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Internal Improvement Candidates: Southeast Division

Our series on candidates for internal improvement on every team in the NBA concludes with a look at the Southeast Division, which features a number of young teams on the rise. While the Miami Heat have run roughshod over the division for the last four seasons, the Washington Wizards, Charlotte Hornets and Atlanta Hawks have been patiently growing rosters who could now be in a position to take advantage of the departure of LeBron James.

It wasn’t a pretty process, particularly for Washington and Charlotte, which featured some of the worst teams in the NBA for years. After swinging and missing on several lottery picks, they didn’t have the talent base to attract many free agents and they had to spent a lot of time chewing their medicine, bleeding fans as they racked up huge loss totals. The Wizards eventually lucked out in the lottery while the Hornets made a few shrewd free agent moves.

They both appear on the right track, but the leap from good to great is the hardest one to make in the NBA, as the Atlanta Hawks can attest. They have made seven consecutive trips to the playoffs without cracking the Conference Finals and they don’t appear any closer to getting there, beyond hand-waving about cap space and flexibility. Just because a team is on an upward track doesn’t mean someone else can’t come in behind them and jump them in line.

Atlanta was forever haunted by passing up Chris Paul and Deron Williams in 2005 and a lot of the upside in Washington and Charlotte will depend on what happens to the final lottery picks they made before becoming playoff teams - Otto Porter, Cody Zeller and Noah Vonleh. Unless you have a transcendent superstar like LeBron, you need to have everything else in place and all the pieces have to be lined up in order to be an elite team in the NBA.

- Miami Heat: Norris Cole

If you want to know why LeBron James is back in Cleveland, you can start with the dearth of young talent in Miami. After years of ignoring the draft, there were not many young players on the Heat roster that LeBron could look at with confidence as he tried to figure out where the team would be in 2-3 seasons. The only real candidate for internal improvement on this year’s roster is a guy who is going to have to fight to earn a contract extension.

Cole has played a valuable role as a backup PG on two championship teams, but he’s still an inconsistent offensive player whose never had a PER above 9 playing at one of the most fungible positions in the league. For all that he does as a defensive spark-plug and energy guy off the bench, a 6’2 guard who can’t create a lot of offense is only so valuable in the NBA. Once Miami drafted Shabazz Napier in the first round, the clock started ticking for Cole.

- Washington Wizards: Otto Porter

Porter’s rookie season didn’t go exactly as planned, as an early injury and the Wizards emergence in the playoff picture relegated him to the end of the bench. Nevertheless, he’s still only 21 years old and he still has a very intriguing skill-set for a 6’9 forward. The key for Porter is developing his jumper, as the threat of the three-pointer should open up the rest of his game and allow him to thrive on offense without spending too much time in the paint.

With Trevor Ariza in Houston, there should be more minutes for him this season, especially since Washington is going to want to carefully monitor Paul Pierce’s playing time. The Wizards' second-unit is still in flux and Porter could carve out a nice role for himself as a secondary playmaker and versatile defender. If all goes according to plan, a strong sophomore campaign could propel him towards a spot in the starting line-up in 2015.

- Charlotte Hornets: Cozy Zeller

The transition to the NBA wasn’t easy for Zeller, who went from being one of the biggest players on the floor in college to average-sized for his position. After spending most of his life playing inside-out, he had to learn to play outside-in. He started to pick up steam as the season progressed and he became more comfortable with the speed of the NBA game, taking on a bigger role in the rotation and averaging much better numbers after the All-Star break.

Still only 22, Zeller should have a much bigger role for Charlotte this season and he could really benefit from playing with Lance Stephenson. His NBA ceiling will still depend on his perimeter jumper, but his ability to run the floor, crash the glass and play with the ball in his hands at 7’0 240 will make him an effective weapon against second-unit big men. Going forward, the Indiana big man combination of Zeller and Noah Vonleh should be fun to watch.

- Atlanta Hawks: Dennis Schroeder

After dazzling observers at Summer League, Schroeder came back to Earth as his rookie season progressed and NBA teams began daring him to shoot from the perimeter. Hawks fans can only hope that Schroeder spent most of the summer in the gym working on his jumper, because that’s the main thing holding back from being an excellent NBA player. For the most part, a player who plays a lot with the ball in his hands has to be a threat to score it.

While only 6’1 170, Schroeder is an excellent athlete with long arms which allow him to play bigger than his size. If he could handle a bigger role on offense, it would allow Atlanta to play more two-PG line-ups and free up Jeff Teague to hunt for his own shot, ala Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic in Phoenix. With Al Horford and Paul Millsap opening up the lane, there should be plenty of driving lanes on the floor for explosive guards like Teague and Schroeder.

- Orlando Magic: Tobias Harris

You could put a number of different guys in Orlando in this spot, as the Magic have young players trying to establish themselves in the NBA at almost every position on the floor. The three lottery picks taken by the new regime - Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon - will be given every chance to show what they can do, but everyone else on the roster is fighting for a spot in the pecking order and a place in the long-term plans of the franchise.

Harris is a prime example of that, as minutes at the two forward spots in Orlando are suddenly in short supply. Like most combo forwards, he is probably most effective as a small-ball PF, but you could say the same thing about Gordon and the Magic didn’t give Channing Frye $32 million to ride the bench. Harris can score and rebound the ball, but he will have to expand his game to hold down a starting job and secure a contract extension in Orlando.

Breaking Down Protection Of 2015 NBA Draft Traded Picks

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.

The Most Mutually Beneficial Loan Of All-Time

LeBron James going from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Miami Heat and back to the Cavaliers is the most mutually beneficial loan of all-time.

LeBron and the Heat won two titles and were in the Finals as runners-up two additional times.

While all that outstanding success was happening, the Cavaliers accumulated assets by winning the lottery three times in four seasons as a very different type of NBA success.

Nearly everything you need to know about why LeBron left the Cavaliers in 2010 and returned in 2014 can be seen by examining at their draft history.

The Cavaliers drafted Luke Jackson at No. 10 overall in 2004, lost their 2007 first round pick in an ill-advised Jiri Welsch trade made by Jim Paxson shortly before he was fired that also took off their playoff protection for their 2005 pick that would have been retained had they been in the lottery.

Daniel Gibson was a one-dimensional shooter, Shannon Brown didn’t become a contributing player until he went from Charlotte to the Lakers and Danny Green was basically a D-Leaguer for a two more seasons until the San Antonio Spurs developed him into what he is today. J.J. Hickson showed some promise while LeBron was still there and was the player the Cavaliers refused to part ways with at the 2010 deadline and has bounced around since, while Christian Eyenga was a project in 09-10 and played in Poland last season.

The Cavaliers were short on standouts and blatantly failed to develop what was available, albeit a common problem for most franchises outside of the Alamo City.

The Cavaliers also had cap space to burn in 2005, which was spent on Larry Hughes after they were unable to get their preferred choice, Michael Redd, to commit to a deal.

Hughes eventually became Ben Wallace ahead of the 2008 deadline and then Wallace became Shaquille O’Neal almost at the beginning of LeBron’s final offseason with the Cavaliers.

Cleveland’s finishing piece ahead of the 2010 trade deadline was dealing Zydrunas Ilgauskas to the Washington Wizards for Antawn Jamison, thought of as a stretch-four that would open up Mike Brown's uninspiring halfcourt offense.

By July 1, 2010, the Cavaliers were out of ideas and out of viable routes to get better with LeBron on the roster. Only five players, including LeBron, from the Cavs 2010 playoff roster remained in the NBA at the end of this past season.

Cleveland needed LeBron to leave in order to create a roster with a realistic shot of winning a title with LeBron. The prime of LeBron’s career would have simply whittled away on 55 to 65-win regular season teams that would consistently be figured out in a seven-game series against teams that had more than one superstar.

While we can go pick-by-pick between 2011 and 2014 that the Cavaliers made in a vacuum to replace Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett with Klay Thompson or Kawhi Leonard, Andre Drummond and Nerlens Noel or some other combination of picks, the franchise was aggressive in accumulating young players.

The Kyrie Irving pick was a product of the cheapness of Donald Sterling as the Cavaliers won the lottery with a pick that came from the Los Angeles Clippers in exchange for taking on the salary of Baron Davis that was amnestied anyways just a few months later.

The one G.O.A.T. label that most people can agree upon in awarding LeBron is that nobody is capable of making his teammates better given his multi-faceted passing ability and capacity of guarding nearly any player in the game. The roster can be figured out either in the short-term or after LeBron is given a chance to feel what is there. LeBron is basically a human performance enhancer for his teammates with their production to all increase with the open shots he creates.

Whether it is through the exiting pieces, or some sort of combination of forthcoming moves, the Cavaliers have the ability to build a lasting title contender around him fairly quickly. Most importantly considering his age, LeBron is going from the youngish athlete to the elder statesman. LeBron will surely embrace keeping his regular season minutes in the 35ish per game range and can begin to take some maintenance nights off as Dwyane Wade has over the past two seasons.

Irving just signed a max extension and is the one existing piece we know will remain a cornerstone.

Andrew Wiggins isn’t going anywhere unless it’s for Kevin Love. Even then, I’m not sure trading Wiggins is worth it unless the Cavs are getting an All-Star level rim protector back. Wiggins is basically the most athletic player to enter the NBA since LeBron and his ability to be an off-ball threat and shutdown wing defender makes him a potentially perfect fit on the wing beside him.

Waiters as a second unit shot creator and perimeter shooter for when the Cavaliers go small has clear value.

Bennett is significantly better than he showed as a rookie season in which everything went wrong first physically and then mentally.

Thompson’s fit with the Cavaliers is complicated since he’s also represented by Rich Paul and he doesn’t make sense since he’s an undersized power forward that’s not capable of stretching the floor.

Hopefully Anderson Varjeao stays healthy, while we already know the Cavaliers will have no problem signing cheapish shooters whether it becomes Ray Allen, Mike Miller, Troy Daniels or some sort of combination thereof.

There’s still a lot to figure out for David Griffin, David Blatt and Dan Griffin, surely in consultation with LeBron, but this is now a marriage that will last into the next decade when he’s entering his late thirties. LeBron couldn’t leave Cleveland for a second time and it is unlikely the situation will ever turn as bleak as it did in 2010. Nothing is mapped out for LeBron right now as it was when he joined the Heat, but he returns to Cleveland unburdened with two rings as an individual and with youthful athletic legs all around him as tides have turned from boos to cheers

James, now famously, has never been the highest paid player on his team and he will be now with the Cavaliers. James also has never played with anyone who is essentially younger than him physically. Most of his previous teammates with the Cavaliers are out of the league and Wade was only close to being his peer for a short stretch of their tenure together. The importance of James playing with a core from the generation younger than him is a vital component of his return.

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Lance Stephenson Backs His Mouth As Pacers Reestablish Formula To Beat Heat

Indiana isn’t afforded Lance Stephenson behaving like every other 23-year-old, nor afforded his lapses in judgment. So, yes, Stephenson had issued a challenge on the eve of this Eastern Conference final series, a calculated approach to work Dwyane Wade, work his legs to swell on the court.

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Grading The Deal: Warriors Upgrade Bench, Heat Save Money, Celtics Sell Low

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