Mark's Mailbag: What Role Will GRIII Play Upon His Return?
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Editor's Note: Some Mailbag questions have been edited for clarity and length.
Q. What is the status of Glenn Robinson III? When he returns, do you see him joining the bench crew of Cory Joseph, Lance Stephenson, and Domantas Sabonis? If we continue at this pace I don't think any Eastern Conference teams want to see Indiana in the playoffs.
A. I can't really guess when Robinson returns. I've learned not to be swayed by his optimism. I talked with him about a week after his injury and he mentioned the possibility of being back before Christmas. And yet, we're still waiting.
But, it seems he's close. He's practicing with the team, and moves around the court well when we see him after practice. I think there's a good chance he'll be back before the All-Star break.
Whenever he returns, he will be part of the regular rotation, along with Stephenson, Sabonis and Joseph. Nate McMillan has already made that clear, and it only makes sense given the way Robinson played last season. He averaged 7.9 points and 5 rebounds in the 27 games he started, and hit all six of his shots in the playoffs. He'll bring good shooting – 39 percent from the 3-point line last season - and defense to the wing position.
Q. How optimistic should the Pacers be about their playoff chances/making a playoff run considering their 3-0 record versus the Cavs this year?
A. I think they should be optimistic, but I don't believe that feeling should be tied too directly to their three wins over Cleveland.
They caught the Cavs at a good time early in the season, when Cleveland was struggling to find chemistry and become healthy.
I don't think the Cavs are as good as they have been the past two seasons, although they could get there by the end of the season if they can incorporate Isaiah Thomas into the lineup.
Q. With the two-way signing of Ben Moore, does that ultimately eliminate the return of Damien Wilkins on the Pacers roster, even on a 10-day contract? If so, plans of him joining the coaching staff in the off-season?
A. I thought this was a real possibility when Wilkins was released, but so far it hasn't happened. I based my feeling on a few factors, such as the fact Wilkins was practicing on the day he was released after being told the previous day he would be let go, and the fact Wilkins told me there was a possibility of coming back on a 10-day deal.
Either way, I can see him joining a team's coaching staff next season. He says he wants to coach or join a front office somewhere, and I think his reputation around the league is such that a team would hire him.
Q. Three games separate the 3-8 seed in the east. Where do you see the Pacers settling in? Who do you think the team matches up best with in the first round and which teams would you want to avoid.
A. The primary factor for all the teams in that mix is health. Any team that loses a key player for an extended period of time is in danger of missing out on the playoffs.
As I'm writing this, the Pacers are 2 ½ games back of the fourth position and just one game ahead of ninth. I don't want to be evasive, but it's impossible to make a prediction where they might finish, or who they might want to play. They've looked both good and bad this season against the teams now standing fourth through ninth, although they haven't yet played Washington.
I do believe, however, the Pacers have a greater likelihood than most of the others of improving as the season goes along. They are still learning to play with one another, and their younger players are in an improvement phase of their careers.
If they can finish the season with a healthy roster – meaning Turner and Robinson are playing and playing well – they can finish as high as fourth.
Q. Do you foresee the Pacers making any moves at the trade deadline?
A. This is always a difficult question to answer, primarily because you can't predict what another team will offer in a trade.
I don't believe Kevin Pritchard will aggressively seek a trade. This team doesn't have any significant holes, and the chemistry is good. He also doesn't have any "bad" long-term contracts that he might want to shed.
He's in a position, however, to take on a contract and has an open roster spot, so if the right deal comes along, he could jump at it. Generally, however, the best time to improve a roster is in the off-season – as the Pacers did last summer.
They haven't made a deadline deal since 2014, when they traded Danny Granger to Philadelphia for Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen. That was a special circumstance. Granger's knee had not responded well after a long rehabilitation period, and there wasn't much hope that it would. Philly wanted to dump Turner's contract as part of its "tanking" process. The deal was talked about for a while, but Philly wanted a first-round draft pick as part of the deal. Finally, 20 minutes before the deadline, it agreed to do the deal without taking the first-round pick, and it got done.
Something like that is impossible to predict, however.
Q. What does the rotation look like when GRIII returns?
A. He'll get the backup minutes behind Bojan Bogdanovic. He won't necessarily replace anyone in the rotation, but likely will take a few minutes here and there from Joseph and Stephenson, and perhaps indirectly from TJ Leaf. It also could mean fewer minutes for Bogdanovic, if Robinson is playing well.
Basically, I think you'll see a nine-man rotation, with Joseph, Stephenson, Sabonis and Robinson all playing on a regular basis if everyone is healthy.
Q. Do we need to finish the regular season in 6th place or better to advance past the first round of playoffs?
A. Logic would indicate that. The Celtics are on a level of their own at the moment in the East, and Toronto isn't far behind.
The Pacers haven't had success against Boston lately, losing their last five games, including two home games this season. They did put themselves in position to blow a five-point in the final half-minute of a game this season, though. They've done slightly better against Toronto, winning the past two games in Indianapolis.
If Cleveland finishes third, you'd think it would be best to avoid them as well. But, as mentioned earlier, the Cavs don't seem as dangerous as the past two seasons, and we saw how competitive the Pacers were with them last season in the playoffs – losing all four games, but taking each one into the final minute. This Pacers team should be better than last year's at the end of the season, and Cleveland might not be as good.
Q. Does anyone miss Paul George?
A. It would be easy to dismiss this snarky comment without a response, but it does provide an opportunity to make a point.
While I understand fans not missing George, given the way he left and the way the current team has played, I also believe the mob mentality has gone too far. George played seven seasons for the Pacers, including the one in which he was recovering from a broken leg, and turned in some of the best performances in franchise history. He is one of the top three defenders the Pacers have ever had – along with Derrick McKey and Ron Artest – and perhaps the best. He was an offensive force, too. Just last season, he averaged 28 points and 8.8 rebounds in the playoffs.
Someday, years from now, fans will have a better appreciation for all that. And if Victor Oladipo and Sabonis go on to have good careers with the Pacers, fans should be thankful George gave the Pacers a chance to trade him, rather than lose him in free agency without compensation.
Q. What is the chance that we bring Myles off the bench and use him to score more with the second unit?
A. I don't see that happening. It might not be a bad strategy, but it would be disruptive at this point. Turner is a co-captain and the longest-tenured Pacer, excluding Stephenson who left and returned. I highly doubt he would be happy coming off the bench this season.
Sabonis, meanwhile, is in his first season with the team and fine with playing off the bench for now. He also is more versatile than Turner, able to back up two positions. He's as much a scoring threat as Turner, so brings that to the second unit as well as Turner could.
Long-range, of course, something might have to give. Perhaps Sabonis and Turner can start together eventually, or maybe one of them will have to be satisfied with playing off the bench. A trade is never out of the question, either. The Pacers aren't likely to shop either one of them, but you never know how the roster will evolve or what another team might offer.
Q. How can the coaches get Myles to set screens more like Domas? When Myles sets a solid screen, he gets open.
A. Setting a screen isn't so difficult that it should have to be taught over and over again. It's mostly a willingness to absorb contact. That goes against Turner's nature, but he seems to be getting better in that regard.
You're right, good screens usually result in open shots for the screener. That alone should be motivation for setting good ones, especially in pick-and-pop situations. Turner doesn't time his rolls to the basket as well as Sabonis, and doesn't seem to catch the ball in traffic as well, but he's still more than adequate in that area.
It's interesting how some players set better screens than others. One would think any NBA player could do it. But it's always been this way. I remember Larry Bird saying after Sam Perkins' first practice with the team that Perkins had set better screens than anyone on the team had been doing. Width is a plus, but mostly it's a matter of taking the hit – and perhaps knowing how to get away with a moving screen.
Q. Do you think we will see Sabonis and Turner start games together this season?
A. I doubt it. Nate McMillan had played them together in every game for a while before Turner's injury. There's not enough history to draw a strong conclusion, but that combination didn't jump out as being more successful than any other.
Starting them together would eliminate either Thad Young or Bogdanovic from the starting lineup, and it doesn't seem like McMillan is eager to do that, either. Moving Bogdanovic to the bench is especially problematic, because it would move Young from his best position (four) to his second-best position, and make it more difficult to find minutes for Robinson, if he were to remain a backup.
Sabonis and Turner very well could start together someday for the Pacers. Probably not this season, however.
Q. If the Pacers miss the playoffs, or get torched in the first round, will Indy have another coveted head coaching position open up with an up-and-coming GM (Pritchard) and a roster full of high-ceiling talent? Seems like an appealing job and deja vu all over again for Hoosiers.
A. I just don't see McMillan's job being in jeopardy after this season. His team already has exceeded the expectations of nearly everyone, and this is a "first-year team" in many respects. I admit, it's a first-year team for the third year in a row, but still, it qualifies as a new group that needs time to develop.
Given all the roster turnover since McMillan took over, I don't see two years being enough to pass harsh judgement on his performance. He and Pritchard have history together, going back to Portland, and their relationship seems strong.
Q. We have a top 10 offense. The defense is around 20th. How can we get to a top 10 defense, to be an elite NBA team?
A. This team is built more for offense than defense, but it has proven it can play well defensively when it applies itself. Its defense has stood out during its comebacks from double-figure deficits, and also in the first quarter of the wins at Phoenix and Utah.
So, it's on the players simply to go out and do it. They should know by now their offense comes a lot easier when they're getting stops at the defensive end. That should be motivation enough.
The defense needs Turner's inside presence to be at its best, but can get by temporarily without him, especially against the lesser offensive teams.
Q. If you had to choose, would you rather have Collison or CoJo next year? How has Damien Wilkins release affected the team on/off the court? What will Sabonis and Myles have to work on in order to start next to each other long term? What are your expectations for Sumner this year?
A. Whew! A rapid-fire onslaught! Please allow me a moment to get my bearings.
Collison and Joseph make a good point guard combination, although Joseph is as much an off-guard as a point guard, especially when playing with Stephenson. Joseph has a player option for next season, so it's difficult to project his future with the team. But if you are insisting on choosing one, Collison is having the better season of the two.
Wilkins' release hasn't really had an impact on the court, as his minutes were so limited. Off the court, he's missed, but not to the point it likely will affect the won-loss record. He was a good leader, but not the only one in the locker room. And, it's possible he could return on a 10-day contract.
As for Turner and Sabonis, one of them would have to prove he's capable of defending "fours" on the perimeter if they are to start together. I'm not sure either of them is capable of that against some of the quicker opponents, but they could do so against some teams. It would help if Turner adds low-post scoring weapons to his offense, but Sabonis already has that and Turner and complement that by playing away from the basket.
Sumner has just begun playing with Fort Wayne in the G League. He has a long way to go to be ready for NBA competition, so I expect he'll spend most of the remaining season there, and then join the Pacers in Summer League play. Given his youth (22) and lack of experience (58 college games), I think he needs more time than this season can provide to be ready to contribute in an NBA game.
Q. With the changes in expectations that Pacers fans have experienced in the first half of the season, what has to happen to make this season feel like a success now? Playoffs? Win first round series?
A. I think fans would be disappointed if the Pacers aren't in the playoffs this season. They've been among the top eight consistently, and have proven they're capable of beating the teams they're competing against for one of the top eight spots. Anything beyond that is a bonus, although it might not feel that way if they lose in the first round.
Most people predicted the Pacers would win 30-35 games this season, if not less, so they seem destined to surpass general expectations. But expectations have been upgraded, deservedly so. Their challenge now is that they didn't take advantage of their December schedule, when they had that six-game homestand and 10 home games. They finished the month 7-8, something that could come back to haunt them.
Q. Next Pacer to have his jersey retired, if any? (Statue is a no brainer.)
A. I've answered this one a few times, but don't mind saying it again. It should be Freddie Lewis, the starting point guard and captain of the three ABA championship teams.
Lewis was MVP of the finals in 1972, and had a shot at MVP in '73 as well before George McGinnis played the starring role in Game 7. Lewis also was MVP in the ABA All-Star game as a member of the Spirits of St. Louis, which at least speaks to his talent. He sacrificed his scoring with the Pacers because of the surrounding talent, but teammates such as McGinnis, Mel Daniels and Darnell Hillman believe he's deserving of a jersey retirement.
Lewis is a nominee for the Naismith Hall of Fame, so that seems a further endorsement. I'm not predicting Lewis gets into Naismith's hall, but Louie Dampier is in and a lot of ABA veterans will tell you Lewis was a better all-around player than Dampier.
As for a statue, I assume you're referring to Reggie Miller. That makes sense, but, like jersey retirements, statues create arguments. If you erect one of Miller, what about the Pacers' other Hall of Famers? What about Donnie Walsh and Herb Simon?
Statues are all the rage these days, however, so it will be interesting to see if one goes up outside Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Q. What are your expectations of this team when Myles and GR3 return
A. At the very least, the Pacers should become an improved defensive team. Turner was the NBA's leading shot blocker before his injury, and Robinson is a good individual defender. They'll bring scoring and improve depth as well, so people have a right to higher expectations. Coming off a game such as the Pacers just had in Los Angeles, it appears Turner and Robinson are missed.
Q. With Oladipo playing at an All-Star level and Sabonis contributing, where do you see Turner's future on the team? Is there a chance that he gets moved to power forward and takes time away from Thad Young, or even moved to the second team to play with Stephenson?
A. I think Turner will return to the starting lineup when healthy, with Sabonis going back to the bench. As discussed earlier, that's the least disruptive thing to do this season.
I don't see Turner taking minutes from Young - not substantial minutes, anyway. While Turner and Sabonis have played together, and no doubt will again, I don't see the combination being used extensively this season because of the lack of perimeter defense. Turner started with Ian Mahinmi a couple of seasons ago, but Mahinmi was quick enough to defend more big men on the perimeter, so it worked pretty well in the playoff series against Toronto. I don't believe Turner or Sabonis have the foot speed to defend well on the perimeter, however.
Q. Will the Pacers make a move at the trade deadline, or is their "trade" the return of GR3 to the lineup? And what are the chances of him starting?
A. That could very well wind up being the personnel change. But, you just never know what opportunity might come up, as mentioned earlier.
It will take time for Robinson to get into game shape and find a groove. I don't expect him to start this season, but if Bogdanovic continues to struggle I wouldn't rule out the possibility.
Q. What is the Pacers record with Turner starting and what is the record with Sabonis starting? If it's a lot better with Sabonis starting shouldn't the Pacers try and get him more minutes?
A. After the loss to the Lakers in Los Angeles, the Pacers are 17-15 when Turner starts, and 7-7 when Sabonis starts. That doesn't offer any conclusions, and really isn't a fair measure of their value to the team, anyway. Other factors, such as whether Oladipo was playing, influence those records.
Regardless of whether he starts or not, Sabonis is a valuable asset. I don't think anybody minds him playing more. But it's difficult to get extensive minutes for both him and Turner when both are healthy. For now, I think McMillan has managed the situation about as well as can be done.
Q. I'm a transplanted Hoosier who has been living in Venice, Florida the past 15 years. My allegiance to the Pacers runs to the late 1960s, when my childhood friends and I walked to games at the Fairgrounds.
Thanks to the NBA League Pass, I still watch almost every game, with the added bonus of hearing the Pacers' announcers. This year's team has been fun to watch. Your columns have also provided a lot of insight.
It's hard for me to believe Domantas Sabonis is only 21. He plays with extraordinary intelligence and intensity. He's really remarkably strong and, for his size, more than good enough athletically. He's only going to get stronger and more polished; I can see that 17-foot shot off the high screen becoming automatic. He's already a fantastic rebounder and, while he will never be the shot-blocker that Myles Turner is, he understands his role as a help defender and rim protector and never takes a play off. In short, I think Kevin Pritchard was remarkably prescient at the time of the trade when he predicted Sabonis would be a 10-year starting power forward in the league.
So, how do you see Sabonis' role evolving? Thad Young delivers so many intangibles that he will be hard to dislodge from the starting lineup, but do you think Sabonis and Turner can successfully play together in the long run? And what does that mean for TJ Leaf, who looks to me like a guy who will in a year or two develop into a 20-point scorer? Leaf has such a great arsenal offensively, can rebound and is more than a willing defender that it would seem hard to keep him on the bench. In this faster, smaller NBA, could a Turner-Sabonis-Leaf frontcourt succeed?
A. The Turner-Sabonis conundrum has already been discussed. In short, one of them probably will have to improve as a perimeter defender for them to play together extensively, or Turner will have to add post-up skills to his offensive skill set. That would allow more flexibility, and enable one of them to go against a smaller defender around the basket.
Regardless, I believe minutes will be found for Sabonis one way or another. He offers too many contributions, as you listed, not to play extensively.
Leaf, meanwhile, is a promising player. Teams are going at him defensively, taking advantage of his youth and lack of strength, but he'll get stronger. He's 21, and would get stronger even without lifting weights. But he's doing that, and says he's added a lot of strength since he was drafted. He's a skilled offensive player, as you say, which should enable him to overcome any defensive shortcomings.
Q. (Paul George) recently stated in an interview explaining his decision-making: "You ask 70-80 percent of the guys in the league, if they would love to go back home and play in front of their city ... play for their home, and that's all I stated."
Based on your time with the league, what do you think about his statement? Do you think that there has been some change in players' desires to go back home? If the numbers are actually as high as he says they are, why do we not hear about this from players all the time (especially from areas like Indiana that produce lots of professional players)?
A. I don't agree that 70-80 percent of players want to "go home." For one thing, a lot of them don't really have a hometown NBA team. What about the player who grew up a two-hour drive or more from the closest NBA team? Or the player from another country? For another, a player quickly adapts to the location of his team, and if he's fortunate enough to play several seasons there, that becomes home. For yet another, it's not always comfortable for a player to be in his hometown. There can be a lot of pressures and distractions associated with that.
George grew up an hour outside of Los Angeles. If he considers L.A. home, that's fine, but that's his call. His parents still live in Palmdale, so it's understandable why he would want to live in that area. Reggie Miller, however, also grew up an hour outside of L.A., in another direction, and went to college in L.A., but he never seemed to consider it to be his hometown and never expressed a desire to play there.
Jeff Teague seemed to like the idea of returning to his hometown when the Pacers acquired him in a trade, but didn't object when the Pacers went another direction and he signed with Minnesota.
It's an individual preference, but I don't agree with the 70-80 percent estimation.
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