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Who will be the NBA’s best center in 3 years?

Over the past couple of decades, the NBA has undergone a revamping of sorts. The game is not what it once was (for better or worse), and the changes continue to flow in at a steady pace. David Stern is retiring after 30 years at the helm, the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics are hardly the Larry O’Brien magnets that they once were, and players are no longer draft-eligible out of high school.

However subtle, these changes affect the game in more ways than the any spectator can count. Stylistic differences are the norm in today’s NBA, and teams no longer fit the mold of the 80’s and 90’s. Just as every player is equipped to succeed in his own unique way, so too is every era assigned a specific set of strengths and weaknesses.

The 2013 version of the NBA offers fans a look at what can become of “super teams” and the implementation of “small ball.” It’s no longer a game of dominating centers, but rather one of finesse wings and sensationally athletic forwards. In a country where abundance can be considered the norm, it’s scarcity that peaks the most interest. It’s for that very reason that I present to you the NBA centers that I believe will be at the top of their class in 2016.

Marc Gasol

The success of the younger Gasol brother has been clearly noted around the NBA, most recently exemplified in his winning of the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year Award. While not your typical face-of-a-franchise center, Gasol possesses irreplaceable qualities for a player at his position. At age 28, Gasol experienced his most productive season as a professional. He averaged 1.7 blocks and 1 steal per game. Though his numbers are not eye-popping, his presence in the middle gave way for Memphis to obtain the second-best defensive rating among all NBA teams, while allowing only 88.7 points per game.

The reason Gasol is primed for success into his 30’s is his destitute reliance on athleticism. He’s a skilled center, who can pass, defend, and score at a high level. There’s no reason to believe he won’t be able to do it at the same or greater volume in the years to come.

2013-2014 stats projection*:

14.4 PPG / 8.1 RPG / 3.7 APG / 1.8 BPG / 1.0 SPG

Roy Hibbert

Roy Hibbert has to be one of the most frustrating players in the NBA. Though constantly underwhelming, he occasionally bursts onto the scene in memorable fashion (can’t forget Game 3 of the ECF). The reason he is on this list is not based on past performance, but the potential for future success. He has never averaged more than 12.8 points per game, or more than 8.8 rebounds. What he has done is improve on a yearly basis. With the scarcity of talent at the position, a little more improvement might be enough to place in him in the upper tier.

The past season was a down one for Hibbert, but if postseason success can be weighed on a curve, he more than made up for his regular season shortcomings. He’s already shown flashes of impending success, and he will only continue to improve his game. If he can stay healthy (which he has shown the ability to do), and continue to work on his offensive game, he could become one of the top centers the NBA has to offer. It’ll be up to him whether or not that thought comes to fruition.

2013-2014 stats projection:

15.2 PPG / 10.3 RPG / 2.0 APG / 2.8 BPG / 0.6 SPG

Joakim Noah

The scouting report on Noah, tracing back to his Gator days, has told of a player with unrelenting energy and hustle. His work ethic and willingness to do whatever it takes to win are the primary reasons he’s on this list. Though continually forgotten among the league’s best players, Noah has improved every season since his first in the NBA. Unlike the other two players on this list, though, injuries have significantly derailed his improvements.

When considering what makes a good center great, Noah’s qualities seem to stand out among the rest. Though an unconventional scorer, his ability to defend and reel in rebounds makes up for his slight shortcomings on offense. Though he might not develop any significant new skills, he does has the opportunity and willingness to master them the ones he has. He runs the floor well, can pass effectively, and can actually shoot better than he’s given credit for (horribly unappealing as his form may be). On top of what he does effectively on offense, Noah has relentless hustle and is an aggressive (albeit occasionally obnoxious) defender.

Like Hibbert, Noah has a lot of work to do as a scorer, but with the right amount of work, he can become the NBA’s best center.

2013-2014 stats projection*:

11.9 PPG / 10.9 RPG / 3.5 APG / 1.9 BPG / 1.1 SPG

Purposefully omitted: Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum, Nikola Vucevic, DeMarcus Cousins

If you have any questions or concerns regarding the players on this list, or anything at all, leave me a comment in the section below (or contact me on Twitter via @VoicetheStands)!

* All projections gathered from Basketball-Reference.com

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The American League and its Shot at the World Series

Over the last 5 seasons, Major League Baseball has been held captive by the Senior Circuit. Having taken home 4 of the last 5 World Series Titles, and the last 3 consecutively, the National League has made the “best League” debate one-sided. The difference between the last 3 seasons and the present one, however, is home-field advantage. The effects of home-field advantage in the World Series cannot be overstated, as the home team has won the 7 of the last 10 titles. In the only recent World Series to go the distance, home-field played its role, with the Cardinals winning at Busch Stadium in 2011.

With 2013’s home team represented by the American League, I present to you a few of the teams with the best chances of winning in October.

Detroit Tigers

Why they can win

The Detroit Tigers are on a mission to accomplish what last season saw them fail to do: win the World Series. Riding a storm that had the team fall to the San Francisco Giants in sweeping fashion, the Tigers have picked up right where they left off. The biggest difference between this year and last? Max Scherzer. Scherzer has found a way to put it all together this season, holding a 3.19 ERA while amassing 152 total strikeouts.

Though Justin Verlander (3.69 ERA) hasn’t been his regular MVP self, Anibal Sanchez (2.85 ERA) and Scherzer have picked up all of the loose pieces. Given that the team once again boasts a thundering offense, they are in prime position to reach the promised land once again.

Combining stellar pitching with Miguel Cabrera (.359 BA, 96 RBI) and the near-All-Star shortstop Jhonny Peralta (.363 OBP) gives the Tigers one of the best chances to avenge themselves in this season’s World Series.

Why they might not

Outside of Joaquin Benoit (1.60 ERA) and Drew Smyly (1.83 ERA), the Tigers’ bullpen has been shaky at best. Not only have they struggled to keep close games close, they’ve failed to seal games that should have never been close to begin with. Giving the closer’s job to Jose Valverde was ill-advised from the start, but letting him keep it for as long as he did might have been downright wreckless.

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The overwhelming belief (and rightfully so) in baseball is that hitting wins games, but pitching and defense win World Series. The Tigers have more than enough starting pitching to make noise in the postseason, but unless those starters are pitching complete games, the holes in their bullpen can and will be exposed. Top that with one of the most error-prone (47) defenses in baseball, and you have a less-than-hopeful combination. Unless they can make a change in either department, the Tigers might be setting themselves up for another heart-wrenching finale.

Odds on favorite to win the World Series: 6/1*

Boston Red Sox

Why they can win

Put simply, the Red Sox have the best offense in all of baseball. With Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, and David Ortiz rounding out their lineup, it’s not difficult to see how this team scores runs.

Though it might be unbearable to a certain East coast fanbase, using the phrases “Red Sox” and “World Series” in the same sentence is hardly an overstatement. The team has led the Majors in runs scored (504) for the majority of the season, and has one of the highest batting averages (.276) and on-base percentages (.349) in the American League. Aside from an offense that seems to be unstoppable, the team has managed to stay in stride in the absence of their best starting pitcher.

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Why they might not

The asterisk at the end of their hitting, Boston starting pitching has been inconsistent all season long. Though we’ve finally seen John Lackey (2.95 ERA) put together a year that lives up to his contract, it hasn’t been enough to pencil them in atop the American League’s best starting lineups. An injury to their top starter, Clay Buchholz, and an inconsistent showing by Jon Lester (4.58 ERA) have left a lot to be desired in terms of sheer performance.

The good news in terms of pitching, though, has been the bullpen’s ability to do what the starting pitchers have failed to accomplish- establish a norm. Koji Uehara, Junichi Tazaw, and Andrew Miller have been fantastic in each of their roles this season. The reason the bullpen is listed in this section, however, resides in the fact that the team has recently lost their closer, Andrew Bailey, for the rest of the season. Koji Uehara, the team’s fill-in closer, has boasted a whopping 19.29 ERA in postseason play, albeit in just 2.1 innings. If he can turn his late season struggles around, this might turn out to be a blessing in disguise for an already formidable Red Sox bullpen.

Odds on favorite to win the World Series: 8/1

Tampa Bay Rays

Why they can win

The fact that the Rays are on this list is not only a testament to their willpower, but one to the overall competitiveness of the AL East. Easily the toughest division in baseball, the Rays have found ways to put a good team together, and place themselves in a position to make a postseason push.

When the Rays lost James Shields during the offseason’s Wil Myers trade, it was hard to believe that their starting pitching could amount to rotation that gave them a CY Young Award winner in the season prior. The resulting thought, however, is that Rays pitching depth should never be questioned. They have once again pieced together a stellar starting rotation, starting with a much-recovered David Price (4.03 ERA) and tallying 6-deep with Chris Archer (2.76 ERA).

An old baseball adage tells that “you can never have too much starting pitching.” That statement is true in as many ways as the Rays can run at you. With pitching in the fold, and Evan Longoria (20 HR) leading the way offensively, the Rays seem to have more than enough to compete for a Title. Wil Myers (.310 BA) is turning out to be everything the organization had hoped for, and James Loney (.314 BA) has seemingly come from nowhere to save the day at first base.

Why they might not

The interesting theme for this Tampa Bay team is that it does not have any deal-breaking holes aside from one glaring one: its bullpen. For every positive that the Rays’ starting rotation has, the bullpen has an equal negative. Starting with the team’s closer, Fernando Rodney (4.04 ERA), and furthering with the team’s setup man, Joel Peralta (3.07 ERA), the bullpen has been unspectacular to say the least.

While it might not be enough to keep the team from making the playoffs, the bullpen might be enough to keep them from winning a World Series. For all of the same reasons that Detroit might be setting themselves up for disappointment, the Rays might be riding in the same boat.

Fortunately for them, the team has enough serviceable starting pitching to bolster the bullpen on a postseason roster. Shorter rotations mean more help in the peripheral categories. Whatever they are able to accomplish, the Rays remain baseball’s most prominent feel-good story.

Odds on favorite to win the World Series: 13/1

If you have any questions, comments, or complaints about my leaving your favorite team off of this list, leave them in the section below. I’ll look forward to hearing from you.

* Future Odds have been drawn from figures provided by VegasInsider.com

NBA Summer League’s Biggest Pre-Tournament Names

The Las Vegas NBA Summer League has, for 9 years, served as a platform for young stars to showcase their every talent. Teams continually hand young players the proverbial keys, and watch as they grow and operate before their eyes. The event has given way for many incredible performances, with players such as Anthony Randolph, Randy Foye, and Anthony Morrow setting the basketball world on fire, if only for 10 days.

The bottom line is the event has inspired leadership, creativity, and the willingness to succeed. Here are a few of this year’s players who have stood above the rest in terms of development and sheer talent:

Andrew Goudelock

Goudelock’s brief NBA career has seen him opposed to seemingly unsurmountable odds. He’s gone from being a relative nobody to becoming a player that Lakers fans everywhere identify with. He served as one of the late season’s feel-good stories, and he’s kept on the same track through his first 3 games in Las Vegas’ NBA Summer League.

During the season turned shipwreck for the Lakers, Goudelock was able to earn himself national recognition. Injuries to Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant left the Laker backcourt in shambles, allowing for Goudelock to earn playing time for a team who hardly held him in their afterthoughts.

Through his postseason stint, Goudelock averaged 12 PPG, 1.7 RPG, and 1.7 SPG in 26.7 MPG. While not earth-shattering numbers, the ability to create points in bursts gave the 2nd year guard life beyond the pine. In his second game with the Bulls’ Summer League squad, Goudelock unleashed on his potential, dropping 31 points on 10-13 shooting.

NBA: Playoffs-San Antonio Spurs at Los Angeles Lakers

The competition hardly speaks for itself, but the ability to score is evident in Goudelock’s approach. His abilities, along with the development of Marquis Teague, have secured the Bulls the 1st overall seed in the tournament-style format the NBA Summer League introduced this season. Though not with the Lakers now, Goudelock may be earning himself a bench spot for a team in need of a backup guard who can create baskets in a burst. At worst, he could be drawing interest from teams overseas, which is a significant success in its own right.

Jonas Valanciunas

The 2012-2103 season saw Valanciunas force his way in the Raptors’ starting lineup, only to give minutes back to players behind him on the depth chart. While his size and mental makeup are prime for his position, his basketball IQ and offensive moves need work. It’s for this reason that he wasn’t awarded more than 23.9 MPG in his rookie campaign.

The NBA Summer League has given Valanciunas the opportunity to showcase his abilities, and prove to the team that he can be their lone starting center. Though he has continued to struggle with foul counts, he has shown a few reliable post-up moves along with enough defensive presence to make a difference.

Jonas_Valanciunas_by_Augustas_Didzgalvis

There’s a lot riding for the Raptors with Valanciunas’ development. With only way-past-his-prime center Marcus Camby and Aaron Gray serving as positional backups, it will be up to Valanciunas and Amir Johnson to equip the paint for the Raptors.

Against the Miami Heat on July 13th, Valanciunas scored 23 points on 8-10 shooting. It’s this same type of production that the team hopes to see out of him in the regular season, as the former 5th overall pick will finally have the opportunity to prove what he’s made of. Odds are in his favor as his success in limited opportunities has evidenced.

Malcolm Thomas

Another Chicago Bulls standout, Thomas quickly put the basketball world on notice with his 22-rebound performance against the Denver Nuggets on July 15th. If otherwise not noted, that now stands as the Las Vegas NBA Summer League record for rebounds in a single game performance.

Thomas has bounced around during his first couple of years in the league, unable to find a stable fit. Having been undrafted in 2011, the expectations have never been high for the former San Diego State transfer. It seems, though, that Thomas has found a home abroad as On October 3, 2012, Thomas signed a one-year contract with the Euroleague team Maccabi Tel Aviv of Israel.

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If his Summer League performances can be used as testimony, the Israeli team will be very hopeful to keep him. Though his skill-set is limited defensively, Thomas possesses great offensive abilities for a man his size. Soft hands and a knack for corralling rebounds, Thomas is poised to succeed at the professional level. If Thomas can develop a few reliable post-up moves and learns to defend the paint with some authority, we could be seeing him back in the States within a few years.

The reality of the matter is that players like Malcolm Thomas are aplenty in events such as the NBA Summer League, but it’s the few that are able to shine in their limited opportunities that have a chance at future exposure. In Thomas’ case, it might be a few years before we see real development, and we might never see him suit up for another NBA team. His performances this summer have been, if nothing else, an indicator of the unappreciated talent that the NBA possesses.

Questions or comments you’d like to share? Feel free to leave them in the marked section below. I’ll be looking forward to hearing from you all.

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