3 Players Who Must Step Up for New Orleans Pelicans This Season

Entering the 2014-15 season, the New Orleans Pelicans seem poised to compete for a playoff bid. Their exceptional blend of impactful newcomers and essential returners boasts the potential to achieve this feat.

However, New Orleans will squander this opportunity if certain players don’t step up their game. Whether it requires improving a specific aspect or assuming a larger role, these athletes must enhance their play for the Pelicans to attain success.

Three players in particular—Jeff Withey, Austin Rivers and Eric Gordon—must focus on raising their performance.

Let’s explore how each can accomplish this, shall we?

 

Jeff Withey

Although head coach Monty Williams will feature a frontcourt rotation of Anthony Davis, Omer Asik and Ryan Anderson, center Jeff Withey will still obtain consistent minutes down low. Much like last season, Withey will be expected to anchor the defense while filling the 5 spot.

After initially playing in only 29 contests last year, the big man appeared in each of New Orleans’ final 29 games, according to ESPN.com. The 24-year-old used this time to display his abilities as a dominant defender. Swatting opponents with his lengthy 7’3″ wingspan, he was second behind Davis in blocks with 2.6 per match through the last nine games.

Withey needs to protect the paint like this throughout the entirety of 2014-15. His small, effective stretch last season is noteworthy, but he must provide this regularly to help the Pelicans thrive defensively without Asik and/or Davis on the court.

In addition, Withey must improve his rebounding, as the center disappointingly finished ninth on the team in rebounds per 36 minutes with 7.9. This weakness is something he is aware of and has mentioned in the past, per NBA.com:

I need to rebound better. I want to get better at that. That kind of comes with getting stronger, not getting pushed around and knowing how to be in the right place. We’re going to continue to do whatever it takes to get stronger, because in this league, someone with my body frame can’t last that long. I have to pack on that weight, so I can take that beating and stand my ground.

Playing at 220 pounds last season, the 7’0″ Withey represented the epitome of a walking human skeleton. However, he focused on adding 15 pounds of muscle during the summer and is currently listed at 235 pounds.

New Orleans finished a lowly 22nd in rebounding last year with 41.7 per game. In order for the team to rise in the ranks in this important category, it is critical for Withey to grab more boards. The extra weight should help, but the responsibility ultimately lies in the big man’s effort.

Essentially, Withey needs to step up his consistency on defense as well as his rebounding. If he succeeds, it will aid the Pelicans’ output in these areas, subsequently raising their chances of playoff qualification. 

 

Austin Rivers

Rivers will play a significant role in his third NBA campaign. He is positioned to serve as the primary backup 2-guard, and he is expected to provide a scoring punch off the bench.

The 22-year-old has proven himself a capable scorer, displaying consistency in driving the lane as well as an ability to hit from three. This has led to him averaging seven points per game through his first two seasons.

However, to aid in New Orleans’ postseason push this year, Rivers must transform into a more well-rounded point producer. And the best way for him to accomplish this is by strengthening his mid-range game.

In his first two seasons, Rivers’ shooting from 10 to 23 feet was atrocious, as his percentage sits at an appalling 29.5 percent. To compare, this output is roughly 10 points lower than the league average of 39.8 percent.

Rivers understands this flaw, and he has performed the necessary actions to fix it. “I’ve strictly worked on mid-range and getting my body stronger this summer,” Rivers said, per John Reid of The Times Picayune. ”I’ve got both of those things and I’m ready to prove and show people that this year.” 

Whether or not evidence of this emerges remains to be seen. It is, however, an incredibly positive sign that the shooting guard focused on this weakness.

By adding a mid-range shot, Rivers can apply a completely new element to his offensive approach. The ability to abruptly stop a drive and convert pull-up jump shots is invaluable to a scorer. Already an established attacker, Rivers would constantly keep defenders guessing if he incorporated a reliable mid-range game.

This would allow for more efficient scoring, subsequently leading to quality bench output. Naturally, solid pine play would increase the Pelicans’ playoff potential.

Last season, New Orleans finished eighth in bench points with 34.9 per game, according to hoopstats.com. But the team lost multiple key pieces, and Tyreke Evans—who played a majority of the games as a substitute—will likely assume a starting role this year.

Consequently, Rivers must step up his scoring in order for the Pelicans to put forth a strong bench. The team’s postseason fate will partially depend on the pine’s success or failure, and the 2-man will fill a key role in this regard.

 

Eric Gordon

Before falling victim to left knee tendinitis in March, Eric Gordon experienced a relatively successful 2013-14 campaign. He participated in 64 games—the most he’s played since his rookie season—and finished the year third on New Orleans in scoring with 15.4 points.

Gordon underwent successful surgery in April after the conclusion of the regular season. The shooting guard is completely healthy now and boasts a chance to build upon last year.

Once again, Gordon will serve as a main scorer. But for the Pelicans to vie for a playoff spot, the 25-year-old must improve certain aspects of his style.

Specifically, the 2-guard needs to raise his shooting efficiency and enhance his explosiveness, both of which go hand-in-hand.

At 43.6 percent, Gordon’s field-goal percentage proved less-than-stellar last season. His three-point shooting was superb at 39.1 percent, but his 45.6 percent shooting from two served as the main source of his struggles.

Gordon’s shoddy percentage of 43.4 within zero to 10 feet played a significant part in his poor output from two. Sensibly enough, this low efficiency can be attributed to the guard’s inconsistent explosiveness attacking the rim—sometimes he finished strong, but other times, he held back in an effort to play cautiously.

According to Gordon himself, regaining that explosiveness—something he flaunted often early in his career—was a focal point for him over the offseason, via Jim Eichenhofer of NBA.com:

That’s what I’ve really been working on, explosiveness to the rim, trying to beat people (off the dribble). I don’t think I was very consistent, because with all of the injuries, it would slow me down at times, because I would be so hesitant to make a move or even explode to the basket at times.

This year has been well because I’ve actually been able to work out as hard and as long as I want to, during the summer. So it’s been a lot better.

It seems the 2-man is on track to improve in this area. By doing so, he would up his efficiency near the rim, resultantly bettering his field-goal percentage and scoring output as a whole.

As a leader for New Orleans, Gordon’s play can drastically effect the team’s success. Healthy, productive stretches by the guard will lead to more wins, while poor, injury-marred stints will undoubtedly pile on losses.

Gordon must improve his shooting and explosiveness for the Pelicans to earn a postseason spot. Should he fall short, his franchise will do the same in the competitive Western Conference. 

 

(Unless otherwise noted, all stats are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com)

Josh Haar is a NBA Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @JHaarNBA.

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The One Flaw in Tim Hardaway, Jr.’s Game That He Must Fix

If his first season in the NBA was any indication, New York Knicks shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr. is a gunner. 

During runs of hot shooting, the bunches of points he poured in sparked the Knicks offense and carried the team. But when he cooled off, the shot volume didn’t change.

If he ever wants to develop into a truly great player, he’ll have to address his shot selection when he’s having a poor shooting night. 

It’s said that great shooters have no conscience and short memories. The Ray Allens of the league trust their mechanics and keep firing, knowing that they’ll get a few shots to drop eventually. 

But turning around cold streaks isn’t about powering through them; it’s more crucial to find shots in the flow of the offense that don’t disrupt rhythm. 

With Hardaway‘s all-around offensive game, it’s understandable why he rarely encounters a shot he doesn’t like. 

His lethal outside touch, both off the dribble and in catch-and-shoot situations, has defenders guarding him closely all over the floor. His ability to penetrate and finish with strength punishes defenders who crowd his space. 

No coach will ever fault Hardaway for attacking the rim or letting fly a wide open three-pointer. It’s the difficult floaters, one-dribble pull-ups, and mid-range fadeaways that get him in trouble, especially early in the shot clock. 

Former Knicks guard Beno Udrih saw this troublesome sign early last season (via The New York Times): “Sometimes he’s so excited to be here, his shot selection can hurt him. But he’s confident, and that’s always a good thing.”

Before being drafted by the Knicks, DraftExpress also noted that “Some of Hardaway‘s struggles were due to his less than stellar shot selection.”

At least a part of the blame for Hardaway‘s difficulty in choosing the right shots can be assigned to a Knicks offense that crumbled in the latter half of the season. 

The focus on Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith isolations with little weak-side movement quickly bred a selfish attitude among non-primary ball-handlers. With very few touches left for the remaining players, it was hardly surprising that Hardaway‘s trigger finger became that much more itchy.

Hardaway‘s final season at Michigan was the real birth of this trait. His 460 field-goal attempts only trailed teammate Trey Burke, despite his 43.7 field-goal percentage ranking worst among players with significant minutes averages. 

In his rookie year on the Knicks, the statistical trend continued but shifted to the three-point line. Despite only playing 23.1 minutes per game, Hardaway still found time to jack 4.4 three-pointers per game while only knocking them down at a 36.3 percent clip.

Further cementing the problem was Hardaway‘s reliance on off-the-dribble jumpers. Though his 38.9 shooting percentage on such attempts, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required), was actually well above league average, his willingness to hoist the lowest-percentage shot type in the game drove down his overall efficiency.

With 23.1 percent of his shots coming off the dribble, Hardaway‘s percentage of those types of shots was extremely high for a non-primary scorer. Compare that to Anthony, arguably the best off-the-dribble shooter in the game, whose 25.2 percent of attempts preceded by a dribble was only slightly higher.

Considering their respective roles in the offense, the difference should have been far greater. 

This isn’t to say that dribbling before shooting is necessarily a bad thing for role players. Sometimes overzealous closeouts on catch-and-shoot three-point shots fuel easy pump fakes, a quick dribble and an open pull-up.

Here’s Hardawday doing just that against the Chicago Bulls, when a double-team of Amar’e Stoudemire leads to multiple ball swings. When it lands in Hardaway‘s hands in the corner, his feet are set and he’s ready to shoot.

Chicago’s Kirk Hinrich knows of his shooting prowess and runs him off the three-point line, almost baiting Hardaway into dribbling past him. Hardaway obliges and properly pulls up, as the rotating defenders protecting the rim would make any drive and finish difficult.

Everyone can live with these types of shots. It was Hardaway‘s inability to make the right (or any) pass and his penchant for cutting short basket attacks in favor of pull-ups that got him in trouble, leading to a flurry of difficult and guarded shots. 

Take a look at this play from last season against the Brooklyn Nets, when Hardaway receives the ball in a similar closeout situation and is able to slip by his defender, Marcus Thornton. Even the minimal penetration draws a second defender in Jorge Gutierrez, who abandons Shannon Brown.

A quick dribble and pass would have led to an open three-pointer for Brown, but Hardaway elects to rise up for a fadeaway with 10 seconds on the shot clock. 

Even though he does miss the easy pass here, it’s not the end of the possession. Hardaway could have quickly felt out the isolation opportunity against the smaller defender in Gutierrez and moved the ball if it failed. There was still time to generate something better.

Hardaway‘s predatory attitude has him capitalizing on any opening to get his shot off. In some sense, this relentless and attacking mentality can really plague defenders who can’t guard him.

But Hardaway‘s not quite at that level offensively to beat multiple defenders, and more often than not he’s caught taking bad shots against help defense once he gets past his original man. 

What’s even more frustrating about Hardaway‘s game is his unwillingness to completely attack creases in the defense with his dribble. He just loves that pull-up a bit too much and settles too quickly. 

In the play below against the Miami Heat, a confused Miami defense has three players triple-teaming Stoudemire in the post. Stoudemire recognizes this quickly and gets rid of the ball to Hardaway, who now has Ray Allen sprinting at him.

Hardaway smartly pump fakes and slides around him, with a gaping hole in the Heat defense now staring him in the face. With a quick left-to-right crossover, Hardaway can get all the way to the rim or draw more defenders to set up a teammate.

Instead, he settles for that pull-up. Because he’s slightly leaning left and Allen is bothering him from behind, what appears to be an open and easy shot isn’t quite that. 

To be fair, Hardaway isn’t a great ball-handler. With time he’ll improve this aspect of his game, but he’ll always be a perimeter shooter first. Still, that doesn’t excuse his aversion to probing defenses more.

In pick-and-roll situations, Hardaway has mostly limited himself to jump shots. In an NBA that features more and more defenses with bigs dropping to the rim, teams are encouraging these off-the-dribble, mid-range shots.

Hardaway, thus far into his career, is playing right into the defense’s hands. The Toronto Raptors ran this dropping scheme in the pick-and-roll below involving Hardaway and Jeremy Tyler, and Hardaway takes the space given to him as an opportunity to shoot.

When he lets the ball go, there are 17 seconds left on the shot clock.

Part of the learning curve for all NBA players is understanding shot types in terms of time and score. In the simplest sense, this means that the first available shot is not always the best one. 

The best players, and typically the best scorers, have mastered how and when shots become available. Pull-up jump shots off the pick-and-roll, contested three-pointers or isolations are possible at virtually any time.

If an offense has to resort to these shot types due to a shrinking shot clock, so be it. Avoiding them at all other times, however, tends to be a major offensive key. 

Early in the shot clock, better players explore pick-and-rolls with multiple dribbles and pass the ball, or they back it out and try something else. Allowing a possession to mature gives the best option time to reveal itself or the defense an opportunity to make a mistake. 

Though Hardaway is certainly capable of hitting any type of shot, that doesn’t mean any shot he takes is a worthwhile look. 

If he hopes to improve his shooting percentage and role within NBA offenses, it won’t be about drilling hard in the offseason to strengthen his skill set or scoring more points in games.

It will be about efficiency and shot selection. Sometimes less is more.

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5 Coaching Improvements Denver Nuggets’ Brian Shaw Must Make During 2nd Season

The Denver Nuggets were decimated with injuries in head coach Brian Shaw’s first season, but he must address some key points in the 2014-15 journey.

Shaw was already given a huge task in making changes to a team led by George Karl for nine seasons. But finishing the year with six of your key players injured and a rotation that is forced to change constantly makes the transition significantly more challenging.

Now that everyone will likely be back at full strength, plus the additions of Arron Afflalo, Gary Harris and Jusuf Nurkic, this is a roster Shaw has plenty of flexibility with. Denver is a legitimate sleeper in a brutal Western Conference.

There are plenty of areas Shaw needs to focus on, but five stand out above the rest.

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Fans must temper expectations for Derrick Rose

One of the hardest things to cope with in sports is realizing that a beloved athlete may have lost his edge. It’s such a natural reaction to ignore all signs that indicate otherwise, especially when the athlete is a highly favored one. This is especially true in the case of Derrick Rose, who is certainly […] The post Tempering Expectations For Derrick Rose appeared first on The Sports Fan Journal.

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Biggest Adjustments Chicago Bulls Must Make This Season

The Chicago Bulls are a defensive-minded basketball team with one of the most easily recognized identities in the league. But—Derrick Rose’s health aside—that predominant focus on one side of the ball has done them little good in the playoffs these last few years. 

Chicago’s 2013-14 season ended because they could not score the ball. But after an offseason filled with major additions to the roster, including the hopeful return of a dominant 26-year-old Rose, the Bulls need to make a slight adjustment to the brand of basketball that’s long distinguished them under head coach Tom Thibodeau as an intimidating brick wall. They need points.

The Bulls finished last season as one of the NBA’s most pedestrian and eye-gougingly harsh offenses, finishing dead last in field-goal percentage (43.2 percent), 28th in offensive rating and 25th in three-point rate. Entering the playoffs, journeyman point guard D.J. Augustin led the team with a 14.9 points-per-game scoring average, and the only player efficiency rating found above the teens was Joakim Noah’s 20.0. 

Their taste of the postseason was brief and brutal, with the Wizards beating them to a pulp in five quick games. Expectations are higher this season (like, championship-or-bust higher), but in order for Chicago to avoid having its season come crashing down once again, they need to jolt the offense to life while still maintaining an effective and crippling defensive unit. 

One of the most obvious reasons Chicago dominates on defense is they don’t seem to care too much about offense. Games almost never turn into track meets, meaning the Bulls rarely look to push pace and score in transition. This lets Thibodeau keep things under control, allowing his men to set up their half-court defense, which is borderline legendary at this point. 

Unfortunately, it’s a two-way street that comes back to bite them on the other end. If Chicago is so focused on not letting the other team score easy points in the unstructured open court, how do you think they operate on offense? That’s correct, in the half-court, against the other team’s set defense.

It’s a strategy that ultimately worked out for Chicago (they still won 48 games last season), but it may need to be toned down in 2014-15 with a new roster that’s loaded with offensive-minded pieces coming off the bench and infused in the starting lineup.

Playing for Spain at the FIBA World Cup, Pau Gasol looked like a 2.0 version of 1977 Bill Walton. Before his team was shockingly eliminated by France, Gasol was arguably the tournament’s most impressive player, a low-post force of nature who clubbed opponents into submission with pinpoint outside shooting and a throwback effort on the glass.

Gasol ended the tournament averaging 20 points and six rebounds per 27 minutes of play. He was phenomenal and is expected to be an upgrade over the amnestied Carlos Boozer next season with the Bulls.

Gasol was a slogging defender last season for the Los Angeles Lakers, but it’s almost fair to chalk that experience up as a bad nightmare. For whatever reason, the 34-year-old big man never fit into Mike D’Antoni’s system, and the results were evident on the floor. 

Granted, the level of competition is lower and the sample size is small, but Gasol showed a glimpse of his former self in Spain. It’s a promising sign for the Bulls, a team that could really use a low-post scorer who can also stretch opposing bigs to the corner and knock down threes. 

According to CSNChicago’s Mark Strotman, Gasol will also help open things up with his unique passing ability.

Though Gasol rarely has played with a traditional pass-first point guard and spent a large portion of his career in the triangle offense, he still was able to average 3.4 assists per game a year ago alongside Kendall Marshall, who in 54 games finished second in the NBA in dimes (8.8 per game).

And now Gasol will get the chance to work his passing magic alongside one of the game’s best facilitating big men. Gasol’s distributing numbers last year made him one of four big men in the NBA to average at least three assists per game, joining his brother Marc Gasol, Spencer Hawes and Pau’s newest teammate, Joakim Noah.

The presence of both Gasol and Noah in the same frontcourt is something that hasn’t been seen in more than a decade. The last team to feature two forwards or centers averaging three or more assists per game was the 2003-04 Sacramento Kings.

In addition to Gasol (and Rose, of course), the Bulls will bring in rookie Doug McDermott and European stretch 4 Nikola Mirotic. Both forwards can really shoot, but their defense is a question mark. Adding them both is an admission by Chicago’s decision-makers that the three-point shot must be implemented into the offense next season, and doing so makes a ton of sense. 

The 6’8” McDermott averaged 26.7 points per game in his senior season at Creighton, shooting an ungodly 44.9 percent from beyond the arc. Somehow, that figure is lower than his career three-point average of 45.8 percent.

The good news is most of McDermott’s attempts came as the center of the other team’s defensive game plan. In the NBA, he won’t nearly gain that much attention, and he should develop into a spot-up threat right away.

As for Mirotic, he made 46.1 percent of his threes in 31 Euroleague games last season, per DraftExpress. He’s 6’10, 23 years old and could be a dynamite partner beside either Noah or Taj Gibson, keeping the floor spaced as wide as possible for Rose and even Jimmy Butler to penetrate through the paint. 

The Bulls are already so good on defense, but in order for them to win a championship this season, they need to take advantage of all the offensive firepower signed in the summer. 

If their focus can shift a tiny bit from defense toward becoming an efficient and varied scoring team, specifically from behind the three-point line, it’s tough to picture any opponent in the league being able to beat them four times in a seven-game series.

 

All statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com or NBA.com unless otherwise noted. 

Michael Pina covers the NBA for Bleacher Report, Sports on Earth, FOX Sports, ESPN, Grantland and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelVPina. 

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Minnesota Timberwolves Must Avoid Paying Ricky Rubio After Losing Kevin Love

They say it’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.

By now, the Minnesota Timberwolves know a thing or two about Love and loss alike. But after being cornered into trading away their disaffected star forward to the Cleveland Cavaliers, there’s a very real danger the franchise could overspend in a bid to avoid more loss.

It flirts with said danger on account of point guard Ricky Rubio, the Spanish would-be star Minnesota selected with the No. 5 overall pick in 2009.

To be sure, Rubio‘s situation shares little in common with Kevin Love’s. The 23-year-old has neither the superstar pedigree nor the requisite leverage to force a trade at this juncture.

Moreover, he’s given no indication that he intends to do such a thing.

“I’m loyal,” Rubio recently told Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski. “I want to give them back what they gave me there: a lot of love.”

Unfortunately, that love—not Love—will come at a steep price by all accounts.

The organization has until the end of October to sign Rubio to an extension, but it appears little progress has been made to that end. The chief culprit seems to be a disconnect between Rubio‘s market valuation and his agent’s ambitious agenda.

Back in April, the Star Tribune‘s Jerry Zgoda speculated as much, writing, “Expect Rubio‘s side to push for a contract closer to a maximum salary than the four-year, $44 million extension Golden State’s Stephen Curry received, which the Wolves just might view as beyond their limits.”

Months later, little has changed.

Timberwolves reporter Darren Wolfson told Sportando’s E. Trapani in August that “Rubio is on notice. The Wolves are trying to sign him to an extension, and so far his agent, Dan Fegan, is balking at the idea of a 4-year, $43 million deal.”

“That’s plenty for a player of Rubio‘s caliber,” Wolfson adds. ”It’s a lot more than Atlanta point guard Jeff Teague makes—maybe a better player—and is what Golden State All-Star guard Stephen Curry makes. But Fegan is seeking the five-year max. That’s not happening. The situation is pointing toward Rubio being a restricted free agent next summer.”

In March, Grantland’s Zach Lowe described Rubio as “among the most divisive players in the league now, in part because of the sense that his agent, Dan Fegan, is going to demand an eight-figure extension that Rubio does not yet deserve.”

Accordingly, restricted free agency wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, especially for the Timberwolves.

Unless Rubio make significant strides this season, it’s unlikely other teams will offer him anywhere near a max deal. Even with the massive deals Chandler Parsons and Gordon Hayward recently signed, the market for a point guard with limited shooting ability is a different story.

The available body of evidence suggests Rubio remains a large step behind someone like Curry. Last season the Spaniard averaged 9.5 points, 8.6 assists and 2.3 steals per contest. There’s a lot to like about the line, but the bigger problem was that 2013-14 was the third consecutive season in which Rubio made well under 40 percent of his field-goal attempts—this time a career-high 38.1 percent.

Zgoda recently tweeted, “[Head coach and team president] Flip [Saunders] also said team will hire a shooting coach for this season. Rubio, [Chase] Budinger & others have been working [with] one based on LA.”

So there’s certainly a chance Rubio emerges as a much-improved shooter at some point this season, but it’s hard to imagine him approximating Curry’s production or efficiency.

The Golden State Warriors floor general averaged 24 points and 8.5 assists per game last season, converting on 47.1 percent of his field-goal attempts in the process. Rubio has a long way to go before putting up those kinds of numbers.

In turn, a deal that pays Rubio somewhere on the order of $10 million annually would seem nothing short of generous.

Exploring the free-agent market next summer may reveal as much.

In the meantime, Minnesota should resist the urge to overpay. Tempting as it may be to lock up a franchise cornerstone (shortly after losing another), Rubio is far more replaceable than Love. 

It’s true that teams like the Timberwolves sometimes have to sweeten deals due to the difficulties they have attracting external talent. Rubio‘s qualified commitment to the franchise may even indicate that now’s the time for such a loyalty bonus.

Until the Timberwolves start winning, money is all they have to offer.

“I like Minnesota,” Rubio explained to NBA.com’s Scott Howard-Cooper in June. “But I want to win too. Of course when a big guy like [Love] leaves you’re thinking about what’s going to be happening with the team. Are we going to lose a lot?”

“Before I came to Minnesota, the season before they won like 17 games,” Rubio continued. “I was a little scared when I went there. I’m coming from Europe, where I was playing in Barcelona. I think we lost six games or seven games in two seasons, and every loss was a disaster. I don’t want to go through a process like every win is something special.” 

Wins may indeed be special this season, which could certainly lead Rubio‘s eyes to begin wandering.

There haven’t been any ultimatums thus far, though. In fact, Rubio has attempted to distance himself from the contract process.

“It’s something I’m not worried about,” Rubio told reporters in April. “It’s something my agent is going to talk [about] with Flip. It’s something I don’t have to be worried [about]. I just worry about playing.”

Soon enough, however, he may be worried about playing for a raise over the $5,070,686 he’s scheduled to make this season, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Unless his camp reaches an understanding with Minnesota, the campaign ahead reasons to be something of a league-wide audition.

An audition Saunders and Co. will watch closely.

In the event Rubio discovers a jump shot and transforms himself into a well-rounded scoring threat, the organization will happily reward him financially. But the Timberwolves would be well-served by allowing the market to make that determination.

They’ll have the right to match any offer Rubio receives next summer, so there’s little need to pre-empt that process with a potentially inflated extension.

This is no time for impulse buys.

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1 Question Every NBA Team Must Answer Before 2014-15 Training Camp

NBA training camp—weeks of question marks that most teams are lucky to escape with a few answers. 

We haven’t quite reached camp time yet, but before we do, each squad has its own concerns that need to be squared away—some more pressing than others, of course. 

Building teams like the Philadelphia 76ers, Minnesota Timberwolves and Orlando Magic are simply working to discover what exactly they have. Reshaped contenders like the Miami Heat and Houston Rockets find themselves asking similar questions but with far different expectations.

As for conference favorites like the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers, there are plenty of moving parts that could hamper a successful 2014-15 run.

Now is the time for teams to solve their big-picture worries before they interfere with the day-to-day battles in training camp. Ahead, we discuss each team’s No. 1 focus before heading to camp.

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10 Budding NBA Stars Every Fan Must Watch During 2014 Training Camp

With the gaze of the basketball world focused squarely on Spain and the 2014 FIBA World Cup, it’s easy to forget the NBA is a mere three weeks away from the start of training camp.

From power rankings to prospective starting lineups and just about everything in between, expect the predictions and prognostications to begin in earnest—as if they haven’t already.

Every year, one of the more interesting talking points involves who within the league’s younger ranks appears most poised to posit himself as a legitimate NBA up-and-comer.

Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond: We know about them. We’re talking about guys flying a bit deeper below the radar—the ones only a leap or two away from bona fide All-Star status.

We’ve come up with 10 players we feel stand the best chance of using their respective training-camp performances to propel them to the forefront of the NBA discourse.

To qualify, all players must be 25 years old or younger, have yet to earn their All-Star stripes and—perhaps most crucial of all—have at least a year of NBA experience under their belts.

Sorry, Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker. Maybe next year.

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What Aaron Gordon Must Do to Contend for 2014-15 NBA Rookie of the Year

Orlando Magic rookie forward Aaron Gordon won’t waltz into the NBA and dominate, but he’s blessed with the physical tools and court awareness to make an impact on both ends of the court.

The soon-to-be-19-year-old needs polishing in several areas, and he’s not the overwhelming favorite to win Rookie of the Year. Nevertheless, he can join the fray in contention if he maximizes his strong suits and addresses (or minimizes) his deficiencies.

After a strong freshman campaign at Arizona, the 6’9″ leaper landed No. 4 overall on a franchise still toiling in its rebuilding phase. Gordon might not be on top of the Magic depth chart at power forward, but he’ll get frequent opportunities to play.

It won’t be a cinch for the one-and-done youngster to join the Rookie of the Year race. He needs to be a practical weapon on offense and a standout defender in order to make real noise.

What must he do in each phase of the game in order to contend?

 

Maximizing Offensive Strengths

Off-Ball Cuts and O-Boards

Gordon needs to do his best Kenneth Faried impression from day one.

Many have compared the rookie to the “Manimal,” and Gordon’s exploits at Arizona certainly reflected many of Faried‘s traits: running and jumping over everyone in transition, cutting to the open spots along the baseline and relentlessly crashing the offensive glass.

Gordon didn’t handle the ball a ton last year, yet he remained active and influential on almost every possession because he worked to find the soft spots in the defense. He needs to do the same with Orlando. He has to cut to the open space and make opponents pay if they’re too focused on Victor Oladipo or Elfrid Payton.

And when Oladipo and Payton slash to the basket, he needs to follow up every time and clean any misses. At Arizona he led the Pac-12 with 102 offensive boards (3.4 per 40 minutes), but rebounding won’t be a piece of cake in the NBA. He needs to play with a strong lower-body base in order to box out and give himself a chance to use his leaping ability.

Gordon’s goal should be five offensive rebounds per 40 minutes in 2014-15 (Faried averaged 5.4 in his rookie year).

 

Pick-and-Roll Athleticism

In half-court scenarios, Gordon won’t be able to create off the bounce too frequently or thrive in the post. He’ll need to rely on collaborating with his teammates, much like his widespread NBA comparison: Shawn Marion. One area where the rookie can use his size, mobility and explosive athleticism is the pick-and-roll.

Gordon has great instincts and spacial perception, so he can capitalize on opportunities to set screens and then dive to the hoop. Ball-handlers like Payton and Oladipo have the task of turning the corner and feeding him the rock, which should often come in the form of a lob.

Once the ball is in the air, Gordon can use his springs and hand-eye coordination to finish the play (enjoy the Payton-Gordon connection at the 24-second mark).

When scouting Gordon leading up to the draft, Tyler R. Tynes of the Philadelphia Daily News noted that Gordon is an athletic specimen who could “establish himself as a great pick-and-roll option in the NBA.”

 

Display His Passing Skills

Gordon can earn extra minutes in coach Jacque Vaughn’s system by working seamlessly with his teammates. Compared to most young forward prospects, he’s got great vision and passing ability. He averaged 2.5 assists per 40 minutes at Arizona, and he’s the type of player who keeps the ball moving and helps his squad create good habits.

In the early going, he needs to study his Orlando comrades and identify where they like the ball—then distribute accordingly.

 

Addressing Offensive Weaknesses

Find Shooting Rhythm

The worst-kept secret about Gordon is his poor jump shooting. He shot 29.3 percent on all jumpers in 2013-14, according to DraftExpress.com. His form has improved in recent months, but it’s still a bit rigid in game situations. Poor mid-range shooting contributed to his unsightly 35 percent during summer league, including going 0-of-10 from three-point range.

If he wants to play like a top-tier rookie, he needs to become more fluid and hit at least a couple outside shots per game. He must know his limitations and be selective on contested shots, but pull the trigger enough to help his team out.

Fluidity is also the key when it comes to free throws. He hit less than 50 percent from the stripe in both college and summer league due to his stiff delivery. If he can iron that out and shoot better than 60 percent in 2014-15, it will keep his offensive production afloat.

 

Establish Two Dependable Post Plays

It would be easy to suggest Gordon master one go-to move and stick with it, but that becomes old and predictable in the NBA. He needs a little more than that.

We’re not going to ask him to magically (no pun intended) deliver a vast array of pivot moves and advanced footwork on the block. However, he needs to employ more than one type of post play in order to take advantage of intermittent mismatches and remain somewhat unpredictable.

During a summer league postgame chat with reporters, he admitted that he needs to be able to attack smaller opponents in the paint rather than opt for jumpers. If foes put a wing on him, he’s got to cash in.

“Sometimes I settle when there’s a shorter or smaller defender on me, I settle for a jumper,” he regretted.

He didn’t display much low-post talent at Arizona, but there are some effective moves he could quickly apply in the NBA. Perhaps a back-to-the-basket baby hook, a drop step or a six-foot turnaround.

 

Maximizing Defensive Strengths

Showcase Versatility

This depends largely on the Magic’s level of trust in Gordon. Will they really take advantage of his skill set and use him against a variety of opponents?

Gordon has enough size and length to defend most power forwards, but he also has exceptional lateral quickness. His defensive footwork and agility are sharp enough to check wing players, and in many cases, playmaking guards.

Oladipo and Payton will do a fine job against challenging backcourts, so Gordon will focus on matching up against 3s and 4s. His goal should be to defend so well early on that he forces Orlando’s coaches to put him on the opponents’ best player.

 

Exercise Discipline, Limit the Fouls

In college, Gordon committed just 2.4 fouls per game (3.0 per 40 minutes) while regularly competing against the most talented opposing scorer.

It’s going to be a challenge for him to maintain that rate in the NBA, where the officiating often caters to slashers and aggressive low-post scorers. Gordon will have to supply his finest footwork and pick his spots to aggressively contest shots or attempt steals.

The previous two categories are opportunities for him to stand out above all other rookies. While it won’t single-handedly catapult him toward ROY honors, it will enhance his stock.

 

Upgrading the Defensive Weaknesses

Strength in the Post

Considering his age and collegiate experience, Gordon doesn’t really have any alarming shortcomings defensively.

The only noticeable concern in certain power forward matchups is weight and strength, and he seems to be working on that already. Gordon got up to 225 pounds at summer league, and his frame is conducive to putting on more upper- and lower-body muscle in the near future.

He had some trouble against sturdier forwards last year. For example, Duke’s Jabari Parker discovered success against Gordon primarily when he bruised his way into the lane:

“Gordon did an excellent job limiting Parker overall, but Parker was able to use his strength to get in the paint and draw fouls,” noted Draft Express video scout Mike Schmitz.

If Gordon can play at 230 throughout 2014-15, he’ll hold his own against most 4′s. The additional muscle will also help him on the defensive glass, an area where he could use improvement. But when he encounters 250- to 260-pound behemoths, things get dicey.

 

Rookie Outlook and Overall Chances for ROY

The only way Gordon can become a true contender for Rookie of the Year is if he gets upwards of 25 minutes of playing time. Those minutes won’t be handed to him without a fight, as he’s competing with several other young forwards on the roster.

But if he plays to his strengths and upgrades his deficiencies, he could see around 25 minutes in Orlando’s rotation. And in that time frame, he could score double-digit points, which would put him in the ROY conversation. It won’t be enough to win it, though.

Gordon’s optimistic, yet achievable per-game stat line could look something like this: 25.4 minutes, 11.5 points, 7.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 49 percent on field goals.

Those numbers would make him a standout rookie, perhaps in the group of ROY hopefuls. His chances of actually winning the award, even with better statistics than those, are extremely slim.

Without an extensive one-on-one scoring repertoire, it will be a tall task for Gordon to shine early in his career. But like Marion and Faried, he’s a special version of “unskilled” prospect; he can still impact the game in so many ways

 

Dan O’Brien covers the NBA and NBA Draft for Bleacher Report.

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5 Things the Boston Celtics Must Figure Out Before Start of 2014-15 Season

The Boston Celtics will enter the 2014-15 season needing to answer a ton of questions. They’re young and rebuilding, but what’s the next step toward getting better? 

Can they avoid a repeat of their debacle in 2013-14? Do they even want to? Here are five especially pertinent issues the Celtics will need to figure out by opening night. 

They deal with roster moves, lineup configurations and basic in-season targets. They’re also ranked by how important they are and how Celtics ownership, Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens should prioritize answering them together.

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