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The NBA's Last High School Class

By the middle of the 2000’s, the enthusiasm for drafting high school players had all but evaporated. A sure-fire star like LeBron James or Dwight Howard would still go No. 1 overall, but teams were becoming increasingly unwilling to invest a lot of money in younger guys who wouldn’t be able to contribute right away. If a teenager would need several years to develop physically, the team that drafted them was essentially paying to develop a guy for someone else.

The 2005 draft was the last one to allow high school players and it didn’t feature anyone like Dwight or LeBron. The eight guys from the high school class of 2005 who were drafted that season became the final group of prep-to-pros for at least a generation. In many ways, they were a lost generation, caught between two eras. They were lost in the shuffle as soon as they came into the league, not ready to play right away and not drafted high enough to build around.

No. 6 - Martell Webster

No. 10 - Andrew Bynum

No. 18 - Gerald Green

No. 34 - CJ Miles

No. 40 - Monta Ellis

No. 45 - Lou Williams

No. 49 - Andray Blatche

No. 56 - Amir Johnson

Talent was never the issue for any of these guys. Ten years later, six of the eight are still in the NBA, playing big roles on their teams. However, none are still on the team that drafted them and most had to bounce around the league for awhile before finding a home. Gerald Green ended up spending a few years overseas while Andrew Bynum and Andray Blatche, probably the two most talented players, aren’t even in the league during what should be their prime.

It wasn’t obvious right away, as none got much playing time as rookies. Chris Paul, who spent two seasons at Wake Forest, ran away with the Rookie of the Year Award and most of the guys on the All-Rookie teams had played a few years in college. The high school guys were essentially taking a redshirt year, building up their bodies and watching from the sidelines. Since they went later in the draft, they were going to teams who didn’t have much available playing time.

In their second season, three guys - Monta, Bynum and Green - moved into the starting line-up. For the most part, an under-20 player who starts in the NBA has a lot of talent and those three are no exception. Monta is one of the fastest players in the league, Bynum is one of the biggest and Green is one of the most athletic. All three were capable of taking over a game and all three had the potential to be perennial All-Stars, if things had worked out differently.

Green was the most glaring example of a guy who wasn’t ready to play in the NBA. He had spent his whole career dunking on people whenever he felt like it, so he had no real idea how to operate within a team concept on either offense or defense. An NBA coach was just not going to put up with that from a young player, no matter how talented. Green played on four teams in his first four seasons in the NBA and was out of the league by the age of 24.

The same thing happened to Blatche, although it was slower because he was a big man. He never learned how to become a professional, either on or off the court. There’s no reason he shouldn’t be in the league - he’s coming off a season where he averaged 11 points and 5 rebounds on 47% shooting in only 22 minutes. In the last two seasons, he had PER’s of 21.9 and 18.8. The fact that no one has given him a job says it all about his reputation around the league.

Monta was way too good a player to fall out of the league, but there wasn’t a ton of interest when he entered the market last season, at the age of 28. He took a lot of bad shots for a lot of bad teams, which may or may not have been a coincidence. He sat out there for a few weeks before winding up with the Dallas Mavericks, who have been able to resurrect his career. Even in Dallas, though, his inability to defend or run point limits the line-up options around him.

Lou Williams was available for practically nothing last summer, when the Raptors acquired him and Lucas Noguiera for the price of John Salmons. After tearing his ACL in 2013, a slow recovery had made Williams expendable. He had never developed into anything beyond a scorer, so he had a hard time impacting the game without his typical burst. He has been reborn in Toronto, where he has a chance to be 6th man of the year, if they win enough games.

Amir Johnson is the longest-tenured member of the Raptors, one of the leaders of the team with the best record in the East. He wound up in Toronto after spending four years as an understudy to Ben and Rasheed Wallace in Detroit, a situation similar to what happened to Jermaine O’Neal in Portland. Johnson isn’t on that level, but he’s just now coming into his own, a 27-year old two-way big man who should be able to start well into the foreseeable future.

That might be the biggest benefit of coming into the league at such a young age - time is on your side. If a college senior needs some time before he gets comfortable with the NBA game, he could be coming up at 30 real fast. Amir Johnson has been in the league 10 seasons and is 27. Taj Gibson, in contrast, has played 6 seasons and is 29. So while Amir will be an unrestricted free agent at 28, Gibson won’t hit the market until 32, when he will already be in decline.

Miles, on his third team in the last four seasons, is getting the biggest chance of his career in his 10th season in the league. He was signed to be one of the guys to replace Lance Stephenson, but the Pacers ended up having to replace Paul George too, opening up a ton of playing time for Miles. Indiana, like Chicago over the last few seasons, still has good big men and a culture of winning, so there’s a chance for Miles to carve out a role as a starter on a playoff team.

Green, who had to spend three seasons in Russia and the D-League in his mid 20’s, is finally getting a chance to shine in the NBA at the age of 28. He is the perfect fit for the Phoenix Suns uptempo system, capable of scoring points in bunches and single-handedly taking over games. In the last few weeks alone, Green has had 24 points in 26 minutes against the Nuggets, 23 points in 22 minutes against the Pacers and 26 points in 28 minutes against the Clippers.

Over the next few seasons, the six remaining guys from the class of 2005 - Monta, Green, Williams, Amir, Miles and Webster - all have a chance to have big roles on playoff teams. With the exception of Webster, who hasn’t played all season due to injury, they are in the best situation of their careers. It took them a long time to get where they were going, but they ended up in good places. How many 10-year NBA veterans can say their best days are ahead of them?

Coach's Corner: Stagnant Suns; Let 'Em Shoot

Stagnant Suns

Fresh off their surprising playoff push last season, the Phoenix Suns made some interesting alterations to their roster. Channing Frye, an invaluable perimeter threat in the frontcourt, was allowed to leave to sign with the Orlando Magic and reserve guard Ish Smith, arguably the team’s most willing passer, was released. The Morris twins, Markieff and Marcus, are now splitting minutes that went to fry while Isaiah Thomas was signed this offseason to be the team’s sixth man. In effect, the Suns replaced floor spacing and passing with more scoring.

The result is a Phoenix team that started off the season with a noticeable lack of ball movement. According to SportVU data, the Suns rank 25th in the league in total passes per game, 27th in secondary assists -- a category designed to track the “extra pass” -- and 27th in assist opportunities (an open shot that doesn’t go in). To top it off, NBA.com has them ranked 27th in assist ratio.

Seven games is on the tiny end as far as small sample sizes and part of that is reflection of the Suns offensive philosophy. Head coach Jeff Hornacek wants his team to play fast and find 3’s or layups early in the possession. That type of mandate isn’t going to produce a lot of staggering passing totals that teams like the Spurs or Heat (with LeBron at least) based their lethal offenses on.

But those numbers do also reflect the subjective assessment of the team before the year began. Players like Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, the Morris twins, Thomas and reserve guard Gerald Green all possess a score-first mindset. In any system, it would take a heavy emphasis on ball movement in (limited) practice and walkthroughs, along with some continuity to curb those players natural tendencies. So far, Phoenix hasn’t been able to do that and in the opening games of the season, the offense has had a very “My turn, your turn” flow to it -- particularly in the second unit where Green and Thomas seem to alternate dominating possessions in search of a shot.

Scoring efficiently without the ball pinging around the perimeter like the Spurs is certainly possible, it’s just a lot harder to do and requires a lot individual brilliance. The Thunder teams in recent years have mastered the art of scoring with limited ball movement but have also been heavily criticized for their over reliance on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook creating offensive brilliance without much help -- an issue that becomes magnified against better competition. It’s been linked to the team’s downfall (though not even close to the sole cause) during some of their recent playoff exits.

According to our very own RealGM stats, Phoenix currently sits 15th in offensive efficiency. That ranking is hardly a worrisome number as the young Suns are integrating some players into new roles and (in theory) the offensive production and ball movement should only get better as the team gains experience together. But for a team with their eyes on a playoff spot, the question is how much?

Dragic, Bledsoe and company, while good, can’t manipulate defense like a healthy Durant and Westbrook. Add in the fact they play in an insanely deep and competitive conference, and the inability to max out the team’s offensive potential with consistent ball movement could mean the difference between a playoff berth and living in high-end of the lottery limbo for the next few seasons. It’s still early, so there’s plenty of time for the Hornacek and the Suns to figure things out, but it’s certainly an issue to keep an eye on.

Let ‘em Shoot

No matter how often we tend to think otherwise, every player in the NBA is really good at basketball. So when an opposing head coach brazenly ignores one of the five on the court in attempt to thwart another part of a team’s offense, it’s particularly noteworthy. One of the many reasons we admire Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich is for his willingness to go to extremes like this an attempt to give his team an edge. Brad Stevens of the Celtics has shown a willingness to do the same.

Though they have sputtered of late, the Mavericks offense is going to be really difficult to deal with all season long. The Celtics found that out the hard way, giving up 118 points when they played early last week. But in that game Stevens employed a tactic that will be something to file away for not just if (when?) his team makes the playoffs, but when teams play Dallas in the postseason as well.

There’s a lot that happens in that short segment, so let’s unpack. In order to deal with Dirk Nowitzki in pick-and-pop, Stevens opts to switch it first -- having Avery Bradley and Jeff Green swap assignments. Since Nowitzki posting up Bradley isn’t a fair fight, Stevens has Kelly Olynyk, rotate off Brandon Wright will Bradley fronts the post. At the same time, Marcus Smart drops onto Wright, leaving Monta Ellis all by his lonesome in the far corner. It’s this end result -- leaving Ellis unattended -- that was a common theme when it came to stopping other parts of the Dallas offense as earlier in the game, Rajon Rondo rotated off Ellis while he was in the corner to stop Dirk from shooting in another pick-and-pop

Like Popovich, Stevens is just playing the odds and being rather bold about it. Though Ellis is an extremely threatening scorer, any Nowitzki shots is far more efficient than one from Ellis -- no matter where either is located on the floor. Ellis is both a middling 3-point shooter (33 percent last year) and catch-and-shoot player (ranking in the 66th percentile per Synergy data) while Nowitzki is, well, Nowitzki

Even when it comes to historically great shooters, it’s never easy to tell players to leave a player with Ellis’ reputation as a scorer, which is why it’s interesting (and ballsy) for a coach to do it. In the grand scheme of things, Stevens saw his defense get shredded, but that doesn’t mean this tactic didn’t have merit. It’s certainly something that may pop up again for either his teams or the ones facing off against Dallas in a playoff series.

2014-15 NBA Season Tiers Preview

As has been the case in previous seasons, I open with my tiered power rankings. Please remember that these are based solely on projected regular season success. The concept is that teams could finish in any order within a tier bur I would be surprised if they finished outside of that tier, excluding major personnel changes. The order represents my estimation of the most likely finish within a tier though that can be splitting hairs in some cases.

Western Conference 

Tier One – Higher Ground

Los Angeles Clippers: Despite carrying some notable flaws that could doom them in the playoffs, the Clippers have a clear window to take the No. 1 seed. They fixed their largest weakness by adding quality big man depth in Spencer Hawes and Ekpe Udoh and hopefully should have better luck in terms of guard health.

San Antonio Spurs: If Gregg Popovich wanted to run away with the No. 1 seed in the West it likely will be there for the taking. However, history has shown the Spurs care more about wins in the playoffs than the regular season so they take a place firmly in the top tier but not all the way at the top using this methodology. They are still the toughest out in the playoffs as long as Tim Duncan and Tony Parker play as well as they did last season.

That paragraph lifted straight from last season’s preview- another illustration of why the Spurs are the best-run sports franchise on the planet.

Tier Two – Uptight (Everything’s Alright)

Oklahoma City Thunder: Kevin Durant’s injury moves the Thunder from Tier One to Tier Two because even keeping their heads above water will not be enough to catch the Spurs and Clippers. This feels like the year that continually cheapening out on depth by regularly avoiding the luxury tax burns OKC. I actually think this Thunder team as presently constructed and coached stands a better chance of getting knocked out in the first round than making the conference finals despite being a huge fan of Steven Adams.

Golden State Warriors: At full strength, Golden State is the most dangerous Western Conference team for the Spurs in a seven game series with quality defenders to spare and a legitimate superstar in Stephen Curry. The Warriors just have to be healthy for the playoffs and a lack of depth behind Curry and Andrew Bogut means an injury to either jeopardizes their chances of even making the postseason.

Houston Rockets: Their starting five might actually be better this season since Trevor Ariza makes more sense with the  Harden / Howard core than Chandler Parsons. That said, sacrificing their depth by moving Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin dramatically increases the variance on their season as does the retention of Kevin McHale as head coach. The Rockets always seem to have someone new step up and my call for 2014-15 is rookie Clint Capela who produced well against high-level talent in Europe and could thrive in a small role this season.

Memphis Grizzlies: Memphis was one of the best teams in the entire league when healthy last season and added some compelling depth through the draft in the form of Jordan Adams and Jarnell Stokes. If either works out or Vince Carter can carry the Mike Miller torch for shocking durability the Grizzlies could be yet another squad no one wants to face in the playoffs.

Phoenix Suns: Last year’s biggest surprise has plenty of backslide risk but also improved their depth by stealing Isaiah Thomas and drafting possible contributor TJ Warren in the lottery. Losing Channing Frye hurts the driving lanes for Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe but the young team should improve enough to do even better than last season.

Dallas Mavericks: If we could turn injuries off for a season, Dallas would be both one of my favorite teams to watch and a shocking favorite to make some real noise in a stacked conference. Unfortunately, the Mavericks have no real recourse if any one of Dirk Nowitzki, Chandler Parsons or Tyson Chandler misses any real time. I always give Rick Carlisle teams a boost after ranking them on pure talent which puts them more firmly in the playoff picture.

Portland Trail Blazers: Portland’s starters only missed 13 games last season. COMBINED. While some teams could handle a regression to the mean in terms of injuries, the Blazers are so top-heavy that losing any member of their core would be devastating. They are another great team that has to pray they stay healthier than their competitors because they are in the post-season if that happens.

New Orleans Pelicans: Stop me if you have heard this before: a top-heavy team that needs their best players to stay healthy to make the playoffs. Anthony Davis sits on the cusp of superstardom and finally has a logical running mate in Omer Asik. The Pelicans will need a strong, full season from the underrated Jrue Holiday and likely one or two breakouts from their shaky bench to fight their way into the top eight.

Denver Nuggets: This Denver team works so well in this format because I could honestly buy them finishing anywhere from third to 11th in the West. They are the only team other than the Spurs in the entire NBA to have two good players at every position and their home-court advantage could give the Nuggets enough of a buffer to make the playoffs a reality. Kenneth Faried got the attention and money this summer but Ty Lawson will play the most important role on this year’s team.

Tier Three – Pastime Paradise (or I Wish)

Minnesota Timberwolves: Fittingly, the dual coach/president Flip Saunders has created two different teams in one franchise: a surprisingly competitive batch of veterans including Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin alongside a full batch of pups including No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins and the enigmatic Zach LaVine. That dichotomy could push Minnesota to the top of the bottom by logging enough wins before the kids take the reins once their playoff dreams turn back into a pumpkin.

Sacramento Kings: Pick protection is the biggest scourge on competitiveness in today’s NBA. The Kings owe a pick to the Bulls that carries top-10 protection or each of the next three seasons so they have a clear incentive to pump the brakes if they fall out of the playoff hunt. I fully expect pragmatism to win out for at least one more year so the team can add another Shooting Guard in the lottery. After all, what other reason could there be for replacing Isaiah Thomas with Darren Collison?

Utah Jazz: The Jazz will get substantially more minutes this season from compelling talent than the last few seasons. Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert make Utah a rare team that should expect 48 minutes of reliable rim protection while Gordon Hayward can shoulder less of the offensive load thanks to an improved perimeter rotation. Hopefully Quin Snyder can figure out if Enes Kanter works with their main pieces before he hits restricted free agency next summer.

Los Angeles Lakers: Even before the depressing news about Steve Nash’s injury it was hard to figure out how the Lakers would beat teams even with their full complement of players. The Lake Show has no discernible defensive ability outside of Ed Davis and a coach that apparently wants to take out the high-variance strategy (lots and lots of threes) that could lead to the Lakers snaking a few games. A lost season yields a top-five pick in an interesting 2015 Draft.

Eastern Conference

Tier One – Signed, Sealed, Delivered (or Overjoyed or Love’s in Need of Love Today)

Cleveland Cavaliers: Cleveland’s offseason has to be considered one of the best in league history. They added two of the ten best players in the league (arguably two of the top five) and gave up very little in terms of contributors to last season’s team. Kyrie Irving went from being the savior to his team’s third-best player and both he and Kevin Love should thrive offensively like LeBron’s teammates in Miami. I expect the Cavs to finish in the top five of offensive efficiency in league history at least one of the next two seasons with or without Ray Allen. 

Tier Two – On the Sunny Side of the Street

Chicago Bulls: The Bulls got better by adding Pau Gasol and Doug McDermott but failed to improve their biggest weakness by failing to bring in anyone of substance at guard. Chicago has staked their entire season to Derrick Rose staying healthy and will be vulnerable even in the minutes he sits when healthy because neither Kirk Hinrich nor Aaron Brooks can competently fill the role. This Bulls team should be very fun to watch though and will go a long way towards showing Tom Thibodeau’s capability as an offensive coach.

Toronto Raptors: After a storybook regular season, Masai Ujiri brought the band back together by keeping Kyle Lowry in T-Dot. The Raptors are young enough to ride age-centric improvement to stay above the hard-charging young teams in the East and absolutely could make Chicago have to sweat to earn the second seed. Yet again, the development of Jonas Valanciunas will determine the ceiling for the Raptors even as the rest of the team improves. 

Tier Three – Positivity

Washington Wizards: A short-term loss of Bradley Beal comes at exactly the wrong position because Washington has done a nice job augmenting their depth behind Wall, Gortat and Nene. Having a full season with Paul Pierce and Andre Miller could give the youngsters (especially Wall) the knowledge to overcome some of Randy Wittman’s subpar coaching.

Atlanta Hawks: The Hawks were a very good team last season when they had both Al Horford and Paul Millsap active. Improved depth from Thabo Sefolosha, Adreian Payne and Mike Muscala should make them more dangerous at full strength and better equipped to handle the injuries that come almost every season.

Detroit Pistons: Other than the Cavs, I would argue that Detroit made the biggest upgrade of any team by adding one of the best coaches in the league. Stan Van Gundy will be able to iron out the flaws on this roster while possessing the power to shed any pieces that do not make sense with Andre Drummond and whoever else SVG sees as a core player. I hope we get to see the first flashes from Spencer Dinwiddie, a special talent who fell in the draft due to injury.

Charlotte Hornets: After a shockingly successful season, the Hornets and Steve Clifford corrected their biggest weakness by bringing in Lance Stephenson. Born Ready fits in well because he can function as a secondary ballhandler and defensive force at a position where Charlotte got very little last year. Losing Josh McRoberts hurts but the combination of Cody Zeller,  Marvin Williams and Noah Vonleh will do enough to make the Hornets a better team overall with Lance.

Miami Heat: Swapping LeBron James for Luol Deng may not seem like a gigantic drop-off but the problems stem from how integral King James was to Miami’s scheme on both ends. He drew the best defender on every opponent and ran the offense so the Heat could use a different kind of point guard. Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade deserve all of their career accolades but losing their buffer makes  Miami an easier cover and far more damaged by any injuries they suffer.

Brooklyn Nets: Basketball people have been talking about the importance of Brook Lopez’s health but Andrei Kirilenko will need to stay on the court too for the Nets to have a realistic shot at the playoffs. Even though I like Bojan Bogdanovic, he cannot fill Paul Pierce’s shoes so those responsibilities will need to fall to the established players on the squad. Lionel Hollins will make his imprint on this team but I am not sure how much of an intensity upgrade a team with Kevin Garnett really needs. On the plus side, Hollins’ experience with Mike Conley and Marc Gasol means we should have a much better idea of where Deron Williams and Brook Lopez are in their careers in April. 

Tier Four – Ordinary Pain

New York Knicks: A team has a problem when their five best players all play the three smallest positions on the floor. Jose Calderon has been an underrated player in the league for years but the Knicks losing Tyson Chandler without replacing him means their rim protection will be functionally nil for a substantial portion of games. We saw with last year’s Pelicans that even Anthony Davis could not carry a defense with shaky perimeter defenders and no anchor.  Carmelo should have another strong season but the Knicks’ roster does not make sense and they do not possess the resources to make their improvement in-season.

Indiana Pacers: Like the Spurs years ago, Indiana would be best served by punting this season to add a key piece through the draft. Losing Lance without replacing him kneecapped this season to begin with so even if Paul George returns before the end of the 2014-15 campaign there would not be much to gain in terms of playoff wins. I honestly do not know if Frank Vogel and Larry Bird are comfortable taking the full steps that would yield the best result from this season but even trying should produce plenty of losses with a horrendous offense in a stronger Eastern Conference.

Milwaukee Bucks: As crazy as it sounds, Milwaukee could make the playoffs as soon as this season. Larry Sanders needs to prove that last season was the aberration and the Jabari / Giannis forward combination should work on both ends eventually though this season should have some growing pains. The Bucks will not reach that ceiling because their guard rotation still needs a ton of work- Brandon Knight will have all kinds of problems running an offense but at least Jason Kidd should know what to do in terms of Knight’s extension after this season.

Orlando Magic: The Magic made a series of strange decisions this summer from dumping Arron Afflalo for Evan Fournier too early in the off-season to adding Channing Frye and Ben Gordon to an extremely young core. If Elfrid Payton can elevate the Magic offense early in his career, the team stands a much better chance of knowing what they have in a horde of physically gifted players on rookie contracts, many of whom hit free agency shockingly soon.

Boston Celtics: Another team that likely spends this season working towards future success. After paying Avery Bradley this summer, Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens must figure out the optimal roles for Jared Sullinger, Marcus Smart, James Young, Phil Pressey and Kelly Olynyk before they make big decisions with Rajon Rondo and next summer’s draft picks. If two or more of those guys break out it makes the rebuilding process substantially easier by narrowing the needs. 

Tier Five – Ain’t That Asking For Trouble (or All Day Sucker)

Philadelphia 76ers: Even with the addition of Rookie of the Year candidate Nerlens Noel, the Sixers start this season with less available talent than last season because it took them months to trade away Spencer Hawes and Evan Turner. It should only take one more year for Philly to have their war chest and they should have a bright near future but the present looks awfully grim. 

Award Predictions

Most Valuable Player: LeBron James (with Chris Paul in second)

Coach of the Year: Doc Rivers

Rookie of the Year:  Jabari Parker

Defensive Player of the Year: DeAndre Jordan

Sixth Man of the Year: Jamal Crawford

Most Improved Player: Jonas Valanciunas

Executive of the Year: David Griffin  

Playoff Predictions

Western Conference

First Round:
Clippers over Mavericks in six
Spurs over Suns in five
Thunder over Grizzlies in seven
Warriors over Rockets in seven

Second Round:
Clippers over Warriors in seven
Spurs over Thunder in six

Western Conference Finals:
Spurs over Clippers in five

Eastern Conference

First Round:
Cavs over Heat in five
Bulls over Hornets in five
Raptors over Pistons in six
Wizards over Hawks in seven

Second Round:
Cavs over Wizards in five
Bulls over Raptors in six

Eastern Conference Finals:
Cavs over Bulls in five

NBA Finals: Spurs over Cavs in seven
Finals MVP: Tim Duncan

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