How Important Is the 2014-15 Season to the New York Knicks?

Are the New York Knicks biding time, trumpeting patience and process as a way of readying themselves and their fans for another year of feckless basketball? Or are mentions of playoff contention indications of a team legitimately concerned with now, just as much as it is with later?

Different words have been flung around since the end of last season, many of them conflicting with one another. Instead of breeding balance, the Knicks are creating confusion, making it difficult—nigh impossible—to comprehend the importance of now.

Patience. Process.

Playoffs.

Which is it?

For a team so incontestably invested in dissociating itself from failures of years past, the Knicks have not entered 2014-15 with the fixed purpose or definitive direction conducive to redemption.

 

Patience and Process

If nothing else, the Knicks—buoyed by Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher’s candor—have been forthright about their attempt to reinvent themselves. Said reincarnation begins on the offensive end, where they’re implementing a somewhat-doctored version of the storied triangle assault.

This is not a halfhearted installation. Their roster isn’t ideally built for the triangle, but what little control over the cosmetic makeup Jackson had he exploited. He re-signed Carmelo Anthony, mid-range extraordinaire; he acquired Jose Calderon, the ideal off-ball point man; and he signed the triangle-fit Jason Smith.

Commitment to fully triangle-ing has been further evident in repeated acceptance of the lengthy process at hand. No one involved is entertaining instant mastery. If it’s not Jackson preaching patience, it’s Fisher. And if it’s not one of them, it’s someone else.

Including Anthony.

“It’s a work in progress now,” he said ahead New York’s regular-season opener, per ESPN New York’s Ian Begley. ”It’s going to be a work in progress until the end of the season.”

Indeed, the Knicks are facing a steep learning curve, one Doug Eberhardt and Mike Prada, writing for SB Nation, say cannot be skirted or abbreviated:

Combine a willingness to suffer through that transition year with long-term roster stability and extreme patience from management, and maybe a team can succeed going all-in on the Triangle. That is what the Knicks, under Jackson’s tutelage, will be hoping to accomplish. But that’s a tough sell for any owner, general manager or fan base; New York, of course, is not noted for being laid-back.

Triangle advocates believe previous coaches failed because of that lack of patience, and not any inherent problem with the system.

The triangle is complicated and, at its heart, endorses almost everything the Knicks did not last year: selflessness, ball movement, off-ball movement, spacing and reactive decision-making.

Elements of it have been integrated into other offenses over the years, aside from Jackson’s Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers. Those who tried to fully embrace it have failed spectacularly. (Think Jim Cleamons with the Dallas Mavericks and Kurt Rambis with the Minnesota Timberwolves.)

Recently, the triangle’s core tenets have also come under siege as they pertain to today’s NBA. In previous years, it’s called for an onrush of mid-range jumpers and post-ups, two scoring methods that go against the league’s three-point shooting influx.

These Knicks, then, must not only grasp the triangle but manipulate it.

Only three of Jackson’s Bulls and Lakers teams averaged more than 20 three-point attempts per game. Twenty squads, meanwhile, cleared 20 attempts last year. It’s adapt or die for this offense. And after the Knicks adapt, they’ll have to wait some more.

Then some more.

They may, in fact, wait well into 2015-16, since the Knicks of today aren’t the Knicks of tomorrow.

Roster turnover will play a significant part of their ongoing development. The team is flush with expiring contracts and impending cap space, the latter of which it intends to use.

“Carmelo took less money—even though it seems rather minuscule—but it’s enough for us to have flexibility in the coming year and then as the years go on the pie’s going to get bigger, things will happen,” Jackson said, per Begley.

New faces—whomever they are—will need time, just as the current Knicks need time. There’s no telling when the quest for headlining additions will end, either. It could be this summer; it could be next summer. This game of musical free-agency ventures could feasibly last for years.

And if the Knicks of today are merely a makeshift model for that broad, imprecise chase, how can this season itself be anything more?

 

Playoff Aspirations

Most teams in the Knicks’ situation that are struggling with a new system and employing a temporary core would be classified as “rebuilding.” They wouldn’t be expected to make the playoffs or do much of anything at all. Most rebuilding factions would willingly relegate themselves to the draft lottery while evaluating young talent and experimenting with different lineups.

But for all the similarities that can be drawn, the Knicks are not most rebuilding teams.

Anthony makes them different.

Thirty-year-old superstars playing at their peak aren’t typical components of lottery-lost franchises. Anthony returned to the Knicks knowing they wouldn’t become insta-contenders—he’s admitted as much—but his submission to their plan (and dollar signs) hasn’t bought them unconditional time.

It was Anthony who called the Knicks a playoff team in August, per the New York Post‘s Fred Kerber, and the rest of team has followed suit.

“There’s been teams that are learning a system, and once they figure that system out, they win,” Amar’e Stoudemire said, via Newsday‘s Al Iannazzone. ”When Tim Duncan played with the Spurs, his second year, they were somewhat of a new team but they won the championship. I’m sure we can search for that goal.”

Comparing the Knicks to any San Antonio Spurs team of the last 18 years is beyond absurdly ambitious. But the crux of San Antonio’s blueprint is one they are striving to replicate.

Like the Spurs, the Knicks are simultaneously planning for the future while trying to win now. However lofty or deluded that seems, they have no other choice.

 

Mixed Messages

What can we take away from the Knicks’ patience-seeking, playoff-searching ways?

Not much. Not right now.

Some of what they’re saying and doing trivializes this season. In addition to installing a new, complex offensive system, they’ve failed to elevate the ceiling of their 24th-ranked defense from last year. Their ability to lighten the scoring load that’s sat upon Anthony’s shoulders since 2011 is predicated upon ball movement and the shot-making abilities of inconsistent role players. Still-developing talents such as Iman Shumpert, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Cleanthony Early should also see substantial court time.

Next year’s first-round draft pick in hand, developing offense in mind, bottom-feeding defense in tow, it’s easy to say that 2014-15 will be nothing more than an empty, lottery-forsaken year for the Knicks. Not even Anthony’s offensive dominance can completely kill that train of thought.

But so long as they play in the Eastern Conference, such wisdom is not infallible.

The East isn’t built for traditional transitioning teams. Alleged tankers (Philadelphia 76ers) and raw-prospect-packed rotations (Orlando Magic, Milwaukee Bucks) make it implausible for a superstar-led team like the Knicks to count on bottoming out. It would take the most flagrant of tank jobs that, in all likelihood, would draw the ire of fans and perhaps the league.

Missing the playoffs also isn’t an effective sales pitch. If the Knicks want to spend forthcoming cap space on a Marc Gasol or Goran Dragic in 2015, or a Kevin Durant in 2016, they’ll want something of value outside Anthony to sling. They’ll need signs of progress.

And, in this case, there are no better harbingers of transcendent change than wins and playoff appearances.

So, immediately, the Knicks are who they are until injuries, a lack of talent, conference competition or a complete shift of course proves otherwise: the rare rebuilding team with its eyes fixated on tomorrow and its heart invested in today.

 

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com unless otherwise cited.

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Who Is Cleveland Cavaliers’ Most Important Player Outside of the Big 3?

The revamped Cleveland Cavaliers may simultaneously employ the NBA‘s best No. 1 option, second fiddle and third wheel this season. That is one of the many luxuries stemming from a summer that witnessed LeBron James’ return, Kevin Love’s arrival and Kyrie Irving‘s max-contract commitment.

But three players does not an NBA champion make—not even if those three have All-World credentials.

The strength of Cleveland’s championship stock may hinge on the diversification of this team’s production. James, Love and Irving can (and have) put the Cavs in title talks, per Odds Shark, but it’s going to take more to close that conversation.

Specifically, it’s going to take consistent and efficient production from a supporting cast featuring a mix of aging vets and still-developing prospects. And those prospects in particularTristan Thompson and Dion Waiters—will be critical to putting an end to The Forest City’s decades-long championship drought.

Sure, the Cavs will need Mike Miller’s three-point cannon and the spacing it creates, but they could lean on James Jones, Matthew Dellavedova and rookie Joe Harris for the long ball if they have to. Plus, Cleveland may yet add Ray Allen’s historically prolific perimeter touch to the mix.

The Cavs will also undoubtedly benefit from the energy and intelligence of veterans Anderson Varejao and Shawn Marion. But it’s hard to peg Varejao for an important role after seeing him miss 166 games over the past four seasons to injury. As for the 36-year-old Marion, he figures to be a part-time player at best as Father Time’s grip tightens around him.

Those guys are Cleveland’s helpers. Waiters and Thompson, though, could be Cleveland’s real difference-makers.

From a statistical standpoint, Waiters has the chance to show as well as any non-Big-Three Cavalier.

The explosive scoring guard erupted for 14.7 points and 3.0 assists as a rookie in 2012-13. For an encore, he bumped his scoring average (15.9), effective field-goal percentage (47.9, up from 45.1) and player efficiency rating (14.0 from 13.7) during his sophomore campaign, according to Basketball-Reference.com.

He can create his own scoring chances66.4 percent of his career two-point field goals have been unassisted—and his ability to wreak havoc off the bounce can keep pressure on opposing defenses even when Cleveland’s talented trio catch a breather. Waiters is also a capable setup man when he’s willing to share the basketball.

All of those are good traits to have, and seeing that he won’t turn 23 until December, the future looks incredibly bright if he can build around them.

As for the present, well, that’s a lot murkier. With Irving, Love and James on board, the Cavs don’t need a lot of what Waiters has to offer. As soon as James signed on the dotted line, Waiters knew this season would be one of adaptation.

“I have to make adjustments,” Waiters told reporters in July. “I have to find ways to impact the game without having the ball. I’m planning to go watch tape to see what [Dwyane Wade] did when he played with LeBron. I need to learn how to be effective out there with him.”

Waiters is on the right track, but the Cavs don’t need him to recreate the role Wade played alongside James with the Miami Heat. The spot set aside for Waiters is much further removed from the spotlight and far more limited in terms of touches. Bleacher Report’s Jared Dubin provided insight on how Waiters needs to improve: 

Whether Cavs coach David Blatt decides to start Waiters or not, the former Syracuse star should see major minutes with the second team. Cleveland’s reserves need his offensive creativity, whereas that gift would feel redundant given the Big Three are better scorers and passers than Waiters.

He’ll still see time with Cleveland’s big boppers, but his responsibilities will change dramatically from what they have been.

“The Cavaliers don’t necessarily need Waiters to drop 15-20 points a game,” wrote Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman. “They need him to be timely, efficient and consistently threatening.”

Waiters has the tools to succeed in such a role. Last season, he converted 41.6 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes, per SportVU player tracking data, which put him ahead of long-range snipers Danny Green (41.5), Vince Carter (40.1), Dirk Nowitzki (39.9) and the aforementioned Allen (39.9), among others.

But taking full advantage of that talent means leaving behind the ball-dominant skills responsible for getting him to the league. His NBA reality changed this summer as much as anyone on the roster, and it could take him all season (or longer) to catch up.

He has held or shared the lead in field-goal attempts during each of Cleveland’s first four preseason games. While he has made the most of these shots (47.2 percent shooting), the volume is still surprising with all of the weapons now around him.

Eventually, these personnel changes and the adjustments they bring out of Waiters will be a good thing. But for now they could put too many bumps in his road to comfortably consider him Cleveland’s fourth-most important player.

“This should result in a more efficient and less volatile player, but who knows,” SportsOnEarth’s Michael Pina wrote. ”Context is everything here, and a scorer who’s used to having the ball in his hands all the time must adapt when better players are brought into the fold.”

On the surface, Cleveland’s moves seem to negatively impact Thompson as much as anyone. After all, his natural power forward position can now be filled by the greatest player on the planet (James), a perennial All-Star (Love) or a former world champ (Marion).

Yet, this influx of talent actually puts Thompson in position to simplify his task list and focus on areas in which he has excelled in the past. And if he can pull this off, he should easily emerge as the fourth-most important piece of the puzzle.

“James, Love and Irving will grab the headlines, but it’ll be how Thompson controls the paint on defense that could really tell the story of most games,” wrote Bleacher Report’s Greg Swartz. “Cleveland needs Thompson to transform into the elite defender and shot-blocker many believed he’d become in the league.”

The Cavs badly need a rim protector. They have leaks on the defensive perimeter, and Love and Varejao don’t offer much insurance behind them. Brendan Haywood missed all of last season with a broken foot, and he hasn’t posted even an average PER since 2009-10, according to Basketball-Reference.com, so he won’t be much help, either.

To date, Thompson has hardly been a rim deterrent at this level. He averaged 0.4 blocks per game last season. Opponents shot 58.0 percent against him at the rim, per SportVU, which was the second-worst rate of the 75 defenders to face at least five such attempts per game.

This was never supposed to be an issue. In fact, he entered the league overflowing with potential as an interior defender.

Thanks to a massive 7’2″ wingspan, per ESPN Insider (subscription required), Thompson averaged 2.4 blocks during his lone season at Texas and posted a 7.2 block percentage there, according to Sports-Reference.com. To put that second number into perspective, Anthony Davis and Serge Ibaka led the league with a 6.7 block percentage last season (minimum 20 minutes per game).

“Tristan is a high-energy guy that gets his hands on the ball at both ends of the court,” Blatt told reporters earlier this month. “He has a very, very high motor. He’s active.”

If Thompson can rediscover his old shot-blocking form, he could go a long way toward addressing arguably the team’s biggest weakness. And if guys such as James, Love and Marion force him to find most of his minutes at the center spot, he says that it’s even better for him, per Cavs.com’s Joe Gabriele:

I think playing the 5 is an advantage for me. I’m much quicker than a lot of the other centers in our league. So, I’ll give them havoc and at the same time, I’ve got stronger over the summer where I can guard the 5’s and body up against them.

And if you look at it, our league is changing. You don’t really have the prototypical centers anymore—like the Shaqs, the Ewings, the Mutombos. Everyone’s more mobile and athletic, so a 4 or 5 in this league isn’t as big a difference.

Whether at the 4 or 5, Thompson simply needs to stay in his lane. And, unlike Waiters, Thompson should feel extremely comfortable with his role.

The Cavs aren’t looking for more than interior activity out of him. Judging by his production through three preseason games—12.7 points, 10.3 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 0.7 blocks in 23.7 minutes—that is precisely what he is prepared to give.

Thompson doesn’t need the ball to be effective. And his work as an off-ball cutter, above-the-rim finisher and offensive rebounder should all mesh well with the Big Three.

Not only can he coexist with that trio, his length, athleticism and defensive effort should also make it even better.

The Cavs, like any other championship hopefuls, will need everyone to make a successful title run. But Thompson will play the biggest role of Cleveland’s support staff due to the uniqueness of his talents and the way they will complement the rest of this roster.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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Most important moves of the NBA offseason

While LeBron James’ return to Cleveland made the headlines this summer, USA TODAY Sports’ Sam Amick breaks down other transactions that will pay dividends this season.

      
 

 

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UNC Basketball: Most Important Games on Tar Heels’ 2014-15 Schedule

North Carolina lost in heartbreaking fashion to Iowa State in the round of 32 in last season’s NCAA tournament, but there is reason to believe it could be one of the nation’s best teams in 2014-15.

After all, Marcus Paige is a legitimate All-American candidate. J.P. Tokoto, Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson provide some stability, and freshmen Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson have particularly high ceilings.

However, North Carolina has to win some critical games during the regular season first to put itself in position for a successful tournament run. Coach Roy Williams certainly thinks the schedule will be difficult, based on comments from GoHeels.com:

We want a great schedule. This is my 12th year (as head coach at UNC). In our previous 11 years our schedule has been in the top 50 in the country every year and in 10 it’s been in the top 25 according to strength of schedule. 

This one may be a little off the charts.

The schedule is quite challenging, but some games are more important than others. Let’s take a look at those.

* Note: While the Tar Heels could play some combination of UCLA, Florida, Wisconsin or Georgetown in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament early in the year, we avoided those contests because we are not quite sure who those opponents will be based on how the games unfold.

 

December 13 at Kentucky

This showdown between two blue-blood programs of college basketball squaring off in a legendary venue is sure to capture the nation’s attention.

The Kentucky Wildcats will be one of the best teams in the country yet again after a number of players came back to school after a run to the national title game. Among those are Willie Cauley-Stein, Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison, who give John Calipari impressive options down low and on the perimeter.

Dakari Johnson and Alex Poythress also make this a more veteran group than some fans are accustomed to, which will help with the pressure that comes with playing at Kentucky.

Still, this is a Calipari team we are talking about. Of course, the newcomers are going to play a major role, and this year’s group includes Karl Towns, Trey Lyles, Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis. Calipari has talent, depth, experience and versatility across the court, and the wins are sure to follow.

The Wildcats could be a top-five team all year, which means a victory in a true road game would be astronomically important for the Tar Heels. It would give them serious ammunition come Selection Sunday for seeding purposes and would be a major confidence boost heading into ACC play. 

That may ultimately be asking too much, but there is a lot on the table in this contest.

 

December 20 vs. Ohio State (in Chicago)

This game against Ohio State is on here for a reason, even if there may be a couple of more difficult ones.

We are working under the assumption that the Tar Heels drop the game in Kentucky in front of a raucous crowd. That means they will need a marquee nonconference win to make up for that, and this is a golden opportunity to do just that against a young team that will be much better in March than December.

The Buckeyes lost Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith and LaQuinton Ross but brought in a loaded recruiting class that is spearheaded by D’Angelo Russell, Keita Bates-Diop and Jae’Sean Tate. If you throw those guys in with the speedy Shannon Scott, Marc Loving and Sam Thompson, it is rather clear that this team will look to run all year.

Even big man Anthony Lee can get out in transition if needed.

This will be a solid test for the Tar Heels’ transition game on a neutral floor. The advantage here is Paige, who will have the experience edge over Russell and the ball-handling abilities to prevent the defensive-stalwart Scott from racking up too many steals. 

When the Buckeyes freshmen develop over the course of the year and hit their stride, they should make serious noise in the loaded Big Ten. That would make a North Carolina win in this one look even better for the Tar Heels come Selection Sunday.

 

March 7 vs. Duke

No introduction is needed here—a clash between Duke and North Carolina is bound to make any list of the most important games.

However, this one in Chapel Hill is especially important because it is the last game of the regular season and represents North Carolina’s chance to avoid a season sweep if the Blue Devils win in Cameron.

More than just bragging rights could be on the line, though, since both teams have ACC title aspirations and visions of a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Winning a high-stakes rivalry game like this would make a serious impression on the selection committee in March.

The Blue Devils will be one of the best teams in the nation with freshmen Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow to go along with veterans Quinn Cook, Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson. Mike Krzyzewski has options all over the floor, but having elite players at center and point guard means the Blue Devils are primed for a big season.

Okafor will dominate down low on both sides thanks to his strength, rebounding prowess and array of low-post moves. It will also help having a pass-first point guard like Jones setting the table for the big man, and Okafor’s presence will open up shooters on the outside.

Okafor and Winslow also shore up the defense, which was a serious concern last year. 

Winslow in particular is critical here, as he can guard four different positions effectively. Adam Rowe of 247Sports noted that Winslow caught plenty of eyes on that side of the ball before he even made it to college:

Duke and North Carolina may just be the class of the ACC this year. Just like it’s supposed to be.

 

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Which Cleveland Cavs Bench Player Will Have Most Important Role This Season?

Lost in all the hoopla surrounding superstars LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving this summer are the little people.

OK, so maybe that’s a bad description of NBA players. Instead, let’s say sometimes it’s easy to forget that role players can have a huge impact on a team’s title chances.

We know that with James, Love and Irving, the Cavs should be very good. What we don’t know is just how good they can be. Much of this revolves around the team’s X-factors, the role players that will be needed to step up on a regular basis.

That being said, which Cavs reserve will have the most important role this season? Players like Shawn Marion, James Jones and Matthew Dellavedova will definitely help but aren’t crucial to the Cavs‘ championship chances.

Instead, the title of most important role comes down to three players. Swingman Mike Miller, shooting guard Dion Waiters (if he’s named the team’s sixth man) and forward/center Tristan Thompson should all carry the most impact off the bench.

Let’s break down what each brings to the Cavaliers and who will ultimately play the biggest role for Cleveland this season.

 

Mike Miller

Role: Spread the offense, knock down three-pointers

Miller possesses the most experience of the Cavs‘ bench core. He’s spent 14 seasons in the NBA thus far, collecting two championship rings with the Miami Heat.

While he’s not going to score, rebound, pass or defend at a high level, the 6’8″ Miller is downright lethal when shooting from the outside.

In today’s NBA, this skill is extremely valuable.

The Cavs were a very poor shooting team from the outside last season. They knocked down just 35.6 percent of their three-pointers, 18th in the league. The world-champion San Antonio Spurs, by comparison, led the NBA by shooting 39.7 percent from deep.

But Miller’s just one man, what kind of an impact can he really have?

Consider the before and after shooting stats Miller had on the Miami Heat and Memphis Grizzlies, his homes the past two years.

Miller’s Impact Team 3P% NBA Rank
Miami Heat 2012-13 (w/Miller) 39.6 2
Miami Heat 2013-14 (w/o Miller) 36.4 12

While the Heat terrorized opponents from behind the arc with Miller, they dropped 10 spots in the rankings after amnestying him.

The Grizzlies, one of the league’s worst shooting teams, eagerly scooped Miller up. His presence helped Memphis jump five spots from the previous season.

Miller’s Impact Team 3P% NBA Rank
Memphis Grizzlies 2012-13 (w/o Miller) 34.5 24
Memphis Grizzlies 2013-14 (w/Miller) 35.3 19

Now on the Cavaliers, Miller’s role remains the same.

He can come off screens, spot up in the corner and space the floor for Cleveland. A lifetime 40.9 percent marksman from deep, Miller’s three-point shooting will no doubt be an important component of the Cavs‘ offensive game plan.

 

Dion Waiters

Role: Playmaker, instant offense off bench

If head coach David Blatt decides to start Waiters, he’ll be doing the team and third-year shooting guard a major disservice.

The 6’4″, 215-pound Waiters is talented enough to begin the game for many teams, as he averaged 18.3 points and 3.5 assists in 24 games as a starter last season. He’s also the best shooting guard on the roster, and technically deserves the honor over a player like Miller.

That being said, Waiters’ best quality is his ability to score in isolation and pick-and-roll opportunities. When asked to come off screens and operate within the flow of an offense, Waiters has struggled.

Coming off the bench as the team’s sixth man would be an ideal fit.

Cleveland has plenty of scoring with James, Love and Irving in the starting five. What they need is someone to run the offense and create scoring opportunities for himself and others in the reserves.

This is where Waiters comes in.

As a sixth man, Waiters averaged 14.7 points, 2.8 rebounds and 2.7 assists in 27.8 minutes a game last season. He greatly improved his three-point shooting to 36.7 percent, up from 28.9 percent as a reserve in 2012-13.

As rare as it may be, there will be games when the first unit’s shots aren’t falling and they need someone to come in and provide a spark.

Whether it be Manu Ginobili with the Spurs or Jamal Crawford of the Los Angeles Clippers, many of the league’s best teams keep an instant scorer on their bench to help balance out the rotation.

Miller is great, but he’s not going to orchestrate an offense like Waiters can.

After a summer spent working on his game and dropping 10 pounds, Waiters should be even quicker off the dribble and attacking the rim.

The Cavaliers should keep him on the bench to start games, as his scoring and playmaking abilities will definitely be needed as the team’s sixth man.

 

Tristan Thompson

Role: Rebounding, defense, center insurance

After starting every game at power forward the past two seasons, Thompson will almost certainly come off the bench now in favor of Love and Anderson Varejao.

Given the Cavs‘ lack of depth at center, the 6’9″ Thompson will likely be used to back up both post spots.

This is both an intriguing and terrifying situation.

Although undersized, Thompson did start 25 games at center for the Cavaliers during his rookie season filling in for an injured Varejao. While some of the bigger opponents gave him trouble, Thompson did post a respectable 10.4 points and 7.5 rebounds in 28.8 minutes a night.

According to Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal, Thompson will indeed be used at the 5:

Regardless of whether he starts, Thompson is expected to play a lot of minutes at center this season. He is undersized there, but athletic enough to handle the job. He has played there off and on throughout his first three years in the league.

While his size doesn’t necessarily reflect that of a classic NBA center, Thompson’s skill set matches up perfectly.

While at the University of Texas, Thompson made a name for himself with his motor, rebounding, post defense and shot blocking.

Playing for a young Cavs team that needed his scoring, Thompson’s defensive game struggled while his blocks plummeted (1.0 to 0.4 from rookie to third season).

Now that his role is changing back to what it was with Texas, Thompson’s focus should once again reflect his strengths.

Cleveland better hope so, at least.

Varejao is fantastic when healthy but hasn’t topped 65 games since the 2009-10 season. Brendan Haywood is still rehabbing from a stress fracture and likely won’t be ready for the start of training camp.

The Cavs are very thin inside and need Thompson to bring some toughness, defense and rebounding off the bench.

 

Conclusion

While Miller, Waiters and Thompson will all be key components to the team, one in particular stands out.

Given the Cavs‘ lack of depth in the post, Thompson will have the most important role of any bench player this season.

It’s not going to be easy, either. Thompson is going to have to regularly face players two, three, even four inches taller than him. On any given night, he could be sacrificing 30-40 pounds to his opponent.

Doing the dirty work may not be what Thompson envisioned his career objective to be four years after being a No. 4 overall pick, but here we stand.

James, Love and Irving will grab the headlines, but it’ll be how Thompson controls the paint on defense that could really tell the story of most games.

Cleveland needs Thompson to transform into the elite defender and shot-blocker many believed he’d become in the league.

This role will most definitely prove crucial to the Cavs‘ season success.

 

Greg Swartz has covered the Cleveland Cavaliers for Bleacher Report since 2010. Connect with him on Twitter for more basketball news and conversation.

All stats provided by Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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Manu Ginobili Remains as Important and Unpredictable as Ever to Spurs

The San Antonio SpursManu Ginobili remains a mystery.

I’m not talking about his talent, because it should be fairly obvious to all that he possesses tons of it. Rather, the manner in which Ginobili chooses to use his gifts is what produces question marks.

The 6’6” Manu is wildly unpredictable, which makes it difficult to guess what comes next with him. Will he break away from the play? Gamble on defense? Ignore head coach Gregg Popovich?

There’s just no way for teammates or opponents to know, and boy does it give him an edge. He’s always been the proverbial X-factor, and I feel confident in saying that will always be the case. That might sound like an exaggeration, but let’s take a look back at his career and see how he’s evolved.

 

Crossovers and Dunks

Long before even setting foot on an NBA court, Ginobili was a star. He helped Argentina hand Team USA its first loss at the World Championships since the Americans began using NBA players.

Manu had great ball-handling skills and demonstrated a great level of athleticism. I wouldn’t accuse the Spurs of being unpatriotic, but it’s probably fair to assume they loved what they saw from Ginobili against the United States. He showed no fear against NBA players and was constantly on the attack.

NBA.com’s Scott Howard-Cooper offered this appraisal of Ginobili’s performance in 2010: “Ginobili was everywhere. There just was no way to know the extent of the preview, that it was the first look for most in North America of a unique talent who would play a pivotal role in delivering three titles and making San Antonio, along with the Lakers, the dominant team of the first decade of the 2000s.”

San Antonio selected Manu with the No. 57 pick in the 1999 draft and kept him stashed away in Europe. By 2002, the Spurs felt it was time to bring him in.

Ginobili joined the Spurs and backed up Stephen Jackson at the 2-guard. Considering Manu was fresh off the World Championships and it was difficult to project how he would adjust to the speed of the NBA game, Popovich brought him along slowly.

Ginobili only averaged 7.6 points in 20.7 minutes per game during his rookie year.

Once the bright lights of the postseason came on, though, Ginobili became a seemingly maniacal king slayer. Despite coming off the bench, he felt comfortable attacking every player on a Los Angeles Lakers squad that was trying to win its fourth consecutive title.

Manu produced 11.7 points and 2.5 assists in 24.7 minutes per game against the Lakers, while shooting 51.2 percent from the field and 61.5 percent from long range.

Ginobili broke off plays to creatively attack defenders off the bounce and finish at the rim with authority. His play led to the demise of the Lakers, and San Antonio went on to win the championship.

Just like that, a reckless star was born.

Popovich has mostly kept Ginobili in a second-unit role throughout his career (except for the 2004-05, 2005-06 and 2010-11 campaigns where he started over 55 games in each), in an effort to preserve his 2-guard. He’s only cracked the 30-minute barrier on average twice (2007-08 and 2010-11 seasons), which has kept him fresh for playoff runs, where the real magic happens.

An argument could be made that he’s been the best postseason 2-guard not named Kobe or Dwyane Wade over the last decade.

During his younger years, Popovich entrusted him in late-game situations where he came through time and time again. For instance, many remember Game 5 of the 2005 NBA Finals as the Robert Horry game, but few might recall that Ginobili had the assist on the game-winning basket.

Once the Detroit Pistons’ Rasheed Wallace trapped Manu in the corner, the 2-guard quickly responded by feeding an open Horry.

That kind of decision-making is the reason why the coaching staff feels confident down the stretch of games with the ball in Ginobili’s hands. He delivered again in Game 7 of the 2006 Western Conference Semifinals against the Dallas Mavericks. Manu capped a comeback by nailing a three-pointer to give San Antonio the lead late.

On the flip side, bad Ginobili showed up a few possessions later when he fouled Dirk Nowitzki and allowed him to convert a three-point play that sent the game to overtime where Dallas ultimately prevailed.

That sequence of events captures Ginobili’s career perfectly. He’s always been a moment away from the biggest and worst play of his career. At age 37, his skills have eroded with time, but he’s still the mysterious player he’s always been.

 

Jumpers and Floaters

San Antonio’s backup 2-guard has become a little slower and less athletic in the latter portion of his career, but he’s still important to the Spurs’ success.

Sure, the team operates now like a fine-tuned machine that was created for basketball, but the right pieces are still mandatory.

The Spurs seemingly operate as one, with everything flowing perfectly because that’s what Popovich demands. Manu is a big part of that because of his ball-handling, passing (6.8 assists per 36 minutes last season) and shooting (46.9 percent field-goal shooting last campaign).

He no longer attacks the rim with reckless abandon and regularly dunks over defenders, because he’s evolved in conjunction with the decline of his physical state.

Still, Ginobili keeps the ball live and continues to dish out remarkable passes to teammates, which explains why San Antonio had the best playoff offense last year, according to ESPN.com.

Grantland’s Zach Lowe offered this take in May:

He’s still pretty much the only player who can get away with breaking the offense and not having Gregg Popovich look like he wants to murder somebody.

His wild drives and outrageous passes are otherwise anathema for the Spurs, whose offensive system is an acutely constructed machine that runs with Peyton Manning–esque precision — except when Manu decides to pursue something that seems beyond possibility until the moment it actually happens.

He’s relying a little more on jump shots and floaters, without sacrificing too much in terms of efficiency. Don’t get it twisted, Ginobili still dropped the hammer on the Miami Heat’s Chris Bosh during the Finals, but that’s no longer the norm.

Manu fits within Pop’s motion offense, but he’s no longer an overwhelming option for opponents.

He’s more of a role player now, as opposed to a star. And yet, Manu will continue to decide games because he’s a threat for a throwback performance.

For instance, in Game 1 of the 2014 Finals, Ginobili dropped 16 points and 11 assists on the Heat. He had similar numbers in Games 2 and 5, but he had a dud in the fourth contest (seven points and four turnovers).

His energy and playmaking off the bench will still impact games when he has it going, and the unpredictable nature of his game will continue to catch people by surprise.

The ascension of Kawhi Leonard will push Manu to the background ever so slightly, but he will continue to remain relevant and important to San Antonio’s success. Even in limited minutes, he’s the best second-unit player on the Spurs, and he will continue to swing series, while also occasionally looking like he’s sabotaging them.

Manu being Manu is just awesome, and the Spurs will take him as such. The latest title run is proof that he still affects San Antonio’s title window.

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How Important Is the Pick-and-Roll in Today’s NBA?

Pick-and-rolls are everywhere in today’s NBA

Slowly, surely, they have become one of the most common plays offenses run. Five years ago, during the 2009-10 season, the average team ran pick-and-rolls that ended in a shot, turnover or foul 16.4 percent of the time, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required). By the end of last year, that number had climbed to 21.8 percent. 

With offenses employing—and defenses seeing—these plays more than 20 percent of the time on average, the importance of understanding and excelling within and against pick-and-rolls should prove principal to overall success. 

In theory.

To find out how much of an impact pick-and-roll savvy has on offensive and defensive performance, we turn to the numbers. 

Synergy breaks pick-and-roll efficiency into two categories: plays that end with the ball-handler and possessions that end with the roll man. Since the distribution of pick-and-rolls varies by team, we’ll need to find a weighted efficiency mean that accounts for differences in frequency.

Teams won’t split pick-and-rolls between ball-handlers and roll men evenly. For example, 23 percent of the San Antonio Spurs’ offensive plays came within pick-and-rolls last season. About 16.6 percent of those sets ended with the ball-handler, while 6.4 finished with the roll man.

And yet the Spurs’ roll men averaged more points per possession (.97) than their ball-handlers (.88), hence the problem at hand…which has been solved.

Bleacher Report’s resident math wizard Adam Fromal provided yours truly with an equation to combat such imbalance. 

The equation itself can be seen here. If you’re not into that sort of thing, just know it yields an accurate, all-inclusive average that sheds light on the correlation between pick-and-roll performance and general success.

Does that light reinforce the value of pick-and-roll comprehension, or is its increase in popularity more reasonless celebrity than substantiated significance?

 

Pick-and-Roll Offense

Everything starts on the offensive end.

Offenses dictate the frequency with which pick-and-rolls are enacted and seen. Lately, they’ve been cropping up more than regularly, emerging as something of an offensive monopoly.

Wrote SB Nation’s Doug Eberhardt in April:

The pick and roll is the genesis of the modern NBA offense. It forces the defense to make a decision on each and every possession. That decision then opens up a multitude of offensive options: the pull-up jumper, the drive to the paint, the pass to the rolling or popping man, the kick-out pass, the dish to someone coming off an action on the opposite side, etc. There is so much going on.

Stressing the point from earlier, here’s a look at how often offenses have worked in pick-and-rolls since 2009:

There has been a 32.9 percent increase in the average league-wide use of pick-and-rolls over the last five years. That’s quite the jump. Frankly, it’s absurd. 

Perhaps in a good way.

Looking at last year only, here’s how a team’s weighted pick-and-roll efficiency—in points per possession—compares to its overall offensive display:

That’s a fairly strong correlation.

Each of the seven most efficient pick-and-roll offenses also finished in the top seven of Synergy’s overall offensive rankings. Pure happenstance? It could be.

It just doesn’t seem to be.

When analyzing the pick-and-roll data since 2009, the relationship at hand doesn’t change:

The 16 best pick-and-roll offenses over the last five years all ranked in the top 10 of offensive efficiency or better.

Stretching even deeper, only two of the top 30 pick-and-roll performers—Orlando Magic and Toronto Raptors—weren’t top-10 offenses as well. Both aberrations coincidentally came during the 2010-11 crusade.

Subpar execution has also spelled bad things for general offensive efforts. Just two of the 30 worst pick-and-roll acts since 2009 ranked in the top half of offensive efficiency during their respective years. 

Take a look at where the 34 worst pick-and-roll offenses—bottom-30 marks plus four statistical ties—ranked in general since 2009:

Good luck trying maintain a top or even run-of-the-mill offense without pick-and-roll success. 

With little doubt that strong pick-and-roll attacks positively impact offensive displays, there’s but one question left to ask: Is one version more important than the other?

Plays ending with ball-handlers make up the majority of pick-and-rolls. Not one team ran more plays for its roll men last season.

And truthfully, that’s no surprise.

Ball-handlers control the rock. They’re the decision-makers. It’s fitting they’re the ones finishing plays more.

Below you’ll see how a team’s rock-wielder efficiency last season compared to its offensive standing:

Without pause, let’s see how things look on the roll men side of things:

Results on both ends continue to support what we already know. But there is a tighter correlation between offensive success and ball-handler efficiency.

This also shouldn’t come as a mind-bending shock.

Roll men are, well, rolling. They’re moving toward the basket, whereas ball-handlers are more likely to find themselves on the perimeter. Converting shots closer to the iron is easier. That’s what the numbers show here.

No team averaged fewer than .84 points per possession in roll-man offense. The league-wide average for ball-handlers was noticeably lower, checking in at 0.79.

Creating separation and finding success in the latter category is harder. By and large, the teams that did boasted better offenses overall; only two top-10 offenses ranked outside the top half of ball-handler efficiency.

Generally speaking, though, teams—as we’ve seen—shouldn’t rely on one specialty.

As always, balance is important.

 

Pick-and-Roll Defense

Time to flip the script.

As the NBA has evolved, so has its players and rules. And like Forum Blue & Gold’s Darius Soriano explained in March 2013, this gradual and ongoing transformation has not only impacted how teams defend but what they’re defending:

With the current rules regarding hand checking and the defensive three second rule, as well as a shift towards more mobile big men who can space the floor, the NBA has become a pick and roll league. It’s really a simple formula: Guards can’t be defended as physically on the perimeter + an open middle due to defensive three seconds and big men spacing the floor = a style of play conducive to the P&R. A key for defenses, then, is the ability to slow this action.

Upticks in pick-and-roll implementation has put pressure on defenses to master prevention against it. If teams are going to see it, they must be able to stop it. 

Multicolored dots abound below once again, showing the link between a team’s weighted pick-and-roll defense against blanketed defensive results last season. Note that in this case, lower numbers—points allowed per possession—indicate a better defense:

Things have certainly changed here.

A relationship exists, but it’s far weaker than the one on offense. The league’s best pick-and-roll defense came from the Miami Heat, yet they ranked just 13th overall. The Los Angeles Lakers found themselves tied with the Indiana Pacers and Washington Wizards for second place, and their general defense was awful.

Outliers of that kind weren’t found on the offensive end. Again, the seven best pick-and-roll offenses all ranked in the top 10 of offensive efficiency. Four of the top 10 pick-and-roll defenses came complete with top-10 overall finishes here. 

It’s not a big difference, but it is a difference.

But it’s one that erases itself when poring over pick-and-roll defenses since 2009:

Welp.

Journeying back five years has strengthened the relationship. Three of the 15 best pick-and-roll defenses since 2009 finished outside the top 10 of defensive efficiency. That’s it.

Moreover, the difference in teams that found defensive success while struggling against pick-and-rolls is even bigger.

Here you’ll see where the 37 worst pick-and-roll defenses—bottom-30 marks plus seven statistical ties—ranked on defense overall since 2009:

Best of luck to defenses not thriving against pick-and-rolls. These numbers are nigh identical to the offensive ones above.

That brings us back to identifying the driving force behind strong pick-and-roll defenses.

Last season’s results are especially important when separated, since the immediate correlation wasn’t as strong, so here’s the link between ball-handler defense and total protection:

Pausing remains overrated, so here’s how it looks when charting roll-man prevention:

Stronger connections are found between roll-man defense and overall guardianship this time.

Four of the top 12 ball-handler defenses ranked outside the top half of defensive efficiency, or 33 percent. Only three of the top 14 roll-man defenses—top-12 marks plus two ties—finished in the bottom 15 of defensive rank, or 21 percent. 

This one’s more of an inconclusive difference. Having a specialty seems to help teams more on defense than offense, yet the dichotomy changes nothing.

Defending the pick-and-roll one way or the other—or both—counts for more than brownie points.

 

Finding Value

Offenses won’t stop running pick-and-rolls.

Defenses won’t stop seeing pick-and-rolls

They’re everywhere, on both ends of the floor, omnipresent and never-ending.

“Coaches see something and say, ‘Oh, that’s hard to defend. Maybe we’ll run that,’” current New York Knicks president Phil Jackson told Sports Illustrated‘s Jack McCallum last year. ”Screen-roll…San Antonio has a system, a way of doing things, and maybe a couple others. But most everybody runs that screen-roll.”

That hasn’t changed, nor will it any time soon.

To succeed in the NBA, teams need to have a pick-and-roll identity, whether it’s on offense or defense. They aren’t everything—the Sacramento Kings, a 28-win disaster, ranked in the top 10 of both pick-and-roll defense and offense last year—but they’re a start, a foundation.

Most of the league’s 2014 playoff teams (13) ranked in the top 10 of pick-and-roll offense or defense during the regular season.

Two teams finished in the top 10 of both.

Those teams were the Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat and the reigning NBA champion San Antonio Spurs.

Grasping the pick-and-roll—on either end of the floor—matters. There will always be exceptions and anomalies, but pick-and-rolls are, at this point, an NBA constant. 

And so, too, must be the ability to navigate them. 

 

All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and Synergy Sports unless otherwise cited. 


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Ranking the Most Important ‘Glue Guys’ in College Basketball in 2014-15

Star power is a great asset to a college basketball team, but having too many elite talents can cause its own problems. Sometimes, the most valuable asset to a coach is the kind of player who doesn’t always look good in a box score but does a little of everything to help his team win.

The archetypal “glue guy” does the dirty work as a defender while also grabbing key rebounds, making the right pass and knocking down the occasional big shot when the defense ignores him. He’s usually a team leader; therefore, upperclassmen are the norm in this category.

Wisconsin’s Josh Gasser, who has been helping the Badgers grind their way to wins for three years already, has a chance to do the same for a national champion to close out his college career.

Here is a closer look at Gasser and the rest of the 10 best glue guys in the country, with an eye to picking the ones who will make the biggest difference in the way the 2014-15 season unfolds.

These rankings are based on three major factors: how good the player is at making the variety of contributions the role calls for, how badly his team needs someone to do what he does and how much of an impact his team is likely to have on the national scene.

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Duke Basketball: Most Important Games on Blue Devils’ 2014-15 Schedule

College basketball seasons are defined by performances in March, but there are still plenty of important games that help pave the road to the Madness.

Duke is looking to bounce back from a rather disappointing 2013-14 campaign by its lofty standards. An ACC title and deep run in the NCAA tournament are all well within the realm of possibility for a squad that will be anchored by a talented batch of freshmen.

Some games will be more important than others if the Blue Devils want to achieve those goals. Here is a look at three critical contests in particular while a full schedule can be found at Duke’s official website.

 

At Wisconsin, Dec. 3

There is plenty at stake in this early season showdown with Wisconsin.

For one, it is an incredible test for a young Duke team because the Kohl Center is one of the nation’s most intimidating venues. Duke always brings out the best in the opposing crowd, and playing in a raucous venue like this will help get the freshmen ready for ACC play.

This game also represents an opportunity to grab a marquee victory on the road for seeding purposes and the overall resume because Wisconsin may very well be in the top five at tipoff.

Finally, Jahlil Okafor will have the chance to prove himself as the potential No. 1 pick in the 2015 NBA draft against one of the most established big men in the nation. Frank Kaminsky could test Okafor’s ability to extend his game beyond the paint if they guard each other, and he will battle on the boards all game with the Duke center.

The Badgers were a Kentucky miracle three-pointer away from playing for the national title last season and return the majority of their core in Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Traevon Jackson, Josh Gasser, Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig. No team on Duke’s schedule bring the combination of Final Four experience and overall talent like Wisconsin does. 

Throw in conference pride as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, and this is an important early game for Duke as it tries to set the tone for the entire season.

 

North Carolina, Feb. 18

You are reading an article about Duke basketball, so there should be no explanation necessary about why a contest with hated rival North Carolina would be on this list.

The Blue Devils and Tar Heels split their two regular-season showdowns last year, and both have serious ACC title aspirations this time around. Picking up a head-to-head victory would be critical in the conference race, and it is necessary for Duke to defend its home court considering it also has to travel to Chapel Hill. 

If Wisconsin represents a test for Okafor against Kaminsky, then this game is the test for young point guard Tyus Jones. Marcus R. Fuller of the St. Paul Pioneer Press was looking forward to this showdown as early as last season:

Marcus Paige could challenge for ACC Player of the Year thanks to his ability to control the flow of a game from the point guard spot, hit from beyond the three-point line and set up his teammates with crisp, precise passes. If North Carolina is going to win the ACC, Paige will be the primary reason why.

No pressure or anything, Mr. Jones.

This team isn’t just Paige and company, though. Head coach Roy Williams has Justin Jackson, Theo Pinson, Joel Berry, J.P. Tokoto, Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks at his disposal, giving him options all over the floor. 

A Scrabble contest between Duke and North Carolina would be important, so a basketball showdown with ACC title implications certainly qualifies for this list.

 

At Virginia, Jan. 31

This is Duke’s only game against the defending ACC regular-season and tournament champions, so if it is going to be the bully on the conference block this year, it has to wrestle the title away from Virginia.

The Cavaliers lost Joe Harris, which should not be overlooked, but that doesn’t mean they are going to return to mediocrity. Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill and Justin Anderson are a formidable trio while Mike Tobey and London Perrantes could develop into a solid one-two punch on the post and perimeter over the course of the year.

However, the overarching concern with this game could be Virginia’s unique, slow-it-down style of play.

Duke is a young team that features a number of freshmen, which means it will be critical to avoid frustration with a slower tempo. It will also be important that the Blue Devils don’t try to compensate for that when they get the ball by pushing the pace too much in transition and making sloppy turnovers and mistakes.

Another subplot here is the fact that Mike Krzyzewski was upset and fearful for his players’ safety when Duke lost at Virginia last season and the crowd stormed the floor.

He suggested as much in the aftermath, according to The Associated Press (via ESPN.com):

Look, do you know how close you are to—just put yourself in the position of one of our players or coaches. I’m not saying any fan did this, but the potential is there all the time for a fan to just go up to you and say, ‘Coach you’re a [expletive],’ or push you or hit you. And what do you do? What if you did something? That would be the story. We deserve that type of protection.

I’m always concerned about stuff like that, especially at this time of the year. What if that happened and we get a kid suspended? That becomes the national story. It’s not all fun and games when people are rushing the court, especially for the team that lost. Again, congratulations to them, and they should have fun and burn benches and do all that stuff. I’m all for that. They have a great school, great kids, but get us off the court. That’s the bottom line. 

As long as the Blue Devils win this time around, they won’t have to worry about it.

 

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Michigan Basketball: Ranking U-M’s Most Important Role Players in 2014-15

Heading into the 2014-15 season, we know by now that the Michigan basketball program will be led by its core of Caris LeVert, Zak Irvin and Derrick Walton Jr.; but they cant carry the team alone and that’s where the importance of role players comes in.

The Wolverines lost a lot of manpower from last season and will now have to make up for the loss of Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary, Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford. With head coach John Beilein introducing six true freshmen and one redshirt freshman, several players will have to step up if Michigan wants to keep its successful string of NCAA tournament runs intact.

That said, here are the five most important role players (excluding LeVert, Irvin and Walton Jr.)—and ranked in order of importance—that must emerge for Michigan to have a successful 2014-15 season

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