Oct 20, 2014 5:41 PM EDT
Our series on candidates for internal improvement on every team in the NBA continues with the Central Division, where most of the action in the Eastern Conference is. After four seasons of wandering in the desert, Cleveland is celebrating the return of their prodigal son, a move which instantly changed the trajectory of the Cavs franchise and the balance of power in the league. So what teams are positioned to be their rivals over the next few seasons?
The last time LeBron James was in Cleveland, the Chicago Bulls were one of the up and coming young teams in the NBA, losing to the Cavs in the first round of the playoffs. A lot has happened in the meantime, but the Bulls have managed to bring along a number of young players and they have a few promising rookies coming down the pipeline. If Derrick Rose can stay healthy and return to form, that could quickly become one of the best rivalries in the NBA.
The Indiana Pacers emerged as LeBron’s chief rival when he was in Miami, but they have been decimated by injuries and free agent defections in the off-season. Like Chicago the last few years, they are trying to overcome a devastating injury to their franchise player while using that time to develop a few young players and position themselves to get back into the fray. It could turn out for the best, as the Pacers might benefit from adding a lottery pick to their core.
Down the road, both the Detroit Pistons and the Milwaukee Bucks have the young talent to conceivable challenge Cleveland. While both are still in the beginning of a rebuilding process, they already have the most important parts behind them - acquiring potential franchise players. The Central Division is interesting now, but it could conceivably become much more interesting in the next few years ... or the Cavs could just steamroll everyone. That’s possible too.
- Cleveland Cavaliers: Dion Waiters:
After receiving a max contract in the offseason, Kyrie Irving is the young player who has gotten most of the pub on the Cavs new super-team. Waiters, meanwhile, is best known for some of the more reckless things he has said to the media. However, if he can continue to improve and live up to being a No. 4 overall pick, Cleveland can be really scary. For all the legitimately goofy stuff he does on and off the court, he is a very good young player.
At 6’4 220 with a 6’7 wingspan, Waiters is a dynamic scorer who can shoot, handle, pass and swing between either guard position. While he will have to play more without the ball in his hands this season, he is going to get a lot of open looks and he is more than capable of capitalizing on them. If he makes the easy play, moves the ball and competes on the defensive end, he could be one of the best fourth options in the NBA and start living up to his boasts.
- Chicago Bulls: Tony Snell:
After being thrust into the Chicago rotation by necessity as a rookie, Snell will have to compete for minutes on a much deeper team. He has all the tools to be a successful wing player in Tom Thibodeau’s system - at 6’7 200, he has the length and athleticism to swing between multiple positions on the perimeter and he has shown the ability to knock down 3’s. While he was only at 32% last season, he was a career 38% three-point shooter at New Mexico.
In order to get on the floor, he will need to internalize Thibodeau’s defensive principles while also becoming a more complete offensive player. He shot 38% from the floor last season, numbers only Kirk Hinrich is allowed to put up in Chicago. In a best-case scenario, Snell makes a leap similar to the one Jimmy Butler made in his second season. If not, with Doug McDermott breathing down his neck for minutes, he may not be long for the Bulls.
- Indiana Pacers: Solomon Hill
Hill didn’t really get a chance to show what he could as a rookie, when he was behind Paul George, Lance Stephenson and Evan Turner in Indiana’s rotation. With all three gone this season, the Pacers will give Hill every chance to eat up minutes and establish himself as a legitimate NBA player. They made their bones as a franchise that drafts and develops, so they have to hope that Hill learned something going up against those guys in practice.
Coming out of college, Hill had a rep as a guy who was a jack of all trades but a master of none. At 6’7 225, he doesn’t have elite athleticism and he was never an explosive scorer at Arizona. He was a very smart four-year player who could do a little bit of everything - shoot, score, pass, rebound and defend. While he probably can’t handle a huge offensive burden, he could become an effective NBA player by just filling in the cracks and playing within himself.
- Detroit Pistons: Andre Drummond
There was only one real reason for Stan Van Gundy to take the Pistons job - the 21-year-old freak of nature on their roster still young enough to be molded into anything. Despite all the dysfunction around him last season, Drummond put up some fairly eye-popping numbers - 13 points, 13 rebounds and 1.5 steals on 63% shooting. Not only is he one of the biggest human beings in the league, he is incredibly athletic for a guy with his monstrous size.
If you close your eyes and project a few years forward, you can see Van Gundy using Drummond in many of the same ways he used Dwight Howard in Orlando. To be sure, he still has a ton of work to do on both ends of the floor and his free-throw shooting is going to have to improve. Nevertheless, for as raw a player as Drummond still is, he still managed to put up a 22.6 PER last season. Spread the floor around him and anything is possible.
- Milwaukee Bucks: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Giannis was one of the best stories in the league last season, but all the positive press has obscured what a raw player he still. For all the flashes of greatness he showed as a rookie, he wasn’t all that effective in his time on the floor, with per-36 minute averages of 10 points, 6 rebounds and 3 assists on 41% shooting. Translation to potential to production is not easy in the NBA, especially for a 20-year-old on a bad team without many veterans to lean on.
For Giannis, this season is all about filling out his body and becoming strong enough to deal with the physicality of the league. If he can handle that, his length, skill and athleticism should take him a long away. Jason Kidd has made noises about using him as a point forward, which might not be a bad experiment for a Bucks team going nowhere. He can conceivably improve every facet of his game, which is exciting but also tells you how far he has to go.
Oct 10, 2014 12:42 AM EDT
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.
Sep 25, 2014 3:55 PM EDT
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.
Sep 17, 2014
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.
Sep 15, 2014
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.
Sep 11, 2014
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.
Sep 05, 2014
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.
Aug 25, 2014
Once Eric Bledsoe gets more NBA games under his belt, thereís really no ceiling to how good he can be - imagine Chris Paulís brain in Derrick Roseís body. He's also already one of the best two-way players in the NBA.
Aug 01, 2014
Monta Ellis went from laughingstock to cornerstone, the latest in a long line of guards to benefit from playing next to Dirk Nowitzki. But the holes in his game that haunted him with the Warriors and Bucks are still there and it's unclear how he fits long-term in Dallas.
Jul 21, 2014
Without Chandler Parsons, the Rockets don't have much room for internal improvement left on their roster. They have only one young player they can dream on - Terrence Jones. The good news for them is that he can really play.
Jul 17, 2014
Lance Stephenson's new contract wasn't one of the bigger ones handed out this offseason, but it was one of the most important. The Pacers are going to have a tough time replacing him and the Hornets look like a team on the rise.
Jul 09, 2014
The NBA is full of 7'0 who didn't start to blossom until their mid 20's with Tyson Chandler as their patron saint, which is why it is too early to give up on Meyers Leonard.
Jul 06, 2014
With Kyle Lowry under contract for the next four years, the Raptors have every one of their two-way playing starting five locked up for the indefinite future. This is a team on the rise, regardless of how much star power they have.
Jun 27, 2014
With the new CBA magnifying the importance of the draft and one of the most talented groups of prospects in recent years, what happened on Thursday night will have significant ramifications on the balance of power in the NBA for the next decade.
Jun 26, 2014
The key to finding sleepers once you are out of the lottery is identifying players with the ability to do multiple things, which allows them to impact the game without the ball in their hands. That means guys with the physical tools to be impact defenders or the all-around offensive games to contribute in a variety of roles on offense.
Jun 25, 2014
Doug McDermott, James Young, Jerami Grant, Mitch McGary and Cleanthony Early are five players we expect to be selected too early relative to the value of their contributions in the NBA.
Jun 23, 2014
The 2014 class could end up rivaling 2003 based on its depth. If the Top 3 players in this yearís draft ever got on the same team, it would be something.
Jun 21, 2014
Aaron Gordon might never be a guy who averages 18-20 points a game, but he does everything else on the court that helps you win. Heís the ultimate teammate, a guy who plays elite defense at multiple positions and moves the ball on offense.
Jun 11, 2014
Marcus Smart just lived through the worst possible timeline at Oklahoma State, but he's an ideal player for a rebuilding team because he can be successful next to any type of guard.
Jun 02, 2014
The Thunder Big 3 are still two years away from being the same age as LeBron, Wade and Bosh were when they united and they didn't have 2-3 lottery picks entering their prime to serve as a supporting cast.
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