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Internal Improvement Candidates: Southeast Division

Our series on candidates for internal improvement on every team in the NBA concludes with a look at the Southeast Division, which features a number of young teams on the rise. While the Miami Heat have run roughshod over the division for the last four seasons, the Washington Wizards, Charlotte Hornets and Atlanta Hawks have been patiently growing rosters who could now be in a position to take advantage of the departure of LeBron James.

It wasn’t a pretty process, particularly for Washington and Charlotte, which featured some of the worst teams in the NBA for years. After swinging and missing on several lottery picks, they didn’t have the talent base to attract many free agents and they had to spent a lot of time chewing their medicine, bleeding fans as they racked up huge loss totals. The Wizards eventually lucked out in the lottery while the Hornets made a few shrewd free agent moves.

They both appear on the right track, but the leap from good to great is the hardest one to make in the NBA, as the Atlanta Hawks can attest. They have made seven consecutive trips to the playoffs without cracking the Conference Finals and they don’t appear any closer to getting there, beyond hand-waving about cap space and flexibility. Just because a team is on an upward track doesn’t mean someone else can’t come in behind them and jump them in line.

Atlanta was forever haunted by passing up Chris Paul and Deron Williams in 2005 and a lot of the upside in Washington and Charlotte will depend on what happens to the final lottery picks they made before becoming playoff teams - Otto Porter, Cody Zeller and Noah Vonleh. Unless you have a transcendent superstar like LeBron, you need to have everything else in place and all the pieces have to be lined up in order to be an elite team in the NBA.

- Miami Heat: Norris Cole

If you want to know why LeBron James is back in Cleveland, you can start with the dearth of young talent in Miami. After years of ignoring the draft, there were not many young players on the Heat roster that LeBron could look at with confidence as he tried to figure out where the team would be in 2-3 seasons. The only real candidate for internal improvement on this year’s roster is a guy who is going to have to fight to earn a contract extension.

Cole has played a valuable role as a backup PG on two championship teams, but he’s still an inconsistent offensive player whose never had a PER above 9 playing at one of the most fungible positions in the league. For all that he does as a defensive spark-plug and energy guy off the bench, a 6’2 guard who can’t create a lot of offense is only so valuable in the NBA. Once Miami drafted Shabazz Napier in the first round, the clock started ticking for Cole.

- Washington Wizards: Otto Porter

Porter’s rookie season didn’t go exactly as planned, as an early injury and the Wizards emergence in the playoff picture relegated him to the end of the bench. Nevertheless, he’s still only 21 years old and he still has a very intriguing skill-set for a 6’9 forward. The key for Porter is developing his jumper, as the threat of the three-pointer should open up the rest of his game and allow him to thrive on offense without spending too much time in the paint.

With Trevor Ariza in Houston, there should be more minutes for him this season, especially since Washington is going to want to carefully monitor Paul Pierce’s playing time. The Wizards' second-unit is still in flux and Porter could carve out a nice role for himself as a secondary playmaker and versatile defender. If all goes according to plan, a strong sophomore campaign could propel him towards a spot in the starting line-up in 2015.

- Charlotte Hornets: Cozy Zeller

The transition to the NBA wasn’t easy for Zeller, who went from being one of the biggest players on the floor in college to average-sized for his position. After spending most of his life playing inside-out, he had to learn to play outside-in. He started to pick up steam as the season progressed and he became more comfortable with the speed of the NBA game, taking on a bigger role in the rotation and averaging much better numbers after the All-Star break.

Still only 22, Zeller should have a much bigger role for Charlotte this season and he could really benefit from playing with Lance Stephenson. His NBA ceiling will still depend on his perimeter jumper, but his ability to run the floor, crash the glass and play with the ball in his hands at 7’0 240 will make him an effective weapon against second-unit big men. Going forward, the Indiana big man combination of Zeller and Noah Vonleh should be fun to watch.

- Atlanta Hawks: Dennis Schroeder

After dazzling observers at Summer League, Schroeder came back to Earth as his rookie season progressed and NBA teams began daring him to shoot from the perimeter. Hawks fans can only hope that Schroeder spent most of the summer in the gym working on his jumper, because that’s the main thing holding back from being an excellent NBA player. For the most part, a player who plays a lot with the ball in his hands has to be a threat to score it.

While only 6’1 170, Schroeder is an excellent athlete with long arms which allow him to play bigger than his size. If he could handle a bigger role on offense, it would allow Atlanta to play more two-PG line-ups and free up Jeff Teague to hunt for his own shot, ala Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic in Phoenix. With Al Horford and Paul Millsap opening up the lane, there should be plenty of driving lanes on the floor for explosive guards like Teague and Schroeder.

- Orlando Magic: Tobias Harris

You could put a number of different guys in Orlando in this spot, as the Magic have young players trying to establish themselves in the NBA at almost every position on the floor. The three lottery picks taken by the new regime - Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton and Aaron Gordon - will be given every chance to show what they can do, but everyone else on the roster is fighting for a spot in the pecking order and a place in the long-term plans of the franchise.

Harris is a prime example of that, as minutes at the two forward spots in Orlando are suddenly in short supply. Like most combo forwards, he is probably most effective as a small-ball PF, but you could say the same thing about Gordon and the Magic didn’t give Channing Frye $32 million to ride the bench. Harris can score and rebound the ball, but he will have to expand his game to hold down a starting job and secure a contract extension in Orlando.

How Lance Stephenson Left Behind Pacers For Hornets

Part of the allure that the Charlotte Hornets presented inside a deluxe Las Vegas hotel captured the mind of Lance Stephenson. Patrick Ewing patted a son of Brooklyn on the shoulder and shared with him stories of Michael Jordan, shared endless possibilities with an old rival in Kemba Walker and a connection only these New York stars can produce.

Ewing, Jordan, Walker and a stable coaching staff formed a major draw and ideas for a new future for Stephenson, but over and over, he mostly kept coming back to what failed to happen with his old franchise.

Before Stephenson had committed to Charlotte, his representatives had recognized his successful growth with the Indiana Pacers and a desire to stay. Move a salary off the books, move a player here or there and keep your homegrown talent, Stephenson’s management team urged the Pacers’ front office. With the ability to shed part or all of Luis Scola’s and Donald Sloan’s contracts, people involved in negotiations brought up scenarios to remove those deals to create an increased Year 1 and Year 2 salary for Stephenson in a deal with Indiana. Suggestions went unanswered, without execution.

Under the direction of Larry Bird and Herb Simon, the Pacers remained resistant in their contract offer to Stephenson, and lost him. Bird had called Stephenson’s behaviors “disappointing” late in last season’s playoffs, had failed to convince ownership enough of his former second round pick to spike into a luxury tax area, but Stephenson was his guy. He always shielded Stephenson privately and publicly. Away from this partnership, Stephenson understands there’s no turning back now, no grudge to keep.

“I never noticed anything change between us, nah,” Stephenson told RealGM. “Me and Larry were always cool.”

Cool, but how was the conversation with Bird? How was the explanation to his face -- or into his cell phone -- about why he found it unacceptable to be the lowest paid starter for two more seasons in the Pacers’ proposal? In the corner of a locker room recently, Stephenson shook his head.

“We didn’t have a conversation,” Stephenson said. “Haven’t talked. I’m focused on winning here now. This group of guys is good, hungry, and we want to win. This team is young and hungry to get far.”

For Stephenson, the plane flight to North Carolina in July washed over him that he’d need to leave behind Bird and Donnie Walsh, Frank Vogel and Paul George. For all of Bird’s imprints on Stephenson, Walsh sat courtside late in the Eastern Conference finals in the spring -- pointing toward George and Stephenson shooting pregame, admiring Stephenson and vowing he was emerging behind George’s stardom.

Stephenson had people in his ear a lot there, but he had the same people in his corner too.

“I’m sure part of him, part of his heart stayed for a little while,” Steve Clifford told RealGM. “When you’re in one place for four years, playing with primarily the same guys, it’s a significant change. But change is part of this league, and he’s fit in well with our guys.”

The maturation process continues for Stephenson under Clifford, one of the NBA’s best system coaches. Even given a depleted roster at times or a difficult stretch in the schedule a season ago, Clifford prevailed with foundation, structured schemes and harmony with his players so their efforts never wane. The Hornets brought four gritty players into training camp, and so far Jason Maxiell is the leading candidate to be retained for the 15th regular season roster spot, a source said.

Before the Hornets could grant Stephenson a Las Vegas meeting, before they could ever give him a contract, Clifford needed to see something for himself.

“Before we talked to Lance about coming here, I watched a lot of film on him,” Clifford told RealGM. “That stuff in the playoffs, that’s one or two plays. The bottom line is, if you watched him last season and through the playoffs, he had a tremendous season. He’s a great pick and roll player and a great defender and rebounder.

“The two things that stand out about him are: he’s worked hard since he’s been in the league, and his competitiveness. [Jordan] spoke to Lance about the fact that it’s one of the ways he can get better. People view Lance’s competitiveness sometimes as a weakness, and sometimes he has to channel that energy in the right way.”

Hornets' officials around him, and Jordan showered a free agent target with as much praise as constructive criticism: How we’ll continue to mold you into one of the NBA’s best two-way players. How that edge in the playoffs could work on LeBron James next time around. How you need the Hornets as much as we need you.

Everyone will wait for the next outburst, Jordan told Stephenson, but controlled emotion is key to competition. Now, Stephenson knows cameras will heighten on him for soundbites and endless highlight scrolls come postseason in Charlotte. This is why he spent part of the summer receiving training and guidance from his representatives on ways to handle being the player sent to the press conference room after a playoff game, ways to win over an interview in victory or defeat.

Already, Stephenson’s had interest off the court in local endorsement deals, but he has made clear to hold off on any commitments until the season starts. His deal with AND1 runs for two more seasons, so any discussion of a shoe partnership with Jordan is simply speculation for now. Whatever, because Stephenson is still configuring his knowledge of Clifford’s play sets.

“I’m trying to learn the offense still,” Stephenson said.

Before Stephenson attended the Hornets' meeting and was handed team material on that July night in Las Vegas, pleas were made to find salary space and a shorter-term deal with the Pacers. No one would be released or traded by the Pacers for this; negotiations held firm. “No regrets. I just want to win games,” Stephenson says, and so he bet on himself and took a deal to enter free agency again for the NBA’s cap spike.

No forever bond with Larry Bird and the Pacers. No turning back now for Lance Stephenson.

Internal Improvement Candidates: Central Division

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.

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