Happy NBA Schedule Release Week, everyone! With the 82-game set released on Monday afternoon, we now know what marquee matchups are on the docket for the 2019-20 campaign.
While FIBA World Cup is officially underway and training camp is right around the corner, Basketball Insiders has kicked off another week of its Grading The Offseason series. We’ll move right along next with the Indiana Pacers.
After taking the Cleveland Cavaliers to the brink of elimination in the first round of the 2018 NBA Playoffs, it was evident that the Indiana Pacers were destined for greatness. Victor Oladipo took a leap into superstardom, guided a team that was predicted to flounder following the departure of Paul George and put them on the map at a national scale.
This past season, that momentum continued with the maturation of the group as a whole. Indiana’s offense was fluid and the defense was physical. While there were ups and downs to start the first couple of months, a torrid December left them at 25-12 entering the New Year.
The staggered one-two punch of Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis provided different looks between units with improved play on both ends. Bojan Bogdanovic played a pivotal role as a supplemental scorer. And, of course, Thaddeus Young did his damage on the block and assumed responsibility for guarding the opposition’s best night-in and night-out.
The Pacers rode that wave into late January and then the unthinkable happened. On a fastbreak opportunity against the Toronto Raptors, Oladipo abruptly fell to the ground and clutched at his knee as the team was gaining momentum. A hush fell over Bankers Life Fieldhouse as the All-Star guard was taken off the floor on a stretcher.
Everyone’s fears were confirmed the next day: Oladipo had ruptured the quadriceps tendon in his right knee. He would go on to have season-ending surgery soon thereafter, and head coach Nate McMillan was faced with yet another tall task to rally the locker room going forward.
Once again, there weren’t many believers. How could a group like Indiana, who fed off Oladipo’s energy and enthusiasm, possibly be taken seriously?
We had that question answered with emphasis—heart and resiliency. The very same attitude that had taken the Pacers to the playoffs the year before didn’t go away. The selfless, collective team effort McMillan helped establish proved to be more than enough to galvanize a mentally tough and battle-tested bunch.
Bogdanovic went on a scoring rampage as the Pacers’ number one option. Between February and March, the Bosnian swingman averaged over 22 points, four rebounds and two assists. Darren Collison stepped up as a floor general and consistent presence on the offensive end of the floor. Turner and Sabonis never waned outside of a few minor injuries.
In order to add another weapon, team president Kevin Pritchard went out and signed Wesley Matthews following a buyout with the New York Knicks. Unfortunately still, Indiana closed the season by losing 12 of its last 19 games heading into the playoffs—and the slide to end the campaign carried over.
Despite a closely contested four games with the Boston Celtics, the Pacers were swept out of the first round. Still, the results were not at all indicative of what they had accomplished and overcome that year. However, the scoreboard read 4-0 and the 2018-19 version of that scrappy squad had to look toward the summer.
Aside from anticipating the progress of Oladipo’s rehab, the Pacers had plenty of decisions to make with ample cap space. There were impending free agency decisions of eight different players on their roster, including three key members of the core that pushed them past adversity. There was a focus on the NBA Draft as well that preceded the moratorium period.
Right off the bat, Pritchard traded for Phoenix Suns forward T.J. Warren and the No. 32 pick, which was sent to the Miami HEAT later that night for three future selections in the second round.
With the 18th pick in the draft, Indiana selected Georgian big man Goga Bitadze, a highly-regarded international prospect whom Pritchard admitted he had top 10 on the team’s draft board. The organization took Jarrell Brantley with Miami’s No. 50 pick and flipped the rookie forward to the Utah Jazz for a 2021 second-rounder and cash considerations.
On June 28, Collison surprisingly announced his retirement. Free agency approached quickly thereafter and the action followed suit. Bogdanovic swiftly agreed to a long-term contract with the Jazz. Young came to terms on a three-year deal with the Chicago Bulls. Just like that, that all-so-important veteran trio was gone.
In return, Pritchard wasted no time in response. The Pacers agreed to a sign-and-trade with the Milwaukee Bucks to acquire Malcolm Brogdon, sending future draft picks in exchange for the talented guard. Immediately after that news dropped, Jeremy Lamb and the team struck a deal to bring the former Hornets wing to Indianapolis.
At July’s end, Indiana signed point guard T.J. McConnell and inked a contract with Justin Holiday to reunite him with his brother Aaron. The organization converted Edmond Sumner’s two-way contract into a standard one as well.
Brian Bowen II and Naz Mitrou-Long agreed to separate deals as the new two-way players in the building. Exhibit 10 contracts were also extended to JaKennan Gant and 28-year-old comeback hopeful C.J. Wilcox.
Their most recent move was bringing in veteran journeyman JaKarr Sampson for one year at the veteran minimum after backing out of his deal with a team in China.
So, as you can see, the Pacers have restructured over half of their roster.
PLAYERS IN: T.J. Warren, Malcolm Brogdon, Jeremy Lamb, T.J. McConnell, Justin Holiday, JaKarr Sampson, Goga Bitadze, Edmond Sumner (converted), Brian Bowen II (two-way), Naz Mitrou-Long (two-way), C.J. Wilcox (Exhibit 10), JaKeenan Gant (Exhibit 10)
PLAYERS OUT: Bojan Bogdanovic, Cory Joseph, Darren Collison, Thaddeus Young, Tyreke Evans, Wesley Matthews, Kyle O’Quinn, Davon Reed
Despite lacking the immediate chemistry we’ve seen over the last couple of seasons, Indiana improved significantly.
Once Oladipo returns—which Pritchard surmises will be around December or January—they should be a top-four team in the Eastern Conference on paper. The only thing that could be a hindrance is finding cohesion and the right rotations to ensure those goals are reached.
Envision the matchup issues the Pacers are going to run out there when they’re back to full health. A five-man unit consisting of Brogdon, Oladipo, Warren, Sabonis and Turner would give opponents fits on the defensive end. They won’t be as imposing as past iterations of the team, but they will have plenty of length to gets stops and create turnovers.
Depth is a huge player in all of this as well. That bench is going to be a force to be reckoned with. We, naturally, have to see how the rotations play out for McMillan and company, first and foremost. But Aaron Holiday, Jeremy Lamb and Justin Holiday would be a fine trio to pack a powerful punch while the starters catch their breath.
If you’re unaware of the most popular topic with Indiana, it’s the debate of who has a future in Indiana between the rising big men—Turner or Sabonis? The former has been on the fast track to improving his body and established himself as a top defender in the NBA with a consistent jump shot. The latter is coming off his best season as a pro where he essentially put up a double-double nightly off the bench as a presence on the block and the boards.
We’re going to find out whether or not pairing those two will work, as McMillan told reporters last month that both will be featured in the 2019-20 starting lineup. The coach said that Sabonis’ play has forced his hand to find more minutes for the up-and-coming Lithuanian.
It should be of note that Sabonis is eligible for a rookie extension going into his fourth year as a professional. According to ESPN’s Bobby Marks, the deadline for the Pacers to offer him one is Oct. 21 at 6 p.m.
Turner is already secured for the long term following the signing of his extension before the beginning of last season. Will Sabonis receive the same offer? And if he does, would he accept it?
These are the storylines that are going to garner the most attention as Indiana looks to make some noise in the NBA world with its fresh-faced group.
Other than that, the table is set with plenty of talent and many team-friendly contracts for multiple years. Expect this version of the Pacers to be faster and more versatile than they’ve been in quite some time.
OFFSEASON GRADE: A-
NBA Daily: Sixth Man of the Year Watch — 2/27/20
Just like in a game, it’s who finishes the season atop watch lists that matters most, not who starts. The new Sixth Man front-runner has risen to that status by being a key part of finishing games for the surprise team of the year.
There comes a point in the season when a reasonable watch list needs to whittle down from its typical five or six names to three. With less than 30 percent of the NBA season remaining, this is that time.
With all due respect to Detroit Pistons’ guard Derrick Rose, his team’s current seven-game losing streak ruins any chances of him earning hardware this year. Rose’s averages of 18 points and 5.7 assists per game are laudatory, but the reality is that he remains an inefficient scorer in the modern NBA. Shooting 29.9 percent from beyond the arc actually underscores a rate lower than his already-worrisome career mark of 30.4 percent.
Rose has started 12 of his last 13 games, but if he either comes off the bench in just one more game or misses one more game, he will guarantee he qualifies for Sixth Man of the Year honors. He just hasn’t kept up with the more competitive contributions set by the following award stalwarts.
Lou Williams — Los Angeles Clippers
This is only the second time this season that this space has slotted Williams lower than No. 2 in the watch. Some of that traces to the reputation of the three-time Sixth Man winner, Some of it is an acknowledgment of the Clippers’ success — currently just one game out of second in the Western Conference — and some of it is the simple fact that Williams is still a reliable player in his 14th season.
In the 30 games in which he has broken 20 points this season, part of averaging 19.1 points per game, Los Angeles has gone 19-11. Compared to its 20-8 record otherwise, that may seem like a disappointing correlation, but when realizing he was usually pouring in points without either Kawhi Leonard or Paul George, the still-consistent winning rate makes more sense.
Without Leonard, but with George, and Williams scoring 20 or more, the Clippers have gone 4-3. Without George, but with Leonard, and Williams scoring 20 or more, the Clippers have gone 8-5. (Los Angeles has also gone 0-2 when Williams scored 20 or more with both star wings sidelined.)
Without Williams reliably playing 55 of 58 dates, through Thursday, then Los Angeles would assuredly be further back in the conference, perhaps skirmishing with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks to avoid falling to the seventh seed. The difference between reality and that hypothetical is a mere three games, so it isn’t hard to envision Williams’ buckets being the difference in that many games. Considering he scored 32 points during crucial wins against the New York Knicks and New Orleans Pelicans over a two-week January span without Leonard in the former and George in the latter, Williams is just as good as ever.
Montrezl Harrell — Los Angeles Clippers
Of course, Williams has not been alone supporting the Clippers’ bench, just as he has not been alone atop this watch all season. Harrell has been the frontrunner the entire season — taking over from Williams in the preseason — but that is shifting. Harrell is still averaging 18.6 points and 7 rebounds per game, both career highs, but he has cracked 20 in just three of his last 13 games, putting up just 16.1 points in that span.
Harrell has not stopped scoring efficiently, shooting 61.1 percent across those 13 games, but he is taking a full two field-goal attempts fewer per game. Just like Williams, Harrell steadied Los Angeles through the season, but his role has been diminished as the season reaches its stretch run.
If that continues, Harrell’s hopes of winning the Sixth Man of the Year will diminish as well.
Dennis Schröder — Oklahoma City Thunder
In a similar stretch, Schröder has taken on an increased role. Across the last 15 games, the Thunder point guard is averaging 21.4 points, raising his season mark to 19.1 points per game. It is no coincidence that Oklahoma City has gone 12-3 during this run, charging into the fifth-seed out West with reason to dream about home-court advantage in the first round.
Never known as an efficient scorer in his five seasons with the Atlanta Hawks, Schröder is shooting career highs of 47.3 percent from the field and 38.6 percent from deep. They better be efficient, considering the German has taken the second-most shots on the Thunder. The team leader in field-goal attempts is not Chris Paul or Danilo Gallinari, but Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (871 to Schröder’s 854). Schröder’s eFG percentage of 53.9 outpaces Gilgeous-Alexander’s respectable 50.5 percent, but both trail Paul (55) and Gallinari (55.1) among Oklahoma City players attempting more than eight field goals per game.
Schröder may have started only one game this year, but he is closing most games alongside those other three and center Steven Adams. That lineup has a net rating of plus-31.5 on 350 possessions, as absurd as that sounds. It is that kind of advantage that has turned the Thunder into the surprise of the season and should result in Schröder finishing the year with some hardware.
Still, there’s plenty of time for this annual race to the finish line to shift once more.
NBA Daily: Glenn Robinson III Navigating Change Of Direction With 76ers
Spencer Davies sits down with Philadelphia 76ers forward Glenn Robinson III to discuss his initial thoughts on being traded midseason, his career-best production with the Golden State Warriors and his desire to earn a new contract in the summer of 2020.
Glenn Robinson III always knew he could be an everyday starter in the NBA.
As a second-round pick in 2014, it took time. The Minnesota Timberwolves drafted Robinson, but held onto him for just 25 games. He had a quick pit stop with the Philadelphia 76ers before spending the next three emotionally taxing and injury-riddled seasons with the Indiana Pacers. He ventured north to the Detroit Pistons the year afterward and, though he found himself in the first five for 18 games, never quite found his niche.
That was until a deal with the Golden State Warriors came along.
For the first time in his career, Robinson found a perfect fit. Starting and averaging a career-high 31.6 minutes per game, the former Michigan standout was producing at a rate on both ends that he had always strived for: 12.3 points, 4.4 rebounds, 1.7 assists and a steal per game. He was converting three-pointers at a 40 percent rate and boasted a 57.4 true shooting percentage, all personal bests since entering the league.
Despite Golden State’s losing record, Robinson was comfortable. He was making a nightly impact and proving his individual worth going into a 2020 free-agent class perceived as sparse. However, as we all know, the league can change one’s plans at the drop of a hat.
Before the NBA Trade Deadline in early February, the Warriors dealt Robinson and Alec Burks to the Sixers in order to accelerate their own young players’ development. On the other side, Philadelphia desperately needed some new life to bolster its depth and add some more talent.
While Robinson has gone through his fair share of ups and downs, he has never been traded midseason to another team, which has admittedly affected his psyche — and as a surefire knockdown perimeter shooter, he hasn’t hit a three-ball in nine attempts.
The first thing that comes to mind is the impact it has on those closest to him.
“You’ve got family. You’ve got to try to get out of a lease, move your stuff, all of that. I think that people don’t realize how much it is,” Robinson told Basketball Insiders. “You’re expected to be at the next place in like the next day or two after the trade, so I think it’s just a lot going on. And then, you’ve got to go out on a court and focus and play like nothing happened.
“I mean at the end of the day, we’re still human beings. And that’s what I tell people all the time. To try to get people on a flight the next day is crazy to me. But it is a business. It is what it is at the end of the day and we just try to make it work.”
Robinson is extremely candid about the situation he now finds himself in. Yes, the Sixers are going to be playoff-bound. Yes, the Warriors are going nowhere fast in a down season. That doesn’t change the fact that — along with Burks, his year-long teammate — Robinson is aiming for a healthy payday this summer.
Six games in with his new team, and his playing time cut in half, Robinson is once again fighting an uphill battle.
“Even when (Golden State) played Philly, I showed them what I could do,” Robinson told Basketball Insiders. “So to play those consistent minutes a night and perform well… that’s the most disappointing part about coming here is that — both of us (are) coming off career years where we’re looking at hopefully big numbers after the season. I know I’ve got a family to feed. So you think about all those things.
“All those things play a role, and then when you come here and your role’s not really explained or you don’t know what’s going on with the trade — it’s not like it was a trade where you come in and immediately have an impact. It’s a little different, so… this team is full of wings, full of guys who can play. So really, I don’t really understand it. But it’s a business, you’ve got to make it happen and go out and try to do your best every night.”
Robinson can’t afford to mail it in and he won’t. It’s helpful that he’s familiar with a number of coaches, including headman Brett Brown. He’s also grateful to have come over with a familiar face in Burks, who has experienced this more than a handful of times.
Let’s not overlook the positive impact he’s made on the Jekyll-and-Hyde Sixer offense. He’s doing everything in his power to get his feet wet and figure things out in his second stint there. The itch to crack further into Philadelphia’s rotation and earn increased minutes is never going to go away.
“As a competitor, as an NBA player — this is my sixth year — I think that’s always gonna be there to want more and more,” Robinson told Basketball Insiders. “So I’m definitely interested to see what happens down the stretch here.”
The Sixers might be forced to try something different. They’ve lost Ben Simmons for a significant period of time. Joel Embiid just suffered a shoulder injury following yet another loss on the road against the basement-dwelling Cleveland Cavaliers.
Winning five out of your last seven games is usually a good sign, but all of those victories came at home. The splits between those contests in Philadelphia and the ones away from there have been a season-long, head-scratching issue.
Still, Robinson is confident in the group of guys the Sixers have in the locker room to right the ship.
“A lot of talent. I think we can go as far as we stick together and want to go,” Robinson told Basketball Insiders. “We’ve just got a lot of great players and they know how to play the game. That’s the biggest thing, so as long as we can stick together, come together… it’s about defense for this group. We’ve got all the talent in the world to score. I think that we’ve got high chances.”
No matter how far Philadelphia goes — or how short it falls — Robinson is betting on himself. He took a veteran’s minimum deal with the Warriors last summer and, considering what he gave them, that was a ridiculous bargain for Golden State.
“That’s the good thing,” Robinson told Basketball Insiders. “You know, I think, hopefully, I did [enough to justify a payday in the summer]. I believe in my mind I did. For me and my career and just my confidence — to have that year with Golden State, I always knew that I could do that in the league, so, hopefully, that stands up no matter what happens the rest of the season or whatever happens here.”
Robinson’s player option for 2020 would be a bargain if he opted in and stayed with the Sixers — but that’s one big, unlikely if.
And rightfully so.
NBA Daily: The Evolution of Championship Teams
Win or lose, reaching the NBA Finals is a monumental achievement for any team. Getting to the top of the mountain is great, but staying there is the real challenge. Chad Smith looks into why the championship window has gotten even tighter for these organizations.
The 2019-20 season is rounding into form as the final two months of the regular season begin to pan out. While the natural reaction is to pay attention to the contending teams at the top of the standings, it is important to recognize the teams at the very bottom of each conference. Those teams are the Cleveland Cavaliers (16-41) in the East and the Golden State Warriors (12-46) in the West.
It is no secret what has been going on with the Warriors this year. Injuries have decimated this group, as all three of their superstars from their championship runs have gone down or went elsewhere. Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson both had devastating injuries in back-to-back games in the NBA Finals. Durant ultimately left the Bay Area and traveled east to Brooklyn.
The Splash Brothers remain, but Stephen Curry hasn’t played since October and the team has stated that Thompson will not play at all this season as he continues his rehab. Curry is aiming to return to the floor after this weekend, but there isn’t anything to play for this late into the season.
Similar to the Warriors losing Durant, the Cavs were dealt a major blow when LeBron James left for the second time. His move to the Los Angeles Lakers was justified after he delivered on a championship for his home city. That trophy came with a cost though, as Cleveland has been in purgatory ever since his departure.
Scraping the bottom of the barrel is one thing, but the Cavs have truly hit rock bottom. It may have been doomed from the start, as they made a surprising move in hiring John Beilein. The 67-year old coach was given a five-year contract, though he had never coached a single game in the NBA. Naturally, the fit was less than ideal and after some serious bumps in the road, the two parted ways after just 54 games.
In the four years that LeBron spent during his second stint in Cleveland, they went to The Finals every single year. In their first season without him last year, they finished 19-63, which was the second-worst record in the league just ahead of the circus in New York.
The Warriors and Cavs met in the Finals in four consecutive years from 2015-18. The Warriors made a fifth consecutive trip last year, where they fell apart against the Toronto Raptors.
Toronto had been the punch line of playoff jokes for a number of years, and for good reason. They always came out of the gate stumbling, losing their first game of a series almost like clockwork. That ended last year when Masai Ujiri made the bold move to acquire Kawhi Leonard. They understood the risk of moving one of their most beloved and loyal players in DeMar DeRozan for what would ultimately be a one-year rental.
That one year is all the Raptors needed though, as they pushed all of their chips towards the middle of the table. These types of bold and risky moves are almost a necessity in today’s game, where you need top-tier talent more than ever. Player empowerment and the “business” of the league can coexist — in the right environment.
We saw a prime example of this even before the Golden State era. Pat Riley has always held this stance and proved it in Miami. After getting LeBron and Chris Bosh to team up with Dwyane Wade, the Miami HEAT were instantly labeled a super team. The players invoked their power, but they also understood the business side of things and made it work.
Riley has swung more deals since that dynasty ended, with Jimmy Butler as his primary focus for the immediate future. Their core looks promising, but Miami will not be patient and wait for everyone to develop. Even as one of the top teams in the East, they are not afraid of cashing in these resources in order to win now, because that is ultimately what this is all about. Winning. Not in a year or two, but now.
No one needs to tell Daryl Morey that, as he has drastically re-shaped his Rockets team seemingly every year. Forget about the future, he is dealing superstars left and right, making any move necessary to prepare his team to win this season.
That approach may be something that has held the Boston Celtics back in recent years. Danny Ainge has been hell-bent on trading away their future draft picks. While incredibly enticing at the time, those picks have now flattened as the Memphis Grizzlies and Sacramento Kings have improved. The hesitation to deal those future picks for win-now players in their prime may come back to haunt him.
Boston still has an exceptional team loaded with talent, but it just feels as though they are missing something. Obviously, the move for Kyrie Irving didn’t pan out, nor did the acquisition of Al Horford, but their core five players are sensational, and Brad Stevens has shown that he is capable of leading a team to the top of the mountain.
Looking at the team with the best record in the league, the Milwaukee Bucks appear to be doing things right. They have arguably the best player in the game in Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is likely to have back-to-back MVP seasons in Milwaukee. They are clearly not a large-market team, but they have been operating like one. They understand the importance of all of the factors surrounding this team.
The number one item at the top of the list is to make Giannis feel like it is a place where he can win. As he enters free agency, the last thing they want him to think is that the grass might be greener someplace else. Mike Budenholzer is considered one of the five best coaches in the league. He has figured out how to use the Greek Freak to his maximum value. Jon Horst and the front office have done a marvelous job of surrounding him with the tools he needs.
The willingness to move on from such a promising young talent like Malcolm Brogdon is evidence that they understand the value of winning right now. If they can use the draft pick they acquired to land another top-level player on this roster, it will pay off in a big way. If anything else, it will show Giannis that they are committed to making any moves necessary to keep him there.
The main storyline heading into this season was the depth and the balance of the league. There were not one or two teams that would reign supreme for the entire season. The Western Conference is absolutely loaded, and things are just as competitive with the top six teams in the Eastern Conference. The area of separation is very slim. The trade deadline has come and gone, but buyout candidates and deals in the summer will be critical to the success of teams this season and next.
The win-now mentality has trickled down from front offices to the players. They each now have the power to drastically alter the landscape of the league.
No one is a safe bet anymore, not even the San Antonio Spurs and their 22-year playoff streak.