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Talent grading the Pacers and Blazers starting lineups!

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The Indiana Pacers and Portland Trailblazers are two of biggest and fun stories of the year, with a combined 34-5 record to start the season.

Both sport well balanced, cohesive teams and neither relied on ‘tanking’ to build its core. Not counting the lockout season, the Blazers haven’t been under 30 wins since 2005-2006 while the Pacers haven’t seen 1988-1989. A combination of talent evaluation through slick trades, signings or late round drafting have helped them build contenders.

Here is how my talent grading system rates each starting 5

Portland Trailblazers

Physical impact (Athleticism, ballhandling, size) talent

Damian Lillard and Lamarcus Aldridge lead the way in this category. Lillard is both an above average athlete and has great ballhandling skills, allowing him to blow by opponents and to the rim. A good frame for a point guard also helps his finishing. Lillard is a talented slasher physically.

Although Portland likes to use him on the perimeter, Lamarcus Aldridge is also an above average athlete and can use his explosiveness to make plays. His size and mobility helps him physically on the defensive end as well.

The rest of the starting lineup has mixed results in my physical impact talent category. Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum both lack either the athleticism or ballhandling to attack the basket explosively, becoming perimeter orientated shooters. Matthews has good size for a SG helping him on the defensive end, while Batum is one of the longest players at his position.

Mirroring Matthews and Batum, Robin Lopez is an average athlete at center but has impressive length, helping him contest or block shots.

Physical impact talent (Athleticism, size, ballhandling) talent grades:

Damian Lillard: 8

Wesley Matthews: 3

Nicolas Batum: 4

Lamarcus Aldridge: 7

Robin Lopez: 6

(Average: 5.8)

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent:

I rate three of the Blazers as among the best at their position in this category: Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum and Lamarcus Aldridge. LIllard is already one of the best shooters at point guard both spotting up and off the dribble and is an adequate passer for a point guard. Lamarcus Aldridge is one of the best midrange shooters at PF and has developed an outstanding post repertoire, with his length helping in that area. Nicolas Batum is both an elite shooter at SF and has strong point forward skills. He also has the length to play in the post.

Wesley Matthews is largely a spot up shooter from skill perspective, but is one of the best in the league at that skill.

Robin Lopez is the weakest link in the starting 5 for skill. He can finish around the rim a bit and is developing midrange, which is enough for average ability for center.

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grades:

Damian Lillard: 9

Wesley Matthews: 8

Nicolas Batum: 9

Lamarcus Aldridge: 9

Robin Lopez: 5

(Average: 8.0)

Feel for the Game talent:

This category is also a strength for the Blazers. I’ve come to largely use fluidity and the ease/control of a player’s game as the measure of feel for the game and instincts. Batum and Aldridge are two of the most fluid and natural players at their position, while Matthews is also known for his mistake-free, natural game on both ends.

I wouldn’t call Lillard elite in feel for the game, but he has control and craftiness and enough fluidity to be above average. I would also rate Robin Lopez’s feel to be above average, which helps him make the right decisions offensively and defensively.

Feel for the Game talent grades:

Damian Lillard: 7

Wesley Matthews: 8

Nicolas Batum: 9

Lamarcus Aldridge: 9

Robin Lopez: 7

(Average: 8.0)

Here is the players total grades:

Damian Lillard

Physical impact (Athleticism, ballhandling, size) talent grade: 7

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 9

Feel for the Game talent grade: 7

Total talent grade: 23

Wesley Matthews

Physical impact (Athleticism, ballhandling, size) talent grade: 3

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 8

Feel for the Game talent grade: 8

Total talent grade: 19

Nicolas Batum

Physical impact (Athleticism, ballhandling, size) talent grade: 4

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 9

Feel for the Game talent grade: 9

Total talent grade: 22

Lamarcus Aldridge

Physical impact (Athleticism, ballhandling, size) talent grade: 7

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 9

Feel for the Game talent grade: 9

Total talent grade: 25

Robin Lopez

Physical impact (Athleticism, ballhandling, size) talent grade: 6

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 5

Feel for the Game talent grade: 7

Total talent grade: 18

I tend to treat 19 as a threshold of sorts for “blue chip” and 25 as a “true star” talent, so using these grades Lamarcus would rate among the league’s elite talent, Lillard and Batum a next tier down and Matthews and Lopez on the edge of blue chip status.

The Blazers have a tremendous skill impact talent due to their shooters and Aldridge at PF, with good to elite feel for the game across the board. While physical impact isn’t their strength due the lack of slashing at SG and SF, the team length defensively is great and they get enough from Lillard and Aldridge attacking the basket offensively.

Indiana Pacers

Physical impact (Athleticism, ballhandling, size) talent:

My top rated Pacer in this category is Lance Stephenson. Lance has a strong combination of athleticism, ballhandling and strength giving him ideal slashing tools for a shooting guard.

Paul George is an impressive athlete with elite length for his position, albeit ballhandling can push him to the perimeter and prevent an elite grade in this category for me.

Roy Hibbert is a difficult player to grade in this category. On one hand he has sluggish athleticism and speed, however he is one of the longest players in the league, especially valuable at C helping him block shots. I would rate him as above average in physical impact talent.

The two remaining Pacers starters George Hill and David West are limited in the category. Hill is a big PG defensively, but has impressive ballhandling and speed, hurting his ability to attack the basket. West is strong but is neither explosive athletically or long at PF.

Physical impact (Athleticism, ballhandling, size) talent grades:

George Hill: 4

Lance Stephenson: 8

Paul George: 7

David West: 3

Roy Hibbert: 6

(Average: 5.6)

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent

Paul George and David West lead the way in this category for me. George has turned himself into one of the best outside shooters in the league, uses his length to create midrange shots and has both passing skills and post potential. West has long been a master of the midrange jumper at PF and has post skills near and away from the rim.

George Hill is an impressive open 3 point jumpshooter and decent passer, but has struggled to create at a high volume from the perimeter. Roy Hibbert has strength and moves in the post and can shoot a few feet out, but is not a skill first player and can struggle with touch.

Lance Stephenson is the weakest link in this category. His jumpshot has long been a work in progress, a big weakness at shooting guard. He does have passing and post talent.

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grades:

George HIll: 7

Lance Stephenson: 4

Paul George: 9

David West: 9

Roy Hibbert: 6

(Average: 7.0)

Feel for the Game talent:

I rate Paul George’s feel for the game as one of the best in the NBA, showing supernatural fluidity, ease and control offensively along with his defensive instincts.

David West and Roy Hibbert are also among the best at their position in the category. West has superior craftiness and timing against his opponents, while Hibbert is the big easy recognizing plays offensively and defensively.

Hill is a noticeably smooth decision maker and thinker compared to his position. Stephenson is the most erratic Pacer in the starting lineup but I have always been impressed by his feel, fluidity and control on his drives. As he matures he can catch up to the rest of the Pacers in high IQ play thanks to this feel and raw instinct talent.

Feel for the Game talent grades;

George Hill: 8

Lance Stephenson: 8

Paul George: 10

David West: 9

Roy Hibbert: 9

(Average: 8.8)

Total grades:

George Hill

Physical impact (Athleticism, ballhandling, size) talent grade: 4

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 7

Feel for the Game talent grade: 8

Total talent grade: 19

Lance Stephenson

Physical impact (Athleticism, ballhandling, size) talent grade: 8

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 4

Feel for the Game talent grade: 8

Total talent grade: 20

Paul George

Physical impact (Athleticism, ballhandling, size) talent grade: 7

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 9

Feel for the Game talent grade: 10

Total talent grade: 26

David West

Physical impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 3

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 9

Feel for the Game talent grade: 9

Total talent grade: 21

Roy Hibbert

Physical impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 6

Skill impact (Shoot, post, pass) talent grade: 6

Feel for the Game talent grade: 9

Total talent grade: 21

Mirroring the Blazers, the Pacers have one talent in Paul George that rises above the rest, but importantly surround him with at least blue chip talents. The combination of elite feel for the game and length as a team helps them dominate defensively, while offensively they lean on their skill level to win games.

I believe it’s useful to cross compare a few of these players, to see the impact of each category.

For example, I gave Lamarcus Aldridge and David West and identical score in my skill impact and feel for the game categories. This means my system rates the difference between them in talent, as coming from Lamarcus Aldridge’s greater physical tools (athleticism and size). In fact I believe it’s reasonable to say that outside of physical talents, Aldridge and West are practically the exact player.

Likewise Paul George and Nic Batum’s skill level and feel for the game is very similar, as is Damian Lillard and George Hill’s. George and Lillard are both more physically dynamic players, helping them attack the basket get to a level up.

Roy Hibbert and Robin Lopez likewise rate similarly in my physical impact and skill impact categories. However Hibbert’s elite feel for the game gives him an advantage.

Wesley Matthews and Lance Stephenson are very hard to cross compare in this way, since Matthews strength of shooting is Lance’s weakness and Lance’s slashing is Matthews’ weakness. I’d use a player like Manu Ginobili or James Harden, to show what Lance’s talent could be if he had a shooting game like Wesley Matthews’. Or the reverse, Matthews may also be Harden or Manu if he could drive like Lance.

Coincidentally, adding up the grades of both starting lineups add up to the exact same score of 107, or an average of 21.4. Although the Trail Blazers came out of nowhere, for me their starting lineup’s talent level checks out as contention caliber.

Is Eric Gordon destined to be the Pacers’ final piece of the puzzle?

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Eric Gordon

Eric Gordon (Photo credit: Keith Allison)

Once upon a time the Detroit Pistons built a great, defense first core around Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Ben Wallace that needed one more piece to contend for a title. After trading for Rasheed Wallace the rest is history.

The Pacers look like the closest mid-2000s Pistons equivalent since them. The foursome George Hill, Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert is devastatingly effective as they crush teams defensively and pick apart with skill and intelligence offensively. None are superstars, but arguably 4 players at an all-star level makes up for it.

But conventional wisdom says, they have the need for (a) Sheed. And the gaping hole is the 2 guard spot where the mediocre Lance Stephenson resides.

If they fall in the playoffs this year, who can be their Sheed acqusition? The available player that jumps out to me is Eric Gordon.

Gordon’s blue chip talent is obvious, but his unhappiness in New Orleans has made his max contract there a disaster. With paltry efficiency this year and unreliable health, the Hornets should not believe in him as a long term piece.

However in Indiana he’s not only going to an elite team, but to his home state and where he played college ball. If there’s any team made to make Gordon happy and motivated again, it’s the Pacers. Whether his production is related to health is another story and on a max contract he’d be a huge risk to take. Another reason Indiana being Gordon’s home state matters, is the Pacers are among the league’s dregs in attendance despite such a great team. Gordon helps the attendance both by being from Indiana and by being a star scorer. Points per game sells players.

While his health, production and contract presents a risk, the upside is no less than an NBA title. Gordon is precisely what the Pacers need in a 2 guard, providing a top scorer beside George who excels at driving to the rim and getting to the line, while being able to hit the outside shot. The lineup of Hill, Gordon, George, West and Hibbert if healthy, is a flawless fit of elite defense, decision making, shooting and post offense. The Pacers somehow getting another blue chip starter on Hill, George, West and Hibbert’s level is just what they need to challenge the Heat in the East and meet their 2004 Pistons destiny.

What could a Gordon acquisition look like? Danny Granger would obviously head out. In New Orleans he’d be an expiring contract who if healthy could help them make a playoff run next year and prove himself worth of a new contract. If Granger is only there for a year, they got out from Gordon’s contract and are free cap-wise to rebuild around Anthony Davis. The Pacers may have to throw in their late 1st round draft pick and/or last year’s 1st Miles Plumlee to sweeten the deal, but those are small prices to pay if they believe in what Gordon can do for their team. The Hornets asking for the talented Stephenson may be harder to swallow for the Pacers, but he’s not an untouchable talent. A 3 team trade with Danny Granger headed to a team more ready to win than New Orleans and the Hornets getting assets back, is also plausible. The Hornets agreeing to a Gordon to Indiana trade would be a hurdle, but a very plausible one.

Long term, Gordon’s contract puts the Pacers in bind with Paul George and David West both likely inking long term deals this year. But if they can build an immediate contending team, those financial hurdles can be a bridge crossed later.

Eric Gordon would present a big risk for the Pacers, but “going for it” with him may be a offer they can’t refuse.

Written by jr.

April 5, 2013 at 2:44 pm

The Curious Case of the Indiana Pacers’ offensive talent vs results

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Pacers Paul George

Pacers Paul George (Photo credit: IsoSports)

With a 38-23 record, the Pacers are in contention for the 2nd seed in the East and on pace for 51 Ws. In judging their talent alone it’s easy to see why. Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert have all made all-star teams, giving them SF-PF-C rotation that can hang with anyone’s. Add in another respectable starter in George Hill and a few other respectable players like Lance Stephenson and Ian Mahimni and the Pacers have the horses to be a top 3 seed.

What makes the Pacers interesting is how they are exceptional defensively and below average offensively, ranking 1st in DRTG and 20th in ORTG. The latter rank is even an improvement over where they sat before the all-star break. The Pacers are a classic example of a team that expects to suffocate a team defensively, then score just enough points to win.

The reason I find this interesting is it’s clear the Pacers have above average offensive talent. Starting with their star frontline, both West and Hibbert have impressive post skill as well as shooting range, opening the frontcourt for drivers. Then there’s their star of this season George, who’s shooting and spacing at small forward is a valuable asset in any offense. All 3 have exceptional intelligence and feel for the game to go along with their offensive skill, making them great offensive talents. While the Pacers’ guard play is not their strength, Hill and Stephenson can get to the rim and make plays which is all that’s asked of them.

Look at some of the teams ahead of the Pacers in team ORTG: Sacramento, New Orleans, Cleveland, Toronto. These are very flawed offensive teams, lacking in skill, spacing and cohesion/intelligence on that end. All 4 of those teams are also ahead of the the 2nd best defensive team in the league the Memphis Grizzlies, who rank 19th in ORTG despite talented offensive horses like Mike Conley, Jr., Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.

What’s likely is the value of the Pacers and Grizzlies offensive talent, actually shows up in their DRTG. By playing with better offensive teammates, more energy can be expended on the defensive end. Moreso maybe simply because Frank Vogel and Lionel Hollins will it, the Pacers and Grizzlies are more likely to take plays off offensively, than they do defensively.  This seems especially true of the role players, who’s minutes are constantly on a hook. Presume Vogel and Hollins pull a role player if his defensive effort lapses, while an offensive coach like Mike D’Antoni lets that end determines who stays on the floor. With a different coach the Pacers’ ORTG may be top 10-15 matching their talent, but the cost may be defense. Not to disrespect their defensive talent, as they have as much length and intelligence on that end as anyone.

Finally in regards to the Pacers, even if they’re 20th in the league in ORTG, they still have to score enough points to win every game. Any team on pace for over 50 Ws, still requires a lot of offensive production. George, West, Hibbert and co. deserve credit on that end for the reason that, it could be worse.

Written by jr.

March 8, 2013 at 2:19 pm

NBA Fan Q&A: Indiana Pacers

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With their ranking of #21 on the NBA Franchise Power Rankings, I asked Indiana Pacers fans on RealGM how they felt about their team:

Q: Are you satisfied with the direction of the team? A lot of people criticize the Pacers for having a ceiling as 1st or 2nd round knockout, without a true superstar to help them contend. Would you trade Danny Granger for a top 5 draft pick next season if you could?

Miller4Ever: The way we are headed is positive. Our young talent crop is promising with the rare true center Roy Hibbert, the guard tandem of Darren Collison and the newly acquired George Hill, energy man Tyler Hansbrough, and the unlimited ceiling of Paul George. The Pacers as they are now won’t make noise in the playoffs for at least another year, and Granger is not getting younger. The team doesn’t have a scorer of Granger’s caliber currently, but there is a great balance of skills from everyone else. If he were to be traded (a top 5 pick is great value for him) somebody would be able to step up.

pacers33granger: A: It’s hard not to be at least satisfied with the direction of the team. Bird and Morway did all they could really with what they had post-brawl. The team has interesting talent at nearly every position and I think pretty much any Pacer fan is intrigued by how Frank Vogel was able to run the team after his mid-season promotion. The team lacks any true star power, but it has the makings of the 90s Pacers teams who may have won a title had they not played during the Jordan era. I think next season would really depend on if I’d be for a Granger move. If we didn’t fill our PF need this year through free agency or a trade and made little progress I’d definitely think about it with the talent in next years draft.

jowglenn: Absolutely. Given where we were a few years ago (dunleavy, murphy, o’neal, granger, no other youth of any note) to where we are now, I’m thrilled. We now have youth, no bad contracts, cap space. Would I trade Granger? Maybe. Depends who it is available in the draft and how we think they will be in the NBA. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by jr.

October 28, 2011 at 10:51 am

NBA Franchise Power Rankings: #21 – Indiana Pacers

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Previous rankings:

#30 - Charlotte Bobcats (+ introduction)
#29 - Phoenix Suns
#28 - Denver Nuggets
#27 - Detroit Pistons
#26 - Milwaukee Bucks
#25 - Philadelphia 76ers
#24 - Houston Rockets
#23 - Portland Trailblazers
#22 - Toronto Raptors

#21 – Indiana Pacers

Danny Granger in October 2009

Image via Wikipedia

Total Trade Value Ranking: #22

Best assets – SF Danny Granger (borderline all-star), C Roy Hibbert (legitimate starter), SF Paul George (young, projects as borderline starter to legitimate all-star), PG Darren Collision (borderline starter), PG/SG George Hill (borderline starter), PF Tyler Hansbrough (borderline starter), SG Brandon Rush (borderline starter), 2012 1st, 2013 1st, AJ Price (bench player)

Other chips: SF James Posey (old expiring)

Bad contracts: SG Dahtnay Jones (2 years, 5.6 million)

Finanical Grade: A+

Managerial Grade: B-

Overall synopsis: The Pacers are a team who’s ranking could change by a month from now because they are prime position for a free agency score once the lockout ends which I’ll address later, but for the purposes of this list they are ranked on their present position. Like teams such as Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Houston, the Pacers have taken a lot of criticism for being “mediocore”, an 8th seed last year without much hope of scoring in the draft to rise on the list. A list based most on total trade value tries to capture this tangibly by counting their draft picks as only marginally valuable compared to other teams near them like Toronto and Cleveland’s. But despite a series of 30 W+ seasons, the Pacers have done an excellent job finding impact players and assets with lesser draft spots. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by jr.

October 28, 2011 at 10:49 am

The Indiana Pacers rebuild: Taking advantage of draft mistakes and defensive accountability

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Indiana Pacers logo 2006–present

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One of the newcomers to the playoffs this season are the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers last made the playoffs in 2006 and have been rebuilding since. They’re back with one of the league’s youngest rosters including an all-star scoring SF in Danny Granger, a skilled 7’2 C who plays defense and in the post offensively in Roy Hibbert, an emerging starting PF and former National Player of the year in Tyler Hansbrough and a young SG with star athleticism and fluidity in Paul George. Sounds like a team who cashed in high lottery picks for years, right? Not quite.
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Dissecting Jim O’Brien’s 2010-2011 Pacers failure

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This morning the Indiana Pacers fired Jim O’Brien. O’Brien had a target on his back for years by Pacer fans and their collapse out of a playoff spot the last few months after a good start finally did it.

Much of the O’Brien criticism were based on inconsistent rotations involving players like Darren Collision and Josh McRoberts. But I’d criticize O’Brien more for a stubborn coaching strategy, shown by some team contradictory team peripherals which caught my eye:

First of all, the Pacers are a defensive orientated team. They have one of the largest gaps between defensive rebounding % (6th) and offensive rebounding % (25th) in the league. The low ORB% indicates leaving players back for transition defense instead of sending them to grab offensive rebounds. The high DRB% indicates sending everyone to grab defensive rebounds instead of having leakouts for fastbreak points. Defense first coaches like Scott Skiles, Larry Brown and Tom Thibodeau have their teams play a similar way. The idea is that while they give away these high efficiency shots at the rim from fastbreak and putback shots, they prevent the other team from getting them just as much. This pushes their DRTGs up and their ORTGs down. Unsurprisingly, the Pacers are 9th in DRTG and 24th in ORTG.

But here’s the contradictory part: The Pacers are 7th in pace as of this morning. Usually defense first teams play at a snail’s pace, especially the ones emphazing DRB% over leaking out. With their defensive rebounding focus the Pacers aren’t scoring a ton of easy fastbreak points, so what explains the fast pace? Rather, rushing the ball up the court and taking quick 3s. The Pacers have one of the largest disparities between shots made from 3pt and at the rim, ranking 7th in 3PM and 27th in FGs made at the rim, according to hoopdata.com. The Pacers ranking 29th in FTs per FGA according to basketball-reference.com also shows their lack of offense inside. This 3pt heavy offense is no surprise for those who’ve followed O’Brien’s career. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by jr.

January 31, 2011 at 3:00 pm