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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

NBA Daily: The Young, Western Conference Bubble

The race for the West’s final playoff spot may seem crowded, but the last two months make it clear that two teams are already ahead of the pack.

Douglas Farmer

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We all jump to conclusions too quickly, this space and this scribe most certainly included. Three months ago, five weeks into the NBA season, the Western Conference playoff bubble looked like it would be a race between the Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves. That has assuredly not become the reality.

While the Kings and Suns can claim to still be in the playoff race, they would have to not only make up five-game deficits, but they would also each have to jump over four other teams to reach the postseason. The Timberwolves would delight at such challenges as they initiate a not-so-subtle tank with franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns sidelined for at least a few weeks with a fractured wrist.

Instead, the race to be swept by the Los Angeles Lakers has come down to a pair of up-and-comers, a perpetual deep threat and the NBA’s most consistent organization. Of all of them, it is the youngsters who are both currently playing the best and have the most control of their playoff hopes relative to their competition.

Between the current No. 8-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, the Portland Trail Blazers (3 games back), New Orleans Pelicans (3.5) and San Antonio Spurs (4), the next six weeks will feature eight key games. Five of those will include either the Grizzlies or the Pelicans or, in two instances, both.

That pair of matchups is still a month out, but they warrant circling already, nonetheless. Memphis and New Orleans have been playing at a high level for two-plus months now, and by the time they play two games within four nights in late March — when the basketball world is largely distracted by the NCAA Tournament — the two inexperienced teams may have completely separated from Portland and San Antonio.

After starting 1-5, 5-13 and then 10-19, the Grizzlies have gone 18-9 since Dec. 21. The Pelicans have matched that record exactly, down to the date, since starting even worse than Memphis did, bottoming out at 7-23 before finding an uptick long before Zion Williamson found the court. Winning two-thirds of your games for two months is a stretch with a sample size large enough to make it clear: Neither Memphis nor New Orleans should be dismissed in this playoff chase.

Their early-season profiles were examples of young teams sliding right back into the lottery — and there was absolutely no indication a surge was coming.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 106.4 – No. 23 106.8 – No. 21
Defensive Rating 111.7 – No. 23 113.5 – No. 27

Through Dec. 20; via nba.com.

Then, for whatever reason, things changed. They changed in every way and in ways so drastically that one cannot help but wonder what could come next for the teams led by the top-two picks from last summer’s draft.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 111.9 – No. 15 115.1 – No. 4
Defensive Rating 109.3 – No. 11 110.3 – No. 13

Since Dec. 21, through Feb. 23; via nba.com.

In a further coincidence of records and timing, the Blazers and Spurs have both gone 13-16 since Dec. 21.

If all four teams in the thick of things out west continue at these two-month winning rates for another month, then Portland and San Antonio will have drifted out of the playoff conversation before Williamson and Ja Morant meet for a second time. Of course, those rates would keep New Orleans a few games back of Memphis; the latter has 14 games, compared to 12, before March 21, so the gap in the standings would actually expand to an even four games.

If the Pelicans can just pick up a game or two before then, though, they have already beaten the Grizzlies twice this season. Doing so twice more that week would just about send New Orleans into the playoffs – at which point, perhaps Williamson could steal a game from LeBron James to put a finishing coda on his rookie season.

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southwest Division

David Yapkowitz finishes Basketball Insiders’ Stretch Run series with an overview of the Southwest Division.

David Yapkowitz

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We’ve hit that point in the NBA season approaching the final stretch of games before the playoffs roll around in April. The trade deadline has come and gone, the buyout market is wearing thin and most teams have loaded up and made their final roster moves in anticipation of the postseason.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re taking a look at each team — division by division– at what they need to do to get ready for the playoffs, or lack thereof. Looking at the Southwest Division, this was a division that used to be one of the toughest in the league.

It still is for the most part. The Texas triangle of the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs was no joke and hell for opposing teams on a road trip. Those are still a couple of formidable teams, but with the exception of the Rockets, it’s not quite near the level of yesteryear.

The Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans are a pair of young, up-and-coming teams that will give you 100 percent every night. While Memphis sits firmly in the eighth spot in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on the outside looking in. Here’s a look at how each team might fare in the stretch run.

The Houston Rockets have been the best team in the Southwest all season long, and all that remains for them is playoff positioning. They currently sit in fourth place in the West, giving them home-court advantage in the first round, but they could just as easily slip a bit with the Utah Jazz essentially tied with them record-wise in the standings and the Oklahoma City Thunder a mere two games back.

The Dallas Mavericks have taken a huge leap this season behind Luka Doncic, who is rapidly becoming one of the best players in the league. They currently sit in seventh place in the West and a return to the postseason is in the cards for the Mavericks.

The rest of the teams in the Southwest is where things get a little interesting. The Grizzlies have been one of the surprises of the season, as they’ve defied expectations and are firmly entrenched in the playoff race out West. They have a three-game lead on the Portland Trail Blazers and a four-game lead on the San Antonio Spurs.

Out of the Grizzlies’ final 26 games, 15 of them come against teams over .500, more than either the Blazers or the Spurs. 14 of those final 26 are also on the road, again, more than the Blazers or the Spurs. They also play both the Spurs and Blazers one more time this season. If the Grizzlies end up making the playoffs, it will be very well earned.

The Spurs are knocking on the door, and they have one more game against the Grizzlies which could prove to be very meaningful. This is a team that has been one of the standard-bearers in the league for success over the past decade. Their streak of playoff appearances is in serious jeopardy.

They’ve won two of their last three games, however, and out of their final 26 games, 15 of those are at home, where they are 14-12. Based on how the Grizzlies are playing though, a close to .500 record at home probably isn’t going to cut it. They’re going to need to pick it up a bit over the next month if they want to keep their playoff streak intact. A lot can happen between now and then, and the Grizzlies do have a tough remaining schedule, but it looks as if San Antonio will miss the playoffs for the first time in 22 years.

The final team in the Southwest is the Pelicans, boosted by the return of prized rookie and No.1 draft pick Zion Williamson. Prior to the start of the season, the Pelicans were looked at as a team that could possibly contend for the eighth seed in the West. Then Williamson got hurt and things changed.

But the team managed to stay afloat in his absence, and as it stands, they’re only three-and-a-half games back of the Grizzlies with 26 games left to play. Out of the bottom three teams in the division, it’s the Pelicans who have the easiest schedule.

Out of those 25 games, only seven of them come against teams over .500. They are, however, just about split with home and away games. New Orleans is 8-2 over their past 10 games, better than the Grizzlies and Spurs. If Memphis falters down the stretch due to its tough schedule, and the Pelicans start gaining a little bit of steam, things could get interesting in the final few weeks.

In all likelihood, the Pelicans probably won’t make the playoffs as not only do they have to catch up to the Grizzlies, but the Spurs and Blazers as well. But it certainly will be fun to watch them try.

There are some big storylines in the Southwest Division worth following as we begin the final run to the postseason. Can the young Grizzlies defy expectations and make a surprise return to the playoffs? Will the Spurs get their playoff streak snapped and finally look to hit the reset button after nearly two decades of excellence? Can the Pelicans, buoyed by Williamson’s return, make a strong final push?

Tune in to what should be fun final stretch in the Southwest.

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southeast Division

With the All-Star Break behind us, the final stretch of NBA games has commenced. Quinn Davis takes a look at a few teams in the Southeast Division that have a chance at making the dance.

Quinn Davis

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Well, that was fast.

With the NBA All-Star break in the rearview, there are now fewer than 30 games to play for all 30 NBA teams. In other words, time is running out for certain teams to improve their seeding in the conference.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we will be looking at a certain subset of teams that are right on the border of making or missing the playoffs. In this edition, the focus will be on the Southeast Division.

The Southeast features three teams — the Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards — operating in the lower-middle-class of the NBA. These three will be slugging it out over the next month-and-a-half for the right to meet the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.

The two remaining teams are the Miami HEAT and Atlanta Hawks. As this is being written, the former is comfortably in the playoffs at 35-20, while the latter is comfortably gathering more ping pong balls at 16-41.

In this space, the focus will be on the three bubble teams. The Magic are currently frontrunners for the eighth seed, but the Wizards and Hornets are within striking distance if things were to go awry.

Led by head coach Steve Clifford, the Magic have ground their way to the eighth seed behind an eighth-ranked defense. Lanky wing Aaron Gordon is the standout, helping the Magic execute their scheme of walling off the paint. The Magic only allow 31.3 percent of opponent shots to come at the rim, putting them in 89th percentile in the league, per Cleaning The Glass.

Following a post-break loss to Dallas Mavericks, the Magic sit at 24-32 and three games up on the ninth-seeded Wizards. While a three-game margin doesn’t sound like much, that is a sizable cushion with only 26 games to play. Basketball-Reference gives the Magic a 97.4 percent chance to make the playoffs.

The Magic have the third-easiest remaining schedule out of Eastern Conference teams. They have very winnable games coming against the Bulls, Hornets, Cavaliers, Knicks and Pistons. They also have multiple games coming against the Brooklyn Nets, the team they trail by only 1.5 games for the seventh seed.

The Magic are prone, however, to dropping games against the league’s bottom-feeders. It can be difficult to string together wins with an offense this sluggish. The Markelle Fultz experiment has added some spark in that department, but his lack of an outside shot still leaves the floor cramped.

After a quick analysis of the schedule, the most likely scenario appears to be a 12-14 record over the last 26 games, putting the Magic at 36-46 come season’s end. A record like that should not be allowed anywhere near playoff basketball, but it would probably be enough to meet the Bucks in round one.

If the Magic go 12-14, that would leave the Wizards, fresh off a loss to J.B. Bickerstaff and the Cleveland Cavaliers, needing to go 17-11 over their last 28 games. They will need to finish one game ahead as the Magic hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.

The Wizards finishing that strong becomes even more farfetched when you consider their remaining schedule. They have the second-toughest slate from here on out, per Basketball-Reference.

The Wizards do have a trump card in Bradley Beal, who is the best player among the bubble teams in the East. He has now scored 25 points or more in 13 straight games and has been the driving force behind the Wizards staying in the race.

He has also picked up his defense a bit following his All-Star snub in an effort to silence his critics. The increased focus on that end is nice, but it would’ve been a little nicer if it had been a part of his game earlier in this season when the Wizards were by far the worst defense in the league.

Even if Beal goes bonkers, it is hard to see a path for this Wizards team to sneak in outside of a monumental collapse in Orlando. Looking at their schedule, it would take some big upsets to even get to 10 wins over their last 28. Their most likely record to finish the season is 8-20 if all games go to the likely favorites.

The Wizards’ offense has been impressive all season, but injuries and a porous defense have been too much to overcome.

The Hornets, meanwhile, trail the Wizards by 1.5 games and the Magic by 4.5 games. They have won their last three in a row to put themselves back in this race, but they still have an uphill climb.

The Hornets also may have raised the proverbial white flag by waiving two veterans in Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The goal coming into this season was never to make the playoffs, so they are likely more interested in developing young talent over these last 27 games.

If the Magic do play up to their usual levels and go 12-14, it would require the Hornets to go 18-9 to finish the season against the sixth-toughest remaining schedule in the East.

Devonte’ Graham and his three-point shooting have been a bright spot for the Hornets, but it would take some otherworldly performances from him and Terry Rozier down the stretch to put together a record like that. Basketball-Reference gives this a 0.02 percent chance of happening (cue the Jim Carrey GIF).

Barring a miracle, the eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference are locked in place. The only questions remaining are how seeds 2-6 will play out, and whether the Magic can catch the Nets for the seventh spot.

The Wizards will fight to the end, but it is unlikely they make up any ground given the level of opponents they will see over the next six weeks. The Hornets, meanwhile, are more likely to fight for lottery odds.

At least the playoffs should be exciting.

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