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NBA Limbo

The United States wrapped up their anti-climatic run through FIBA World Cup with another resounding victory over an overmatched Serbia squad. While this tournament emphatically demonstrated that teams around the world aren’t ready to compete against Team USA’s collection of stars, a few unheralded individuals on the outskirts of the NBA radar showed they are. That collection of players can pretty much be broken down into three groups: the ones who have been there and done that (Rudy Fernandez, Juan Carlos Navarro, etc), younger players with NBA ties (former first round pick, Petteri Koponen, 2013 second rick pick Joffrey Lauvergne and Joe Ingles) and finally those stuck in NBA limbo.

Limbo is the best way to describe the area where players whose skill and production have them vacillating back and forth between starring on the top teams in Europe or filling out the bottom half of NBA rosters. In this Basketball World Cup, Milos Teodosic, Emir Preldzic, Ante Tomic showed us (or reminded us) that they can contribute to NBA teams. For those three, it’s not so much a question of talent as it is a combination of fit, age, money and comfort, similar to the situation faced by some American players.

Three of those players -- Teodosic, Preldzic and Tomic -- are 27-years-old, a weird age when it comes to NBA prospects. No longer can stateside suitors view them through the lens of potential, as that age signals the beginning of a players prime. Teodosic, Preldzic and Tomic all can certainly get better and add things to their game, but for the most part they are fully-realized as basketball players.

At 7’2” with good mobility and a soft touch, Tomic, whose rights around held by the Utah Jazz, is ready to step in and boost an NBA offense. During this tournament with Croatia, Tomic reaffirmed that he can score in the post against other big men and cause problems for opposing defenses as a screener in the pick-and-roll. Were Tomic in the NBA, he would trail only Marc Gasol and Tiago Splitter when it comes to passing while rolling to the basket -- an extremely valuable skill given how good NBA defenses have gotten at preventing roll men from finishing at the basket.

Based off his strengths, it seems like a no-brainer for the Jazz (or another team who trades for his rights) to bring him over. However, Tomic isn’t a complete player. He would likely struggle with the more physically demanding NBA (both in terms of players and the schedule) and he’s not a great rim protector or rebounder despite his size and mobility. Factor in these warts and you get a player who likely tops out as a backup center for a team that will utilize his pick-and-roll strengths for short stretches. While NBA big men capable of making any type of positive impact can get rewarded with lucrative deals, Tomic’s age guarantees that his second contract -- when he could secure better money than he makes for his current club, Barcelona -- will likely come when he’s on the wrong side of 30. And that’s not even factoring that just to come over and test the NBA waters, Tomic would likely have to take a pay cut from the 3.4 million dollars he’s reportedly earning in Spain.

Money is also going to be the biggest obstacle for Teodosic as well, who is currently well-compensated by CSKA Moscow, an annual contender for the Euroleague crown.

At best, Teodosic’s combination of passing, shooting, pick-and-roll play and game management makes him an easy comparison to the Knicks new point guard, Jose Calderon. Calderon has long been an underrated offensive force but the Toronto Raptors spent his entire tenure there looking to replace him as a starter due to obvious defensive shortcomings. A similar fate could await Teodosic. Though perhaps an even better playmaker than Calderon, Teodosic’s allergy to defense may prevent teams from either ponying up the dough or giving him a role similar to the one he currently is enjoying overseas. If there’s not an intense desire to leave Eastern Europe for the challenge of the world’s best league, it’s extremely possible that Teodosic never suits up for an NBA team.

Where Tomic and Teodosic’s fit in the league is beyond a doubt, Preldzic doesn’t have the same clear cut role that awaits him. With the size to play either forward position (though maybe not the four full time), Preldzic is classic point forward, In four of Turkey’s six games, including their battle with the U.S., Preldzic had five assists. A 6’9” player that can handle, run pick-and-roll and pass like Preldzic is an extremely attractive player. But an NBA team won’t be crawling all over themselves to bring Preldzic over and hand him the reins to their offense, which he has for both Turkey and his club team, Fenerbahce.

Preldzic is talented and unique, but he’s not a star. And in the NBA, it’s the stars that will have the ball in their hands while everyone else adjust to life without out it. Wing players not named “James”, “Durant” or “Anthony” are primarily asked to do two things in today’s NBA: knock down 3’s and play defense. Neither of those two things double as a strongsuit for Preldzic. A forward-thinking NBA executive could try to carve out a situation where Preldzic handles the ball as reserve forward in a bench-heavy unit, but most front offices don’t cater to non-elite talents in such fashion.

America will long have a monopoly on basketball but will always look to import the best players from outside the U.S. and let them showcase their talents on basketball’s brightest stage. We like to think that the NBA will always contain the best of the best. But as Tomic, Teodosic and Preldzic used the FIBA World Cup to remind us, sometimes players with the ability to play in the world’s best league, won’t always get their shot.

Jonas Valanciunas As Franchise Player

Through the first six games of the World Cup, no player has been more valuable to his team than Jonas Valanciunas, Lithuania’s 22-year old center. After riding the bench in the 2012 Olympics and serving as a role player at Eurobasket last summer, Valanciunas has moved into a featured role in this year’s tournament. He is the backbone of Lithuania’s game-plan on both sides of the ball, averaging 13 points, 8 rebounds and 1 block a game on 77% (!) shooting.

Despite losing star PG Mantas Kalnietis to a collarbone injury before the start of the World Cup, Lithuania has played extremely well in Spain. They went 4-1 in group play, knocking off Slovenia and losing to Australia, and beat New Zealand 76-71 in the round of 16. If they can get past Turkey on Tuesday, they would face the US in the semifinals and they appear to be the only team on that side of the bracket with a chance to give the Americans a game.

That’s almost entirely due to the presence of Valanciunas, one of only two NBA players, along with Donatas Motiejunas of the Houston Rockets, on their team. He almost single-handedly carried them to victory over New Zealand - not only could the Tall Blacks not match up with him in the post, they could barely even box him out. Valanciunas towered over their undermanned frontline, finishing the game with 22 points and 13 rebounds on 8-11 shooting.

At 7’0 245 with a 7’4 wingspan, Valanciunas is one of the biggest players in the NBA and he appears to have gotten even bigger in the offseason. Like many big men in their early 20’s, he is still filling out his frame and growing into his body. While he’s not an elite athlete, Valanciunas moves well for a player his size, which allows him to be an effective player on both ends of the floor. He is the rare center who can impact the game on offense and defense.

The offensive side of the ball is where Valanciunas has shown the most improvement at the World Cup, where he is getting the chance to be a featured player. Instead of using him primarily in the pick-and-roll game, Lithuania is making a concerted effort to pound the ball into him in the post. He has the size and strength to establish deep post position, the length to score over the top of defenders and the touch to get the ball softly on the rim.

Valanciunas is still far from a finished product with his back to the basket, but he is steadily improving that aspect of his game, to the point where opposing teams almost have to double him. The result is that he opens up the floor for the rest of Lithuania’s players, almost all of whom can knock down the three-point shot. With Motiejunas spreading the floor from the power forward position, they are a tough match-up for just about any team in the tournament.

Even the Americans, who gave up 25 points and 8 rebounds to Mexico’s Gustavo Ayon in the round of 16, will have their hands full with Valanciunas. That is why Lithuania’s quarterfinal game with Turkey will be so intriguing, as they have one of the only big men in the World Cup (Omer Asik) with the size to bang with Valanciunas in the paint. Asik, one of the best post defenders in the NBA, will be a good test to see how far his individual offense has come.

What makes Valanciunas so interesting, though, is that he provides value on defense as well. Most guys with his ability to score in the paint can’t match his ability to protect the rim or vice versa. Asik is the perfect example - for as good as he is on defense, he’s a non-entity on offense. Valanciunas, on the other hand, can give the Lithuania 20+ points while also serving as the backbone of their defense. He makes everyone better on both sides of the ball.

Lithuania doesn’t have a ton of athleticism on the perimeter, but their guards can extend out on defense and jump passing lanes because they know have a mobile Goliath behind them. Valanciunas doesn’t have monstrous block numbers, but he doesn’t need too to have an impact on the game. Just by moving his feet, waving his arms and standing at the front of the rim, he makes life much harder for any offensive player who gets into the lane.

In essence, having Valanciunas on your team means you have will a good defense and a good offense, which automatically makes you a dangerous team, at any level of basketball. Few players can have a bigger impact on a game than a two-way center, which is why they have always been one of the most coveted players in the sport. Without Kalnietis, Lithuania doesn’t have much perimeter talent, but Valanciunas’ presence means they can punch above their weight.

You can count the number of centers in the NBA with more two-way ability than Valanciunas on one hand - Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol, Joakim Noah, Tim Duncan. The scary part is that he’s only scratched the surface of his potential. He’s still only 22 years old - he should be a senior in college. Not only does he still have room to improve as a post scorer and an interior defender, he’s shown flashes of a perimeter jumper and a passing game in Spain.

He hasn’t gotten much press because he’s been confined to a smaller role with the Toronto Raptors, with usage ratings of 16.9 and 18.5 in his first two seasons in the NBA. They won’t turn their offense over to him overnight like Lithuania has done, but you can expect that they will continue to gradually expand his role over the next few years. The Raptors will be counting on internal improvement and featuring Valanciunas is one easy way to do that.

The reason that big men tend to develop slower than guards is that they are pressed into service at a much earlier age. A perimeter player as raw as Valanciunas would not have broken into the NBA as a starter at the age of 20. However, because there are so few human beings in the world with his combination of size, skill and athleticism, he was forced to learn on the job. He didn’t go to high school or play AAU basketball - he was a pro at the age of 15. 

Valanciunas won’t reach his ceiling as a player until 2020, when he is in his late 20’s. Until then, he should steadily improve every season on both sides of the ball, much as he has done over the last three years, since he made his debut on the international stage. He is a franchise player in every sense of the word, both for his NBA and national team. As long as they have Valanciunas, both Lithuania and the Toronto Raptors will be teams to reckon with.

Cleveland's Blind Spot: Contenders Without A Top-10 Defense

The Cleveland Cavaliers will have no trouble scoring at an efficient rate with offensive talents like LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving sharing the floor. The real question is how good will the Cavaliers be on defense, particularly their interior defense?

Anderson Varejao is currently slated to start at the five and will be asked to provide a much-needed interior presence. He provides the Cavaliers with the high-energy type of player that they desperately need. The havoc he initiates on the defensive end will be a menace for opposing offenses down in block. Besides being a notorious flopper, Varejao has a knack for grabbing rebounds. Last year, he was the ninth best per 48-minute rebounder.

Varajao has had trouble staying on the floor, having only played in 146 out of a possible 328 games over the past three seasons. Varejao is entering his 11th season and closing in on 32, which makes it unrealistic to expect him to play more than 60 games.

Tristan Thompson will be coming off the bench for either Love or Varajao as a backup big, and looked upon to provide a tough interior presence. The knock on Thompson has been his inability to consistently play as a key contributor in the paint. Through Thompson’s three seasons in the league, his block rate has fallen from 3.3 to 2.2 to 1.1. It will be interesting if his initial success as a rookie in this area can be found again as he can expound more energy and agressiveness on that side of the floor.

David Blatt appointed Brendan Haywood as the team’s rim protector. For a big man entering the age of 34 and his foot injury that sidelined him all of last year, Haywood providing any sort of rim protection on a consistent basis would be absolutely absurd.

Even when James was playing in Miami, he did not win his first ring until they upgraded their rim protector from Joel Anthony to Chris Andersen. Just this past season, the Heat recorded their best defensive efficiency of 100.6 with Andersen on the court, and their third worse efficiency of 104.3 with Birdman on the bench per NBA.com. 

One of the main reasons Love was never able to reach the playoffs in the Western Conference was because he wasn't paired with a shotblocker. Similar to 2011 when Nowitzki had Tyson Chandler as his counterpart, it is impossible to play championship caliber defense without a rim protector. Last season, the Timberwolves ranked 29th in points allowed in the paint—2nd worse in NBA—at 46.1.

Over the past decade, only three teams to reach The Finals finished outside the top-ten of defensive efficiency. The 2006 Heat and Mavericks posted defensive efficiency rankings of 17 and 12 respectively. Last year, the Heat were only the third Finals participant to not finish in the top-ten, with a 102.9 defensive efficiency rating and 11th ranking. 

Assembling a championship caliber roster and reaching The Finals in the first year is a daunting task. The Cavaliers certainly have the pieces and talent to win at least 12 games in the playoffs, but the expectations to win without the proper personnel of a quality shotblocker is a challenge without a precedent.

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