Los Angeles Lakers: Time for Steve Nash to step up

Steve Nash is one of the best point guards I’ve ever had the privilege of watching in his prime. On the court he was a conductor with the basketball, orchestrating the pace of the game, and elevating his teammate’s play. Injuries have cost him the last two seasons with the Lakers and, although he is clearly past his prime, the Lakers need more than someone playing out his contract ($9.7 million) year. Steve Nash needs to step up in his final season utilizing his experience and on-the-court leadership to give a lift off the bench to help turnaround a 27-55 season.
When the Lakers traded for Steve Nash during the 2012 offseason, the initial thought was that the Suns had lost out on their franchise cornerstone. Little did anyone know that an injury in his first season with the Lakers would reduce Nash’s ability to play with the explosive speed like the younger point guards that are creating havoc around the league (e.g. Chris Paul, Stephen Curry). Giving up 2013 and 2015 first round picks along with two 2

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Memphis Grizzlies: Courtney Lee must step up

The Memphis Grizzlies have a lot of returning players that are playing the roles they currently fill strong enough. However, one person that needs to step it up a bit is Courtney Lee.
Courtney Lee during his time with the Boston Celtics.
Lee joined the team in the middle of last season when he was traded away from the Boston Celtics. By giving up Jerryd Bayless, the Grizzlies were grabbing someone who was in the midst of a great season despite only averaging 16 minutes a game. However, when Lee joined the Grizzlies, some of his numbers dropped a bit, specifically his shooting percentages both from beyond the arc and from the field.
Throughout his career, Lee has been able to make shots beyond the arc to some extent. In most of his time in the league before coming to the Grizzlies, Lee shot above 40% beyond the arc. In the first third of last season while he was still on the Celtics, Lee even had a career high shooting percentage of 44.2% from three-point range.
However, in his 49 games as a member of the

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

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

Per Brian Windhorst and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN.com:

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

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

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

But this is different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sound familiar?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the first step is complete.

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

In a strange way, this all feels familiar.

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

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

Again.

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NBA Playoff Teams Poised to Take a Step Back in 2014-15

Sustaining similar success from one year to the next isn’t exactly an easy thing to do in the NBA.

Unfortunately, a number of the 16 teams that made the 2014 postseason are going to find that out the hard way next season.

We’re going to take a look at the five playoff teams most likely to take a step back in 2014-15, with our No. 5-ranked team poised for a small decline and our No. 1 team in store for a big fall.

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When Will Jeanie Buss Step in and Take over the Los Angeles Lakers?

The Los Angeles Lakers are pretty far away from the championship-caliber franchise they used to be, but they may have a savior waiting in the wings.

Can the power combo of Jeanie Buss and Kobe Bryant revive the struggling Lakers? When will Jeanie step in and assume a more hands-on role with player operations? 

Tune in to the video above to see what our Lakers columnist Kevin Ding has to say! 

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Charlotte Bobcats show next step for tanking teams

The Charlotte Bobcats are winning this season, thanks to a good coach and new star.

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What’s the Next Step for Luol Deng This Offseason?

There probably aren’t many players secretly looking forward to the offseason as much as Luol Deng. So what comes next for the Cleveland Cavaliers‘ small forward?

Between a bothersome Achilles injury, a trade he didn’t ask for and playing for a team he’s unimpressed with, Deng doesn’t have much else to look forward to, particularly since he could end up being one of the most sought-after free agents.

Granted, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James are technically available, but both have options they can exercise and stay with their teams.

James isn’t likely to divorce himself from the Miami Heat, the team he has won two championships with, but Anthony might really be a free agent. Other than Deng and Anthony, the only notable name is Pau Gasol, who is on the downside of his career.

So Deng could be the second-best (or if Anthony stays with the Knicks, the best) unrestricted free agent available this summer. That’s in part a testament to just how overrated this summer’s market has been, but that doesn’t matter much if you’re Deng or his agent. Teams with money are going to be looking to spend it, and there are a significant number of them who have apparently set eyes on Deng.

 

The Field

Bob Finnan of the News-Herald says Deng “has rebuffed all talk about an extension with the Cavs, and might want to sign with a contending team in free agency.” So that rules out Cleveland.

Deng already refused the Chicago Bulls‘ final offer, so they aren’t in the picture either.

So who’s interested?

Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News identifies several clubs who are looking in Deng’s direction:

We’re surprised the Cavs did not move Luol Deng. He’ll be gone on July 1, no later than a minute past midnight, and despite an Achilles injury that prevents him from practicing on most days, he’ll be high on everyone’s free-agent list. The Mavs, Lakers, Celtics, Magic and Charlotte are all interested. Why not stay in Cleveland? Kyrie Irving doesn’t make players around him better and Dion Waiters is a me-first player.

There were also discussions for a trade to the Washington Wizards shortly before the trade deadline which “gained no traction,” per Ken Berger of CBS Sports:

Berger also noted that the Phoenix Suns showed interest but didn’t want to trade a first-round pick to rent him:

So that brings the total to seven teams who have shown interest in Deng: the Mavericks, Lakers, Celtics, Magic, Bobcats, Suns and Wizards.

The Bulls offer that Deng turned down was three years and $30 million, so we can assume that it’s going to take more than that to ink him. When you consider the number of teams interested and the potential bidding war, it would be surprising to see him go for less than $12 million a year.

Andre Iguodala, similar in stature to Deng, signed a four-year, $48 million contract with the Golden State Warriors after the Sacramento Kings rescinded a four-year, $56 million offer because they didn‘t want to wait. Similar money is expected for Deng. 

All the teams mentioned above have at least that much cap space to work with, per hoopsrumors.com. However, the Suns, who have P.J. Tucker’s and Eric Bledsoe’s free agency to deal with and either three or four first-round picks, will probably will be priced out of the eight-digit market.*

And, as mentioned earlier, Deng is looking to play for a contender. That’s going to leave Charlotte, Boston and Orlando out of the picture. They are teams on the rise but not on the cusp.

That leaves three teams, listed in order of preference from bottom to top: the Lakers, Wizards and Mavericks.

 

The Lakers

The appeal with the Lakers is Kobe Bryant, who is one of the 10 greatest players in the history of the game. Deng is also a great personality fit with Bryant, who is a complete alpha dog. Deng thrives most when he doesn’t have to try and be something he’s not, and he’s better in a beta role. It would benefit him to go and play the right-hand man to Bryant.

If the Lakers could ink Deng while keeping Gasol and Jordan Hill and have Steve Nash directing the team, they would have a starting five that could compete, provided health isn’t an issue.

Of course, that’s a massive disclaimer considering that none of them has exactly been the poster boy for stability over the last couple of years. That could be a major disincentive for Deng, who has already had his share of heartbreak seeing his superstar leader in Chicago, Derrick Rose, lose two years in a row to injury.

 

The Wizards

The Wizards make a lot of sense for Deng, and he has appeal to them. Trevor Ariza has been one of the more underrated players in the league while he’s been playing in Washington, but he too is an unrestricted free agent this summer, and the Wizards might be looking to change small forwards.

Deng has experience playing with young, explosive, scoring point guards in Rose and Irving. It’s not like he’s going to have to adjust to playing with John Wall, the Wizards’ own young superstar.

Furthermore, the Wizards are taking team chemistry seriously after going through a period in their history with Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton literally drawing guns on each other in the locker room. They’ve worked out their problems and have become a stable franchise.

That means they are more “Bulls” than “Cavaliers” right now, which is important to Deng, who, according to Lawrence said of Cleveland, “The stuff going on in practice would never be tolerated by the coaching staff or the front office back in Chicago. It’s a mess.”

Going to a situation which is not a “mess” would seem to give the Wizards a boost over the Lakers, whose superstar player is lobbing verbal grenades at the owners.

 

The Mavericks

Dallas makes the most sense for Deng for several reasons. First, it’s a perfect situation in terms of fit and chemistry. Deng is a bad first option, okay as a second and fantastic as a third. He could serve that role well playing alongside Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis.

Second, Deng’s a great system player, but he’s not a great at improvising. He needs a structure to fit into, which means he needs a well-coached team. Rick Carlisle is a vastly underrated head coach with a championship pedigree.

Third, the Mavericks have a ton of money to spend. If, as reported by Tim MacMahon of ESPNDallas.com, Nowitzki takes a “significant pay cut,” the Mavs could sign another quality player in free agency. They have about $32 million to spend, per ShamSports.com. If Nowitzki took a Tim Duncan-sized contract, he and Deng would combine for $22 million of that, leaving another $10 million for another free agent.

Let’s just say, hypothetically, they land Pau Gasol with that money. Could a starting five of Jose Calderon, Ellis, Deng, Nowitzki and Gasol win a title? It’s certainly feasible. There’d be some issues defensively in the post, but those could be resolved with the bench.

And Deng’s primary responsibility would be doing what he’s most comfortable with: providing help and perimeter D. Scoring as a third or even fourth option would mean that he could reserve his energy for his preferred end of the court.

And let’s face it: Having an owner in Mark Cuban who isn’t afraid of spending money would probably be a refreshing change to Deng.  

Of all the possible situations this one would seem to be the best fit and the most potentially attractive to Deng. Don’t be surprised to see him in a Mavericks’ uniform next season.

 

*In an intriguing mini-tank situation the Suns have the Minnesota Timberwolves‘ first-round pick, but it’s top-13 protected. Currently the ‘Wolves are in the 13th slot and the Suns are in the 14th. If the Suns slip below Minnesota, they get Minnesota’s pick (unless Minnesota gets a ball drawn).

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ACC Tournament 2014: Players Who Must Step Up to Push Their Team to Final

The ACC tournament begins on Mar. 12 with action from the lower seeds, but the real contenders to emerge from the bracket won’t play until a few days later.

Realistically, there are four teams with a legitimate chance to win it all: Virginia, Syracuse, North Carolina and Duke. Each of these teams has a player whose play has a major impact on his team’s bottom line.

Let’s take a look at the player from each team who must step up if his team is going to reach the final and win.

 

Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia Cavaliers

The No. 5-ranked Cavaliers aren’t a high-scoring bunch. So when their top scorer struggles, it’s a big deal. Brogdon leads the team in scoring at 12.6 points per game, and you can clearly see how it impacts the team when he’s not at his best.

In Virginia’s five losses, Brogdon is averaging just 9.8 points per game. In those games, he has shot 32 percent from the field and 20 percent from beyond the arc.

That’s a far cry from the type of efficiency he’s known for. Per Brian Hamilton of Sports Illustrated, the Pittsburgh Panthers’ head coach Jaime Dixon said this about Brogdon after the sophomore beat his Panthers with a buzzer-beater three:

“He’s really efficient. His numbers are exceptional. He’s a really good shooter with deep range, he’s got good size, and he’s a good defender at the same time. You don’t often see a guy who’s a good shooter and a good defender.”

Normally, Dixon is right. Over the entire regular season, Brogdon shoots 43 percent from the field, 39 percent from three and 90 percent from the line.

When the ACC tournament rolls around, the Cavs will need to see numbers closer to that if they hope to win.

 

Trevor Cooney, Syracuse Orange

The Orange looked like the team to beat most of the season, but they have struggled mightily over the last two weeks. Losers of four of their last five, the Orange have to find a remedy for what ails them fast.

The biggest problem is a lack of consistent outside shooting. Cooney is normally the team’s long-range bomber, but in the four losses, he has struggled to find the range.

During Syracuse’s skid, Cooney has made 10-of-37 attempts from the field and just 5-of-27 from three-point range. That’s just over 18 percent accuracy from deep.

Cooney has worked tirelessly to regulate his form since last season when he shot just under 27 percent from behind the arc. This season, he has made 39 percent of his long-range attempts.

He told Donna Ditota of Syracuse.com this in January before the struggles began:

“Repetition, repetition. Keep doing that the whole summer, keep working hard every day and it will pay off. Your form will get better.”

He may have to revisit that mindset to break out of his current slump.

If the Orange are going to snap out of this funk and make some noise in the ACC tournament, Cooney has to start knocking down some shots.

 

J.P. Tokoto, North Carolina Tar Heels

As pure athletes go, there aren’t many in college basketball who are on Tokoto‘s level. He has unreal bounce and finishing ability near the basket. Because of this skill set, Tokoto excels at taking the ball to the rack.

With that comes the high probability of being fouled and sent to the free-throw line. That’s where the problems come in for Tokoto and many of his teammates. As a team, the Tar Heels make just 62 percent of their free throws.

Tokoto is the worst of the players who play at least seven minutes per game. He’s a woeful 51-percent free-throw shooter.

Because of his talent and ability to score, he’s potentially a game changer. However, his inability to make free throws puts a pause on any late game plan that puts the ball in his hands.

In the Heels’ seven losses, Tokoto has made just 33 percent of his free throws (8-of-24). To his credit, as Stephen Schramm of The Fayeteville Observer notes, Tokoto is working to strengthen this weakness in his game:

Tokoto and North Carolina’s inability to make teams pay from the charity stripe makes them a dicey pick to win the conference tournament. 

 

Rodney Hood, Duke Blue Devils

To be fair, Hood has been mostly spectacular this season. But like freshman sensation Jabari Parker, Hood is being asked to do things that are out of the ordinary because of the team’s lack of size.

In each of Duke’s losses, the team has been out-rebounded. If and when Duke exits the ACC or NCAA tournament, it will be because of its inability to compete on the inside.

To make up for the lack of natural rebounders, Hood needs to raise his game and make a more concerted effort to go to the glass—especially on defense. For the season, he has pulled down 4.1 boards per game.

That’s acceptable from the small forward position on most teams. But with the Blue Devils, the team needs a little more from Hood. The team doesn’t have the type of glass eater that will allow teammates to slack in this area.

It’s going to take a group effort to minimize Duke’s rebounding deficiency and Hood is the primary player who must step up.

 

Follow me. I’m addicted to hoops.

@BMaziqueFPBR

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5 Players Who Must Step Up for Detroit Pistons’ Remaining Games

For the Detroit Pistons to make a late-season push for the playoffs, they need several key players to step up their play.

After losing six of their last seven games, the Pistons are now 12 games below .500 and are four games in the loss column behind the Atlanta Hawks for the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference. In no way are they out of the playoff race, but they need to turn things around sooner rather than later. 

According to MLive.com, owner Tom Gore “put down a playoff mandate” before this season began, which is in line with the major acquisitions that the team made in the offseason. It would also seem to be the biggest factor in the midseason firing of first-year coach Maurice Cheeks. 

Gore expects his team to be in the playoffs, and general manager Joe Dumars is feeling that pressure. Which players need to play their best basketball of the season in order for the Pistons to make the postseason?

 

*All statistics compiled from NBA.com and updated as of March 1 unless otherwise noted.

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5 Players Who Must Step Up for Charlotte Bobcats’ Remaining Games

The Charlotte Bobcats are surprisingly one final strong push away from solidifying just the second playoff appearance in franchise history. For that to happen, the team is going to need a handful of guys to elevate their play another level to make sure the Bobcats don’t get caught by any of the teams chasing them.

A team that was seemingly fighting tooth and nail just to get into the playoffs now may have a legitimate shot at creeping up for home-court advantage.

At 27-30, Charlotte is three games out of the No. 4 seed while still possessing a 3.5-game lead over the Detroit Pistons, the No. 9 seed at the moment.

Charlotte is playing extremely well and padding its lead, but it will still require some players to start pulling more weight so the great Al Jefferson can lighten his load. The big man has been playing astoundingly well over the past few months without a ton of help.

Charlotte did not land any big names at the trade deadline like it had hoped, but there is no time to dwell. These are the guys who have to kick it up a notch or two.

*All stats accurate as of Feb. 24, 2014 and courtesy of ESPN.com or Basketball-Reference.com.

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