January 19, 2018

By Jesse Blanchard

It took two different location changes, moving on from the Orlando Magic and Oklahoma City Thunder, and a return to his second home in Indiana for Pacers guard Victor Oladipo to finally find his voice in the league.

And it’s a smooth one.

Muted in Oklahoma City and drowned out by disharmony in Orlando, Oladipo is putting together a solid body of work this season, averaging 23.6 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game. On Sunday, he put together a signature performance with 47 points, seven rebounds and six assists in Sunday’s win over the Denver Nuggets.

And though his first R&B single was a remake of an old Donny Hathaway song, on the court Oladipo is striving to be more than a remix of Russell Westbrook and, more importantly, a different sort of artist than Paul George, who Oladipo was traded for.

Comparing Victor Oladipo and Paul George is akin to comparing apples to oranges—two things so different as to make any comparison invalid. Still, people compare apples and oranges all the time in order to decide which one they’d prefer on any particular day.

In this case, Oladipo isn’t a better player than Paul George in a vacuum, but he is precisely what the Indiana Pacers have been craving for some time.

Since jettisoning Roy Hibbert and David West, the defensive identity of the Pacers’ Eastern Conference Finals core, Indiana has worked unsuccessfully to remake itself into a sleek, modern NBA team.

Former Pacers President Larry Bird sent George Hill out and bought Jeff Teague in, hoping a downhill point guard might unlock a new style for his team. Paul George was supposed to move up to the power forward position, creating mismatches across the court and turbocharging the pace.

Instead, George pushed back against the idea and last year’s Pacers lingered near the middle of the league in pace (98.15, 18th, per NBA.com) and most other statistics, including a mediocre 42-40 record.

Paul George’s Pacers were, to put it kindly, bland.

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Which isn’t necessarily on George, given the roster built around him. The Pacers’ identity isn’t the absence of their former superstar but the presence of Oladipo—who isn’t the better player, but for now, is the superior catalyst.

The Pacers move a little quicker, improving to 12th in the NBA in pace (100.01) with a slightly faster tilt when Oladipo is in control.

There’s quite a difference between George’s length, skill and leaping ability and Oladipo’s ability to quickly shift gears, accelerating past a defender before he even knows to be back on his heels.

That downhill speed applied aggressively is a new look for the Pacers, pressuring defenses in ways they simply couldn’t before.

And Oladipo isn’t all smooth runs, either—packaging that burst with violent stops and changes of direction to create space for an improved jumper (43.9 percent from three), as he did to lead the Pacers over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday to end their 13-game win streak.

Oladipo isn’t a game redefining superstar in the way Russell Westbrook or Paul George can be. But he has, in his short time in Indiana, defined the Pacers in a way that speaks volumes.

The Master Schools the Apprentice, Round 2

LeBron James, Ben Simmons

By Bryan Toporek

After the Indiana Pacers snapped their 13-game win streak on Friday night, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers were champing at the bit for a chance to wash that bad taste out of their mouths. A game against the Joel Embiid-less Philadelphia 76ers provided them such an opportunity the next night.

With Embiid sitting out due to a scheduled rest night, the game quickly became a showdown between the master (James) and his apprentice (Ben Simmons). The two are friendly off the court, but for the second straight matchup, James appeared intent on destroying any comparison between himself and Simmons.

Heading into their first head-to-head meeting in late November, James told reporters in reference to comparisons between he and Simmons, “That’s for you guys [in the media]. You guys do that comparison stuff. I think Ben is his own makeup of speed, power, quickness, competitive basketball and being able have a feel for the game. You know, Ben is Ben. And I am who I am.” While Simmons got the best of James a few times in that late-November contest, James dropped 30 points, 13 rebounds and six assists in a 113-91 thrashing of the Sixers.

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Fast-forward two weeks, and it was more of the same from James and the Cavaliers. The tireless 32-year-old notched the 58th regular-season triple-double of his illustrious career, torching the Sixers for 30 points, 13 rebounds and 13 assists. It was his least efficient outing of the season to date (9-of-23 shooting), yet he still bested Simmons (14 points, 10 assists, six rebounds) in the duel of point forwards. James was locked in defensively, too, racking up three steals, nine contested shots, four deflections and one drawn charge, per NBA.com.

The Sixers opened a five-point lead with under five minutes remaining, but James took over from there. He scored or assisted on each of the Cavaliers’ final 22 points, drawing and-1s and dropping dimes to Kyle Korverand Dwyane Wade. With Cleveland clinging to a three-point lead, James iced the game by throwing a dazzling cross-court helper to Jae Crowder, who drilled the game-clinching three-pointer with only 41 seconds left. After the Sixers’ best wing defender, Robert Covington, suffered a lower-back injury late in the fourth quarter, the Sixers were powerless to stop King James and his subjects.

James Harden is deservedly the MVP front-runner through the first quarter of the season, but this version of James may be the best we’ve ever seen. While James reportedly told Simmons that he has a chance to be better than the four-time MVP one day, according to Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated, the chasm between the two players was on full display Saturday.

The Chicago Bulls Have More Than We Thought

Bulls

By Kelly Scaletta

After the Chicago Bulls traded Jimmy Butler and the No. 16 pick for Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, the reaction was quick and furious. The prevailing wisdom is they got ripped off, taken to the cleaners, scammed even.

Dunn was a draft bust. Markkanen was a reach and a one-trick pony. LaVine was responsible for all the Timberwolves’ defensive woes.

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It might be time to re-evaluate those assessments, though. Markkanen is the Bulls’ leading scorer, averaging 14.7 points per game.  His shot looks to be every bit as pure as advertised, though he’s only shooting 33.5 percent from deep, you can see the potential for more.

What’s more impressive (and surprising) is the rookie is also leading the team in rebounding at 8.1 per contest. And the Bulls’ defensive rating is 4.7 points better with him on the court, per NBA.com. Over a quarter of his shots are unassisted as well. He’s 51-of-86 inside the restricted area.

In short, he’s not only looking like one of this season’s best rookies, he’s looking like he’s a lot more than a one-trick pony.

Kris Dunn missed the first part of the season due to injury, but he’s been coming along strong lately. Over his last seven games, Dunn is averaging 17.0 points (50 percent shooting, 52.9 percent from deep) 7.6 assists and 5.3 rebounds.

The Bulls’ net rating on the season is minus-11.4, but it’s 8.4 points better when the young duo is on the court. They’re a big part of the reason the Bulls just reeled off their first “winning streak” of the season combining for 76 points, 33 rebounds, 21 assists, six steals and two blocks between the two of them in the two contests.

Suddenly that’s not looking like as bad of a trade as it did this summer, especially when you factor in that the best player has yet to play.

LaVine is working his way back from his torn left ACL and will be reacclimate himself to playing in the G-League. Significantly, the defensive issues which haunted the Timberwolves in LaVine’s presence have continued in his absence, casting potential doubt on how much “blame” he bears for that.

While Zach still needs to establish that he can be the no. 1 option on a team, if he exceeds expectations in his return the way that the other two pieces have, we might have to start reconsidering who really won the trade.

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