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10 Last Minute Projections for the 2014-2015 NBA Season

With the NBA season tip off just hours away, I thought I’d post some of my final thoughts on the upcoming season. Here are ten (semi-bold) predictions for the NBA season.

1. The Clippers will go OVER on 56.5 wins (from Sportsbook) and are the favorites to grab the No. 1 overall seed in the Western Conference.

The Clippers won 57 games last year with a point differential that indicates they may have left some wins on the table. They had the league’s most efficient offense last season even though Chris Paul missed 20 games and starting shooting guard JJ Redick played in just 35. The lineup of Paul-Redick-Barnes-Griffin-Jordan played only 90 minutes last season, but scored 117(!) points per 100 possessions in those minutes per 82games.com. Redick’s presence will greatly improve the Clippers’ spacing and give them a solid secondary ball handler and passer next to Paul.

In addition to the benefits of improved health (hopefully, anyway), the Clippers added big man Spencer Hawes via free agency this offseason. Hawes has his limitations, but he will be a huge upgrade over the variety of back up bigs the Clippers trotted out last year and will eat up all of the Hollins-Jamison-Mullens minutes while providing much needed floor spacing (41.6% from three last year) and generally being an NBA caliber player. He is the perfect fit for the Clippers as a third big man.

Whether or not the Clippers have what it takes to reach the NBA Finals, or even the Conference Finals remains to be seen, but in terms of the regular season, they should be able to build on their already successful 2013-2014 campaign. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Clippers win upwards of 60 games and surprising people by grabbing the No. 1 seed.

2. Jabari Parker will win the Rookie of the Year award…and it won’t be close.

When I wrote about the ROY race back in August, I felt that Jabari Parker was the obvious choice, and I still feel that way today. No rookie approaches the skill set that Jabari brings to the table. While I am worried that he might be misused, he’s simply too talented not to shine on this Bucks team. He’s a lock for big minutes and I would be surprised if he fell below 15 ppg.

On Sportsbook’s site Jabari is 2-1 to win the ROY. Let’s just say that was too good of value to pass up. In my opinion, Jabari is a heavy favorite over the field for this award.

3. The Indiana Pacers will have a top-4 defense.

Without Lance Stephenson and Paul George the Pacers will obviously be worse this season, especially on offense. However, there is still reason to believe they can be a competitive team due to the fact that their defense will keep them in games.

Last season the Pacers’ defense was historically dominant. Their No. 1 ranked defense (96.7 points allowed per 100 possessions) was as far away from OKC’s No. 5 ranked defense (101) as as OKC’s defense was from the 20th ranked Boston Celtics (105.2).

Between David West and Roy Hibbert the Pacers will still be a top-5 defensive rebounding team, and they will still be able to effectively protect the rim. Roy Hibbert is easily one of the league’s three most impactful defenders, and his presence alone virtually guarantees them a spot in the top-10. George Hill is a plus defender at the point guard position, and their excellent defensive strategy will drive their performance.

The Pacers will obviously take a step back defensively this season, but even a big step back doesn’t rule out a top-5 finish. Although they might finish 29th offensively, the Pacers will still be an incredible defensive team next season.

4. We will quickly realize how bad Tyrone Corbin and Maurice Cheeks/John Loyer were last season and their teams will look much better under new direction.

Both the Jazz and the Pistons were brutal last season, and both made coaching changes that figure to be huge upgrades in Quin Snyder and Stan Van Gundy. These teams aren’t the most talented teams around, but they were certainly mismanaged last season.

Last season the Jazz were certainly too talented to post the league’s worst defensive rating, while the Pistons struggled mightily with offensive strategy and lineups. Stan Van Gundy realized these problems right away, swearing off the Smith-Monroe-Drummond trio and bringing in sharpshooter Jodie Meeks.

These teams will look better on both sides of the ball this season. Even though these changes may not translate to playoff appearances, both of these teams are in much better shape now than they were a year ago.

5. The Bulls will not compete with the Cavaliers for the title of best team in the Eastern Conference.

Right now it’s the Cavs, the Bulls, and the field in the Eastern Conference. However, I think there are simply too many “ifs” for the Bulls to consider them a serious threat to the Cavs. The defense is going to be excellent, but the offense is still a question mark.

As sad as it is to say, there is no telling how Derrick Rose will perform after two serious knee injuries in as many years. He wasn’t nearly as effective last season in the limited time before his injury and after his poor performance in the FIBA World Cup it is unknown whether or not he will ever return to form. If Rose cannot catalyze the Bulls offense like he once did, there is no way they can hope to win more than 50 games and compete for a spot in the Finals.

The Bulls have no other reasonable replacement for Rose and a lot is riding on his shoulders. Even if Rose is a big plus for the Bulls this season, the notion that Tom Thibodeau can lead this team to a top-10 offense seems unlikely. The Bulls will be good, just not that good.

6. The Warriors will be the league’s most interesting team.

This one is completely subjective, but I think it’s fair. The newly hired head coach of the Warriors Steve Kerr has his work cut out for him here. Mark Jackson has been ripped in the media again and again for his overly simplistic and iso heavy offense, and people around the league have high expectations for Kerr’s new ball movement based offense.

The Warriors have the talent to compete for a title, and an improvement on offense could mean they end up well into the top-10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. However, if the Warriors struggle the spotlight will definitely be on Kerr.

Not only will it be interesting to see what Steph Curry and the rest of the team looks like in this new system, but it will be compelling to see what happens if the Warriors slump at any point this season. Pundits will be keeping a close eye on this team throughout the season. Time will tell if they can make the leap into contention.

7. Dwyane Wade will be a monster…when he’s on the court.

Last season the Heat relied on LeBron James to carry the offense, saving Wade’s legs for the playoffs and using the season to prepare for a deep postseason run. With LeBron in Cleveland, the nature of the situation has changed, and Wade will have a new role in the offense.

While it’s unclear how much Wade will actually play, he will be dominant when healthy (a huge if) and lead Miami’s offense. His usage rate should get back up above 30% and we will get a chance to see what 32 year Wade can do as a primary ball handler. There are a wide range of outcomes for both DWade and the Heat this season, but the top end of that range could be scary good.

8. For the second consecutive year, the 76ers will play at the league’s fastest pace but with its worst offense.

While I completely understand what the Sixers are doing, part of me wonders if this is a poisonous environment for their young players to develop in. This season, the Sixers will continue to push the tempo, avoid mid range jumpers and move the ball. However, they will be doing this with a collection of players that mostly do not belong in the NBA. While this season will result in another top draft pick for the team, it will also mean another year of an offense that simply can’t execute at all.

9. The Lakers will be unwatchable.

This is extremely unfortunate considering how often they will be on national TV, but the Lakers are going to be terrible. While being terrible doesn’t necessarily equate to being unwatchable, in this case, it does.

The combination of questionable strategy, an aging egotistical superstar, and a lack of young talent are going to be brutal to watch this season. The Lakers are not a team I would chose to watch once on league pass, much less on TNT every week.

There has already been a lot of negative chatter about how the Lakers get so much national TV time when Anthony Davis isn’t on at all, and I couldn’t agree more. For real NBA fans, the Lakers being on national TV is a disgrace.

10. The Spurs will beat the Cavs in the Finals.

Unforeseen injuries and matchups will always be a huge factor in what happens in the postseason. Realistically speaking, it’s way, way too early to be making Finals predictions, but I guess I’ll make one anyway.

The Spurs are bringing the entire crew back for another shot at the title, and while the team is getting old, I have too much confidence in Pop and Duncan to pick against them. LeBron will be playing for a new team this time around, and while I do think the Cavs are more equipped to battle the Spurs than last year’s Heat team, I still think the team that comes out of the West has to be the favorite.

In my mind, there are really only four true contenders. Right now, the Spurs, Thunder, Clippers and Cavs are the only teams I could see winning the title. Teams come in and out of the picture every year and there is a lot (all) of basketball yet to be played, so I guess we’ll see where we end up. One thing we know for sure is that this is going to be one hell of a season, and it all starts tonight.

*All stats per NBA.com

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Breaking Down NBA Over/Unders: Los Angeles Lakers

With the Over/Unders being released for the 2014-2015 NBA season (now just a week away), I thought I’d post my thoughts on a few of the best betting options. I’m hoping to do a couple of separate posts on individual teams before the season starts. Since I use Sportsbook’s online site to bet, I will use their lines.

A couple days ago, I bet on the Los Angeles Lakers’ under of 32 at -130. Now the line has moved to 31 at -135 on the under. It’s obvious betting trends are putting significant downward pressure on the Lakers’ line, and there are multiple reasons why.

Last season the Lakers were terrible. They won just 27 games, with their point differential (4th worst in the league) projecting them for just 22 per ESPN.

The Lakers will have a much different look next season. They lost two of their top three scorers (Jodie Meeks and Pau Gasol) but they will hopefully get more from Kobe Bryant, as he played in just six games last season.

After last year’s disappointing season head coach Mike D’Antoni was replaced by Byron Scott. Byron Scott has been very vocal about his “old school” view of the game and the offense will look much different this season than last. In fact, the strategy that Scott appears to be implementing will be nearly opposite to the strategy used by D’Antoni in LA the past few years.

This preseason, the Lakers have taken a huge portion of inefficient mid range shots, and their offense has struggled as a result. Despite the return of Kobe, without a solid offensive system in place the Lakers simply do not have enough offensive weapons to score the ball effectively. At this point, there is a strong possibility that their offense is worse than last year’s 21st ranked unit, especially if their older players struggle to stay healthy.

The Lakers aren’t much better on the other side of the ball; they finished ahead of just the Jazz and the Bucks on defense last season. Scott is apparently focusing on defense, but I wouldn’t count on instant results.

When it comes to defense, it all starts with the bigs. This figures to be a problem for the Lakers this season as their rotation features several defensively challenged big men. Carlos Boozer, Julius Randle, Ed Davis, Jordan Hill and Robert Sacre are probably all below average defensively and none of them offer anything that resembles rim protection.

The guards don’t look much better, as Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant and Jeremy Lin are all bad defensively. There is not a single defensive impact player on this roster, and their system certainly isn’t going to save them. It would not shock me if this team finished last in defense this season, but either way they will likely be among the bottom five.

In Byron Scott’s last stop with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the team never finished above 27th in defensive rating and they finished last in the division in each of his three seasons there.

On the surface, it may seem like the Lakers have what it takes to be competitive, but this team is not likely to be any better than last year’s team that probably should not have won 27 games. If Kobe has a crazy year the Lakers could get into the mid-30’s for wins, but this team will probably be in the bottom 10 in both offense and defense, which likely means they will struggle to get to 30 wins. In the event of a significant injury to any of their major contributors, this team could fall well short of 30 wins.

You have to pay to bet the under for the Lakers, but there’s a reason the line keeps moving. This team is unlikely to win more than 30 games, and it looks like Kobe will have to put his quest for a sixth ring on hold for another year.

*All stats per NBA.com

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Projecting the 2014-2015 New Orleans Pelicans’ Defense

The New Orleans Pelicans had a disappointing 2013-2014 season. After getting derailed by injuries in a tough Western Conference they stumbled to a disastrous 34-48 record, giving the 10th pick to the Philadelphia 76ers. Over the past two off-seasons, the Pelicans have decided to mortgage their future by trading away first round picks for players that can help them win now.

Owner Tom Benson has made no secret of his desire to win as much as possible immediately, putting GM Dell Demps and the rest of management in a tough spot. After their poor performance last season, patience is wearing thin in New Orleans. This may be the last chance for both Dell Demps and coach Monty Williams to prove their worth to the organization.

While the Pelicans managed to post an offensive rating ranked in the top half of the league, their defense was an absolute disaster. They finished 26th in defensive rating allowing 107.3 points per 100 possessions. If they want any kind of shot at making the playoffs next season, the defense will need to be much better. Considering the addition of Omer Asik and Anthony Davis’ potential as an impact player on the defensive end, a big improvement is not out of the question. With that said, how good could this team realistically be on the defensive end?

The first step to projecting the Pelicans’ defensive potential for next season is looking back at what happened last year.

Injuries really hurt this team last year as they lost several key players for long stretches. Most notably, Jrue Holiday played in just 34 games before undergoing season ending surgery. Holiday might not be a big plus on defense, but his injury meant more minutes for Austin Rivers and Brian Roberts, which was problematic for obvious reasons.

The bigs rotation was also a disaster as all of their key players missed time during the season. Anthony Davis played in a respectable 67 games, but it only goes downhill from there. Jeff Withey (58), Greg Stiemsma (55), and Alexis Ajinca (56) played between 55-60 games each, while both Jason Smith (31) and Ryan Anderson (22) missed over half the season.

Talent aside, the Pelicans were easily one of the league’s most injury prone teams last season. 15 different players started at least one game for the team last year. With players constantly coming in and out of the lineup it can be impossible to develop chemistry on defense and it made life a lot harder for the coaching staff, especially with such a young (not to mention new) group of players. After experiencing injuries and being eliminated from the playoff hunt early, the Pelicans completely fell apart after the All-Star break, allowing 109.5 Points per 100 Possessions. That would’ve been the worst mark in the league over the full season.

Every team has to adjust to injuries throughout the season, but it would seem unlikely that the Pelicans’ extreme injury woes continue into next season. Hopefully this will translate into more continuity on the defensive end in addition to actually being able to have their most talented players on the court.

Another key concern regarding the Pelicans defense has to be defensive strategy put in place by the coaching staff. Last season the Pelicans’ opponent shot distribution showed some slightly disturbing trends.

The Pelicans allowed the 9th most shots in the Restricted Area while allowing the 6th highest percentage (62.8%) on those shots. Despite allowing opponents to have their way in the paint, the Pelicans were not able to protect the three-point line. Opponents shot 503 corner threes (easily among the 10 worst marks) against the Pelicans last season and converted these attempts at a high rate (including a 48.2% mark from the right corner).

The one place the Pelicans did succeed was in preventing mid range jumpers and defending them effectively, with only the Heat and the Knicks conceding less of these shots. Interestingly, the three teams that forced the most mid range jumpers (the Pacers, Bulls and Spurs) finished 1st, 2nd and 4th in defensive rating.

While these stats don’t necessarily prove anything empirically about the Pelicans’ strategy, it is obvious that they are contesting mid range shots, while giving up massive amounts of efficient shots both at the rim and from behind the arc. This is where it’s hard to tell if the Pelicans will improve. If these stats do directly reflect the instructions of the coaching staff, that is definitely cause for concern.

Maybe spending the summer with Tom Thibodeau at the FIBA World Cup will rub off on head coach Monty Williams, maybe it won’t. If the Pelicans are able to force more of the “right” types of shots, it will have a big time impact on the bottom line.

While the Pelicans’ defensive strategy was definitely questionable, their struggles can be largely attributed to a lack of talent.

Last season Jason Smith (27), Greg Stiemsma (20), Alexis Ajinca (30) and Jeff Withey (4) combined for 81 starts.

One big problem with these centers is that they were all terrible rebounders. Smith, Stiemsma and Withey all posted a DReb% <20%. Ajinca was slightly above 20% but on the whole it was a disaster. The Pelicans were 21st in DReb% as a team at 73.8%, and despite blocking a ton of shots, they didn’t protect the rim effectively either. When you don’t protect the rim and you don’t clean up opponents’ misses, things get ugly quick. All four of the centers the Pelicans used last season were below average NBA players (and defenders).

Next season, the presence of newcomer Omer Asik will have a huge positive impact on the Pelicans defense. Asik was a dominant defensive player during his first season in Houston, grabbing 30.3% of all defensive rebounds and protecting the rim. With Asik in the game Houston’s DReb% was 3.2% better, and the defense overall improved by 6.5 points per 48 minutes per 82games. Last season (the first season of player tracking), Asik allowed opponents to shoot just 46.8% at the rim per SportVU and was excellent defensively in his limited role.

The bottom line is that the Pelicans were getting nothing from the minutes Asik is replacing, and he will be a very big upgrade.

After a disappointing 2013-2014 season that was mostly spent on the bench, Asik is entering a contract year in which he will play big minutes for the Pelicans. Asik got the trade he wanted this off-season, and he should fit in perfectly next to Anthony Davis. Asik can clean up a lot of Davis’ mistakes and rebound behind him when he jumps to challenge shots. In addition, Asik is a true center, and can take on bigger players while Davis handles easier assignments.

Davis had a pretty good 2013-2014 season, but he will have a chance to have a bigger impact this year. He was a decent defensive rebounder and he protected the rim pretty well, but the team was just .5 points per 48 minutes better defensively with him on the floor per 82games.

Last season was just Davis’ second as a pro, and it can take a while for young big men to adjust to the NBA game.

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This graph (stats from 82games) shows a player’s on/off defensive impact on the team (negative is good) and how it develops from their rookie year, to the second year, and then to the third year. This is the average performance of all the players in the sample from each year.

I wanted to get a decent group of younger, quality defensive big men for the sample, but there weren’t enough of these players to create as large of sample as I would’ve liked. The sample includes Roy Hibbert, Marc Gasol, DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan, Serge Ibaka, Joakim Noah, Tiago Splitter, Derrick Favors and Taj Gibson.

While this data analysis is far from complete, it supports the simple idea I mentioned earlier. As young big men get more experience, they tend to have a greater positive defensive impact on their teams. It takes time to learn the nuances of pick and roll defense and general timing. This makes sense intuitively.

This, in combination with the experience Davis got playing on Team USA at the World Cup this summer could indicate that Davis is ready for a breakout season impact-wise. His counting stats are already really good (he posted a PER of 26.5 last season); the next step for Davis is dominating the game on a team level. This is especially true on defense. Another factor to consider is that Davis played 45.7% of his minutes at center last season per 82games, however, next season he will spend more time at power forward alongside an excellent defensive center.

All the evidence points to Anthony Davis taking a big step up individually next season. Pair him with one of the league’s premier defensive centers, and things get much more interesting.

Say what you will of New Orleans’ perimeter defense, but in 2012-2013 Asik anchored Rockets posted the league’s 16th best defensive rating with Jeremy Lin and James Harden starting in the backcourt with no other defensive impact players. The 2014-2015 Pelicans will have better perimeter defense by default, plus they have a player who lead the NBA in blocks per game last season and is still improving next to Asik. It’s safe to say Davis and Asik will be a destructive defensive duo.

Last season the Pelicans were a mess in nearly all aspects of defense. They struggled against the pick and roll, post ups, spot ups and especially in transition, where they yielded the highest efficiency in the league per Synergy (RIP). They should improve in all of these areas next season, especially in defending both the pick and roll and post ups.

Assuming reasonable health for both Asik and Davis, I think the Pelicans should at least approach the top-10 in both DReb% and FG% allowed in the Restricted Area.

If Tom Thibodeau had been hired to coach this team, I think they could finish between 5-10 in defensive rating. With Monty Williams, I am slightly less optimistic, but they will still be good. My guess is they land somewhere between 8-13, meaning a huge upgrade from 26 last season.

Whether or not this improvement lands the Pelicans in the playoffs is hard to say, but I think it definitely puts them in the conversation. Big leaps in defense are much harder to spot than the same leaps in offense, but they matter just as much. The Pelicans will be better than people think next season.

*All stats per NBA.com unless otherwise noted

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Analyzing James Harden’s Divisive Game

Since ascending to superstar status after being traded to the Houston Rockets two years ago, James Harden has become a polarizing player in NBA circles. He has essentially developed into the poster boy for Bill Simmons’ “10 Percent Theory” around the league. In a June 2012 article about Russell Westbrook, Simmons writes,

“Even the best NBA players have holes; in a best-case scenario, they’re tapping into about 90 percent of their total potential, with the holes representing the other 10 percent. We can either dwell on the 90 percent or the 10 percent … and some holes are less glaring than others.”

While the negative discourse surrounding Westbrook has mostly dissipated, James Harden is currently at the center of a full-fledged smear campaign focused on both his defense and his habit of trying too hard to draw contact at the rim. 

After this video went viral at the end of the season, James Harden’s name became synonymous with lazy defense and generally poor play on that side of the ball. While this criticism is accurate, I think it’s safe to say that the hate has gone too far when it comes to critiquing Harden’s impact on the court. 

When it comes to Harden’s poor defensive play, the conversation shouldn’t be about how bad his defense is, but what effect his poor defensive play has on his team’s performance. 

Last season the Rockets had the 12th best defense in the league, and they were essentially the same defensively whether or not Harden was on the floor. According to 82games.com, the Rockets were .5 points worse defensively per 48 minutes with Harden on the floor. While these numbers can be pretty noisy for guards (especially since Harden played a lot of his minutes next to Dwight Howard), there was not a noticeable difference in Houston’s defensive performance when Harden played. 

If you look at Harden’s defensive stats provided by Synergy Sports, the numbers aren’t actually that bad. Last season Harden allowed his opponent to shoot just 38.4% from the field and 31.9% from 3. He was bad in isolation situations defensively, but he did ok in pick and roll situations and he was weirdly great at defending post ups (12.9% of his defensive plays, .58 PPP allowed, 8th in the league). He also stayed close to shooters and forced some turnovers, generating 1.5 steals per 36 minutes last season (although he gambled way, way too often). In addition, Harden allowed a 13.9 PER to opposing shooting guards per 82games.com.

Harden is bad on defense in kind of a weird way. It’s not that he’s too small or not athletic enough to compete, it’s that his lapses in concentration and lack of awareness leave him out of position. Harden isn’t being abused on a possession-by-possession basis, he gives up easy baskets on certain possessions. While this is obviously not a good thing, it’s better than constantly being overmatched and incapable. Due to the lack of shooting guard talent in the NBA, Harden doesn’t actually have that many tough assignments, and most of his job is watching spot up shooters. While he is bad at this, this is not nearly as detrimental to the team as having a bad defender guarding a team’s primary ball handler or having an incapable rim protector. 

All of this is not meant to paint Harden as a good defender, it’s more about quantifying the impact Harden’s defense has on his team. From all the available evidence, I think James Harden is a clear minus on defense, but not to the extent that critics would have you believe. The Rockets nearly posted top-10 defensive numbers last season with Harden playing big minutes, and I think he can be hidden/overcome by the other players on the floor. Remember, it’s not how bad his defense is, but how his bad defense impacts the bottom line.

People get so wrapped up in discussing Harden’s defensive faults that they forget what Harden brings to the table on offense, where he is easily one of the league’s top penetrators. The Rockets have been a top-6 offensive team in both of Harden’s seasons in Houston, despite running a very basic offensive system in his first season built around simple high pick and rolls. 

Last season Harden ranked 14th in PER among qualified players per ESPN.com and put up some great offensive numbers. Harden shot 61.4% in the restricted area on 368 attempts and was also 2nd in the league in free throw attempts per game at 9.1. Harden took the 5th most “above the break” threes last season (449) and shot a very respectable 36.7% on those attempts.

Harden was 5th in the NBA in scoring last season at 25.4 points per game and posted a big 27.4% usage rate. What separates Harden from a lot of the league’s other premier scorers is his ability to create shots both for himself and for his teammates, averaging 5.8 assists per 36 minutes last year.

At 6’5″, 220 pounds, Harden is an extremely unique offensive weapon; dominating in pick and roll, isolation, and transition situations. Last season Harden scored 1.24 PPP in transition per synergy and led the league in fast break points despite playing in only 73 games. 

James Harden is also incredible in crunch time, as he dominated close games last season (defined as any game with less than five minutes to play with a margin of five points or fewer). In these situations, Harden’s usage rate increased to a ridiculous 39.3% and his true shooting percentage was 66.8%. He also dished out a ton of assists in crunch time, posting an Assist% of 39%. Harden managed to significantly increase both his usage and his efficiency at the end of games, leading to a net rating of 20.2 in crunch time. 

Harden posted incredible offensive numbers last season, but what he does for the Rockets goes beyond just the numbers. In terms of the strategic aspect of the team, Harden is an offensive catalyst. Once you have James Harden on your team the entire floor opens up because of his versatility. He’s deadly in transition, he’s deadly out of the pick and roll, he can consistently beat his man off the dribble, and he’s both a powerful finisher and a solid shooter, both off the catch and off the dribble. He can do it all on offense, and that part of his game has become very underrated in the wake of his bad defense. James Harden is a one of a kind player.

Between the defense and the offensive flopping, James Harden has alienated a huge sector of the NBA fan base. Although his game has become hard to watch for some, he’s still an extremely effective player with a unique combination of skills. 

Harden does bring negatives to the table as a result of his defense, but these negatives are greatly outweighed by his offensive production. As Bill Simmons said, we can either dwell on the 10 percent of the things a player does wrong or we can appreciate the 90 percent. Defense is half of the game, but it’s not always half of the equation. In my opinion, James Harden is a borderline top-10 NBA player, and the criticism of his game has been taken too far.

*All stats per NBA.com unless otherwise noted.

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Grappling with the moral, ethical and practical ramifications of the 76ers rebuilding plan

Discussion over the 76ers bold new “rebuilding” strategy has been a hot topic in NBA circles all season, and the recent departure of Thad Young has only fueled the fire. It seems like every other week there is new drama surrounding the Sixers. From trades, to lottery reform, to freezing out the media, Sam Hinkie and the organization just can’t stay out of the headlines.

Although the Sixers surely would rather execute their plan without such scrutiny, the reality is they are among the league’s most interesting teams right now despite the disaster of a product they’re putting on the court. After trading Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes, and now Thad Young for picks they have managed to part ways with pretty much every NBA caliber player left from the previous era, an impressive feat. 

Last season the Sixers were really, really bad on both sides of the ball. They were last in offensive rating (by far) and ahead of only the Jazz, Bucks and Lakers on defense. They had the worst net rating (again by far) and their record would’ve been much worse if not for their shocking and unexplainable crunch time success. Philadelphia’s estimated record based off their point differential put them at just 13 wins per data from ESPN, but they played well in close games leading to an extra six wins.

Most of what makes Philadelphia’s on court play interesting is the greater discussion of their strategy, which is clearly reflective of Sam Hinkie’s expertise in analytics and utilizing data driven decisions. Although it’s a given that the 76ers had no real talent last year, it’s pretty shocking how terrible their offense was. 

The Sixers led the league in pace and shots taken in the restricted area, while also shooting a ton of threes and taking the least amount of mid range jumpers in the league besides the ridiculously mid range-averse Houston Rockets.

This “efficient” shot distribution led to extreme inefficiency in the most important areas, ranking 27th in restricted area efficiency (only .7% better than the 30th ranked Cavs) and shooting just 30.4% on spot up threes and ranking last in overall spot up efficiency per Synergy Sports. They also created very few corner threes and shot very poorly on those attempts. 

While most of this poor offensive play is clearly due to the nature of the roster, I have to say I don’t necessarily agree with this philosophy. In general, I consider myself extremely stat friendly, but it almost feels like the 76ers are taking it too far.

There is a balance to be struck between usage and efficiency, and if your offense becomes too predictable you’re not going to be as effective. In addition, I’m skeptical of the correlation between pace and offensive efficiency.

I think that it’s good to get out in transition when you can, but after a made basket half court offense is important. I’m not suggesting that a slow pace is better; I’m simply saying that trying to lead the league is perhaps a bit too intense. The 76ers were 30th in transition efficiency last season despite those possessions making up over 19% of their total offense per Synergy. There is a difference between being opportunistic and downright aggressive on offense, and the Sixers are trying to force the issue a little too much for my liking. 

All this being said, I much prefer this strategy to Doug Collins’ old school, mid range heavy gameplan. But still, I’m interested to see what happens/what strategic adjustments are made once this team starts trying to win. 

In terms of the talent on the roster, this season should be just as bad as last season if not worse. This team doesn’t even have five NBA caliber players to put on the floor, and the return (in terms of talent) from Minnesota for Young is just bad. Long term, their core of MCW, Noel, Embiid and Saric plus their crew of second rounders is interesting, but it’s hard to say what Hinkie has in store for this team. All of those guys are available for the right price and considering both Philly’s future picks (including their own) and their cap flexibility moving forward, nothing is set in stone. This creates an interesting dynamic when it comes to their culture, and it sparks a primarily rhetoric based, yet valuable dialogue about the commodification of players.

Last season the 76ers roster was a revolving door of players; NBA.com lists 23 different players that saw the floor for the team last season. This kind of environment certainly has an effect on the team’s performance (especially on offense), but that’s just the beginning.

When execution is as poor as it was in Philly last season it creates a breeding ground for bad habits and an unhealthy distrust for your teammates.

Philadelphia has to be one of the worst places in the league right now to develop as a young player for a few reasons. For starters, everyone there is young and inexperienced. There is no veteran leadership on the roster, which is not only problematic in the locker room, but also in terms of teaching and coaching. When no one knows what to do, the players can’t learn from each other and everyone needs coaching attention. This only makes it more difficult to create a workable learning environment, especially considering the demographics of the roster.

The top tier talents are constantly going to be in trade rumors, and they’re playing with guys who mostly shouldn’t be on NBA rosters. As for those players, most of them are hanging on for dear life, as they are one bad season or one injury away from NBA irrelevance. These things alone aren’t necessarily bad, but when you add in the fact that team management doesn’t care at all about winning games, you have a chemistry disaster on your hands. If you don’t put an emphasis on winning and the team concept falls apart, it suddenly becomes every man for himself. This is especially true when many players on the team have no financial security or experience at all. 

When Sam Hinkie hired head coach Brett Brown they knew the road ahead would be long and brutal, but it has really gotten ugly in Philadelphia.

While the nature of the situation has been well documented around the league, in this frenzy people have completely lost sight of what is actually happening here. The Philadelphia 76ers are trying to win an NBA championship. It may seem absurd, but it’s true.

It’s pretty amazing that despite all the negativity directed at the Sixers from around the league, their only real goal is to win a title. Isn’t that what the league is about? Shouldn’t this be the end game for every team? 

I am from Minnesota, and watching Flip Saunders try to reshape the Timberwolves’ image has honestly been pretty painful. This new regime has set out to accomplish one main goal, and that goal is making it back into the playoffs. I understand the philosophy behind this, especially considering the team’s ridiculous playoff drought. At the same time, it’s completely infuriating. 

Going all out for the eight seed is how you end up straight up selling first round picks and signing overvalued veterans to ridiculous deals (Pek, Kevin Martin, even Corey Brewer). Now that the Wolves have been forced to trade Kevin Love, they now enter a rebuilding project with no extra picks and no real cap flexibility. In fact, they just gave up an extra pick, to Sam Hinkie no less, to rent out Thad Young despite the fact that they now have no chance to make the playoffs.

Being great is better than being good, and it’s hard to watch people destroy Sam Hinkie while Flip Saunders destroys my Timberwolves fanhood. 

So why is everyone so up in arms about Hinkie’s quest to build a championship team? 

The word “tanking” carries a very ugly connotation around the NBA. People get upset if a team tanks for the last 20 games of a season even when they’re somewhat disguising it. It is not only the bold nature of the Sixers’ plan, but also the transparency it is being carried out with that is bothering people around the league. Every year bad teams deliberately try to lose games down the stretch to get better picks. This is especially true when it comes to pick protections. Let’s look at two examples.

Golden State posted a -.4 net rating before the All-Star break in 2011-2012, and a -5.1 net rating after it, giving them just enough losses to keep their pick and draft Harrison Barnes. Last season the Pistons posted a -2.3 net rating before the All-Star break, and an absolutely horrendous -8 net rating afterward in an attempt to keep their pick (this failed after the Cavs jumped them to get the No. 1 pick). 

These are examples of what most people would consider tanking. The 76ers are taking it to a different level entirely. In fact, the word “tanking” simply does not fully encompass what is happening in this situation. No team has ever “tanked” like the Sixers are tanking. 

This is what bothers me about the argument that tanking “doesn’t work”. I’ve heard this argument made against the Sixers on many occasions and in multiple places, but it’s a total fallacy. No team has ever attempted anything remotely close to what Philadelphia is doing. 

Most teams that stay bad for multiple years often do so by accident under incompetent management. Take the Timberwolves under David Kahn for (an extreme) example. They stayed bad for so long simply because they had to overpay for mediocre free agents, and because Kahn took Jonny Flynn (the No. 6 pick), Wesley Johnson (No. 4) and Derrick Williams (No. 2) in three straight drafts after tanking at the end of every individual season for those picks.

Sixers’ management has a cohesive plan that involves obtaining as many long-term assets as possible while staying bad enough to acquire elite talent. They aren’t targeting players who will “fill their need for athleticism on the wing” or “fit well into Kurt Rambis’ system”; they’re taking the most talented players available to try to build their asset base. 

Sam Hinkie’s master plan may not work out in the end, but it won’t be because “tanking doesn’t work”. That rhetoric just doesn’t hold up when you break down the actual blueprint the Sixers are following. Teams have tanked before, but no team has ever tried to rebuild build purely through tanking.

While the jury is still out on the success of the Sixers’ plan, I would argue that their logic is sound, though it is complex. The ethical side of this issue is is equally unclear.

The first and most obvious concern with a long term tanking plan is the fans. The team is awful, but they’re honest with the fans about their motives. Their slogan, “Together we build” is not as exciting as a playoff push would be, but it’s not like they’re trying to be deceptive.

What the team is saying is that they have a smart guy in charge, they have a plan in place, and they’re executing it one day at a time. Championship rosters simply don’t assemble themselves over night (unless you’re Boston, Miami or now, Cleveland).

As a thought exercise, if I told you your favorite team would win 40 games a year on average for the next decade, would you rather win 40 games every single season, or would you rather win 20 games a season for three seasons, 40 games for the next two, 45 for the next two and 57 for the last three? 

Obviously this is unrealistic, but basically the 76ers are saying that they need to take two steps back in order to take four steps forward, and as long as you believe you can follow through on that promise, I think this rebuild is a net positive for the fan base. 

But beyond the scope of the organization, the NBA has publicly expressed its distaste for Philly’s tanking. As one of the bigger markets in the league, the NBA relies on the Sixers to bring in revenue. In an article published a few weeks ago, Zach Lowe wrote,

“Teams in markets over a certain population threshold are banned from ever receiving cash from the revenue-sharing system. Philly apparently falls into this category, which includes New York, Brooklyn, the L.A. teams, and Toronto. But Philly didn’t earn enough revenue to pay into the system, and so the league just nets them out as neither receiving nor paying a cent — a $0 revenue-sharing team. The Sixers and Raptors were the only such teams in the league last season.”

First of all, I recommend reading not only this article, but every single article written by Zach Lowe. Secondly (and Lowe addresses this point in his article as well), Philadelphia is a market that should be generating revenue for the league. Not only that, but the team is still netting a profit. This is not as hard on them financially as you may think. In addition, the salary floor is in place for a reason, and the Sixers are on track to be well below it this season. This not only saves them money, but shrinks the market for free agents as well. All of these are legitimate problems that both the league and its players are having to deal with as the Sixers continue to not only lose games, but fail to even compete in them. 

Despite this, I somewhat disagree with Lowe’s point (it’s actually more like him making the point on behalf of the NBA) about not wanting Philadelphia to become the Pirates/Marlins of basketball. Because of the lack of a salary cap in baseball, those teams have less motivation to compete simply because they can’t afford to. The Sixers are tanking specifically so they can win, which makes a huge difference. 

The bigger problem here is that not all markets can afford to do what Philadelphia is doing. Combine this with the fact that majority owner Josh Harris bought the team at just the right time for significantly less than it’s worth now (also consider his background), and you have the perfect storm for this type of rebuilding project. 

Philadelphia is right in the sweet spot between “We’re the iconic Lakers/Knicks, we would never tank!” and “We’re the Sacramento Kings, if we tank, we will alienate our entire fan base, lose a bunch of money, and potentially have to move to Seattle!” The Sixers are in exactly the right spot to do what they’re doing, and that makes them lucky.

However, the fact still remains that you just can’t compete for a championship without high quality talent, which the Sixers just didn’t have when Hinkie took over. Acquiring a top-10 player can be extremely difficult, and I don’t think anyone would argue that they are further from accomplishing that now than they were a year ago. 

Whether it be through developing a player on their roster, a player they draft, a player they trade for or even a free agent, the Sixers have put themselves in prime position to get one of those players. They have every possible tool in their arsenal and they still have quite a few bullets in the chamber.

The 76ers have made no secret of their desire to lose, but whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing just depends on who you ask. Odd as it may seem, the bottom line is that the 76ers are much closer to winning a championship today than they were when Sam Hinkie took over, and for that I will give credit where credit is due. 

In a competitive league you have to do whatever it takes to win. Rebuilding through tanking was a market inefficiency just waiting to be exploited; the 76ers are simply taking advantage. This is a franchise that found it unsatisfying to be mediocre so they adjusted their priorities and found a way to use the rules to their advantage. 

The league, fans and the media may not like what Philadelphia is doing, but the organization has the right to pursue wins in whatever way they choose. And as painful as it is right now, I do think the Sixers will be better off in the long term because of this strategy. In addition, because of Philadelphia’s unique positioning as a market and as a franchise, I don’t really expect long term tanking to become a huge issue for the league going forward. 

This is a complex issue requiring layers of nuanced analysis. There are many sides to this story, but the bottom line is that this is not a dysfunctional organization. Sam Hinkie is a man with a plan. 

*All stats per NBA.com unless otherwise noted.

Erik Spoelstra

Does Offensive Rebounding Matter in the NBA?

Getting an offensive rebound is an objectively good thing. Obviously after a missed shot, getting your own rebound is a better outcome than allowing your opponent to end the possession and start a new one of their own. However, there is a trade-off involved in depending on offensive rebounds to create scoring opportunities. 

A lot of analysts will argue that the main cost of going for offensive rebounds comes on defense, where theoretically you give up more in transition when you go for offensive rebounds. There is validity to this point, but there is more to the story than just the defensive impact. 

This may surprise you, but last season, offensive rebounding had no significant impact on offensive efficiency across the league. 

OReb% vs. OffRtg

This is just a simple graph comparing offensive rebounding percentage to offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) using data from the 2013-2014 regular season per NBA.com. As you can see, there is absolutely no correlation at all between the two variables. This may seem unlikely at first glance, but there is reasoning behind this.

Teams that start two traditional big men with limited shooting range are simply going to get more offensive rebounds than a team that plays a lot of small ball or uses a true stretch four. This is represented in the numbers, as teams that get more offensive rebounds consistently shoot less three pointers. However, three point shooting is very valuable, and shooting more threes is generally a good thing for an offense as you’ll see below.

% of 3s vs OReb%

OffRtg vs. % of FGA from 3

The first graph directly compares all 30 team’s offensive rebounding rates to the percentage of their shots that come from beyond the arc. The second graph compares offensive efficiency to the percentage of a team’s shots that come from threes. Again this data is from the 2013-2014 regular season. 

Teams that shoot more threes have better offenses, but it would seem that teams get no benefit from going after offensive rebounds. Or rather, having players that crash the offensive glass. While there were a handful of good offenses that were good offensive rebounding teams, those teams generally had superior offensive talent, a huge confounding variable. Teams like the Rockets and Blazers would have had good offenses pretty much regardless of their strategy.

More than anything, this is a dilemma of personnel. This trade-off is most easily identifiable at power forward, the spot where shooting can really make or break a team’s spacing.

The list of last season’s top-5 offensive rebounding teams includes Detroit, Memphis, Portland, Sacramento and Denver, all teams that rely heavily on lineups that include two real big men with limited range (with the possible exception of Portland). The bottom five offensive rebounding teams were the LA Lakers, Miami, Atlanta, Brooklyn and Charlotte, all teams that use shooting bigs or play small ball.

When a team plays a traditional power forward they lose offensive production in two specific ways. First, simple logic determines that if the power forward in an offense isn’t shooting threes, then all of that team’s threes are coming from three players at most, assuming that all three of the non big men are shooters. A shooting power forward will automatically increase a team’s three point attempts just as a result of being capable of shooting them. This effect is obvious and leads into the second.

The second effect is more dangerous for an offense, this being the impact a power forward has on the team’s spacing.

If an offense has two players on the floor with range no further than 15 feet, that means that both the power forward and the center of the defensive team will have no reason to be more than 10-12 feet away from the basket at any given time. This creates big problems for the offense in the pick and roll because help defense will never be too far away from the basket.

While one big is directly involved in the screening action, the other can sag a step further into the paint with no real threat from the man he’s guarding. This is an unnecessary obstacle for a guard to have to deal with on his way to the basket, and one that oftentimes prevents successful action. However, move that big man behind the arc and suddenly there is no extra man between the guard and the basket.

This not only makes that big man a bigger threat to score, but it means the rest of the defense has to take one more step toward the paint to be ready for a crashing big or the penetrating guard. When the defense is contorted like this it’s easier for the guard to both attack and kick it out. 

We saw a perfect example of this strategy in action during the first round of the playoffs. The Atlanta Hawks knew they had little chance against the Pacers defense with Roy Hibbert patrolling the middle, so they decided to use big man Pero Antic as a spot up shooter to keep Hibbert out of the paint and away from the pick and roll. As a result, they rebounded just 20.4% of their misses, which would have put them at 29th in the NBA during the regular season. Despite this, they led the Pacers 3-2 in the series before their offense collapsed during the last two games. Nobody gave the Hawks a chance in that series, but their strategy of punting on offensive rebounding in favor of spacing (and launching an absurd amount of threes) kept them in it until the end. This also shows the value of having the versatility to space the floor when up against a team like Indiana with a dominant rim protector. 

At the end of the day, talent is always going to be the driving factor in an offense’s efficiency. However, at the point where the 2014 NBA Finals was played between teams ranked 24th (San Antonio) and 29th (Miami) in offensive rebounding, it’s time to put the role of offensive rebounding into context within the modern NBA landscape.

Many coaches have found interesting ways to play two traditional big men together, and I’m certainly not saying it’s impossible to build a good offense around two great offensive rebounders. After all, the trendline is neutral, not negative. All I’m saying is that when you get solid offensive rebounding, you give up something else. While pulling down an individual offensive rebound is good, the reason why a player was in position to grab that rebound is something worth thinking about. 

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Breaking Down the 2014-2015 Dallas Mavericks

Over the past few seasons, the Dallas Mavericks have taken a unique approach to team building as outlined by Mark Cuban on his blog. Other teams often tank and try to rebuild through acquiring young talent, but the presence of superstar Dirk Nowitzki has prevented the Mavs from using this strategy. 

They are attempting to exploit a market inefficiency of sorts; collecting talented veteran misfits with the hope of revitalizing them in their system with Dirk at the center. 

The Mavs had a down year in 2012-2013, going .500 and missing the playoffs for the first time since the 1999-2000 season. Dirk missed 29 games and the team never quite gelled, leading to a disappointing finish. However, last season the team showed progress, winning 49 games and getting back into the playoff picture. 

With their strategy yielding mixed results (Cuban admits as much), the jury is still out on the Mavs approach to surrounding Dirk with quality players as he enters the next stage of his career. Dirk just turned 36 over the summer, and the Mavs are running out of time to get back into title contention. 

Dallas made a lot of interesting offseason moves and the team is definitely going to have a new look next season. With that said, let’s take a closer look at what the Mavs did last season, who they’re replacing and who they’re replacing them with to get an idea of what to expect next season. 

While the Mavs were the last team into the Western Conference playoffs last season, they were definitely better than a traditional 8-seed. Much has been made about the disparity in talent between the conferences, but had the Mavericks been in the East last season their record would have landed them a 3-seed.

The Mavs relied heavily on their offense last season, ranking 3rd in offensive efficiency scoring 109 points per 100 possessions. The Mavs ranked 4th in Effective Field Goal% at 52.65%, shooting efficiently all over the floor. That started in the restricted area, where the team was very efficient, ranking 5th in the NBA at 63.7%. 

The Mavs were also a very efficient spot up shooting team, ranking 2nd in spot up efficiency at 1.06 PPP per Synergy. They were also 1st in transition efficiency and 4th in roll man efficiency.  

Their overall efficiency starts with Dirk, who was extremely productive last season despite taking very few shots in the restricted area. Dirk’s efficiency starts with his post ups, where he ranked 14th in the league at an insane 1.04 PPP per Synergy Sports. 

Post ups accounted for 34.8% of Dirk’s plays finished via field goal attempt, turnover, or free throws. He shot 49.3% and drew fouls on 10% of these plays. Dirk can post up anywhere on the floor and makes an incredible amount of tough shots.

Dirk relies on his jumper and size more than anything for his production, which is part of the reason why he has aged so well to this point. Despite the fact that he just turned 36, I don’t expect too much regression from Dirk this season barring injury. 

Dirk is also a very dynamic pick and roll player, ranking 17th in efficiency as a roll man (1.18 PPP). Whether Dirk was involved directly in the pick and roll or not, his presence certainly opened up the floor for lead guard Monta Ellis to operate.

Ellis signed a 3-year 25 million dollar deal with a player option before last season, and many people-including myself-were skeptical of Ellis’ potential as a contributor due to his inconsistent track record and mostly negative reputation. However, last season Ellis was an effective cog in Dallas’ offense, overachieving even the highest expectations for his performance. 

Monta Ellis finished 894 plays as a pick and roll handler last season, accounting for 44% of the Mavericks’ total pick and roll offense from the handler. This made up 47.3% of Ellis’ personal offense, and he scored .86 PPP on these plays, good for 44th in the league per Synergy.

Ellis was a high usage player out of the pick and roll but he still managed pretty reasonable efficiency serving as the Mavs primary ball handler. He also posted the highest assist ratio of his career. Coming into his second year in Rick Carlisle’s offense, Ellis is poised for another solid season.

Although Ellis and Dirk were a great pick and pop combo last season, adding a pick and roll partner like Tyson Chandler into the mix will add an interesting new dynamic to their offense.

Samuel Dalembert was a decent pick and roll player last season, but Chandler is one of the premier roll men in the entire league. Last season for the Knicks Chandler scored 1.23 PPP as a roll man, ranking him 9th in the NBA per Synergy. 

In fact, Chandler has ranked in the top-20 in efficiency as a roll man dating back to his days in Dallas during the 2010-2011 season. That season he ranked 2nd in efficiency at 1.39 PPP. Chandler is an expert at diving to the rim and opening up the floor for other players to operate. He’s not a main offensive cog, but he plays a role and he plays it well. 

Next season the Mavs will have a dominant pick and roll duo at center between Chandler and Brandan Wright. Wright also finished in the top-10 in roll man efficiency last season (1.32 PPP, 2nd in the league), and finished at a ridiculous 79% clip in the restricted area. The Mavs will get plenty of production from their centers this season. 

At 31, Chandler is not the player he was a few years ago, but he will definitely be an upgrade over what the Mavs have had since he left. Not only will he give the Mavs a good pick and roll option on offense, he will be a huge defensive upgrade as well. 

Last season the Mavs struggled on the defensive end, allowing 105.9 points per 100 possessions, 22nd in the league. The Mavs allowed the 3rd highest FG% in the restricted area at 63.9%, and were a disaster on the defensive glass, ranking 25th in DReb% at just 72.7%. 

Tyson Chandler is still an impact player on the defensive end, and he will help the Mavs shore up their defense. He’s a good pick and roll defender, and he can really protect the rim. Last season for the Knicks, Chandler allowed opponents to shoot just 51.5% at the rim per SportVU data on NBA.com. Last season Dalembert allowed 59.2% while playing limited minutes. Chandler will clearly be a huge upgrade when it comes to protecting the rim.

Although Chandler does a good job of protecting the rim, he’s also a really good defensive rebounder, a combo that is sometimes hard to come by. Last season Chandler posted a DReb% of 26.4, ranking toward the top of the league. 

The bottom line is that if Chandler can stay healthy, the Mavs will improve in terms of both rim protection and rebounding, and their defense will be a lot better as a result.

After five solid years and one NBA championship with the Mavericks, former starting small forward Shawn Marion is leaving for greener pastures, signing a one-year veterans minimum deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Although Marion was good for the Mavs, they will clearly be upgrading next season after inking 25-year-old Chandler Parsons to a 3-year deal earlier this summer. 

Parsons is a great get for Dallas, and he brings an interesting skill set to the table. First of all, he’s a more threatening shooter than Marion. Last season Parsons attempted more than twice as many threes per game as Marion (4.7 vs. 2.1) and made slightly more of them (36.7% vs. 35.8%). While Marion was a decent shooter, Parsons will be a much better overall floor spacer and spot up shooter around the Mavs’ other players. This will mean more room to operate in both the pick and roll and on Nowitzki post ups. 

Even if defenders don’t give Parsons quite enough room to get his shot off, he’s got one of the nastiest pump fakes in the league in his arsenal, which allows him to create off the dribble in tight situations. 

Parsons is solid in transition and finished 59.8% of his attempts in the restricted area. He’s also got a developing pick and roll game (16.1% of his offense, .79 PPP per synergy) and can create for his teammates, averaging 5.1 Assists/48.

By replacing Marion with Parsons, the Mavs are getting a better shooter and a more skilled overall player, while avoiding the inevitable regression of an older player (Parsons is 11 years younger than Marion). The one drawback of the switch is that Parsons probably isn’t a stretch 4 yet (only a 13% DReb% last season), but they went out and got a player that might be able to fill that role in Al-Farouq Aminu.

Aminu is definitely one of the most underrated pickups of this offseason, as his role will completely change with the Mavs. Last season, Aminu spent most of his time as a small forward playing alongside two traditional big men with limited shooting range. This was a nightmare for both the Pelicans and Aminu because he simply can’t shoot at all, and playing him in these lineups cramped their spacing and hurt their offense. 

Next season, Aminu will have a chance to play on a team with much more shooting, and with a coach who will know how to use him. Aminu is solid in transition and has potential as a roll man, but where he will help the Mavs right away is on defense, where he will give them a little bit of versatility as he is capable of playing both forward positions. 

As a small ball 4, he will give the Mavs an interesting look. Per NBA Wowy, last season the quartet of Jose Calderon, Monta Ellis, Vince Carter and Shawn Marion played 607 minutes together (a pretty significant amount), and got outscored pretty badly. Their defense in those lineups would have ranked last in the league, giving up plenty of points at the rim and rebounding extremely poorly, grabbing just 71.9% of the defensive rebounds, which would have ranked 28th in the league. 

This season, if they replace Marion with Aminu in those lineups, my guess is they’ll see much better defensive results for a few reasons.

First, Aminu is a much better defensive rebounder than Marion (21.3% vs. 16.9% last season) and in small ball lineups, Aminu’s percentages will increase. Next, Aminu is much more athletic than Marion, especially with Marion getting older. Aminu is just 23 years old, and his freakish athleticism is a big part of what landed him in the lottery in the first place. Lastly, Aminu is definitely big enough to step into this role. Listed at 6’9″ with a huge 7’3″ wingspan, Aminu could realistically defend most power forwards, especially since he’ll be coming off the bench and Carlisle can exploit matchups however he sees fit. This also means he has way more potential as a shot blocker and help defender. In addition, having Tyson anchor these units will be helpful. 

Between Parsons and Aminu Dallas will not only be able to replace Marion’s production, they will be much better in both big and small lineups with their new young players. 

It’s also worth mentioning that Jae Crowder was a sneaky dominant defender last year, and any time they find themselves in a matchup against a dominant wing he will definitely be on the floor. Dallas will have a ton of versatility on the wings this season, and they have a lot of talented young players that still have room for development. 

The only real question mark for the Mavs heading into next season is their point guard play. Right now it looks like they will have a three headed monster including Devin Harris, and a couple of new faces in Raymond Felton and Jameer Nelson. Jose Calderon was very good for the team offensively last season, but giving him up to bring in Tyson Chandler was probably a good bet, especially considering Ellis’ emergence as a dominant pick and roll guard.

If the Mavs can get solid production from one of these guys they have to be happy, but I think all three have potential to contribute. In fact, this trio actually has an interesting blend of skills, as they all play different roles on the court. Nelson is a shooter, Felton is a penetrator, and Harris is by far the best of the three defensively. This will allow them to mix and match if necessary depending on the matchups.

In terms of the newcomers, I think we’ll have to wait and see what happens. They were both in pretty bad situations last season and as a result neither played very well. I mean, if you’re on a lottery team in the East, things clearly could be going better. Orlando simply wasn’t trying to win, and the fact that the Knicks were actually trying to win says a lot about that situation.

I think that both players could be salvageable in Rick Carlisle’s system, but I think that Nelson could be particularly useful due to his experience and shooting ability. Playing with this group of players will generate a lot more open looks for him than he’s experienced in recent seasons, and he could end up having a solid year. Felton is a little bit more of a question mark, but running the pick and pop with Dirk can have a definite positive impact on any player’s career so for now I’m optimistic about the situation. This is definitely something to keep tabs on going forward.

The Mavs do need another power forward to fill out the roster after voiding Rashard Lewis’ contract, but it’s possible they may end up signing him after his surgery anyway, which I think would be a solid addition. Lewis obviously isn’t the player he once was, but he can still stretch the floor. This is extremely important as was made clear by his role on the Heat in last year’s playoffs.

The success of every team ultimately comes down to injuries and unpredictable circumstances, but from the information available right now, it seems like people are severely underrating the Mavs. As long as Dirk stays healthy they will make the playoffs, but if the players around him perform well and they can generally avoid major injuries, I think this is at least a 50 win team with a ceiling between 56-58 wins if everything breaks right. 

This year’s Mavs team will be much deeper and much more versatile than last year’s. As I have already noted, they have a versatile trio of point guards that will allow them to match up with any team while also giving them the opportunity to mix and match with different lineups.

On the wing they have Parsons, Jae Crowder, Al-Farouq Aminu and Richard Jefferson, giving them a good balance between shooting (Parsons, Jefferson), defense (Crowder, Aminu) rebounding (Aminu) and athleticism (Parsons, Aminu, Crowder). 

The Mavs aren’t quite as deep up front but between Nowitzki, Chandler and Wright they will have a good mix of offense and defense, especially since Nowitzki can space the floor as a full time power forward.

Basically, the Mavs have a lot of options, and with a coach like Rick Carlisle, this is a team that can really take advantage.

With Dirk taking almost a 15 million dollar pay cut this offseason, the team had the flexibility to add the pieces they needed while keeping their core (and their superstar) intact. In my opinion, Dirk’s pay cut was the final piece of the puzzle, giving the Mavericks a good shot at home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs next season, and with that, a seat at the table in the title conversation. 

Obviously it’s early, but heading into the playoffs next season, the Mavs may be a part of a completely different conversation than they were last year. Right now the Mavs are following an entirely new and unique blueprint for short term team building, and at this point, it seems like it’s working. 

*All stats per NBA.com unless otherwise noted

Follow me on Twitter @The_Reversal

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Breaking Down the NBA’s Rookie of the Year Race

The 2014 NBA draft class was one of the most hyped classes in recent memory, and last year’s lottery teams are expecting big time production from their newly acquired rookies heading into next season. That being said, this year’s Rookie of the Year race promises to be much more intense than last season’s, with more rookies projecting into featured roles on their teams. 

When you start to examine the players, I think a pretty clear top-8 emerges. Where those players rank within that top tier is up for debate, as variables beyond the scope of this article (mainly injuries) will undoubtedly play a huge role in the end result.

I will rank the players from No. 8 to No. 1 based on the current evidence that exists including talent, team roster, college stats, injury concerns, summer league performance and other variables. 

8. Doug McDermott, SF, Chicago Bulls

First of all, I’m not sure if McDermott is an NBA caliber talent. The draft is always a crapshoot on some level, and there are some red flags with McDermott. First of all, McDermott didn’t really improve statistically in any meaningful way outside of his scoring totals during his four years at Creighton. 

Generally, good NBA players dominate at the college level in every facet of the game, but despite McDermott’s elite scoring numbers, he wasn’t particularly good in any other category. He’s also not very big (about 6’8″ with a 6’9″ wingspan) and he’s a decent athlete at best. 

Although there have been some rumblings that McDermott could be a stretch four in the NBA, I think he’s a small forward. He’s not long, he’s not quick, and he projects as an average rebounder if that (383rd in DReb% last season per KenPom.com). In the end he’ll probably be a below average defender regardless of his position, but despite all this, McDermott has a chance to be a contributor at the NBA level right away because of his elite shooting ability. 

McDermott made 45% of his threes last season on about six attempts per game, and I think he’ll be able to transition to the NBA three-point line better than anyone else in this class. The Bulls really need shooting, meaning McDermott might have a chance to get on the floor right away. 

McDermott looked great for the Bulls in summer league play, averaging 18-4-3 with 44/44/96 shooting splits in four games. McDermott was a dangerous shooter from behind the NBA arc and if that continues into the season, he will be an asset to the team.

There are two main problems with McDermott’s ROY candidacy at the moment. The first reason is simple. Head coach Tom Thibodeau is a defense first coach, and if McDermott can’t compete on that end of the floor, Thibodeau will be reluctant to play him.

The second is the logjam the Bulls have on the wings. At this point it’s unclear whether newcomer Nikola Mirotic will ultimately play more at the 3 or the 4 (with Taj Gibson and Pau Gasol on board there may not be much room at the four), but either way they already have Mike Dunleavy Jr., Jimmy Butler and last year’s first round pick Tony Snell possibly in the rotation. There just aren’t enough minutes to go around for McDermott to be a top candidate for the ROY right now. 

7. Dante Exum, G, Utah Jazz

At this point it’s hard to project exactly how good Exum will be next season because of the limited information available, but his skill set seems pretty solid.

Exum played terribly in the summer league, but he just turned 19, there wasn’t much practice time, and he seemed out of shape. I actually watched Exum play in Las Vegas, and despite his mediocre production he showed some intriguing flashes of athleticism and playmaking. 

The main reason why Exum is on this list is his potential for playing time. If Exum can even be a replacement level player it’s very possible he could receive starter level minutes. The Jazz aren’t going to make the playoffs next year, which could mean a lot of minutes for Exum down the stretch.

Exum is probably a better long term prospect than ROY candidate because of the adjustment period he will have to undergo to transition to the NBA, but he’s a possibility nonetheless. 

6. Marcus Smart, G, Boston Celtics 

Marcus Smart is a huge wildcard in this race right now because of the wide range of outcomes possible for his rookie season. I don’t think there is any question that Smart will be productive next season, but there are some things he will definitely struggle with early on.

Obviously, Smart wasn’t a good shooter in college (30% from the college line on 5.3 attempts/game last season) and considering his 29.4% FG% in the Orlando Summer League, it’s not inconceivable that he will struggle to score early on. He could be a decent finisher, but he will probably be a terrible shooter.

Despite his scoring woes, I do expect Smart to collect a lot of steals, assists and rebounds next season. Last year he ranked 6th in the NCAA in Steal%, 75th in Assist Rate, and was 3rd on his team in DReb% (14.9%) all per KenPom.com. Those numbers should translate pretty well considering Smart’s strength and size. However, in a field as competitive as this one, his lack of scoring will hurt him. 

The main reason for the wide variance in Smart’s ROY stock is the uncertainty surrounding his playing time. For now it looks like the starting backcourt will be Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley, but both of those guys have struggled with injuries recently (especially Bradley) and Rondo may or may not be on the market.

Who knows what this roster will look like by the end of the season. This makes it really tough to project Smart’s minutes, which will obviously have a huge impact on his overall production. If Rondo were to be traded or if one of the guards were to get hurt, Smart could find himself in the running. For now though, it’s more of a wait and see. 

5. Julius Randle, PF, LA Lakers

Randle was an absolute beast last year at Kentucky, ranking in the top-50 in both OReb% and DReb% (KenPom) and leading Kentucky all the way to the national championship game. 

He was dominant inside offensively, scoring in all types of different ways at the rim and drawing a ton of fouls while shooting a very respectable 70.6% from the line. 

Randle is technically a little undersized as an NBA power forward (6’9″ with a 7’0″ wingspan) but he makes up for it with his bulk and brute strength. If not for the signing of the amnestied Carlos Boozer, Randle might be as high as No. 2 on this list, but Boozer’s presence limits Randle’s ROY upside as they play comparable roles, which basically means that neither one of them is going to play any position but power forward.

Between Boozer, Randle, Ed Davis, Ryan Kelly, Robert Sacre and Jordan Hill it’s hard to tell how the frontcourt minutes will be split up, but it’s a safe bet that all of them will get a decent share of playing time. 

Randle is going to be a good NBA player, but I think different parts of his game will develop at different rates. I expect Randle to struggle to finish inside at first, as he just won’t be able to physically dominate the way he did in college. He won’t be a bad scorer, but there will be some tough nights. 

As a rebounder, it wouldn’t surprise me if Randle dominated right away on both ends. There is no doubt he knows how to get rebounds, and if he were to end up in a starting role, I think 14-9-1 while shooting just under 50% is a reasonable projection. That might not win him the award, but it would certainly keep him on the short list. 

There are some injury concerns with Randle’s foot, but it’s hard to tell if that will come into play or not. For now, I consider Randle to be a solid candidate. He has a chance to win but at this point he’s probably a bit of a long shot. 

4. Nerlens Noel, C, Philadelphia 76ers

Noel sat out all of last season recovering from a knee injury he suffered during his only year at Kentucky. This season he’s back and he’s in line for a big share of minutes on the lowly 76ers. 

Noel looked really explosive during both the Orlando and Vegas Summer Leagues, leading the former in both blocks and steals per game. 

Noel was much more dominant in his season at Kentucky than people realize, ranking 90th in DReb%, 10th in BLK% and 73rd in STL% per KenPom, all elite numbers. He also shot 59% from the floor, finishing at a very high clip. 

Noel is huge (7’0″ and a 7’4″ wingspan) and extremely athletic. He may not score that much next season, but he will be efficient from the field, put up solid rebounding numbers and record a ton of blocks and steals.

The 76ers fast paced style will boost Noel’s stats and sadly enough, he may end up being the team’s second best player. 

Like Exum, Noel will probably take a few years to hit his stride as a pro, but his early playing time and athleticism make him a contender for the ROY.

3. Elfrid Payton, PG, Orlando Magic

Payton probably isn’t considered a top-3 candidate for the ROY in most circles, but I think he’s a great dark horse for this award for a few reasons.

First of all, Payton started school so early that he played most of his freshman year at Lafayette as a 17 year old, which is just absurd. Payton was not a highly sought after recruit in high school because he didn’t have a major growth spurt until after his junior season…when he would have been 15 years old. He also claims to have been growing throughout college, and to have just filled into his frame during his sophomore season.

He didn’t go to Lafayette because he wasn’t a good prospect; he went to Lafayette because he wasn’t even done with puberty until well into his college career. He’s now 6’4” with a very large 79-inch wingspan. This is a player that is extremely talented, and had he played with his age group, he may have been drafted higher than No. 10. He simply slipped through the cracks, and he’s going to be a surprisingly good NBA player.

The numbers he put up this season were absolutely insane. 21 points, 6.8 rebounds, 6.2 assists and 2.5 steals per 40 minutes definitely counts as filling it up. In addition, he attempted 9.6 free throws per 40 minutes. Payton can’t really shoot at all yet, but he’s by far the best bet out of this rookie crop of point guards to become an elite NBA finisher. He absolutely dominates in transition and with NBA spacing he could be a devastating finisher and passer out of the pick and roll.

He’s also going to be at least a neutral defender right away with a chance to become a lockdown defender at either guard position. He’s very physical and he’s obviously a good athlete. The bottom line is that Payton is a good player, and it looks like Orlando is handing him the keys to the offense. If you haven’t watched his video breakdown on DraftExpress, you definitely should. 

The Magic traded a decent package of assets to move up just two spots to get his rights from Philly, and they got rid of incumbent starter Jameer Nelson. The only other true point guard on the roster is Luke Ridnour, and I just can’t imagine them benching Payton for Ridnour in a year when they’re probably not trying to make the playoffs. 

A combination of being underrated player and opportunity make Payton a strong under the radar pick. 

2. Andrew Wiggins, G/F, Minnesota Timberwolves

While Wiggins did make it into the top-2, it’s more by default than because I think he’s a strong candidate. Wiggins is going to be a good NBA player, but it may not show up in the stat sheet right away. He’s going to get big time minutes, but it’s hard to say exactly how productive he will be. 

First of all, it’s clear Wiggins’ shot is still a work in progress. While I do think he will ultimately be a solid spot up shooter in the league, his summer league performance left a lot to be desired as he shot just 2-13 from deep after shooting 34% from behind the college line at Kansas last season. 

Wiggins is going to be dangerous in transition, but he’s definitely going to struggle in the half court. He has no left hand yet and he hasn’t been able to create off the dribble, especially for others (he recorded just one assist in four summer league games). His assist rate at Kansas was lower than Joel Embiid’s, per KenPom. 

For the purposes of his rookie production, Wiggins would be much better off playing on a team with ball dominant players he could work around. However, in Minnesota, he simply won’t have that luxury.

Ricky Rubio is a good offensive creator, but for reasons I explained in an article I published last week, he’s not a player you can completely rely on to run an offense through. Minnesota is going to try to put the ball in Wiggins’ hands as much as possible, and there are definitely going to be some growing pains involved. 

That being said, Wiggins will get a boost from his overall defensive impact as well as his steal and block numbers. And like I said earlier, he will be deadly in transition. Minnesota will be looking to get out and run as much as possible, and Wiggins will be a huge part of that strategy. 

I expect Wiggins to struggle early on, but he should find his footing and figure out how to contribute as the season progresses. If I had to project Wiggins’ numbers right now, I’d say 14-6-1-1-1 with 42/30/75 splits sounds about right. Those numbers are probably not winning him the ROY, but his upside is high enough to the point where he probably has the second best odds right now. His No. 1 overall pick status will not be lost on voters while they are casting their ballots. 

1. Jabari Parker

To put this in perspective, I would argue that No. 6 Marcus Smart is closer to No. 2 Andrew Wiggins than Wiggins is to Jabari in terms of odds. All of the guys from 2-6 have relatively similar odds to win, but Jabari is far ahead of the field for one main reason. He’s just better. 

Jabari is easily the best rookie right now and he should be able to contribute right away as the No. 1 scoring option for the Bucks. Not only will he play, he will be asked to carry a lot of the offensive burden for the team immediately. 

Jabari can create his own shot with ease and handle in transition better than any player in this class by far. Watching him in Vegas, he’s clearly a physical specimen. Last season at Duke he played on a guard heavy team that required him to play both inside and out. This season, he will hopefully be taking on a bigger share of the ball handling and running the offense at times. 

Jabari had an extremely high usage rate at Duke last season, ranking 24th in the nation in possessions used per KenPom, however, he still managed reasonable efficiency on a high degree of difficulty as he created a lot of his own shots. He also drew a ton of fouls and was a solid rebounder. 

Jabari’s game should translate extremely well to the NBA, and not many teams will be able to match up with him properly. He’s way too big for most small forwards to contain but he’s way too quick for bigger power forwards to stay in front of. There’s no doubt he will be a nightmare matchup. 

I expect Jabari to average between 17-19 points per game while adding about seven rebounds and three assists on something like 45/34/75 splits. Efficiency will come with time, but the raw numbers will be there right away, making him the clear-cut ROY frontrunner.

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Minnesota’s Ricky Rubio Conundrum

With Andrew Wiggins now on board, the future of the Minnesota Timberwolves has completely changed course. With a brand new building block now in place the team’s new direction is exciting, however, there is a lot of work to be done if they hope to make the playoffs in the coming seasons.

With Ricky Rubio entering the final year of his rookie contract, the Wolves have a big decision on the horizon regarding Rubio’s future with the team. A recent report from CBS Sports indicated that Rubio’s agent Dan Fegan will be aiming for a 5-year max contract after the season. While it’s unlikely Rubio will actually get the max, it’s scary to think of Rubio commanding a salary well over the eight figure mark.

Between Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer and Chase Budinger the team already has almost $30 million in committed salary through the 2015-2016 season. Those contracts alone will eat up almost half of the Wolves cap space without accounting for all the young players they have on the roster or the Barea/Shved/Mbah A Moute trio that will make about $12 million combined this upcoming season.

The Timberwolves do have a little bit of wiggle room with the cap right now, but a huge extension for Rubio would almost surely put the team into a tough financial situation. This is especially true when considering the moves the team will still need to make if they want to compete for a playoff spot in the Western Conference.

With such a pivotal decision looming the Wolves have to take a close look at the direction of the team, the players they have on the roster, and the development of Rubio as a player before they decide whether they want to keep him around and how much they’re willing to pay him.

Rubio is an interesting enigma because he’s an absolutely terrible scorer (more on that in a minute) but he makes up for it in all other parts of the game. He’s only 23 years old and he’s already one of the game’s best passers and defenders at the point guard position. He was 3rd in assists per 48 minutes this season at 12.8 and he led the league in steals per 48 at 3.46. He’s also a very good rebounder for his position (12.2% DReb%) and he has a great feel for the game.

The Wolves were better on both sides of the ball with Rubio on the floor, and his creativity and flashy passing are appreciated in Minnesota. However, Rubio’s biggest weakness may be the most important skill of all, and that’s the ability to score the ball.

If Rubio were an average scoring point guard, he would easily be worth a big money contract. The problem is that he is such a poor scorer that it affects both his production and his team in unconventional ways.

Rubio only uses 16.2% of Minnesota’s possessions when he’s on the floor, but he still manages to rank toward the bottom of the league in efficiency. This inefficiency starts in the restricted area, where Rubio shot just 48% this season on 292 attempts. Rubio was blocked in the restricted area 46 times, accounting for more than 15% of his total shots. Things didn’t get better outside the paint as Rubio shot just 28.6% on mid-range jumpers.

Rubio is a decent catch and shoot 3-point shooter, and he shot a respectable 33.1% from 3 last year, but that really only looks good when you’re comparing it to his efficiency in other shooting zones. This was Rubio’s 3rd season in the league and he just isn’t showing improvement yet. He’s still young, but he really hasn’t given any reason to believe that he will develop into a good shooter or finisher.

Another problem with Rubio’s offensive game is his extremely high turnover rate. Looking into his synergy stats, Rubio turned the ball over on 21.9% of the possessions he finished via field goal attempt, foul, or turnover. He turned ball over on 22.4% of his pick and roll possessions and an alarming 28.3% of his transition possessions. Yes, Rubio was racking up a lot of assists on these plays, but he’s still turning it over way too much.

Digging a little deeper into the pick and roll numbers, it’s clear Rubio struggles to create for himself. Although the pick and roll accounted for 46.4% of Rubio’s offense, he scored just .67 Points Per Possession (PPP) on these plays. He was dangerously close to the bottom of the league in pull up jumper efficiency, shooting just 29% per SportVU tracking data on NBA.com. Rubio’s struggles are reflected in the Wolves’ team stats as the Wolves ranked 28th in efficiency in pick and roll possessions finished by the handler. The Wolves did rank 6th in efficiency in plays finished by the roll man, but they also had arguably the best pick and pop power forward in the NBA so it’s hard to know who to credit there.

On the whole, Rubio played well for the Timberwolves this season. However, his specific weaknesses create a unique problem for the team in crunch time, where the team’s well known struggles kept them out of the playoff hunt. Obviously, it wasn’t all Rubio’s fault, but he is definitely the main culprit.

Rubio’s net rating (per 100 possessions) changed dramatically by quarter. In the first quarter he was excellent, with the team posting a net rating of +10.7 while Rubio was on the court. However, in each of the following quarters Rubio’s net rating dropped substantially (+6 in the 2nd quarter, +4.6 in the 3rd, and finally -3.4 in the 4th). The team was an absolute disaster in the 4th quarter with Rubio in the game, as his already mediocre 41.3% effective field goal percentage (EFG%) plummeted to just 29.9%. Rubio was even worse in crunch time.

In the last five minutes of a game with a difference of five points or less (28 game sample), Rubio’s usage rate dropped to 12.9%, his EFG% dropped to just 25% and his net rating was -25.4. In the last three minutes his EFG% dropped to just 16.7%, and in the final minute of a close game (21 game sample) Rubio’s EFG% dropped to 0%. That’s right, he didn’t make a single shot, and he posted a shocking -50.5 net rating. In the final 30 seconds that net rating dropped even further to -66.2.

During the second half of the season, Rick Adelman started sitting Rubio in close games and even in the fourth quarter all together. Despite playing in all 82 games, Rubio sat out 17 full fourth quarters. Rubio wasn’t the only problem the Wolves had at the end of games, but he really was awful. In fact, he played so poorly that his performance absolutely killed the team. Opponents would dare him to shoot in the closing minutes but he just wasn’t willing to, and when he did, he was terrible. This brought down the team’s efficiency through his own low percentages but also because of the lack of spacing and teams overplaying Minnesota’s other options.

If a point guard is incapable of creating offense at the end of games the offense is going to stall, and that’s exactly what happened to the Wolves. Rubio needs to play alongside someone who can really create offense off the dribble as a primary ball handler, but that probably isn’t going to happen in Minnesota in the short term. Kevin Martin is a solid ball handler and Zach LaVine has a lot of potential as a handler as well, but in crunch time you need more than that. They need a point guard.

In a league with so many good point guards, Rubio is a dangerous bet because of his unique weaknesses.

Before the college season, Andrew Wiggins was hyped as the next great NBA superstar, but after watching him play both last season and in summer league, there is no way he is an NBA caliber ball handler right off the bat. He may develop down the line, but exchanging Love for Wiggins is only going to hurt Minnesota’s crunch time offense next season. I find it unlikely that Wiggins will ever develop into a player that can be trusted handling crunch time pick and rolls, but either way Minnesota needs to have a plan to improve their crunch time offense.

Those impact players can be hard to find, so the Wolves have to look both internally and around the league to survey their options before committing so much money to Rubio in the long term. Rubio could be an important piece on a contender some day, but right now the pieces just don’t fit together in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves would definitely like to see another couple years from Rubio before making a decision on his future with the team, but they simply don’t have that luxury. How Minnesota decides to complement or replace Ricky Rubio going forward is a huge unresolved part of Minnesota’s rapidly changing structure and could make or break the team’s quest to get back into the playoffs. Time will tell just how big of a role Rubio has in Flip Saunders’ long term vision for the team.

*All stats per NBA.com unless otherwise noted

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FIBA World Cup 2014: Paul George’s Injury, The First Round of Cuts, and Projecting the Team USA Roster

Paul George’s devastating and gruesome injury during Friday’s Team USA scrimmage marked the latest blow to the roster as they prepare for the FIBA World Cup starting on August 30th. After losing Blake Griffin and Kevin Love within just the last few weeks, the situation has now gone from bad to worse.

Paul George was not only an important player for the US team heading into this World Cup, he’s a cornerstone player for the national team looking to 2016 as well. Now that he may have to miss next season, Team USA needs to begin to examine its options. Obviously their first concern should be the health of the star player on a personal level, but there are decisions that need to be made. After cutting John Wall, Bradley Beal and Paul Millsap, just 16 players remain eligible for the 12 roster spots.

With the starting small forward spot now vacant, the team needs to rethink its roster construction. When it comes to roster decisions, it’s important to first examine the style of the team, and what they are trying to accomplish. It’s also necessary to weigh the thoughts of the team’s decision makers.

First of all, the rules in international play are different from the NBA. This is especially important when it comes to the 3-point line. In fact, the FIBA line is actually closer to the college line than the NBA line. This means the USA team is going to have an enormous shooting advantage over every other team, and that will be a huge part of their gameplan.

In addition to creating a shooting advantage for the US team, the shorter 3-point line will cramp spacing in the half court. This will probably benefit the US team overall, as they will be able to use their length advantage to suffocate opponents on defense. However, offensively they should try to push the ball in transition as much as possible and hunt for quick shots.

Another component that needs to be taken into account is that the next Olympics is just two years away, and the team obviously has that in mind when deciding who to take. While the team is certainly trying to win the World Cup right now, they also have to think about what’s best for 2016 and even 2020.

In terms of this year’s tournament, it’s pretty clear that the team’s biggest competition is the home team, Spain. With a starting frontcourt featuring both Gasol brothers, team USA will need to make sure they can matchup with them while also having depth in case of foul trouble, a very real possibility in international play. The games are only 40 minutes long, but with a 5 foul limit the US needs to be cautious.

USA Basketball Managing Director Jerry Colangelo and head coach Mike Krzyzewski have been pretty transparent when it comes to what they’re looking for in terms of the roster.

In an interview with Sam Amick of USA TODAY sports, Colangelo indicated that the team would likely carry two pure point guards (not including Curry), and three versatile shooting guards.

Colangelo stated:

“It’s hard to carry three pure points unless we felt we were very unsure. For example, if Rose had come in and hasn’t looked the way he has, we would’ve said, ‘Geesh, maybe we have to carry three points, but it appears that we don’t have to.”

In an interview with SI.com, Krzyzewski said the following:

“You try to get eight or nine guys that are going to be the core and three or four guys that complement them,”

The article states that Colangelo reiterated that the next day when he said the complementary players would be “players you have to fill specific roles, a shooter, an energy guy, another big.”

The SI article also claims Colangelo said USA Basketball will keep 15 players until August 22nd, giving a timeline for the roster.

Basically, Team USA is going to take 8-9 key players, with role players adding depth at the end of the roster while balancing out the positions and giving themselves as much versatility as possible.

With these things in mind, it’s easier to see how the roster will come together. The first grouping of players represents the core of the roster.

In my opinion, this group of players includes Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Derrick Rose and Klay Thompson. The first five are obvious, and I think that Klay is also a safe bet.

With 10 players left and only 6 roster spots, 4 of the remaining players are going to have to be cut. I think two of the cuts are obvious. Gordon Hayward is not going to be a centerpiece of this team and he doesn’t have that one skill to make him worth keeping him around, so he’s probably out. The other player is Mason Plumlee. Nothing against Plumlee, but he is just not as talented as most of the other players on this team. I think he’s a longshot to make the final roster.

With 8 players left for 6 spots, let’s start looking at roles and roster construction.

While Stephen Curry is an NBA point guard, he will probably end up playing off the ball a lot in this tournament. Shooting guards are not as physically imposing in international play as they are in the NBA, and the shorter 3-point line will make him a lethal spot up shooter. I think he’ll make over half of his 3s. With that said, between him and Rose they probably only need one more point guard on the roster, meaning either Kyrie Irving or Damian Lillard will probably not make the cut. More on this in a second.

In terms of wings, I personally think that Kyle Korver should be a lock for this team. He is the best spot up shooter on the roster and he could easily shoot well over 50% from 3 on this team. He will work well as a role player. My guess is that the two remaining wings will fight it out for the last roster spot.

DeMar DeRozan and Chandler Parsons are both solid players, but I think Parsons’ combination of size and shooting will give him the nod over DeRozan. DeRozan is way more athletic and a more explosive finisher, but Parsons is a better role player and fit for this team.

This leaves Kenneth Faried, DeMarcus Cousins and Andre Drummond as the remaining frontcourt players. Team USA can’t afford to cut more than one of these guys as it could leave them vulnerable up front. I wouldn’t be surprised if they decided to take DeRozan or Irving/Lillard over one of these front court guys, but I think they will ultimately keep all three of them.

I personally love Cousins for this team, but Colangelo seems to not be as impressed after adding Mason Plumlee to the roster. Colangelo has a no nonsense reputation, so it’s hard to know what the team has in store for Cousins in this World Cup.

The other guys I could pretty much take or leave. Faried is a power forward who can’t stretch the floor and doesn’t protect the rim. He’s a great rebounder and energy guy, but honestly I think the team would’ve been slightly better off with Millsap. Drummond is interesting, but he’s still so raw and his free throw shooting could become a problem. Drummond has enormous potential for both the Pistons and Team USA, but he’s not close to being there yet. I like him on the roster, but I don’t trust him.

I honestly have no idea what Team USA will do when it comes to deciding between Lillard and Irving. For me, it’s pretty much a toss up. They bring very similar skill sets to the table.

Kyrie is quicker, and a more shifty ball handler, but Lillard is much bigger and more explosive. While neither of them is great defensively, I think that Irving is a little more of an active negative than Lillard, which is ultimately why I would take Damian. Kyrie may have more upside and he’s a bigger name, but I think Lillard is the better pick right now. However, I think the team will end up picking Kyrie because he has more potential, which I have no problem with.

That leaves Hayward, Plumlee, Lillard, and DeRozan on the outside looking in.

My power rankings for the players in terms of what they bring to the team and how likely they are to make the roster is as follows,

  1. Kevin Durant
  2. Anthony Davis
  3. Stephen Curry
  4. Derrick Rose
  5. James Harden
  6. Klay Thompson
  7. Kyle Korver
  8. Kyrie Irving
  9. DeMarcus Cousins
  10. Chandler Parsons
  11. Kenneth Faried
  12. Andre Drummond
  13. Damian Lillard
  14. DeMar DeRozan
  15. Gordon Hayward
  16. Mason Plumlee

*Cousins would be higher on my personal list.

With the roster projection complete, the question now becomes who will start?

There are a lot of possibilities, but I think the most likely starting lineup includes Derrick Rose, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis. Davis, Durant and Curry are locks, while DRose will probably start.

With Paul George out, I think Klay Thompson is the most likely replacement as the nominal small forward. He’s obviously not as good as George, but he can replace a lot of what he does. Thompson is a very good defender and will be a dominant spot up shooter on the other end. With Curry, Rose and Durant dominating the ball, Team USA doesn’t need any more ball handling in their starting lineup.

This means the second unit will be Irving, Harden, Korver, Parsons/Faried and Cousins. The team will definitely do a lot of mixing and matching with its lineups, and they have a ton of versatility with this roster.

The one true criticism of this team will undoubtedly be its size. With virtually every player in their starting lineup playing up a position, they won’t be a physically dominant team. However, I don’t think it will ultimately be that big of a problem, particularly if DeMarcus Cousins is a part of the rotation.

DeMarcus Cousins is an absolute monster, and he could be a dominant international big man. He was 2nd in the league last season in DReb% at a whopping 30.9% and he improved a lot defensively. Team USA could play Davis and Cousins together in a pinch, and as long as Durant is on the floor the team will still be really good offensively.

Cousins also adds an interesting flavor to the offense as a post up player and pick and roll weapon. Cousins has the potential to dominate opposing centers that aren’t used to defending a player with his combination of size and skill. Most teams simply won’t have an answer for him, making him a potential matchup nightmare. Cousins is a good player for Team USA to have in its back pocket.

Considering that over half the players on the US roster could conceivably shoot over 40% from 3, this team will have a lot of options when it comes to lineups. They have so many players that can play all over the court that they can adjust to almost any situation.

The bottom line is as long as these players are playing with good chemistry on both sides of the ball, the US team should have a very, very good chance to win the 2014 FIBA World Cup.

*All stats per NBA.com