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Toronto Raptors In Unfamiliar Territory

The 13-2 NBA leading Toronto Raptors are in very unfamiliar territory indeed. Off to their best start in 20 years, this one-time 1995 expansion franchise is seemingly doing things they have never done before each and every night. In the process Toronto has won 11 of their last 12 games for their most productive stretch since they won 11 of 12 games at the end of the 2001-2002 season.

The Raptors got off to the best start in franchise history at 5-1 with a win over the Wizards in what Head Coach Randy Wittman called, “a good old-fashioned butt-whooping.” That win opened a seven game home stand in which Toronto went 6-1 and got to their tenth win of the season faster than ever before.

Toronto is currently on a six game winning streak by defeating the Grizzlies, their co-leaders in the NBA, the Suns, a team that beat the Raptors in both games last season, LeBron James and the Cavaliers in Cleveland, and the Hawks in Atlanta who were 5-1 at home before facing Toronto.

The response from opposing coaches after playing the Raptors has sounded a lot like what Toronto fans had become used to hearing from their own team prior to the turnaround that started last season.

“They made a lot of shots. They made a lot of plays,” said Hawks Head Coach Mike Budenholzer. “Tonight (was) a night that tests your mental toughness that tests your physicality. For a lot of the night we were good, but you got to do it for 48 minutes against a good team. So a test like tonight is good for us and we’ll get better for it.”

With the win in Atlanta, the Raptors passed another franchise mark by starting the season 4-1 on the road for the first time ever. But possibly even more impressive was with the win over the Suns on Monday, the Raptors have started a franchise best 4-0 against the Western Conference (previous best was 3-0 versus the West in 1998-99 and 2001-02).

However, the tests keeping coming for the Raptors and when a team is 13-2, every contest seems like the next big game. The 11-5 Dallas Mavericks visit Toronto on Friday as the highest scoring team in the Association at 109.3 points per game. The Raptors, however, are not far behind scoring 108.

Then it’s three road games against the West before returning home for a rematch against what will surely be an amped up Cleveland Cavaliers with something to prove.

After the big trade last December the Raptors went on a 54-win pace for the rest of the season and there were some that believed this year would be the first time Toronto won over 50 games. However, at 13-2 the Raptors are on a 71 win pace that no one can quite comprehend or honestly believe is maintainable, but for the moment at least, everyone in Toronto can just sit back and enjoy the ride.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

DeRozan Lowry Randolph GasolNBA Dominance Rankings

Who is the top dog in the NBA these days? Pro Bball Report takes the subjective out of ranking NBA teams to determine who has been the most dominant to-date.

 

 

TOR Casey and Lowry

Raptors Taking Advantage Of The Schedule For A Fast Start

The NBA leading Toronto Raptors haven’t looked this good at the beginning of a season in over 20 years – that is to say, ever and they have been taking advantage of a schedule designed to give them every opportunity to enjoy a fast start.

Instead of the usual uphill battle and disheartening early road trips, Toronto has 9 of their first 12 games at home before facing the first really tough stretch on games starting on November 22nd in Cleveland and finishing back in Cleveland on December 9th. However, before the game in Cleveland, the Raptors should continue to rack up the wins.

The best start in Raptors history was 4-1 by the Vince Carter led team in 1999 that went 7-3 to open the season and finished with 45 wins. In 2004 the Raptors also started 4-1, but then lost 5 in a row in yet another forgettable season. If Toronto beats the Magic at home on Tuesday, they are assured of matching or bettering that 1999-00 season start.

The only thing standing between the Raptors and an unbeaten season at this stage was 15 missed free throws in Miami that cost them a road win in a game where both teams play was terrible. The HEAT fouled instead of playing defense and the Raptors missed open shots and let the HEAT out-hustle them. The next time these two teams meet, the quality of the play will be a lot higher.

So far the Raptors record looks like this:

Opponent    Score        Record

Hawks        109-102         1-0
@Magic      108-95          2-0
@HEAT       102-107        2-1
Thunder     100-88          3-1
@Celtics     110-107        4-1
Wizards      103-84          5-1
76ers          120-88          6-1

next
Magic
Bulls
Jazz
Grizzlies
Bucks

The Raptors are scoring an NBA best 107.4 points per game and should comfortably finish the homestand with a record of between 9-3 and 11-1 before being tested in Cleveland.

The next ten games after the homestand includes two trips to Cleveland with a return match against the Cavaliers in Toronto plus a return trip to Atlanta and games against six Western Conference opponents. The Raptors will play the Suns, Mavericks and Nuggets in Toronto and the Lakers, Kings and Jazz on the road. Just how close Toronto is to being a contender will be pretty clear by December 10th.

In the meantime there is nothing left to do except sit back and enjoy the ride. This is rarified air for the Toronto Raptors.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

TOR Lowry and PattersonToronto Raptors Primed For A Fast Start To The Season

The NBA schedule makers have not always been kind to the Toronto Raptors at the start of the season as this team has often felt they were on an uphill battle from the opening tip. This year, however, things look a little different as a team that finished strong last season and has all of their starters and key reserves back will face a schedule designed for them to get off to a fast start.

 

 

 

Raptors Big Banner

20 Reasons to Watch The Toronto Raptors 20th Season

The Toronto Raptors are back and expectations are high. Here’s 20 good reasons to watch the Raptors as they play in their 20th NBA season – in no particular order.

 

1. Raptors are favored by 76.9 percent of NBA GMs to repeat as Atlantic Division Champs – There’ll be playoffs in Toronto again!

 
 

2. Kyle Lowry is back. Toronto’s free agent starting point guard Kyle Lowry re-signed to a reasonable four-year deal despite receiving better offers from other NBA teams according to MLSE CEO Tim Leiweke. The Raptors not losing a star player or grossly overpaying to avoid losing a player is big news in Toronto.

 
 

3. Jurassic Park madness – enough said.

 
 

4. Watch the Raptors Gold Medal Winning All-Star DeMar DeRozan take another step in his blossoming career.

 
 

5. Jonas Valanciunas is the international player most likely to have a breakout season according to NBA GMs. He averaged 11.3 points and 8.8 rebounds with a 16.2 PER in Toronto last year.

 

 

6. GM Masai Ujiri’s ability to inspire up a crowd and make the news.

 

7. Possible Sixth Man of the Year and offensive fireplug Lou Williams will be lighting things up for the Raptors this year.

 

8. The missing defensive player from last season’s playoffs could be James Johnson!

 

9. Continuity, the Raptors didn’t try to fix what wasn’t broken and brought back the team’s winningest Starting Five in franchise history.

 

 

10. Raptors Dance Pak is back and ready to entertain.

 

 

11. He probably isn’t two years away from being two years away and watching whatever minutes Coach Casey gives to rookie Bruno Caboclo will be a treat.

 

 

12. Lucas ‘Bebe’ Nogueira’s hair – okay more than just the hair, he’s a really fun-loving guy!

 

13. Amir Johnson brings it for the fans both on and off the court in a big way.

 

 

14. Watch Terrence Ross break out to become more than a Three-and-D player this season.

 

15. Patrick Patterson re-signed with the Raptors for three more years and he was a huge lift off the bench for Toronto last year.

 

16. Greivis Vasquez backed up Kyle Lowry last season, but he re-signed with Toronto because he wants to win. He’ll be big again this year because he wants to be pushed to be better.

 

 

17. How could anyone not want to watch a player nicknamed ‘Physco T’? Tyler Hansbrough is back and he’s brought a summer-three ball back with him.

 

18. Checking out the Jonas Valanciunas Beard! Will he overtake Harden by the end of the season?

 

19. ‘The Steamer’ Greg Stiemsma will have his moments as the Raptors rough and tumble big man.

 

 

20. Return of the Raptors Dance Pak Alumni – Kat comes back to her roots!

 

 
 

Bonus 21. Maybe, just maybe Coach Casey has a shot at NBA Coach of the Year? And then there’s that Drake fellow kicking around, causing trouble and having some fun.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

LeBron James and Chris Paul

Does The NBA GM Survey Answer Who’s Best This Year?

The NBA.com 2014-15 GM Survey by John Schuhmann is out and has a few surprises in it.  These are the guys in the know, so their opinions count.

Some Highlights include:

Which team will win the 2015 NBA Finals?
1. San Antonio — 46.2%

Which team will win the Eastern Conference finals?
1. Cleveland — 70.4%

Which team will win the Atlantic Division?
1. Toronto — 76.9%

Who will win the 2014-15 MVP?
1. LeBron James, Cleveland — 67.9%

Who is the best point guard in the NBA?
1. Chris Paul, L.A. Clippers — 71.4%

Which one player acquisition will make the biggest impact?
1. LeBron James, Cleveland — 96.3%

Who will win the 2014-15 Rookie of the Year?
1. Jabari Parker, Milwaukee — 75.0%

Which international player is most likely to have a breakout season in 2014-15?
1. Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto — 33.3%

Who is the best head coach in the NBA?
1. Gregg Popovich, San Antonio — 92.9%

The love given to LeBron James and Chris Paul is spread throughout this very extensive survey.  GMs are the guys with the most inside knowledge of the NBA game to found anywhere.  Don’t miss what they have to say.

Disagree? Give us your choices in the comments below.

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

Bogut Griffin Durant Duncan

Predicting The NBA Western Conference 2014-15 Regular Season

Predicting where the NBA Western Conference teams will finish hasn’t gotten any easier this season. The difference between fourth and tenth is almost splitting hairs and injuries are messing with expectations. The final positions of every team in the Western Conference playoff picture – including the Mighty Spurs – will come down to health, the unforeseen progress of young players and a significant helping of blind (or bad) luck.

Projected Playoff Teams

 

1. Los Angeles Clippers – Projected 58-24, last season 57-25

It seems like everyone has forgotten about Doc Rivers and his two young dominate big men that have evolved into young veterans. The Clippers still feature one of the best point guards of his era in Chris Paul and have a roster loaded with savvy veterans. It would be nice to see another tweak to the roster, but this is the Clippers year to shine.
 

2. San Antonio Spurs – Projected 56-26, last season 62-20

The Southwest Division doesn’t have the horses to take the Spurs down a peg, however, Tim Duncan (38), Manu Ginobili (37), Tony Parker (32) and Boris Diaw (32) didn’t get any younger and first place overall is probably too big a reach this time. The Spurs are tough, resilient and arguably the best coached team in the NBA. It really won’t matter what position they end up in when the playoffs arrive, however, Father-time catches up to everyone eventually doesn’t it?
 

3. Oklahoma City Thunder – Projected 53-29, last season 59-23

Before Kevin Durant was injured, the Thunder were slated to compete for first overall and as Durant shouldn’t be away for long, they remain contenders to reach the Western Conference Finals, however, it isn’t getting any easier. Oklahoma City remains deep, talented and young. They also face the same issues at center with the effectiveness of Kendrick Perkins and the youth of Steve Adams when they face the best in the West.
 

4. Golden State Warriors – Projected 52-30, last season 51-31

The risk in Golden State is injuries. The Warriors improved defensively last season and won 51 times despite games missed by Andre Iguodala (19), Andrew Bogut (15) and David Lee (13). The Splash Brothers make the Warriors an offensive machine with amazing comeback ability and the additions of Shaun Livingston and Leandro Barbosa give the Warriors some much needed veteran depth at guard. If the team can stay reasonably healthy, upping last season’s win total should be a breeze.
 

5. Dallas Mavericks – Projected 51-31, last season 49-33

Dallas upped their playoff chances over the summer by improving defensively with Tyson Chandler and giving Dirk Nowitzki more room to operate by spreading the floor with Chandler Parsons. The Mavericks are a veteran team that will be even harder to guard on the perimeter and a little tougher to score on inside.
 

6. Portland Trail Blazers – Projected 50-32, last season 54-28

Portland exceeded expectations last season and have staked a claim on a playoff spot for the foreseeable future. However, this team is built around their starting five playing huge minutes with little to no room for anything to go wrong. The additions of Chris Kaman and Steve Blake should permit the Trail Blazers to maintain last season’s success, but that alone won’t be enough to win as many games as last year.
 

7. Memphis Grizzlies –projected 48-34, last season 50-32

Vince Carter is an upgrade over Mike Miller and will give Memphis an offensive boost off the bench, but no one should be expecting any surprises from this group. This team isn’t build for the long term, but the Grizzlies should be able to hold their own in the West once again and be a tough out in the playoffs.
 

8. Denver Nuggets – Projected 46-36, last season, 36-46

The Nuggets won 57 games in 2012-13, then lost their Coach, GM, Andre Iguodala and Corey Brewer to free agency and Danilo Gallinari and JaVale McGee to injury. Head Coach Brian Shaw should have all of his injured players back and the addition of Aaron Afflalo provides a big boost to this lineup. Denver has a solid starting five and a good bench. They should bounce back strong this season.

 

On The Outside Looking In

 

9. Houston Rockets – Projected 46-36, last season 54-28

The Rockets bet it all on acquiring a big name free agent to play with Dwight Howard and James Harden and when the smoke cleared, Omer Asik, Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin were gone and all Head Coach Kevin McHale had to replace them was Trevor Ariza. The Rockets have a great one-two punch in Harden and Howard, but they are almost punchless after that. Unless someone steps up to fill the craters left by the Rockets loses, there will be no joy in Houston this season.
 

10. Phoenix Suns – Projected 45-37, last season 48-34

The Phoenix Suns were a run you out of the gym team last season and they’ll be just as dangerous and just as much fun to watch this year. Unfortunately, in the tough and improving middle of the Western Conference, holding steady means losing ground and the loss of free agent Channing Frye didn’t help the Suns prospects.
 

11. New Orleans Pelicans – Projected 38-44, last season 34-48

The mash unit that was the Pelicans last season has the talent to grab a better record and possibility even challenge for a playoff spot, if – and it’s a big if – everyone comes back from injury as good as before and the injury bug doesn’t bite anywhere near as hard as it did last season. Returning from injury are: Jrue Holiday (stress fracture), Eric Gordon ( knee surgery), Tyreke Evans (knee surgery) and Ryan Anderson ( neck problems). If New Orleans didn’t have bad luck they would have no luck at all.
 

12. Sacramento Kings – Projected 31-51, last season 28-54

The Kings were a much better team after the trade with Toronto that landed them Rudy Gay. They won 38 percent of their games with the new lineup. The impact of replacing Isaiah Thomas’ 20 points per game with the veterans Darren Collision and Ramon Sessions remains to be determined, but the real thing holding Sacramento back has been waiting on the superstar level talent DeMarcus Cousins to grow up and become the player everyone believes he can be.
 

13. Los Angeles Lakers – Projected 30-52, last season, 27-55

It’s hard to know what to make of the hodge-podge of talent Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak has put together other than this group of players should win more games than last year. A group of castoffs that other teams had believed in before and two aging superstars returning from injuries in Steve Nash (40) and Kobe Bryant (36) could surprise people on any given night. However, Nash is hurting already and expectations are low.
 

14. Utah Jazz – Projected 27-55, last season 25-57

The very young Jazz are another year older and wiser. Still too young and inexperienced to be a significant threat on most nights, they will win more games than last season.
 

15. Minnesota Timberwolves – Projected 25-57, last season 40-42

The Timberwolves are loaded with young exciting potential superstar talent. If Minnesota can develop Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Anthony Bennett and Gorgui Deng into the players they are envisioned as becoming and can retain them long term, the future looks bright. The big question is, will Head Coach Flip Saunders play Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer, Thaddeus Young and Nikola Pekovic and let the team’s future rot on the bench for a few more wins?

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

Lowry Irving Wall RosePredicting The NBA Eastern Conference 2014-15 Regular Season standings

 

 

Lowry Irving Wall Rose

Predicting The NBA Eastern Conference 2014-15 Regular Season

The Heat and Pacers will not be fighting it out for Eastern Conference supremacy in the NBA this season. Both teams took huge hits to their rosters in the summer and it will be a fight for them just to remain in the playoff hunt.

Other teams see their opportunity with the changing of the guard. There will be a battle to make the playoffs in the East and backing in with abysmal play like Atlanta did last spring may not be an option.

Projected Playoff Teams

1. Cleveland Cavaliers – Projected 56-26, last season 33-49

The Cavs may get off to a slow start as LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love to get used to sharing the ball. However, barring injury, the Cavaliers should easily reside in first place as the best offensive team the East as seen in a while.

 

2. Chicago Bulls – Projected 54-28, 48-34 last season

If Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol can stay healthy, then the Bulls are relevant again, but nothing is guaranteed to Chicago. They are the preseason favorites to be the most likely team to challenge the revamped Cavaliers assuming Rose resembles the player he was before all the injuries.

 

3. Toronto Raptors – Projected 52-30, 48-34 last season

Toronto went on a 54-win pace after acquiring Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson for their bench in early December last season and all five of their starters are back this year. Plus the Raptors reserves got better by adding the instant offense of Lou Williams and defensive forward James Johnson. Merely winning the Atlantic Division will not exceed expectations this time.

 

4. Washington Wizards – Projected 48-34, 44-38 last season

The Wizards were inconsistent last season and probably should have sported a better record, but with another year under their belt, it is reasonable to expect they will. Paul Pierce is a solid replacement for Trevor Ariza from a leadership standpoint and the team added depth at the big man positions with Kris Humphreys and Juan Blair. It’s on the Wizards to meet rising expectations and another rash of injuries will not make an acceptable excuse.

 

5. Charlotte Hornets – Projected 46-36, 43-39 last season

The Hornets (as Bobcats) impressed last year with a tough defensive style and some badly needed offensive punch from Al Jefferson. With the additions of Lance Stephenson and Marvin Williams, the Hornets are a dark horse team that could be a lot better than anyone expects.

 

6. Miami HEAT – Projected 44-38, last season 54-28

The HEAT has effectively exchanged LeBron James for Luol Deng and not much more analysis is needed than that. Miami won’t be a bad team, but Wade isn’t suddenly going to become “Flash” again and Bosh proved he couldn’t carry a team when he played for the Raptors.

 

7. Atlanta Hawks – Projected 43-39, last season 38-44

The Hawks were three games above .500 with Al Horford and nine games under without him. Not a whole lot has changed in Atlanta. Horford has played in preseason and is expected to be ready to go for the regular season, but the big risks in Atlanta have nothing to do with what’s on the court.

 

8. Detroit Pistons – Projected 40-42, last season 29-53

Can Stan Van Gundy whip a talented dysfunctional collection of mismatched pieces into a team? If he can’t, then it isn’t likely anyone can. The playoff bar in the East is probably still below .500 and Van Gundy should be able to push his players hard enough to get there.

 

On The Outside Looking In

 

9. New York Knicks – Projected 37-45, last season 37-45

Carmelo Anthony re-signed and the team has reshuffled the deck chairs on the Titanic, but there is little reason to believe these Knicks will finish any better than last year’s version. The real risk is the team starts to tank to improve their draft lottery odds as they actually own a first round draft pick this time and no one will blame rookie head coach Derek Fisher for a bad record.

 

10. Brooklyn Nets – Projected 35-47, last season 44-38

The Nets were 10-21 at the end of December last year, but the season was saved in the new year – largely by Shaun Livingston and Pierce who have since moved on to other teams. Multiple foot surgeries later and Brook Lopez is the hope for this season, but he’s expected to miss the opener – with a foot injury. Deron Williams had surgery on both ankles this summer and is back. You’ll have to excuse the lack of optimism, the brittle Nets are currently charter members of the show-me club.

 

11. Indiana Pacers – Projected 33-49, last season 56-26

The Pacers lost Lance Stephenson to free agency and Paul George to a gruesome leg break and that represents most of last season’s offense and perimeter defense. David West going down to an ankle sprain in preseason only served to emphasize just how paper thin the depth on the Pacers will be this year.

 

12. Boston Celtics – Projected 30-52, last season 25-57

Boston has looked pretty good for a rebuilding team during preseason, but there isn’t much call to play the veterans many minutes. It’s all about developing the young guys. Rajon Rondo has made the start of the season easier on Coach Stevens by falling in the shower.

 

13. Milwaukee Bucks – Projected 29-53, last season 15-67

The Bucks are going to be better than last year, if they can stay healthy. Unfortunately, they seem to be in the process of recreating last year’s mash unit. It’s getting hard to stay even this optimistic.

 

14. Orlando Magic – Projected 25-57, last season 23-59

The Magic took a significant hit to their expected win total by moving out Arron Afflalo and then got some it back by signing Channing Frye. Orlando will be a fun team to follow with lots of potential future stars, if you aren’t overly concerned about winning games.

 

15. Philadelphia 76ers – Projected 19-63, last season 19-63

The game plan in Philadelphia has been obvious for a while now and they would have taken last place in 2013-14 if only the Bucks could have won a few more times. It is really hard to win fewer than 20 games, but the 76ers should be able to do it again with ease.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

Casey Media Day looking down

Raptors Are A Team That Is Still Developing Core Players

The Toronto Raptors are coming off a franchise best 48-win season and have all of their key players back, however, as a young team, Head Coach Dwane Casey remains focused on developing his core players. Still, optimism was running high in all quarters at Media Day in Toronto and the team has set some lofty goals for this year despite their youth.

“I think we are still a young team. We still have growing to do as a team,” Casey said. “Our goal is to win the division no matter what it takes.”

The Raptors starting unit of Kyle Lowry (28), DeMar DeRozan (25), Terrence Ross (23), Amir Johnson (27) and Jonas Valanciunas (22) won 29 games last season, a franchise record for the most wins by a starting five and they were the only playoff team last season with two sophomores in the starting lineup.

From the start of last season, right up to and including the seven-game playoff series with the Nets, Casey insisted the Raptors focus was on developing Ross, Valanciunas and DeRozan. DeRozan earned an All-Star nod, but Ross and Valanciunas were going to play significant minutes even with a playoff series on the line and more veteran players available on the bench. Not much has changed for Casey this year except last year’s sophomores are more experienced.

“That’s the funny thing,” Casey said. “We are talking about taking the next step with third year players and DeMar is further down the road (now), but those two guys are core guys (that) still got to get better and develop, so that hasn’t changed at all.”

Those two sophomores helped Toronto to a franchise best regular season record and a large measure of this year’s optimism comes from the expectation that they will be better and continue to improve during the season.

Toronto is deeper on the wing and at center than they were before, but Casey’s focus on developing his two young core players remains the same and after last season, that should only lift expectations for the Raptors.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 
Ujiri, Lowry + jersey close upWhat Did The Toronto Raptors Do This Summer?

 

 

DeRozan and Wall

Who’s Better: Toronto Raptors or Washington Wizards?

Two franchises that made some noise last season are being touted as potential Eastern Conference Finalists if things go their way, but who’s better, the Toronto Raptors or the Washington Wizards? There are arguments to be made for both teams, but it might be easier to let the numbers speak for themselves.

Last year Toronto was 48-34 compared to the Wizards record of 44-38 and the defensive minded Raptors held teams to a league seventh best 98 points per game versus the ninth ranked Wizards at 99.4 points surrendered. The Raptors also held an advantage at the offensive end of the court were they scored 101.3 points per game to 100.7 for the Wizards, a stat that was only emphasized by Toronto’s slower pace. The Raptors also outrebounded their opponents on average 42.5 to 41 while the Wizards broke even on the boards.

Toronto took the season series 3-1 with the only Wizards victory coming in a triple overtime game of attrition that saw three Raptors and two Wizards foul out. Over the four games, Toronto outscored Washington by an average of 6.5 points on 49.5 percent shooting from the field, netting over 107 points per game. Washington simply had no answers about how to stop Toronto from scoring. Somewhat unexpectedly, however, the Wizards owned the boards, averaging five more rebounds per game. They were just not able to finish at a high enough rate, shooting 44.6 percent from the field.

Both teams can argue they improved over the summer and a position-to-position comparison illustrates just how closely matched the two teams are heading into this season.

Point Guard – slight edge Toronto

John Wall was a first time All-Star in 2014 and has put up some of his best numbers against Toronto. He averaged 25.3 points on 53.3 percent shooting and 6 assists over 4 games last year, but his +/- of -5.8 points is just slightly better than his team’s -6.5 points.

Kyle Lowry had a career year in Toronto and he played big games against the Wizards. He averaged 18.3 points and 10.3 assists while hitting 9-19 from three-point range.

Lowry averaged 2.9 more assists per game against Washington than his season average and Wall averaged 2.8 assists fewer, wiping out Wall’s scoring advantage and putting this matchup at a draw.

With both teams starting point guards averaging about 40 minutes per game against one another, the backup position might not seem as important.

Andre Miller is 38 years-old and only played in two games against Toronto, but he is their best backup and averaged 21.9 minutes, 3 points and 5 assists. 27-year-old Greivis Vasquez joined Toronto mid-season and played three times against Washington averaging 25.7 minutes, 13.3 points and 5.7 assists.

The point guard battle will continue to a great one, but the Raptors backup situation gives them the edge at this position.

Shooting Guard – Toronto

DeMar DeRozan was first time All-Star in 2014 and against Washington he averaged 21.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists which was right around his season averages, but at 48.4 percent shooting from the field, he shot almost 6 percent better than against the rest of the league.

Bradley Beal didn’t enjoy his usual offensive success against Toronto, averaging just 12.3 points on 30.2 percent shooting, 5.5 rebounds and 4 assists. His season average was 17.1 points on 41.9 percent from the field.

Toronto acquired Lou Williams in the summer as a backup guard. He averaged 10.3 points and 28.6 minutes against Washington last year.

Martell Webster likely backups up Beal at shooting guard and could also pick up minutes backing up small forward. He averaged 8.8 points in 33.3 minutes against the Raptors last season.

Hands down, the Raptors owned the shooting guard position in games against Washington.

Small Forward – slight edge Washington

The Wizards lost Trevor Ariza, but replaced him with the 36-year-old Paul Pierce. Except for the age factor, Pierce would be a big upgrade. He can still score, although he did play a lot of power forward for the Nets to avoid the quicker wings like Toronto has. Pierce was very effective against the Raptors last year, averaging 30.8 minutes and 19.8 points.

Terrence Ross started to figure things out in his sophomore season and appropriately started in 62 games. He only averaged 22.5 minutes and 9.5 points against Washington and was used primarily as a three point shooter, but he did shoot 47.1 percent from deep on the Wizards and 40.2 percent from three-point range as a starter on the season.

At backup, Washington should be using their 2013 third overall draft pick Otto Porter, if they will trust him enough to play over Webster – they should. Porter did nothing against Toronto, but it could be argued, he wasn’t given a chance.

Toronto re-acquired the 6’8 defensive forward James Johnson to give them some athletic muscle at small forward. If Ross struggles against bigger small forwards, Johnson is a player with the size and speed to give older or slower players like Pierce problems.

Pierce gives Washington the early season edge, but this isn’t the slam dunk it would have been a few years back and he can’t really play more than 30 minutes a night. The younger more athletic Raptors may win this position back and they should own it when Pierce goes to the bench. Pierce will not have gotten any quicker over the summer and the Wizards are deathly thin on the wing unless Porter steps up.

Power Forward – Toronto

The Wizards are deep at power forward and Nene Hilario is a proven veteran. He put up a decent 14 points and 6.3 rebounds in 30.3 minutes in 3 games against the Raptors, but he shot a terrible (for a big man) 42.5 percent from the field.

Toronto is similarly deep at power forward and Amir Johnson had the edge on Nene last year. He averaged 31.7 minutes, 15.3 points and 6.3 rebounds, but Johnson was an efficient 68.4 percent from the field.

The Wizards acquired DeJuan Blair and Kris Humphries to backup up the four/five spots and they’ll help. Against Toronto, Blair averaged 6 points and 5.5 rebounds in 19.4 minutes and Humphries averaged 8 points and 6.3 rebounds in 20.3 minutes last year.

Patrick Patterson is a physically imposing stretch four who averaged 26.6 minutes, 11 points and 4.7 rebounds on 63.6 percent shooting and 57.1 percent from three-point range against the Wizards. Tyler Hansbrough plays strictly in the paint and averaged 16.4 minutes, 5.7 points and 4 rebounds versus Washington.

Johnson outplayed Nene last season, but the Raptors big advantage at power forward was off the bench where the Wizards did not have an answer for Patterson and it looks like they still don’t.

Center – Washington

The 30-year-old Marcin Gortat enjoyed playing against Toronto. He shot 7 percent better from the field and averaged 3 more points to put up 16.3 points and 9 boards on 61.1 percent from the field.

Raptors sophomore center Jonas Valanciunas was overmatched by Gortat in 2013-14. He averaged 8.8 points and 8.5 rebounds on 45.7 percent shooting – down 2.5 points and 7.4 percent from the field from his season averages.

While Valanciunas appeared to take big strides during the playoffs and while playing for Lithuania this summer, he has a lot of ground to make up against Gortat.

In reality, not a lot has changed for the Raptors and Wizards from last season. Both teams added some needed bench strength, but both teams are counting on the continued development of their young players in order to take another step this season.

Wall and DeRozan have made their first All-Star teams, but the winner of this matchup will come down to the development of Beal and Porter in Washington versus Ross and Valanciunas in Toronto. For now, Washington may have shot themselves in the foot by not playing Porter more last season.

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

Lowry and WallRanking The Top Five 2014-15 NBA Eastern Conference Teams

 

 

Nash and Holiday

Ranking The Bottom 5 Of The NBA Western Conference

The NBA Western Conference remains a tough place to play heading into the 2014-15 season. There is no easy route to the playoffs and there will be a few teams jealously looking East again this season.

However, most of the teams dragging up the rear will be better and win more games – the rebuilding Timberwolves being the obvious exception. Look for the bottom 5 to make life uncomfortable for franchises in the tier just above them and to bring down the win totals of the playoff bound teams in the West this season.

As usual injuries, hidden agendas and plain old fashioned luck will impact the final standings.

Ranking The Bottom 5

11. New Orleans Pelicans – Projected 39-43, last season 34-48
New Orleans Pelicans Media Day
The mash unit that is the Pelicans has the talent to grab a better record and possibility even challenge for a playoff spot, if – and it’s a big if – everyone comes back from injury as good as before and the injury bug doesn’t bite anywhere near as hard as it did last season.

Jrue Holiday is returning from a stress fracture in his right leg. Eric Gordon is returning from knee surgery. Tyreke Evans hopes to be returning from knee surgery and Ryan Anderson is hopeful of making a comeback from his neck problems. Now that’s a fine looking foursome in just about any team’s rotation, if they can actually play.

The potential of Anthony Davis becoming a bona fide superstar continues to give the Pelicans hope, but even he missed 15 games last season. If New Orleans can stay healthy, look out, but the only kind of luck this franchise has experienced recently has been bad luck.

12. Sacramento Kings – Projected 34-48, last season 28-54
TOR_Gay_Rudy
The Kings were a much better team after the trade with Toronto that landed them Rudy Gay. They won 38 percent of their games with the new lineup. Even losing Isaiah Thomas’ 20 points per game this summer probably doesn’t hurt them as Darren Collision and Ramon Sessions will add a badly needed level of maturity to this roster. Like last season, Sacramento will not have problems scoring points this year either.

Everyone continues to wait on DeMarcus Cousins to grow up and become the dominant center his natural ability says is in him. His time on Team USA this summer should help him, although his immaturity still showed through at inappropriate times and at 24-years-old, it’s time that stopped.

13. Los Angeles Lakers – Projected 33-49, last season, 27-55
LAL_Bryant_Kobe
It’s hard to know what to make of the hodge-podge of talent Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak has put together other than this group of players should win more games than last year. A group of cast offs that other teams had believed in before – generally with good reasons – and two aging superstars returning from injuries in Steve Nash (40) and Kobe Bryant (36) could surprise people on any given night.

For the Lakers to have a good season, good as in challenge for a playoff spot, Nash needs to stay healthy and be a dime generating machine that can nail three-pointers like in the good old days. You shouldn’t be holding your breath, but it would be nice to see. Then Kobe has to be able to score like before and still have enough left to play some defense.

There is a very good chance the Lakers become an exciting enough offensive team that they are fun to watch and Bryant resembles some of what fans pay good money to see. However, it is hard to believe this collection of players can find the chemistry needed to win enough games in time to be relevant.

14. Utah Jazz – Projected 29-53, last season 25-57
Utah Jazz Media Day
The very young Jazz are another year older and wiser. Still too young and inexperienced to be a significant threat on most nights, they will win more games than last season.

The starting lineup of Trey Burke, Alec Burks, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter will keep the opposition honest as they continue to improve.

15. Minnesota Timberwolves – Projected 22-60, last season 40-42
Cleveland Cavaliers Media Day
Kevin Love is gone and the Timberwolves are loaded with young exciting potential superstar level talent. If Minnesota can develop Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Anthony Bennett and Gorgui Deng into the players they are envisioned as becoming and can retain them long term, the future looks bright.

For this year, Ricky Rubio, Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer, Thaddeus Young and Nikola Pekovic are the guys the Timberwolves will need to turn to for wins. Hopefully, Head Coach Flip Saunders doesn’t let winning get in the road of player development.

Risks and Obstacles

The Pelicans could be treading water waiting for injured players to return or just round back into form and the Lakers appear to be waiting until next season, but both teams have talent if everything breaks in their favor. Plus, everyone has been waiting for the Kings to figure things out and play up to their talent level long enough to put them into the show-me category. Now these situations are not usually a formula for success, but the teams bear watching.

The Jazz and Timberwolves are in true rebuild mode and expectations are low. However, they have young exciting talent and in Minnesota’s situation in particular, their head coach can move the win total up or down significantly.

 

Who do you think finishes last in the West? Which one of the teams in the bottom 5 will be first to overtly start tanking the season? Can any of these teams exceed expectations and make the playoffs? Let us know in the comments below.

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

Griffin and Chandler
Ranking The Top Five 2014-15 NBA Western Conference Teams

 

Harden and Lillard
Ranking The Middle Of The NBA Western Conference Pack

 

 

Carter-Williams & Oladipo

Ranking The Bottom 5 Of The NBA Eastern Conference

It is going to be tough on teams that don’t expect to win much in the NBA Eastern Conference. There will be a lot of competition for last place and the best odds at a top lottery pick. All the teams in the bottom 5 have good reasons to focus on developing players and looking towards the future.

As usual injuries, hidden agendas and plain old fashioned luck will impact the final standings.
 

Ranking The Bottom 5

11. Indiana Pacers – Projected 33-49, last season 56-26

The Pacers took a chance by not tying up last season’s triple-double leader Lance Stephenson and letting the restricted free agent walk for a very modest contract to the Hornets, but there was no way they could have known at the time that they wouldn’t have leading scorer Paul George for the upcoming season. Of last year’s playoff teams, only Chicago and Memphis had a tougher time making baskets and without Stephenson’s playmaking and George’s ability to finish, the Pacers are missing over 36 percent of last season’s offense. They also have a gaping hole through both wing positions on defense.

It’s going to be a very uncomfortable season in Indiana and if they do the logical thing, the Pacers will be looking to trade David West, Luis Scola and/or Roy Hibbert for some young up-and-coming talent they can develop as they tank for a better draft pick.

Finishing worse than 11th in the East would represent success this season. The Pacers are in stall mode until George returns.
 

12. Milwaukee Bucks – Projected 33-49, last season 15-67

The Bucks are going to surprise a few teams. Last year injuries crushed a team’s hopes that believed they had a chance to sneak into the playoffs again. In fact the chance was real, but everything that could have gone wrong happened in Milwaukee.

New Head Coach Jason Kidd will get a clean slate and low expectations, but this roster is a lot better than that of a 15-win team. Don’t be surprised if the Knicks, Nets and Pistons can feel Milwaukee breathing down their necks in April.
 

13. Boston Celtics – Projected 29-53, last season 25-57

Boston has created maximum training camp flexibility with players on expiring contracts and non-guaranteed deals. Will Rajon Rondo be traded? How does Gerald Wallace fit on this team? With too many point guards, forwards and big men, what President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge does in October and/or during the season will determine if the Celtics win over or under 30 games.

Pegging a win total for Boston now is basically a Wild-Ass-Guess.
 

14. Orlando Magic – Projected 25-57, last season 23-59

The Magic took a significant hit to their expected win total by moving out Arron Afflalo and then got some it back by signing Channing Frye. Orlando will be a fun team to follow with lots of young potential future stars worth watching and they could be marginally better in Victor Oladipo’s sophomore season.

Player development will take precedence over winning, as it should.
 

15. Philadelphia 76ers – Projected 19-63, last season 19-63

The game plan in Philadelphia has been obvious for a while now and they would have taken last place in 2013-14 if only the Bucks could have won a few more times. It is really hard to win fewer than 20 games, but the 76ers should be able to do it again with ease.

President and General Manager Sam Hinkie is taking the long view and searching for a superstar to build around through the draft. He may have found one already in Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid or Dario Saric, but it will likely take more than a couple of years to find out.

Risks and Obstacles

 

Tanking a season, developing players and/or rebuilding through the draft are not guarantees for success, but it is one of the very few ways many teams have of getting a superstar. Each of the teams in the bottom 5 have the ability to go for a top lottery pick in next year’s draft, but it isn’t easy and sometimes your own players and coaches don’t cooperate. Nobody likes to lose.
 

Who do you think finishes last in the East? Which one of the teams in the bottom 5 will be first to overtly start tanking the season? Can any of these teams exceed expectations and make the playoffs? Let us know in the comments below.

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

Irving and RoseRanking The Top Five 2014-15 NBA Eastern Conference Teams

 

 

Bosh and AnthonyRanking The Middle 5 Teams in The NBA Eastern Conference

 

 

Harden and Lillard

Ranking The Middle Of The NBA Western Conference Pack

The West remains a tough place to be an okay team with flaws heading into the 2014-15 season. There is no easy route to the playoffs and a supposedly good team is likely to be on the outside looking in again this year.

The biggest impact will come from teams that missed the playoffs last year getting better and winning more games. Unless some significant upgrades have been made over the summer, most of playoff teams in the West will win fewer games and at least a couple of them are going to be severely disappointed.

As usual injuries, hidden agendas and plain old fashioned luck will impact the final standings.
 

Ranking The Middle

 

6. Portland Trail Blazers – Projected 50-32, last season 54-28
POR Batum and Lillard
Portland exceeded expectations last season and have staked a claim on a playoff spot for the foreseeable future. However, this team is built around their starting five playing huge minutes with little to no room for anything to go wrong.

The additions of Chris Kaman and Steve Blake should permit the Trail Blazers to maintain last season’s success, but that won’t be enough to win as many games as last year.
 

7. Memphis Grizzlies – Projected 49-33, last season 50-32

MEM Carter and Randolph

It took awhile for the Grizzlies to adjust to new Head Coach Dave Joerger last season, but eventually they became the same tough-minded defensive team that Lionel Hollins ran.

Vince Carter is an upgrade over Mike Miller and will give Memphis an offensive boost off the bench, but no one should be expecting any surprises from this group. The team isn’t build for the long term, but the Grizzlies should be able to hold their own in the West once again and be a tough out in the playoffs.
 

The Fight For Eighth

 

8. Denver Nuggets – Projected 46-36, last season, 36-46
Arron Afflalo Orlando Magic Media Day
After a record setting 57-win season in 2012-13, the Denver Nuggets were a franchise in disarray last year. The 2013 NBA Executive of the Year Masai Ujiri left town to join the Toronto Raptors. The 2013 NBA Coach of Year George Karl was fired. Andre Iguodala and Corey Brewer left in free agency. Danilo Gallinari missed the entire season. JaVale McGee only played 5 games and the Nuggets were hit by bad news all year.

This is Head Coach Brian Shaw’s second kick at the can and he should have all of his injured players back. Plus the addition of Arron Afflalo is a big boost to this lineup. Ty Lawson, Afflalo, Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried and Timofey Mozgov is a very solid starting five and if everyone can stay healthy, a bench featuring Danilo Gallinari, McGee, J.J. Hickson and Randy Foye – who can all start if necessary – will make the Nuggets a tough team to play.

The battle for the final playoff spot in the West is going to be brutal once again. Any one of Houston, Phoenix or New Orleans has a solid shot of making the postseason. An injury here or there and everything changes.
 
9. Houston Rockets – Projected 46-36, last season 54-28
HOU Howard and Harden
The Rockets bet it all on acquiring a big name free agent to play with Dwight Howard and James Harden and when the smoke cleared, Omer Asik, Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin were gone and all Head Coach Kevin McHale had to replace them was Trevor Ariza.

The Rockets have a great one-two punch in Harden and Howard, but they are almost punchless after that. Joey Dorsey is a nice guy that can rebound as an undersized third string center, but isn’t much of a replacement for Asik. Lin and Parsons were the Rockets third scoring options and saved numerous games last season. There are no obvious replacements for what they brought on this roster.

Maybe someone steps up to fill the craters left by the Rockets loses, but at this point, it looks like there could be no joy in Houston this season.
 
10. Phoenix Suns – Projected 45-37, last season 48-34
Eric Bledsoe Phoenix Suns Media Day
The Phoenix Suns were a run-you-out-of-the-gym team last season and assuming some kind of a deal to bring back Eric Bledsoe gets done eventually, they’ll be just as dangerous and just as much fun to watch.

Unfortunately, in the tough and improving middle section of the Western Conference, holding steady means losing ground and the loss of free agent Channing Frye didn’t help the Suns prospects.
 

Risks and Obstacles

 
Anyone in the middle of the pack could be a playoff team in the West if the breaks go their way and the Rockets, Suns and Pelicans should all believe that last spot belongs to them. However, the risks in this group of teams are substantial. Players returning from injury, significant roster changes and noses out-of-joint after a rough summer will make claiming one of the final spots an adventure this season.
 

Who do you think takes 6, 7and 8 in the NBA Western Conference and makes the playoffs? Will one of these teams give up and embrace tanking? Can any of these teams crack the top five in the West? Let us know in the comments below.

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

Ranking The Top Five 2014-15 NBA Western Conference Teams.
Clippers, Thunder, Spurs, Warriors and Mavericks

 

Griffin and Chandler

Ranking The Top Five 2014-15 NBA Western Conference Teams

Really this should be titled, “Is It Time To Bet Against The Spurs?” Has a team that won 75 percent of their games in two of the past three seasons going to finally hit the tipping point due to age that everyone has been trying to forecast for years now?

Ranking the top five NBA Western Conference teams hasn’t gotten any easier this season. The difference between fourth and ninth is almost splitting hairs. The final positions of every team in the Western Conference playoff picture – including the Mighty Spurs – will come down to health, the unforeseen progress of young players and a significant helping of blind luck.

The Top Five

1. Los Angeles Clippers – Projected 59-23, last season 57-25

The Clippers ran into a wall of controversy last season that has been effectively resolved and they solved the biggest hole in their lineup with the acquisition of Spencer Hawes. Head Coach Doc Rivers now has an effective offensive weapon to bring off the bench when teams try to disrupt their momentum with a hack-a-Jordan to put the Clippers 42 percent free throw shooter on the line.

It seems like everyone has forgotten about Doc Rivers and his two young dominate big men that have evolved into young veterans. The Clippers still feature one of the best point guards of his era in Chris Paul and have a roster loaded with savvy veterans. It would be nice to see one more tweak to shore up the depth at guard or wing, but this is the Clippers year to shine.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder – Projected 58-24, last season 59-23

The Thunder are contenders to reach the Western Conference Finals again, however, it isn’t getting any easier.

Oklahoma City remains deep, talented and young. They also face the same issues at center with the effectiveness of Kendrick Perkins and the youth of Steve Adams when they face the best in the West. Sympathy levels around the league remain low for a team Kevin Durant, however.

3. San Antonio Spurs – Projected 56-26, last season 62-20

The Southwest Division is not going to take the Spurs down a peg, however, the improving Clippers and a healthy Thunder are not going to play second fiddle again this time.

Tim Duncan (38), Manu Ginobili (37), Tony Parker (32) and Boris Diaw (32) are all back and extremely important to the success of Head Coach Gregg Popovich’s Spurs. Anyone who believes Pop was careful with his aging roster before – well – this season, expect him to take it up a notch.

The Spurs are tough, resilient and arguably the best coached team in the NBA. It really won’t matter what position they end up in, no one wants to meet them in the first round of the playoffs. The only reason to project fewer wins than last season is the Spurs stars continue to get older. Father-time catches up to everyone eventually doesn’t it?

4. Golden State Warriors – Projected 53-29, last season 51-31

The risk in Golden State is injuries. The Warriors improved defensively last season and still won 51 times despite games missed by Andre Iguodala (19), Andrew Bogut (15) and David Lee (13). The Splash Brothers make the Warriors an offensive machine with amazing comeback ability and if the team can stay reasonably healthy, upping last season’s win total should be a breeze.

The additions of Shaun Livingston and Leandro Barbosa give the Warriors some much needed veteran depth at guard. Look for a Team USA Gold Medal bump from Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson early on.

5. Dallas Mavericks – Projected 52-30, last season 49-33

The bottom half of the Western Conference playoff standings is going to look even more crowded than last season, mostly because the teams fighting to get into the playoff picture will be better.

Dallas wisely upped their playoff chances over the summer by improving defensively with Tyson Chandler and giving Dirk Nowitzki more room to operate by spreading the floor with Chandler Parsons. The Mavericks head into this season as a veteran team that will be even harder to guard on the perimeter and a little tougher to score on inside and that should be just enough to give them an edge over the next five best teams in the West.

Risks and Obstacles

No one in the West should feel too secure about their playoff position come April, there are teams not expected to make the playoffs who will make significant strides this season. However, barring disaster, pushing the Clippers, Thunder and Spurs out of the way is probably too big a hill to climb. Everyone else had better buckle up.

Who do you think will put forth the effort it takes to be first in the NBA Western Conference? Which one of these teams do you think gives up home court in the first round of the playoffs? Can any other team crack the top five in the West? Let us know in the comments below.

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

Ranking The Top Five 2014-15 NBA Eastern Conference Teams

There is change coming to the anticipated top five teams in the NBA Eastern Conference for 2014-15. Teams that stepped up unexpectedly last season are looking for more, player movement during the summer will have a huge impact and risks abound all around the Conference.

Bosh and Anthony

Ranking The Middle Of The NBA Eastern Conference Pack

The Heat and Pacers will not be fighting it out for Eastern Conference supremacy in the NBA this season. Both teams took huge hits to their rosters this summer and it will be a fight for them just to remain in the playoff hunt.

Other teams see their opportunity with the changing of the guard. There will be a battle to make the playoffs in the East this season and backing in with abysmal play like Atlanta did last spring may not be an option.

As usual injuries, hidden agendas and plain old fashioned luck will impact the final standings.

Ranking The Middle

6. Miami HEAT – Projected 44-38, last season 54-28

For all intents and purposes the HEAT have exchanged LeBron James and his career average 15 win shares for Luol Deng and his 6 win shares. It doesn’t require a lot more analysis than that.

The HEAT still have their hobbled superstar Dwyane Wade who will win them games when he isn’t too sore, too tired or just flat out being even the night off in an attempt to extend his career. They also have Chris Bosh who can significantly up his scoring and rebounding if he backs off on his defensive effort like he did in Toronto.

Miami won’t be a bad team, but Wade isn’t going to suddenly become “Flash” again and Bosh proved he couldn’t carry a team when he played for the Raptors. The HEAT are a decent enough collection of talent to have a good season and a thanks-for-coming handshake at the end of the first round in the playoffs after making their opposition work for it.

7. Atlanta Hawks – Projected 43-39, last season 38-44

The Hawks were three games above .500 with Al Horford and nine games under without him. Not a whole lot has changed in Atlanta. The good news is a torn pectoral muscle is kind of a fluke injury and there is reason to hope the Hawks will have their two-time All-Star back for the entire season.

This is a team that appears to be trending water at the back end of the Eastern Conference playoff picture with little reason to believe they will overachieve and only injuries knocking them out of their spot. A big concern is still Big Al. Horford torn his left pectoral muscle in 2011 and his right pectoral muscle in 2013, fluke or not, a reoccurrence would be bad news for the Hawks.

Atlanta is heading into a season full of distractions that will be hard to quantify on the court. The team is up for sale and new owners always signify change and that is a major distraction. General Manager Danny Ferry stuck both feet in his mouth this summer and how this eventually plays out is yet to be determined. As he’s on an indefinite leave of absence pending something or other, front office stability may be in short supply all year.

Fortunately, the Pistons, Knicks and the Nets can’t exactly claim to be bastions of stability either.

8. Detroit Pistons – Projected 40-42, last season 29-53

There is only one reason for believing the Pistons will resemble a cohesive basketball team and that’s Stan Van Gundy. The impact of coaching is often underestimated and a team with as much individual talent as Detroit should be better. Van Gundy will scream at Andre Drummond until he plays defense instead of chasing blocks. Josh Smith might actually start to cringe when he receives the ball on the three-point line and is thinking about shooting and Brandon Jennings will be hearing very loud messages about what a point guard’s job is. There’s a chance Van Gundy’s style of coaching will even get a very unhappy Greg Monroe to start buying in.

The revolving door in the coach’s office looks like it’s been fixed and the players should believe its Van Gundy’s team now and that can go a long ways to getting everyone on the same page and pulling together instead of working for themselves.

9. New York Knicks – Projected 37-45, last season 37-45

Front office logic might stop this franchise from ending up in ninth place for the second season in a row. If ever there was a team that should tank a season, the Knicks are it. In 2015, the Knicks have their first round draft pick (they don’t in 2016) and this team could desperately use an influx of high-end young talent.

New York made some moves during the summer to add pass-first point guard Jose Calderon and defensive center Samuel Dalembert, but it would be a stretch to say these changes have improved the Knicks prospects. Even the Knicks expected Amare Stoudemire to breakdown before the end of his contract and he cannot be relied upon. They also took on an injury prone Andrea Bargnani last summer and he’s lived up to that reputation.

Carmelo Anthony re-upped with a monster five-year deal and he could lead the NBA in scoring, but that isn’t going to result in more wins. It will be a year of waiting for contracts to expire and breaking in rookie head coach Derek Fisher.

10. Brooklyn Nets – Projected 35-47, last season 44-38

The Nets shot their load last season with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett supposedly taking Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson and Deron Williams to the Eastern Conference Finals. However, Garnett showed his age, Williams’ ankles were worse than a senior citizen’s and Lopez’s feet literally broke down again. The season was salvaged by Shaun Livingston and Pierce, but they both moved on during the summer.

The over/under on big men’s feet should probably be set at two surgeries and Lopez blew past that to become a charter member of the “show-me” club. The Nets need Lopez to just maintain last year’s pace and even at that, the season remains in some doubt. The 38-year-old Garnett and 33-year-old Andre Kirilenko are the Nets best forwards. 33-year-old Joe Johnson is their best player and 30-year-old Deron Williams has many more years of wear-and-tear than his age. A couple of injuries – which shouldn’t surprise anyone – and the Nets season could implode.

The best rationale for the Nets holding it together in the face of adversity is the hiring of Lionel Hollins as Head Coach. It was the best long term move the team could have made this summer. Then there’s the Hawks right to swap 2015 first round draft picks to motivate the front office.

Risks and Obstacles

Anyone in the middle of the pack could be a playoff team in the East if the breaks go their way and the Pistons, Knicks and Nets should all believe that last spot belongs to them. However, the risks in this group of teams are substantial. Injury prone players, new head coaches and controversy will make claiming one of the final spots in the postseason an adventure.

Who do you think takes 6, 7 and 8 in the NBA Eastern Conference and makes the playoffs? Which one of the teams in the middle will be first to embrace tanking? Can any of these teams crack the top five in the East? Let us know in the comments below.

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

Ranking The Top Five 2014-15 NBA Eastern Conference Teams

Irving and Rose
There is change coming to the anticipated top five teams in the NBA Eastern Conference for 2014-15. Teams that stepped up unexpectedly last season are looking for more, player movement during the summer will have a huge impact and risks abound all around the Conference.

 

 

Irving and Rose

Ranking The Top Five 2014-15 NBA Eastern Conference Teams

There is change coming to the anticipated top five teams in the NBA Eastern Conference for 2014-15. Teams that stepped up unexpectedly last season are looking for more, player movement during the summer will have a huge impact and risks abound all around the Conference. However, make no mistake, the top five teams in the East this season will finish with better overall records than the top five did last year.

As always, injuries, hidden agendas and plain old fashioned luck will impact the final standings and being first during the regular season doesn’t always mean much in June.

The Top Five

1. Cleveland Cavaliers – Projected 57-25, last season 33-49

CLE_James and Love

Ignore everything about the last few Cavaliers seasons, the King has returned and the expectations LeBron James brings with him are in Cleveland.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone if the Cavs get off to a relatively slow start, most of the roster has turned over and it will take time for James, Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and Kevin Love to get used to sharing the ball. However, barring injury, the Cavaliers should easily reside in first place.

The risk in Cleveland is the injury history of Irving, Love and Anderson Varejao. Depth could become an issue and first place will be tough to hold onto if the injury bug bites too hard.

2. Chicago Bulls – Projected 54-28, 48-34 last season

CHI Rose and Gasol

Derrick Rose is back and Pau Gasol was a huge addition, but the Bulls have question marks all over this season and falling short of second place remains a distinct possibility.

The risks for Chicago this year are pretty much the same as last season.

Rose, who couldn’t find any offensive rhythm in 10 games last season and had a nightmare offensively in Spain, may have lost a step – yeah think! Rose looked okay on the court right up until he had to do something with the ball during the World Cup. That Rose will lead the Bulls to last season’s record. They need him to be the “old” Rose to contend.

Pau Gasol replaces Carlos Boozer and that’s a big upgrade in size, passing and rim protection if he can stay healthy, but both Joakim Noah and Gasol have experienced foot problems in the past and this big upgrade requires them to stay reasonably healthy. At least in Gasol’s case, he looked fantastic at the World Cup and was arguably the best player in the tournament.

The Bulls will miss Luol Deng if they end up in a Conference Final with the Cavs, but they can count on Head Coach Tom Thibodeau to keep Chicago competitive no matter what obstacles they face.

3. Toronto Raptors – Projected 52-30, 48-34 last season

TOR Ross and Valanciunas

Toronto went on a 54-win pace after the Rudy Gay trade in early December last season and the team returns to the court with the same starting five, two key backups, two key reserve big men to cover injury concerns and added sixth man Lou Williams and defensive forward James Johnson.

The Raptors strengths heading into this season will be team chemistry, depth and a massive chip on their shoulders from a feeling that they aren’t respected. Toronto doesn’t have the star power of Cleveland or Chicago, but they believe in themselves and like last season, the whole might be a lot better than the sum of the parts.

A net +3.5 points per 100 possessions was the best in the East after Miami and Indiana last year and suggests this team may be underestimated, however, they are a young team counting on the continued development of both Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas as they head into their third seasons and that team chemistry can be a fickle thing.

4. Washington Wizards – Projected 48-34, 44-38 last season

WAS_Wall_ John

The Wizards were inconsistent last season and probably should have sported a better record, but with another year under their belt, it is reasonable to expect they will.

Paul Pierce is a solid replacement for Trevor Ariza from a leadership standpoint and the team added depth at the big man positions with Kris Humphreys and Juan Blair. The only real question marks revolve around whether this team will start investing playing time in guys like Otto Porter or Glen Rice Jr. as they should.

Like Toronto, Washington kept their core together and should get off to a fast start. If the Bulls and Cavs struggle early, the Raps and Wiz will be more than happy to fight for first in the East.

5. Charlotte Hornets – Projected 46-36, 43-39 last season

Kemba Walker Charlotte Bobcats Media Day

The Hornets (as Bobcats) impressed last year with a tough defensive style and some badly needed offensive punch from Al Jefferson. This team tasted the playoffs and they’ll be back.

Kemba Walker has evolved into the clutch scorer and leader he was at the end of his college career and with the addition of the veteran Marvin Williams and last season’s triple-double leader Lance Stephenson, the Hornets are a dark horse team that could be a lot better than anyone expects.

There will be battles for minutes in Charlotte, roles to be defined and some very young big men who probably aren’t ready for the demands that will be put upon them. It’s hard not to see Charlotte making roster moves during the season, but once they get their team chemistry straightened out, they could be scary good.

Risks and Obstacles

Miami, Brooklyn and Atlanta could all say, what about me? They are not going to be bad teams. Actually, as a group, the playoff teams in the East this season should all sport better records than last year’s crop. All that means to the top five is don’t falter because there is someone waiting to take your spot this time.

At the end of season, Cleveland should prevail. In Chicago, Rose will prove to either be back to his old self or not. The Raptors young players and team chemistry will have taken them another step or not. The Wizards will know if they can find some consistency and Charlotte will have discovered if they can blend Stephenson into their group to become a potential (future) contender.

Who do you think will put forth the effort and has the luck it takes to be first in the NBA Eastern Conference at the end of the season? Which one of these teams do you think gives up home court in the first round of the playoffs? Can any other team crack the top five in the East? Let us know in the comments below.

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

TOR DeRozan Ross Valanciunas

Toronto Raptors Roster Has The Depth For Success In 2014-15

During the Toronto Raptors five years in the NBA Draft Lottery, the team was exposed over and over again as susceptible to collapse with just one key injury. A lack of depth was a consistent problem that paralleled the lack of talent. Resolving that issue got a big shot in the arm last season with the trade of Rudy Gay to the Kings for four players who became the Raptors bench and afterwards Toronto actually maintained a high level of play even when key players missed a game or two.

President and General Manager, Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri has built on that depth over the summer by retaining Kyle Lowry, Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson and adding Lou Williams and James Johnson. Ujiri has given Head Coach Dwane Casey a roster full of versatile players that can play multiple positions and some veteran backups in Landry Fields, Tyler Hansbrough and Chuck Hayes who proved last season that they could stay ready to play and contribute even if they weren’t part of the regular rotation.

How rookie forward Bruno Caboclo and center Lucas Nogueira will fit into Casey’s plans is still to be determined – possibly during preseason, but more likely over the course of the regular season.

Depth Chart

Point Guard: Kyle Lowry, Greivis Vasquez

Shooting Guard: DeMar DeRozan, Lou Williams

Small Forward: Terrence Ross, James Johnson, Landry Fields, Bruno Caboclo

Power Forward: Amir Johnson, Patrick Patterson, Tyler Hansbrough

Center: Jonas Valanciunas, Chuck Hayes, Lucas Nogueira

Training Camp tryouts: guard Will Cherry, forward Jordan Hamilton and center Greg Stiemsma

The decision about who wins the 15th spot on the roster may come down to how good Caboclo and Nogueira look in preseason. The closer these two players appear to ready to play, the worse the chances for Hamilton and Stiemsma.

From a flexibility standpoint:

Vasquez or the nine-year veteran Williams could start at either guard position if necessary.

DeRozan, Ross and Fields can shift between wing spots easily.

James Johnson and Caboclo can play either forward position.

Hansbrough and Amir Johnson can play center as well.

Last year, the starting lineup of Lowry, DeRozan, Ross, Amir Johnson and Valanciunas had the most wins of any Raptors starting-five in team history and Coach Casey has them all back this season. Vasquez and Patterson provided the best two players coming off the bench for Toronto in a long time and with the younger and more versatile Williams and James Johnson replacing the older and slower John Salmons and the highly specialized Steve Novak, the Raptors bench is better. Casey has the option to use a solid nine-man rotation or insert Fields, Hansbrough or Hayes to spread the minutes around or give Caboclo or Nogueira some playing time to develop.

No team wants to test their depth, but every team is hit by illness or injury at some point and the Raptors are well equipped to deal with the usual assortment minor problems that are bound to happen. This year Toronto has the roster depth needed to keep a successful season on track.

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

Lowry and Wall

Raptors, Wizards: The Only Sure Things In The NBA East

Last season it was the Pacers and the HEAT in a two-way race during the regular season that ended in the inevitable Eastern Conference Finals matchup. Everyone else was just along for the ride. This time, with only a couple of shoes left to drop, the only teams will any level of certainty are the Raptors and the Wizards as the rest of the pretenders in the Conference have undergone so many changes, even they don’t really know what they have.

The Eastern Conference is wide open heading into 2014-2015 and a quick start could determine who steals the top spots in each of the Divisions. Even those teams that are only realistically wishing and hoping can see the possibilities this year.

What’s a sure-thing in the East?

There are a couple teams in the East coming back intact enough to know what to expect.

Toronto Raptors

In Toronto, of the top 11 players for minutes played that were on the roster when the season ended only the 34-year-old John Salmons and his wonky back won’t be back in October. The team that went on a 54-win pace starting in early December has youth, continuity and a couple of solid upgrades to their bench in guard Lou Williams and forward James Johnson. The Raptors Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas set a club record for wins as a starting unit last season and will be ready to hit the ground running on opening night and that will not be a theme in the East.

Washington Wizards

The Wizards lost Trevor Ariza to the Rockets and Trevor Booker to the Jazz, but they picked up veterans Paul Pierce and Kris Humphries as solid replacements and retained most of their rotation. Washington was a win-a-few / lose-a-few team all of last season, but their young players should continue to get better and their additions – especially Pierce – should bring some veteran smarts and stability. The Wizards won 44 games last year and they should be safely penciled in to win more this time.

Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Orlando and Boston could be placed in the sure-thing category as well. They all have a lot of young players in need of development and baring some mega trade of youth and draft picks to land a star, they’ll just be fun to watch.

High Expectations

There are teams in the East with high expectations – if everything goes right.

Chicago Bulls

The Bulls have been waiting (forever?) to see Derrick Rose back on the court and are hoping he’ll look good enough to play for Team USA in Spain before the season starts. A lot – everything actually – hinges on Rose returning to form and there just isn’t a way to know what the Bulls will be getting back until he plays some games.

The Bulls made a couple of risky moves by amnestying an effective offensive player in Carlos Boozer and signing Pau Gasol who was in and out of the Lakers lineup with injuries and mysteries over the last couple of seasons.

A great coach and decent depth should keep the Bulls in the hunt, the question will be is it a hunt for first or eighth? How (or if) Rose and Gasol play will determine where the Bulls finish.

Cleveland Cavaliers

So, just how many victories does one add to the Cavaliers 33 wins of last season to adjust for the addition of LeBron James. The safe answer is 10 games, but there is so much more going on in Cleveland than just the Return of the King.

The Cavs will try to add another star in order to challenge for first place in the East and that possibility should not be discounted in the slightest. However, it’s not a sure thing either, but if Kyrie Irving can stay healthy – he’s missed a lot of games every year going back to college – and willingly let the King run the offense plus if Anderson Varejao can kick his run of injury bad luck, the Cavaliers will be better than expected even without getting a little Love from the trade market.

James instantly made the Cavaliers a playoff team, but where they will finish is to be determined.

Charlotte Bobcats Hornets

And the other big prize of the free agent scramble goes to Charlotte for scooping up the triple-double waiting to happen (and maybe waiting to grow up) Lance Stephenson. Talk about getting an impact player at a bargain basement price even if the bargain comes with a bit of baggage.

The Hornets were a top ranked defensive team before adding the very versatile Stephenson, they will be downright annoying to play against now. Add in the reliable veteran forward Marvin Williams and Charlotte made some outstanding free agent additions to a bright young core. They won’t be considered contenders because of their youth, but they will win more games than last year and will not be any fun to play.

Charlotte should be eyeing Miami and Washington and thinking – we can beat those guys.

Taking A Step Back

Miami HEAT

The Big Three era is over and Miami goes from contender to pretender as quickly as James packed for Cleveland. Pencil Dwyane Wade in for 30-plus missed games, there is no miracle cure for his ailing knees. Chris Bosh is a fine power forward who could almost lead the Raptors and some solid role players to the playoffs half of the time putting up huge numbers. The Big Two will probably do okay, but just okay and when Wade sits, the HEAT will be in real trouble.

Indiana Pacers

The Pacers won’t miss Stephenson’s immaturity, but they will desperately miss his scoring (3rd in points on the Pacers), rebounding (1st), playmaking (1st in assists) and minutes played (2nd).

Indiana doesn’t have a true point guard in their starting lineup and it is going to be really interesting to see what evolves as this bottom six offensive team tries to make plays and find points. They will miss his defense too, but the Pacers probably have enough defensive talent to hide most of that problem – at least during the regular season.

Indiana always seemed like a team that played better than the sum of their parts and that theory is going to be severely tested. In the new East, first place looks like a hill that is too high to climb this time.

Brooklyn Nets

The Nets stole a first round playoff series from the Raptors behind Joe Johnson and Pierce, but Pierce is gone and hope now rides on the twice surgically repaired foot of Brook Lopez. They also lost Shaun Livingston who saved their regular season by starting in 54 games and whose contribution shouldn’t be understated. A crushing payroll means there isn’t likely to be much help on the way and this team’s dimming playoff hopes will ride on Deron Williams’ very bad ankles and Lopez’s comeback attempt.

Wishing and Hoping

Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks were a .500 club with Al Horford (16 wins and 13 loses) in 2013-2014 and it’s hoped that he’ll be ready to play in time for training camp although how much off season work he can get in is yet to be determined. Atlanta survived losing streaks of 8 games, 6 games and 6 games in February and March to sneak into the postseason, but that won’t happen again. They’ll need Horford for a full season to have a shot at the playoffs this time.

New York Knicks

The Knicks snapped a 7-game losing streak to go 16-5 down the stretch and finish only 1 game out of the playoffs – note, New York only won 37 games last season. For most of the year, the Knicks were an old injured dysfunctional mess, but Carmelo Anthony took the monster offer to come back anyway, so the wishing and hoping can continue in New York.

This team might actually be better this year with Jose Calderon running the show and it would be tough to play any worse. They were “good enough” the year before, so if New York can avoid injuries maybe they can get back to the playoffs.

Detroit Pistons

The Pistons have talent, however, no one knows how new Head Coach Stan Van Gundy is supposed to make it work together, but they have talent. In the meantime, it might be a good idea to extend an olive branch (some kind of deal) to restricted free agent Greg Monroe before he feels any less appreciated.

The Pistons were undisciplined and played no defense last year. They didn’t shoot or pass very well and the only redeeming stat they produced was a number one ranking in offensive rebounding (they missed a lot of shots). Van Gundy will either whip them into shape or lose his voice trying – this we got to see.

The Unpredictable East

Thanks to James and Stephenson changing teams and the promise that Rose brings to Chicago, the NBA East suddenly gets very unpredictable, unless of course you happen to be in Toronto or Washington. Those two teams should hit the ground running and very quickly know exactly what they’ll bring to the season.

Unpredictability gives hope to some and the possibility of realizing some very high expectations to others. This season should be about as good as it gets for fans in cities across the Eastern Conference.

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.