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Internal Improvement Candidates: Central Division

Our series on candidates for internal improvement on every team in the NBA continues with the Central Division, where most of the action in the Eastern Conference is. After four seasons of wandering in the desert, Cleveland is celebrating the return of their prodigal son, a move which instantly changed the trajectory of the Cavs franchise and the balance of power in the league. So what teams are positioned to be their rivals over the next few seasons?

The last time LeBron James was in Cleveland, the Chicago Bulls were one of the up and coming young teams in the NBA, losing to the Cavs in the first round of the playoffs. A lot has happened in the meantime, but the Bulls have managed to bring along a number of young players and they have a few promising rookies coming down the pipeline. If Derrick Rose can stay healthy and return to form, that could quickly become one of the best rivalries in the NBA.

The Indiana Pacers emerged as LeBron’s chief rival when he was in Miami, but they have been decimated by injuries and free agent defections in the off-season. Like Chicago the last few years, they are trying to overcome a devastating injury to their franchise player while using that time to develop a few young players and position themselves to get back into the fray. It could turn out for the best, as the Pacers might benefit from adding a lottery pick to their core.

Down the road, both the Detroit Pistons and the Milwaukee Bucks have the young talent to conceivable challenge Cleveland. While both are still in the beginning of a rebuilding process, they already have the most important parts behind them - acquiring potential franchise players. The Central Division is interesting now, but it could conceivably become much more interesting in the next few years ... or the Cavs could just steamroll everyone. That’s possible too.

- Cleveland Cavaliers: Dion Waiters:

After receiving a max contract in the offseason, Kyrie Irving is the young player who has gotten most of the pub on the Cavs new super-team. Waiters, meanwhile, is best known for some of the more reckless things he has said to the media. However, if he can continue to improve and live up to being a No. 4 overall pick, Cleveland can be really scary. For all the legitimately goofy stuff he does on and off the court, he is a very good young player.

At 6’4 220 with a 6’7 wingspan, Waiters is a dynamic scorer who can shoot, handle, pass and swing between either guard position. While he will have to play more without the ball in his hands this season, he is going to get a lot of open looks and he is more than capable of capitalizing on them. If he makes the easy play, moves the ball and competes on the defensive end, he could be one of the best fourth options in the NBA and start living up to his boasts.

- Chicago Bulls: Tony Snell:

After being thrust into the Chicago rotation by necessity as a rookie, Snell will have to compete for minutes on a much deeper team. He has all the tools to be a successful wing player in Tom Thibodeau’s system - at 6’7 200, he has the length and athleticism to swing between multiple positions on the perimeter and he has shown the ability to knock down 3’s. While he was only at 32% last season, he was a career 38% three-point shooter at New Mexico.

In order to get on the floor, he will need to internalize Thibodeau’s defensive principles while also becoming a more complete offensive player. He shot 38% from the floor last season, numbers only Kirk Hinrich is allowed to put up in Chicago. In a best-case scenario, Snell makes a leap similar to the one Jimmy Butler made in his second season. If not, with Doug McDermott breathing down his neck for minutes, he may not be long for the Bulls.

- Indiana Pacers: Solomon Hill

Hill didn’t really get a chance to show what he could as a rookie, when he was behind Paul George, Lance Stephenson and Evan Turner in Indiana’s rotation. With all three gone this season, the Pacers will give Hill every chance to eat up minutes and establish himself as a legitimate NBA player. They made their bones as a franchise that drafts and develops, so they have to hope that Hill learned something going up against those guys in practice.

Coming out of college, Hill had a rep as a guy who was a jack of all trades but a master of none. At 6’7 225, he doesn’t have elite athleticism and he was never an explosive scorer at Arizona. He was a very smart four-year player who could do a little bit of everything - shoot, score, pass, rebound and defend. While he probably can’t handle a huge offensive burden, he could become an effective NBA player by just filling in the cracks and playing within himself.

- Detroit Pistons: Andre Drummond

There was only one real reason for Stan Van Gundy to take the Pistons job - the 21-year-old freak of nature on their roster still young enough to be molded into anything. Despite all the dysfunction around him last season, Drummond put up some fairly eye-popping numbers - 13 points, 13 rebounds and 1.5 steals on 63% shooting. Not only is he one of the biggest human beings in the league, he is incredibly athletic for a guy with his monstrous size.

If you close your eyes and project a few years forward, you can see Van Gundy using Drummond in many of the same ways he used Dwight Howard in Orlando. To be sure, he still has a ton of work to do on both ends of the floor and his free-throw shooting is going to have to improve. Nevertheless, for as raw a player as Drummond still is, he still managed to put up a 22.6 PER last season. Spread the floor around him and anything is possible.

- Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Giannis was one of the best stories in the league last season, but all the positive press has obscured what a raw player he still. For all the flashes of greatness he showed as a rookie, he wasn’t all that effective in his time on the floor, with per-36 minute averages of 10 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists on 41% shooting. Translation to potential to production is not easy in the NBA, especially for a 20-year-old on a bad team without many veterans to lean on.

For Giannis, this season is all about filling out his body and becoming strong enough to deal with the physicality of the league. If he can handle that, his length, skill and athleticism should take him a long away. Jason Kidd has made noises about using him as a point forward, which might not be a bad experiment for a Bucks team going nowhere. He can conceivably improve every facet of his game, which is exciting but also tells you how far he has to go.

Why Anthony Davis Will Be The NBA's Golden Ticket

After a few years of adjustments and development, we are finally seeing the world created by the newest NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement. The combination of shorter contracts and rare non-rookie extensions have pushed the league closer to a year-round spectacle than ever before with early July taking a much greater place in the overall future of the NBA.

Underneath all those other machinations, we have also seen another major development that hopefully changes in the near term: the league has very few elite players on rookie contracts. While talents like Kyrie Irving (also soon to be off his rookie deal with his extension kicking in beginning in 15-16) and Andre Drummond possess the ability to make the leap into superstardom, we will have to wait to see it on the court.

We have already seen the best player in the world change teams twice as an unrestricted free agent and All-Stars like Dwight Howard use the opportunity presented by their first shot at true NBA freedom to change addresses. In the next few years, young stars including Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook will have similar opportunities for the first time in their careers.

Miami’s “Big Three” and the events of the past few seasons have taught the league to understand and prepare for the unpredictability this can present. The Rockets, Lakers and others rejected near-term improvements this summer to preserve their long-term flexibility with a clear justification for doing so.

The past few wild Julys have been fun but are only the appetizers for the true main courses in 2016 and 2017. While the pool of teams gunning for the best players has deepened with shorter contracts and a few more salary-conscious owners, the NBA’s massive new television deal will open up the competition even if the league chooses to use “smoothing” to ease into the higher cap figures. Even with smoothing we should see teams have more flexibility on the aggregate than any time recently with lots of high-end players who can choose to move and existing contracts that become easier to trade for the same reasons.

Amidst all the chaos, only one team has the true golden ticket: a young elite player that they can say with certainty will be there throughout this tumultuous time.

That team is the New Orleans Pelicans because they have Anthony Davis.

After a season where his team missed the playoffs and he barely made the All-Star team, it feels like Davis’ amazing accomplishments flew somewhat under the radar. In terms of Win Shares / 48 and PER, Anthony Davis has had the best age 19 season AND the best age 20 season in the history of the NBA. Despite missing fifteen games in 2013-14, Davis put up the 13th most Win Shares of any season for a player age 21 or younger ever, with only LeBron James and Magic Johnson posting a better total in their age 20 year (both with at least ten more games played).

This insanely high quality of play for someone so young gets even more ridiculous with the fact that Anthony Davis will be paid almost half as much in the next two seasons combined as Kevin Durant and LeBron will each make per season and New Orleans can match any offer at the lower maximum salary for the least experienced players in 2016 if they are silly enough to wait that long.

While some may see this as a future selling point, I think New Orleans should start incorporating into their team vision and pitches as soon as possible.  LeBron and Dwight Howard have shown players around the league that they simply cannot rely on the assumption that the best players in the league will choose to stick around when they hit unrestricted free agency. This reality combined with shorter contracts leave very few sure things around the league unless players are in the same class and coordinate.

Even though last summer’s big additions Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans will still be under contract, I look at 2016 as the first major opportunity for the Pelicans to grab a big fish. The free agent class looks strong right now and since major power forward talents like Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge will almost certainly already be on new contracts, it takes some potential options for team-ups off the table.

While Durant will presumably stand as the most desirable teammate out there two years from now, the Thunder would still have Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka on major contracts so the Oklahoma City brass could be ecstatic that the cap increases would allow them to keep their core, but not augment it beyond locking up players like Reggie Jackson that are already on roster.

If that scenario occurs, New Orleans gets to woo elite players with the opportunity to play with a star just getting into his prime in a city that works as an asset for NBA players. They will be competing with the major markets until the Knicks and Lakers exhaust their flexibility but having a golden ticket makes the Pelicans an under the radar team to watch for Stephen Curry in 2017 as well, particularly since that season marks the expiration of Holiday and Evans' lucrative contracts and an amazing chance at bring a third star to the Big Easy.

We can be sure that other players still on their rookie deals will break out over the next few seasons but New Orleans should make sure to maximize their temporarily unique opportunity.

Raptors Look To Build Upon Top-10 Efficiency On Both Sides Of Floor

After trading away Rudy Gay early in the 2013-14 season, the Toronto Raptors won 42 out of their final 64 games, which was better than any other team in the Eastern Conference, including the two-time defending champion Miami Heat. The Toronto crowd was thrilled to see their team reach the playoffs for the first time in six years. Qualifying for the playoffs was a great achievement considering that many onlookers suspected that the front office was trying to “bottom out” by trading their top scorer. However, by retaining nearly the entire roster, the Raptors’ front office has signaled that they believe this team is capable of advancing further.

Above-average play on both sides of the ball is the story of the Raptors successful season. Starting from the date when Gay was shipped off, the Raptors posted the 9th best offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) and the 8th best defensive rating (pointes allowed per 100 possessions) in the league. The Raptors were one of only four teams to rank in the top ten in both categories over that time span (the others were the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers, three clubs universally considered title contenders).

The Raptors manufactured points in two key areas, from behind the three-point line and from the free throw line.

Kyle Lowry averaged the most assists of his career by relentlessly attacking the defense to find openings for three-point shots for himself and for his teammates. He shot three-pointers more accurately than ever before despite shooting them at a higher volume than in previous seasons. Lowry’s ability to use ball screens to both drive and create space for three-point attempts caused defenses to commit a lot of attention to stopping him. He countered by finding Terrence Ross, Greivis Vasquez, and Patrick Patterson for quality looks from the outside.

The aforementioned shooters also benefitted from the pressure that DeMar DeRozan’s drives put on defenses. His north-south style of penetrating allowed him to consistently get to the foul line and attempt the seventh most free throws per game of any player in the league. When matched against smaller and quicker defenders, DeRozan flashed an effective post up game through which he was able to accumulate many of his free throw attempts.

As much as the Raptors liked to shoot three-pointers on offense, they hoped to take it away from their opponent on the other side. They were able to do that by picking up on Duane Casey’s emphasis on transition defense. Because a lot of teams like to hoist three-pointers in transition, the Raptors collective willingness to sprint back resulted in fewer quality three-point shots for the opposition. This relationship is evidenced by the Raptors ranking 3rd in three-point attempts allowed per 100 possessions and 4th in fast break points allowed per 100 possessions. 

Unselfish play and strong shooting on offense combined with hard work on defense allowed the Raptors to grab the 3-seed in a weak Eastern conference. They were ultimately ousted at the hands of the Brooklyn Nets in a competitive, seven-game first-round series because of one main problem on each side of the ball.

The Nets placed all of their defensive attention on preventing Lowry and DeRozan from penetrating by trapping and switching ball-screens, which encouraged them to give up the ball early in possessions. The Raptors had great success when they got the ball inside after the Nets big men had moved out to the perimeter to contain the ball handler. Amir Johnson shot 65% and Jonas Valanciunas shot 63% from the field, but the starting frontcourt duo only shot the ball a combined 14 times per game compared to the 32 field goal attempts per game for Lowry and DeRozan. The discrepancy in field goal attempts reveals how both guards focused too heavily on creating for themselves rather than “taking what the defense gave them” and trusting their teammates. Too frequently, the Raptors’ lead scorers drove into crowded lanes and turned the ball over and hoisted wild shot attempts. They will have to be more willing to feed the ball inside when Valanciunas and Johnson are rolling to the basket or have a mismatch in the post. 

The Raptors’ defense struggled mightily with two particular matchups. Neither DeRozan nor Ross were able to prevent Joe Johnson from scoring easily inside. The only Raptors who stood a chance at stymying Johnson were reserve wings Landry Fields and John Salmons, both of whom have severe limitations on offense. Johnson’s powerful penetration forced the Raptors to help from other positions more than Casey would have liked, and the result was easier shot attempts all over the floor. The other player who gave the Raptors fits was Paul Pierce, who proved to be too quick on the perimeter for Amir Johnson. When Pierce had enough space, he drilled perimeter jump shots and when Johnson played him tighter, Pierce put the ball on the floor and drove right by him.

The Raptors addressed the defensive problem by signing James Johnson using part of their mid-level exception. Johnson is exactly the sort of defender the Raptors could have used against the Nets. He possesses the length, athleticism, and physicality to provide a credible attempt at guarding the league’s premier wing scorers. Johnson is not a shooter but his passing, cutting, and (albeit limited) inside scoring skills should be enough to garner him a spot in the Raptors rotation.

Adding James Johnson does not address the offensive issues that the Raptors experienced in the playoffs, thus, those issues must be corrected via internal improvement. DeRozan, in particular, needs to exercise a better balance between looking for his own scoring and using his driving ability to create easy inside opportunities for his frontcourt teammates. Valanciunas can help by continuing to improve his finishing and by limiting his turnovers when he gets the ball inside.

Furthermore, Ross, who had a solid regular season shooting from the corners but an abysmal postseason, could free up space in the Raptors offense by becoming a more consistent three-point shooter. He could also emerge as a weapon on the fast break, which would bolster a Toronto offense that barely scored in transition last season.

Retaining the core of a 48-win team and solidifying the bench were the themes of Toronto’s offseason. A committed defense, offensive familiarity, and strong depth have the Raptors set up for another successful regular season. As long as Kyle Lowry’s payday does not have an effect on his tenacious play from last season, the Raptors should again reclaim a top-4 seed in the East. Whether they are able to advance out of the first round of the playoffs depends largely on DeRozan’s improvement as a playmaker and Valanciunas receiving and converting more inside scoring opportunities. Without improvements from those two essential players, the Raptors will not be able to separate themselves enough to make a deep run in the postseason.

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Once Eric Bledsoe gets more NBA games under his belt, thereís really no ceiling to how good he can be - imagine Chris Paulís brain in Derrick Roseís body. He's also already one of the best two-way players in the NBA.

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