The 1 Improvement Every 2013-14 NBA Title Contender Needs to Make
Before the 2013-14 NBA title contenders get ahead of themselves, there are some critical adjustments and necessary improvements each of them has to make.
Even the best teams in the league have weaknesses that need addressing, and the upcoming training camps are an opportunity to establish a better game plan.
One Western Conference club must fix its defense, even though it allowed just 94.6 points per game last year. In the East, one team looks to upgrade its inside game while another should fire away from beyond the arc.
If these squads want better odds of hoisting the Larry O'Brien trophy, they should tackle these issues as soon as possible.
San Antonio Spurs: Get to the Free-Throw Line More Often
The San Antonio Spurs' offense isn't predicated on lengthy post-ups or creative wing slashers, but they need to find a way to draw more fouls and get to the free-throw line.
During the 2012-13 campaign, Gregg Popovich's crew ranked in the bottom third of the league in free-throw attempts with 21.0 per contest. Come playoff time, they hardly improved on that number, tossing just 21.5 per game.
Two players who are noticeably underachieving in this area are Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. While logging a combined 58.7 minutes every night, they teamed to attempt 3.2 free throws.
That statistic needs to change, and it probably will as Leonard continues to develop offensively.
Almost all of the Spurs' major rotational players shoot better than 80 percent from the charity stripe, so it would be wise to get there more frequently.
Oklahoma City Thunder: Consistent Ball Movement
OKC averaged an underwhelming 21.4 assists per game in 2012-13, but don't give Durant (4.6 per game) and Westbrook (7.4 per game) all the blame for the low number.
The ball movement problem is a collective one. Serge Ibaka needs to be more than a dunker and jump-shooter, Westbrook should pass more when he gets into mid-range pickles, and Reggie Jackson should become much more of a facilitator if he wants to earn more playing time.
It sounds like a junior varsity exercise, but the Thunder need to set a goal of having each person on the floor touch the ball during half-court sets. Emulating the San Antonio Spurs more often would help the Thunder establish sustained offensive health.
Houston Rockets: Cut Down on Turnovers
It's difficult to win regular season games, let alone playoff games, when you give away the ball 16 times.
Over the course of the 2012-13 campaign, the Houston Rockets committed the most turnovers in the NBA. 1,348 to be exact.
Part of the high total can be attributed to the team's breakneck pace and free-wheeling approach. However, the Rockets made a ton of ill-advised passes, were sloppy in the open floor and suffered from inexperience.
If Houston can go from 16.4 turnovers to 14.4 turnovers, it will be in much better shape for a competitive playoff run.
Los Angeles Clippers: Defensive Communication and Situational Awareness
Despite ranking fourth in the NBA in points allowed in 2012-13, the Los Angeles Clippers are in desperate need of defensive improvement.
The squad struggled with frequent positional lapses throughout the season, and in the playoffs, the Memphis Grizzlies exposed LA's ineptitude, posting 100-plus points per game. You know the old phrase, "not on the same page?" The Clippers exemplified it.
Pick-and-roll defense was inconsistent and low-post stoppage was weak. Simple screens caused chaos. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan often strayed too far from the paint on the same possession. Rotations were late or non-existent. Should I keep going?
Fortunately, there's new leadership in town, and Doc Rivers will give the team a clear identity and a well-rehearsed game plan for every situation.
Consistent defensive execution is the key to LA reaching the finals instead of bowing out in early May.
Memphis Grizzlies: Improve Three-Point Threat
No matter how good the Memphis Grizzlies are defensively, they won't be able to get past the best teams in the Western Conference if they can't stretch the floor and sink triples.
Not only are three-pointers worth more than buckets inside the arc, they help spread defenses thin and take some pressure off the low-post attack.
Acquiring Mike Miller over the summer should help remedy this issue to an extent, but Memphis will still need to generate more firepower from deep.
Quincy Pondexter and Jerryd Bayless are critical to this effort, as they both shoot a decent percentage and are dependable role players. New head coach Dave Joerger must work to get them more shots, as well as continue the long-range development of Mike Conley.
Golden State Warriors: Defend Three-Point Line Better
With an exciting core returning and the addition of Andre Iguodala and Marreese Speights, the Golden State Warriors are primed for a deep playoff run. They even have a shot at winning a championship.
Mark Jackson hopes Iggy's arrival can spark defensive improvement, especially on the perimeter.
The Dubs gave up 100-plus points last season, and their inconsistent defense of the three-point line is largely to blame. Golden State surrendered the most three-point attempts in the NBA and the fourth-most three-point makes. Rotating and contesting were huge problems.
An upgrade on the wing and a better-coordinated effort to stop triples will go a long way in boosting the Warriors' title odds. This young squad will learn from its mistakes and bring a more consistent defensive approach from day one.
Brooklyn Nets: Reduce Dependency on Isolations
During their first season in Brooklyn, the Nets struggled to consistently move the ball.
They relied heavily on the freelancing talents of Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, and consequently, the team posted just 20.3 assists per game.
An over-reliance on isolation sets keeps role players out of the flow of the game, and it cuts down on the overall amount of work opposing defenses have to do.
Jason Kidd must emphasis better ball distribution, more backdoor screens and sharper cuts. The arrival of Paul Pierce should improve the culture of sharing, as he's a great passer on the wing.
If a lineup as talented as this can move the ball around on each possession, it will give the Miami Heat all it can handle this spring.
Miami Heat: Play Stronger (Literally) in the Post
On both ends of the floor, the Miami Heat could stand to improve their physicality.
The club's style of play and exceptionally high shooting percentage doesn't lend itself to loads of rebounds. However, the frontcourt could crash the boards better when the situation arises, and if it does become a better rebounding unit, a three-peat is within reach.
When it comes to interior scoring, the Heat didn't have much in 2012-13 other than LeBron's intermittent ventures and Chris Bosh's occasional post-up. They didn't have someone bulky who regularly banged for position, caught passes and converted close-range opportunities.
Signing Greg Oden should help Miami in every low-post phase: defense, rebounding and scoring on the block.
How much can he contribute on a nightly basis?
Indiana Pacers: Improve Ball-Handling, Take Better Care of the Rock
Frank Vogel's Indiana Pacers were thoroughly impressive in the 2013 playoffs, as they used a stout defense, strong inside game and the playmaking skills of Paul George and George Hill to make a memorable run.
They didn't do much wrong, but they definitely could have taken better care of the ball. In a time of year when every possession counts, Indy committed 16.4 turnovers per contest.
Part of the reason for such a figure is the Pacers' mediocre ball-handlers struggling against top-notch defenses. Indiana sometimes looked disjointed and clunky offensively, and George Hill wasn't the smoothest dribbler.
Vogel hopes newcomer C.J. Watson can help the cause, but the whole squad must take better care of the ball.
Chicago Bulls: Improve Three-Point Threat
Now that Derrick Rose is back and Mike Dunleavy is in the fold, the Chicago Bulls will try to improve upon their lousy 2012-13 three-point efforts.
Chicago's committee of guards and swingmen failed to threaten opponents from downtown last season, sinking just 5.4 threes per night. That's a little more than one per quarter.
Scoring only 15-18 points per game from three-land severely limited the Bulls' offensive ceiling, so Tom Thibodeau is glad Rose is back. The 2010-11 NBA MVP will not only drain triples himself, he'll create a slew of three-point opportunities for teammates, something Nate Robinson and Kirk Hinrich struggled to do last year.
Getting the ball in the paint to Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah will still be a priority, but Thibodeau knows he can and will improve his long-distance attack.
New York Knicks: Work for High-Percentage Close-Range Shots
Although the New York Knicks owned a potent outside shooting unit and a highly skilled roster, they weren't terribly productive from the field or adequately efficient in the paint last season.
Mike Woodson's boys ranked in the lower half of the league in field-goal percentage, and then they shot even worse in the playoffs—all because they depended too much on the long tosses.
Tyson Chandler and Kenyon Martin are nearly useless as scorers other than pick-and-roll lobs and put-backs, and Amar'e Stoudemire was injured for most of 2012-13.
Thus, Carmelo Anthony was the team's only substantial interior force.
Entering the new campaign, Woodson must focus on utilizing a healthy Amar'e and finding Chandler more easy opportunities. Raymond Felton's work in the pick-and-roll and 'Melo's unselfishness will be pivotal for this endeavor.
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