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NBA Daily: Indiana’s Roller Coaster Ride

In what has already been an emotional week for the basketball world, the Indiana Pacers will have a beam of positivity as Victor Oladipo makes his return to the floor.

Chad Smith

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Fans of the Indiana Pacers will finally be able to see their star player in uniform at Bankers Life Fieldhouse tonight when they face the Chicago Bulls. It has been more than a full calendar year since Victor Oladipo suffered his torn quad on the very same floor in Indianapolis. The home crowd was filled with shock and concern then, but tonight the arena will be oozing with celebration and anticipation.

This season, Indiana has already compiled a solid record, going 30-17 without their franchise player. The additions of Malcolm Brogdon, TJ Warren, Jeremy Lamb, Justin Holiday and TJ McConnell have been crucial in getting them into the position they are in. In short, the Pacers are an incredibly deep team that is well-coached by Nate McMillan and his staff.

These are all things that most NBA fans already know. What many of them might not know is the amount of patience, persistence and what-if possibilities that have flowed throughout this organization over the past two decades.

The Pacers were dealt a tough draw, to begin with. The two greatest players to ever play the game were in their division. They were never able to break through those Michael Jordan and LeBron James teams. In the years between those two legends, Indiana finally made it to the NBA Finals. Even then, they ran into the greatest duo of all-time in Shaquille O’Neal and the late Kobe Bryant.

After spending the first six years of his career with the Pacers, Antonio Davis was traded to the Toronto Raptors for a talented high school prospect named Jonathan Bender. The Raptors selected the 6-foot-11 forward with the No. 5 overall pick in the 1999 NBA Draft. The flashes of talent were apparent during his rookie year but troublesome knee injuries plagued his career. Over the next four seasons, he was only able to play a total of 76 games for Indiana.

The McDonald’s All-American Game MVP was never able to live up to the high expectations that were placed upon him. In 2005, he was ranked No. 11 on Sports Illustrated’s list of the top 20 biggest busts in NBA draft history. The Pacers ended up having to waive Bender in 2006 and his career was over after a 25-game stint with the New York Knicks.

The next sour taste was delivered amid a much uglier scene. The Detroit Pistons beat Indiana in six games during the 2003-04 Eastern Conference Finals and went on to win the championship. The next time the division rivals met was Nov. 19, 2004, at The Palace in Auburn Hills. The Malice at the Palace was a massive black eye on the league as a whole – and, naturally, the Pacers found themselves right in the middle of it all.

The league handed out a bevy of fines and suspensions, in no particular order: Metta World Peace was suspended for the remainder of the regular season and playoffs, which amounted to 86 games. Indiana also lost Stephen Jackson for 30 games, while Jermaine O’Neal was given a 25-game ban, though it was reduced on appeal to just 15. This was Reggie Miller’s final season – one in which many hoped it would end with another title run. Miller, of course, retired ringless.

After fighting to earn their way into the playoffs as the No. 6 seed, the Pacers were eliminated by Detroit in the second round. Indiana then went four consecutive years without making the postseason after saying goodbye to their legendary three-point marksman. Their 2004-05 team had arguably their best opportunity at winning a championship since their NBA Finals run in 2000.

In the aftermath of that mess and Miller’s departure, the Pacers were tasked with rebuilding their team with character guys. It meant asking their fans for an abundance of patience while the losses piled up. The fans and the city were in support of the organization and had made significant progress with the additions of guys like Danny Granger, Roy Hibbert and Paul George.

Indiana selected George with the No. 10 overall pick in 2010 and Granger was an important role model and mentor to the Fresno State product. The two would excel on the court together as the main building blocks for the franchise. That only lasted a few years as Granger dealt with injuries and was shipped off to Philadelphia, who then waived him.

In the midst of all of this was the 2011 draft, where Indiana selected Kawhi Leonard. George and Leonard were able to coordinate their pairing in Los Angeles this past summer, but the Pacers could have had both of them in Indianapolis. At the time, the team felt they had depth and stability at the position, so they opted to trade Leonard to San Antonio for hometown product George Hill.

Nearly six months after Granger was traded, George suffered his gruesome leg injury during a Team USA scrimmage in Las Vegas. Just when it appeared Indiana had their franchise star ready to burst onto the scene, their hopes once again took a drastic hit. After back-to-back appearances in the Eastern Conference Finals, their season was quickly lost. Not only that, but it was going to be years – not months – before he might possibly be able to return to the type of player he had become.

After his hard-fought battle to return to the floor, George was growing increasingly frustrated with his situation. He had always been upset about the Granger trade and began to feel as though the organization wasn’t surrounding him with enough talent. Eventually, George made it be known that he wanted out of Indiana and the fan base was thrown another curveball.

At the time, Indiana took a lot of criticism for its return in the trade with Oklahoma City. Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis were young and didn’t seem to have the upside to whet the appetite for most Pacers fans. Nowadays, it feels almost like a heist. Oladipo has since won Most Improved Player, led the league in steals, reached both the All-NBA and All-Defensive teams, all in addition to being a two-time All-Star.

Indiana has a rich history with the Most Improved Player award, as Oladipo, George, Granger, O’Neal and Jalen Rose have each won it over the last 20 years. Sabonis has flourished as a Pacer too, getting serious All-Star consideration this year after missing out on the Sixth Man of the Year honors last season.

But now, today, can they breakthrough? Is this the moment? Expectations were high after the addition of Malcolm Brogdon in the summer. Elsewhere, Myles Turner has been able to fit alongside Sabonis, while the role players have all been exceptional. Still, the four pillars in Indiana still have not yet played on the floor together. The biggest unknown in the Eastern Conference right now is what happens to the Pacers when they have a healthy Oladipo and Brogdon in the backcourt along with Sabonis and Turner. That is something everyone is anxious to see.

In the end, Oladipo’s brutal injury was another dip in a long and winding road in Indiana – needless to say, however, it is a road filled with potholes, bumps, roadkill and cracked asphalt.

But if Oladipo returns to form things could finally be looking up again for the Pacers.

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NBA AM: Don’t Count Out Cole Anthony, He’ll Prove You Wrong

Dylan Thayer discusses Cole Anthony’s long road to the Orlando Magic starting lineup and what the future may hold for the talented guard.

Dylan Thayer

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Needless to say, Cole Anthony has been one of the top rookies from the class of 2020 thus far. In the years leading up to the NBA Draft, Anthony – the son of long-time veteran Greg Anthony – had been one of the class’s most prized players, with most experts mocking him in the top five. But the first losing season of University of North Carolina head coach Roy Williams’ career led to scouts turning away from Anthony as a top recruit. The buzz was that ego and attitude problems would stop him from being a safe lottery pick. 

Coming out of high school, Anthony was the second highest-ranked prospect in the ESPN Top 100 for 2019. The Oak Hill squad Anthony led went 23-5 with him on the court, making the national semifinal against fellow recent draftee Isaiah Stewart. Anthony put on a show in his senior year averaging 18.0 points per game, 9.8 rebounds per game and 9.5 assists per game, per Oak Hill Hoops. In April of 2019, he committed to the University of North Carolina Tarheels over other top NCAA basketball programs.

The 2019-20 NCAA season was a very rocky one for the Tarheels, to say the least. The team finished 14-19 and had their first losing season since 2001-02. Injuries hampered the team throughout the year and the lack of consistency within the team’s lineup did not lead to the best product possible. Anthony had his own right knee injury that caused him to miss time during the season, and he later revealed that he only played about five games at 100 percent, per Sports Illustrated

But after an underwhelming tenure at UNC, the biggest thing that sticks out is how Anthony matured and reacted to it. In an interview with the front office, Anthony spoke highly of his teammates:

“At the end of the day, we really didn’t get much time to play together as a whole unit,” Anthony said. “But those are my brothers.” 

One of the biggest knocks on Anthony’s game coming into the NBA was that teams feared he would not have a good effect on the locker room, but where did that stem from? For starters, UNC’s record – and the fact that Anthony was supposed to be the star – lead outsiders to place the blame on him due to their collective failures. In an article for The Athletic, opposing coaches did not speak very highly of Anthony’s skillset. In fact, they said his shot was very inefficient, his defense was not consistent, his dribbling was not strong enough and, worst of all, he would just be another player that inefficiently scores points for a bad team. Leading up to draft night, Anthony’s stock had definitely taken a hit – but he managed to go No. 15 overall, the first non-lottery pick of the night.

Without a doubt, so far this season, Anthony has been a steal for the Orlando Magic. Originally, he was in charge of running the team’s second unit, but once starter Markelle Fultz suffered a season-ending injury, Anthony was handed the keys to the point guard position. Losing Fultz was a big blow to the Magic’s season, but Anthony is a very good replacement for him as their high motor play styles are similar. 

Anthony has not been the most consistent or efficient player as of yet, but he has shown plenty of promise throughout the early part of his rookie season. Additionally, an insanely short offseason means there are still major adjustments that these young guys must make at the NBA level. On Monday night against the Charlotte Hornets, Anthony had his best game of the season by putting up 21 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists over 31 minutes.

Already, the scorer has cashed in on 15-plus points in five games so far. Even better, Anthony is averaging 11.0 points per game, 4.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game while ranking in the top five among rookies in those respective statistical categories. 

Still, the downside to Anthony’s play is definitely how inconsistent he has been on a game-to-game basis. On the season, he is shooting a meager 36.9 percent from the field, placing him sixth-to-last in that category, per NBA Advanced Stats. Surprisingly enough, he has shot the ball at a better clip than No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards. His three-point percentage is just under 34 percent and he has shot the ball at a very good level from the free-throw line at 84.6 percent. Regardless, there’s plenty of room to improve.

But with the guidance of Anthony’s talented hands – including a shocking buzzer-beating game-winner already – the Magic find themselves in ninth place in the Eastern Conference. The Magic have been a familiar face in the lower half in the conference’s playoff bracket over the past few seasons, but Anthony is hoping to aim higher than ever. With the lead guard duties belonging to the blossoming rookie, he needs to step up and perform in big moments if this team wants to go anywhere this season, a ton of that responsibility will fall upon Anthony’s shoulders – fair or not.

From what Anthony has shown throughout his career, however, betting against him would not be a very wise decision.

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ICYMI: Atlantic Division

To kick off our new “ICYMI” series, Basketball Insiders’ Ariel Pacheco breaks down what you might have missed from the Atlantic Division this season.

Ariel Pacheco

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Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re introducing a new series called “ICYMI” where we’ll fill you in on some of the NBA’s biggest storylines that you may have missed, division by division. Today, we’ll focus on the Atlantic Division. 

So far, the Atlantic has been arguably the most competitive division in the league. If the playoffs started today, all five teams in the division would at least make the play-in game. But what’s gotten those teams to that point? Who or what might have flown under the radar? Let’s take a look.

Chris Boucher: Sixth Man Of The Year Candidate

After a cold start to the season, the Toronto Raptors have started to figure it out, winning 5 of their last 7 games. And a huge part of that success has been due to the rise of Chris Boucher.

In just 23.7 minutes per game, he is averaging 14.3 points, 6.6 rebounds to go along with 2.2 blocks per game. He’s also shown touch from beyond the arc, shooting 45.3% from three-point range on almost four attempts a game. On the year, Boucher also has 4 double-doubles.

Boucher has provided a much-needed spark for the Raptors. In fact, while Nick Nurse has been reluctant to do so, many have been clamoring for Boucher to start. Still, as a starter or off the bench, Boucher has done more than enough to mask the loss of both Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol. And doing so has placed him squarely in the middle of the Sixth Man of the Year conversation.

Is Immanuel Quickley the Knicks Point Guard Of The Future and Present?

The Knicks entered the season with a conundrum at the point guard position. Former Lottery picks Dennis Smith Jr. and Frank Ntilikina have both disappointed while Elfrid Payton, a proven but flawed NBA rotation player, has only exacerbated the team’s issues, especially their need for spacing.

Enter Immanuel Quickley, a rookie out of Kentucky that has not only shown the ability to shoot, but also defend and facilitate at a high level and has developed a floater game that has become his signature.

There’s no question that Quickley is currently the best point guard on the Knicks’ roster. While his 11 points and 2.6 assists per game might undersell his play, lineups with RJ Barrett, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson that feature Quickley have outscored opponents by 20 points, albeit in just 30 total minutes. That same lineup with Payton in Quickley’s place have been outscored by 6 points in 371 minutes. Quickley is simply a better fit.

While the Knicks point guard situation in the last decade has been lousy, the Knicks may not have only found their point guard of the future, but of the present as well. 

Doc Rivers, the Tobias Harris Whisperer

After a disappointing year, Tobias Harris is in the midst of a bounce-back season. This should come as no surprise, however, with Doc Rivers now at the helm. Harris played some of the best basketball of his career as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers with Rivers as his head coach. Now, reunited in Philadelphia, Harris’ play has surged once again.

Harris has been an uber-efficient scoring option for the first place 76ers, averaging 19.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game on a 61.5 true shooting percentage. Rivers, meanwhile, has done an excellent job of putting Harris in the best position to succeed. With Brett Brown, Harris was used more as a floor-spacer and spot-up shooter, something that Harris is certainly capable of — he’s shot 45.8 percent from three-point range this season — but doesn’t exactly suit his game. But, under Rivers, Harris has attacked the basket and has been far more decisive with the ball in his hands. It also helps when Harris is shooting a scorching-hot 45.8 percent from three-point range.

Where other coaches have faltered, Rivers has seemingly unlocked Harris’ ultimate ability and, with the type of player he has shown himself to be, Harris might just be enough to push Philadelphia to a title. He’s certainly got them in the conversation.

Jeff Green’s Role in Brooklyn

The Brooklyn Nets’ trade for James Harden hurt their defense and their depth significantly. They’re betting on sheer star power and their new powerhouse offense to get them far in the playoffs.

They will need role-players to step up and knock down shots, however. Jeff Green has done just that.

Shooting 48.2 percent from three, Green has been playing a bunch of his minutes at center. And, with how the roster is currently constructed, the team may rely on him to play that spot throughout the season. Green, of course, is no stranger to the situation, having played the very same role with the Houston Rockets last season. 

Since the Harden trade, he’s averaging 33 minutes per game. Green has also scored in double figures off the bench in 7 straight games. He’ll continue to play a major role for the Nets as the season goes and, if he can continue to perform at this level, Brooklyn will have someone in the rotation beyond the big-three that they can trust.

Be sure to check back throughout the week as we break down what you may have missed from the other divisions.

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NBA Daily: Khris Middleton Should Be The Bucks’ Closer

Bobby Krivitsky breaks down Khirs Middleton’s season and explains how the Milwaukee Bucks second star has earned more opportunities in crunch time.

Bobby Krivitsky

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For the Milwaukee Bucks, being one of the NBA’s best regular-season teams doesn’t mean much. In each of the last two seasons, the players and their fans have enjoyed this movie’s rising action but, as winning the title is the ultimate goal, left the theatre disappointed.

In order to get that satisfying conclusion, Milwaukee must make some changes. And, to start the 2020-21 season, they’ve tried to do just that. As expected, Mike Budenholzer is more flexible in his approach this season than in year’s past. They’ve reshaped their five-out offense, which now features someone, often Giannis Antetokounmpo, occupying the dunker spot. Those are the two areas just outside the paint along the baseline, where a player can catch the ball, take one or two steps, and dunk.

The Bucks are also pursuing their missed shots far more aggressively than they used to; two seasons ago, Budenholzer’s first at the helm, Milwaukee ranked 26th in offensive rebounding percentage, last year, they ranked 28th. But, through the first 16 games of this season, they’re snatching up 29.2 percent of their misses, good for the sixth-highest percentage league-wide.

Another meaningful difference, arguably the most meaningful, is how the team has allowed Khris Middleton to initiate the offense far more frequently at the end of games. In the final three minutes of games within five points, Middleton’s usage rate has spiked from 30.1 percent in 2019-20 to 40 percent this season.

Once again, Middleton has put together a fantastic season that’s receiving little fanfare. After he averaged a career-high 20.9 points per game last season, he’s improved to 21.8 points through the Bucks’ first 16 games. Middleton is also taking 5.9 three-point attempts per game (knocking them down at a 42.6 percent clip, the second-best mark of his career) and has increased the amount of two-point field goals he’s attempting to 9.8 per contest, making 58 percent of them. 

That combination has produced an effective field goal percentage of 60.2 percent. Additionally, Middleton has shot 92 percent from the foul line on an average of 3.1 free-throw attempts per game, giving him a true-shooting percentage of 63.7 percent. Those shooting percentages mean Middleton has a legitimate chance to join the 50-40-90 club; only eight NBA players have accomplished that feat. Middleton’s also gone from averaging 4.3 assists per game the last two years to dishing out 5.8 dimes this season and has grabbed 6.3 rebounds per game. 

Add it all up and you have a two-time All-Star that ranks fourth in the NBA in offensive win shares, fifth in total win shares and has delivered a compelling opening statement as to why he should make an All-NBA team for the first time in his career.

While it may not seem so noteworthy that one of the best wings in the NBA is off to a hot start, the way Middleton has responded to shouldering more responsibility in crunch time should serve as an ingredient to the elixir that can cure the postseason issues that have plagued them in recent seasons. Out of every player that has made more than one appearance in crunch time, which is defined as the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime of a game within five points, the sharpshooting Middleton is eighth in points per game. He’s also yet to turn the ball over in that span.

 

As the pressure mounts and the clock counts down, Middleton’s approach doesn’t change from how he’s played the game’s previous 43 minutes. Whether he’s attacking off a screen from Antetokounmpo or Brook Lopez, shooting off the catch, or using a jab step to create the necessary space for him to rise and fire, Middleton knocks down his shots with the same ruthless efficiency.

That said, he could stand to be a bit more assertive in the game’s waning moments. Yes, his usage rate has jumped in the fourth quarter, but there have been instances where Middleton has taken a backseat; in Milwaukee’s recent 112-109 win over the Dallas Mavericks, Middleton managed just two shots in the entire fourth quarter, back-to-back threes that turned a two-point deficit into a four-point lead the Bucks never relinquished.

Of course, there’s a balancing act that Budenholzer must work out between Antetokounmpo, Middleton and Jrue Holiday. Late in the game, Budenholzer can’t simply take the ball away from Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP, and Holiday, a fantastic player in his own right, needs opportunities to have an impact.

But Middleton has done more than enough to show he’s deserving of even more opportunities than what he’s taken for himself this season. And, if the Bucks want to win a title in the near future, it may be in their best interest if Middleton’s the player primarily in charge of initiating their late-game offense.

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