Did Klay Thompson Prove He’s a Max Player This Offseason?

It isn’t easy for NBA players to greatly improve their profiles over the offseason, but Golden State Warriors sharpshooter Klay Thompson managed to do just that.

From his featured role in the ill-fated Kevin-Love-to-the-Warriors trade talks to his prominent position with Team USA’s gold medalists at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup, Thompson’s status grew to heights previously unseen by the 24-year-old.

But did they rise high enough to warrant the max-contract demands that USA Today’s Sam Amick reported were made by Thompson’s agent, Bill Duffy? That’s a question the Warriors front office needs to figure out by October 31, the deadline to ink Thompson to an extension and prevent his potential path to restricted free agency next summer.

The Warriors, unsurprisingly, haven’t yet tipped their hands on the matter. They have, however, publicly proclaimed how much they cherish their two-way 2-guard and stressed that they want him to stick around as long as possible.

“We value him in the highest way,” Warriors general manager Bob Myers said, per Bay Area News Group’s Diamond Leung, “and we want to keep him on this team for a long time.”

Of course, the team’s stance would have been equally clear had Myers said nothing at all. The Warriors’ pursuit of Love stalled because of an “organizational split” on whether to include Thompson in the deal, sources told ESPN.com’s Marc Stein and Ramona Shelburne.

If the Dubs had hesitations about dealing Thompson for Love, who has appeared in three of the last four NBA All-Star games, that speaks volumes on how much the franchise values the sniper.

It also signals the fact that a max deal sits in Thompson’s near future. The Warriors will surely try to talk their way out of paying that premium—and could conceivably force Duffy to find that money elsewhere next summer—but some team is going to foot the bill.

And considering both what the Warriors have invested in Thompson and how well he fits alongside franchise face Stephen Curry, they’ll probably be the ones signing the check.

“That backcourt is special,” Klay‘s father Mychal Thompson told Amick. “You don’t break that up. He and Steph, they are a great combination, like Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Sanford and Son. They’re perfect together. … I expect them to be together another 10 years. I’d be shocked if they’re not.”

Debating how much Thompson will make on his next deal has been an exercise in futility since the ink dried on the new contracts of Gordon Hayward (four years, $63 million) and Chandler Parsons (three years, $46 million).

Per Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News, those negotiations cemented a max-money payday for Thompson:

If Thompson and his agent were contemplating a $12 million average (still pricey!) before the Parsons and Hayward deals, that’s outdated now.

Post-Parsons/Hayward, Thompson’s next deal has to start at his maximum level, which is estimated to be slightly more than $15 million next year for a player of Thompson’s experience level.

Has to start there, and has to average about $16-17 million overall, unless Thompson’s career collapses, which it probably won’t.

The far more interesting conversation to be had is whether Thompson actually deserves such an investment.

The stat sheet paints him as a specialist, firing off three-point bombs at one end and stifling perimeter attacks at the other. He does both exceptionally well.

His 545 threes over the past three seasons are second only to Curry’s 588. Thompson’s 41.0 three-point percentage ranks fourth among the 20 most prolific perimeter shooters over that stretch.

Defensively, Thompson shines brightest for his versatility. He has the speed to stay in front of track-star point guards and the size and strength to bother bigger scorers out on the wings. Those traits help him tackle Golden State’s toughest backcourt assignment, allowing Curry to conserve his energy for the opposite side.

The numbers stop short of labeling Thompson as an elite defender. The 0.82 points per possession he allowed to opposing scorers last season ranked 69th in defensive efficiency, per Synergy Sports (subscription required). Considering the caliber of player he squared up with on a nightly basis, though, that standing is far more impressive than it sounds.

Along with All-Defensive first-teamer Andre Iguodala and rim protector Andrew Bogut, Thompson helped power the Warriors to the NBA’s third-best defensive efficiency (99.9 points allowed per 100 possessions). Truth be told, Thompson may have had the heaviest hand in that ranking.

“Klay is a much better defender [than Iguodala],” a former Warriors assistant told Bleacher Report’s Ric Bucher. “It’s not even close.”

Combine those two elements, and the result is a two-way force.

Appropriately, the Warriors outscored opponents by 9.5 points per 100 possessions with Thompson on the floor and were outscored by 5.2 points per 100 possessions when he sat. That 14.7-point net differential was second only to Iguodala’s (17.0) on the team.

In other words, there is some substance at the source of Thompson’s max-contract request.

However, there are some holes in his game—and, by extension, that request.

He offers little in the form of offensive creativity. He has averaged just 2.2 assists over his three-year career. His 10.2 assist percentage ranked 43rd out of the 46 guards who averaged at least 30 minutes per game last season (minimum 41 games played).

The problem with his inability to set up his teammates is compounded by the fact that he rarely found himself shots.

Over 62 percent of his two-point field goals came off assists last season. Of the 27 guards and forwards who averaged at least 18 points last season, only power forwards David Lee (68.2) and Blake Griffin (64.9) were assisted on a higher percentage of their baskets.

Thompson also struggles to force his way to the free-throw line, where he’s averaged just 1.9 trips a night over his career. His shot chart, captured via NBA.com, also pegs him as a pedestrian finisher around the basket.

As a rebounder, Thompson checks in well below average. Of the 56 players 6’7″ or taller to see at least 30 minutes of action a night in 2013-14 (min. 41 games), only Corey Brewer’s 4.3 rebound percentage checked in behind Thompson’s 4.7.

Yet while he certainly needs to grow in a number of different areas, some of those numbers are negatively impacted by his role on the team.

The Warriors don’t ask Thompson to initiate offense for a couple of reasons.

For starters, he spent nearly 83 percent of his floor time alongside Curry, who finished fifth in overall assists (8.5) and seventh in assist opportunities (15.4), via SportVU player tracking data provided to NBA.com. Golden State simply didn’t have much incentive to take the ball out of Curry’s hands.

Doing so would have also weakened one of Thompson’s greatest strengths: spot-up shooting. His 9.2 catch-and-shoot points per game led the entire league, as he hit 44.7 percent of his field goals and 44.2 percent of his threes on that type of play.

As for his rebounding troubles, those can partly be explained by his defensive positioning. Not only did he spend a majority of his time chasing scorers around the perimeter, he also leaked out when he could to spark an offense that far too often grew stagnant in the half-court under former coach Mark Jackson.

Thompson has his faults, but none so severe that they push him out of max-contract range.

As ESPN Insider Bradford Doolittle explained (subscription required), Thompson’s max market is easy to identify by the way he has been propped up around the league:

Decision-makers in the NBA are very smart. The Warriors might have been able to obtain Love…but chose not to because they wanted to keep Thompson. That also means that the Timberwolves, if all this is true, would have been willing to send Love to the Warriors, but only if they could get their hands on Thompson, likely even with the knowledge that he wanted a max extension. And as mentioned, it’s commonly believed that if the Warriors don’t give Thompson the max now, some team will leap to do so next July.

Whether he expands his game or simply continues shoring up his strengths, it seems obvious that—barring injury—his best days are ahead of him. It’s easy to forget after his summer in the spotlight that he has all of three NBA seasons under his belt.

He has so many avenues of improvement available to him, yet he has already played his way into a substantial raise. That’s why when it comes to his future finances, he has no worries regarding how this situation will progress.

“I just let (agent Bill Duffy) and the front office sort it out,” he said, per Leung. “I know if I just keep my mind on hoops and staying healthy, I know everything else will take care of itself.”

Those are the words of a comfortable, confident player. Judging by his offseason, he has every right to feel that way.

His jackpot payday is coming sooner than later.

 

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

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The 1 Player Who Could Torpedo the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Dream Season

The Cleveland Cavaliers will open the 2014-15 NBA season with high expectations after adding LeBron James and Kevin Love to a talented young crop of players. Who could be the one key guy that could unsettle head coach David Blatt’s team as it searches for chemistry?

Ethan Skolnick joins Stephen Nelson to give his take on the Cavs in the video above.

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NBA 2K15: Release Date, Analyzing Early Player Ratings and More

NBA fans may have to wait until Oct. 28 for the season to officially kick off, but the virtual season begins Oct. 7 with the release of NBA 2K15.

The 2014 version of the game received 70 Game of the Year Award nominations, so the 2015 edition is expected to be another big hit. Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Kevin Durant graces the cover, and the game has been gradually releasing player ratings leading up to the release.

Those player ratings can be found here.

Here is a look at some of the vital information regarding the game before we dig a bit deeper on some of the early player ratings.

 

Release Date

According to the game’s official website, NBA 2K15 will be released on Oct. 7 for PlayStation 3, PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One and PS4. It is available for pre-order now.

 

Trailer

There is an understandable amount of anticipation from gamers everywhere regarding NBA 2K15 given the quality of graphics and game play we have come to expect from NBA 2K games. The 2015 version looks like it will deliver on those expectations if its trailer is any indication:

 

Notable Early Player Ratings

Derrick Rose: 88 overall

We all know the deal with Derrick Rose, whether it is the actual Chicago Bulls point guard or the virtual one—until he proves that he can last an entire season and playoffs with his knees, he is the biggest unknown commodity in the NBA. Fortunately, you can turn injuries off in NBA 2K15.

Yes, Rose is a former MVP and has the talent necessary to be a top-10 player in the league once again, but it is hard to trust that right now. He didn’t play particularly well at the 2014 FIBA World Cup, but much of that can be attributed to shaking off the rust.

That’s why the 88 overall rating is interesting. That is the same designation given to established stars like James Harden, Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard, Tony Parker, Russell Westbrook, LaMarcus Aldridge and Dirk Nowitzki.

Clearly, NBA 2K15 still believes in Rose and his ability to stay healthy.

Rose seemed to be feeling the same things many fans are, saying, courtesy of Jon Greenberg of ESPNChicago.com: “I can sit here and say a million times that I’m going to be fine, but think the only way to answer all the critics and everyone asking about me is actually being on the court and actually playing.”

Head coach Tom Thibodeau is not exactly known for resting his stars, which may actually be a positive thing here. Rose is still only 25 years old (about to turn 26) and needs to knock off two years of rust on the court by consistently playing.

If the star point guard can stay healthy, the potential Eastern Conference race between his Chicago Bulls and LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers could be the most interesting thing in the league this year. Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love will certainly have something to say about that outcome as well.

Until then, fans will just have to duel it out between Chicago and Cleveland on their video game console.

 

Chris Bosh: 84 overall

This year will go a long way toward determining Bosh’s rating in the next game after he re-signed with the Miami Heat for five years and $118 million. 

With James in Cleveland, that contract appeared to signal that this is Bosh’s team now. That is why it is worth pointing out that Bosh is an 84 in NBA 2K15, while Dwyane Wade is an 86. It is an interesting distinction considering it was Wade who looked to be on the decline more so than Bosh in last year’s playoffs and NBA Finals. 

Bosh was the leader of his Toronto Raptors teams and averaged better than 22 points in his last five years north of the border. He also posted double-digit rebounding averages three times. Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald noted that Wade is looking more for the clutch Bosh we have seen in Miami recently than the superstar in Toronto, though:

The 84 ranking almost feels too low for Bosh considering his multiple rings in Miami and his proven ability to contribute on his own or in a group of superstars. Moke Hamilton of SNYtv and Basketball Insiders would likely agree with that assessment:

If Bosh leads Miami deep into the playoffs, that ranking will likely increase next year.

 

Kenneth Faried: 81 overall

Kenneth Faried absolutely dominated at the 2014 FIBA World Cup and posted nightly averages of 12.2 points and 7.7 rebounds.

In fact, the combination of Faried, DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis was nearly unbeatable on both sides of the floor for the Americans because they contested shots at the rim and then got out in transition. Not only was Faried arguably the United States’ top player at the event, he did it on a team of absolute superstars.

NBA 2K15 must not have been particularly impressed to give him an 81 rating.

Yes, the international game in that setting is much different than the NBA, but Faried should be higher than an 81 moving forward in his career. He scored 13.7 points and grabbed 8.6 rebounds a game last year for the Denver Nuggets and shot 54.5 percent from field.

Perhaps his impressive World Cup will set him up for a big 2014-15 season. After all, he doesn’t even turn 25 until after the campaign starts and will likely continue to improve for the next couple of years. 

That would mean a much-deserved higher rating in NBA 2K16 and beyond.

 

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Knicks Media Day: The Key Player Who Is ‘Probably Going to Scare Knicks Fans’

The New York Knicks will hope to improve from a dreadful 2013-14 season as they enter this year with Phil Jackson in the front office and Derek Fisher making his head coaching debut. What can we expect of the Knicks and Carmelo Anthony this season?

Steve Popper of The Bergen Record joins Adam Lefkoe to discuss what he saw at Knicks media day in the video above.

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How Stephen Curry Can Cement Status as a Top-10 Player During 2014-15

Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors has emerged as one of the 10 best players in the NBA, but that placement isn’t cemented. He needs to deal with some failings in his game to retain that status. Anthony Davis is on the rise. Derrick Rose is coming back. Holding steady isn‘t sufficient. 

Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney of Sports Illustrated released their list of the top 100 players, and Curry came in at No. 8. Adam Fromal of Bleacher Report ranked him No. 5. As more rankings are released, I believe the majority of them will have him in single digits.

In fact, his combination of shooting and passing him makes him arguably the league’s third-best offensive player.

I can see people making a case for James Harden, Chris Paul or Carmelo Anthony. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love are up there, too. If Derrick Rose and/or Kobe Bryant return to form, they could enter the conversation.

All those guys are elite, but Curry has an argument for standing above them all. His combination of passing and scoring on efficient shooting is positively historic—and that’s not being hyperbolic. Per Basketball-Reference.com, Curry just became the fifth player in league history to register 1,800 points and 600 assists while maintaining a true shooting percentage over .600.

Here are the other four:

The retired names on that list are considered by many to be among the five greatest players in history. LeBron James could very well work his way into that conversation before he retires. That’s impressively elite company and shows how valuable Curry is.

I also looked at the Passer Rating and Scorer Rating for the top players in the league. There were only 11 players who finished in the top 30 on both lists, and only two were in the top 10: Curry and Paul. 

Based on his combination of passing and scoring prowess, Curry carves out a place among the top 10 players in the league.

But there are holes in his game, too, which are interesting things when it comes to player rankings. We’re willing to be more forgiving of a player’s flaws while he’s young because we expect that as he matures, he’ll deal with them.

Once a player hits 26, he’s considered to be in his prime, and by then he should have the basic elements dealt with. At that point, holes turn into stigmas and count against a player.

That’s pertinent with Curry because he’s arrived at that crossroads of his career, and there are still some sizable facets to his game he needs to demonstrate improvement in.

 

Defense

Curry’s offense is enough to get him into the top-10 conversation. His lack of defense could take him out of it if he doesn’t improve.

Defense is an aspect of basketball that isn’t easily measured because there are so many team variables, but defensive real plus-minus (DRPM) probably does the best job. Steve Iraldi wrote about it for ESPN:

The RPM model sifts through more than 230,000 possessions each NBA season to tease apart the “real” plus-minus effects attributable to each player, employing techniques similar to those used by scientific researchers when they need to model the effects of numerous variables at the same time.

RPM estimates how many points each player adds or subtracts, on average, to his team’s net scoring margin for each 100 possessions played. The RPM model also yields separate ratings for the player’s impact on both ends of the court: offensive RPM (ORPM) and defensive RPM (DRPM).

There were a total of 437 players last season, and Curry finished 230th among them—below average. He is what I call a “lopsided” player, elite on one end and a liability on the other.

To define that, I looked at the difference in ORPM and DRPM among players who were a plus on one side of the ball and a minus on the opposite side:

Now, Curry isn’t as bad a defender as James Harden, but few are. And you don’t need to be as awful as Harden to be a minus-defender. I mention Harden because he and Curry are the only two players with an ORPM over 5.0 and a negative DRPM.

As a result, both have the same temporary status in the top 10. Unbalanced play gives such placement a short shelf life. Players such as Michael Redd, Jerry Stackhouse and Deron Williams had brief stints with such recognition because they never fleshed out the rest of their game. 

Carmelo Anthony is an example of an elite offensive talent who has struggled with defense over his career. His DRPM was minus-1.02. Not being a two-way player is part of the reason Golliver and Mahoney dropped him out of their top 10 (emphasis mine):

The problem for Anthony, of course, was that his individual dominance wasn’t sufficient to lift the Knicks out of a season so wretched that it cost coach Mike Woodson his job. Anthony was good enough to carry New York to the East’s third-best offense, but not good enough to prevent the Knicks from ranking No. 24 on defense. Anthony was good enough to score 35+ points on 11 occasions, but not good enough to prevent the Knicks from going 5-6 in those games.

Being elite only on the offensive end comes with a bit of leniency early in a player’s career, but defense is expected to be added. Curry has yet to do that.

 

Team Success

Curry can also cement his spot as a top-10 player by translating his personal success into team success.

Last season, the Warriors finished with the eighth-best record in the NBA, which would seem to be enough “winning” to secure Curry’s spot. That record, though, comes with a caveat: It was based on their defense.

They had the fourth-best defensive rating in the NBA but only the 12th-best offensive rating, and they had two other starters who were legitimate scoring threats: David Lee and Klay Thompson.

The lack of ability to turn offensive talent into an elite-scoring team was blamed on Mark Jackson, who was fired for that and other reasons. Seth Partnow wrote for The Washington Post:

Of course, getting a team which prominently features Stephen Curry and David Lee to perform that well defensively is an achievement, but the reason the perception of the Warriors’ offensive dominance persists is that given their talent, they should have been better.

The criticism centers on Jackson running an offense straight from his early-’90s playing days, relying on endless isolations and post-ups (two of the least-efficient methods of scoring) and eschewing the ball and player movement his roster seems built for.

The criticisms of Jackson were valid. His offense matched neither his personnel nor the 21st century. The game has changed in the last 20 years, and what worked when he played isn’t effective anymore (but that’s a whole other article).

Curry gets a pass on all that. But Jackson is now gone and Steve Kerr has taken his place. If the Warriors’ offensive production continues to lag behind their obvious talent, Curry will start shouldering the blame.

If his offensive abilities make him a top-10 player, he needs to carry a top-10 offense. That hasn’t happened.

 

Leadership

Leadership is as much a commodity as offense. Joakim Noah finished fourth in MVP voting last year even though he’s at best a marginal scorer. While his elite defense helped, his leadership was the greater reason he finished above players with more talent. He inspired his team to win when adversity struck, and that became the theme for the Bulls.

Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant are among the greatest players in history for reasons other than their play: They lead their teams both on and off the court.

Leadership isn’t just about what happens during games. It is about more than making clutch plays. Curry has shown he can win games when the game is on the line. That aspect of his leadership isn‘t questioned.

It’s what happens between them and between seasons, too. Can he motivate his team when his shot isn‘t falling? Can he ride a player who is letting up on the defensive end? Does he improve the nature of a practice just by his presence? Is the team his team?

These things are not easy to substantiate or quantify, but it’s one of those things you recognize when you see it. James has it. Paul has it. Durant has it. Curry does not have it yet. He needs to take possession of this team and exert his will. 

He needs to grow out of being an amazing kid with a beautiful shot and into the role of leader. It’s the next and most important step in his maturation. If he can’t do it, he’ll start getting the label of just being another guy who can post big numbers, but those numbers don’t produce anything.

 

***

Stephen Curry is currently a top-10 player in spite of his flaws. He is 26 years old and entering his sixth year as an NBA player.

He’s at that stage of a career where the learning curve is over and the pass for glaring deficiencies goes away.

If he still exhibits the same flaws in his game at the end of this season, he’s in danger of dropping out of the top 10. However, if he addresses them, he’s likely to move up into the MVP conversation. As much as there is to like about him, it’s easy to hope for the latter.

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NBA 2K15 Player Ratings Revealed for Miami Heat

It’s finally here, the NBA 2K15 player ratings for the Miami Heat have finally been revealed minus a few players (Shawne Williams, Shannon Brown, and Tyler Johnson). 2K Sports is set to release the popular video game on October 7, 2014 on Windows, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One, just in time for the NBA preseason.

NBA 2K has been the most popular basketball video game for quite some time now and it seems like every year they come out with new features that separates them from the competition. Some new features of NBA2K15 include new legends, a new challenges feature, and an auction house for MyTeam. 2K Sports has confirmed that some of the new legends will be Rick Barry, Bernard King, Tom Chambers, Bob Cousy, Kevin Johnson and Nate Archibald.
The official rankings haven’t been released yet, however certain NBA teams and players’ rankings have been slowly getting leaked as NBA 2K is releasing 100 NBA ratings for every 5000 Twitter followers. We’ve done our jobs…

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Report: Celtics trade Keith Bogans to Cleveland in five player deal

(Photo/Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
According to reports from ESPN, the Boston Celtics have agreed to trade estranged guard Keith Bogans to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for four players, multiple draft picks, and a $5.3 million traded player exception (TPE).

So, deal is Boston’s Keith Bogans to Cleveland for Dwight Powell, Erik Murphy, Malcolm Thomas, John Lucas III and a pair of 2nd-round picks.
— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) September 26, 2014

The team already has 17 players under contract and invited three more to training camp, meaning the team already had a maximum of 20 players on the roster. A move was expected to come this week in order to clear room for guard/forward Evan Turner, who the team agreed to terms with in July but never officially signed.
Of course, this deal brings in four more players. Including Turner (who still has not officially signed), their roster number sits at 24 players. Jeff Goodman speculates that the Celtics will stash a few of those p…

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Which Washington Wizards Player Will Make Biggest Leap in 2014-15?

Bradley Beal‘s upside is difficult to predict. Not because he’s wildly inconsistent or because he has so much to improve on.

It’s because he has the highest upside of almost anyone in the NBA right now, and there’s simply no telling how good of a player he can grow into.

Beal just recently turned 21, and he’s already played in two playoff series, went toe-to-toe with Paul George, made clutch three-pointers to sink a higher seed in the postseason (the Chicago Bulls) and has simply gone where only a few players have gone before.

Although John Wall is a young talent, it seems as if we already know where he’s headed. It’s likely that Wall will be an All-Star year in and year out as long as he’s healthy.

But Beal‘s upside is much higher at this point, and for this season, he’ll take a bigger leap forward than Wall.

In his second year in the league, when he was 20 years old at the All-Star break, Beal was one of only four players ever in their sophomore campaign to shoot at least 40 percent from three-point range, average three assists and 17 points per game and have four win shares.

The other three guys? Vince Carter, Hersey Hawkins and Stephen Curry. That’s some pretty great company to be in.

In his third year, Carter’s per-game averages in those categories increased by 1.9 points and 1.1 win shares while his assist and three-point numbers stayed the same. Although Curry started only 23 games in his third year and his points-per-game average dropped, his three-point shooting increased to 45.5 percent, and he had .144 win shares per 48 minutes, up from .128 in his second year.

It’s not unreasonable to see Beal‘s assist and points averages making a similar jump in addition to his win shares increasing by one or two.

Beal also was only one of two players ever between the ages of 18 and 21 to have a player efficiency rating of at least 17 in the playoffs while averaging 19 points and shooting 41 percent on three-pointers. The only other player to do that was Russell Westbrook in 2010, who played in just six postseason games that season. Beal played in 11.

Just based on that grouping of players, it’s clear that Beal is on pace to be one of the top players in the NBA.

In the context of Washington’s offense, Beal will improve on the offensive end with the addition of Paul Pierce.

Beal‘s biggest flaw last season was his propensity to take ill-advised mid-range jump shots.

He shot just 37 percent between 16 and 24 feet and attempted more shots from that range than any other shooting zone.

By adding Pierce, Beal will be able to patrol the perimeter more—his strength—and Pierce can be more of the mid-range guy. Pierce made 42.41 percent of his shots from that range last season, as shown in his shot chart from NBA.com/Stats.

Beal had an effective field-goal percentage (a field-goal percentage that weighs three-pointers as being worth more than two-pointers) on catch-and-shoots last year of 58.1 percent, according to NBA.com/Stats.

We’ve seen that Beal is a below-average ball-handler and that the Wizards are better off when Wall is making plays at the rim with Beal at the corner. Although Pierce isn’t an elite three-point shooter, he’s effective at making threes on the fast break and is at least a better ball-handler than Beal.

The Wizards want Beal doing what he’s best at: shooting threes. Having a veteran like Pierce on the floor is only going to help Beal grow.

On the defensive end, Beal is going to have to take on a larger role with Trevor Ariza gone.

Washington will likely go with a “by committee”” approach to having a primary defender mainly because there isn’t an elite guy on the roster right now on that end of the floor.

Wall tends to look lost at times, Pierce isn’t as quick as he used to be, and Beal is simply not experienced enough to cover guys like Lance Stephenson, LeBron James and Derrick Rose—players whom the Wizards will face multiple times this season and likely in the playoffs.

Off the bench, Garrett Temple can be an end-of-game defensive stopper but probably won’t be on the floor at the same time as Beal in the first three quarters. Otto Porter Jr. and Glen Rice Jr. both have the length to be solid defenders, but we haven’t seen them on the floor enough to know what they’ll bring to the table.

When given the opportunity, Beal will struggle at first to cover elite guys but will only improve over time this season. Like Wall, he has great close-out speed, as seen against this defense of a D.J. Augustin shot in the playoffs.

However, he has problems with rotations on defending the pick-and-roll.

As Umair Khan of Bullets Forever wrote when describing Beal on defense:

For Beal, containing dribble penetration will be how he earns his keep on defense. He’ll have to do a better job on ICE calls, which requires him to position himself on the ball handler’s hip and away from the screener and force his man baseline, making it impossible for his man to use the screen. There were a number of times last season where he failed to do so despite his big man being in position to defend on the sideline, and the end result was the ball handler getting to the middle of the floor.

These are things that are certainly fixable, and with more experience, Beal will improve on defense, only making him a better player.

Even with slight tweaks and the addition of Pierce, Beal is going to take a huge step forward. It’s easy to forget that he’s just 21 years old, and by the time he’s 25, there’s no telling how great of a shooting guard he’ll be.

- All statistics are from Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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Which Boston Celtics Player Has the Most Upside Right Now?

Entering the 2014-15 season, the one member of the Boston Celtics possessing the most upside is also majestically coiffed and commonly viewed more as a trade asset than a functioning basketball player. That’s right: Kelly Olynyk.

A true 7-footer whose skill set falls in line with the successful contemporary big man’s blueprint, Olynyk’s rookie season was unheralded but surprisingly impressive. His growing skill set could easily open doors in Year 2 that previously didn’t exist. 

Now 23 years old, the 2013 lottery pick finished his debut season shooting 46.6 percent from the floor, averaging 8.7 points and 5.2 rebounds per game (in 20 minutes on the dot). Those numbers won’t make you salivate, but there were still several high moments to take away from the year, and Olynyk’s steady improvement from month to month only raises the bar for what’s ahead. 

For the 22 games Olynyk played in March and April, per Basketball-Reference, he averaged 12.2 points, 6.1 rebounds and upped his field-goal percentage to 53.1 percent. It was a strong way to end an otherwise dire season playing for a team headed nowhere, but what’s most impressive outside those numbers is how accurate Olynyk was from beyond the arc.

Seven-footers who can consistently knock down threes are an exceptionally rare and beautiful thing; humongous, well-coordinated unicorns. With Boston’s season all but finished heading into the final few weeks of the season, Olynyk was granted permission to bomb away. He attempted 2.0 threes per game (in 22.4 minutes) and made a sensational 44.4 percent of them. 

The sample size here is small, but these numbers warrant legitimate excitement for a player who entered the NBA with that very skill in his back pocket. Coming out of Gonzaga, Olynyk was one of the most efficient scorers in college basketball, able to shoot from just about anywhere and create his own shot at will. 

It’s not a surprise, in other words, that Olynyk finally began to stretch the defense a little bit. He’s smarter now, too, and several speedy playmakers in the backcourt will help create open looks and make up for his below average athleticism. Olynyk has the potential to add a whole new dimension to Boston’s long-sagging offense. 

In the 1,400 minutes Olynyk played last season, the Celtics averaged 102.9 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com—highest on the team. Olynyk didn’t turn his team into the 2007 Phoenix Suns (that number was exactly what the Detroit Pistons and Sacramento Kings plodded into last season), but when he sat, Boston’s offensive rating fell to 97.9, per NBA.com (subscription required). Only the Philadelphia 76ers posted a lower number than that. Olynyk made a difference.

Boston spent stretches running its offense through him from the high post, putting him in pick-and-rolls and even a few post-ups. He showed intelligence with the ball and an ability to make quick decisions while reading the defense.

Defensively, Boston stayed about the same whether Olynyk was playing or not. That isn’t a compliment, but it’s not insulting, either. Olynyk spent the entire season at center, out of position, forced to assume the unnatural role of rim protector. He had no veteran centers to show him the ropes and basically had to pick up back-line defensive rotations on the fly. 

Still, he looked much better doing so after the All-Star break than before it, and the rate at which he should improve in his sophomore season gives hope to the possibility that Olynyk eventually becomes much more than a one-dimensional scorer.

Here’s what Celtics general manager Danny Ainge told ESPNBoston’s Chris Forsberg after the season:

I think Kelly has had a really good second half. I think he gained some confidence when we went to the All-Star break and represented the rookie team. I think I’ve been really happy with how he’s improved. I think the coaches have done a good job of getting him stronger, a good job of teaching him the game and I think he’s a great player.

Back to offense. Here’s a closer look, courtesy of CelticsBlog’s Kevin O’Connor, at some of Olynyk’s numbers, and why we may not have given his rookie season the proper due:

Olynyk’s per 36-minute averages of 15.6 points, 9.4 rebounds, and 2.8 assists put him in good company in NBA history. Only nine centers or power forwards 23-years or younger have had per 36 averages of at least 12 points, eight rebounds, and two assists, with a 33.0 three-point percentage. …

While Olynyk’s PER isn’t in the same league as players like Dirk, KG, Bird, and Love, it still says something that he put himself on this exclusive list as a rookie.

In fact, Olynyk and Bird are the only rookies on the list, further establishing the point that KO’s rookie year was special — maybe even more so than we give it credit for.

Olynyk’s second season in the league is virtually guaranteed to be better than his first. The training wheels are off, and having better overall talent around him on a consistent basis (guess what: Rajon Rondo makes teammates better!) should make life easier for Olynyk on both ends of the court.

Add in the fact that some complementary pieces were added to the roster, like fellow 7-footer Tyler Zeller, who can play center and allow Olynyk to slide down to a more natural fit at the 4.  

Olynyk’s ceiling probably isn’t that of an All-Star, but he’s already shown an ability to help out on offense. He’s on track to become one of the finest passing bigs in the league, and he experienced less trouble than expected rebounding—especially on the offensive glass—in his rookie season. 

If he continues to improve in these areas while solidifying himself as a respected marksman behind the three-point line, the Celtics may have much more than a useful trade chip on their hands. 

 

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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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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