4 Players the New York Knicks Need to Step Up Next Season

Certain aspects of the New York Knicks‘ 2014-15 season are a given, like Carmelo Anthony scoring about two dozen points per game, Jose Calderon hitting three-pointers with accuracy or Iman Shumpert playing solid on-ball defense. Other things remain a complete mystery, especially regarding how the rotation will shake out around the new offense.

Each of the four players discussed below have locked up a roster spot for the year, though they project to be on the margins of the rotation. However, due to quirks in the depth chart, they can ingratiate themselves to the coaching staff and merit increased playing time through a variety of factors.

If these four can give effective minutes to head coach Derek Fisher, the Knicks will have a much more feasible scenario for playing postseason basketball in 2015 due to a balanced rotation.

 

Cole Aldrich, Center

Cole Aldrich offers considerable ability in one area where the Knicks remain sorely deficient: defense. In 2013-14, the Knicks ranked 24th in points allowed per 100 possessions, per NBA.com.

Since the New Orleans Hornets drafted him 11th overall in 2010, Aldrich has played in 135 NBA contests, averaging 7.7 minutes per game. He’s well on his way to becoming fully fledged as a journeyman, but he may carve out a place in New York. Over 46 games for the Knicks last season, he averaged 3.3 blocks per 36 minutes.

Veteran Samuel Dalembert, 33, projects as the team’s starting center, but he has not eclipsed 26 minutes per game since the 2007-08 season. In his last two seasons, he clocked 16.3 and 20.2 minutes per game.

Someone will have to pick up the slack, and Aldrich’s shot-blocking makes him a better backup center than other subpar defensive options in Jason Smith, Amar’e Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani—all of whom can shift to the 4 with their scoring abilities.

As a defender, Aldrich shows no fear when facing elite players:

B/R’s Fred Katz wrote about one play in particular, where Aldrich blocked DeMarcus Cousins in March, displaying discipline in the paint underneath a pick:

Cousins’ feet leave the floor before Aldrich’s, not only showing the Knicks center’s ability to understand tendencies and fundamentals but also displaying an underrated athleticism, an ability to end his momentum as he gets to the restricted area and propel forward to stuff a dominant player at the rim.

Aldrich’s defense will justify his playing time as backup center, and there should be plenty of minutes going around with Dalembert starting.

 

Shane Larkin, Point Guard

The case against Larkin is fairly obvious. ESPN New York’s Ohm Youngmisuk put it bluntly: “Shane Larkin, the other point guard that came in the [Tyson] Chandler trade, will have to prove himself in order to get minutes. Even then, he’s 5’11″ so his size hurts defensively.”

By the same token, Knicks rookie head coach and five-time champion as a player Derek Fisher stands at just 6’1″.

Larkin turned in a strong showing through five games at the Las Vegas Summer League, averaging 12.2 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 3.0 steals.

His play earned praise from Fisher, who stated per NBA.com: “I’ve always been impressed with Shane, even before getting the chance to coach him, and he was just great these last couple of weeks. … In a lot of ways, he was our most stable and consistent performer.”

Larkin had recently caught the eyes of scouts with strong play in the D-League last season for the Texas Legends.

Even if Larkin does not ultimately fit into the rotation for New York, he can increase his trade value by flashing that Summer League ability during the NBA season. Larkin’s name already came up in offseason trade rumors shortly after the Knicks landed him.

Strapped as they are for draft picks or trade assets, the Knicks must maximize the potential of any and all bargaining chips. The only other point guards on the roster are Calderon and Pablo Prigioni.

The Knicks have hung onto Larkin for now, and they will look to get something out of the talented young guard, his compact stature notwithstanding.

 

Quincy Acy, Power Forward

The NBA credentials of Amar’e Stoudemire and Jason Smith have been established already, but the Knicks acquired another option at forward by trading guard Wayne Ellington to the Sacramento Kings. In return came Quincy Acy, a second-round draft pick for the Toronto Raptors in 2012.

Acy does not have much of an offensive game to speak of, but he brings a stout 6’7″ frame to the frontcourt and can provide physical defense, plus strength on the boards. Acy gained a reputation for his large beard as a rookie, but his subtle value can be more difficult to discern.

He’s never started in the NBA and averaged 12.9 minutes per game in two seasons.

Precisely that lack of playing time highlights his value when on court. For his career, he averages 8.7 points, 8.9 boards, 1.2 blocks and 1.1 steals per 36 minutes, via Basketball-Reference. The Knicks would revel in that from a starting forward opposite Anthony.

Injury concerns abound in the frontcourt for the Knicks with Stoudemire and Smith, not to mention Andrea Bargnani recovering from an elbow injury.

If one or two among that group end up as walking wounded once again, Acy could be forced into increased action, and the offense could likely afford that compromise thanks to Carmelo Anthony and the team’s stable of scoring guards.

 

Travis Outlaw, Small Forward

Once upon a time, from 2007 to 2009, Travis Outlaw efficiently averaged around 13 points per game for the Portland Trail Blazers for two entire seasons, playing 163 games in total. In each of the five seasons since, he shot worse than 42 percent from the field.

His scoring average has tumbled below six points per game during the last three seasons, partly owing to diminished playing time but mostly owing to the various injuries plaguing him for the past five years, including a broken foot and a broken hand.

To his credit, Outlawalso part of the Ellington tradepossesses the veteran experience afforded by 11 seasons in the league, and he must bring that to bear in subbing for Carmelo Anthony when the call comes at small forward.

However, last season with Sacramento, the offense scored 3.9 more points per 100 possessions with Outlaw off the court, while the team’s defense improved by only 1.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the court, per Basketball-Reference.

Outlaw will need to be a net positive in relief duty, or he will find his minutes pilfered by second-round rookie Cleanthony Early.

The Knicks lack depth at small forward, with a roster full of big-bodied power forwards and medium-bodied shooting guards. Acy lacks the quickness to play the 3 with regularity, with his body reminiscent of Ivan Johnson or Reggie Evans, so a lot is riding on Outlaw and Early.

Early’s opportunity sits in front of him, but the team’s margin for error is very thin for achieving goals like a playoff appearance. Early’s inevitable rookie moments could render him unpalatable despite the high ceiling he showed with the 35-1 Wichita State Shockers last season (48.4 percent shooting, 16.4 points and 5.9 rebounds per game).

If Outlaw encounters injury or ineffectiveness, that will leave the team with few reliable options at the position, outside of shifting Iman Shumpert to reserve small forward or starting three guards and playing Melo at the 4.

Whether or not Early plays well is gravy considering the team drafted him at No. 34, and many rookies take time to develop.

By contrast, playing on an expiring contract and beginning the regular season at age 30, Outlaw cannot waste any time in proving his continued worth as an NBA player.

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3 Players Who Miami Heat Need to Step Up Next Season

With LeBron James now a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Miami Heat will no longer possess the significant talent advantage over opponents that they enjoyed the previous four seasons.

So, to a greater degree than in past years, Miami needs strong contributions from its role players in 2014-15.

Let’s take an in-depth look at the three role players the Heat most need to step up if they are to remain a top team in the Eastern Conference.

 

Danny Granger

Five years ago Granger was one of the NBA‘s best scorers. Now, he’s someone the Heat took a cheap flier on this offseason.

Miami can’t be expecting Granger to return to 2009 form, but it certainly needs the 31-year-old to perform better than he did a season ago.

Granger averaged 8.2 points per game on just 37.8 percent shooting from the floor and 33.6 shooting percent from beyond the arc last season with the Indiana Pacers and Los Angeles Clippers.

Granger simply has to be a more efficient offensive weapon and a consistent three-point threat to have value on this team, considering he’s not exactly a great defender.

His career resume says he can. However, his play the past few seasons says otherwise.

 

Norris Cole

Fresh off a solid showing during the 2013 postseason, Norris Cole showed continued growth to start the 2013-14 NBA season.

However, Cole had a disastrous second half, seemingly regressing as an offensive talent. He finished the season with averages of 6.4 points (41.4 FG%, 34.5 3P%) and 3.0 assists per game. 

As the numbers indicate, Cole still had difficultly running Miami’s offense, and his shot remains decent at best.

But Cole is a skilled on-ball defender, and if he can make leaps offensively, he could be a real help for this team.

If Cole enters his fourth year with the same abilities as he left his third, Miami might have to give point guard Shabazz Napier more playing time than it would like during his first year in the league.

 

Udonis Haslem

Haslem certainly had a tough go during the 2013-14 season. 

UD averaged just 3.8 points and 3.8 rebounds per game. Also, his mid-range game, which used to be a huge weapon for him, was basically nonexistent. He made 25 shots from further than nine feet away from the hoop, according to NBA.com.  

Still, with Shane Battier and Rashard Lewis gone and wild card Shawne Williams entering the mix, Haslem should have a shot at decent playing time. 

Obviously Miami would love if Haslem could re-emerge as a shooting threat, but the Heat at least need him to excel on the boards and be a physical defender if knocking down 15-footers is truly a thing of the past.

It’s hard to expect a bounce-back year for Haslem, given his age (34). But Haslem’s also the type of player one doesn’t like to count out. 

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5 Players the Memphis Grizzlies Need to Step Up Next Season

The Memphis Grizzlies are looking for reinforcement on the wing after they couldn’t keep up with the Oklahoma City Thunder in the playoffs with a core focused on scoring in the paint. Their main offseason signing, Vince Carter, reinvented himself in recent years doing just that.

The Grizzlies count on him warding off decline in his 16th season. Carter can make good by remaining accurate on the striking number of three-pointers he launches.

The Grizzlies are banking on a sharp year from Quincy Pondexter. They extended him for four years last fall only to see him miss most of the season due to injury.

Likewise, Courtney Lee needs to bounce back after his three-point shooting soured down the stretch last year.

Generally, the Grizzlies need more from the outside because their core players have already reached their peaks. Marc Gasol and Mike Conley won’t score much more than they currently do, and Zach Randolph has tailed off a bit. This slow-paced offense will require sharpshooting from a few players so that Memphis can keep up with high-scoring playoff teams, even while they grind them defensively.

Follow along for breakdowns on how a few Grizzlies players need to raise their games.

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4 Players Who Houston Rockets Need to Step Up Next Season

The Houston Rockets were disappointed with another first-round exit this past season, and after an unlucky offseason some guys will have to step it up in 2014-15.

Not only did the Portland Trail Blazers punch out Houston, but the following summer the Rockets struck out in free agency and lost a bunch of talent. LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh weren’t interested, and Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik all packed their bags and headed elsewhere.

Now, the Rockets are left with a shattered roster that was dubiously put back together. There will be plenty of young guys filling in those voids who will have to take on much bigger roles. Others underperformed last year and will have to kick things up a notch for the Rockets to succeed this upcoming season.

Let’s take a look at some Rockets who will be asked to rise to the occasion in 2014-15.

 

Isaiah Canaan

After trading Jeremy Lin to the Los Angeles Lakers, the Rockets will look to Isaiah Canaan to become the new backup point guard. Patrick Beverley will continue to start and play solid defense, but Canaan will be expected to come in and provide an offensive spark.

Lin averaged 12.5 points and 4.1 assists in just under 29 minutes per game last year with Houston. He was an above-average facilitator and helped force the tempo in the second unit. Canaan is also a speedy, score-first guard who can attack the basket. He is a better outside shooter as well (36.9 percent in the D-League last season compared to Lin’s 35.8 percent).

Canaan had an impressive summer league in Las Vegas a couple months ago. He averaged 17.0 points and 3.3 assists per game, and he had some big plays down the stretch during the Rockets’ run to the championship game.

He may have screwed up at times, but Lin’s overall production during the regular season was significant, and Canaan will have to fill his shoes in a big way this year.

 

Donatas Motiejunas

Like Canaan, Donatas Motiejunas also impressed in Vegas this summer. His 16.8 points and 8.1 boards per game earned him first-team All-NBA Summer League. Even better, D-Mo shot nearly 60 percent from the floor and 40 percent from three-point range as well.

With those kind of numbers, the Rockets will be ecstatic with Motiejunas this season. It’s only a small sample size and against weaker talent, but his performance this summer has us wondering whether he’s finally tapped into his potential since coming from overseas.

D-Mo averaged just 5.5 points and 3.6 boards in 15.4 minutes a night last year. However, his minutes picked up quite a bit after the All-Star break as his role increased with the team. Unfortunately, come playoff time, those minutes vanished, and he didn’t play a single minute versus the Blazers.

This season, however, with Asik gone, Motiejunas is the main backup center behind Dwight Howard. He will be sharing some of those minutes with Joey Dorsey, but he also may get some playing time at power forward in an attempt to stretch the floor.

Wherever he’s playing, he will have to bring his A-game all season to replace Asik and give the Rockets quality minutes off the bench, including in the playoffs.

 

Francisco Garcia

After providing a huge lift for the Rockets two seasons ago in the playoffs, Garcia took a major step back this past season.

After shooting 38.6 percent from deep in his first season with the Rockets, he followed it up with a disappointing 35.8 percent this past year. His production was by far the worst of his long career, and he eventually fell out of the rotation.

There were a few flashes of the old Garcia in 2013-14, but his overall performance was subpar. The Rockets decided to bring him back this summer very late in free agency after some solid games with the Dominican Republic in anticipation of the FIBA World Cup. In Spain, Garcia averaged 17.6 points per contest and shot 64.3 percent from deep.

Those stats are what the Rockets are looking for out of Garcia. His best quality is his three-point shot, and he’s got to shoot it at a high rate to get back in Houston’s rotation and become a significant contributor once again.

 

James Harden

It’s not common to expect a player to step it up after making the first-team All-NBA, but we all know Harden has a ton of room for improvement.

Despite his spectacular performance last season with the Rockets, Harden’s defense remains a glaring hole to his game. He has become the butt of several jokes due to his bad defense, but that could all change this year.

After getting bounced by Portland in the postseason, Harden made it clear to Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle that his offseason goal would be to improve defensively.

And as Bobby Gonzalez of Sheridan Hoops notes, throughout his time with Team USA, his defensive skills have impressed the coaching staff and others. It’s fairly evident that this defense problem is a lack of will more than it is a lack of talent, which is easier to fix.

Harden gets a lot of negative media attention for his defensive woes. His lackadaisical mishaps on that end of the floor are keeping him from cracking the truly elite in the NBA, and it’s why many people don’t think the Rockets have what it takes to make a run at a championship.

The Beard needs to step it up big time on defense not just for himself, but for the good of the team. If he can shift his focus to the defensive side, the Rockets along with Beverley, Howard and Trevor Ariza can become a top-10 defensive team. With an offense already that lethal, this defensive boost could make Houston a formidable contender out West, and it all depends on Harden.

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Is Rebuilt Golden State Warriors Bench Enough for Next Step?

The Golden State Warriors may have missed out on the home run acquisition of Kevin Love, but minor tweaks and additions to a bench unit that struggled last year might be enough to put them in serious title contention this season.

While it’s always hard to predict what you’re going to get from a new coach, particularly one without any experience on that front, Golden State’s roster for 2014-15 does look a little deeper and more dependable than what was trotted out last season.

Part of that will have to do with health. Andrew Bogut missed time up front, and his backup Festus Ezeli missed the entire season. Starters David Lee and Andre Iguodala were also banged up for much of the year.

Simply by reverting fill-in starters back to the bench in a regular capacity, Golden State should have an improved second unit.

It’s important to note just how badly Golden State’s depth was exposed last season.

Here’s Kurt Helin at ProBasketballTalk with more:

Last season when the Warriors’ starting five were on the court — Stephen CurryKlay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, David Lee and Andrew Bogut — they outscored their opponents by 15.5 points per 100 possessions (or if you prefer 15 points per 48 minutes).

That is impressive. It also means their bench wasn’t nearly as impressive (as a team the Warriors were +4.8 per 48). …

The fact is [Steve] Kerr needs to get more out of this bench. If he can do that, and bring more complexity and motion to the offense, he’s going to look like a smart rookie coach.

By pushing versatile defensive forward Draymond Green back to the bench full-time with Harrison Barnes, the Warriors should have a pretty strong pairing at forward.

Here’s Matt Packer at BlueManHoop:

Draymond Green will continue to contribute as a super-sub at small forward and power forward. While his defense is what got him drafted, his offensive game continues to blossom as he develops range on his jump shot. He’s also an especially adept passer which makes everyone on the second unit more effective.

A big question mark is what direction Harrison Barnes’ game goes. While he may have been over-hyped coming off his explosion vs. the Nuggets and Spurs in the 2013 NBA Playoffs, he underwhelmed by any imaginable metric last year. If Barnes can regain his confidence and attack the rim again, he should rightfully become the focal point of the second unit. Ideally, he’ll also be able to spell Iguodala allowing him to play reasonable minutes and stay healthy.

Add in Shaun Livingston to backup Stephen Curry, and Golden State should be a nightmare for opposing benches to score on. Livingston’s length and intelligence made him one of the better defenders in the league last season, as he covered small point guards and stars like LeBron James all the same.

While stopping opponents shouldn’t be much of an issue for Golden State’s bench, scoring certainly could be. That was the primary problem last year, as creating good offensive opportunities in a stagnant offense was rare.

The hiring of Kerr could help on that front, as Golden State probably won’t be nearly as isolation-heavy as they were under Mark Jackson. Harrison Barnes has a lot of offensive talent, but he needs to be put in good situations.

Even if some progression should be expected from Barnes, he alone shouldn’t be expected to carry the full scoring load.

With that in mind, and with Livingston dealing with toe surgery this offseason, the Warriors bolstered their backcourt by signing Leandro Barbosa. 

Here’s Marc Stein at ESPN.com with the details:

Brazil guard Leandro Barbosa has reached an agreement to sign with the Golden State Warriors for the upcoming season, ESPN.com has learned.

After Barbosa received initial interest from the Miami Heat, Golden State has secured a commitment from the 31-year-old on a one-year deal at the veteran minimum, according to NBA front-office sources.

Barbosa played 20 games last season with the Phoenix Suns, with whom he broke into the NBA in 2003-04. He’s also had stints in Indiana, Toronto and Boston.

The Warriors have been looking for guard depth and happily struck a deal with Barbosa before this weekend’s start of the FIBA World Cup in Spain.

If the Warriors want to play up-tempo basketball, particularly in the second unit, adding Barbosa makes a ton of sense. He can still fly up and down the court, and if his three-point shooting returns to the mean, he could be a great fit next to Livingston in the backcourt. Livingston can always take on the tougher defensive assignment and take care of running the offense, while Barbosa can pick his spots as a scorer.

Overall, this has the look of a pretty strong bench. Green is the best asset of the bunch, as he can play multiple positions and defend at an elite level. Livingston is great insurance for Curry and can slide in with the starters at either backcourt spot whenever necessary. Getting more offensively from Barnes will probably be necessary for this bench to among the league’s elite, though. 

It’s possible that if the results aren’t there right off the bat, both for the starters and the bench, that Kerr will shake things up and play with different combinations. That’s probably a good idea anyway, as the regular season should be a time for experimentation and finding the right groups. Golden State should be a playoff team no matter what, so you can sacrifice a few wins for the greater good. 

Here’s what Kerr said about the starting lineup this offseason, via Diamond Leung of the San Jose Mercury News:

“Andre [Iguodala] started last year, which he probably will [again], but there’s a lot of options that we have because we’ve got really good players in Harrison [Barnes] and Draymond [Green],” Kerr said, adding that he would likely use the same lineup as last season. “But most of it usually comes down to how the combination fits. … How do the pieces of the puzzle fit?”

Kerr is wise to take an open approach, but the rebuilt Warriors bench should provide enough production this season to supplement one of the league’s very best starting lineups. With that in mind, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Warriors take the next step this year and go deep into the postseason.

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Who Will Step Up as Anthony Davis’ Wingman Next Year for New Orleans Pelicans?

Burgeoning New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis is ready for everything.

Ready to be the NBA‘s “next in line,” as he was christened by reigning MVP Kevin Durant in the media. Ready to be Team USA’s “main guy” like coach Mike Krzyzewski told reporters he would.

Most importantly, Davis is ready to put the Pelicans on his back and flyif he can find a co-pilot on this roster.

The front office has tried to deliver one. Several of them, actually.

Last summer, the Pellies parted with a pair of first-round picks to swipe All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday away from the Philadelphia 76ers. A three-team trade brought over former Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans shortly thereafter.

With potential sidekicks Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon already in place, New Orleans appeared to have built something that had a chance to be special. How strong that chance is remains a mystery, as a brutal rash of injuries prevented the Pelicans from getting a clear look at their roster.

All five players lost at least 10 games to injury, and combined they racked up 151 absences. That number was higher than the minutes this quintet logged together (90).

Lessons weren’t learned last season—other than the fact that Davis’ hype is real, warranted and still not as high as it should beand the only problems discovered were physical. Holiday (right tibia), Anderson (spine), Gordon (left knee) and Evans (right knee) have all gone under the knife since last hitting the hardwood.

Before the Pelicans can worry about Davis’ wingman, they need to field a healthy roster around him. It sounds like that hurdle has either been cleared or is in the clearing process now:

That shifts the focus over to finding Davis’ Robin, a steady supporter who consistently makes life easier as the league’s next superstar.

Forget what the Pellies‘ 34-48 record suggests. There are a number of intriguing options to consider.

Outside of Davis, Gordon might have as much talent as anyone on the roster. He has a pair of 20-plus-points-per-game scoring averages on his resume and has averaged at least 3.3 assists in each of the past four seasons.

There’s a reason he’ll be collecting the highest salary on the team next season ($14.8 million).

Then again, there’s also a reason Grantland’s Bill Simmons ranked Gordon’s contract as the seventh-worst in the league last season.

After missing four games his rookie year, he’s missed an average of 32 games since. His old explosiveness has left his legs, and his formerly top-shelf (or somewhere near it) talent may be gone as well.

“The Eric Gordon of old is likely no more,” wrote Joe Gerrity of Bourbon Street Shots, “and the Eric Gordon of new is hardly worth a fifth of his currently salary.”

There’s a chance the new Gordon is no longer even worthy of a starting spot. The buzz about the topic is loud enough that it’s been brought to his attention, but he (predictably) said he wants nothing to do with the idea.

“I won’t get into that because I thought they brought me here to lead and set the tone for the team,” he told John Reid of The Times-Picayune. ”I’ve got a lot to prove in my career and I’m still young (25). So the more durable I am will really show what I’m capable of.”

If Gordon comes out of Monty Williams’ starting lineup, Evans could find his way in.

The 24-year-old had a hard time finding his niche early on, but he broke out in a big way when injuries forced him into the opening lineup. For the first time in what felt like forever, he looked like the transcendent talent who once put up historically significant averages as a rookie.

Those numbers won’t be easy for Williams to look past and might be enough for Evans to get in with the starters.

They aren’t, however, convincing enough to declare him ready for the wingman role. He has had extreme difficulty with repeating success—his scoring average has dropped in each of his last four seasons—and his lack of a reliable three-point shot (career 26.8 percent) can plague his production on any given night.

Davis’ wingman won’t come from the frontcourt, either. It’s not that the players around him (Anderson and newcomer Omer Asik) are poor fits, but the two might work so well in tandem that it could be hard for either to stand out.

New Orleans’ three-headed monster in the middle could be as ferocious as any in the business.

Asik is 7’0″ and 255 pounds of physical interior defense and bone-rattling screen-setting. He’ll wage some of the wars down low that Davis had been fighting on his own, providing some relentless rebounding (career 13.3 average per 36 minutes) in the process.

Anderson brings something entirely different, namely his reliable three-point cannon (38.6 percent for his career). With the 6’10″ sniper spreading defenses thin, the floor is then open for the wildly productive pick-and-roll game that Davis already seems to have mastered.

Of course, someone will need to work that two-man game with the single-browed baller. And that someone just so happens to be the best bet for a two-way sidekick, Holiday.

“I think he’s an elite point guard with size and strength,” Pelicans general manager Dell Demps said of Holiday, via Reid. “I think he’s going to be good for us for a long time.”

Holiday is built perfectly for a Robin-type role. He can blend his game however the team needs on a nightly basis, and his talent extends to nearly every point on the stat sheet.

Only he and Washington Wizards All-Star John Wall have averaged at least 14 points, seven assists and four rebounds in both of the last two seasons. Holiday can run an offense, and his career 37.6 three-point percentage allows him to threaten a defense away from the ball.

For all of his offensive talent, though, his best work might come at the opposite end of the floor:

Holiday could be the key to the Pelicans bringing everything together.

As long as this roster stays healthy, the offense should take care of it itself. But this defense needs to make significant strides after finishing tied for 25th in efficiency last season.

That ranking should really improve with Holiday back in the fold. New Orleans allowed just 103.3 points per 100 possessions with him and Davis on the floor last season, which would have pushed the Pellies up from the bottom tier and into the upper half (would have ranked 13th).

Now that Asik has joined Holiday and Davis, New Orleans should climb even higher:

Davis is New Orleans’ ticket to wherever it can go, so his supporting cast will be graded on well it can complement him.

No one will receive higher marks than Holiday. As Bourbon Street Shots’ Michael Pellissier observed, Holiday’s well-rounded game should help him check off nearly as many boxes as Davis:

Anthony Davis is often referred to as a unique superstar because he is able to make an impact on the game without scoring a point. Jrue is similar, though clearly to a much lesser extent. Jrue’s versatility allows him to make an impact as a scorer, facilitator, rebounder, or defender. Very few NBA players are immune to poor scoring nights, and it is of paramount importance to be able to make an impact elsewhere. Jrue can.

The Pelicans didn’t have the chance to find an identity last season.

They were explosive offensively some nights and razor-sharp at the opposite end on others. More often than not, they fell somewhere in between, neither an unstoppable force nor an immovable object.

They were fortunate enough to employ one of the game’s premier rising stars, but circumstances denied this club the opportunity to follow his lead.

If this team can stay healthy, good things should come in its future. But with a talent as tantalizing as defense, good isn’t good enough.

Davis needs help for this franchise to find greatness. He needs Holiday to fill the critical wingman role.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com. Salary information obtained via ShamSports.com.

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Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment CEO to step down (Yahoo Sports)

The CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment will step down next year. The company announced Thursday that Tim Leiweke will stay until June 30 or a successor is appointed. The MLSE properties include the Toronto Maple Leafs, Raptors and Toronto FC. In his short tenure, Leiweke helped Toronto land the 2016 NBA all-star game, fired Toronto FC’s president and general manager Kevin Payne and brought in former star player Brendan Shanahan as president of the Maple Leafs.

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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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