No excuses left for Pacers

February 1, 2011

Larry Bird finally pulled the plug on the miserable Jim O’Brien era.

O’Brien, or “Jimmy” as Bird affectionately called him during Sunday’s firing, seemed to have the Indiana Pacers headed in the right direction earlier this season.

No more blaming this guy.

Highlighted by eye-opening road wins over the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers, Indiana turned some heads in the Eastern Conference with a better-than-expected 11-10 record.

But things quickly went south from there.

The Pacers dropped 17 of their next 23 games. A dismal 0-for-4 western road trip followed by blowout losses to the Magic and Bulls were the final nails in the coach’s coffin. O’Brien’s ejection from Saturday’s loss at Chicago seemed to be a fitting send-off.

With a 121-169 record in three-plus seasons and zero playoff appearances, it’s pretty safe to say O’Brien won’t be joining former coach Bobby “Slick” Leonard with his name hanging from the Conseco Fieldhouse rafters.

But while his mysterious rotations, abrasive personality, and ongoing berating of his players have been a major factor in the Pacers’ failure to escape the East’s cellar, O’Brien shouldn’t absorb all the blame for this mess of a team.

Like most underperforming organizations, disappointing results often stem from the combined effort (or lack thereof) from both management and labor. In the Pacers’ case, the management was held accountable by being shown the door – and rightfully so – but the players should not be let off the hook so easily.

Question O’Brien’s motivational skills, play calling, and substitution methods all you want, but the coach isn’t the one bricking open shots and making ill-advised passes.

The players have to be held accountable, and it starts with Danny Granger.

Two seasons after being named an all-star, Granger has regressed. His scoring average is down to 21 points per game this season, and he’s shooting just 43 percent from the field. That’s unacceptable for a player who’s supposedly the team’s star and No. 1 option on offense. Granger needs to find his shot to prove that he’s more than just a valuable trade chip.

Then there’s the supporting cast.

The slumping Roy Hibbert finally broke out for 24 points and 11 rebounds – his highest scoring total since Nov. 28 – in interim coach Frank Vogel’s winning debut Monday against Toronto. While O’Brien never hesitated to yank a struggling Hibbert from the line-up, it is clear Vogel is going to let the 7-foot-2 center play through the tough times. Whatever confidence issues Hibbert had can no longer be pinned on O’Brien’s public criticism.

In his first season with the Pacers, point guard Darren Collison has obviously had a tough time grasping O’Brien’s offensive style. His assists per game have fallen from 5.7 last season to 4.8, and he often found himself benched late in games in favor of T.J. Ford or A.J. Price.

With O’Brien out, it’s now up to Collison to show whether his regression was the fault of the system, or the point guard.

Last but not least, there’s the issue of O’Brien’s puzzling rotations.

If Bird’s comments during Sunday’s press conference and the box score from Monday’s win are any indication, the young players’ fears of seeing solid play be rewarded with a permanent spot on the bench should be put to rest. Paul George, Tyler Hansbrough, Josh McRoberts, and yes, even Lance Stephenson should see plenty of playing time. It’s up to them to make the best of it.

With its rare (at least for the Pacers) move of canning a coach mid-season, the Indiana front office made it clear that O’Brien doesn’t belong in its continuing rebuilding plans.

Now it’s up to the players to prove that they do.


Slumping Hibbert still a candidate for most improved

December 29, 2010

When Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert entered the league two years ago, it wasn’t a stretch to say that his game resembled that of draft bust David Harrison.

Despite recent shooting struggles, Roy Hibbert is having a career-best season.

No doubt a disturbing thought for the Pacers faithful.

The two big men’s rookie stats were eerily similar. As a first-year player in 2004-05, Harrison posted averages of 6.1 points and 3.1 rebounds while playing 17.7 minutes per game. He also couldn’t stay on the floor – picking up 3.1 fouls per contest in those somewhat limited minutes.

Compare those to Hibbert’s rookie numbers in 2008-09 (7.1 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 3.1 fouls per game in roughly the same playing time) and it’s easy to slam the Pacers’ front office for whiffing on two first-round draft picks.

Not so fast.

While the drug-troubled Harrison’s career went up in flames – literally – Hibbert recovered from his less than impressive rookie campaign to emerge as one of the top young centers in the NBA.

His climb began last year in his second season, when the depth chart above him suddenly became less crowded.

Rasho Nesterovic took his talents to Toronto. Jeff Foster stopped being Jeff Foster, and transformed into “Did Not Play – Sore Back.”

That opened the door for Hibbert, who improved in nearly every statistical category.

Hibbert practically lived in the gym over the summer leading up to this season, training with Hall of Fame center Bill Walton and reportedly dropping 23 pounds.

It paid off.

He put up absurd numbers in the three October games (18.3 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 2.7 bpg) and continued strong in November (15.6 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 1.9 bpg). The NBA’s Most Improved Player award seemed to be his to lose.

But then the wheels fell off in December.

Hibbert has gone from feared interior presence to the invisible man. He has just three double-doubles this month, and is currently stuck in a shooting slump in which he’s gone a combined 9 of 36 (25 percent) from the field over the last three games.

Despite the offensive nosedive, Hibbert has found a way to foul less (2.9 per game in December). His numbers a little more than a third of the way through the season (14.0 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 2.0 bpg) are also still career-highs – by far.

If the season ended today (I hate it when writers use that setup, but oh well) Hibbert would obviously be a few spots down the list when talking about the league’s most improved players.

Minnesota’s Michael Beasley – a player Miami couldn’t jettison fast enough in preparation for the Summer of LeBron – has been a beast for the Timberwolves, leading the team in scoring (21.9 ppg) while shooting 47 percent from the field.

Other surprise performers probably ranking higher than Hibbert at this point would be New York’s Raymond Felton (12.1 ppg, 5.6 apg in 2009-10 to 18.3 ppg, 9.2 apg this season) and Golden State’s Dorell Wright (7.1 ppg, 3.3 rpg in 2009-10 to 15.1 ppg, 6.0 rpg this season).

The good news for Hibbert is that he hasn’t seen his minutes decrease during his sub-par December. With 54 regular season games remaining and the possibility of a playoff run (I’ll save that for another column), Hibbert should have plenty of opportunities to regain his early-season form.

One of his teammates is proof of that. Danny Granger – the 2008-09 Most Improved Player – didn’t become the favorite for the award until having a red-hot January.

It’s possible Hibbert can do the same.


Moss is back in Minnesota, but coming home doesn’t always work out

October 7, 2010
For once, it was easy for Brad Childress.

The Minnesota Vikings coach got the player he wanted … and he didn’t even have to send hired goons to Mississippi to coax him out of retirement.

Randy Moss is back with the Vikings, the franchise he left six seasons ago as the second-leading receiver in team history. He enjoyed some of the best seasons of his career there. He also bumped a traffic cop with his SUV, “mooned” Lambeau Field, and bailed early during a late-season game at Washington. For a relatively low price (a third round pick) the Vikings think they’ve finally found that deep threat they’ve been desperately trying to get since losing Sidney Rice to injury.

Expectations are never quite as high the second go-round, but Moss should have enough left in the tank to help the Vikings. Sometimes it works when aging stars come home to their original teams (Steve Nash in Phoenix, Jason Kidd in Dallas). But sometimes it doesn’t, as these five teams found out with guys who were shells of their former selves on their second tour of duty.

Allen Iverson, Philadelphia 76ers

The man tears were a nice touch.

Has an NBA superstar ever fallen off the map so quickly? After a bizarre three-game stint in Memphis, Iverson returned to Philly last season after a five-year absence. Iverson wasn’t terrible (averaging 13.9 points and 4.1 assists in 25 games) but was nowhere near the scoring machine he was earlier in the decade. Though his skills declined, his popularity with the fans didn’t. Basically summing up what is wrong with the NBA All-Star selection process, he was voted to the game as a starter in 2010.

Antoine Walker, Boston Celtics

Walker's return to Boston didn't last long.

These days, you’re more likely to see Antoine Walker shaking a cup for change on a street corner than on an NBA court. Walker’s recent financial woes make it hard to remember these days, when he was a three-time All-Star on a lot of bad Boston teams. Walker made his way back to Boston in 2005 after splitting a year between Dallas and Atlanta. Wearing No. 88, Walker was mediocre, averaging a near career-low 16.3 points and a career-low 3.0 assists. After 24 games, he was promptly shipped to Miami in the largest trade in NBA history.

Vinny Testaverde, New York Jets

A 41-year-old Testaverde started for a terrible Jets team in 2005.

Vinny didn’t start his career with the Jets. But I had to include him just because his brief 2005 return to the team was so awful. Seven years after he led the Jets to the AFC Championship, injuries prompted them to bring Vinny back after a one-year stop in Dallas. He made four starts, throwing one touchdown and six picks, and recording his worst QB rating since 1991. He eventually injured his leg and New York gave the keys to Brooks Bollinger. Not exactly a triumphant return. Then again, Vinny was 41 years old at the time so maybe I should cut him some slack.

Ed Johnson, Indianapolis Colts

Big Ed ran out of second chances with the Colts.

Johnson isn’t an aging star, but he deserves a spot on this list simply for screwing up in his return. He seemingly had a bright future after leading the Colts’ defensive line with 72 tackles as a rookie. But he was later shown the door for being pulled over for speeding with marijuana in his car. Flash forward another year, and it happens again. Not a brush with the law, but Johnson is cut for reportedly being fat and lazy. Johnson recently resurfaced with the Carolina Panthers and former Colts defensive coordinator Ron Meeks. We’ll see how long it lasts.

Ken Griffey Jr., Seattle Mariners

Another athlete who didn't know when to quit.

Griffey should have retired years before returning to the Seattle Mariners in 2009. He lasted just 33 games this season, hit no home runs for the first time in his career, and posted a career-low batting average of .184. Why did Seattle bring back a broken down Griffey? Actually, a better question would be why would Griffey want to play for the Mariners again? That pathetic franchise has been in the gutter for several years. A sad end for a one of the few players left in Major League Baseball whose name has not been mentioned in steroid discussions.


’10 NFL Picks

September 8, 2010

A lot has happened since I last sat down to write a blog — Brett Favre returned to football, this time without the man tears … the Pacers swiped Darren Collison from the Hornets … Rex Ryan dropped a couple f-bombs on HBO … Tim Tebow rocked the monk cut … and this poor kid botched the worst play in football history.

Missed out on all those, oh well. But with less than 24 hours to go until the NFL season kicks off, it looks like now’s the time to finally dust off the blog and make some stupid picks. Better late than never, right?

AFC EAST: New England

Even Rex Ryan is making preseason predictions.

Am I the only one who thinks the Jets’ offseason spending spree will not turn into a division title? LaDainian Tomlinson and Jason Taylor were past their primes a couple years ago. Two-thirds of the NFL’s top rushing group from 2009 — Thomas Jones and Leon Washington — are gone. The Jets’ defense should be strong again, but Darrelle Revis has to have some rust after his holdout. I’ll take Tom Brady, Randy Moss, a healthy Wes Welker and the under-the-radar Patriots — if their defense holds up.

AFC NORTH: Baltimore

I like the Ravens’ moves. Anquan Boldin (if healthy) and T.J. Houshmandzadeh (if motivated) should compliment Baltimore’s already-dangerous offensive core of Joe Flacco and Ray Rice. The defense is aging but always seems to perform. Cincinnati could be in the mix for a wild card spot, Pittsburgh takes a few steps back, and Cleveland stays in the gutter.

AFC SOUTH: Indianapolis

I picked the Titans last year and look what happened: Tennessee started the season 0-6, got rocked 59-0 by New England, and had its division title hopes dashed before the leaves started to fall. I learned my lesson — don’t pick against the Colts in the AFC South. There are definitely question marks (offensive line, secondary, special teams) but aren’t we saying that every year about the Colts? The offense is still one of the best in the business.

AFC WEST: San Diego

Stability at quarterback can go a long way in the NFL. San Diego’s Philip Rivers hasn’t missed a start since inheriting the position in 2006. During that span, the Chargers have gone 46-18 and made the playoffs each year. For added prespective, the Oakland Raiders have started seven QB’s since ’06 (JaMarcus Russell, Bruce Gradkowski, Charlie Frye, Andrew Walter, Josh McCown, Daunte Culpepper, Aaron Brooks) gone 16-48, and haven’t even sniffed the postseason. I’ll take the Chargers.

NFC EAST: New York Giants

Not picking Romo and the Cowboys this year.

My first surprise pick. Many forget the Giants started last season 5-0, beat Dallas twice, and if not for an October meltdown would have likely cruised to the division title. Dallas has the third-toughest schedule in the league (its opponents went 139-117 in ’09) and faces ridiculous expectations from both its owner and fan base year in and year out. The pressure of winning the Super Bowl in their home stadium will be too much for the Cowboys and quarterback Tony Romo … who isn’t exactly Mr. Clutch. Eli Manning is still the best QB in the division.

NFC NORTH: Minnesota Vikings

Tough pick. Minnesota and Green Bay have equally top notch defenses, strong rushing attacks, and potent passing games. I’ll give the slight edge to the Vikes and Adrian Peterson — if he can cure his bad case of fumblitis.

NFC SOUTH: Atlanta Falcons

I’ll go with the upset here. The Saints should be good again, but their ’09 season would be tough for any team to top. Matt Ryan to Roddy White is one of the most dangerous QB-receiver combos in the league, and Michael Turner can be a top-five running back if healthy. Atlanta needs it’s mediocre defense to step up.

NFC WEST: San Francisco 49ers

Do I have to pick this one? The Rams are still rebuilding, the Seahawks are holding a fire sale, and the Cardinals just cut their “QB of the future” Matt Leinart in favor of Derek Anderson, a guy who couldn’t lock down the starting job in Cleveland. That leaves the 49ers because ….. Frank Gore is pretty good?


Time to move on, Cleveland.

July 12, 2010

All it took was two words — “South Beach.”

Stay classy Cleveland.

When LeBron James announced he’ll leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and play for the Miami Heat on last week’s made-for-ESPN artifical drama, he instantly transformed from hometown hero to a despised villain more evil than Darth Vader, The Joker, and BP combined.

That was it for him in Cleveland.

One second, he’s the second coming of Michael Jordan. The next, he’s as hated in Cleveland as Art Modell, the NFL owner who infamously packed up the Browns and moved them to Baltimore. To his hometown fans, James might as well have grabbed the sword from the Cavaliers’ logo and plunged it through their hearts.

The reaction was dramatic.

Fans drowned their sorrow in local bars and burned James jerseys in the streets. Cavs owner Dan Gilbert published a ridiculous letter on the team’s website, lashing out at James and foolishly guaranteeing that “the Cleveland Cavaliers will win an NBA championship before the self-titled former ‘King’ wins one.”

 Good luck with that promise.

The letter got better. Gilbert went on to call James’ decision a “cowardly betrayal” and added that “some people think they should go to heaven but NOT have to die to get there.”

Wow.

Since when did the NBA turn into the army, where you’re charged with desertion for leaving your post? The NBA is a business. The Reggie Millers and John Stocktons of the league — guys who spent their entire career in one city — are getting increasingly rare. In fact, only seven active players (Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan, Paul Pierce, Michael Redd, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and Jeff Foster) remain on their first NBA team after 10-plus seasons. It’s funny that Gilbert talks so much about loyalty, when NBA front offices are known to shop entire rosters in trade talks and dump players for as little as second-round picks or cash.

Many forget LeBron never picked the Cavaliers. The Cavs were simply a willing participant in Tankapalooza 2002, when the race for the worst record and No. 1 draft pick (James) was on. Former Cavs coach John Lucas (who was fired after that season) admitted the team tanked to improve its draft lottery odds.

So why fault James for his decision to move on? Yes, his hour-long infomercial about himself just fueled his massive ego and was the wrong way to inform Cleveland he’s moving on. Yes, it appeared James spurned Cleveland’s bigger offer for less money in Miami, even though in reality he gets to keep more salary in Florida due to the state having no income tax. But in the end, LeBron chose what he thought was the right move for he and his family. You can’t blame him for that.

The reaction from Northeast Ohio proved once again that in sports, a fan’s loyalty lies only with what’s written on the front of a team’s jersey, not the back. They don’t cheer for individuals. They cheer for any individual — as long as he’s wearing the home team’s colors.


Draft Night 2010

June 25, 2010

Making the trip to Conseco Fieldhouse tonight to cover my second straight NBA Draft. Since a basketball arena isn’t the most exciting place without well, basketball, I figured I’d write updates on the blog to pass the time.

7:15 PM: Just arrived at the media room. Setting up my laptop, getting ready for a long night of watching a scrolling ticker at the bottom of a screen. TV set up here is pretty brutal, five 20-inch tube sets with no good view from where I’m sitting. Oh well, at least there’s free pizza.

7:22 PM: Draft is minutes away. Should be an interesting night. Can’t remember a more anticipated draft for the Pacers. At this point a straight-up pick at No. 10 would be a complete letdown.

7:37 PM: Wall to the Wiz. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

7:43 PM: And Turner goes No. 2 to the Sixers… no surprises here. Not sure how he fits in with swingman Andre Iguodala already in place, but I can’t fault Philly for the pick. Definitely the second-best player in college basketball. Turner’s Big Ten tourney sold me.

7:48 PM: This is where it gets interesting. What will the Nets do at No. 3?

7:49 PM: NJ picks Derrick Favors. The rumor of the Pacers sending Granger and the No. 10 to the Nets for Devin Harris and the No. 3 goes up in flames. Gotta say I expected more out of New Jersey’s James Bond villain owner. Figured he would shake things up a bit.

8:00 PM: Wow, Wesley Johnson and DeMarcus Cousins go 4-5 to the Wolves and Kings. Every mock draft writer in the country is looking like a genius right now. I wonder what will last longer: the draft going on without a trade or the pizza supply. The media horde looks pretty hungry…

8:07 PM: Warriors take Epke Udoh and Pistons go for Greg Monroe. I really think Monroe is a good fit for the Pistons, he gives them some much-needed size in the frontcourt. Things are getting interesting. Is Hayward next?

8:19 PM: No Hayward, Clippers take Al-Farouq Aminu.

8:25 PM: Perhaps the biggest temptation of Bird’s career as Pacers GM is gone. Hayward to the Jazz. It’s definitely for the best, Hayward should love playing for Jerry Sloan.

8:30 PM: It’s Paul George. Don’t like it. Don’t want to judge George right away, but he plays the same SG/SF/PF position as Dunleavy, Rush, Granger, and Murphy. He shoots the three and doesn’t play defense. Why pick him?? He wasn’t even first team All-WAC. I’m hoping I’m wrong.

8:31 PM: Does anyone else find it hilarious that the only guy reacting to the Pacers’ pick in the New York crowd is wearing a 1994 Reggie Miller jersey?

8:41 PM: First trade of the night: New Orleans’ draft pick Cole Aldrich and Morris Peterson to OKC for the 18 and 21 picks. Bad news: there goes Indiana’s Eric Maynor trade. Worse news: the pizza supply is gone.

8:57 PM: Just got back from the Jim O’Brien press conference. He rejected any questions about potential trades, saying George was drafted “for us.” Someone has to be on the way out. George is essentially Murphy, Dunleavy, and Rush — he shoots the three-pointer and doesn’t play defense. I’m guessing Murphy is a goner.

9:23 PM: Interesting that Bird went against his usual preference of picking experienced, four-year seniors. I guess that’s the way it is in the NBA now, you don’t draft a player for what he’s done, but what he can become. That’s nice and all, but who is going to play point guard??


Pacers have some options on draft night

June 23, 2010

Maybe there is light at the end of the tunnel.

For a franchise that’s hit rock bottom with horrid contracts, bad decisions, and stupid off-court incidents, the Indiana Pacers go into Thursday’s draft with plenty of options.

Bird needs to hit a home run in this year's draft.

They hold a valuable pick at No. 10. They’ve reportedly been active in trade talks. They suddenly find themselves with players who’ve gone from overpaid stiffs (Mike Dunleavy, T.J. Ford, Jeff Foster) to the NBA equivalent of gold (expiring contracts).

One good draft night won’t erase a half-decade of blunders, but Thursday could be an important step in the right direction. I have no clue what the Pacers will ultimately do — does anyone? — but here are some of their options.

Use the pick
Boring, but safe.

The Pacers could go the Bill Polian route, taking the “best player available.” Unfortunately that would probably mean point-guard starved Indiana would take a big man.

Plenty of talented forwards have worked out for the Pacers — Baylor’s Epke Udoh, North Carolina’s Ed Davis, and Kentucky’s Patrick Patterson to name a few — but the real difference-makers would be off the board. You can’t help but think one of those guys would just be another role player in the mold of last year’s pick, Tyler Hansbrough.

The Pacers don’t need another role player, they need a home run.

If Kansas forward Cole Aldrich falls to them, fans will storm Conseco
Fieldhouse with torches and pitchforks.

Trade up
I don’t see this happening.

While it would be nice to sucker Philadelphia into a deal for the No. 2 selection and take Ohio State’s Evan Turner, I don’t think the Pacers could offer anything a team higher up the board would want without parting with Danny Granger.

But Pacer fans can dream, can’t they?

Trade down
An attractive option.

The last thing the Pacers want to do is overvalue a prospect that has no business being a lottery pick. They got burned last year, reaching on the NCAA’s golden boy (Hansbrough) at No. 13.

The Pacers obviously need a guard, but this year’s draft isn’t very top-heavy at that position. Kentucky’s Eric Bledsoe, Texas’ Avery Bradley, and Kansas’ Xavier Henry should be available mid to late first round. If they find a trading partner desperate enough, the Pacers could
pick up multiple first-rounders later in the draft for the No. 10 and fill needs without having to reach.

Good deal.

Trade out of the draft
This would be my choice.

No rookie point guard outside of John Wall would give the Pacers a chance to win now. Indiana could pry a veteran point guard from Denver (Ty Lawson) or New Orleans (Darren Collison). The Pacers have also been rumored to be interested in San Antonio’s Tony Parker, but they should go after another Spur — George Hill.

Parker would be a one-year rental at best, there’s no way he’d re-sign after next season. I spent more than a few nights covering Hill’s IUPUI teams, and he can play when given the opportunity. His NBA career averages aren’t staggering (9.1 ppg, 2.3 apg) but for a player who nobody thought would be a first-rounder two years ago on a team with an established point guard, those numbers are impressive. Just the fact that Hill’s play has made the Spurs consider what was once unthinkable, trading Parker, says a lot.

The Pacers whiffed by passing on Hill two years ago. This is your second chance Larry, make it happen.


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