Miami Heat Must Find Identity Outside Dwyane Wade

In order to move on from LeBron James’ departure, the Miami Heat need an identity. Less than 15 games into a season simultaneously teeming with promise and problems, they’ve found one. A familiar one.

The wrong one.

Dwyane Wade has, once again, become the Heat’s performance lifeline. Long the face of the franchise, James relegated him to sidekick duty for four years. In his absence, Wade’s face would still be there, but it would be Chris Bosh carrying Miami into a delicate era, reprising the role he played in Toronto as his team’s primary barometer.

But that hasn’t happened to start 2014-15. These Heat are instead turning back the clock and not in a good way. It’s 2009-10 all over again. Their identity begins and ends with Wade. And just as that wasn’t enough then, it isn’t enough now.

 

Wade’s Presence Is Being Felt…

Statistically speaking, it is enough—when Wade is on the floor.

The Heat are scoring at a rate of 110.6 points per 100 possessions with Wade in the game, the equivalent of the league’s second-best offense, according to NBA.com (subscription required). They’re hitting a higher percentage of their shots overall (48.2 percent) and even their three-pointers (38.3 percent). Both marks would rank among the Association’s six best.

Bosh has played particularly well alongside Wade. His offensive efficiency climbs by nearly 10 points per 100 possessions beside him, and his shooting percentages are up across the board, per NBA.com.

And then there’s the matter of Wade himself. He’s averaging 19.8 points, 3.5 rebounds, 6.4 assists and 1.3 steals per game on 50.8 percent shooting. The 33-year-old is also posting the team’s highest player efficiency rating (23.9), and his impact on the offensive end cannot be overstated.

Both the ball and his teammates move better with him running the show. The Heat lack a true and established point guard, but Wade has served his squad well as the top playmaker.

Around 65.7 percent of their buckets come off assists when he’s in the game, which would rank second among all teams, according to NBA.com. Wade himself is assisting on 41.4 percent of his teammates’ baskets when on the floor, which would not only be a career high but ranks fifth among qualified players, behind only John Wall (44.5), Chris Paul (47.2), Rajon Rondo (48) and the injured Ricky Rubio (54.2).

Dan Devine of Yahoo Sports offered even more praise for Wade’s offensive game earlier this month:

The impact of Wade’s facilitating extends beyond just the impressive number of dimes he’s dropping, too. Per SportVU, Wade’s third in the league in “free throw assists,” or passes leading to a trip to the line where the shooter made at least one freebie (1.3 per game) and 19th in secondary, or “hockey,” assists (1.4 per game).

It’s great that Wade’s happy to have the ball in his hands, but we’re betting Spoelstra’s more excited by how his increased willingness to get it out of them has bolstered Miami’s attack.

It would seem that the Heat, then, are just fine leaning on Wade more than anyone else.

And they are.

When he’s actually playing.

Which he hasn’t been.

So they haven’t been fine.

 

…But His Absence is Being Felt More

Frequent rest and relaxation is a reality when it comes to Wade’s physical maintenance. He’s never gone an entire season without missing at least five games, and he sat out an average of 16 per season over the last four years.

Such upkeep became an obstacle even with James in the lineup. Now that he’s gone, it’s a biting burden that is both unavoidable and irreversibly harmful. Playing him 70-plus games isn’t an option; Wade is going to miss time. When he does, it’s going to hurt.

It just shouldn’t be this damaging.

“When you don’t have that guy on the court, it’s a huge void that you have to fill,” Bosh said, per the Sun Sentinel‘s Shandel Richardson. “I think it’s both a good and a bad thing. We want him out there, but at the same time our rookies are gaining a ton of experience and our new guys are gaining a ton of experience. It’s forcing the chemistry to happen a lot sooner.”

We’ll have to take Bosh’s word for it at the moment, because the numbers don’t support his claims.

Miami is 1-3 in the four games Wade has missed to date. Two of those losses have come against supposedly inferior teams in the Milwaukee Bucks and Atlanta Hawks, and the average margin of defeat through these losses is 11.7 points.

While the Heat’s defense has allowed fewer points per 100 possessions without Wade on the floor, it’s been substantially worse on the offensive end, per NBA.com.

When he’s on the bench, they’re running the equivalent of a bottom-10 offense that would rank 19th in field-goal percentage (44.7). They’re also coughing the ball up 17.7 percent of the time without him, which would make them the fourth-most turnover-prone team in the league.

That shouldn’t happen.

Improving without Wade will never be an option, to be sure. There will always be some kind of adverse statistical drop-off on the offensive end. That the Heat were a better point-piling contingent without him last year, per NBA.com, only validates’ James’ profound ability to carry a team on his own. Wade’s absences become a bigger problem without him.

But that’s where Bosh is supposed to come in. He’s being paid like the franchise cornerstone to give Miami that identity outside Wade and James. He’s just not playing up to snuff.

Through his first 12 games, Bosh is averaging 20.6 points on a career-worst 42.6 percent shooting. Both the Heat’s offense and defense are also performing better without him on the floor, according to NBA.com, and he’s still predominantly living on the perimeter; more than 71 percent of his field-goal attempts are coming outside eight feet, where he’s shooting just 40 percent.

This is not the Bosh whom Miami bargained for over the summer. He’s facing more defensive pressure overall, but 57 percent of his shots have been open or wide-open looks. That, at the very least, is comparable to last year, when 60 percent of his shots were similarly classified. His shooting efficiency shouldn’t be hemorrhaging like it is now.

Moreover, this isn’t something the Heat can afford to have happen long term, as Bleacher Report’s Tom Sunnergren explains:

Outside of Bosh, Miami’s superstar appeal is flawless. Miami coach Erik Spoelstra has already proven that, with sufficient talent, he can craft a system on both sides of the floor that allows his players to thrive. The city of Miami has demonstrated that it’s an attractive destination for the young and super-rich. Pat Riley can build a fine supporting cast.

The remaining puzzle piece is that the player on Miami’s roster making superstar money starts playing like it. When he re-signed with the Heat this summer, Bosh was billed as a bridge between one era of Heat champs and the next. Things can change fast, but at the moment, the center appears to be a liability.

Free agency will be a huge factor as the Heat move forward. Their financial commitments are flexible and that, along with an expected cap eruption in 2016, gives them the means to add prime-time players over the next few summers.

To really enter that conversation, though, the Heat need more than cash and Wade. To really compete for something more than a lottery finish this year, they need to be more than him.

Other players aside from Bosh have to step up in his absence and return. Luol Deng, Mario Chalmers and Shawne Williams—each of whom is averaging in double figures while shooting better than 45 percent from the floor—need to augment their production and aggression when he’s on the bench.

Rookie Shabazz Napier must morph into an offensive bellwether who can effectively direct the offense when Wade cannot. Josh McRoberts needs to remain healthy and shoot better than 16.7 percent from deep. 

Something, anything, different needs to happen.

 

An Identity Search Run Afield

There is no surviving an 82-game season the way these Heat are playing now. Their current model puts them at the mercy of Wade’s health, paving the way for more losses like those to the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday night, when they allowed 110 points, let up 13 three-pointers and dished out just 11 assists on 30 baskets.

“Not a whole lot to say,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after his team fell to Los Angeles, via the Miami Herald‘s Joseph Goodman. “We got blitzed.”

Blitzed, yes.

Blindsided, no.

Nothing the Heat face now is shocking. They knew the stakes when James left, and now the satisfaction of admirably retooling the roster following his exit has subsided. It’s since been replaced by the uneasiness of knowing that Wade’s abilities have given them an identity his availability cannot sustain—which, really, is the same as having no identity at all.

 

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com, and are accurate as of games played on Nov. 20, 2014. Salary information via ShamSports.

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Kansas Basketball: Jayhawks Must Use Kentucky Blowout as Learning Experience

Kansas suffered a fate many other college basketball teams will deal with this season: Being embarrassed by Kentucky.

In what was supposed to be a showcase of two of the best squads in the nation, only one showed up, and the Wildcats left with a 72-40 win. The Jayhawks only scored 12 points in a second half that many will want to forget.

Brian Hamilton of Sports Illustrated might have summed it up best with his Rocky IV reference:

It is not surprising that head coach Bill Self wanted a strong drink after his team’s performance, as noted by ESPN’s Eamonn Brennan:

This is the type of game where you want to burn the tape and start fresh. However, this is not the best strategy for a young team with a lot to learn.

While it is true that virtually everything that could go wrong did go wrong, there is still a lot of talent on this roster that needs to be utilized. There is a reason it was considered the No. 5 team in the nation in the preseason polls, as Kansas boasted the No. 4 incoming recruiting class, according to 247 Sports. Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre were top-10 recruits for 2014, and Wayne Selden was highly touted as well in 2013.

The players have to shake off the loss to what appears to be a juggernaut, figure out how the problems can be fixed and move forward.

Besides, isn’t this type of loss early in the season what happens at the beginning of every good sports movie?

The first thing to examine is which problems are fixable and which will the team have to deal with all year.

One of those latter issues is a lack of height, especially compared to a monster team like Kentucky. While the Wildcats have multiple 7-footers, Kansas’ starting lineup tops out at 6’8″. Sophomore Landen Lucas stands at 6’10″ and might be forced to see more minutes in these battles in the future.

What this lack of height did is create an almost impossible task of scoring in the paint, leaving the shot chart to look like this:

This also showcases another potential long-term problem with three-point shooting. Including the recent loss, Kansas has now shot just 5-of-25 in two games from beyond the arc with a roster full of players who have failed to prove they can make shots at the college level.

Andrew Wiggins and Naadir Tharpe are gone, and what remains are players who struggle with consistency in this area. Players like Selden or Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk could improve over the course of the year, but this still seems like it will be a weakness all season. 

So if the team cannot score inside or outside, how is this team going to get points?

In order to mitigate the previously discussed problems, the players have to be put in a position where they can succeed. Instead of the big men trying to back down taller defenders, they need to get the ball in transition and find ways to finish open dunks, utilizing their natural athleticism. Instead of guards chucking bad three-point shots, they need to wait until they have room to shoot where they can be more efficient.

All of this comes down to point guard play with the ability to break down defenders, get into the lane and find opportunities for others.

This lack of quality was arguably the biggest problem against Kentucky. Frank Mason went 1-of-10 from the floor, mostly attempting layups time and again only to see them swatted back in his face. He could not create better looks for himself and certainly could not create much for others.

According to KenPom.com (subscription required), his assist rate (percentage of assisted field goals when he is on the floor) this season is just 5.4 percent. The best point guards in the country are usually around 40 percent. This is a small sample size, but he has not shown any indication this will change.

Younger players like Alexander and Oubre are not ready to make too many one-on-one plays, while others don’t seem to even have this in their arsenal. This team needs a leader capable of running the offense and putting his teammates in a position to score. Someone needs to find ways to make the smart plays in the half court while also pushing when necessary for fast-break points.

If Mason is not up to the task, it might be necessary to give freshman Devonte Graham the role. Self certainly thought highly of the player coming into the year, per KUSports.com’s Matt Tait:

Graham appears to be very composed with the ball and often makes the right play. He, and even Mykhailiuk, might be better options to run the offense going forward.

Still, the biggest issue with the Jayhawks could be the lack of a go-to player who’s willing to take a shot when the team needs it. Wiggins was this player last year and he is not walking through the door; neither is Ben McLemore, Thomas Robinson, Danny Manning or anyone else.

Whether a returning player like Selden or Perry Ellis steps up or it is one of the freshmen like Alexander or Oubre, someone needs to have the willingness to put the team on his back and make plays to end a rut. No one could do that against Kentucky and it led to just 12 points in the second half.

If Kansas wants to win another Big 12 title and contend for a spot in the Final Four, there will need to be at least one trustworthy option to get the ball to with everyone believing he can make a play. That person is somewhere on the roster, he just needs to show himself.

Selden might be the most likely candidate to take this role—and he did attempt a game-high 12 shots against Kentucky—but he has a lot to prove in the coming weeks and months.

On the plus side, the Jayhawks will not be facing anyone nearly as talented as Kentucky for the rest of the year until possibly the NCAA tournament. Against weaker competition, the lack of size will not be as much of an issue, and neither will an apparent lack of depth, as most opponents will not feature 10 possible NBA stars.

Kansas also showed its outstanding defense in the loss, holding John Calipari‘s team to just 43.1 percent shooting from the field. Each player seems willing to play tough in one-on-one situations, something that will lead to plenty of success on that end of the court.

As the season progresses, the young players will continue to improve and we will see that this is truly a top-five team. The important thing is that improvements are made and the squad does not get too dejected from a miserable defeat.

There are plenty of lessons to be learned from the loss that can make the team better in the future, whether that means playing to their strengths or making adjustments to the lineup.

If the players take the right attitude going forward, we could possibly be seeing this rematch in April.

 

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Portland Trail Blazers Must Take Advantage of Early Chance to Control Division

The Portland Trail Blazers last won a division title during the 1998-99 season, as a part of the Pacific Division. Since the forging of the Northwest Division to start the 2004-05 season, the Blazers have been unable to reach a similar level of success. But now with the four-time reigning divisional champion Oklahoma City Thunder starting slowly, Portland must take advantage promptly to gain control of its division once more.

You have to feel for the Thunder.

Rip City is no stranger to having its star players injured, so there’s a certain level of sympathy that can be extended to its divisional rival. OKC was forced to apply for a hardship exception to sign an additional player in guard Ish Smith, with as many as eight players unable to contribute due to injury.

From their All-Stars in Kevin Durant (foot) and Russell Westbrook (hand), to their newcomers in Anthony Morrow (MCL) and rookie Mitch McGary (foot), the Thunder face dark times over the next few weeks and months.

Oklahoma City currently holds a 2-6 record, sandwiched between two other Northwest teams in the Minnesota Timberwolves (2-4) and the Denver Nuggets (1-5). The Utah Jazz, the fifth and final team of the group, is just a sliver above Minnesota at 3-5. These teams currently make up four of the bottom five teams in the Western Conference.

It almost goes without saying that the Blazers have it a little easy if snatching the division is in their sights. Portland had the best division record last season at 13-3, which could increase this year.

Durant is anticipated to be out for a further two to four weeks, with Westbrook expected to miss about a month. A plethora of the Thunder’s supporting cast remain sidelined for assorted times depending on the injury, though Durant and Westbrook will be the driving force behind OKC getting a playoff berth.

The time is now for Portland to create some space between itself and Oklahoma City.

Not only will the Thunder be missing their two best players, but the Blazers have a relatively easy schedule lined up to close out the 2014 calendar year.

Between now and New Year’s Eve, just eight games will be played against teams that are currently ranked as playoff seeds in either conference. The Chicago Bulls and the San Antonio Spurs will see Portland twice, while the Memphis GrizzliesBrooklyn NetsHouston Rockets and Toronto Raptors will each get one chance.

Respect is due to the remaining teams on the Blazers’ schedule until the end of December, as all of them are attempting to compete and improve. But in retrospect, they do not match up with Portland in terms of talent or synergy.

Teams such as the Timberwolves, Philadelphia 76ersNew York Knicks or Indiana Pacers don’t have the same drive as the Blazers at this point. These teams are either in a rebuilding process or are trying to compete while their sights are set on the future.

The Pacers await the return of injured star Paul George, while the Knicks are banking on the free-agency class of 2015 to return to prominence.

That isn’t to say these teams won’t compete with everything they can muster, but there’s no questioning the separation between a playoff-bound squad like Portland and a lottery-bound group like the 76ers.

The Blazers will see each of the aforesaid teams twice before the end of December.

As such, the Blazers must reap the benefits of an early schedule that is rife with less-than-stellar competition. The Thunder would normally have a laid-back schedule also. But with their best talent shelved until further notice, clashes with even the Milwaukee Bucks or Detroit Pistons can carry some importance in having a winning record.

You can only be respectful for so long, but let’s face it, the Nuggets, Jazz or Timberwolves aren’t going to top the Northwest this year, and it won’t even be close.

The division will be a two-team race between OKC and Portland, though the latter has the inside track right now. It is at full health and has a relaxed schedule to end the year.

The Blazers just have to take advantage as soon as possible and in turn they will have the best chance to win the division for the first time in 16 years.

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Phoenix Suns Must Make Early Run in Wide-Open Western Conference

The Phoenix Suns have started a modest 4-3, but the time has come for Jeff Hornacek‘s club to seize the moment and make a run up the Western Conference standings. 

As the San Antonio Spurs continue to recover from their championship hangover and the dilapidated Oklahoma City Thunder struggle to tread water without Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Phoenix can take advantage of a soft November schedule and start solidifying its position as a postseason contender. 

One season removed from nearly being readmitted into the West’s postseason society, signs point to Phoenix being in one of the conference’s most favorable spots entering a crucial two-week stretch. 

Outside of the Spurs and Thunder, trendy preseason risers and presumed playoff entrants like the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Clippers have also struggled to churn out consistent efforts in conjunction with the arrivals of new pieces. 

Although pivotal contests aren’t classically played prior to Christmas, the Suns will be tasked with separating themselves from struggling clubs now before they’re forced to make up ground when time isn’t a luxury they can afford. 

Which brings us to the next couple weeks. 

While the Suns own impressive wins against the San Antonio Spurs (Oct. 31) and Golden State Warriors (Nov. 9), Phoenix’s other two victories have come against the hapless Los Angeles Lakers and their league-worst defense. Consider the fact that losses to the Memphis Grizzlies, Sacramento Kings and Utah Jazz have cropped up along the way, and the Suns remain a work in progress as they seek a return to elite offensive form. 

But after the Suns complete a three-game-in-four-night stretch against the Brooklyn Nets (Wednesday), Charlotte Hornets (Friday) and Clippers (Saturday) this week, Phoenix will have a chance to rip off a flurry of wins. 

Here’s a preview of what that upcoming slate will look like: 

Not only will the Suns be afforded the luxury of squaring off primarily against Eastern Conference bottom-feeders (Toronto is an exception), but there isn’t one elite Western Conference team in that lot. 

As of Tuesday night, the combined records of those upcoming opponents sits at 16-32, good for a winning percentage of .333.  

The road trip will also be the perfect opportunity for Phoenix to smooth out some rough edges on offense, as continuity has eluded one of the league’s most intimidating uptempo units. 

Seven games into the season, the Suns are producing just 102.9 points per 100 possessions, a mark that ranks slightly below the league average and in the same tier as the Lakers, Kings and Atlanta Hawks, according to NBA.com

And while Phoenix is knocking down threes at a clip (8.7 per game) nearly consistent with last season’s production (9.3), they’re falling through the net at a more erratic rate (33.7 percent).  

Despite the relative synergistic struggles of Goran Dragic (14.4 points per game on 44.7 percent shooting) and Eric Bledsoe (14.1 points on 44.6 percent shooting), the Suns bench has provided relief, producing an average of 41.4 points a night, per HoopsStats

According to Suns.com’s Matt Petersen, Gerald Green and Isaiah Thomas have formed an immediate on-court connection within the confines of Phoenix’s second unit:

Perhaps most encouraging about the Thomas-Green development is that their on-court synergy hasn’t been a forced affair. The 5-9 Thomas will often hit the 6-8 Green in stride on the fast break or as he comes off one or two down screens. Subsequently, Green gets in-the-flow opportunities to get his shot going almost as soon as he enters the game.

As Green told reporters, according to Suns.com’s Greg Esposito, the bench is determined to step up and make opposing defenses pay: 

The good news is that while the offense has stumbled out of the gate to a degree, Phoenix’s defense has looked much sharper than it did a season ago. 

Surrendering 102 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com, the Suns have been able to maintain a positive net efficiency rating despite offensive struggles. That can be attributed to the mindset Hornacek has been instilling in his players, according to Petersen

We’re just harping on that same activity, not letting your offense dictate your defense. You’ve got to play good defense no matter what’s going on on offense. We beat San Antonio because of our defense. It wasn’t because of our offense. That’s where we have to focus.

Possessing an improving defense and potentially potent offense, Phoenix will soon be presented with a perfect chance to rattle off wins against inferior opponents and announce its presence without authority in a crowded Western Conference. 

And with an opportunity to end a four-year playoff drought, that’s all the motivation Phoenix needs to step its game up with fruitful gains on the line. 

 

All statistics courtesy of NBA.com and current as of Nov. 11 unless noted otherwise. 

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20 Players Every College Basketball Fan Must Watch in 2014-15 Season

If you’re only looking for a list of the best players in college basketball, this isn’t the place for you. Ranking the best of the best, before the season begins, is a crapshoot.

Instead, to get you prepared for the 2014-15 season, we’ve compiled the 20 players who are most worthy of your time when it comes to watching games. Each of these players brings something to the court that makes him stand out and causes you to take notice, whether it be his overall skill level and talent or his overwhelming presence. It just so happens that most of them are among the game’s best.

We’ve even provided information on when they’ll first be on your television to help your cause. When flipping through the channels, if one of these players comes across the TV screen, end the surfing and take in his play. You’ll thank us for it.

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NBA Trade Rumors: Pelicans Must Avoid Moving Ryan Anderson

The New Orleans Pelicans want to make the playoffs this season in the Western Conference, and Ryan Anderson is a critical piece to any potential postseason puzzle.

Simply put, the Pelicans must not trade the versatile forward if they want to play playoff basketball at the end of the 2014-15 campaign.

Mary Stevens of Basketball Insiders recently provided an intriguing possibility regarding Anderson: “Several teams around the league are in search of a big man that can shoot and Anderson will be a hot commodity if he is put out on the market.”

Don’t worry, Pelicans fans, the qualifying “if he is put on the market” is arguably the most important part of that entire section. It means the Pelicans have not officially entertained or at least publicly advertised the notion of trading him, although that could certainly become a reality at some point this season.

That would be a mistake.

Anderson is one of most reliable shooters in the entire league, which is valuable at any position, but especially at power forward. He is a matchup nightmare for a number of opponents and is a career 38.5 percent shooter from behind the three-point line, shooting 40.9 percent from deep in 2013-14 for the Pelicans.

Anderson can also rebound and averaged 6.5 boards a night for New Orleans a season ago. He is certainly not afraid to mix it up down low at 6’10”.

Anderson’s greatest value to the Pelicans in their hunt for the postseason is how seamlessly he fits in with the current roster as an asset off the bench.

Omer Asik does not stretch the floor at all down low, and Anthony Davis attracts extra defenders as one of the most dynamic players in the league. Anderson fits in perfectly with either one.

He is important when playing with Asik for spacing purposes so defenders cannot clog the lane and block penetration, which also helps Asik snag offensive rebounds. He is important when playing with Davis because he can drill the three-pointer when double-teams come Davis’ way. 

Fran Fraschilla of ESPN noted that Anderson works nicely off the bench with this group:

Anderson’s versatility is also key for a team that isn’t as reliant on its bench for scoring production as many other teams are across the league.

Anderson has played some small forward at times this season to cover up a shallow bench. In fact, only four guys on the team are scoring in double figures a night in the early going, and three of them are starters (Anderson is the fourth at 13 a game). Having someone who can play multiple positions effectively off the bench is massively important for depth and rotational purposes.

Coach Monty Williams discussed Anderson’s time at small forward, via John Reid of NOLA.com: ”Ryan has been a good offensive rebounder, especially before he came here. You could see him rebound a lot better from that position. So that was a good sign.”

Anderson also has postseason experience from his time with the Orlando Magic, which is the ultimate goal for this season’s talented New Orleans roster.

Anderson played in three straight playoffs for the Magic and reached the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010, where they lost a heartbreaker to the Boston Celtics. If and when the Pelicans reach the playoffs, Anderson’s experience could be a critical factor, especially with the young Davis as the star.

Finally, Anderson is only 26 years old, despite his designation as a veteran.

He should have plenty of productive years remaining in the tank and may even improve, especially since the three-pointer is such a crucial part of his arsenal. Athleticism fades over time, but the long-range shot typically lasts. 

New Orleans needs to make sure that potential improvement comes with a Pelicans jersey on in the coming years.

 

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Boston Celtics Must Prioritize Finding Long-Term Answer at Center

The Boston Celtics have adopted a fast-paced, exciting brand of basketball, and it’s helped up their Q rating and improve their offensive efficiency. This development is wonderful and necessary, but it ultimately means nothing until they sign, draft or trade for a defensive-minded center.

Second to having a legitimate superstar or two, plugging the paint with a humongous shot-blocker is arguably the most desired component by general managers across the NBA. Stout rim protection is powerful. It’s the most important part of the defense, and the best way to alter what the offense has planned.  

It’s almost impossible in today’s NBA to consistently contain speedy ball-handlers on the perimeter, making the last line of defense most important. Anchors who claim the paint as their personal property are now invaluable.

The sturdiest defenses in the league have these players on tap. Roy Hibbert, Dwight Howard, DeAndre Jordan, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol are just a few examples who headline the league’s most formidable units. Their mere presence forces inefficiency in the form of mid-range jump shots that then magically turn into layups whenever they need a breather. These guys don’t grow on trees. They’re rare and expensive. 

Right now, the Celtics don’t even have a poor man’s version of rim protection. It’s early, but opponents are already shooting 54.2 percent at the rim, which is 10th worst in the league per SportVU. The issue goes all the way back to last season, when Kris Humphries, Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk were the only real options. Here’s Celtics head coach Brad Stevens discussing the problem last March (via ESPNBoston’s Chris Forsberg):

I think, certainly, in an ideal situation, what you’re looking for are certain qualities as a team. A rim protector, whether it’s a 7-footer or not, is extremely important in this league. A guy that really protects the rim from the dotted line in. I’d be really curious to know, or to see from a defensive standpoint systematically, plugging one guy in there, what that might do to our numbers, being where we are in a lot of different areas.

And nothing has really changed. Today, Boston’s front court consists of the undersized Sullinger (who’s surprisingly mobile on the perimeter and tough on the inside, leading the team with 1.8 blocks per game), Olynyk (a true 7-footer) and Tyler Zeller (ditto). Vitor Faverani is also tall, but he’s currently injured and not considered a long-term factor.

Olynyk is not a terrible defensive player, but relying on him to anchor a defense is foolish. Stevens has used the second-year player’s huge physical features to clog up the paint, particularly against pick-and-rolls, but Olynyk’s ultimate strengths reside on offense. He’s a knockdown three-point shooter with the ability to take his man off the dribble. He also has great court vision and the potential to become one of the best passing bigs in the league. Defense, though? Not so much.

The other “option” is Zeller. Opponents are shooting 66.7 percent at the rim with him defending it so far this season. We’re going off a four-game sample size, but that’s deplorable. Last year with the Cleveland Cavaliers, that number was a more respectable 48.3 percent. But even then, Zeller was averaging 15 minutes a game, mostly facing second-unit scorers. 

He’s a fine backup center who can do some nice things on both ends of the floor, but the Celtics need someone who can bang against the Howards and Cousins of the world for 30-35 minutes a night, swallow pick-and-rolls and turn sure dunks into wobbly floaters. Zeller isn’t that guy. 

How can they get better? This sort of thing normally isn’t easy, but the Celtics have several hopeful avenues to help them bring in a suitable defensive anchor sooner rather than later. They have draft picks, trade assets and expiring contracts at their disposal to support the league’s fiercest backcourt (Avery Bradley, Rajon Rondo and Marcus Smart are already incentivizing opposing point guards to save their sick days until it’s time to play Boston).

Option A should be trading for Hibbert, the league’s finest pure rim protector who’s currently drowning in hopelessness on the Indiana Pacers. His team is terrible. They need to start over, and there’s no better way to do so than cashing Hibbert out on the trade market and re-building around Paul George and a few fresh lottery picks. 

The Celtics have enough of those to make a deal possible, along with expiring contracts like Brandon Bass, to make the money work. Hibbert has a $15.5 million player option next season, though, so surrendering too many assets for a player who could walk this summer is undesirable. On the other hand, there’s a chance he picks up the option, really loves playing with Rondo and old college teammate Jeff Green and wants to sign on long-term. 

If so, the Celtics would almost instantly transform into a formidable playoff out. They wouldn’t be a championship contender yet, but the impact Hibbert could have on their defense, filling their most glaring hole, would be enormous. 

From Hibbert, there’s a steep drop down to the next crop of big men who may be attainable before this year’s trade deadline. The Denver Nuggets are rotting trash, and rookie Jusuf Nurkic could use some playing time, so JaVale McGee and/or Timofey Mozgov may be on the market. It’s unclear why Boston would give up much for either player—particularly McGee, who’s due $12 million next season—but who knows. 

Along those lines, if Alex Len emerges as a legitimate defensive presence for the Phoenix Suns, maybe their general manager, Ryan McDonough (who used to work for Danny Ainge), would be willing to move Miles Plumlee. Probably not, but that’s the type of scenario Boston’s looking for in the trade market. Which is to say, if they can’t land Hibbert, another route is needed. 

Moving onto free agency, this summer’s class will feature A-listers like Marc Gasol, Tyson Chandler and Omer Asik, B-listers like DeAndre Jordan and Robin Lopez and C-through-F-listers like Kosta Koufous and Kendrick Perkins. Boston needs to flex a bit of magic on its cap sheet to afford whom they really want from this group, though.

Assuming Green opts out of his $9.2 million player option, Rondo’s cap hold puts the team at just under $50 million in guaranteed money, leaving them roughly $16.5 million to play with beneath the 2015-16 season’s presumed $66.5 million salary cap. That’s tight, and these numbers don’t include the money Boston will owe its two first-round picks from the 2015 draft. 

What now? The Celtics can finally use the stretch provision on Gerald Wallace, who’s somehow still owed $10.1 million next year. This means that deal would be paid out over the next three years, at a $3.36 million annual rate. The extra $6.7 million in spending money would certainly come in handy, allowing the team to throw max money at both Rondo and Gasol (the only center who deserves it in this year’s class). 

And then there’s the draft, with big kids like Myles Turner, Willie Cauley-Stein, Karl Towns and Dakari Johnson all expected to throw their names in the ring. This can be risky, of course. Remember Fab Melo? Of course you do. 

The Celtics need someone in the middle. That’s what we know. What we don’t know is whom they have their sights on, who’s available in a trade or whether there’s any real motivation to acquire a center so soon into the rebuilding process. 

All of a sudden, the Celtics are a young, exciting basketball team. But they won’t find true respect or success until a humongous defensive presence is protecting their basket. It’s a question they’ll eventually need to answer.

 

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 and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelVPina.

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Basketball must help heal Michigan athletics

Drew Sharp sees attention pivot from football follies

      
 

 

View full post on USATODAY – NCAA Top Stories

Drew Sharp: Basketball must help heal Michigan athletics

Drew Sharp sees attention pivot from football follies

      
 

 

View full post on USATODAY – NCAA Top Stories

Kentucky Basketball: 5 Things Wildcats Must Prove Early in 2014-15

Heading into the 2014-15 season, there aren’t too many questions about Kentucky basketball. Returning a majority of the players that made the national title game and getting four McDonald’s All-Americans joining them on a roster makes Kentucky a clear favorite to win the national championship this season.

However, every question has at least one that has to be answered during the season. For this season, a deep, loaded roster is arguably the biggest question mark on the roster. How will head coach John Calipari handle the minutes? Will the platoon system work?

This slideshow will take a look at the five things the Wildcats must prove early in the 2014-15 season to hold on to their No. 1 ranking. 

Begin Slideshow

View full post on Bleacher Report – College Basketball

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