Kevin Love Trade Alters Rebuilding Plans of NBA Flagship Franchises

Kevin Love‘s relocation affects more than just the Cleveland Cavaliers and Minnesota Timberwolves.

When the trade that Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski says will become official actually is official, it will leave a trail of disappointed and slighted parties that is far longer than two teams. 

At least three more clubs will be impacted by Love joining LeBron James and Kyrie Irving in Cleveland, probably more. But three of them are especially noteworthy in that they’re flagship franchises, all transitioning, all rebuilding at the same time: the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks.

Rare is the time when three such esteemed organizations are pining for better days together. Even rarer is the time their fate—even if only part of it—is manipulated by the same player none of them have. 

 

Boston Celtics

Of the three, Boston’s rebuild is the one most loosely tied to Love’s Minnesota exit.

Or maybe not.

Unlike the Lakers and Knicks, the Celtics were considered legitimate trade suitors, armed with enough draft picks and young talent—though mostly just the draft picks—to wedge their way into the expansive conversation.

Talks between the Celtics and Timberwolves appeared to cool following the NBA draft, but they gained serious traction ahead of it. So much so that Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald (via NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman) indicated the Celtics were Love-or-bust: 

If the Celtics cannot get Love, they are planning to continue with the longer and more methodical rebuilding process, a process that would likely see Rajon Rondo traded. (An NBA source said they would also have a taker for Jeff Green if they chose to move him.)

With Love heading to Cleveland, the Celtics are free to continue their conventional rebuilding efforts by bidding adieu to Rajon Rondo and his expiring contract. Not that they will, or that they weren’t free to do so before. 

Drafting Marcus Smart and re-signing Avery Bradley were moves some saw as writing on the wall. Factor in former Celtics player and current analyst Cedric Maxwell saying Rondo is seeking a max contract, per WEEI.com’s Ben Rohrbach, and the groundwork for his departure has already been laid.

Little of this would have to do with Love. If the Celtics trade or inevitably part ways with Rondo, he won’t be the lone reason. But in the event Rondo leaves as Boston continues laboring through a protracted restructuring period, Love can be remembered as the last hope that didn’t pan out.

Had the Celtics acquired him, their rebuild would have been effectively over. Pairing him with a pass-first, All-Star point guard like Rondo—who is, in fact, an upgrade over Ricky Rubio at the moment—would have vaulted the Celtics back into playoff contention.

Attentions could have turned to assembling a strong supporting cast around two stars. Perhaps president of basketball operations Danny Ainge would have began lusting after a third one. 

Whatever happened, the end result would have come in quicker fashion. Instead, the Celtics and their fans are left wondering “What if?”—likely for years to come.

 

New York Knicks

Phil Jackson is going to be so upset—assuming, of course, the Zen Master is familiar with that emotion.

New York had no chance of acquiring Love via trade. None. Zip. Zilch. Zero.

But according to Chris Herring of The Wall Street Journal, obvious inability didn’t stop the Knicks from trying. Jackson apparently dangled a “Hey! We had to try!” package built around Iman Shumpert, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Amar’e Stoudemire in front of Minnesota. 

Reaction to said proposal was mixed. OK, fine; it was pretty one-sided—a side NBC Sports’ Brett Pollakoff excellently encapsulated:

Phil Jackson is aged, but he’s not yet delusional.

He knew that New York had little chance of appealing to the Timberwolves here, and nothing would make the Knicks more immediately ready to build some semblance of a decent team than to unload the uninsurable final year of Stoudemire’s deal in trade; getting an All-Star back in exchange for doing so is so far beyond the realm of possibility that Jackson likely couldn’t get through pitching such a proposal with a straight face.

New York’s market size will always have the Knicks at least initially in the conversation to land All-Stars like Love. But until the team can assemble some legitimate assets, most stars are going to pass up the bright lights for a more readily available winning situation.

The Knicks were never going to acquire Love by trade. Their proposal was only noteworthy because of who they are and what they plan to do: sign another star next summer, as Sporting News’ Sean Deveney reminded us once Carmelo Anthony’s return became official.

Free agency was always their best chance at acquiring Love, and Marc Berman of the New York Post confirmed they were definitely interested. Like Wojnarowski‘s report alleges, though, Love has assured the Cavaliers of his return, rendering his impending free-agency status a mere formality.

Pundits and fans and anyone else with a vested interest in the Knicks’ long-term plans can argue whether or not Love would be a good fit next to Anthony until kingdom come. But the fact is, Anthony seems to be preparing for a move back to small forward, and a playmaking big man is one element of Jackson’s famed triangle offense—which the team is expected to run—that the Knicks sorely lack.

Love is exactly that. He could have played center or power forward within the Knicks’ new system, all while giving Anthony the superstar comrade he doesn’t yet have.

The list of star free agents isn’t nearly as impressive after him. The Knicks could give chase to Marc Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson or Goran Dragic, among others, but none of the remaining talent compares to Love.

One way or another, the Knicks are forced to regroup—even if that only means operating under the assumption that there will be one less superstar ripe for the poaching in 2015.

 

Los Angeles Lakers

That Love won’t be parading through Staples Center draped in purple-and-gold attire is huge for the Lakers.

In a bad way.

Love and the Lakers were supposed to sync up in the eyes of so many. One anonymous general manager told ESPN Insider Chris Broussard (subscription required) that their future marriage was a “100 percent certainty.” 

Now it feels like they’re divorced, even though they were never joined in holy basketball matrimony. Worse still, the Lakers and their fans are forced to accept a new reality, per USA Today‘s Mark Whicker:

The latest destiny’s child was supposed to be Kevin Love. From the moment he expressed weariness with Minnesota, Lakers fans nodded their heads expectantly. Let’s see –- win the lottery, draft Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker, get Kobe Bryant rolling again, and trade whomever’s left for Love and sign him. How could Kevin Durant or any future legend resist that? …

There are roadblocks, but the trade reaffirms an important point about Tiffany free agents. It is not where they want to play. It is with whom they want to play.

The absence of a superstar in his prime has always been a deterrent for the Lakers, who are trying to expedite their rebuilding process. Kobe Bryant isn’t a selling point on his last legs. Neither is anyone else on the roster. 

Cap space is all the Lakers will have next summer. If they wish to build a powerhouse, they’ll need an initial domino to fall.

Said domino could have been Love. He would be only 26 upon entering free agency. He attended UCLA. He was born in Santa Monica. The opportunity to headline and revive the Lakers would hopefully appeal to him. And if he came, others—like Kevin Durant in 2016—might, too.

Perhaps that’s true. Maybe Love could have been seduced by the Lakers’ allure. Maybe additional stars would have even followed his lead, instantly or in due time. It doesn’t appear to matter now. Things would have to go real bad, real quick with the Cavaliers for him to desert James for a transitioning faction in Los Angeles.

Similar to the Knicks, this leaves the Lakers to look elsewhere, where they could find Gasol and Aldridge and Rondo and Dragic and maybe even Greg Monroe or Eric Bledsoe, depending on how their restricted-free-agency situations play out. 

Any one or two of them would be stellar choices and solid acquisitions. They just aren’t Love, nor are they guaranteed to give the Loveless Lakers a second look. 

Gasol will be 30 when he enters free agency. So will Jefferson. Rondo will be 29. Aldridge himself will turn 30 next July. Of all the available stars, no one is young enough or better suited to anchor a franchise for the next five-plus years than Love, so you can understand any interest the Lakers, Knicks, Celtics and various suitors would show.

“No matter what the outcome is, I just want to end up in a great place where I can win,” Love said while on ESPN’s SportsNation July (via ESPN.com). “At the end of the day, I’ve played six years, haven’t made the playoffs yet, that burns me and hurts my heart, so I really want to be playing.”

Los Angeles could have been his next destination. Boston, too. Even New York. But Love will most likely be taking his fortune-turning abilities to Cleveland, forcing prominent restoration projects to adjust their plans—whatever they may be—to account for his premature departure from the Land of Possibility.

 

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6 NBA Teams That Could Accelerate Their Rebuilding This Offseason

Goran Dragic enjoyed an incredible 2013-14 season, breaking out while running the point for the Phoenix Suns and becoming one of the most enjoyable players to watch on any of the Association’s 30 rosters. Ty Lawson was just one of many players who couldn’t prevent him from turning the corner, as he’s doing up above. 

But how many franchises are going to be turning a corner during the 2014-15 campaign? 

Plenty of teams are rebuilding, but that’s often a slow process. Only a select few have the ability to get around that corner (or over the hump, if you prefer that metaphor) by accelerating the rebuild this offseason, making significant moves that lead to immediately increased levels of competition. 

For the sake of this article, only teams that finished out of the playoffs last year will be featured here. Playoff teams may still be rebuilding, but they’re not in the same type of dire straits as many lottery-bound squads. 

So, who has cap space? Who can make trades? Who seems most motivated to get that rebuild speeding along as quickly as possible?

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Big 3 Opting Out First Step in Rebuilding Miami Heat Super Team

Thanks to the concerted action of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, Phase One of the Miami Heat‘s offseason overhaul is complete.

Per Brian Windhorst and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.com:

After agreeing to all opt out of their contracts together, Miami Heat stars LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade have been discussing financial terms of new contracts among each other, sources told ESPN.com.

Bosh’s agent says his client has not decided officially on whether to opt out, but sources told ESPN The Magazine’s Chris Broussard that the All-Star big man will indeed follow suit and choose free agency by Monday’s midnight ET deadline.

Maybe this doesn’t seem like a big deal. After all, top-tier free agents almost always opt out of their contracts at the first opportunity because the chance to ink long-term extensions is generally a good business move.

But this is different.

The Big Three aren’t opting out to lock in multiyear, max-level extensions. They’re opting out to take less money—at least that’s what it seems like.

Calling this development inevitable is probably a bit of an overstatement, but it was widely expected. Heat president Pat Riley had this to say on June 24, per an official team release:

I was informed this morning of his intentions. We fully expected LeBron to opt-out and exercise his free agent rights, so this does not come as a surprise. As I said at the press conference last week, players have a right to free agency and when they have these opportunities, the right to explore their options. 

Here’s his (prepared) reaction to the next wave of opt-outs:

Today we were notified of Dwyane’s intention to opt-out of his contract and Udonis’ intention to not opt into his contract, making both players free agents. Dwyane has been the cornerstone of our organization for over a decade … We look forward to meeting with Dwyane and Udonis and their agent in the coming days to discuss our future together.

If Riley and the Heat brass weren’t surprised, they must have been at least slightly relieved.

That’s because all these opt-outs pave the way for Miami to build yet another super team.

Practically speaking, the opt-outs had to happen. Without them, the Heat had no way to substantially improve the roster because the contracts of the Big Three alone would have pushed the Heat right up to the brink of the projected 2014-15 salary cap of $63.2 million. That would mean Miami’s options for roster improvement would be limited to veteran’s minimums and the mid-level exception.

Sound familiar?

It should. That’s essentially how the Heat have operated in recent seasons, and this past campaign proved a new approach was in order.

It’s unclear exactly how the Heat will proceed from here. Much depends on the extent of the pay cuts the team’s stars will accept. Make no mistake, though; even with relatively minor salary reductions for James, Wade and Bosh, the Heat will almost certainly have enough cash to pursue another impact player.

From there, Miami can exceed the cap to bring back whichever of its own free agents it desires. So if Ray Allen, Chris Andersen or even Rashard Lewis figure into Riley’s plans, they could return. (The Heat could renounce their rights for all of their ancillary free agents to free up as much cap space as possible, then re-sign them after inking the Big Three.) After that, the Heat can rely on the championship appeal of an improved core to attract more ring-hungry vets at a discount.

More important than the practical, necessary flexibility the Big Three’s triple opt-out allows is the unity of purpose it conveys.

NBA teams are made up of different personalities with different agendas, which makes consensus ridiculously difficult to achieve. By agreeing to walk away from millions of guaranteed dollars, theoretically committing to take much less in the short term, James, Wade and Bosh are making a decision that would seem unprecedented if they hadn’t already done it in 2010.

The fragility of the Heat’s plan is difficult to overstate.

If any one of the Big Three had refused to opt out, the scheme doesn’t work. And Wade deserves more credit for his sacrifice than either James or Bosh because for him, the $41 million he’s giving up over the next two years will be nearly impossible for him to recoup on the open market.

Miami’s grand plan is far from complete, and things could fall through at any moment.

James could wake up on July 1 and decide the Chicago Bulls or Houston Rockets offer him a better chance to win rings. Maybe he’ll feel that familiar tug of his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. Maybe he’ll suddenly decide he wants to be part of the next Los Angeles Lakers dynasty—a legacy-building position if ever there was one.

The same is largely true for Bosh, who is still young and productive enough to potentially field a max offer from another club.

The dangers of unrestricted free agency are real, and even if there’s already some kind of pre-arranged deal between the Big Three to return to Miami, it’s hard to discount the options that have suddenly become available elsewhere.

We can’t call this process a success for the Heat until all three of their stars are back under contract—along with another impact free agent and at least three or four starter-quality veterans to complete the rotation. We’re a long way from that end point right now.

But the first step is complete.

So, in a summer everyone thought would involve player movement that could redefine the power structure in the NBA, it turns out the biggest moves might be the ones that preserve the status quo.

In a strange way, this all feels familiar.

Nobody thought the Heat could pull such a complicated, risky plan together four years ago, but they did. And in executing that plan, they created a super team that visited the Finals in every season of its existence.

Now, Miami is effecting an even bolder gambit, and to the dismay of the rest of the league, it looks like it’s going to work.

Again.

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NBA sees rebuilding, not tanking, when it comes to draft

The NBA barely uses the word “tanking,” preferring instead to see it as “rebuilding.”

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Lakers News: Mitch Kupchak on rebuilding the team: “Patience is the key”

Despite Kobe Bryant saying he doesn’t have “one lick” of patience to wait for the Los Angeles Lakers to turn this ship around, general manager Mitch Kupchak is adamant that the team will be careful about how and when they spend their cap space over the next few summers.
While Bryant may be hoping that the Lakers go into the summer with the intention to spend all their cap space and possibly sign a player such as Carmelo Anthony, Kupchak notes that he won’t be signing any players that could create a team that only makes the playoffs and then gets eliminated in the first round.
As always, the Lakers are thinking about championships.
“Patience is the key,” Kupchak said, according to David Leon Moore from USA Today. “With the new collective bargaining agreement, there are no quick fixes. You cannot outbid teams for star players. The one thing we feel is not a good thing is to be saddled with contracts of players that put us in the middle of the pack. That’s a danger in this league.”
Kup…

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Tom Thibodeau Is the Chicago Bulls’ Best Asset During Rebuilding Process

Even with Derrick Rose on the roster throughout the foreseeable future, it’s Tom Thibodeau who remains the Chicago Bulls‘ best asset during their inevitable rebuilding process.

And yes, rebuilding will be done to some extent, even if the 2013-14 squad is hanging tough in the competition for an Eastern Conference playoff spot. 

Rose, while still a fantastic point guard, has quite a few question marks surrounding him. 

Not only was he rather ineffective during his long-awaited return from a torn ACL, but he went down with yet another major knee injury. For a player whose game is predicated on athleticism and explosiveness, that’s problematic. Even if he recovers physically, the mental aspects are a different ball game. 

Thibodeau still has a few question marks—minute management being the primary one—but he’s emerged as a bigger asset to the team. So long as he’s on the sidelines, Chicago is going to remain competitive. 

It’s time NBA fans as a whole started to recognize this. 

 

Creator of an Incredible Defense

When the Bulls are looming on the schedule, you know a team is going to be in for a hard-fought defensive struggle. Points come at a premium, and each and every possession forces the opponent to maintain a grind-it-out mentality that wears everyone down. 

Chicago might not have an abundance of talent on the roster, but it has a clear identity. 

For a rebuilding team, that’s the first step. It’s harder to successfully restock and regain competitiveness when there’s an amorphous product on the court, one that isn’t sure what type of basketball it wants to play and what type of players it wants to recruit to the roster. 

And that’s not a problem for Chicago, so long as Thibodeau is pacing the sideline. 

Even during a year without Derrick Rose in the lineup. Even after trading away Luol Deng for absolutely nothing except cap space. Even after withstanding plenty of injuries throughout the early portion of the season. 

The Bulls have every excuse in the book available to them, but Thibodeau refuses to use any of them. He has this defense ramping up the intensity each and every night, and the result has been one of the most impressive units in the league. 

Going into their 50th game of the season, the Bulls have allowed only 101 points per 100 possessions, a mark that leaves them sitting pretty at No. 2 on the defensive rating leaderboard, according to Basketball-Reference. Only the Indiana Pacers, owners of a wealth of defensive talent and a historically excellent set of stats, beat them out. 

Despite the opportunity for excuses, Chicago is actually allowing 2.2 fewer points per 100 possessions than it did last year. Granted, the Eastern Conference is weaker, but it’s an impressive mark nonetheless.

Just as always seems to be the case, the Bulls’ defense is elite because it refuses to allow points in the paint. That’s the identity that goes beyond just trying on the defensive end, and it’s where Thibodeau comes into the equation in a big way.

According to TeamRankings.com, the Bulls are allowing only 37.1 points per game in the paint. It’s a mark that, just as was the case with defensive rating, leaves them trailing the Indiana Pacers and beating every other team in the Association.  

Why? 

Because of the Thibs system, one that advocates packing the paint as much as possible and almost daring referees to whistle three-second violations. If more men are in the paint, it cuts off driving lanes and makes the interior of the defense more crowded, thus forcing opponents into less-efficient shots. 

Last January, ESPN’s Beckley Mason broke down the outline of the scheme thusly

He is often credited with being the first coach to fully leverage the abolition of illegal defense by loading up the strong side box while having the weakside defenders zone the back side of the defense. In effect, Thibodeau‘s defenses force ball handlers — whether in isolation or in side pick-and-rolls — to the baseline and then send a second defender from the weakside over to the strong side block to cut off dribble penetration. 

That strategy, combined with having big men fall back against screens to keep more big bodies in the paint (as you can see below), allows Chicago both to depress opponents’ field-goal percentages and prevent second-chance points. The Bulls are always a premier rebounding team and not just because they have talented rebounders

Thibodeau‘s defensive genius—more so with Xs and Os than in-game adjustments—has spawned imitators, but no one has been able to mimic the nuances that he brings to the Windy City. No one is better at overcoming the many obstacles and remaining right near the top of the league’s best defensive teams. 

Grantland’s Zach Lowe is another to give Thibodeau credit for his innovation, even if the Chicago coach won’t do so himself: 

Thibodeau didn’t invent this system, and he’s loath to take any public credit for it, but coaches, scouts, and executives all over the league agree he was the first coach to stretch the limits of the NBA’s newish defensive three-second rule and flood the strong side with hybrid man/zone defenses. Other coaches have copied that style, and smart offenses over the last two seasons — and especially this season — have had to adapt. 

The NBA is a copycat league. 

As Thibdeau’s defense proved its merits, others copied him. Then offenses—like the Miami Heat‘s pick-and-roll heavy system that moves the ball with ridiculous frequency—adjusted. It’s a cyclical process, but there’s a distinct advantage to the position in which Thibs sits. 

He’s ahead of the curve. Defenses will eventually adjust to the new-wave offenses, and the gravelly voiced head coach gets to be one of those doing the reacting. 

 

Refuse to Lose

Tanking? TANKING!?!?!

So long as Thibodeau is pacing the sidelines of the United Center, that word will never be allowed to enter into the Chicago game plan. 

The Bulls probably should’ve tried to do everything possible to earn a better pick in the draft once Derrick Rose went down with his second major knee injury. Without the former MVP in the lineup, there was no hope for this team’s ability to compete with the Heat and Pacers in the race to advance out of the East. 

This was a team that was banking on Rose.

The rest of the roster was worse than the 2012-13 squad—one that experienced an early playoff exit—namely because Nate Robinson was gone. The diminutive point guard was one of the few players capable of creating his own shots, but he left for the Denver Nuggets during the offseason.

So when Rose went down, all hope was essentially lost. Just not in the mind of Thibodeau.

My job is to coach the team,” he told ESPN Chicago’s Nick Friedell shortly after D-Rose suffered yet another knee injury. “Whoever I have on the roster, that’s who I’m coaching. Whether Derrick’s here or not, that’s what they have to do. [The front office has] to always look at the players that are available. They have to study, which they do. And you go from there.”  

And so he coached the team. 

Two weeks later, he expanded on his anti-tanking views to Friedell

There’s all kinds of talk about that (tanking). And, to me, as a coach, you put everything you have into each and every day. And that’s what I love about our team. There’s no quit in our team. We’re going to play to win. I think once you start doing those other things, you’re headed down a slippery slope. 

I think you put forth your best effort each and every day. I think every game is winnable, and then you’re trying to build the right habits along the way. As we get guys back, I think we’re going to be fine. I have great belief in our team, and that’s the way you approach it. Some teams may not believe in it, but I also think [tanking] is risky. Everyone talks about the great player, but what happens to all the franchises that don’t get the great player? If you look at history, it’s not good.

Eventually, he was just doing too good a job, and the front office stepped in. General manager Gar Forman shipped off Luol Deng to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Thibs‘ job became even tougher.

This time it was Joakim Noah who voiced his opinion on the dishonor of tanking. But hmm…I wonder where he got that mentality from? The Florida product has always been a supremely passionate player, but it’s hard to imagine Thibodeau didn‘t have some influence there.

You can view this stubborn attachment to winning basketball in one of two ways. 

Some might see it as an unwillingness to maximize the prospects of the future. Tanking is supposed to be a beneficial endeavor, as it helps bring more talent to the team once the losing stops. 

However, I prefer to view it as an attractive quality when recruiting free agents, which also happens to help with the whole rebuilding process. 

Would you rather play for a coach that doesn’t stick to his principles or one who steadfastly refuses to give up, even when he’s faced with overwhelming odds and a significant talent deficit?

That’s what I thought. 

Between the offseason firing of assistant Ron Adams against Thibodeau’s wishes to the recent trade of Thibs’ favorite player, Luol Deng, you have to wonder when the head coach is going to say he has had enough,” writes Rick Morrissey for the Chicago Sun-Times

There have also been rumblings about the end of Thibodeau‘s tenure in the Windy City, with reasons ranging from his horrid management of players’ minutes—Jimmy Butler literally spent an hour on the court during a single game—to his insistence on winning games rather than tanking. 

But the problems must be patched up.

This system that Thibodeau has created and nearly perfected is too important. So too is his reputation among players and ability to inspire greatness from everyone he coaches. 

Rose might be the one with the most jerseys sold and the MVP to his name, but it’s the head coach who is Chicago’s No. 1 asset during the rebuilding process. 

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Report: Derrick Rose worried Bulls will begin rebuilding

Derrick Rose, who is out for the season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn meniscus, is reportedly uninterested in rebuilding and worried that the Bulls will let upcoming key free agents walk, i.e. Luol Deng. According to Mitch Lawrence of the NY Daily News: Rose has told several confidantes that he is worried that the Bulls will start to let the team hit the skids by allowing key players to leave via free agency, forcing him to go through a rebuilding program that he wants no part of. “Derrick is worried that the Bulls are going to lose what they have,” said a league source. “He doesn’t want to go through rebuilding. The post Report: Derrick Rose Worried Bulls Will Let Key Free Agents Walk, Doesn’t Want To Rebuild appeared first on Beyond The Buzzer.

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How Brad Stevens Is Rebuilding the Boston Celtics Offense

The Boston Celtics have a roster severely lacking in usable talent. That claim may be true, but if you’re the team’s new head coach, Brad Stevens, it’s also pointless.

A few weeks into overseeing his first NBA regular season, Stevens has already demonstrated a keen ability to identify a problem and make it better, regardless of which players he has to work with.

Stevens is a chemist, mixing and matching chemicals, testing to see what creates a positive reaction and what’s combustible. His hardest task so far has been making Boston’s lackadaisical offense stronger.

With Rajon Rondo out rehabbing his torn ACL, and Paul Pierce—one of the most comforting scorers in league history—now a Brooklyn Net, the line of thinking was that Boston would be even less effective on offense than last year (when they finished the season ranked 20th), struggling in an area most had already pegged as a disaster long before Stevens even took the job.

So far those expectations have been realized.

Right now the Celtics rank 25th in offensive rating. They aren’t exactly in love with threes (Boston is below average in attempts from the corner and above the break) or getting to the free-throw line (bottom 10 in free-throw attempts rate). And their crunch-time offense is dead last in the league.

Only five teams average fewer three-point attempts per game, only three are less accurate from beyond the arc and way too many of Boston’s points come from mid-range jumpers.

So, you ask, what is it Stevens is doing well? A coach can only do so much to influence a game at the NBA level, and so far Stevens has maximized his power through constant experimentation.

After starting the season 0-4, Boston was one of the league’s slowest teams, and they turned it over a ton. Stevens adapted to his inexperienced, hyper-athletic personnel, swapping Gerald Wallace for Jordan Crawford and Kelly Olynyk for Vitor Faverani.

(As of Nov. 20, out of all five-man units in the league that have logged at least 50 minutes, Crawford, Avery Bradley, Jeff Green, Brandon Bass and Olynyk have been the seventh-most efficient, averaging 107.7 points per 100 possessions.)

The Celtics began to pick up the pace, pushing the ball off missed shots. This is notable and appreciated because Stevens could have kept things sedated, which is how he coached to great success at Butler. Instead of being stubborn, he adapted. Quickly. An obvious juxtaposition with Rick Pitino, who was convinced a full-court press would work in the NBA because it worked at the University of Kentucky.

Stevens wasn’t convinced his way would work with the players he had, so he’s decided to go in the complete opposite direction. Wallace and Green have been given free reign to rip a ball off the glass and take it the other way themselves, keeping defenses on their heels and forcing mismatches in transition.

After starting the year off on a glacial march, Boston’s pace is currently above average. Here are two examples where the Celtics are looking to attack as quickly as possible, especially when rookie backup point guard Phil Pressey is running the show.

Here, against the Houston Rockets, we see Boston look to attack as quickly as possible, off either a missed free throw or a made three from the corner. It doesn’t matter, they just want the ball up the court before Houston can set their Dwight Howard-led defense. 

The Celtics have also attacked defenses in other ways not seen too often over the past few years. One example being from the post. According to mySynergySports (subscription required), the Celtics are scoring 0.89 points per possession on post-ups, good for eighth-best in the league. 

It’s where 13 percent (up 6 percent from last season) of all their offensive possessions ending in a field-goal attempt, turnover or free throws occur, and guys like Bass and Jared Sullinger have shown notable improvement. 

Here’s Bass against Kevin Love and the Minnesota Timberwolves. He catches the ball and goes right into his move (despite poor spacing courtesy of Wallace). There’s very little hesitation when this happens, which is good. 

But where Stevens has the greatest influence is in play design. The Celtics never isolate or rely on “hero ball” at the end of quarters. Instead, they run formulated plays that possess counters, progression and ball movement. 

This also applies to after-timeout situations and side-out-of-bounds sets. Here are two such plays from a game earlier this season against the Portland Trail Blazers. Wallace is the inbounder on both. After passing it in, he cuts off a back screen towards the rim. The first time Boston ran this, they scored an easy layup. 

The second time around, Portland was ready, with Wallace’s defender darting above the screen and cutting off his open passing lane. The Celtics calmly went into Plan B, which was having Courtney Lee curl off a stagger screen set by Faverani and Sullinger (no defender feels OK after fighting through those two), and sinking a wide open jump shot.

These are all hopeful signs for a coach who only has a dozen games’ worth of experience. Despite facing new obstacles each and every game, Stevens’ power is evident based on how his team plays (hard) and the style they exploit.

Once the Celtics find the talent they need to be one of basketball’s most competitive teams, their head coach will be ready and waiting.

 

Michael Pina is a writer with bylines at Red94, CelticsHub, The Classical, Bleacher Report, Sports On Earth and Boston Magazine. Follow him here.

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Sixers’ good start doesn’t mask rebuilding process

Sixers might be rebuilding, but they’ve gotten off to a good start to the NBA season

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How Long Until Philadelphia 76ers’ Rebuilding Project Is Completed?

Most pundits agree that the Philadelphia 76ers stand on the precipice of an awful season. Philly’s front office would not argue that too strenuously, especially after coach Brett Brown expressed their inclination to let Nerlens Noel sit out the entire year (per Sam Amico of FoxSportsOhio.com).

The 76ers are practically guaranteed a lottery pick in 2014, and they have some young talent already. They could realistically be a contender by the 2015-16 season, but general manager Sam Hinkie has a lot of work to do to construct a credible roster. While the basic building blocks are present, the Sixers face a significant uphill battle in attracting top-flight free agents. 

 

The Pieces in Place

The 76ers shipped all-star Jrue Holiday to the New Orleans Pelicans for Noel’s lanky frame and balky left knee. Noel tore that ACL in February while with Kentucky and had surgery in March. If Noel returns to full health, he has the talent to be an impact player immediately. And considering Philly’s current outlook, giving the shot-blocking maven (4.4 blocks per game in 24 contests as a Wildcat) the year off seems prudent. It would also mark the second consecutive year the team has kept an extremely talented center on the sidelines.

Despite projecting to be historically inept, the Sixers came away from their home opener against the Miami Heat with a shocking victory. Rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams flirted with a quadruple-double in his debut (22 points, 12 dimes, nine steals and seven rebounds), and the future in Philly just may be looking brighter than initially thought.

Noel and MCW figure to be centerpieces of the starting lineup, but the rest of the rebuilding project is clouded by uncertainty. It will also be incumbent on the 2013 draftees to mature into game-changing NBAers as fast as possible. 

 

The State of the Team

The one saving grace for the 76ers is that an NBA franchise can be turned around relatively quickly thanks to the small roster size. As long as a team is not buried under the weight of bloated contracts, it will have sufficient flexibility to make moves in free agency and supplement its draft picks. 

As observed by Eric Pincus of HOOPSWORLD, the Sixers project to have a ton of cap room to the tune of $34 million next summer. But who wants to play for the 76ers?

Brett Brown is the new coach at the helm, and, for the record, George Karl is not coaching anywhere this season. Brown openly disparaged his team to Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer, saying “You have six NBA players and then you have a bunch of guys who are fighting for spots and want to be seen and need opportunity.”

I assume those NBA players are Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young, Spencer Hawes, Tony Wroten, James Anderson and Carter-Williams. Sorry, Darius Morris, your coach doesn’t think you’re an NBA player.

Turner is vastly underrated and fills the stat sheet on a nightly basis. Last season, he averaged 13.3 points, 6.3 boards, 4.3 assists and 0.9 steals per game in his third year as a pro. Think of him as a poor man’s Josh Smith.

He could be a trade chip after the Sixers passed on the deadline to extend his contract. Turner said of his own general manager, “Hinkie is not my GM,” so his days as a Sixer are likely numbered despite the franchise selecting him second overall in 2010 (per Keith Pompey).

Thad Young averaged 14.8 points and 7.5 boards a night as a starter last season and could also be traded. If so, it would not catch him off guard, as he told Christopher A. Vito of the Delaware County Daily Times, “at the end of the day it’s a business.”

Basically, everyone on the team over the age of 23 is expendable, and this year’s potential trades will provide a much clearer picture of the Sixers’ rebuilding plan. 

 

Tanking for Andrew Wiggins?

Is Andrew Wiggins worth tanking for? Regardless of the answer, the 76ers don’t need to tank; they really are that bad. But for the record, Boston Celtics president Danny Ainge told Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated that he did not see any player in the 2014 draft who was worth tanking for, tacitly giving his lukewarm opinion of Wiggins’ worth.

The 18-year-old is a 6’8″ forward from Thornhill, Ontario who displays tremendous athleticism and can create his own shot. He has the tools to be a top-notch defender, especially with his 7’0″ wingspan, but he would need to add some weight to his 200-pound frame.

The Sixers seem assured of having numerous ping-pong balls in the drum when the lottery selection takes place, but winning the lottery is another matter altogether. Unfortunately for Philly, the league’s worst team only has a 25 percent chance of landing the No. 1 pick.

In the 20 years since the league re-weighted the lottery chances, the worst team has won the lottery just twice. In 2003, the Cleveland Cavaliers got LeBron James; in 2004, the Orlando Magic landed Dwight Howard. It remains to be seen if Wiggins can be a player close to that caliber, but winning the lottery and drafting deftly can obviously change a franchise’s fortunes in a matter of two years.

If they fall just short of No. 1, the Sixers could opt to select a forward from the trio of Julius Randle, Aaron Gordon and Marcus Smart. Australian shooting guard Dante Exum could also be a dynamic addition. And if they do land the first overall selection but do not believe Wiggins is a franchise-changing player, they could still trade the pick for a king’s ransom.

Regardless, the lottery is a game of chance and the Sixers cannot count on getting Wiggins if they do, in fact, covet him. After all, the strategy of building through the draft is a crapshoot in itself.

 

Building Through the Draft and Luring Free Agents

Can Arnett Moultrie make the next step to a useful professional? The Sixers sent 2012 second-rounder Justin Hamilton and a lottery protected first-round pick next year to the Miami Heat for Moultrie, so he had better pay dividends. He played very well as a junior for Mississippi State University, posting 16.4 points and 10.5 rebounds per game, but he averaged just 11.5 minutes as a rookie in Philly. Good thing they protected that pick!

The Sixers will get the New Orleans Pelicans’ 2014 first-round pick if the Bayou Birds finish out of the bottom five, so Philly fans will be cheering for NOLA too. They coughed up a second-rounder in 2014 to acquire—and subsequently release—anxiety-ridden youngster Royce White. They also sent their 2016 first-rounder to the Orlando Magic in the Andrew Bynum trade, but that is lottery-protected too (per HOOPSWORLD).

It might actually be a good thing if the Magic get that pick in 2016, as that would mean the rebuilding has gone to plan and the 76ers have clawed their way out of the lottery in only two seasons. But the Sixers’ draft resources are nothing compared to the Phoenix Suns, who are collecting picks like Pokemon. They could potentially have four selections in the first round of a strong 2014 draft after the recent trade of Marcin Gortat.

While they do have those draft picks, the 76ers will have to address some of their copious needs in free agency, but are there any marquee free agents willing to go to Philadelphia? The 2015 class could include Rajon Rondo, Jeff Green, Kenneth Faried, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Brook Lopez, Marc Gasol and Roy Hibbert. In the current context, it’s hard to imagine any of those players feeling the brotherly love, but a lot can change in two years. 

The Sixers will likely be a playoff team by the 2015-16 campaign, but they will need more than just a collection of talented youngsters to make noise in the postseason. Unfortunately, the rebuilding project in Philly may never be completed unless they find quality veteran free agents that want to don the red-white-and-blues. Noel and MCW are nice building blocks, but they are an insufficient foundation for the future due to the team’s overwhelming needs. 

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