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LeBron At 30

As the new season gets underway, all eyes in the NBA are on LeBron James and his new team, just as they were four years ago. The 14-15 Cleveland Cavaliers have a lot in common with the 10-11 Miami Heat, from the massive spotlight they are playing under to a head coach without a lot of NBA experience and three star players learning to play together. The biggest difference between the two teams is their best player, who had to do a lot of growing up in the last four years.

LeBron James at 26 might have been the most impressive athlete in the history of the sport. He was a bundle of fast-twitch muscles who was bigger than the big men and faster than the guards. He was a seemingly indestructible basketball cyborg who could play all 48 minutes without any visible sign of wear and tear. Like most young guys, he thought he was invincible. Miami’s collapse in the 2011 NBA Finals humbled him and made him a better player.

LeBron at 30 isn’t quite the athlete he once was. He can’t play as many minutes and he can’t go as hard on both ends as he used too. He can still turn on the athleticism when necessary, but he doesn’t do it as often. It’s like an older sports car - you can still take it into high gear, but you probably don’t want to wear out the engine revving it through downtown traffic. What he’s lost in athletic ability, though, he has more than made up for in his grasp of the game.

If LeBron’s first stint in Cleveland was Young LeBron, what he was doing by the end of his time in Miami was Peak LeBron. The offensive efficiency numbers speak for themselves. LeBron averaged 29 points per game on 50% shooting in his last season with the Cavs - he was at 27 points on 57% shooting in his last season with the Heat. He became comfortable scoring out of the post and he turned himself into one of the best three-point shooters in the NBA.

Where you really saw that was in the playoffs, where he was able to score at will regardless of who he was playing against. Before last season, LeBron had never shot above 51% in the postseason. It makes sense - the game slows down and you are facing much better defenses with much bigger and more athletic defenders. In last year’s playoffs, he shot 56% from the field. Those are prime Shaq numbers and Shaq spent the whole game dunking on people.

That LeBron is able to score at that volume and efficiency while taking shots from all over the floor shows you how easy the game comes to him. In their first year with Miami, everything looked really difficult for the Heat. They had a hard time getting out of each other’s way on offense and they didn’t function all that well as a unit. LeBron at 30 is unlikely to have the same types of issues in Cleveland - he doesn’t make the game any harder on himself than it has to be.

When LeBron has the ball in his hands, he almost always makes the right decision. If the defense plays off him, he shoots. If they press up on him, he drives. If they send help, he finds the open man. He takes what the defense gives him and he doesn’t force the issue. If basketball is an equation, he has essentially solved it. As long as he can play in space, LeBron is one of the most unstoppable players in the NBA - the defense has to give up something.

The big difference for him in Cleveland is that he will have more support on the offensive side of the ball.

Kevin Love is a better three-point shooter than Chris Bosh and he gives them another dimension on the offensive glass, while Kyrie Irving won’t have to sit out games and have his minutes cut like Dwyane Wade. Part of the problem in Miami was that LeBron was using up so much energy trying to carry them on the offensive end of the floor, he had to take off possessions on defense.

By the end of the Spurs five-game rout of the Heat, LeBron just seemed worn out - Wade could no longer dominate on one knee, Bosh had been completely de-emphasized in the offense and none of the role players could do much of anything. Everyone needed LeBron to spoon feed them open shots. The Cavs, in contrast, have more guys on their roster - Dion Waiters, Anderson Varejao and Tristan Thompson - who know how to find their way into points.

If LeBron is able to ration his energy more effectively in the regular season, that could pay dividends in the playoffs. A couple of times in the 2014 NBA Finals, he reached into the tank and came out empty, most notably when he cramped up at the end of Game 1. That might not have happened were it not for an air conditioning malfunction in San Antonio, but it clearly had an effect on how he trained in the offseason, as he is at his lowest weight in years.

Dropping weight and playing with teammates who can carry the offense and allow him to take a step back are two of the biggest reasons for Tim Duncan’s amazing longevity in the NBA. The older a player gets, the harder it becomes for them to carry any extra pounds on their knees and the more susceptible they become to injuries. Injuries, not any significant decline in play, are what usually ends the careers of the greatest players, from Shaq to Kobe Bryant. 

Great players don’t age like basketball mortals. As they get older, they can adjust their game and remain effective, compensating for any loss in physical ability with a corresponding gain in mental ability. That’s the biggest difference between LeBron at 26 and LeBron at 30 - he can think the game on a whole different level, seeing two and three moves down the road. Everything he does is about setting himself up for two to three weeks in May and June.

LeBron’s game has changed a lot over the last four seasons and he will have to continue to reinvent himself to stay atop the NBA for the next four, if not longer. If his time in Miami was like Jordan’s first three-peat in Chicago, his second stint in Cleveland will have to be like the second. We are witnessing one of the greatest players of all-time at the peak of his powers. As the next stage of his career begins, everything is on the table, both for him and the Cavs.

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.

Internal Improvement Candidates: Northwest Division

Our series on candidates for internal improvement on every team in the NBA continues with the Northwest Division, which doesn’t feature markets that have traditionally attracted big-name free agents. In recent years, Carmelo Anthony, Deron Williams and Kevin Love have all departed the division on less than friendly terms. As a result, almost every team in the Northwest has committed itself to building through the draft, with varying levels of success.

The Oklahoma City Thunder represent the gold standard for that model. Not only have they built an elite team almost entirely through homegrown products, they have remained committed to the draft even as they contend for titles. The Thunder have seven different guys on their rookie deals and their ability to take the final step in the playoffs will depend in large part on how well those players can grow into bigger roles over the course of the season. 

On the other end of the spectrum are the Utah Jazz, who have six recent lottery picks on their roster but appear no closer to getting out of the basement in the Western Conference. Some have seen their games stagnate as they move into bigger roles while others have struggled to find a role that allows them to maximize their skill-set. Dante Exum might be the future, but he is still a 19-year-old who played high school basketball in Australia last season. 

Somewhere in the middle are the Portland Trail Blazers, who shot up the standings last season with a starting line-up better than the sum of its parts and the Denver Nuggets, who are still looking for an identity after dumping George Karl and falling out of the playoffs. The Minnesota Timberwolves, who are in the very beginning of a new rebuilding plan, can only hope that their path looks more like Oklahoma City than Utah in the next few years. 

- Oklahoma City Thunder: Steven Adams

The scariest part about where the Thunder go from here is how much room they still have to improve. Over the last three seasons, they’ve been one of the best teams in the NBA while giving Kendrick Perkins 20-25 minutes a game. He has some value as a post defender and a guy who quarterbacks the defense, but imagine if they had a guy with more size and athleticism than Perkins back there who was not a complete non-entity on the offensive end?

Even if Adams never develops a post game, his ability to catch and finish around the rim makes him an upgrade over Perkins. He shot 50% from the field as a rookie, a number Perkins hasn’t matched since his time in Boston. He probably won’t start for another season, but as he improves on both sides of the ball and earns more playing time, the Thunder will be even better than they are now. Where will they be when Adams is at 30-35 minutes a night?

- Portland Trail Blazers: Will Barton

After two seasons on the fringes of the rotation in Portland, Barton could be poised for a breakout year in his third year in the NBA. With Mo Williams gone, there’s room in the rotation for a guard to assume a bigger role on the second unit, which has been one of the biggest weaknesses for the Trail Blazers over the last few seasons. Portland has three young guards on their bench - Barton, CJ McCollum and Allen Crabbe - and one of them needs to step up. 

The key for Barton is his outside shot, which improved between his first and second seasons in the league. If he can consistently knock down the 3, his ability to get to the rim and find the open man will give him a leg up on the other two, who are more pure shooters. This is a big year for Barton - if he can’t crack the rotation, he’s probably not long for Portland, as few NBA teams keep second round picks on the end of their bench for four seasons.

- Denver Nuggets: Kenneth Faried

No player had a better summer than Faried, who followed a breakout performance in the World Cup with a $50 million contract extension. The move signals Denver’s commitment to Faried as they try to move forward in the post Karl era. Faried is the only under-25 player slated to have much of a role on the Nuggets roster this season, so their ability to move up the Western hierarchy will depend in large part on how much room he has left to grow.

The key question with Faried is how to build a team around him - is he better off with a shot-blocking center who can protect him on defense or a stretch 4 who can open up the floor for him? Coach K solved the dilemma by pairing him with Anthony Davis, but guys with his skill-set do not grow on trees. If Faried can improve as a perimeter shooter and a defensive player, he will give Brian Shaw more options in terms of how he deploys his frontcourt.

- Minnesota Timberwolves: Gorgui Dieng

After being glued to the bench for most of his rookie season, Dieng exploded in the final few months, taking advantage of an injury to Nik Pekovic to establish himself as a legitimate NBA center. Not only was he a nightly double-double threat, he displayed a skill-set that has been in short supply in Minnesota in recent years - a shot-blocking center who could anchor a defense while also providing quality play on the offensive end of the floor.

With Pekovic likely to be the featured option in a post Kevin Love universe, it’s unclear how many minutes will be there for Dieng. Can he operate as a power forward in a Twin Towers configuration or will he be be siloed into a role as a backup center? One of the big questions for Flip Saunders is whether he can figure out a way to use Pekovic and Dieng together or whether he would be better off flipping one of his C’s to improve the rest of the roster.

- Utah Jazz: Trey Burke

There are a lot of guys who could be featured here, as there a number of talented young players in Utah who haven’t quite figured out who they are in the NBA. None will be more important to the team’s success this season than Burke, the second-year PG who will have to shoulder a huge burden on the offensive side of the ball. Not only will he need to figure out how to score more efficiently, he will have to be able to create easy shots for everyone else too.

As a rookie, Burke shot 38% from the field, struggling with the size and speed of the NBA game. At 6’0 190, he is one of the smallest PG’s in the NBA and he will need to use every bit of his offensive creativity to survive against the longer and bigger defenders he will face on a nightly basis. The key for him is becoming a knock-down shooter - a guy his size will have a hard time surviving in the lane and he has to take advantage of any opening he can create.

Internal Improvement Candidates: Southwest Division

Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Terrence Jones, Jae Crowder and Jon Leuer represent the Pelicans, Spurs, Rockets, Mavs and Grizzlies as young players who are poised to grow and assume bigger roles this season.

Thunder Finally Approaching Prime Contention Seasons

With two of the top-5 players in the NBA and an elite defensive big, the Thunder arenít just set up to win a championship this season - they are set up to win the next few.

Why The Mavs Have A Shot Again

Even at this stage in their careers, Dirk Nowitzki is the best offensive 7í0 in the NBA and Tyson Chandler is one of the best defensive 7í0. Chandler covers up Dirkís flaws on defense and Dirk makes Chandler a much better offensive player.

How The Morris Twins Will Be Phoenix's Major Contract Showdown

Under Robert Sarver, Phoenix has been notorious for pinching pennies and they might be able to take advantage of Marcus and Markieffís desire to play together as they negotiate extensions. Given their struggles apart and their success as a unit in the NBA, itís hard to see the twins wanting to be split up.

Jonas Valanciunas As Franchise Player

You can count the number of centers in the NBA with more two-way ability than Jonas Valanciunas on one hand - Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol, Joakim Noah, Tim Duncan. The scary part is that heís only scratched the surface of his potential.

Dario Saric's Best Case Scenario

Dario Saric is a unique player with very defined strengths and weaknesses, which gives his NBA career a wide range of possible outcomes. Maybe the biggest reason for optimism is his age, as he is one of the youngest players at the World Cup.

Team USA's Big Problem Playing Small In World Cup

Ever since taking over as the head coach of Team USA, Mike Krzyzewski has made a philosophical commitment to playing small. But instead of Durant, LeBron, George, Love and Carmelo, he finds himself with Parsons, Faried and Gay.

A Superstar Is Not Enough Out West

After years of failed lottery picks, the Wolves finally seem to have a front office capable of finding talent in the draft, the most important asset for a rebuilding franchise in the modern NBA.

Cavs Enter Win-Now Mode With A Machine Of An Offense

In the end, with LeBron James in his prime and the Eastern Conference wide open, the Cavaliers went with the sure thing rather than rolling the dice on building a team with LeBron and a bunch of under-22 players.

Rockets Build Bench From The Deepest Of Pools

What separates the Rockets from a lot of other NBA franchises is they arenít afraid to give younger players chances rather than recycling brand name players and established veterans on their last legs.

How Boozer Fits With Lakers, Julius Randle

The Lakers are signing Boozer to put up empty numbers while blocking the development of Julius Randle. But Boozer could weirdly be the perfect veteran mentor for him.

Chris Bosh's Return Keeps Heat Relevant

With LeBron leaving the Heat, Chris Bosh could be back in the discussion with guys like Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Love for best PF in the NBA. He's not the rebounder they are, but he's the most complete player of the bunch, with the ability to score, shoot, pass and defend.

LeBron Opens Up His Own Finishing School In Northeast Ohio

The end game for LeBron James is not to bring one title to Cleveland, but to bring a franchise that could compete for titles well into the future. When LeBron watched the Spurs dismantle the Heat in the Finals, he saw what to strive for.

Jason Kidd's Great Escape

If Jason Kidd plays it right, he can be the Scott Brooks to their version of the Thunder. Kiddís already proven heís a more flexible strategist than Brooks, so hitching his wagon to that type of young talent could give him nearly unparalleled job security.

Draft Report: Andrew Wiggins Of Kansas

When Andrew Wiggins was playing AAU basketball, a transition setting where he could make direct-line runs at the rim, he surely looked like the best prospect since LeBron James. You can only see the holes in his game when heís forced to play in the halfcourt.

Spurs Win Championship On System Over Sentimentality

While the Spurs' stars are well into their second decade in the league, they had the younger and more athletic roster. That became obvious over the course of the series, as the Spurs zipped the ball around the court and blew the Heat off the floor.

Zach LaVine: Everything's Contextual

From a tools perspective, Zach LaVine is one of the most talented guards to come into the league in a long time. Heís not as big as Andrew Wiggins, but heís every bit as athletic and heís far more skilled.

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