Indiana’s Setting Their Own Pace

At the risk of a copyright claim by Sesame Street, let’s play a game of “one of these things is not like the others” featuring the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference playoff picture

-         The No. 1 seeds are the Chicago Bulls, who boast reigning league MVP Derrick Rose, reigning Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau and one of the NBA’s best benches.

-         The second seeds are the Miami Heat, whose leading scorers double as, arguably, two of the game’s best three or four players.

-         The No. 3 seeds are the Indiana Pacers, who haven’t finished .500 or better since the 2005-06 season and don’t feature a single player among the NBA’s top 20 scorers.

-         The No. 4 seeds are the Boston Celtics, winners of the East’s most recent championship (2008) and featuring Rajon Rondo alongside a trio of soon-to-be NBA Hall of Famers.

Congratulations for the eagle-eyed among you who picked the Pacers, who have spent the 2011-12 season disrupting the East’s status quo and challenging the notion that superstar-less clubs are simply also-rans in today’s NBA.

As chronicled in column this March in Sports Illustrated, Indiana, as engineered by team president Larry Bird, has pulled together a balanced group of complementary, quality players with character in lieu of having one (or two or three) franchise guys.

Not only has the core of Danny Granger, Darren Collison, Paul George, David West, Roy Hibbert, George Hill, Tyler Hansbrough and deadline addition Leandro Barbosa already reached 40 wins on the year, but they’ve recorded victories over each of the aforementioned elite Eastern clubs and are rolling towards the postseason sporting a 10-1 April record.

It’s not just what they’re doing that’s remarkable, but how. Throughout NBA history, the general rule of thumb has been ‘have superstar, will travel’. Since 2004, you haven’t won an NBA championship without one (or more) of Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce or Dirk Nowitzki. Even before that, teams raised the Larry O’Brien trophy on account of players like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Hakeem Olaujuwon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and, well, Bird.

Then again, maybe this is the perfect time for a team like the Pacers to come along and fly in the face of league history. Prior to this lockout-shortened season, some analysts highlighted Indy as a potential riser (although I doubt anyone expected this level of success), pointing to the club’s depth, balance and youth as indications that they could navigate the tough, condensed schedule. Sure enough, the Pacers have benefited from good health, with only Collison missing significant time due to injury. This can be directly credited to the controlled minutes afforded to head coach Frank Vogel by his team’s depth (particularly with regards to oft-injured bigs West and Hibbert).

On top of that, they have emerged in a season which has not been kind to “the NBA superstar”. Just as the star-less Detroit Pistons’ 2004 title represented the triumph of David over the Lakers’ Goliath (L.A. featured O’Neal, Bryant, Karl Malone and Gary Payton), Indiana’s group of supporting players has come along at a time when no clear MVP has broke away from the pack, Derrick Rose and Bryant have been banged up and stars like Nowitzki, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and lottery-bound Deron Williams have endured uncharacteristic struggles at one time or another.

Heck, the Orlando Magic, the club that the Pacers are currently slated to play in round one, might be the most superstar-damaged team in the league. Dwight Howard has led the Magic through what has been an ugly, public melodrama this season in which he has basically done every destructive thing possible to put himself on the outs with the team, including seeking the termination of his coach and asking management to keep him through the season and “roll the dice” on whether he’ll re-sign thereafter.

When (forget about ‘if’) Howard does ultimately bolt, the Magic (and the city of Orlando) might wind up as the biggest victims of any nasty NBA divorce of the past few years.

As for the Pacers, their core boasts the structure and stability to succeed over the long term. All core members except Barbosa are under contract through at least next season, with most players (George, Collison, Hill, Hibbert and Hansbrough) still on their rookie deals and Granger and West signed to long-term deals. If Indy wants to keep Barbosa in the fold, or wishes to further bolster its already-deep club, it will have plenty of room (as much as $20 million in cap space) to do so.

But for now, the focus is on a present that includes postseason play. Indiana won’t be the most experienced team out there, nor will they be the most star-studded. Whether they need to be remains to be seen.

The Trouble With (Two) Rookies

The term “rookie” holds both positive and negative connotations. While a rookie is someone boasting promise and potential, it is also a player lacking in experience and general know-how.

As the connotations suggest, counting on the production of a rookie can bring about the promise of long-term gains along with ever-existent short-term pains. Charlotte Bobcats head coach Paul Silas has spent the 2011-12 season learning this first-hand, while Toronto Raptors bench boss Dwane Casey may be about to find out.

First-year players are far from the only headache that Silas has had to endure during a trying campaign in which his Bobcats have recorded a league-worst 7-44 mark through 51 games. However, rookies are rookies and the introductions to the NBA haven’t been entirely smooth for a pair of youngsters who have actually played fairly well, if unevenly: Kemba Walker, who is one year removed from leading UConn to a national title, and Bismack Biyombo, a 19-year-old Congolese shot-blocking phenom who remains raw in most other areas of the game.

“It’s tough because rookies take time,” admits Silas; “take time to learn the game, to understand it, understand the players, understand what’s expected of them. And you cannot expect them to just go out and do the job right away, so it takes patience.”

Casey, whose Raptors trumped Silas’ Bobcats on Tuesday night in Toronto, may be looking ahead to a similar experience with his club next season. The team is hopeful that they’ll be able to bring 2011 first-round pick Jonas Valanciunas over from current Lithuanian club Lietuvos Rytas in time for the 2012-13 season. Should Valanciunas touch down in time to make his anticipated NBA debut next year, he will likely be learning the North American pro game alongside whichever prospect Toronto selects with its lottery choice in this June’s draft (barring a trade, of course).

Of course, no two rookies (or players, for that matter) are completely alike. While Walker’s NCAA run with the Huskies made him a relatively pro-ready commodity coming out of college, he faces the added challenge of learning how to run the point and adjusting to what is one of the most demanding and talent-laden positions on the floor. Biyombo, meanwhile, had – and still has – a steep learning curve ahead of him, with Silas suggesting that developing a consistent jumper will be a huge off-season focus for the teen.

The combination of the two, coupled with still-developing pieces like Gerald Henderson and Byron Mullens, makes for an environment requiring plenty of patience.

“It’s a process,” acknowledges Walker. “Hopefully we can get some vets mixed in here to bring some leadership. But with me and Biz and Byron and other young guys getting this experience, it’ll help build us into winners.”

The bumps are to be expected, just as they will be in Toronto next season. Walker and Biyombo finished Tuesday’s game with 15 points, nine rebounds and seven assists combined, but also committed six turnovers and were part of an offence that looked out of joint throughout much of their 92-87 losing effort.

Toss in another high profile rookie likely joining the fray next season and the “two or three years” that Silas figures most rookies need to develop and there’s still plenty of work to do (understatement alert!).

Any already-beleaguered Raptors fan reading this can’t be particularly enamored by parallels between this year’s Bobcats and next year’s Raps, but Casey is quick to offer some words of optimism and hope.

“Having young talent is great,” says the first-year coach, “but I’m not sure that young players are given the best possible chance to grow without the opportunity to develop in a structured, disciplined environment that emphasizes the importance of hard work and winning. That’s what we’ve been trying to do here this year, and will continue to try to do.”

Blazing A New Trail

In the end, Wednesday’s trade deadline wasn’t about big stars changing addresses (Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo, Deron Williams and Steve Nash all stayed put), nor was it about championship contenders solidifying their roster (none of the Heat, Bulls, Thunder or Mavs made a move).

Instead, Wednesday was marked by the decisions of bubble teams on whether to go all-in or cash in their assets with an eye towards the future.

Houston, for example, was the most active among the all-ins, bolstering an already-deep rotation with veteran pick-ups Marcus Camby and Derek Fisher. Indiana (Leandro Barbosa), Milwaukee (Monta Ellis, Ekpe Udoh and Kwame Brown) and Los Angeles (Nick Young) also made upgrades without surrendering much current talent.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have the Portland Trail Blazers. Anyone holding onto hopes that Rip City would stay the course and see what their current roster could produce saw their hopes go up in rather abrupt flames, as Camby and Gerald Wallace were shipped out, Greg Oden was waived and head coach Nate McMillan was shown the door.

None of those decisions would have been easy ones for whoever is at the reins of the currently GM-less Blazers (owner Paul Allen?).

In addition to being key veteran contributors, Camby and Wallace represented Portland’s own all-in approach, with Camby signed before last season and Wallace being acquired from Charlotte in a mid-season deal.

Oden’s departure, meanwhile, closes a disappointing, injury-riddled tenure for a player who wasn’t just a No. 1 pick (ahead of Kevin Durant), but a guy who came out of Ohio State as a near-sure thing.

Finally, McMillan has carried a rep as a well-respected player’s coach before reports of turmoil (Jamal Crawford and Ray Felton reportedly led an anti-Nate locker room mutiny) came to light recently.

Rebuilding is never particularly easy, but it’s been an especially trying process for a fan base that’s Bill Simmons refers to as the “Portland soccer moms” for their avid, unfettered support of their team. Camby, Wallace, Oden and McMillan join a parade of guys that have found their way out the Rose Garden exit door in the past year, including former GM Rich Cho (fired mysteriously) and Brandon Roy (amnestied / retired).

It’s hard to find a winner amidst this fire sale. Camby found a decent situation in Houston, but Wallace is actually farther from playoff contention with the Nets. Oden’s NBA career is now in jeopardy, while McMillan is out of basketball (for now) despite being recognized by many as one of the NBA’s best coaches.

Still in Portland, remaining franchise guy LaMarcus Aldridge has seen the team implode around him and will now waste a portion of his peak years in a rebuild.

Oh, and about that rebuild…

Beyond shedding some onerous contracts (over $30 million between Camby / Wallace / Oden) and, in doing so, gaining financial flexibility moving forward (not that Forbes’ richest people list regular Allen is exactly cash-strapped). it’s difficult to see just how the deadline moves helped expedite the rebuild process.

Trading Camby and Wallace netted the Blazers one attractive asset: the Nets’ top-three-protected 2012 first round pick. Beyond the conditional draft choice (and a second rounder from Houston), they picked up Mehmet Okur’s expiring $10.9 million contract, the soon-to-be-bought-out Shawne Williams and a pair of draft bust candidates in Hasheem Thabeet and Jonny Flynn. The New Jersey pick could be a major building block, but only if it falls in that 4-5-6 range – no higher or lower.

As things currently stand, the Blazers have under $50 million on the books in 2012-13 contracts (as a point of reference, the Heat have more than $50 million committed to just their Big Three for next season), with team options remaining for Thabeet and Flynn and player options on Crawford (will likely exercise) and Nicolas Batum (almost definitely will opt out). The question becomes whether they can do anything substantial with the remaining cap space.

No disrespect to Camby and Crawford, but it’s hard to pinpoint the last free agent of significance that signed with Portland (Kenny Anderson, maybe?). On top of hardly being a league power, this team has little to offer beyond the chance to play with Aldridge and, ideally, lottery pick X and Y (Portland’s own pick likely won’t be any lower than the fringes of the top 10).

Batum will likely have his choice of free agent suitors, leaving Crawford and Wesley Matthews to join Aldridge among the remaining veterans, in addition to a trio of young, unproven hopefuls in Nolan Smith, Elliot Williams and Luke Babbitt.

The Blazers have made their decision to initiate a rebuild – there’s no going back now. Still, it’s a sorry state for what is a terrific basketball city that’s endured some hard luck and, yet, feels like it wasn’t all that far away from contention. Remember, they pushed the eventual champion Mavs to six games in the first round.

The franchise successfully managed to execute a positive franchise makeover once in recent history, going from the Jail Blazers to the likable, Roy-led group of the Allen era.

Now, they face a new challenge, with Aldridge and new head coach Kaleb Canales at the helm.

Contenders Have Needs, Too

In a shortened NBA season in which unpredictability has reigned, it’s only appropriate that we are a week away from a trade deadline which could either be a landscape-changer or an uneventful dud.

We’ve all heard Dwight Howard and Rajon Rondo bandied about as the two major names who could potentially get moved, but Magic management (primarily CEO Alex Martins and GM Otis Smith) have remained steadfast that their first priority is holding onto their superstar, while Celtics GM Danny Ainge has no incentive to rush the trade of his dynamic 26-year-old point guard (unless the locker room atmosphere is more toxic than we think).

Beyond the two All-Star talents, the pickings are slim, with few other names (Chris Kaman? Jamal Crawford?) being tossed around.

On the other hand, things seem almost too quiet. The NBA championship is, after all, very much up for grabs. The Western Conference, in particular, looks particularly ripe for the taking, with Dallas having a bumpy title defense thus far and no other contender – Oklahoma City, San Antonio or either Los Angeles team – looking infallible. Even in the East, Chicago still faces questions of secondary scoring and Heat fans were reminded of the dangers of Dwyane Wade’s all-out playing style after his injury scare against the Nets.

There’s no sense in speculating on other names that might be made available in the next seven days, as it’s impossible to know which GM’s are making which players available. However, with most teams arriving at 40 games played this year, some clarity is emerging in terms of specific areas of need among some of the contending teams.

*Note: Among possible contenders, you’ll notice I’ve omitted Miami, Philadelphia, San Antonio and Memphis from the teams mentioned below. The Heat have the necessary personnel in place barring injury, the Sixers are a balanced club that may simply lack the talent needed to join Miami and Chicago as East favorites and the Spurs and Grizzlies will be bolstered by players who have returned (San Antonio’s Manu Ginobli) or will soon return (Memphis’ Zach Randolph) from injury.

Need: Scoring
Teams: Bulls, Lakers

Hard to find much fault in the 32-8 Bulls, but the 2011-12 version of the club still isn’t much different from the ’10-11 version that fell short in the Eastern Finals against the Heat, largely because no one else stepped up once Derrick Rose and Luol Deng were held in check. The good news is that Carlos Boozer looks to be leaner and meaner, but his scoring has also dropped almost 2.5 points per game as the team embraces more of an offense-by committee approach. A healthy Rip Hamilton may help, but GM Gar Forman may still take action if there’s a fit to be found.

For the Lakers, it’s all in the stats: the team ranks 22nd in per game scoring despite boasting the league’s leading scorer. Kobe Bryant is clearly doing his part (28.7 ppg) and the Pau Gasol/Andrew Bynum front court, while often maligned, is producing 33.4 points per game. However, that’s where the contributors end, as the next-highest scoring Laker is Matt Barnes at 6.8 points. L.A. is clearly missing Lamar Odom (although, then again, so is Dallas).

Need: Size
Teams: Mavericks, Rockets

If only there was some defensive-minded big man available – someone who, you know, could rebound, block shots and defend the interior. Someone like, say, Tyson Chandler. Fact is, the Mavs have been missing Chandler all season long. While no Mav has managed more than 6.7 rebounds per game, Chandler has been pulling down 9.8 in New York.

Houston isn’t a championship contender, but they have developed a dynamic back court of Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin. However, opposing defenses can zero in on the duo without any inside forces to contend with. Luis Scola has a few reliable low post moves, but doesn’t possess the size or strength of his rival big men.

Need: Scoring Up Front
Team: Thunder

Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka provide plenty of rebounding, defense and toughness, but not a whole lot of scoring. The addition of a guy like Kaman (sorry, I know I said I wouldn’t suggest names) could open up even more scoring opportunities for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, not to mention James Harden.

Need: Shooting
Team: Clippers

Current stats would indicate that shooting isn’t much of an issue for the Clippers, who rank 10th league-wide in field goal percentage and 11th in three-point percentage. However, those numbers say more about the amount of attention commanded by the Blake Griffin / DeAndre Jordan front line, as well as the tendency of defenders to play off of point guard Chris Paul (he currently owns a .423% mark from the three-point line). A sharpshooter like Ray Allen (I know, I know!) could be that final piece that cements them – already – as bona fide contenders.

Need: Point Guard Help
Team: Magic

Hidden behind the cover of the Howard saga is the sobering reality that Jameer Nelson isn’t getting the job done at the point in Orlando. The recently-turned-30-year-old has hit a career nadir point in terms of field goal percentage, turnover rate and three-point percentage. While most clubs would face a tricky proposition when it comes to introducing a point guard to a new offense with the stretch run so imminent, the Magic run a fundamentally simple offense based on surrounding Howard with perimeter shooters, so a floor general change would be feasible if Smith could find a reasonable fit.

Pop’s Lesson in Chemistry

There were more than a few observers who were quick to dismiss the chances of the San Antonio Spurs as they embarked on the lockout-shortened 2011-12 NBA season. The condensed schedule, it stood to reason, would favor the young, who could remain spry through tough, grueling stretches.

As it turns out through nearly two months of play, there happens to be another quality that can help teams navigate through a schedule heavy on games and light on practices: chemistry.

The power of chemistry is hardly a secret amongst NBA type, but it also isn’t something that can be readily acquired. Sure, you can find reputed “glue guys,” as Miami did in adding Shane Battier, or you can bring in a player that fits within your club’s construction and/or addresses an area of need, as Chicago did with Rip Hamilton. But chemistry speaks to a larger collective balance that encompasses the entire team and hinges upon everyone adhering to their expectant role.

As such, it is an impressive achievement that the Spurs, a perennial Western Conference power, seem to find that delicate balance so consistently year-in and year-out, with this season (and the team’s current nine-game win streak) being no exception. Even as they incorporate a slew of young players, including DeJuan Blair, James Anderson, Gary Neal, Danny Green, Thiago Splitter and rookie Kawhi Leonard into the regular rotation, San Antonio has continued to thrive within coach Gregg Popovich’s structured system.

If Popovich is the architect of the system, then it is the club’s long-time veterans that serve as the executors, making sure that everyone does their job and feels responsible for their part in the collective effort. Starting with David Robinson, the role has passed through players like Bruce Bowen and Michael Finley to the Spurs current veteran trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

“It starts with [Popovich], but then it goes right to Duncan, Robinson – kind of handed down through the players,” says Raptors coach Dwane Casey, who has seen plenty of the Spurs over the years through coaching stints in Seattle, Minnesota and Dallas. “If they have a bad egg in there, he doesn’t last very long.”

In addition to experience (33 years combined), the trio of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili aren’t lacking for credentials. Duncan is a four-time champion, three-time Finals MVP and a name that must be mentioned in any “Best PF ever” debate. Parker has spent the last decade as the club’s floor general, with three NBA titles and his own Finals MVP to show for it. Ginobili, meanwhile, is a proven winner (Olympic gold medalist, three-time NBA champ) but still plays with a level of energy that belies his age (34). When these guys speak, the young players around them may want to listen up.

“Our three best players have combined 35 [actually 33] years of experience and when you combine that with Pop, you’re talking about the core unit of our group having tons and tons of experience – more than anybody else in the NBA,” says Spurs forward Richard Jefferson. “When you have your three best players like that, everyone else just kind of falls in line; your roles are defined.”

It seems simple enough to hear Jefferson explain it, but it’s not particularly easy to find a trio of veterans with the pedigree of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, nor do coaches with the experience and know-how of Popovich grow on trees.

As a result, you have teams that are rich in talent but don’t quite know how to play together. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade seem to be figuring it out in Miami, but nothing will be proven until the playoffs come along. The Knicks needed a spark from an unheralded sophomore from the end of their bench because the Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire connection hasn’t gelled. Out west, the Thunder remain under scrutiny based on the dynamic between Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and even the defending champion Mavericks aren’t immune from chemistry concerns, with off-season pick-up Lamar Odom struggling to fit in.

Popovich, who happens to hold the GM tag in San Antonio in addition to his coaching role, understands what many other decision-makers in the game don’t seem to: talent is nice, but you need to be sure that the pieces fit together, as well.

Ask the man known as ‘Pop’ about chemistry and he’ll launch into something that seems less an answer than a soliloquy.

“[Chemistry] can’t be taught. You can luck into it, but mostly I think it’s the sources – the character – of the players; the professional intelligence they embody, the understanding of how things fit and what wins and what loses; people who are capable of empathy and love, of feeling responsibility to others; all those things create chemistry.”

Depth of talent remains a question looming over San Antonio’s postseason chances, something that tends to happen when you’ve been in the lottery once in the past 23 seasons (the year they drafted Duncan first over-all). But whether or not they have the firepower and skill to match up with the Mavs, Lakers, Thunder and Clippers (among others), there is no question that they’ll be the most prepared and will have given themselves every possible opportunity to succeed. Popovich, Duncan, Parker and Ginobili will make sure of it.