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Indiana Pacers 2019-20 NBA Season Preview

The Indiana Pacers had an amazing offseason, but will that be enough to move them into the upper tier of the Eastern Conference? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Pacers in this 2019-20 NBA Season Preview.

Basketball Insiders

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The Indiana Pacers have boasted tremendous continuity over the past few years, going from inevitable rebuild to genuine darkhorse. That continuity will be put to the test again this season following a smorgasbord of moves over the summer.

After losing four of their five starters from last season, Indiana will have plenty of new faces that will need time to gel. Even with All-Star guard Victor Oladipo returns from his torn quad, the team chemistry will be rigorously challenged. On paper, the fit looks fantastic but until we see it on the court, no one can be sure how it will all work out.

In terms of returning players, the Pacers rank 28th in both minutes played and points scored from last season. Indiana’s first ten games are very forgiving, so the schedule Gods may help them get off to a good start this season. That will be key for them if they expect to secure one of the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference.

With that said, let’s dive into another edition of Basketball Insiders’ season previews — this time, the focus lies on the Indiana Pacers.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Indiana is coming off an incredibly impressive 2018-19. But instead of resting on their laurels, the Pacers went in for a face-lift of sorts – and allowed Darren Collison, Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young and Cory Joseph to leave as free agents. But the departing players were replaced by Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. McConnell, Jeremy Lamb and T.J. Warren. A returning Victor Oladipo should add another level to the Pacers and their backcourt will be among the most versatile and dangerous in the NBA. Rookie Goga Bitadze should add something to the team with an incredibly efficient offensive game and great rim-protecting instincts. The Pacers have a high ceiling this year – but they will be thoroughly tested by the likes of the 76ers and Bucks in the Eastern Conference.

2nd Place – Central Division

-Drew Maresca

The Pacers, despite losing Victor Oladipo, still had a great year. They finished just shy of 50 wins as the rest of the team came together and showed a lot of fight. This summer they made some very quality free agent signings with Jeremy Lamb, Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. McConnell and Justin Holiday, also adding a good trade for T.J. Warren. Each of these players should add to the Pacers depth, but they already must find players that can replicate the contributions of Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young and Darren Collison.

With a healthy Oladipo though, there’s no reason why this team should take a step backward as he was well on his way to becoming a legit star. With him, and the surrounding supporting cast, they’re a playoff team in the Eastern Conference. The next step for them is not only reaching the postseason but perhaps securing a top-four seed and possibly even winning a series — it could happen this season.

2nd Place – Central Division

– David Yapkowitz

If there’s anything we know about the Pacers, it’s that when they’re down, they’re never out. You can throw a wrench into their plans and they just come out with a new blueprint. Last season, it was Victor Oladipo’s devastating injury. This time, Indiana lost Bojan Bogdanovic and Thaddeus Young to free agency; two valuable pieces on the court and in the locker room. Kevin Pritchard acted on this quickly with the additions of Malcolm Brogdon, Jeremy Lamb and T.J. Warren. The team still has dynamic, versatile big men in Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, who, according to Nate McMillan, will be playing together. If this altered version of the squad works and Oladipo comes back as the Vic everybody knows, this is going to be a dangerous group to reckon with.

2nd Place – Central Division

– Spencer Davies

The Indiana Pacers might be the best team no one is giving credit to. If Victor Oladipo comes back after the All-Star break, the Pacers could be set up to secure home-court advantage in the first round. Indiana had a solid offseason by netting Malcolm Brogdon in a sign and trade, plus they even hung on to their young guys too. So if Oladipo is back to his All-Star form, the Pacers could be really good. if Oladipo needs more time, then maybe the Pacers are simply a playoff team — but, overall, the franchise is in a fantastic position going forward.

2nd Place – Central Division

– Steve Kyler

I think that at some point this season the Milwaukee Bucks are going to second-guess not doing everything in their power to retain the services of Malcolm Brogdon. Brogdon will bring a lot of value to the Indiana Pacers on both ends of the court and could form a dynamic duo with Victor Oladipo. Indiana also made other savvy moves, adding quality players like T.J. Warren, Jeremy Lamb, T.J. McConnell and Justin Holiday. Between Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner and now Goga Bitadze, the Pacers have a lot of depth at the center position as well and may need to make a decision on what to do between Sabonis and Turner. Despite making some nice moves this offseason, I don’t believe Indiana  has the talent or overall to match the firepower of the league’s top-tier contenders. I think Indiana can make a strong push this season and exceed expectations but I am not convinced that they have quite enough to make it to the Finals.

2nd Place – Central Division

– Jesse Blancarte

FROM THE CAP GUY

The Pacers used their cap room to bring in players like Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren and Jeremy Lamb. Having used their room exception on Justin Holiday, the team can only add players via minimum contracts or trade. Indiana is well below the NBA’s $132.6 million luxury tax line with 15 guaranteed players, along with three camp invites (C.J. Wilcox, JaKeenan Gant and Amida Brimah) who are unlikely to make the regular-season roster.

Before November, the Pacers need to pick up team options on T.J. Leaf and Aaron Holiday. Domantas Sabonis is eligible for a contract extension before the start of the season. The Pacers are also heavily invested for the 2020-21 season, projected to be over the $116 million salary cap.

– Eric Pincus

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Victor Oladipo

Since acquiring him in the high-profile trade for Paul George, Victor Oladipo has been the engine that runs this team. The energy, hustle and clutch performances have invigorated this Pacers team and their fan base. His days in Orlando and Oklahoma City were about learning and applying that knowledge to his game.

Oladipo burst onto the national scene during the 2017-18 season where he was named to the All-NBA third team. That same season, he made his first All-Star game appearance and was named to the All-Defensive first team after leading the league in steals. Not only has he lifted the Pacers franchise, but he has been carrying the offense quite well as indicated by his 17th-ranked player efficiency rating from two years ago.

Top Defensive Player: Myles Turner

You won’t find a better rim protector in the league today than Myles Turner. The 23-year old center led the league in blocks last season and found himself in serious consideration for Defensive Player of the Year. While his offensive game and rebounding are the focal point of most conversations, Turner has long been a steady defensive force throughout his four-year career.

Turner’s numbers go much deeper than blocks, however. Last season, the big man ranked seventh in the league in defensive win shares and had the third-best defensive plus/minus in the NBA. His overall defensive rating was fifth-best in the league and greatly contributed to the Pacers being ranked No. 1 in opponent points per game a year ago.

Top Playmaker: Malcolm Brogdon

Despite not having the burden of being the playmaker in Milwaukee, Brogdon is going to be forced into that role from the very beginning in Indiana. With Oladipo out for at least the first couple of months, Brogdon will be thrust into the creator role. It will be an adjustment for the former Rookie of the Year, but it is a challenge that he’ll welcomes. The task is even more difficult when you consider the roster turnover Indiana has gone through from last season.

Brogdon’s biggest strength is his ability to go downhill, straight to the basket. This penetration will open up kick-outs to shooters and many swing-swing plays on the perimeter. Last season, Brogdon’s usage rate was around 20 percent. He will now become the ball-dominant guard that he never had to be next to Giannis Antetokounmpo. You can expect plenty of pick and roll plays with Sabonis too. Brogdon has an exceptionally high basketball IQ and uses it to his advantage. He gets to the line, wherein which he’ll make opponents pay dearly. His 93 percent free throw rate was best in the league last season.

Top Clutch Player: Victor Oladipo

His full name is Kehinde Babatunde Victor Oladipo, but his middle name may as well be Clutch. Before he went down with his ruptured quad tendon, Oladipo was leading the league in clutch field goal percentage (63.2 percent). He ranked second in the NBA in points per clutch possession with 1.59 on 39 such possessions. During the final minute of fourth quarters last season, the star guard was 4-of-5 shooting on lead-altering shots, which were all three-pointers.

In a memorable Nov. 3 contest against the Boston Celtics last year, the All-Star put the Pacers on his back and got them in the lead with a 22-foot jumper with 52 seconds remaining. He followed that up with a pair of crucial free throws, plus a game-winning three in the final seconds. He hit a ridiculous game-tying shot against the Rockets two nights later and ripped out the hearts of Bulls fans with two clutch buckets in the final minute – one of which was the game-winner with one second remaining.

Needless to say, Oladipo is not shy of the moment and has proved on multiple occasions that he’ll raise his game when the brightest lights are on him.

The Unheralded Player: Aaron Holiday

Indiana drafted Holiday with the No. 23 overall pick last summer and the former UCLA guard displayed plenty of promise over his 50 games with the team. Holiday averaged nearly six points, two assists and had an effective field goal percentage of 48.3 during his 13 minutes per contest. His role will increase this year, providing him with more time on the floor with the second unit. As the backup point guard, he will be responsible for getting his teammates involved in the offense, which can be difficult for a 22-year-old in his second season.

The biggest hurdle for Holiday will be improving his shooting. Last year, he shot 40 percent from the field and just under 34 percent from behind the arc. For a guy that is viewed as instant-offense off the bench, those numbers will have to improve in his sophomore season. Indiana had the third-most roster turnover from this past season, so the only guys remaining that Holiday played with last year are Oladipo, Turner, Sabonis, Doug McDermott and TJ Leaf.

Best New Addition: Malcolm Brogdon

Indiana paid a steep price for Brogdon’s services, but it was money well spent. For the Pacers, a swift upgrade at the starting point guard position has never been more clear. Darren Collison was a fine player that could do a few things proficiently, but replacing him with Brogdon will be like going from a Honda to a Ferrari.

The most significant area of improvement will be on the defensive end. Collison was small by every definition of the word. At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, Brogdon has a much better frame for defending multiple positions. Even better, the promising newcomer was arguably the best defender on Kawhi Leonard during the playoffs.

– Chad Smith

WHO WE LIKE

1. Myles Turner

The time is now for Turner to make his biggest leap yet. With Oladipo out to start the season, he is the guy that needs to step up his game. If he can graduate to more than just a pick-and-pop guy on offense that also blocks shots, it will go a long way toward Indiana’s ultimate successes. Often a half-step behind, Turner just needs to hone in his skills and be more effective inside 15 feet.

Being a reliable second or third option on offense should be a goal for Turner this season. The Pacers like to spread the ball around and don’t exactly score at an amazing clip and the team finished 22nd in points per game last year. He looked engaged in a couple of FIBA games this summer, but he also had some poor performances. Like many players in the league, consistency will be key for Turner.

2. Domantas Sabonis

After nearly winning Sixth Man of the Year last season, Sabonis will move into the starting lineup with the departure of Thaddeus Young. A bump in minutes may come as well, provided he can stay out of foul trouble. The big man ranked 12th in personal fouls last year, 14th the season before that. He must refrain from the temptation to reach in or bump inside. Sabonis also tends to pick up cheap fouls away from the ball and that will need to be remedied.

Another area of concern for Sabonis is on defense. Playing the power forward position, he must be able to guard quicker, more athletic big men on the perimeter. Turner needs to stay near the basket for rim protection, so Sabonis may be on an island at times. As for the offensive side of the ball, there is not much than he cannot do. His offensive game is smooth and he is easily one of the best passing big men in the league. That is something this Pacers offense will need desperately in their All-Star’s absence.

3. Jeremy Lamb

Speaking of Oladipo’s vacancy, enter Jeremy Lamb. The long, versatile wing does not do one thing exceptionally well, but he can do what the Pacers need. He can score, rebound and defend in a positive way with his large wingspan. He should slide into the starting lineup until Oladipo is ready to return, and his fit should be excellent.

When Oladipo does reclaim his starting position, Lamb should have no qualms about moving back into the sixth-man role that thrived at down in Charlotte. Lamb has only missed a total of five games over the past two seasons and went from 12.9 points per game to a career-high 15.3 points per game last season. His three-point shooting still needs to be more consistent, but he can score in multiple ways from many, many spots on the floor.

4. T.J. Warren

The wild card for the Pacers this season just might be T.J. Warren. The offensive weapon has shown that he can score, but how much of that was fool’s gold playing on a terrible Suns teams? The big question with Warren is his three-point shooting. In 2016-17 he shot 26.5 percent from behind the arc and two years before that, it was just 22.2 percent. Last season, however, he shot 43 percent from three-point range, which definitely raised some eyebrows around the league. He has averaged 31 minutes per game or more in each of the last three seasons, but how much time he gets in Indiana is yet to be determined. There are a bunch of assets competing for minutes, so there could be a proverbial log jam brewing. Warren should enter the season as a starter, but for how long will depend on his shooting and whether or not his subpar defense improves.

– Chad Smith

STRENGTHS

Like many Pacers teams of the past, this group will hang their hat on defense. They have some outstanding individual defenders and guru Dan Burke has gotten many to play much better on that end of the floor. Between Turner’s rim protection and the lockdown defense in the backcourt with Brogdon and Oladipo, Indiana should stay close to their defensive rating from last season, which was third-best in the league.

The talent on this roster is also still very young. Oladipo is just 27, Brogdon is 26, while Turner and Sabonis are both 23 — hell, even Warren is only 26. In fact, every player on Indiana’s roster is 27 years old or younger. Most everyone is under contract for after this season and they have loads of flexibility that Kevin Pritchard can work with.

The rotation is solid, rife with contributors that can slide into different, flexible positions. Rookie Goga Bitadze should see ample minutes behind Turner and will be a nice pairing with T.J. Leaf on the second unit. Indiana should have more offensive firepower this year with the additions of Lamb and Warren. Their offense went stagnant far too often during the playoffs last year, but the front office has addressed that very nicely.

– Chad Smith

WEAKNESSES

The offense went through stretches last season that were often difficult to watch. Without Oladipo generating things, they fell flat on their face, especially against good defensive teams. The additions of Brogdon, Lamb and Warren should alleviate those concerns to some level. Still, the absence of their franchise player at the beginning of the season will be a major concern. The Pacers need to be at or above .500 by the time Oladipo makes it back. Even when he does return, he will likely be on a minutes restriction, sitting out on back-to-backs too, presumably.

Perhaps the biggest concern with the defense is this: Who guards Giannis? Who guards LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George or Ben Simmons? Young was usually that guy, but it’s a legitimately important question. Today, it’s hard to be convinced that anybody on the roster that can handle those assignments right now.

Indiana ranked 24th in pace last season, which was a likely reason for their 22nd-ranked scoring offense. That might not improve much, but they have the pieces to push the ball more if they so choose. It is difficult to imagine that without their All-Star on the floor though.

– Chad Smith

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will Indiana’s version of the Twin Towers work?

They might not be Tim Duncan and David Robinson, but the Pacers do have themselves two very talented big men. Head coach Nate McMillan has stated that he wants them to play together, even if they have not done much of it in the past. Last year, they never practiced with the two on the same team, so that could be a starting point to figuring this thing out.

Thankfully, they play off each other pretty well as Sabonis is the better offensive player and Turner is the fiercer defender. Turner excels away from the basket on offense, while Sabonis is a force inside. Feeding Sabonis the ball inside can only net positive results for both parties. Turner will need to make his open looks though as he has only scored 1,000 points once over his four seasons.

Leaf and Bitadze are going to work similarly when they are on the floor together too. Still, a whole lot of this will ride on the shoulders of McMillan and his staff. Look for him to incorporate Turner in the corner more, especially on pick and roll opportunities with Brogdon and Sabonis.

Should things ultimately not work out there, the Pacers do have some options. Sabonis is extension eligible as this is the final year of his current contract. It would be wise for them to find a new deal before the season begins. Importantly, he’d be far more appealing to other teams if he already has a long-term deal signed. Doing so would also mitigate the risk of letting him become a restricted free agent next summer, forced to match a higher salary if a team makes an enormous offer.

In the end, the two should figure out how to not only co-exist but to complement each other. If they can do that –plus, obviously, with a healthy Oladipo — the Pacers could be looking at advancing past the first round of the playoffs for the first time in six years.

– Chad Smith

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Miami’s Struggles About More than One Player

Drew Maresca assesses the Miami HEAT’s early-season struggles and their statistical slide from the 2019-20 campaign.

Drew Maresca

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The Miami HEAT appeared to successfully turn the corner on a quick rebuild, having advanced to the bubble’s 2020 NBA Finals. It looked as though Miami took a short cut even, rebounding from the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh era incredibly quickly. Ultimately, they did so through smart drafting – including the selections of Bam Adebayo, Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro – plus, a little luck, like the signing of Jimmy Butler and smartly sticking with Duncan Robinson.

But despite the fact that they should have improved from last season, the tide may have turned again in South Beach.

Through 15 games, the HEAT are an underwhelming 6-9 with losses in each of their last two games. Miami is also scoring fewer points per game than last season – 109.3 versus 112  – while giving up more – 113.1 against 109.1.

Miami has played the 14th-toughest schedule in the NBA, and there are some embarrassing and noteworthy loses thus far. They lost by a resounding 47 points to the Milwaukee Bucks earlier this season, with extra harsh defeats of 20 points to the lowly Detroit Pistons and the mediocre Toronto Raptors.

What’s to blame for Miami’s woes? Unfortunately for the HEAT, it’s a number of things.

First of all, they need more from a few of their stars – and it starts at the very top. Jimmy Butler was Miami’s leading scorer in 2019-20, posting 19.9 points per game. But this season, Butler is scoring just 15.8 points per game on a sub-par 44.2 percent shooting. While Butler shot poorly from three-point range last season, too (24.4 percent), he hasn’t connected on a single three-pointer yet in 2020-21. This, coming from a guy who shot 34.7 percent from deep in 2018-19 and 35 percent in 2017-18.

But it’s not just his lack of scoring that’s hurting. Butler is also collecting fewer assists and rebounds as well. He’s averaging only 5.5 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game, down from 6.7 ad 6.0 last season.

However, Butler’s main struggle this season has nothing to do with any statistic or slump. Butler has missed seven straight games due to COVID-19 protocols. Although to go-scorer wasn’t playing particularly well prior to isolating from the team – scoring in single digits twice – the HEAT are always in better shape if their leader takes the floor with them.

It’s not just Butler either. Tyler Herro also needs to regain his bubble form, at least as far as shooting is concerned. After connecting on 38.9 percent on 5.4 three-point attempts in 2019-20, he’s sinking only 30.2 percent of his 5.3 three-point attempts per game this season.

While Herro is scoring more – 17.2 points per game this season – and doing so more efficiently, he’s doesn’t pose the same threat from deep this season. So while he’s sure to pick it up sooner than later, he must do so to put more pressure on opposing defense.

It’s fair to assume Herro will solve his long-distance shooting woes, but the fact that he’s also struggling from the free throw line is concerning because it speaks more to his form. Herro is still well above the league average, connecting on 76.5 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe, but he shot a scorching 87 percent on free throw attempts last season.

So what’s behind the slump? More importantly, which Herro can the HEAT count on for the remainder of 2020-21? As much as Herro is on track to grow into an incredible player, Miami needs his efficiency to return to last season’s form if they expect to compete. But like Butler, a major part of Herro’s struggles are off the court.

Herro is currently dealing with an injury, having missed the last five games with neck spasms. Coach Erik Spoelstra noted that giving the injured Herro so many minutes before his big layoff likely exacerbated his injuries.

“There’s no telling for sure if this is why Tyler missed these games,” Spoelstra told the South Florida SunSentinel. “But it definitely didn’t help that he had to play and play that many minutes. We didn’t have anybody else at that point. If he didn’t play, then we would have had seven.”

But the HEAT’s struggles are about more than any one player – and that’s a big part of what makes Miami, Miami.

Still, their team stats are equally puzzling, like that the Miami HEAT currently ranks 20th in offensive rating and 23rd in defensive rating. In 2019-20, they were 7th in offensive rating and 11th in defensive rating. Obviously, something isn’t translating from last year, but what is it that’s missing?

Firstly, the HEAT are only the 18th best three-point shooting in terms of percentage. Last season, Miami was 2nd by shooting 37.9 percent. Herro returning to his old self should help quite a bit, and Butler making at least a few threes should improve spacing, too.

But it’s not just three-point shooting as the HEAT ranked last in field goal attempts last season, tallying just 84.4 attempts per game. And while they’re last again this season, they’ve managed to average even fewer attempts per game (81.7) despite maintaining nearly all of their roster.

The HEAT are also last in offensive rebounding, which translates to fewer field goal attempts and fewer points. And while Miami was 29th in offensive rebounds last season, they’re corralling 2.1 fewer rebounds this season (6.4) than in  2019-20 (8.5). What’s more, Miami is now last in total rebounds with only 40.9 per game. A number that also represents a fairly significant change as the HEAT were 17th a season ago with 44.4 per game – whew!

Lastly, Miami is turning the ball over more often than nearly any other team – sorry, Chicago – in 2020-21. During the prior campaign, the HEAT were barely middle of the pack, turning the ball over 14.9 times per game, a mark that left them 18th-best in the league. This season, they’re 29th and turning the ball over 17.7 times per game – dead last in terms of turnovers per 100 possessions.

It’s not all bad news for the HEAT, though. Bam Adebayo looks great so far, posting 20.3 points, 8.9 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game. Second-year stud Kendrick Nunn is averaging 21.5 points on 56 percent shooting through the past four games; while Duncan Robinson is still a flame thrower, shooting 44.4 percent on 8.4 three-point attempts per game.

The HEAT’s upside is still considerable, but it’s easy to wonder if they captured magic in a bottle last season.

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NBA Daily: Lonzo Ball Presents Difficult Decision For Pelicans

Lonzo Ball is struggling early in his fourth NBA season, leaving the Pelicans questioning whether he will be a part of the team’s long-term plans moving forward.

Garrett Brooks

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Lonzo Ball and the New Orleans Pelicans failed to reach an extension prior to the deadline entering the 2020-21 NBA season – which made this season an important year for the former second overall pick to prove his worth.

But things have not gone according to plan for Ball. Originally acquired by the Pelicans in the Anthony Davis trade, Ball has failed to get going early in the current season. After a few years of what seemed like positive progression in the guard’s shooting stroke, this 2021 has brought up the same questions that surrounded Ball in his earlier scouting reports.

In his first three seasons, Lonzo saw his three-point accuracy increase each year. It started at a 30.5 percent accuracy rate and had jumped to an impressive 37.5 by his third NBA season, 2019-20.

Now well into his biggest campaign yet, he sits below 30 percent for the first time in his career, though there is a lot of time left to see that number increase. If Ball expects to be part of the Pelicans’ long-term plans, improvement is absolutely vital.

Obviously, shooting is a key part of the NBA game today, especially as a guard. Simply put, a player needs to give his team the proper floor spacing needed to maximize their scoring output in an offensively driven league.

That point is especially true for Ball, who needs to prove he can play alongside franchise cornerstones Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson. Both players are showing the skillset to be a dominant one-two punch for years to come, and the biggest need around them is proper floor spacing.

So even with all the positives Ball brings to the defensive side of the floor and as a playmaker, he cannot fit alongside Williamson and Ingram unless he’s a threat to hit shots from behind the arc. He’s obviously trying to prove himself in that regard as he has never averaged more three-point shots per game than he currently is – and yet, the result has been concerning.

When the two sides failed to reach an extension this offseason, it was abundantly clear that the Pelicans needed to see consistency before they’d tie long-term cap space to the guard. In the early going of the season, Ball is perhaps playing his most inconsistent basketball since his rookie campaign with the Los Angeles Lakers.

But will the Pelicans benefit from not signing Ball prior to the season? Maybe even by getting him to agree to a team-friendly contract if his struggles continue all year?

That seems highly unlikely. First off, not all teams are as desperate for a good shooting guard as the Pelicans are. As previously stated, Williamson and Ingram are in place as the franchise cornerstones. That means every player brought in on a long deal from here on out is brought in with the plan to fit alongside the forward combination.

Most teams with cap space don’t have the luxury of already having two franchise cornerstones in place. That means they are more likely to build around a player they sign – that’s especially true for a player that will hit free agency at a young age as will be the case with Ball.

While there’s almost no way the Pelicans won’t make a qualifying offer to Ball this offseason, it becomes a whole different question when pondering if they’ll match any contract he signs, depending on the financials involved.

He’ll offer significantly more value to another franchise than he might to the Pelicans because of the fit. The New York Knicks, for example, will be among the teams with cap space this offseason, they could see Ball as a player they can build things around moving forward.

That instantly makes him much more valued by the Knicks than he currently would be by the Pelicans. Of course, New Orleans would maintain their right to match the contract, but what good would it be if he isn’t going to fit next to the stars of the team? At no point will he be prioritized over the likes of Williamson and Ingram, which means he’s on a ticking clock to prove he can play alongside them as the team continues its ascension.

The first step could be adjustments to the rotation that sees Ball play more of the traditional point guard role with the rock in his hands. This isn’t easy for head coach Stan Van Gundy to do though as Ingram and Williamson thrive with the ball in their hands.

In all likelihood, Ball’s future in New Orleans will hinge on his consistency as a shooter, which, contrary to popular belief, he has shown the ability to do in the past. First off, confidence and staying engaged are keys; while Ball has struggled with both of those things in his early NBA seasons.

The second is an adjustment to his tendencies. Instead of settling for the spot-up opportunity every time it is presented, Ball would benefit from attacking the closeout more often and maximizing the chances that come from doing so.

Those options are in areas like finding the next open man for a three-pointer, getting to the free-throw line and finishing at the rim instead of hitting the deep shot. If he does these things, he’ll quickly find himself facing less aggressive closeouts and will be more confident in his game. Naturally, those things could lead to a more successful shooting number as the season continues on.

Ball is as talented as they come and it’s understandable why the Pelicans want to slide him in behind the two franchise forwards they have. The unfortunate reality is that time is running out on pass-first guard’s big chance to prove it’s the right move for the Pelicans moving forward.

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What We Learned: Western Conference Week 4

Ariel Pacheco

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It’s only been a month, but the NBA season has already seen plenty of ups and downs. In the Western Conference, especially, the 2020-21 season has been a smashing success for some, but a complete and total slog for others.

But which teams have had it the best in the West so far? The worst? Let’s take a look in the latest Western Conference installment of Basketball Insiders’ “What We Learned” series.

The Clippers Hit Their Stride

Los Angeles’ holdovers from a season ago have often pointed to their regular season complacency as to why they fizzled out during last year’s postseason. And, because of that, they’ve made a concerted effort to play hard on every possession so far in the 2020-21 season.

So far, the results have been good. More than good, even; the Clippers, tied for the best record in the NBA with their in-house rival, the Los Angeles Lakers, are on a six-game win streak. Paul George has played like an MVP candidate, while Kawhi Leonard has looked healthy and at the peak of his powers. Offseason additions Nicolas Batum, Serge Ibaka and Luke Kennard have all made strong contributions as well.

With so many versatile players and a roster as deep as any in the NBA, anyone can be “the guy” for Los Angeles on any given night. And, tough to guard because of that versatility, they’ve managed the NBA’s second-best offensive rating through the first month.

After last season’s let-down, the Clippers have played without much pressure this season — and it’s showed. Still, with Leonard a potential pending free agent (Leonard can opt-out after the season), it’s paramount that the team play hard and show him they’re good enough to compete for a title in both the short- and long-term.

So far, they’re off to a great start.

Injury Woes Continue in Portland

Portland’s been bit by the injury bug. And badly.

Already without Zach Collins, the Trail Blazers have lost both Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum in recent weeks. They couldn’t have come at a worse time, either; Nurkic had turned a corner after he struggled to start the year, while McCollum, averaging 26.7 points on 62 percent true shooting, was in the midst of a career year.

It would seem, once again, like Portland has put it all on the shoulders of Damian Lillard. But, in a brutally competitive Western Conference, he may not be able to carry that load alone. They do have some solid depth: more of a featured role could be just what Robert Covington has needed to get out of a rut, while Harry Giles III, the former Sacramento King that was signed in the offseason, has a ton of potential if he can just to stay on the court. Carmelo Anthony, Gary Trent Jr. and Enes Kanter should see expanded roles in the interim, as well.

But will it be enough? We can only wait and see. But, if that group can’t keep the Trail Blazers afloat until Nurkic and McCollum can return, Portland could be in for a long offseason.

Grizzlies Are Competitive — With or Without Ja Morant

Memphis, on a five-game win streak, is just a half-game back of the West’s fifth seed. And they’ve managed that despite the sheer amount of adversity they’ve had to deal with to start the year. Jaren Jackson Jr. is expected to miss most of if not the entire season, multiple games have been postponed due to the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols and Ja Morant missed eight games due to an ankle sprain.

However, head coach Taylor Jenkins has the Grizzlies playing hard, regardless of who is in the lineup. They have the third-best defensive rating in the NBA at 106.1 and have managed huge wins over the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns.

Of course, Memphis is glad to see Morant over his injury and back in the lineup, but they might be just as happy to see how their entire core has progressed. Their success this season has, in large part, been a group-effort; rookies Xavier Tillman and Desmond Bane have been strong off the bench, while youngsters Brandon Clarke, Dillon Brooks and Grayson Allen have all proven integral pieces to the Grizzlies’ core for years to come.

As the year carries on, Memphis might not stick in the playoff picture. But, if their young core can continue to develop, they might not be on the outside looking in for much longer with Morant leading the charge.

What’s Going On In New Orleans?

The Pelicans have struggled and there wouldn’t appear to be an easy fix.

5-9, on a three-game losing streak and having dropped eight of their last nine, New Orleans just can’t seem to figure it out. The rosters fit around cornerstones Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram has proven awkward at best, as the team ranks in the bottom-10 in both offensive and defensive rating. Lonzo Ball has struggled offensively to start the season while JJ Redick can’t find his shot. Newcomer Eric Bledsoe has been fine but, as one of the team’s few offensive creators, his impact has been severely minimized.

Despite their stable of strong defenders, Stan Van Gundy’s defensive scheme, which has maximized their presence in the paint but left shooters wide open beyond the arc, has burned them continuously. Williamson’s effort on the defensive end, meanwhile, has been disappointing at best; he hasn’t looked like nearly the same impact defender he did at Duke University and in short spurts a season ago.

They still have time to work it out, but the Pelicans need to do so sooner rather than later. If they can’t, or at least establish some sort of consistency, New Orleans might never see the heights many had hoped to see them reach this season.

Be sure to check back for the next part of our “What We Learned” series as we continue to keep an eye on the NBA all season long.

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