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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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Payton Blocking Out Trade Talk, Believes Magic Will Turn It Around

Spencer Davies sits down with Elfrid Payton to discuss his fourth year, trade rumors and a trying season for Orlando in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.

Spencer Davies

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It’s hard for a team to look for positives when it’s living in the basement.

The Orlando Magic have had a rough go of it this year. They’re 13-32 at the bottom of the Eastern Conference, they’ve have had a ton of setbacks, and they currently rank 29th in the NBA in defensive rating.

There is a bright spot hidden in there, though, and head coach Frank Vogel sees it growing as the season progresses.

“We’re frustrated with our record, but we’re encouraged with the development we’ve had with our young players,” Vogel said before Thursday’s game in Cleveland. “Aaron Gordon, Mario [Hezonja], and [Elfrid Payton] have all had strong individual seasons and continue to get better. All those guys are improving individually and at some point, it’s gonna lead to more Ws.”

While Gordon stands out more to some than the others because of his star appeal, Payton is right up there with him as far as making the next step goes.

“Elfrid’s shooting the ball better from the perimeter and at the rim,” Vogel said. “He’s worked on his left hand. He’s worked on his floaters. Shooting 52 percent from the field and that’s pretty darn good for a point guard, and the 39 percent from the three as well.”

Those are your more traditional statistics that don’t address the leap he’s taken in efficiency. Sure, Payton’s scoring the same amount of points per game, but it’s the way he’s been getting that’s been most noticeable.

According to Basketball-Reference and NBA.com, he’s making nearly 70 percent of his tries between 0-3 feet and ranks third among point guards in restricted field goal percentage (min. four attempts).

But Payton doesn’t like to evaluate himself using numbers, so he doesn’t know how to feel about how he’s played for Orlando this year.

“It’s tough to say because I like to measure my success by winning and we haven’t been doing that,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “So tough to say.”

He’s not kidding. Since starting out the season 8-4, the Magic have taken a hard fall, only winning five games since November 10. In this stretch, there have been three hefty losing streaks—two 9-game slides and most recently a 7-game skid.

“Not to make excuses—we had a lot of injuries,” Payton told Basketball Insiders of what happened. “Haven’t really been playing with the group of guys that we started the season with, so kinda derailed us a little bit.”

As the losses pile up, so does the chatter. Indicated by multiple recent reports, Orlando has made it clear that many players on the roster are available on the trade block. Evan Fournier, Mario Hezonja, and Payton were recently brought up as names who could possibly on the move if the right deal presents itself.

When asked about the rumblings, Vogel claimed he doesn’t have a message for his guys.

“They understand it’s part of the business,” he said. “Just focus on playing the game.”

Like his coach, Payton doesn’t have a reaction to the noise.

“I don’t get caught up into the things like that,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “Today I’m an Orlando Magic. I play for the Orlando Magic and I’m gonna give them 100 percent of me. I’m somebody that likes to finish what I started, so I definitely would like to see this through and try to turn this organization around.”

So who does he see on this team that can help jump-start the process in flipping the script?

“Everybody,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “I like Vuc. I like AG. Evan [Fournier] is somebody who can fill it up. T Ross is somebody who can fill it up when healthy. I think we have a lot of talent on this team. Even the rookies—Wes [Iwundu] plays well for us in stretches. Jon [Isaac] when he was playing he’d do well.

“You could see the potential there. So I think we have a lot of weapons on this team. I’m very confident in the group we have here. I think we have a lot of talent, we just have to do it.”

Saying you’re going to right the ship is one thing. Actually doing it is a whole other challenge. With where the Magic sit in the standings currently, their work is cut out for them. That being said, Payton isn’t giving up.

In fact, he’s still got his eyes on making it to the postseason, and it starts with him.

“Definitely trying to get a run going,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “Make a playoff push. It’s definitely not out of sight right now, especially with the way the East is. We win a few games and we right back in the thick of things.

“Do whatever I can to help us to get more wins, man. I think that’s what it all boils down to. I figure if I’m playing well, that means we’re winning for the most part.”

Defense matters the most, and it’s something Payton and his group know they need to get better at if they have a chance to play past mid-April.

“Just be tied in together a little bit more,” Payton told Basketball Insiders. “I think sometimes we have too many breakdowns on the backside. So just being more in-tune with each other.”

One thing is for sure—Orlando is going through this difficult time as a team, but refuses to fold. Payton says Vogel has constantly stayed in their ears with uplifting advice.

“Keep fighting,” Payton told Basketball Insiders of his words. “Don’t feel sorry for yourself. No one’s gonna feel sorry for you, so just keep fighting.”

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NBA Daily: Three Teams Treading Water In The West

While the Clippers have surged into the playoff picture, the Blazers, Nuggets and Pelicans are barely staying afloat out West.

Buddy Grizzard

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While the L.A. Clippers have surged into the Western Conference playoff picture on the crest of a six-game win streak, the Trail Blazers, Nuggets and Pelicans are stumbling toward the All-Star break with records around .500 over their last 10 games.

All four teams are within a game of each other and hovering around the playoff cut line. For teams that are treading water, the second half of the season will be a struggle for consistency in a brutal playoff race that promises to leave a good team on the outside looking in.

Although Richard Jefferson is winding down a storied career and barely playing for the Nuggets, he often takes the role of elder statesman in media scrums. After the Nuggets became the latest victim of the red-hot Clippers Wednesday, Jefferson said they should not be underestimated.

“They’ve been a playoff team for many, many years,” said Jefferson. “They’ve dealt with some injuries but, for the most part, I think they’re going to be in the hunt for the playoffs just like we are.”

Jefferson was also asked about the Nuggets’ late-game execution and pointed to the team’s overall youth with major addition Paul Millsap missing extended time due to injury.

“We’re getting to a spot of being a little bit more consistent in those moments,” said Jefferson. “But ultimately, I think guys are still learning. Most of the guys that are in these positions are in these positions for the first time. I think we’ll continue getting better as the season goes on.”

Meanwhile, the Pelicans experienced its own setback Wednesday in a loss to an Atlanta Hawks team that’s tied for the second-worst record in the league. For now, the Pelicans hold the seventh seed. It will be up to the continuing evolution of the Anthony Davis-DeMarcus Cousins pairing to keep New Orleans trending in the right direction.

“For us, we’re two guys who can shoot the ball, handle it, pass,” said Davis after the loss in Atlanta. “We’ve got a lot of guys around us who are capable of making plays. I think we compliment each other. There’s still some stuff we still want to get better at as a unit.”

Davis went into further detail about what makes the rare pairing of two elite big men work.

“Cuz is always spacing the floor,” said Davis. “One guy’s inside, the other one’s outside. We set screens for each other, throw lobs for each other. So it’s tough for bigs to try to play that. When we set a pin-down for myself or DeMarcus, most four or fives are not used to that.”

Davis came into the game with 30 or more points in three straight games and seven of the previous 10—he’s been on a massive roll. However, that streak came to an end as Davis hit only two of eight shots for eight points. Hawks rookie John Collins scored 18 while dealing with the issues Davis described.

“You’ve got A.D. on the one hand and then you’ve got Boogie on the other hand,” said Collins. “[They’re] some of the best bigs in the league, very skilled guys, obviously a handful to deal with.”

Hawks shooting guard Kent Bazemore led Atlanta with 20 points and hit the final shot in the waning moments to secure the victory. Bazemore is a player the Pelicans could conceivably pursue at the trade deadline to address wing issues.

Meanwhile, the Trail Blazers are dealing with questions of whether a team built around Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum can become competitive with the West’s upper echelon. Marc Stein of the New York Times went so far as to predict that Portland’s backcourt could be broken up this year.

“No one’s suggesting it’ll happen before the Feb. 8 trade deadline,” Stein wrote. “But Portland’s latest so-so season threatens to be the impetus that finally pushes the longtime Blazers owner Paul Allen in a new direction.”

This is the time of year when NBA teams take stock and have to decide if they are properly constructed or need to look at changes. With the Pelicans, Trail Blazers and Nuggets barely keeping pace in the playoff race, few other teams will be more heavily scrutinized — internally as well as externally — as the trade deadline approaches.

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NBA Daily: Things To Watch Heading Into Trade Season

Two of our experts identify four teams and four players to keep an eye on during trade season.

Basketball Insiders

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With memories of DeMarcus Cousins being told that he was traded to the New Orleans Pelicans during his postgame availability at last season’s All-Star game, the NBA moved the trade deadline up.

This season, the deadline falls on February 8, and all there has been a lot of discussion leading into next month’s deadline.

We asked Moke Hamilton and Lang Greene to weigh in on some items to keep an eye on over the next three weeks.

Nikola Mirotic and Derrick Favors

This year’s trade deadline will probably lack big names getting moved, but teams such as the Philadelphia 76ers, New York Knicks and Denver Nuggets are within sniffing distance of a playoff berth for the first time in years. It will be interesting to see if their respective front offices swing for the fences to achieve the goal.

There are three ways to improve a roster or prepare for the future in the NBA. The methods are free agency, trade and the annual draft. Trade deadline deals are risky. There are a lot of deals each season which involve players on the verge of hitting the free agent market. Teams acquiring these take the risk that they’re only “renting” those guys until the season concludes.

At the end of the day, though, the two biggest names we may see moved are Nikola Mirotic and Derrick Favors.

Mirotic has been plagued by inconsistency throughout his career, but the fourth-year forward is by far having his best season as a professional despite his minutes remaining flat. On a per 36 minute basis, Mirotic is averaging 25.1 points and 9.9 rebounds.

Mirotic and teammate Bobby Portis made headlines before the season for their fight, which led plenty of missed time for the forward. Mirotic’s name has been mentioned on the block ever since this incident, but it’s clear the Bulls have integrated him back into their rotation fully. Still, the team is believed to simply be waiting for the right time and trade partner and that Mirotic’s days in Chicago are numbered.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the Bulls plan to be patient in fielding calls for Mirotic, while the player has deflected all talks to his representatives.

“I didn’t talk to [the Bulls’ front office recently],” he said. “Probably my agents are talking, so I don’t know so far what’s going on, but I know my name is going to be out there. I’m doing my job, and I’m sure they’re doing their job, and we’re both going to do what’s best for the team.”

Mirotic has a no-trade clause built into his contract and would have to waive it prior to completing any deal, unless the Bulls were to guarantee the team option on the final year of his contract for 2018-19. Don’t count on that, though.

With respect to Favors, he battled injuries the past two seasons but has remained relatively healthy to begin this campaign. The forward is shooting a career high from the field, but according to the Salt Lake Tribune, the Utah Jazz have dangled him in trade talks since the beginning of the season.

Favors was one of the central parts of the Deron Williams trade years ago, but could be expendable because of the emergence of center Rudy Gobert in the Jazz’s frontcourt. The forward is on the books for $12.5 million this season and was most recently linked to the aforementioned Mirotic in trade talks between Utah and Chicago.

– Lang Greene

DeAndre Jordan and Paul George

Heading into deadline season, there’s not much out there to suggest that we’ll see any superstar-caliber players moved. With the likes of Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving among the players that switched teams over the summer, it seems that most NBA teams that have difference-makers on their rosters are in construction mode—they’re trying to compete with the Cavs or the Warriors.

The two superstar players who merit some discussion, though, are DeMarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan.

With respect to Jordan, the Clippers find themselves in a very peculiar situation. With Chris Paul having defected to the Houston Rockets, it’s easy to conclude that the Clippers are no longer a true contender. Still, they’ve played so well over the past few weeks (including scoring a victory over Paul and his Rockets) that it seems a difficult proposition to proactively pull the plug.

Still, though, as written in this past Sunday’s column, it’s time for the Clippers to trade Jordan, mainly because a team that is heading toward a rebuild can’t afford to lose a player of his caliber for nothing, and that’s quite possible unless the Clippers fork over a max contract to Jordan this summer. The proposition wouldn’t be wise, particularly because it could cost the Clippers a first round pick in one of the upcoming drafts.

He’s definitely a player that should be watched.

Paul George, on the other hand, doesn’t appear likely to be headed out of Oklahoma City. The team is reportedly committed to keeping him for the duration of the season, with the hope being that the Thunder will get their act together and win a round or two in the playoffs. With the team still hovering around .500, it seems a long shot.

There are some, however, that believe that the Thunder should at least see what might be available to them in exchange for George, especially with the team trading Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for him. That’s especially true with Oladipo closing in on what certainly appears to be his first All-Star selection.

– Moke Hamilton

Dallas Mavericks Are Open For Business

The Dallas Mavericks are in a clear rebuild and the prospect of making the playoffs is more dream than reality this season, but the team does have some things going for it.

The Mavs have roughly $13 million in cap space, which puts them in a prime spot to acquire talent at the deadline without giving up any of their players in return. In fact, Mark Cuban went on the record and said exactly that.

“I would say we are looking to use our cap space actively,” Cuban told the Dallas Morning News earlier this week. “We will take back salary to get picks or guys we think can play.”

The Mavericks have the second-lowest payroll in the league, but Cuban has been known to spend money to acquire relevant talent. The team hasn’t had much success in in attracting free agents in recent years, and with the Hall of Fame career of Dirk Nowitzki coming to an end, the team is undoubtedly looking to retool.

– Lang Greene

Cavs and Lakers Each Likely To Do Something

It’s a poorly kept secret that the Los Angeles Lakers have had their sights set on acquiring a superstar or two this coming summer. With Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins and LeBron James among those who could hit the market in July, the Lakers have quite a bit of incentive to try to rid themselves of the contracts of Luol Deng and Jordan Clarkson.

Where things get interesting for the Lakers is with the emergence of several of their young players this season. Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Kyle Kuzma and to a lesser extent Josh Hart have each given the team impressive minutes this season. If the Lakers feel they have a real shot at signing James and, say, DeMarcus Cousins, it may be enough for them to package Deng and/or Clarkson with one of their promising young players and perhaps a future draft pick.

It’s certainly something I’d keep my eyes on.

And speaking of future draft picks, with the Cavs not taking their standing in the Eastern Conference for granted, one can only wonder the extent to which the Nets’ first round pick this coming season is burning a hole in their pockets. Aside from the Nets pick, though, the Cavs do own their own first round pick, which could be enough for them to pry the likes of a player like Mirotic or Favors from their current team.

There has also been some conjecture revolving around the availability of Tristan Thompson, with one interesting scenario having the Cavs and Clippers at least contemplating a trade involving Thompson and Jordan.

The Cavs and Lakers each have too much at stake to not do something.

– Moke Hamilton

Only 21 Days To Go…

With the trade deadline exactly three weeks from today, talks will certainly heat up.

For now, though, the Mavs, Cavs and Lakers appear to be the teams most involved in conversations, with Nikola Mirotic, Derrick Favors and DeAndre Jordan among those most likely to be dealt.

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