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Internal Improvement Candidates: Northwest Division

Our series on candidates for internal improvement on every team in the NBA continues with the Northwest Division, which doesn’t feature markets that have traditionally attracted big-name free agents. In recent years, Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams and Kevin Love have all departed the division on less than friendly terms. As a result, almost every team in the Northwest has committed itself to building through the draft, with varying levels of success.

The Oklahoma City Thunder represent the gold standard for that model. Not only have they built an elite team almost entirely through homegrown products, they have remained committed to the draft even as they contend for titles. The Thunder have seven different guys on their rookie deals and their ability to take the final step in the playoffs will depend in large part on how well those players can grow into bigger roles over the course of the season. 

On the other end of the spectrum are the Utah Jazz, who have six recent lottery picks on their roster but appear no closer to getting out of the basement in the Western Conference. Some have seen their games stagnate as they move into bigger roles while others have struggled to find a role that allows them to maximize their skill-set. Dante Exum might be the future, but he is still a 19-year-old who played high school basketball in Australia last season. 

Somewhere in the middle are the Portland Trail Blazers, who shot up the standings last season with a starting line-up better than the sum of its parts and the Denver Nuggets, who are still looking for an identity after dumping George Karl and falling out of the playoffs. The Minnesota Timberwolves, who are in the very beginning of a new rebuilding plan, can only hope that their path looks more like Oklahoma City than Utah in the next few years. 

- Oklahoma City Thunder: Steven Adams

The scariest part about where the Thunder go from here is how much room they still have to improve. Over the last three seasons, they’ve been one of the best teams in the NBA while giving Kendrick Perkins 20-25 minutes a game. He has some value as a post defender and a guy who quarterbacks the defense, but imagine if they had a guy with more size and athleticism than Perkins back there who was not a complete non-entity on the offensive end?

Even if Adams never develops a post game, his ability to catch and finish around the rim makes him an upgrade over Perkins. He shot 50% from the field as a rookie, a number Perkins hasn’t matched since his time in Boston. He probably won’t start for another season, but as he improves on both sides of the ball and earns more playing time, the Thunder will be even better than they are now. Where will they be when Adams is at 30-35 minutes a night?

- Portland Trail Blazers: Will Barton

After two seasons on the fringes of the rotation in Portland, Barton could be poised for a breakout year in his third year in the NBA. With Mo Williams gone, there’s room in the rotation for a guard to assume a bigger role on the second unit, which has been one of the biggest weaknesses for the Trail Blazers over the last few seasons. Portland has three young guards on their bench - Barton, CJ McCollum and Allen Crabbe - and one of them needs to step up. 

The key for Barton is his outside shot, which improved between his first and second seasons in the league. If he can consistently knock down the 3, his ability to get to the rim and find the open man will give him a leg up on the other two, who are more pure shooters. This is a big year for Barton - if he can’t crack the rotation, he’s probably not long for Portland, as few NBA teams keep second round picks on the end of their bench for four seasons.

- Denver Nuggets: Kenneth Faried

No player had a better summer than Faried, who followed a breakout performance in the World Cup with a $50 million contract extension. The move signals Denver’s commitment to Faried as they try to move forward in the post Karl era. Faried is the only under-25 player slated to have much of a role on the Nuggets roster this season, so their ability to move up the Western hierarchy will depend in large part on how much room he has left to grow.

The key question with Faried is how to build a team around him - is he better off with a shot-blocking center who can protect him on defense or a stretch 4 who can open up the floor for him? Coach K solved the dilemma by pairing him with Anthony Davis, but guys with his skill-set do not grow on trees. If Faried can improve as a perimeter shooter and a defensive player, he will give Brian Shaw more options in terms of how he deploys his frontcourt.

- Minnesota Timberwolves: Gorgui Dieng

After being glued to the bench for most of his rookie season, Dieng exploded in the final few months, taking advantage of an injury to Nik Pekovic to establish himself as a legitimate NBA center. Not only was he a nightly double-double threat, he displayed a skill-set that has been in short supply in Minnesota in recent years - a shot-blocking center who could anchor a defense while also providing quality play on the offensive end of the floor.

With Pekovic likely to be the featured option in a post Kevin Love universe, it’s unclear how many minutes will be there for Dieng. Can he operate as a power forward in a Twin Towers configuration or will he be be siloed into a role as a backup center? One of the big questions for Flip Saunders is whether he can figure out a way to use Pekovic and Dieng together or whether he would be better off flipping one of his C’s to improve the rest of the roster.

- Utah Jazz: Trey Burke

There are a lot of guys who could be featured here, as there a number of talented young players in Utah who haven’t quite figured out who they are in the NBA. None will be more important to the team’s success this season than Burke, the second-year PG who will have to shoulder a huge burden on the offensive side of the ball. Not only will he need to figure out how to score more efficiently, he will have to be able to create easy shots for everyone else too.

As a rookie, Burke shot 38% from the field, struggling with the size and speed of the NBA game. At 6’0 190, he is one of the smallest PG’s in the NBA and he will need to use every bit of his offensive creativity to survive against the longer and bigger defenders he will face on a nightly basis. The key for him is becoming a knock-down shooter - a guy his size will have a hard time surviving in the lane and he has to take advantage of any opening he can create.

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: 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.

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