Missing Pieces

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The 2014 NBA Draft could be one for the ages—a draft class with more surefire all-star caliber talent than any since 2003. Jabari Parker, Marcus Smart, Dante Exum, Julius Randle and, of course, Toronto’s own Andrew Wiggins, are currently being looked at as players an NBA team could build around for the next decade. It’s not surprising, therefore, that there’s more than a few teams prepared to sit this season out as far as trying to compete for a playoff spot goes. To put it more bluntly: there are going to be some really bad teams this year. Bad teams that will love nothing more than to finish top of the lottery standings, with the best chance of landing that first overall pick.

But even the worst NBA teams still possess decent talent—players who, in the right situation, surrounded by more talented teammates and on a team with different goals and priorities, could flourish. Although some teams are content to be bad this season straight out of the blocks (Philadelphia, Phoenix, Utah), and others may take that direction depending on how things pan out early on (Boston, L.A. Lakers, Toronto), there are plenty of teams who are one or two talented role-players short of being genuine title contenders. Maybe they need some extra 3-point shooting, perhaps a player who can crash the offensive glass or provide some scoring off the bench. Whatever the top teams need, a good place to shop, so to speak, would be among this years shameless tankers—teams that won’t mind parting with certain players on their roster if it means that they’ll get worse in the short-term, and increase their chances of being better in the long run.

Contending teams may want to have a good, hard look at the following five players.

 

Photo: Keith Allison/Creative Commons


Goran Dragic
Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose, during the Phoenix Suns portion of their season preview on Grantland, discussed Dragic’s role on the Suns and whether he’d be a useful piece for a contender. The answer, of course, is yes, he would.

Dragic is a talented point guard who’s bounced around a bit in his relatively short career. He started his career in Phoenix backing up Steve Nash before securing a big move to Houston, falling behind Kyle Lowry in the pecking order, then winning the starting point guard gig after Lowry went down injured. Dragic was traded back to Phoenix as part of Daryl Morey’s plan to gut the Rockets’ roster and make a run at big free agents (news flash: he was successful) and he had a decent season for a less-than-decent Suns team last year.

But moving forward, it doesn’t seem likely that Dragic has a future in Arizona. The Suns traded for Eric Bledsoe, and while they may start the year with the über-talented Bledsoe playing off the ball with Dragic at point-guard, it seems likely that as the year goes on, and as visions of Andrew Wiggins in orange and purple become more vivid, that Bledsoe gets a chance to run the team and Dragic becomes expendable.

In that same Grantland preview Simmons makes the case that the Oklahoma City Thunder should consider trading for Dragic, and they’re definitely one of the teams that could benefit from his skill set. Dragic, who’s on a reasonable contract, sees the floor well, and is an accomplished passer, as evidenced by the fact that he averaged 7.4 assists per game last season. What’s more, a team like OKC could use his scoring to take the pressure off Westbrook (who’s still battling knee issues) and Durant. Considering that Kevin Martin is no longer around, and the team has a lot of unproven youngsters on the roster, the Thunder could really use some secondary scoring. Dragic could take on some of the ball-handling duties, allowing Westbrook to play off the ball for stretches, and with Westbrook as the point-guard, Dragic could spread the floor with his 3-point shooting.

His shooting from beyond the arc has regressed in recent seasons, but in his first 3 seasons he averaged 37 per cent, 39 per cent and 36 per cent from downtown, and there’s no reason, on a good team, that he couldn’t rediscover his form. It may take a couple of OKC’s young guns—perhaps Perry Jones or Jeremy Lamb—to ply Dragic from Phoenix in a trade, but it might be worth it for the undermanned Thunder.

 

Photo: Keith Allison/Creative Commons


Evan Turner
Love it or hate it, tanking has been part of the NBA for years now. Few teams, however, have looked set to tank as unashamedly as the Philadelphia 76ers. Most bad teams, even the teams we all know are going to be terrible, hide behind a dignified façade that says to the world: “Hey, we’re going to compete this season and make a run at the playoffs, despite what you guys think”. The 76ers…well, they couldn’t care less. GM Sam Hinkie’s eyes are firmly on the 2014 draft. We can be fairly sure of that by noting that the team traded its best player during the summer (Jrue Holiday), didn’t bother bringing in a new head coach until mid-August and has a roster currently filled with five or six players that you may not have heard of.

One player that you probably have heard of, however, is Evan Turner—the extremely talented, but thus far, mildly disappointing second overall selection from the 2010 draft. Turner has shown flashes of brilliance in his short career, particularly during the 2012 playoffs when he averaged 11 points and seven rebounds per game for a Sixers teams that took the Celtics to seven games in the second round. Turner has fantastic physical attributes—he’s a 6’7” shooting-guard (who can also play at the 3), can beat defenders off the bounce and rebounds very well for his position.

Turner had an okay season from 3-point range (36 per cent) last year, after an atrocious first two seasons, but overall his shooting left a little to be desired. Turner only averaged 41 per cent from the field last year, and took way too many contested mid-range jumpers. To start the season in Philadelphia, Turner’s going to get a chance to be the main man—he’ll get some of the ball-handling duties and will be expected to provide the bulk of their offense. But that’ll be at the start of the season. Turner’s in the final year of his rookie deal, and the Sixers don’t seem particularly desperate to re-sign him. If they get a good deal from a contender, Turner could be on the move.

And despite the documented problems with Turner’s offensive game—and the supposed attitude issues—the former Buckeye would be well worth a look from a contending team. Turner isn’t particularly expensive right now, and he should be motivated to play for a big contract going forward. On a contender he won’t be expected to provide a lot of offense, but if he rebounds, plays decent defense and shoots the corner 3 well (something he added to his arsenal last season) he could be a valuable contributor. A team like Memphis, for example, could benefit from Turner’s ability to shoot from the corners, and he’d provide them with an extra ball-handler to take the pressure off Mike Conley.

 

Photo: Keith Allison/Creative Commons


Arron Afflalo
Although Kendrick Lamar apparently used to be jealous of Arron Afflalo, most casual fans don’t pay the Orlando Magic shooting guard as much mind as his fellow Compton native did growing up—and that’s sort of a shame, because Afflalo is a very decent player. Last season, Afflalo ended up in Orlando after spending his first five seasons in Denver as part of the blockbuster deal (disastrous for most) that saw Dwight Howard traded to the Lakers.

Afflalo has battled injuries for much of his career—he’s only played a full 82 games in one of his six seasons—but when he’s healthy, the California native is one of the better two-way guards in the league. He earned a big contract in Denver—not too big that it makes him prohibitively expensive for a potential suitor—by playing lock-down perimeter defense and developing into a very decent 3-point shooter. Although Afflalo’s shooting-percentage dropped last season, probably as a result of playing on a bad team that had a hard time creating open looks in the corners, he averaged 40 per cent from downtown in three of his seasons in Denver, and 39 per cent in his final year there.

So why would the Magic consider trading Afflalo? Well, Orlando’s going to be one of those teams who have enough young talent to be reasonably competitive, but whose future lies in draft picks and their young core of Tobias Harris, Nikola Vucevic and Victor Oladipo. Oladipo, the 2nd overall pick from the 2013 draft—despite the Magic’s announcement that he will see time as the point-guard (a sign that Orlando wants to tank)—looks to be the Magic’s shooting-guard of the future. He’s a guy who could become a similarly good perimeter defender and, hopefully for Orlando’s sake, a solid outside shooter. Oladipo and a potential tanking strategy could make Afflalo expendable this season.

If that’s the case, contending teams should definitely consider trading for Afflalo. Solid defense and 3-point shooting are vitally important in today’s NBA, and a player who can provide both, and isn’t ridiculously expensive (Afflalo makes around $7.5 million for the next three years), could turn an okay team into a title-contending team.

 

Photo: SportsNet/YouTube


Amir Johnson
Last season was tough for fans of the Toronto Raptors—well, to be honest, the last few seasons have been tough for Raptors fans. But amidst the well-documented issues on offense—no 3-point shooting and ill-advised mid-range jumpers—the understandable ire directed towards Andrea Bargnani (he gone!) and the recently departed Bryan Colangelo, fans did have one positive development to savor: the play of Amir Johnson.

On an expensive and poorly-constructive roster full of very talented and very flawed gunners, Johnson was arguably the Raptors’ most consistent performer. The power forward who, at times, filled in at centre brought his blue-collar approach night in and night out. Johnson is the Raptors best defender, rebounder, shot-blocker and, as SB Nation’s Mike Prada recently discussed, one of the league’s best screen-setters. Few athletes are more beloved in Toronto than Amir Johnson.

Entering the 2013-14 season, the Raptors are a nearly-impossible team to figure out. On paper, with a starting five of Lowry-DeRozan-Gay-Johnson-Valanciunas, they could be a playoff team, particularly if Gay’s vision adjustments fix his poor shooting, and if Valanciunas can take the next step in his development. But if the team continues to play like they did last season—and that’s a possibility, considering everything that has to go right for the Raptors to be a playoff team—new GM Masai Ujiri probably won’t hesistate to blows things up and attempt to gun for Mr. Wiggins.

In that latter scenario, everyone other than Valanciunas would be on the chopping block—including Johnson. That’s not because Johnson wouldn’t be a valuable guy to keep around in a rebuild—because he would—but because he’d be a player that Toronto could get something of value back for. Gay and DeRozan are both on very expensive contracts, but Johnson, whose contract expires this year, would be very valuable for a contender. He’s the type of player that pushes a contending team over the edge. His toughness and rebounding, not to mention his very decent mid-range game, would be a major asset to a team like the L.A Clippers who need a competent big man to back up Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan (incidentally, Johnson’s a decent free-throw shooter!). Johnson would fit that role perfectly.

 

Photo: Kowarski/Creative Commons


Rajon Rondo
So far, we’ve looked at players who could provide solid production for contending teams, fulfilling specific roles like 3-point shooting, rebounding and perimeter defense. But while those aforementioned guys are at worst solid role players and, at best, third options on offense, Rajon Rondo is a legitimate superstar. Throw Rondo on any of the league’s upper echelon teams, and they would become serious threats to win the Larry O’Brien trophy. So why the hell would Danny Ainge trade a player who, on his best day, is a top-five point guard and a top-20 player in the league?

Well, to start with, it’s not certain that the Celtics will trade Rondo—that’s still up in the air—but to answer the question: Rondo might not be the best fit for a rebuilding team, and because the Celtics are fine with being really bad in the short-run.

GM Danny Ainge has been talking a good game during the off-season, refusing to entertain the idea that Boston are tanking/will tank for a high draft pick, maintaining that they will be competitive. And while he’s probably right in the sense that the team has the players to be competitive—although, not to challenge for the playoffs—it would make far more sense to transition the Celtics from mediocre to bad, and rebuild around a top-five draft pick.

Rondo, who’s currently rehabbing from an ACL tear, has never played on a rebuilding team—the Celtics won the championship during his rookie season and they were contenders for years after that. But with a rookie NBA coach in Brad Stevens, and after the departure of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, the Celtics are very much in a transition stage. Rondo, moody and impatient at the best of times, might not be the ideal player to lead that transition once he returns from injury.

Ainge, of course, isn’t going to trade Rondo for nothing. He’ll probably want at least a first-round pick and some young talent in return—which could be problematic in that teams might be reluctant to trade away first-round picks this year—but for a contending team, it might be worth it. Rondo is a transcendent playmaker with exceptional court-vision; just imagine him on a team like Houston. The Rockets, as presently constructed, should be contenders, but with Rondo at point guard, as opposed to Jeremy Lin (he’s solid, but he isn’t Rondo), they could become the most dominant team in the Western Conference. Rondo’s presence would take a lot of pressure off James Harden, who could play off the ball a bit more (even though he’s great with the ball in his hands), would improve their defense and add some toughness—and Houston has enough shooters to make Rondo’s lack of shooting range less damaging.

Get on it, Morey!

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