Posts Tagged ‘Indiana Pacers’

Morning shootaround — July 21


VIDEO: Daily Zap for games played July 20

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: Cavs to ink Wiggins to deal soon | Report: Knicks looking to move a guard | Bird still puzzled by Stephenson’s departure

No. 1: Report: Cavs to sign rookie Wiggins soon — Normally, a first-round pick closing in on signing his first contract is not news in this space as the deals for all first-round picks are predetermined and basically just need pen to be put to paper. But in the case of the No. 1 overall pick — Andrew Wiggins of the Cleveland Cavaliers — and his ties to trade talks dealing with Minnesota Timberwolves star Kevin Love, we’ll make an exception. As Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com points out, the Cavs’ expected signing of Wiggins would, if nothing else, significantly delay any kind of Love-to-Cleveland deal:

The Cleveland Cavaliers are planning to sign No. 1 overall draft pick Andrew Wiggins to a contract in the coming week, according to sources close to the process.

Sources told ESPN.com that the Cavaliers’ delay in signing the former Kansas star has nothing to do with the prospect of Wiggins being dealt to the Minnesota Timberwolves as part of Cleveland’s ongoing trade discussions for Kevin Love.

The Cavaliers, sources say, are merely exploring options for using their estimated $1.4 million in remaining cap space before signing Wiggins to a contract that will pay him in the neighborhood of $5.5 million as a rookie.

The Cavs and Timberwolves have been discussing a Love trade since the return of LeBron James, with sources saying that Minnesota is insistent on getting Wiggins back in any deal that sends Love to Cleveland.

Once Wiggins signs, though, league rules stipulate that the Cavs must wait 30 days before trading him.

The Cavs’ delay in formalizing Wiggins’ contract has garnered extra attention because of the Love factor, but the reality is that this process is a fairly routine bit of salary-cap management that takes place this time of year with draft picks.


VIDEO:
Andrew Wiggins talks about being in the thick of the Kevin Love trade talks
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Lance takes talents, drama to Hornets, while Pacers sift through options


VIDEO: Lance Stephenson talks with the media after Indiana falls in Game 6 of the East finals

LAS VEGAS – Lance being Lance.

That’s how some will explain free-agent shooting guard Lance Stephenson‘s decision to sign with the Charlotte Hornets for $18 million guaranteed vs. the $44 million offered by his previous team, the Indiana Pacers.

Given Stephenson’s occasionally erratic behavior and impulsive thinking – the blowing-in-LeBron‘s-ear stuff that drove down his market value just weeks before free agency – the idea of leaving $26 million on the table to switch teams might seem so … so Lance. According to the Charlotte Observer, Stephenson will be paid $9 million in each of his first two Hornets seasons, with a slight raise in 2016-17 if the team exercises its option to retain him.

As confident as Stephenson is in his truly impressive talents, that might just permit the brash Brooklyn native with the “Born Ready” nickname to market himself again sooner at a higher price. Heck, it might keep him relatively hungry and focused on his next deal, mitigating the fears many in Indianapolis and around the NBA had that Stephenson, if validated with major money, might go from incorrigible to unmanageable.

Then again, maybe he was just bored. And with such a short guarantee, if the mercurial Stephenson (who will be 24 in September) undermines the image-conscious Hornets on the court or elsewhere, he might face even more frustration the next time he hits free agency.

He is Charlotte owner Michael Jordan‘s challenge to handle now, after four years of Larry Bird‘s TLC in Indiana – if Stephenson still requires or accepts mentoring from an all-timer.

Assuming Stephenson locks in while on the court, Charlotte – in this fallback move after its offer sheet to Utah’s Gordon Hayward was matched by the Jazz – has added a formidable talent. Stephenson is a multiply skilled wing player who is a natural scorer, a terrific athlete, a crafty (and sometimes wild) passer when he spies the opening and a lively, tenacious defender who welcomes the task of stifling big scorers. He has good range that can get better after shooting 49 percent overall and 35 percent on 3-pointers, while averaging 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists.

At its best, Stephenson’s energy served as jumper cables for an Indiana team that could be too calm, too centered for its own good some nights. At its worst, that energy had the effect of Tasering his own team. The Pacers’ locker room was full of veteran players who could rein Stephenson back in; with the Hornets’ loss of Josh McRoberts and several young players trying to make their bones like Stephenson, who knows if Charlotte has the necessary steadying influences needed for Lance.

Indiana had offered Stephenson a five-year, $44 million deal two weeks ago that, by all reports, had not been amended. Its average value of $8.8 million was only marginally different from the $9 million for which Stephenson is uprooting.

Even as players such as Hayward, Chandler Parsons and Trevor Ariza were getting bigger deals, Stephenson never pushed into eight-figure territory because of the risks associated with his behavior. He ranked among the league’s leaders in technical fouls and flopping fines, and was stats-centric enough to steal rebounds from teammates Roy Hibbert and David West (and to complain at the scorers table if he felt something was missed). Even Bird criticized him at the end for his distracting antics against Miami in the East finals, where Stephenson whipped up media scrutiny for days on end.

Now, however, the Pacers have a different sort of headache. Replacing good Lance might be just as challenging as handling bad Lance. There are precious few options left among free agents – especially since Indiana already cut loose former Philadelphia guard Evan Turner, who disappointed after his acquisition by Bird in February.

The latest Lance insurance policy is C.J. Miles, a 6-foot-6 veteran of nine NBA seasons with Utah and Cleveland. Last season, Miles averaged 9.9 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.0 assists while shooting 43.5 percent. He hit 39.3 percent of his 3-pointers but isn’t comparable to Stephenson as an athlete, defender or offense generator.

Outside options? Rodney Stuckey still is available after moving into a bench role with the Pistons. Ray Allen at 39 wouldn’t be able to handle the workload Indiana needs from Stephenson’s spot. There’s always a chance the Pacers could indulge George Hill‘s inner off-guard dreams and find another point guard, like former Magic playmaker Jameer Nelson.

Barring a stealthy save by Bird late in free agency or via trade, Stephenson has gone from blowing in LeBron’s ear to boxing the Pacers’ ears … all at a head-scratching bargain price.

 

Morning shootaround — July 16


VIDEO: Daily Zap for games played July 14

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Report: Hornets, Stephenson reach deal | Reports: Wolves, Warriors renew Love trade talks | Parsons clarifies comments about Houston | ‘The Greek Freak’ at point guard? | Silver: Clips sale may not happen soon

No. 1: Report: Stephenson headed to Hornets — The Charlotte Hornets opened free agency by taking a big swing at landing restricted free-agent swingman Gordon Hayward of the Jazz, but Utah matched the Hornets’ offer sheet last weekend. Swing No. 2 appears to be a success for the Hornets this time, though, as they have agreed to terms on a three-year deal with Indiana Pacers standout (and unrestricted free agent) Lance Stephenson, as first reported by Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer. This marks a big loss for the Pacers — who had the best record in the East last season — but there had been talk that contract negotiations between Stephenson and Indiana had broken down of late. Bonnell has more on the move for Charlotte:

Following an all-night negotiating session, the Charlotte Hornets have come to an agreement to sign Indiana Pacers shooting guard Lance Stephenson, the Observer has learned.

Under terms of the agreement, Stephenson will make $9 million in 2014-15 and $9 million in 2015-16. Stephenson will get a slight raise in 2016-17 if the Hornets pick up the team option.

Stephenson fills an obvious need, as the Hornets were weak offensively at the shooting guard and small forward positions. The 6-foot-5 Stephenson had a breakthrough season statistically, averaging 13.8 points, 7.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists. He also shot 49 percent from the field and 35 percent from 3-point range.

However, he has a quirky personality that seems to have limited his market when he became an unrestricted free agent July 1.

The Pacers had offered Stephenson $44 million over five seasons, and reportedly did not come off that number. Stephenson thought he was worth considerably more.

But the question becomes how Stephenson’s quirkiness might play out once he signs a lucrative contract extension. He famously blew in opponent LeBron James’ ear in the playoffs. He was fined for flopping this season and was charged with 14 technical fouls, fourth-most in the NBA.

It is not the Hornets’ habit to take frequent risks on high-maintenance players. Trading for Stephen Jackson worked out for two seasons before they traded him on to the Milwaukee Bucks. Now they have drafted P.J. Hairston, a player who lost his NCAA eligibility over improper benefits and who recently was cited for punching a teenager during a pickup game at a Durham YMCA.

Hornets owner Michael Jordan has said one of his team’s greatest strengths last season was the character of the players on the roster. Did that embolden the front office to pursue Stepehenson? Is Stephenson now a threat to that chemistry?

Certainly the Hornets faced competitive pressure in the Eastern Conference. The Cleveland Cavaliers improved dramatically with the addition of James, so that’s a non-playoff team in the East that now looks like a post-season lock. While the Heat lost James, they weakened the Hornets with the signing of Josh McRoberts.

It’s possible the Hornets would have struggled just to make the playoffs this season without upgrading the roster with a move like Stephenson.

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Market for Stephenson might move, though concerns remain same


VIDEO: Lance Stephenson talks about his season with the Pacers in 2013-14

Lance Stephenson might or might not be happy with the Indiana Pacers’ contract offer to him. But he has to be happy with the Charlotte Hornets’ contract offer to Gordon Hayward.

By doing nothing beyond waiting, Stephenson – the talented and erratic shooting guard who is testing free agency after four seasons of development and nurturing in Indiana – has seen the market change for good young wing players. Not necessarily his market to stay in Indianapolis, given Larry Bird‘s calculation of Stephenson’s pro & con bottom line: five years, $44 million, an average annual salary of $8.8 million. But the market overall, as determined by a pair of needy teams in modest-sized markets.

The Hornets’ decision to sign Hayward to an offer sheet for four years, $63 million (a max deal worth $15.75 per year) presumably has shifted things seismically not only for Stephenson but for Chandler Parsons, Trevor Ariza and Luol Deng.

Depending on what you read or believe, Stephenson already was displeased with the amount of Indiana’s offer and/or Bird’s one-price strategy.

Some reports claim Stephenson was simply disappointed by the Pacers’ number and wants to see what else is out there. Some claim he rejected that deal and is looking to leave. Among the teams said to have interest, from passing to strong, in Stephenson: Boston, Dallas, Chicago, Miami, Charlotte and the Los Angeles Lakers.

Taking the speculation to yet another level, there was word out of Texas that the Mavericks might deign to offer a smaller deal with Stephenson if he spurns Indiana yet miscalculates and grows desperate enough to accept a worse payday. Good luck with that.

We all know how the game goes from here: If Avery Bradley is worth $8 million a year to Boston with his limited offensive impact and Hayward is worth nearly twice that to Charlotte and Utah – the Jazz have been open about their intent to match anything Hayward signed – then it might seem, in sheer basketball valuation, Stephenson should be further to the right on the pay scale than what Indiana has presented. There are a couple of disclaimers though:

  • The difficulty, or should we say near-impossibility, of attracting free agents to Salt Lake City. Epecially with the Jazz mired in the lottery. With a new, unproven coaching staff.
  • Hayward’s restricted status.

Both of those point toward a player perhaps getting overpaid. A market that can’t dangle some mix of beaches, balmy weather, nightlife, lucrative endorsements and instant winning often has to show more money. And with RFAs, if the current team has expressed its intention to match, a rival can only fatten the offer in hopes of discouraging that.

Indianapolis isn’t a glamour market but it has gone to two consecutive East finals, with a breakthrough possible again next spring, especially if Miami has a break-up. Stephenson is unrestricted, which means that the team that overpays him will be the one stuck.

And stuck is an operative word, leading to a couple legitimate disclaimers about Stephenson and his value:

  • The Pacers shooting guard has had an unusually patient and nurturing situation in Indiana. Bird has had his back from the start, drafting him in 2010 despite off-court incidents and behavioral concerns. The team’s veterans have encouraged and kept him in line for the most part. Even when Stephenson drove down his own value with some high-profile hi-jinks against LeBron James and the Heat this postseason, Bird wondered aloud if he should have spent more face time with the irrepressible player.
  • Teams, including the Pacers, wonder what Stephenson might be like off the court once he has an eight-figure, multi-year guaranteed contract. He might take that as validation of everything – good and bad – he’s been doing, rather than a deal offered flinchingly in the hope that his maturity might catch up to his skill level.

Bob Kravitz, longtime columnist for the Indianapolis Star, urged the Pacers not to budge beyond the five years and $44 million they already have offered Stephenson. “Stephenson will never have as good a support system (read: Bird) as he has now in Indianapolis,” Kravitz wrote. “He will never find a group of teammates more willing (however grudgingly) to put up with his antics, both on the practice court and in games. He will never find a fan base more willing to embrace him, a fan base that loves him despite all his warts, much like Ron Artest, the former Pacers All-Star now named Metta World Peace.”

And yet, the one spinout other teams wouldn’t have to worry about that should concern the Pacers is Stephenson and his possible growing impatience with being the team’s “little brother.” He could well be Indiana’s second-best player in 2014-15 behind Paul George but his salary could be fourth- or fifth-highest on the roster.

One thing the Pacers can offer Stephenson that other teams cannot is the comfort zone he has at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, not just with the fans but in his eccentric “Bird Cave.” More pressing at the moment, though, for those who would consider him: caveat emptor.

Blogtable: Say LBJ goes to Cleveland …

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


BLOGTABLE: Idle summertime chatter | LeBron + Cavs = ??? | The Good & Bad of ‘Melo in NY



VIDEO: Four years later, former NBA exec Stu Jackson reflects on “The Decision”

> There are a lot of “ifs” to consider, but IF LeBron goes back to Cleveland, are the Cavs really good enough to win the East?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comI like the idea of LeBron going back to Cleveland and leading all that potential and raw talent to the top of the East standings. The roster now looks better to me than the crew that won 66 games in 2008-09. Several of the Cavs would get better almost overnight from the defensive attention paid to James. What would they be lacking? A savvy veteran backcourt player would help. Also: Bubble-wrap for Anderson Varejao to keep him healthy.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: If he were to go back to Cleveland, it obviously means the best team in the East has broken up. The Cavs would lack overall experience, cohesion and any real clue what it takes to get though the playoffs.  But hey, they’d have LeBron and a puncher’s chance.  He’s taken a team with less raw talent to The Finals in 2007.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.comOnly because the East is so weak, the answer is yes. It would take Kyrie Irving and Anderson Varejao to stay healthy — and that’s never a given — and for last year’s No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett to contribute. They could use a knock-down 3-point shooter or two. You figure a LeBron-less Miami falls out and Indiana might not have Lance Stephenson plus they’ve got a major mental reconstruction job. Toronto and Washington should be on the rise. Maybe the Nets under Lionel Hollins will have a say. But any team with LeBron has to be given a legitimate shot.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: TBD. Who do the Cavaliers have to offload to make the money — and possibly the sign-and-trade — work? Do the Bulls get Carmelo Anthony? Cleveland could be good enough. I’ll go that far. James, Kyrie Irving, Anderson Varejao, Tristan Thompson, Andrew Wiggins is a nice first five for the future, plus maybe Dion Waiters. But I would still pick Chicago with Carmelo, Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler, Doug McDermott and others.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: No. I’m not ready to vault this theoretical Cleveland team past Indiana right now. That said, with LeBron, the only thing the Cavaliers would be lacking is the needed seasoning to compete at the highest level. All that young talent they’ve piled up is fine, save for the fact that they’ve only seen the playoffs on TNT and other networks. They’ll also need to piece together some chemistry overnight. But they’d be right there behind Indiana and capable of overtaking the Pacers if we see the same kind of mental and emotional fragility we saw from the No. 1 seed Pacers we saw last season.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: Last season the Cavs didn’t even make the playoffs. Adding LeBron and Andrew Wiggins would be about the best one-two punch you could find. But to me, experience and outside shooting are the two things lacking that jump out at me. The Cavs were in the bottom half of the league last season in 3-point shooting, and that was how the Spurs dissected Miami last year — spreading them out and knocking down jumpers. Miami’s Achilles’ heel was rebounding, and I don’t know that the Cavs have much better depth along the front line than the Heat. It’s funny to me that everyone kinda writes off the Heat — they made it to the Finals and actually split the first two games. To me, the Heat with Bron are closer to another Finals run than Cleveland would be.

Marcelo Nogueira, NBA Argentina: It wouldn’t be enough to just have LeBron back in Cleveland to win the Eastern Conference. The Cavs would need LeBron and a scientist to create a LeBron clone.

Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA Greece: First of all, any team with LeBron in the starting five becomes a contender. Moreover the Cavs have the talent to support him. Andrew Wiggins is a player with tremendous potential and Kyrie Irving has showcased his All-Star quality. Anderson Varejao if healthy is a great role player, Spencer Hawes can reallly stretch the floor and become a great asset for a LeBron-James-playing-style, Tristan Thompson and Anthony Bennett are rising stars. If their core can overcome their injury-filled destiny they can be the next big thing, for sure.

Rodrigo Méndez, NBA Mexico: The Cavs, for those seven years LeBron James played in Cleveland — with a championship eluding them — had a chance to learn a few things. Now if LeBron returns, those lessons come to fruition: build a team around the star, a complete team with a good defense and a full suit of complements on the court and on the bench. That last lesson they can take from the Heat, which had trouble surrounding LBJ in 2013-14.

Morning Shootaround — July 7


VIDEO: Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports joins GameTime to talk about free agency

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Reports: Cavs have shot at landing LeBron | No word on ‘Melo for Bulls | Report: Hibbert being shopped? | Uncertainty reigns for James, Anthony

No. 1: Report: Cavs trying to get in position for LeBron offer; James listening to offer? – Seemingly from the start of last season, there has been talk that perhaps and just maybe, Cleveland could find a way to bring Ohio native LeBron James back to the team that originally drafted him. Although James would have nothing to do with such talk — or any free-agency chatter — during the season, the notion remained out there. As Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports reports, the Cavs are doing everything they can roster-wise to be in position to sign LeBron if he so chooses to return to them:

At the urging of LeBron James’ agent, the Cleveland Cavaliers are pursuing a maximum contract salary slot to bring back the free-agent superstar, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Rich Paul, the president of Klutch Sports, has been funneling belief into the organization that the Cavaliers are in strong position to lure James from the Miami Heat, sources told Yahoo Sports.

For years, Paul has confided to people that bringing back James to Cleveland has been something of a mission for him, and he’s encouraging Cavaliers officials to offer no restraint in the recruitment of James, sources said.

Paul will be joining James for a sit-down meeting with Miami president Pat Riley early this week, when there could come more clarity on James’ future with the Heat. Riley has been recruiting free agents to join Miami, but has been limited in salary cap space to make competitive offers and limited in the ability to promise players they’ll get to play with James.

For the Cavaliers, the shedding of contracts to create salary-cap space isn’t a tremendous risk. For James, a four-time MVP and two-time NBA champion, the stakes are far higher. If Paul gets up the hopes of the franchise and Northeast Ohio without delivering James’ return, Paul risks playing a part in turning James into a villain all over again.

Nevertheless, the Cavaliers have little choice but to dutifully make the moves necessary to make James an offer. The biggest obstacle remains unloading the contract of Jarrett Jack. The Cavaliers have found a landing spot for Jack and his $6.2 million annual salary in the Brooklyn Nets, but only if the Cavs can find a third team to take on Brooklyn’s Marcus Thornton, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Cleveland is offering Thornton and future draft considerations as incentive to absorb his $8.7 million expiring contract, sources said. The Cavaliers need to unload more contracts and have made 2013 first-round pick Sergey Karasev, among others, available in deals, sources said.

ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst and Marc Stein report that James may in fact be listening to the Cavs’ offer, but they have work to do to land the former MVP:

After more than two years of planning, the Cleveland Cavaliers, believe they have LeBron James legitimately listening to their pitch to leave the Miami Heat and return to his home state in free agency, according to sources close to the process.

There has yet to be a firm indication that James actually is ready to leave Miami after four years and two championships with the Heat, but sources told ESPN.com that the four-time MVP is increasingly considering the Cavaliers as an option as he moves into the final stages of deciding which team to sign his next contract with.

A critical face-to-face meeting looms with Heat president Pat Riley on a day to be determined this week, sources confirmed Sunday night, so that James can hear the Hall of Famer’s plans for the Heat’s roster. But James’ agent, Rich Paul, has already sat down with Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert in what is regarded as the first formal step toward trying to shrink the gulf between James and Gilbert after the ocean of hard feelings stemming from James’ departure from Cleveland in 2010 to sign with the Heat.

Sources say that the Cavs’ pitch made to Paul last week — which they also hope to make this week to James in their own face-to-face meeting — revolves around Kyrie Irving and the other young prospects they have, in addition to the numerous options Cleveland possesses to add to the roster over the next year.

The Cavs also believe they have made the greatest move yet this summer, convincing Irving to sign a five-year maximum contract extension in the first few hours of free agency. With No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins under control for the next five seasons as well, the Cavs are pitching youth and roster stability to James, who played on one of the oldest teams in the league last season.

The team also potentially owns three first-round picks in the 2015 draft, including the Heat’s pick if they fall outside the top 10. They also have the Memphis Grizzlies’ pick if it falls between Nos. 6 and 14 and their own pick. The Cavs believe they can use these as assets in potential trades to further upgrade the roster if James will come aboard.

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Night for Pacers, Pistons to watch, plot

The Cleveland Cavaliers again have everyone else in the NBA breathlessly waiting while they decide which domino shall topple first.

The Milwaukee Bucks are next, happy to sit at No. 2, hoping for more Durant-after-Oden, less Bowie-after-Olajuwon.

The Chicago Bulls sit further back but hold two picks, Nos. 16 and 19, in the first round of what’s considered to be a deep draft (and even loftier ambitions for free agency).

And then there are the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons, poor little Central Division teams on the outside looking in – on the first round, anyway – of the 2014 Draft Thursday night.

The Pacers traded away their first-round pick to Phoenix last summer, packaging it with Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee for veteran forward Luis Scola. The Suns hold it at No. 27, leaving Indiana with only the No. 57 pick – three from the bottom – as a long-shot stab at talent near the end of the night.

The Pistons would have picked No. 9, a pivotal point similar to last year (No. 8), if not for its desperation two years ago to unload Ben Gordon, sweetening a deal for Charlotte’s Corey Maggette by including a protected future first-rounder. That future turned into the present when Detroit slipped one spot in the lottery drawing, stripping the protection, transferring the pick to the Hornets and leaving new basketball poobah Stan Van Gundy only with the No. 38 pick.

Technically, Nos. 38 and 57 aren’t wastelands when it comes to finding (more like discovering months later) occasional talent. Eighteen of the past 20 players drafted 38th earned jobs in the league, however briefly; Andy Rautins (2010) and DeMarco Johnson (1998) lasted five games each, while Michael Wright (2001) and Rashard Griffith (1995) were the only washouts. Over the past 20 years, the top players to emerge from No. 38 probably have been Chandler Parsons (2011), Steve Blake (2003), Eduardo Najera (2000), Chris Duhon (2004) and Nate Wolters (2013).

Meanwhile, San Antonio sixth man Manu Ginobili classed up the No. 57 slot when the Spurs grabbed him there in 1999. Washington center Marcin Gortat was picked at the spot in 2005. Since Gortat, however, the eight players selected at No. 57 have played a combined five games – all by Florida State forward Ryan Reid (2010), who logged 17 minutes total for the Thunder in 2011-12.

All of which is a long and historically broken down way of saying Indiana and Detroit aren’t banking on the Barclays Center in Brooklyn to deliver their offseason improvements.

The Pacers have internal chores atop their to-do list. Shooting guard Lance Stephenson has reached free agency before full maturity, forcing a tough call on president Larry Bird and the rest of the organization: Pay Stephenson and risk even greater antics fueled by a fat, guaranteed-and-validating contract in the mid-eight figures, or let him leave and scramble to replace his scoring, playmaking, defense and energy. Backup Evan Turner was a dud after arriving via trade in February and also will be a free agent, but for now he is Indiana’s Lance insurance.

Coach Frank Vogel also has to resuscitate Roy Hibbert as the team’s centerpiece, weighing the big man’s defensive presence against his offensive quirks and alarming unreliability late last season and postseason.

The Pistons feel as if their work already is underway, with Van Gundy in place and speculation swirling about a Josh Smith-to-Sacramento trade. They also have done their homework in gauging restricted free agent Greg Monroe‘s value, possible offer sheets (which often aren’t in synch with the first calculation) and their match-or-trade decision tree. Detroit also figures to have between an estimated $13 million to $14 million in salary cap space, pending other moves.

Van Gundy, a baseball fan, used an analogy from that sport when updating Detroit media recently on the team’s expected maneuvers. “We’re not gonna hit a home run,” he said, “but if we can get three singles or two singles and a double, and drive in a couple runs, we’ll be OK.”

Assuming they’ve got Verlander or Scherzer on the mound, of course.

Heat defense still a question


VIDEO: The Starters: Heat’s journey to Finals

SAN ANTONIO – It’s the difference between a team that has done enough to get by and a team that will win a third straight championship.

Defense is the big variable for the Miami Heat and has been all season. It comes and goes. And whether they win or lose, defense is usually the reason why.

The Heat’s fourth season with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh was their worst of the four on the defensive end of the floor. After ranking in the top seven in defensive efficiency each of the last three years (and in the season before James and Bosh arrived), they ranked 11th in 2013-14, allowing 102.9 points per 100 possessions.

The highest the Heat defense ranked in any month was seventh, and that was in November. They finished with the second best record in the Eastern Conference and knew that they could get a playoff win on the road when needed, but for most of the year, they did just enough to get by.

They held the Charlotte Bobcats under their regular season offensive numbers in a first round sweep. But Charlotte’s offensive threats consisted of Kemba Walker and a hobbled Al Jefferson.

The Brooklyn Nets had more guys who could score, and after taking a 2-0 series lead, the Heat didn’t do much to stop them, allowing the Nets to score more than 114 points per 100 possessions over the final three games of the series. But they took care of business with offensive execution and big fourth quarters in Games 4 and 5. Again, they were doing just enough to get by.

Then, in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, they played one of the worst defensive games we have ever seen them play. In the first game of the series, there was little incentive for the Heat to bring their best. They had three more chances to get the road win they needed and their lack of urgency was clear.

“I don’t know if we’ve been that poor,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said the next day, “certainly in the way we’ve graded it, since we put this team together. Across the board, that was about as poor as we’ve played defensively. And all aspects of it. It was the ball pressure. It was the commitment on the ball. It was the weak side. It was finishing possessions. It was doing it without fouling. It has to be much better, a much more committed effort, across the board.”

LeBron struggles on defense

At the center of a lot of the breakdowns was James, who couldn’t handle the obligations of defending one of Indiana’s big men. His pick-and-roll defense was poor, he got beat back-door more than once, and he even got bullied under the basket by Lance Stephenson.

A year ago, James was upset about finishing second in Defensive Player of the Year voting. But if he wanted to win the award this season, he didn’t show it. He had what was clearly his worst defensive season since before he was ever an MVP.

Maybe the absence of Wade for 28 games put more of a burden on James offensively. Maybe three straight trips to The Finals had taken their toll. Or maybe he wasn’t in peak shape at the start of the season. Whatever the reason, the Heat’s defensive regression started with their best player.

Things got better after Game 1 in Indiana. James went back to defending perimeter players (sometimes the Indiana point guards), Rashard Lewis took on the West assignment, and the effort all around was more consistent. The Heat got the road win they needed by getting stops in the second and fourth quarters of Game 2. It wasn’t a complete game, but again, it was enough. (more…)

Indiana can’t drag Heat to Game 7


VIDEO: Heat dismantle Pacers in decisive Game 6

MIAMI – In a ranking of the saddest, most enduring symbols of unrealized ambition in NBA history, it’s difficult to top the rafters of Los Angeles’ fabulous Forum in the spring of 1969, filled with multi-colored balloons that never were allowed to drop.

The balloons had been loaded up there on orders from Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke, convinced that his team would win Game 7 of The Finals over the dynasty-in-decline Boston Celtics. Only the proud Celtics noticed, dialed up their focus – Bill Russell said he wanted to watch the show of Forum workers taking them down one by one – and, on the Lakers’ home court, grabbed the championship Cooke had presumed was his.

Forty-five years later, the Forum and its balloons have some company now in Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Not just the rafters – the whole empty, lonely place, site of a never-to-be-played Game 7 of the 2014 Eastern Conference finals.

The Miami Heat rendered that game unnecessary, lights out, doors locked, by dismantling the Pacers in Game 6 117-92 and ending the best-of-seven series without the trip back to Indy. Miami beat the Pacers in all ways basketball – leading by 37, shooting 58 percent and hanging 117 points on what had been the league’s No. 1 defense, with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh refusing to lose.

Miami beat them physically and mentally, too, from Shane Battier pushing a forearm across wild child Lance Stephenson‘s throat to put him on the floor to veteran Udonis Haslem threatening Stephenson from the bench in a GIF widely circulated on social media during the drubbing.

Unspoken, though, was how the Heat deprived Indiana of the essence of its entire season.

From the start of training camp – really, from the moment they trudged off the court in south Florida at the end of last year’s ECF, so similar to Friday’s outcome – the Pacers had targeted the East’s No. 1 seed for the home-court advantage it would bestow. Specifically, they wanted to know, if they locked up with the Heat again for the right to advance to The Finals, Game 7 would be at BLFH this time.

It would have been.

Only the Pacers never made it happen.

There were reasons great and small why it didn’t last the max, why Indiana never got a chance to flex a home-court advantage that, let’s be honest, had fizzled anyway (the Pacers went 35-6 at BLFH during the season, then 5-5 in the playoffs). Stephenson’s mouth and antics might not have affected the Pacers – so his teammates claimed – but they sure seemed to put a face on Miami’s quest to reach its fourth consecutive Finals.

There was Roy Hibbert‘s big fade, an 8-point, 4-rebound performance on a night that the Heat made sure wasn’t his. Miami’s use of Bosh and Rashard Lewis in a stretch-5 attack in which everyone is a deep shooting threat pulled thwarted Hibbert’s 7-foot-2 size advantage even more thoroughly than Atlanta had (with lesser players). Defensively the Heat found way to make Hibbert just as uncomfortable and then the big fella’s sensitive side took over, completing the task. The guy who averaged 22.1 points and 11.4 rebounds while shooting 55.7 percent in last year’s ECF against Miami slumped to 10.8, 7.7 and 41.5 percent.

The most important, elephant-in-the-room-sized reason, though, was that Indiana could not crack Miami’s code. It doesn’t have the star power, barely has the manpower and never could rise to the occasions – five players tied together as one – for any sustained success.

As bad as Game 6 was, and it was stenchified, the Pacers admitted afterward that their troubles in the series began in Game 2, which had slipped away late, pilfering the home court right there and squandering their chance to put the Heat in a 2-0 hole.

That was a mistake. Getting reckless with the ball and blowing a big lead in Game 3, another mistake. Game 4? A wire-to-wire mistake. Roll them all together and you get a team that wants to chase championship vs. a team that already owns two and is aiming for three.

“Everything starts and ends with the Miami Heat,” forward David West said. “You have to have a team that can survive and get you through a tough regular season, but ultimately you’ve got to be able to beat Miami to get to The Finals.

“This whole year, we competed to get to this moment. We just weren’t able to come through it. They’re built for these moments. Their pedigree shows in these moments, just how everybody on their team does their job. Particularly in these moments, they do it at a high level. They don’t have any breakdowns.”

Indiana has flaws and challenges. Bidding to retain free agent-to-be Stephenson, and at what price, will be a pressing one, requiring guesses as to how his psyche melds with a multimillion-dollar, guaranteed contract. Rounding up some perimeter shooting seems a must.

Coach Frank Vogel might need to find himself a new “bad cop” on the bench to keep the pressure on a squad that got too easily satisfied along the way. And basketball boss Larry Bird is going to have to get back on the horse after being thrown not once (Andrew Bynum signing) but twice (Evan Turner trade).

Here’s the trickiest part: James isn’t retiring anytime soon. What players such as Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and others went through being born too close to Michael Jordan‘s birth date, the Pacers are facing with regard to Miami’s best player and the team on which he romps.

“We’re in the LeBron James era,” West said after the game. “We fully understand that.”

West likened James to Shaquille O’Neal, another player whose size and skill set warped normal games. Beating James and the Heat, same as beating the big man, requires better personnel (to counter James’ many styles), a deeper roster (to dole out fouls when needed) and a resolve to pull it together. Oh, and one more thing …

“They’ve got that gear that continues to elude us in the moment,” West said. “We can compete in the year, tough and well enough, to beat them for the top seed. But in these moments, the Game 2 moments, this Game 6 moment, it just eludes us.”

A fair question from Pacers fans and NBA followers would be: For how long? West, Vogel and the others felt their team took a considerable step this season, running down that No. 1 seed, winning 56 games and beating better opponents in the first two rounds than a year ago.

Still, getting bounced by Miami for a third consecutive season has gotten old, and the Pacers will need to make sure their act has not.

Earlier in the series, on an off-day, Donnie Walsh – longtime Indiana exec who serves now as a consultant – talked of the 1997-2000 Pacers, Reggie Miller-led and Larry Bird-coached. After the first edition of Shaq’s and Kobe Bryant‘s Lakers beat them for the title, on the heels of two misses in the East finals, Bird told Walsh that Pacers group had nothing left. Changes were made, not the least of which was Bird hanging up his whiteboard, and by the time Indiana reached the 2004 conference finals, the roster had been remade.

West said he didn’t think this squad is at that point, though he understood why the question might get asked. This league has a history, too, of excellent also-rans that never quite broke through.

“We’re in the midst of that,” West said. “This is the third year that they’ve knocked us out, two straight years in the conference finals. It can’t deter us. It can’t deter us from the work we know is ahead of us.”

That’s for the long term, gearing up again in October with a focus on May.

Short term, there will be a big, empty field house in downtown Indianapolis Sunday evening. It was supposed to be the Pacers’ partner, alive and loud and stomping on the clutch so they actually could find that elusive gear.

Instead, it will be dark, a reminder of what could have been and a variation on Hemingway’s shortest saddest story ever (“For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn”).

The sign will be posted there in spirit. “Home court, Game 7: Never needed.”

Behind unstoppable offense, Heat heading to fourth straight Finals


VIDEO: Heat dismantle Pacers in decisive Game 6

MIAMI – When LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh decided to play together in 2010, this is what it was all about. The Miami Heat are making their fourth straight trip to The Finals and are the first team to do so in the last 29 years.

The Heat’s domination of the Eastern Conference since James arrived was epitomized by their 117-92 demolition of the Indiana Pacers in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals. Their best game of the series came at the right time and made it clear how much distance there was between these two teams. At one point in the third quarter, the Heat led by 37.

“It’s what we wanted to do,” Bosh said afterward. “We wanted to play a very good game, and we didn’t want to really let our foot off the gas in any type of capacity.”

Though they had their ups and downs (like no other team in recent memory), the Pacers were the best team in the conference in the regular season. But no East team came close to knocking off the Heat in the playoffs. They will arrive at The Finals having played at least three (and as many as five) fewer playoff games than their opponent.

The question is how much they’ve been tested, specifically on defense. As good as the Pacers were at times this season, they were never a very good offensive team. At times in this series, they were a complete mess on that end of the floor.

The Heat brought more defensive focus as the playoffs went on, but defending the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder is a lot different than defending Charlotte, Brooklyn or Indiana. Starting with Game 1 of The Finals on Thursday, we’re going to see how far they’ve come on defense over the last six weeks.

The Heat’s offense? Well, it’s a machine right now. After struggling through the first 4½ minutes of Game 6, the champs went on a ridiculous run, scoring 58 points on their last 33 possessions of the first half, turning an early seven-point deficit into a 26-point halftime lead.

Only two of those 58 points came on a fast break. The Pacers took care of the ball and had a decent offensive second quarter (21 points on just 19 possessions), but couldn’t get stops, even when their defense was set.

“In our offense,” Ray Allen said, “we got everything we wanted.”

That was the story of this series. For six games, the Heat sliced up the No. 1 defense in the league. Talk all you want about Indiana’s need for more shooting and playmaking, but the Pacers got destroyed on the end of the floor that they take the most pride in, unable to match up with the Heat’s shooting and playmaking.

Miami neutralized Roy Hibbert‘s rim protection on the perimeter, hitting 10.4 3-pointers per game at a 44 percent clip over the last five games of the series. James, meanwhile, did what he does, shooting 31-for-38 (82 percent) in the restricted area in the conference finals, with more than twice as many buckets in the paint (36) as he had outside it (16).

As Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said often over the last two weeks, this was a contrast of styles and the winner would be the team that could “impose its identity” on the other. Ultimately, the Heat imposed their identity — and their personnel — on the Pacers.

These last four years have been about three of the best players in the league coming together to win multiple championships. And no team in the league can match up with James, Wade and Bosh. But this isn’t 3-on-3, and very year, the Heat have had role players to fill in the gaps.

In this series, when another piece to the puzzle was needed, it was Rashard Lewis, who started the last three games and was a series-high plus-58 in 100 minutes (plus-28 per 48 minutes). As a fifth shooter on the floor, he made the Heat impossible to guard, and he held his own defensively against David West.

“We talk about it all the time with our team,” Spoelstra said, referencing Lewis’ sudden emergence as a major factor. “It’s about moments. It’s not necessarily about every single game or minute during January and February. It’s about the big moments, keeping yourself ready and having an opportunity to make an impact at some point during the postseason.”

“Rashard,” James added, “was obviously the key to everything.”

This year’s Heat haven’t been the best Heat we’ve seen. But things are falling into place at the right time. While we may question their ability to play great defense on a nightly basis, we have no doubt that they know how to bring their best when it’s needed.

“They play at a championship level,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said.  “They have a way to raise it to the point that it’s too much to overcome.”

It’s been three years since the Heat first got to this point and stumbled in the 2011 Finals. They were just six seconds from falling short a year ago. And with many roster questions to face this summer, we don’t know what the future holds.

But right now, the Heat are still fulfilling the expectations that we had for them and that they had for themselves when they got together in July of 2010.

“We’re just going to continue to try to enjoy this moment that we’re in,” Wade said, “because it’s an amazing moment. It’s something that, for a lifetime, is going to fulfill us as athletes. Even when we can’t play this game, we’re going to always be able to talk about this. So we just want to add to what we’re accomplishing.”

“We know we still have work to do,” James told ESPN’s Doris Burke, “but we won’t take this for granted. We’re going to four straight Finals.”