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Pacers Jelling, Getting Healthy At the Right Time

The Indiana Pacers are jelling and getting healthy at the right time down the final stretch of the season.

Eric Saar

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Sitting in the seventh spot in the Eastern Conference, the Indiana Pacers are in an interesting situation. At 38-33 and with 11 games left on the schedule, there is a wide range of outcomes left on the table for the Pacers. Conceivably, they could fall out of the playoff picture, getting leapfrogged by the Chicago Bulls (two games back of Indiana) and the Detroit Pistons (half a game back of Indiana). But that’s the worst-case scenario for Indiana. They want to catch the pack ahead of them, including the Charlotte Hornets and Miami HEAT (three games up on Indiana) with the Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics a half-game ahead of those squads.

The Pacers are aware of where they stand.

“We have aspirations of pushing ahead of the seventh spot, where we’re at, but have to understand what’s in the rear-view mirror too,” head coach Frank Vogel said. “Right behind us is Detroit with an easy schedule, Chicago getting healthy… We’ve got to take care of our business.”

And they do need to take care of business. They have a relatively easy schedule the rest of the way. They only have one game left against the Western Conference (Rockets) and only three games against teams currently in the playoffs (Rockets, Raptors, Cavaliers) with seven games against sub-par East teams (Nets and Knicks twice along with the Bulls, Magic and Bucks). They should be able to capitalize against these worse clubs as they haven’t dropped a game to a lesser opponent since the Sacramento Kings back on January 23rd.

It’s still going to be a battle for the Pacers. They need to continue to win to keep Chicago and Detroit at bay and need to move up in the standings if they are going to have a chance at making the second round. Barring some crazy occurrence, the Cavaliers and Raptors are the one and two seeds in the Eastern Conference in some order (Cleveland currently leads Toronto by two games). Indiana doesn’t really stand a chance in a series against either team as the Pacers are 1-2 against the Raptors and 0-3 against the Cavaliers with one more game against each team this season. By the time the playoffs arrive, Indiana will probably only have one regular season win against either Cleveland or Toronto and would need to avoid them both if they want to advance.

Fortunately, as a whole, the Pacers are jelling and getting healthy at the perfect time.

C.J. Miles had missed a bunch of games recently but had 19 points off the bench Thursday against New Orleans. After being waived by Houston, Ty Lawson joined the Pacers but was only on the court for five minutes before injuring himself and missing five games. Now that he’s healthy, he just needs to get his rhythm back, then he’ll be a boost to the offensive flow for the second unit. Back on March 16th, Paul George also noted, “Even Rodney [Stuckey] is just coming back. He’s played a couple games, but rhythm-wise he’s still trying to find it.”

But the team is starting to get healthy at the right time.

“We’ve yet to really jell, I feel like, due to injuries,” George said in the same interview. “If we can stay healthy, I think, this last stretch of games, it’s perfect timing for us – if we can stay healthy and continue to improve going into the postseason.”

When asked about the potential of this team as they gain chemistry and momentum as the season ends, George said, “We’ve yet to find out. We can be pretty good. We’ve shown signs with guys in and out of jersey, we can beat some of the best teams in this league and we can compete with some of the best teams in this league. That’s the positive that we have to look forward to. We’ve yet to be full strength, that’s a lot of optimism to look forward to.”

Though they’ve lost to some playoff teams, they’ve also beaten others including the Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks, Oklahoma City Thunder and the Atlanta Hawks in the last two months along with other wins over lesser squads.

As Lawson gets assimilated into the offense, Indiana will benefit from his expertise in the open court and helping keep the second unit offense going. Once Stuckey gets his rhythm, he can help the offense as well. Miles is already showing what he can do as he gets his stroke back. This season, he is hitting 34.7 percent from deep. Of course the bigs like Ian Mahinmi, Jordan Hill and rookie Myles Turner help with their rebounding and rolling to the basket, with Mahinmi and Turner also adding rim protection. Against New Orleans, Turner had 24 points and a career-high 16 rebounds on his 20th birthday.

The captain of this ship is Paul George, who returned to be an All-Star starter for the East in February after missing nearly all of last season after breaking his leg during a Team USA scrimmage in the summer of 2014. George is an underrated superstar. Before the injury, he was one of only a handful of MVP candidates and now is 10th in the league in scoring at 23.5 points per game. He also has the 14th-highest plus/minus in the league. During their victory Thursday over the Anthony Davis-less New Orleans Pelicans, George left after getting kneed in the thigh, and didn’t return, but Vogel said after the game he was “moving around [and] he’ll be okay.” George was playing well before the injury, scoring 15 points in 20 minutes and going 6-9 from the field.

With a pretty easy schedule and a team starting to get healthy and gain chemistry on the court, the Pacers may have the winning formula to not just stay in the seventh seed, but even potentially get home-court in the first round. But nothing is guaranteed. They could still fall out of it completely – but momentum is on their side.

Based in Arizona, Eric Saar is an analyst for Basketball Insiders. He has covered the league for several years. He loves to converse about the NBA on Twitter, so follow him at @Eric_Saar. Eric graduated with honors from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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NBA

Rookie of The Year Watch – 12/13/17

Shane Rhodes checks back in on what’s become a relatively consistent Rookie of the Year race.

Shane Rhodes

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It has been a pretty ho-hum Rookie of The Year race so far in the 2017-18 season, with the top rookies staking their claims to this list at the beginning of the season and, for the most part, staying there. While there has been some movement up and down over the season and since our last installment, for the large part those who were on the list remain on the list.

Those players have earned their spots on this list with their play, however. This rookie class is one of the better, more exciting classes in recent memory. These players have just managed to remain at the top of the hill.

Let’s take a look at this week’s rankings.

stockup456. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls (Last Week: Unranked)

By virtue of John Collins missing time due to injury, Markkanen jumps back onto this list. However, that’s not to say Markkanen has played poorly this season. On the contrary, the former Arizona Wildcat and current Chicago Bull has played very well; it’s just hard to get recognized when you are on the worst team in the league.

Markkanen is averaging 14.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, third and second among rookies, respectively, while adding 1.3 assists per game as well. Athletic enough to get his own shot and big enough to be a mismatch when he’s on the floor, Markkanen is probably the best (healthy) offensively player the Bulls have. While his defensive game isn’t great, his defensive rating of 106.4 still ranks ninth amongst rookies.

Perhaps most importantly, Markkanen inspires hope for a brighter future in Bulls fans that have watched the team plummet from the 50-win team it was just three seasons ago.

stockup455. Dennis Smith, Jr., Dallas Mavericks (Last Week: 6)

His shooting percentages continue to underwhelm and the Dallas Mavericks still have one of the worst records in the NBA, but Dennis Smith Jr. has been one of the Mavs’ bright spots this season while averaging 14.4 points, four rebounds and four assists per game.

While he hasn’t been a great shooter overall, Smith Jr. has managed to be a big contributor on offense for the Mavs, with an offensive rating of 101.4, ninth among rookies, and an assist percentage of 25.2 percent, fourth among rookies. He is second on the team in scoring behind Harrison Barnes’ 18.4 points per game as well. He is still a work in progress, but Dallas has found a keeper in Smith Jr.

stockdown454. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers (Last Week: 3)

While the Lakers have stumbled over the past few weeks, Kuzma continues to play well when he is on the floor. He still paces the Los Angeles Lakers in scoring with an average of 16.1 points per game, third among rookies, while also dishing in 6.6 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game.

Kuzma is now second among rookies in double-doubles with eight on the season and three in his last five games. With a diverse offensive game, the power forward should continue to impress as the season goes along.

stockup453. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz (Last Week: 4)

Donovan Mitchell has been electrifying in recent weeks. Second in scoring among rookies, Mitchell is averaging 17.3 points per game to go along with three rebounds and 3.2 assists. As his confidence has grown, so to have his field goal percentage and three-point percentages. Mitchell has led the Utah Jazz in scoring in 11 of their 27 games, and is second on the Jazz in scoring too, behind Rodney Hood’s 17.7 points per game.

Mitchell became the second rookie ever, first since Blake Griffin in 2011, to score more than 40 points in a single game after going for 41 against the New Orleans Pelicans. Coupling that with his high-flying athleticism, Mitchell has been one of the best rookies to watch this season.

stocknochanges452. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics (Last Week: 2)

Jayson Tatum is on pace to be only the second rookie ever to lead the league in three-point percentage. In over 38 years, the only other player to do it was Anthony Morrow, who shot 46.7 percent on 2.7 attempts per game during the 2008-09 regular season. Tatum is currently shooting 50 percent on over three attempts per game.

The 19-year-old forward has also made a near seamless transition from the isolation-dominated basketball that he played at Duke, and has flourished as the third, fourth and sometimes even fifth option on offense, having scored in double digits in 25 of 29 games and averaging 13.8 points per game on the season. His defense continues to be better than advertised as well.

Tatum has been Mr. Clutch among rookies as well. In the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, Tatum has 14 field goals on 21 attempts, seventh in the entire NBA and tops among rookies. In fact, Tatum is the only other rookie in the top 15 in clutch field goals.

While Mitchell has been on fire recently, Tatum has performed well enough to this point where he is still in control of the number two spot among rookies. But the race for this second spot is close and will continue to be close throughout the season. The race for the number one spot on the other hand? Not so much.

stocknochanges451. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers (Last Week: 1)

It would make for a very boring race if Ben Simmons remained at the top of this list for the entire season. And it looks increasingly likely that that is going to be the case.

Try as they might, the other rookies just can’t hang with Simmons; none of them have the right combination of production and physicality to keep pace with the point-forward. Tatum has been better than advertised while Mitchell and Kuzma have exceeded all predraft expectations, but none of them can produce what Simmons has. With averages of 17.5 points, 8.9 rebounds and 7.7 assists per game, Simmons would be just the second rookie in NBA history, the first since Oscar Robertson during the 1960-61 season, to finish the season with that stat line.

So, unless they combine their powers to become a being with superhuman basketball skills, the other rookies don’t stand a chance against Simmons in the race for Rookie of the Year.

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Mock Drafts

NBA Daily: Another 2018 NBA Mock Draft – 12/13/17

Basketball Insiders’ publisher Steve Kyler drops his latest 2018 first-round NBA Mock Draft.

Steve Kyler

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A little less than a month ago we dropped the first 2018 NBA Mock Draft, which was met with a lot of disdain. Which is often a good thing because it sparks the discussion in NBA circles.

Since that Mock dropped, we’ve seen a bit more play out of some of the top prospects and many of the assumptions made almost a month ago are starting to settle into place a little more clearly.

The prevailing thought from NBA scouts and executives is that the possible 2018 NBA Draft class has a lot more questions than answers. The common view is that outside of the top 3 or 4 players there could be a very wide range on who the next 10-12 players will be; so expect for the second tier to evolve a lot over the course of the college basketball season.

A couple of things have started to surface among NBA scouts and executives, there seem to be three camps emerging around the top overall player – Duke’s Marvin Bagley III and international phenom Luka Dončić, seem to be the leading names mentioned most, with Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton making a strong push into the discussion. We can safely call this a three-horse race at this point.

The prevailing belief is that none of the three is far and away better than the other as a professional prospect, making it more likely than not that the top player selected will have a lot more to do with which team ultimately lands the pick, more so than the player themselves.

This class also seems to be brimming with promising athletic point guards, which unlike last year’s draft, could provide a lot of options for teams still trying to find that impact point guard.

There also looks to be 27 players in the projected top 100 that are 6’10 or bigger, eight of which project in the top 30. To put that into perspective, there were 11 players 6’10 or bigger drafted in the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft, and 17 total in the 60 2017 NBA Draft selections.

As we get into the 2018 calendar year, we’ll start to do deeper dives into the tiers of players and their possible NBA strengths and weakness.

So, with all of that in mind, here is the second 2018 first-round NBA Mock Draft.

Here are some of the pick swaps and how they landed where they are currently projected:

The Philadelphia 76ers are owed the LA Lakers 2018 Draft pick, unprotected, as a result of the 2012 Steve Nash trade with the Suns. The Suns traded that pick to the 76ers as part of the Michael Carter-Williams three-team trade with the Milwaukee in 2015.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are owed the Brooklyn Nets first-round pick as a result of the Kyrie Irving trade this past summer.

The Minnesota Timberwolves are owed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round pick as part of the Ricky Rubio trade this summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would not convey.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Miami HEAT’s first-round pick as part of the Goran Dragic trade in 2015, it is top-seven protected and would convey to Phoenix based on the current standings.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Minnesota Timberwolves first round pick as part of the Adreian Payne trade in 2015. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Milwaukee Bucks first-round pick as part of the Eric Bledsoe trade. The pick only conveys if the Bucks pick lands between the 11th and 16th pick, which based on the standings today would not convey.

The Brooklyn Nets are owed the Toronto Raptors first round pick as part of the DeMarre Carroll salary dump trade this past summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Houston Rockets first round pick as part of a three-team deal with the LA Clippers and Denver Nuggets involving Danilo Gallinari and taking back Jamal Crawford and Diamond Stone. The pick is top-three protected and based on the current standings would convey.

Check out the Basketball Insiders’ Top 100 NBA Draft Prospects http://www.basketballinsiders.com/top-100-nba-draft-prospects/

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Insiders Podcast

PODCAST: How to Keep LeBron in Cleveland

Basketball Insiders

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The media seems to think LeBron is as good as gone this offseason, but Joel Brigham and Spencer Davies discuss why that may not be the case. That, and conversation about whether NCAA or Euroleague success is more valuable in evaluating draft talent.

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