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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.

Jonas Valanciunas As Franchise Player

Through the first six games of the World Cup, no player has been more valuable to his team than Jonas Valanciunas, Lithuania’s 22-year old center. After riding the bench in the 2012 Olympics and serving as a role player at Eurobasket last summer, Valanciunas has moved into a featured role in this year’s tournament. He is the backbone of Lithuania’s game-plan on both sides of the ball, averaging 13 points, 8 rebounds and 1 block a game on 77% (!) shooting.

Despite losing star PG Mantas Kalnietis to a collarbone injury before the start of the World Cup, Lithuania has played extremely well in Spain. They went 4-1 in group play, knocking off Slovenia and losing to Australia, and beat New Zealand 76-71 in the round of 16. If they can get past Turkey on Tuesday, they would face the US in the semifinals and they appear to be the only team on that side of the bracket with a chance to give the Americans a game.

That’s almost entirely due to the presence of Valanciunas, one of only two NBA players, along with Donatas Motiejunas of the Houston Rockets, on their team. He almost single-handedly carried them to victory over New Zealand - not only could the Tall Blacks not match up with him in the post, they could barely even box him out. Valanciunas towered over their undermanned frontline, finishing the game with 22 points and 13 rebounds on 8-11 shooting.

At 7’0 245 with a 7’4 wingspan, Valanciunas is one of the biggest players in the NBA and he appears to have gotten even bigger in the offseason. Like many big men in their early 20’s, he is still filling out his frame and growing into his body. While he’s not an elite athlete, Valanciunas moves well for a player his size, which allows him to be an effective player on both ends of the floor. He is the rare center who can impact the game on offense and defense.

The offensive side of the ball is where Valanciunas has shown the most improvement at the World Cup, where he is getting the chance to be a featured player. Instead of using him primarily in the pick-and-roll game, Lithuania is making a concerted effort to pound the ball into him in the post. He has the size and strength to establish deep post position, the length to score over the top of defenders and the touch to get the ball softly on the rim.

Valanciunas is still far from a finished product with his back to the basket, but he is steadily improving that aspect of his game, to the point where opposing teams almost have to double him. The result is that he opens up the floor for the rest of Lithuania’s players, almost all of whom can knock down the three-point shot. With Motiejunas spreading the floor from the power forward position, they are a tough match-up for just about any team in the tournament.

Even the Americans, who gave up 25 points and 8 rebounds to Mexico’s Gustavo Ayon in the round of 16, will have their hands full with Valanciunas. That is why Lithuania’s quarterfinal game with Turkey will be so intriguing, as they have one of the only big men in the World Cup (Omer Asik) with the size to bang with Valanciunas in the paint. Asik, one of the best post defenders in the NBA, will be a good test to see how far his individual offense has come.

What makes Valanciunas so interesting, though, is that he provides value on defense as well. Most guys with his ability to score in the paint can’t match his ability to protect the rim or vice versa. Asik is the perfect example - for as good as he is on defense, he’s a non-entity on offense. Valanciunas, on the other hand, can give the Lithuania 20+ points while also serving as the backbone of their defense. He makes everyone better on both sides of the ball.

Lithuania doesn’t have a ton of athleticism on the perimeter, but their guards can extend out on defense and jump passing lanes because they know have a mobile Goliath behind them. Valanciunas doesn’t have monstrous block numbers, but he doesn’t need too to have an impact on the game. Just by moving his feet, waving his arms and standing at the front of the rim, he makes life much harder for any offensive player who gets into the lane.

In essence, having Valanciunas on your team means you have will a good defense and a good offense, which automatically makes you a dangerous team, at any level of basketball. Few players can have a bigger impact on a game than a two-way center, which is why they have always been one of the most coveted players in the sport. Without Kalnietis, Lithuania doesn’t have much perimeter talent, but Valanciunas’ presence means they can punch above their weight.

You can count the number of centers in the NBA with more two-way ability than Valanciunas on one hand - Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol, Joakim Noah, Tim Duncan. The scary part is that he’s only scratched the surface of his potential. He’s still only 22 years old - he should be a senior in college. Not only does he still have room to improve as a post scorer and an interior defender, he’s shown flashes of a perimeter jumper and a passing game in Spain.

He hasn’t gotten much press because he’s been confined to a smaller role with the Toronto Raptors, with usage ratings of 16.9 and 18.5 in his first two seasons in the NBA. They won’t turn their offense over to him overnight like Lithuania has done, but you can expect that they will continue to gradually expand his role over the next few years. The Raptors will be counting on internal improvement and featuring Valanciunas is one easy way to do that.

The reason that big men tend to develop slower than guards is that they are pressed into service at a much earlier age. A perimeter player as raw as Valanciunas would not have broken into the NBA as a starter at the age of 20. However, because there are so few human beings in the world with his combination of size, skill and athleticism, he was forced to learn on the job. He didn’t go to high school or play AAU basketball - he was a pro at the age of 15. 

Valanciunas won’t reach his ceiling as a player until 2020, when he is in his late 20’s. Until then, he should steadily improve every season on both sides of the ball, much as he has done over the last three years, since he made his debut on the international stage. He is a franchise player in every sense of the word, both for his NBA and national team. As long as they have Valanciunas, both Lithuania and the Toronto Raptors will be teams to reckon with.

RealGM's Playoff Predictions

Here are the playoffs predictions from eight of RealGM's writers.

Christopher Reina (@CR_Reina)

First Round Winners: Pacers, Bulls, Raptors, Heat, Spurs, Rockets, Clippers, Thunder

Second Round Winners: Pacers, Heat, Spurs, Thunder

Conference Finals Winners: Heat, Thunder

Finals Winner: Thunder

The wear and tear of reaching The Finals in each season since the formation of the Big 3 will finally catch up with the Heat against the Thunder. Kevin Durant and LeBron James will be as brilliant as expected in this series, but it will come down to how healthy and effective Russell Westbrook is compared to Dwyane Wade, along with how stubborn Scott Brooks is with his rotations. With superstars potentially moving around again this offseason, this could be the last best shot for Oklahoma City.

Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania)

First Round Winners: Pacers, Bulls, Raptors, Heat, Spurs, Rockets, Clippers, Thunder

Second Round Winners: Pacers, Heat. Spurs, Thunder

Conference Finals Winners: Heat, Thunder

Finals Winner: Thunder

Unseating the two-time reigning champions is difficult, but Oklahoma City has the likely MVP and a motivation that still permeates from its defeat in The Finals last season. The Heat's health also could be put into jeopardy this late into a fourth straight run to the championship series.

Jonathan Tjarks (@JonathanTjarks)

First Round Winners: Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, Rockets, Pacers, Heat, Raptors, Bulls

Second Round Winners: Spurs, Thunder, Pacers, Heat

Conference Finals: Thunder, Heat

Finals Winner: Heat

Miami still has the best player in the world and they've done a much better job of managing Wade's minutes in the regular season. Watch out for Greg Oden and Michael Beasley - I could see both playing a huge role at certain points in the playoffs. 

Daniel Leroux (@DannyLeroux)

First Round Winners: Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, Rockets, Pacers, Heat, Nets, Bulls

Second Round Winners: Spurs, Clippers, Pacers, Heat 

Conference Finals Winners: Spurs, Heat 

Finals Winner: Heat

This year is challenging because I feel the Spurs are the best team, but Miami has the twin benefits of being more likely to make the Finals due to a weaker conference and having the best player in the world will of course prove valuable should they make it. Health will be a major factor and it would make sense for it to hit the Heat due to their age but that does not trump their other advantages in my mind.

Andrew Perna (@Andrew_Perna)

First Round Winners: Pacers, Bulls, Nets, Heat, Spurs, Blazers, Clippers, Thunder

Second Round Winners: Pacers, Heat, Spurs, Thunder

Conference Finals Winners: Heat, Thunder

Finals Winner: Thunder

Durant will best LeBron as the league’s MVP and deal another blow by preventing the Heat from three-peating in June. Oklahoma City will have two of the best three players in the Finals, which will be the determining factor even if Miami has three of the top five.

Sam Yip (@SamYip_NBA)

First Round Winners: Pacers, Bulls, Nets, Heat, Spurs, Rockets, Clippers Thunder

Second Round Winners: Pacers, Heat, Spurs, Thunder

Conference Finals Winners: Heat, Spurs

Finals Winner: Spurs

Although Miami has been on top of the basketball world for two straight seasons, San Antonio's roster along with their improved bench will likely dethrone the defending champions. The Spurs were one Tim Duncan layup away from winning their first title since 2007 last season. The new 2-2-1-1-1 Finals format will give the Spurs an edge with their home court advantage.

Benjamin Cantor (@BenCantor_NBA)

First Round Winners: Pacers, Heat, Nets, Bulls, Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, Rockets

Second Round Winners: Pacers, Heat, Spurs, Thunder

Conference Finals Winners: Heat, Spurs

Finals Winner: Spurs

Although the Thunder have given the Spurs trouble in the past, Popovich always seems to have a way to adjust to opponents who have beaten him in the past. Last year, many people thought the Grizzlies might give the Spurs trouble because of what happened in 2011, but Pop and the Spurs clearly showed they knew what adjustments to make when they swept Memphis in the conference finals. I think San Antonio's defense against Miami in last year's finals was outstanding and this year they'll have home court advantage in the finals. 

Dan Friederg (@danfriedberg)

First Round Winners: Pacers, Bulls, Nets, Heat, Spurs, Rockets, Clippers, Thunder

Second Round Winners: Pacers, Heat, Spurs, Thunder

Conference Finals Winners: Thunder, Heat

Finals Winner: Thunder

With LeBron and KD both at the peak of their powers, the role players will make the difference. Caron Butler, Jeremy Lamb, and an improving Reggie Jackson will tip the scales over an aging Ray Allen, a fragile and unproven Greg Oden, and an empty space where Mike Miller used to be. Durant will hoist his first championship trophy to go with his first MVP award, and the world shall rejoice.

Two Reinventions: Previewing Raptors Vs. Nets

Both of these teams reinvented themselves for different reasons during the regular season. For the Raptors, it came after the Rudy Gay trade in freeing up Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. The Nets fixed their season by embracing small ball.

The Eastern Conference At 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).

Terrence Ross Keying Raptors' Ascent, Reason For Optimism

Over the last generation, many of the league’s best shooting guard prospects have been undone by getting too much too soon. Terrence Ross has been the exact opposite, an All-NBA talent forced to pay his dues and learn the game at every stop of the way.

Hansbrough Brings Experience, Toughness To Raptors

Tyler Hansbrough is far from an extrovert, but his experiences in Indiana are something he can pass along to teammates in Toronto. Like the Pacers, the Raptors are looking to transform into a contender through smart drafting and shrewd moves.

Why The Cavaliers' Model Continues To Setup Failure

The logic of the Cavaliers trading for Luol Deng is entirely backwards. Cleveland seems to think making the playoffs proves they are a legitimate NBA franchise. The reality is you can miss the playoffs and be a legit franchise and you can make the playoffs and not be one.

Rudy Gay Faces Difficulty Of Recapturing Budding Stardom

Rudy Gay reached a peak three seasons ago, and at 27 now he hasn’t attained the individual or team milestones that his gifts were expected to bestow. Three games into the Raptors’ season, his shooting is pedestrian and he admits he’s hastily searching for an offensive rhythm.

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.

Top-10 Lottery Teams That Could Make The 2014 NBA Playoffs

The Pelicans, Raptors, Pistons, Wolves, Cavaliers, Blazers, Wizards, Mavericks, and maybe even the Kings and Bobcats could find their way into the playoffs if a number of things go right.

Jonas Valanciunas And The New Big Man Synthesis

The highest-drafted Lithuanian of all-time (No. 5 in 2011), Jonas Valanciunas is the rare gigantic center with both athleticism and coordination. When the biggest guy on the floor knows how to use his size to his advantage, it’s a problem for everyone else.

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.

John Lucas III Thrives After Adjusting To Raptors

From Tom Thibodeau’s strict system to Dwane Casey’s schemes, John Lucas III values the styles of both coaches. He’s forever grateful for the way he grew under Thibodeau, receiving his first true platform to exhibit his game, and enjoys the chance now with Casey’s Raptors.

Bargnani Still Overcoming Elbow Injury As Patience Runs Thin Around Him

For Andrea Bargnani now, there’s always something new – from criticism inside and outside the Raptors to continued discussion about his capacity living up to the No. 1 pick Toronto used on him in 2006.

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.

Jose Calderon Rejuvenates Pistons' Culture, Smoothens Offense

Jose Calderon has already injected the Pistons with a new sense of confidence. Lawrence Frank marvels about Calderon’s calmness and leadership, and the coach has begun to rely upon him to smooth over the offense and, more importantly, rub his knowledge on Brandon Knight.

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