What Fringe NBA Title Contenders Need to Get Over the Hump

There are currently just a few surefire, no-questions-asked championship contenders in the NBA, but a number of other teams are close to joining that conversation.

In the cases of the teams to follow, the talent is in place but a particular hurdle still stands in the way of serious contention. For example, the Los Angeles Clippers, dangerous as they are, desperately need somebody capable of backing up Blake Griffin.

To be clear, we’re not discussing the already established title threats. The San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder, Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls are the NBA’s elite clubs—or at least we think so now, weeks before training camp opens.

Their championship chances are the best, per Odds Shark, and nobody will be stunned if any member of that quartet hoists that big, heavy trophy in June.

On the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got teams with no shot whatsoever at contention—your Philadelphia 76ers, Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic, just to name a few. The list of non-contenders is much longer than that, but we’re not concerned with clubs lacking a shot at real success.

Instead, we’ll run through the fringe contenders, teams that have many of the required championship ingredients but need a key development in order to lift their profiles.

All of these teams were in the playoffs last year, but none advanced past the conference semifinals. And every one of them hopes to fix a critical flaw that stands between them and the league’s truly elite.

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Are Miami Heat a Playoff Lock or a Fringe Team Next Season?

The Miami Heat will have their work cut out for them next season.

LeBron James’ free-agency departure for the Cleveland Cavaliers has left the team weakened, which means the Eastern Conference is no longer the cakewalk it once was for the Heat. Miami made four consecutive trips to the Finals during James’ four seasons with the franchise.

The four years prior?

Three first-round exits and a 15-win campaign.

The Heat won’t be as bad as they were leading up to acquiring James, but they certainly won’t match the level of success enjoyed during the LeBron years.


Gauging the Heat

The death of Miami’s Big Three will make it a little tough to accurately surmise what kind of team the Heat will be during the 2014-15 campaign.

Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are still part of the team, and that should give head coach Erik Spoelstra a fighting chance at fielding a very competitive team.

It should be noted that Wade was talented enough in his younger years to carry Miami to the postseason without much help, while Bosh managed a similar feat during the 2006-08 period as a member of the Toronto Raptors.

In the case of Bosh, he’s evolved as a player and will likely become the focal point of the Heat offense.

“I played with the best player in the world. I didn’t have to be the alpha,” Bosh said to ESPN.com’s Tom Haberstroh in July. “But now, I get to see if I have it in me, and not many people are going to believe I have what’s necessary. But that’s what makes it exciting.”

Bosh became a spot-up shooter to complement the skills of Wade and James over the last four years, and it’s added an additional layer to his game.

He drilled 74 treys last year, which is more than his six previous seasons combined, according to Basketball-Reference.com. With James no longer occupying the low-post area, it’s safe to say Miami will utilize Bosh in that spot, among many others.

During his years in Toronto, he did a great job of scoring with his back to the basket and from the high post, and I doubt those skills have vanished. The addition of the three-point stroke will make him a matchup nightmare that most might not be prepared to handle.

Think LaMarcus Aldridge with added range. The one area where Bosh will suffer is in the efficiency department. LeBron was always the primary option in Miami, which meant defenders often converged on him. In turn, that opened up the floor for Bosh to make open jumpers.

NBA.com tells us James assisted on nearly a third of Bosh’s field goals last season, which speaks to the importance of LeBron as it pertains to Bosh’s offense. Granted, Miami will replace some of that lost playmaking with the addition of former Charlotte Hornet Josh McRoberts (acquired during free agency).

He’s not a great passer, but he’s good enough to hit players in stride if a defender falls asleep or is a split-second late on a rotation. Wade should also make things easier for Bosh because of his ability to get into the paint via post-ups and drives.

He’s one of the better playmaking 2-guards in the league, and defenses will throw a bit of help Wade’s way in an effort to slow him down. The extra attention will benefit Bosh and the rest of his teammates.

With that said, Wade is a huge wild card. He missed 28 games during the 2013-14 season because of knee trouble, and it’s certainly possible this will be an issue again.

According to The Palm Beach Post’s Steve Dorfman, Wade has changed his diet in an effort to lose weight and reduce the wear and tear on his body, but one must consider the possibility that this will only do so much.

In the event he sits out contests or compromises his game to better cope with his physical shortcomings, the Heat will need the rest of the roster to raise its level of play.

That’s hardly a given.

The veteran newcomers were all rotation players last year with their former teams, which essentially means they rated somewhere between mediocre and decent.

McRoberts averaged 30.3 minutes, 8.5 points and 4.8 rebounds while converting 43.6 percent of his shots, per Basketball-Reference.

Luol Deng, who will likely replace LeBron in the starting unit, produced 16 points and 5.7 rebounds in his 35.1 minutes per game with the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers. He made 43.1 percent of his field goals.

Now might be a good time to point out that team president Pat Riley sold Deng as a savior after obtaining his commitment. “Signing Luol Deng is one of the most important free agent signings that we have ever had in the history of the franchise,” Riley said in July, per Miami Herald’s Joseph Goodman.

I realize that Deng’s contract fits perfectly within the grand scheme of the Heat’s cap situation, but Riley may have exaggerated a bit.

Miami positioned itself to have a boatload of cap space in the summer of 2016, when the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Kevin Durant becomes a free agent. That’s great long-term planning, but it does very little in the immediate future.

What’s more, Danny Granger will back up Deng next season, and that’s not exactly a great proposition. Granger only appeared in 41 games last year due to knee issues (great, another wing player with those) and gave his teams very little in a second-unit role.

He averaged 20.7 minutes, 8.2 points and 3.2 rebounds on 37.8 percent shooting from the field.

These players simply won’t come close to reproducing the offense the Heat had while James was in a Miami uniform. Perhaps improved point guard play could help offset some of the creativity lost with LeBron’s exodus, but the Heat brought back the erratic Mario Chalmers.

They also drafted Shabazz Napier, and I’m not yet sold on him being a superior player to Chalmers.

The Heat will take a big step back, and it might actually look huge with the way the East is shaping up.


Beasts in the East

The Eastern Conference will field some very good teams next season, and that will complicate Miami’s playoff push.

Cleveland added LeBron and will acquire Kevin Love from the Minnesota Timberwolves, according to Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski.

The tandem of Love and James will join Kyrie Irving and give the Cavs the best trio in the East. Based on ESPN’s Summer Forecast, the Cavs are now projected to finish with the best record in the conference.

Not too far behind them are the Chicago Bulls. An argument could be made that Chicago has made the second-biggest acquisition of any team in the East by welcoming back Derrick Rose.

He’s been sidelined for most of the last two years because of  knee injuries, but his Team USA showings would indicate that he hasn’t lost a step.

The Bulls have looked formidable in recent years with a healthy Rose, and there is little reason to believe that will change. The additions of Pau Gasol, Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic certainly reinforce that.

Chicago and Cleveland will be the power teams in the conference, while a couple of other teams will challenge Miami’s march to the playoffs.

The Toronto Raptors mostly stood pat this offseason, and they could certainly afford to do that after winning 48 games last season. Interesting enough, they might actually be better this time around.

Last year, the team was 7-12 prior to the Rudy Gay trade and rebounded with a 41-22 record after sending him away to the Sacramento Kings.

Gay wasn’t necessarily everything that was wrong with the Raptors in those 19 games, but he was certainly part of the problem. Gay held onto the ball far too long in an effort to set himself up, and it bogged down the offense. One can forgive that on some level for a player in the caliber of Carmelo Anthony, but Gay is nowhere near that.

He was an inefficient scorer in Toronto (38.8 percent from the field with Raps), struggled to create high-percentage looks and gave the Raptors next to nothing defensively despite his impressive athleticism.

Toronto took off once he was jettisoned, and it might do better next season with Gay away from the team for the entire 82-game stretch.

Also, don’t sleep on the acquisition of Lou Williams via trade. Basketball-Reference tells us he averaged 15.6 points and 5.2 assists per 36 minutes for the Atlanta Hawks during the 2013-14 season.

He’s a shifty ball-handler who creates shots in one-on-one situations. Williams plays both guard spots and should fortify Toronto’s bench.

The Raptors might very well win the Atlantic Division again, but the No. 3 seed might now be out of reach. The Washington Wizards are bringing back mostly the same core, and one could argue they’ve upgraded the small forward spot with Paul Pierce.

Trevor Ariza was the starter last year, but he signed with the Houston Rockets this offseason, his second stint with the team.

Pierce is a superior individual scorer and will contribute in the long-range shooting department as well.

The one area where I believe Pierce will elevate the Wizards is in late-game situations. He’s been great throughout his career in this setting because of his ability to get separation and shoot in the face of defenders. As his former coach Doc Rivers loved to say, Pierce is a “professional scorer.”

Granted, we have to take into consideration that he will be 37 years old by the time training camp starts. Thus, Pierce might be a step slower when compared with last year, and he could even sit out games to preserve his body for the playoffs.

If such is the case, Washington could slip out of the race for the third seed and watch the Hawks swoop in.

Atlanta made the playoffs last year despite the fact its best player (Al Horford) only appeared in 29 games due to a torn pectoral.

Horford’s return coupled with the stellar play of Paul Millsap and the impeccable shooting of Kyle Korver make the Hawks a playoff lock.

The three remaining Eastern Conference playoff spots are up for grabs.

The Charlotte Hornets, Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks, Detroit Pistons (under new head coach Stan Van Gundy), Indiana Pacers and Miami will have to battle it out for a playoff berth.

Brooklyn’s core of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez and Kevin Garnett is really interesting and can compete for one of the top records in the East.

However, Williams’ ankles haven’t consistently held up and Lopez has two seasons in which he played under 20 games. Also, Garnett will apparently play this upcoming season, based on comments new head coach Lionel Hollins shared with Bleacher Report’s Jared Zwerling.

It hardly sounds like a lock, though. “It’s his right to make that decision or change his mind if he has decided to come back or not come back,” Hollins said. “I’m not worried about that. That’s out of my control. That’s a decision that KG and his family have to make, and I’ll leave it with him.”

The Nets are a bit of a question mark, but I suspect they’ll get into the playoffs.

We’re down to two spots.

Charlotte added Lance Stephenson via free agency but lost Josh McRoberts. The Hornets were seeded seventh in last year’s playoffs and could jump up to sixth with the improved perimeter production Stephenson will provide.

One spot left.

After losing Stephenson to Charlotte and Paul George to a broken leg, Indiana is likely out of the playoff picture, but it could still make a run and win 40 games. The Pistons look like a long shot, but Van Gundy has a track record of getting his teams into the playoffs, which should make fringe teams sweat just a bit.

New York is the great unknown here. It could win anywhere between 35 and 45 games, and I wouldn’t be surprised. There are some decent pieces on the team, but until we see how new Knicks head coach Derek Fisher integrates the talent, it’s tough to really gauge what their ceiling is.

All of which brings us back to Miami and where it’ll end up in the playoff race.


Miami Gets in…Barely

The Heat will make the playoffs next season, but it certainly won’t be an easy task.

Miami will have an elite power forward with Bosh, but the jury is still out on what Wade will be able to contribute.

I’m just not convinced that the Wade of old will resurface and plug up holes the way he did pre-LeBron. He’s no longer a rim-protector, perimeter nuisance (defensively) or explosive finisher. Miami got by in spite of that because the other Heatles could mask some of his deficiencies, but those days are gone.

Furthermore, some of the Eastern Conference teams have improved, which means the Heat will have to fight for the first time in four years just to get into the playoffs.

I believe Miami will ultimately make it because Spoelstra will get his troops to buy in on the defensive end. The Heat slipped last season on this front with LeBron on the roster, but it was probably a product of the team going to four consecutive Finals. Miami played with an on and off switch, which was mostly evident in its defensive intensity.

That will likely change considering the change in team dynamics. The offense will take a bit of a dive without No. 6, and the best way to mitigate that is by limiting the opposition’s scoring.

The 2014-15 Heat will forge a strong defensive identity with a cast of characters who will embrace the challenge of rebounding in the aftermath of James’ departure.

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March Madness 2014: Most Important Players for Fringe Contenders in Big Dance

College basketball doesn’t feature a dominant team as the NCAA tournament approaches. Wichita State remains unbeaten but hasn’t been seriously tested. Florida, Arizona, Kansas, Duke and Syracuse are some of the other teams in the mix for top contender.

The result should be an extremely exciting edition of March Madness. Since there aren’t a select few teams that are a clear step above the rest, it opens the door for other teams to make deep runs and potentially even capture the national championship.

All of those fringe hopefuls will need certain players to step up in the coming weeks if they are going to make their presence felt in the Big Dance. So, let’s check out three players who could become household names during the tournament.


Kyle Anderson (UCLA)

It takes a special player to lead a team in rebounds, assists and blocks. Kyle Anderson is doing exactly that. The skill set and the effort necessary to accomplish such a feat, especially for a contending team like UCLA with plenty of other talent on the roster, is rare.

The sophomore is averaging nearly 15 points per game, which ranks second on the team, to go along with close to nine rebounds, seven assists, two steals and a block per game. It’s the type of across-the-board production that draws praise from Bruins legend Bill Walton, as noted by Jack Wang of the Los Angeles Daily News:

His ability to help in so many areas is essential to the team’s success. He can grab a long rebound at one end, start a fast break and deliver a pinpoint pass for a bucket at the other end with the greatest of ease. It’s impressive to watch, and the Bruins will need a lot of it to make a deep run.


Doug McDermott (Creighton)

Doug McDermott is an offensive force for the Creighton Bluejays. He leads the nation in scoring at 26.5 points per game while shooting better than 50 percent from the field, including a 44 percent mark from beyond the arc. The senior forward is one of those players who can score from anywhere and must be defended as such.

He must continue that torrid pace into the tournament. No other player on the Creighton roster is chipping in more than 11 points per contest. It does have some good depth with a total of five complementary players averaging over seven points, but there are no other go-to scorers.

One thing that will be interesting to watch is what will happen if teams constantly double-team McDermott. He’s a shoot-first player and averages less than two assists per game. If opponents make a concerted effort to prevent him from taking over the game, can he become a distributor and will other scorers step up? The answer could decide the Bluejays‘ fate.


Branden Dawson (Michigan State)

When it comes to Michigan State, most of the attention is focused around the trio of Gary Harris, Keith Appling and Adreian Payne. Don’t sleep on Branden Dawson, though. He’s the do-it-all swingman who can make the hustle plays to turn a game in Michigan State’s favor.

He recently missed nine games due to a hand injury. Unsurprisingly, the Spartans went through a lull during that stretch, going 4-5. Matt Charboneau of the Detroit News passed along comments from Dawson upon his return about filling whatever role is necessary:

Whatever I can do to pick the team up I’m gonna do it. I think a few of my defensive plays just uplifted the team and impacted the game on both ends. Whatever I can do I’m gonna do it.

A championship team needs a player like Dawson—somebody who isn’t afraid to do the dirty work, whether it’s battling in the paint for rebounds or diving on the floor for a loose ball, even if it means not getting the same recognition as a leading scorer. He can help push the Spartans deep into the tournament.


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NBA Draft 2013: Fringe First-Round Prospects with Most Potential

While landing a lottery pick is always nice, we’ve seen throughout the years that teams can find diamonds later in the NBA draft.

Heck, just last year, the Golden State Warriors found center Festus Ezeli and small forward Draymond Green at No. 30 and No. 35 respectively. Both players helped the Warriors down the stretch this season.

So, which fringe first-round prospects should we be looking out for in the 2013 NBA draft?

Here’s a look at a few of my favorites.


Giannis Antetokounmpo, SF, Greece

You can look at 18-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo in one of two ways: He’s a fluid athlete who has displayed the vision and passing skills reminiscent of Scottie Pippen, or he possesses an inconsistent jump shot and has played against mediocre competition.

I prefer the former.

In terms of skill set, I do see the comparisons to Pippen. Antetokounmpo even seems to move like the former Chicago Bulls great. When you are dealing with a prospect this young and inexperienced, it’s hard to say what will happen in a few years time, but, against mediocre competition or not, I think the youngster’s skills translate well to the NBA.

Antetokounmpo would be best served under a winning organization who can draft-and-stash him until he’s ready for the bright lights.


Tony Mitchell, PF, North Texas

With Tony Mitchell, it’s all about potential because he simply didn’t produce in his sophomore season at North Texas, shooting 44 percent as a big man and going through long spells of offensive ineptitude.

But, on the defensive end, he should make an impact with his shot-blocking ability and rebounding skills right away in the NBA. Also, there’s no question he passes the eye test, a long, explosive prospect who excels in transition.

In a way, he reminds me of Baylor’s Perry Jones III last year, a physical specimen who needs some coaching and may have been utilized poorly in college.


Lucas Nogueira, PF/C, Brazil

Lucas Nogueira is being called the international version of Nerlens Noel. 

The 6’11″ “big man” seriously needs to bulk up, listed at 218 pounds. But the 20-year-old Brazilian excels in blocking shots and crashing the glass, and he’s reportedly matured while working hard on his limited offensive game.

Since dazzling at the 2010 FIBA Americas Under-18 Championship in San Antonio (22 points, 14 rebounds, three blocks against Team USA), Nogueira is beginning to show signs of breaking out in the Spanish ACB League, widely considered to be the second-best basketball league in the world.

It wouldn’t surprise me if a team like the San Antonio Spurs drafted Nogueira in the first round and waited for him to develop before he takes the NBA by storm.


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Leitch: Why shaming fringe hate on Twitter needs to go

There’s a cathartic thrill meting out Internet Justice, but the practice is problematic.

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Bubble Teams 2013: What Fringe Squads Must Do to Feel Safe

The bubble is weak. 

As we move closer to Selection Sunday, it would appear that no one is interested in helping fill out the Field of 68. When it comes to the last remaining at-large spots, several squads have gotten the chance to secure their places in the Big Dance, and several squads have, well, lost. 

As such, there is still plenty at stake in the upcoming conference tournaments.  


Virginia Cavaliers

It’s not surprising that the Cavaliers are going down to the wire right smack in the middle of the bubble. It only makes sense considering the season they’ve had. 

Virginia has an RPI of 72 and has lost to powerhouses like Old Dominion, Clemson and Wake Forest, but it has also knocked off Duke, North Carolina, NC State and Wisconsin (in Madison). 

Tony Bennett’s squad likely gets NC State in the quarterfinals, and it should treat that as a must-win game. If it advances, a win over (probably) Miami would completely lock up a spot. 


Kentucky Wildcats

The ‘Cats are an interesting case. After losing Nerlens Noel, they have gone 4-3 with wins over Missouri and Florida, the latter being a victory that likely has Kentucky in the field right now.

However, without Noel, John Calipari‘s boys have been horrendous on the road, losing by 30 to Tennessee and dropping two straight against Arkansas and Georgia.

The Wildcats need to show the committee they can win away from home. A win in the quarters over Arkansas or Vanderbilt won’t change things, but a semifinal victory over Ole Miss or Missouri will secure a spot in the Big Dance for Kentucky. 


Rest of the SEC

The SEC is completely bubble-ridden. In addition to Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama and Ole Miss are all still fighting for their lives. 

If Tennessee wins its second-round game, its matchup with Alabama in the quarters will likely be a win-or-go-home battle. 

Ole Miss, meanwhile, will have to beat Missouri in the quarters, but if it wants to feel completely safe, it needs to make it to the championship. 


Baylor Bears

The Bears got a massive victory over Kansas that put them right back into the bubble conversation, and a win over third-seeded Oklahoma State will put them in a “last four in” spot. 

Beating Kansas State would completely eliminate the need to sweat out the rest of the week. 


Southern Miss Golden Eagles

The problem for Southern Miss is that the Conference USA tournament only provides opportunity for one resume-boosting win.

And while the Golden Eagles have an impressive RPI of 36, they have zero wins in the top 50 and just one in the top 75. The only thing that is truly going to improve their resume is a win over Memphis, which would come in the championship.

It’s 3-0 or bust for Southern Miss. 


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2013 March Madness Bubble Watch: Latest Odds on Fringe Teams for Week of Mar. 4

Let the Madness begin.

March is officially here, and as such, the NCAA tournament picture is beginning to clear up with many teams “clinching” their spots in the Big Dance, and many, well, clinching their spots in the NIT and CBI

That being said, with conference tournaments just around the corner, every school still has at least a sliver of hope, and there are still plenty of unforeseen twists and turns ahead on the bracketology horizon. 

Let’s take a look at where every tourney hopeful sits as the final week of the regular season gets underway. 

Note: All RPI and strength of schedule numbers come from BBState.com. Those numbers will vary slightly depending on where you look.

Also note: All stats and numbers are from games up until March 5. 

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NBA Trade Deadline 2013: Fringe Contenders Most in Need of a Big Shakeup

The trade deadline is always a period of evaluation for teams throughout the NBA.

It’s a time to reflect on whether you have what it takes to do damage in the playoffs or whether you need to build up for next season. Sometimes teams change their philosophies entirely after the All-Star break.

While the league may be rather quiet before the Feb. 21 trade deadline this season, here’s a look at the playoff contenders who need to shake things up.


Boston Celtics (28-24)

With Rajon Rondo lost for the season, it’s time to turn the page in Boston.

Ideally, the Celtics would receive some bright young players for both Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, but it’s still unclear whether Boston will be able to deal either one of them.

The Celtics aren’t making a title run this season without Rondo. They went on an 8-1 run to close off the first half of the season with Rondo absent from the lineup, but it’s hard to imagine them keeping that up down the stretch, especially with an older team.


Milwaukee Bucks (26-25)

The Bucks may deal guard Monta Ellis before the trade deadline on Feb. 21 (according to The Journal Times), and it may be for the best.

There are limitations with the Bucks’ backcourt of Ellis and Brandon Jennings. The 6’3″, 185-pound Ellis has historically had a tough time defending bigger 2-guards throughout his career.

Essentially, the Bucks are discovering what the Golden State Warriors discovered with Ellis and Stephen Curry in the backcourt.

The Bucks, at 26-25, are barely holding on to the last seed in the Eastern Conference.


Atlanta Hawks (29-22)

The Atlanta Hawks are 29-22, holding the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference. It’s fitting, given they always seem to be the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference.

See where I’m going with this?

The Hawks have been good enough to make the playoffs the past few years, but they don’t do a whole lot once they get there. They’ve been to the postseason the past six seasons but have never advanced past the conference semifinals. They fell in the first round last season.

The trade of Joe Johnson to the Brooklyn Nets last season was the beginning. Dealing Josh Smith seems to be the modus operandi for Atlanta before the trade deadline this season.


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Daryl Morey Turned Houston Rockets from Fringe Contender to Future Powerhouse

The Houston Rockets have greatly exceeded expectations this season and currently seem a likely playoff team in the Western Conference. Houston has thrived this season based on its lethal up-tempo offense, but its questionable performance in other major categories ensures that this team’s chances of a deep playoff run are slim.

However, Rockets fans have much to look forward to in coming years, as this Houston team has the makeup of a potential powerhouse due to its depth and versatility and, perhaps most importantly, superstar talent.

Just take a look at recent title winners like the Miami Heat, L.A. Lakers, Boston Celtics and San Antonio Spurs. Among other things, one trait those teams all shared was the presence of an elite shooting guard in the lineup.

In an age where shooting guard is the shallowest position in basketball, the Rockets are blessed to have a superstar talent in James Harden. Harden’s top-shelf abilities as both a scorer and distributor set him apart from most of his peers, and Houston will benefit greatly going forward from his ability to create offensively. 

The Rockets are also fortunate to have a number of outstanding players signed to very affordable contracts.

Chandler Parsons, one of the best all-around small forwards in basketball, currently earns under $1 million per year while putting up excellent numbers for Houston. With all of this financial flexibility, Daryl Morey should be able to land another major piece in the near future, which should push the Rockets even closer to becoming a true threat to powerhouses like the Heat and OKC Thunder.

However, Houston is still miles away from contender status, and landing another star player won’t be enough to make this team a powerhouse. The Rockets have been stuck for years in a sort of limbo as a pretty good, but not really good, club. Talent alone cannot push this team out of that black hole.

But there is plenty of reason for hope; as frustrating as it may be now, Houston fans should take solace in the fact that their team has managed to be so competitive while playing defense akin to that of a high school JV team.

Among a myriad of problems with the Rockets’ current roster, the horrendous defense stands paramount. The Rockets currently rank as the second worst defense in the league, a glaring flaw that has been masked only by Houston’s dominant offense.

The defensive issues are not due to any lack of talent, as the Rockets have a number of strong individual defenders and plenty of size. Rather, the poor coaching and inexcusable lack of emphasis on the defensive end have kept this team from consistently getting stops.

While Kevin McHale’s offensive brilliance is reason enough to keep him aboard, Houston’s front office must look to upgrade the defense by finding more defensive minded assistant coaches. Tom Thibodeau did wonders for the champion Boston Celtics during his time as an assistant coach for the club, and the Rockets would be wise to look for a similarly gifted defensive ace.

This team has the depth, superstar talent, financial flexibility and scoring prowess to become a powerhouse. All it needs is experience, continued growth and a high-dosage shot of defensive intensity, preferably aimed at the coaching staff.

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NBA Trade Deadline 2013: Fringe Playoff Teams That Should Make Moves

The NBA trade deadline is nearly here for the 2012-13 season. Certain fringe playoff contenders are struggling to hang on, and should definitely make big splashes prior to the Feb. 21 ultimatum.

The leverage that surefire contenders bring to the table makes the market shrink, and may force the hand of GMs thinking they need just one more piece to complete a potential championship puzzle. Such circumstances should lend to an action-packed adventure of big-name swaps.

Here are two teams from each conference that need to take a plunge before next Thursday in order to enhance their team’s immediate and long-term title hopes.


Houston Rockets

Defense doesn’t always win championships, but more often than not, it does. In any event, having defense is better than not having it—and the Rockets don’t have it.

Houston may be the second-highest scoring team in the NBA, but it allows the second-most points to offset that. Trading baskets won’t be easy to do against the conference’s elite teams in Oklahoma City and San Antonio.

There haven’t really been any signs of improvement on that end of the floor, mostly because of the lackluster perimeter defense and a slew of power forwards that are assets on offense but too soft on the defensive end.

The Rockets would greatly benefit from an imposing post presence on the inside that could play strong interior defense and allow Houston’s athletic swing men to contest shots when the ball is passed out of the lane.

Alex Kennedy of HOOPSWORLD.com broke news that the Rockets love Memphis Grizzlies PF Zach Randolph, who would undoubtedly be a great fit:

However, that was before Memphis traded away Rudy Gay to the Toronto Raptors. But while the circumstances have changed, that bit of information did show that the Rockets are in the market for a power forward.


Milwaukee Bucks

The backcourt of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis is explosive and fun to watch at times, but it doesn’t exactly seem to indicate a future championship.

There is also at least one team in the hunt for Ersan Ilyasova, according to Legion Sports.

That type of a return for the Bucks’ versatile, highly skilled forward would give Milwaukee more of a post presence and better rebounding on the inside. Brooks would also provide the squad with a solid role player, and the first-round pick helps build for the future.

However, having a stretch 4 like Ilyasova is a hot commodity, and the Bucks may not be willing to part with him even after using a high draft pick on former UNC standout John Henson. That above move would also not help the Bucks improve in the short-term.

Either Jennings or Ellis would be good bets to ship, since both can tend to hog the ball and Milwaukee is clinging to the No. 8 spot in the East in the midst of a four-game slide.

Pro Basketball Talk reported that the Bucks aren’t interested in trading Jennings. But with Ellis being an unrestricted free agent this summer, he is an explosive scorer that could instantly help a contender and command assets in return.


Utah Jazz

Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap have long been targets for trade speculation. There are so many possibilities for the Jazz to get in return for either of those two players.

With Enes Kanter continuing to improve at center and the same going for 2010 No. 3 overall pick Derrick Favors at power forward, Utah suddenly has flexibility in the front court.

That is a big key, considering the backcourt is largely void of premier talent. Mo Williams was having a surprisingly good year in his second stint with the team that drafted him, but has been out since late December with a thumb injury.

Beyond him, the Jazz only have the likes of Jamaal Tinsley and Earl Watson running the point, which isn’t exactly an ideal situation.

Jefferson has already been linked to the San Antonio Spurs and more recently Phoenix Suns, along with teammate Gordon Hayward (h/t Hoops-Nation.com). FOX Sports’ Sam Amico reported in late January that Millsap’s potential suitors included Brooklyn, Milwaukee and Denver.

As of Tuesday, Millsap may be headed to the New York Knicks, although a straight-up trade for Iman Shumpert seems a bit on the strange side (h/t @NBARUMORS):

The market is open to make a move, and the Jazz have to do something to separate themselves in the Western Conference. Dealing one of their big men would go a long way in doing that, and look for Jefferson as the most likely to move based on recent news.


Atlanta Hawks

A lot of guards clutter this Hawks lineup, but head coach Larry Drew has done an exceptional job juggling it all.

Leading scorer Josh Smith is likely going to demand a large contract in the offseason, when he’s set to become a free agent. Holding onto him now makes no sense if GM Danny Ferry is simply going to let him walk in the summertime.

Therefore, dealing Smith makes a lot of sense, and could give the Hawks a lot of help at the power forward position. Smith doesn’t exactly fit in Atlanta, but did enjoy an extremely good January and has played well recently too.

Kennedy again is on the ball to report who is looking hard at Smith as the deadline approaches:

The San Antonio Spurs have also shown interest, according to Marc J. Spears of Yahoo!

There is plenty to be gained here by the Hawks. Most notably, Smith alleviates them of a significant cap hit. In a year where luxury taxes will loom large, Ferry must cut as much as he can off the books.

That added flexibility would give Atlanta a shot at landing another marquee free agent this offseason.

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