Oct 20, 2014 5:41 PM EDT
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.
Oct 13, 2014 7:37 PM EDT
While the concept of tanking gets plenty of ink in NBA circles, the league has a more specific problem in that vicinity due to the rules concerning pick protection. While the Sixers may be an example of a team just not choosing to re-build quickly, very strong and narrow incentives can have a greater impact on competitive balance. As an example, I covered the Golden State Warriors in 2011-12 when they only retained their pick if it fell in the top seven. Once their unreasonable playoff dream died the team did what they could to keep their selection including shelving their top players ahead of time.
I wanted to take the time to go through RealGM’s excellent pick protection page and detail the potential first round pick protection issues that could rear their head this season, ranked in order of overall impact (likelihood and significance, basically). While pick swaps can change the way teams play since it eliminates the benefit of excessive losing, I chose not to include them since playing with an indifference to losing works very differently than the incentives for teams like the 2011-12 Warriors.
- Cleveland Cavaliers: Do not swap their pick with the Chicago Bulls if 1-14 (otherwise Chicago can choose to swap): While prohibitively unlikely with the best talent in their conference, the wheels falling off the Cavs train for this year due to several injuries could force a fascinating choice since falling to the 9th or 10th place spot in the East would lead to retaining a much better choice than a low seed in the post-season. Unlikely but compelling scenario.
- Houston Rockets: Retain their first rounder if 1-14 (otherwise it goes to the Los Angeles Lakers): The Rockets got lottery protection on the pick they sent to the Lakers in exchange for L.A. taking on the final season of Jeremy Lin’s contract, but it would be hard to imagine that the team would choose missing the playoffs over making them. The protection works more as a silver lining in this specific circumstance.
- Memphis Grizzlies: Retain their first rounder if 1-5 or 15-30 (otherwise it goes to Cleveland): In January 2013, the Grizzlies sent this protected pick to the Cavs as a sweetener to take on enough salary to get Memphis under the luxury tax. It has the top and bottom protection for this season and next then becomes a more traditional 1-5 protected in 2017 and 2018 if not conveyed by then. In this case, I would expect the restrictions to actually serve as a double punishment for the Grizzlies since it would take a ton to get their pick into the top five. The Grizzlies have plenty of incentive greater than this pick to make the playoffs again.
- New Orleans Pelicans: Retain their first rounder if 1-3 or 20-30 (otherwise it goes to Houston): As long as Anthony Davis stays reasonably healthy, this one should follow the same path as Memphis’ choice where the team is too good to have their pick fall on the top end and would not prioritize keeping the pick over making the playoffs or playoff seeding. The Pelicans’ pick becomes a little more dynamic because of the 20-30 protection rather than the 15-30 playoff team protection- it could turn out that New Orleans wanting to duck a specific first round opponent (the other major impetus for the truly harmful tanking) could coincide with this incentive considering the strength of the Western Conference.
- Philadelphia 76ers: Retain their first rounder if 1-14 (otherwise it goes to the Boston Celtics): While it looks like a foregone conclusion at this point, losing a first round pick by making the playoffs this year and replacing it with two second round picks did create a clear incentive for the Sixers to avoid making a push this season. Probably not a major factor in what happened but likely a consideration.
- Miami Heat: Retain their first rounder if 1-10 (otherwise it goes to Philadelphia): Astonishingly, LeBron James affected this pick two separate times as it was originally compensation to the Cavaliers as a part of the sign and trade that brought him to South Beach and the Cavs sent it to Philadelphia as a key piece of the Kevin Love trade when LeBron returned. Having only top 10 instead of top 14 protection likely does not matter much here as the “best” non-playoff teams in the East have been very close to top-10 picks due to the quality disparity between the two conferences. In what would have to be close to a worst case scenario for the Heat, the team could have a huge reason to lose their last few games if they get knocked out of post-season contention late in the year.
- Minnesota Timberwolves: Retain their first rounder if 1-12 (otherwise it goes to Phoenix): We have already done this dance and could be doing it again this year depending on how the Wolves fare with their interesting roster. While most expect Minnesota to take a step back from the 14th-worst record last year (and #13 pick), this protection could be a factor late in the 2014-15 season if Minnesota has a better than expected year but still falls outside of the stacked top eight in the West.
- Sacramento Kings: Retain their first rounder if 1-10 (otherwise it goes to Chicago): If the Kings fall out of the playoff picture, I am fully confident they will make sure they retain this selection and hope to do better the following season. This pick has top-ten protection for three more seasons and then becomes a second rounder in 2017, so we could see the same general path as last year happen up to three more times depending on how Sacramento progresses.
- Lakers: Retain their first rounder if 1-5 (otherwise it goes to the Phoenix Suns): The biggest protection issue going into the season by far. After striking out on the impact free agents this summer, the Lakers look to be out of the playoff picture for the 2014-15 season and thus have a clear incentive to keep their own lottery pick. This pressure gets even stronger if they have the belief that the Summer of 2015 will be more fruitful since they would be adding a better young piece and sending away a worse pick in 2016. The dueling pressures of winning in one of Kobe Bryant’s last seasons and adding a key piece for their future will be a major storyline to watch all year.
Oct 13, 2014 11:20 AM EDT
Televisions flickered football matches from the Spanish League and English Premier League, competitive games staged on grassland, and, growing up, this was Nikola Mirotic’s destiny, a pursuit of a career on the soccer field. His passion for the sport swelled in grammar school, and Mirotic’s increasing height gave him such vision in passing, such ability to take advantage of scoring creases across yards and yards of area. Only at 13 years old, his life’s calling forever changed.
Mirotic had come to visit his family one day, when his grandfather looked into the eyes of a floppy-haired grandson, a thin physique on an ever-growing boy. A nearby soccer field was the destination for them on this afternoon, but Mirotic only remembers listening to the elderly figure in his childhood sway him from a most popular sport to a 10-foot rim, a 20-ounce ball and a hardwood floor.
“One day, my grandfather, he told me, ‘You’re very tall. You need to just try to play basketball.’ I said, ‘No, no, no, I don’t like basketball,’” Mirotic told RealGM. “But he said, ‘No, just try.’ He wanted me to just try basketball, he showed me a good school and told me to go, practice and see if I like basketball. I go there, I started to love basketball and I worked hard, and that’s how I’m here.”
Mirotic’s eyes lit up the other day, a bright smile to divide his scruffy beard. Now, he’s here. Nikola Mirotic is in the NBA.
“Now look at this,” Mirotic says. “I would never think before that I will be here, but I worked very hard to be a professional player. I think I’m here now because I do a lot of great things.”
Mirotic’s grandfather pushed him away from a soccer path and onto basketball courts in grade school, pushed him to the European powerhouse Real Madrid, but soccer still consumes part of his mind -- and a part of his cell phone, scanning scores and stats. “I always will like soccer, always will watch Spanish league and Premier league,” he says.
He’s so grateful now, and leaving Europe had never crossed the mind until his agent, Igor Crespo, placed his name in the 2011 NBA Draft. Three teams had secured his rights on that June night, the Houston Rockets’ and Minnesota Timberwolves’ dealings ultimately delivering the 6-foot-10 project to the Chicago Bulls. Everyone knew he needed more experience before signing an NBA contract, and so the Bulls monitored his development in the Spanish ACB league.
Two years ago, expectations already mounting everywhere, Mirotic emitted the praise of an NBA All-Star. Zach Randolph had played Mirotic in a preseason exhibition game, calling him a blend of Dirk Nowitzki and Danillo Gallinari, a prospect who needed the proper environment to flourish. This made its way to Mirotic once he left the United States for the Spanish camp, and he brought with him greater validation and vigor to Real Madrid’s season.
“No pressure, because for me, I started to think that now I need to work even more,” Mirotic says. “It was more energy for me. If someone says that, it is because he thinks high of you. I worked hard, and now I get a chance to play against [Randolph]. I get to play against Dirk Nowitzki. Every day I am practicing with Joakim [Noah], Taj [Gibson], Derrick Rose. I want to enjoy this.
“Before Chicago drafted me, I didn’t think about the NBA. Three years ago when they drafted me, I started to watch the games and fell in love with the NBA.”
In truth, Mirotic privately believed he would complete his contract with Real Madrid, would never need to be bought out, and would part amicably with the club and its fans. In his mind, the NBA would come as soon as 2015, perhaps 2016, but Chicago’s front office urged for dialogue on a potential buyout late in Real Madrid’s 2014 season. The Bulls tracked him for years, understood the unlikelihood of signing Carmelo Anthony and progressed steadily in contract negotiations with Mirotic. Soon, his agents had negotiated a fully guaranteed three-year deal -- the NBA’s richest contract ever for a rookie, never mind simply a European player signing.
“I was thinking I would finish my full contract over there and come afterward, but life is like that,” Mirotic says. “Chicago wanted me this year, and I was feeling good to go. The decision to come this year is a great thing.”
And yet, back home, Mirotic heard backlash for leaving through a buyout of millions, heard detractors of his American dream. Some told him he should stay. Some said he wasn’t prepared, wasn’t athletic enough. Mirotic had struggled to end the Real Madrid season, dealing with a minor wrist injury. Yes, Mirotic needed to sit down with his family, his wife and his representatives for a final decision -- and everyone agreed.
“I don’t care what people say because it was the perfect moment,” Mirotic told RealGM. “Twenty-three years old, I won titles with Real Madrid, and I did great things there. The perfect moment is now. I was thinking I was ready, thinking that I belong here, and Chicago gave me a lot of interest.”
A week into preseason, Mirotic has shown promise to be an integral contributor in an NBA rotation for the next decade. And as Crespo says, “Nikola loves Chicago, loves his teammates and loves the coaches. He loves this situation.”
Mirotic is bigger than some teammates had envisioned on tape, a skillful ball handler and accomplished shooter. For Tom Thibodeau, Mirotic still must strengthen, sharpen and quicken the release on his jumper and fully understand concepts.
For the head coach, players must grasp schemes and an edge to maintain a rotation spot, and Mirotic’s there now on a championship contender should Rose and veterans like Pau Gasol stay healthy. Mirotic is still learning this new league, still learning his fresh surroundings. On his way out of an opposing arena recently, he became lost in finding the exit doors to the team bus, and soon a security personnel showed him the way.
“What an opportunity for me here … I cannot believe it. I’m learning a lot, and it’s amazing,” Mirotic says, and he’s so much more coordinated now in his pro career. He’s no longer a 6-foot-something kid running around on a soccer field, a grandfather’s persuasion turning Mirotic into a European basketball prodigy. He’s here now, far from a soccer field, far from the critics back home. Nikola Mirotic is where he belongs.
Jun 27, 2014
With the new CBA magnifying the importance of the draft and one of the most talented groups of prospects in recent years, what happened on Thursday night will have significant ramifications on the balance of power in the NBA for the next decade.
Jun 26, 2014
Breaking down which teams had Great, Good, Enh and Bad drafts with Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid going in the top-3.
May 29, 2014
While working through the many twists and turns related to Kevin Love reportedly being on the market for the first time, it made sense to put together an article formatted as a Q+A to address some of the bigger questions and misconceptions surrounding what has and will go on.
Apr 28, 2014
With 72 percent of games decided by nine or fewer points, the first round has had a level of competitive balance that is an encouraging and overlooked consequence of the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement.
Apr 23, 2014
D.J. Augustin kept shooting and hitting, slashing and cutting, and soon it had come to a weary halt for the Bulls in Game 2. Ultimately, they all understand these playoffs fall upon their production, and the ranks of reliability are closing fast.
Apr 21, 2014
Everywhere around the Wizards, everyone knows Nene is capable of these big nights. Twenty-four points, eight rebounds and three assists, force, skill and a 1-0 series lead.
Apr 18, 2014
A 10-year season-by-season Win Rank snapshot for an NBA franchise creates an insightful visual narrative.
Mar 17, 2014
While RealGM has an excellent database of the draft picks that have been traded between teams, we wanted to put together a summary more focused on the upcoming draft.
Mar 04, 2014
Most players have very little control over their destination for their first two NBA contracts, but the third contract creates a complete shift in power dynamics.
Jan 07, 2014
The Bulls are effectively writing off a run at the playoffs for financial savings, an improved pick of their own and an additional first rounder, while the Cavaliers continue to go all-in at exactly the wrong time.
Dec 16, 2013
Aside from Derrick Rose, Tom Thibodeau has been the best thing that happened to this management core, a wise and franchise-altering hire three years ago, and now they shouldn’t let his future in Chicago spin and swerve and jeopardize in front of the NBA.
Oct 29, 2013
The goal here is look at overall long-term value of players by considering age, contract, positional scarcity and of course overall quality, without factors like a player’s connection with a franchise or fit within a specific system.
Oct 21, 2013
While the Western Conference has six teams (Clippers, Thunder, Rockets, Grizzlies, Warriors) in its first tier, the Eastern Conference is a tier of one (Heat) with the Bulls, Pacers and Nets vying for the second tier.
Oct 06, 2013
As Derrick Rose went further and further into his comeback, George Hill had grasped an unmistakable trend with what was transpiring between his team’s defense and the 2011 MVP. In many ways, he sought the collisions to reassert that there will be no change in his fearless driving style.
Aug 01, 2013
The treadmill is somehow both more and less common than some might think. While teams tend to fall within the 30-49 win range, as would be expected in such a competitive league, the dreaded never-ending stream of late lottery picks is uncommon.
Jun 27, 2013
Draft day has finally arrived and while everyone pines for the 2014 class already, this one has the chance to be sneaky good in the 'many quality starters' variety.
Jun 26, 2013
In this mock, we include the PER of each player based on the quality of opponent. Even statistics in this context can only go so far, but helps move beyond the possibility of inflation against competition that isn't even close to being NBA caliber.
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