench, Evans is going to be called upon to give the team some quality production. He’s primarily a wing player who can split time at both shooting guard and small forward, but he’s going to be leaned upon to provide minutes at point guard this season.

During Summer League, he was given an opportunity to ease into his new position. He did a solid job, showing off nice court vision and awareness with the ball in his hands as the primary facilitator. It’s going to be his job to step into the role Livingston has played for the past several seasons. That also includes being a good defender. He had a good summer league, now it’s time for that to translate to the regular season.

Best New Addition: Alec Burks

It wasn’t too long ago that Burks was seemingly a rising star in the NBA with the Utah Jazz. A few injuries later, however, and now he’s simply trying to show he can still be an effective NBA player. The Warriors bench is the biggest question mark heading into the season and Burks has a chance to solidify the second unit.

Coming to the Warriors was a great situation for him. He’s going to get the minutes to contribute right away and prove himself while also being on a winning team. He did average 11.6 points per game while shooting 37.8 percent from three last season in 34 games with the Cleveland Cavaliers. He’s always been a decent three-point shooter, and that’s what the Warriors are going to need from him, instant offense off the bench. He’s the best scorer in the second unit as of this moment.

– David Yapkowitz

WHO WE LIKE

1. Kevon Looney

Looney had a case for being listed as the team’s unheralded player. Last season, he was suffering from injuries too, but he toughed it out and gave the Warriors all he had in the Finals despite clearly being in pain. He’s been a part-time starter, and there isn’t any compelling reason why he shouldn’t be in the starting lineup. He’s a good rim protector and interior defender, and he can switch out on the perimeter like Green can. He’s an improving offensive player and is solid in the pick and roll. He should be able to have a career-year and really establish himself as a true difference-maker.

2. Willie Cauley-Stein

Cauley-Stein is somewhat of an enigma. In his four years with the Sacramento Kings, he’s shown flashes of potential followed by inconsistency. He was a good defensive player in college, but that hasn’t always translated to the NBA for him. He is a mobile big though who has a decent offensive touch, and that’s what the Warriors will need from him. He can run the floor well in transition and finish plays as well as being the roller in the pick and roll. This is perhaps his last chance to prove he’s a consistent NBA player.

3. Omari Spellman

Spellman wasn’t exactly the model of consistency during his rookie season, and the Atlanta Hawks gave up on him after just one year in the NBA. On a Warriors team whose bench is full of question marks, he’s got the opportunity to show Atlanta that they gave up on him too early. He brings a different skill set to the team than the other bigs on the roster. He has the ability to stretch the floor and shoot from distance. He’s primarily a power forward, but he can shift over to center in small-ball lineups.

4. Alen Smailagic

Smailagic made a little bit of history this past season when he opted to play in the G League in anticipation of the NBA Draft. He was then drafted this past summer by the New Orleans Pelicans before they traded his rights to the Warriors. Watching him in person with Santa Cruz last season, he’s got all the tools to be a successful big man in today’s game. He is very athletic and can finish well in the paint, but he also stretches the floor and can shoot from three. He’s not bad defensively either. The Warriors won’t need contributions from him immediately and they can afford to be patient with him as he develops.

-David Yapkowitz

STRENGTHS

The Warriors are going to have to rely on the leadership of their key guys more than ever this season. Thankfully for them, they’ve got some of the best leaders in the league. Sure Iguodala and Livingston were highly respected players in the locker room, and they will certainly be missed, but they still have Curry, Thompson, and Green. With the core three still intact, there shouldn’t be any locker room issues or whatnot creeping up this season, those players will see to it. Along with Kerr, the trio will keep this team in line. While they are not the Warriors of seasons past, their key vets will ensure that this team doesn’t suffer much of a drop-off.

-David Yapkowitz

WEAKNESSES

Although the Warriors have been top-heavy, one of their strengths during their title years has been the depth of their bench. Last season, their second unit was already starting to show some cracks, and now the armor has completely fallen off. If Kerr decides to start Cauley-Stein and bring Looney off the bench, then they’ll have some dependable play with the second unit. But everyone else remains a question mark. Can Evans adapt to point guard and take a big leap despite not playing much as a rookie? Can Spellman keep his weight down and be a consistent outside threat? Can Burks regain his prior form and be a legit wing scorer? What are they going to get from Glenn Robinson III? This is going to be an issue for the Warriors and whatever playoff success they hope to have, depends on it.

-David Yapkowitz

THE BURNING QUESTION

How far will the Warriors drop?

Golden State clearly isn’t going to be running roughshod through the NBA like they have in the past. Other teams in the West are feeling great about their chances of making it to the NBA Finals. But how much of a drop-off will the Warriors actually have? Of course, they’re going to miss the offensive dynamic that Durant brought to the team, but his departure might allow Curry to get back to his former level of scoring. Thompson’s presence will be missed while he recovers, but his absence is why Russell is now on the roster. There is enough on this team to keep them afloat until Thompson gets back. And once playoffs begin, anything can happen. The Warriors will be a team nobody wants to see in the postseason. They’re still good enough for a top 4-5 finish in the West. The rumors of their demise have been greatly exaggerated.

-David Yapkowitz

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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.

Bobby Krivitsky

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Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.

In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.

At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.

The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.

There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots. 

A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks. 

Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.

More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter. 

But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic? 

It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.

Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.

Drew Maresca

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D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.

Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.

Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.

The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.

COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.

The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.

Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).

Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?

Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.

Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.

Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.

On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.

Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).

But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.

At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.

To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.

So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

Matt John

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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