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Why Anthony Davis Will Be The NBA's Golden Ticket

After a few years of adjustments and development, we are finally seeing the world created by the newest NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement. The combination of shorter contracts and rare non-rookie extensions have pushed the league closer to a year-round spectacle than ever before with early July taking a much greater place in the overall future of the NBA.

Underneath all those other machinations, we have also seen another major development that hopefully changes in the near term: the league has very few elite players on rookie contracts. While talents like Kyrie Irving (also soon to be off his rookie deal with his extension kicking in beginning in 15-16) and Andre Drummond possess the ability to make the leap into superstardom, we will have to wait to see it on the court.

We have already seen the best player in the world change teams twice as an unrestricted free agent and All-Stars like Dwight Howard use the opportunity presented by their first shot at true NBA freedom to change addresses. In the next few years, young stars including Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook will have similar opportunities for the first time in their careers.

Miami’s “Big Three” and the events of the past few seasons have taught the league to understand and prepare for the unpredictability this can present. The Rockets, Lakers and others rejected near-term improvements this summer to preserve their long-term flexibility with a clear justification for doing so.

The past few wild Julys have been fun but are only the appetizers for the true main courses in 2016 and 2017. While the pool of teams gunning for the best players has deepened with shorter contracts and a few more salary-conscious owners, the NBA’s massive new television deal will open up the competition even if the league chooses to use “smoothing” to ease into the higher cap figures. Even with smoothing we should see teams have more flexibility on the aggregate than any time recently with lots of high-end players who can choose to move and existing contracts that become easier to trade for the same reasons.

Amidst all the chaos, only one team has the true golden ticket: a young elite player that they can say with certainty will be there throughout this tumultuous time.

That team is the New Orleans Pelicans because they have Anthony Davis.

After a season where his team missed the playoffs and he barely made the All-Star team, it feels like Davis’ amazing accomplishments flew somewhat under the radar. In terms of Win Shares / 48 and PER, Anthony Davis has had the best age 19 season AND the best age 20 season in the history of the NBA. Despite missing fifteen games in 2013-14, Davis put up the 13th most Win Shares of any season for a player age 21 or younger ever, with only LeBron James and Magic Johnson posting a better total in their age 20 year (both with at least ten more games played).

This insanely high quality of play for someone so young gets even more ridiculous with the fact that Anthony Davis will be paid almost half as much in the next two seasons combined as Kevin Durant and LeBron will each make per season and New Orleans can match any offer at the lower maximum salary for the least experienced players in 2016 if they are silly enough to wait that long.

While some may see this as a future selling point, I think New Orleans should start incorporating into their team vision and pitches as soon as possible.  LeBron and Dwight Howard have shown players around the league that they simply cannot rely on the assumption that the best players in the league will choose to stick around when they hit unrestricted free agency. This reality combined with shorter contracts leave very few sure things around the league unless players are in the same class and coordinate.

Even though last summer’s big additions Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans will still be under contract, I look at 2016 as the first major opportunity for the Pelicans to grab a big fish. The free agent class looks strong right now and since major power forward talents like Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge will almost certainly already be on new contracts, it takes some potential options for team-ups off the table.

While Durant will presumably stand as the most desirable teammate out there two years from now, the Thunder would still have Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka on major contracts so the Oklahoma City brass could be ecstatic that the cap increases would allow them to keep their core, but not augment it beyond locking up players like Reggie Jackson that are already on roster.

If that scenario occurs, New Orleans gets to woo elite players with the opportunity to play with a star just getting into his prime in a city that works as an asset for NBA players. They will be competing with the major markets until the Knicks and Lakers exhaust their flexibility but having a golden ticket makes the Pelicans an under the radar team to watch for Stephen Curry in 2017 as well, particularly since that season marks the expiration of Holiday and Evans' lucrative contracts and an amazing chance at bring a third star to the Big Easy.

We can be sure that other players still on their rookie deals will break out over the next few seasons but New Orleans should make sure to maximize their temporarily unique opportunity.

Raptors Look To Build Upon Top-10 Efficiency On Both Sides Of Floor

After trading away Rudy Gay early in the 2013-14 season, the Toronto Raptors won 42 out of their final 64 games, which was better than any other team in the Eastern Conference, including the two-time defending champion Miami Heat. The Toronto crowd was thrilled to see their team reach the playoffs for the first time in six years. Qualifying for the playoffs was a great achievement considering that many onlookers suspected that the front office was trying to “bottom out” by trading their top scorer. However, by retaining nearly the entire roster, the Raptors’ front office has signaled that they believe this team is capable of advancing further.

Above-average play on both sides of the ball is the story of the Raptors successful season. Starting from the date when Gay was shipped off, the Raptors posted the 9th best offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) and the 8th best defensive rating (pointes allowed per 100 possessions) in the league. The Raptors were one of only four teams to rank in the top ten in both categories over that time span (the others were the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers, three clubs universally considered title contenders).

The Raptors manufactured points in two key areas, from behind the three-point line and from the free throw line.

Kyle Lowry averaged the most assists of his career by relentlessly attacking the defense to find openings for three-point shots for himself and for his teammates. He shot three-pointers more accurately than ever before despite shooting them at a higher volume than in previous seasons. Lowry’s ability to use ball screens to both drive and create space for three-point attempts caused defenses to commit a lot of attention to stopping him. He countered by finding Terrence Ross, Greivis Vasquez, and Patrick Patterson for quality looks from the outside.

The aforementioned shooters also benefitted from the pressure that DeMar DeRozan’s drives put on defenses. His north-south style of penetrating allowed him to consistently get to the foul line and attempt the seventh most free throws per game of any player in the league. When matched against smaller and quicker defenders, DeRozan flashed an effective post up game through which he was able to accumulate many of his free throw attempts.

As much as the Raptors liked to shoot three-pointers on offense, they hoped to take it away from their opponent on the other side. They were able to do that by picking up on Duane Casey’s emphasis on transition defense. Because a lot of teams like to hoist three-pointers in transition, the Raptors collective willingness to sprint back resulted in fewer quality three-point shots for the opposition. This relationship is evidenced by the Raptors ranking 3rd in three-point attempts allowed per 100 possessions and 4th in fast break points allowed per 100 possessions. 

Unselfish play and strong shooting on offense combined with hard work on defense allowed the Raptors to grab the 3-seed in a weak Eastern conference. They were ultimately ousted at the hands of the Brooklyn Nets in a competitive, seven-game first-round series because of one main problem on each side of the ball.

The Nets placed all of their defensive attention on preventing Lowry and DeRozan from penetrating by trapping and switching ball-screens, which encouraged them to give up the ball early in possessions. The Raptors had great success when they got the ball inside after the Nets big men had moved out to the perimeter to contain the ball handler. Amir Johnson shot 65% and Jonas Valanciunas shot 63% from the field, but the starting frontcourt duo only shot the ball a combined 14 times per game compared to the 32 field goal attempts per game for Lowry and DeRozan. The discrepancy in field goal attempts reveals how both guards focused too heavily on creating for themselves rather than “taking what the defense gave them” and trusting their teammates. Too frequently, the Raptors’ lead scorers drove into crowded lanes and turned the ball over and hoisted wild shot attempts. They will have to be more willing to feed the ball inside when Valanciunas and Johnson are rolling to the basket or have a mismatch in the post. 

The Raptors’ defense struggled mightily with two particular matchups. Neither DeRozan nor Ross were able to prevent Joe Johnson from scoring easily inside. The only Raptors who stood a chance at stymying Johnson were reserve wings Landry Fields and John Salmons, both of whom have severe limitations on offense. Johnson’s powerful penetration forced the Raptors to help from other positions more than Casey would have liked, and the result was easier shot attempts all over the floor. The other player who gave the Raptors fits was Paul Pierce, who proved to be too quick on the perimeter for Amir Johnson. When Pierce had enough space, he drilled perimeter jump shots and when Johnson played him tighter, Pierce put the ball on the floor and drove right by him.

The Raptors addressed the defensive problem by signing James Johnson using part of their mid-level exception. Johnson is exactly the sort of defender the Raptors could have used against the Nets. He possesses the length, athleticism, and physicality to provide a credible attempt at guarding the league’s premier wing scorers. Johnson is not a shooter but his passing, cutting, and (albeit limited) inside scoring skills should be enough to garner him a spot in the Raptors rotation.

Adding James Johnson does not address the offensive issues that the Raptors experienced in the playoffs, thus, those issues must be corrected via internal improvement. DeRozan, in particular, needs to exercise a better balance between looking for his own scoring and using his driving ability to create easy inside opportunities for his frontcourt teammates. Valanciunas can help by continuing to improve his finishing and by limiting his turnovers when he gets the ball inside.

Furthermore, Ross, who had a solid regular season shooting from the corners but an abysmal postseason, could free up space in the Raptors offense by becoming a more consistent three-point shooter. He could also emerge as a weapon on the fast break, which would bolster a Toronto offense that barely scored in transition last season.

Retaining the core of a 48-win team and solidifying the bench were the themes of Toronto’s offseason. A committed defense, offensive familiarity, and strong depth have the Raptors set up for another successful regular season. As long as Kyle Lowry’s payday does not have an effect on his tenacious play from last season, the Raptors should again reclaim a top-4 seed in the East. Whether they are able to advance out of the first round of the playoffs depends largely on DeRozan’s improvement as a playmaker and Valanciunas receiving and converting more inside scoring opportunities. Without improvements from those two essential players, the Raptors will not be able to separate themselves enough to make a deep run in the postseason.

Breaking Down Protection Of 2015 NBA Draft Traded Picks

While the concept of tanking gets plenty of ink in NBA circles, the league has a more specific problem in that vicinity due to the rules concerning pick protection. While the Sixers may be an example of a team just not choosing to re-build quickly, very strong and narrow incentives can have a greater impact on competitive balance. As an example, I covered the Golden State Warriors in 2011-12 when they only retained their pick if it fell in the top seven. Once their unreasonable playoff dream died the team did what they could to keep their selection including shelving their top players ahead of time.

I wanted to take the time to go through RealGM’s excellent pick protection page and detail the potential first round pick protection issues that could rear their head this season, ranked in order of overall impact (likelihood and significance, basically). While pick swaps can change the way teams play since it eliminates the benefit of excessive losing, I chose not to include them since playing with an indifference to losing works very differently than the incentives for teams like the 2011-12 Warriors.

- Cleveland Cavaliers: Do not swap their pick with the Chicago Bulls if 1-14 (otherwise Chicago can choose to swap): While prohibitively unlikely with the best talent in their conference, the wheels falling off the Cavs train for this year due to several injuries could force a fascinating choice since falling to the 9th or 10th place spot in the East would lead to retaining a much better choice than a low seed in the post-season. Unlikely but compelling scenario.

- Houston Rockets: Retain their first rounder if 1-14 (otherwise it goes to the Los Angeles Lakers): The Rockets got lottery protection on the pick they sent to the Lakers in exchange for L.A. taking on the final season of Jeremy Lin’s contract, but it would be hard to imagine that the team would choose missing the playoffs over making them. The protection works more as a silver lining in this specific circumstance.

- Memphis Grizzlies: Retain their first rounder if 1-5 or 15-30 (otherwise it goes to Cleveland): In January 2013, the Grizzlies sent this protected pick to the Cavs as a sweetener to take on enough salary to get Memphis under the luxury tax. It has the top and bottom protection for this season and next then becomes a more traditional 1-5 protected in 2017 and 2018 if not conveyed by then. In this case, I would expect the restrictions to actually serve as a double punishment for the Grizzlies since it would take a ton to get their pick into the top five. The Grizzlies have plenty of incentive greater than this pick to make the playoffs again.

- New Orleans Pelicans: Retain their first rounder if 1-3 or 20-30 (otherwise it goes to Houston): As long as Anthony Davis stays reasonably healthy, this one should follow the same path as Memphis’ choice where the team is too good to have their pick fall on the top end and would not prioritize keeping the pick over making the playoffs or playoff seeding. The Pelicans’ pick becomes a little more dynamic because of the 20-30 protection rather than the 15-30 playoff team protection- it could turn out that New Orleans wanting to duck a specific first round opponent (the other major impetus for the truly harmful tanking) could coincide with this incentive considering the strength of the Western Conference.

- Philadelphia 76ers: Retain their first rounder if 1-14 (otherwise it goes to the Boston Celtics): While it looks like a foregone conclusion at this point, losing a first round pick by making the playoffs this year and replacing it with two second round picks did create a clear incentive for the Sixers to avoid making a push this season. Probably not a major factor in what happened but likely a consideration.

- Miami Heat: Retain their first rounder if 1-10 (otherwise it goes to Philadelphia): Astonishingly, LeBron James affected this pick two separate times as it was originally compensation to the Cavaliers as a part of the sign and trade that brought him to South Beach and the Cavs sent it to Philadelphia as a key piece of the Kevin Love trade when LeBron returned. Having only top 10 instead of top 14 protection likely does not matter much here as the “best” non-playoff teams in the East have been very close to top-10 picks due to the quality disparity between the two conferences. In what would have to be close to a worst case scenario for the Heat, the team could have a huge reason to lose their last few games if they get knocked out of post-season contention late in the year.

- Minnesota Timberwolves: Retain their first rounder if 1-12 (otherwise it goes to Phoenix): We have already done this dance and could be doing it again this year depending on how the Wolves fare with their interesting roster. While most expect Minnesota to take a step back from the 14th-worst record last year (and #13 pick), this protection could be a factor late in the 2014-15 season if Minnesota has a better than expected year but still falls outside of the stacked top eight in the West.

- Sacramento Kings: Retain their first rounder if 1-10 (otherwise it goes to Chicago): If the Kings fall out of the playoff picture, I am fully confident they will make sure they retain this selection and hope to do better the following season. This pick has top-ten protection for three more seasons and then becomes a second rounder in 2017, so we could see the same general path as last year happen up to three more times depending on how Sacramento progresses.

- Lakers: Retain their first rounder if 1-5 (otherwise it goes to the Phoenix Suns): The biggest protection issue going into the season by far. After striking out on the impact free agents this summer, the Lakers look to be out of the playoff picture for the 2014-15 season and thus have a clear incentive to keep their own lottery pick. This pressure gets even stronger if they have the belief that the Summer of 2015 will be more fruitful since they would be adding a better young piece and sending away a worse pick in 2016. The dueling pressures of winning in one of Kobe Bryant’s last seasons and adding a key piece for their future will be a major storyline to watch all year.

How Nikola Mirotic Rose From Soccer Destiny, To European Phenom, To The NBA

Nikola Miroticís grandfather pushed him away from a soccer path and onto basketball courts in grade school, pushed him to Real Madrid and he's now in the NBA. He discusses his basketball journey with RealGM.

Internal Improvement Candidates: Pacific Division

Wesley Johnson, Ben McLemore, Draymond Green, Alex Len and Reggie Bullock are young players that can offer their teams improvement from within.

14-15 Euroleague Power Rankings: Centers

Gustavo Ayon, Ante Tomic, Tibor Pleiss, Ioannis Bourousis and Bryant Dunston headline the list of top centers in Euroleague this season.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: Big Ten

Wisconsin was dominant on a per-possession basis last year, they went to the Final Four, and they bring nearly everyone back, which will make challenging for the Big Ten very difficult for everyone else.

Boston's Rebuild After 16 Months: Time For Patience And Optimism

Since Danny Ainge made his 180 in May 2013 by cashing in on Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Doc Rivers, he has done a remarkable job of implementing a serious rebuild and putting the Celtics in a position to succeed.

Rondo Injury Leads To Experiment At Point Guard

Regardless of whether Rajon Rondo is out for two weeks or more than a month, Brad Stevens will be forced to improvise. That means more ball-handling duties for two newcomers -- Marcus Smart and Evan Turner.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: The Rest

In this piece, we preview the Ivy, Big West, MAC, Horizon, MAAC, Conference-USA, Patriot, Summit, CAA, Ohio Valley, Sun Belt, Big South, WAC, Big Sky, America East, Atlantic Sun, Southern, NEC, Southland, MEAC and SWAC.

Warriors Enter 14-15 With New Coach Yet Same Problem With David Lee

While Mark Jackson had a lot of success, he was far from a perfect coach, so thereís nothing wrong with replacing him with Steve Kerr. But if David Lee ends up having more job security than Jackson, the Warriors have been wasting their time. For as much press as coaches get in the modern NBA, basketball is still more about Jimmies and Joes than Xís and Oís.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: Big 12 Conference

Despite an uncertain point guard situation, Kansas remains the clear favorite in the Big 12 with Texas and Iowa State a clear step behind.

Thunder Facing Another Extension Dilemma In Reggie Jackson

As players from the 2011 NBA Draft negotiate extensions on their rookie deals, none will have a more interesting decision to make than Reggie Jackson. Jacksonís current situation is fairly comparable to Eric Bledsoe, who spent most of his first three seasons playing behind Chris Paul.

Reviewing Brooklyn's 2014 Offseason

Outside of the Jason Kidd saga, the Nets experienced a relatively quiet offseason. Their lack of cap flexibility made it difficult for them to add any impactful players and even retain their own free agents. The loss of two key contributors and the injury-riddled histories of their star players could cause the Nets to struggle to make the 2015 Playoffs.

USA Fully Restores Order In Basketball Universe

The scariest part about the United States' performance is that this wasnít even the team Mike Krzyzewski and Jerry Colangelo envisioned sending to Spain, yet they still haven't lost a game since 2006.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: Missouri Valley Conference

While it is unclear where Wichita State ranks nationally, they're the clear favorites to win the Missouri Valley Conference ahead of Northern Iowa.

The 250-Pound Swiss Army Life Of France And San Antonio

Boris Diaw served as Franceís primary playmaker and one of the main hubs of their offense in their upset win of Spain. The upset is a culmination of a remarkable year of basketball for Diaw, both internationally and in the NBA.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: Pacific-12

Arizona are the clear favorites to win the Pac-12 again in 2015 with UCLA, Stanford and Utah hoping for a place in the top-25.

Spain And The Beautiful Game

Everyone in Spainís rotation is an NBA-caliber player and they can all shoot, pass and make decisions on the fly. If they keep this level of play up, they could go down as the best international team of the modern era.

College Basketball Preview 14-15: American Athletic Conference

SMU and UConn are the co-favorites to win the American Conference, with Memphis, Tulsa and Cincinnati hoping to reach the Big Dance.

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