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Coach's Corner: Celtics' Open Offensive System, LeBron's Lab, Malik Rose

Beware of Boston

The Boston Celtics' roster is a strange collection of flawed vets, solid but unspectacular young players and Rajon Rondo. On paper, it makes the team seem destined for mid-lottery obscurity. But the preseason has offered glimpses that this Boston team has the potential to be more competitive than originally expected.

Brad Stevens has crafted an open offensive system that has maximized the skill sets of this eclectic group of players. The young starting frontcourt of Kelly Olynyk and Jared Sullinger -- two inside-outside threats that can both draw opposing frontcourt players out of the paint and take advantage of weaker defenders on the block -- are vital components. Having two bigs on the floor at the same time with the ability to knock down shots from beyond the arc is a rarity in a league where some teams don’t even have a single one in their projected rotation (looking at you, Lakers). It allows Stevens and the Celtics to maximize their spacing; and space is the most valuable commodity in basketball.

Sullinger’s improvement as a shooter -- the young big man has shot 14-of-26 from 3 this preseason after a woeful 26.9 percent last year -- is what should really drive the optimism in Boston. Without an effective 3-point shot, Sullinger seemed like a young player without an impact skill. If this preseason form holds up, the ability to operate from beyond the arc will make Sullinger a valuable commodity when it comes to team offense. No longer will he be just a wide body limited to occasionally bullying smaller defenders in the post.

His improvement mirrors the general emphasis on the shot for the Celtics under Stevens. Boston has been particularly aggressive about hunting shots from deep early in transition. Anyone from Olynyk to rookie Marcus Smart has been given the green light to launch open 3’s if they can find a good look before the defense is set. Given that Sullinger, Olynyk and Avery Bradley, three of Boston’s five projected starters, have combined to shoot 53.2 percent on 77 attempts from behind the arc thus far, this seems like a wise decision.

Now that doesn’t mean the Celtics are blindly rushing up the court shooting 3’s. Thanks in part to Evan Turner’s new role as a playmaking point guard in the absence Rondo, the team’s halfcourt ball movement has been almost Spurs-ian at times -- pinging across the interior and around the perimeter until it finds an open shooter. Turner’s numbers aren’t very impressive, and it’s hard to tell if he’s changed much from the player he was in previous stops, but Boston needs someone willing to take advantage of their newfound space with dribble penetration. Until Smart gets a better feel for the NBA game, Turner is best suited for that role.

An interesting development to keep an eye on, however, will be how Boston handles the acquisition of Will Bynum. As of now, it seems as though Bynum -- acquired this past week from the Pistons in exchange for Joel Anthony despite missing most of the preseason with a hamstring injury -- is set to be waived due to roster restrictions. But two seasons ago in Detroit, Bynum played in a lineup that had a similar offensive set up as Boston’s does now and enjoyed a career year, along with posting a very respectable PER of 16.62. If Boston was truly trying to be the best team they can be (and not utilize roster spots in order to develop young, fringe players like Phil Pressey), Danny Ainge should be working hard to find a place for Bynum on this roster. If Ainge does keep the veteran guard around to claim a place in the team’s smart offensive system, it will add even more intrigue to Boston’s season.

LeBron’s Laboratory

Perhaps the most enjoyable thing about NBA preseason basketball is that it’s a time for experimentation for several of the league’s stars. They’ll try some crazy shots, a new move or maybe learn to operate from a different spot on the floor. There’s no downside in doing this, because even epic failures don’t matter much given preseason games are pretty much meaningless in the grand scheme of things -- especially when you’re coming off four straight Finals like James.

Because James is very much a bored basketball savant at this time of year (and sometimes during the regular season), he seems to entertain himself by attempting random, high-degree-of-difficulty shots just to see if he can pull them off. Take this one from the Indiana game Wednesday night.

It didn’t make any highlight reels of note, but it was probably one of the most insane shots of a game where he attempted a Dirk fadeaway, a 10-foot running left handed floater, a skyhook and a crazy spin finish layup where he switched the ball from his left to right hand in midair (that last one did make highlight reels). At first glance, it may not seem too much out of the ordinary, but let’s break down what happens in this sequence to get the full effect:

As James drives into the paint, he executes a pullover; ripping the ball way over the head of 6’5” Rodney Stuckey as the Pacer wing swipes at the ball from his help position

- James bounds into the lane while manipulating the ball away from Stuckey, gets a slight bump from a second Indiana defender and still somehow completely stops his momentum by decelerating onto his right leg. This is not an easy thing to do.

- To top it off, LeBron then holds himself for a beat on his coiled right leg, then without his left foot ever touching the ground, pushes back into a fadeaway and drains the shot

There’s a good chance that referee Kipp Kissinger didn’t give him the continuation for an “And 1” because he simply had no idea what to make of what he was seeing.

More Fallout From the Sixers Shameless Tanking

Scrolling through games on NBA League Pass is a total crapshoot when it comes to announcers. The spread ranges from total homers, former greats that don’t make much of an effort to be prepared and the occasional insightful duo. Unfortunately for basketball fans, one of the best in the business -- Philadelphia’s Malik Rose -- is stuck calling games for a team no one will want to watch.

Rose can relate to both the casual fan and hardcore hoops junkie with his spot-on analysis.  Whether it’s explaining how the bench can help with defensive communication or what should happen when a team rotates out of defending pick-and-rolls near the sideline, Rose is a rare commentator that actually makes the viewer feel like he or she has actually learned something while watching the broadcast. Rose simply has a knack for helping fans understand and appreciate the nuances of the game. It’s unfortunate that no one outside of loyal Sixer fans (or people with a serious case of basketball schadenfreude) will have much incentive to tune in and experience it.

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.

Dario Saric's Best Case Scenario

For American fans, one of the most intriguing aspects of international tournaments like the World Cup is the chance to see some of the best young players in the world before they come to the NBA. Dario Saric, who was taken at No. 12 overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in this year’s draft, is the perfect example. While he has played extensively in Europe, his only real exposure on the North American continent came at the Nike Hoop Summit in 2011 and 2012.

Saric is only 20, but he has been competing in some of the best leagues in Europe for several years. Despite his youth, he is one of the most important players on the Croatian national team, averaging 27 minutes a game in pool play. Croatia has played down to the competition, with a 2-1 record including an OT win over the Philippines and an upset loss to Senegal, but Saric has more than held his own, averaging 14 points, 8 rebounds and 3 assists on 51% shooting.

At 6’10 210, his ability to slide between multiple positions upfront gives Croatia some versatility with their line-ups, but he has mostly played as a small-ball PF in Spain. Unlike for his club team, where he gets to dominate the ball as one of the primary options, Saric has primarily played off the ball, setting picks, cutting to the rim and spotting up from the perimeter. A hard-nosed player with a high basketball IQ, he can impact the game in multiple ways.

It’s easy to see where the excitement comes with Saric. He is a mismatch nightmare - he can put the ball on the floor and take bigger players off the dribble as well as play with his back to the basket and punish smaller players on the block. He can clear the defensive glass and start the fast break himself and he knows how to accept the double team and find the open man in the half-court. Not many guys have his combination of size, skill and athleticism.

On the offensive side of the ball, the big question is his three-point shot, something he has struggled with in his first few years as a pro. He is coming off his best season as a shooter, going 34.5% on 3.1 attempts a game in the Adriatic League, but he shot only 30.8% in Eurocup play and was at 30.3% and 33.3% the previous two seasons. That’s been the biggest hole in his game in Spain, where he has shot 2-11 from deep, mostly on open looks off ball movement.

That shot is almost always going to be there for Saric, since very few big men have the speed and quickness to match up with him so far from the basket. Being able to consistently stretch the defense will take his game to the next level - not only will it open driving lanes for everyone else on the team, it will give him the ability to create a good shot against even elite defenders. As is, international teams are happy to concede the jumper and play him for the drive.

For a point forward like Saric, the three-point shot is a crucial weapon in his repertoire, especially at the highest levels of the game. When looking for possible NBA comparisons, the most optimistic ones - Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis, Toni Kukoc - are all guys who made a living at the three-point line. Even at the World Cup, he isn’t going up against many of the long 6’9+ athletes in the frontcourt that he will see on a nightly basis in the NBA.

For the first time in his life, he will be matching up with defenders who are just as big and just as athletic as him. That’s what makes combo forward one of the most difficult positions to project in the draft - all of a sudden, a guy who was too big for small forwards and too quick for power forwards becomes too slow for small forwards and too small for power forwards. Derrick Williams and Michael Beasley are two prominent examples of that in recent years.

Saric is bigger than Beasley and more skilled than Williams, but he could have many of the same issues on the defensive side of the ball. He only has a 6’10 wingspan, so he has a hard time contesting shots on the perimeter or protecting the rim. Like most guys his size, Saric is not totally comfortable getting into a stance and sliding his feet on the three-point line, which opens him up to reaching and committing silly fouls. He is averaging 4 a game in the World Cup.

To be sure, a lot of that is inexperience and few players come into the league with the ability to be impact defenders. Saric gets an impressive amount of steals (1.3 a game in Spain) and should become a stronger player and a better positional defender as he gets older, but his inability to block shots (0.3 a game) will always give him a ceiling on that side of the ball. He may never be able to match up with the best players in the NBA at either SF or PF.

A good rule of thumb for combo forwards, whether in Europe or the NCAA, is that they are probably best suited as small-ball PF’s in the NBA. Saric is no exception - if he can play with a rim protector, he should be able to survive in the post and guard most PF’s on the perimeter. That’s Croatia’s biggest problem in the World Cup, as they don’t have a lot of team speed or interior defense, so opposing teams can put their head down and get easy looks at the rim.

Going forward, the best case scenario for Saric is that he continues to develop his three-point shot and becomes capable of being a primary or secondary option in the NBA. While he will never be a great two-way player, if he can come into the league as a high-level ball-handler, shooter, passer and rebounder at 6’10, he could be a starter on an elite team. He has the floor of a solid NBA contributor and he still has lot of room to grow as a player.

One interesting rookie to track next season will be Nikola Mirotic, a high-level European combo forward who is about the same age Saric will be when he comes over in 2016. While their games aren’t identical - Mirotic is a better shooter and a worse passer - they are both 6’10 small-ball PF’s with above average skill and average athleticism for their NBA position. If Mirotic can survive defensively in Tom Thibodeau’s system, that will be a good sign for Saric.

Saric is a unique player with very defined strengths and weaknesses, which gives his NBA career a wide range of possible outcomes. Maybe the biggest reason for optimism is his age, as he is one of the youngest players at the World Cup. If Croatia makes the Olympics in 2016, he will probably be their best player and he will still be only 22. No matter what happens in the NBA, Saric will be a player to watch at every international tournament for the next decade.

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