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Antawn Jamison & The Floater Game

With training camp over and a new season underway, the odds are not good for any unsigned free agent trying to get back into the NBA. That goes double for a 37-year-old like Antawn Jamison, who played in only 22 games for the Los Angeles Clippers last season, posting career-low numbers across the board and looking like a player on his last legs after his minutes went from 33.1 per game in 11-12 with the Cleveland Cavaliers to 12-13 in 21.5 with the Los Angeles Lakers. Let’s not reduce his career to whether or not he was a Hall of Famer - either way, the guy was a monster.

For all Jamison has done in the NBA, he might be remembered best for his time at North Carolina, where he and Vince Carter combined to form one of the most explosive duos in college history. In an era where guys didn’t go pro as soon as they possibly could, Carter and Jamison led the Tar Heels to consecutive Final Fours before declaring for the 1998 draft. They wound up being taken at No. 4 and No. 5 overall, with their rights exchanged on draft night.

Jamison was the bigger star in college, winning the Wooden and Naismith Awards as a junior, but Vince was the one seemingly destined for NBA stardom. At 6’6 210 with a 40’ vertical, he was cut out of central casting for a star SG. Jamison, on the other hand, was a bit of a tweener - at 6’9 235, people wondered if he would be a SF or a PF in the NBA, while his reliance on flip shots and one-handed runners earned him an unflattering rep as a finesse player.

When projecting college players to the next level, scouts look for comparable NBA players, established guys with roughly similar games and skill-sets. With Jamison, there was really no one to compare him too - he wasn’t a post scorer, he wasn’t a three-point shooter, he wasn’t a slasher who played above the rim. He was the master of the in-between game, a guy who could get a shot off from any release point and score without dominating the ball.

After an up-and-down rookie season cut in half by the lockout, Jamison came into his own in his second season with the Golden State Warriors, averaging 19 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists a game on 47% shooting. What really put him on the map was a pair of 50-point games in back-to-back nights in December of that season, something only four other players in NBA history have done since 1964 - Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Bernard King and Allen Iverson.

By his third season, Jamison had established himself as one of the best scorers in the league, averaging 25 points per game on 45% shooting. Unfortunately, there was never much talent around him in Golden State, as they were perennially one of the worst defensive teams in the NBA, yet they continued to spend lottery picks on more perimeter scorers. Jamison’s five years with the Warriors came in the middle of a 12-year playoff drought for the Warriors.

To be sure, he wasn’t helping out too much on the defensive end of the floor, a criticism that followed him throughout his NBA career. That’s where being a “tweener” really hurt him, as he was neither quick enough to stay in front of the best SF’s or big enough to match up with the best PF’s in the post. To get the most out of his talents, Jamison needed to be surrounded by defensive-minded players, which never really happened in Golden State.

He was traded to the Dallas Mavericks at the age of 27, where he became part of one of the more bizarre teams in recent NBA memory. Those Mavs featured five different players who could get 20 on a given night - Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Michael Finley, Antoine Walker and Jamison - none of whom could play much defense. Jamison became the odd man out, forced to go the bench and play as a sixth man, almost never having plays called for him in Dallas.

With so many other guys dominating the ball, Jamison had to change his game, scoring on off-ball cuts, put-backs and run-outs. It didn’t matter, as he was the definition of a guy who could roll out of bed and get buckets - he averaged 15 points on 54% shooting and won Sixth Man of the Year. If he got the ball, it was going up. He could score in the blink of an eye, appearing out of nowhere and throwing up a shot before the defense even noticed.

The five 20-point scorer experiment in Dallas only lasted one season, as Don Nelson began to take a smaller role in the organization and the team decided to become more balanced. Jamison was traded to the Washington Wizards, where he became a two-time All-Star and had his best years in the NBA. Along with Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler, he was part of a Big Three that made four straight playoff appearances in the latter half of the 2000’s.

While they only made the second round once, it was still quite an accomplishment considering the recent history of the franchise. In the previous 16 seasons, the Wizards had made the playoffs one time. That, in many ways, was the story of Jamison’s career - apart from his one season in Dallas, he was always on underachieving franchises and being asked to carry teams that didn’t play a lick of defense, which wasn’t the best use of his skill-set.

Jamison was instant offense, the rare player who could be effective in almost any context regardless of his usage rating or his teammates. His per-100 possession numbers over the course of his career were remarkably similar - it didn’t matter whether he was a primary option on a bad team (Golden State), a 6th man on a great one (Dallas) or a secondary option on a good one (Washington). He was a pure scorer and those guys are usually not 6’9. 

Instead of being surrounded by other score-first players, Jamison would have been better off on a team full of defensive-minded guys, particularly upfront. He could have carried the load for two or three guys on offense - it would have been interesting to see what he could do as the primary option on a team like Allen Iverson’s Philadelphia 76ers. Better yet, he would have been an ideal complement to Iverson, since he could score without needing the ball.

Jamison only got to spend half a season on a contender, when he was picked up by the Cleveland Cavaliers at the deadline in 2010. He put up 16 points a game on 49% shooting for a team that would win 61 games, but they collapsed in the second round against the Boston Celtics. When LeBron James left town that summer, it was over. By the time he got the chance to hook up with another good team, Jamison was a 36-year-old near the end of his rope.

Maybe the most remarkable part of his career was his durability - he hardly ever got hurt despite playing huge minutes every season and putting up 20 points a game for well over a decade. He is one of the top 50 scorers in NBA history, averaging 18.5 points a game on 45% shooting for 17 seasons, which comes out to 20,042 career points, 43rd all-time. Guys like Jamison don’t come around very often and you almost never see college players with his game.

Fittingly enough, just as he is leaving the NBA, the closest guy to him in the last 17 years is entering the league. At 6’8 230, TJ Warren doesn’t shoot 3’s, post up or play above the rim. All he does is get buckets - he averaged 12 points a game on 62% shooting as a freshman at NC State and 25 points a game on 53% shooting as a sophomore. However, despite his prodigious numbers, his unorthodox game caused him to fall to the Phoenix Suns at No. 14.

Like Jamison, Warren is a master of the running floater. There’s no way to guard a 6’8 guy who only needs a sliver of space to get a shot off within 15 feet of the basket. Either you play off him and he scores or you crowd him, he blows past you and he scores. Help-side doesn’t do much good either, as he gets the shot off so quickly that he freezes the shot-blocker. The question is whether Warren can make those shots at the same rate as Jamison in the NBA.

Jamison’s career was built around making terrible shots every night for 15 years. There are not many guys out there who can consistently make running 12-footers over two defenders. He was an athletic 6’9 guy with a high basketball IQ who knows how to put the ball in the basket - a guy like that can be a really good player for a really long time. Jamison made $142 million dollars in 17 seasons in the NBA. He must have been pretty good at basketball.

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: Southwest Division

Around the basketball interwebs, one of the most popular pastimes of the offseason is grading every team in the NBA, tallying up the arrivals and departures to see which teams came out ahead and which fell behind. The problem with this approach is that it ignores one of the main avenues for teams to improve from season-to-season - the progression of younger players as they grow into bigger roles and make names for themselves in the NBA.

A team with a bunch of young players can get better without doing much of anything in the offseason. Often times, the biggest improvement they can make is letting go of some of their older players and giving the young guys a chance. This is where the idea of addition by subtraction comes from - last season, the Toronto Raptors improved not just by getting rid of Rudy Gay, but by redistributing his shots and minutes to DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross.

And while some young players are marked for stardom as soon as they come into the league, many others slip through the cracks for a few seasons before seemingly emerging out of nowhere. The days of college players staying four years in school have come and gone - for the most part, guys declare for the draft as soon as they are confident their names will be called. As a result, few are ready to make an immediate impact at the next level.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll go division-by-division, looking at a second-fourth year player on each team with room to grow as a player and the opportunity to assume a bigger role this season. One of the best ways to look for surprise teams is to scour the ranks of young players and look for guys ready to make the next step. It can happen fast - in six months, Eric Bledsoe went from a guy trying to earn a starting spot to a guy asking for a max contract.

- San Antonio Spurs: Kawhi Leonard

After going toe-to-toe with LeBron James in the last two NBA Finals and coming home with the NBA Finals MVP last season, Kawhi Leonard is set to get paid like a superstar either at the end of the month or next summer. The only thing left to do is for him to start getting used like a superstar in San Antonio. Leonard’s usage rating has increased every year since he has been in the league, but he was still only at 18.3 last season, a role player’s number.

It sets up perfectly for the Spurs - Leonard can pick up the slack as Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker see their roles decrease with age. It’s a scenario that allows the older players to age gracefully into a smaller role while the younger player takes on more responsibility without being overwhelmed. The next step for Leonard is becoming more of a facilitator - a guy with the ball in his hands as lot has to be able to make others better too.  

- Houston Rockets: Terrence Jones

Jones is a textbook case for the importance of internal improvement to a team’s success. If you lose a guy like Chandler Parsons in free agency, one of the most cost-effective ways to replace his production is to redistribute his shots to a younger player ready for a bigger role. Jones played 27 minutes a game last season and had only a 18.3 usage rating, but he was awfully productive in those minutes and he seems more than ready for a bigger role.  

He had a 19.1 PER and per-36 minute averages of 16 points, 9 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.5 blocks on 54% shooting. Jones is big, fast and very skilled for a guy his size - he can handle the ball like a guard and finish at the rim like a big man. Because he wasn’t taken in the lottery and he started his career as a role player on a good team, most people don’t realize how high his ceiling is. If given the chance to create his own offense, he could make a huge leap this season. 

- Dallas Mavericks: Jae “The Beast” Crowder 

For all of their success under Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson, the Mavs have had a fairly laissez-faire attitude when it comes to the draft - they haven’t developed a draft pick into a good NBA player since the days of Devin Harris and Josh Howard. They are more comfortable squeezing value out of older players or unearthing reclamation projects off the scrap heap. As a result, there aren’t many plausible options on their roster for internal improvement. 

The best bet this season is Crowder, a third-year swingman who will be given first crack at replacing some of the minutes given to Shawn Marion and Vince Carter. The Mavs need an athletic wing player who can come off their bench and defend multiple positions without being an offensive non-entity. The question is whether Crowder can hold off Al-Farouq Aminu, a former lottery pick on his third team whom Dallas thinks can thrive in Rick Carlisle’s system.

- Memphis Grizzlies: Jon Leuer

There aren’t many good young players in Memphis, a byproduct of four straight playoff appearances as well as a shift in philosophy that saw many of the previous regime’s draft picks shipped out on the first bus out of town. Tony Wroten, their first round pick in 2012, is an interesting young player, but a point guard who holds the ball and can’t shoot from the perimeter isn’t a great fit for the new analytics-minded front office that came into power in 2013.

The only plausible candidate for internal improvement on this year’s roster is Jon Leuer, a prototype stretch 4 who is in the league for one reason - he’s tall (6’10 230) and he can shoot 3’s. He hasn’t managed to get a ton of minutes in his first two years in Memphis, but he shot 47% from 3 and racked up a 17.4 PER in 49 appearances last season and he gives them an option of playing with more of a spread floor instead of their usual two-post look.

- New Orleans Pelicans: Anthony Davis

The fact that Davis still has so much room to grow as a player after a year where he averaged 21 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks a game is one of the main reasons why New Orleans is such an intriguing team coming into the season. Still only 21, he can do a little bit of everything, as he can create his own shot, stretch the floor from the perimeter, clean the glass at a high level, defend multiple positions and generally wreak havoc all over the floor.

The next step for Davis is making his teammates better on both sides of the ball. If he can become an anchor of an improved defense on one end of the floor and command a double team and create shots for everyone else on the other, the Pellies can start rising up the ranks of the Western Conference very quickly. There’s no ceiling to how good he can be - he can continue to improve for the next 5-6 seasons and take the rest of the franchise with him. 

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