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NBA PM: Chemistry Concerns For the Pacers?

After about 30 games, the Pacers are making their case a one of the biggest disappointments of the season.

Moke Hamilton

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Chemistry Concerns For the Pacers?

There are disappointments, and then there’s the 2016-17 Indiana Pacers.

Entering play on December 20, the Pacers have won their last two games, but are merely one game over the .500 mark. The club is currently on pace to win just 42 games, and it’s safe to say that Larry Bird would be a tad bit disappointed in that.

With the team reaching two consecutive Eastern Conference Finals in 2013 and 2014, things slowly began to unravel, beginning with Lance Stephenson’s departure to the Charlotte Hornets. David West and Roy Hibbert eventually followed out the door, but the prevailing sentiment was that with new pieces surrounding him, Paul George—who seemed to have proven himself to be a true superstar—would be able to bring the Pacers forward.

So, what gives?

For starters, like a few other teams, the Pacers have found themselves with a lot of new faces. Jeff Teague was brought in as George Hill was sent away. Thaddeus Young, Al Jefferson, Aaron Brooks and Kevin Seraphin entered the mix, as well. That Nate McMillan was tapped to be the successor of Frank Vogel and needed to instill a new identity with the club was an added obstacle.

Through the early going of the season, four of the top 10 rotation players for the Pacers are among the new faces brought to the team: Teague (31.9 mpg), Young (30.7 mpg), Jefferson (15.3 mpg) and Brooks (14.7 mpg).

Those that were high on the Pacers entering this season probably looked simply at the acquisitions and figured that Teague was an upgrade over George Hill and that Myles Turner’s progression would continue with the increased minutes that he would receive after being inserted into the starting lineup. Neither assumption was unreasonable.

Those that weren’t high on the Pacers entering the season probably thought that without Stephenson, West, Hibbert and even Ian Mahinmi, the defensive-mindedness that was a staple of Vogel’s tenure would be a distant memory. Even more of a concern was the question as to how Teague, Ellis and George would co-exist on the floor. Each of the three is excellent when playing on the ball. Although George has proven to be somewhat versatile with the ability to play off of it, having three players who need a lot of touches is a tricky thing to accommodate.

Thus far, the results prove that.

Through about 30 games, the Pacers are allowing 105.8 points per game, which ranks them 21st in the league. They are yielding 106.8 points per 100 possessions, which is 15th in the association. Each of these rankings is a significant departure from last season, where the Pacers surrendered just 100.5 points per game (eighth in the league) and 102.9 points per 100 possessions (third in the league).

Of last year’s key rotation players, Hill and Mahinmi were the biggest losses. That each is a plus-defender lends credence to the fact defensive ineptitude is most responsible for the plight of McMillan’s Pacers.

An even bigger concern, however, is the growing concern over the partnership between Teague, Ellis and George. While it should be noted that George missed seven games earlier this season due to a left ankle injury, the early returns for the trio haven’t exactly been stellar.

According to 82games.com, the starting five for the Pacers—Teague, Ellis, George, Young and Turner—has a cumulative plus/minus of minus-44, which is by far the worst score of any five-man unit. Obviously, the sample size of the other units is significantly smaller, but it’s still worth noting. In contrast, the five-man unit that features Glen Robinson III in place of George, clocks in with a plus-40 plus/minus rating—an 84-point swing. The second-best unit in terms of the plus/minus rating is Teague, Ellis, George, Turner and C.J. Miles. The unit has a plus-20 rating, but such a small sample size (they’ve only played 15.3 minutes together) that it can’t be depended on in any significant way.

Another notable item to report: approximately 28 percent of opponent shot comes from “close” range against Indiana’s starting unit. A shot from “close” range is defined as occurring within 10 feet of the basket. Of the 20 different five-man units the Pacers have played thus far this season, the 28 percent mark is fifth-worst, meaning that there are 15 other five-man units for Nate McMillan’s team that have done a better job of keeping opponents away from the basket.

What the evidence suggests is that, on either side of the floor, the five-man unit that starts for the Pacers isn’t nearly as effective as many imagined they would be. With George having missed seven games, there is something to be said for the club’s still developing chemistry, but usually, after about 15 games, there is at least some evidence of chemistry developing among new pieces—if it is to come at all.

By no means is this to suggest that the Pacers won’t turn things around and find themselves in the playoffs, but Frank Vogel, Roy Hibbert and David West obviously aren’t walking through that door anytime soon.

Nate McMillan clearly has some work to do.

LeBron James Continues His Historic Climb

Several weeks ago, in an NBA Sunday column, LeBron James and his climb up the all-time scorer’s list in NBA history was looked at, in depth. Though still a ways to go, it’s worth re-visiting.

InsideLeBronJamesEntering play on December 20, James and his 27,408 points trail Moses Malone by a single point for eighth on the all-time list. Although James is likely to pass Shaquille O’Neal for seventh by the end of the season, his entering the top-five would require passing Dirk Nowitzki and eclipsing Wilt Chamberlain’s 31,419 points, which would probably take James at least another season.

So why are we even bringing this up again? Simple. When James’ climb was discussed back on November 13, he had averaged just 22.9 points per game over the first few weeks of the season. He was noticeably deferential toward Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on the offensive side of the ball, and as he closes in on his 32nd birthday, it stands to reason that James will begin to show sides of slowing down. It is only his succumbing to Father Time that can stop him from continuing to pursue Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the league’s all-time leading scorer.

As of now, though, it doesn’t appear that any demise is imminent.

In his past 13 games, James has increased his scoring output, dropping in 26.2 points per game. He’s shooting 54 percent from the field over that stretch while converting on 36 percent of his three-point attempts. In the latter stretch, he has scored 30 or more points three times, compared to just once over his first 10 games this season. The end result? Entering play on December 20, James has improved his scoring average to 25 points per game—a mark that wasn’t guaranteed and one that didn’t seem all that probable just a few weeks ago.

It’s worth mentioning again, even as LeBron continues his climb toward the top of the NBA’s all-time list of scorers, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—the biggest giant of them all—will continue to be a realistic target.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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NBA

NBA AM: Who’s the Next Donovan Mitchell?

Donovan Mitchell provided elite value at the back end of the lottery. Who might that player be this summer?

Joel Brigham

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The entire reason that so many non-playoff teams worked so diligently to blow their seasons was to get the best odds possible for the first overall selection in the 2018 NBA Draft. Watching LeBron James (a former first overall draft pick) do what he’s done to the league for the last 15 years, the desire to land a top pick is understandable. Ben Simmons, the heir apparent and likely Rookie of the Year, also was a first overall draft pick a couple of seasons ago.

In fact, of the 38 former first overall picks dating back to 1980, 28 of them would evolve into All-Stars, and it seems like only a matter of time before Simmons is added to that list, too. A higher percentage of top picks have been named All-Stars than any other slot in the draft. Numbers don’t lie. There is no pick more valuable than the very first one.

But…

Donovan Mitchell is good, too. Like, really good. He’s so good that there’s just as strong an argument for him as this season’s Rookie of the Year as there is for Simmons. Mitchell, though, was not a first overall pick. He was picked 13th, at the back end of the lottery.

He isn’t alone in landing elite value for teams picking outside of the lottery’s top half. Devin Booker was picked 13th in 2015. Giannis Antetokounmpo was the 15th selection in 2013. In 2011, Klay Thompson was picked 11th, while Kawhi Leonard was chosen with the 15th pick that same year. Paul George went 10th overall in 2010.

In other words, there are plenty of really good prospects every summer to give late-lottery teams hope. They might not generate the same hype as the guys vying for that top overall selection, but they’re also clearly a lot better than the tiers of players that start coming off the board in the 20s and 30s. All-Stars lurk in the 10-to-15 range of the draft, especially in a loaded class like the one we’re looking at this summer.

That begs the question: who is this year’s Donovan Mitchell?

Here are three possibilities:

Collin Sexton

Back in November, a series of unfortunate circumstances in a game against Minnesota led to a mass ejection of Alabama players that resulted in just three players being allowed to play the final ten minutes. Sexton was one of those three players and led a Crimson Tide rally despite the lopsided Minnesota power play. ‘Bama outscored the Gophers 30-22 in those final 10 minutes despite being down two players, and Sexton finished the game with 40 points. That’s how good he is.

Of course, he could slip in this draft if only because there are so many flashier names ahead of him. It appears as though seven players (DeAndre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson, Marin Bagley, Michael Porter, Mo Bamba and Trae Young) likely will be drafted before him, which puts him in a category with guys like Mikal Bridges, Wendell Carter, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Miles Bridges, and Kevin Knox. Sexton probably will fall somewhere in that range, which means he would fall somewhere between the eighth and 13th pick.

He is competitive, charismatic and incredibly driven, so there’s a really good chance he does well in interviews and workouts and shows how elite he is. On the other hand, if he falls to the Sixers or Hornets or Clippers, some non-tanking team could end up with one of the biggest stars of the draft.

Miles Bridges

Coming into his sophomore season, Bridges was considered one of the top NBA prospects in college basketball, and while that is still true to a certain extent, his stock dropped a bit this past season while several players—including his teammate Jaren Jackson, Jr.—saw their own stocks rise.

Despite a minor loss in momentum, Bridges is one of the most NBA-ready players projected to be selected in the lottery. He’s still young enough to have a high ceiling, but he’s older and more physically mature than a lot of the other players vying to be drafted in his neck of the pecking order. He does nearly everything well, from ball handling to rebounding to shooting, and he can play both ends of the floor. His athleticism is his calling card, and that added to everything else he does well makes him a lock for some measure of NBA success.

He has his flaws, but he’s probably an All-Rookie First Teamer that will be selected after ten players that aren’t. That makes him a potential steal on the back-end of the lottery.

Jontay Porter

This time last year, Porter was a 17-year-old kid deciding whether or not to reclassify and play at the University of Missouri with his older brother Michael Porter, Jr. and under his father Michael Porter, Sr., who is a member of the coaching staff there. Obviously big bro is a high lottery pick, but the younger sibling was the 11th rated prospect in his high school class (the one with Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett) before reclassifying.

He has declared for this summer’s draft but hasn’t yet hired an agent. If he stays in, he’ll be the youngest player in the draft, and mid-first round is where teams start gambling on the uber-young players with mountains of potential rather than older, more proven college players.

In Porter’s case, that could mean a mid-to-late first-round team ends up with a tremendous bargain, even if it takes him a few years to grow into himself. He’s 6-foot-11 but is incredibly smart and well-rounded on offense. He shoots threes (he hit 110 of them as a freshman at Mizzou), but he’s know for his vision and passing more than anything. That’s a modern-day stretch-four or stretch-five if ever there was one, and getting him a year before his time could be a way for a team to steal a deal in the middle of the first round.

With the playoffs in full swing, most observers are focused in on the battles for conference supremacy. For many of the NBA’s other teams, though, the draft preparation process has begun.

In short order, we’ll see which teams end up snagging the next Donovan Mitchell.

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NBA DAILY

NBA Daily: Pelicans Might Be Better Off Without DeMarcus Cousins

Without DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis has excelled. It might not be a coincidence.

Moke Hamilton

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Forget Kawhi Leonard, the most interesting storyline of this NBA summer is going to be DeMarcus Cousins.

By now, if you’ve wondered whether the New Orleans Pelicans would be better off without the talented big man, you’re certainly not alone.

Just ask the Portland Trail Blazers.

On Saturday, the Pelicans pulled off an improbable sweep of the third-seeded Blazers in the first round of their best-of-seven playoff series. And while the immediate question that comes to mind is what to make of the Blazers, a similar question can be (and should be) asked of the Pelicans.

Without question, Cousins is one of the most gifted big men the NBA has sen in quite some time, but it shouldn’t be lost on any of us that Anthony Davis began to put forth superhuman efforts when Cousins was absent.

Ever heard the saying that too many cooks spoil the brew?

That may be pricisely the case here.

Sure, having good players at your disposal is a problem that most head coach in the league would sign up for, but it takes a special type of player to willingly cede touches and shots in the name of the best interests of the team.

We once had a similar conversation about Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, mind you. Those that recognized that Westbrook’s ball dominance and inefficiency took opportunities away from Durant to be the best version of himself once believed that the Oklahoma City Thunder would have been wise to pitch Westbrook to New Orleans back when Chris Paul was still manning their perimeter.

For what it’s worth, with Cousins in the lineup, he averaged 18 shots per game. In the 48 games he played this season, the Pelicans were 27-21. With him in the lineup, Davis shot the ball 17.6 times per game and scored 26.5 points per contest.

In the 34 games the Pelicans played without Cousins, Davis’ shot attempts increased fairly significantly. He got 21.9 attempts per contest and similarly increased his scoring output to 30.2 points per game.

Aside from that, Cousins’ presence in the middle made it a tad more difficult for Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday to have the pace and space they need to be most effective. With both Davis and Cousins, the Pelicans struggled to consistently string together wins. Without Cousins, they improbably became the first team in the Western Conference to advance to the second round.

That Cousins tore his achilles tendon and is just a few months from becoming an unrestricted free agent combine to make him the most interesting man in the NBA.

* * * * * *

With Chris Paul having decided that the grass was probably greener with James Harden and Mike D’Antoni than it was with Doc Rivers and Blake Griffin, the Clippers fulfilled his request to be trade to the Houston Rockets and re-signed Griffin to a five-year max. deal. In doing so, they both gave Griffin a stark reminder of what life in the NBA is like and provided a blueprint for teams to follow when they have a superstar player with whom they believe to have run their course.

The glass half full perspective might be that Davis has simply become a better, healthier, more effective player and that with Cousins, he would have another weapon that could help catapult the Pelicans ever further toward the top of the Western Conference. But the half-empty glass might yield another conclusion.

At the end of the day, although he still hasn’t appeared in a single playoff game, Cousins is regarded as a game-changing talent and is one of the few players available on the free agency market this summer that could justify an annual average salary of $30 million. In all likelihood, the Pelicans will re-sign him for a sum that approaches that, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best move.

In the end, the Clippers traded Griffin for Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, a first round pick and a second round pick. All things considered, it was a great haul for the Clippers when you consider that, just a few months prior, they could have lost Griffin as a free agent and gotten nothing in return.

Remarkably, after seeing Griffin dealt to Detroit, in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on a collision course with the Golden State Warriors. Their health a constant concern, the team will have to deal with the pesky perimeter defense of Holiday and Rondo and versatility and two-way effectiveness of Davis.

Nobody gave New Orleans a chance against Portland, and for sure, not many people are going to believe in their ability to score an upset over the defending champions. But believe it or not, New Orleans has become a different team. And they’ve done so without Cousins.

Indeed, believe it or not, the Clippers gave us a blueprint for what a team should do when it has a superstar who might not be the best long-term fit for their program.

And if the Pelicans were wise, they’d be smart to follow it.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Rookie Contributors Lifting Playoff Teams

This year’s impressive rookie class has translated their regular season performances to the playoff stage.

Dennis Chambers

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This past NBA season had the luxury of an incredibly entertaining and high-powered rookie class. Every other day it seemed like the feats of either Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen, Dennis Smith Jr., Kyle Kuzma, or Ben Simmons were dominating the discussion about how advanced the league’s crop of newbies appeared to be.

As a result, the 2017-18 Rookie of the Year race was a much more heated discussion than the year before.

With the impressive campaign these NBA freshmen put together, it should come as no surprise that on the on bright stage of playoff basketball, three of the aforementioned crop are helping lead their team’s in tight first-round battles.

Donovan Mitchell has been the leading scorer for the Utah Jazz through two games in their series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Jayson Tatum is stepping up for the Boston Celtics to help fill in the void of Kyrie Irving as they take on the Milwaukee Bucks. Ben Simmons is nearly averaging a triple-double through three games for the Philadelphia 76ers in their matchup with the Miami HEAT.

Lottery pick talents are expected in today’s NBA to come in and have some level of impact for their clubs. Usually, they play the role as a foundational building block that shows flashes of promise with an expected up-and-down first season. While these three playoff contributors haven’t been perfect all year long, under the pressure of the postseason, they’ve stepped up their play and appear to be avoiding the learning curve.

With that, let’s highlight further what Mitchell, Tatum, and Simmons have been able to do thus far in the postseason.

Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

All season long Mitchell threw the entire scoring load of Salt Lake City on his back for the Jazz and helped carry them to a 5-seed in the Western Conference when early season projections suggested they should head towards in the wake of Rudy Gobert’s injury.

However, the 13th pick out of Louisville had no intentions of missing out on the postseason. And from the looks of his production so far, who can blame him?

Through the first two games of the Jazz-Thunder series, Mitchell yet again placed his name in the same breath as Michael Jordan. Mitchell’s 55 points in his first two playoff games broke Jordan’s record of 53 for most points scored by a rookie guard in that scenario.

Mitchell’s 27 points in Game 1 and 28 points in Game 2 led the Jazz to even the series and steal home court advantage from the Thunder. While he hasn’t been responsible for setting up the team’s offense, tallying just five assists through those two games, Mitchell is fulfilling the role of Gordon Hayward as the team’s primary scorer.

In a series against a team that features the likes of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony, Utah needs Mitchell to go out there and get as many buckets as he possibly can.

So far, he appears to be welcoming the challenge.

Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

When it was announced that Kyrie Irving would be lost for the entire postseason due to injury, the Boston Celtics’ hold on the 2-seed seemed a lot less intimidating than it once was in the Eastern Conference.

However, three games into the first round series against the Bucks, the Celtics hold a 2-1 lead. A lot part of that has to do with the role Tatum has been able to step in and play right away with the Celtics down their main scorer and playmaker.

Throughout the first three games of the series, Tatum 12.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 2.3 steals. The third overall pick in the 2017 draft started the series off with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and three steals to help Boston start off the matchup with a 1-0 lead.

At just 20 years old, Tatum is matching his age number with his usage percentage thus far against Milwaukee. For some perspective, Jaylen Brown managed just 12 minutes a night for the Celtics last season as a rookie when the playoffs rolled around.

Granted, injuries and missing players are helping in Tatum being on the court as much as he has, but the rookie is earning his time out there on the court.

Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

The perceived frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons has taken control in his first ever playoff series.

For starters, Simmons is averaging nearly a triple double over his first three games against the HEAT; 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 9.7 assists.

On top of his triple double ways, Simmons has upped arguably his biggest weakness so far in the playoffs, shooting 75 percent from the charity stripe. During the regular season, Simmons struggled from the line, hitting only 56 percent of his attempts.

With the offensive prowess of Simmons obvious, it’s the job he’s doing on the defensive end of the court against an aggressive and tough Miami squad that’s elevating his play to the next level.

Simmons’ ability to switch all over the defensive end of the court has placed his responsibilities from Goran Dragic to Justise Winslow to James Johnson, and seemingly everywhere in between.

Now with Joel Embiid back in the fold for the Sixers and Simmons, the rookie point guard has his defensive partner on the floor to help ease the workload on that end. A two-way performance each night will be imperative for Simmons in helping lead the young Sixers past the experienced HEAT team.

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