Posts Tagged ‘C.J. Watson’

Pacers’ Game 7 Quest A Worthy Goal


VIDEO: Paul George scores 36 as the Pacers take down the Clippers

Be careful what you wish for.

As adages go, it’s not the most inspiring, right? Chase your dream, go for it, you only live once, flyin’ high now … except maybe you’ll regret it later. It’s the kind of conflicted message that, imparted at just the right time in a person’s life, keeps the shrinks’ and therapists’ kids in private schools.

The Indiana Pacers aren’t worried about all that. They want what they want. And they want home-court advantage in the NBA playoffs, specifically in the Eastern Conference finals (should they manage to get there).

They want it for the same reason they’re supposed to want Andrew Bynum – so the Miami Heat can’t have it. The value of being at home for the ultimate game in a best-of-seven series was seered into the Pacers’ brains June 3 – Miami 99, Indiana 76 – and has been the clearest, most shining goal in their tear through the season’s first half with the league’s best record.

The obvious downside, potentially, is that chasing that regular-season goal might sabotage the Pacers in their pursuit of the bigger prize: the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Coach Frank Vogel, breakout star Paul George, center Roy Hibbert – the ViceRoy of Verticality – and the rest have been asked about the potential for stubbing their toes almost as much as they’ve been asked about the championship itself.

Yet here they sit, nearly halfway through the grind, with a 3.5-game lead over the Heat and 1.5 over San Antonio and Portland in the Western Conference. None of the Pacers has broken down, no one has come up lame. They open their longest trip of the season Monday night at Golden State, a five-gamer bouncing through the West, showing no signs of flagging or peaking too soon.

Indiana targeted its brass ring for the season and methodically has gone after it. It has given them an identity and a purpose, and imposed some order on what – for the best teams, the ones likeliest to be playing in June – can be an amorphous and ponderous six months.

This has not been a burden, George said Saturday after a 106-92 victory over the Clippers.

“Not really. I don’t see it within this whole locker room,” the Pacers’ All-Star guard said. “It feels great going out there. I really don’t see it draining us. We just want to build habits for our team right now.”

The Miami Heat can scoff, wag a finger and remind the Pacers and their fans that one false move in a Game 1 or Game 2 come springtime – a squandered lead, a fluke play late – can flip the home-court advantage back to them. The two-time defending champions also can talk ominously about burnout, overuse injuries or other ills that could befall Indiana as a result of pushing so hard through 82.

Now, the Heat didn’t much heed such talk when they were winning 27 in a row last winter. But they have earned the right to “manage” the schedule and, given Miami’s roster, discretion rather than over-exertion is the better part of valor. The same might hold for San Antonio with its wrinkled wonders, though pacing the Spurs through the regular season hasn’t brought a ring home lately. The last time San Antonio won (2007), its main guys still were relatively teething.

Biggest difference, DefRtg vs. league average
Team Season DefRtg Lg. avg. Diff.
Indiana 2013-14 92.6 102.9 -10.3
Boston 2007-08 96.2 104.7 -8.6
San Antonio 2003-04 91.6 100.0 -8.5
New York 1992-93 97.1 105.3 -8.2
New York 1993-94 95.8 103.6 -7.8
Detroit 2003-04 92.5 100.0 -7.5
San Antonio 2004-05 95.8 103.1 -7.3
San Antonio 1998-99 92.1 99.2 -7.1
Chicago 2010-11 97.4 104.5 -7.1
Chicago 2006-07 97.0 103.7 -6.7
Since turnovers started being counted in 1977-78
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions

Developing habits, throwing victories on the pile and working game-by-game through the schedule as if building something magnificent brick-by-brick suits these Pacers. They’re young enough: George and Lance Stephenson are 23, Hibbert just turned 27, point guard George Hill is 27, and they’re the only guys averaging 30 minutes or more. They’ve been healthy: with the exception of Danny Granger, Hill (three) is the only member of their top nine who has missed more than one game.

Besides, it’s not as if they’re going to suddenly decide: “Nah, never mind. Not worth it.” Indiana is 21-1 at home this season. The Pacers have had a home-court edge like few teams, dating back to before several on this season’s team were born: 25 consecutive winning seasons in Indianapolis.

Bankers Life Fieldhouse was packed and crazed Saturday, on a snowy January night despite whiteout conditions on the highways leading downtown. And before Game 7 last June, there was Game 6, a blowout Pacers victory in which LeBron James was a minus-22.

By the way, in that game, Indiana’s reserves chipped in just eight points on 3-of-5 shooting. But that was then – this season’s bench is one reason Vogel and the Pacers feel they can push hard and go deep. Where once there was Tyler Hansbrough, D.J. Augustin and Sam Young, there is Luis Scola, C.J. Watson and Granger, renewed after his knee and calf layoffs.

Scola is shooting 50.2 percent and matching his career best of 10.4 rebounds per 36 minutes. Watson has been shooting 51.3 percent in fourth quarters, including 43.9 percent from 3-point range, with 46 percent of his makes coming in that quarter. Granger patiently probed the Clippers defense Saturday, gave Doc Rivers‘ crew another threat to account for and wound up with 12 points, scoring in double figures for the ninth time in 14 games back.

“We’ve got a lot of weapons in this locker room and we’ve always had a next-man-up mentality,” said power forward David West, who seemingly put Indiana in harm’s way Saturday with his flagrant-2 foul on Blake Griffin at the end of the second quarter. “If a guy goes down – like tonight, I got ejected, or a guy gets injured – the next guy’s got to be ready to step up.”

Every team and coach in the NBA says that, and it’s easy for the ones that have stayed healthy. Then again, real depth is real depth.

“I think we wear teams down,” backup forward Chris Copeland said. “We go as-many-players-as-you-want deep. Every lineup, every unit that [Vogel] puts on the floor is dangerous.”

Pretty much: Of Vogel’s top 10 heavily used lineups, only one (Hibbert, George, Hill, Scola and Orlando Johnson) has been “underwater” with a 79.9 offensive rating vs. 107.6 defensive rating. And they’ve been on the floor together just 30 minutes out of 1,877 this season.

Otherwise, the Pacers have been taking names and kicking rears. They have lost two games in a row only once so far, and of their seven defeats, five have come on the second night of back-to-back games. And guess what? There are no back-to-backs in the playoffs.

Look, be careful what you wish for isn’t bad advice. At its core, it suggests a cautious approach while, y’know, still wishing for something big. Literature, film and TV are rife with examples of great quests that end without payoff: The Maltese Falcon that inspired so much skullduggery ends up being a fake in the end. The ark that propelled Indiana Jones across continents is crated and warehoused by the end of Raiders. Don’t even get me started on Moby Dick.

But the Pacers’ hearts want what they want, and there’s no putting them off that goal now. If they get it, and even if Miami or someone else snatches away the home-court advantage early in a series, Indiana still will have at home – where its players, coaches and fans believe it matters – any Game 7 it faces.

That is worth chasing.

Augustin, Bulls Cozy Up In Marriage Of Point-Guard Necessity


VIDEO: D.J. Augustin misses the jumper but intercepts the pass and feeds Luol Deng for the layup

CHICAGO – Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls, supernova talent from the city’s South Side and NBA franchise in search of its 1990s championship pedigree again, is a match made in heaven (with a couple of recent hellish turns).

D.J. Augustin and the Bulls? Strictly a marriage of necessity.

But when someone needs someone to pick up the kids or the dry cleaning, and both someones need each other to get through a chilly winter night, those types of unions – borne of desperation – can be better than nothing.

Which is what Augustin and the Bulls essentially had a couple of weeks ago.

Augustin – the Texas point guard drafted by Charlotte eight spots after Rose in 2008 but worlds apart in NBA impact and arc – had been cut loose by the Toronto Raptors earlier this month in a post-Rudy Gay trade roster shakeout.

But it wasn’t just numbers; Augustin hadn’t played in nine of Toronto’s previous 12 games, sliding down and finally off the team’s depth chart. On the heels of an unsatisfying 2012-13 season as Indiana’s backup to George Hill – a role for which the Pacers sought out former Bull C.J. Watson – it seemed as if Augustin’s career might be Euro-bound or worse.

Then there were the Bulls, losing Rose to a season-ending injury for the second time in 19 months. Veteran Kirk Hinrich got thrust into Rose’s spot in late November but after 10 NBA seasons, Hinrich is only duct tape-and-baling wire durable, a race car in need of trainers-room pit stops every other lap or so.

That left Marquis Teague, little-used as a rookie last season and underwhelming enough lately to merit a redshirted sophomore year as well. And Mike James, 38, an insurance player exposed as inadequate even as a catastrophic policy.

So the Bulls turned to Augustin, the best of whatever bunch was available on the street or in the D-League. He played the night he arrived, logging 12 minutes and doing little else against Milwaukee, and in the five games since. In the past four, Augustin has started three and averaged 37.6 minutes, 13.8 points and 8.0 assists, while shooting 44.2 percent.

His career stats prior to Chicago: 24.1, 9.4, 3.9 and 39.9 percent. Augustin had 18 points and 10 assists, his first double-double since April 2012, to help the 10-16 Bulls beat Cleveland at United Center and snap a four-game losing streak (Kyrie Irving had 14 and 5).

“This is good for him but it’s good for us. We both need each other,” Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau said. “When you look at his entire career, his first two years in the league were terrific. Even last year, I thought he had some very good moments in the playoffs.

“He’s been a little up-and-down. Sometimes that’s not uncommon for a young player. But you can see that he has a lot of confidence. I like his skill set, that he can run a pick-and-roll, he can shoot, he can make plays. And I like the way he’s competing defensively. Each game, you can see he’s making a conscious effort to do the right things.”

All those things Thibodeau listed, other coaches with other teams eventually found lacking in Augustin. Their focus shifted to the negatives: Smallish, struggling to defend his position, shooting 36.5 percent since 2010-11.

But the Bulls were beggars, not choosers, when they scooped up Augustin after he cleared waivers. The players in their locker room were conditioned to follow their point guard’s lead. To them, in the moment of Rose’s latest knee injury, Augustin was the cavalry riding over the hill and they’re treating him as such.

“That’s an important leadership quality also,” Thibodeau said. “When you look at your point guard, you’re looking for someone who can unite and inspire your team. And I think he’s doing that with our guys.”

Augustin did that with Charlotte, under Larry Brown, for a couple of years, and then he didn’t. The way his play and minutes went with Indiana and Toronto, there wasn’t much uniting and inspiring going on when he took the court.

Now that he’s with his fourth team in three years, Augustin – in a puny sample size, admittedly – might be praying to Chauncey Billups, the NBA’s patron saint of early-career knockaround point guards, and hoping this run with the Bulls continues.

“I know how the NBA is,” Augustin said late Saturday, at the end of his from-disposable-to-indispensable week. “It’s a business. … You never know what can happen. The situation in Toronto, I didn’t get down on myself and I kept working hard and came here, and I’ve been playing a lot. I think if I got down on myself, I wouldn’t have been ready to play.”

There’s no way to get ready for 46 minutes, Augustin’s workload against Cleveland, other than gutting them out. The point guard has done extra work in the gym and with video, familiarizing himself with Chicago’s plays and his teammates’ tendencies. The tough head coach with the grind-it-out mentality Augustin saw as an opponent, but now he appreciates all that from the inside.

Beats the alternative, too. Everyone wants to be wanted, particularly around the holidays.

“We’re a team,” Augustin said of his latest hoops home. “Every night we go out and fight as a team. They’ve been embracing me pretty well here. I love it, I love all my teammates, I love Coach Thibodeau. You know, I love it here.”

One Team, One Stat: Pacers Defend It All

From Media Day until opening night, NBA.com’s John Schuhmann will provide a key stat for each team in the league and show you, with film and analysis, why it matters. Up next are the Indiana Pacers, who were one game away from reaching The Finals..

The basics
IND Rank
W-L 49-32 8
Pace 92.8 25
OffRtg 101.6 19
DefRtg 96.6 1
NetRtg +5.0 7

The stat

1st - Where the Pacers ranked in defending the restricted area, defending corner threes, and defending above-the-break threes.

The context

Those are the three most important areas of the floor, so yeah, the Pacers had the best defense in the league. The last team to lead the league in defending the restricted area and the 3-point line was the 2000-01 Spurs.

Roy Hibbert was largely responsible for the Pacers’ success at defending the rim. Indiana opponents shot just 50.4 percent in the restricted area with Hibbert on the floor, the lowest mark for any defender in the league who faced at least 500 restricted-area shots from opponents. Indy opponents shot 57.2 percent in the restricted area with Hibbert off the floor.

The general idea behind the Pacers’ defense is that, with Paul George sticking to the opponent’s best wing scorer (even through screens), Hibbert was able to stay home at the rim and the other guys were able to stay at home on shooters. Of course, that’s a lot more simple than it really is, and the Pacers do help off their man. They just don’t over-help and make the same communication mistakes that we saw in the Nets’ video last week.

Here are clips from Game 6 of the first round, where the Hawks shot just 9-for-19 from the restricted area and 3-for-19 from 3-point range…


The Pacers’ biggest issue last season was their bench. But their bench defended the 3-point line a lot better than their starters did. In the regular season at least, Indiana’s depth issues were all about offense.

Pacers’ efficiency and opponent 3-point shooting, regular season

Lineups MIN OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/- Opp3PM Opp3PA Opp3PT%
Starters 1,218 108.6 96.5 +12.1 +284 136 376 36.2%
Other lineups 2,698 98.5 96.7 +1.8 +42 304 968 31.4%

A lot of that is the opposing lineups the bench was facing. The were facing other reserves who didn’t shoot as well or even create as many open shots. But that 36.2 percent from beyond the arc that the starters allowed would have ranked 19th in the league. And every player in the Pacers’ rotation had a on-court DefRtg of less than 99 points per 100 possessions. After Tony Allen (94.3), Gerald Green had the lowest on-court DefRtg (95.1) among players who logged at least 1,000 minutes last season.

The playoffs were a different story though…

Pacers’ efficiency and opponent 3-point shooting, playoffs

Lineups MIN OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/- Opp3PM Opp3PA Opp3PT%
Starters 414 109.5 94.7 +14.8 +126 49 146 33.6%
Other lineups 502 94.5 107.4 -12.9 -123 85 231 36.8%

So the Pacers went shopping for a bench this summer. They said goodbye to D.J. Augustin, Green, Tyler Hansbrough and Sam Young, bringing in Chris Copeland, Luis Scola and C.J. Watson. The return of Danny Granger also boosts the second-unit offense, whether it’s Granger or Lance Stephenson coming off the bench.

The Pacers’ offense should definitely be better. But it will be interesting to see if the second-unit defense is as strong as it was last season. As both the Bulls and Pacers have shown over the last few years, ranking No. 1 defensively takes 10 guys.

Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

Pacers May Look To Stephenson To Put A ‘Whoa!’ To Bench Woes

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CHICAGO
– Some phobias can be worse than others, depending on one’s circumstances. For someone who makes his living in the NBA, gigaphobia – a pathological fear of tall people – would be a problem. So, for that matter, would aerophobia, the fear of flying.

But the five players who started most often for the Indiana Pacers last season set clinicians’ tongues to wagging when they began to develop an oddly contagious case of kathisophobia.

Otherwise known as the fear of sitting down.

“There were times we felt like guys should stay in the game,” center Roy Hibbert said Friday night, “and that we always should have at least two or three starters out there.”

Sitting down became a scary proposition for the Pacers’ starters because no team experienced the sort of performance dropoff – primarily  offensively – that Indiana did when three, two or even just one bench guy subbed in.

When the first unit of Hibbert, David West, Paul George, Lance Stephenson and George Hill was on the floor in 2012-13 in regular season games, Indiana had an offensive rating of 108.6 and a defensive rating of 96.5 for a net of 12.1. When any other lineup was out there, the advantage flattened (98.5/96.7/1.8).

A group of reserves – primarily D.J. Augustin, Ian Mahinmi, Gerald Green, Tyler Hansbrough and Sam Young – that was supposed to develop into something reliable never did.

“In the beginning of the year,” West said after the preseason loss to Chicago at United Center Friday, “we were playing 10, 11 guys, and I don’t know if that worked as well as we hoped. We made some adjustments, making sure there were a couple starters on the floor at all times. Found some lineups in terms of chemistry that worked, and things started to get better for us.”

Maybe, but it didn’t last. The dropoff got much worse in the playoffs: 109.5/94.7/14.8 for the starters to 94.5/107.4/-12.9 for the backups. And in the Eastern Conference finals against Miami, the simplest way to put it is that the Pacers’ first unit outscored the Heat by 46 points. But the bench guys got beat by 74. It only went seven games because the Hibbert-West-George-Stephenson-Hill group stayed on the floor longer than all other combinations put together.

Understandably, there have been changes. Augustin, Green, Hansbrough, Young and Miles Plumlee are gone. Mahinmi is back, but he has been joined by guard C.J. Watson, forwards Luis Scola and Chris Copeland and rookie Solomon Hill. Danny Granger is back, too, after missing almost the entire season with a knee injury, adding to what is hoped – no, actually what had better be – a deeper, more reliable roster. Top to nearly bottom.

The Pacers’ 0-5 mark with 11 days left in the preseason isn’t a cause for panic yet. Their schedule has been outrageous, with the longest of the NBA’s Global Games trips (Philippines and Taiwan) and now a stretch of four consecutive October road tuneups. Granger still is working his body and conditioning into game shape. Derrick Rose went on a 32-point romp in an early-comeback performance with a 2010-11 smell.

Still, the newness of all those freshly acquired Indiana subs has been showing.

“Obviously we’ve added some experience,” West said, “But we’ve got to get guys acclimated to the way that we play. It’s taking us probably a little more time than we expected, but we have faith in the guys in this locker room. And we know the [defensive] mindset, our approach every single day, is something guys have got to adjust to.”

Scola, for instance, was indecisive and out of rhythm against the Bulls Friday, shooting 1-of-5, committing three turnovers and holding the ball out top while desperately seeking unfamiliar teammates. The 6-foot-9 veteran is considered one of the prize pickups of the summer, an international star who has averaged 14.2 points and 7.5 rebounds in six NBA seasons. But he also started 371 of 386 games the past five years, so his preseason stats (9.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 36.4 percent shooting) can be attributed in part to his new role.

New system, new coaches, new teammates, new emphasis on defense, new role – it’s a lot.

“I hope I can bring a lot,” Scola said Friday. “I’m not sure. I’m trying to find a way to be more effective in this position. I’m not sure exactly how it’s going to work out. It’s just a different way to play.”

Watson is averaging 6.0 points with 11 turnovers to five assists. Copeland got on the floor for 12 seconds against the Bulls and has missed 26 of his 34 field goal attempts. Teams have outscored the Pacers 500-453 through five games.

The Granger-Stephenson decision eventually has to get made, too. Initially, lots of folks took the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach, suggesting Granger be used off the bench to avoid, at least, disrupting the bankable starting five.

Then again, Granger’s shooting range could be a big help to the first group. And Stephenson, who subbed in for the first time this preseason Friday, really asserted himself with the backups. He fouled out after missing some key free throws late, but Stephenson scored 11 points with seven rebounds and eight assists, playing 34:22 partly because Granger’s left calf strain flared up.

“I’ve always started, so obviously I’m more comfortable doing that,” Granger told NBA.com afterward. “And Lance, he’s more of a playmaker. So when he’s in the second group, I think he actually excels more. He has the ball in his hands, he can make plays. When he’s with the starting group, the ball’s going into the post or Paul [George] has it. I play off the ball a lot.”

Coach Frank Vogel said he called a play for Stephenson “nine or 10 straight times” against the Bulls. If the fourth-year wing can take a stride this season similar to what he did last season, he or Granger can bring serious relief to the Pacers’ backups.

The thing is, with expectations high for a run at The Finals, there really is no room for if’s.

“He’s just a load,” West said of Stephenson. “He’s a playmaker, a shot maker, a shot creator. Lance is a big part of what we’re trying to do, and he has to have a great year for us. He’s beyond that stage of kind of proving himself. It’s time for him literally to be who we know he is.”

Soon enough, it will be time for the Pacers’ upgraded bench to prove that it is, too.

Manila Thrilled, But A Tad Bit Subdued, With Rockets’ 20-Point Win Over Pacers

 

MANILA, Philippines — It was 2 1/2 hours before the historic first NBA tipoff in Southeast Asia when the Rockets’ team bus pulled up to the stage door entrance at Mall of Asia Arena and was greeted by a throng of several hundred Filipino fans.

This was the night that the NBA’s most rabid international following had waited more than six decades to see. The hope of catching a glimpse of the stars toting luggage was enough to create a noisy stir.

“Rockets! Rockets! Rockets!” came the chant from behind the barricade. Then it was followed by “Harden! Harden! Harden!”

James Harden, the All-Star guard, had already entered the tunnel and walked up the ramp when he suddenly made a U-turn and went back outside with his cell phone raised to takes videos of the fans with one hand while pumping a fist into the air with the other.

It was thought to be a prelude to the general craziness that would consume the atmosphere out on the court. But the emotional intensity and anticipated craziness never materialized from the crowd of roughly 20,000 that paid anywhere from $13 to just under $800 face value for tickets. An early evening downpour tied up traffic outside the arena. The game began with large blocks of empty seats.

In the end, it was not exactly the Thrilla in Manila.

The in-game atmosphere  seemed to be more studying, nodding, learning and taking in the proficiency of the NBA teams than mass hysteria. The Filipino fans rarely came out of their seats. A glimpse throughout the building saw few hands full of snacks, drinks and beers as the fans focused on the event.

Omri Casspi led the Rockets with 17 points, Donatas Motiejunas had 16, while Harden and Chandler Parsons scored 15 points each as the Rockets went wire-to-wire for a 116-96 win. Dwight Howard had seven points, three rebounds and five fouls in 21 minutes. Paul George led the Pacers with 13 points.

There were plenty of red Jeremy Lin jerseys in the crowd, but no more than you’d see during a regular season game at Golden State or Portland. Lin came off the bench and generated the most energy from the fans, especially with a pair of strong drives in the fourth quarter. He finished with 14 points.

There were a number of Pacers fans in the crowd, but the loudest buzz for a member of the Indiana contingent came when team president Larry Bird was on the video screen sitting near mid-court.

The Pacers and Rockets were greeted warmly when both teams took the floor for and received a nice ovation when they were introduced. There were appreciative cheers for 3-pointers made by Paul George and C.J. Watson, shots blocked by Roy Hibbert and slick drives through the lane by Harden. The lines at the temporary NBA Stores set up on the mezzanine level were six and eight deep as fans gobbled up replica Pacers and Rockets jerseys. Most customers came through the cash register lines carrying plastic bags crammed full of merchandise.

“The Philippines has a population of 100 million or so, so they’re a very important part of our Southeast Asian strategy,” commissioner David Stern said during a pre-game press conference. “It is the most intense and robust and knowledgeable basketball market. I was going to say outside of the U.S., but it may lead the world. I’m not sure.”

However, the knowledgeable Filipino fans were far more polite than rabid or noisy, sounding more like an All-Star Game crowd, where the sound of the dribbling ball and the voices of Pacers coach Frank Vogel and the Rockets Kevin McHale could be heard echoing throughout the arena.

As if to prove that they have the attitude to match regular American fans, the crowd finally rose to its collective feet and let out a roar for giveaway promotions — NBA 2K posters and t-shirts — during a couple of second-quarter timeouts.

The controlled enthusiasm and overall politeness was in keeping with experiences by the two teams during the four days they’d spent in Manila. When George, Hibbert and George Hill of the Pacers and Parsons, Lin and other Rockets went out in public, the Filipino fans were excited and crowded round to get a look and snap photos, but also kept a respectful distance. There was none of the fear-for-your-life frenzy that marked the Rockets’ first visit to China with Yao Ming in 2004. Of course, the din should come Sunday when the teams make the hop across the South China Sea and Lin plays his first game in Taipei.

Bird Chases Heat, Still Never Feels It

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MANILA, Philippines – Fish swim. Frogs jump.

It’s good to know that two decades after his retirement, another constant in the world is that Larry Bird still flaps his wings and soars with his quick one-liners and trademark cockiness.

When asked by a Filipino reporter whether he feels more pressure as a Pacers executive than he did during his Hall of Fame career with the Celtics, Bird grinned.

“Pressure? I don’t know what that is,” Bird said to a roomful of laughter. “Obviously, you never seen me play.”

It wasn’t quite walking into the locker room prior to the 3-point Shootout at the 1986 All-Star Weekend in Dallas and asking the rest of the field, “Who’s comin’ in second?” But it was a peek at the old Bird who’s back in his role as president of basketball operations and wants his Pacers to take the next step after pushing Miami to a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference finals last season.

“Right now, the Miami Heat are the best team,” Bird said. “They’ve won two years in a row. They’ve been to the Finals three years in a row and until somebody beats them, they’re still the best team.

“What we’re trying to do is build a team that can compete on a nightly level…We have a lot of young players. I don’t compare this team to (my) Celtics teams because it’s a completely different style that we play. But I do think we’re good enough, we’re deep enough to compete for a championship.

“Obviously last year they got to the Eastern Conference finals and Game 7 against Miami, but until we make the next step we’re not there. I do like our chances.

“We’ve got a good starting five, but our bench has got to play better than it did last year. I know how hard it is to win these championships. It’s not easy. But we do have a group of good guys that play together and pull for one another. I think things we just have to get a little lucky.

“I really believe that we’re built for the playoffs. But when the playoffs come, we’ve got to be ready because there are gonna be challenges facing us.

“It’s not easy out there. Chicago got Derrick (Rose) back. The Brooklyn Nets, the New York Knicks and they’re all good. And, of course, there’s Miami. It’s a challenge, no question about it.”

Bird said he believes the necessary pieces are in place for the Pacers to go the distance, especially since they have added to their depth over the summer with three key moves.

“I think we’re pretty much set where we are right now,” he said. Last year, with the performance of our bench I think they (Miami) hurt us by not being able to score the basketball.

“We got C.J. (Watson) a good back-up point guard, Chris Copeland from New York, a dead-eye shooter, and of course Luis Scola. He’s a little bit older now, but for what we need, he’s perfect. Just three moves that we made we think are going to make us stronger. It looks good on paper, but we’ll see what happens. Look, I know how hard it is to win a championship. ”

Now, as then, Larry Bird just never feels the pressure.

Five Most Underrated Free-Agent Signings

By Jonathan Hartzell, NBA.com

The NBA offseason tends to be dominated by articles and information about the top players in the league. Often forgotten about are the fringe stars and role players on every team who do the little things to help win games.

With this in mind, here are the five most underrated free-agent signings of the 2013-14 offseason:

Earl Clark, Cleveland Cavaliers – 2-years, $9 million

Earl Clark should help the Cavaliers' bench.

Earl Clark should help the Cavaliers’ bench.

Clark instantly fills a void for the Cavaliers and he could help Cleveland make it back to the playoffs. The 6-foot-10 Clark had his best NBA season with the Lakers in 2012-13, averaging 7.3 points and 5.5 rebounds in 23.1 minutes. He will provide valuable length and athleticism off the bench at an extremely affordable rate and, at 25 years old, his game still has a lot of room to grow.

Jose Calderon, Dallas Mavericks – 4-years, $29 million

Jose Calderon's passing ability will be welcomed in Dallas.

Jose Calderon’s passing ability will be welcomed in Dallas.

The Spanish guard played eight seasons with the Toronto Raptors before being traded to the Detroit Pistons midseason. As a Raptor he experienced only one winning season, but he proved to be one of the best distributors in the league. He added a significantly improved 3-point shot last season to finish the season averaging 11.3 points and 7.1 assists on 49.1 percent shooting and a league-leading 46.1 percent from 3-point range. The contract he signed with Dallas this summer is arguably too long and expensive for a player who isn’t a stalwart defender. However, this will prove to be an important deal if Calderon is able to help Dirk Nowitzki lead the Mavericks back into the playoffs.

Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks – 2-years, $19 million

Paul Millsap may have a lot of reasons to smile in Atlanta.

Paul Millsap may have a lot of reasons to smile in Atlanta.

This is a great deal if the Hawks’ plan is to make the playoffs this season. Millsap is one of the most underrated power forwards in the league and incredibly Atlanta signed him to a practically risk-free two-year deal. The 6-foot-8 forward from Louisiana Tech played his first seven NBA seasons with the Jazz and averaged 14.6 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.3 steals last season. The one negative about this signing? It pushes long-time Hawk Al Horford back to the center spot where he is nowhere near as dominant as he is as a power forward. But when you have the opportunity to bring in a player of Millsap’s talent level, preferred rotations and positions can be worked out later.

C.J. Watson, Indiana Pacers – 2-years, contract terms undisclosed

C.J. Watson

C.J. Watson significantly upgrades the Pacers’ guard depth.

Watson has proven to be one of the NBA’s best backup point guards over the last few seasons and his presence on the Pacers will significantly improve their depth. Watson allows the Pacers to not fall too far behind when starter George Hill rests. Plus, Watson’s ability to handle the ball and shoot from 3-point range (41.1 percent last season) will let Indiana occasionally run a Hill-Watson backcourt. The 6-foot-2 guard spent last season as the top backup for the Nets’ Deron Williams and before that, spent two successful seasons with the Chicago Bulls. Watson knows his role and his ability to consistently perform it makes this a great signing for the Pacers.

Mike Dunleavy, Chicago Bulls – 2-years, $6 million

Mike Dunleavy Jr.

Mike Dunleavy Jr. is a well-skilled and solid NBA veteran.

Dunleavy is an excellent floor-spacer who can consistently knock down 3-point shots at a high rate and provides the Bulls with solid bench depth after the departures of Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli. His presence should help create driving and passing lanes for Derrick Rose, who is reportedly one of the major reasons Dunleavy wanted to play in Chicago. The 32-year-old Dunleavy spent the last two seasons with the Bucks, averaging 10.5 points, 3.9 boards and shot 42.8 percent shooting from 3-point range last season. This signing looks like a terrific deal for  Dunleavy and Chicago as it should help the Bulls reclaim their spot as a championship contender when Rose returns.

Bench Mobs: Four That Got Better

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — Every general manager’s goal is to assembly an energetic, productive bench.

A strong second unit filled with single-minded role players enhances a team’s chances at winning. Just look at the two-time champion Miami Heat and perennially contending San Antonio Spurs: both clubs received significant bench contributions throughout the 2012-13 season. Still, a deep and talented bench does not ensure success — the Los Angeles Clippers being Exhibit A.

Arguably the NBA’s deepest bench last season, L.A.’s reserves ranked fourth in scoring and second in overall production (points, assists and rebounds combined). The second unit of Eric Bledsoe, Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom and Ronny Turiaf ranked as the third-best defensive unit in the league. Yet the Clippers lost in the first round to the Memphis Grizzlies, whose thin bench was considered a major weakness.

The goal is to build a well-rounded and deep roster that doesn’t falter when the starters sit, that can change pace when needed and can light it up just as well as lock it down.

Four teams looking to make a charge in their respective conferences — including the all-in Clippers and the go-getter Golden State Warriors in the West; and in the East the rugged-but-reinforcement-thin Indiana Pacers and the money-is-nothing Brooklyn Nets — completed significant offseason signings and trades that should bolster each club’s depth:

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

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Loses: G Bledsoe, G Chauncey Billups, F Odom (still available), F Grant Hill (retired), F/C Turiaf

Additions: G J.J. Redick, G/F Jared Dudley, G Darren Collison, F Reggie Bullock (draft pick)

Why they’re better: Only two members of the aforementioned third-ranked defensive unit, Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes, are returning as of today (Odom remains a possibility) to the Clippers’ second unit, so they could slip defensively. But the firepower is all-world with Redick (a 39 percent career 3-point shooter) and Dudley (40.5 percent) joining Sixth Man runner-up Crawford (35.0 percent). Collison has plenty to prove after twice losing his starting job in Dallas to late-30-somethings Derek Fisher and Mike James. The ultra-quick Collison backed up Chris Paul as a rookie in New Orleans and he now has a defined role that should suit his game. Plenty of experience and savvy leaves town in Hill and Billups, but they played a combined 51 games last season. Hill was not part of the playoff rotation until former coach Vinny Del Negro got desperate late in the first-round series loss. New coach and senior vice president of basketball operations Doc Rivers has given himself plenty of options with a bench unit that might top last season’s group. Free agents Barnes, center Ryan Hollins and guard Willie Green return.

GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

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Loses: Jarrett Jack, Carl Landry

Additions: Marreese Speights, Toney Douglas, C Jermaine O’Neal, Nemanja Nedovic (draft pick)

Why they’re better: Simply, Andre Iguodala. Acquiring the veteran forced out Jack and Landry, but also provides instant depth for a young team that basically rode seven players in the playoffs after David Lee injured his hip. The tough call for coach Mark Jackson will be moving either semi-conscious shooter Klay Thompson or confident forward Harrison Barnes to the bench (both started every game they played last season) to make room for the 6-foot-6 Iguodala. Thompson could challenge for Sixth Man of the Year honors and he’d easily replace the scoring punch Jack provided. The second-year Barnes, who truly emerged during the playoffs, can provide everything the blue-collar Landry delivered only with advanced skills in every facet, especially with his burgeoning offensive arsenal. Barnes could discover some very favorable matchups off the bench. Speights, more accurately, will be expected to fill Landry’s role. The Warriors also bring back impressive frontcourt youngsters Draymond Green and Festus Ezeli, who should benefit from the presence of the steady veteran O’Neal.

INDIANA PACERS

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Loses: F Tyler Hansbrough, F Jeff Pendergraph

Additions: F Chris Copeland, G C.J. Watson, G Donald Sloan, F Solomon Hill (draft pick)

Why they’re better: The wild card here is forward Danny Granger, who missed all but five games last season with a left knee injury but will be back. With Paul George emerging as a star, Granger could find himself as the Pacers’ sixth man — imagine that. A better bench might have pushed Indiana past Miami in the East finals. The Pacers were one of six teams whose bench averaged fewer than 80 mpg, and they ranked 29th in scoring. The veteran Watson should stabilize a backcourt that had no consistent answer (D.J. Augustin) coming off the bench last season. Watson is a solid veteran who rarely turns the ball over — less than one a game in 19.0 mpg last season with Brooklyn — and is the type of team-first player president of basketball operations Larry Bird wants for coach Frank Vogel. And then there’s the unexpected feather in Bird’s cap — forward Chris Copeland. The 29-year-old late-bloomer provided the Knicks with energetic play off the bench and surprising accuracy from beyond the arc (59-for-140, 42.1 percent). The 6-foot-8, 235-pounder gives Indy a rugged backup for David West and weakens a rival.

BROOKLYN NETS

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Loses: G C.J. Watson, G Keith Bogans, G MarShon Brooks, F Kris Humphries

Additions: G Jason Terry, G Shaun Livingston, G D.J. White, F Andrei Kirilenko, C/F Mason Plumlee (draft pick)

Why they’re better: While a pudgy Deron Williams hobbled about on bum ankles for the first couple of months last season, the Nets’ bench carried the team, so they were no slouches to begin with. But when you add Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the starting lineup, that turns rebounding machine Reggie Evans and offensive weapon Andray Blatche into reserves and instantly improves that group. Terry remains a dangerous streak shooter even after a down season in Boston. The 6-foot-7 Livingston has quietly resurrected his career and should find a home backing up D-Will, who played like an All-Star in the second half of last season. The coup was snagging Kirilenko, who signed for $3.18 million after opting out of his $10-million deal with Minnesota. Kirilenko is always a nagging injury away from missing handfuls of games at a time, but the 6-foot-9 countryman of Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov is a do-it-all stat-sheet-filler. He is a sneaky offensive presence on the baseline and a rangy defender the Nets can use against Carmelo Anthony and other rival scoring threats.

Blogtable: Best Offseason Transaction?

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


Week 37: Dwight’s choice | Smartest early-offseason move | Summer League must-sees


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Which offseason transaction will look most brilliant next spring?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Andre Iguodala will help Golden State tremendously, and my hunch is it will show via an exciting regular season, a top-four seed in the West and a strong postseason run of two, maybe three rounds. Jarrett Jack played well for the Warriors last season but Iguodala can help facilitate their offense, too, without Jack’s occasional ball domination. And Iguodala can defend the league’s most dangerous wings, especially with the bonus motivation he’ll have from that contract-reneging thing Sacramento did last week.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Toss a coin: Doc Rivers to the Clippers or Andre Iguodala to the Warriors.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: Andre Iguodala with Golden State. For the same reasons Denver loved him last season, Mark Jackson and the Warriors will love his experience on a young club, plus his size and rugged defending on the perimeter, a big-time need. Golden State ranked in the bottom half in the league last season giving up more than 100 points a game. Also, Iguodala really improved his 3-point shooting with the Nuggets as the season wore on and if that continues in Golden State then look out.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: The Rockets sign Dwight Howard. He will be healthier than last season with the Lakers, which is important. And he will be more engaged than last season with the Lakers, which is everything. He knows he can’t float through long stretches like before. D12 with issues was one of the best centers anyway. Howard with a renewed determination could be everything Houston hoped it would get. That gives him one season without the emotional drama.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: The Indiana Pacers were one game from knocking off the Heat (and lost Game 1 at the buzzer) this year. Indy’s starting lineup outscored the Heat by 46 points in the series and was strong offensively all season, but their bench was absolutely awful. Along with the return of Danny Granger and the continued development of Paul George, the additions of shooters C.J. Watson and Chris Copeland could be what gets the Pacers over the hump.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: It’s hard to top the Los Angeles Clippers swiping Doc Rivers from the Boston Celtics at arguably the most critical juncture in franchise history to date (Chris Paul bolting for greener pastures in free agency would have had a far more devastating effect on the Clippers than anything Dwight Howard‘s departure will to the Los Angeles Lakers). But there is one transaction that sticks out. If Indiana Pacers boss Larry Bird is right about Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce having plenty left in their tanks, the Brooklyn Nets could very well be in the middle of the championship mix next spring. 

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: How about Utah trading with Golden State for Richard Jefferson, Andris Biedrins and Brandon Rush? And did we mention they get another first-round pick in 2014? I know it’s not a great trade from a basketball standpoint — it’s odd when you give up no players in a trade and don’t really improve — but with free agents Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap also gone, Utah now seems committed to youth next season. So, we’ll see a lot of Trey Burke, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, and they’ll lose a lot of games. But two first rounders in the prospect-rich 2014 Draft could make a big difference.

Got Shooting? It’s Going Fast

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HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The 2012-13 season shall forever be known as the year of the three. There were 3-point records set on the individual, team and league levels. And Ray Allen‘s 3-pointer to tie Game 6 of The Finals will go down as one of the biggest shots in NBA history.

Furthermore, there was a much stronger correlation between offensive efficiency and the percentage of a team’s shots from 3-point range than we’d seen previously. With one notable exception — the Denver Nuggets — the best offenses in the league shot a lot of threes, or at least shot them very well.

Top 10 offenses, 2012-13

Team OffRtg 3PM 3PA 3PT% Rank 3PA% Rank
Miami 110.3 717 1,809 39.6% 2 28.5% 5
Oklahoma City 110.2 598 1,588 37.7% 3 24.4% 12
New York 108.6 891 2,371 37.6% 5 35.4% 1
L.A. Clippers 107.7 627 1,752 35.8% 16 26.5% 8
Denver 107.6 521 1,518 34.3% 25 21.7% 22
Houston 106.7 867 2,369 36.6% 9 34.9% 2
San Antonio 105.9 663 1,764 37.6% 4 26.4% 9
L.A. Lakers 105.6 715 2,015 35.5% 19 30.3% 3
Brooklyn 105.0 628 1,760 35.7% 17 26.9% 7
Golden State 104.2 658 1,632 40.3% 1 23.9% 14

OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
3PA% = Percentage of total shots from 3-point range

The Nuggets were upset in the first round when they couldn’t make 3-pointers and, more importantly, couldn’t stop the Warriors from making them. And now, Denver is without the three guys who made the most 3-pointers for them last season. Danilo Gallinari (135) is recovering from ACL surgery, Corey Brewer (91) is a free agent (who could come back), and Andre Iguodala (91) is heading to Golden State.

There’s a lot more to success in this league, but if you want to compete for a championship, you need guys who can knock down long-distance shots. There were several available on the market and a handful of good teams that needed them to take the next step. A couple of those teams will be signing a couple of those shooters. Here’s a look at the contending teams that needed shooting the most and what they’ve done to address the problem…

Chicago Bulls

OffRtg: 100.4 (24), 3PT%: 35.3% (21), 3PA%: 18.9% (29)
The Bulls’ offense will obviously be better with the return of Derrick Rose, but they still need better perimeter shooting to complement their penetrating point guard. They ranked fourth in 3-point percentage in 2011-12, but then said goodbye to Kyle Korver and C.J. Watson.

They’re heading back in the right direction this summer, upgrading from Marco Belinelli (35.7 percent) to Mike Dunleavy (42.8 percent), who ranked third in 3-point percentage among the 57 free agents who attempted at least 100 threes last season. There are few players in the league better than Dunleavy at coming off pin-down screens and draining threes on the wings.

Jimmy Butler should also be a more dangerous shooter, especially with Rose coming back. After shooting just 1.3 threes per game at 38 percent in the regular season, Butler shot 3.1 per game at 41 percent in the playoffs. No. 20 pick Tony Snell is known as a shooter, but hit just 64 threes in 35 games at New Mexico last season.

The Bulls haven’t exactly turned into last year’s Knicks when it comes to shooting threes, but they have taken a step forward.

Denver Nuggets

OffRtg: 107.6 (5), 3PT%: 34.3% (25), 3PA%: 21.7% (22)
The Nuggets took a big step backward by losing Iguodala and trading Kosta Koufos to Memphis. And we don’t know if they’ll play the same fast-paced, attacking style under coach Brian Shaw that they did under coach George Karl.

But Denver will get one of the better shooters on the market by sending Iguodala out via a three-team, sign-and-trade deal with the Warriors and Jazz that brings them Randy Foye, who ranked second among free agents with 178 threes last season and shot them at a 41.0 percent clip. Foye will likely split time at shooting guard with Evan Fournier, who shot a solid 22-for-54 (41 percent) in limited regular season action last season (and went 0-for-8 in the playoffs).

The Nuggets will also have a full season of Wilson Chandler, who shot well after returning from injury last season. Denver’s defense will most certainly fall off without Iguodala, but the Nuggets might actually have a little more inside-out balance to their offense.

Indiana Pacers

OffRtg: 101.6 (19), 3PT%: 34.7% (22), 3PA%: 24.5% (11)
Like the Nuggets, the Pacers thrive in the paint (just not as well). And the No. 1 defense in the league helped them make up for their lack of shooting. But they could have used a few more weak-side threes against the Heat’s aggressive defense in the conference finals, when Lance Stephenson shot 7-for-23 (30 percent) from beyond the arc.

Over his last six full seasons, Danny Granger hit 901 threes at 39 percent. And with Granger set to return from the knee injury that kept him out of all but five games last season, returning team president Larry Bird didn’t have to do a thing to improve his team’s 3-point shooting.

But Bird went out and got Watson (41 percent last season) and Chris Copeland (42 percent) to give his team some more punch off the bench. No. 22 pick Solomon Hill was also decent shooter (39 percent on threes) at Arizona. He might not play much as a rookie, but he can’t be a worse from the perimeter than defensive specialist Sam Young was.

Last season, Frank Vogel only had D.J. Augustin — a defensive liability — to turn to when he needed more shooting on the floor. Now, he’s got plenty of options.

Memphis Grizzlies

OffRtg: 101.7 (18), 3PT%: 34.5% (24), 3PA%: 16.6% (30)
The Rudy Gay trade didn’t change much for the Grizz, who made a league-low 4.6 threes per game after the deal. And they have yet to do anything in free agency to improve their perimeter offense. Tony Allen, returning on a new contract, is the definitive shooting guard who can’t shoot. Even their top draft pick — Jamaal Franklin — is a wing who doesn’t shoot very well.

The Grizzlies still have their mid-level exception to spend. And there are a couple of shooters still left on the market (see below). They also have a trade exception worth almost $7.5 million to absorb a contract from a team willing to deal them a shooter. But right now, they look like they could rank last in the league in 3-pointers for a second straight season.

Still on the market

For the Grizzlies and other teams still looking for shooters, the pickings are rather slim. Here are their six best options (in order of how many threes they hit last season), all of which come with issues …

Nate Robinson — 141-for-348 (40.5 percent)
Robinson had his best shooting season with the Bulls. And though he was mostly the Bulls’ back-up point guard, 101 of his 141 threes were assisted, so he can certainly play off the ball. He has improved defensively and is certainly making better decisions than he was earlier in his career, but it still isn’t easy for a coach to trust him with the ball in his hands for big minutes.

Wayne Ellington — 94-for-240 (39.2 percent)
Of the free agents that are still available, only three — Brandon Jennings (173), Robinson and Alan Anderson (95) — hit more threes than Ellington did last season. He was a decent role player in Memphis before it sent him to Cleveland for financial flexibility.

Gary Neal — 89-for-251 (35.5 percent)
Neal hit six threes in Game 3 of The Finals, but shot just 35 percent from beyond the arc last season (31st among the 57 free agents who attempted at least 100 threes) after shooting 42 percent in his first two years with the Spurs, who have seemingly swapped him for Belinelli. (They didn’t have an Italian on their roster, after all.)

Roger Mason Jr. — 66-for-159 (41.5 percent)
Of the 57 free agents who attempted at least 100 threes last season, only 11 shot them better than 40 percent. And only two — Robinson and the Pelicans’ Mason Jr. — are still on the market. Mason doesn’t do much more than make threes, but you can do worse if you need a fifth guard on your roster.

Mo Williams — 59-for-154 (38.3 percent)
Jazz starting guard Williams can handle the ball or play off it. In his two seasons playing next to LeBron James, he shot 43 percent from 3-point range, and only two players — Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen — hit more threes than Williams did over those two years. But he played a career-low 46 games last season and defense is an issue.

Anthony Morrow — 16-for-43 (37.2 percent)
There was a point a few years ago when Morrow qualified as the best 3-point shooter in NBA history. He’s still a great shooter, but doesn’t have as quick a release as some others, struggles when he needs to put the ball on the floor, and is a defensive liability. He couldn’t get off the bench for the Mavs as they were making their playoff push last season.

Three more points

  • The Timberwolves were by far the worst 3-point shooting team in the league last season, but should move up the rankings with a healthy Kevin Love (who shot 22 percent), a healthy Chase Budinger (who shot 32 percent) and with the addition of Kevin Martin (who shot 43 percent for OKC). Martin’s presence will also mean that they’ll need less minutes from Alexey Shved and Luke Ridnour (who may be traded) at the two. The pair combined to attempt 500 threes last season, connecting on only 30 percent of them.
  • Brooklyn shot a lot of threes last season, but didn’t shoot them particularly well. Things will get better with Paul Pierce (38 percent) replacing Gerald Wallace (28 percent) at small forward. But Watson (41 percent) was their best 3-point shooter last season and he’s been replaced by Shaun Livingston, who has made a grand total of nine threes in 390 career games. Assuming that coach Jason Kidd will have one of his starters — Deron Williams, Joe Johnson or Pierce — playing with the second unit, a back-up point guard who can shoot (Toney Douglas, perhaps?) would have been a better option. Either way, the Nets’ success could be determined by the ability of Bojan Bogdanovic and Mirza Teletovic to knock down shots and keep Pierce and Kevin Garnett fresh.
  • The Clippers were another team that shot a lot of threes at a mediocre percentage. And while they’re getting two great shooters in Jared Dudley and J.J. Redick, they’re replacing two guys — Caron Butler (39 percent) and Willie Green (43 percent) — who shot rather well from 3-point range last season. (Green is still on the roster, but likely out of the rotation.)