Copeland Caught in a Different Kind of Traffic

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by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

November 16, 2013 | 12:11 a.m.

This isn't what he signed up for, and you could forgive him for being bitter. How would you feel if you were hired to do a job, and then someone better than you was brought in to do it instead?

Chris Copeland, however, is willing to wait his turn. He spent six years playing with teams in Fort Worth, Texas, Spain, Germany and Belgium before catching on with the Knicks last season, so biding his team with the Pacers, a team that hasn't yet figured how out to lose, isn't the worst way to make a living.

He's played in just four of the Pacers' nine games, for a total of 10 minutes, 39 seconds, and has scored just nine points. Six of those points came in Friday's 104-77 win over Milwaukee, when he hit both of his three-point attempts in the final 2:52. Given his lack of activity, and all the questions from fans wondering about it, those were enough to earn two standing ovations.

Standing ovations in garbage time would have been enough to embarrass some players, perhaps even leave them angry. Nobody, especially professionals, wants to feel like the classic end-of-bench guy who gets sympathy cheers from the fans. Copeland, however, seems sincere in his appreciation.

“It's an honor,” he said of the crowd reaction. “This is one of those places similar to New York where people love basketball. For them to have your back is special.”

Copeland averaged more than 15 minutes per game with the Knicks last season, and started 13 games. He scored 29 points in his second start, in December, and then 32 and 33 in the final two games of the season after playoff seeds had been secured.

It was expected that he would come off the bench, but not from such a deep position on it. He's sitting not only behind David West but also Luis Scola, who was acquired in a trade 13 days after the Pacers had wooed him with a gift box and a two-year, $6.1 million contract. It wasn't as if Larry Bird gave him a head fake. Bird had been chasing Scola for years, and finally got him after Copeland had been signed.

So, Copeland understands.

“I'm so excited about being part of something special,” he said. “Am I a competitor first? Sure. But I'm happy to be here. I've said to Coach, I don't deserve a coach as good as Frank Vogel. I'm very blessed to be here, despite lack of minutes. I do believe my time will come. I'm working my butt off behind the scenes. I'm a competitor first, but I'm loving the ride.”

Nobody's going to listen to a bench player's complaints when a team is 9-0, but Copeland likely wouldn't be saying much anyway. He has a quiet nature about him, and that six-year apprenticeship before making it to the NBA didn't exactly inflate his ego. His role is both clear and non-debatable for now. Vogel said Copeland's not likely to play unless a game becomes a blowout, as Friday's did, or an injury creates an opening. Fans who have been asking why he hasn't played more must be prepared to answer the counterpoint: who do you want to play less?

So, Copeland waits.

“You always want to play, but Luis was such a great pickup for us,” he said. “Look at both 'fours' we have. That shows what kind of front office we have. The goal is to win a championship. I respect the guys at the top for putting together such a great team.”

Copeland's other hope for getting off the bench is to play small forward. That was part of the plan when he was acquired. He had played it in New York, along with power forward and center, and he played it in practice with the Pacers earlier in the week, when they had a rare opportunity to get in a couple of days of complete workouts between games on Monday and Friday. Although he missed on two driving shots against Milwaukee, he proved his ability to get to the basket from the perimeter in New York.

Vogel and his teammates vouch for him.

“When Coach is making a point about guarding an offense that stretches the floor, that's where he comes in and kills us,” Paul George said. “But it's not just his three. He has the ability to put the ball on the floor and create for others as well. You'll see that when he gets the opportunity.”

The perimeter is crowded too, though. Paul George will get as many minutes as Vogel can afford to give him, and Danny Granger will get more of them when he returns. For now, Orlando Johnson and rookie Solomon Hill appear to be better fits to play there, primarily because they are quicker and more agile defenders. The Pacers have the league's best defense, and aren't patient with stragglers. Just ask Lance Stephenson, who got a few earfuls from teammates early in Friday's game when he missed assignments.

“That's where (Scola) needs to grow the most, in terms of some of the concepts and understanding where he needs to be at all times in terms of rotations,” West said.

So, Copeland will continue to sit for awhile.

But he'll also remember to be thankful. The Knicks are off to a 3-5 start and already looking far more vulnerable than the team that earned the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference last season. There's nowhere worse for a team to fail to live up to expectations than New York, and Copeland won't have to experience the storm of vitriol if it comes. He also enjoys a simpler life in Indianapolis. It doesn't take long to get to Bankers Life Fieldhouse from his residence near the Keystone at the Crossing shopping mall, unlike the madness he experienced getting to Madison Square Garden last season.

“You don't have to wait two hours to go two blocks here,” he said.

Here, there will be nights he has two wait two hours to get into a game. And nights when he never does get there. But he knows patience and he knows traffic jams, so he'll go with the flow.

“It's about what's best for this team,” he said. “Clearly Coach knows what he's doing, us being 9-0.”

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