When the Pacers and the Thunder got knocked out in respective Conference Finals, a wave of disappointment and criticism swept through the fan-bases. But when you take a closer look at each team, what, if anything, needs to be fixed?
Under contract 2014-15: Hibbert, West, George, G.Hill, Scola, Mahimni, Watson, Copeland, S.Hill
Others: Stephenson (RFA), Turner (Team Opt), Butler (FA), Allen (FA), Sloan, Johnson
The Pacers finished 56-26 this year, for the best record in the East, homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs (not that it mattered), and for the second straight year, made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. You know who would take that? About 25 other NBA teams. So first things first… DON’T PANIC! (I understand the irony of CAPS there) There are a few things that need to be addressed moving forward;
- Lance Stephenson is a restricted free agent, a really talented two way player, a spark plug, a divisive character with a somewhat checkered path, an agitator, a bargain right now, and (according to Ray Allen at least) a buffoon of sorts. One thing is for sure though, at 24 years old and on the cusp of All Stardom, there is a really high ceiling for the 8th grader. He doesn’t back down from the moment (sometimes to his detriment), he can defend the best perimeter players in the league, he can hit the three, can handle the rock, and can make plays out of nothing. The question mark of course, is always going to be his personality, and volatile nature on and seemingly off the court. It’s a gamble forking out big money to secure him for the next four or five years, but if you look at the horizon for Indiana, there is not much else out there right now. As the old saying goes…. Better the devil you know.
- A lot was made about the huge slump and the offensive struggles for the Pacers during the season, and square in the firing line was Coach Vogel. To his credit he stuck fat with the group he had and the system he had devised for them, and the Pacers locked up the number 1 seed they had coveted. Problem was however, as soon as the intensity of the playoffs rolled around, those offensive shortcomings were once again highlighted, through a struggle with the hapless but tireless Hawks, the upstart Wizards, and then ultimately to the champs. Vogel desperately needs to find and offensive guru to take over the half of the court for him during the offseason. He must swallow his pride and find a lead assistant to get the ball working on that end. Much like NFL head coaches often only run one side of the ball or the other (or neither sometimes), relying on offensive and defensive coordinators for much of the play calling, Vogel needs to find his sideline man!
- The bench unit falls under the, ‘Hey let’s not panic here!’ catergory. The pacers purchased a lot of new toys for the bench, and sometimes it takes more than a season for those toys to all fit together in the toybox. Mahimni adds the veteran rim protection their scheme needs, while Scola and Watson are proven bench scorers. And Copeland needs to work out at the Fieldhouse all summer until he figures out where the draught is coming from.
- Turner and George Hill are worries however. Turner went AWOL after his strepthroat during the playoffs, and George Hill showed again that he doesn’t have the consistency or confidence to be a true point guard at the most elite level. While he is unselfish and has solid point guard size and attributes, his shakey handle and lack of confidence show in pressure situations, and his long range shooting isn’t strong enough to warrant a pure shift to the 2 guard role. If I am Indiana, I let Turner walk and use some of that cap for Lance’s new contract. George Hill presents a much tougher dilemma – stick with what you have or try to pry away a talented point guard for Hill and picks. I would suggest a Reggie Jackson type player, but obviously Presti wouldn’t fall for that. If I wanted to stand on the smallest branch I could find I would give one year of Jeremy Lin a chance (or less likely, try to pry Pat Beverly away from the Rockets). My point being, Point Guard is probably the deepest position in the league, and Indiana don’t have one at all- something they need to fix.
The Pacers have tied themselves to Hibbert and George for the long haul. That third piece may or may not be decided this off season, but with little flexibility and not that many appealing assets, the Pacers need to stay the course, find an offensive identity, and hope the heat age even more during this year’s series with the spurs.
Under contract 2014-15: Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka, Jackson, Adams, Collison, Perkins, Lamb, Jones 3 , Roberson
Others: Sefolosha (FA), Butler (FA), Fisher, Thabeet (Team Opt)
Much like the Pacers, and probably even more so, the Thunder are in ‘DON’T PANIC MODE!’. You have the MVP of the league, a defensive powerhouse of a big man (who’s offensive game is quickly becoming one of the most efficient in the league), and arguably a top 5 point guard, who fresh of 3 knee surgeries (and killing my fantasy team) in 18 months, looks just as explosive as ever. Even without Westbrook, the Thunder got to the second seed in the hostile west. They then lost part 3 of their big 3 for the first two games of the Western Conference Finals against a single-minded-we-must-kill-the-heat-Spurs. So in summary;
Year 1 – Were young and inexperienced and lost to the Heat and the best player in the world coming off slap in the finals loss the year before.
Year 2 – Lost a top ten player of the league and couldn’t adjust in time to survive.
Year 3 – Again, faced a pissed off team that had lost the previous year in the Finals, and again lost part of the big 3 for part of the series.
Luck is a bitch sometimes. Point is, they have arguably the second best big 3 in the league, none of whom have reached their peaks yet. It will be ok Thunder fans (I’m looking at you @c_willo ).
There are definitely some major issues though;
- Filling out the roster around the big 3. For some reason, they haven’t been able to find the right combination of veterans and cheap youth yet. They took a step this year, with Adams showing that he can more than hold his own against tough playoff matchups. He also single handedly made Perkins amniestable for the 4th time in his career, but at this stage I doubt he is going anywhere. Most likely they let Thabo walk, and try to find a suitable replacement. Someone who has veteran leadership, can shoot the three, and defend the perimeter. The alternative to this is to move Westbrook to the 2 spot and find another Point guard, essentially running the Phoenix style from this season. If you get the combinations right, as the suns showed, you can prove all the doubters wrong and shut a lot of mouths very quickly. Maybe targeting someone like Shaun Livingston as an interchangeable guard? Which brings me to my next point…
- What to do with Reggie Jackson? He is close, or might have already outgrown his role on the bench, as shown during the Western Conference Finals. He is still on a very valuable contract, and is very sort after asset. What could the Thunder get for Reggie right now? A useful veteran and a first rounder? Another half decent big man and a pick? Or even something like a Dion Waiters (true scoring 6th man?) and a pick? Something for OKC to ponder before they have to pay him.
- Speaking of big men, the foursome of Perkins’ corpse, Adams, Collison and Thabeet’s huge ass, just won’t cut it. You need to have something more reliable than Perkins and Thabeet, and no offence to Collison, but he isn’t big enough to play the 5,especially during the playoffs. Adams, showed some signs, but still has a long way to go. Of the four he is the only one who is at least a threat on the offensive end. This summer, they need to sure up their big man stocks, in the same way Miami did a couple of years ago with Birdman. Someone who plays tough defense, but who doesn’t have bricks for hands, and can move in and out of the lane without completely clogging it up.
- The final big issue, might be the biggest. Is Scott Brooks a good enough coach to take a team to a championship? The offensive system is a contradiction, for as much as Brooks gets brow beaten, the Thunder offense is top 5 in efficiency season after season. Is this just because the KD and Ibaka are pretty efficient scorers? But then you take the eye test, and watch the Thunder coming out of timeouts, or down the stretch in close playoff games, and save from KD or Westbrook entering GOD MODE, the Thunder offense sputters and hovers out around quarter court in a myriad of pointless and ineffective pick and rolls. It’s not all Brooks fault during these possessions, as Westbrook starts the offensive movement (after 37 dribbles) with 14 seconds left on the shotclock, or KD unable to shake defenders on the switch. This confusion and lack of definitive movement and direction, smacks of ill preparation. Very rarely do you see the heat or the spurs struggle with direction in clutch situations. Presti and Bennett have assured (much to some dismay) the Thunder fanbase that Brooks will be back.
The questions will remain around KD, Westbrook and Brooks as long as the Thunder miss out on NBA Finals appearances. As I said at the start of this, the thunder have a Big 3 who are all arguably top 20 players already. Add to this an MVP trophy and the fact that none of them have reached their peaks yet, and you still have a window garage door wide open. It will be ok Thunder fans, and be grateful for the continued success you have already witnessed.