The Cleveland Cavaliers have been the class of the Eastern Conference for the past two seasons, but Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner believes there may be a new sheriff in town.
“I think we can be a top-four seed in the East,” Turner told Basketball Insiders. “We can challenge Cleveland and I think we can make a big push to be in the Eastern Conference Finals. My expectations are high.”
Turner believes the revamped Pacers can contend with Cleveland thanks to the acquisitions of Jeff Teague, Thaddeus Young and Al Jefferson.
Young echoed Turner’s belief that Indiana can be a top-four seed.
“Yeah, definitely,” Young said. “We all think that. We all continue to go out there and get better each and every day. We don’t want to put wins and losses on it, but we definitely think we can be a top-four team in the East. We think we can continue to improve each and every game, and it’s a growing process. We’re going through a growing process and we’re going through growing pains at the beginning of the season. The guys are getting more acclimated with each other and we’re all going out there and playing.”
If Indiana wants to finish as one of the conference’s top teams, head coach Nate McMillan believes Turner’s ability to become a defensive anchor by communicating and defending pick-and-roll sets will be a major determining factor toward achieving that goal.
“That five is the anchor of most defenses and kind of ends with him,” McMillan said. “But it starts with your guard. Jeff has to establish that out front on the ball and Myles is the guy in back who will have to clean up everything. We’ve had really good centers the last few years that have done a great job of defending and he was able to learn last year from Ian Mahinmi. And as I mentioned in the playoffs against Toronto, [Jonas] Valanciunas up there, he’s a big, physical guy. Myles did a good job of defending and protecting the basket and we saw growth there. It’s going to take some time with him; he’s [in his] second year and you’re playing that five position and that’s an important position, but this kid works extremely hard and we certainly are confident that he can get the job done.”
Turner showed his ability to change the momentum of a game on both ends of the court toward the end of the first half against the Brooklyn Nets. With 1:07 left in the half, Turner made a 19-foot jumper off a pick-and-pop play with an assist from Paul George. After a defensive stop on the following possession, Turner ran the floor for a layup in transition as Monta Ellis found him on the break with 30 seconds to go in the half. Finally, when Brooklyn’s Jeremy Lin attempted a layup at the rim with the shot clock winding down, Turner swatted his shot into the first row.
Myles Turner with the swat in phantom cam! pic.twitter.com/66JaqK5qCx
— NBA (@NBA) October 29, 2016
“He’s a very athletic, active guy who can block shots and shoot the basketball,” Young said. “He has a chance to be something great in this league and you guys saw last game, 30 [points] and 16 [rebounds]. That should tell you what he’s capable of.”
Turner has busted out of the gate, averaging 21 points, 10 rebounds and a league-leading 3.3 blocks in his first three games. More importantly, Turner is producing efficiently by converting on 62 percent of his field goal attempts.
“I put up maybe 500-600 threes a day,” Turner told Basketball Insiders. “I knew I was going to be able to stretch the floor this year playing the five position. They really wanted me to be able to spread the floor a lot. I worked on my shot a lot and worked on making reads out of the pick-and-pop.”
With Turner’s ability to stretch the floor in pick-and-pop sets and the addition of Young, Indiana’s guard tandem of Teague and Monta Ellis has more freedom to break down the defense and penetrate. Once in the lane, either guard can attack his man or kick out to Turner or Young. If the defending big man doesn’t help, Teague and Ellis have the ability to take the opposing guard off the dribble and get to the rim. Should the defending big man converge and help, Turner and Young are capable shooters from the elbows and beyond the arc.
“Jeff is a guy who can really push the tempo and he can create for himself as well as for others,” Turner said. “He’s that aggressive, attacking scorer that we needed.”
It’s no coincidence the Pacers let Ian Mahinmi walk in free agency. Indiana felt Turner was ready to become a full-time starting center for 30-plus minutes a game and as a featured member of the offense. Due to his rapid growth, Turner is considered one of the early favorites for the league’s Most Improved Player of the Year award.
“It’s definitely something that’s in my sight,” Turner told Basketball Insiders. “It’s something that people keep on saying or buzzing about and it’s something that would be nice to have, but my biggest concern is winning with this team.”
As we saw when Kevin Garnett mentored Karl-Anthony Towns, having a proven veteran’s tutelage can expedite a rising young star’s development. Jefferson has taken a similar mentorship role with Turner. Jefferson has averaged nearly 17 points and nine rebounds per game over his career. During his prime, Jefferson was a 20-10 guy who shot 50 percent from the field over a seven-year span from 2007-14.
“Big Al, obviously, is great at what he does down on the block and it’s great to learn under him,” Turner said. “That’s what I’m able to do after practice.”
Jefferson’s footwork and positioning allowed him to become a dominant force on the block despite an overall lack of athleticism. Combine Jefferson’s footwork with Turner’s athleticism and the sophomore center could become an unstoppable force on the low block to complement his pick-and-pop shooting ability.
After entering the league in a draft class with notable big men including Towns, Kristaps Porzingis and Jahlil Okafor, Turner has the potential to become one of the league’s best centers.
“Obviously I rank myself high, but I don’t really compare myself to other guys,” Turner said. “Other guys play in systems that they thrive in. That’s kind of how I see it. You’ve got guys like Brook Lopez, for instance, who’s in a system that’s perfect for him. I don’t think you can assess individual talent off of what guys do in their individual systems. I wouldn’t say rank myself, but I feel like I am one of the top centers in this league.”
If Turner becomes the league’s Most Improved Player and one of the top overall centers, the Pacers will be one of the four best teams in the East as he predicted and have homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Paul George couldn’t get over the hump against LeBron James when he was with the Miami Heat in three playoff series with a notable supporting cast of David West, Roy Hibbert, George Hill and Lance Stephenson. This season, Turner hopes he and the new supporting cast can help George finally dethrone James.
PODCAST: Breaking Down The Western Conference Playoff Race
Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte break down the Western Conference playoff race and check in on the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers.
NBA Daily: The Cleveland Cavaliers Need Tyronn Lue
The Cleveland Cavaliers have faced injury adversity and a roster shakeup, and now face uncertainty regarding coach Tyronn Lue’s health.
The most enduring image of Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue came moments after his team sealed the 2016 NBA Finals with a third consecutive win after trailing the Golden State Warriors 3-1. As the team celebrated its historic comeback and readied to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy, one camera focused on Lue, who sat on the bench with his face buried in his hands.
— Buddy Grizzard (@BuddyGrizzard) June 20, 2016
The image tells a thousand words about the pressure Lue was under as Cleveland teetered on the brink of elimination for three games. Rather than sharing the euphoria of his players, it seemed that Lue’s emotions centered around the massive weight that had been lifted from his shoulders. Almost two years later, it appears that burden has caught back up with Lue, whose leave of absence for health reasons complicates things for Cleveland with the playoffs just around the corner.
“It’s like losing one of your best players,” said Cavaliers forward LeBron James after Cleveland’s 124-117 win at home over the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday.
Kevin Love returned from a six-week injury absence to post 18 points, seven rebounds and four assists against the Bucks. James likened Lue’s absence to the burden of trying to replace Love’s output while he was unavailable.
“We’ve got to have guys step up, just like guys trying to step up in Kev’s absence,” said James. “We have to do the same as a collective group as long as Ty needs to get himself back healthy.”
There’s optimism that Lue could return before the playoffs, but there’s a great deal of uncertainty given the seriousness of his symptoms, which reportedly included coughing up blood. Lead assistant Larry Drew, a former head coach with the Bucks and Hawks, will handle head coaching responsibilities until Lue is ready to return.
Kyle Korver played under Drew in Atlanta and said he’s confident in his ability to fill in.
“We’d love to have Ty here and healthy,” said Korver after the Bucks win. “Coach Drew has done this for a long time as well. He coached me for a full year in Atlanta. We know he’s fully capable.”
Korver also doubted Drew would introduce any major stylistic changes.
“I think LD’s been Ty’s top assistant for a reason,” said Korver. “They really think a lot alike. They coach very similarly. We miss Ty, but I think the style of what we do is going to be very similar.”
While style and approach should remain unchanged, what could an extended absence for Lue mean for the Cavaliers? Lue cemented his legacy as a leader by keeping the Cavaliers together as they fought back from a 3-1 deficit to the Warriors, but Drew hasn’t had that kind of success as a head coach.
In 2012, the Hawks had a real opportunity to reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in Atlanta history. The Hawks faced an aging Boston Celtics squad in the first round. The eighth-seed Philadelphia 76ers awaited in the second round after defeating the top-seeded Chicago Bulls.
After splitting the first two games in Atlanta, the Hawks faced a pivotal Game 3 in Boston with the opportunity to retake home court advantage. Atlanta Journal-Constitution beat writer Michael Cunningham used Synergy Sports to break down every offensive possession for Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo. His conclusion? For three quarters, Rondo did not score a single basket while guarded by Hawks combo guard Kirk Hinrich.
The Hawks traded a package that included a former and a future first-round pick to obtain Hinrich from the Wizards in 2011. But in Game 3, Hinrich failed to score a point despite his effective defense. Apparently feeling the need for an offensive spark, Drew left Hinrich on the bench in the fourth quarter and turned to career journeyman Jannero Pargo.
With Hinrich out of the game, Rondo’s offense came to life as he slashed to the basket at will. Boston opened the fourth with a 13-7 run before Pargo went to the bench and Atlanta closed on a 15-7 run to force overtime. The NBA did not publish net rating data at the time, but we can now see via historical data that the Hawks were outscored by nearly 52 points per 100 possessions in Pargo’s minutes in Game 3. Rather than entrust Atlanta’s season and his own legacy to a player the Hawks traded two first-round picks to obtain, Drew went with Pargo, a career end-of-bench player.
What does this mean for the Cavaliers? It means the team needs to get Lue back. Drew and Lue are both former NBA players who have received mixed reviews as head coaches. But when his legacy was on the line, Lue pushed the right buttons.
For Drew’s part, in his first postgame press conference since Lue’s absence was announced, he remained publicly deferential.
“Coach Lue is the one who makes that decision,” said Drew when asked about lineup combinations. “That’s not my call. We look at a lot of different combinations — whether guys are starting or whether they are coming off the bench — and we assess everything.”
On the critical question of how lineups will be fine-tuned as the Cavaliers prepare for the playoffs, Drew once again emphasized Lue’s active role even as he steps away from the bench.
“I’ll talk to Ty,” said Drew. “He’s got the final say-so. Whatever he wants, then that’s what we’re going to go with. But if he tells me to make a decision, then I’ll have to make the decision.”
With Lue suffering acute symptoms, there’s no way of knowing when he will be ready to step back into the pressure cooker of a leading role for a team with championship aspirations. But the Cavaliers need him and need his steadying influence and instincts. Cleveland is a team that has battled through injuries and a major roster overhaul at the trade deadline. It also faces the pressure of James’ impending free agency decision this summer.
Now, with the playoffs just around the corner, the Cavaliers must endure uncertainty about Lue’s ability to return and lead the team. James has emphasized that Lue’s health overshadows any basketball concerns, but gave his most terse remark when asked about learning that Lue would step away on the same day Cleveland finally got Love back.
“If it’s not one thing, it’s another,” said James. “That was my reaction.”
A Breakout Season for Joe Harris
Brooklyn Nets swingman Joe Harris talks to Basketball Insiders about his second chance with the Nets.
The NBA is all about second chances. Sometimes players need a change of scenery, or a coach who believes in them, or just something different to reach their full potential. They may be cast aside by several teams, but eventually, they often find that right situation that allows them to flourish.
Such was the case for Joe Harris. Originally drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers with the 33rd overall pick in the 2014 draft, Harris rarely saw the court during his time in Cleveland. He averaged about 6.4 minutes per game over the course of about one and a half seasons with the Cavaliers.
During the 2015-16 season, his second in Cleveland, he underwent season-ending foot surgery. Almost immediately after, the Cavaliers traded him to the Orlando Magic in an attempt to cut payroll due to luxury tax penalties. He would never suit up for the Magic as they cut him as soon as they traded for him.
After using the rest of that season to recover from surgery, he would sign with the Brooklyn Nets in the summer of 2016. He had a very strong first season in Brooklyn, but this season he’s truly broken out.
“I think a lot of it has to do with just the right situation in terms of circumstances. It’s a young team where you don’t really have anybody on the team that’s going out and getting 20 a night,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a collective effort most nights and it can be any given person depending on the situation. It’s one of those things where we’re real unselfish with the ball. A lot of guys get a lot of good looks, so your production is bound to go up just because of the system now that we’re playing.”
Known primarily as a sharpshooter in college at the University of Virginia as well as his first stop in Cleveland, Harris has started developing more of an all-around game. He’s improved his ability to put the ball on the floor and make plays as well as crashing the glass and playing strong defense.
In a relatively forgettable season record-wise for the Nets, Harris has been one of their bright spots. He’s putting up 10.1 points per game on 47.3 percent shooting from the field while playing 25.4 minutes per game. He’s up to 40.3 percent from the three-point line and he’s pulling down 3.3 rebounds. All of those numbers are career-highs.
“My role, I think, is very similar to the way I would be anywhere that I was playing. I’m a shooter, I help space the floor for guys to facilitate,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “I’m opportunistic offensively with drives and such. I’m out there to try and space the floor, knock down shots, and then play tough defensively and make sure I’m doing my part in getting defensive rebounds and that sort of stuff.”
Although Harris didn’t play much in Cleveland, he did show glimpses and flashes of the player he has blossomed into in Brooklyn. He saw action in 51 games his rookie year while knocking down 36.9 percent of his three-point attempts.
He also saw action in six playoff games during the Cavaliers’ run to the 2015 Finals. But more importantly, it was the off the court things that Harris kept with him after leaving Cleveland. The valuable guidance passed down to him from the Cavaliers veteran guys. It’s all helped mold him into the indispensable contributor he’s become for the Nets.
“Even though I wasn’t necessarily playing as much, the experience was invaluable just in terms of learning how to be a professional,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “The approach, the preparation, that sort of stuff. That’s why I learned a lot while I was there. All those good players that have had great, great, and long careers and just being able to kind of individually pick their brains and learn from them.”
When Harris came to Brooklyn two years ago, he initially signed a two-year deal with a team option after the first year. When he turned in a promising 2016-17 season, it was a no-brainer for the Nets to pick up his option. Set to make about $1.5 million this season, Harris’ contract is a steal.
However, he’s headed for unrestricted free agency this upcoming summer. Although he dealt with being a free agent before when he first signed with the Nets, it’s a different situation now. He’s likely going to be one of the most coveted wings on the market. While there’s still a bit more of the regular season left, and free agency still several months away, it’s something Harris has already thought about. If all goes well, Brooklyn is a place he can see himself staying long-term.
“Yeah, it’s one of those things that I’ll worry about that sort of decision when the time comes. But I have really enjoyed my time in Brooklyn,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a great organization with a lot of good people, and they try and do stuff the right way. I enjoy being a part of that and trying to kind of rebuild and set a good foundation for where the future of the Brooklyn Nets is.”