Prior to the start of the 2013-14 NBA season you couldn’t find too many analysts who didn’t pick the Indiana Pacers to come out of the Eastern Conference this season, and not a single one would have told you the Pacers would fall anywhere short of the conference finals. They walked of the court at the end of last year’s conference finals looking like a team that was ready to take the next step. They were deep, confident, and their leader – Paul George – looked poised to take the NBA by storm.
They started the season that way, too, staking their claim on the East’s top spot and looking like a lethal threat to the Miami HEAT’s bid to win three straight championships behind the play of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh.
And then the trade deadline came.
Concerned about Danny Granger’s knee and how well it would hold up during a long postseason run, Pacers president Larry Bird pulled the trigger on a deal that landed Evan Turner as part of a package deal that sent Granger to the Philadelphia 76ers. The move made a great deal of sense on the surface, as Turner was leading the Sixers in scoring and seemed to be a great fit for a team looking for a second unit impact scorer.
What Bird could not have anticipated was the emotional wasteland he created when he traded Granger without so much as a powwow with the team that had come to think of him as a best friend, big brother and confidante. Bird could never have guessed that the subtraction of Granger, whose contributions on the court had been negligible, would transform his team from a tough, smart, hungry contender into a team that could barely figure out which sport they were supposed to be playing.
Since the deadline Roy Hibbert, once an All-Star, has done a solid impersonation of Hasheem Thabeet, even calling out his teammates as “selfish” as he himself wandered aimlessly around the court instead of dominating the paint. George looked decidedly less MVP-like, playing so poorly that some even questioned if last season was a flash in the pan for the Pacers’ new franchise player. Meanwhile, Turner was nothing short of terrible, struggling mightily to fit into the Pacers’ winning culture and even seeming to bring it down to his level.
Head coach Frank Vogel tried valiantly to restore his team’s focus and swagger, chastising them or airing their issues publicly, giving them time off to try and shake their funk, and by the season’s last two games there were signs that perhaps the Pacers would find themselves in time for the postseason.
If Game 1 is any indication, however, nothing has been fixed in Indiana. It was the underdog and visiting Atlanta Hawks who threw the first punch, using a 16-2 run to take charge in the first quarter and even managing to dominate the glass despite glaring size disadvantages. The Pacers battled back to tie the game at halftime, but the Hawks blew them out as the third quarter got underway. By the time the fourth quarter came along, the Pacers were spending more energy yelling and glaring at each other to even notice that Atlanta was putting the finishing touches on a brilliant win.
The worst part of Indiana’s demise, if they are finished, is the wide-ranging consequences for the Eastern Conference. The Pacers, the pre-deadline Pacers, were the only team that had any prayer of challenging Miami. If the Pacers allow their self-imposed stupor to cause a first round elimination, the HEAT won’t even have to play well to advance to the NBA Finals. It will render the Eastern Conference Finals meaningless, and that’s simply not a good thing for the NBA, which already suffers from an extreme lack of competitiveness in the East.
Then again, maybe there is still hope for Indiana. Perhaps Bird could order up a FatHead of Granger, or perhaps have a cardboard cut-out of him made up to position near the Pacers’ bench. Apparently Granger’s mere presence was enough to make the Pacers contenders. Somebody had better tell Dumbo he never really needed the feather before he crashes and burns, rendering the Eastern Conference playoffs irrelevant in the crash.
The Key To Houston’s First Round
Make no mistake about it, making the playoffs is not nearly enough for the Houston Rockets this season. James Harden was the impetus for Houston’s return to postseason play least season, but the addition of Dwight Howard in free agency has fans and players alike thinking nothing short of contention.
It might be a stretch to call the Rockets contenders, but there is a clear road map for them to get out of the first round. That map leads right through the middle of the paint, where #12 waits to dominate a Portland Trail Blazers team that is simply not equipped to handle Dwight Howard down low.
“I thought we had two good days of practice,” Howard said on Saturday morning. “We came in and worked hard. We got our game plan down so we’re ready for tomorrow. This is what we’ve been waiting on all year. All year we’ve been prepping, getting ready for the playoffs.”
It’s good that Howard feels that way, because he will absolutely be the key to Houston’s offensive attack.
Howard’s first big game of the season came against the Blazers. He scored 29 points and grabbed 13 rebounds, even hit 9-fo-12 from the free throw line in a 15-point Houston win. Just over a month later, Howard got his second crack at the Blazers, and Portland had even more trouble containing him. Howard dropped in 32 points, grabbed 17 rebounds and blocked three shots in a seven-point loss at the Rose Garden. Howard rounded out the season series with a 24 and 12 night back in Houston in January, giving the Rockets a 13-point victory and a 2-1 win in the season series.
“We’ve been preparing as a staff for Portland for 10 days and actually just really grinding it out for the last five or six days,” head coach Kevin McHale said on Saturday. “Today was a really good day. Looking forward to play tomorrow.”
It should be fairly simple. Houston’s All-Star center should have a steady stream of touches in the post, where he should be able to give Houston more than enough of an advantage to get out of the first round relatively unscathed.
PODCAST: Breaking Down The Western Conference Playoff Race
Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte break down the Western Conference playoff race and check in on the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers.
NBA Daily: The Cleveland Cavaliers Need Tyronn Lue
The Cleveland Cavaliers have faced injury adversity and a roster shakeup, and now face uncertainty regarding coach Tyronn Lue’s health.
The most enduring image of Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue came moments after his team sealed the 2016 NBA Finals with a third consecutive win after trailing the Golden State Warriors 3-1. As the team celebrated its historic comeback and readied to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy, one camera focused on Lue, who sat on the bench with his face buried in his hands.
— Buddy Grizzard (@BuddyGrizzard) June 20, 2016
The image tells a thousand words about the pressure Lue was under as Cleveland teetered on the brink of elimination for three games. Rather than sharing the euphoria of his players, it seemed that Lue’s emotions centered around the massive weight that had been lifted from his shoulders. Almost two years later, it appears that burden has caught back up with Lue, whose leave of absence for health reasons complicates things for Cleveland with the playoffs just around the corner.
“It’s like losing one of your best players,” said Cavaliers forward LeBron James after Cleveland’s 124-117 win at home over the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday.
Kevin Love returned from a six-week injury absence to post 18 points, seven rebounds and four assists against the Bucks. James likened Lue’s absence to the burden of trying to replace Love’s output while he was unavailable.
“We’ve got to have guys step up, just like guys trying to step up in Kev’s absence,” said James. “We have to do the same as a collective group as long as Ty needs to get himself back healthy.”
There’s optimism that Lue could return before the playoffs, but there’s a great deal of uncertainty given the seriousness of his symptoms, which reportedly included coughing up blood. Lead assistant Larry Drew, a former head coach with the Bucks and Hawks, will handle head coaching responsibilities until Lue is ready to return.
Kyle Korver played under Drew in Atlanta and said he’s confident in his ability to fill in.
“We’d love to have Ty here and healthy,” said Korver after the Bucks win. “Coach Drew has done this for a long time as well. He coached me for a full year in Atlanta. We know he’s fully capable.”
Korver also doubted Drew would introduce any major stylistic changes.
“I think LD’s been Ty’s top assistant for a reason,” said Korver. “They really think a lot alike. They coach very similarly. We miss Ty, but I think the style of what we do is going to be very similar.”
While style and approach should remain unchanged, what could an extended absence for Lue mean for the Cavaliers? Lue cemented his legacy as a leader by keeping the Cavaliers together as they fought back from a 3-1 deficit to the Warriors, but Drew hasn’t had that kind of success as a head coach.
In 2012, the Hawks had a real opportunity to reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in Atlanta history. The Hawks faced an aging Boston Celtics squad in the first round. The eighth-seed Philadelphia 76ers awaited in the second round after defeating the top-seeded Chicago Bulls.
After splitting the first two games in Atlanta, the Hawks faced a pivotal Game 3 in Boston with the opportunity to retake home court advantage. Atlanta Journal-Constitution beat writer Michael Cunningham used Synergy Sports to break down every offensive possession for Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo. His conclusion? For three quarters, Rondo did not score a single basket while guarded by Hawks combo guard Kirk Hinrich.
The Hawks traded a package that included a former and a future first-round pick to obtain Hinrich from the Wizards in 2011. But in Game 3, Hinrich failed to score a point despite his effective defense. Apparently feeling the need for an offensive spark, Drew left Hinrich on the bench in the fourth quarter and turned to career journeyman Jannero Pargo.
With Hinrich out of the game, Rondo’s offense came to life as he slashed to the basket at will. Boston opened the fourth with a 13-7 run before Pargo went to the bench and Atlanta closed on a 15-7 run to force overtime. The NBA did not publish net rating data at the time, but we can now see via historical data that the Hawks were outscored by nearly 52 points per 100 possessions in Pargo’s minutes in Game 3. Rather than entrust Atlanta’s season and his own legacy to a player the Hawks traded two first-round picks to obtain, Drew went with Pargo, a career end-of-bench player.
What does this mean for the Cavaliers? It means the team needs to get Lue back. Drew and Lue are both former NBA players who have received mixed reviews as head coaches. But when his legacy was on the line, Lue pushed the right buttons.
For Drew’s part, in his first postgame press conference since Lue’s absence was announced, he remained publicly deferential.
“Coach Lue is the one who makes that decision,” said Drew when asked about lineup combinations. “That’s not my call. We look at a lot of different combinations — whether guys are starting or whether they are coming off the bench — and we assess everything.”
On the critical question of how lineups will be fine-tuned as the Cavaliers prepare for the playoffs, Drew once again emphasized Lue’s active role even as he steps away from the bench.
“I’ll talk to Ty,” said Drew. “He’s got the final say-so. Whatever he wants, then that’s what we’re going to go with. But if he tells me to make a decision, then I’ll have to make the decision.”
With Lue suffering acute symptoms, there’s no way of knowing when he will be ready to step back into the pressure cooker of a leading role for a team with championship aspirations. But the Cavaliers need him and need his steadying influence and instincts. Cleveland is a team that has battled through injuries and a major roster overhaul at the trade deadline. It also faces the pressure of James’ impending free agency decision this summer.
Now, with the playoffs just around the corner, the Cavaliers must endure uncertainty about Lue’s ability to return and lead the team. James has emphasized that Lue’s health overshadows any basketball concerns, but gave his most terse remark when asked about learning that Lue would step away on the same day Cleveland finally got Love back.
“If it’s not one thing, it’s another,” said James. “That was my reaction.”
A Breakout Season for Joe Harris
Brooklyn Nets swingman Joe Harris talks to Basketball Insiders about his second chance with the Nets.
The NBA is all about second chances. Sometimes players need a change of scenery, or a coach who believes in them, or just something different to reach their full potential. They may be cast aside by several teams, but eventually, they often find that right situation that allows them to flourish.
Such was the case for Joe Harris. Originally drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers with the 33rd overall pick in the 2014 draft, Harris rarely saw the court during his time in Cleveland. He averaged about 6.4 minutes per game over the course of about one and a half seasons with the Cavaliers.
During the 2015-16 season, his second in Cleveland, he underwent season-ending foot surgery. Almost immediately after, the Cavaliers traded him to the Orlando Magic in an attempt to cut payroll due to luxury tax penalties. He would never suit up for the Magic as they cut him as soon as they traded for him.
After using the rest of that season to recover from surgery, he would sign with the Brooklyn Nets in the summer of 2016. He had a very strong first season in Brooklyn, but this season he’s truly broken out.
“I think a lot of it has to do with just the right situation in terms of circumstances. It’s a young team where you don’t really have anybody on the team that’s going out and getting 20 a night,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a collective effort most nights and it can be any given person depending on the situation. It’s one of those things where we’re real unselfish with the ball. A lot of guys get a lot of good looks, so your production is bound to go up just because of the system now that we’re playing.”
Known primarily as a sharpshooter in college at the University of Virginia as well as his first stop in Cleveland, Harris has started developing more of an all-around game. He’s improved his ability to put the ball on the floor and make plays as well as crashing the glass and playing strong defense.
In a relatively forgettable season record-wise for the Nets, Harris has been one of their bright spots. He’s putting up 10.1 points per game on 47.3 percent shooting from the field while playing 25.4 minutes per game. He’s up to 40.3 percent from the three-point line and he’s pulling down 3.3 rebounds. All of those numbers are career-highs.
“My role, I think, is very similar to the way I would be anywhere that I was playing. I’m a shooter, I help space the floor for guys to facilitate,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “I’m opportunistic offensively with drives and such. I’m out there to try and space the floor, knock down shots, and then play tough defensively and make sure I’m doing my part in getting defensive rebounds and that sort of stuff.”
Although Harris didn’t play much in Cleveland, he did show glimpses and flashes of the player he has blossomed into in Brooklyn. He saw action in 51 games his rookie year while knocking down 36.9 percent of his three-point attempts.
He also saw action in six playoff games during the Cavaliers’ run to the 2015 Finals. But more importantly, it was the off the court things that Harris kept with him after leaving Cleveland. The valuable guidance passed down to him from the Cavaliers veteran guys. It’s all helped mold him into the indispensable contributor he’s become for the Nets.
“Even though I wasn’t necessarily playing as much, the experience was invaluable just in terms of learning how to be a professional,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “The approach, the preparation, that sort of stuff. That’s why I learned a lot while I was there. All those good players that have had great, great, and long careers and just being able to kind of individually pick their brains and learn from them.”
When Harris came to Brooklyn two years ago, he initially signed a two-year deal with a team option after the first year. When he turned in a promising 2016-17 season, it was a no-brainer for the Nets to pick up his option. Set to make about $1.5 million this season, Harris’ contract is a steal.
However, he’s headed for unrestricted free agency this upcoming summer. Although he dealt with being a free agent before when he first signed with the Nets, it’s a different situation now. He’s likely going to be one of the most coveted wings on the market. While there’s still a bit more of the regular season left, and free agency still several months away, it’s something Harris has already thought about. If all goes well, Brooklyn is a place he can see himself staying long-term.
“Yeah, it’s one of those things that I’ll worry about that sort of decision when the time comes. But I have really enjoyed my time in Brooklyn,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a great organization with a lot of good people, and they try and do stuff the right way. I enjoy being a part of that and trying to kind of rebuild and set a good foundation for where the future of the Brooklyn Nets is.”