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NBA AM: Are The Pacers In Trouble?

The Indiana Pacers have lost four straight. Are the in danger of losing home court?… Kansas big man Joel Embiid seeing back specialist… Knicks could get an answer from Phil Jackson today.

Steve Kyler

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Why You Don’t Mess With Chemistry:  Amusingly several years ago former Orlando Magic GM Otis Smith joked about whether he’d make a major trade at the deadline saying that team chemistry was a unique and fragile thing. Smith opted to hold the line for the most part, acquiring backup guard Rafer Alston from Houston and resisted making a big splashy trade, despite what seemed like a pressing need for one. His team went on to the 2009 NBA Finals. That next summer Smith started to tinker and the whole thing fell apart.

The Indiana Pacers had a good thing going. They were crushing teams on both ends of the floor and looked all but unbeatable, especially if they got home court, which four weeks ago seemed like a forgone conclusion. With the gap between the second place Miami HEAT and the first place Indiana Pacers now just 1 ½ games the Pacers are looking more and more beatable with each passing loss. The team that seemed like the favorite to unseat the Miami HEAT seems a little lost as of late and it may be due to the tinkering the team did at the trade deadline.

The Pacers were lauded as “winning” the NBA trade deadline, nabbing guard Evan Turner and forward Lavoy Allen from Philadelphia in exchange for the ending contract of oft injured forward Danny Granger. To hear the Pacers’ logic behind the deal, they were concerned that Granger had let up on his day-to-day rehab and that without that rehab who really knew what hecould provide the Pacers in the postseason. The desire to add more firepower to the bench and another big body up front prompted the Pacers to shake up a locker room that was as cohesive and united as any in basketball.

»In Related: Evan Turner Still Getting Acclimated To The Pacers.

With four straight losses under their belt and five losses in the last ten games, the Pacers have lost their way.

The Pacers have already clinched a playoff berth, so their postseason ticket is punched. The question for the Pacers is can they find their groove again with only 19 games left on the schedule?

The Pacers have dropped three of their four straight games on the road, and those losses came at the hands of teams that are playoff bound.

The Pacers’ next four games include a home stand versus the rebuilding Celtics on Tuesday, a two day break before heading to Philadelphia on Friday and then to Detroit on Sunday before hosting the 76ers in Indiana on Monday. All four are very winnable games for the Pacers and should give them a chance to rebound and right the ship.

Chemistry in the NBA is a unique and fragile thing and if the Pacers fail to reach their potential this season they have only themselves to blame.

The Pacers may have “won” the trade deadline, but if it costs them homecourt that might not be the win they were hoping for.

»In Related: Who Made The Best Trade Of The Season?

Embiid To See Back Specialist:  Kansas big man Joel Embiid flew to Los Angeles yesterday and is expected to meet with a back specialist in LA today. Embiid, who has been battling both knee and back issues for several weeks, is seeking further opinions on his bothersome back. Kansas head coach Bill Self told reporters yesterday that Embiid’s injury was more “significant” than just a strained lower back as initially described.

 Steve Kyler’s Top 10
1. Jabari Parker – Duke – SF/PF – 6’8″
2. Joel Embiid – Kansas – C – 7’0″
3. Andrew Wiggins – Kansas – SF – 6’8″
4. Dante Exum – Australia – PG – 6’6″
5. Julius Randle – Kentucky – PF – 6’9″
6. Noah Vonleh – Indiana – PF/C – 6’10”
7. Marcus Smart – Oklahoma St. – PG – 6’4″
8. Gary Harris – Michigan State – SG – 6’5″
9. Tyler Ennis – Syracuse – PG – 6’2″
10. Aaron Gordon – Arizona – PF – 6’9″

» More NBA Draft Prospect Rankings

“It’s nothing where he won’t be feeling great in four weeks with some rest,” Self said to Rustin Dodd of The Kansas City Star. “But we don’t have four weeks.”

Self warned that while the visit to the specialist wasn’t anything to get alarmed about, saying the goal was to get Embiid ready for NCAA tournament play.

“The whole deal is it’s not an injury that he could hurt worse,” Self said. “I don’t think we would put him back out there if it was. We’re going to evaluate him and give him the best chance to finish strong.

“If we have to hold him out for him to be 100 percent for the NCAA we’ll do that.”

The specialist Embiid is meeting with today was involved with the initial diagnosis several weeks ago.

Self said he seriously doubted that surgery would be needed, and that Embiid would continue on a rehab regime. The Jayhawks open Big 12 tournament play this week and it seems likely that Embiid will miss some if not all of the three games in three days Kansas is likely to play.

Embiid is considered by most NBA scouts as a possible top overall pick, however over the last month opinions have changed as Embiid’s game and body have been over scrutinized. Several NBA scouts have pointed to Embiid’s late season fatigue as a concern and now with lingering back and knee issues to consider, Embiid is far from the lock at number one as he was deemed by many pundits two months ago.

Embiid has kept the door open on returning to Kansas for his sophomore season. If his back continues to be problematic or if he at some point requires surgery, staying in school may become more realistic than it was two months ago.

Coach Self believes Embiid will be ready for the March Madness Tournament, how Embiid plays in the tournament could go a long way towards restoring his value as a possible top overall pick.

Boston Celtics big man Jared Sullinger was considered a top five talent when he entered the NBA draft in 2012. Red flags surrounding his back saw him tumble to the 21st pick, so for Embiid getting his back right could impact more than just Kansas’ attempt for a national title, it could impact his draft stock in a significant way.

»In Related: Who Is The Leading Candidate For Defensive Player Of The Year?

Tick-Tock, Phil Jackson Is On The Clock:  The New York Knicks are expecting an answer from NBA legend Phil Jackson on whether he will accept their offer to run basketball operations.

Frank Isola of the New York Daily News is reporting that Jackson and the Knicks have been negotiating a lucrative contract that would put Jackson in charge of all of the basketball decisions for the franchise and that a final decision could come at some point today.

Amid the media speculation about Jackson taking the Knicks job, Knicks star Carmelo Anthony, who is expected to opt for free agency in July, says he has not been told anything about Jackson joining the organization.

“I don’t even know what’s going on with that,’’ Anthony said to reporters on Saturday. “Nobody came to me about that. Until that time comes, I’m not going to know what’s going on.

“It’s hard to say at this particular moment. If anything, it’s not going to be right now. I’m pretty sure they’d try to wait for the offseason and then we’ll deal with all that stuff.”

The belief is that the Knicks have offered Jackson total control of the basketball operations side of the business and would allow him to come and go as he pleased. Jackson has said several times over the last few years that he’d like to have a situation similar to what HEAT President Pat Riley has in Miami. While Riley is the top guy in Miami, he does not do a lot of the day-to-day tasks for the HEAT. That falls on Vice President of Basketball Operations and General Manager Andy Elisburg.

»In Related: Who Are The NBA’s Top 10 Players – According To The Stats?

If Jackson accepts the Knicks’ offer, he is expected to leave current team president Steve Mills in the day-to-day role he currently has. What’s unclear is how much of the Knicks existing front office staff will remain. Changes on the coaching side of the equation are a given, especially with the Knicks likely to miss the postseason.

Jackson’s final seasons as a head coach netted him more than $11 million per season, making him by far the highest paid coach in the NBA. It’s believed the Knicks’ offer to Jackson would make him one of the highest paid executives in the league as well.

Earlier this month in Boston at the MIT Sloan Analytics conference Jackson said he’d been approached by a few NBA teams looking to change their culture, there is no team in the league in bigger need of a culture change than the New York Knicks.

Stay tuned to Basketball Insiders for more on this story as it unfolds throughout the day.

More Twitter:  Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @AlexKennedyNBA, @TheRocketGuy, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @SusanBible @TommyBeer, @JabariDavisNBA , @NateDuncanNBA , @MokeHamilton , @JCameratoNBA and @YannisNBA.

Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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NBA Saturday: Kuzma Is The Main Attraction In Los Angeles

Kyle Kuzma, not Lonzo Ball, is the rookie in L.A. that is turning heads around the NBA.

Dennis Chambers

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Out in Los Angeles, there is a dynamite rookie first-round pick lighting it up for the Lakers, invoking memories of the days when the purple and gold had homegrown stars.

That’s Kyle Kuzma. He was the 27th pick in the NBA Draft. Twenty-five picks after Lonzo Ball, the rookie that first sentence would have presumably been about had it been written three months ago.

Ball’s early season struggles are well-noted. He’s missing shots at an all-time bad clip for a rookie, his psyche seems a bit rattled, and he isn’t having the impact most Lakers fans would have hoped he would from the jump.

All of that has barely mattered, though, in large part to the show Kuzma has been putting on just 16 games into the 2017-18 season. In Friday night’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, Kuzma put up 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, the most by an NBA freshman so far this year. That performance was Kuzma’s sixth 20-point game of the young season, another rookie best. And to top it all off, Kuzma was the first rookie to reach the 30-point, 10-rebound plateau since none other than Magic Johnson, back in February of 1980.

Kuzma’s path to the NBA was much different than Johnson’s, though, along with his rookie counterpart Ball. Those two prospects were highly-touted “superstar potential” guys coming out of the college ranks. Kuzma? Well, he was a 21-year-old junior out of Utah who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament his last year and was a career 30 percent three-point shooter as an amateur.

The knocks on Kuzma began to change during the NBA Draft process and came to a head for the Lakers when long-time scout Bill Bertka raved about his potential.

“He got all wide-eyed,” Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “And he said, ‘If this guy isn’t an NBA player, then I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.'”

The Lakers took a chance on the 6-foot-9 forward who had a rare combination of a sweet shooting stroke to accompany his low-post moves that seemed to be reminiscent of players 20 years his senior.

Fast forward from draft night to the Las Vegas Summer League, and everyone could see with their own two eyes the type of player Los Angeles drafted. The numbers were startling: 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals, and 48 percent from beyond the arc out in Sin City for Kuzma, all capped off by a Summer League championship game MVP.

Summer League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but what Kuzma did in July was proved he belonged.

Through the first month of Kuzma’s rookie campaign, when the games are actually counting for something, all he’s continued to do is prove that his exhibition numbers in Vegas were no fluke.

After his 30-point outburst, Kuzma now leads all rookies in total points scored (yet still second in scoring average), is fourth in rebounds per game, third in minutes, and third in field goal percentage.

By all accounts, Kuzma is outperforming just about every highly-touted prospect that was taken before him last June, and sans a Ben Simmons broken foot in September of 2016, he would be in line for the Rookie of the Year award if the season ended today.

Following Wednesday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, head coach Brett Brown had more than a few nice things to say about Kuzma.

“He’s a hell of a rookie,” Brown told NBC Philly’s Jessica Camerato. “That was a great pick by them.”

Brown went on to commend Kuzma for being “excellent” Wednesday night, when prior to his game Friday against the Suns, Kuzma set a career-high by scoring 24 points.

For all of the praise and the scoring numbers Kuzma is bringing to the Staples Center, his Lakers team sits at just 6-10 on the season, and has been on the wrong end of a number of close games so far this year.

While that’s good for second in the Pacific division right now, behind only the Golden State Warriors, it isn’t likely that type of success (or lack thereof) will get the Lakers to the playoffs. So, despite all of the numbers and attention, Kuzma isn’t fulfilling his rookie year the way he had hoped.

“It is cool, but I’m a winner,” Kuzma told Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters. “I like to win, stats don’t really matter to me. I just try to play hard and I want to win.”

Few projected the type of impact Kuzma would have this early on in his career, and even fewer would have assumed he’d be outperforming the Lakers’ prized draft pick in Ball. But surprising people with his game is nothing new to Kuzma.

From Flint, Michigan, to Utah, to Los Angeles, Kuzma has been turning heads of those that overlooked him the entire time.

With one month in the books as the Los Angeles Lakers’ most promising rookie, Kuzma has all the attention he could’ve asked for now.

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Kelly Olynyk Strengthens the HEAT Bench

David Yapkowitz speaks to Kelly Olynyk about his early showing in Miami.

David Yapkowitz

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The past few years, Kelly Olynyk carved out a nice role for himself as an important player off the Boston Celtics bench. He was a fan favorite at TD Garden, with his most memorable moment in Celtic green coming in last season’s playoffs against the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

With Boston pushed to the limit and finding themselves forced into a Game 7, Olynyk rose to the occasion and dropped a playoff career-high 26 points off the bench on 10-14 shooting from the field in a Celtics win. He scored 14 of those points in the fourth quarter to hold Washington off.

He was a free agent at the end of the season, and instead of coming back to the Celtics, he became a casualty of their roster turnover following Gordon Hayward’s decision to sign in Boston. Once he hit the open market he had no shortage of suitors, but he quickly agreed to a deal with the Miami HEAT, an easy decision for him.

“It’s awesome, they got a real good culture here,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “The organization is great, the city is great, the staff from the top down they do a good job here.”

Olynyk was initially the HEAT’s starting power forward to begin the season. In their opening night game, a 116-109 loss to the Orlando Magic, he scored ten points, pulled down five rebounds, and dished out three assists.

The very next game, however, he found himself back in his familiar role as first big man off the bench. In that game, a win over the Indiana Pacers, Olynyk had an even stronger game with 13 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, including 60 percent from three-point range, eight rebounds, and four assists.

Throughout the first eight games of the season, Olynyk was thriving with his new team. During that stretch, he was averaging a career-high 11.4 points per game on a career-high 55 percent shooting from the field and 60. 8 percent from downtown.

“I’m just playing, I’m just playing basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “They’re kind of letting me just play. They kind of let us all just play. They put us in positions to succeed and just go out there and let out skills show.”

For a HEAT team that may not be as talented on paper as some of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, they definitely play hard and gritty and are a sum of their parts. Night in and night out, in each of their wins, they’ve done it off the contributions from each player in the rotation and Olynyk has been a big part of that. Through Nov. 16, the HEAT bench was seventh in the league in points per game with 36.6.

In a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 5, Olynyk was part of a bench unit including James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, and Wayne Ellington that came into the game late in the first quarter. The score at that point was 18-14 in Miami’s favor. That unit closed the quarter on a 16-6 run to put the HEAT up double digits. After that game, head coach Erik Spoelstra recognized the strength of the HEAT bench.

“Our guys are very resilient, that’s the one thing you’ve got to give everybody in that locker room, they’re tough,” Spoelstra said. “This is all about everybody in that locker room contributing to put yourself in a position, the best chance to win. It’s not about first unit, second unit, third unit, we’re all in this together.”

In Boston, Olynyk was part of a similar group that won games off of team play and production from every guy that got in the game. They were also a tough, gritty team and Olynyk has recognized that same sort of fire in the HEAT locker room.

“It’s a group of hard-nosed guys that can really grind it out and play tough-nosed basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “We can go a lot of places. We just got to stick together and keep doing what we do. We can compete with anybody and we just got to bring it every single night.”

At 7-8, the HEAT currently sit outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. Olynyk has seen a bit of a decrease in playing time, and likewise in production. He’s right at his career average in points per game with 9.5, but he’s still shooting career-highs from the field (54 percent) and from three-point range (47.4).

It’s still very early, though, and only one game separates the 11th place HEAT from the 8th place Magic. The HEAT are definitely tough enough to fight for a playoff spot, especially with Olynyk around helping to strengthen their bench.

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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