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Internal Improvement Candidates: Pacific Division

We continue our division-by-division look at candidates for internal improvement on each team with the Pacific Division, which features teams at every stage of the building process. The Los Angeles Clippers and the Golden State Warriors are contenders with a foundation in place, the Phoenix Suns are trying to establish themselves as a perennial playoff team and the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings are trying to find a foundation. 

The Clippers and Warriors built through the draft and then swung for the fences when their young core was on the cusp of contention, with Los Angeles adding Chris Paul and Golden State adding Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala. They have pretty much set rotations and are only looking to tinker around the edges, either by adding a young player or bringing in a veteran who can offer a different look to their rotation and help with a match-up in a playoff series. 

The Suns were supposed to be at the very beginning of a rebuilding process last season, but they skipped their place in line when a bunch of young guys - Eric Bledsoe, Miles Plumlee and the Morris Twins - broke out simultaneously. Winning brings its own set of problems, as they have already had to shell out over $120 million to Bledsoe and the Morrii and now have to prove they aren’t a one-year wonder but have a group ready to win over the long-haul. 

The Lakers and the Kings, meanwhile, have made noises about contending, but they have gone about it in the exact opposite way as the Suns. Instead of taking flyers on young guys with room to grow, they have been bringing in name brand veterans like Carlos Boozer and Darren Collison, in the hopes that they can cobble a back-door run at an 8 seed. This approach, if not done carefully, can end up impeding internal development and keep a team stuck in place.

- Los Angeles Clippers: Reggie Bullock

Like most rookies on contending teams, Bullock’s first season in the NBA was essentially a glorified internship, running errands for veteran players and competing against them in practice without ever having much of a chance to earn consistent playing time. JJ Redick, Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes will still get the majority of the minutes on the wings, but Bullock still has a chance to carve out a role for himself as a 3-and-D player this season.

At 6’7 205, he has prototype size and athleticism for a perimeter defender and he displayed a good shooting touch at UNC, where he shot 44% from 3. The Clippers loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the second round of the playoffs showed they need a player like Bullock, as Barnes had to spend his time defending Kevin Durant and neither Chris Paul nor Redick had the size and athleticism to prevent Russell Westbrook from going crazy

- Golden State Warriors: Draymond Green 

Green had a breakout performance in last year’s playoffs, when he was inserted into the starting line-up as a small-ball PF in the aftermath of an injury to Bogut. He averaged 12 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks a game on 47% shooting and his ability to spread the floor from the PF position allowed the Warriors to come this close to stealing their first-round series with the Clippers, which they lost in a Game 7 heartbreaker on the road.

With a new coaching staff in place in Golden State, it will be interesting to see how much they stick to a two-post offense as opposed to trying to spread the floor and creating more opportunities for young guys like Green and Harrison Barnes. The key for Draymond is becoming a more consistent three-point shooter - while he had a green light to shoot from deep in the post-season, he was only at 33% in the regular season and 28% in the playoffs. 

- Phoenix Suns: Alex Len 

The Suns unexpected emergence into a playoff contender last season meant there was little time for Len, the No. 5 pick in the 2013 draft. He has become a bit of a forgotten man - a raw young center whom many considered a reach and didn’t have the chance to get much playing time as a rookie. Nevertheless, he is still an intriguing prospect with a lot of tools and he represents one of the best avenues for internal improvement in Phoenix, going forward. 

At 7’1 255, Len is a big body with the athleticism to run up and down the court and play in the Suns uptempo system. In a best-case scenario, he can replicate Plumlee’s ability to set screens and finish at the rim while also providing a defensive presence in the paint and a more balanced skill-set on the offensive side of the floor, with the ability to post up and knock down the perimeter jumper. Len is only 21 and he is very skilled for a guy his size. 

- Los Angeles Lakers: Wesley Johnson

The Lakers went all-in on building a super team around Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash in 2012 and they are still feeling the after-effects two seasons later. After selling off most of their draft picks, there wasn’t much young talent on hand when the whole thing fell apart and they had to scour the waiver wire for reclamation projects. Johnson, one of their best finds, began turning his career around last season under Mike D’Antoni.

The No. 4 overall pick in 2010, Johnson was unable to shoulder much of an offensive burden in Minnesota, but he has re-invented himself as a 3-and-D player in Los Angeles. He shot 37% from 3 and matched up with multiple positions on defense, giving D’Antoni the type of versatility his system required. The question is how Johnson will fit in Byron Scott’s more conventional system, without the type of space he was able to play in under D’Antoni. 

- Sacramento Kings: Ben McLemore

After a disappointing rookie season where he shot only 38% from the floor, the Kings seemed to lose faith in McLemore, the No. 7 pick in 2013. They drafted over him this season, taking another SG (Nik Stauskas) in the lottery and now the two young players will have to compete for playing time as well as a place in the pecking order, going forward. McLemore may end up being a bust, but it’s still way too early to make that declaration with any certainty.

Stauskas showed more of an ability to create his own shot and distribute the ball in college, but McLemore is a far better athlete who projects as a much better defensive player down the line. The problem is that it’s going to be hard for them to grow together, as neither has the game to be a full-time PG or the size to swing to the SF position. The crazy part about doubling up at SG is that the Kings still don’t have a long-term answer at PG, SF or PF.

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

With a huge number of quality teams in the middle of the Western Conference, there doesn’t appear to be much separation between those fighting for homecourt advantage in the first round and the ones trying to sneak into the playoffs. And while most tried to upgrade their personnel in the offseason, the Golden State Warriors took a different tack. They are counting on improvement from their coaching staff, replacing Mark Jackson with Sterr Kerr.

Jackson was a polarizing figure in Golden State. On one hand, the Warriors improved their win total in each of his three seasons with the club, going from perennial lottery contender to playoff fixture. On the other, he was a very stubborn coach whose offensive philosophies seemed stuck in his playing days, a bit of anachronism in the modern NBA. And while he was beloved in the locker room, he didn’t have a great relationship with management.

If the transition from Jackson to Kerr causes an on the court improvement, it will likely come on the offensive end of the floor. Despite having a starting line-up brimming with firepower, the Warriors were 11th and 12th in offensive rating in the last two seasons. Many blamed that on Jackson’s fondness for isolations and post-ups, as Golden State was second lowest in the league in the number of passes per possession, according to SportsVU. 

Kerr is promising to install a more free-flowing offensive system, one that includes many principles of the Triangle he learned from playing under Phil Jackson. The primary beneficiaries may be the Warriors second unit, as they traditionally struggled to score under Jackson, perhaps because they lacked the playmaking ability of guys like Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and David Lee to create good shots out of 1-out-1 situations.

The new coaching staff probably won’t make many adjustments on the defensive side of the floor, where Jackson’s teams were among the best in the NBA. Despite giving so many minutes to defensive liabilities like Curry and Lee, the Warriors had a Top 5 defense in each of the last two seasons. Like many players who learned the game in the 1990’s, Jackson firmly believed the old adage that defense wins championships and emphasized that side of the ball. 

And while he was widely viewed a “player’s coach” and not a tactician, Jackson more than held his own against some of the league’s best coaches in the last two postseasons. Both years, he had to deal with a significant injury to one of his primary frontcourt players and was forced to change the identity of his team on the fly. That’s easier said than done, as the Oklahoma City Thunder’s struggles without Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka have shown.

In 2012, Lee went down with a hip injury in the first game of the playoffs. The obvious move would have been to insert Carl Landry into the starting line-up, but Jackson decided to slide Harrison Barnes to the power forward position, turning the Warriors into a four-out team overnight. With four perimeter players spotted up at the three-point line, Golden State turned the tables on the Denver Nuggets and beat them at their own game. 

Since Kenneth Faried didn’t have the post game to take advantage of Barnes lack of size, the Warriors were able to improve their floor spacing on offense without sacrificing much on defense. Under George Karl, the Nuggets had been a contrarian power, taking advantage of the altitude in Denver to run slower teams off the floor. That didn’t work against the new-look Warriors, who had more firepower and more size, thanks to the presence of Andrew Bogut. 

In 2013, Bogut went down before the start of their first-round series against the Los Angeles Clippers, a loss even more devastating than Lee’s. Bogut was the anchor of their defense and his ability to screen open shooters and facilitate out of the high post was a huge part of the Warriors offense. After falling behind 2-1 to the Clippers, Jackson made another great adjustment, sliding Lee to center and inserting Draymond Green into the starting line-up at PF. 

He went back to the same playbook he used in 2012, knowing he could hide a smaller player on a limited big man like DeAndre Jordan. Just as important, Green’s ability to stretch the floor from the PF spot opened up the paint for Golden State’s offense and forced Blake Griffin to play defense 25+ feet from the basket. Even though the Warriors were dramatically undermanned, they almost came back to win the series, narrowly losing a Game 7 thriller. 

In both instances, Jackson showed he understood the importance of spreading the floor as well as how to manipulate match-ups and force the opposing coach into a difficult situation. Karl didn’t want to take Faried off the floor and Doc Rivers felt the same away about Jordan - Jackson’s substitutions forced them to pay a price for sticking with their big men. That’s how the Warriors were able to punch above their weight in each of the last two playoffs. 

The interesting question is what would have happened if Bogut had stayed healthy and Jackson had tried the same tactic. Since neither Lee nor Green could protect the rim, the Clippers were able to shred the Warriors defense as the series went on. A frontcourt of Bogut and Green, in contrast, would have still been able to stretch the floor and compromise the Clippers defense while also having the ability to shut off the paint and protect the defensive glass. 

Throughout Jackson’s tenure in Golden State, the only guy who came under more fire than the coach was Lee, who has never really been able to justify the huge contract he received in 2010. While he’s a skilled player who puts up big stats, he’s not capable of scoring over the top of bigger players in the post, he doesn’t have the shooting range to stretch the floor and he’s not good defensively. In a lot of ways, Lee is the worst of both worlds at the power forward position.

As long as Lee is on the floor, the Warriors have to use a two-post offense that doesn’t maximize the talents of their perimeter players. Most teams who make that decision do so with the idea that playing two big men together will fortify their defense, but Lee doesn’t bring much to that end of the floor either. He has never been on an elite team in his 9-year NBA career and Golden State certainly seemed to play better without him in the 2012 playoffs. 

And while Green gives up a lot of size on defense, he makes up for it by having long arms, very quick feet and a strong base. He made Griffin work for his points when matched up against him in the playoffs, something Lee has never been accused of doing. There’s even more benefit to playing Green on offense, since he gives the Warriors another shooter and another guy who can break the defense down off the dribble and create plays for others off the bounce. 

If Kerr is given the freedom to make a move like that, he may be able to take the Warriors to the next level.

While Jackson had a lot of success in Golden State, he was far from a perfect coach, so there’s nothing wrong with replacing him. However, if Lee ends up having more job security than Jackson, Golden State has been wasting their time. For as much press as coaches get in the modern NBA, basketball is still more about Jimmies and Joes than X’s and O’s.

Thunder Facing Another Extension Dilemma In Reggie Jackson

Over the next month and a half, 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. After spending two seasons as Russell Westbrook’s understudy, Jackson was thrust into the spotlight by Westbrook’s knee injury in last year’s playoffs. While he couldn’t fill replace Westbrook, he more than held his own, emerging as a starting caliber player in his own right.

Last season, with Westbrook in and out of the line-up, Jackson started 40 games for the Oklahoma City Thunder and averaged 13 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists on 44% shooting. He moved back to the bench in the playoffs, where he was extremely effective in a more limited role. Much like James Harden two years ago, Jackson has to decide whether he wants to be one of the best sixth men in the NBA or whether he wants to run his own team.

Jackson was a late bloomer at Boston College, not emerging as a star until his junior season, when he averaged 18 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists a game on 50% shooting. Since there weren’t many other scoring options on his team, he primarily looked for his own shot, which raised questions about his ability to be a full-time PG at the NBA level. Seen as a guy stuck between positions at the next level, Jackson slipped to the No. 23 pick in 2011.

At 6’3 210 with a 7’0 wingspan, Jackson had elite size and athleticism for the PG position, but he was just another guy as a SG. In that respect, he wasn’t all that different from Westbrook, who was also seen as more of a combo guard coming out of college. Like with Westbrook, there were also questions about Jackson’s perimeter jumper - he shot 42% from 3 as a junior, but he was below 30% from beyond the arc as a freshman and a sophomore.

Jackson’s size, athleticism and scoring ability meant he would have a good shot of earning a spot in an NBA rotation, but he would likely need to improve as a shooter and a passer to earn a starting nod, especially given the competition at the PG position at the next level. As a late first-round pick, nothing would be handed to him, which he found out as a rookie, when he went back and forth to the D-League and barely got off the end of the bench.

Not only was Jackson playing behind one of the best PG’s in the NBA, his coach (Scott Brooks) had an unhealthy fixation with Derek Fisher. Fisher was brought in to Oklahoma City to provide veteran leadership and shooting in an extremely limited role off the bench, but Brooks gave him as many minutes as he could handle and then some. He was still stealing playing time from Jackson in last year’s playoffs, despite shooting 29% (!!) from the field.

Were it not for Westbrook’s knee injury, there’s a good chance Jackson would have been a complete unknown at the NBA level headed into his fourth season in the league. As is, he has still played in only 3,700 total minutes with the Thunder, around 600 more than Damian Lillard received as a rookie. In that respect, Jackson’s current situation is fairly comparable to Eric Bledsoe, who spent most of his first three seasons playing behind Chris Paul.

Like Bledsoe, Jackson has taken advantage of the opportunity to learn from the best in practice, gradually improving as a player in each of his first three seasons. His perimeter shot has improved by leaps and bounds, as he has turned himself into a respectable three-point shooter, shooting 34% from 3 on 4 attempts a game last season. Most importantly, he has become a much better decision-maker, averaging 4.1 assists on 1.8 turnovers a game.

As a result, Jackson is a complete PG without any glaring holes in his game. He’s an elite athlete with great size who can create his own shot, run point, stretch the floor, rebound at a high level and match up with both backcourt positions. In many ways, he’s a mini-Westbrook, a score-first guard who can impact the game on both ends of the floor. The problem is that since he’s still not a great three-point shooter, he needs the ball in his hands to be successful.

That’s an issue in Oklahoma City, where everything in the offense goes through Westbrook and Kevin Durant. There’s an opening in the starting line-up at SG with Thabo Sefolosha gone, but the Thunder will probably want a better spot-up shooter in that role than Jackson, whose a better fit as a sixth man, where he can dominate possessions on the second unit. Even if he closes games, there is a limit on how many shots and minutes he will receive.

To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with being a sixth man on a title contender, but those guys don’t get paid like starters on average teams, much less good ones. That was the dilemma Harden faced two summers ago, when he was asking for a max contract with the Thunder. Instead of taking a little less to be a third wheel in Oklahoma City, Harden opted to be the man in Houston, where he makes $16 million a year and is a first-team All-NBA SG.

Jackson will probably never reach those heights, but why should a 24-year-old put a ceiling on his game? He’s more than ready to run his own team and there’s no way to know what type of numbers he would put up if he had a usage rating north of 25. He has said in interviews that he wants to be one of the best players in the world and that will never happen with the Thunder, where he will always be playing third banana to Durant and Westbrook.

If Oklahoma City doesn’t agree to an extension with Jackson, it will be seen as another indication of the franchise’s unwillingness to spend money, but it’s more complicated than that. Salary dictates playing time and position in the pecking order in the NBA and it’s going to be hard to for the Thunder to pay Jackson first or second option money when they have already maxed out Durant and Westbrook. There are only so many shots to go around in an offense.

In Harden’s last season in Oklahoma City, he was averaging 10 field goal attempts a game, 1 less than Jackson averaged last season. To be worth a max contract, he would have needed to be nearer to the 16-17 FGA’s he takes in Houston. He hasn’t won a playoff series with the Rockets, but he wouldn’t be seen as the top SG in the NBA if he was still the Thunder’s 6th man. To reach his potential, Jackson will have to spread his wings and leave the nest. 

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