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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

Around the basketball interwebs, one of the most popular pastimes of the offseason is grading every team in the NBA, tallying up the arrivals and departures to see which teams came out ahead and which fell behind. The problem with this approach is that it ignores one of the main avenues for teams to improve from season-to-season - the progression of younger players as they grow into bigger roles and make names for themselves in the NBA.

A team with a bunch of young players can get better without doing much of anything in the offseason. Often times, the biggest improvement they can make is letting go of some of their older players and giving the young guys a chance. This is where the idea of addition by subtraction comes from - last season, the Toronto Raptors improved not just by getting rid of Rudy Gay, but by redistributing his shots and minutes to DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross.

And while some young players are marked for stardom as soon as they come into the league, many others slip through the cracks for a few seasons before seemingly emerging out of nowhere. The days of college players staying four years in school have come and gone - for the most part, guys declare for the draft as soon as they are confident their names will be called. As a result, few are ready to make an immediate impact at the next level.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll go division-by-division, looking at a second-fourth year player on each team with room to grow as a player and the opportunity to assume a bigger role this season. One of the best ways to look for surprise teams is to scour the ranks of young players and look for guys ready to make the next step. It can happen fast - in six months, Eric Bledsoe went from a guy trying to earn a starting spot to a guy asking for a max contract.

- San Antonio Spurs: Kawhi Leonard

After going toe-to-toe with LeBron James in the last two NBA Finals and coming home with the NBA Finals MVP last season, Kawhi Leonard is set to get paid like a superstar either at the end of the month or next summer. The only thing left to do is for him to start getting used like a superstar in San Antonio. Leonard’s usage rating has increased every year since he has been in the league, but he was still only at 18.3 last season, a role player’s number.

It sets up perfectly for the Spurs - Leonard can pick up the slack as Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker see their roles decrease with age. It’s a scenario that allows the older players to age gracefully into a smaller role while the younger player takes on more responsibility without being overwhelmed. The next step for Leonard is becoming more of a facilitator - a guy with the ball in his hands as lot has to be able to make others better too.  

- Houston Rockets: Terrence Jones

Jones is a textbook case for the importance of internal improvement to a team’s success. If you lose a guy like Chandler Parsons in free agency, one of the most cost-effective ways to replace his production is to redistribute his shots to a younger player ready for a bigger role. Jones played 27 minutes a game last season and had only a 18.3 usage rating, but he was awfully productive in those minutes and he seems more than ready for a bigger role.  

He had a 19.1 PER and per-36 minute averages of 16 points, 9 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.5 blocks on 54% shooting. Jones is big, fast and very skilled for a guy his size - he can handle the ball like a guard and finish at the rim like a big man. Because he wasn’t taken in the lottery and he started his career as a role player on a good team, most people don’t realize how high his ceiling is. If given the chance to create his own offense, he could make a huge leap this season. 

- Dallas Mavericks: Jae “The Beast” Crowder 

For all of their success under Mark Cuban and Donnie Nelson, the Mavs have had a fairly laissez-faire attitude when it comes to the draft - they haven’t developed a draft pick into a good NBA player since the days of Devin Harris and Josh Howard. They are more comfortable squeezing value out of older players or unearthing reclamation projects off the scrap heap. As a result, there aren’t many plausible options on their roster for internal improvement. 

The best bet this season is Crowder, a third-year swingman who will be given first crack at replacing some of the minutes given to Shawn Marion and Vince Carter. The Mavs need an athletic wing player who can come off their bench and defend multiple positions without being an offensive non-entity. The question is whether Crowder can hold off Al-Farouq Aminu, a former lottery pick on his third team whom Dallas thinks can thrive in Rick Carlisle’s system.

- Memphis Grizzlies: Jon Leuer

There aren’t many good young players in Memphis, a byproduct of four straight playoff appearances as well as a shift in philosophy that saw many of the previous regime’s draft picks shipped out on the first bus out of town. Tony Wroten, their first round pick in 2012, is an interesting young player, but a point guard who holds the ball and can’t shoot from the perimeter isn’t a great fit for the new analytics-minded front office that came into power in 2013.

The only plausible candidate for internal improvement on this year’s roster is Jon Leuer, a prototype stretch 4 who is in the league for one reason - he’s tall (6’10 230) and he can shoot 3’s. He hasn’t managed to get a ton of minutes in his first two years in Memphis, but he shot 47% from 3 and racked up a 17.4 PER in 49 appearances last season and he gives them an option of playing with more of a spread floor instead of their usual two-post look.

- New Orleans Pelicans: Anthony Davis

The fact that Davis still has so much room to grow as a player after a year where he averaged 21 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks a game is one of the main reasons why New Orleans is such an intriguing team coming into the season. Still only 21, he can do a little bit of everything, as he can create his own shot, stretch the floor from the perimeter, clean the glass at a high level, defend multiple positions and generally wreak havoc all over the floor.

The next step for Davis is making his teammates better on both sides of the ball. If he can become an anchor of an improved defense on one end of the floor and command a double team and create shots for everyone else on the other, the Pellies can start rising up the ranks of the Western Conference very quickly. There’s no ceiling to how good he can be - he can continue to improve for the next 5-6 seasons and take the rest of the franchise with him. 

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