Breaking Down Charlotte Hornets’ Small Forward Position for 2014-15 Season

The Charlotte Hornets are poised for a stellar 2014-15 NBA season behind a deep roster full of youth, athleticism and defensive prowess. Head coach Steve Clifford turned this team into an elite club on the less glamorous end of the floor last season by establishing a strong foundation of fundamental, unselfish basketball.

In order to make a leap this coming year, Charlotte will need a big uptick in production from one particular spot on the floor.

Al Jefferson, Lance Stephenson and Kemba Walker will lock down the backcourt and the center spot with ease. At power forward, Charlotte has newcomer Marvin Williams as well as two incredibly talented top-10 draft picks in Noah Vonleh and Cody Zeller.

Small forward is a very different story.

 

Last Year’s Performance

It would be tough to make a case against small forward being Charlotte’s weakest position last year. The front office tried to mitigate some of the shortcomings by offering a king’s random for Gordon Hayward in the offseason (four years, $63 million), but the Utah Jazz ultimately matched the contract and retained their restricted free agent.

Charlotte is left with much of the same. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is still the starter with two years of experience under his belt. He took a step back offensively in year two, struggling to find his place with Al Jefferson in town and Josh McRoberts breaking out.

However, he thrived in Clifford’s new defensive scheme by posting a defensive rating of 103. Night in and night out, he locked onto the opposing team’s best perimeter player and wreaked havoc.

The main problem is that he is a liability on offense, continuously getting lost on that end of the floor and having almost no impact. He shot a good percentage from the floor at 47 percent last season, but he doesn’t expand his game whatsoever. In order to live up to his lofty draft status as a No. 2 pick, he has to add to his repertoire.

Behind him, things got even murkier. He is really the only prototypical NBA 3 on the roster. Jeff Taylor played just 26 games before succumbing to a ruptured Achilles, and he was mostly ineffective during his time.

Anthony Tolliver delivered some great outside shooting in his absence, and that was just about it. This wasn’t a deep position for Charlotte last season whatsoever.

In fact, Charlotte had the least productive small forward corps in the entire NBA last year, according to HoopsStats.com, posting 14.9 points, 2.1 assists and 1.1 steals a night. All were worst in the league.

Overall Grade: C-

 

What Is In Flux This Offseason

From a roster standpoint, what has changed is that Tolliver is gone and Marvin Williams is in. The only problem is that Williams has played mostly power forward in recent years and should fill that role in the starting lineup, replacing McRoberts. Chris Douglas-Roberts also appears to be nearing a deal with the Clippers.

Charlotte selected P.J. Hairston in the first round, but he projected as much more of a typical shooting guard. Lance Stephenson was brought in, sliding Gerald Henderson to the bench. Neither of them have ideal size to play small forward at all. 

That leaves MKG and Taylor as the two who absolutely have to get it done. Charlotte can clearly succeed with MKG scoring seven points a game, but an improvement on his part could very well separate this team from the rest of the pack of middling playoff teams in the Eastern Conference.

All this means that the main thing in flux is MKG‘s jumper. He shot 61 percent in the paint last season but under 31 percent everywhere else.

Charlotte needs him to improve offensively in order to improve the production from that position. His defensive ability is paramount to the team’s success, but a lot hinges on his ability to take the next step. This is especially true with little else on the roster in terms of small forward talent. Taylor has been cleared for practice after his injury, but he has limited upside.

 

What It Should Look Like Next Season

It is unreasonable to expect MKG to turn into an offensive threat overnight. Getting 10-12 points a night from him next year would be a big improvement. Clifford needs to get him out in the open court and have him more involved in the flow of the offense; otherwise, his growth will never come. Avoiding the growing pains will not give him the satisfaction of overcoming them.

The most beneficial scenario to employ in the present time would be to go with smaller lineups when MKG isn’t on the floor. Henderson, Hairston and Stephenson are all a few inches and a couple pounds short of being able to play extended minutes at small forward, but all make up for it with athleticism.

The NBA is trending toward smaller lineups in general, and Stephenson is more than capable of guarding players with size on him. MKG should continue to improve and see an uptick in minutes, but there will still be a small amount of time when neither he nor Taylor is on the floor and Charlotte has to make do.

The size up front gives Clifford plenty of options with his backcourt. The additions of Vonleh and Williams inject some added size into the frontcourt in order to free up some other spots.

With the way this roster is situated, Charlotte is banking a lot on MKG. He will continue to wow people on defense, but Stephenson’s presence will take an immense amount of pressure off of him. An exceptional defender in his own right, the triple-double machine will have no problem covering guys like LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony for brief stretches.

This team needs to play to its strengths. Clifford’s defensive system runs plenty deep enough to accommodate a small lineup from time to time. Expect to see Walker, Henderson and Stephenson all on the court together with some regularity, because the matchup problems that backcourt would create should cancel out any slight defensive handicaps.

Clifford should have more fun with this roster since he can mix and match. Henderson, Taylor, Hairston and Gary Neal all off the bench will be a potent second unit, something Charlotte severely lacked last season.

Charlotte cannot really mess up this situation. The issue last year pertained more to the lack of overall talent and not so much the lack of small forward depth. Having MKG and arguably Jeff Taylor as the only traditional small forwards should not hold this roster back at all due to the bevy of shooting guards.

 

Follow Justin on Twitter @Hussington 

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Clues from Chris Bosh’s Raptors Days Can Help Miami Heat Next Season

One of the primary questions hanging over the Miami Heat’s 2014-15 season is how Chris Bosh will acquit himself as the team’s chief offensive weapon, which, with LeBron James in Cleveland and Dwyane Wade on the wane, is presumably what he’ll be.

To a great extent, the Heat’s year will hinge on how well Bosh performs in this new, expanded role. If he can produce like a star, Miami might turn out quite a bit better than the 44-win/No. 6 seed projection ESPN.com’s summer forecasters have it pegged for. If he plays like a third option who’s been thrust by attrition into a larger role than he’s fit for, the Heat could struggle mightily.

“I want to see if I can do what’s necessary to go in there and win every night,” Bosh told The Associated Press (via Tim Reynolds of NBC 6 South Florida) after James decamped. “That’s the challenge of being a leader. It excites me. It’s been a long time, and I feel like I’m a much better player and a leader now, so it’ll be fun.”

So how will it turn out? Bosh’s time as a Toronto Raptor is instructive here. While it was five years, two titles and 13,000 NBA minutes ago, Bosh’s Raptor career can provide some clues as to how he will handle the heavier offensive load.

First, it’s worth revisiting just how effective Bosh was in Toronto. Over the course of his seven seasons north of the border, CB4 averaged 20.2 points and 9.4 rebounds. And he accomplished this while carrying a team whose roster oscillated between putrid and mediocre.

Consider the performance Bosh submitted in 2006-07, his age 22 season. He averaged 22.6 points, 10.7 rebounds, 2.5 assists and led the Raptors to a 47-35 record—then a tie for the best mark in franchise history—and the Atlantic Division crown. He was rewarded with a second-team All-NBA berth.

This was a remarkable feat. The Raptors second best player that season—by measure of Basketball-Reference.com’s win shares—was Anthony Parker, who was 31 years old and had just spent the previous six seasons playing professional basketball in Israel. Goodness, Andrea Bargnani played over 1,600 minutes for that group.

This was a bad basketball team. And Bosh, through sheer force of will—and a lot of points and rebounds—somehow got them to 47 wins, earning Bryan Colangelo Executive of the Year and Sam Mitchell Coach of the Year. (Those are Chris Bosh’s awards. They should rightly be sitting in his trophy case right now.)

But what was most interesting about Bosh’s efficacy in Toronto—and what augers well for his chances of carrying Miami’s offense this coming season—wasn’t just its extent but its nature. Though Bosh is now widely, and rightly, known for his mid-range game, in the early parts of his career, he played much closer to the basket.

In the aforementioned 2006-07 campaign, Bosh attempted 34.8 percent of his shots from within three feet of the hoop, according to Basketball-Reference.com. For his Raptors career, Bosh took 34.2 percent of his shots from that close range, compared to just 27.5 since he landed in South Beach.

There’s reason to think that, with the Miami offense running through Bosh in 2014-15, he’ll return to these roots. For starters, playing along LeBron and Wade, Bosh’s mid-range shooting created a synergy that drove the Miami offense. His ability to knock down 18-footers pulled opposing bigs away from the paint, opening slashing lanes for James and Wade, in turn creating more space for Bosh to shoot.

But with LeBron LeGone, and Bosh presumably responsible for more direct point creation, the mid-range game is too inefficient to make up a large percentage of his shots. Bosh will have to return to the paint.

Fortunately for Miami, there’s reason to believe he will thrive there. Last season, according to NBA.com, the center finished fourth among qualified players in field-goal percentage from within five feet of the basket. Only LeBron, Kevin Durant and Deandre Jordan bettered Bosh’s 69.7 percent mark from that range. Suffice it to say, that’s good company.

If Bosh can shoot more often from that range without forfeiting much efficiency, he’ll give the Miami O a serious—and seriously needed—post-James boost.

This proximity to the basket could also have a secondary effect that benefits Bosh and the Heat. According to the Washington Post’Seth Partnow, Bosh’s rebounding could get a boost:

As a primary scoring option this season, one with more low- and mid-post scoring chances, Bosh will likely end up close to the basket. This in turn will likely increase his ability to secure offensive rebounds.

In Toronto, while Bosh was more active around the bucket, he had an offensive-rebounding percentage of 8.5. In Miami, it dropped to 6.1.

This all points to a conclusion Bosh would be wise to keep top of mind this season. If he hopes to keep the Heat’s prospects from going south, he needs to remember the lessons he learned north of the border.

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Who Should Be Oklahoma City Thunder’s Starting Shooting Guard Next Season?

The Oklahoma City Thunder‘s most important position battle next season will be at shooting guard, where Jeremy Lamb, Anthony Morrow and Reggie Jackson will compete for the chance to play alongside Russell Westbrook

Lamb, the 12th overall pick of the 2012 draft and one of the key pieces of the James Harden trade, is still itching to break out as he enters his third season. The 22-year-old played in 78 games last season for the Thunder, averaging 8.5 points in 19.7 minutes and shooting 35.6 percent from behind the arc. 

Like Lamb, Jackson is also a former first-round pick (No. 24 overall, 2011). He played in 80 games, including 36 starts for the injured Westbrook. In the playoffs, Jackson eventually replaced defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha in the starting lineup. He contributed 11.1 points per game in the postseason, which was down slightly from the 13.1 points he put up during the regular season. 

Lastly, there’s Morrow, who signed a three-year, $10 million contract with OKC this summer after spending last season with the New Orleans Pelicans. Morrow is a lethal shooter from the outside. He shot 45.1 percent from three with the Pels, which was good for fourth best in the NBA

Each candidate makes sense in their own separate way, but who is the best option of the three? To help answer that question, we will take a deeper look at all three players and break down what they would bring to the table as a starter. 

Afterward, we’ll pick the best man for the job. 

 

Jeremy Lamb

Jeremy Lamb has the potential to be a solid starter in the NBA. He’s quick and athletic. He has good range on his jumper, and he has great measurables (6’5″ with a 6’11″ wingspan and 8’6″ standing reach, per Lamb’s DraftExpress.com profile).

However, two seasons into his pro career, Lamb has yet to put it all together. Lamb’s inability to live up to the hype so far isn’t completely on him. The UConn product was starting to come along last season, averaging 10.6 points per game for the month of December and 10.7 points in January. 

By February, his minutes started to dwindle and he was starting to become an afterthought in the rotation once Caron Butler came aboard in March. As with any young player, confidence is key. Lamb can’t show the coaching staff what he can do if he’s unsure about his role. 

Joe Atmonavage of HoopsHabit.com shared the same sentiments in a recent article about Lamb:  

I think the Thunder can expect Lamb to average around 10-12 points per game while knocking down 38-40 percent of his 3-pointers…A big part of putting it altogether and having that type of season for Lamb is his confidence. I think Brooks needs to let Lamb play through his mistakes and regain his confidence through his play. It is hard to gain confidence when you are not on the floor.

The flip side to Atmonavage‘s point is that Lamb has to give the franchise a reason to put its faith in him. He has to make the most of the opportunities he gets and prove himself worthy of more playing time. Inconsistency, at both ends of the court, has been one of Lamb’s biggest obstacles. 

Lamb’s consistency woes could be attributed to a lack of confidence, but it’s on him to motivate himself to play up to the high standards. When you look at the best players in the league, they don’t rely on others to instill the competitive drive to be great. It comes from within. 

Now let’s take a look at some of the things Lamb can do and what he can offer the Thunder when he starts feeling confident in himself. This video is from Lamb’s career night against the Houston Rockets on Dec. 29 of last year. 

Throughout the highlight reel, you’ll see Lamb’s outside jumper on display. His ability to catch and shoot will come in handy for a Thunder team that finished 14th in both three-point percentage (36 percent) and three-pointers made per game (8.1 per contest). 

That’s not the only thing Lamb showcases here though. At the 34-second mark, Lamb shows off his wheels as he races down the court in transition to get the easy bucket. Two minutes in, Lamb brings the ball up and lobs a perfect mid-court pass for the alley-oop. 

Games like this have been infrequent throughout Lamb’s short career, which is a large part of the frustration for the organization and its fans alike. The talent is definitely there, but it’s up to Lamb to provide the spark that will lead to a bright career. 

 

Anthony Morrow

Like Lamb, Morrow’s best attribute is his ability to light it up from the outside. Morrow was silent for the first half of last season as minutes became scarce playing behind Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon in New Orleans. It wasn’t until injuries forced him into a bigger role late in the season that the 28-year-old really came to life. 

Morrow came alive in March and April, averaging 11.1 and 15.1 points, respectively, in the final two months of the season. He became a go-to offensively for a Pelicans team that wasn’t left with much beyond Anthony Davis down the stretch. 

The key was his shooting. He converted 42 percent of his three-point attempts in March. Then, he followed that up by nailing 44.8 percent of his treys in April. Was this scoring outburst a sign of future things to come, or was the Georgia Tech product motivated by his impending free agency?

Prior to his explosion with the Pelicans, Morrow flew under the radar as he bounced around with several different teams. He hasn’t averaged double-digits in scoring since the 2011-12 season with the then-New Jersey Nets, and he’s never started more than 47 games in a single season throughout his six-year career. 

Despite the lack of starting experience, Morrow clearly did enough to convince the Thunder to sign him during the offseason. Oklahoma City general manager Sam Presti spoke highly of his prized acquisition when asked why the shooter is such a good fit for the Thunder (h/t to Susan Bible of Basketball Insiders).

Anthony Morrow has demonstrated that he is amongst the most consistent and efficient three point shooters in the NBA over his career. With his body of work, we feel Anthony is a unique addition to a diverse roster, while also possessing the toughness and selflessness that we are consistently seeking in Thunder players.

In this video of Morrow’s 27-point performance against the Los Angeles Clippers, the veteran shows he’s more than just a long-range specialist. While he shows off his ability to knock down open threes, Morrow does a nice job of mixing in some post moves as well as creating his shot off the dribble. 

If Morrow can prove to be more than a niche player, he could be a nice fourth option on what is already a devastating starting rotation. Even if Morrow doesn’t get the starting job, he provides depth for a team that needs scoring off the bench as well as a solid mentor for the prospects on the rise. 

 

Reggie Jackson

There are a number of reasons why Reggie Jackson would like to start this season. Jackson has played well enough, both as a reserve and as an occasional starter, to earn an increased role. Last season, he scored a career-high 13.1 points per game and raised his three-point percentage from 23.1 percent in 2012-13 to 33.9 percent. 

A spot in the starting lineup would also increase Jackson’s chances of securing a nice payday down the road. Jackson will be a restricted free agent next summer, which puts the Thunder in an awkward position since they don’t have the money to lock up their super-sub this year. 

The more Jackson plays, in theory, the higher his value becomes. As his value rises, so does his price tag. Teams with cap space and a need for a scoring point guard could make a run at Jackson knowing Oklahoma City’s budget will be thin with Kevin Durant‘s contract expiring a year later. 

As we’ve seen this summer with guys like Chandler Parsons, teams are willing to overpay for rising stars if it will also hurt a fierce rival as well. We’ve also seen how relationships between restricted free agents and their respective franchises can become strained when pennies start getting pinched (as in the case of Eric Bledsoe and the Phoenix Suns, per Chris Haynes of CSNNW.com). 

Business aside, there are pros and cons to putting Jackson in the starting lineup. On the one hand, playing Jackson and Westbrook together gives the Thunder an interchangeable backcourt. Both men are capable of bringing the ball up the court or playing off the ball and creating offense for themselves. 

On the flip side, playing two point guards together as opposed to the traditional guard pairing creates a size disadvantage (though Westbrook’s insane athleticism would allow him to hold his own defensively).

There would also be a downgrade at the backup point guard spot going from Jackson to Sebastian Telfair. Quality depth was one of the Thunder’s biggest issues last season and, while Telfair could be serviceable, he doesn’t offer the same spark that Jackson does. 

Speaking of the spark Jackson provides, watch how he torched the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals. While Lamb and Morrow use their jumper as their bread and butter, Jackson’s calling card is the ability to get to the hoop at will. 

Time and time again, he penetrates the Grizzlies defense and attacks the basket. That’s not to say that Jackson can’t knock it down from deep. At the 1:04 mark, you’ll see him dribble out of trouble, step back and nail a trifecta.

Jackson would finish with 32 points as he helped bring the Thunder back to earn the win and even the series up. 

With Jackson getting better every year, the Thunder have an interesting decision ahead. The Boston College product will be motivated to play well. That could work to Oklahoma City’s benefit or its detriment. 

 

And The Winner Is…

In truth, having three starter-quality candidates at one position is a good problem to have. Regardless of what direction head coach Scott Brooks goes in, he’s likely to make a good decision. Based on how he’s performed the past two seasons (especially in the playoffs), the popular choice would be to go with Jackson. 

However, I think Lamb should get the nod. The time has come for the team to get a good look at one of its prized prospects, and it will be a boost to Lamb’s confidence if he can finally have a defined role. If the only thing holding Lamb back has been what’s between his ears, a little support could go a long way. 

Furthermore, by relegating Jackson and Morrow to the second unit, Oklahoma City’s bench becomes deeper and stronger. While both have shined as starters before, Jackson could excel as a sixth man and Morrow could thrive as a three-point specialist. 

Meanwhile, this becomes a make-or-break season for Lamb. With the team trusting him with starter minutes, there’s no more excuses for his failures. Either he puts all of his physical tools together and lives up to his potential or the team must move on. 

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How Can Amar’e Stoudemire Contribute to NY Knicks Next Season?

It was the best of STAT, it was the worst of STAT. Last season was truly a tale of two Amar’es. The Amar’e Stoudemire of November slumped off the bench, shooting free throws about as well as a fourth-grader. The Amar’e Stoudemire of March and April sparkled as a starter in the end-of-season winning streak, shooting 57.5 percent from the field. 

How will he contribute to the Knicks in 2014-15? That rather depends upon which Amar’e shows up to training camp.

He might still be best used as a trade asset. Stoudemire is entering the last year of his contract. Depending upon his performance this fall, Phil Jackson and Co. may either pay him the last $23.4 million he’s owed or trade him to the Philadelphia 76ers midseason. 

How could Amar’e contribute—considering his end-of-season play, the style of the new offense and the relative health of his fellow center-forwards?

He could be starting center.

Amar’e Stoudemire Per-Game Stats, 2013-14
  MIN PTS FG% FT% BLK REB TOV +/-
November 2013, off bench 14.9 5.0 42.6 36.4 0.1 3.1 1.0 -7.6
March-April 2014, as starter 28.1 15.7 57.5 81.9 0.8 6.0 1.2 +3.0
Source: NBA.com/stats

 

But He’s Injury-Prone!

Yes, yes, we all know that Stoudemire’s body is like a retired minefield. It looks great, but something terrible might still lurk just beneath the surface. Yet there are two reasons not to let fear of exploding patellas keep Stoudemire out of the starting lineup.

For one, take a look at the two other center-forwards on the roster. There’s newly acquired free agent Jason Smith, who hasn’t played since he got a season-ending injury in January, and Andrea Bargnani…who hasn’t played since he got a season-ending injury in January. And neither of them wrote a cookbook about nutrition for athletes.

If one’s going to fret over busted bodies in the frontcourt, STAT’s health might not be the one to worry about. 

Besides, treat Amar’e like he’s broken, and he’ll play like he is. Treat him like an NBA starter, and he’ll play like one. Although he was frequently rested and held to minutes restrictions, he played better with no rest than on one day of rest and with more minutes instead of fewer. The stats show it. His words corroborate.

“Once I got into the starting lineup, then my leadership qualities [resurfaced],” Stoudemire told reporters in April, per Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN.com. “So next year, we should be focused a little bit more and it’ll be a much better year.”

 

What About Dalembert?

For argument’s sake, let’s assume that the Stoudemire who shows up to training camp is sound of mind and body. 

New head coach Derek Fisher might decide to put Stoudemire in the same place he was at the March/April winning streak: starting at power forward, with J.R. Smith, Carmelo Anthony, a point guard and a true center with a defensive mindset. 

(Of course, Fish might want to differentiate himself from last year’s coach by making his starters a combination of offseason acquisitions and Knicks City Kids.)  

If Fisher wants to recreate the one lineup that worked in 2013-14, the best 5 to Amar’e‘s 4 would be Samuel Dalembert—a great blocker, but not much of a scoring threat. 

Yet, that might not be the right type of center for the triangle offense. 

 

Stretching the Floor

The triangle is built to create shot opportunities all over the floor. So having a center who could not only get open for those shots but also make those shots would stretch the floor, keep the offense moving and keep the defense flustered. 

Dalembert averaged only 5 points per game last season, 89 percent of which came in the paint. He’s not the guy to stretch the floor. What other options does New York have at the 5? 

There’s Cole Aldrich, the team’s only other “true center,” yet Aldrich can’t stretch the floor either. Only two of his 61 shot attempts last season were outside the paint. (He made one of them.)

That leaves the center-forwards: Jason Smith, Bargnani and Stoudemire himself.

Bargnani is the stretchiest because he has what Smith and STAT don’t: a three-point shot. Granted, it’s a three that runs hot and cold, and he only averaged 27.4 percent from behind the arc last season, but neither Smith nor Stoudemire have sunk a trey in over two years. Bargs‘ shot selection breaks down to roughly 40 percent in the paint, 40 percent mid-range, 20 percent behind the arc.

Smith has a strong mid-range jumper. He had a 45 percent field-goal percentage at that distance and took 74 percent of his shot attempts from there.

STAT, meanwhile, took 34 percent of his shots from mid-range and was an absolute beast when he got closer to the bucket. As a starter, he averaged a 70.0 field-goal percentage in the restricted area.

So all three center-forwards could stretch the floor more than Dalembert or Aldrich, but only Stoudemire is a real threat at the rim. 

Therefore, if paired with Bargnani or Smith, Amar’e is the better choice to play the 5 spot. Not only can he be a threat in the mid-range, he can power his way to the bucket and own the rim. 

 

If All Else Fails

Amar’e could also contribute to the Knicks by being traded—possibly to Philadelphia for young prospects. The Sixers are the likely candidate because while most teams wouldn’t accept an uninsured contract like Stoudemire’s, the contract is expiring and the Sixers have to reach the minimum salary cap. Yet, surely Amar’e‘s strict diet does not allow for Philly cheesesteaks.

Besides, there are reasons to think that he could contribute greatly to New York while he is still in New York. By spending more time at the 5 spot, using his mid-range jumper to stretch the floor and outmuscling defenders in the paint, he can fortify the triangle.

One hopes Amar’e will also work on his defense, though he would probably be shunted out of a defense-first starting lineup by Dalembert, anyway.

At the very least, if he continues his careful devotion to training and nutrition and the upbeat attitude that won New Yorkers’ hearts, Amar’e Stoudemire can lead the team in spirit, if not on the stat sheets. 

Follow Sara Peters on Twitter @3fromthe7.

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Can Kenneth Faried Use FIBA Tournament as Springboard to Breakout Season?

Kenneth Faried wasn’t even supposed to be on Team USA’s final roster for the FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain, but he made it anyway.

Now his combination of effort and evolving skill is helping set the tone for a U.S. squad that needs an emotional leader. And what’s more, Faried is showing the world he’s ready for even bigger things in the 2014-15 NBA season.

Backing up a bit, it’s easy to forget how remarkable Faried‘s presence on the roster truly is. To get to Spain, Faried needed late-stage withdrawals from Blake Griffin and Kevin Love. Then, he also benefited from Kevin Durant‘s exit and Paul George‘s injury.

Remember, both of those players figured to eat up minutes as international stretch 4s.

Finally, Paul Millsap’s surprising cut removed yet another seemingly better-suited frontcourt option.

None of this is to be read as a slight against Faried. It’s just that the World Cup (and most international basketball) doesn’t really have much of a place for undersized bigs who can’t shoot and don’t control the lane on defense. At the very least, it’s fair to say the U.S. kept Faried on the roster because nearly a half-dozen better options were removed from the equation.

For most of the selection process, it didn’t seem like an energy guy had a role to play.

As it turns out, nothing could have been further from the truth.

Faried‘s frenzied effort and unmitigated hustle may have saved Team USA in its 98-77 win over Turkey on Sunday. Trailing by five at halftime, the U.S. needed a boost to overcome the quirky hybrid zone defense Turkey was employing. Making matters worse, the open shots the U.S. team was missing were deflating guys like Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.

Turkey wasn’t afraid, and Team USA lacked the attacking mentality that helped it turn Finland’s squad into a turnover factory on Saturday.

Thanks to random acts of Manimalism, Faried jolted the U.S. awake. He blocked shots, won battles for loose balls and ran the floor with purpose. Team USA has always been at its best when organized basketball gives way to chaos, and few frontcourt players are better when things get chaotic than Faried.

Soon enough, the deficit disappeared, replaced by a lead that kept growing with every tipped pass on defense and every breakaway lob on offense. Team USA cruised to victory after finding the intensity it had been missing.

Thanks largely to Faried, who finished with a game-high 22 points on 11-of-14 shooting.

And though steals and blocks aren’t always great indicators of defensive impact, anyone watching the contest would say Faried‘s three swipes and two swats had a very real impact on changing the course of the game.

For good measure, he also led all U.S. players with eight rebounds.

It’s clear that Faried, once believed to be a player without a clear role on Team USA, is exactly what the roster needs. Ebbs and flows in focus are bound to happen with a squad that enjoys the kind of prohibitive favorite status the Americans have. And players with relentless energy are ideal for providing that extra push when everybody else is ready to coast.

Faried isn’t vulnerable to lackadaisical lapses. He only operates at full throttle.

Team USA has seen fit to start him in both contests so far, and there doesn’t seem to be any chance of that changing now.

What could change, however, is the Denver Nuggets’ fortunes if Faried uses his breakout performance with Team USA to reach a new level in the upcoming NBA season. And just for clarity’s sake, the leap forward Faried seems to be making in Spain might have actually started last season in Denver.

Per Grantland’s Zach Lowe, Faried was a changed player after the All-Star break:

Only about 15 percent of the possessions Faried used up on offense before the All-Star break came via post-ups, per Synergy Sports. That’s a middling share for a starting NBA big man, amounting to fewer than two field goal attempts per game in Faried’s case. Those numbers have exploded in Denver’s 26 games since the All-Star break. …

Best of all: Faried is shooting 56 percent on post-ups since the All-Star break. Look at that number again. Among all players who have recorded 75 post-ups this season, or about one per game, just one has shot better that: Shaun Livingston. “Now people are saying, ‘Hey, maybe he can get you 15 or 20 a night,’” Faried says. “And that I can do it without breaking a sweat.”

Realistically, Denver would probably prefer Faried keep sweating. For all his improvements, his effort is still his biggest asset.

Tempering breakout enthusiasm a bit, it’s only fair to mention that Faried has never been a good defender. Denver’s defensive rating was an atrocious 108.6 with him on the floor last season, far worse than the 101.4 figure it posted without Faried, per NBA.com.

A lack of size and length—not to mention the manic restlessness that routinely leaves him out of position—likely mean Faried will never be a dominant defender. But he brings so many other benefits to the table that the overall package remains clearly positive.

The Nuggets will be exceptionally deep this season, having added Arron Afflalo over the summer to join the hopefully healthy quartet of Danilo Gallinari, JaVale McGee, Nate Robinson and J.J. Hickson. In addition, Denver made two draft-day additions—Gary Harris and Jusuf Nurkic—who could step in and contribute right away.

With Ty Lawson and (now) Faried ready to take on leadership roles, the Nuggets are quietly a very dangerous team.

If Faried carries his brilliant play from the World Cup to the regular season, he won’t be doing anything new. Though it seems like eons ago, Derrick Rose rode a breakout wave in the 2010 FIBA tourney to an MVP season with the Chicago Bulls.

It seems international tournaments have a way of preparing players for bigger things.

Buoyed by the confidence he’s building in Spain, Faried could be ready to take the kind of step that drags the Nuggets back into the playoff picture after a year spent in the lottery.

Denver’s not supposed to be in the postseason conversation—not in a brutal Western Conference that only seems to get tougher every year. But Faried is using his time with Team USA to prove he doesn’t really care where people think he belongs.

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Under-the-Radar Freshmen to Watch in 2014-15 CBB Season

Hoops fans have already heard the names of the most hyped freshmen arriving for the 2014-15 college basketball season—the Jahlil Okafors and Myles Turners—but there are plenty of others who will make major contributions.

Just as unheralded Texas point guard Isaiah Turner became an immediate hit last year, there are sure to be a few lesser-known newcomers who remind fans that recruiting rankings are far from an exact science.

One of Turner’s new Big 12 rivals who’s hoping to make that kind of impact is Devonte Graham. Overshadowed in a point guard class headlined by Duke-bound Tyus Jones, Graham will be taking over the PG spot at Kansas, with all the pressure that entails.

Read on for more on Graham, along with more incoming freshmen who couldn’t crack the Top 25 in the national rankings (ESPN, Rivals.com or scout.com) but will still play vital roles for their new teams in 2014-15.

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Los Angeles Lakers: An All Star Season For Jeremy Lin?

Los Angeles Lakers: An All Star Season For Jeremy Lin?
By Mike Elworth: Owner and Publisher/Hoopstuff…
The Los Angeles Lakers aren’t a playoff team, as they are at best the 10th most talented team in the Western Conference. However, with their cap space they have a chance next offseason to be big spenders to build a contender and in 2 offseason, they have a near clean cap. The Lakers can be competitive and could be .500, but it will take 50 wins to make the West Playoffs and about 35 wins is likely for Los Angeles. Regardless, although there will be a lot of L’s in their record, this season isn’t a loss, as they can see if Kobe Bryant can stay healthy, how Byron Scott acts as coach, but to me the most entertaining story of the season for the Lakers will be seeing how Jeremy Lin plays in a Lakers jersey. Why? He is going to have a big season.
Scott has recently coached Chris Paul and a very young Kyrie Irving and those offensives were centered on the point guards and with the Lakers’…

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James Harden says Kobe Bryant has “been working,” expects to see “20-year-old Kobe” next season

On October 28, the Los Angeles Lakers will begin the 2014-15 season with a much anticipated matchup with the Houston Rockets. While there are intriguing storylines surrounding the game involving Dwight Howard and Jeremy Lin, Kobe Bryant will obviously be the big draw for a couple of reasons. For one, it will be the first time that Kobe has faced off against Dwight since he left town last summer, though, more importantly, it will be the return of the Black Mamba to the basketball court.
After appearing in just six games last season, the basketball world is anxious to see Bryant back on the court, and if Harden’s assessment of the five-time champion’s current form is anything to go by, fans of the purple and gold should be very excited.
“I know he’s been working. We’ve talked a few times and he’s ready. He’s 20-year-old Kobe,” Harden said in an interview with ThePostGame. “So, it should be a crazy environment. I’m ready for the upcoming season, it should be a good one.”
20-year-old Kobe

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Early Predictions for Minnesota Timberwolves’ Starting Lineup Next Season

With Kevin Love officially traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers (according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports), the Minnesota Timberwolves will have a very different starting five than in years past.  

Many new faces will be donning the blue and green this upcoming fall.  Most of these new additions are unproven players with very high ceilings, such as Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and Anthony Bennett.

However, the Timberwolves also have solid veterans such as Kevin Martin, Nikola Pekovic and the recently added Thaddeus Young.   

Coach Flip Saunders will have to choose between playing veterans to win now or prepare for the future by playing the youngsters.  

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Early Win-Loss Predictions for Toronto Raptors Next Season

The 2014-15 regular season for the Toronto Raptors will be used as a means to not only build on their incredible success from a year prior, but to also silence any doubters who believe their rags-to-riches turnaround was merely an apparition. 

Coming within one Kyle Lowry layup of the second round of the NBA playoffs has given the players a taste of the trials and tribulations that come with postseason basketball. Since it was only a small sample, the Raptors will take that experience as a motivating factor to not only qualify for the playoffs once again, but to advance even further and really make some noise. 

Forty-eight victories and the second Atlantic Division crown in franchise history were a pleasant surprise during a period where the team was set on a path of rebuilding and retooling. Trading Rudy Gay in a seven-player deal to the Sacramento Kings before the end of 2013 was a blessing in disguise as a 6-12 start miraculously turned into a 42-22 finish.

Opportunities opened up in Dwane Casey’s rotation for players to take on more responsibility and come into their own. DeMar DeRozan was named to his first NBA All-Star team, Lowry shed unflattering labels of being hard to work with to ultimately become team leader, while sophomores Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas earned extended minutes and more touches on the floor. 

ESPN.com doesn’t believe Toronto is a one-hit wonder, projecting the Raptors to finish with the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference (47-35) and the fifth-best odds to win the conference championship. 

That’s a fair and safe prediction considering the cataclysmic makeover the East endured in just a few short months.

LeBron James is back with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Pau Gasol ditched the Staples Center to sign with the Chicago Bulls and Luol Deng joined Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade in South Beach. The Indiana Pacers, the No. 1 seed in 2014, lost both Lance Stephenson (signed with the Charlotte Hornets) and Paul George (expected to miss entire 2014-15 season with lower right leg injury), creating space at the top for a new team to establish dominance. 

Will that team be the Raptors? Are they ready to plant their flag at the top of the mountain?

 

New Additions

If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. 

In the case of general manager Masai Ujiri, his offseason was more about making sure the existing wheels didn’t roll off into the distance.

Bringing back Lowry, Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez was a direct message to those who came out in the thousands at Jurassic Park during the Raptors’ playoff run that their favorites weren’t going anywhere.

Lowry gave credit to the fans in being a huge reason behind why he’s dedicating the next four years of his basketball life to the city of Toronto, per Sean Fitz-Gerald of the National Post

I knew the fans — during the regular season — how passionate they were. But when it came to the playoffs and they kicked it up an extra notch, it definitely helped in that decision. The fan base here is unbelievable. We need that every game.

The Raptors’ starting lineup remains untouched with Lowry, DeRozan, Ross, Amir Johnson and Valanciunas maintaining their respective roles. Joining them will be a slew of old friends, familiar faces and some upstart prospects.

Point Guard Shooting Guard Small Forward Power Forward Center
Kyle Lowry DeMar DeRozan Terrence Ross  Amir Johnson  Jonas Valanciunas
Greivis Vasquez Lou Williams  James Johnson Patrick Patterson  Chuck Hayes
Will Cherry    Landry Fields  Tyler Hansbrough  Lucas Nogueira 
      Bruno Caboclo   

Lou Williams and Lucas Nogueira were acquired from the Atlanta Hawks in a deal for John Salmons.

What Williams provides is instant scoring off the bench and the ability to play either guard position. He’s more adept at putting the ball in the basket than being a distributor (career average of 3.1 assists), so it’s almost safe to assume that Vasquez will remain the facilitator for the second unit while Williams gets the green light to shoot from the sidelines. 

Nogeuira is a project and will have a difficult time earning playing time over his larger and more skilled teammates. Just be sure to avoid sitting behind him with courtside seats, though. That hair isn’t going anywhere. 

Speaking of projects, Bruno Caboclo will have just as many chances to learn through watching from the end of the bench with his fellow Brazilian. 

Taken with the No. 20 pick, Caboclo was hailed as the “Brazilian Kevin Durant” by ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla on draft night. He was also discussed as being “two years away from being two years away,” so there’s that. 

Averaging 11.8 points and 2.0 rebounds in four games at NBA Las Vegas Summer League, the 18-year-old swingman showed glimpses of being ready to contribute a lot sooner. The only problem is that minutes will be hard to come by at both small and power forward. There’s no need to be thrown to the wolves just yet.

One player who won’t need an adjustment period is James Johnson, a 6’9″ beast of a defender who’s ready to embark on his second stint with the team.

Johnson is well aware of how problematic his earlier years were, so this is his big chance to start fresh with an organization where his best basketball was played, per the Canadian Press (via CBC.ca): 

It never was bad, we had our bumps, but that’s war. It’s a war out there when we’re playing a game and sometimes you say stuff that you regret or you say stuff that you don’t really mean.

Dwane Casey is a great guy and I feel like he realizes that and we’ve moved forward from where we were at. We had a great conversation and I’m just ready to win and I know he is.

It was a crazy road for me, but you learn a lot throughout your mistakes. I felt like Masai [Ujiri] and the rest of the Toronto Raptors they felt the same way about the situation and feel the same way about my play and what I could bring to the team.

I still have a lot to prove, but [the Raptors] signing me for two years gives me a boost of confidence and I’m going to work my hardest to help us go further than we did last year.

 

Atlantic Division 

Should we pencil Toronto in for a second-straight Atlantic Division title now or later? Reader’s choice.

The Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks, Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics are all that stands between the Raptors hoisting another banner up at the Air Canada Centre. 

Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and company presented the Raptors with their biggest challenge, finishing four games back in the standings at 44-38 and beating Canada’s team in their best-of-seven series.

Former All-Star Brook Lopez will re-enter the fray at center after missing all but 17 games with a foot injury. Jason Kidd’s coaching rights were sent packing to the Milwaukee Bucks, although the void he left allowed for a more experienced coach in Lionel Hollins to take over. 

With Paul Pierce now wearing America’s colors with the Washington Wizards and Kevin Garnett one step closer to retirement, Brooklyn’s championship window may be closed. They still possess a more than credible roster with many weapons at their disposal, but with so many changes both talent and personnel wise, it’s hard to imagine the Nets being any better than they were a year go.

Carmelo Anthony will be a New York Knick for the foreseeable future after re-signing for five more years, giving fans at Madison Square Garden a glimmer of hope.

Former Raptor Jose Calderon will join him in the starting lineup as his new point guard after coming over in a trade with the Dallas Mavericks. Reuniting Calderon with Andrea Bargnani, a former No. 1 overall pick for the Raptors, should create some nostalgia moments when the two teams cross paths. 

The passion Knicks supporters have for their franchise is unparalleled, but in a city where winning is everything, expectations are set far too high far too often. Team president Phil Jackson will need to lay more brick and mortar (and a little pixie dust) before the Larry O’Brien trophy comes to “The Big Apple.” 

The 76ers have no interest in winning games, nor should they. The plan remains to continue stockpiling assets through the draft while building around a foundation of Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid.

Until the time comes where all of their young talent develops and consistently puts wins on the board, the 76ers will remain near the bottom of the food chain and pose no real threat to anyone. 

It ultimately comes down to the frontcourt of Noel and Embiid keeping a clean bill of health and the front office finding supporting characters who can assist Philadelphia’s stars of tomorrow. That’s not going to happen overnight, though. The process shall continue for at least another season or two, if not more. 

Until the future of four-time NBA All-Star Rajon Rondo is decided, it’s hard to describe the Celtics’ 2014-15 outlook. He’s the cog that makes their machine go. Marcus Smart, a 6’4″ guard out of Oklahoma State and the No. 6 pick in the NBA draft, will be handed the keys should Rondo be dealt, even with the obvious downgrade. 

Entering the final year of a five-year, $55 million extension he signed in 2009, Rondo’s days in Boston may be numbered. As the only star on the roster, he’s going to command a hefty price. It would be the final nail in the coffin of a core that won an NBA championship in 2008. 

Toronto’s 32-20 record in the division was six games better than both the Knicks and Nets, with the 76ers and Celtics being the proverbial whipping boys of the bunch.

There could be some surprises along the way in terms of the occasional upset here and there, but by mid-April, the Raptors will have their heads held high as they look down on their four Atlantic adversaries. 

 

Conclusion

Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Tyler Conway recently gave his impartial take on the Raptors’ roster and the ceiling they may have created for themselves:

Viewed through a purely objective prism, the Raptors have a bunch of dudes in that “pretty good” strata. They’re more than good enough to make the playoffs in the dumpster-dive East, but they profile as much more of a middling team than a true contender. 

Then again, there’s a credible counter argument to be made here. The Raptors ranked third in Eastern Conference scoring margin. Their Pythagorean wins-losses record would have been 51-31 or 52-30; Toronto was actually unlucky over the 82-game slate. Use data after the Gay trade, and this is a team that might have had 55 or so wins had Ujiri pulled the trigger earlier.

As far as DeRozan and Lowry have come and as bright as the future looks for both Ross and Valanciunas, an argument can be had over all four of those gentlemen lacking the star quality that makes great players elite and elite players larger than life. Where the true answer lies is on the players themselves. 

Then again, perhaps the Raptors are fine just the way they are. They’ve only scratched the surface in terms of what they can accomplish, having made the playoffs once in six years. Last year was a building block and a test of the players’ fortitude and desire for redemption. It was a fast-forward button icon on the blueprint to glory. 

We don’t know how good the Raptors can become until we see how they respond to the adversity they endured in Game 7 vs. Brooklyn. As heartbreaking a defeat as it was, that must be the last drop of fuel to the fire as they begin anew. 

They don’t have the sexy names or A-list stars, but what the Raptors do have is a core group of guys who will stick together and bust their tails night in and night out to achieve a common goal. 

Their win total won’t see a dramatic spike, but you’ll take it willingly as you gaze upon the landscape shift in the East. 

 

Prediction: 49-33, third in Eastern Conference

Best-Case Scenario: 53-29, second in Eastern Conference

Worst-Case Scenario: 40-42, eighth in Eastern Conference 

 

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics come from Basketball-Reference.com

Christopher Walder is considered by many to be the “songbird of his generation” and the greatest center to have never played professional, collegiate, high school, house league or pickup basketball. His work has been published at Bleacher Report, SB Nation, Sports Illustrated, FanSided and several other online outlets. You may follow him on Twitter at @WalderSports.

*Video courtesy of @limsaanity_

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