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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.

Why Sign-And-Trades Sometimes Aren't Possible For The Incumbent Team

At the end of my Shaun Livingston piece, I put in a little footnote that had a mistake a reader thankfully pointed out. As a CBA nerd, when something like that happens I try to write it out so that hopefully others do not fall into the same pit down the line.

In the case of Shaun Livingston, it came in the minefield of sign-and-trades. At their most basic, the concept for a S+T deal is easy to grasp: the trading team must be able to sign the player to that contract and the acquiring team has to be able to receive it.

We end up focusing most of the time on the team getting the signed and traded player because there are different and more commonly used restrictions on that part of the transaction. The receiving team must be able to fit the contract in using cap space, a trade exception, or an appropriate amount of salary going back to the trading team. In addition, under the current CBA only teams under the luxury tax apron can acquire a player using a sign-and-trade with doing so carrying the added effect of hard capping that team at the apron for the rest of the league year.

This happened to the Warriors last season when they ended up adding Andre Iguodala from Denver with a sign-and-trade to retain their other exceptions.

The part of these transactions that gets far little attention focuses on the team that has to sign and then trade their player. In many circumstances, this does not get discussed because it happens pretty easily. Most of the high-end players in the league do not get into situations where this becomes relevant but we can see in this case how this strange situation can come to pass.

The easiest way to think about how a team would be unable to sign their own player to a contract is through a series of negatives:

1. They cannot have enough cap space to sign him- This one is easy. If the team has the space to sign the player outright, this part of the trade happens painlessly. In this case, the Nets are miles over the salary cap.

2. They do not have full Bird rights- There are different levels of Bird rights (Non-Bird, Early Bird, Full Bird) that all have different rules and privileges. If a player has played for three seasons with the same team without clearing waivers or changing teams as a free agent, the team has full Bird rights so they can go over the cap and tax to sign him. In this case, Livingston signed with the Nets as a free agent before the 2013-14 so he is a non-Bird free agent for them. Note that because the CBA is evil, the non-Bird status is a form of Bird rights- the team just has less flexibility than the other forms.

3. The team cannot pay the salary using an exception- This has a few different components. First, the salary has to be higher than the team can pay using an exception. In this case, Livingston is signing for more than 120% of his 2013-14 salary so the Nets cannot use his “Non-Qualifying Veteran Free Agent” (non-Bird) status. In addition, the reports are that the Warriors want to sign him to the full non-taxpayer Mid-Level Exception. Since the Nets are over the apron, they only have the taxpayer MLE available and thus cannot sign him to a contract at that value using their MLE.

In these circumstances, the original team cannot sign the player to the contract he agreed to so the transaction must occur as a straight signing. Unfortunately for the Warriors, that limits their flexibility somewhat because using part of their huge trade exception would have allowed them to have their Mid-Level to use for one or more free agents. Instead, it just becomes another interesting lesson about an intricacy of the CBA.

Jason Kidd's Great Escape

On the surface, Jason Kidd’s jump from the Brooklyn Nets to the Milwaukee Bucks doesn’t make a lot of sense. After a rough start, Kidd found his sea legs in the second half of the season, leading Brooklyn to the second round of the playoffs and establishing himself as a legitimate NBA head coach on a perennial playoff contender. Milwaukee, in contrast, is a perennial underachiever coming off a 15-win season that hasn’t made the second round since 2001.

However, if you take a closer look at the environment surrounding both teams, you can see the logic behind Kidd’s thinking. As he is undoubtedly aware, an NBA head coach is hired to be fired. No matter how successful a coach has been, they can lose their job at any time. The key is expectations and the appearance of forward progress - the Bucks have nowhere to go but up, the Nets have nowhere to go but down. For a young head coach, the choice is easy.

The Nets have far more talent than the Bucks and they will almost certainly be a better team over the next two seasons, but they don’t have much room for growth. After trading three future first-round picks for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, they went all-in last season, only to see their best player (Brook Lopez) go down in the first two months. Kidd responded admirably in changing their identity on fly, but the limits of the approach were exposed in the playoffs.

With Pierce and Garnett aging and no other ways to add talent to their roster beyond the free agent bargain bin, Brooklyn will need Mikhail Prokhorov to continue writing monstrous luxury tax checks just to stay in place. Even if Prokhorov doesn’t tire of subsidizing half of the league, what’s to stop him from looking at the coaching staff for an upgrade next off-season? Kidd only needs to look at Mark Jackson with the Golden State Warriors to see how quickly the knives come out.

Milwaukee, on the other hand, is an almost ideal situation for a young head coach. After bottoming out under the old regime, they have a new ownership group looking to start over and a promising young core to build around. Last season was a perfect storm of injuries, bad free agent signings and back luck. Even without a coaching change, they are almost certain to have a dead cat bounce and regress to the mean, which will give Kidd breathing room.

When you take a look at the elite young talent under contract, the Bucks situation going forward looks even more promising. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker are both under 20 and have as much upside as any two young players in the NBA. Just as important, their games complement each other, which will allow them to grow together over the next 3-5 years. They could be the best two players on an elite team and Kidd gets them at the ground floor.

After only one season, Giannis already looks like the steal of the 2013 draft and possibly its best all-around player. At 6’10 210 (and growing) with a 7’4 wingspan, he has a freakish combination of length, skill and athleticism that allows him to match up with multiple perimeter positions and impact the game in a number of ways. He’s a franchise-type talent - if he had stayed an extra year in Greece, he could have been a Top 5 pick in this year’s draft.

And while Giannis can defend and slash to the rim, Jabari can stretch the floor and command double teams on offense. The No. 2 pick in 2014, he is an elite prospect who was also one of the safest picks on the board. At 6’9 240 with a 7’0 wingspan, Jabari already has a high-level combination of athleticism, ball-handling, shooting and feel for the game. He averaged 19 points and 9 rebounds a game on 47% shooting at Duke and should be a ROY front-runner.

The big concern for Jabari comes on the defensive end, which is what makes Milwaukee such a good fit. Not only do they have Giannis to handle the tough defensive assignments on the perimeter, they have two quality rim protectors - Larry Sanders and John Henson - to play behind him. There are spacing issues with playing Sanders and Henson together, but they should combine to protect Jabari over 48 minutes and you can always trade an athletic 6’11+ player.

The Bucks current mix is far from perfect, but there is talent up and down the roster that can be moved around in order to better complement Jabari and Giannis. That will be what next season is all about - figuring out which combination of Sanders, Henson, Khris Middleton, Ersan Ilyasova, Ekpe Udoh, Brandon Knight and OJ Mayo is worth keeping around. No matter how it shakes out, they don’t have the same type of cap-killing contracts as the Nets.

For Kidd, the plan is simple. Develop Giannis and Jabari, consolidate the peripheral talent around them and add another high lottery pick - preferably a two-way perimeter playmaker and shooter - next season. With a new Big Three and one of the Henson/Sanders duo upfront, Milwaukee isn’t that far off from being a playoff contender and a long-term power in the Eastern Conference. They just need to add shooting and improve defensively over the next two years.

If Kidd plays it right, he can be the Scott Brooks to their version of the Oklahoma City Thunder North. Kidd’s already proven he’s a more flexible strategist than Brooks, so hitching his wagon to that type of young talent could give him nearly unparalleled job security. Throughout his long career in the NBA, Kidd has been the consummate survivor, one step ahead of the pitchforks and leaving disaster in his wake. His latest move could be his greatest escape yet.

Identifying What Late 1st Round Big Men CAN Do

You can always find a good perimeter player in the D-League, but the best 6í10+ players in the world are pretty much spoken for. Mason Plumlee and Dieng had turned themselves into effective centers in college, but they slipped in the draft because of concerns about their age and ceiling.

RealGM's Playoff Predictions

All eight RealGM writers predict the Heat along with either the Thunder or Spurs to reach The Finals.

Two Reinventions: Previewing Raptors Vs. Nets

Both of these teams reinvented themselves for different reasons during the regular season. For the Raptors, it came after the Rudy Gay trade in freeing up Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. The Nets fixed their season by embracing small ball.

Reinvented Nets Keep It Rolling

The Nets have abandoned much of their halfcourt sets in favor of a more up-tempo pace and Shaun Livingston has been at the forefront of the new identity Jason Kidd has tried to establish.

The Eastern Conference At The Deadline

The East deals included the only two All-Stars dealt (Antawn Jamison and Danny Granger), the two best players (Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes), and the smartest player (Professor Andre Miller, PhD).

Fix It: Brooklyn Nets

Mikhail Prokhorov has invested far too much money in this team to not go down with the ship. Youíre left hoping that the early season struggles will evaporate as the season goes on. This team can hope for a favorable matchup in the playoffs (if they get there) that they can take advantage of and use as a springboard to the second round.

Tyshawn Taylor Credits Nets' Coaching Staff For Development

As a second round draft pick placed onto the Nets, Tyshawn Taylor spent extensive time in the D-League, but teammates and coaches swiftly noticed his tenacious style on both ends of the floor. Heís put up four double-digit scoring performances in 14 games this season and has a growing relationship with the new coaching staff.

Brook Lopez Carries Dominance To Pull Nets Out Of Dysfunction

A year ago, Brook Lopez would always speak as the ultimate role player citing a need to get others a flow on offense, before himself. A year ago, the skilled seven-footer was pushed away from the block far too often and at times resisted constant feeds inside. No more.

A Brave New World For Los Angeles, New York

Strangely, none of the major market teams have the competitive advantage of their location and a top-flight organizational reputation. History and money are still (largely) on their sides but players have become more conscious of organizational quality in recent years.

Nets Becoming NBA's Version Of The Yankees

After Brooklyn acquired Joe Johnson, everyone decried how inflexible their roster situation had become. Since then, they have acquired Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Andrei Kirilenko and Andray Blatche. The Nets are extremely deep, with one of the most loaded rosters from top to bottom in the league.

30 Rapid-Fire Questions For Each Team's Front Office

The following 30 questions are the biggest issues facing each NBA front office as the 13-14 regular season begins.

30-Team Offseason Rundown

Great drafts for the Rockets, 76ers, Nets, Warriors, Hawks and Grizzlies headline this complete rundown of the 2013 offseason.

Why The Nets Have Become Title Contenders

The only thing crazier than Brooklynís reckless approach to team building this offseason is that it just might work. Championships arenít won on paper, but if everything goes right, all the pieces are in place for the Nets to make a deep run in the playoffs and could beat the Heat using the 2011 Mavs' model.

2013 NBA Offseason Primer

With the 2013 NBA offseason underway, here is a primer on what all 30 teams are facing.

Evaluating The Risk, Reward Of Nets' Trade For Garnett, Pierce

We ended up with a quintessential Brooklyn Nets trade: flashy with big names and short-term benefits but with meaningful potential costs down the line. Fortunately for them, the team should be good enough to make those selections less painful to miss.

Leroux's 2013 NBA Draft Review

Breaking down all 30 teams by category of how they fared in the often surprising, never disappointing 2013 NBA Draft.

2013 NBA Amnesty Primer

One fun component of the Amnesty rule is that we know exactly which players are eligible for it and that number can only decrease over time since the players had to have been under contract with the same team before the new CBA.

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