Likes and dislikes from NBA All-Star Weekend 2014

February 17, 2014 in Basketball, NBA, Sport by pacejmiller

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The NBA’s annual February showcase just concluded in New Orleans with the Eastern Conference All-Stars earning a record 163-155 come-from-behind victory over the Western Conference All-Stars, with Kyrie Irving winning the MVP after racking up 31 points and 14 assists. Blake Griffin and Kevin Durant each scored 38 in a losing effort.  It’s one of those events I look forward to every year that never lives up to the hype or the expectations, and this year of course was no different. We’re so accustomed to only remembering the highlight reels that we tend to forget all the embarrassing moments, the airballs and the missed dunks.

Having said that, this year’s All-Star Weekend is my favourite in years. Here’s what I liked and didn’t like about it.

LIKEDIndiana Pacers represent!

My Pacers had two All-Stars this year in starter (and third-leading vote getter) Paul George and Roy Hibbert, plus the East coach in Frank Vogel as the Pacers have, ahem, the best record in the m@*$#f&^*ing conference. It would have been even better had Lance Stephenson and David West also made the team like they should have, but it’s hard to complain when your team already has three guys in it.

This is how I voted fir the All-Star Game

This is how I voted fir the All-Star Game

 

And it was a successful outing for the trio. Paul George led the East to a clean sweep over the West in the Dunk Comp and finished with a solid 18 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists in the All-Star Game itself, while Roy Hibbert had 8 points, 5 rebounds and 2 assists in just 12 minutes off the bench. Coach Vogel, of course, orchestrated the team’s brilliant come-from-behind win.

 Oh, and before I forget it’s actually four Pacers, because assistant coach Nate McMillan coached Team Hill to victory over Team Webber in the Rising Stars Challenge. Hang on, it’s actually FIVE Pacers if you include TNT analyst and the greatest Pacer of all-time,  Reggie Miller!

Overall, a great experience for the team. Even though it would have been good for George and Hibbert to get some rest because they had been playing like crap heading into the break, I think being around all these great players will really pump them up for the back end of the season.

LIKED: The Celebrity Game

This is one of those events I wish gets more coverage because it’s always fascinating to see which celebs can actually ball. I guess they throw in some retired NBA greats and WNBA stars to make it look a little less horrible aesthetically, but personally I would prefer it if they were all non-athletes, or at least people not known for basketball. I don’t usually know most of the celebs in the game, but most of the time you just need a couple of big names like Kevin Hart, Erin Heatherton and Michael B Jordan to keep it interesting.

really liked how they got Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose to coach the teams, but it would have been even better had they been in charge of drafting their own teams by reaching out to celebrities in their respective phone books.

This game itself was also surprisingly entertaining. I only recently watched Michael B Jordan light up the screen in Fruitvale Station, and he showed how he can really ball by pouring in 16 points despite being the focal point of the defense. But really, the star of the night was without a doubt US Secretary of Education (and former professional bball player in Australia!) Arne Duncan, who powered his team to a 60-56 win 20 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists, plus a handful of brilliant highlight-reel plays. He was so good that Kevin Hart, voted MVP by the fans for the third straight year, gave up the trophy.

DISLIKED: Nick Cannon

Mr Mariah Carey hosted the whole thing and he was just terrible. He tried but it was embarrassing seeing him try to liven up the mood and failing. He also posted a -14 plus-minus in 20 minutes of court time in the Celebrity Game along with this wonderful shot chart. To think he missed Valentine’s Day with his wife for this.

THUMB-nick-cannon_medium

DISLIKED: Joe Johnson

No one thought Joe Johnson was an All-Star this year, and yet here he was, taking up a spot that should have gone to Lance! Seriously, Johnson is averaging 15 points on 43.8% shooting with 3.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game for the 24-27 Brooklyn Nets, while Lance is putting up 14.1 on 50.2% shooting with 7.3 rebounds and 5.1 assists for the 40-12 Indiana Pacers. Come on!

And to prove my point, Johnson came last in the Three-Point Contest with just 11 out of a possible 34 points, then shot 2-7 in the All-Star Game for a team-low 5 points. I won’t torture you with a video of his performance.

LIKED: Damian Lillard

At the opposite end of the scale is Damian Lillard, who set a record by participating in five All-Star Weekend events — the Rising Stars Challenge (13, 5 and 5), the Skills Challenge (winner along with Trey Burke), Three-Point Contest (18, just missing out in final), Dunk Comp (lost to Eastern Conference) and the All-Star Game itself (9 points). His self alley-oop through-the-legs and 360 bounce pass lefty dunk were two of the better ones of the evening too. Sure, only one win from five events, but full marks for effort and participation. Great work, young man.

LIKED: The Three-Point Comp

Interesting strategic addition this year with the one rack containing all money balls (which are worth 2 points instead of the usual 1), which the contestant can choose where they want to put. This means together with the single money ball at the end of the other four racks there are 9 money balls all up, raising the maximum score from 30 to 34.

Unfortunately, despite having some of the best shooters in the league competing this year, only two guys, the winner Marco Belinelli and runner up Bradley Beal, had rounds of more than 20. Belinelli saved his best for last, scoring 24 in the tie-breaker round, while Beal had 21 in his first round. However, it was exciting to see the contest head into a tie-breaker and there were moments of real intensity, especially when the contestants got to the all-money-ball rack.

PS: Really disappointing that heavy favourite Steph Curry only had 16 and didn’t make the second round.

LIKED/DISLIKED: The Dunk Comp

I know a lot of people hated the new format, but I think it’s commendable that they at least tried something new because there hasn’t been a really good dunk comp in years with so many professional dunkers posting their ridiculous feats on YouTube and contestants favouring flair over substance and props over genuine creativity. Moreover, this year there were some real stars participating, unlike previous years, with Paul George, John Wall and Damian Lillard leading the way.

The new format pitted the three dunkers from each conference against each other, first in a “freestyle” round where they had 90 seconds to do as many dunks as they like (with at least one dunk from each team member), then a “battle” round where it’s one-on-one between the two conferences, with the first to rack up three victories emerging as the winner. This year the East dominated the freestyle round and all three of the battles, with John Wall being voted “Dunker of the Night” by fans with this killer jam.

With all the negative feedback, it seems more likely that the league will scrap the format altogether and return to the way it was before. Personally, I’d like to see them try it one more year but with a few tweaks.

First of all, the freestyle round thing has to go because watching three guys running around at the same time saps the excitement and anticipation as it makes each dunk less meaningful. It also makes it extremely hard to judge. That said, I do like the teamwork element of it, so maybe next year they can have a “team round” where each team gets to perform three team dunks (with a different finisher each time) and the total scores added to determine the winner of the round. They don’t have to use all three guys with each dunk, but they need at least two to make it a team dunk.

Secondly, the battle round is nice and all, but viewers were left unsatisfied because: 1. There was no actual scoring, just a “who was better” vote; and 2. It ended abruptly as soon as the East got the three required wins. What I also don’t understand is the link between the two rounds — what if the West won the freestyle round and the East won the battle round? Who is declared the victor then? Shouldn’t they still have a scoring system which will help determine the winning team overall?

What most people have suggested, which I agree with, is to have the three dunkers from the winning squad take on each other with at least one more dunk. That way you have an actual “Slam Dunk Champion” as opposed to a “Dunker of the Night”. As for the fan voting to decide the winner? I’m not sure if it’s good or bad. Maybe they need to make it 50/50 with the judges or something.

LIKED: The All-Star Game

Fugly jerseys, maybe, but personally I didn’t mind the sleeves all that much.

I don’t usually get overly impressed with the All-Star Game, but this year’s was damn entertaining. A record 318 points scored, 100 three-pointers attempted (30 made), 88 assists and only 28 turnovers (not too different to most normal NBA games). Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin scored 38 each, which is third-most all-time behind Wilt Chamberlain’s 42 and Michael Jordan’s 40. And Blake Griffin’s alley-oops were incredible, as were LeBron’s explosive coast-to-coasts, Carmelo Anthony’s record 8 three-pointers and Kyrie Irving and Steph Curry’s insane handles. Just a fun showcase.

My Epic Indiana Pacers 2013-2014 Season Preview and Predictions

October 28, 2013 in Basketball, Best Of, Indiana Pacers, NBA, Sport by pacejmiller

The Indiana Pacers are ready to go for it all this season

(This article was first posted on Pacers Pulse)

With renewed hope and high expectations, the Indiana Pacers will finally kick off their 2013-2014 campaign on Oct. 29 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse against the Orlando Magic. After coming within a single game of the NBA Finals last season, the Pacers are “all in” this time around, according to team president Larry Bird, who claims to have signed every player the team went after this offseason. These include securing a new 3-year deal with veteran power forward David West, signing the future face of the franchise, Paul George, to a max extension, and acquiring key role players such as CJ Watson, Chris Copeland and Luis Scola to bolster their bench, the team’s biggest weakness from the last couple of years.

Throw in the return of former leading scorer Danny Granger, who missed all but 5 games last season and underwent knee surgery in April, and taking into account the continued development of George Hill, Paul George, Roy Hibbert and Lance Stephenson, there is a good reason why the Pacers are optimistic about their chances of toppling the two-time defending champions Miami Heat this year.

That said, the Heat, who lost Mike Miller but added injury-prine Greg Oden and pothead Michael Beasley to their lineup this offseason, are far from the only obstacles in the Pacers’ way. Derrick Rose is back and looking more explosive than ever in Chicago, the Brooklyn Nets added aging Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to its All-Star core of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez, and New York, last season’s No. 2 seed, has added shooting big man Andre Bargnani. And that’s just in the Eastern Conference.

Out West, Dwight Howard has joined James Harden and the Houston Rockets, instantly shifting them into title contention. Former Celtics coach Doc Rivers (recognized as one of the best coaches in the league) has replaced Vinny Del Negro (recognized as one of the worst coaches ever) in LA for the Clippers, which also added shooting prowess via JJ Reddick, a solid backup PG in former Pacer Darren Collison and veteran leadership in Antawn Jamison. Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors have taken another step towards serious contention with the addition of versatile swingman Andre Iguadala and will bring back former All-Star center Andrew Bogut from injury. Russell Westbrook will also be back from injury, making the Oklahoma City Thunder a Finals favorite again, and the Memphis Grizzlies added a healthy Mike Miller to ignite their anemic offense and bolster their crazy defense.

So yeah, the Pacers aren’t the only team to have made improvements this offseason. Apart from Memphis, they are also the only title contending team without a true superstar closer, though Paul George appears to be heading in that direction. They won’t be a favorite among the bookies, but they’ll be right in the mix come playoff time, and for a small market team incapable of attracting big name free agents, that’s pretty much all you can for hope for.

Offseason transaction summary

Re-signings:

PF David West (17.1 points, 7.7 rebounds last season) — 3-year extension worth $36m

G/F Paul George (17.4 points, 7.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists last season)  – 5-year max extension between $80m-100m

Additions:

PF Luis Scola (12.8ppg, 6.6rpg last season) –traded from Phoenix

F Chris Copeland (8.7ppg, 42.1% 3P last season) — restricted free agent from New York

PG CJ Watson (6.8ppg, 2apg last season) — free agent from Brooklyn

PG Donald Sloan (3.5ppg, 1.7apg last season) — free agent from New Orleans

SF Solomon Hill (rookie)

*G/F Rasual Butler (D-League last season) has made the team due to Danny Granger’s calf injury, but it is possible he could be waived if and when Granger recovers

Subtractions:

PF Tyler Hansbrough (7ppg, 4.6rpg) — to Toronto

G/F Gerald Green (7ppg, 36.6% FG) — to Phoenix

PG DJ Augustin (4.7ppg, 2.2apg, 35% FG last season) — to Toronto

PF/C Miles Plumlee (0.9ppg, 23.8% FG) — to Phoenix

PF/C Jeff Ayers (formerly Pendergraph) (3.9ppg, 2.8rpg) — to San Antonio

SF Sam Young (2.8ppg, 39.2% FG last season) — free agent (waived by San Antonio)

PG Ben Hansbrough (2ppg, 33% FG last season) — Spanish league

Coaching changes:

Replaced associate head coach Brian Shaw (new Denver Nuggets head coach) with former NBA head coach Nate McMillan

Replaced assistant coach Jim Boylen (to San Antonio) with former Nets assistant coach Popeye Jones

Grade

On paper, the Pacers appear to have done really well this offseason. David West is the heart and soul of the team, a player whose steady offensive game on the court is only matched by his positive influence in the locker room off the court. Re-signing him was the team’s No. 1 priority and they got it done without breaking the bank, though some might argue that at 33 years old, a 3-year extension might have been too long. But West’s leadership is far too valuable for this team and most believe his old-school game will transition well as he ages.

The max extension to Paul George is a no-brainer. He has earned that after winning Most Improved Player last season, getting on the All-NBA Third Team and leading the Pacers in the playoffs with a string of excellent performances. His offensive game still needs improvement, but he has plenty of potential to be a deadly scorer and is already one of the best wing defenders in the league.

As for the new additions — so far so good. They said the same things last year when they brought in DJ Augustin, Gerald Green and Ian Mahinmi, and to a lesser extent Sam Young. Those guys were supposed represent a strong bench unit, and we all saw what happened then. The only guy still left is Mahinmi, who is serviceable as a backup center and valuable because of his rare size. Now the Pacers have brought in CJ Watson, Chris Copeland and Luis Scola to replace Augustin, Green and Tyler Hansbrough, and objectively speaking they are all upgrades.

Augustin struggled defensively because of his size and didn’t find his shot until late in the season. Watson, on the other hand, is a couple of inches taller at 6’2″ and is a solid defender who once played in Tom Thibadeau’s suffocating system in Chicago. And from what I’ve seen from him in the preseason, Watson is an upgrade over Augustin offensively as well. Green is a flashy leaper with streaky outside shooting, poor defense and basement-low basketball IQ. Chris Copeland doesn’t have the athleticism and is a questionable defender, plus he is also streaky with his outside shot, as we’ve seen this preseason — but he does have better basketball IQ. If he can reproduce the type of shots he did against the Pacers last playoffs while with the Knicks then Copeland should also be a sizable update. Luis Scola vs Tyler Hansbrough, on the other hand, is an open and shut case. Scola is one of the most skilled offensive big man in the NBA, while Hansbrough is a raging bull who rarely passes and takes ugly-looking shots. The Pacers will miss Tyler’s endless energy and excellent fashion choices, but apart from that the Pacers love absolutely everything about this upgrade.

The selection of rookie Solomon Hill with the 23rd pick of the first round in the 2013 NBA Draft caused much ridicule and derision at the time. There were supposedly better options at that pick for the Pacers, but instead they went with a 4-year collegiate widely expected to go in the second round, someone with not a lot of upside and plays the same position as Paul George and Danny Granger. But let’s be honest. It was a weak draft and the Pacers weren’t going to get a stud at No. 23. So instead they went with a solid, experience player who makes few mistakes and might be able to contribute right away. On this loaded roster gunning for a title, however, it’s unlikely Hill will get any meaningful playing time this season. But that’s OK. The Pacers will give him time to develop by practising with this bunch and when Granger is gone after this season he could be transformed into a solid backup for Paul George. That’s what I guess the plan is, anyway.

The signings of Donald Sloan and Rasual Butler are insurance policies in case of injuries. Butler was supposed to be waived before the start of the season to trim the roster down to 13 players as expected, but since Granger is not yet 100% and will miss at least the first 2 games it appears the Pacers will have 14 players on their roster for the foreseeable future.

On the coaching side, the departure of Brian Shaw to Denver is a huge loss. The players speak fondly of Shaw and the young guys credit him with their development. The guy replacing him, Nate McMillan, is no slouch, having prevously been the head coach of the Seattle Supersonics and Portland Trailblazers for nearly 12 combined seasons. The hiring of former rebounding ace Popeye Jones to replace long-time assistant Jim Boylen is also interesting. Jones doesn’t have Boylen’s coaching experience but he does have ample experience as a player, having played 12 NBA seasons on six different teams. Even if the net result is a negative it’s not a big negative.

Overall, I’d have to give the Pacers’ offeseason moves a solid A- based on their re-signing of West, extension of George and the new additions of Scola and Watson. The verdict on the Copeland signing remains unclear, as does the selection of rookie Solomon Hill, and the loss of Brian Shaw still stings. But given the circumstances, this was a great offseason.

Roster comparison 2012/2013 vs 2013/2014

2012-2013 Roster 2013-2014 Roster
Starters Starters
PG George Hill PG George Hill
SG Lance Stephenson SG Paul George
SF Paul George SF Danny Granger**
PF David West PF David West
C Roy Hibbert C Roy Hibbert
Reserves Reserves
F Danny Granger* G/F Lance Stephenson
PF Tyler Hansbrough F/C Luis Scola
PG DJ Augustin PG CJ Watson
G/F Gerald Green F Chris Copeland
F/C Ian Mahinmi C Ian Mahinmi
SG Orlando Johnson SG Orlando Johnson
SF Sam Young SF Solomon Hill
PG Ben Hansbrough PG Donald Sloan
F/C Jeff Ayers G/F Rasual Butler
F/C Miles Plumlee TBA

* Only played 5 games all season

** It has been strongly suggested that Danny Granger will start if (and that is a big IF) he is fully healthy, with Paul George moved to SG (the other wing position) and Lance Stephenson shifted to the bench to run the second unit. If not, assume that the starting lineup will be the same as last season, with George starting at SF and Stephenson starting at SG, and with Granger being the first or second primary offensive option in the second unit.

*Sorry Rasual Butler, you missed the cut!

This chart is based on the likley positions that the players will play in the upcoming season. As the depth chart indicates, with multiple players capable of playing multiple positions, the Pacers will have at least 3 players capable of playing each of the 5 positions on the floor. Strictly speaking, George Hill can also play SG and Ian Mahinmi can also play PF, though you might not see it much, if at all, this season.

Rotations

The last couple of games of the preseason were supposed to provide an indication of how coach Frank Vogel intended to split minutes between his players, but the loss of Danny Granger to a calf injury (he won’t be ready for the season opener and his return and eventual return to form remains uncertain) and two blowout wins have kept the allocation of playing time a mystery.

The way I see it, George Hill and CJ Watson will split the minutes at point guard, around a roughly 28-20 split, with Donald Sloan as a insurance policy for injuries and blowouts. Paul George, regardless of position, will play the most of any Pacer this year, around 36-38 minutes a game (at least), because he’s getting THAT good. David West played 33 minutes a game last season, but with his age creeping up and the addition of Luis Scola, expect his playing time to drop to around 30.  Roy Hibbert, depending on whether he can stay out of foul trouble, will hopefully average around 28-32 minutes per game.

NBA: Preseason-Chicago Bulls at Indiana Pacers

That leaves about 58-60 minutes to split equally between Danny Granger and Lance Stephenson, with perhaps a little to spare for Orlando Johnson and/or Solomon Hill, two guys I think won’t see much court time unless there are blowouts or injuries. Chris Copeland might also get some minutes at the SF position, but it has already been indicated that he will get most of his playing time at PF, which means he might not see much court time at all because of Luis Scola.

Scola should except to average around 20+ minutes a game, taking up almost all of David West’s spare minutes at PF and also playing a bit of center against smaller lineups. Ian Mahinmi, depending on the quality of his play and matchups, should expect to play around 12-15 minutes a game, but if he’s not getting the job done expect Vogel to rely more on Hibbert and Scola at the center spots. The guys facing the most uncertainty in terms of playing time should be Copeland and Mahinmi, meaning they could play significant minutes one night and close to nothing the next.

The Danny Granger situation

The offseason re-signings of David West and Paul George, along with the deals the Pacers made with George Hill (5 years, $40m) and Roy Hibbert (4 years, $58m) last offseason (in addition with a likely extension to Lance Stephenson next year) means this is likely Danny Granger’s last year as a Pacer no matter what happens this year. The Pacers have repeatedly said they will avoid the luxury tax and Granger, even with his injury woes, would never accept a minimum contract.

Larry Bird was frank when questioned about the Granger situation: if he’s not struggling or not fitting in well they will try to unload him before the trade deadline in February to lock up some cheap assets, cap space, and/or possibly draft picks; if he’s playing well and making a significant contribution they will roll the dice with him in the playoffs, hoping he can help deliver Indiana its first NBA title, and then worry about his future when the time comes. Actually, simply letting Granger’s contract expire will clear up about $14m in cap space, which is exactly what the Pacers need given the extension they just gave to Paul George and the one they will give Lance Stephenson next offseason.

Granger for Rajon Rondo?

A potential trade that has been brought up numerous times has been Danny Granger for the Celtics’ PG Rajon Rondo, who is recovering from a torn ACL but would give the Pacers a dominant floor general who can control an entire game with his passing alone. Adding the tough, crafty Rondo to a starting lineup with Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert would be absolutely spectacular and would instantly elevate the Pacers into the top echelon of title contenders.

The Celtics are claiming that Rondo remains a part of their future, but everyone knows that Danny Ainge is blowing things up, leading to many analysts predicting that Rondo will be gone from Boston before the trade deadline. The Pacers have made it clear they are listening to offers for Granger. The salaries roughly match (Granger $14m, Rondo $12-13m) and Granger’s is valuable because it is expiring at the end of the season. But most people believe Ainge will ask for a lot more than just Granger and a first round draft pick in the upcoming draft, the most promising in a decade with the likes of Andrew Wiggins and Dante Exum set to enter the league.

Besides, luxury tax ramifications essentially mean this deal is already dead in the water. With Paul George signed to a max extension, even if you take Granger off the Pacers’ books completely it would still put them at around $65m in 2014/2015, which would still be perilously close to the luxury tax threshold (this year it’s $71.7m). This means unless they waive Luis Scola and his $4.9m non-guaranteed contract next year, a Granger-Rondo trade could very well put them over the top. And this doesn’t even take into account the extension they are almost certain to give to Lance Stephenson.

In any case,  even if Rondo somehow comes to Indiana, what does that mean for the incumbent starter George Hill, who still has 4 years left on his contract with the Pacers? Will they move him to clear cap space or will they shift him to the type of bench role he thrived in in San Antonio? They could also move him to shooting guard as he is comfortable without the ball, though he would be undersized at that position at 6’3″.

It’s an intriguing fantasy trade situation, but it’s nearly impossible to imagine such a deal being pulled off right now with so many variables left hanging. Both Granger’s and Rondo’s health are unknowns at the moment, and it’s questionable whether the Pacers would even pull the trigger on such a trade considering how much they love Hill (remember, they gave up Kawhi “Future Superstar” Leonard for him) and the fact that Rondo’s enigmatic personality could unsettle the Pacers’ harmonious locker room. Still, if the Pacers underachieve out of the gate and don’t appear to be able to edge Miami or Chicago in a 7-game series, I would definitely take the gamble on Rondo (if a trade is possible) because he instantly makes the Pacers a top contender.

Granger for Eric Gordon?

Another potential trade discussed around water coolers is Granger for New Orleans Pelicans shooting guard Eric Gordon. The main reason people are bringing this up is because Granger is a native of New Orleans and Gordon is a native of Indiana, and Indiana would really love an athletic offensive threat like Gordon at SG that would allow Paul George to remain in his preferred role of SF. It also sounds like a fair gamble because both guys are also injury prone (Gordon played just 42 games last season and averaged 17 points) and their $14m salaries are a perfect match.

But with Gordon’s health being a major concern at just 24 years old and his character questioned after he rejected New Orlean’s extension offer in a ploy to play for the Phoenix Suns, I have more doubts about this trade than the Rondo one. And the same luxury tax ramifications that apply to Rondo apply for Gordon as well, so you might as well forget about it.

Preseason record

vs Chicago L 82-76 (0-1)

vs Houston (Manila) L 116-96 (0-2)

@ Houston (Taipei) L 107-98 (0-3)

vs Dallas L 92-85 (0-4)

@ Chicago L 103-98 (0-5)

@ Cleveland W 102-79 (1-5)

@ Atlanta W 107-89 (2-5)

@ Dallas W 98-77 (3-5)

Season schedule

Full season schedule here

The Pacers have 2 games in October, at home against the Magic in the first game of the new NBA season, followed by a road game against the New Orleans Pelicans a day later. It would be good to start off on a strong note with 2 big wins against non-playoff teams, but the start of the regular season is a weird time where teams may be out of synch.

November is a relatively even month for the Pacers with 8 home games and 6 road games. There are some tough matchups with 2 games against the Bulls and games against Brooklyn, Memphis and New York, but also some easy ones against Toronto, Milwaukee, Boston, Philadelphia and Charlotte. The Pacers need to kill November because December is hell, starting with a 5-game West coast road trip (including San Antonio and Oklahoma City back-to-back), then 2 games apiece against Miami and Brooklyn and another against Houston.

January features another 5-game road trip out West albeit against weaker opponents this time and 8 road games against 6 home games, but it’s a relatively lighter part of the schedule and the Pacers need to take advantage of it. February is the home-heavy portion of the schedule with 8 home games against 4 road games, while March is the opposite with a grueling 11 road games against just 7 home games. If the Pacers make it through March looking good then they are in good shape, though they will play two title contenders — Miami and Oklahoma City — before finishing the season the way they started, against Orlando.

Outlook and predictions

Regular season

The Indiana Pacers finished last season with 49 wins (in 81 games — the Celtics game near the end of the season was canceled because of the Boston bombings) and it should be a goal for the team to crack the 52-win mark this season. Three more wins with an extra played game doesn’t sound like much, but with Miami still being Miami, Chicago having Derrick Rose back and a newly bolstered Brooklyn lineup, the Pacers will have their work cut out for them. And don’t forget, the Knicks won more games than the Pacers last season and will be itching for payback when the 2 teams meet after the Pacers ousted them in the Conference Seminfals. Eastern Conference team such as Detroit, Washington and Cleveland also got better.

Some analysts have gone as far as predicting that the Pacers will crack 60-wins this season and claim the top seed, but I think that is being way too optimistic. If we take injuries out of the equation for the moment, I would still place Chicago and Miami (in that order) ahead of Indiana in the standings. Provided Derrick Rose’s knee holds up, the Bulls should be the best regular season team in the entire NBA this year, with Miami in second place in the East depending on Wade’s health and how bored LeBron gets. That puts the Pacers in a race for the 3rd seed alongside Brooklyn and New York. The Nets, which tied the Pacers with 49 wins last season (but lost the tiebreaker) are an unknown entity at the moment because of Deron William’s health and question marks over how much is left in the tank for KG and Pierce, not to mention the difficulties of incorporating 2 new key players (3 if you include Jason Terry) and a brand new rookie head coach in Jason Kidd. I also have doubts New York can duplicate their 54-win performance from last season.

So I see the Pacers finishing anywhere between 51-55 wins and a potential 3rd or 4th seed. This all of course depends on health. An injury to George or Hibbert in particular would pretty much derail the entire team’s chances, though if Granger (eventually) fits into the lineup like a glove the sky’s the limit for this team. Injuries to players in Miami (Wade), Chicago (Rose, Noah) and Brooklyn (take your pick) might also play a big factor in how each team finishes on the ladder.

Indiana Pacers players stand during a time out in an NBA basketball game in Indianapolis

Playoffs

That said, I wouldn’t be too concerned even if the Pacers did finish (what would appear to be a disappointing) 4th or 5th in the East because this is a team built for the playoffs. Besides, if we assume that all teams want to avoid Miami for as long as possible and that the Bulls will clinch the first seed, then a first round matchup against the Knicks as either the 4th of 5th seed is not all that bad. This is because the Pacers have already proven that they can beat the Knicks even without home court advantage, and it means as the winner of that matchup they’d play the 1st seed in the next round, thereby avoiding a potential Miami confrontation until the Conference Finals.

But the serious question is: can the Pacers beat Chicago or Miami in a 7-game series with this current roster? I think they can, but only with home court advantage (which they likely won’t have). Without it, they will need some luck (calls, injuries, Chris Copeland catching fire, etc) and a breakout series performance from a guy or two.

If the Pacers somehow make the Finals, then what? I’d like to think anything can happen, though they’ll be considered underdogs against the likes of San Antonio and Oklahoma City, especially without home court advantage. I do, however, like the Pacers’ odds if they face the Clippers, Rockets, Grizzlies or even Warriors in the Finals.

Player predictions

I expect big things from Paul George this year, but for the sake of the team, not TOO big. The reason is because if George gets on another All-NBA team (he was on the 3rd team last season), he’ll become eligible for the Derrick Rose rule, meaning his max extension will take up 30% of the team’s salary instead of the standard 25%. That would seriously hamper the Pacers’ financial flexibility moving forward. As Zach Lowe from Grantland says, it’s probable that George won’t make an All-NBA team this year with the likes of LeBron, Durant, Dirk, Love, Carmelo, Griffin, Duncan and Howard taking up 8 of the 9 slots already.

So what is a realistic prediction for PG24? From what I’ve seen of him in the preseason, he’s ready to take the next step. He will be more confident this year with the ball in his hands and will want the ball more in clutch situations. His ability to take his man on-on-man, especially with a deadly pull-up jumper, will open up more opportunities to take the ball into the lane, where he has also proven that he can convert with contact. My estimation is that George will average around 20 points a game, grab 6-8 rebounds and dish out 4-6 assists while shooting at least 45% from the field (he shot 41.9% last season) and 85% from the line (he shot 80% last season). That and solidifying his reputation as one of the best wing defenders in the league.

Roy Hibbert will start off the 2013/2014 season much better than the 2012/2013 season. Whether it was an undisclosed wrist injury from MMA training or pressure from his new contract or a combination of both, Hibbert was abysmal in the first couple of months of last season before slowly rounding into form and becoming a beast in the playoffs. He is supposed to have buffed up a lot this offseason, as evidenced by the infamous photo with Tim Duncan, but I don’t expect Roy to have a big year on offense. He averaged 11.9 points in the regular season and 17 points in the playoffs in 2012/2013, and my guess is that his scoring average this season will be closer to the former than the latter, with perhaps an increase of a point or two as his shooting percentage creeps closer to 50%. But I do expect Hibbert and his “verticality” to make him a prime candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. I’m looking for him to average 2.5-3 blocks a game and close to 10 boards. The rest will be up to the judges.

I don’t expect George Hill’s numbers to change much, though David West should experience a natural decline with his minutes and touches dwindling in favor of George, Granger and Scola. As for Lance Stephenson, as the value of his extension will be determined by his play this year, expect him to take another step forward with his progress. I don’t know if he will necessarily score a lot of points, but he should be a valuable role player who fills up the stat sheet in other categories such as rebounds and assists. I wouldn’t be surprised if he grabbed a triple-double this year.

Off the bench, I expect Luis Scola to lead the way offensively and be the only double-digit scorer in the second unit (unless Granger is there with him or Lance blows up offensively). CJ Watson has really impressed me so far and he should be a solid backup PG who can score and defend without putting up flashy numbers. Unfortunately, Chris Copeland looks like he could be a disappointment, but as long as he hits the big shots when they count he is still a worthy investment. Ian Mahinmi will be serviceable but I also don’t expect him to suddenly become anything more than what he’s shown the last couple of seasons.

Rookie Solomon Hill might get some minutes if there are injuries, but this will likely be a watch and learn year for him. Guys like Orlando JohnsonDonald Sloan and Rasual Butler will see mainly garbage time only, but personally I would like to see more minutes for Johnson.

Last, but not least, Danny Granger, whose return from knee surgery has been anything but a smooth ride. I would really love to see him get back to even just 60% of his old self, but right now the most important thing for him is to get healthy and play some minutes to get his shooting legs back. To be honest I remain a little pessimistic about Granger. The odds of a player who had been in decline for a couple of years (even before the injury) making a huge comeback are extremely low. The best case scenario, by my standards, is that he plays 70 games, shoots well (eventually) to provide some much-needed offense on either unit, and average a relatively efficient 10-12 points a game. Even if he just settles into a James Posey-type of role (three pointers, veteran leadership and defense), that’s fine too. The worst case scenario is that he’ll have a setback and play only a handful of games in another wasted season, or never find his groove in the offense and ends up getting a bunch of morale-killing DNP-coach’s decision on his game log.

Beyond 2013/2014

The ramifications of the Paul George max extension are complex and interesting, and they are explained well in this article. In short, all that financial flexibility the Pacers appeared to have is now pretty much gone after the George extension and the deals to George Hill, Roy Hibbert and David West. These four guys are the team’s core for the next 3 years, so the expenditure is understandable, especially if you consider that the Pacers need to overpay players to stay in Indiana because of its small market status. Larry Bird has repeatedly stated that Lance Stephenson will be “taken care of”, meaning Born Ready will likely get a lucrative extension of his own before he becomes a restricted free agent at the end of this season. Of course, Lance is not a max player, but his versatility and potential make him a valuable commodity worthy of a mid-level contract.

What all this means is that when Stephenson is re-signed and George’s extension kicks in at the start of the 2014/2015 season, the Pacers won’t have a lot of room to move. I don’t think the Pacers can or will move Granger. The possibility that Granger can put the Pacers over the top in the East makes him too valuable to just throw away for spare parts, which suggests to me that the Pacers will roll the dice with him and let him play out the season. In other words, they will let Granger go for nothing at the end of the season no matter what happens and collect the benefits from the $14m in cap space he takes with him. Even then, the Pacers will be effectively capped out until the 2015/2016, with only the ability to tweak the roster around the edges before that time comes.

But that is by no means a horrible predicament to be in. They already proved last season they don’t need Granger to contend with a starting lineup of Hill, Stephenson, George, West and Hibbert, an impressive core they will have locked in until the end of 2014/2015, and possibly a year longer if West and Hibbert pick up their player options. While West will slowly decline with age, the other four guys should improve during this period, with the potential of George becoming a legitimate 2-way superstar. So Pacers fans can relax for now knowing that their team will stay in tact and challenge for the NBA title over the next 2 to 3 years, with their centerpiece Paul George locked in until the end of 2018/2019. Given the salary cap and luxury tax implications, however, it appears that this will be a team that can only improve internally through the development of its existing players, and that any personnel movements will be around the edges to fill in minor holes and gaps in the roster.

Let’s finish up with what Jalen Rose and Bill Simmons have to say about the Pacers’ upcoming season.

Courtside view: Pacers vs Rockets in Taiwan

October 20, 2013 in Basketball, Best Of, Indiana Pacers, NBA, Sport, Taiwan by pacejmiller

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Outside Taipei Arena before the game

I’m usually not into hyperbole, but last Sunday was one of the greatest days of my life. Yes, that’s right — I sat courtside for the Indiana Pacers/Houston Rockets game at Taipei Arena on Oct. 13.

Allow me to put that in perspective. It’s not easy being a Pacers fan (because there are so few of us, or so I thought), especially one growing up in Australia. The Indiana Pacers remain the only NBA team I’ve ever followed, and this upcoming season marks the 20th year I’ve supported the blue and gold. I’ve checked the box scores of — and in technologically improved times, followed live or watched — every single Pacers game since the 1994 season. I was such a hardcore fan that I used to call some stupid hotline that cost like 5 bucks a minute to listen to the scores.

I was on a high when the Pacers made their one and only NBA Finals appearance in 2000 (even though I knew they didn’t stand much of a chance against Shaq and the Lakers), and I was at an all-time low after the Pacers-Pistons brawl in 2004 (which I happened to catch live on TV). I scheduled my whole honeymoon trip to the States around the Pacers’ visit to Washington DC in 2008, just so I could watch them in a meaningless game up close from the third row, even though Reggie Miller had retired, the team had missed the playoffs, AND it had David Harrison on the roster (he is still trying to get back into the league but couldn’t get a Summer League invite this year).

David Harrison, by the way, was at the game (right), along with the crazy hardhat guy who attends every Pacers game

Former Pacers first round pick David Harrison, by the way, was at the game (right), along with the crazy hardhat guy

And so I practically gave myself a heart attack when I read a few months ago that, as part of the NBA Global Games, the Pacers were coming to Taiwan in October to play an exhibition against Jeremy Lin and the Houston Rockets. It’s actually not the first time the Pacers have been to Taipei, as they played an exhibition against the Denver Nuggets in 2008, when I was studying in the UK (I remember lamenting the missed opportunity back then). My guess is that the Pacers are being picked for Taiwan because they’re a small market team that holds some cache in Taiwan because of Reggie Miller, while the marquee teams, like the Lakers, are sent to the big markets like China (like they were this year). I’m not complaining.

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Jeremy Lin’s ass

Though generally speaking Taiwanese people are not great at basketball, they loved their NBA and I knew the tickets would be gone as fast as they would for a Jay Chou concert. So on the day the tickets were available for sale (only through machines at 7Eleven), I made sure I got there early and reserved myself a machine. I was all hot under the collar when the sale began, and I started getting nervous when I kept being booted out of the system due to traffic overload. It happened about three times before I gave up on the cheaper tickets and just went straight to the most expensive — which I was lucky to get through to — and bought 2 tickets. The crazy part is that you then have to print out this little receipt and take it to the cashier so you can pay them IN CASH, which is outrageous considering how much the tickets cost (I refuse to divulge this information, but it was more than I could afford). Freaking out, I had to go to the ATM three times just to get enough cash out to pay for them, and I had to do it within 10 minutes or else the seat reservation would get automatically cancelled. I nearly had an out-of-body experience that afternoon.

I started to regret spending the money as soon as the tickets (the actual tickets) were printed out and placed in my hands. But after some self deliberation I decided it was worth it. After all, I didn’t foresee a trip back to the States in my near future and this was still cheaper than getting a plane ticket to fly over there. Most importantly, the Pacers are title contenders this season and I love all the guys on that team, and I would be able to see all of them — courtside! So I decided it was worth it, and this was even before Dwight Howard joined the Rockets and made them a contender too.

The game was on at 1:30pm local time at Taipei Arena, which had been modified into a bona fide NBA arena with the same backboards, rings, floors, and so forth. I had heard some people complain about the 2008 experience (Pacers-Nuggets) being somewhat underwhelming, but I think this year they really put in a lot of effort to make it as genuine as possible. After all, they had flown over not just the entire roster of players and coaching staff, but also the team owner (Herb Simon), team president Larry Bird (just my favourite non-Pacers player of all time), team mascot Boomer and the Pacemates, the team’s official cheerleading squad.

The Pacemates made it to Taipei

The Pacemates made it to Taipei

Having had to take my eldest son to the doctors in the morning and get everything settled, my wife and I were in a bit of a rush to get to the arena. We left early but went for a nice lunch at the nearby Ruth Chris Steak House (I’ll review it soon), which the Rockets apparently visited just a couple of days earlier. Strange choice to have US steak when Taiwan has some of the best food you can ever imagine, but maybe the players were feeling homesick or something.

We arrived at the arena just after 1pm. The outside was packed with people, most of them wearing Jeremy Lin jerseys and Dwight Howard T-shirts, though I was surprised to see how many there were in Pacers blue. Perhaps I was wrong about all Taiwanese ballers being bandwagon fans. Then again, the Pacers are pretty good now, and they have a legitimate two-way rising star in Paul George, currently tied with George Hill and David West as my favourite Pacers players.

George Hill is just a flat out stud

George Hill is just a flat out stud

The stupid thing about the arena is that it is strictly no food or drinks allowed. They had some stall inside selling beverages, but you couldn’t even bring your own bottle of water in. “They have bubblers inside,” is all the security guys told us. If they wanted to halve their revenue, then I guess that’s their choice.

Foxconn chairman Terry Gou got the best seat in the house, right next to the Rockets bench

Foxconn chairman Terry Gou got the best seat in the house, right next to the Rockets bench

Even stupider was the lax security screening and bag checks. I say that because I just wandered in without them checking my bag, which made me feel unsafe, but also because it meant I didn’t have to scull that 600ml bottle of water I just had with me.

Having bought the most expensive tickets available (with the exception of a NT$200,000 special package — that’s about AU$7000), we were ushered to the bottom level and walked straight onto the area surrounding the game floor. By the time we walked in there the Pacers stunt team were already doing acrobatic dunks off trampolines. The atmosphere was incredible and I could feel the excitement rushing through my veins, so much so that my hands were beginning to tremble (sad, I know).

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I thought our seats were slightly to the side, but as it turned out they were right on the halfway line, directly behind the scorers and announcers. In this sense the seats weren’t as good as the ones across on the other side of the court, situated right next to the sideline, but I suppose those were the NT$200,000 tickets I could only dream about.

I used the spare time to allow the moment to sink in, and that was when I spotted ex-Pacer Jalen Rose sitting at the end of the empty Rockets bench. Security wouldn’t let me get too close, but I got close enough to say hi and get a nice response from him. I’m not exactly sure why he came, but he did, along with Clyde Drexler, Robert Horry and Yao Ming, and all of them were trotted out during a break for some reason. All I recall is that Yao is a BIG dude, the biggest human I’ve ever seen, and he made the 6’8″ Jalen Rose look like a kid.

Jalen Rose

Jalen Rose

The most unfortunate thing about the whole day was that my camera, which I thought had been fully charged, was completely out of battery, meaning I had to rely on my iPad to snap photos. In retrospect, it was probably a blessing in disguise because it allowed me to focus more on the game and savour the experience rather than worrying about photos.

Yao Ming, Jalen Rose, Robert Horry and Clyde Drexler

Yao Ming, Jalen Rose, Robert Horry and Clyde Drexler

The moment the Pacers took to the floor was a stop-breathing moment. Paul George, Roy Hibbert, George Hill, David West, Danny Granger, each of them looking remarkably…normal. I don’t know what I was expecting, but they looked just as I had imagined them. Granger was the only guy I had seen in person before (2008 in DC), and this time his role on the team has changed significantly, from franchise high-volume scorer to doubted former All-Star recovering from knee surgery.

Paul George taking a jumper during warmups

Paul George taking a jumper during warm ups

I tried calling out to the players from the sideline to get their attention, but the arena was so noisy that most of them didn’t hear, or heard and didn’t respond. The only guy who looked over and nodded was Lance Stephenson. He was Born Ready to acknowledge his fans.

Oh, and before I forget, there was another team that day — the Houston Rockets, led by local favourite Jeremy Lin. Like Aussies, Taiwanese people grab on to anything and anyone with a remote link to success, and Lin is no different. The Harvard grad’s parents are from Taiwan, and so even though he’s an American born in America, to Taiwanese people it’s as good as a local product making it to the NBA. I was fascinated by the whole Linsanity thing last year like everyone else, so it was good to see him in person, but for me it was more exciting to see James Harden, Dwight Howard, and of course, coach Kevin McHale, arguably the craftiest post player of all time and former teammate of Larry Bird.

The Houston Rockets

The Houston Rockets

Lin of course of the biggest cheer when the players were introduced, and he and Paul George even showed off a bit of their Mandarin before the game (Lin obviously more so than George, who said “hello” and “thank you”).

Paul George and Jeremy Lin address the crowd

Paul George and Jeremy Lin address the crowd

Before I knew it, the game started, and I remember the first basket vividly — a two-handed put-back slam by Paul George off a missed layup by George Hill. The first Rockets basket was by — who else — Jeremy Lin, who sank a wide open three. Lin actually played really well on the day, almost like it had been scripted. He had 17 points in 35 minutes on 6 of 8 shooting before foul trouble forced him to sit and the bench warmers played out the rest of the game with the Rockets firmly ahead. He would have bee player of the game no matter where the game was played.

Jeremy Lin hits Houston's first basket of the game

Jeremy Lin hits Houston’s first basket of the game

To avoid the risk of this post going on forever, here are some general observations I had about the game and the players and the teams in general:

  • Watching the game on TV is great in terms of getting to see everything and getting replays if you miss stuff (in slow motion as well), but I do understand why people shell out lots of money to be at the games despite the hassles of travel and getting sandwiched by the crowds. The atmosphere is just different, especially when you are that close.
  • I always got the feeling that the courts felt bigger on TV and that the players, as big as they are, have more room to navigate the floor space. In person, you realize that the people are huge and the court is just as big as the ones normal people play on, and the ring is still 10 feet tall. It looks real crowded inside that three-point line and shows how just impressive these players are in being able to drive straight to the rim.
  • The only guy who got a bigger ovation than Jeremy Lin on the day was none other than Larry Legend himself when he was introduced at some point during the game. I got pretty close to him as they headed out to the locker room after the first half and was tempted to tell him how much I love him.
Larry Legend in the background

Larry Legend in the background

  • Everything about the game was pretty authentic except for the arena announcer who had a horrible accent when trying to speak English. George Hill became “Joe Heer” and Roy Hibbert became “Roy Heeber”. Seriously.
  • I reckon I could be a pretty good NBA coach because most of the things I was shouting from the sideline was similar to what Pacers coach Frank Vogel was saying (eg, “That was a flop!”, “Bad call!”, “Get back on transition!”).
Pacers coach Frank Vogel

Pacers coach Frank Vogel

  • The Pacers are going to be very good this year, even though they are not quite there yet. Paul George looks confident and ready to be a two-way superstar, and David West is just as reliable as he has always been. I don’t know if Roy Hibbert’s offense has improved much or if the improvement will manifest on the stat sheet, but his defensive game is still solid and I hope to see him in the running for Defensive Player of the Year. Danny Granger, whom I saw stretching behind the bench before checking in, is the X-factor. Jalen Rose apparently said Granger looks DONE as an elite player and he’s probably right, but it doesn’t mean he can’t still be productive in a contract year.
Danny Granger stretches behind the bench

Danny Granger stretches behind the bench

  • In a year when Miami is looking to three-peat, Derrick Rose is back in Chicago and Brooklyn has added Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, my guess is the Pacers could finish as low as fourth in the East in the regular season, meaning they could face the top seed in the second round. As long as that top seed is the Bulls and not the Heat I think they might actually be better off. The Pacers will struggle at times during the regular season because they don’t have a bailout superstar like Lebron or Rose (unless Paul George develops into that guy), but this is a team built for the grinding style of the playoffs. Larry Bird said they’re “all in” this season, and I think the Pacers’ window for a championship will be pretty narrow, as in the next two or three years. And to win it I think they will need some luck, like a key injury to one or two of their main rivals.
  • Jeremy Lin is a god in Taiwan, which he would frown upon since he only believes in the one true God.
Jeremy Lin is a god in Taiwan...no, not THAT god

Jeremy Lin is a god in Taiwan…no, not THAT god

  • Houston is going to be dangerous this year. I’m not sure if they are contenders in the West with the likes of San Antonio, OKC, Memphis and LA Clippers, but they are definitely up there with the Golden State Warriors in terms of contention potential. If Dwight Howard meshes well and Omer Asik stays on the team and complements Howard well, then the Rockets could be really dangerous.
  • Don’t get me wrong — James Harden is awesome, practically unstoppable one-on-one, but he is also one of the biggest floppers I’ve ever seen. On literally every drive to the basket he would stick his arms out in front, flail and do this exaggerated head jerk like he had been hit by a bowling ball in the face — and more often than not he would get a foul call and two shots from the line. No wonder he led the league in free throw attempts last season.
  • Dwight Howard looked really good out there in terms of his speed and athleticism. Last season he felt a step slow, but in the 24 minutes I saw him play he was definitely a difference maker at both ends of the floor. He had a pretty poor game by his standards (10 points on 5 of 13 shooting) but he was so much quicker and more agile than the 7’2″ Hibbert (who has been working on improving his athleticism) it shocked me a little bit. If only Kevin McHale could impart some of his post moves to him…
Houston's gonna be a pretty good team this year

Houston’s gonna be a pretty good team this year

  • I got my wife to buy me a Pacers cap and David West jersey between the third and fourth quarters because the line was too long during halftime, part of it because most idiots didn’t start contemplating what they wanted to buy until they got to the front of the bloody line! Taiwan!!!

The final score was 107-98 in favour of the Rockets, which was not a big deal to me because it was a preseason game that didn’t count for anything. The only disappointment I had was that I didn’t get to see new addition Luis Scola play. Frank Vogel was resting him.

Overall, it was an amazing experience, one I will always remember. My still hope to one day head over to Indiana and watch a live playoff game (preferably a game 7, but a game 4 as they go for a sweep is good enough), but for now this will have to do.

By the way, when the game ended and the players finished exchanging hugs I decided to stick around and see if anything else was going to happen before they walked off the court. Good thing I did, because otherwise this wouldn’t be displayed in my glass cabinet at home right now.

Yes, I caught Paul George's game shoe

Yes, I caught Paul George’s game shoe

My Greatest NBA Fantasy Team of All Time

August 13, 2013 in Basketball, Best Of, NBA, Sport by pacejmiller

MJ

I haven’t done any basketball-related posts on this blog for a while, and this is a topic I have wanted to tackle for some time. After recently reading Jack McCallum’s fabulous Dream Team (review here), a chronicle of the greatest group of talent ever assembled in team sport, I started thinking about which players I would pick for my personal fantasy dream team, comprising NBA players from any era at a certain point in their careers.

This is, of course, just a personal selection of players based on a subjective assessment of each player’s talent, ability and skill, as well as what I think they will bring to the table and how they might play off each other as a cohesive unit. So don’t get your knickers in a bunch if you don’t agree. I will, however, try to justify my selections with explanations, so feel free to comment and start up a healthy debate.

As this is MY dream team, I am going to only consider players I have actually watched play in full televised or archived games (ie late 80s), as opposed to basing selections purely on reputation or grainy highlights. I therefore offer my apologies upfront to the greatest winner of all-time, Bill Russell, the most dominant scorer (and womanizer) of all time, Wilt Chamberlain, and Mr Triple Double, Oscar Robertson.

Two of the greatest actors of their generation, Arnie and Wilt

Two of the greatest actors of their generation, Arnie and Wilt

Part of the decision to remove them from contention stems from my belief that players of the past, as good as they were, aren’t as good as the players of the modern era. I mean, Russell was only 6’9″ and 225 lbs, and Wilt was regarded as unmatched at 7’1″ and 275 lbs, and the level of competition they faced was not even close. It’s no question that players today are much bigger, stronger, more athletic and more skilled. Not to say Russell, Wilt and The Big O wouldn’t still be great players in today’s game (especially if they were given the same nutrition and training opportunities), but I just don’t know enough to make that assumption.

Starters

Selection philosophy

The majority of my starting five choices won’t be controversial. There’s at least one guy that will be on everyone’s list, and we all know who that is, and there’s two other guys that will be on most lists.

My philosophy was simple. The first factor was to consider the best all-round player in that position. The second consideration was whether that player addresses a need on a team, be it scoring, passing, rebounding, defense, shooting, shot blocking, and so forth. And the third consideration was whether those players would mesh well as a team. With that in mind, my greatest starting five of all time is…

PG Magic Johnson (1988-1989)

It wasn’t hard to choose whom many regard as the greatest point guard of all time, a 6’9″ maestro with possibly the best court vision the game has ever seen. With his incredible size at PG and ability to find the open man, especially on the break, Magic would be the perfect coordinator of this team. His supernatural passing ability has somewhat shadowed his scoring and rebounding, which were both fantastic, but the best thing about Magic is that he doesn’t need to score to control and dominate a game. And let’s not forget the intangibles — his leadership and will to win.

It’s hard to pick one version of Magic for this team. There’s 1981-1982, the year where he came closest to averaging a triple double with 18.6, 9.6 and 9.5. There’s 1983-1984, when he averaged a career high 13.1 assists to go with 17.6 points, or 1986-87, when he averaged a career high 23.9 points to go with 12.2 assists. Any of these would have been wonderful, but in the end I chose his 1988-1989 MVP season, during which he averaged 22.5 points, 12.8 assists (both second highest in his career) and still grabbed 7.9 rebounds (the highest since 1982-1983). He shot 51% from the field and came close to leading the league in free throws at 91.1%. He also posted his second-highest PER at 26.9 (just 0.1 below his best PER).

SG Michael Jordan (1988-1989)

The no brainer. Of course you would have the GOAT on your team. A perfect blend of size, strength, athleticism and skills matched with an unparalleled drive, determination, and desire to win at all costs. Unstoppable offensively and capable of stopping just about everyone defensively. Even on this team, the greatest of all time, MJ would be the unquestionable star.

The harder decision was choosing the best version of Jordan to fill my team. Do I go with the offensive prodigy who put up a staggering 37.1 points in 1986-1987, the highest single season scoring average of any player not named Wilt Chamberlain? Or do I go with the Jordan of the first three-peat, where he was better athletically, or the Jordan of the second three-peat, where he was smarter and developed that money turnaround jumper? Ultimately, I could not pass on the 1988-1989 Jordan who averaged 32.5, 8 and 8 (the latter two of which were career highs) and shot nearly 54% from the field and 85% from the line. It wasn’t his most efficient year (he posted a PER of 31.7 in 1987-88), but a PER of 31.1 and a career-high true shooting percentage of 61.4% is not too shabby.

SF Larry Bird (1984-85)

Larry Legend is my favourite non-Pacers player of all time, so he was bound to be on the team somewhere. But even as an objective assessor, I would have put him on the starting lineup anyway, especially if you see my selections below. Bird is the kind of player you just have to watch to understand just how legendary he truly is. Apart from being possibly the greatest shooter of all time, Bird was a fantastic rebounder and effortless passer. He may not be the greatest one-on-one defender, but he uses his high basketball IQ and tenacity to his advantage and gets plenty of deflections and steals, plus his 6’9″ height is an advantage against smaller wing players.

But it’s the intangibles that make Bird a can’t miss player on my greatest team of all time. The ice cool confidence, that special ability to make his teammates better, and the clutchness — I’d have no problem with either him or Jordan taking the final shot every time. Bird might even be better because of his long range capabilities. With the creativity of Magic and Bird on the same team the possibilities are endless.

It’s not easy picking the best Bird (he did have three MVPs and two 50-40-90 shooting seasons), but I’ve decided on the 1984-85 season when he won his second MVP, posting averages of 28.7 points, 10.5 rebounds and 6.6 assists while shooting 52% from the field, 43% from three-point range and 88% from the line. He also posted the second highest PER of his career that year with 26.5.

PF LeBron James (2012-2013)

With LeBron playing the best basketball of his career after shifting predominantly to power forward in Miami, it made it easy for me to not have to decide between him and Larry Bird at SF. The best player in the game today — by far — LeBron is a unique player at 6’8″-6’9″ and 250 lbs (at least), freakishly athletic, strong as an ox and unstoppable on the break, with incredible court vision, an improving jumpshot and the ability to defend any position on the floor. So while there might be more conventional choices at PF, simply having LeBron anywhere on this starting lineup was a more important consideration for me.

The LeBron I chose for the team is the most recent version from the 2012-2013 season, when he led the Heat to their second straight title while winning his fourth MVP award. He posted his second highest PER at 31.6 and averaged a controlled 26.8 points, 8 rebounds and 7.3 assists while making it look easy. He also shot a ridiculous 56.5% from the field and 40.6% from three-point range. He may have had more eye-popping numbers in Cleveland, but there is no doubt that the LeBron of now is the much better player. To think he might not have reached his peak is a frightening thought.

C Hakeem Olajuwon (1992-1993)

Lots of great options at center, but in the end I went with the most complete player at both ends of the floor, the player with the unstoppable post moves (just ask David Robinson) and the NBA’s all-time top shot blocker. I chose Hakeem because he can do it all (he is only one of four players in NBA history to have recorded a quadruple double), but particularly because of his defensive prowess and longer shooting range compared to most centers. And he was a rare center who could actually hit his free throws, coming close to 80% in his prime. Hakeem didn’t overpower you, but he could score in an unlimited number of ways, whether it was faking you out down low, up and unders, hook shots or fadeaway jumpers. On the other end he was a menace with those long arms and exquisite footwork.

It was tempting to choose a Hakeem from the Rockets’ championship years in 1993-1994 and 1994-1995, but I think he was even better in 1992-1993, except he was overshadowed by Jordan, like everyone else. In that year, Hakeem recorded his best PER of 27.3 and averaged 26.1 points, 13 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 4.2 blocks. Just beastly.

Selection justification

I am confident my starting lineup of Magic, Jordan, Bird, LeBron and Hakeem can beat any starting five in history. You have tremendous size, with everyone except 6’6″ Jordan at 6’9″ or above. All are fantastic playmakers who make their teammates better, especially Magic, Bird and LeBron, and Jordan and Hakeem are both superior passers at their respective positions. All five are also excellent rebounders, and sound team rebounding is what makes a good team great. An interesting point to note is that all five are superb post players too, so they can take their man one-on-one to make the most of mismatch opportunities.

Defensively, Jordan and LeBron can shut down any wing player, and LeBron can take on most power forwards. Both of them, especially LeBron, are chase-down block specialists. Jordan, remember, was the Defensive Player of the Year in 1987-1988. Bird and Magic are not known for their D but are both clever players who can mask their deficiencies. And in the middle you have Hakeem challenging, blocking and changing shots.

If the game ever gets tight, as unlikely as that is, you have five of the greatest clutch players at their respective positions at your disposal. And if all else fails, just get the ball to Jordan and get the hell out of the way.

Whichever way you look at it, this is an unstoppable starting five! They have size and speed, they rebound and share the ball, can shoot and score and defend in a multitude of ways. With the way these guys play, you never have to worry about chemistry because they all just want to win.

See the rest of my selections and those who missed the cut after the jump!

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The Beijing Diaries, Days 4 & 5: Random Observations

November 13, 2012 in China, NBA, Travel by pacejmiller

The added security is a hassle — unless you have a press pass

November 9 & 10

The 18th National Congress is officially underway, and my days generally involve running around between my hotel and the media center at the aptly named Beijing Media Center Hotel. You would think they’d put the media center somewhere convenient and close to the Great Hall of the People. but it’s about 6 subway stations away.

The rich international news agencies generally have their own cars and drivers or get special shuttle buses directly to the venue from their hotel, but cheap news agencies like the one I work for force us to catch the subway.

On Friday, I moved back to the hotel I was originally supposed to stay at (but was cancelled at the last minute). It’s part of the same chain but it’s more convenient, newer, brighter and cleaner — although it’s also a little smaller.

Anyway, not much to blog about since I’ve been spending most of my time attending press conferences and writing articles, so I’ve decided to share some of my random observations of Beijing.

Here goes:

  • Beijing’s subway system is utterly insane. Off-peak here is like peak time in Sydney and Taipei. I’ve never had so many bodies pressed against me at once, and definitely never so many bodies that smell like they haven’t showered for some time. People have to prepare about 2 stops in advance to make their way through to the door so they can get off.
  • Red lights don’t count for cars here for some reason. Everyone seems to have accepted this fact, even the traffic cops and pedestrians.
  • Red lights don’t count for pedestrians either if enough people can cross the road at the same time. Dozens of people just naturally form groups of their own and cross together at the same time, blocking cars that should have the right of way. Strength in numbers. It’s awesome.
  • Taiwanese people have got nothing on the Chinese when it comes to picking their noses on public transport.
  • I am always thirsty in Beijing. I have about 4 litres of water a day and I’m still thirsty.
  • The Oriental Plaza Mall across from when I am staying is huge — it stretches between two subway stations (Wangfujing and Dongdan). Think about that for a second.
  • There is a serious phlegm problem in Beijing. People are constantly hocking phlegm wherever I go (in fact I can hear it outside my window as I type this), though to their credit there are significantly less spitting noises that follow. It must be something in the air or the food because I’ve been experiencing a significant rise in phlegm myself.
  • There is no concept of lining up in China. I often see massive crowds of people and I think something must be going on, but they’re actually all just trying to get to the ticket machine at the same time. Years of fighting for survival can do that to people.
  • The Beijing Media Center Hotel really sucks. The internet there is slow and many websites don’t work. The wi-fi is completely unreliable. I would believe it if someone told me that the Chinese government giving foreign journalists shit internet on purpose so they can’t send their articles back home to get published.
  • Security is heavy right now at subway stations and near tourist spots in Beijing but you can get away with most of it if you have a press pass (they just let you through without checking most of the time). Makes me worry that someone is going to make a fake press pass. They fake everything here, so surely a press pass is not that hard.
  • I can’t get out of my head the recording of the English announcer’s voice from the escalators at all subways stations on line one. “Please stand firm, and hold the handrail,” she says. But it sounds like “Please stan-fer, and ho-de-han-ruil” — with a Frank Constanza kind of halting rhythm. I love it.
  • Beijing (and I assume all of China) has really awesome NBA coverage, with multiple live games and replays throughout the week. The best part is that during timeouts and breaks they almost always show highlights of other games around the league. It’s one continuous NBA-rama here.
  • From my very limited interactions with taxi drivers in Beijing I have concluded that they are the nicest in the world. The other night I had real trouble getting a cab to go to a journalist function, and I finally managed to hail one down — but it was heading in the wrong direction. The driver was so apologetic that she would have to find somewhere to do a could of U-turns and despite me saying it was perfectly fine since I was the one that chose a cab in the wrong direction she just wouldn’t stop apologizing. And when I arrived at my destination I tried to give her a one yuan tip, but she wouldn’t take it no matter how hard I tried. Are they polite or just crazy?
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