The most unexpected trade on draft night is turning out to be a win-win for San Antonio and Indiana.
Fourth-year guard George Hill had established himself as a possible replacement for Tony Parker in San Antonio who was not only younger but also cheaper as a worthy complement to Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. But on draft night in June, the 25-year-old Indiana native was traded to the Pacers for Kawhi Leonard (15th pick) and 19-year-old small forward Davis Bertans (42nd pick, now playing for Partizan Belgrade).
It hasn't taken Hill long to fit in with the new group. He has been a productive part of the Pacers' 9-4 start and could become the next player from the 2008 draft class to receive an extension before the Jan. 25 deadline. There is a strong mutual interest in getting a deal done for the former No. 26 pick from IUPUI, and his agent, Michael Whitaker, said the mere fact that there are substantial extension discussions is a positive sign considering their short time together.
"I would definitely say that's the type of vibe that's coming from both sides," Whitaker said Thursday when asked if there was a serious push for a deal. "Hopefully something will get done. If not, then the thing is he'll still be a restricted free agent this summer.
"We talked about [both three- and four-year deals]. We talked about different options, so we don't know what the final conclusion is going to be. I just think it's good that the talks are going on. He's only played 12 games with the Pacers, so the fact that they're showing this kind of commitment to get something done is definitely promising."
Meanwhile, the Spurs are relying heavily on their young small forward Leonard during a 10-5 start, including 7-3 without Manu Ginobili, who likely will miss another month with a broken hand. Leonard, a long and active defender who was the leading scorer on a San Diego State team that fell to eventual champion UConn in the Sweet 16, is averaging 8.1 points (on 48.6 percent shooting) and is third on the team in rebounding (5.2) while averaging 24.3 minutes.
• In one of the most interesting early-season mysteries, a Rockets team that was seventh in free-throw attempts last season (25.4 per game) is ranked last this season (17.1) with a mostly unchanged roster when it comes to the players who make a living at the line.
The conspiracy theorists could have a field day with this one (and some are), especially in light of the fact that one of the league officials who vetoed the three-team trade that would have sent Chris Paul to the Lakers and Pau Gasol to the Rockets was the same man who oversees the referees, NBA vice president Stu Jackson. Two of the players turned down by the Hornets in the deal, Kevin Martin and Luis Scola, are taking a combined 5.6 fewer attempts than last season and accounting for most of the Rockets' collective decline (8.3 fewer attempts in all). Houston (8-7) exacted a slice of revenge Thursday, though, edging the Hornets 90-88 in overtime despite attempting only 13 free throws (six for Scola and three for Martin).
Martin has never averaged fewer than 7.1 attempts in a season since becoming a starter in 2006, yet his attempts have plummeted from 8.4 last season (sixth in the league) to 4.3 (38th). Scola's attempts have dipped from 3.9 to a career-low 2.4 (his previous low was 2.9 as a rookie in 2007-08).
There are less diabolical reasons to explore, of course, chief among them the Rockets' coaching change. Former coach Rick Adelman (now with Minnesota) was a favorite of Martin's and many others because of his ability to create easy offense through his read-and-react "corner" system that used backdoor cuts and motion so effectively. But the easy looks aren't coming as often under Kevin McHale. The Rockets are scoring 6.5 fewer points per 100 possessions this season than they did in Adelman's last campaign (when, it should be noted, offense was better around the league), dropping to 10th from fourth in efficiency.
"With McHale, they're really searching on offense, trying to find their way and their identity," one Western Conference advance scout said. "I think it's a matter of Kevin [Martin] not being in tune offensively. They do a little of this, a little of that.
"They keep it simple, and they're probably the easiest team to scout right now. They're erring on the side of simplicity as they search for themselves."
That's been a good thing for point guard Kyle Lowry, who is being given unprecedented freedom. Lowry is averaging career highs in scoring (16.7) and assists (8.6), but had also seen a significant rise in turnovers (2.1 last season to 3.7) that is hardly proportionate to his increase in minutes (34.2 to 36.5).
• No one should be surprised by Celtics president Danny Ainge's recent admission to The Boston Globe that he'd break up Boston's Big Three if he saw a chance to upgrade.
That was his attitude in 2009, when he fell short in the pursuit of then-King Kevin Martin in a potential swap for fellow shooting guard Ray Allen that preceded a run to the Finals. His aggressive approach was on display this season, too, when Ainge pushed for Chris Paul even though it would have cost him the only young player of the Celtics' core in 25-year-old point guard Rajon Rondo.
The trade chatter surrounding Paul Pierce will only grow louder if the 5-8 Celtics keep losing, and league executives will surely be watching this situation closely to see if they can nab a future Hall of Famer at discount rates. If Boston can survive its remaining seven games this month (four home, three road), though, it could recover in February during an early stretch in which seven of eight games are at home.
• Speaking of circling vultures, there's a growing curiosity among rival executives about whether the Nets' endless woes will force them to trade point guard Deron Williams before the March 15 deadline so as to avoid a roster reclamation project.
Center Brook Lopez's broken foot sustained Dec. 22 put a monkey wrench in a possible Dwight Howard trade with Orlando, and New Jersey's 4-11 start and anemic roster means the notion of Williams heading elsewhere as a free agent after this season seems more real by the day. Nonetheless, one executive said the Nets had continued to say recently that Williams was unavailable.
If Williams winds up walking, the Nets would be left with loads of salary-cap space, the prospect of playing in Brooklyn to sell to new recruits and four players who are not potential 2012 free agents (Anthony Morrow, Johan Petro, MarShon Brooks and Jordan Williams).
• How bad was the Pacers' mood both during and after they melted down in a 92-88 loss at Sacramento on Wednesday? One of the team's consummate pros, David West, acted more like a pro wrestler.
When coach Frank Vogel opted to match the small-ball approach of new Kings coach/Don Nelson prodigy Keith Smart late in a fourth quarter in which the Pacers were outscored 26-8, a helpless and frustrated West unleashed a right cross on his folding chair while repeatedly yelling, "I knew it!" He was exasperated through each and every late possession while sitting the final four minutes, watching the Kings' zone stifle the Pacers one minute and covering his eyes with his towel while shaking his head the next.
What he "knew," he would later contend, is that things would have turned out differently if the big men were allowed to finish the game.
"It was kind of a last-ditch effort to junk the game up, and we [played] right into their hands," West said.
And somewhere in retirement, Nelson -- the godfather of small ball whose 2006-07 Warriors famously upset top-seeded Dallas in the first round with that style -- was smiling. The Pacers were nothing short of shocked, with players trying to make sense of why and how it all happened among each other in the locker room afterward.
"We had some lineups we're not used to playing with, and that cost us some buckets on the offensive end," said West, who signed a two-year, $20 million deal before the season. "They were comfortable and knew what they were doing with their lineups and they were able to close the game. ... Late in the game you always want to be on the floor and feel like you can help."
West is wiser than most, and the level of his frustration was clearly based on the big picture. While the Pacers are still off to a great start at 9-4, seven of their next nine games are on the road and include matchups against the Lakers, Bulls, Magic (twice), Celtics and Mavericks.
• Jimmer Fredette played a season-low six minutes and missed all four of his shots in Sacramento's victory against Indiana, just the latest sign of struggles for the former BYU bomber. Fredette, the 10th pick in the draft after leading the nation in scoring last season, is shooting just 33.3 percent from the field and 27.8 percent from three-point range while averaging 7.1 points in 22 minutes. He appears to have been passed up in Smart's rotation for former Washington standout Isaiah Thomas, the 60th and final pick in last year's draft.