The Thunder play the Pacers tonight in a big East vs West match-up. A week after winning against the NBA's best, the Thunder subsequently fell to the Grizzlies and Heat, and tonight must deal with the ever-improving Pacers. We took the opportunity to reach out to the great Pacers site Eight Points, Nine Seconds to get the full flavor of what we're in for. Instead of applying our standard Q&A format, the proprietors of this Pacers site, Tim Donahue and Jared Wade, engaged with me in a running discussion about the game and the NBA in general. If you followed the lockout discussion over the summer, you know that we're huge fans of these guys, as they bring a great deal of intelligence and savvy to understanding the pro game on all levels.
Many thanks to Tim & Jared for allowing me the time out to get a great glimpse into their epic basketball minds. Jared kicks things off.
Jared Wade: Depending on who you ask, the Thunder are either the best team in the NBA or still a year away. This much we know: they have one of the two guys in the NBA who could win the MVP, the best scoring point guard in the NBA not named Derrick Rose, the near-future Sixth Man of the Year Award, and a power forward who is leading the league in blocks with 3.4 per game when the guy in second play only swats 2.3 per night.
Not a week ago, a fair number of knowledgable NBA onlookers were leaning towards predicting Oklahoma City to be the next NBA champ. They smacked around Miami and handily beat the Lakers, in Los Angeles, at the end of March and absolutely destroyed the (Ross-less) Bulls last weekend. And not that one game changes everything, but they did look a little out-classed in crunch time on Wednesday losing to the Heat. In Miami, it must be noted, where the team with LeBron and Dwyane should win.
But what is the state of the team right now? In the West, it looks like the Spurs will be the only challenger that Oklahoma City might worry about. But does it really feel they can beat Miami or Chicago? I'm not doubting it. That Heat/Thunder game could have gone either way and I would love to see seven more of them in June. Just honestly wondering what someone who has watched them more intently than me all year feels. I'm sure you see the flaws and the certainties the team will experience in the playoffs much better.
J.A. Sherman: Depending on the day of the week, I oscillate from thinking there is no team in the league that can beat the Thunder four times in a series, to thinking they may not even be able to get to the finals, to thinking that they're in deep trouble if they draw Houston in the 1st round. The biggest problem that I have in trying to understand the Thunder is that there is precious little precedent for what they're trying to do.
I can't think of a champ in the modern day NBA that relied almost exclusively on a talented core as youthful as the Thunder and found ultimate success. The only thing that might come close is the 1995 season when a young Magic team that featured 3rd year star Shaquille O'Neal, 2nd year player Penny Hardaway, and then a couple other young talents in Nick Anderson and Dennis Scott. The team was young and hungry and on the cusp of doing something pretty unprecedented. But then Anderson missed four free throws, Hakeem Olajuwon destroyed the world, and in a Finals sweep and a Kazaam movie later, it was all over before it really began.
Needless to say, we'd like to distance ourselves far away from that model.
On a pure talent level, I think the Thunder finish ahead of everyone else, including the Heat. OKC has issues, but they are correctable issues, such as their tendency to commit careless turnovers or secure defensive rebounds. What I fear though is that they face an intelligent team and head coach who knows how to actively game-plan against their weaknesses, like Rick Carlisle did last season in the WCF.
Speaking of which, you guys sure seem to think highly of your young coach Frank Vogel. What class of coaching do you think he fits into, and how has he developed this Pacers team so that they've gone from an 8th seed last year to a potential 3 seed this year?
Tim Donahue: At this point in his career, I would give Frank Vogel the highest praise I give NBA coaches - he's qualified to do his job.
Vogel is intelligent, open-minded, and most importantly, in control. This last piece was a concern for many observers, and was cited as a reason for the delay in offering Vogel the full-time position. Reportedly, Bird wanted Vogel to show that he could (and would) hire strong assistants. The primary reason was Frank's age (36) and inexperience, but there was also a very rocky period in the locker room last March that raise flags.
Vogel added veteran assistants Brian Shaw and Jim Boylen, and while they've been valuable adds, every indication is that this is Frank Vogel's shop. There have been no meaningful - or even minor - locker room incidents this season, though it is hard for things to get too out of hand, when you're winning.
Philosophically, he's very much a disciple of Rick Pitino, and you can see a lot of [former Pacers coach] Jim O'Brien's influence, too - particularly in regards to tempo and defense. However, Vogel appears to be much different in terms of personality. He is very accessible and genuine. I've had the opportunity to interact with him this season, and up close, his intelligence and savvy comes through much more clearly than it does in quotes or interviews. He has much more command of the situations I see him in than would normally be expected from someone with his limited experience on this level.
To my eye, this coaching staff is very, very similar to Larry Bird's coaching staff in the late 90s - with Rick Carlisle and Dick Harter assisting Bird. Again, this is pretty much my highest praise, because I consider Bird and that staff to be outstanding. As good or better than anyone coaching in the NBA at that time, or perhaps since. Like Bird, Vogel has hyper-qualified assistants. Like Bird, Vogel allows the assists to do their job, and to operate with authority. Like Bird, Vogel is the ultimate decision maker, and his assistants operate under his direction.
Also, like Bird, he may be the most perfectly suited - temperamentally - for his team. Bird's team was a veteran-laden squad that needed a coach who they respected and understood how to get the most out of them. Vogel's team, on the other hand, is largely populated by young - and somewhat fragile - players. They need a nurturer - someone who will believe in them and make them feel more confident and comfortable. This tongue-and-groove fit between coach and need is a big part of the reason the team has improved so much.
Also, the smartass in me wants to say that Vogel has taken this squad from an eighth seed to competing for a third seed, because he's used David West, George Hill, and Leandro Barbosa much more effectively than Jim O'Brien did.
This gets back to my opening statement. The reason I tend to think about coaches in terms of "qualified" and "not qualified" is because it's always the quality of the players who are more important. The biggest reason that the Pacers have made a leap is because they are putting better players on the floor. Vogel has done a great job of managing the roster and the lineups, but West, Barbosa, and Hill each would have been the second best player on the Pacers last year. West may have been the best.
The quality of a coach's instruction is often entirely dependent on the quality of the player he's instructing.
And Scott Brooks is giving instructions to some really high quality players. However, it sounds like there might be some decisions to be made as the Thunder leave the shelter of so many rookie contracts and enter the deep water. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are locked in, but what do the end of rookie contracts and the beginning of a new CBA with much harsher luxury tax penalties and accelerators mean in terms of keeping the core - including Serge Ibaka and James Harden - together?
Sherman: That's interesting that you have basically created a 'binary' form of coding coaches - either qualified or unqualified. To be sure we can stratify it further, but I tend to agree with the first deviation. It makes me wonder though, how does a coach become 'qualified?' How do you know when a coach like Vogel or Tom Thibideau is ready to go from the assistant role to taking over the reins?
Of course I cannot state this without addressing the Thunder's own coach, Scott Brooks. Like every other coach in the league not named "Pop," he receives the smattering of calls for his head on a regular basis. They say he runs too simplistic an offense, he has no end-game set plays, he allows Russell Westbrook to shoot too much, etc. On top of that, he does not yet have a contract for next season, so technically Brooks could be out of OKC after the season ends. What criteria do you think he should be measured by to determine whether he is 'qualified?'
Apropos of nothing, here is how I'd group the current crop of coaches:
Class A: Can win games by the sheer magnitude of their brain power, motivational technique, and coachingexperience
- Gregg Popovich
- Rick Carlisle
- Tom Thibideau
Class B: Know how to motivate their players to reach most of their potential
- Doc Rivers
- Frank Vogel
- Lionel Hollins
Class C: Getting better at what they do
- Scott Brooks
- Erik Spoelstra
- Stan Van Gundy
- Kevin McHale
Class D: Gimmick coaches
- Scott Skiles
- Alvin Gentry
- Rick Adelman
Every other coach is more or less interchangeable. And for the record, I would not break the bank for any coach other than the top 3.
Lastly, to answer your question, there is no way that OKC will be able to keep both Ibaka and Harden. The NBA overlords all but promised it.
The next question is, which one would YOU keep?
Donahue: Ibaka. Besides all of the basketball reasons and the whole size thing, Harden's beard is ridiculous.
Back to coach, I consider in-game coaching to be 5, maybe 10% of the job. The value of a coach is in preparation, direction, and discipline. During the game, I'm a coaching minimalist. Coaches can have an impact on a game with decisions, but mostly, they should basically be there to remind the players of what they're supposed to be doing. Adjustments get made, plays get called, but that's all from a very limited set of options. Some teams have huge playbooks, which always strikes me as wildly ridiculous. Basketball plays are the Mexican food of the sports world - every dish is meat, beans, and cheese in a tortilla.
I watched Bobby Knight in his prime, and there may not have been anyone better, and I only saw one time where he drew up a play on the fly that was brilliant. Guy won three titles and tons of games just by building the framework, teaching the players, and honing the discipline.
Anyway, endgame plays are really just a fine point of preparation. Their success is way more about how well the team plays together - executes - than it is about quality of design. And that goes back to how well schooled - prepared, disciplined - your team is. I mean, hell, 99% of them are action off PnR or Iso looking to move the defense and see what opens up.
As to how you know a when an assistant coach is "qualified"...you don't. The hire is always a leap of faith. Pacers passed on Rick Carlisle in 2000, because most of the young guys on the team...including Jalen Rose, who looked like the heir apparent, couldn't stand him. And even a guy like Carlisle is flawed. He might be the most brilliant, complete basketball mind in the league today - or, God, perhaps ever, but the players in Detroit couldn't stand him, and he had become a big part of the problem in Indy when he was fired here. It will be interesting to see how long he lasts in Dallas after this generation tips over.
The fear with Thibs was that he'd be a high-functioning assistant. There are a lot of coaches in the NBA like that, with Mike Brown being my go-to exemplar. These guys have a great deal of technical proficiency, but they can't do big picture or direction. Thibs probably has dispelled those fears, but he does ride his players pretty hard. Does he have an expiration date?
Vogel is doing a good job, but he's also in a fantastic situation. It's a young team with talent and low expectations, flexibility going forward. He's following a coach who was reviled - in the locker room and by the fans & probably media - (though I liked O'Brien...loved listening to him talk basketball. He deserved to be fired when he was fired, but I thought he did a solid job for most of his time here.) It's hard to see if there have been any real tough tests for him yet. They struggled against some good teams, but there have been no major blow ups or controversies. Maybe that's to his credit, and maybe it's lucky.
I do have a standing rule that coaches coming from college will probably be a disaster. Culture is too different.
But, mostly, you have to take a leap of faith with coaches - even recycled ones to a degree. Personality is important, and fit with the roster...both of those are probably more important than technical proficiency, which can be hired in the form of assistants. And once you take the leap, you've got to give the guy a chance to succeed. You have to back him in the locker room, and let him work. A coach's tasks and effects are long-term ones, and most of the loudest criticisms - substitution patterns, play calling, not playing so-and-so instead of whatshisname - are little more than noise that should be filtered out by the decision makers in the organization.
I'm off the tracks here, so let's bring it back to...The Thunder are superior, probably vastly so, to the Pacers, but every team can be beaten. What is OKC's "achilles heel?"
Sherman: Yes, college coaches = disaster. No arguments from me on that point.
You say that Vogel is in a great situation - young team with talent and low expectations...would you say that he's in a similar situation as Doug Collins in Philly? In OKC, it's the same but different. Brooks has a young team with talent, but now the expectations are through the roof. Given the history of the NBA, the expectations are also quite unreasonable, and Brooks, like his players, is essentially learning on the job. I think he does a good job keeping every player's head in the game and doesn't let them get too high or too low, and his management of Westbrook probably has earned him a psychologist of the year award. That said, the Thunder seem to be still prone to breakdowns in the fundamentals of the game. Namely, failure to box out, unnecessarily risky passes, and a tendency to shoot too quickly are all problems that plague the team.
In re: Ibaka vs Harden, I would tend to agree with you, that it is more difficult to find an athletic dominant big man than it is a competent swing player.However, my guess is that precisely because of that, some other team is more likely to break the bank for Ibaka than for Harden, thereby making it easier for OKC to keep Harden vs Ibaka. Furthermore, Harden may be the glue that helps keep Westbrook and Durant on the same page. He's the perfect guy with the perfect temperament between the water and fire, and plays a great set-up man during crunch time. It will all come to a head next spring when they both become eligible for restricted free agency.
The Thunder team you're probably going to see Friday night is going to be one that relies sometimes to its detriment on its own pure talent. As I mentioned above, they are susceptible to losing their grasp of in-game fundamentals, and a lesser talented team that adheres to these principles can prevail. Some of the teams that OKC has lost to this year, such as Utah and Houston, are not super-talented but they play a very competent game. If the Pacers can stay in the game through three quarters, they might be surprised to find themselves in a competitive situation simply because they did better at the little things like get good position for offensive rebounds.
Do you think Indiana has to play an A+ game to win against OKC, or any of the other elite teams this season? Why or why not?
Wade: At home, Indiana can certainly beat the Thunder. It is unexpected but they have beaten the most of the league's best teams this year already. Following a huge win over Miami, a dramatic OT victory over Houston, a giant comeback to beat New York and a as-should-be dress-down of Washington in recent games, they should be as confident as they have been since early March. And based on some of Oklahoma City's flaws you note, they can probably get by with an A- game even in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, presuming Durant and Westbrook don't scorch the earth.
The key will be slowing down Westbrook. Vogel will likely start Darren Collison on him but that won't last. Paul George will rotate over and we shouldn't be surprised to see George Hill and his 747-wingspan get the assignment late if it stays close. But as I'm sure is the case for most teams you watch OKC play, there really is nobody to guard him. That's not to say keeping the league's leading scorer will be an easy task, but Durant and Granger have a lot of similarities in how they move and their general athletic makeups so it won't be a mismatch. That doesn't mean KD won't drop 50, but just that he won't do it by exploiting something that the Pacers are incapable of taking away.
On the other hand, Roy Hibbert generally thrives against big, traditional centers. A guy like Perkins is someone that team's often leave on an island to check HIbbert one-on-one and that's his comfort zone. He wants a huge, hulking defender behind him, battling for position and then reacting to his post moves after he receives the entry. He can be very dangerous like that. The defender really can't stop him if he makes a really good move and he can be a superb passer in space. Clog up his area with a second defender and he might freak out a little and throw an errant pass away or travel, but he has a lot of options with time.
Granger has also just been on a tear. He has hit an absurd number of threes of late and is generally looking like a cocky bastard out there with the ball. In a good way. He seems to get so much pleasure out of scoring and when he has it going like he has of late, it's like a drug. But he also doesn't rush or force things. He is just measured, patient and ... basically stalking his prey. Which is the rim. That's the world for it. He's predatorial, although that doesn't necessarily mean he is always flying towards the hoop like Dwyane Wade or Manu Ginobili ming. It often means he just finds open space and just stands there waiting to fire shots. But there is still somehow an aggressiveness to the way he does it. If that makes sense. There is too much ball movement these days for him to get 40 or anything like in any reasonable situation. Especially against a team like the Thunder. But after his past few games, I fully expect another 27 points on 16-shot night.
What are you looking forward to on the court?
Sherman: I certainly look at tonight's game as a game where the Thunder must play well to win. Their talent will carry them for stretches, but their concentration will determine how they hold up in your town tonight.
The Thunder have done quite well this season in guarding classic back-to-the-basket kinds of guys like Andrew Bynum, Al Jefferson, and as of late LaMarcus Aldridge. Kendrick Perkins is a pretty stout defender under those circumstances where he doesn't have to worry about a big guy playing open space, a la Marc Gasol, so I'm very interested to see how he holds up against the taller and longer Hibbert. What are Hibbert's power moves (other than being a laugh machine on "Parks & Recreation)? Is he a solid passer out of the post? Lastly, why does a guy that big and long average less than 9 rebounds per?
When you consider guarding Westbrook, it is more helpful to think about the team approach rather than the individual approach. If he gets the sense that he's going to be played one-on-one all game, he's going to start attacking and not stop until the game is over. However, if the Pacers take the approach that the Grizzlies did earlier this week and guide him into zones in the half-court where he is less comfortable, they will cause him to take a lot of sub-optimal shots that can screw up the Thunder offense. You don't want Westbrook taking jumpers at the top of the key, but if you can shift him to the left or right, he becomes more susceptible to his own inaccuracies. Also, often the best defense against Westbrook is a good offense. If the Pacers decide to allow Collison to attack him on offense, Indiana can uncover a lot of Westbrook's defensive deficiencies. He's a gambler, so while he can disrupt an entire offense by himself, just as often he pulls himself out of position.
As for that other tall and lanky guy, this is your basic rule of thumb. If the Pacers can play Durant physically, pushing and pulling him in the half-court set, you have a chance to slow him down. However, if they just trust that a guy like Granger can stay in front of him and use his length to contest Durant's offense, you're going to be in trouble.
Oh, and feed the ball to West. He has a thing for playing against OKC, especially because he can pull the Thunder bigs out high on the court and keep them from their strengths of guarding the rim.
What do you think the Pacers' strengths are heading into the playoffs? You guys have a really good chance to advance to the 2nd round, especialy if you draw a team like Orlando, who is a complete mess right now.
Donahue: Overall, the Pacers' biggest strength really is balance. They can threaten the post with both Roy Hibbert and David West. They can score from the perimeter with Danny Granger, Paul George, George Hill, and Leandro Barbosa. They can be physical with David West, Tyler Hansbrough, and Lou Amundson. They can change ends rapidly with Darren Collison, Hill, George, and Barbosa.
Defensively, their biggest strength is their length. They aren't "big" in the classic huge frontline sense. Hibbert is clearly big, but with him off the floor, the Pacers will play two of West, Hansbrough, and Amundson at the bigs, all relatively short pairings. However, Danny Granger and Paul George are both really long for their positions. George is a legit 6-10, with unbelievably long arms.
They work best as a unit. Each has specific responsibilities and assignments, but the defense is best when all of the players are within supporting distance of each other. Best example is watching how Paul George guarded Derrick Rose in the playoffs last year. Rose was George's responsibility, but he didn't try to blanket. He understood his advantages and disadvantages, and basically shadowed him, using his length to make up for his quickness deficit. However, he also got help from his teammates, who basically would disrupt paths and "herd" Rose. Another great example of the team playing good defense clustered around Paul George focusing on a player is what happened in the Pacers win over LA this year. (link).
However, every strength is a weakness, and the balance is just a weapon, it's a necessity. Indiana needs the majority of their top 7-8 players to play well every night, if they want to compete against or defeat playoff quality teams. Matchups mean a lot, too. Indy probably has a matchup advantage against Philly, mostly because of size and a better starting lineup. On the other hand, they have struggled mightily against Orlando and Atlanta, losing 5 of the 7 games against those teams.
Boston is a question mark. Indy played them twice early and dominated, then lost the third game in Boston easily. But the last of those games was played in late January, and these are different teams now. Saturday's contest in the Fieldhouse will tell a lot about how those two squads match up.
So, down to it - Pacers hosting the Thunder. My sense is that Oklahoma City will be able to stretch out the Pacer defense, and the #1 offense in the league will win the day for the visiting Sounds-of-Angels-Bowling. Best guess for a template for how this game plays out is last Saturday's Spurs win over the Pacers in San Antonio. Oklahoma City will come out focused after their loss on Wednesday, play sharp, and get an early lead. Pacers will shake it off some, play better in the second half, but still trail for most of the game by a margin that makes the Thunder neither nervous, nor entirely comfortable.
Sherman: I get the same sense that tonight's game is going to be close, but would not be surprised at all if the Pacers go into the half with a lead. OKC has a tendency to start slow, especially in the first quarter. If your swing guys can get out and look for the corner 3-ball early, they could jump on the Thunder. In the second, you're going to get the full dose of the Thunder bench and future sixth man of the year James Harden. This stretch is typically where OKC makes up lost ground from slow starts. If the Pacers can hold off the surge though, they can be in good shape.
My expectation though is that the game is going to come down to the 3rd quarter. OKC outscored the Bulls 31-12 in the 3rd quarter, blowing the game open. OKC is really good at making halftime adjustments and playing dominant defense to earn some breathing room, and they'll look to do the same against Indiana. If the Pacers can score in the high 20's in this quarter, they have a legitimate shot to win. However, if the Thunder put the clamps on during this stretch, the Thunder stand a good chance to get back in the win column.
Tim, can you close us out with any great short stories involving your interaction with the Pacers team?
Donahue: This is my first year with credentials for the Pacers, and it's been a learning experience - certainly not one for which my background in accounting and operational management prepared me. However, the Pacers organization and locker room is a good one someone over that hurdle. David Benner and Krissy Myers are endlessly helpful, and Frank Vogel and the Pacer players are very accessible.
My favorite, however, is David West. West is what I call a "practitioner" of basketball. He doesn't just play it, but he approaches it seriously and understands it. As a result, interviews with him are more like 2-4 minute conversations. He respects the questioner, and there's a real give-and-take. He will help you get what you need. His eyes absolutely light up, when you talk to him about something he likes about his teammates. He's a genuinely thoughtful guy. West was invaluable in a piece I wrote about Jeff Foster.
But, I can't help but wonder if he doesn't think I'm a little off. Every time I've had one of these conversations with him, by the end of it, I can feel this ridiculous smile plastered across my face. The only reason I have for it is that my inner 13-year old is jumping up and down in my head, saying, "Dude! This is so flippin' cool!" However, David West isn't aware of my inner 13-year old, so I can only hope that he doesn't mistake the smile as "maniacal."
Many thanks to Tim and Jared for taking the time to banter with us about the Pacers & Thunder. We hope you enjoyed the exchange, and with the playoffs on the horizon, perhaps there will be more opportunity for further discussion.