ON FEB. 1, the Indiana Pacers woke up in Miami with a four-game losing streak, their All-Star Victor Oladipo was recovering from season-ending surgery, they’d slipped to fifth place in the Eastern Conference and there were no firm plans for help to come at the trade deadline.
For every NBA team in every season, a little rain must fall. Sometimes it’s a lot. Sometimes it’s a deluge.
Handling adversity is a skill, especially in a league with a seven-month regular season. It’s something that can be taught. It’s something that can be learned. And the Pacers have put on a clinic recently.
Even with a disappointing loss Monday in Detroit where officiating upset them, the Pacers are 8-2 in February. They’re back in third place in the East. They’re second in defensive rating in the league for the month (speaking of teams you probably haven’t been paying attention to, the Orlando Magic are first).
Coach Nate McMillan has sold his team on role definition, which is hard enough with your average NBA squad. Considering McMillan has six key players who will be free agents this summer and another, Domantas Sabonis, playing for an extension, that’s a stacked deck that he has been able to manage.
McMillan, president Kevin Pritchard and GM Chad Buchanan have an open-door policy when discussing free agency internally. If a player wants to talk about it, management is unafraid. They run a business, and in Indiana it’s not a bottomless money business, but they’ve tried to be transparent when the topic arises.
Whether that’s a secret to success or not, the Pacers don’t play like a team full of guys worried about their next paycheck. They happily play an egalitarian offense that spreads it around with seemingly minimal ego or agenda issues. They’ve had at least five double-figure scorers 52 times in 61 games, the highest number in the league. They’ve had seven players in double figures 12 times; they’re 11-1 in those games.
They have veterans who are leaders, Thaddeus Young especially according to those around the team, and players who seem to be agreeable to platooning — particularly their point guards and big men — depending on matchups. And if they aren’t, it hasn’t become public.
Their March schedule is brutal and they might not hang on to the No. 3 seed until the wire. But their professionalism during some challenges has been exemplary. And frankly, it could be an example to some of their peers out there.
Namely, one of the teams that’s eating their dust at the moment is Boston. The Celtics have been anything but together for so much of this season. A root has been Kyrie Irving and some of his younger teammates, who have grated on one another as they’ve looked to work toward opposite purposes repeatedly during the season.
Irving’s free agency, meanwhile, has been an on-and-off distraction. Even when he tried to eliminate it as a topic with a preseason betrothal, his midyear reversal only magnified the situation and might have made it worse than if he’d said nothing at all.
Coach Brad Stevens has struggled at times getting his talented team to buy into certain roles, much of it emanating from the return of Gordon Hayward, who has been sluggish. Jaylen Brown and Terry Rozier, two players with contractual situations at the end of the season, have visibly languished in adapting to lesser roles. The uber-talented Jayson Tatum has gone off script at times with Stevens being forced into in-game discipline by yanking him, whatever being said off the court not seeming to get through.
Stevens and the Celtics have lived in a world of lowered expectations over the past several seasons, but it was due to LeBron James‘ presence or a latitude given during rebuilding. Last season’s Celtics were experts in managing adversity, overcoming injuries to Hayward and Irving to come within a few minutes of making the Finals. Two years ago, Isaiah Thomas was a limping and emotional beacon of overcoming unfortunate events.
But this season that magic has been missing and it shows up in the standings and the space between Boston and Indiana. The Celtics’ advantage is the remaining quarter of the season. Right now they’re staring down the barrel of a brutal opening playoff series against either Philadelphia or Indiana without home-court advantage unless they rally or Indiana flatlines in their March challenge.
If Boston is the East’s most disappointing team, the West’s biggest has some of the same issues. The Los Angeles Lakers have some major roster flaws — total lack of shooting, an odd penchant for ridding themselves of useful big men and inconsistent defenders starting with No. 23 — but they’ve gotten an F grade to this point in handling adversity.
There’s no question the Lakers have been bothered by unfortunate injuries. James’ slip on the court on Christmas and Lonzo Ball‘s hellacious turned ankle in Houston last month were rotten luck. Rajon Rondo has had two surgeries on his hand. Had they been perfectly healthy, would they be in the top eight in the standings? Probably.
But this is the NBA, nothing is perfect. Instead the entire Lakers organization has set a tone for fumbling adversity this season and it has been from the top down.
President Magic Johnson put coach Luke Walton in a bad position with an early season screaming session that quickly went public, handled Anthony Davis trade talks in a way that put half his locker room on tilt and then flew 3,000 miles to calm them down with a message of, essentially, “grow up.”
Walton hasn’t been able to sell his team on consistent defense and, at more times than are acceptable, the Lakers haven’t looked ready to play.
James has been totally derailed by the groin injury that has thrown off his conditioning, something he has never dealt with in his career as he honed an annual strategy of building himself up toward the playoffs. He has had some midseason adversity before — his Cavs were under .500 in January 2015 and traded nearly half the roster in February 2018 — but never anything that has personally challenged him this way.
But in recent days as the Lakers have endured bitter losses, James has been back to his unsavory old habit of being passive-aggressive in undermining teammates in the media. When he’s at the absolute top of his game he can cover these blemishes with rock-star play. But right now, he can’t seem to rise to that level every night and the comments are adding adversity icing to the adversity cake.
The Lakers’ young players have had flashes of greatness but mostly have groaned under the weight of playing with James. And when he went down because of injury, a golden opportunity to grab the spotlight, neither Brandon Ingram nor Kyle Kuzma could step into a nightly starring role. It was not a stunner the New Orleans Pelicans passed on their inclusion in a trade offer.
In fairness, a team like the Pacers doesn’t have to live in the same media spotlight as the Celtics or Lakers. Indiana also didn’t have to deal with the Davis trade demand fallout, which seemed to infect the locker rooms of the Lakers and Celtics to varying degrees.
But the Pacers did have to watch their leader taken off on a stretcher. And they won that night. Over the Toronto Raptors.
The forgiveness in the NBA is volume. The season is so long that it endlessly allows for turnarounds. Doing so requires certain elements, though, and you either have them or you don’t.
AS THE LAKERS’ playoff chances suffer, James has become more of a target for his play. And there’s some truth there. His basic stats have fallen in most categories with the exception of rebounding. His efficiency is off too, and his PER is the lowest it has been since the 2006-07 season. Whether this can be attributed to his groin injury, the transition to a new team, his age or his interest level is up for debate. His stats took a plunge his first year back in Cleveland in 2014-15, especially his shooting percentages.
What has received more attention, though, has been some lackluster effort on the defensive end. The clips are widely available on social media. James not rotating and allowing an easy basket. James not hustling when the defense has broken down and the team is in scramble mode. And frankly his worst habit, planting himself in the paint and not challenging his man when shooting from the outside. And all of those moments are legit.
On balance, though, James is actually having his best defensive season in three years. His defensive rating has improved. His defensive real-plus minus ranks him as the league’s sixth-best defender among small forwards. Last season in Cleveland, he ranked a woeful — and we mean woeful — 50th among small forwards in defensive RPM. He also had the worst personal defensive rating of his career.
If you want to find a place to give Walton credit, the Lakers are 12th in the league in defense. It has not been consistent — nothing on the team has — but it’s fair to acknowledge this has been a bright spot.
James has been a contributor to that, even if some of those lowlight plays batter his reputation. The reality is James’ defensive effort has waned dramatically — in the regular season at least — over the past few years and there’s plenty of evidence to the contrary. But by recent standards, he’s having a “good” defensive season.
It would be a good idea for James to switch to his “playoff” defense sooner rather than later. If the San Antonio Spurs and LA Clippers — the teams currently holding the final two playoff spots — both go .500 the rest of the way the Lakers would need to go 15-7 to get in.
The thing is, the Clippers and Spurs have vastly easier schedules than the Lakers do down the stretch. And none of that mentions the Sacramento Kings and Minnesota Timberwolves, whom the Lakers would also have to outplay.
It’s also worth pointing out the Lakers are 23-19 when James plays this season and 6-12 without him. Even if he hadn’t missed a game, the Lakers’ projected record would be 32-28 instead of 29-31 right now. They’d only be holding the No. 8 seed right now.
So back to the point, time for urgency for James and his teammates.
NBA OWNERS DO plenty of business with and against one another outside their partnership in the league. But a business dispute between Clippers owner Steve Ballmer and New York Knicks owner James Dolan has turned nasty and will probably result in a legal fight that could interfere with NBA business.
Dolan owns the Forum in Inglewood, a building the Madison Square Garden Company spent $100 million renovating to make a first-class concert venue. Ballmer has his own deal with the city of Inglewood to develop a new arena for the Clippers to move to, essentially across the street from the Forum, when their Staples Center lease ends. As you might imagine, MSG and Dolan aren’t thrilled with this development.
The issue is MSG used to control the land via a lease to be used for overflow parking. But they gave up the lease when the city indicated it wanted to build a technology park there. When Ballmer showed up in Inglewood to announce his glorious new home for the Clippers, Dolan was, um, furious. He sued.
According to sealed documents and emails from the case that were unearthed by the Los Angeles Times last week, the mayor of Inglewood and Ballmer were working together for months to plan the arena while taking steps to hide their plans from Dolan so they’d be willing to give up the lease on the land.
It would probably benefit the NBA for the Clippers to have their own facility. Their unfavorable lease with Staples Center sees them earn more than $20 million less than the co-tenant Lakers in annual arena income. But the Clippers’ current arena plan sure wouldn’t benefit Dolan or the Forum.
Don’t expect to see them sitting together at any league events in the near future.