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Atlanta Hawks 2017-18 Season Preview

The Atlanta Hawks were once a promising up and coming team, has their window closed? We take a look at the Hawks in this season preview.

Basketball Insiders

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After 10 consecutive seasons of reaching the playoffs, the Atlanta Hawks have hit the reset button and are at the beginning stages of what promises to be a long-term rebuilding project. In recent years the Hawks have been powered by All-Star performers Al Horford, Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap. All three players are now in more promising situations. Teague is the presumed floor general on a revamped Minnesota Timberwolves roster, the Boston Celtics are relying on Horford to help lead them into title contention and Millsap joins an emerging Denver Nuggets franchise filled with promising young talent. The Hawks usher in a new era with a new general manager, Travis Schlenk, at the helm and expecting more production than ever from starting point guard Dennis Schroder. The Hawks have put together a scrappy bunch but will enter the 2017-18 campaign with major losses from last season and even less experience. Expect the team to battle opponents tough each and every night, but the franchise has work to do before returning to the land of the playoffs.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

From a playoff team to potentially the league’s basement, the Atlanta Hawks enter this season in a complete rebuild mode.

Following the departure of Paul Millsap this summer, the Hawks officially lost the final piece of the Millsap-Al Horford-Jeff Teague-DeMarre Carroll-Kyle Korver squad that won 60 games in 2014-15. After spending the last few seasons battling for playoff position, Atlanta will be in the uncomfortable position of battling for draft lottery position instead.

With no real discernible star talent currently on the roster, it would probably behoove the Hawks to set their sights on the upcoming draft where the consensus around the league is the top half of the lottery will be plenty talented. Of course, monitoring the development of rookie John Collins and continuing to bring along Dennis Schroder is still plenty important for Atlanta. Nevertheless, this year will certainly be far from a playoff year for the Hawks.

5th place — Southeast Division

– Dennis Chambers

Sadly, the Hawks seemed to have embraced the fact that being in the middle is the very worst place to be in the NBA. After an impressive string of playoff appearances, the Hawks seem more likely set on a run through the lottery than another run through the post-season meat grinder. With new leadership in place, the Hawks look like a team with a tough season ahead of them. It’s possible their young guys blossom under great coaching, but it looks like likely that this season is going to be a tough one.

5th place — Southeast Division

— Steve Kyler

The Atlanta Hawks made the decision to restructure the front office rebuild its roster this offseason. Not returning from last season’s squad includes players like Paul Millsap, Dwight Howard, Thabo Sefolosha, Tim Hardaway Jr., Jose Calderon and Ryan Kelly. The Hawks are now surely focused primarily on developing its young players like Taurean Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry while maintaining financial flexibility and making opportunistic deals to acquire more future assets. Mike Budenholzer, who gave up his role as the president of basketball operations this offseason, resisted undergoing a full rebuild for arguably too long and now will have to embrace a down season for the first time as the head coach of the Hawks. Budenholzer is one of the better coaches in the league, but now we’ll get the chance to see how he responds and performs in a rebuilding environment. How he does this upcoming season could have a big impact on how quickly things turn around in Atlanta.

4th Place — Southeast Division

— Jesse Blancarte

By letting Paul Millsap walk in free agency and trading away Dwight Howard, the Hawks have loudly announced their intentions for the 2017-18 season. With only a few NBA starter-level players left on the roster in Dennis Schroder, Kent Bazemore and perhaps a couple others, Atlanta should be tank city this year in the East. The primary goals this year will be development of the young talent on the roster: Taurean Prince, Tyler Dorsey, John Collins and DeAndre’ Bembry. Figuring out which of these guys fit with the Schroder-Bazemore core is priority one in a season where actual wins should be very tough to come by.

5th Place — Southeast Division

— Ben Dowsett

All good things must come to an end, and the playoff streak of the Atlanta Hawks is no exception. Believe it or not, the Hawks have qualified for the playoffs for 10 consecutive seasons, second only to the San Antonio Spurs (they’ve done it for an amazing 20 years in a row).

Sadly, this season will probably mark the end of the line.

Sure, Mike Budenholzer is a great coach. He led the club to 60 wins just a few shorts years ago and won the NBA’s Coach of the Year Award after they began the 2014-15 season with minuscule expectations, but three of the team’s top six scorers from last season have moved on, including the leading scorer and All-Star in Paul Millsap.

The Hawks are somewhat reminiscent of the Indiana Pacers. Players like Dennis Schroder, Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince are great pieces to complement three more gifted players, but a team built around secondary contributors probably isn’t good enough to compete for anything meaningful, not even in the Eastern Conference.

In the end, I do expect the Hawks to overachieve, but for this bunch, that probably means winning somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 games, and I don’t think that’ll be enough to escape the cellar of the Southeast Division. It almost certainly won’t be enough to qualify for the playoffs.

5th place — Southeast Division

— Moke Hamilton

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Dennis Schroder

As talented as Schroder is, most would agree that he would be best suited to be a second or third option on a playoff bound team. However, for the 2017-18 Hawks, the team’s offense will begin and end with him. The fifth-year guard averaged 17.9 points, 3.1 rebounds and 6.3 assists last season on 45 percent shooting from the floor, showing tremendous growth while being entrusted with a larger role.

There’s a lot to like about Schroder. The guard has proved to be extremely durable since entering the league, missing only missed 10 games over the past three seasons. Schroder has also increased his scoring, rebounding and assist production in every campaign since his rookie season. He is primed to increase productivity in all of these categories this season without the presence of Millsap and former All-Star center Dwight Howard in the fold.

Top Defensive Player: Taurean Prince

The Hawks had four players ranked in the top 40 of ESPN’s real plus-minus defensive ratings last season. Three of the four – Howard, Millsap and Thabo Sefolosha – are now playing elsewhere. The fourth, Taurean Prince, remains on the roster and should make an even bigger leap next season.

Prince has the size and athleticism to guard at least three positions effectively. Playing acceptable defense at the NBA level is one of the toughest aspects of the pro game for younger players to grasp and Prince made an immediate impact as a rookie – despite limited playing time early on.

The Hawks will likely expect Prince to guard opposing teams’ top perimeter player next season. Prince finished fifth in the league among small forwards in the plus-minus rankings ahead of more prominent players such as LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard. Obviously, Prince doesn’t have the offensive responsibilities the aforementioned three players have but he is positioned strongly to make improvements with a year under his belt.

Top Playmaker: Dennis Schroder

Schroder is unquestionably the Hawks’ floor general and top playmaker as the roster is currently constructed. While there are valid concerns about Schroder’s penchant for erratic ball control and turnovers (3.3 per game in 2017), the fifth-year guard managed to average 7.2 assists per game on a per 36 minute basis last season.

Schroder will be asked to score more this season and will enter the campaign without proven scorers such as Howard, Millsap and Tim Hardaway Jr. as options for the assist, but the Hawks’ offense is predicated on spacing and ball movement while exploiting defensive holes. Schroder finished second in the league in drives into the lane last season and is one of the elite penetrators in the game today. The ability to get into the paint and create havoc will continue to open up passing windows and create easy scoring opportunities for teammates. With the Hawks lacking many players on this roster that can create their own offense off the bounce, Schroder will be under even more pressure to deliver and keep the offense flowing.

Top Clutch Player: Kent Bazemore

For clarity, we’re defining clutch as the game point differential being five points or less with five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter — whether the team is ahead or behind.

The Hawks had multiple players perform above average in the clutch last season. Departed shooting guard Hardaway Jr. was one of the league’s best two guards in late game clutch situations in 2017 and most of the Hawks’ offense in these situations flowed through Millsap. Both are gone.

Logically, we could easily assign this to Schroder, but the fifth-year guard will likely be the focal point of opposing defenses this season and double-teamed at every opportunity. The Hawks will need someone else to step up and hit late game shots.

Incoming shooting guard Marco Belinelli sank 50 percent of his three-point shots in clutch situations last season, so he’s a sneaky option in the Hawks’ offense which is based on spacing. However, Kent Bazemore may be the man for the job. To be clear, Bazemore was abysmal last season in these situations. Bazemore shot just 38 percent from the field and 31 percent from three-point range last season in similar situations. To make matters worse, Bazemore only connected on 46 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe.

But let’s assume the 2016-17 season was an outlier. In 2015-16, Bazemore shot 46 percent from the floor and 46 percent from three-point range while connecting on 92 percent of his attempts from the free throw line.

Will the real Bazemore please stand up? We believe a return to late game form, for Bazemore, is on the horizon.

The Unheralded Player: Ersan Ilyasova

Ilyasova won’t win any popularity contests, but he has proven to be a very consistent performer throughout his career. Think about this: Ilyasova has averaged at least 10 points per game in seven out of nine pro seasons, including the past six years despite never averaging more than 28 minutes in any campaign.

For his career, Ilyasova has averaged 16.2 points per 36 minutes on the floor. The biggest drawback to Ilyasova is his defense, which is a liability. But to end things on a positive, Ilyasova has shot at least 36 percent from three-point range in five of the past six seasons, a trend that should continue in 2018.

Best New Addition: Dewayne Dedmon

Rookie John Collins received plenty of consideration here (and we’ll get to him in a minute), but Dedmon also has a decent amount of upside. Dedmon averaged 5.1 points and 6.5 rebounds last season in San Antonio. Those numbers look pedestrian until you consider he only received 18 minutes of action per night. On a per-36-minute basis, his numbers jump to double-double territory over the past two seasons with the Spurs and Orlando Magic (sample size: 134 games).

Dedmon has played behind Nikola Vucevic and Pau Gasol the past two seasons so there’s a legitimate reason why the minutes have been scarce. The Hawks signed Dedmon to a two-year $12.3 million deal this summer with a player option for the 2018-19 campaign. With Howard traded to the Charlotte Hornets, Dedmon should enter training camp with the starting center position his to lose.

— Lang Greene

WHO WE LIKE

1. Travis Schlenk

The Hawks announced the hiring of Schlenk as their new general manager and head of basketball operations in May. Schlenk spent the past 12 seasons in the Golden State Warriors’ front office, with the last five serving as assistant general manager. This means Schlenk was a valuable part of the Warriors brain trust that constructed one of the best rosters in the game today.

That’s intriguing for sure, but the reason Schlenk makes this list has been his ability from day one to make the tough call. The first decision was to completely revamp the team’s roster. Then the club drafted rookie John Collins. In free agency, the team could have opted to give Millsap, a four-time All-Star, a maximum contract extension worth over $100 million. Schlenk didn’t. The Hawks could have matched the New York Knicks four-year $71 million deal for Hardaway Jr., a restricted free agent. Schlenk allowed him to walk. The franchise could have attempted another year with Howard manning the interior, but Schlenk dealt the former Defensive Player of the Year to Charlotte.

This will be a long rebuilding process, but Schlenk appears to have a clear direction in mind. Keep cap space flexibility, evaluate young talent and protect draft picks.

2. John Collins

The former Wake Forest University product was selected by the Hawks with the No. 19 overall pick in the 2017 draft. Collins quickly turned heads in Las Vegas this summer and was named to the NBA Summer League first-team after averaging 15.4 points and 9.2 rebounds on 59 percent shooting from the field.

Collins was Schlenk’s first draft pick at the helm of the franchise and the big man produced more than a few flashes of explosiveness. Collins’ defense and passing are two question marks heading into his rookie season, but those two traits plague many a young player entering the association.

3. Mike Budenholzer

Budenholzer has compiled a 189-139 (.576) record in four seasons pacing the sidelines in Atlanta. All four of those campaigns resulted in a trip to the postseason. The 2017-18 season will undoubtedly be Budenholzer’s stiffest test as a head coach. The Hawks have a proven system but no longer feature All-Star level talent at key positions. It’s hard to imagine a Budenholzer team not playing with grit and determination, so effort won’t be the problem.

One area where Budenholzer has excelled since joining the franchise is talent development. DeMarre Carroll, Kyle Korver, Bazemore, Hardaway Jr., Millsap and Schroder all took their games to the next level under Budenholzer. Who will be the next player that benefits from Budenholzer?

— Lang Greene

SALARY CAP 101

The Hawks are still under the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap, with up to $5.0 million to spend. Quinn Cook’s salary guarantee will increase from $100,000 to $500,000 if he’s still on the roster by opening night. Luke Babbitt has an even healthier promise with $987,080 of his $1.5 million locked in. Atlanta also has its $4.3 million Room Exception still available.

The team needs to decide on 2018-19 options for Taurean Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry before November. Looking ahead to next summer, the Hawks can get under the cap by roughly $36 million – assuming both Dewayne Dedmon and Mike Muscala opt out of their respective options of $6.3 million and $5.0 million. Currently, Kent Bazemore is Atlanta’s highest-paid player at $16.9 million for the coming season.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The Hawks are entering into uncharted territory they haven’t experienced in over a decade. On most nights the team will enter an arena as an underdog. One of the strengths this unit has is their athleticism and youth. While youth laden teams don’t typically rack up wins, the Hawks current situation will provide the organization with an opportunity to evaluate the future. Collins, Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry could be potential building blocks. Prince could develop into a fine two-way player, while Collins should be in the nightly rotation playing bigger minutes near the All-Star break (if not sooner). Throw in Schroder, who hasn’t reached his ceiling, and Dedmon with an opportunity to finally earn big minutes, the Hawks have a lot of young and motivated guys with something to prove.

— Lang Greene

WEAKNESSES

The team’s frontcourt depth, specifically at power forward and center, is extremely thin. The collection of Ilyasova, Mike Muscala, Collins, Dedmon and Miles Plumlee have never been entrusted to play major minutes at any time in their respective pro careers. Outside of Ilyasova, none of these guys have put together a season averaging at least 10 points per game. That’s just looking at scoring. None of these players have averaged more than seven rebounds in any of the past three seasons. Of course this trickles down to rim protection, where the team will struggle on a nightly basis. For all of Howard’s issues (and steady decline), he always demanded some respect in the paint from opposing teams. This year’s unit will have to earn theirs.

— Lang Greene

THE BURNING QUESTION

How will Dennis Schroder handle the increased workload, scrutiny and pressure?

Schroder successfully transitioned from top reserve to full-time starter last season in a pretty seamless manner. But now the fifth-year guard will be the team’s focal point and unquestionable best player. Previous security blankets such as Horford, Millsap and Teague are gone. This is Schroder’s show, Schroder’s time to shine. But how will he handle the increased pressure? Many a man has been humbled by moving from the co-pilot to the pilot’s seat. All eyes will be on Schroder until Schlenk and the front office bring in the cavalry.

— Lang Greene

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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.

Bobby Krivitsky

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Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.

In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.

At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.

The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.

There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots. 

A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks. 

Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.

More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter. 

But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic? 

It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.

Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.

Drew Maresca

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D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.

Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.

Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.

The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.

COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.

The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.

Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).

Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?

Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.

Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.

Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.

On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.

Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).

But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.

At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.

To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.

So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

Matt John

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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