Oh, baby! The 2013-14 NBA season is nearly here! The optimism of 30 separate media days is wafting into the air like that time New York City smelled like maple syrup. Every player has either lost or gained 15 pounds — whichever works best — and the league's most injury-prone players are all feeling great, thanks for asking! No one is tanking, or "skipping steps," or neglecting their franchise "culture." Dwight Howard is talking about shooting 75 percent on free throws. Giddyup!
We never stop thinking about the NBA, but it's time to sharpen our focus on the 2013-14 season. That starts here, with a look at the 10 players I'm most curious-slash-excited to watch this season. I've tried to steer away from the obvious, which means minimizing the presence of both superstars and second-year players with drool-worthy skill sets. We're all excited to watch LeBron James, Jonas Valanciunas, and Andre Drummond. JaVale McGee is a permanent art exhibit at this point. The goal is (mostly) to highlight players whose degree of short- and long-term improvement could define the half-decade arc of a franchise, semi-known commodities operating in new contexts, and straight-up unsolved mysteries.
PG: Eric Bledsoe, Phoenix Suns
It's a bummer we won't immediately get to see "Eric Bledsoe, full-blown NBA starting point guard," but with the Suns in total rebuild mode, Goran Dragic could be out the door the moment Phoenix finds anyone willing to give up a future asset or two.
Bledsoe is quietly one of the more divisive players in the league among executives. There are a lot of higher-ups who view him as an All-Star in waiting, but there's a competing current of skepticism about Bledsoe's ability to run a team solo for 35 minutes per game — a feeling his strong per-minute numbers won't translate. He's sort of like pre-Rockets James Harden in this way, only with a lower ceiling.
There are no concerns about his defense. Bledsoe is a long-armed terror capable of generating steals without sacrificing sound position, and his massive wingspan allows him to hound bigger players; Jeff Hornacek, the Suns' new head coach, has talked about trying Bledsoe on shooting guards when Bledsoe and Dragic play together.
The skepticism surrounds Bledsoe's offense. Defenses don't respect his shooting, which limits his value off the ball and can make it hard for Bledsoe to get to the rim on pick-and-rolls. He hit 40 percent of his 3s last season, a massive jump, but he took only 79 triples, and teams are generally happy to let him shoot. He shot only 29 percent on long 2-pointers last season, one of the dozen worst marks in the league among players who jack them regularly, and those elbow jumpers are the very shots for which Bledsoe has to settle when defenses wall off the paint.
He can also be frighteningly turnover-prone, though he cut his rate last season to sub-disaster levels. Playing with Chris Paul and (to a much lesser extent) Jamal Crawford deflated Bledsoe's assist rate, but those numbers1 still ranked on the very low end for point guards even when you isolate the minutes he played without Paul.
But you can see Paul's influence in ways that bode well. Bledsoe has surprisingly good floor vision, and he has taken on some of Paul's sophisticated hesitation moves — the start-and-stop dribbles that allow a good point guard to keep his bounce alive, penetrate further, and coax defenders off balance. He even wields his ass as a weapon, in true CP3 style, keeping point guard defenders behind him and forcing helpers to linger in front of him.
He gets all the basic point guard reads — when shooters will be in the corners, what defensive rotation is coming next — and he was dynamite at scurrying underneath the basket, drawing a defense's full attention, and then finding cutters (especially Matt Barnes) darting to the rim. He just hasn't been able to execute them all consistently.
The questions are real, and in a league loaded with top point guards, I'd be mildly surprised if Bledsoe ever makes an All-Star team. The Clippers scored at a rate slightly below the league's average when Bledsoe ran things without Paul, but it wasn't a disaster, and Bledsoe had to play a ton of minutes with big men who brought zero shooting/spacing. It will be interesting to watch him work with Channing Frye and Markieff Morris this season, and the Suns might help by simplifying things and pushing the pace — a must for Hornacek. Having Dragic around will lessen Bledsoe's burden and free him some to work off the ball. But the talent level here is obviously going to be low.
SG: Evan Turner, Philadelphia 76ers
Turner is entering the last season of his rookie contract on a tanking team, and if the Sixers get the sniff of just a decent offer for him, he could be out the door fast. But until then, he'll have the chance to work as a primary ball handler and perhaps prove to the new Sixers regime that he can fit their preferred style.
And that's a long shot, even though Turner hit at about league-average rates on both corner and non-corner 3s last season — a crucial part of his development. But he still doesn't shoot much from deep for a high-usage player, and defenses happily ignore him in order to clog up more threatening stuff in the paint.
The rest of Turner's offense is a bit of a mess. I'm not sure there's a player in the league with a bigger gap between style and substance. Turner looks fantastic. He's got a nifty herky-jerky game full of crossovers, behind-the-back dribbles, abrupt pull-ups, and spins that dazzle when they work. But they too often go almost literally nowhere. Turner puts a lot of aesthetically pleasing effort into moving from 20 to 18 feet away from the basket, but the result is usually a contested midrange jumper. Even when Turner gets a head of steam and some space on the pick-and-roll, he tends to stop the moment he sees a help defender lurking, and then spin backward into a brutally tough midrange shot.
And he's not even a bad midrange shooter! He's about average. But "average" isn't good enough when a guy takes a ton of midrangers and rarely supplements them with rim attacks or free throws — especially not for the new efficiency-oriented front office of Sam Hinkie & Co. Turner's an average wing defender at best with a poor first step and so-so habits.
Turner still holds some appeal to old-guard GMs who remember when teams barely used the 3-point shot and needed ball handlers who could find slivers of space even with all 10 players packed below the top of the key. But that league doesn't exist anymore.
SF: Jeff Green, Boston Celtics
Green gets the small forward slot, since Boston has a bunch of bigs who need minutes — Brandon Bass, Kris Humphries, Kelly Olynyk, Jared Sullinger, Vitor Faverani (don't laugh, the C's like him!) — and a wing in Gerald Wallace who probably works better than Green as a small-ball power forward.
Green split his minutes between the forward positions last season, and he looked good on offense spotting up around pick-and-rolls or bulling his way to the rim on drives with the floor spread. He nailed 46 percent of his corner 3s, a killer mark, and he was able to spot up for a lot of those even as the small forward in traditional lineups, in part because of all the focus Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Rajon Rondo drew. Teams even left him open in the strongside corner, usually a no-no, because they were so concerned about actions involving two of those three stars.
Everything changes now. Green will have to work harder for shots, but he'll also get to work differently. Boston rarely allowed Green to run pick-and-rolls, or even to catch the ball flying off screens and going to his right — where Green almost always goes. Almost all his dribble drives had high degrees of difficulty — isolation attacks after sets designed for other Celtics went nowhere. And Green, with his rare combination of size and speed, did well driving past bigger defenders and right through smaller ones.
We'll see some of that this season, and more of Boston working Green in the post against shorter wing players — a hit-or-miss proposition. But we'll also see if Green can adapt to more involved modes of offense, and if he can progress as a defender outside of one-on-one situations. Green has some trade cachet, despite what is still an above-market contract.
F/C: Derrick Favors, Utah Jazz
There is still huge optimism around Favors as he enters his fourth season; a slight majority of league executives I polled in the summer said they would take Favors over DeMarcus Cousins long-term. But the idea that Favors might be a true franchise player took a bit of a hit last season, when his developmental curve flattened out.
The questions come mostly on offense, where accumulated flashes of brilliance make Favors appear much more productive than he actually is. He's explosive enough to catch the ball on a pick-and-roll near the foul line and dunk without a dribble — a proto–Tyson Chandler. But Favors shot just 42 percent out of the pick-and-roll last season, a shockingly low number; that mark ranked 90th among 112 players who finished at least 50 pick-and-rolls as the roll man last season, per Synergy, and lots of the guys below him were pick-and-pop shooters.
The cause jumps off the tape: Favors just takes too many tough shots. He gets a little skittish when he catches the ball in space and sees a third help defender waiting for him, in part because he's not yet confident as a passer on the move. Utah ran Favors in a ton of side pick-and-rolls, especially on the right wing, and Favors would often settle for a tricky little jumper from the edge of the paint after catching the ball, turning to face the hoop, and seeing a defender in his way:
Those look like easy shots, but they're not; the league as a whole shoots about as poorly from that in-between range as it does on long 2-pointers. And if he doesn't take that sort of jumper, Favors will sometimes just career into bodies without a plan.
And yet the positive finishes are so, so tantalizing. If he has enough space, he can catch and dunk before the defense can react. And he'll sometimes catch, take one dribble, and loft a feathery lefty layup that could make Matt Harpring just start screaming "JAZZ NATION!" over and over until he dissolves into a puddle.
The same dichotomy is true of Favors's post-up game — lots of very difficult misses sandwiched around a few spins and drop steps and jump hooks that find their way in. Favors will get many more chances this season with Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap gone, and Utah's defense has always been stingier with Favors on the floor. He's quick enough to contain pick-and-rolls in any defensive system, he's already one of the 15 or so best two-way rebounders in the league, and he's a legitimately terrifying help defender who alters shots he doesn't block. The Jazz were ultra-stingy last season when Favors and Enes Kanter shared the floor, but they'll have to prove that can translate against starter-level competition — and that Utah can score when they play together.
The lack of anything even resembling an average passing point guard will hurt, just as it did last season. Any big man looks better alongside a pick-and-roll partner who can get deep into a defense and time interior passes just right.
F/C: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Davis is the exception to my rule against second-year players. The Pelicans had a fascinating offseason, shifting into "win now" mode in the potentially franchise-defining trade (for both franchises involved) of Nerlens Noel for Jrue Holiday, as well as capping themselves out behind a high-priced trio of ball-dominant players. It was a fun peek at one version of the team-building process — a kickoff point for wonky NBA debates.
But it obscured the obvious big picture: If Davis can become one of the top five players in the league, the Pelicans will someday find the surrounding roster of a title contender. Davis will miss Greivis Vasquez's distribution skills, but there are still plenty of handlers here, and Davis has already made huge progress in the little tricks of footwork that will get him open looks near the basket. He got better last season at cutting to the rim on pick-and-rolls, using the sort of change-of-pace ballet any big needs to secure those juicy lob dunks. And when the Pellies used Ryan Anderson or Robin Lopez in the pick-and-roll, forcing Davis's man to slide into help position, Davis learned to shift into open spaces along the baseline.
He's going to be a devastating off-ball force on offense. But to make The Leap, he'll need to develop more skills with the ball and actually become the sort of defender everyone is certain he can be. He was unsteady on defense last season, lunging too soon or too far to try to contain point guards on the pick-and-roll, biting on pump fakes, and looking at times almost as if he were running around on ice. But the instincts and the raw potential are there, and Monty Williams, the team's coach, has told me he's optimistic the team can survive defensively with the Davis-Anderson combination — especially with Holiday in Vasquez's place at the top.
Davis didn't do much productive stuff with the ball last season, though Williams allowed him to handle it now and then at the elbows. He settled mostly for jumpers, which he shot nearly as poorly as Bledsoe, but he also showed he can drive by slower players with both hands. He'll have more space to do that if he gets extended time with Anderson hanging around the 3-point arc.
Davis is just 20. The Pelicans are playing the long game here, even if they need to hang around the playoff race this season — to please their owner, Tom Benson, and to minimize the pain of sending a 2014 first-rounder to the Sixers. But the long game with Davis starts now.
Tristan Thompson, Cleveland Cavaliers
Dirty little secret: The Thompson shooting-hand switch is a less dramatic story inside the Cavs' offices than it is from the outside. The Cavs knew when they drafted Thompson that he was very nearly ambidextrous and that he was a poor shooter with his left hand. The left-to-right change is something the team contemplated even before drafting him.
But it's going to be fun watching this play out as a real-time NBA lab experiment, even if it started in the FIBA Americas tournament, when Thompson (shooting righty) upped his free throw percentage but hit a ho-hum number from the floor. Thompson's righty floater was already a funky weapon on the pick-and-roll last season, and he generally expanded his game — as a finisher, rebounder, and even as a passer on the pick-and-roll — after a knee injury and a scary blood clot ended Anderson Varejao's season. He's an active, speedy defender, though not much of a rim protector.
Thompson (and the rest of the Cavs) are also fascinating because of the glut of weirdo bigs here — a hand switcher, two star-level guys with long injury histories (Varejao and Andrew Bynum), the rare surprise no. 1 pick (Anthony Bennett), last year's first-rounder (Tyler Zeller), and even Earl Clark, who probably has to play more small forward this season. If they get even so-so health, the Cavs are a real playoff threat. If they don't, they could be a massive disappointment, prone to a panic trade that GM Chris Grant might need to make to placate owner Dan Gilbert's win-now ambitions. Thompson could be part of the bait in such a trade, so his development is important in lots of different ways.
Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Let's just say I'm excited enough that there's more to come on this topic in the nearish future.
Rudy Gay, Toronto Raptors
Watching tape of the Rudy-era Toronto offense, I can't help but think of George Karl's teams in Denver. Those clubs often featured an undersize water bug point guard (Ty Lawson or Kyle Lowry) and two wings with unreliable outside shots. Both Denver and Rudy-era Toronto featured a ton of pick-and-rolls all over the floor as well as plays on which those so-so shooting wings would fly off sideline screens and catch the ball on the move.
And that's where the similarities ended — at the moment of that catch. Denver's wings knew they had to keep the motion going — hesitation meant death, and benching. Even if they had no obvious opening, Andre Iguodala or Danilo Gallinari would catch the ball, maintain speed, and either try to drive into the lane or pitch the ball out to the next man in line.
Gay and DeMar DeRozan, trade candidates if Toronto plays poorly over a very tough first 35 games, don't operate this way. They like to either launch midrange shots off the catch or hold the ball, pause, and survey the scene, giving the defense a chance to reset itself.
Good things might happen if they just kept the damn thing moving. Both are artful at slithering through tight spaces on the way to the rim. Neither is a good passer, but they can at least make the functional pass, and DeRozan got better last season at understanding where his teammates were on the floor.2
Look, Gay's never going to live up to his contract or work as a major plus on defense. Toronto just needs him to be average on that end and refine his shoot/pass/dribble choices a bit on offense. It will help if he can rediscover the 3-point stroke that seems to have vanished since his shoulder injury in 2011. Gay shot an unthinkable 9-of-44 on spot-up triples as a Raptor, but he had eye surgery in the summer to correct his vision, and he could get plenty of decent looks from deep with Lowry and DeRozan doing their fair share of pick-and-roll work. Toronto also played Gay at power forward some toward the end of last season, and with only three reliable bigs on the roster, they should revisit that style.
Gay has a $19.3 million player option for next season, and though Toronto expected him to opt out when it traded for him last season, the league is still trying to suss out Gay's plans — and his trade value.
Andrea Bargnani, New York Knicks
The trade was bad. The Raptors weren't going to amnesty Bargnani — that was always slated for Linas Kleiza — but they were happy to dump him for almost nothing, and the Knicks offered them three draft picks.
We all know the flaws: Bargnani's a shooting specialist who hasn't hit a league-average mark from 3-point range since 2010. He might be the worst rebounding big man ever. He's a useful post defender but cartoonishly bad at every other aspect of defense.
But he presents Mike Woodson with an interesting lineup option, and Woodson probably leads the league in interesting lineup options. There's a notion that Bargnani's presence as a "power forward" might mean less of Carmelo Anthony in that spot this season. That's true in a very basic sense, but perhaps not in the sense that matters. A lot of teams that kept two big men on the floor against New York's small-ball lineups still had their own small forward defend Anthony, preferring to hide the spare big man on the perimeter against Jason Kidd/Ronnie Brewer types. In these alignments, the Knicks didn't gain leverage because Anthony was blowing by some plodding big man. They gained leverage because Anthony could bully smaller wing players, either in the post or via the pick-and-roll, while the Knicks surrounded him with three shooters and Tyson Chandler.
Bargnani's presence doesn't change the core effect of that setup. The Anthony–Chandler–Steve Novak trio logged 279 minutes last season, and teams sometimes had their big men hide on Novak. Ditto for the Anthony–Chandler–Chris Copeland trio, another group featuring a center and a nominal "power forward" alongside Anthony. The positional designation doesn't really matter; the shooting does. The Knicks gain dynamism when they play "true" small lineups, and slotting Metta World Peace in Bargnani's "power forward" place might bring the best mix of "big" and "small." But Bargnani will get an interesting opportunity here.
Bargnani can shoot, at least when he's open. He generally shot quite well when he played alongside Chris Bosh as a true no. 2 or no. 3 choice. And he can put the ball on the floor, via a super-convincing pump fake, if defenders close out on him hard.
He's never been all that good at anything other than spot-up 3s, though. But if he limits himself to those attempts in Melo-centric lineups, Bargnani might revive his career. The other end is a different story. Pairing Anthony and Bargnani will be dangerous, even with Chandler around to anchor things. Smart teams will simply put Chandler in pick-and-rolls, hoping to at least pull him away from the rim, confident zero rim protection will exist behind him. But this will be fun to watch.
Marcus Thornton, Sacramento Kings
Remember this guy? Remember when the Hornets were geniuses for finding two ultra-productive rookie guards — Thornton and Darren Collison — late in the 2009 draft? Collison has plateaued (at best) to the point the Clippers were able to steal him this summer, and I'm not sure a single person outside Sacramento has thought about Thornton for more than 30 combined seconds since the Kings signed him to a four-year, $31 million contract in 2011.
That's right: Marcus Thornton will make almost $17 million combined over the next two seasons. He might be the most anonymous highly paid player in the NBA. Thornton two years ago looked like he might become a decent NBA ball handler, even though opponents have long understood he's a gunner on the pick-and-roll who doesn't see the floor well. But he fell apart last season, hitting just 29.9 percent of his shots out of the pick-and-roll; among 151 players who finished at least 50 pick-and-rolls last season, that mark ranked 140th.
Even worse: Thornton got to the line less than ever last season, and continued to dish assists at an irresponsibly low rate for a high-usage perimeter player. He just doesn't appear to have the combination of vision and unselfishness that makes a good passer. He exacerbated things by pulling up for contested 20-footers and either splitting traps or immediately crossing over into the path of his roll man partner — little tics that led to a surge in turnovers.
Thornton has always been a minus defender who teeters between almost acceptably below average and catastrophic, with a tendency to let his mind drift away from the ball.
One thing he did very well: shoot the lights out last season as a spot-up guy from 3-point range. He nailed a tidy 43 percent of his spot-up triples, per Synergy Sports, and he was smart to rejigger his shot selection so that just about half his attempts came from beyond the arc. He's good at hunting open spaces, and he can make shots under pressure.
But he has never put all his skills together in one season, and at 26, it's unclear if there's really a complete NBA player here. There are always minutes for shot makers with 3-point range, but minutes become harder to find if those players can't add dollops of playmaking and defense. The Kings, with DeMarcus Cousins locked up to a ridiculous max-level contract extension, could still work themselves to something like $6 million or so in cap flexibility this summer, and the books get much cleaner after 2014-15. But they're a deal away from opening up more space in the short term, and a Thornton revival would at least put him on the trade market map.