Cheap Seats: NBA’s Most Improved Team

Which team is the NBA’s most improved this season? Is it the Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers or Washington Wizards? Basketball Insiders debates

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Every season, we welcome in a new group of interns and typically their work is done primarily behind the scenes. But now that the current group has been around for awhile, we’re giving them a platform to voice their thoughts on the NBA. Each week, Basketball Insiders’ interns Jesse Blancarte, Cody Taylor and John Zitzler will discuss a topic related to the league in Cheap Seats.

This week, the interns discuss the most improved team of the 2013-14 NBA season.

Portland Trail Blazers

Last season, the Trail Blazers finished with a record of 33-49 and were ranked 11th in the Western Conference. The team was playing well into January, 2013, but injuries led to a 13-game losing streak, the longest in franchise history. So far this year, the Blazers are 43-23 and fifth in the Western Conference. The improvement from last year to this year didn’t come about through a major overhaul of the team, or through a superstar free agent signing. It has come through the development of players already on the roster, strong coaching, solid acquisitions, creating an identity and, until recently, good health. The team’s performance has slipped in recent weeks, but the Blazers still stand firmly in the Western Conference playoff race, and have time to get back on track. Considering that entering the season this team was expected to be a fringe playoff team at best, and spent a significant portion of the season atop the historically deep Western Conference, there is little doubt that Portland is this year’s most improved team.

The Blazers this year added significant role players in Robin Lopez, Thomas Robinson, Mo Williams, and Dorell Wright. All of these were solid additions executed by savvy General Manager Neil Olshey. The most important of these additions has been Lopez.

Lopez has added size to the center position, which last season was mainly held by J.J. Hickson, who is the size of a power forward rather than a center. Lopez’s numbers this year are roughly in line with his production last year in New Orleans, however, he has increased his rebounding from 5.6 per game to 8.6. More importantly, Lopez has added rim protection as the Blazers allow opponents to shoot 55 percent at the rim this year, good for third best in the NBA, and up from 22nd last year. Additionally, Williams, Robinson and Wright have added depth and stability to a team that did not always get solid contributions from its bench last year.

While these acquisitions have helped, the Blazers’ most significant improvement comes from players who were already on the team; specifically Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge.

In his second year, Lillard has increased his scoring (21) and rebounding (3.6), and he’s currently ranked second in three pointers made this year behind only Stephen Curry. Lillard played in his first All-Star game this year, and became the first player to ever participate in every single event. Players often decline invitations to participate in multiple events for fear that they will over work themselves. That concern has not affected Lillard, who has played extremely well since All-Star weekend. In Portland’s most recent game against the New Orleans Pelicans, Lillard scored 27 points, and hit a corner three that shifted the momentum in favor of the Blazers, who won 111-103 and snapped a four-game losing streak. Pelicans head coach Monty Williams told ESPN, “You know what he’s capable of doing… Some of the stuff is un-guardable like the last three-pointer he made…We’ve played against him a number of times the past two years so you’ve got to know what to expect.” Lillard has quickly established himself as an elite point guard, and the sky is the limit for him moving forward.

While Lillard has been phenomenal this season, this team will only go as far as Aldridge will take them. Aldridge has been one of the best power forwards in the NBA for several years now, but this year he has increased his scoring (23.4) and rebounding (11.1), and continues to be an elite midrange shooter, hitting the third most shots from 10-14 feet this season, behind only Kevin Durant and Dirk Nowitzki. While Lillard, Wes Matthews and Nic Batum knock down jumpers from the perimeter, Aldridge is constantly creating space by drawing double teams.

This has allowed the Blazers to hit three pointers quickly and often, which has resulted in the team scoring 108.3 points per 100 possessions, up from 102.7 per 100 possessions last year. This is a jump from 15th in the NBA, to fourth, a very significant improvement. However, while the Blazers’ offense has improved significantly, its defense still needs to tighten up. Last year the team allowed opponents to score 106.9 points per 100 possessions, good for 26th best in the NBA. This year the team is allowing opponents to score 104.7 points per 100 possessions, which is 19th best in the league. So while the team has improved its defensive efficiency, it still ranks in the bottom half of the league. In spite of this, the team still posts a 3.6 point net rating per game, good for ninth best in the NBA and shows that the team has made significant strides this season.

More important than the statistical improvements, the culture in Portland has greatly improved. In 2012, Batum signed a restricted free agent offer sheet with the Minnesota Timberwolves, and lobbied for Portland to not match the deal. Olshey did not listen, and Batum remained in Portland. Then, during this last offseason, rumors swirled about Aldridge wanting to leave the Blazers and join another team. Despite the rumors, Olshey maintained a steady hand and kept his star power forward. Now there are no rumors about players not liking the system, which was Batum’s major complaint under former head coach Nate McMillan, or frustration over missing the playoffs. Rather, head coach Terry Stotts has the team playing in a wide open system that emphasizes ball movement, players getting open shots on the perimeter and featuring Aldridge in his sweet spots in the mid-range areas. Additionally, Olshey has continued to make solid additions to the roster through the draft, trades and free agency, while maintaining financial flexibility.

With the regular season winding down, the Blazers anxiously look to the playoffs. It is not hard to imagine some upsets occurring as the gap between each of the top teams in the West is so small. With Portland’s offensive firepower, and the star power of Lillard and Aldridge, this team can make a run in the postseason. There are strong teams to get through from top to bottom, including the ageless Spurs, the talented Thunder and the streaking Clippers, but the Blazers can potentially beat any of them. For a team that finished last year on a 13-game losing streak and11th in the West, was facing discontent with its star power forward, had an unproven coach and was thought to be a long shot to make the playoffs this year, that’s a significant turn-around and earns my vote for most improved team this year.

– Jesse Blancarte

Phoenix Suns

The Suns finished the 2012-13 season with a final record of 25-57, which placed them dead last in the Western Conference standings. Exactly halfway through that season, the Suns decided to part ways with the head coach at the time, Alvin Gentry. Gentry was replaced by Lindsey Hunter, who was hired on a interim basis for the remainder of the season. Hunter, who had no previous head coaching experience, wasn’t able to do any better than Gentry; in fact, in the 41 games he coached the Suns, they had a record of 12-29 (one win shy of Gentry, who had lead the team to 13 wins in 41 attempts during the first half of the season). It was evident that the organization needed to make some changes.

In May of 2013, the Suns replaced Hunter with new head coach Jeff Hornacek. Hornacek, like Hunter, would begin his head coaching stint with no previous experience as a head coach. Bringing in Hornacek was just the start of a very busy off-season for the team. Out went Michael Beasley, Shannon Brown, Jared Dudley, Marcin Gortat, Wesley Johnson, Jermaine O’Neal, Luis Scola, Kendall Marshall, Luke Zeller and Hamed Haddadi replaced with Leandro Barbosa, Eric Bledsoe, Gerald Green, Alex Len, Miles Plumlee, Shavlik Randolph, Viacheslav Kratsov, Dionte Christmas, Emeka Okafor and Archie Goodwin. The roster looked drastically different heading into 2013-14 season and Hornacek would be tasked with trying to bring this new group of guys together. While the roster looked very different, the expectations for the team still remained low.

The Suns started the season a little better than expected, especially when you consider the amount of roster turnover, going 9-8 in the first month. For a team expected to be right in the thick of the lottery again, this was a welcome surprise and a sign of good things to come. After their impressive start, many assumed it was just a matter of time before the Suns reverted to the team of last year. The Suns and Hornacek had other plans, however, as the team continued to play well and win games as the season progressed. Winning games against the lesser competition was feasible, but it was the success against the top-tier teams that was most surprising. In the first two months of the season the Suns notched wins against the Clippers, Warriors, Trail Blazers (twice) and Rockets. It was clear Hornacek was doing something right, but he was certainly getting some help from his guards.

Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe deserve just as much credit as anybody in the turnaround the team has experienced this season. Bledsoe, who served primarily as a back up during his time with the Clippers, got off to a fantastic start. He was starting and playing the most minutes of his career and was proving to be an absolute steal for the team. Bledsoe has always been thought of as a very talented player, but even to his biggest supporters his production to start the season had to be surprising. He was able to use his unique combination of strength and athleticism to get into to the paint and create shots for his teammates or finish strong at the rim. Bledsoe is averaging career-highs in nearly every statistical category, has been a menace on defense and, prior to his early season injury, was a front runner for the Most Improved Player award. As great as Bledsoe had been to start the season, when he went down with a knee injury that would sideline him for 10 weeks, the Suns needed to come together to fill that void.

His backcourt mate Dragic was more than up for the challenge. With Bledsoe out, it allowed Dragic to really step into the forefront and become a leader. Dragic, like Bledsoe, is having the best season of his career and made strong push for a spot in the All-Star game. While his All-Star aspirations fell short, his game has not. Night in and night out Dragic has been orchestrating one of the better offenses in the league, playing significant minutes to help his Suns keep up their winning ways. Thankfully for him and the team, Bledsoe has just recently returned from injury, which should take a little bit of the pressure off Dragic.

It hasn’t just been a two-man show for the Suns. Both Marcus and Markeiff Morris have been playing well this year. Markeiff in particular has worked his way into the conversation for Sixth Man of the Year. The versatile forward can create matchup problems off the bench and has had a very good year shooting the ball. Miles Plumlee, who last year played very limited minutes with the Pacers, has proven that he deserves to be out on the floor. He gives the Suns an athletic big who can keep up with the fast pace the Suns like to play. Plumlee has also done a nice job scoring the ball and has shown some promising skill down low. Gerald Green, another Pacers castaway that has blossomed with the Suns, deserves credit too. He is scoring the ball better than ever before and was a huge factor during the time missed by Bledsoe. Add to that mix Channing Frye, who is a consistent threat from three, and P.J. Tucker, and it becomes much easier to understand why this team has been playing winning basketball.

Hornacek has done a magnificent job getting this group of players to buy in and to jell as a team. The Suns are currently 37-28, which puts them just one game back of the Grizzlies for the eighth and final spot in the playoffs. For a team that was expected to finish near the bottom of the standings again, Hornacek has been a savior. The new additions and new coach have come together seamlessly and performed better than many would have imagined. General manager Ryan McDonough seems to be making all the right calls and has this team back in contention. Hornacek is now a very serious contender for Coach of the Year and deservedly so. This is a young and hungry team that may not be ready to contend for a title yet, but if they can sneak into the playoffs they would surely be a very tough out for any opponent.

– John Zitzler

Washington Wizards

The Washington Wizards find themselves right in the middle of the playoff race in the Eastern Conference, an experience they haven’t had for quite some time.

The Wizards are in the sixth seed in the East with 17 games to go. Barring a huge collapse, the Wizards will make the playoffs for the first time since 2008, when Gilbert Arenas was still on the team. The Wizards are fighting for the best possible playoff seed, and face tough matchups against the Nets, Trail Blazers, Suns, Pacers, Hawks, Bulls and HEAT before the end of the season. Still, the team isn’t looking too far ahead.

“We can’t really think about the past or what’s going to happen,” Trevor Ariza said. “We just have to take it one day at a time and continue to work hard in practice and continue to pay attention to detail. When we’re in the game, we have to stay motivated and stay in tune to what we’re doing.”

This Wizards team has a mix of young players and veterans helping the charge toward the playoffs, but the team knows they have one leader: John Wall.

“It’s a big difference, he makes this team go,” Ariza said of having Wall back healthy. “We’re going to go as far as he takes us. He makes all of the plays and he’s become a really good leader here. He’s been unbelievable for this team.”

Wall acknowledged the team’s health has been the biggest difference between last year’s team that won only 29 games and this year’s team that is on pace for the playoffs. Wall missed the first 33 games of last season with a stress injury to his left kneecap and forward Nene Hilario missed the first nine games with a foot injury.

“When we came back we had one of the best records in in the NBA when everybody got healthy,” Wall said. “We knew what kind of team we could have. The biggest thing for us is just trying to get everybody healthy to finish these last couple of games down the stretch and try to get a better playoff spot and make a run.”

The Wizards understand that it’s going to take effort and intensity to make noise in the playoffs, and they appear to already be doing that. The Wizards overcame a nine-point Orlando Magic lead late in the fourth quarter to come back and tie Friday’s game, and eventually win in overtime. The keys for the Wizards in the win were hustle plays and effort, something that may not have come last season.

In the overtime period, Magic point guard Jameer Nelson stole Wall’s errant pass to Bradley Beal to lead a fast break toward an uncontested layup, but Beal chased down Nelson and blocked the layup attempt just before the ball went into the basket. Wall joined Beal in the chase and came up with the rebound off of the block and then hit Ariza in the corner for a three-pointer. Wizards head coach Randy Wittman said after the game that it’s those types of plays that are going to win games for the Wizards.

“It was a heck of an effort,” Wittman said of the play. “It was probably one of the plays that saved the day, there’s no question. It’s just staying with it. I think it’s something that some of our young guys are starting to learn. The game is never over, but we stayed with it and we kept getting stops.

“To be a good team you have to stay within the play. It’d be easy to stand there and watch Jameer go down and lay it in, but John sprinted down to be that first guy back. Those are plays that good teams make to stay in it.”

Wall admitted that in the past he would have likely just sat back and pouted after making a bad pass that led to Nelson’s steal, but now understands what it takes to win games.

While the Wizards are destined for the playoffs, the team knows some of their toughest work still lies ahead of them.

“The playoffs are a grind, it’s not easy,” Wittman said. “It’s easy to play the game when everything is going good – you’re making shots and things come easy.”

– Cody Taylor

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