My Epic Indiana Pacers 2013-2014 Season Preview and Predictions

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

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.

Book Review: ‘The Jordan Rules’ by Sam Smith

July 18, 2013 in Basketball, Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews, Sport

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Sam Smith’s The Jordan Rules: The Inside Story of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls sparked quite a firestorm of controversy when it was first released in late 1991, months after Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls captured their first NBA title.

At the time, no one could believe the things Smith was saying, such as Jordan’s gambling addiction, his relentless bullying of teammates and the blind eyes his coaches, team management and league officials were turning to the behaviour of the sport’s transcendent megastar.

I finally got a chance to read the 20th anniversary edition of this legendary book, which includes a new introduction looking back on the furore and how the book came into being. There is also, I presume added from later editions, an epilogue written after the Bulls’ first three-peat (the last title coming in 1993), as well as an afterword summarising the events leading up to the second championship.

Even after all these years, The Jordan Rules is still an amazing book because of its incredible insights, revelations, humour and exquisite journalism. The biggest difference, reading it now, is that none of the so-called negative things about Jordan discussed at length in the book can really be considered surprises anymore.

It is now widely accepted that: 1. Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time, and possibly the greatest athlete ever; and 2. He is/was a massive a-hole. These two facts are not mutually exclusive and should not mitigate each other.

It is now actually more unexpected to see a sports superstar who isn’t seriously flawed. People these days expect a mean streak or some level of douchbaggery in their sports heroes. Kobe, for example, is a dickhead, while LeBron and Dwyane Wade are douches and Dwight Howard is a twat. The few “good guys” such as Tim Duncan are considered boring and bland. That’s why people who read The Jordan Rules now will probably wonder what the fuss was all about. Smith himself mentions this in the intro,

The book is titled The Jordan Rules (an allusion to the so-called tactics the Detroit Pistons employed to deny Jordan and the Bulls year after year, as well as the “special treatment” Jordan was afforded by his team and the league, such as skipping practice to play golf, avoiding punishment for dissent, and doing basically whatever he wanted without repercussions) but it’s actually about the entire Chicago Bulls team during the 1990-1991 NBA season.

The first few chapters take us through each of the months in the regular season, then into the playoffs and eventually, the NBA Finals. The narrative weaves in and out of events taking place throughout the year, including key games and incidents off the court, but also takes time out to give us brief biographies into each of the players on the team, coach Phil Jackson and front office guys Jerry Krause and Jerry Reisendorf. The rotund cheapskate GM Krause, in particular, is highlighted as a source of much of the discontent on the team for his unwillingness to reward players with fair contracts and his man-crush on Toni Kukoc, a European superstar at the time.

Smith was in a very fortunate position as a basketball beat writer in Chicago, giving him plenty of access to the players and staff, something which would not be possible in a post 9/11 world. He was also working in the pre-Twitter era where players were much more willing to speak to reporters without fear of it being broadcast to the world seconds later.

But are the stories in the book accurate? I’d like to think so. Smith claims nearly all the anecdotes and stories in the book are from first hand accounts from players and staff (my guess is mostly from Bill Cartwright and Horace Grant, though he claims it was just about everyone). So obviously while there will be mistakes and exaggerations, I’d like to believe the book is credible, for the most part.

Smith has a deprecating sense of humour about his writing ability, but it’s actually very good and straightforward, guided bynprofessional integrity and laced with some timely dry humour. There are no Bill Simmon’s-style cultural references, though the book has no shortage of outrageous jokes and laugh-out-loud moments. It is the kind of book I wished Phil Jackson’s Eleven Rings had been. That book made the Bulls’ 1990-1991 season seem like a stroll in the park with barely a bump in the road, but The Jordan Rules revealed just how much tumult there was in and out of the locker room all year.

There is, of course, Jordan in the middle, the once-in-a-lifetime athlete who took the NBA and the sport of basketball to unprecedented heights. Jordan was not close to any of his teammates, not even Scottie Pippen (who was actually best buds with Horace Grant for a long time), and spent much of his time complaining about them because he thought they weren’t good enough to help him win a championship. He belittled many of them, telling his screeners and point guards to get the f*&% out of his way, freezing out teammates he disliked, and even punching center Will Purdue during practice. And he actually hated Phil Jackson’s triangle offense. But Jordan’s relentless drive to succeed was as unparalleled as his god given talents, and I was stunned to discover that he didn’t even start lifting weights until around 1990 and was once a junk food addict.

I don’t believe, however, that Smith was trying to paint a negative portrait of Jordan. He is clearly in awe of Jordan’s unique talents on the court, and questioned why Jordan should not have received special treatment given what he was doing for his team and the sport. Despite his basketball prowess, Jordan was not perfect but felt like he had to project that image of himself, and often that pressure was too much to overcome. He was and is an extremely private person, but can’t go anywhere in public without being hounded, explaining why it was tough for him to hang out with the rest of the team. It doesn’t excuse his bad behaviour but it helps us understand why he might be this way.

Jordan is the focus, but the rest of the team received equal attention. Just about everyone else on the roster was worried about their contracts and concerned about playing time and getting their shots (because Jordan took most of them). They looked at Jordan with a mixture of awe, resentment, envy and jealousy, but at the same time had no choice but to acknowledge that he was by far the best player they had ever seen.

Pippen, for instance, having grown up dirt poor, was obsessed with financial security. He wasn’t regarded as the second-best player in the league at that stage and was frustrated that he wasn’t getting a contract extension as Krause focused all his attention on Kukoc. It was a contract year for him and he wanted to get paid, meaning he often hogged the ball to pad his own stats (and still complained about Jordan taking all the shots).

Horace Grant was Phil Jackson’s whipping boy on the team and hated Jordan. He believed he had the chance to be a star but could not get an opportunity to shine because of Jordan’s dominance. Bill Cartwright was the voice of reason on the team but also longed to be given a fair contract, as was John Paxson, who had been loyal to the team but was getting no love in return. BJ Armstrong was a backup who believed he deserved to start, and Dennis Hopson was a former top scorer relegated to bench warmer. Everyone had their own agendas and gripes, and it was virtually a miracle that they eventually learned to put their differences aside for a common goal — to win the NBA championship.

There is so much gold in this book. I won’t spoil too many but here are some of my favourites:

– Phil Jackson, upon hearing his players’ approval of the Gulf War: “Do you understand, he explained, that these are people who will never forget, the people who lose their father or a brother or a relative? They or their children or even their children’s children. Do you want to see, Jackson wondered, your son killed someday in an airplane explosion because we’ve made Iraq a terrorist nation from what we’ve done?” I know it’s Afghanistan, not Iraq, but the words are nonetheless prophetic and chilling.

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Stacey King!

– I loved any mention of Stacey King, the 6’11” Bulls forward/center who was fat and lazy and got virtually no playing time but still believed he was a superstar and loved to BS to teammates about his prowess in college. Anyway, he once grabbed a single rebound in three games (84 minutes of game time!), and this is what one of the front office guys said: “A two-year-old could get hit in the head with more rebounds than that.”

– the words of 7’7″ center Manute Bol, the tallest player ever in the NBA, to Bulls coach Phil Jackson after Jackson kept telling refs Bol was playing then-illegal zone defense: “’Mother fuck, mother fuck, mother fuck,’ Bol shouted at Jackson in a sort of soprano hyena form of broken English. ‘Why you pick on me, you mother fuck?'”

– Charles Barkley to an official before a playoff game against the Bulls: “‘Hey, Ed,’ he yelled at Rush. ‘I hope you’ve got some Vaseline. I know you’re planning to fuck us, so maybe you’ll at least make it feel better.'”

– Jordan on why the Bulls could conquer the NBA despite the turmoil on the team: “’The thing is, this is a business, and in business you don’t have to like everyone, but you’ve got to work with them,’ Jordan said. ‘What we’ve been able to do this season is separate. Basketballwise, our focus has been the same from game to game. It’s been proven the best teams don’t always have to get along together, and if everyone likes one another, it doesn’t mean you’re going to win. The difference is in the play.'”

– Pippen on his future teammate, Dennis Rodman, who was playing for the opposing Pistons at the time: “‘They really need to get him some help,’ Pippen was saying to Grant. ‘Really. This guy is crazy. It’s the one thing I’d never realized before and I was always too stupid to not let his stuff bother me. But now I can see it. I think he does have mental problems and needs help. Really. I don’t like him, but I think he is sick and it’s just not right that people like that are allowed to walk around free on the streets. They ought to get him some help. The boy is flat-out crazy.'”

– Jordan did some dickish things such as flaunt his ability to secure tickets for Bulls games in front of less privileged teammates, but could also be extremely generous, such as meeting Make A Wish Foundation kids just about every week, call all his teammates on the stage to receive his MVP award, and agreeing to the famous “We’re going to Disney World!” declaration after winning the finals only if the $100,000 fee is split among his entire starting five.

– Phil Jackson after seeing Jordan take a serious fall during the 1991-1992 season: “The trainer and Jackson rushed over. ‘I was expecting to find blood,’ Jackson related later. ‘Instead, we saw this beautiful blonde in the front row. That’s why we stayed out there so long.'”

So as you might have gathered, I had a great time with this book. My only complaints are that it may have exaggerated a couple of things: the disharmony on the team, making it a surprise to suddenly discover that the team was on its way to a record-setting season; and also the extent of Jordan’s selfishness, as he averaged 6.3 assists that season, hardly a representation of a guy who seemingly never passed the ball.

4.5/5

Book Review: ‘Eleven Rings’ by Phil Jackson & Hugh Delehanty

July 12, 2013 in Book Reviews, Reviews

eleven-rings

I’ve really been getting into sports books lately, so I decided to tackle Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success, the latest from the Zen master, Phil Jackson, the winningest coach in NBA history.

As the title suggests, Jackson has 11 NBA championship rings as a coach (does that make him…Sauron?), comprising the 6 he won with the Michael Jordan-led Bulls in two separate three-peats in the 90s, the three-peat he accomplished with the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers at the turn of the century, and the two more he added with Kobe and Gasol in 2009 and 2010. That doesn’t even include the two he won as a bench player with the Knicks in the 70s (though “13 Rings” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it).

There were a couple of reasons I became attracted to the book. First, Jackson is the only man to have guided both Jordan and Kobe to multiple titles and hence the only man who could give detailed and personal accounts of how these two ultra-competitive alpha dogs behaved on and off the court. I wanted those juicy, sordid details, dammit!

Secondly, I’ve become increasingly fascinated with how the minds of successful people operate and how they differ to us mere mortals. What is it that drives them to succeed? Why are they awesome and I’m not? How can I also be awesome?

The narrative structure of the book is straightforward and follows Jackson through each of his 11 title runs, plus a short history of his playing days. You would expect the seasons to get a little repetitive after a few years, but each one is surprisingly different and has its own set of unique challenges. As Jackson says, the second one (in each set of championships) is usually harder than the first because the egos start rising to the surface, and the third becomes even more difficult because players start thinking they know it all.

While Eleven Rings does provide some of the things I had expected, it was ultimately a bit of a disappointment because it lacked the depth and special insights I had hoped for. The book was “co-written” by Jackson and Hugh Delehanty (who previously worked with Jackson on Sacred Hoops), though I had a feeling while reading the book that Delehanty might have done most of the heavy lifting in the writing process. As a result, the narrative felt somewhat artificial in some respects.

Most readers would have an idea of the basic details such as who the Bulls beat for their first title (the Lakers), who they had to overcome to get there (the Pistons), and so forth, so what I was looking for was the added depth Jackson’s unique perspective could provide. Instead, the book ended up glossing over much of the stuff I wanted to learn about the most — the hardest-hitting stories, the unknown intimate details, the “real” behind-the-scenes anecdotes no one but Jackson and maybe his inner circle could divulge.

To be fair, the book did address some of the things I was curious about — such as Jordan’s gambling, how Jackson handled the antics of wild child Dennis Rodman, the Shaq-Kobe feud, the Kobe rape allegations. It was interesting to find out that the first thing Kobe said to Jordan when the two came face to face for the first time was: “You know I can kick your ass one on one.” Just as it was interesting to learn that Jackson could not stand Kobe for a long time after the Colorado rape allegations because his own daughter had been the victim of an assault at college.

A surprise for me was how Jackson made it a point to really emphasize Scottie Pippen’s greatness in this book. We knew he would rave on about Jordan, but Jackson repeatedly praised Pippen’s all-round game and touted him as the engine that drove the team, a true team player that at times even outshone his more famous teammate. On the other hand, Pippen didn’t exhibit any outward jealously because of Jordan’s success, but he did resent the general lack of appreciation he received and felt shafted by his low salary (he was basically the second best player in the league but about 100 guys were earning a lot more than him).

That said, I could still sense that the information I was reading was somehow restricted and carefully managed in a way that it felt like there was a wall separating Phil and his readers. Everything he was saying came across as too “sanitised” and made me wish he would just give it to us straight, no holds barred.

The most honest parts of the book, the parts I felt came closest to being completely honest, were the sections on Kobe Bryant, which even overshadowed the sections on Jordan. Jackson’s assessment of a young Kobe was brutal — he labeled him “selfish” and “uncoachable” — and basically painted the Black Mamba as an absolute a-hole. At least Jordan was an a-hole who listened to him. However, Jackson’s stance against Kobe would soften over time as both men grew together to form a tight bond, so much so that Jackson declared his final championship — the Lakers’ 7-game victory over the Celtics in 2010 — as the most rewarding of his career.

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Jackson sure is a different breed of animal to any sports coach I have ever seen or read about. For a long time I thought all that Zen stuff he’s known for was just a gimmick, but Jackson really is a dude in tune with his spiritual side. Both his parents were Christian ministers, though his restrictive upbringing led him on a path which embraced all facets of spirituality. Jackson would give his players books to read based on what he thought they needed to take the mental aspect of their game to the next level, and the teams would often engage in meditation and other bonding sessions such as road trips. When things got out of control he would consult psychiatrists. All of it was to ensure that the players could become the best they could be — not for themselves but for the sake of the team.

As someone still trying to embrace his spiritual side, I must admit that the Zen stuff didn’t exactly rock my boat. Eleven Rings is threaded with spiritual teachings (some of which even I recognised) Jackson utilised to manage his teams. There were some profound passages I could relate to, but at the same time it usually stopped the narrative dead in its tracks and turned the story into a spiritualism text book.

Nevertheless, it does make you realise that winning championships in the NBA is really really hard, and that talent alone is insufficient. It genuinely takes a full team effort where each player knows his role, where egos are put aside, and things just click at the right time. Jackson’s critics have downplayed his 11 rings by pointing to the fact that he had Jordan and Pippen, then Shaq and Kobe, then Kobe and Gasol, but I strongly believe now that without Jackson’s guidance those teams might have never gotten over the hump.

Anyway, I would recommend Eleven Rings for those interested in any of Phil’s 11 coaching titles, but in my opinion there are much better written basketball books out there. It was engaging because it was Phil Jackson and he has accomplished so much, but I had expected a little more.

3.25/5

Defending Lebron’s decision and pondering how good the Heat will be

July 11, 2010 in Basketball, NBA

I still don’t condone what Lebron James did when he announced he will be taking his talent to South Beach, but now that the dust has settled a little, I am beginning to get a different perspective.

Yes, I am going to defend Lebron’s decision.  Not the way he declared it to the world, but ultimately, leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers is a good decision.

(click on ‘more..’ to read on)

Read the rest of this entry →

Celtics dispose Bulls but check out Derrick Rose’s block!

May 3, 2009 in Basketball, NBA

I was so excited by Manny Pacquiao’s 2 round demolition of Ricky Hatton that I almost forgot about game 7 between the Boston Celtics and the Chicago Bulls, which I gushed about being possibly one of the best NBA playoff series of all time (and certainly the best first round series).

The Celtics and Bulls congratulate each other on a great series

The Celtics and Bulls congratulate each other on a great series

Celtics win!

Anyway, after 7 overtime periods in 6 games, in the end conventional wisdom prevailed and the Celtics knocked out the Bulls in Boston, 109-99. It was only the second game in the series where the final margin was more than 3 points (the other being game 3).

After all that drama in the first 6 games, everyone hoped for (but not really expected) an equally explosive finish, but it wasn’t to be.  The significant playoff experience the Celtics gained from last season’s championship run proved to be decisive, as Boston dominated the second quarter 29-11 (including a 22-2 run), taking a 13-point lead into the half and holding on the rest of the way for victory.

Game Analysis

There were several keys to game 7.  The Celtics obviously had the big-game experience from last year and the home court advantage, so the Bulls needed something special to pull out the upset.

I as said in my earlier post, the Bulls needed big games from Derrick Rose, Ben Gordon and John Salmons (or at least 2 out of the 3), and Brad Miller was the X-factor.  Looking at each of their performances in game 7, it’s easy to see why the Bulls lost.

Rose was solid, but not exceptional, scoring 18 points on 9-18 shooting and added 4 rebounds and 3 assists, with only 3 turnovers (low for him this series).  Notably, he didn’t get to the free-throw line even once.  However, Rose’s ‘average’ game was offset by Rajon Rondo’s struggles.  The player who dominated all series only scored 7 points on 2-8 shooting (plus 3-6 from the line) and had 4 turnovers, but he did have 11 assists and 5 rebounds.

Ben Gordon led the way with 33 points, but was an atrocious 7-23 from the field.  He did make up for it (a little) by hitting all 15 of his free throws.  Salmons was also disappointing, adding only 12 points on 3-12 shooting after playing hero in game 6 with 35 points.  As for the X-factor Brad Miller, only 9 points and 7 rebounds in 28 minutes.

The key for the Celtics, on the other hand, was bench play, which had been poor all series.  Luckily, they got that in game 7, with Eddie House breaking out with 16 points in 22 minutes without missing a shot (5-5 FGs including 4-4 from 3P and 2-2 FTs).  Big Brian Scalabrine also chipped in with 8 points including 2 three-pointers, but was the victim of another spectacular block by Derrick Rose.  See it again and again below!

By the way, Ray Allen top scored for the Celtics with 23 points (to follow up his 51 point effort in game 6) and Paul Pierce added 20 points and 9 rebounds.

What’s next

The Bulls can go home for the summer knowing that they gave last season’s defending champs all they could handle (despite them not having Kevin Garnett).  That will certainly give them a lot of confidence next season, as it did for the Atlanta Hawks when they took the Celtics to 7 games last season as the 8th seed and then finished this season as the 4th seed.

As for the Celtics, they move on to face the Orlando Magic in the second round.  The Magic came away with a shaky 6-game win in their first round series against the Philadelphia 76ers, and I think it will be a very interesting matchup.  Have the Celtics spent all of their energy on the Bulls or can they pull out another tough series?  Can anyone on the Celtics stop Dwight Howard?  I’ll have to think about these questions before I put down my picks for the second round.  Oh, and I forgot there’s still one series left – the Atlanta Hawks vs the Miami Heat.  I’m hoping for a Heat victory so we can see Lebron take on D-Wade!