1 Thing Every NBA Star Needs to Work on in Training Camp
Russell Westbrook endured an absurd degree of criticism from the likes of Magic Johnson for his play during the NBA Finals, and it should go without saying that he was hardly the reason the Oklahoma City Thunder came up short against the Miami Heat.
That doesn't mean, however, that the shoot-first point guard was without fault, and it certainly doesn't mean his team would be best-served by a stubborn insistence on refusing to alter his game.
Even the league's very best have to adapt to changing circumstances.
For Westbrook, that still means improved shot-selection and a better understanding of how and when to get his teammates the ball. When you have scorers like Kevin Durant and James Harden at your side, that's essential.
While Westbrook hones his distribution skills in training camp, the rest of the league's stars will have to-do lists of their own. That is, after all, what makes them stars: a willingness to improve and remain ever-so unsatisfied with how they're playing.
Here's a look at what the NBA's best just might be working on despite seeming so close to perfection already.
LeBron James—Staying Hungry
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What will motivate LeBron James from here on out? He's won an NBA championship along with two Olympic gold medals, three MVP awards and a slew of other individual honors.
Is there any risk he could become complacent?
Don't count on it.
This is, after all, the guy who came to Miami promising more than a few titles. Don't expect him to stop trying after just one.
Nevertheless, the Miami Heat have already rebuffed so much of the criticism that characterized James' first season with the team. To the extent this unit was motivated in some part by a sub-conscious need to prove everyone wrong, that burning desire might be stinging a bit less these days.
With his game so complete, LeBron has little to work on in terms of skills. Maybe he could become more consistent from behind the arc. Maybe he could continue to polish his play in the post.
But, his most important challenge will be staying just angry enough to fight through another grueling postseason. Now that his doubters have been replaced by a chorus of praise, something may need to fill the gap.
Kevin Durant—Making Plays
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Good luck finding a guy who does a better job of scoring without keeping the ball in his hands. Kevin Durant is more than content to hang out off the ball and wait for the pass to come his way.
Unfortunately, he may need to expand his repertoire a bit given the difficulty point guard Russell Westbrook has had as a facilitator. Westbrook trailed only Kobe Bryant last season in usage rate, suggesting that he just might have had the ball in his hands a bit too much.
Durant's passing ability should be utilized more often, but that will require some work on his end. He certainly isn't a bad passer, but nor is he fully accustomed to making decisions about when to pass and when to score.
Kobe Bryant—Playing off the Ball
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The Los Angeles Lakers' new Princeton offense will require adjustments from everyone on this roster, but Kobe Bryant will have to adapt more than anyone.
The 33-year-old is accustomed to having the ball in his hands and making good things happen. Whether isolating on the wing, catching the ball in the high post or backing guys down in the low block, Bryant is as skilled as anyone at creating his shot wherever he wants it.
Now, however, he'll be asked to do far more damage off-the-ball, cutting to the basket and coming off screens for open looks. It's nothing he hasn't done before, but it will still require a departure from the way he got most of his touches last season.
The Princeton offense isn't the only reason he'll be making adjustments.
Having an elite passer like Steve Nash on board will also have something to do with it. Nash will thrive in a motion-heavy offense, but that will dislodge the ball from Bryant's hands.
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But the man could still learn to shoot a free throw at the very least. His inability to remain even marginally consistent at the line makes him a huge offensive liability at the end of close ball games. At the same time, his defensive impact makes it impossible to take him out of the game.
Besides the obvious need for improvement from the charity stripe, you'd also like to see Howard develop a better shot from the wing and high-post. It's sort of hard to imagine that happening anytime soon, but it would make him an exponentially more menacing scorer.
Of course, as easily as he can get to the rim in the paint, maybe he doesn't need a much more diversified offensive arsenal.
Carmelo Anthony—Defensive Focus
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The bigger question is whether these two guys can turn things up a notch on the defensive end of the floor, something head coach Mike Woodson will stress given his emphasis on stopping the other team.
That starts with Carmelo.
He's not an intrinsically bad defender by any means. He's just too disinterested sometimes. As quick as his first step is when slashing to the rim, his lateral mobility often looks a tad slow. If he's to spend most of his time at the small forward positions, as is likely to be the case so long as Stoudemire is around, that kind of defensive quickness will be key.
If Anthony can force himself to be anywhere as interested in defense as he is in scoring, the Knicks could become a serious contender overnight.
Dwyane Wade—Perimeter Shot
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Dwyane Wade has never been an especially good three-point shooter as indicated by his 29 percent career mark from beyond the arc.
So in some respects, it's probably a good thing he took significantly fewer three-point attempts last season. Nevertheless, it would be a good weapon to cultivate as the 30-year-old approaches the next chapter in his career.
Even if the athleticism doesn't go anywhere soon, there's a very real and constant risk of injury each time he throws himself into the painted area and flies to the rim. The Miami Heat simply can't afford to have Wade at anything less than 100 percent if they're to remain a dominant contender.
Will he develop a Kobe Bryant-like perimeter game? Maybe not.
But, it's still worth expanding his range so that he can save his body over time.
Rajon Rondo—Perimeter Shot
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Dwyane Wade isn't the only one who needs to expand his range.
In fact, an outside shot may be the only thing Rajon Rondo's game is missing these days. He can score from anywhere else, passes as well as anyone in the league and plays outstanding perimeter defense.
He's just not much of a deep threat.
And he could certainly remain one of the league's elite players without ever becoming one. Just imagine how ridiculously good he'd be if he could force defenders to consistently respect that outside shot.
The MVP discussion would instantly become a lot more complicated.
Chris Paul—Looking for His Own Offense
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Chris Paul remains arguably the best point guard in the game, but his production has slipped just a tad from his best couple of years with the New Orleans Hornets.
In 2008-09, Paul averaged a remarkable 22.8 points and 11 assists while shooting over 50 percent from the field. Last season, those numbers dipped ever so slightly to 19.8 points, 9.1 assists and 48 percent on his field-goal attempts.
That's hardly a cause for alarm, and the fact he was playing with the Los Angeles Clippers for the first time might have had a little something to do with it.
The point, however, is that we know what Chris Paul is capable of doing, and there's no reason to believe we've already seen him at his best.
Deferential though he may be, it would be nice to see Paul look for his offense earlier and more often in games, establishing himself as a scorer even as he gets guys like Blake Griffin and Caron Butler involved.
Too often, Paul was forced to take games over late and bail the Clippers out as only he can. If he allowed himself to be slightly more selfish, he might not find himself in those situations quite so often.
Deron Williams—Moving His Feet on Defense
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Deron Williams will have an easier time being himself now that he's got more help on the roster. But the reality is that he hasn't been especially efficient during his brief tenure with the Brooklyn Nets, and he also hasn't played a lick of defense.
Williams often isn't especially engaged on the defensive end, and he gives his opponents space on account of the fact that he won't move quickly enough to stay in front of them. Though he brings plenty of strength to the position, it often doesn't count for much given his other limitations.
Kevin Love—Scoring and Defending the Post
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Kevin Love has the frame to be quite the banger inside, and he certainly uses it to his advantage when rebounding.
But he's yet to become an especially effective scorer or defender in the post. Given his size, he should be able to do more than he's currently doing, but he often prefers to stay outside on the perimeter when the Minnesota Timberwolves have the ball.
Defensively, he isn't afraid to use his muscle, but neither is he especially adept at disrupting plays. And he's definitely not much of a shot-blocker just yet.
That may never become a big part of his game, but you'd like to see such a gifted scorer and rebounder make some additional contributions on the defensive end.