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Coach's Corner: Celtics' Open Offensive System, LeBron's Lab, Malik Rose

Beware of Boston

The Boston Celtics' roster is a strange collection of flawed vets, solid but unspectacular young players and Rajon Rondo. On paper, it makes the team seem destined for mid-lottery obscurity. But the preseason has offered glimpses that this Boston team has the potential to be more competitive than originally expected.

Brad Stevens has crafted an open offensive system that has maximized the skill sets of this eclectic group of players. The young starting frontcourt of Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger -- two inside-outside threats that can both draw opposing frontcourt players out of the paint and take advantage of weaker defenders on the block -- are vital components. Having two bigs on the floor at the same time with the ability to knock down shots from beyond the arc is a rarity in a league where some teams don’t even have a single one in their projected rotation (looking at you, Lakers). It allows Stevens and the Celtics to maximize their spacing; and space is the most valuable commodity in basketball.

Sullinger’s improvement as a shooter -- the young big man has shot 14-of-26 from 3 this preseason after a woeful 26.9 percent last year -- is what should really drive the optimism in Boston. Without an effective 3-point shot, Sullinger seemed like a young player without an impact skill. If this preseason form holds up, the ability to operate from beyond the arc will make Sullinger a valuable commodity when it comes to team offense. No longer will he be just a wide body limited to occasionally bullying smaller defenders in the post.

His improvement mirrors the general emphasis on the shot for the Celtics under Stevens. Boston has been particularly aggressive about hunting shots from deep early in transition. Anyone from Olynyk to rookie Marcus Smart has been given the green light to launch open 3’s if they can find a good look before the defense is set. Given that Sullinger, Olynyk and Avery Bradley, three of Boston’s five projected starters, have combined to shoot 53.2 percent on 77 attempts from behind the arc thus far, this seems like a wise decision.

Now that doesn’t mean the Celtics are blindly rushing up the court shooting 3’s. Thanks in part to Evan Turner’s new role as a playmaking point guard in the absence Rondo, the team’s halfcourt ball movement has been almost Spurs-ian at times -- pinging across the interior and around the perimeter until it finds an open shooter. Turner’s numbers aren’t very impressive, and it’s hard to tell if he’s changed much from the player he was in previous stops, but Boston needs someone willing to take advantage of their newfound space with dribble penetration. Until Smart gets a better feel for the NBA game, Turner is best suited for that role.

An interesting development to keep an eye on, however, will be how Boston handles the acquisition of Will Bynum. As of now, it seems as though Bynum -- acquired this past week from the Pistons in exchange for Joel Anthony despite missing most of the preseason with a hamstring injury -- is set to be waived due to roster restrictions. But two seasons ago in Detroit, Bynum played in a lineup that had a similar offensive set up as Boston’s does now and enjoyed a career year, along with posting a very respectable PER of 16.62. If Boston was truly trying to be the best team they can be (and not utilize roster spots in order to develop young, fringe players like Phil Pressey), Danny Ainge should be working hard to find a place for Bynum on this roster. If Ainge does keep the veteran guard around to claim a place in the team’s smart offensive system, it will add even more intrigue to Boston’s season.

LeBron’s Laboratory

Perhaps the most enjoyable thing about NBA preseason basketball is that it’s a time for experimentation for several of the league’s stars. They’ll try some crazy shots, a new move or maybe learn to operate from a different spot on the floor. There’s no downside in doing this, because even epic failures don’t matter much given preseason games are pretty much meaningless in the grand scheme of things -- especially when you’re coming off four straight Finals like James.

Because James is very much a bored basketball savant at this time of year (and sometimes during the regular season), he seems to entertain himself by attempting random, high-degree-of-difficulty shots just to see if he can pull them off. Take this one from the Indiana game Wednesday night.

It didn’t make any highlight reels of note, but it was probably one of the most insane shots of a game where he attempted a Dirk fadeaway, a 10-foot running left handed floater, a skyhook and a crazy spin finish layup where he switched the ball from his left to right hand in midair (that last one did make highlight reels). At first glance, it may not seem too much out of the ordinary, but let’s break down what happens in this sequence to get the full effect:

As James drives into the paint, he executes a pullover; ripping the ball way over the head of 6’5” Rodney Stuckey as the Pacer wing swipes at the ball from his help position

- James bounds into the lane while manipulating the ball away from Stuckey, gets a slight bump from a second Indiana defender and still somehow completely stops his momentum by decelerating onto his right leg. This is not an easy thing to do.

- To top it off, LeBron then holds himself for a beat on his coiled right leg, then without his left foot ever touching the ground, pushes back into a fadeaway and drains the shot

There’s a good chance that referee Kipp Kissinger didn’t give him the continuation for an “And 1” because he simply had no idea what to make of what he was seeing.

More Fallout From the Sixers Shameless Tanking

Scrolling through games on NBA League Pass is a total crapshoot when it comes to announcers. The spread ranges from total homers, former greats that don’t make much of an effort to be prepared and the occasional insightful duo. Unfortunately for basketball fans, one of the best in the business -- Philadelphia’s Malik Rose -- is stuck calling games for a team no one will want to watch.

Rose can relate to both the casual fan and hardcore hoops junkie with his spot-on analysis.  Whether it’s explaining how the bench can help with defensive communication or what should happen when a team rotates out of defending pick-and-rolls near the sideline, Rose is a rare commentator that actually makes the viewer feel like he or she has actually learned something while watching the broadcast. Rose simply has a knack for helping fans understand and appreciate the nuances of the game. It’s unfortunate that no one outside of loyal Sixer fans (or people with a serious case of basketball schadenfreude) will have much incentive to tune in and experience it.

Internal Improvement Candidates: Atlantic Division

Our series on candidates for internal improvement on each team in the NBA continues with the Atlantic Division, which features a lot of major media markets with huge fanbases who have had to sit through some pretty substandard play in recent years. In the last two years, the front offices in Toronto, New York and Philadelphia have turned over while Boston began a major rebuilding effort, so the level of basketball should improve ... eventually.

If there’s any hope for this division in the near future, it comes from the Raptors, the poster boys for the benefits of internal improvement. They went from 34 wins to 48 wins without making any major additions in the off-season. After dumping some underperforming veterans, they had a good young player at each position - Kyle Lowry, Terrence Ross, DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas - and they all got better at the same time.

The group was better than the sum of their parts, as they didn’t have a weak link on either side of the ball and their combination of skill, length and athleticism at every position gave their opponents fits. Lowry and Johnson pretty much are who they are, but the ages of DeRozan (24), Ross (23) and Valanciunas (22) means they should have more room to grow over the next few seasons. That’s how you get better if you can’t bring in any marquee free agents. 

The future is murkier for the other four teams in the division, who have taken radically different approaches to team-building in the last few seasons. The Knicks and the Nets have gone full YOLO with decidedly mixed results while the Celtics have accumulated assets in the hopes of flipping them into stars and the 76ers have taken the slash-and-burn philosophy to its logical conclusion. It may take a few more seasons for it all to sort out in the wash.

- Toronto Raptors: Terrence Ross

After spending most of his rookie season on the bench, Ross was inserted into the starting line-up after the Rudy Gay trade, where he became one of the catalysts for the Raptors' surprising turnaround. He didn’t have a huge role in the offense, but he played his role well - stretching the floor, moving the ball and playing solid defense. While he wasn’t asked to do too much, there were flashes of real talent. Not many fifth options can score 51 points in a game.

At 6’6, 200 with elite athleticism, shooting and ball-handling ability, Ross has all the tools to be a big-time shooting guard in the NBA. With Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan still dominating the ball on the perimeter, he may not get many more opportunities this season, but he should be in a better position to capitalize on them. If Ross can make a leap similar to the one Klay Thompson made in his third season in the league, Toronto has a chance to surprise people again.

- Brooklyn Nets: Mason Plumlee 

Mike Krzyzewski surprised many people when he pegged his former college player for a spot on Team USA this summer. While Plumlee didn’t have a big role on the team, the experience should provide him with a lot of confidence as he enters his second season in the league. At 24, Plumlee is almost a fully-formed product, an extremely athletic big man who can crash the boards, run the floor and provide a nifty skill-set around the basket for the Nets.

He was extremely productive as a rookie and there’s no reason to think he couldn’t be even better as a second-year player. The question is how many minutes will be available for him behind Brook Lopez and Kevin Garnett. While Brooklyn is committed to starting both 7’0 at the moment, KG is clearly better as a C than a PF at this stage in his career. Either way, with so few young players on the roster, Plumlee will have a big role in their future.

- New York Knicks: Iman Shumpert 

This is a make-or-break season for Shumpert, who saw his offensive numbers decline and his role get smaller in each of the last two seasons. The question is whether his development was short-circuited by an ACL injury or whether he is best suited for a role as a defensive specialist. He’ll need to figure out an answer quickly, as he is playing for a contract extension for an entirely new coaching staff and front office that has no real ties to him.

Shumpert clearly has talent - at 6’5 210, he’s an extremely athletic guard who can stretch the floor and he ran point in college. Even if he’s still primarily used as a spot-up shooter who attacks close-outs, he could be the best two-way player on their roster. He could be one of biggest beneficiaries of a more free-flowing offensive attack under Derek Fisher, as he was mostly reduced to being a spectator in the Knicks more isolation-heavy approach in recent years.

- Boston Celtics: Tyler Zeller

While Zeller is a new acquisition, he is a good example of the type of young player whose improvement in his third season in the NBA could pay dividends for his team. With Cleveland fully committed to an ultimately doomed push towards a playoff spot, there wasn’t room for Zeller to get much playing time, especially after they acquired Spencer Hawes at the trade deadline. Nevertheless, he was productive in his limited time on the floor last season.

At 7’0 250, Zeller is a big body who packs a good amount of skill on his frame. He can play out of the high post and the low post and he has flashed the ability to knock down mid-range shots and facilitate offense. While he will never be a great shot-blocker, if he can establish himself as a legitimate defensive anchor in the post, he could secure a long-term starting position in Boston. After two years of waiting his turn, he’s got the chance to show what he can do.

- Philadelphia 76ers: Michael Carter-Williams

When Carter-Williams was healthy and playing with Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young and Spencer Hawes, the 76ers looked an actual legitimate NBA team last season. With all three of those guys gone, it’s going to be a very long year in Philadelphia, one measured more by player development than wins and losses. If MCW doesn’t let all the losing get to him, it could be the perfect opportunity for the second-year PG to expand his game and develop as a player.

At 6’6 185, he has a decided physical advantage on almost every PG in the league. He is really big and really fast and he is a handful for almost any perimeter defender. He can get to the rim, draw fouls and create easy shots for his teammates - if he can force people to respect his outside shot, he is pretty much unguardable. If he can gradually improve his decision-making over the next few seasons, both as a shooter and a playmaker, the sky is the limit.

Mavericks Regained Contender Status With Nostalgic Summer

The Dallas Mavericks enter the new season with a revamped roster and high expectations. Out went key veterans Vince Carter, Shawn Marion, and Jose Calderon along with several other prominent role players. The Mavericks were able to bring back the heart and soul of their 2011 NBA Championship in Tyson Chandler. Budding all-star Chandler Parsons and Al-Farouq Aminu were bought in to bolster the void left by Marion and Carter, and several serviceable starting point guards in Ray Felton and Jameer Nelson have come in to form an interesting trio with Devin Harris. The newcomers to Dallas adds another dimensional similar to what the Spurs have done in San Antonio – depth from top to bottom of the roster.

Ranked 22nd last season at 105.9 in defensive efficiency, the acquisition of Chandler will surely help improve that side of the floor for the Mavericks.

In his lone season with Dallas in 2011, Chandler helped the Mavericks to a 103.9 defensive rating when he was on the court, and a 107.7 defensive rating when he was on the bench.

Chandler’s three-year exodus with the New York Knicks did net Chandler a Defensive Player award, but he was only able to play in 74 percent of the games due to injury. The decision to let Chandler leave in free agency was as much about the Mavericks’ confidence in him staying healthy as it was in pursuing upcoming superstar free agents such as Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Deron Williams.

As he was in 2011, Chandler will be playing for his next contract, and the teams’ success will heavily depend on how healthy he can stay through the course of the season.

Having finished second in offensive efficiency in the NBA at 109.0, some have questioned the move to sign Parsons to an above market contract of $46 million for three years to bolster an already effective offense. Parsons shot 41 percent on catch and shoot threes last season, which will help mitigate the trade of Calderon.

Parsons will also see minutes as a stretch four and bolsters the three and four positions left by Marion with a true shooting percentage of 57.4. Moreover, over the course of his career, Parsons improved his percentages when he goes to the rim. Within 3-10 feet, Parsons has progressively improved his percentage of 32.9 in his rookie year to 42 last season. In mid-ranged shots from 10-16 feet, Parsons came into the league shooting at 21.7 percent, but improved to a 42.9 clip last season.

This is important since Rick Carlisle’s offense calls for more mid-range shots, compared with Kevin McHale’s system of layups or threes.

The most underrated move this summer by the Mavericks is the signing of Al-Farouq Aminu, who was the eighth overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft. Outside of his offensive deficiencies, Aminu brings a scrappy defensive presence on the perimeter that they desperately lacked in previous years. His defensive impact should lessen the burden on Parsons and the other swingmen on the perimeter.

The trio of Felton, Nelson and Harris will give Rick Carlisle the opportunity to mix and match throughout the long and grueling season. All three former starting point guards are similar in this aspect: they are most effective when they stay within the 20-25 minute range. All three guards have a checkered injury past, so it will be key to see how Carlisle maximizes the potential efficiency at the point guard position.

From his days in Orlando with Dwight Howard, Nelson has experience in running the pick and roll – Dallas most used and effective play in their offense. Over his time in Orlando, Nelson has learned to change his game from an applicable floor spacer to an effective passing guard – career high assist rate of 35.1 last season. Pairing with Monta Ellis, Nelson figures to start and finish games this season for Dallas, while Felton and Harris should provide an instant spark off the bench when healthy.

After a forgettable two-year stretch subsequently following their unexpected 2011 title run, Dallas finished last season at 49-33. With Nowitzki’s generous paycut – $25 million for three years – that allows for roster flexibility, Dallas should see a rise in wins (about 55) and a deep run in the playoffs. Combined with the dilemma of keeping everyone happy in their potent offense and the daunting task to keep the roster as healthy as possible come April, the potential of the Mavericks is at its highest since they were champions.

Internal Improvement Candidates: Northwest Division

All five teams in the Northwest have committed to building through the draft and Steven Adams, Kenneth Faried, Will Barton, Gorgui Dieng and Trey Burke are young players that can offer their teams improvement from within.

Coach's Corner: Warriors' Change Of Tempo Style, The Triangle's True Difficulty

The Warriors played fast last season, but any player has the freedom to "rip-and-run" under Steve Kerr, while the Triangle could be a bad fit for Derek Fisher and the Knicks even if they run it right.

Internal Improvement Candidates: Southwest Division

Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Terrence Jones, Jae Crowder and Jon Leuer represent the Pelicans, Spurs, Rockets, Mavs and Grizzlies as young players who are poised to grow and assume bigger roles this season.

Thunder Finally Approaching Prime Contention Seasons

With two of the top-5 players in the NBA and an elite defensive big, the Thunder aren’t just set up to win a championship this season - they are set up to win the next few.

Top-5 Non-National Teams For 14-15

The top teams to watch on League Pass have to have entertainment value on a game to game basis and fascinating pieces in the form of young talent or new additions. Each of these squads fits that bill and there were a few tough omissions as well.

Why The Mavs Have A Shot Again

Even at this stage in their careers, Dirk Nowitzki is the best offensive 7’0 in the NBA and Tyson Chandler is one of the best defensive 7’0. Chandler covers up Dirk’s flaws on defense and Dirk makes Chandler a much better offensive player.

How The Morris Twins Will Be Phoenix's Major Contract Showdown

Under Robert Sarver, Phoenix has been notorious for pinching pennies and they might be able to take advantage of Marcus and Markieff’s desire to play together as they negotiate extensions. Given their struggles apart and their success as a unit in the NBA, it’s hard to see the twins wanting to be split up.

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.

Jonas Valanciunas As Franchise Player

You can count the number of centers in the NBA with more two-way ability than Jonas 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.

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

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

Dario Saric's Best Case Scenario

Dario Saric is a unique player with very defined strengths and weaknesses, which gives his NBA career a wide range of possible outcomes. Maybe the biggest reason for optimism is his age, as he is one of the youngest players at the World Cup.

Charlotte's Chances Of A Deep Playoff Run

Failing to keep Josh McRoberts in the mix with a core of Lance Stephenson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Al Jefferson might ultimately wind up preventing Charlotte from legitimately contending in the Eastern Conference.

RealGM Interview: Goran Dragic Of The Suns

RealGM caught up with Goran Dragic in Europe to talk about the Suns’ offseason, Slovenian basketball, what is it like to play with his brother and much more.

A Superstar Is Not Enough Out West

After years of failed lottery picks, the Wolves finally seem to have a front office capable of finding talent in the draft, the most important asset for a rebuilding franchise in the modern NBA.

Pierre Jackson's Rookie Season: Everywhere Except The NBA

Pierre Jackson spent his rookie season as an "asset" without a roster spot and then ruptured his Achilles just after being traded to the 76ers. Here's his unique basketball story.

Cavs Enter Win-Now Mode With A Machine Of An Offense

In the end, with LeBron James in his prime and the Eastern Conference wide open, the Cavaliers went with the sure thing rather than rolling the dice on building a team with LeBron and a bunch of under-22 players.

On Paul George, Non-NBA Basketball And Player Safety

Paul George suffering a freak injury during a televised scrimmage does not change the likelihood of something like that happening in a similar event or in some other basketball activity. It just raises awareness of that possibility and potentially could actually lead to some positive changes in terms of on-court player safety.

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