The Indiana Pacers have boasted tremendous continuity over the past few years, going from inevitable rebuild to genuine darkhorse. That continuity will be put to the test again this season following a smorgasbord of moves over the summer.
After losing four of their five starters from last season, Indiana will have plenty of new faces that will need time to gel. Even with All-Star guard Victor Oladipo returns from his torn quad, the team chemistry will be rigorously challenged. On paper, the fit looks fantastic but until we see it on the court, no one can be sure how it will all work out.
In terms of returning players, the Pacers rank 28th in both minutes played and points scored from last season. Indiana’s first ten games are very forgiving, so the schedule Gods may help them get off to a good start this season. That will be key for them if they expect to secure one of the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference.
With that said, let’s dive into another edition of Basketball Insiders’ season previews — this time, the focus lies on the Indiana Pacers.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
Indiana is coming off an incredibly impressive 2018-19. But instead of resting on their laurels, the Pacers went in for a face-lift of sorts – and allowed Darren Collison, Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young and Cory Joseph to leave as free agents. But the departing players were replaced by Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. McConnell, Jeremy Lamb and T.J. Warren. A returning Victor Oladipo should add another level to the Pacers and their backcourt will be among the most versatile and dangerous in the NBA. Rookie Goga Bitadze should add something to the team with an incredibly efficient offensive game and great rim-protecting instincts. The Pacers have a high ceiling this year – but they will be thoroughly tested by the likes of the 76ers and Bucks in the Eastern Conference.
2nd Place – Central Division
The Pacers, despite losing Victor Oladipo, still had a great year. They finished just shy of 50 wins as the rest of the team came together and showed a lot of fight. This summer they made some very quality free agent signings with Jeremy Lamb, Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. McConnell and Justin Holiday, also adding a good trade for T.J. Warren. Each of these players should add to the Pacers depth, but they already must find players that can replicate the contributions of Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young and Darren Collison.
With a healthy Oladipo though, there’s no reason why this team should take a step backward as he was well on his way to becoming a legit star. With him, and the surrounding supporting cast, they’re a playoff team in the Eastern Conference. The next step for them is not only reaching the postseason but perhaps securing a top-four seed and possibly even winning a series — it could happen this season.
2nd Place – Central Division
– David Yapkowitz
If there’s anything we know about the Pacers, it’s that when they’re down, they’re never out. You can throw a wrench into their plans and they just come out with a new blueprint. Last season, it was Victor Oladipo’s devastating injury. This time, Indiana lost Bojan Bogdanovic and Thaddeus Young to free agency; two valuable pieces on the court and in the locker room. Kevin Pritchard acted on this quickly with the additions of Malcolm Brogdon, Jeremy Lamb and T.J. Warren. The team still has dynamic, versatile big men in Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, who, according to Nate McMillan, will be playing together. If this altered version of the squad works and Oladipo comes back as the Vic everybody knows, this is going to be a dangerous group to reckon with.
2nd Place – Central Division
– Spencer Davies
The Indiana Pacers might be the best team no one is giving credit to. If Victor Oladipo comes back after the All-Star break, the Pacers could be set up to secure home-court advantage in the first round. Indiana had a solid offseason by netting Malcolm Brogdon in a sign and trade, plus they even hung on to their young guys too. So if Oladipo is back to his All-Star form, the Pacers could be really good. if Oladipo needs more time, then maybe the Pacers are simply a playoff team — but, overall, the franchise is in a fantastic position going forward.
2nd Place – Central Division
– Steve Kyler
I think that at some point this season the Milwaukee Bucks are going to second-guess not doing everything in their power to retain the services of Malcolm Brogdon. Brogdon will bring a lot of value to the Indiana Pacers on both ends of the court and could form a dynamic duo with Victor Oladipo. Indiana also made other savvy moves, adding quality players like T.J. Warren, Jeremy Lamb, T.J. McConnell and Justin Holiday. Between Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner and now Goga Bitadze, the Pacers have a lot of depth at the center position as well and may need to make a decision on what to do between Sabonis and Turner. Despite making some nice moves this offseason, I don’t believe Indiana has the talent or overall to match the firepower of the league’s top-tier contenders. I think Indiana can make a strong push this season and exceed expectations but I am not convinced that they have quite enough to make it to the Finals.
2nd Place – Central Division
– Jesse Blancarte
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Pacers used their cap room to bring in players like Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren and Jeremy Lamb. Having used their room exception on Justin Holiday, the team can only add players via minimum contracts or trade. Indiana is well below the NBA’s $132.6 million luxury tax line with 15 guaranteed players, along with three camp invites (C.J. Wilcox, JaKeenan Gant and Amida Brimah) who are unlikely to make the regular-season roster.
Before November, the Pacers need to pick up team options on T.J. Leaf and Aaron Holiday. Domantas Sabonis is eligible for a contract extension before the start of the season. The Pacers are also heavily invested for the 2020-21 season, projected to be over the $116 million salary cap.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Victor Oladipo
Since acquiring him in the high-profile trade for Paul George, Victor Oladipo has been the engine that runs this team. The energy, hustle and clutch performances have invigorated this Pacers team and their fan base. His days in Orlando and Oklahoma City were about learning and applying that knowledge to his game.
Oladipo burst onto the national scene during the 2017-18 season where he was named to the All-NBA third team. That same season, he made his first All-Star game appearance and was named to the All-Defensive first team after leading the league in steals. Not only has he lifted the Pacers franchise, but he has been carrying the offense quite well as indicated by his 17th-ranked player efficiency rating from two years ago.
Top Defensive Player: Myles Turner
You won’t find a better rim protector in the league today than Myles Turner. The 23-year old center led the league in blocks last season and found himself in serious consideration for Defensive Player of the Year. While his offensive game and rebounding are the focal point of most conversations, Turner has long been a steady defensive force throughout his four-year career.
Turner’s numbers go much deeper than blocks, however. Last season, the big man ranked seventh in the league in defensive win shares and had the third-best defensive plus/minus in the NBA. His overall defensive rating was fifth-best in the league and greatly contributed to the Pacers being ranked No. 1 in opponent points per game a year ago.
Top Playmaker: Malcolm Brogdon
Despite not having the burden of being the playmaker in Milwaukee, Brogdon is going to be forced into that role from the very beginning in Indiana. With Oladipo out for at least the first couple of months, Brogdon will be thrust into the creator role. It will be an adjustment for the former Rookie of the Year, but it is a challenge that he’ll welcomes. The task is even more difficult when you consider the roster turnover Indiana has gone through from last season.
Brogdon’s biggest strength is his ability to go downhill, straight to the basket. This penetration will open up kick-outs to shooters and many swing-swing plays on the perimeter. Last season, Brogdon’s usage rate was around 20 percent. He will now become the ball-dominant guard that he never had to be next to Giannis Antetokounmpo. You can expect plenty of pick and roll plays with Sabonis too. Brogdon has an exceptionally high basketball IQ and uses it to his advantage. He gets to the line, wherein which he’ll make opponents pay dearly. His 93 percent free throw rate was best in the league last season.
Top Clutch Player: Victor Oladipo
His full name is Kehinde Babatunde Victor Oladipo, but his middle name may as well be Clutch. Before he went down with his ruptured quad tendon, Oladipo was leading the league in clutch field goal percentage (63.2 percent). He ranked second in the NBA in points per clutch possession with 1.59 on 39 such possessions. During the final minute of fourth quarters last season, the star guard was 4-of-5 shooting on lead-altering shots, which were all three-pointers.
In a memorable Nov. 3 contest against the Boston Celtics last year, the All-Star put the Pacers on his back and got them in the lead with a 22-foot jumper with 52 seconds remaining. He followed that up with a pair of crucial free throws, plus a game-winning three in the final seconds. He hit a ridiculous game-tying shot against the Rockets two nights later and ripped out the hearts of Bulls fans with two clutch buckets in the final minute – one of which was the game-winner with one second remaining.
Needless to say, Oladipo is not shy of the moment and has proved on multiple occasions that he’ll raise his game when the brightest lights are on him.
The Unheralded Player: Aaron Holiday
Indiana drafted Holiday with the No. 23 overall pick last summer and the former UCLA guard displayed plenty of promise over his 50 games with the team. Holiday averaged nearly six points, two assists and had an effective field goal percentage of 48.3 during his 13 minutes per contest. His role will increase this year, providing him with more time on the floor with the second unit. As the backup point guard, he will be responsible for getting his teammates involved in the offense, which can be difficult for a 22-year-old in his second season.
The biggest hurdle for Holiday will be improving his shooting. Last year, he shot 40 percent from the field and just under 34 percent from behind the arc. For a guy that is viewed as instant-offense off the bench, those numbers will have to improve in his sophomore season. Indiana had the third-most roster turnover from this past season, so the only guys remaining that Holiday played with last year are Oladipo, Turner, Sabonis, Doug McDermott and TJ Leaf.
Best New Addition: Malcolm Brogdon
Indiana paid a steep price for Brogdon’s services, but it was money well spent. For the Pacers, a swift upgrade at the starting point guard position has never been more clear. Darren Collison was a fine player that could do a few things proficiently, but replacing him with Brogdon will be like going from a Honda to a Ferrari.
The most significant area of improvement will be on the defensive end. Collison was small by every definition of the word. At 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, Brogdon has a much better frame for defending multiple positions. Even better, the promising newcomer was arguably the best defender on Kawhi Leonard during the playoffs.
– Chad Smith
WHO WE LIKE
1. Myles Turner
The time is now for Turner to make his biggest leap yet. With Oladipo out to start the season, he is the guy that needs to step up his game. If he can graduate to more than just a pick-and-pop guy on offense that also blocks shots, it will go a long way toward Indiana’s ultimate successes. Often a half-step behind, Turner just needs to hone in his skills and be more effective inside 15 feet.
Being a reliable second or third option on offense should be a goal for Turner this season. The Pacers like to spread the ball around and don’t exactly score at an amazing clip and the team finished 22nd in points per game last year. He looked engaged in a couple of FIBA games this summer, but he also had some poor performances. Like many players in the league, consistency will be key for Turner.
2. Domantas Sabonis
After nearly winning Sixth Man of the Year last season, Sabonis will move into the starting lineup with the departure of Thaddeus Young. A bump in minutes may come as well, provided he can stay out of foul trouble. The big man ranked 12th in personal fouls last year, 14th the season before that. He must refrain from the temptation to reach in or bump inside. Sabonis also tends to pick up cheap fouls away from the ball and that will need to be remedied.
Another area of concern for Sabonis is on defense. Playing the power forward position, he must be able to guard quicker, more athletic big men on the perimeter. Turner needs to stay near the basket for rim protection, so Sabonis may be on an island at times. As for the offensive side of the ball, there is not much than he cannot do. His offensive game is smooth and he is easily one of the best passing big men in the league. That is something this Pacers offense will need desperately in their All-Star’s absence.
3. Jeremy Lamb
Speaking of Oladipo’s vacancy, enter Jeremy Lamb. The long, versatile wing does not do one thing exceptionally well, but he can do what the Pacers need. He can score, rebound and defend in a positive way with his large wingspan. He should slide into the starting lineup until Oladipo is ready to return, and his fit should be excellent.
When Oladipo does reclaim his starting position, Lamb should have no qualms about moving back into the sixth-man role that thrived at down in Charlotte. Lamb has only missed a total of five games over the past two seasons and went from 12.9 points per game to a career-high 15.3 points per game last season. His three-point shooting still needs to be more consistent, but he can score in multiple ways from many, many spots on the floor.
4. T.J. Warren
The wild card for the Pacers this season just might be T.J. Warren. The offensive weapon has shown that he can score, but how much of that was fool’s gold playing on a terrible Suns teams? The big question with Warren is his three-point shooting. In 2016-17 he shot 26.5 percent from behind the arc and two years before that, it was just 22.2 percent. Last season, however, he shot 43 percent from three-point range, which definitely raised some eyebrows around the league. He has averaged 31 minutes per game or more in each of the last three seasons, but how much time he gets in Indiana is yet to be determined. There are a bunch of assets competing for minutes, so there could be a proverbial log jam brewing. Warren should enter the season as a starter, but for how long will depend on his shooting and whether or not his subpar defense improves.
– Chad Smith
Like many Pacers teams of the past, this group will hang their hat on defense. They have some outstanding individual defenders and guru Dan Burke has gotten many to play much better on that end of the floor. Between Turner’s rim protection and the lockdown defense in the backcourt with Brogdon and Oladipo, Indiana should stay close to their defensive rating from last season, which was third-best in the league.
The talent on this roster is also still very young. Oladipo is just 27, Brogdon is 26, while Turner and Sabonis are both 23 — hell, even Warren is only 26. In fact, every player on Indiana’s roster is 27 years old or younger. Most everyone is under contract for after this season and they have loads of flexibility that Kevin Pritchard can work with.
The rotation is solid, rife with contributors that can slide into different, flexible positions. Rookie Goga Bitadze should see ample minutes behind Turner and will be a nice pairing with T.J. Leaf on the second unit. Indiana should have more offensive firepower this year with the additions of Lamb and Warren. Their offense went stagnant far too often during the playoffs last year, but the front office has addressed that very nicely.
– Chad Smith
The offense went through stretches last season that were often difficult to watch. Without Oladipo generating things, they fell flat on their face, especially against good defensive teams. The additions of Brogdon, Lamb and Warren should alleviate those concerns to some level. Still, the absence of their franchise player at the beginning of the season will be a major concern. The Pacers need to be at or above .500 by the time Oladipo makes it back. Even when he does return, he will likely be on a minutes restriction, sitting out on back-to-backs too, presumably.
Perhaps the biggest concern with the defense is this: Who guards Giannis? Who guards LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George or Ben Simmons? Young was usually that guy, but it’s a legitimately important question. Today, it’s hard to be convinced that anybody on the roster that can handle those assignments right now.
Indiana ranked 24th in pace last season, which was a likely reason for their 22nd-ranked scoring offense. That might not improve much, but they have the pieces to push the ball more if they so choose. It is difficult to imagine that without their All-Star on the floor though.
– Chad Smith
THE BURNING QUESTION
Will Indiana’s version of the Twin Towers work?
They might not be Tim Duncan and David Robinson, but the Pacers do have themselves two very talented big men. Head coach Nate McMillan has stated that he wants them to play together, even if they have not done much of it in the past. Last year, they never practiced with the two on the same team, so that could be a starting point to figuring this thing out.
Thankfully, they play off each other pretty well as Sabonis is the better offensive player and Turner is the fiercer defender. Turner excels away from the basket on offense, while Sabonis is a force inside. Feeding Sabonis the ball inside can only net positive results for both parties. Turner will need to make his open looks though as he has only scored 1,000 points once over his four seasons.
Leaf and Bitadze are going to work similarly when they are on the floor together too. Still, a whole lot of this will ride on the shoulders of McMillan and his staff. Look for him to incorporate Turner in the corner more, especially on pick and roll opportunities with Brogdon and Sabonis.
Should things ultimately not work out there, the Pacers do have some options. Sabonis is extension eligible as this is the final year of his current contract. It would be wise for them to find a new deal before the season begins. Importantly, he’d be far more appealing to other teams if he already has a long-term deal signed. Doing so would also mitigate the risk of letting him become a restricted free agent next summer, forced to match a higher salary if a team makes an enormous offer.
In the end, the two should figure out how to not only co-exist but to complement each other. If they can do that –plus, obviously, with a healthy Oladipo — the Pacers could be looking at advancing past the first round of the playoffs for the first time in six years.
– Chad Smith
Georgetown Prospect Omer Yurtseven is Ready for Center Stage
Omer Yurtseven spoke with Drew Maresca about playing for coach Patrick Ewing, training for the NBA during a pandemic and why he feels he’s the best center in the 2020 draft class.
Omer Yurtseven, the 7-foot tall, Georgetown center, posted an impressive junior season in 2019-20; he averaged 15.5 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks. With legitimate NBA size and skills, it’s no mystery why he’s confident. “I don’t think anyone has my combination of tools and versatility,” Yurtseven recently told Basketball insiders. But he’s also a student of the game –well aware of the game’s history and where it’s headed.
“I wouldn’t put anyone ahead of me. I haven’t seen anyone with the tools that I have. I can shoot the ball, the three-ball, and that’s where the big man is headed,” Yurtseven said.
But he’s not satisfied with what he’s accomplished thus far. He wants more. And he understands that he’ll have to continue working to ensure his spot in the league.
“Some guys might be more athletic [than me], but there are a lot of athletic bigs in the league who don’t stick,” Yurtseven continued. “The skillset is just as important, if not more. So is the [willingness to put in] the work. I think I’m better or as good as any other players, and my rookie year, that’s my goal, to prove that.”
Yurtseven transferred to Georgetown from N.C. State in 2018 after a successful Sophomore season in which he shot over 50 percent on three-point attempts. He sat out the 2018-19 season voluntarily to play for Georgetown and coach Patrick Ewing. The opportunity to work with the Hall of Famer was too good to pass up.
“That’s what I was looking for coming in [working with Ewing]. I needed someone to see the game from my perspective,” Yurtseven said. “I was looking for that feedback and I demanded to be coached. I wanted to learn from him. The thing he stayed on me the most about was the pace of the game and how quick my moves would have to be at the next level.
“The turnaround jumper was one of his major weapons,” Yurtseven continued. “He was ahead of his time, but he wanted to see me do the same thing and give 100 percent effort every time.”
Yurtseven jumper is a major weapon in his arsenal, so a pairing with Ewing was an obvious fit. His numbers remained strong during his junior year season with Georgetown, but with one glaring drop off – three-point percentage. Ewing demanded that Yurtseven operate from the low post, a role that the prospect didn’t love, but accepted. Could a new role be to blame for a down shooting year? Yurtseven would never blame anyone other than himself, especially not Ewing. But it’s clear that he felt like he could have done even more if given the opportunity.
“The biggest thing is, I played how I played because that was the role demanded of me. All I had to do was be the inside presence, the defense collapser, and we had to stick to the strategy that coach thought was best for the team.
“I would love to have caught the ball at the top a little more,” Yurtseven continued. “But I was happy to be the post guy. I knew I had to get into my moves quick, so that’s what I did. I sacrificed what I think is my best skills for the team, and I was fine with it.”
It’s evident that Yurtseven is a team-first guy but his three-point shooting took a significant hit. As mentioned above, Yurtseven shot 50 percent on 1.3 three-point attempts as a sophomore in 2017-18, but only 21.4 percent on only half an attempt from long range per game in 2019-20. However, it’s not in his nature to look back – only ahead.
“That’s been my main focus,” Yurtseven told Basketball Insiders. “In April, I was shooting 30 or 40 percent two steps behind the college three. That percentage has added up 5 or 10 percent each month. Doing it isn’t easy, but it pays off and that’s why we do it. Now I’m at 75 or 80 percent (in practice sessions) and I’m really confident in my ability.
“And that’s the most important skill set for big men right now,” Yurtseven said. “You’ve got to be a perimeter shooter, as well as a perimeter defender, because big men are evolving away from the rim.”
Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, Yurtseven – and all of the 2020 class – received longer than normal between the end of the 2019-20 NCAA season and the 2020 NBA Draft. And while mock drafts have slowly whittled down the number of prospects, Yurtseven is working tirelessly to improve his stock in any way possible. impressive game.
“No one knew this offseason would be so long. It’s been 6, 8 months already,” Yurtseven continued. “But the team around me has been a blessing – coordinating workouts and making sure I’m taking steps to improve, from nutrition to training lateral quickness to shooting.
“It’s speed and agility, studying the game and having the knowledge about how to position yourself,” Yurtseven continued. “It’s timing and positioning and footwork. It’s all pieces of the puzzle. But the league is another level than college. That’s why I’ve been preparing, increasing lateral quickness, strengthening my glutes, making sure my quads and hips are firing well and that my lateral push-off is explosive as I want.”
“And seeing it translate on the court in two-on-twos and three-on-threes. Switching on guards and providing I can do it to myself. It’s been really fun and fulfilling.”
Yurtseven could have opted to play professionally in Europe – he had numerous professional offers as an 18-year-old prior to coming to joining N.C. State. But Yurtseven is driven by more than money and fame. He is family-oriented and understands the long game. His parents wanted him to receive a college degree before pursuing basketball – a decision that Yurtseven is happy to have made.
“The education was the main reason [I chose to play in the NCAA]. My family’s dream was that I get a college degree.
“When I was 18, [Turkish teams] offered me a huge contract. I’ve never seen so many zeros in my life,” Yurtseven continued.
“Now it’s time to chase my dream. And my team, my circle, it’s our goal to find a franchise that allows me to grow into a player for 10-plus years – and I’ll never stop working at it.”
Where Yurtseven ultimately plays is anyone’s guess – but he’s already spoken with 17 NBA teams.
Whatever franchise selects the center will add a hard-working and versatile big man that looks well-suited for the modern game – or he may not be selected at all. Yurtseven is currently ranked outside the top 50 according to some mocks – but if he gets an opportunity, he knows how he’d like to play.
“My aim is to get a double-double, year one,” Yurtseven told Basketball Insiders. “And, of course, guarding 1 through 5 is another big thing that coaches are looking for. Look at the Bucks, they were ranked first in offense (in 2019-20). Most of their points come from spot-ups. Defenses collapse on Giannis and Middleton – and Brook Lopez stays alone in the corner. I think that’ll be where I get my shots, too.”
Only three rookies in the past 10 years have averaged a double-double in their first season in the league – Blake Griffin, Karl-Anthony Towns, Deandre Ayton. That’s an elite club in which Yurtseven is seeking membership. Can he surprise the basketball world? Only time will tell.
There isn’t much data on him against elite big men. But there is one relevant contest worth examining: a Nov. 22 matchup against Duke and Vernon Carey, who is projected to be drafted No. 26 overall by Basketball Insiders.
Carey filled the stat sheet with 20 points and 10 rebounds, but so did Yurtseven (21 points, five rebounds and four blocks). That night, his entire repertoire was on full display – decisive drop steps, smooth turnaround jump shots over both shoulders, baby hooks, midrange jumpers and hard-nosed defense.
“He was the only true big man that I played against,” Yurtseven recalled. “He was quick and Duke did a good job putting the ball in his hands as soon as he stepped in the paint. I had to exert a lot of energy keeping him off his spot, but I adjusted quickly.
“I figured he would be very strong, but he ultimately didn’t feel as strong as I expected. My maturity and strength helped me a lot.”
Yurtseven’s skill and build render him tailor-made for the NBA. But for most, sticking at the professional peak is about more than skill and body. IQ, on and off of the floor, play a major role, too.
“A lot of guys [in this draft class] haven’t played many games,” Yurtseven told Basketball Insiders. “Having a college degree and that experience is a huge tool.
“Playing overseas as a pro is another layer of experience that I have compared to these guys. My IQ has improved. Those one-and-done guys are gonna be thrown into the fire, but I’ll be more ready.
“I saw a study,” Yurtseven explained. “Guys that come in 21-and-under stay in the league two or three years on average. Guys that come in and are 21-or-older stay seven or eight years on average. That just shows how much time it takes to mature your game.”
Comparatively, only four players were 22 or older as on draft night in 2019 – Yurtsevein is 22.
At the end of the day, it will be about how he performs on the court, and he’s comfortable with that.
“If I get drafted, I’ll be the first guy coming out of Turkey with a college degree,” Yurtseven said proudly.
“I’m ready for the next step. I appreciate everyone wishing me luck and supporting me from afar. I can’t wait to show my game’s evolution and reap the benefits of all of the work I’ve put in.”
NBA Daily: Tyronn Lue is the Right Coach for the Clippers
Is Lue the right coach for the Los Angeles Clippers? David Yapkowitz thinks so.
When Doc Rivers was first hired by the Los Angeles Clippers in 2013, the expectation was that he would be the one to guide the franchise into respectability. A laughingstock of the NBA for pretty much their entire existence, marred by bad coaching, bad management and bad ownership, Rivers was supposed to help change all of that.
For the most part, he did.
Rivers arrived from the Boston Celtics with the 2008 championship, and he helped the Celtics regain their standing as one of the NBA’s elite teams. The Clippers were a perennial playoff contender under him and were even in the conversation for being a possible championship contender. The Lob City Clippers led by Chris Paul and Blake Griffin certainly were talked about as being a title contender, and this season’s group led by Kawhi Leonard and Paul George were definitely in the mix as well.
Not only did Rivers steady the team on the court though, but he was also a very steadying presence off the court. He guided the franchise through the Donald Sterling controversy and he was a positive voice for the team as they navigated the bubble and the ongoing charge for social reform in the country.
But when things go wrong with a team, the coach is usually the one who ends up taking the fall. While Rivers did bring the Clippers to a level of respectability the franchise has never known, his record was not without blemishes. Most notably was his team’s inability to close out playoff series’ after holding three games to one on advantages two separate occasions.
In 2015, the Clippers had a 3-1 lead over the Houston Rockets only to squander that lead and lose Game 7 on the road. In Game 6, their shots stopped falling and neither Paul nor Griffin could do anything to halt the Rockets onslaught.
This season, in an incredibly similar fashion, the Clippers choked away a 3-1 lead over the Denver Nuggets and ended up getting blown out the second half of Game 7. Just like before, the offense stalled multiple games and neither Leonard nor George could make a difference.
There were also questions about Rivers’ rotations and his seeming inability to adjust to his opponents. In the end, something had to change, and whether it’s right or wrong, the coach usually ends up taking the fall.
Enter Tyronn Lue. Lue, like Rivers, is also a former NBA player and has a great deal of respect around the league. He came up under Rivers, getting his first coaching experience as an assistant in Boston, and then following Rivers to the Clippers.
He ended up joining David Blatt’s staff in Cleveland in 2014, and when Blatt was fired in the middle of the 2015-16 season, Lue was promoted to head coach. In the playoffs that year, Lue guided the Cavaliers to victory in their first 10 playoff games. They reached the Finals where they famously came back from a 3-1 deficit against the 73-9 Golden State Warriors to win the franchise’s first championship.
The Cavaliers reached the Finals each full year of Lue’s tenure as head coach, but he was let go at the start of the 2018-19 season when the team started 0-6 after the departure of LeBron James.
In the 2019 offseason, Lue emerged as the leading candidate for the Los Angeles Lakers head coaching job, before he ultimately rejected the team’s offer. After rejoining Rivers in LA with the Clippers for a year, he once again emerged as a leading candidate for multiple head coaching positions this offseason before agreeing to terms with the Clippers.
Following the Clippers series loss to the Nuggets, many players openly talked about the team’s lack of chemistry and how that may have played a factor in the team’s postseason demise. Adding two-star players in Leonard and George was always going to be a challenge from a chemistry standpoint, and the Clippers might have secured the perfect man to step up to that challenge.
During his time in Cleveland, Lue was praised for his ability to manage a locker room that included James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. In Game 7 against the Warriors, Lue reportedly challenged James at halftime and ended up lighting a fire that propelled the Cavaliers to the championship.
Lue’s ability to deal with star egos isn’t just limited to his coaching tenure. During his playing days, Lue was a trusted teammate with the Los Angeles Lakers during a time when Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant weren’t seeing eye to eye. He also played with Michael Jordan during Jordan’s Washington Wizard days.
Now, he’ll be tasked with breaking through and leading the Clippers to a place where no Clipper team has ever been before. He’ll be expected to finish what Rivers was unable to accomplish and guide the Clippers to an NBA championship.
For one, he’ll have to change the Clippers offensive attack. This past season, the Clippers relied too much on an isolation heavy offense centered around Leonard and George. That style of play failed in the playoffs when after failing to adjust, the Clippers kept taking tough shot after tough shot while the Nuggets continued to run their offense and get good shots.
With the Cavaliers, Lue showed his ability to adjust his offense and work to his player’s strengths. In the 2018 Playoffs, Lue employed a series of off-ball screens involving Love and Kyle Korver with James reading the defense and making the correct read to whoever was in the best position to score.
When playing with James, the offense sometimes tends to stagnate with the other four players standing around and waiting for James to make his move. Lue was able to get the other players to maintain focus and keep them engaged when James had the ball in his hands. Look for him to try and do something similar for when either Leonard or George has the ball in their hands.
He’s already got a player on the roster in Landry Shamet who can play that Korver role as the designated shooter on the floor running through off-ball screens and getting open. Both Leonard and George have become efficient enough playmakers to be able to find open shooters and cutters. That has to be Lue’s first task to tweak the offense to find ways to keep the rest of the team engaged and active when their star players are holding the ball.
The defensive end is going to be something he’ll need to adjust as well. The Clippers have some of the absolute best individual defensive players in the league. Leonard is a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, George was a finalist for the award in 2019 and Patrick Beverley is a perennial All-Defensive Team selection.
When the team was locked in defensively this season, there wasn’t a team in the league that could score on them. The problem for them was they seemingly couldn’t stay engaged on the defensive end consistently enough. The other issue was Rivers’ inability to adjust his defense to his opponent. Against the Nuggets, Nikola Jokic had a field day whenever Montrez Harrell was guarding him.
Lue’s primary task will be to get this team to maintain their defensive intensity throughout the season, as well as recognize what matchups are and aren’t working. Both Ivica Zubac and JaMychal Green were more effective frontcourt defenders in the postseason than Harrell was. Look for Lue to play to his team’s strengths, as he always has, and to trot out a heavy dose of man-to-man defense.
Overall, Lue was the best hire available given the candidates. He’s got a strong rapport among star players. He’s made it to the finals multiple times and won a championship as a head coach. And he already has experience working with Leonard and George.
Given the potential free agent status of both Leonard and George in the near future, the Clippers have a relatively small window of championship contention. Lue was in a similar situation in Cleveland when James’ pending free agency in the summer of 2018 was also a factor. That time around, Lue delivered. He’ll be ready for this new challenge.
NBA Daily: The Lakers’ Third Scorer Is By Committee
The Los Angeles Lakers have a whole unit of third scoring options – and that’s why they’re one win from an NBA Championship.
One of the biggest questions surrounding the Los Angeles Lakers once the NBA bubble began was who was going to pick up the mantle of being the third scoring option.
Even before the 2019-20 season began, it was obvious that LeBron James and Anthony Davis would be the primary offensive weapons, but every elite team with championship aspirations needs another player or two they can rely on to contribute on the offensive end consistently.
The obvious choice was Kyle Kuzma. In his third year in the NBA, Kuzma was the lone member of the Lakers’ young core that hadn’t been shipped elsewhere. His name had come up in trade rumors as possibly being included in the package to New Orleans for Davis, but the Lakers were able to hang on to him. He put up 17.4 points per game over his first two seasons and had some questioning whether or not he had All-Star potential.
For the most part this season, he settled into that role for much of this season. With Davis in the fold and coming off the bench, his shot attempts dropped from 15.5 to 11.0, but he still managed to be the team’s third scorer with 12.8 points per game.
But here in the bubble, and especially in the playoffs, the Lakers’ role players have each taken turns in playing the supporting role to James and Davis. Everyone from Kuzma to Alex Caruso, to Dwight Howard, to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, to Markieff Morris and even Rajon Rondo have had games where they’ve given the team that additional scoring boost.
Earlier in the bubble, James himself said they need Kuzma to be the team’s third-best player to win, but Kuzma himself believes that it’s always been by committee.
“We don’t have a third scorer, that’s not how our offense is built. Our offense is really AD and Bron, and everyone else plays team basketball,” Kuzma said on a postgame media call after Game 4 of the Finals. “We’ve had a long season, hopefully by now, you’ve seen how we play. Everyone steps up at different times, that’s what a team does.”
On this particular night, when the Miami HEAT got a pregame boost with the return of Bam Adebayo and wealth of confidence from their Game 3 win, it was Caldwell-Pope who stepped up and assumed the mantle of that third scoring option.
He finished Game 4 with 15 points on 50 percent shooting from the field and 37.5 percent from three-point range. He also dished out five assists and grabbed three rebounds. Perhaps his most crucial moments of the game came late in the fourth quarter with the Lakers desperately clinging to a slim lead and the Heat not going away.
He hit a big three-pointer in front of the Miami bench with 2:58 to go in the game, and then followed that up with a drive the rim and finish on the very next possession to give the Lakers some breathing room.
Caldwell-Pope has been one of the most consistent Lakers this postseason and he’s been one of their most consistent three-point threats at 38.5 percent on 5.3 attempts. He was actually struggling a bit with his outside shot before this game, but he always stayed ready.
“My teammates lean on me to pick up the energy on the defensive end and also make shots on the offensive end…I stayed within a rhythm, within myself and just played,” Caldwell-Pope said after the game. “You’re not going to knock down every shot you shoot, but just staying with that flow…Try to stay in the rhythm, that’s what I do. I try not to worry about it if I’m not getting shots. I know they are eventually going to come.”
Also giving the Lakers a big offensive boost in Game 4 was Caruso who had a couple of easy baskets at the rim and knocked down a three-pointer. He’s become one the Lakers best off the ball threats as well, making strong cuts to the rim or drifting to the open spot on the three-point line.
He’s had his share of games this postseason when it’s been his turn to step up as the Lakers additional scoring threat. During Game 4 against the Houston Rockets in the second round, Caruso dropped 16 points off the bench to help prevent the Rockets from tying the series up. In the closeout Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals against the Denver Nuggets, he had 11 points and finished the game in crunch time.
For him, it’s about staying ready and knowing that the ball is eventually going to come to whoever is open. When that happens, it’s up to the role players to take that pressure off James and Davis.
“Our third star or best player is whoever has the open shot. We know what AD and LeBron are going to bring to the table every night. They’re going to get their attention, they’re going to get their shots,” Caruso said after the game.
“It’s just about being ready to shoot. We have two of the best passers in the game, if not the best, so we know when we are open, we are going to get the ball. We have to be ready to do our job as soon as the ball gets to us.”
And if the Lakers are to close out the series and win the 2020 NBA championship, head coach Frank Vogel knows that it’s going to take a collective effort from the rest of the team, the way they’ve been stepping up all postseason.
“We need everybody to participate and contribute, and we’re a team-first team,” Vogel said after the game. “Obviously we have our two big horses, but everybody’s got to contribute that’s out there.”