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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Boston Celtics: 5 Teams That Should Trade For Jeff Green

It’s hard not to look at snapshots of Jeff Green‘s career and not come away impressed. The talent and physical tools are there: he’s 6’9″, long armed, and smoothly athletic. Early in his career, the optimism seemed justified–alongside precocious youngsters Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Green dropped 20 or more points in 24 games in his […]
Boston Celtics: 5 Teams That Should Trade For Jeff Green – Hoops Habit – Hoops Habit – Analysis, Opinion and Stats All About The NBA

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3 Rim Protectors Cleveland Cavaliers Should Be Pursuing

With the addition of LeBron James and Kevin Love, the Cleveland Cavaliers won’t need much. The offense should be one of the very best in the league, even when accounting for time to jell.

There’s shooting at multiple positions, talented isolation players, offensive rebounding in spades with Love and Anderson Varejao and the world’s best player in James.

While there isn’t a whole lot that the Cavaliers don’t have the potential to do, including winning an NBA title, it’s important for general manager David Griffin to nitpick a bit. The Chicago Bulls still loom as a formidable foe, and if you’re stacking up the Cavs with them, the defense is nowhere close to what Chicago can bring.

Here’s Kurt Helin at ProBasketballTalk with more on Cleveland’s needs:

Rim protection is going to be an issue against the elite teams. Chicago has it and the Cavaliers are going to need it against them in the East if Derrick Rose and his slashing game return to form. They are certainly going to need it against the ball movement in San Antonio, or the slashing of Russell Westbrook and how the Thunder get to the rim, or the lob-city attack of the Clippers with Chris Paul.

Elite teams get easy buckets, getting them at the rim and generation open looks from the perimeter (ideally three). Then they knock them down. If you can’t defend that, you can’t win a ring.

That will be the Cavaliers biggest challenge. Griffin knows it.

Elite rim protection doesn’t come cheap. Centers are almost always paid at a premium, and teams are usually pretty hesitant to let go of big men that can serve as defensive anchors. 

Varejao is plenty serviceable as a rebounder and pick-and-roll defender, but the Cavs do lack length and shot-blocking. You can survive without those things defensively if you’re lights-out on the perimeter and in defending the pick-and-roll, like the Miami Heat were, but the weaknesses of Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters as individual and team defenders is going to create some issues on that end.

The good news is Griffin isn’t ignorant to what could be a big problem come playoff time.

Here’s what Griffin said on Fox Sports Radio on the Jay Mohr Sports show:

I have concerns (on) ability to protect the rim, and that’s not just a Kevin (Love) question. I don’t have any concerns about Kevin’s ability to be in the right place at the right time. He’s been really open about the fact that he’s bringing a focus to that end of the floor that maybe he didn’t do before.

Improvement from Love will certainly help, but his lack of length and explosiveness will never allow him to be much of a deterrent at the rim. He’s best off carving out space for misses than chasing shots anyhow.

The Cavs did well to secure rookie big man Alex Kirk, who could help in this regard, even though it’s highly unlikely he’ll see enough minutes to make a significant contribution.

Here’s Chuck Myron at HoopsRumors.com:

Kirk is a rim protector, as his 2.7 blocks per game this past season for the Lobos show. The Cavs have been sniffing around for someone who can play that role, reportedly offering a first-round pick for Timofey Mozgov, though Kirk will likely have to beat out a veteran or two to serve in that capacity for significant minutes in wine-and-gold this year.

The 22-year-old also averaged 13.3 points and 8.7 rebounds in 32.0 minutes per game in his junior year this past season at New Mexico. Kirk managed only 0.4 blocks per contest over 15.4 MPG across five summer league appearances, but Cleveland is seemingly confident that the larger sample size of his college performance is a better indicator. Kirk joins 15 others who have a contract or an agreement with the Cavs, though only 10 of them are known to have fully guaranteed deals, as our roster counts show.

With Kirk unlikely to be the answer, and with Tristan Thompson, Love and Varejao all lacking rim protection abilities, let’s take a look at three players the Cavs may want to pursue at some point.

 

Timofey Mozgov, Denver Nuggets

As previously mentioned, Mozgov could be a target for the Cavs according to what Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports said on WFAN Radio in New York, as noted here by Tommy Beer of Basketball Insiders:

Mozgov is a mountain of a man who just soaks up space in the paint, and his 7’1″ frame allows him to send away shots at a solid clip. In his first four years, Mozgov has averaged 2.0 blocks per 36 minutes while pulling in 10.1 boards as well.

Mozgov is also a better scorer than he seems to get credit for, as he has a nice little jump hook and a pretty soft touch around the rim. It’s no surprise that Cleveland would be interested, even if he isn’t the small-ball center James had success with in Miami.

While a late first-round pick seems fair on the surface for Mozgov, Denver might not feel they can let him go. JaVale McGee is coming off season-ending surgery, and he’s never been able to play big minutes anyway due mainly to foul trouble and coaching decisions. Mozgov may be viewed as necessary, and losing him for a pick would certainly put a dent in any hopes Denver has of returning to the playoffs.

Still, keep this one filed away for the trade deadline. If Cleveland still hasn’t addressed their need and if Denver appears to be out of the race, this could spark back up again.

 

Kosta Koufos, Memphis Grizzlies

Another Western Conference team with a solid shot-blocking big man in a backup role is former Denver Nuggets center Kosta Koufos. This would be a homecoming of sorts for the former Ohio State center, and his raw size and 1.9 blocks per 36 minutes are pretty similar to Mozgov.

Koufos is a better offensive rebounder than defensive rebounder, so it would be interesting to see how that would work next to a frontcourt that should already leverage that advantage on the offensive glass quite a bit. 

Koufos is by no means a star, but he’s provided some solid production and really helped the Grizzlies stay afloat last season when Marc Gasol went down with injury.

Would the Grizzlies ship out their insurance policy? Again, this is a team with playoff hopes, so it might be a challenge. That said, the front office of Memphis likely values a late first-round choice more than Denver does, even if it would leave the team without a starting center candidate in 2015 if Gasol bolted in free agency.

If there was another piece on the roster the Cavs were willing to give up that the Grizzlies wanted in addition to a first-round pick for Koufos, maybe this could work.

 

John Henson, Milwaukee Bucks

The frontcourt in Milwaukee sure is crowded with the addition of Jabari Parker, who projects to be a small 4 at the next level. With Ersan Ilyasova on contract along with John Henson, Larry Sanders and Zaza Pachulia, this could be a time crunch of sorts.

Should the Bucks want to deal Henson? Probably not, but if Sanders and Ilyasova bounce back, it’s probably not out of the question.

Henson would be a steal for the Cavs as a mobile, lanky big who could really unleash as a shot blocker with Love, Varejao or Thompson protecting him on the boards. Henson has averaged 15.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per 36 minutes in his first two seasons, and there’s plenty of room to grow. 

If Henson could finish with his right hand and reliably knock down shots from 15 feet, he could become a legitimate double-double threat every night that provides elite rim protection thanks to his incredible length. 

A first-round pick probably wouldn’t be enough for Milwaukee to deal a cheap, productive asset like Henson, but perhaps a swap of Dion Waiters for Henson could make both teams happy.

What’s more likely is that Henson would need to fall out of favor with the Milwaukee coaching staff and management, making him available at the price of a future first-rounder. Don’t rule that out.

 

Ultimately, the Cavs should have some solid options to pursue when looking around the league for a shot-blocker.

Again, those kind of players may be harder to pluck away than you might imagine, but if history is any indicator, the Cavs will be aggressive on the trade market all year long. 

 

Advanced stats are provided courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

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Who Should Start at Power Forward for New York Knicks in 2014-15?

Throughout the 2013-14 campaign, “Carmelo Anthony at the 4” became a rallying cry for fans of the New York Knicks, desperate as they were for some silver bullet capable of turning their team’s wayward season around.

But while Melo was able to use his new positional dominance to author arguably the two best seasons of his 11-year NBA career, the Knicks themselves sputtered to a playoff-less stall.

Now, with a new triangle-inspired regime at the reins and Anthony’s offseason regimen yielding a distinctly small forward frame, the question is bound to be raised anew: Who, exactly, should be New York’s starting 4 come opening night?

As currently constituted, the roster features five legitimately viable candidates: Andrea Bargnani, Amar’e Stoudemire, Jason Smith, Quincy Acy and Anthony.

Out of that group, Stoudemire seems the most likely candidate to come off the bench. Not because his past production warrants it, mind you, but rather because Stoudemire’s significant injury history will likely compel head coach Derek Fisher to adopt a minutes-management approach similar to the one previously used by Mike Woodson.

Unless, of course, Fisher and his staff take the opposite approach, namely using Stoudemire as often as they see fit, why with the former All-Star forward’s contract set to expire at the end of the season. Still, given STAT’s strong finish down last year’s stretch, limiting his minutes makes the most sense for all involved.

That Stoudemire remains one of the most woeful one-on-one defenders for his position anywhere in the league all but seal’s his fate on this front.

Bargnani presents a similar strategic conundrum: Is Fisher willing to live with the Italian forward’s woeful D for 30-plus minutes per game? Considering he authored far more efficient stretches at the 5 than at the 4 a season ago (per 82games.com), it seems Bargnani—likewise an expiring contract—would be best suited either as the starting center or one of the first bigs off the ‘Bocker bench.

For all his grit and gusto, Acy, whom the Knicks acquired along with Travis Outlaw in an August 6 trade with the Sacramento Kings, isn’t exactly starter material, having failed to tally more than 14 minutes per game in each of his first two NBA seasons.

Next up is Smith, whom the Knicks inked to a one-year deal on July 18. Good but not great, steady but not spectacular, Smith stands as a viable—if not overly exciting—power forward option. The reason: His offensive versatility makes for an intriguing fit in the triangle, geared as it often is toward the very mid-range jumpers Smith has made a career calling card of sorts.

Here’s Posting & Toasting’s W. Scott Davis:

Midrange jumpers and deep twos aren’t exactly the favorite shots of modern offenses, but in the Triangle, Smith’s ability to can those looks could be helpful. Whether he’s acting as a center or power forward next to guys like Dalembert or Aldrich, Smith can space the floor, stretch a defense, and potentially open up other looks on the perimeter or inside.

Which brings us back to Anthony. Pitted against the aforementioned names, Anthony would seem a no-brainer as the Knicks’ starting 4.

However, as ESPNNew York.com’s Ian Begley recently posited, New York’s triangle transition could mean a decreased emphasis on the game’s traditional positional taxonomy:

That positional argument, though, may be less relevant this season because of the triangle. Anthony will be asked to take on a different role in the triangle and his function will be different as a small forward this season than it was last year in Woodson’s offense. Also, in the triangle, each player on the floor may be asked to fill multiple roles on the offense and may not be locked into a traditional position at all times. So the bigger issue this season will be who Anthony shares the floor with and which role he’s asked to fill in the triangle.

From New York’s perspective, what position Anthony plays is far less important than where he chooses to operate in Fisher’s system.

Speaking to ESPNNewYork.com’s Ohm Youngmisuk and Begley Tuesday, Iman Shumpert—believed by many to be the team’s starting 2—echoed some of the philosophical points of Begley’s analysis:

The way it’s set up, you can start three guards, it really doesn’t matter. Everybody’s going to get touches, everybody gets opportunities to cut. It’s constant action going on. So I think that I’ll be able to capitalize on that and I’ll be able to use my athleticism a lot more than standing in the corner.

Still, that doesn’t mean Phil Jackson—Knicks president, triangle guru and steward of New York’s latest rebuild—doesn’t have a preference for where the golden calf gets slotted.

Indeed, according to Marc Berman of the New York Post, Jackson “sees Anthony more as a starting small forward this season,” with Berman positing the All-Star forward’s recent workout regimen as a reflection of that design.

For clues as to who, exactly, stands to replace Anthony at the 4, it’s instructive to look at the personnel strategy that appears to have informed Jackson’s first few moves.

Between Samuel Dalembert (acquired along with Jose Calderon in the Raymond Felton-Tyson Chandler trade), Smith, Acy, Bargnani, Stoudemire and Cole Aldrich, the Knicks have made a concerted effort to bolster their frontcourt ranks.

That, in turn, suggests Jackson might be looking to duplicating the kind of super-sized post platoon that marked much of his stint—and five championships—with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Between Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and (a healthy) Andrew Bynum, Jackson placed a high premium on the two-fold factor of size and skill. And while no one would suggest Smith, Bargnani and Stoudemire might rival that trio’s triangle prowess, the writing seems all but on the wall: Position-less philosophy aside, Anthony should be paired with the best combination of brawn and brains.

Assuming Fisher goes with either Bargnani or Dalembert at the 5, that leaves Smith, Stoudemire or Acy to man the starting 4 spot.

Of the three, Smith offers the best collection of triangle-ready skills. Which is why, as things stand today, the former New Orleans Pelican seems most likely to become New York’s full-time starting power forward.

He might not incite many cheers or sell a lot of jerseys, but on a team approaching the upcoming season as a bridge between eras, Smith—while perhaps forgettable—is by no means an unstable pier.

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Cavs Rumors: Cleveland Should Remain Aggressive in Pursuit of Timofey Mozgov

The Cleveland Cavaliers have clearly been the big winners this offseason, but they are not finished building the best roster possible.

With the additions of LeBron James and Kevin Love, this is clearly one of the best teams in the NBA. However, this squad has its sights on a title, and anything less will be a disappointment. As a result, the Cavaliers have to keep making any move that could take them a step closer to a championship.

One potential move on the table is a trade for Denver Nuggets center Timofey MozgovAlexander Chernykh of Sports.ru first reported a potential move earlier this month based on an interview head coach David Blatt gave to Russia News Agency ITAR-TASS:

While this seemed unlikely to be completed, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst explained on ESPN Cleveland radio Tuesday that the deal is still being discussed.

James Herbert of CBS Sports breaks down both the pros and cons of such a deal:

Of course the Cavs would want Mozgov. He’s 7-foot-1 and skilled, coming off by far the best season of his career. It would be tricky to work out a deal, though. Mozgov is making $4.65 million this coming season and he has a $4.95 million team option the year after that. The Nuggets don’t really have any reason to dump him for a package of say, Brendan Haywood and Cleveland’s several unguaranteed contracts.

The Cavaliers do have a few non-guaranteed contracts, which came in a trade with the Utah Jazz earlier in the offseason. Windhorst explained that John Lucas III, Malcolm Thomas and Erik Murphy all could be headed out as part of any Mozgov deal.

While Cleveland will have to sweeten the package in order to complete a deal, it makes sense for the team to want this to happen.

Blatt coached Mozgov with the Russian national team and is familiar with what he can do on the court. The big center also recently finished his best year in the NBA, averaging 9.4 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.2 blocks 21.6 minutes per game. He played in all 82 games after failing to top 45 in any of his first three years in the league.

With a player efficiency rating of 16.8, Mozgov was third on the Nuggets behind just Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried.

Throughout his career, the Russian center has proven to be a quality defender who can keep other big men from backing him down in the post. He is a quality rim protector when given the chance and can also rebound with the best in the league.

Most importantly, he would be a good fit with the Cavaliers, as CBS Sports’ Chris Towers argued after hearing the rumors:

As much talent as Cleveland added this summer, the team is still relatively weak in the low post. Love is a below-average defender, which will leave Anderson Varejao even more exposed. The team will need someone else capable of coming in to play center without losing much.

Additionally, the fact that Varejao is averaging just 36.5 games played over the past four seasons should force the team to add a safety net.

This is where Mozgov could be perfect. He would be solid either off the bench or as a starter in a limited offensive role. He knows exactly what he contributes to a team and would certainly not overstep his boundaries as the star players light up the scoreboard.

At this point, the only question is whether the Nuggets would be willing to make a deal. However, first-round pick Jusuf Nurkic is a similar player who can quickly fill the spot Mozgov would leave behind. With JaVale McGee still on the roster, the team will be fine making this type of move.

This makes a move possible, which means the Cavaliers have to keep working to somehow complete the deal.

 

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Who Should Start for the LA Lakers in 2014-15?

Training camp will usher in both new and familiar faces for the Los Angeles Lakers, including Byron Scott who starts a fresh chapter with a team that he won three championships with a generation ago.

As head coach, Scott will have plenty on his plate, including the task of choosing his starting players.

The newest sideline leader won’t have it all sorted out for months to come. But that never stopped the tradition of predictions. And while there will be different rotations and changes along the way, the following lineup offers a realistic best-case scenario for the season on the whole.

 

Point guard: Jeremy Lin

One of the arguments that can be made for starting Steve Nash is that it’s easier on his 40-year-old body to play at the beginning of the game and the start of the second half, when he’s loosened up.

But, there’s a larger argument about what’s best for the team. Nash could certainly start with Jeremy Lin playing major minutes off the bench. But the vagaries of age and chronic injuries are what they are. Nash simply can’t be counted on at this late stage in his career.

This needs to be Lin’s year to shine. The Lakers have a real opportunity to see if he can be a successful starter, not only now, but for the future. Forget that brief but incandescent moment in the spotlight with the New York Knicks or the challenges of a shifting role with the Houston Rockets.

As the Lakers’ new guard said at his introductory press conference, per Lakers.com; “Now, my goal is I’m not trying to be a player from the past. I’m trying to make history again.”

Lin is as smart as they come, is a fierce competitor and has good size at 6’3” for the position. He’ll willingly soak up knowledge from the master, and then take his spot.

 

Shooting guard: Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant turned 36 on August 23. He is exactly 10 years older than Lin to the day. Bryant has also played in 1,028 more games than his new teammate and has scored 29,127 more points. And that doesn’t include playoffs. The future Hall of Famer is also coming off two serious injuries.

Everyone’s waiting to see what Bryant’s game will look like when he finally returns to action. But of all the players on the roster, he is the only one who has a starting position carved in stone.

On Bryant’s birthday, Darius Soriano for Forum Blue and Gold wrote about the longtime Lakers star:

At its essence, basketball is a game of leverage and angles. The best players exploit physical and mental advantages to get to specific spots on the floor where the odds of success greatly outweigh the alternative. The amount of hours put in to achieve this mastery of body and mind to outplay an opponent is often what separates those who are considered very good in their era versus being considered very good for any era.

Kobe Bryant, whatever you think of him, has built his career on the idea that hard work and learning from his defeats and failures will get him where he wants to be.

And that is as succinct an explanation as any as to why a particular player should start for a team. You can also toss in an insatiable desire to win and the sweetest combination of jab steps and pump fakes in basketball.

 

Small forward: Wesley Johnson

This year’s roster doesn’t have a lot of defensive stoppers on it. But Scott will be making stops a priority nonetheless. As he recently said to Mike Trudell of Lakers.com:

You’re going to have to play a lot of help the helper to keep the ball from getting into the paint. That’s a lot of rotations, a lot of help, a lot of stunt and recover, where the guy with the ball sees one-and-a-half or two defenders every single time. You want to clog up the paint as much as possible and make the opponent take contested jump shots.

At the small forward position, Wesley Johnson has the athleticism and defensive ability to not only be a one-on-one defender, but to switch and cover for teammates. During his four-year NBA career, the former No. 4 draft pick for the Minnesota Timberwolves has been largely defined by not living up to high expectations. It was a bit of a surprise when the Lakers decided to bring him back this season, but his new coach sees the opportunity for improvement, as per the same Trudell interview:

I think Wesley has not played to his potential at all. He’s shown signs, but I think the kid is so talented, I’m really hoping it can be a break out year for him. Now, obviously, he has to come to camp and win that spot, and that’s on him.

 

 Power forward: Julius Randle

Carlos Boozer wasn’t a bad pickup this summer for $3.25 million—that being the amount the Lakers paid through the amnesty bidding process. The perennial starter may be past his prime, but he can still score the ball and pull down boards. However, he isn’t the frontcourt star of the future in Los Angeles.

The Lakers’ firmament does hold such a place for Julius Randle, though. This year’s No. 7 draft pick is a left-handed scorer who can crush it in the paint or use solid ball-handling skills to create options from mid-range—a dribble-drive to the basket or a pass to the open man. Randle’s a strong all-around rebounder with a penchant for cleaning the glass on the offensive end—generating extra possessions for his team and putback attempts for himself.

The freshman out of Kentucky also has a bigger wingspan than many assumed—measuring 7’0″ at the Chicago NBA Draft Combine, which, in relation to his 6’7.75” without shoes, is not bad at all. He’s not a finished product by any means, but there’s an obvious level of intensity present. Can he become a more complete two-way player?

As Scott said about the rookie, per the Trudell interview, “I see a young man that’s raw, but he has great feet and great quickness for his size, and he’s strong as a bull. You can tell that he wants to get better.”

Randall may not be the starter at the beginning of the season, but it won’t be long before he claims that spot.

 

Center: Jordan Hill

Apart from Bryant, the easiest starter to predict is Jordan Hill at the center position. That is, unless somebody thinks it’s going to be Robert Sacre?

Hill has what’s known as a very high motor. He can be counted on for relatively short bursts of intensity and hard-nosed play in the painted area. However, during his five years in the league, the former No. 8 draft pick by the New York Knicks has never been given big minutes or a consistent role.

One of the obvious problems has been inconsistent development under his NBA coaches. He averaged just 10.5 minutes through 24 games in Mike D’Antoni’s small-ball system with the New York Knicks before being traded to the Houston Rockets. Hill played for Rick Adelman, followed by Kevin McHale in Houston, before being sent to the Lakers. After coming back from a knee injury, the 6’10” big man appeared in seven regular-season games plus the playoffs under Mike Brown.

And when Brown got fired after coaching just five games the following fall, Hill found himself unexpectedly tethered to D’Antoni once again. The combo power forward/center subsequently appeared in only 29 games that season due to a hip injury.

The 2013-14 campaign was Hill’s best yet in the NBA, despite an ill-defined role. He averaged 9.7 points and 7.4 rebounds in 20.8 minutes per game. But he could go from starter one night to garbage time the next.

Chances for redemption come in unforeseen ways in the NBA. D’Antoni resigned, Pau Gasol joined the Chicago Bulls and the Lakers decided to re-sign Hill to a two-year $18 million deal. And then they hired Scott—the kind of coach who appreciates hard-charging defensive-minded frontcourt players.

As Bleacher Report’s Kevin Ding reported in July: “Scott puts a premium on defense and rebounding, and he believes Hill was underutilized as a Laker because of D’Antoni. Bear in mind how fantastic a newly acquired Hill was for Mike Brown in the Lakers’ two-round 2012 playoff run.”

In looking at a starting group of Lin, Bryant, Johnson, Randle and Hill, one thing becomes clear—it’s a superstar toward the end of his career, surrounded by four young players who present incomplete pictures. One is a rookie, and the other three have yet to find their true place in the basketball universe.

What if this season is different? What if Bryant and Scott, with eight championship rings between them, can get these guys to fully buy in? And what if the Lakers become the team that could, when everyone else said they couldn’t?

It is not an unreasonable proposition for this season’s starters.

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Should Miami Heat Fans Root Against the Cleveland Cavaliers?

Miami Heat fans have had a terrible few months.

First came the 4-1 bludgeoning at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals—slamming the door on a historic three-peat bid. Then, once the team’s shot at near-term glory was smothered, Miami’s long-range hopes were extinguished as well. LeBron James went home and took the Heat’s title hopes with him.

If they’re not, Miami fans should be angry about this. 

There are a lot of qualifiers here, of course. Anger about the vicissitudes of a professional basketball team, to most right-thinking people, seems misplaced. 

But sports are important to people. The outcomes of these contests affect us. That’s why you’re reading this and I’m writing it. And that’s enough to make them meaningful. Excuse the tautology, but sports matter because they matter.

Rooting for a championship-caliber team is an exhilarating experience. And pulling for a team that actually wins a championship (or two) is even more gratifying. But, oddly, as tremendous as that sort of vicarious accomplishment is, it’s even worse to be stripped of it.

Human beings have all manner of peculiar psychological quirks. One of the strangest is the way we respond to loss. Turns out, as much as people love winning, we despise losing even more. This notion, “loss aversion,” was coined by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.

Brian Burke, writing for Deadspin, explained “prospect theory,” a related concept, in a perfectly clear way (h/t Aaron Gordon of Sports on Earth):

Prospect theory simply observes that we are about twice as upset to lose something as we would be happy to gain the same thing. If you misplace a $20 bill, you’ll be twice as pissed at yourself as you would be glad to find a twenty on the sidewalk. Experiments show that this is a universal human tendency.

It’s pretty easy to grasp the implications loss aversion has vis-a-vis the mood of the Heat faithful. What they had was amazing. And losing it was, and will be, even worse.

So there’s going to be anger. And it will be directed at something. But what?

It probably won’t be James himself. He delivered the city two titles, four Finals appearances and the best run in franchise history. And he did in in a maximally entertaining way—dominating, at times, on both ends of the floor, leading fast breaks with locomotive force and generally and unequivocally being the best basketball player on God’s green earth.

Even the way James handled his exit from South Beach was difficult to fault. His essay in Sports Illustrated was thoughtful and measured. While he was clearly happy to be heading back to Cleveland, he lauded the Heat organization and his time in Miami:

I went to Miami because of D-Wade and CB. We made sacrifices to keep UD. I loved becoming a big bro to Rio. I believed we could do something magical if we came together. And that’s exactly what we did! The hardest thing to leave is what I built with those guys. I’ve talked to some of them and will talk to others. Nothing will ever change what we accomplished. We are brothers for life. I also want to thank Micky Arison and Pat Riley for giving me an amazing four years.

He’s a hard guy not to like.

But the Cleveland Cavaliers? They’re a piece of cake to despise. They’re an aggressively, almost singularly dumb organization that’s in a position to contend next season and for the foreseeable future merely because the best player in the world happened to be born in northeastern Ohio and they got obscenely lucky, for consecutive years, on lottery night.

They did absolutely nothing to earn the success they’re almost certainly about to enjoy.

This is an organization that woke up on third base and thought it hit a triple. The entirety of the NBA would be forgiven if it handled the ascent of the 2014-15 Cavs with disdain.

So when LeBron James and his shiny new team come to AmericanAirlines Arena on Christmas Day, Heat fans have permission to boo with abandon. Permission or no, that’s certainly what they’ll do. 

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Why Dion Waiters Should Be Favorite in 2014-15 Sixth Man Award Race

The only thing standing between Dion Waiters and the 2014-15 Sixth Man of the Year Award might be Waiters himself.

If he can learn to embrace the same role that once punched his NBA ticket, he could put himself on the fast track to securing a coveted piece of NBA hardware.

That could be a bigger hurdle to clear than it might seem. He entered 46 of his 70 games as a reserve last season and sounds ready to put his second-team days behind him.

I want to start and I believe that I should at the 2,” he told Comcast SportsNet’s Chris Haynes in July.

In terms of talent, Waiters has quite a compelling argument to make. Strong, athletic and bulldog-tough, he has a deeper bag of offensive tricks than both the Cleveland Cavaliers‘ incumbent off-guards and the ring-chasing vets who followed LeBron James’ lead to Northeast Ohio.

Just 22 years old and showing clear signs of improvement—last season, he set personal bests in points per game (15.9), field-goal percentage (43.3), three-point percentage (36.8) and rebounds per game (2.8)—Waiters certainly looks like one of Cleveland’s five best players.

But despite his obvious talent and even more apparent disinterest in reprising his reserve role, he hasn’t officially grabbed a place in coach David Blatt‘s opening lineup.

The first-year Cavs coach recently held a Q&A session with the help of Basketball Insiders’ David Pick during which he was asked about Waiters’ role on this team. Blatt left all options on the table, neither offering up a starting spot nor banishing the third-year guard to the bench:

Dion is a lot of things to this team. I’ve never seen any particular importance to the emphasis of starting or not, I see an emphasis on playing and helping the team win. That’s not to say he will or won’t start, that’s not the point. I think his and every player’s motto and desire needs to be to help the team win. That’s what’s important.

Blatt is absolutely correct.

Starting does not always serve as a reflection of skill. If teams always handed out those jobs to their five most talented players, then the list of the league’s Sixth Man of the Year Award winners would look dramatically different.

Oftentimes, starting and reserve roles are handed out based on play style. History has shown that quick-strike scoring guards, or players like Waiters, are often best utilized off the pine.

While that might not be what he wants to hear, it’s a concern that could be mitigated by the fact that the best of these players typically see action when it really matters: at the end of games.

It’s hard to say how much of Waiters’ NBA experience he can carry over into this season. He was the No. 2 option on a 33-win team in 2013-14. His 26.9 usage percentage was easily the second-highest among Cleveland’s regulars.

Now, Waiters will be fighting with players like Shawn Marion, Tristan Thompson and Mike Miller—perhaps even Ray Allen, according to Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports—to be the fourth wheel on a team FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver projects for 65 victories.

Waiters packs a mean scoring punch, but he isn’t close to the levels of James (27.1 points per game last season), Kevin Love (26.1 PPG) and Kyrie Irving (20.8 PPG).

The 2014-15 campaign will be one of change for every remaining Cavalier, but Waiters may need to adapt more than most. NBA.com indicates he scored more points per game on pull-up jumpers (4.6) than catch-and-shoot field goals (3.9) last season, and he knows his isolation scoring won’t be needed nearly as much this time around.

“I have to make adjustments,” Waiters told ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst. “I have to find ways to impact the game without having the ball. I’m planning to go watch tape to see what D-Wade did when he played with LeBron. I need to learn how to be effective out there with him.”

That is part of the challenge Waiters, along with the rest of the roster, will face going forward.

Despite employing three perennial All-Stars, the Cavs need to ensure that their whole is somehow greater than the sum of their individual parts.

Waiters is right. He needs to learn how to effectively share the floor with James. However, that’s only part of the equation.

The starting squad could be historically powerful at the offensive end whether Waiters is out there or not. Where his individual offensive gifts could really come in handy is on the same second team he anchored last season.

He has to balance both roles—alpha dog with the reserves, efficient support piece with the headliners—and that juggling act could be easier to manage if gets himself going off the bench before settling back into a complementary role.

Waiters’ assignment list will change over the course of a game, and Cleveland needs him to ace every test thrown his way.

“When he’s playing with James, Irving and Love, he has to capitalize as a shooter,” noted Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman. “When he’s playing with Matthew Dellavedova, Mike Miller and Tristan Thompson, he has to tap into that dangerous one-on-one game of his to generate offense on his own.”

The more time he logs with the bench mob, the better Waiters’ numbers will be. He can light the lamp in an instant if he signs off on the unique opportunity presented to him.

A substitute spot would allow him to continue doing what he does best, while also helping him take advantage of the weapons around him in spurts.

For an expert slasher and explosive transition weapon, he can gain so much from Love’s generational gift for outlet passing and James’ otherworldly court vision. But those chances may come few and far between, which might leave Waiters fighting for—or worse, forcing—shots.

As Bleacher Report’s Greg Swartz explained, Waiters’ game is built for the sixth-man role:

Waiters is a strong isolation player with a quick first step. His body is muscular enough to absorb contact on the way to the basket and finish in and around traffic.

As a reserve, this is a tremendous quality to have, especially when less skilled offensive players are on the court and scoring is at a premium.

Add James, Irving and Love to the mix, and suddenly Waiters’ isolation offense is largely a wasted weapon.

Carefully blended between both lineups, though, it’s a potentially potent gift that should be painted in a different light than ever before.

He could be an expert support scorer, not a ball-stopper with troubling defensive deficiencies. By accepting a team-friendly role, particularly one that isn’t on the top of his wish list, he might be seen as a strong chemistry guy and not the one who has seemed to beef with Irving these last few seasons.

The media loves telling a redemption story, especially in the context of a potential championship run.

Award voters also prefer celebrating someone from a winning team, and judging by historical voting trends, they really like high-scoring reserves.

With the stats, team success and tale of personal triumph all bolstering his campaign, Waiters should hold the pole position in the 2014-15 Sixth Man of the Year Award race. He will as soon as he allows himself to be officially nominated for it.

 

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

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Should Derrick Rose play in the FIBA World Cup?

The case of Derrick Rose is already both a cautionary tale and a lesson in hope for an athlete. While news from coaches at USA Basketball camp shows nothing but good vibes (even as Rose misses game time), his two lost seasons make the optimism a precipitate of just that—lost seasons. We have no idea what to expect of Rose: before the set of injuries, he shared the most crucial characteristics of all truly great NBA stars. An MVP and conference finalist by the age of 22, Rose possessed shades of a Jordan-like mean streak with a certain, veiled humility that contrasted the allure-seeking vanity of LeBron James at the time. Rose wasn’t anything close to Jordan on the court, of course, but he had precious room—and time—to improve. Fast forward two years later. After ripping apart both his ACLs, Rose seems to have an on–off switch when playing. It was very easy to see how free he used to be on an NBA court: his speed and dribbling ability would allow him to run fastbreaks alone. His re…

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Los Angeles Lakers Should Give Steve Nash’s Starting Job to Jeremy Lin

Back in 2012 when Jeremy Lin was blazing his path to notoriety, another point guard—arguably our generation’s most iconic—took notice.

“It’s amazing. He’s a great story,” said Steve Nash at the time, per Jared Zwerling (then writing for ESPNNewYork.com). “It’s a great story for the league. I think it’s phenomenal that it happened in the media capital of the world in a desperate team with a desperate fanbase. It’s just a beautiful thing to see somebody come out of nowhere to most people and shine the way he has.”

With Lin readying to debut his talents in another media mecca, it’s worth recalling Nash also mused that, “I think every team can use a point guard like him.”

Apparently the Los Angeles Lakers agreed.

Now Lin joins Nash in what should be a formidable floor-general platoon, at least if it remains at full health.

Now here comes the hard part.

While new Lakers head coach Byron Scott may be reluctant to separate the legendary Nash from his starting job, there’s a strong case that Lin deserves the nod this season. This isn’t about who deserves to start. Nor is it about managing egos. 

It’s about what’s best for the team.

Nash remains a one-of-a-kind leader regardless of where he’s situated in the rotation. Indeed, his presence could have a transformative effect on Lin himself—and Lin knows it, telling reporters, “I can’t wait. I remember when he was in Phoenix and was 20 and 10 every night. I can’t wait to learn from him.”

But wisdom and know-how aren’t reasons Nash should start.

Lakers Nation’s Ryan Ward wrote in July, “Moving forward, the consensus appears to be that Lin will be the starter with Nash likely set to come off the bench and rookie Jordan Clarkson being third on the depth chart.”

The reasons for such an approach are many.

At minimum, Los Angeles should keep a close watch on Nash’s minutes—perhaps even occasionally sitting the 40-year-old in back-to-back situations. Though that’s conceivably doable in the event Nash starts, there’s a risk Nash’s uneven availability could impact the starting lineup’s chemistry.

In the interest of building and sustaining rhythm, you’d like to see the Lakers deploy a consistent starting lineup as much as possible. With Nash’s playing time (and health) jeopardizing that, Lin becomes a more reliable starting option.

After a season in which he played just 15 games, it’s probably unwise to rest too many hopes on Nash.

There’s also a chance Lin could blossom in a way we haven’t seen since his New York days.

This is a fresh start for him, potentially a departure from a Houston Rockets experiment in which he started just 33 games during his second season with the team. While making the most of his new opportunity ultimately depends on Lin, the Lakers would do well to increase his confidence.

Lin is still young in basketball years.

Lin told Basketball Insider’s Alex Kennedy in July:

I definitely don’t think I’m close to my prime yet. I’m 25 years old and I think because of the way things have happened, people always think I’m older or I’ve been around longer than I really have. I’ve played two full seasons in the NBA – two full seasons and those 25 games in New York. I guess people have been very quick to write me off just because they saw how it started and then they saw what I was like in Houston, but I have to just keep reminding myself it’s a marathon.

Kennedy added, “As he continues to expand his game, he’ll have two Hall of Fame guards alongside him in the backcourt, which should do wonders for his development. Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant have been injured in recent years, but Lin is hoping to pick their brains and learn as much as he can from his legendary teammates.”

In short, there’s reason to believe that Lin can rise to the challenge a starting role presents.

After starting 82 games for the Rockets in 2012-13, Lin averaged a respectable 13.4 points and 6.1 assists per contest. It may not have lived up to the 20.9 points and 8.4 assists he tallied with New York in February 2012, but it demonstrated that Lin can produce on a full-time basis.

Under the right tutelage—something he lacked in Houston—that full-time production could improve.

There’s also something to be said for what Nash could do with the second unit.

The Lakers already have one ball-dominating playmaker in the starting lineup. Rather than asking Nash to compete with Bryant for touches, why not make him orchestrator-in-chief of the bench? It would ensure the veteran more touches, and it just might translate into better performances from other reserves.

Nash has a way of bringing out the best in his teammates. Perhaps he’d have a force-multiplying effect on L.A.’s depth, making the most of guys like rookie Julius Randle and potential sixth man Nick Young.

Moving Nash to the bench could very well be a win-win scenario for him and Lin alike.

Some aren’t especially high on Los Angeles’ resources at the point guard spot. 

CBSSports.com’s Matt Moore recently wrote, “At point guard you’ve got an inconsistent player who’s had minor but considerable injury issues the past two seasons in Lin, Nash who is barely able to get on the floor, and a second-round pick [Jordan Clarkson] who’s probably more of a shooting guard.”

After a 27-55 2013-14 campaign in which all that could go wrong did, the pessimism is understandable. General manager Mitch Kupchak improved the roster to the best of his ability, and recovery from injuries will make a significant difference.

But things could go south. Fast.

Lin registers as one of the principal reasons to hope otherwise. His pedigree doesn’t rival Nash or Bryant’s but the Lakers’ fortunes are no less dependent on his contributions this season.

Contributions he could very well make as a starter.

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