The 1 Area Every NBA Team Must Improve Before 2014-15 Season

Bryan Toporek@@btoporekFeatured ColumnistAugust 2, 2014

The 1 Area Every NBA Team Must Improve Before 2014-15 Season

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    Now that the NBA free-agency market has largely dried up, teams must begin figuring out how to shore up their most significant weaknesses ahead of the 2014-15 season.

    No team—not even the San Antonio Spurs, who looked damn near infallible during the 2014 Finals—can rest on its laurels heading into the coming season. Having a glaring Achilles' heel is a recipe for disaster in the NBA, especially if it's one that carries over from season to season.

    Here, with statistical support from,, and, we'll look at one area each team must improve before the 2014-15 season commences. Some will be more conceptual—three-point shooting, offensive rebounding, assist percentages, etc.—while others will focus on positional weaknesses that could prove to be a team's downfall.

    These aren't the only areas in which many of these teams can (and should) seek to address; some squads, such as the Philadelphia 76ers, need to improve just about everywhere. Instead, consider these the most glaring areas of need, ones that could spell the difference between title contender or pretender, lottery team or playoff berth.

Atlanta Hawks: Small Forward Production

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    Though the NBA has added a number of elite, young wings in recent years, none have found their way to Atlanta.

    DeMarre Carroll performed admirably in 2013-14, seizing hold of the starting 3 spot and not relinquishing it, but his 11.1 points and 5.5 rebounds per game didn't exactly inspire LeBron James or Kevin Durant comparisons. The Hawks accordingly ranked 29th in terms of points per game scored by their small forwards (15.1), ahead of only the Memphis Grizzlies, who started the corpse of Tayshaun Prince at the 3.

    Carroll made a much greater impact on the defensive end than he did offensively last season. Opponents averaged 104.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the court compared to 109.7 points per 100 possessions when he was on the bench, which was tied with Jeff Teague for the best on/off split of any Hawk who played at least 500 minutes.

    With Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver and Teague around to shoulder the brunt of the offensive load, Atlanta doesn't need a James- or Durant-esque scoring output from the 3 spot. The Hawks would benefit from Carroll, the newly signed Thabo Sefolosha and John Jenkins to combine for a slight uptick in production, though.

Boston Celtics: Second-Half Offense

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    The 2013-14 Boston Celtics were built for failure.

    When Boston traded Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry to the Brooklyn Nets on the night of the 2013 draft, any chance of the squad contending for a 2014 playoff spot went straight out the window. The Celtics did that move primarily to acquire three future first-round draft picks, not for Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries and various other flotsam.

    Any chance of Boston running off to a Phoenix-esque surprising season died after halftime on most nights. The Celtics averaged just 46.5 points in the final 24 minutes of games last year, ahead of only the Chicago Bulls (45.7) and their anemic offense.

    With Rajon Rondo, Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley leading the way in the backcourt, Boston can't afford to fall apart so dramatically after halftimes in 2014-15. Otherwise, the Celtics will be making a beeline back to the lottery for the second straight season.

Brooklyn Nets: Fast-Break Scoring

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    For most of the 2013-14 season, the Brooklyn Nets trotted out a starting lineup with three players on the wrong side of 30. That largely explains why the squad struggled so much in terms of generating fast-break opportunities.

    Brooklyn averaged only 9.2 points per game in transition last year, which ranked 29th in the league, and finished dead last in terms of fast-break efficiency. The Nets' cross-city rivals, the New York Knicks, were the only team worse on the fast break (9.0 points per game).

    With Paul Pierce having departed for Washington as a free agent this summer and Brook Lopez returning from a season-ending broken foot, Brooklyn will trot out a younger lineup this season by default. Though Kevin Garnett's creaky bones likely won't be flushing home too many breakaway jams, some of the Nets' younger players can be the beneficiaries of transition opportunities.

    Brooklyn won't transform into the "Seven Seconds or Less" Phoenix Suns overnight, but new head coach Lionel Hollins would be wise to place a greater emphasis on fast-break opportunities. The Nets can't afford to get too bogged down in the half court even if their older stars may prefer that style of play.

Charlotte Hornets: Stealing the Ball

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    It's no secret that stealing the ball often leads to easy transition opportunities. Someone might want to inform the Charlotte Hornets of that.

    Charlotte finished 29th in the league in steals this past season, averaging just 6.1 takeaways per game. (Portland, with 5.5 steals per game, ranked last.) The then-Bobcats also generated steals on just 5.7 percent of their opponents' plays, which also ranked 29th in the NBA.

    Not-so-coincidentally, Charlotte ended the season 25th in terms of fast-break offense, having averaged only 10.1 such points per game. Kemba Walker was the only player on the squad last year to average at least one steal per game, with Al Jefferson (0.9 takeaways per game) the next closest.

    The Hornets' two newest 2-guards, Lance Stephenson and P.J. Hairston, should help address that glaring deficiency this coming season. Stephenson has pilfered the ball 135 times in 156 games over the past two seasons while Hairston averaged 1.5 takeaways per game with the Texas Legends in the NBA D-League this spring.

Chicago Bulls: Crunch-Time Offense

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    The above picture represented the Chicago Bulls' best crunch-time offensive play last season: Give the ball to Joakim Noah, and get the hell out of the way.

    Once Derrick Rose went down with his second straight season-ending knee injury, the Bulls offense returned to its often-stagnant ways. Chicago's bone-crunching defense kept it alive most nights, but its offense, especially toward the end of close games, was as enjoyable as a trip to the dentist after a five-year hiatus.

    During clutch time, which is defined as any time within the final five minutes of a game in which a team is ahead or behind by five points or fewer, the Bulls were tied with the Detroit Pistons for the league's second-worst field-goal percentage (.346). Only one other playoff team (Charlotte) had a clutch-time field-goal percentage below .385 in 2013-14.

    With Rose returning and the additions of Doug McDermott, Nikola Mirotic, Pau Gasol and Aaron Brooks, Chicago should have a much easier time generating quality offensive looks late in games. If something goes awry with that plan, however, the Bulls could have another sooner-than-expected end to their season.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Three-Point Defense

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    If the Cleveland Cavaliers intend to seriously contend for a title this season, they'll need to clean up their pitiful three-point defense.

    This past season, Cleveland ranked dead last in the league in opponents' three-pointers made (9.3) and attempted (25.4) per game. The Cavs' opponents drilled 36.7 percent of the three-pointers they attempted, which was tied with Brooklyn for the eighth-highest mark in the league.

    Granted, the additions of LeBron James and rookie swingman Andrew Wiggins should help the Cavs improve significantly in that regard. James remains one of the premier wing defenders in the league, and Wiggins' extensive wingspan and otherworldly athleticism should help him assert his will on that end of the court from day one.

    With the league trending further toward an emphasis on long-range shooting, defending the three-point line will be paramount for any legitimate championship contender. New head coach David Blatt has his work cut out for him when it comes to shoring up the Cavs' perimeter defense, even with James and Wiggins on board.

Dallas Mavericks: Defensive Acumen

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    The Dallas Mavericks, fresh off putting a scare into the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs, attacked the offseason with reckless abandon.

    They traded Jose Calderon and Samuel Dalembert for Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler, the latter of whom won a title with the franchise back in 2011. Dallas then swooped in and stole Chandler Parsons from Houston with a massive three-year, $46 million offer in restricted free agency and inked Al-Farouq Aminu and Greg Smith to below-market deals.

    Those new players will be critical when it comes to addressing Dallas' greatest weakness from 2013-14: defensive fortitude.

    The Mavericks ranked in the bottom-third of the league in a host of defensive categories last season, including opponents' effective field-goal percentage (25th), opponents' shooting efficiency (29th) and opponents' shooting percentage (24th). They allowed opponents to score 105.9 points per 100 possessions, the worst mark of any team that qualified for the 2014 playoffs.

    To vault into the realm of legitimate title contenders, Dallas needs its new acquisitions to bolster the squad's defense significantly. Felton and Monta Ellis likely won't shut down many opposing backcourts, leaving Aminu and Chandler, in particular, to erase some of their mistakes.

Denver Nuggets: Cutting Down on Fouls

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    The Denver Nuggets were largely nondescript for most of 2013-14, having lost Danilo Gallinari, JaVale McGee and Nate Robinson to season-ending injuries. Those Nuggets who remained standing were elite at just one thing: fouling their opponents.

    Denver led the league in total personal fouls (1,890) and tied with Toronto for the most personal fouls per game (23.0). That led to opponents attempting 2,168 free throws against them, the third-highest total in the league behind Philadelphia (2,261) and New Orleans (2,176).

    Though there's no way of knowing exactly how many of those 1,890 fouls were shooting fouls versus non-shooting fouls, it's clear that ranking toward the bottom of the league in opponents' free-throw attempts isn't ideal. The last thing teams should aim to do is concede a bevy of easy points on a nightly basis.

    With Gallinari, McGee and Robinson back in the fold this coming season, Denver could wind up cutting down on fouls by virtue of shuffling around minutes totals. For instance, Timofey Mozgov, who led the team last season with 213 personal fouls, is unlikely to see nearly as much playing time with McGee back in the fold.

Detroit Pistons: Free-Throw Shooting

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    One man is largely responsible for the Detroit Pistons' league-worst free-throw shooting percentage (.670) last season: second-year center Andre Drummond.

    The former UConn product makes Shaquille O'Neal and Dwight Howard look like Ray Allen at the charity stripe. He clanged home just 37.1 percent of his freebies as a rookie in 2012-13 and made only marginal improvements this past season, knocking down 41.8 percent of his attempts.

    Drummond isn't the only culprit for the Pistons' struggles at the free-throw line, though. Josh Smith, who attempted 27 fewer freebies (301) than Drummond (328), drilled only 53.2 percent of those shots. Greg Monroe, who led the team in free-throw attempts (367), shot just 62.5 percent at the line.

    Therein lies the peril of building around three big men who struggle to hit free throws: Teams can hack away with reckless abandon. Assuming Monroe and the Pistons eventually agree on terms, the trio needs to make major strides in its free-throw shooting for Detroit to have a realistic shot at a playoff berth.

Golden State Warriors: Stephen Curry's Turnovers

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    Stephen Curry is quickly ascending the list of the NBA's best players, but one issue proved to be a particular bugaboo for him in 2013-14: turnovers.

    Curry averaged a career-high 3.8 giveaways per game this past season, which led all players who qualified for the steals-per-game leaderboard. Despite playing in four fewer games than John Wall, the league leader in total turnovers (295), Curry finished just one giveaway shy of the Wizards point guard (294).

    Curry did have a career-high usage rate of 28.3 percent, which partially helps explain the uptick in turnovers, but it doesn't fully justify such a drastic rise. Golden State ranked in the bottom third of the league in turnovers per game (15.2), in no small part due to Curry's frequent carelessness.

    The Warriors' addition of Shaun Livingston should help Curry cut down on his giveaways in 2014-15, as Livingston can take over some of the ball-handling and shot-creation duties. Golden State is well-positioned to make some serious noise this season, so long as it avoids the injury bug and Curry doesn't remain turnover-happy.

Houston Rockets: James Harden's Defense

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    James Harden's frequent apathy on defense became a running joke for most of the 2013-14 season, and for good reason. A YouTube user found enough clips of Harden's pathetic defensive effort to splice together an 11-plus-minute video.

    Harden's oft-variable defense was a clear bellwether for his Houston Rockets last year. In the 48 wins in which he appeared, Houston's opponents only scored 99.5 points per 100 possessions; in the 25 losses, opponents scored 110.0 points per 100 possessions.

    Dwight Howard may be a three-time former Defensive Player of the Year, but he's not capable of fully erasing the effects of Harden's egregious mental errors. A player of Harden's caliber allowing opponents to face little to no resistance, especially when within a few feet of the basket, is damn near impossible to overcome.

    Houston can't afford to remove Harden in late-game situations because of his elite scoring ability, but it can't continue to concede such easy baskets in the waning minutes of games, either. If Harden doesn't begin giving more effort on the lesser-praised side of the court, the Rockets likely won't ever truly contend for a championship.

Indiana Pacers: The 2-Guard Spot

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    Lance Stephenson's departure for Charlotte this summer left the Indiana Pacers scrambling to replace his production.

    Indiana ranked 24th in the league last year in terms of scoring output from the 2-guard position (17.5), and without Stephenson's 13.8 points per game, the Pacers would have fared far worse. His extracurricular antics rightfully wore thin on Indiana, but there's no denying the Pacers are a worse team without him.

    The Pacers signed C.J. Miles and Rodney Stuckey in free agency as stopgap replacements for the erratic Stephenson, but neither will replace his all-around game. Stuckey is too inefficient to merit significant shot attempts, and Miles has only cracked the 25-minutes-per-game threshold once over his nine-year career.

    Heading into the 2014-15 season, shooting guard is the only position that's a major question mark for Indiana. Since the team is unlikely to find another quality contributor this late into the offseason, its only option is to pray either Miles or Stuckey surprise in their new roles.

Los Angeles Clippers: Frontcourt Depth

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    The Los Angeles Clippers tout one of the best starting frontcourt duos in the game with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. However, the 2013-14 squad severely lacked quality contributors behind those two.

    For the first half of the season, the pupu platter of Ryan Hollins, Antawn Jamison and B.J. Mullens represented the best backup big men options at coach Doc Rivers' disposal. After the trade deadline, the Clips swooped in to poach Glen Davis and Danny Granger off waivers, who, alongside midseason signing Hedo Turkoglu, gave the team some semblance of legitimate frontcourt depth.

    The Clippers' signing of Spencer Hawes during free agency went a long way toward addressing that weakness, as he'll be a perfect backup, floor-spacing big next to Griffin (and, to a lesser extent, Jordan). Re-signing Davis to a one-year veteran's minimum contract bolstered the squad's frontcourt depth as well.

    However, to date, those are the only two backup bigs on the roster. Hollins remains available on the free-agent market, as do guys like Emeka Okafor, Andray Blatche and Ekpe Udoh. Signing one (or more) of those players would go a long way toward shoring up the Clippers' most glaring weakness.

Los Angeles Lakers: Interior Defense

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    The Los Angeles Lakers, fresh off their worst season in franchise history, need to shore up their interior defense if they hope to contend for a playoff spot in 2015.

    L.A. conceded a whopping 49.2 points per game in the paint last year, the worst mark of any team in the league, despite being tied with Indiana for fifth in blocks per game (5.4). Pau Gasol was one of the biggest culprits for the Lakers' lackluster work defending the post, as opponents averaged 112.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the court versus 108.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench.

    With Gasol now in Chicago and Chris Kaman having signed with Portland, the Lakers are mostly starting from scratch this season when it comes to their frontcourt. Joining returnees Jordan Hill, Robert Sacre and Ryan Kelly will be Carlos Boozer (acquired via waivers after being amnestied), Julius Randle (drafted seventh overall) and Ed Davis (signed at an absolute steal of a veteran's minimum contract).

    The Lakers' inability to defend the paint contributed to them conceding 109.2 points per game last season, ahead of just the intentionally terrible Philadelphia 76ers. With new coach Byron Scott already preaching his focus on defense, it's clear where L.A. will be dedicating most of its attention in the early going of the 2014-15 season.

Memphis Grizzlies: Three-Point Shooting

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    The Memphis Grizzlies largely eschewed three-point shooting in 2013-14, which came back to haunt them in the playoffs against Oklahoma City.

    Memphis ranked dead last in both three-pointers made (4.9) and attempted (14.0) per game this past season, although the Grizz did drill a respectable 35.3 percent of their attempts from long range. The reliance on a pound-the-paint mentality proved detrimental when facing massive deficits, however, as a perimeter-heavy attack is the easiest way to get back into such games.

    With Mike Miller having taken his talents to Cleveland this summer, Memphis is now down its top three-point shooter from 2013-14.The Grizz did address that departure by bringing in Vince Carter via free agency. Carter shot 39.4 percent from distance last season and is a career 37.8 percent three-point shooter.

    Memphis also has  Mike Conley (36.1 percent), Courtney Lee (34.5 percent) and Jon Leuer (46.9 percent), but rookie Jordan Adams and his career three-point shooting percentage of .331 likely won't inspire much confidence.

    So long as Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol remain the focal points of the team, the Grizzlies won't shy away from pounding the ball into the post and bullying their opponents. However, they'll need to find a few reliable three-point shooters to help space the floor for their big men this season, lest they want a repeat of last season's first-round flameout.

Miami Heat: Rebounding

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    With LeBron James around, the Miami Heat could survive being the worst rebounding team in the league. Now that he's back in Cleveland, however, the Heat need to make drastic improvements on the glass if they hope to remain relevant in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

    Miami ranked dead last in the league in 2013-14 when it came to offensive rebounds (7.6), defensive rebounds (29.2), and, unsurprisingly, total rebounds (36.9) per game. It marked the second straight season that the Heat ranked 30th in total rebounds per game and the third straight year in which the squad ranked in the league's bottom third.

    Luol Deng, who Miami signed to replace James, isn't a terrible rebounder by any measure, but he's also not LeBron. Without an all-around dynamo like James to bail the Heat out of trouble, the squad needs to rededicate itself to hammering the glass at all costs even if it comes at the expense of additional transition opportunities.

    Miami will still enter the season woefully undersized, with a likely starting frontcourt of Josh McRoberts and Chris Bosh doing little to inspire fear in the hearts of opposing big men. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra must emphasize how his players can exploit their quickness to overcome their size deficiencies when battling in the post for boards.

Minnesota Timberwolves: Shot-Blocking

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    In Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic, the Minnesota Timberwolves boast a starting frontcourt that struggles to block shots consistently.

    The Wolves finished dead last in blocked shots per game last season (3.6), with Love (0.5) and Pekovic (0.4) contributing very little in that regard. Backup center Ronny Turiaf did most of the dirty work when it came to shot-blocking (1.6) while young big man Gorgui Dieng came on late in the season with Pekovic sidelined by injury and began swatting everything in sight.

    The ongoing Love trade talks could very well shake things up in Minnesota between now and the start of the season, so speculating about the frontcourt rotation is likely a fool's errand at this juncture. What's clear, however, is that the Wolves will struggle to compete for a playoff spot in the dog-eat-dog Western Conference if they can't protect the rim.

    Regardless of what happens with Love (and potentially even Pekovic if the Wolves opt for the blow-it-to-pieces model of rebuilding), expect Dieng to command a significantly larger share of frontcourt minutes this season. Over his final 20 games in 2013-14, he swatted 1.4 shots in only 27.9 minutes per game.

Milwaukee Bucks: Better Production from Starters

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    The Milwaukee Bucks were a raging tire fire in 2013-14. Isolating only one area in which they need to improve is akin to putting out a forest fire with a Super Soaker.

    If Milwaukee hopes to crack the 20-win threshold this coming season, however, the squad needs significantly more production from its starting five. Last year, the Bucks' starters averaged only 60.4 points per game, which ranked dead last in the league.

    Injuries and ineffectiveness plagued the squad for much of the season, with Ersan Ilyasova, Larry Sanders and O.J. Mayo as the three main culprits. Giannis Antetokounmpo looked like a breakout star waiting to happen, but he was just about the only bright spot from an otherwise dismal season.

    With No. 2 overall pick Jabari Parker now in the fold, he and the Greek Freak provide a nice scoring punch for the Bucks. If Sanders and Mayo can bounce back from their disappointing 2013-14 seasons, Milwaukee could quite conceivably double its 15-win total from last year.

New Orleans Pelicans: Wing Defense

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    With Al-Farouq Aminu joining Dallas as a free agent this summer, the New Orleans Pelicans are suddenly devoid of reliable wing defenders.

    Aminu provided little offensively, but he held opposing 3s to a league-average player efficiency rating of 15.1 this past season, per He contributed the second-most defensive win shares (1.8) of any Pelican, behind only budding superstar Anthony Davis.

    New Orleans, which was tied with Detroit for 25th in defensive rating last year (allowing 107.3 points per 100 possessions), will likely slide Tyreke Evans into the starting 3 spot to replace Aminu. Evans did finish with the third-most defensive win shares (1.3) on the team in 2013-14, but opponents averaged 111.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the court (versus 108.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the bench).

    The return of Jrue Holiday will help bolster the Pelicans' perimeter defense, but New Orleans badly needs an elite wing stopper when facing elite perimeter players like Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant or James Harden. Since Evans is unlikely to achieve that lofty mission by himself, the Pelicans might be forced to rely on a committee approach when facing off against high-scoring wings.

New York Knicks: Point Guard Production

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    The New York Knicks were an unmitigated disaster for most of the 2013-14 season, in no small part due to the struggles of starting point guard Raymond Felton.

    The UNC product scored a career-low 9.7 points and dished 5.6 assists in 31.0 minutes per game while shooting 39.5 percent from the floor and 31.8 percent from three-point range. He also finished the season with a career-low player efficiency rating of 12.9 and missed 17 games due to a handful of injuries.

    Felton's backup, Pablo Prigioni, hardly fared much better. He averaged just 7.1 points and 6.4 assists per 36 minutes, though he did finish the 2013-14 season with the third-best on/off rating of any Knick who played at least 1,000 minutes, trailing only Iman Shumpert and Carmelo Anthony.

    New York sent Felton to Dallas this summer in exchange for Jose Calderon, which should improve its point guard production in 2014-15 almost by default. Calderon likely won't light up the scoreboard with massive point totals, but he'll be far more efficient both in terms of shooting and passing.

Oklahoma City Thunder: In-the-Paint Scoring

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    With Kendrick Perkins manning the middle in 2013-14, the Oklahoma City Thunder finished dead last in terms of in-the-paint scoring, averaging a measly 29.5 points per game. The next-closest team, the moribund 15-67 Milwaukee Bucks, averaged nearly five more points per game (34.4) than OKC on the interior.

    Big Perk deserves the lion's share of the blame for that measly output. He scored a grand total of 211 points last season (3.4 per game), with only 73 baskets in the paint. That was by far the lowest scoring total of any center who started at least 25 games.

    With Perk clogging up the paint, Serge Ibaka often found himself drifting outside the paint for offensive opportunities. He attempted nearly as many shots from the mid-range area (426) as he did from the restricted area (362) and the non-restricted-area paint (130) combined.

    Luckily, OKC has a pretty simple solution to this glaring issue: give Steven Adams more minutes. The rookie from New Zealand came alive toward the end of the season, displaying an offensive prowess Perk has lacked throughout his 11-year NBA career. There's no excuse for him to be playing fewer minutes than Perkins in 2014-15, especially given the Thunder's offensive struggles down low.

Orlando Magic: Offensive Rebounding

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    The Orlando Magic's frontcourt rotation will look far different this coming season than it last year. Considering how poor the Magic were on the offensive glass, that could be a godsend for the squad.

    Orlando finished the season ranked 24th in offensive rebounds per game (9.7), one of only seven squads to average fewer than 10 offensive boards. The Magic also conceded 33.5 defensive rebounds per game, ahead of just Charlotte, Philadelphia and the L.A. Lakers.

    The combination of ranking 25th in both offensive rebounding percentage (.224) and defensive rebounding percentage (.776) isn't something Orlando can afford to replicate if it hopes to contend for a playoff spot in 2015. Two of the squad's newest pieces, Channing Frye and Aaron Gordon, could help in that regard.

    Frye isn't an elite rebounder by any means—he's averaged just 1.1 offensive boards per game over his eight-year career—but only four Orlando players snagged at least 70 offensive rebounds last season. Gordon, who grabbed 102 offensive rebounds in just 38 games with Arizona, should also be a breath of fresh air for the Magic.

Philadelphia 76ers: Cutting Down on Turnovers

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    The Philadelphia 76ers held a number of ignominious distinctions in the 2013-14 season. Leading the league in turnovers was one of the more egregious.

    Philadelphia coughed up the ball a league-high 16.9 times per game, nearly a full giveaway higher than the next-closest team (Houston, 16.1 turnovers per game). Given the Sixers' league-leading pace (101.6 possessions per 48 minutes), the sheer volume of turnovers shouldn't come as a surprise; however, they also topped the NBA in turnover ratio, averaging 16.4 miscues per 100 possessions.

    Since giveaways often result in transition opportunities for opponents, the Sixers desperately need to cut down on their sloppiness this upcoming season. With a full year of experience under his belt, second-year point guard Michael Carter-Williams should be able to cut down on his whopping 3.5 turnovers per game.

    If Philly continues to turn the ball over at such a high rate, however, the squad is likely to finish in the bottom five in defensive efficiency for a second straight year.

Phoenix Suns: First-Half Defense

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    If the Phoenix Suns hope to fight their way into the Western Conference playoffs in 2015, they'll have to tighten up their defense at the start of games.

    In the 2013-14 season, Phoenix allowed its opponents to average 26.6 points in the first quarter, which ranked 25th in the league. None of the five teams with a worse mark—Detroit, Milwaukee, the L.A. Lakers, Denver and Philadelphia—qualified for the 2014 playoffs.

    The Suns' D tended to tighten up after the first quarter—they allowed an average of just 25.1 points in the second quarter (13th in the league)—but that didn't undo the damage done in the opening 12 minutes. Phoenix ranked 22nd in terms of first-half points allowed (51.7), ahead of just two other Western Conference playoff teams (Portland and the L.A. Clippers).

    Overall, the Suns finished the season 13th in defensive rating, allowing opponents to average 103.8 points per 100 possessions, so it's not as though the squad's defense was a glaring issue. Given how close Phoenix was to a playoff spot in 2014—the squad finished just three games behind the sixth-seeded Golden State Warriors—tightening up at the beginning of games could make all the difference.

Portland Trail Blazers: Bench Scoring

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    The Portland Trail Blazers' greatest weakness in 2013-14, bench production, appears to be a potential issue this coming season as well.

    All five of Portland's starters averaged double-figure scoring throughout last year's regular season, but the only bench player to scoring more than 5.3 points per game was Mo Williams. Accordingly, the Blazers' reserves ranked last in the league in scoring, averaging only 23.6 points per game.

    With Williams having signed in Minnesota as a free agent this summer, that leaves even more of an offensive void once the first unit needs a breather. The signings of Steve Blake and Chris Kaman add veteran leadership to the bench, but neither player should be expected to average 10 or more points per game this coming season.

    If the Blazers hope to improve upon their surprise second-round playoff appearance, they'll need more offensive production from their young reserve lottery picks, including Thomas Robinson, C.J. McCollum and Meyers Leonard.

Sacramento Kings: Generating Assists

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    Passing was not exactly the Sacramento Kings' forte in the 2013-14 season.

    The Kings ranked dead last in both assists per game (18.9) and assist ratio, the number of dimes dished out per 100 possessions (14.7). In essence, they were the anti-San Antonio Spurs, who ranked first in both assists per game (25.2) and assist ratio (19.1).

    Switching point guards this summer likely isn't going to help matters. The Kings went from Isaiah Thomas, who averaged a career-high 6.5 helpers per 36 minutes this past season, to Darren Collison, who only dished 5.2 assists per 36.

    With Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins already soaking up a large portion of Sacramento's possessions, the other Kings can't fall into the trap of standing around the perimeter and watching those two work their magic. Ball movement will be key if the squad hopes to make serious strides and legitimately contend for a playoff berth in what's sure to be a brutal Western Conference.

San Antonio Spurs: Drawing Fouls

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    Highlighting a weakness of the reigning champion San Antonio Spurs might be the textbook definition of nitpicking. Given San Antonio's annihilation of the Miami Heat in the 2014 NBA Finals, the status quo would be largely acceptable for this squad.

    Still, every team could stand to improve in some regard, and the Spurs are no exception. They had the lowest free-throw-attempt rate—defined as the number of free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt—of any team in the league last season (.240).

    San Antonio also ranked dead last in terms of attempted free throws (20.0) per game, trailing the league-leading Houston Rockets by 11.1 attempts. The lack of freebies obviously wasn't a death knell to the Spurs' title hopes, but as Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili continue to inch closer to 40, generating easy points will only become more essential for the squad.

    Kyle Anderson, whom the Spurs drafted with the final pick in the first round, could help in this regard, as he generated 5.2 free-throw attempts per game during his sophomore year at UCLA. While he'll be running the offense far less frequently in San Antonio—that Tony Parker guy needs some touches, too—he could be the beneficiary of easy looks if he learns to operate effectively without the ball.

Toronto Raptors: Frontcourt Production

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    The Toronto Raptors were one of the most pleasant surprises from the 2013-14 season, going from apparent tankers immediately following the Rudy Gay trade to the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

    If Toronto hopes to replicate that success this coming season, it will need to generate far more production from its frontcourt on a nightly basis.

    The Raptors ranked dead last in terms of points per game coming from their frontcourt (51.2), nearly 20 points behind the league-leading New York Knicks. This should come as no surprise, seeing as Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan were Toronto's two greatest scoring threats upon Gay's departure for Sacramento.

    Jonas Valanciunas obliterated everything in his path during summer league in 2013, but he failed to carry over that momentum for much of the 2013-14 season. The Raptors will need more production from him and Amir Johnson if they have any intention of nabbing a top-four seed (and home-court advantage in the first round) in the 2015 playoffs.

Utah Jazz: Capitalizing on Turnovers

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    If the Utah Jazz hope to make noise as a Western Conference playoff contender in 2014-15, they'll need to do a much better job forcing turnovers and capitalizing on such opportunities.

    This past season, Utah ranked 29th in terms of opponents' turnovers per game (12.6) while ranking 26th in steals per game (7.0). That speaks to a marginal defense, which allowed the greatest number of points per 100 possessions (109.1) of any team in the league.

    Accordingly, the Jazz finished dead last in terms of points off turnovers (1,127), more than 450 points behind the league-leading Los Angeles Clippers. Failing to frequently generate easy offense off giveaways only makes life harder for Utah's young core, which is much better suited for a run-and-gun attack than a half-court-centered offense.

    Realistically, Utah is still likely a year or two away from seriously contending for a playoff spot in the uber-competitive Western Conference. Addressing the squad's glaring inability to capitalize on turnovers should help the Jazz move up a few rungs in the conference, though.

Washington Wizards: Fourth-Quarter Offense

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    In John Wall and Bradley Beal, the Washington Wizards have one of the most terrifying young backcourts in the league. After snapping the franchise's six-year streak of missing the playoffs last season, the Wiz kids have their sights set on the NBA Finals this time around.

    To accomplish that task, Washington needs to make major strides in terms of fourth-quarter offense. In 2013-14, the Wizards averaged just 23.2 points in the final 12 minutes of regulation, ahead of only Chicago (23.1 points).

    The squad's scoring acumen dropped off consistently as games wore on; the Wizards averaged 26.6 points in the opening 12 minutes (sixth in the league), 24.0 in the second quarter (24th), 23.9 in the third (24th) and 23.2 in the fourth (29th). Those fourth-quarter struggles are where the offseason signing of Paul Pierce could end up paying major dividends.

    Though Pierce isn't the same lethal assassin he once was back in his Boston days, he proved during the opening game of the 2014 playoffs that he remains capable of single-handedly taking over a fourth quarter. If Washington hopes to assert itself as a legitimate Finals contender in 2014-15, its late-game execution must improve.


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