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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.

Coach's Corner: Warriors' Change Of Tempo Style, The Triangle's True Difficulty

Every Monday we’ll check take a quick dive into some of the more interesting X’s and O’s related topics from the previous week.

Warriors Pushing the Pace

With so many skilled and uniquely talented offensive players, it's a shame that many Golden State Warriors' games under Mark Jackson were so hard to watch. Too many offensive possessions encouraged their stars to embrace the 1-on-1 motto of the 1990s era of the NBA, making some trips down the floor a mind-numbing slog lacking creativity, cohesion and unselfish play.

Steve Kerr was hired to to fix these issues (among other things) and while there’s noted improvement in their halfcourt sets, one of the biggest changes evident in Golden State’s first few preseason games is in their transition attack. Golden State wasn’t exactly a slow paced under Jackson, finishing 6th in pace according to ESPN’s advanced metrics, and the tempo under Kerr thus far suggests they’ll be near the top 5 of the league once more. The biggest surprise isn’t so that they’re running, but how they’re doing it.

Despite the presence of Kerr and lead assistant Alvin Gentry, a duo that worked together during the tail end of the Steve Nash years in Phoenix, the Warriors are taking a very balanced approach to pushing the pace. Instead of casting Stephen Curry as the lead in a point guard-centric production similar to how Mike D’Antoni, and later Gentry, used for Nash with the Suns, Kerr and Gentry have created an equal opportunity fast break.

Any player -- from Andrew Bogut to Curry -- apparently has the freedom to “rip-and-run”, or grab a rebound and push the ball upcourt as quickly as possible. It’s an interesting tactic because it takes the ball out of the hands of the team’s best playmaker (Curry) and has players like Draymond Green and Klay Thompson breaking out ahead of the pack trying to make plays before the defense is set.

But the Warriors are unique in that their entire starting five and nine-tenths of their possible rotation are equipped to handle the ball and push it upcourt (David Lee and Bogut being such skilled bigs is the difference maker). It’s led to some interesting developments, like Green dribbling free throw line to free throw line and sinking a jumper, but overall has seemed to produce a bevy of open shots early in the clock. It can also certainly be argued that without the rebounder trying to find a guard for an outlet, it allows the Warriors to play slightly faster.

Given how the old-school thought and new-school approach suggest getting the ball into the hands of a single playmaker and letting him make all the choices, this new approach is certainly an interesting development. But the thought from Kerr and Gentry must be that they don’t want Curry to be Nash. Having worked closely with both now, the two coaches may have realized the little things that Nash did well in Phoenix -- like throw the ball ahead quickly (called an advance pass) and probe the defense specifically to look for trailing shooters -- aren’t really what Curry is best at. Curry is primarily looking to dribble down and look for his own shot. And taking the ball out of Curry’s hands also means he’s free to just sprint down the floor and move to an open spot behind the arc during a time while the defense is scattered.

Still, the prospect of Curry assuming the Nash role in the D’Antoni, up-tempo, spread pick-and-roll system is a pretty interesting alternative. Should this equal opportunity approach start leading to bad shots or routinely waste precious seconds on the shot clock as the wrong players consistently fail to penetrate the heart of the defense, it might prompt a change in approach. 

A Three-Sided Mistake

There have been so many words written about the Triangle Offense these days that it seems trite to mention it here. But in watching the New York Knicks play the Boston Celtics last week, it’s impossible not to see the offense operate and muse about it’s place in basketball. Obviously, last Wednesday’s loss to the Celtics is just one game, an extremely meaningless one at that and the very first under new head coach Derek Fisher. It’s beyond unfair to judge the offenses impact on this particular team, but what really caught my attention is even how it looked when it was run correctly.

One of the biggest misnomers about the Triangle is that it’s an offense that caters to perimeter stars like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and now, potentially, Carmelo Anthony. The truth is the offense -- which originated in the 1940s under Sam Barry to give you some perspective -- is actually designed for post players, traditionally big men. Even the original strongside triangle that is the offense’s signature look came about to give a team two angles to enter the ball into a posting big man (basically, if the post player was denied a pass from the wing with a three-quarters coverage, the ball could move to the corner man who would have the proper angle to enter the ball). The Triangle can stake a claim that “anyone can post” in the offense, but when it comes to the Knicks, there are arguably two players that could generate the great scoring opportunities from posting up -- Amar’e Stoudamire and Anthony. Watching Samuel Dalembert trying to channel his inner-Olajuwan is certainly enjoyable to watch, but it doesn’t lend itself to winning games.

The other side of it is that the definition of “great scoring opportunities” has changed pretty drastically over even just the last decade. The invasion of analytics has sharpened the thought process of both teams, media and a more connected fan base. Nowadays it’s pretty universal that free throws, layups and 3’s (in that order) are the most productive shot attempts per possession.

You know what a common result out of the ball movement in the Triangle is? A mid-range jumper coming out of the two-man game on the weakside. Now a few times the Knicks worked the offense to perfection and generated a layup to a cutting big man (Once off the greatest play label in pro sports, the “blind pig”, which is basically no-look drop pass to a player cutting backdoor. Oh, and the video’s associated with the Triangle Offense and the Blind Pig on Youtube are, unfortunately, wrong). It’s just very hard to engineer the high-value looks teams want out of that offense unless they are routinely hitting on cuts to the basket, which teams are not routinely getting against quality opponents.

Now that doesn’t mean the offense is necessarily doomed to failure or be bad for Anthony. Jordan and Bryant clearly operated just fine in it during their heydays (but it’s also probably important to point out that great players are typically great in any system, it’s the lesser players in the league that are most reliant on schemes to maximize their skill sets). But the bottom line is the Triangle has some solid concepts, but seems increasingly ill-suited for today’s NBA. But perhaps Derek Fisher and the Knicks will prove that assumption wrong. 

The Eastern Conference At The Deadline

Thursday at the NBA trade deadline, we saw a total of 26 players, seven second round draft picks, and zero blockbuster trades. On Friday, we covered how the 10 players that ended up on West teams will shape the playoff race, and now we are looking at the 16 that were sent to the D-League…whoops, I meant the Eastern Conference.

While the Western teams made a few smart, calculated trades to improve depth (Steve Blake to the Warriors) and cut costs (possible buyout for Jason Terry from the Kings), the East had the biggest deals of 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).

The Brooklyn Nets traded their disappointing – but playoff tested – guard, Jason Terry, for the Sacramento Kings' disappointing – and never played in a playoff game – guard, Marcus Thorton. Thorton, who once averaged 21.3 points per game, is a solid sixth man and capable of scoring in bunches when needed though he has struggled badly this season. He will likely provide relief for Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson down the stretch of the season. However, adding his extra $730,000 in salary means paying a ridiculous $3.3 million in tax, bringing their total to over $88 million on taxes alone…for a team that won’t get out of the first round.

The Cleveland Cavaliers traded for 76ers' center, Spencer Hawes. He will likely anchor their team right to where they were destined to be before they traded for him…the lottery. Hawes is a talented 7-footer who leads all centers in three-pointers made and percentage, is an elite passer for his position, a good scorer and rebounder, and a capable body on defense when he cares. Forced to play on a hapless Philadelphia team, Hawes had no reason to try over the past few months, but as he heads into free agency this offseason, expect his production to go back up for the Cavs. Despite the addition of Hawes and recently acquired Luol Deng, this team is unfortunately still coached by Mike Brown, suggesting they are likely doomed to miss the playoffs and then ultimately lose Hawes and Deng to free agency for nothing.

Professor Andre Miller, PhD left his classroom for winter break on December 30th and has been M.I.A. ever since. However, after being traded to the Washington Wizards, you can rest assured Professor Miller will be making a teaching once again. Miller, who was restless under indecisive rookie head coach Brian Shaw will be a capable backup behind John Wall, likely helping lead this Wizards team to homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

The Charlotte Bobcats made a good deal at the trade deadline. Say it with me: “The Bobcats did something right.” They traded valuable but redundant point guard, Ramon Sessions to the Milwaukee Bucks along with Jeff Adrian for Luke Ridnour and Gary Neal. Ridnour is a terrific backup point guard who can play behind or with Kemba Walker, while Neal is an outstanding shooter who won an NBA Finals game last season by scoring 24 points in 25 minutes!

In the only move that might affect the NBA Finals this season, the Pacers trading former All-Star forward, Danny Granger to the 76ers for Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen. Turner is a do-it-all forward who has fallen out of favor league-wide because he has failed to live up to the hype of a second overall pick. Turner should play with the first unit as well as anchor the second for the Pacers. His ball handling will allow George Hill, Paul George and CJ Watson to get free and take uncontested shots while giving them insurance –albeit expensive at an $8.7 million qualifying offer or whatever long-term offer he receives – in case Lance Stephenson leaves in free agency. Additionally, Allen started in the playoffs only two seasons ago and is a capable big man off the bench. Most importantly, Larry “The Legend” Bird signed off on this trade, thus, it must be great.

The last set of trades involved the Miami Heat, Philadelphia 76ers and the Atlanta Hawks. Each team gave up players that weren’t part of their future and received cash, second round draft picks, and laundry service for a year in exchange for helping another team out. The Heat traded Roger Mason Jr. and cash for a pick they will likely never see in order to open a roster spot for Caron Butler (Tuff Juice wants to go home!). The 76ers, who were involved in a league-high four deals during the trade deadline ended up with five second round draft picks and five players that won’t be buying property in Philadelphia. Finally, the Hawks acquired Antawn Jamison from the Clippers and enough cash to take him out to a nice dinner before buying out his contract.

Compared to the four West teams that made a deadline deal, eight of the top ten Eastern franchises made a deal with only Chicago and Detroit remaining inactive. Whether this reflects the fragility of the Eastern Conference standings (5th place through 11th is separated by just 5.5 games), or the strength of the mighty teams in the West (3rd place in the East would be 10th in the West) is anyone’s guess. With that said, all these moves outside of Indiana and Miami are moot because none of them are making the Eastern Conference Finals.

Indiana Pacers Vs. Miami Heat, Round III starts May 20th – Get ready, America!

Toure' Murry Takes Humble, Earned Path To Knicks

For all of Toure' Murry’s persistence after an unheralded collegiate career, after a season in the D-League, he had wanted too much, too soon, sometimes. For all his humility, his quiet manner, he insisted how he maintained composure and found solace in continuing his growth.

The Points In The Paint Separation Between Contenders, Pretenders

The category of points in the paint is clearly important enough to be on the box score. You could argue that it should be at the top of the box score instead of the bottom. It’s the one stat that can determine how dominate a team can be either offensively or defensively or both.

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.

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.

How The Andrea Bargnani Trade Compounds New York's Biggest Problem

The Knicks traded for a player in Andrea Bargnani who exacerbates their biggest problem from last season, which was figuring out how to successfully construct a rotation that involves Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire.

30-Team Offseason Rundown

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

2013 NBA Offseason Primer

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

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.

Chris Copeland Adds New Dimension To Knicks’ Offense

Chris Copeland’s presence helped the Knicks cut the rebounding deficit (43-40) by pulling Hibbert and West away from the basket on pick-and-roll plays and by roaming along the three-point line along the wings in Game 5.

Knicks Maximizing Value Of Prigioni

Pablo Prigioni has become an x-factor for the Knicks in the playoffs. Prigioni excels when orchestrating the offense in pick-and-roll sets as a pass-first point guard with the ability to make three-pointers if left open on defensive switches.

Carmelo's Next Step

Carmelo Anthony cannot truly become a great player until he consistently makes great plays that go beyond simply scoring. The championship chances of the Knicks depend on Anthony’s willingness to do more than shoot the ball.

J.R. Smith Puts Career-Season, Reputation, Future On The Line

Despite all that has occurred in the past two games, J.R. Smith remains confident he will return to his award-winning form and prove he is a changed player.

Celtics Pushed To Brink With Poor Performance In Game 3

Now, the Celtics, who many felt no one wanted to face in the first round, are a loss away from a sweep. Before long, the questions surrounding the team will have a much farther reach than just the scope of a poor playoff series.

Knicks Protect Homecourt With Second Half Defense

The Knicks allowed only 25 points in the second half of Game 1, only to allow 23 points in the second half of Game 2. New York’s second half performance in Game 2 set a new franchise playoff record for the fewest points allowed in a half.

Copeland's Transition From 15th Man To Important Volume Scorer

Chris Copeland has gone from an overlooked player rounding out the end of the bench to a valuable reserve and spot starter due to injuries along the Knicks’ aging frontcourt.

How Many Players Teams Acquire At Each Trade Deadline On Average

The Kings, Knicks, Rockets, Thunder and Cavaliers have been the most active teams at the deadline over the past decade, while the Spurs, Pistons, Heat, Lakers and Pacers have made the fewest deals.

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