5 Players Guaranteed to Thrive with Their New Teams Next Season
With the major pieces of free agency mostly locked into place, next NBA season's landscape has become much clearer. After several key pieces have changed scenery this past month, it's safe to assume that both conference's playoff pictures will likely be shifted around in 2013-14.
LeBron James returning home to the Cleveland Cavaliers obviously stands above the rest in terms of ripple effect, but Luol Deng filling in with the Miami Heat and Pau Gasol jumping over to the Chicago Bulls both were somewhat unexpected moves that could benefit everyone.
But now that the dust has settled, all that matters is how effective each new signee will be with his new squad, and which ones will help lead their respective teams to success in 2014-15. Ahead, we list five players who won't disappoint in their new homes.
From a Sacramento Kings standpoint, it's hard to justify downgrading from Isaiah Thomas, a 25-year-old fresh off a 20-point, six-assist, three-rebound per game season, to Darren Collison. But the Phoenix Suns surely won't be complaining.
They inked Thomas to a four-year pact worth $27 million in a sign-and-trade deal with Sacramento, tossing him into the team's monstrous backcourt that already consists of Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. After Thomas started 54 games for the Kings last season, Phoenix may plan on using him as its sixth man—a role he should thrive in.
He's already off to a good start in the desert, explaining during his introductory presser that he'll fill whatever role the team needs, whether it be starting or coming off the bench, per The Associated Press (via ESPN.com):
I value myself as a starter, but when it comes down to winning, I'll do anything it takes to win. I want to be on a winning team. ... At the end of the day, we're going to play with each other, no matter who starts and who comes off the bench. It's about winning. The individual success will come.
Bledsoe and Dragic combined for 38 points and more than 11 assists per game in 2013-14, helping lead Phoenix to 48 wins in what was presumed to be a rebuilding season.
Coach Jeff Hornacek has already alluded to the mismatches Thomas will create. "There's going to be two of those guys on the court at all times," he said, "When that happens, teams are going to really have to plan for that."
According to 82games.com, the Suns backcourt outscored its opposition by 7.7 points per 48 minutes last season, posting an effective field-goal percentage roughly five points better and a player efficiency rating four points higher. Thomas' addition will only tire defenses out even more and give Phoenix another scoring threat from the guard position.
Luol Deng is not an upgrade from LeBron James for the Miami Heat by any stretch. But the 29-year-old should fit perfectly into the new-look Heat's plans this season.
In Miami, Deng will be surrounded by high-IQ players who can stretch the floor in Chris Bosh and Josh McRoberts—and even Dwyane Wade, if he's serious about this whole shooting threes thing, which could prolong his career.
Deng averaged just 14 points on 41 percent shooting from the field last season with the Cavs, but in a bad basketball situation and after moving from his career-long home in Chicago. Courtesy of David Ramil at Hot Hot Hoops, David Zavac of Fear the Sword elaborated a bit on Deng's disappointing stay in Cleveland:
I talked to Deng a couple times after he came to Cleveland. He always said the right things, but it couldn't have been easy for him to have left a playoff team he was comfortable with to an underachieving one asking him to do things that didn't play to his strengths. His body language was not great. I don't think the Cavs had a good situation in the locker room, but I'd point more to Deng being asked to do things he wasn't good at than dysfunction as to why it didn't work out.
With the Heat, Deng will be more in his element. He won't be relied on as a first or second option, and with legitimate, veteran threats around him, he can focus more on his own skills. According to Synergy, Deng recorded 1.44 points per play on cuts last season with Cleveland, including 33-of-49 (67 percent) shooting. The season prior, he shot 70-of-117 or 60 percent. With players who can stretch defenses out and draw attention elsewhere, Deng should have no problem getting shots that best fit his game.
Deng also has experience handling an offense, dating back to parts of the last two seasons on Derrick Rose-less Bulls teams. Without a strong point guard, Miami may turn to Deng for parts of games to direct the flow.
If Deng can stay healthy, he'll make a positive impact on both ends for the Heat, who may very well contend for a top seed in the East again this season.
If there's one thing the Chicago Bulls have been missing—even with Derrick Rose in the lineup—it's a capable secondary scorer. They unsuccessfully attempted to fill that void—and then some—by luring Carmelo Anthony away from New York City. But Gasol is more than a consolation prize.
During an injury-riddled 2013-14 campaign, Gasol still managed to score 17 per night while pulling down nine boards for the Lakers. He even posted an assist percentage over 17 for the second consecutive year, finishing third on the team in total assists.
At 34, one would expect his performance to tail off eventually. But if Gasol can give the Bulls three-quarters of what he's capable of, they will easily contend for the East's top seed.
With a premier defensive center behind him in Joakim Noah, Gasol won't need to act as something he's not: a lynchpin on that end. In L.A. last year, Mike D'Antoni had the Spaniard line up at center for 83 percent of his minutes.
A Noah and Gasol pairing on the offensive end is also unique in that it links two of the most gifted frontcourt passers in basketball. Tom Thibodeau could likely incorporate some high-low action into the team's offense, which we saw briefly between Gasol and Dwight Howard with the Lakers.
Playing with Rose should also open up his offensive arsenal even further. With defenses having to pay so much attention to the point guard, Gasol could often find himself with room to work in the mid-range.
To go along with Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott—and even Rose—Thibs will have a new slate of weapons to rely on as he hopes to improve on a 48-win season. If Gasol contributes to the fullest of his abilities, his talents will fit in perfectly with an already solid Bulls roster.
- Haul down 10 percent of all available rebounds
- Assist on at least 20 percent of his teammates' baskets while he's on the floor
- Log a true shooting percentage of 55 or higher (minimum usage percentage: 18)
For a while, it was unclear if Lance Stephenson's market existed at all. But after the Charlotte Hornets inked the 23-year-old to a three-year, $27 million contract, his future morphed from murky to glowing.
Stephenson will join Kemba Walker in Charlotte's starting backcourt, while Al Jefferson gives the team a dominant paint force to balance the offense. No Bobcats guard posted a field-goal mark better than Stephenson's 49 percent last year, and Gary Neal is the only returning member to post a better clip from three.
Bleacher Report's Jared Dubin explained further how Stephenson can fit in with the new Hornets:
Stephenson gives Charlotte another ball-handler to take some of the playmaking burden off Walker's shoulders. He worked as essentially a de facto point guard for the Pacers last season as head coach Frank Vogel shifted ball-handling responsibility from George Hill to Stephenson and Paul George.
Stephenson was Indiana's primary creator of shots for others when he was on the court, often operating as the pick-and-roll ball-handler, and he showed himself equally skilled at finding the roll man and spot-up shooters dotting the arc.
With Jefferson in the screen-and-roll, Stephenson should be formidable, so long as he sticks to making the wise decision as opposed to the flashiest.
Dubin also noted that Stephenson is now just one of 26 players in NBA history to accomplish each of the following in a single season:
Defensively, the league is aware of Stephenson's talents. He comes from a strong defensive core with the Indiana Pacers and moves to a team that ranked sixth in defensive efficiency last season. Along with Walker, who's coming off a surprisingly effective season on that end—ditto for Jefferson—Stephenson gives the Hornets yet another two-way threat.
In a conference as wide open as the East, where Charlotte ends up largely depends on how far Stephenson can take it.
Yes, LeBron James is guaranteed to thrive with the Cleveland Cavaliers. LeBron James would be guaranteed to thrive with the Washington Generals.
James rejoining the Cavs instantly morphed them into conference favorites, and maybe more if the team can land Kevin Love. But even without Love, LeBron has never been paired with a point guard of Kyrie Irving's caliber and has never played under a coach as thoughtful as David Blatt.
His stats read like fiction by now: a true shooting percentage that has crept upward every year since 2007-08 with just one exception, and up to 65 percent last season. During his Miami tenure, he averaged 27 points per contest on only 18 shots. He led the Heat in points, assists and rebounds per game every season except 2010-11—when he finished third in rebounding. He's racked up 169 win shares in his career and has failed to post a PER over 30 just twice since 2008-09.
In Anderson Varejao, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and Andrew Wiggins, James—in conjunction with Irving—has a cast of his own to lead to new heights. He'll have a center who can score, a promising 23-year-old power forward, a volatile 22-year-old guard and a rookie who drew LeBron comparisons (subscription required) before the two became teammates.
The capability of his surrounding cast is the primary difference between James' first Cleveland go-around and this one. But another difference?
LeBron is finally fit to lead them.
Now approaching his 30s and with two championship rings to his name, this LeBron is far from the one who yanked off the wine and gold jersey for the final time—or so we thought—in 2010. In his four years away, he has honed his craft and his mindset, maybe even with this homecoming in the plans all along.
As of today, the Cavaliers are a team filled with questions. Will Wiggins pan out? Can Waiters show maturity? Will Irving live up to his $90 million deal? Where is the defense going to come from?
But, oversimplified as it may seem, James' presence answers nearly every one.
Who better to mentor the next LeBron James than the King himself? In what world would James tolerate Waiters chucking away possessions? Perhaps the easiest role in the NBA is being James' co-star; he brought Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden to the Finals—where can he realistically take Irving?
Cleveland has hardly ever been the best basketball situation for LeBron. The first time around, management practically did all it could to drive him out of town. This time, though, instead of frantically trying to appease a 25-year-old James, the front office can rest, knowing that the franchise isn't only in the hands of the world's most gifted player, but a leader whose vision has never been clearer.
LeBron got a taste of what a title means in South Beach, but that value surely diminishes if he can't win one at home. By now, he knows what it will take from every player on the roster, from one through 15. And with the most influential voice in the NBA steering the ship in Cleveland, it's only a matter of time before the wait is finally over.
Follow me on Twitter at @JSDorn6.