And so begins life after Paul George. What had been a year or two in the making finally occurred over the summer, as George was sent to Oklahoma City Thunder for the uninspiring return of Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. Now, the Pacers look to recover, somehow avoiding a complete rebuild in the process. This probably isn’t going to be a fun year, but Indiana’s rebuild isn’t the most depressing in the Eastern Conference by a long shot. There are some things to like here, and this will be the season when they cultivate the beginning of the organization’s next chapter.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
Let’s start by admitting right out in the open that the Oklahoma City Thunder won the Paul George trade by a wide, wide margin, and then let’s use that as fodder to predict that the Pacers probably are due for a step back this season. Bringing Victor Oladipo back to Indiana is a fun narrative, and Myles Turner has the look of an All-Star, but outside of that it’s hard to know who the real players are on this team. I love Lance Stephenson, but it’s horrifying that he’ll be asked to play a leadership role on the team this year, and the rest of the roster is filled mostly with replacement-level guys. They will be worse than last year but perhaps better than many people expect. At least the new uniforms are fire, right?
4th Place — Central Division
— Joel Brigham
Everything for Indiana starts with the Paul George trade. Simply put, the Oklahoma City Thunder won that trade – regardless of the fact that George could walk away for nothing after this season. The Pacers took on Victor Oladipo’s bloated contract, did not get any draft picks and actually take on money in the deal. It’s one thing if the rest of the league made no offers on George. However, we know that there were other bids for George’s services, which makes this deal so puzzling. With a roster featuring Oladipo, young stud Myles Turner and a list of mostly replacement level players, it’s hard to see this team making much noise even in the weak Eastern Conference. There’s more that can be said about Indiana, but it’s hard to get much further than the lopsided deal that sent George to Oklahoma City.
4th Place — Central Division
— Jesse Blancarte
Much like their in-conference contemporary in Chicago, the Indiana Pacers lost most of their firepower from last season as well.
Heading into this year, the Pacers will be without Paul George and Jeff Teague, as both players made their trek into the Western Conference. As a result, Indiana has been left to switch immediately from postseason appearance to rebuild mode.
By securing Victor Oladipo, an Indiana State legend from his college time with the Hoosiers, in the George trade, the Pacers at least have some type of marketing ploy at their disposal. But past that and the continued emergence of young big man Myles Turner, next season looks pretty bleak for Indiana.
At least from the looks of it, the Pacers will have a decent draft pick in what projects to be a deep lottery crop next June.
4th place — Central Division
— Dennis Chambers
Life in the post-Paul George era certainly won’t be quite as exciting for the Pacers, at least not to get started. This team won’t be good enough to challenge for anything real in the East, and that’s put them in a slightly tough position: Their best team-building avenue might be to simply bottom out completely and shoot for a high draft pick, but they might have just enough talent on the roster to make this difficult. Guys like Victor Oladipo, Darren Collison, Cory Joseph and Thaddeus Young aren’t anyone’s idea of a contender, but they’re good enough to get you some wins in this awful conference. Combine that with some possible improvement from youngsters Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, and securing a high lottery slot might not be so easy. Turner remains key here – his development should take priority over virtually any standings-related questions this year. Beyond that, we’ll see whether this Pacers team is taking a shot at the eight seed come trade deadline time, or whether they’re considering a fire sale and a full tank.
4th place — Central Division
— Ben Dowsett
Now begins life without Paul George.
On paper, the Pacers are a team that is full of complementary pieces, but one that’s devoid of one that’s capable of leading the pack. I count eight players on the roster that I like as individual contributors, but aside from Myles Turner, I’m not sure who (if anyone) has the potential to be a truly impactful player on his own. Through the early years of his career, Victor Oladipo has had some high moments, but he’s already been traded twice. To me, that means he failed to convince two separate franchises that he has “it.”
In the end, I expect this coming season to be a very long one in Indianapolis. You simply don’t trade a superstar like Paul George and get any better for it, and you especially don’t become any better for it by trading him for Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. The Pacers simply become another example of life coming at you fast in the league, especially for small market teams. If you stumble across a superstar, you have a short window to build his team into a perennial contender. If you fail and he skates town, you start all over. Unfortunately, the Pacers ran into Miami’s dynasty and saw the clock strike midnight.
4th place — Central Division
— Moke Hamilton
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Victor Oladipo
Let’s start by just pointing out the obvious here; Indiana lost a ton of scoring in their offseason overhaul. Between Paul George, Jeff Teague, Monta Ellis and C.J. Miles, Indiana is suddenly missing over 58 points per game which have not been replaced by the players they’ve brought in. Myles Turner, who averaged 14.5 points per game last season, should be a focus for the team offensively this year, but Oladipo is the player with best opportunity to average 20 points per game. He’s never done that, of course, but he’s come reasonably close. With years of experience and a bigger offensive role than he’s ever had, Oladipo appears to have the best opportunity to shine.
Top Defensive Player: Myles Turner
After averaging 2.1 blocks per game in just 31.4 minutes last year, Turner seems likely to be among the league leaders in that category this upcoming season as those minutes ultimately rise. Manning the middle last year, Turner allowed just 0.867 points per possession, which is a testament to just how effective he was as just a second-year player on a middling team. He’s quick for a guy his size, and his height, length and athleticism make him a nightmare for opposing players trying to score. In fact, opponents shot 8.4 percent below their season averages when he was the closest defender within six feet of the basket. He’s elite defensively, and should be even better (and stronger) this season.
Top Playmaker: Darren Collison
Collison has never averaged fewer than 10 points per game in his entire career, and only has failed to average four assists per game just once, making him the model of consistency on the offensive end in what will be his second stint with the Indiana Pacers this year. As the Jeff Teague replacement, he will be asked to do a lot of the same things (but for a lot less money), which will include splitting open defenses and finding open shooters. Even with fewer three-point marksmen on the roster this season, Indiana’s new starting point guard should still end up in the neighborhood of four to six assists per contest, easily the best of anybody on this Pacers team.
Top Clutch Player: Victor Oladipo
In April of last season, when Russell Westbrook had finally broken the triple-double record and took a night off ahead of the playoffs, the Thunder found themselves entrenched in a tight game with the Minnesota Timberwolves. With Westbrook out of the game, Oladipo took the go-ahead shot with just a few seconds left in the game, and he sank it to seal the victory for OKC. After the game, Billy Donovan said, “I think Victor’s proven in his time being a young player that he’s a guy who’s not afraid of taking a big shot,” and while he’s playing for a new coach, if any big shots come up this year, expect Oladipo to be the one who takes them.
The Unheralded Player: Glenn Robinson III
Last year’s Dunk Contest champ is a lot more than just a leaper, as he proved in inconsistent minutes last year, despite 27 starts. He was incredibly up-and-down offensively all season, but flashed some really interesting moments late in the season, including a game-winning shot and a 20-point outing. Defensively, he’s quite good at forcing turnovers and is a good rebounder at the three spot on the floor, and all of this should come into light as he contends for the starting small forward spot this season. Bojan Bogdanovic is a shiny new toy that flashed bigger stats in Brooklyn and Washington last season, but Robinson is quietly a slightly better all-around player. Hopefully he gets the consistent minutes to prove it this year.
Best New Addition: Victor Oladipo
He better be, anyway. He was the reason Indiana felt better about Oklahoma City’s trade offer than any offer that might have included a draft pick, so for better or worse, Oladipo is the future in Indiana, along with Myles Turner. If he ends up falling flat in this opportunity to get huge usage, the George trade will look worse than it already does.
— Joel Brigham
WHO WE LIKE
1. Lance Stephenson:
Something about Indianapolis brings out the best in Stephenson, who got his groove back to a certain extent after rejoining the team last season. The fans have embraced him—there’s even going to be a “Born Ready Crew” fan zone at the Fieldhouse this year, named after Stephenson’s rap moniker—and he’s talking like a leader already this summer. Indy will need some measure of leadership from him this season, so hopefully he’s got it in him. If nothing else, Stephenson is far and away the team’s most entertaining personality.
2. Bojan Bogdanovic:
It seemed like in every EuroBasket game Bogdanovic played this summer, he’d be Croatia’s top scorer with somewhere between 20-25 points per game. He’s not going to pour in numbers like that with the Pacers, but considering how much offensive firepower departed this roster in the offseason, he’ll get plenty of opportunities to be among the team’s leading scorers. Indiana lost a lot of three-point shooting over the summer, too, and that’s another area where Bogdanovic will be useful. In short, the Pacers needed someone exactly like him to fill out this roster, and it’s hard to imagine him not squeezing into the role set out for him.
3. Cory Joseph:
An ideal fit in Kevin Pritchard’s pseudo-rebuild, Joseph is coming off a strong year in Toronto in which he averaged 9.3 points and 3.3 assists, meaning he should slot nicely right behind Collison in the point guard rotation. He’s only 25 years old, so there could be even better years ahead. Between his time in San Antonio and Toronto, he’s got quite a bit of playoff experience for a kid his age, which should be a welcome addition to a team that doesn’t have a whole lot of that in its clubhouse.
4. Domantas Sabonis:
As the other piece in the Paul George trade, Sabonis’ development as a second-year player will speak volumes about how Pritchard did in moving his former team cornerstone. Last season Sabonis shot 46 percent from three, but his bread and butter typically comes in closer to the basket, where his post moves are slippery enough to get the better of bigger, bulkier fives. He should back up Turner and get more of an opportunity to succeed playing on the receiving end of pick-and-roll plays that don’t involve Russell Westbrook. His defense and fouling need to come down to earth, but offensively he’s got a bright future.
— Joel Brigham
SALARY CAP 101
The Pacers are under the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap by as much as $7.6 million, even after signing Bojan Bogdanovic and Darren Collison (not to mention their blockbuster trade of Paul George to bring in Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis). Indiana also has their $4.3 million Room Exception.
Assuming the team picks up Sabonis’ team option for the 2018-19 season before November, the Pacers could have roughly $36 million in space next summer under a $102 million cap. That partially relies on Thaddeus Young ($13.8 million) and Cory Joseph ($7.9 million) opting out. Also, Al Jefferson, Bogdanovic and Collison each have partially-guaranteed deals for 2018-19; Lance Stephenson has a team option. The Pacers have valuable contract flexibility as the work through a rebuild in the post-George era.
— Eric Pincus
Nothing stands out. The team was top-ten defensively last year, but not only did they lose an elite perimeter defender in Paul George, they also added two brutal defensive players in Domantas Sabonis and Darren Collison. Turner anchoring the defense will help, but chances are pretty good that this team will be in the middle of the road pretty much across the board this year. They are relatively young and athletic, which is a good thing, but statistically it’s hard to envision them overachieving.
— Joel Brigham
Scoring is going to be the biggest problem this season. The Pacers were smack-dab in the middle of the league last season in terms of points scored per game, but that’s likely to take a hit with so many of the team’s top scorers gone in favor of lesser-scoring counterparts. It’s asking a lot for the offense to improve with worse offensive player, which places them squarely in the bottom half of the league in terms of scoring. Unless the defense is great, Indiana is going to get outscored a lot this season.
— Joel Brigham
THE BURNING QUESTION
What does life after Paul George look like, exactly?
From an aesthetic standpoint, we know it looks really, really different, thanks in large part to Nike’s radical redesign of the uniform sets. On the court, though, it’s hard to know how well (or perhaps how poorly) the team pops back up after the Paul George fiasco this summer. We expect a huge jump from Myles Turner, but we don’t yet know if he’s capable of shouldering a franchise. We expect Oladipo to make a leap, too, and if both players can do it, the playoffs are more than just a pipe dream for Indiana. If the Pacers underperform, though, they’ll wish they had gotten some draft picks in that George trade.
— Joel Brigham
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.
NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics
The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.
Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.
Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.
Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.
As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.
Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.
Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.
“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by Celtics.com.
“I’m tired of not playing.”
Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.
As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.
What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.
Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.
Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.
Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.
In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.
Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.
With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.
As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.
Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.
But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.
And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.