Pacers have all the pieces to make unique title run

Friday November 29th, 2013

The Pacers are off to a 14-1 start this season after falling in Game 7 of last spring's conference finals.
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Luis Scola was the final piece to the puzzle for a young team that may never have a better chance to win the championship. For this one season the Pacers boast exceptional depth thanks to MVP candidate Paul George being on the last year of his rookie contract at $3.3 million, and former All-Star Danny Granger on an expiring deal paying him $14 million.

There will be no way to bring back or replace Granger next summer because (1) George's salary will jump to $13.7 million in 2014-15 and (2) free agent Lance Stephenson will also have to be paid. This is not to say that Indiana won't be able to win championships in future years, because the natural evolution of George, Stephenson and Roy Hibbert should keep their team in contention. For a franchise that has vowed to remain under the luxury tax threshold, however, this season amounts to a one-time-only opportunity to cash in.

"There's definitely a sense that, obviously, Lance is going to be making more than he's making this year, and next year Danny's situation is going to change," said Pacers coach Frank Vogel. "It is a unique situation where we may not have in years going forward what we have right now. "

Instead of complaining about the hard ceiling of the tax, Vogel has viewed the payroll realities as a short-term competitive advantage that fits in with the urgency he has been demanding of his team. "We have had this mindset the last two years," he said. "Where we feel like the present is where it's at, and this may be our best opportunity to win it, and you don't know what's going to change going into the following year. And your opportunity may never be as good as it is in the present. We've felt that way in the last couple of years, and we definitely feel that way this year."

GOLLIVER: NBA's Thanksgiving-inspired All-Grateful team

The arrival of Scola has framed that focused point of view. The 33-year-old power forward is coming off a miserable season in Phoenix with the 25-57 Suns. After five straight winning seasons in Houston and a long run of international contention with Argentina, he was grateful to be traded to the Pacers this summer and and bring back the prospect of playing the playoffs. "That's what I was looking for, what I need in my career," he said.

Indiana president Larry Bird doubled down on his team's goals for this year by packaging a lottery-protected first-round pick to Phoenix for the rights to Scola, whose contract is partially guaranteed at $940,946 next year (though that guarantee could increase based on incentives this season, while his current stands at $4.5 million). For Scola, winning the championship this year is "an obsession."

"When you're younger, you have time, and there's some other goals to encounter -- getting playing time, being a starter, being the star of a team," said Scola. " I believe that right now, in the stage that I am, the only way I can impact my career is to win a ring. Everything else, it won't make a huge impact on what I did along these years. The only thing that could impact my career is winning a ring. All my thoughts are going there."

Ever since the 6-foot-9 Scola's arrival from Europe at age 27, he has earned a reputation as one of the league's hardest working big men. Despite his tireless output of energy, he has been able to play every game in five of his six NBA seasons. This season he has been willing to accept a career-low 18.9 minutes off the bench while sharing time at power forward with team leader David West, but Scola said he's far happier in his current role than when he was a starter with the rebuilding Suns last year.

DOLLINGER: Only two contenders remain in East

"Closer to the end than the beginning," he said of his career. "Every year that goes by is a year less, and you don't have that many."

Scola found himself daydreaming about the Pacers last June as he watched all seven games of the Eastern Conference finals with 7-year-old son Tiago, the oldest of Scola's four children. "My son was a Miami fan, a LeBron fan," said Scola. "So this year I said, `You better change that really quick.'

"But last year he asked me who was going to win? And I said, `Miami's going to win, because they got the players, they got more talent.' And he was kind of relieved because his team was going to win. And then they stopped winning, and he was mad at me. He said, `You told me Miami was going to win! And they're losing! You told me Miami was the more talented team, and they got the better players.'

"I said, `Yeah, Miami has the better players and they're more talented, but Indiana plays better as a team -- and I think Indiana's going to win now.' Miami ended up winning, but while watching the games and while saying that to my kids I remember myself thinking how fun would that be to be in a team like that where everything works and everything looks so natural; and even though you don't have as much talent, you're still competing with the team that has all the talent in the world. I guess somebody was watching or listening because I ended up there a couple months after."

Scola believes that he and his teammates can take the pressure off 23-year-old George so that he doesn't feel as if he must carry the Pacers to the same degree that James has carried the Heat. "A great example is the Spurs," said Scola of the team that was seconds away from celebrating the championship last June. "They don't have a LeBron, they don't have a (Kevin) Durant."

When San Antonio won its three championships, Tim Duncan was arguably the best player in the NBA. "But he's not now," said Scola. "Manu was close to that level, but he's not now. Tony Parker was in and out of that level, but he's not he reason why they win. The reason why they win is because they play as a team."

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The Pacers have the league's leading defense -- opponents are shooting a preposterously low 38.6 percent from the field -- and a promising core in their third year together. The hopeless start of the Nets and the season-ending injury to Derrick Rose has turned the East into a two-team race in which the Heat will spend the next several months trying to integrate Greg Oden in hopes of dealing with Indiana's frontcourt rotation of Hibbert, West, Scola and Ian Mahinmi; while the Pacers will be trying to renew the talent of Granger in order to match Miami's firepower on the perimeter.

The presence of Scola and Granger reminds the Pacers every day at practice that they may never have a better chance. Vogel doesn't have to remind his players that their team probably won't benefit from such experienced depth beyond this season.

"They understand it, they get it," Vogel said. "Even if the contract situations weren't that way, we'd talk about it in those terms. Because even if everybody was locked up (contractually for the long term), you don't know if somebody's going to have injuries, or there's going to be a super team built up or whatever. Situations change, and we're a seize-the-day kind of team that recognizes the opportunity in front of us -- that right now might be the best we ever get."

The Headlines

Derrick Rose undergoes knee surgery again. The 2010-11 MVP underwent surgery on his right knee less than two years after enduring left ACL surgery. The new injury to his meniscus wasn't as severe, but it will sideline Rose for the rest of the season while creating all kinds of new doubt about the Bulls, who go from championship contenders to worrying about the long-term future of their 25-year-old point guard as well as the imminent free agency of All-Star small forward Luol Deng. The Bulls would be best served by retaining Deng because -- for the short term at least -- the presence of Rose will no longer be able to lure another big star to Chicago to play alongside him. If the Bulls lose Deng, they may not be able to replace him.

Marc Gasol out with MCL sprain. The knee ligament was partially torn, and Gasol will be sidelined for several weeks as he waits for it to heal. "As soon as I can put my foot down on the floor and I can walk," said the 29-year-old center, "I'm going to rush it and speed the process." If the Grizzlies were in the East then they could survive Gasol's absence with little fear; in the highly competitive West, however, they'll miss the reigning Defensive Player of the year for his leadership as well as his playmaking and the pressure he takes off power forward Zach Randolph.

Andre Iguodala suffers strained left hamstring. The Warriors swingman will be sidelined indefinitely, further limiting them for the short term as they looked forward to the return of Stephen Curry from a mild concussion. Golden State has been able to stay on the shoulder of the Pacific-leading Clippers in spite of their early-season health concerns -- a terrific sign for a team with big playoff goals this year.

Derrick Williams traded. The No. 2 pick of the 2011 draft was sent to Sacramento for defensive forward Luc Mbah a Moute. Williams, a 6-8 frontcourt tweener, will have a better chance of earning minutes for the Kings, who are looking to turn over their roster under new ownership, management and rookie coach Michael Malone. But the immediate winner in this deal is Minnesota, whose pursuit of the playoffs will be helped by the versatile defense of Mbah a Moute.

Bradley Beal out. The Wizards' young shooting guard was averaging 20.6 points when he was sidelined by a stress injury in his right fibula. He suffered a stress injury in the same leg cut short his rookie season. Beal grew an inch over the summer, which may have increased his vulnerability to this latest injury. The emerging star will miss at least two weeks, which will force point guard John Wall to focus on his scoring -- which should be no problem for him, considering Wall scored at least 31 points in three straight games while shooting 61.4 percent from the field.

Brooklyn ends five-game losing streak with 102-100 win at Toronto. That this is news tells you everything about the horrid start of the 4-11 Nets, who are costing $189 million between payroll and luxury taxes. To make matters worse, the Nets' feel-good story didn't last long. They followed up their win with a loss at home to the Lakers and a $50K for Jason Kidd.

Bobcats continue their renewal. When they become the Hornets next season, they'll also go back to their original colors of purple and teal. More important, of course, is that they've become early playoff contenders even as new coach Steve Clifford waits to fully integrate new low-post center Al Jefferson, who has been limited by ankle injuries.

Kemba Walker led the Bobcats in scoring last year and is averaging a team-best 16.4 this season.
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Get to Know: Kemba Walker

The 6-1 point guard was averaging 16.4 points and 4.1 assists for the 7-9 Bobcats. Walker , 23, is in his third NBA season after leading UConn to the 2011 NCAA championship.

1. He grew up playing basketball in The Bronx. "I even got hit by a bike one time chasing a basketball. I may have been 4 or 5 and a guy from the neighborhood was riding the bike and as I was going for the basketball the bike hit me. I even have a little scar on the side of my nose from it.

"But I didn't start playing organized basketball until seventh grade -- in a gym with a referee -- and I didn't start getting really big recognition until my junior year. I love the fact that it happened like that. I kind of blossomed out of nowhere, continued to work on my game; I've been the underdog forever because there wasn't really much pressure on me. When you're a good player coming out of New York there's a lot of pressure can come to you, so I'm glad it happened the way it did."

2. He was a late recruit by UConn coach Jim Calhoun. "He won't tell you this: They wanted Brandon Jennings. But Brandon, he didn't want to go there no more. He wanted to go to Arizona, and then the whole thing happened with him going overseas. So I was another option. They weren't recruiting me at one point, but I had a really good tournament in Arizona, the Cactus Classic, where I played against Brandon Jennings, Jrue Holiday, Larry Drew, Malcolm Lee -- a bunch of the high-caliber guys -- and my team went on to win the whole tournament and I got MVP. That's when I really started to get some ridiculous recognition. They started recruiting me really heavy and I decided to go there, because I wanted to go there forever. Being from New York, it was kind of a dream school of mine."

It didn't bother him to be UConn's backup option. "Oh, man, I didn't care about that at all. I'm not that kind of guy. I just look for opportunity. Me and calhoun had a connection right off the bat. I just knew that he was the right guy for me because he didn't promise me anything. He told me I was going to come in and work my way up. I had great guys in front of me, I had to wait my turn, and that's what I did."

As a junior he scored a record 130 points in five games as ninth-place UConn won the Big East tournament in order to qualify for the NCAAs, launching an incredible run of 11 straight wins on its way to the national championship. "I don't think I can understand it still. It was ridiculous. I watch it all the time. I watch it game by game - from DePaul to Georgetown to Pitt to Syracuse to Louisville, and then I watch all six NCAA games. It was unbelievable. Me and my teammates, we just came together when the time was needed, because we lost four out of five before that. We all just clicked at the right time and I can't even explain it. After that Big East tournament, after we won that, we knew that there was no way in hell nobody could beat us. No way."

3. The Bobcats went 28-120 in his first two years. "I'm a real humble, laid-back person, and it humbled me even more -- it made me realize how much harder I had to work in order to win. I'm just going through adversity. Everyone goes through it, and this is my time. I've been winning my whole career playing basketball. I'm just trying to do my best to handle it as well as possible, and it's a start of a bright future for us."

The silver lining has been his access to Bobcats owner Michael Jordan. "I tell everyone we have the biggest advantage in basketball because we have him around. He's the best player to ever play the game. Whatever questions we have about this game, anything, he's always there to help us. That's been the greatest thing about having him around. When I see him coming down and playing one-on-one with (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) or with Gerald (Henderson), it helps. I don't think he understands that -- I don't think he knows. As much as we can see him, we all just try to take advantage of the opportunity."

Quote of the Week

"Everybody forgets that Kobe would be a free agent this summer, too. So we got who we feel is one of the top free agents available." -- Mitch Kupchak

This is why I like the preemptive move by the Lakers to sign Bryant, who -- depending on his style of play -- figures to rank among the biggest stars in a market that could include LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki. By committing to Bryant now, the Lakers were expressing gratitude for all he's done for them, and faith in his commitment to recovering sooner than later from Achilles surgery.

Most of all they were defining themselves for the next big star to replace Bryant in the coming years. The Lakers will find someone to replace Bryant eventually, and they'll be able to prove to that next great player that respect will be shown to him -- just as it was shown to Bryant when he was most vulnerable.

The Lakers were also investing in Bryant's high standard. When it comes to free agency, the presence of Bryant will provide the Lakers with a litmus test. Some stars won't want to play with him -- and if that's how they feel then the Lakers will be better served by that understanding. It's extremely simple: Any star who is committed to winning above all else should be willing to play with Bryant for a couple of years before inheriting control of the Lakers; any star who doesn't want to be held to Bryant's championship standard probably isn't worthy of a big contract from the NBA's most ambitious franchise.

The Breakdown

An NBA advance scout looks at the Chicago Bulls in the absence of Derrick Rose for a second straight year:

"It's going to be difficult for them to reach down mentally and do it again. Tom Thibodeau is going to be pressed -- he pulled out all his charm and wit and everything he could to do it last year, and it's going to be difficult to do it again.

"Is it possible? Absolutely. They've got the schemes, they've done it before and they know they can do it. It's just the want-to, and conjuring up the will to execute. And it's going to be hard.

"It's essentially the same team as they had last year -- except for Nate Robinson, bailed them out last year in the playoffs. He took on the role of Derrick Rose. They don't have that now, and they're going to miss it.

"For the most part last year the ball moved a little bit more because they couldn't rely on Rose to get them explosive scoring and easy baskets in transition. I would assume they'll try to cut down on the possessions per game in order to value those possessions a little bit more on the offensive end, and their schemes will be geared more to playing halfcourt defense. Keeping teams out of transition is what they're going to look to do, and relying on execution, ball movement and just the grit of second-shot chances and overall team play.

"They'll look like Atlanta and Philadelphia and Boston, instead of relying on one guy to carry them. There isn't any team in the East right now that can say they're trying to go for lottery picks, because everybody is in the hunt.

"My gut is no, Rose won't be the same player when he does come back. It took a long time for him to get back mentally from the last knee surgery. And to have it go out so soon afterwards, I just wonder if maybe he'll be more cautious -- and I also wonder if maybe that's the right thing for him. Maybe if he changes his game, the question won't be about whether he can stay healthy -- it will be whether he can hit jump shots, and whether he's a good point guard or not. In the past he got away from having to answer those questions because he's such a good kid and he was a dynamite end-to-end scorer who got so many easy baskets that way. But he may not be able to do that anymore."

My All-Thanksgiving Team

The league's best teams are especially thankful for the emergence of these surprising stars:


C Roy Hibbert, Pacers: No. 17 pick of the 2008 draft has improved his athleticism to become an All-Star -- and create a huge mismatch against Miami.

PF Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks: No. 9 pick of '98 became the first star outside the American system to win a championship -- and remains the foundation of Dallas's 10-6 start

SF Paul George, Pacers: No. 10 pick of '10 is becoming a two-way superstar who could lead Indiana to the championship.

SG Manu Ginobili, Spurs: No. 57 pick of '99 became a sure Hall-of-Famer with three NBA championships and an Olympic gold medal.

PG Tony Parker, Spurs: No. 28 pick of '01 became a sure Hall-of-Famer with three NBA championships, a Finals MVP and a European championship.


C Marc Gasol, Grizzlies: Knee injury may sideline him until January or later, but the No. 48 pick of '07 became an All-Star and Defensive Player of the year as the surprise of the Pau Gasol trade.

PF Serge Ibaka, Thunder: OKC's No. 3 scorer is averaging a career-best double-double; The No. 24 pick of '08 is crucial to the Thunder's title hopes.

PF Kevin Love, Timberwolves: When the No. 5 pick of '08 was packaged to Minnesota in a draft-night trade for O.J. Mayo, did anyone imagine Love would be averaging a routine 24.3 points and 13.9 rebounds?

SF Chandler Parsons, Rockets: The No. 38 pick of '11 provides Houston 16.5 points, 3.9 assists and 52.6 percent shooting -- and those stats have increased each season

SG Dwyane Wade, Heat: Miami considered Chris Kaman before settling on Wade at No. 5; he became first star of the '03 draft to win a championship.

PG Russell Westbrook, Thunder: It's easy to forget that many rival execs originally doubted whether the No. 4 pick of 2008 could become an NBA starter -- never mind a three-time All-Star and one of the best players in the league.

PG Mario Chalmers: The No. 34 pick of '08 is a fearless shotmaker. Including his NCAA title with Kansas, Chalmers has contributed to three championships in seven years

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