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Denver Nuggets Nikola Jokic and Cleveland Cavaliers Jae Crowder and Washington Wizards Otto Porter

Early Favorites For The NBA Most Improved Player Race

Like every other award handed out to NBA players after the season is over, the Most Improved Player isn’t going to be a completely fair race. To even be an early favorite, several things pretty much have to be in the players favor right from the start.

First off an MIP has to be on a team that garners some attention. If you’re not in the playoffs or at least in contention for the postseason, it’s going to be pretty hard to win … anything.

Also, it would really help if the player could average over 20 points per game and that average is up from the prior season by over 5 points per game – the bigger the increase the better. Sure the other stats matter, but nothing captures attention in the NBA more than scoring.

Over the last five years, the MIP race ended like this:

Last year the next four top vote getters were Nikola Jokic, Rudy Gobert, Otto Potter and Isaiah Thomas and three of them should be early favorites this year.

It’s worth noting that Antetokounmpo was 3rd in voting in 2016 and top 10 the year before that, so he was a guy everyone should have (did) see coming.

In no particular order, our early favorites for the MIP in 2018 are:

Denver Nuggets, Nikola Jokic

When the Nuggets landed Paul Millsap in free agency they solidified their hold on a playoff spot and gave Jokic his chance to turn last year’s second place MIP votes into a spot at the top if he can continue to improve.

He’ll need to average well over 20 points per game, but don’t count him out.

Portland Trail Blazers, Jusuf Nurkic

Nurkic exploded after the trade from Denver to Portland going from 8 points per game playing limited minutes behind Jokic to over 15 points as a starter. The Trail Blazers exploded with him in the lineup as well, winning 14 of the 20 games he appeared in.

On the season Nurkic only averaged 10.2 points per game, so if can improve even a little on his first 20 games with the Blazers and his team gets back to the postseason, he’s going to get a lot of votes.

Utah Jazz, Rudy Gobert

After losing Hayward to the Celtics, the Jazz need Gobert to be in contention again for the MIP award if they are to get back to the postseason. After a 4.9 point improvement in scoring last year, there will be opportunities for Gobert to up his offensive production yet again in Hayward’s absence.

Someone has to carry the scoring load on this defensive-minded club and it seems pretty clear Gobert is now their best player.

Washington Wizards, Otto Porter

Porter is developing into an elite two-way player with deadly outside range and the only thing that appears to be holding him back is greater utilization. Porter only got 10 shots per game last season and had his team’s (ugh!) 12th highest utilization rate.

Unless the Wizards coaching staff has been living under a rock this summer, they’ll be working on ways to get their most effective scorer more involved with the offense. Look for a big jump in scoring from Porter next season on a team that should win over 50 games for the first time in four decades.

Cleveland Cavaliers, Jae Crowder

The only knock on the Cavaliers in recent years has been the roster was old and wasn’t winning as many regular season games as expected. This was a team that needed what an energetic two-way 27-year-old forward with three-point range could bring to the table.

Twice before Crowder has gotten votes for MIP, but this could be his year.

Crowder fills a need on a Cavs team that wants LeBron James to play fewer minutes and take more time off during the regular season. He will get his opportunity to shine on a team that loves to hoist the three-ball and needs his younger legs to soak up minutes. Don’t be surprised if Crowder has a career year.

Toronto Raptors, Serge Ibaka

The Toronto Raptors have been looking for a third impact player to support Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and they believe they’ve found him in the three-time All-Defensive First Team big man Serge Ibaka.

However, the Raptors will be looking for a lot more than just defense from Ibaka in a lot bigger role than he has been limited to in the past. Ibaka has evolved into a 40 percent three-point stretch-four/five and he’ll get his chance to show off all of his offensive range this season.

If the Raptors can get back to the 56-win pace they ran at for a season and a half up until mid-January last year and Ibaka gets the offensive opportunities his new three-year $65 million contract suggests he will, then he could be a surprise contender in this year’s MIP race.

There are other interesting candidates like the Pacers Miles Turner and the Knicks Kristaps Porzingis, but neither of these teams are likely to generate the buzz necessary to grab the attention of the voters.

The last time a player from a non-playoff team won the award was when Kevin Love became an All-Star for the first time in 2011. So, it’s not impossible, it’s just a very high bar.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

NBA Cleveland Cavaliers J.R. Smith

Injuries Could Play Havoc With The NBA Playoffs

So the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors are a sure thing to meet in the NBA Finals? You sure? It seems like no one thinks either team is headed for an early exit – yet, but both teams could be in for a tougher time in the first two rounds of the playoffs than anyone anticipated and if their sidelined All-Stars aren’t back to 100 percent by the Conference Finals, all bets should be off on a three-peat in the NBA Finals.

But it’s not just the top two teams in each conference with issues. Injuries have hit a number of other teams this year hoping to make some noise in the postseason and if they aren’t aren’t back by now, optimistic assessments about how soon and how good key players will be aside, teams are worried – not that there’s much they can do about it now.

Golden State Warriors – Kevin Durant

An MCL sprain and bone bruise in his left knee that’ll be reassessed at the end of March. No worries, he’ll be back for the playoffs, right? Maybe, but in the meantime the Dubs are 0-2 without him and the Spurs are just 3 games back.

How good would a Warriors – Thunder matchup look in the first round if the Dubs can’t hold onto first in the West and KD is still watching from the sidelines mid-April – which is very possible. Russell Westbrook would only be slightly better motivated to triple-double his way into the second round vs GSW.

Cleveland Cavaliers – JR Smith, Kevin Love

The Cavs showed their true feelings about whether Smith and his broken thumb could be counted on for the postseason by quickly trading for Kyle Korver and the move has worked. Smith or no Smith, the Cavs got that covered.

They also showed their true feelings about Kevin Love’s “minor” knee surgery – is there a stranger term than “minor surgery”? They cut a young prospect to sign a waived 32-year-old Andrew Bogut who averaged 3.0 points in 26 appearances for the Lottery-bound Mavericks.

Sure Love could be back in the 4-6 week time horizon that would make him available for the playoffs and the Cavs are hoping that happens, but there are no guarantees and it’s unlikely he’ll return right away as the same 20 point 11 rebound power forward he was before the injury.

Bogut doesn’t replace Love and it’s a certainty the Cavs will not be as good without their starting power forward or trying to play Love as he goes through the inevitable soreness and conditioning issues that come with knee surgery no matter how “minor.”

Toronto Raptors – Kyle Lowry

Lowry had wrist surgery to remove “loose bodies” that were causing swelling and pain and is expected back in time for the postseason, however, a month or more without the East’s leading three-point maker and the Raptors are going to have to adapt fast to hold onto home court advantage for the playoffs.

The team made big additions defensively with Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker prior to the trade deadline and now have both Patrick Patterson and Delon Wright back from injury, so they added depth just in time to compensate, but without their All-Star point guard, the Raptors aren’t the same threat they were earlier in the season. They are hoping for a very speedy and full recovery or this could be a return to the quick postseason exits of a couple of years ago.

Denver Nuggets – Kenneth Faried

After missing most of February with a severely sprained ankle, now the veteran forward has been out with back spasms and could miss another week? It doesn’t sound serious other than the 8th place Nuggets have been relying on the short-handed Trail Blazers to play worse than .500 ball to stay ahead of them.

Other notables include: Miami Heat Justus Winslow (shoulder), Minnesota Timberwolves Zach LaVine (torn ACL), Milwaukee Bucks Jabari Parker (torn ACL), New York Knicks Joakim Noah (knee surgery), Orlando Magic Jodie Meeks (thumb surgery), Philadelphia 76ers Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid among others, Portland Trail Blazers Festus Ezeli (knee), Even Turner (broken hand), Ed Davis (torn labrum), Sacramento Kings Rudy Gay (ruptured Achilles).

It’s hard to win without players your team was counting upon at the start of the season and it gets even harder in the playoffs. A last second return mid-April shouldn’t fill one with confidence either.

A Cavs vs Dubs rematch in the NBA Finals? Possible, but injuries aren’t making what seemed like a sure-thing in October nearly as likely.

 

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.

 

NBA Denver Nuggets, Team Canada and Kentucky Wildcats Jamal Murray

Nuggets Jamal Murray Is Representing “We The North” Well

By Frank McLean

“We the North” was a marketing slogan the Toronto Raptors adopted a few years ago to announce to the rest of the NBA that the only team not located in the United States of America was finally a legitimate contender and it gave its rabid fan base a rallying cry so to speak.

“We the North” could also be a rallying cry for basketball players born in Canada as each year more and more players with a Canadian birth certificate can be found on NBA rosters making major contributions to their team’s fortunes.

On opening night this year there were 12 Canadian born players on NBA rosters. The only country to have more native born players in the NBA is the United States.

The latest is Kitchener, Ontario’s Jamal Murray who after playing one year at the University of Kentucky for John Calapari is now with the Denver Nuggets where the hope he is the last key to make them a legitimate playoff team.

Being drafted by the Nuggets (seventh overall) Murray was the player they had circled that they wanted on draft night. “It’s a good feeling to know that you were being selected by a team that really wants you.”

Head coach Mike Malone is bringing him along slowly, giving him a chance to just relax and learn how to play in the NBA. Mainly because this is a guy the organization really wanted and he is not going to ruin him as a potential NBA player.

“We tell Jamal (this) all the time. Listen, whether you go out there and score 20, or you score zero, we still love you, we still believe in you and we know that at some point, you are going to do great things for this franchise,” Malone said recently about Murray. “What I love about Jamal, and it’s a big credit to his mom and dad, he’s a well-balanced kid and for a young kid, he’s very poised. He doesn’t get too low, he doesn’t get too high.

“He’s a young man, 19-years old and won’t be 20 until February. A lot of poise, a lot of confidence, shot-making ability, can get his own shot, but he’s more than just a shooter and scorer, he can play-make and rebound for his position as well.”

When you talk to Murray he is very soft spoken. Like a true Canadian, not a braggart not full of himself, but he is confident of his abilities.

“Don’t look at yourself as a rookie,” Murray said. “A basket is a basket, free throw is a free throw,” was his advice to himself. “You just have to go out there and shoot efficiently and not over-think it. At the end the day it’s just a game so you can’t put things in your head to give yourself excuses.”

“I worked for it to happen, I truly believed it would happen,” Murray added.

Murray says the one big difference between college and the NBA is that everything about the game is faster and that you have to adjust your reaction time because everything is happening at a faster pace.

He is getting 20 minutes a night and averaging almost 8 points game which is a good chunk of minutes for a rookie to get his feet wet in the NBA.

He is with one of the good young coaches in the NBA in Mike Malone. He was doing wonders in Sacramento and winning games with another Kentucky product named DeMarcus Cousins until ownership fired him because the wins weren’t exciting enough.

He will make a great mentor for Murray.

Murray is in a great place in Denver and he’s going to be all right, making the basketball community in “We The North” proud.

 

 

DeMar DeRozan & Frank McLeanVeteran journalist Frank McLean has covered nearly every Raptors game in Toronto since their inaugural season at the Skydome back in 1995-96. He has seen it all. The good, the bad and the really bad and he is one of the very few journalists in Toronto that has kept coming back for more.

 

 

 


 

 

NBA Denver Nuggets J.J. Hickson

Would Nuggets J.J. Hickson Give The Raptors A Boost At Power Forward?

It’s the post NBA trade deadline clean out the back of your roster season and there are teams with players that just don’t fit looking to create space to try out guys that might. The Denver Nuggets tried to trade Hickson, but failing that, they’ve waived him and teams, like the Toronto Raptors, looking for a cheap boost at power forward are likely taking a hard look.

This isn’t a slam dunk for a team that would have to waive a player to sign Hickson. For all the things he does well, like running the floor, playing in the post and rebounding at a superior rate, he has his flaws. Of course if he didn’t have his flaws, he’d be starting on the Nuggets instead of being set free.

Today’s Fastbreak summed things up nicely prior to the start of the season,

Let me tell you, it’s a wild ride. One minute, he’s snatching offensive and defensive rebounds with the ferocity of a crazed bull, the next, well, I guess he’s kind of doing that same thing. Turns out Hickson is pretty one-dimensional.

Hickson is a tad porous on the defensive side of the ball

He’s really not very good in some fairly impactful ways. Very often, he sacrifices good off-the-ball defense for better rebounding positioning.

He plays a tough brand of basketball, he’s physical and for the most part hustles. Even if that hustle tends to show up more on the offensive end, he’s good for a rebound every three minutes he’s in the game and he gets out and runs on the break.

Hickson had a $5.6 million expiring salary, but even that wasn’t cheap enough for the Nuggets to be able to dump him off on another team at the trade deadline. Nuggets head coach Michael Malone obviously didn’t value what the 27-year-old big man could do either as Hickson had only played in 20 games this season after being a starter and leading rebounder in Denver just two years ago.

Hickson getting bumped out of the rotation by a crop of promising young big men on a team that isn’t going anywhere soon isn’t much of a surprise, but for a playoff bound team looking for a third string big man who can provide some toughness and rebounding to cover off some minutes due to foul trouble or minor injuries – Hickson looks like cheap insurance.

This isn’t going to be an easy call for teams that will have to waive a player to make room for a third stringer who might not even play, but in Toronto where the contributions from backups Lucas Nogueira and Anthony Bennett leave coaches and fans holding their collective breath, bringing in even a limited veteran like Hickson suddenly doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

NBA Denver Nuggets Michael Malone

Nuggets Coach Michael Malone Brings Back Raptors Memories

By Frank McLean

When I look back at the 2014-2015 NBA season the question I have and probably will never get the proper answer to is why the Sacramento Kings let Michael Malone go as coach early into that season.

Now for you long time Raptors fans, if the Malone name rings a bell in your memory bank it should. Michael is the son of Brendan Malone the first head coach in Raptors history.

In his pre-game meeting with the media Thursday night a smile came to Michael’s face when Nuggets television voice Chris Marlowe brought up the subject of how special the city of Toronto is to the Malone family and Michael told the story of that first game in Raptors history against the New Jersey Nets in what was then called SkyDome in 1995.

“We came up as a family to watch my father and they beat the New Jersey Nets,” Malone said. “Ed Pinckney (who is now one of Malone’s assistant’s) was on that team, I think he won the jump ball against Yinka Dare. Being here for the home opener in franchise history was really a special moment for our family.”

The whole Malone family celebrated after that game wanting to share with Dad his realization of being a head coach in the NBA after being an assistant for so many years with the old “Bad Boys” Detroit Pistons.

“My wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, was up here,” Malone said. “My mother, my father, we went out. I think the name of the restaurant was Grappa, if I remember correctly. It was a special night for my father and for all of us.”

Michael also had a chuckle when he remembered how Toronto fans had to learn the little things about basketball.

“The other story I tell people is basketball was new up here,” he said. “Usually at your home games they hand out balloons and things to wave at the opposing team’s basket. They handed the balloons out. So (Raptors forward) Tracy Murray is shooting free throws and the home fans are waving at him. So there is an education process. I think a lot of the fans were looking for a blue line out in the floor.”

The Malone family is a big part of Toronto Raptors history. On top of everything, when you get to know Michael Malone you find out right away that he is good people and as the old saying goes “good things happen to good people”.

The Kings had started 9-6 last year under Coach Malone and then around the end of November DeMarcus Cousins took ill with a viral meningitis bug. The team then went 2-7 in their next 9 games, which had nothing to do with coaching. What it had to do with the Kings missing their best player.

Word was ownership didn’t like Malone’s defense-first coaching style and that it wasn’t putting bums in the seats. Yet when the Kings were at full strength they were winning. Cousins’ illness was a lame excuse to get rid of Malone.

At the time of Malone’s firing the Kings were on pace for a 38 win season and if you were around the Kings, you could see he had the ears and respect of all the players including Cousins. A miracle in its own right considering the lack of respect Cousins is showing to the current Sacramento head coach George Karl.

Michael Malone would not be out of work long. After the Kings fired him, if you talked to anyone in the NBA you saw how respected he was around the league. It was a move by the Kings ownership that nobody in front offices around the NBA or the media ever understood. The Denver Nuggets were happy to get him as their new head coach.

Malone brought his Nuggets to Toronto Thursday night in the middle of a 5-game road swing and an 8-game losing streak overall. The Nuggets snuck out of town with a 106-105 win to snap that streak.

What impressed me Thursday night is what he did with an 11-man line-up due to injuries after getting schooled the night before in Chicago 99-90.

In that loss the Nuggets allowed 30 second chance points to the Bulls. Taj Gibson, Jokaim Noah and Pau Gasol had big nights scoring a combined 43 points and bringing down 41 boards.

In the win against Toronto, the Nuggets held the Raptors to just 4 second chance points and other than DeMar DeRozan’s 34 points nobody else scored more than 16 points.

Malone credits his group of players for working hard in practice each and every day and doing whatever needs to be corrected in their game as a team.

Sacramento’s loss has been Denver’s gain and the Nuggets are lucky to have to him and it’s great to see him getting a second chance to prove the Kings wrong. It’s also great to see the son of the Raptors opening night head coach from 1995 back in the league coaching his own team in 2015.

 

 

Frank McLean - small sizeVeteran journalist Frank McLean has covered nearly every Raptors game in Toronto since their inaugural season at the Skydome back in 1995-96. He has seen it all. The good, the bad and the really bad and he is one of the very few journalists in Toronto that has kept coming back for more.

 

 

 

DEN_Faried_Kenneth

Denver Nuggets Shopping Kenneth Faried At The Draft?

It seems that ever since the Denver Nuggets signed forward Kenneth Faried to his four-year $50 million extension last October there have been rumblings about President Josh Kroenke having second thoughts. Losing can to that to an organization.

Mark Kiszla of The Denver Post believes Kroenke wants to change things big time.

“We’re going to be aggressive this summer as an organization, and continue to be aggressive until we feel we have the roster that can truly compete for something special,” Kroenke said.

“There’s a lot of ways to skin the cat. But one of them is through free agency, one of them is through the draft and the other one is through trades. We’re going to try to improve our roster until we truly have that core of guys who can compete for something for a lengthy period of time.”

Kiszla listens to what Kroenke says, looks at the organization and draws the logical conclusion. Trades, big trades are going down this summer.

While Kroenke steadfastly refuses to offer specific names when talking about plans to aggressively retool the roster prior to opening night of the next NBA season, it’s realistic to expect point guard Ty Lawson or forward Kenneth Faried or both to be part of trade discussions prior to the June 25 draft.

While Faried isn’t a franchise player he could be described as the ultimate energizer bunny. A 6’6 (without shoes) power forward, Faried is non-stop motion on the court who takes full advantage of his 7′ wingspan and 35″ vertical jump. Being undersized can create issues in the post as almost every player at his position is taller and Faried’s offensive game is limited, however, he is a proven and consistent finisher around the basket.

Perhaps the biggest reason for moving Faried along is the lack of growth. Over his first four seasons Faried has averaged 12.2 points, 8.7 rebounds, 0.9 blocks, 0.9 steals, 26.9 minutes and takes about 90 percent of his shots within 10 feet of the rim – numbers that have barely changed from year-to-year. The Nuggets and every other team have a good handle on what to expect from Faried in the future.

One team that has been rumored to be interested in Faried for some time is the Toronto Raptors. President and General Manager, Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri drafted Faried when he was the GM in Denver and it’s assumed he would love to add the energizer bunny to his current roster.

The situation in Toronto is worth watching as Ujiri has young prospects, a first round draft pick that will be tough to add to a playoff roster and two unrestricted free agent power forwards in Tyler Hansbrough and Amir Johnson. Ujiri has to be looking at power forward options for next season and Faried could be the solution, assuming Kroenke can stomach dealing with the GM that arguably left him with his team’s current problems.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Javale Mcgee cropped

Who Is Waiting For A 76ers JaVale McGee Buyout?

The ink was barely dry on the paperwork that sent Nuggets center JaVale McGee to the 76ers when the questions about a possible buyout began to surface. For all intents and purposes, it looks like the 76ers bought themselves another first round draft pick by acquiring McGee and they did it with money they were going to have to spend anyway as they were way below the CBA mandated minimum required payroll.
 


 

McGee is 7’ center with a 7’6 wingspan who is better known for being made fun of on Shaqtin’ A Fool, but he hasn’t even been seen there much recently as injuries and illness kept him out of all but 5 games last year and caused him to miss all but 4 of his team’s past 40 games. The good news is he made it back for two games at the end of January and a cameo just before the All-Star break, so it’s possible he might be able to contribute something over some part of the rest of the season. However, his acquisition didn’t exactly make a big impression on Head Coach Brett Brown.
 


 

Thanks to a four-year deal negotiated with then Nuggets general manager Masai Ujiri, McGee is on the books for $11.25 million this season and $12 million next year which makes a financially advantageous buyout of his contract possible. As previously noted, this was money the 76ers were going to have to spend anyway because their payroll was so low. It is pretty hard to imagine a role for McGee on the very young 76ers. He certainly isn’t going to get any of the minutes allocated to Nerlens Noel this year or Joel Embiid next season.

However, there are teams that could use a shot blocking big man assuming McGee is actually healthy enough to play.
 


 

Raptors President and General Manager, Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri knows the good and the bad a healthy McGee could provide. In his one full healthy season under Ujiri’s watch, McGee averaged 9.1 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2 blocks in 18.1 minutes and those are pretty useful type numbers for a backup center.

The NBA’s Playoff Eligibility Waiver Deadline is March 1, so the 76ers have about 10 days to decide if they want to buyout McGee while he would still be eligible to be on a playoff roster. Assuming the big man is ready to play, there should be several teams waiting to pounce.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Wilson Chandler Media Day

Should The Raptors Pursue Nuggets Wilson Chandler?

The expected fire-sale in Denver is underway, just don’t expect the Nuggets to be giving away their players just yet.  They know there are teams in the East and the West that could use a versatile wing/forward like Wilson Chandler as an instant upgrade off the bench or in some cases in the starting lineup. So, should the Raptors take a shot?

 

 

Chandler is having a good season in Denver. For one thing, he hasn’t had a significant injury (dare we say yet?) He is averaging 14.2 points and 5.9 rebounds in 31.6 minutes and hitting on better than 35 percent of his three-point attempts. At 27-years-old with 7 years of NBA experience under his belt, he has been around. Chandler is a young veteran player and Raptors Head Coach Dwane Casey likes veterans – what coach doesn’t?

To help the sales process, Chandler put up 22 points on the Bulls New Year’s Day and a 20 point 10 rebound game on the Raptors a couple of days earlier.

The downside is Wilson hasn’t come close to playing in 82 games during the regular season since he was 21-years-old. He makes $6.8 million this year, $7.2 million next year and (unfortunately) next year’s salary became fully guaranteed on June 30, 2014 according to Sham Sports. So there is a real risk that whomever gets Chandler will not have a healthy version for the entire balance of his contract.

It is pretty obvious the Nuggets are looking to get out from under their commitment to Chandler while he is playing well and based on the Timofey Mosgov trade, they’d like a first round draft pick (or picks) and/or maybe a young controllable player back.

This isn’t an easy decision, but Raptors President and General Manager Masai Ujiri knows Chandler as well or better than any other general manager that might consider picking this versatile player up. Ujiri was the GM in Denver before coming to Toronto.

The Raptors have the expiring deal belonging to Landry Fields that closely matches Chandler’s salary, so meeting the NBA’s requirement for getting a deal done shouldn’t be an issue. The real question is whether or not Ujiri believes Chandler is worth a first round draft pick in the 20s to make this deal happen or will Chandler’s injury risk scare off other teams and lower the price to a second round draft pick?

Or maybe Ujiri would rather take a run at Arron Afflalo.
 

 
The 29-year-old Afflalo makes $7.5 million this year with a player option for next season and has been playing very well in January.
 

 
It’s January and trade season is in full swing. The Raptors and every other team looking to lock up a top four playoff spot and get past the first round of the playoffs is looking. However, if the Raptors want to be more than just a 50 win team that takes a nice step this season, they need to be doing more than just looking at possible additions to their roster.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Rondo Mozgov GreenCeltics And Cavs Have Set The Market For Impact Players

Throw out all of your preseason expectations for this NBA season, no one in the Eastern or Western Conferences should be feeling all that comfortable about making it to the Finals this year. The result has been a very good market for players that could – stress could – have an impact on the final standings and provide a team the edge once the postseason rolls around.

 

 

Rondo Mozgov Green

Celtics And Cavs Have Set The Market For Impact Players

Throw out all of your preseason expectations for this NBA season, no one in the Eastern or Western Conferences should be feeling all that comfortable about making it to the Finals this year.

The result has been a very good market for players that could – stress could – have an impact on the final standings and provide a team the edge once the postseason rolls around. Highly coveted first round draft picks are becoming the grease that moves deals along to completion. The future is now once again.

In the East, it was supposed to be the Cavaliers (currently in 5th place) fighting it out with the Bulls (currently in 4th place) for the right to represent their conference and all the hype streaming from NBATV and ESPN doesn’t change the fact that three other teams just might be better.

The Cavaliers weren’t shy about using their future-oriented assets this summer to create a roster that could compete for a title and with mediocre results through +30 games, they pulled the trigger hard again in January.

It’s a tough sale to believe J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert make the Cavs significantly better than Dion Waiters, but the Thunder greased this deal with a 1st round draft pick to make stage two of the Cavaliers plans happen.

The Cavs then – talk about greasing a deal – sent two 1st round draft picks to Denver for center Timofey Mosgov. Sure Cleveland was badly in need of a true 7′ center, but when did a career 6.4 point 4.9 rebound backup suddenly become worth two first round draft picks? At least the Cavs have a reasonable team option on Mozgov’s services for next season.

The real panic this season started out West when the Grizzlies and the Warriors started out hotter than hot and left teams like the Clippers, Mavericks and injury-hit Thunder and Spurs in their dust. The dust has begun to settle, but Celtics took advantage of some desperation in Dallas to start setting the in-season market for players high in mid-December.

It was hard to see how Rajon Rondo and his expiring $12.9 million contract fit into the very young Celtics plans – he didn’t, but President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge wasn’t about to part with his former All-Star without adding to his very deep collection of young players and 1st round draft picks. Dallas complied.

Ainge got everything he could have hoped for in return for a player he could have lost for nothing in July. Brandan Wright, Jae Crowder, a 1st and a 2nd round draft pick.

Ainge then flipped Wright and his expiring deal for another 1st round pick to the Suns.

Rondo is a legit starting point guard and could become an All-Star again if he stays healthy, but this could end up as a rental for Dallas – that was a steep price. Similarly, the Suns gave up a lot for a backup forward/center that could walk away in July.

Ainge is once again taking advantage of the opportunities and desperation in the Western Conference with a pending deal to send Jeff Green to Memphis that will net him yet another 1st round draft pick. If the deal goes down as described By Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski, Ainge will pick up a 2nd round draft pick as well by flipping trade ballast Austin Rivers to the Clippers.

Green has a player option for next season and could walk away as a free agent in July.  The steep price for rent-a-players remains high.

It has become a scary trade market for teams hoping to bolster their rosters for a postseason run. Potential impact players on expiring deals are commanding 1st round draft picks or more. This will have set the price high for other players that could be available on non-playoff bound teams and actually encourage general managers to test waters they might not have previously thought were worth dipping a toe into.

Orlando, Denver, Lakers, Minnesota and other teams are sitting on assets that could have a significant impact on their team’s future. Plus there are five teams in the East and up to 10 teams in the West that could be looking hard to find the deal that could take their team to the next level. This NBA trade season is shaping up to be exciting and expensive.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Williams and Lowry

Raptors Lowry And Williams Bury The Nuggets 116-102

It wasn’t the prettiest of games as the two teams combined to miss 22 shots from the free throw line, but in the end, it was too much Kyle Lowry and Lou Williams and the Raptors buried the Nuggets with a 28-15 fourth quarter to win 116-102. Toronto living up to #WeTheFourth once again.

Almost from the start it looked like the Raptors were going to pull away and win this game easily, however, the Nuggets refused to go away and the Raptors uncharacteristically shot 13-25 from the charity stripe through the first three quarters. Often times it looked like Toronto was running on tired legs in the mile-high city after playing in Los Angeles the night before, but Head Coach Dwane Casey found energy in his bench when he needed it.

Off the bench, Williams poured in 31 points and drew an impressive array of fouls on his defenders while Tyler Hansbrough pumped in 10 key points including an unexpected mid-range jump shot and a driving slam dunk. Hansbrough also brought some badly needed energy on defense in the fourth quarter as he helped to neutralize Kenneth Faried with the game on the line.

However, as has so often been the case this season, it was Lowry with 30 points and 11 assists who broke down defenses and led the Raptors in points (10), rebounds (4) and assists (4) in the fourth quarter.

 
Raptors Republic: Quick Reaction: Raptors 116, Nuggets 102 by Garrett Hinchey summed up Lowry’s night:

Every time it seemed like Denver went on a run and threatened to push past the Raptors, it was Lowry who came up with the clutch bucket, steal, or charge taken. The Nuggets tried putting larger wings on him in an attempt to slow his outside shot, and he responded by blowing past them to the basket and finishing over larger players. Extremely impressive individual effort after playing big minutes the day before.

Faried was coming off a 26 point 25 rebound performance in the Nuggets 106-102 win over the Timberwolves on Friday and he had 17 points and 19 rebounds against Toronto. The only concern was the 19 shots he took and the numerous misses right at the rim. Faried’s rebounding was helping to keep Denver in this game and gave the Nuggets a 5 rebound advantage heading into the fourth quarter.

Ty Lawson also had a big game for the Nuggets with 28 points and 7 assists and Wilson Chandler chipped in with 20 points, however, the Nuggets couldn’t match Toronto’s bench production as the Raptors reserves held a 53-20 advantage.

The Nuggets took a 1-point lead on the first shot of the fourth quarter, but Toronto has become very adept at crushing sub-.500 teams with the game on the line and held Denver to just 28.7 percent shooting from the field over the final 12 minutes. The Raptors shot 50 percent in the fourth as Lowry and Williams scored 10 points each and Amir Johnson came in to get 8 of his 13 points.

“They gave us an example of what defense is supposed to do coming down the stretch of the game,” admitted Head Coach Brian Shaw.

Faried went 1-6 and Chandler shot 1-4 in the final period as the Raptors tightened their defense and ran away with the game.

No, this wasn’t the prettiest game, but ultimately, it’s a road back-to-back sweep with the second game in high-altitude settings. The Raptors’ bench has them set up to have a chance to win these games, but it’s really rewarding when it actually results in a comfortable win, particularly when the team isn’t playing their best ball.

With the win, the Eastern Conference’s first-place 24-7 Raptors have improved their record against the West to 9-2. They’ll meet the West’s second-place 25-7 Trail Blazers in Portland on Tuesday.

 

 

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 Lowry ValanciunasRaptors No. 1 In Attendance But Not In All-Star Voting

After 30 games, 17 of them at home, the Toronto Raptors lead the NBA in attendance at 334,624, but their fans just aren’t getting the job done in the All-Star voting. In the early All-Star ballot returns, Toronto doesn’t have any players even close to being voted into the big game.

 

 

Lowry and Lawson

Nuggets Look To Rebound In Toronto Vs Raptors

The Denver Nuggets have enjoyed success against the Raptors in the past. Winners of 7 of the last 10 against the Raptors in Toronto, the Nuggets have also won 11 of the last 14 against Toronto in Denver, including each of the last nine going back to 2004-05. They have always played extremely well against Toronto in recent years with an average margin of victory of 13.8 points in 15 wins over the previous 10 seasons. However, injuries and inconsistent play have hit Denver hard lately and they will be looking at past success as a reason they can rebound from recent losses tonight.

Kenneth Faried (back), Randy Foye (torn ligament), JaVale McGee (tiba) and Nate Robinson (back) all missed Sunday’s game in Atlanta and the Nuggets were taken down 96-84 by the Hawks for their third loss in a row dropping their record to 9-11. The Nuggets could be rough shape again in Toronto.

Denver went 1-6 to start the season, recovered with an 8-2 stretch, but have lost badly on the road to the Wizards and Hawks in their last two games.

Prior to his 1-10 shooting performance against Atlanta, point guard Ty Lawson had been off to a great start this season, averaging 15.8 points, a career-high 10.3 assists and 1.53 steals in 36.5 minutes. He has registered 10 double-doubles this season, including seven straight games from 11/23 through 12/5. The Hawks are not winning many games without their star guard performing at a high level, but even a great performance from Lawson probably won’t be enough unless some of their injured players make a very quick return.

Toronto has split their four games since DeMar DeRozan has been out of the lineup with a groin injury, but it really hasn’t been their leading scorer’s offense that the team has missed the most. The Raptors averaged over 120 points per game in their first three contests sans DeRozan, but the team has slipped on defense and that is what Head Coach Dwane Casey was stressing in practice on Sunday. No one seems too worried about Toronto’s ability to score even without DeRozan.

Denver’s historical domination of Toronto has eased in recent years and the Raptors have earned a split with the Nuggets in each of the past three years. Centre Jonas Valanciunas averaged 15.5 points and 9.5 rebounds in two games against the Nuggets last season and the Raptors have been playing much better against Western Conference teams in general since last season. Last year Toronto was 16-14 versus the West and this year they are off to a 6-2 start against the supposedly superior conference.

The Raptors are being led by their star point guard Kyle Lowry who has scored 20+ points in each of the last five games (Nov. 28 -Dec. 5). This ties the second longest streak of his career. Lowry reached 20 points in eight straight games Mar. 14-26, 2014. Lowry is tied with Monta Ellis for the league lead in scoring over the last five games averaging 28.4 points. While Lowry has been putting the Raptors on his shoulders at various points during games this season, the Raptors strength comes from their depth. Toronto wins and losses games based on their collective efforts.

The Raptors should be anticipated to bounce-back after a poor overall game against the Cavaliers on Friday and show the defensive effort expected from a Coach Casey-led team.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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

 

Pau Gasol and Faried

NBA Studs And Duds At The 2014 FIBA World Cup

Group play has ended at the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain and most of the easy games are in the rearview mirror. If an NBA player didn’t pad his stats during this stage of the contest, it is only going to get harder from here on out.

Five games is a decent enough sample size to see who’s got it on the international stage and the studs and duds of these championships are becoming obvious. No one should be arguing about what Anthony Davis, Kenneth Faried and Pau Gasol have accomplished so far.

Spain 5-0

Stud – Bulls newest star Pau Gasol has been dominate on demand averaging 21.2 points on 61.9 percent shooting to go with 5.6 rebounds and 2 blocks.

Dud – Almost invisible, Knicks new point guard Jose Calderon is shooting 30 percent from the field to average 3.6 points and dish less than an assist per game.

USA 5-0

Stud – Pelicans Anthony Davis leads the US with 15.8 points on a tournament second best 62.7 percent shooting and has 6.4 rebounds, 1 steal and 1.8 blocks.

Stud – Nuggets Kenneth Faried leads the tournament with 79.1 percent shooting from the field to average 13.8 points and 7.8 rebounds

Dud – It seems like everyone on Team USA is trying to get the Bulls point guard Derrick Rose going offensively by feeding him open shots and easy routes to the basket, but it isn’t working. On a team averaging 54 percent from the field, Rose is shooting 25 percent and has missed 90 percent of his three-point attempts.

Slovenia 4-1

Stud – Suns point guard Goran Dragic does it all for Slovenia. He has shot 60.7 percent from the field and is averaging 17.4 points and 4 assists.

Brazil 4-1

This team shares the wealth, however.

Dud – Wizards Nene has disappointed with 6.8 points on 44 percent from the field and 4.2 rebounds in 18.4 minutes. Brazil needs a lot more from Nene in the elimination rounds.

Argentina 3-2

Stud – The long time FIBA star and reliable Pacers veteran Luis Scola has averaged a tournament second best 21.6 points, 52 percent shooting and 8.8 rebounds.

Australia 3-2

Stud – Spurs free agent Aron Baynes has averaged 17.2 points and 7 boards. What’s holding the Spurs back from re-signing this kid?

Duds – Jazz rookie Dante Exum has 3.2 points in 13 minutes on 35.7 percent shooting and Cavaliers Matthew Dellavedova has 6.4 points in 21.2 minutes on 35.7 percent shooting and that’s not helping the cause.

Croatia 3-2

Stud – Nets Bojan Bogdanovic has averaged 20 points and 3.8 rebounds.

Dominican Republic 2-3

Stud – Rockets veteran Francisco Garcia has put up 20.2 points on 61.2 percent shooting from the field.

Senegal 2-3

Stud – Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng has three double-doubles in five games and has put up an impressive 18 points, 11.4 rebounds, 2 steals and 1.8 blocks.

Iran 1-4

Stud – Suns 7’2 free agent center Hamed Haddadi has averaged 18.8 points, 11.4 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 1.2 blocks and has three double-doubles. Someone in the NBA must need a big backup center?

Philippines 1-4

Stud – Nets free agent forward Andray Blatche had five double-doubles in five games averaging a tournament third best 21.2 points, a tournament best 13.8 rebounds and 1.6 steals. His field goal percentage was reduced to 44.2 because he took 4.4 three-point shots per game but made only 1.2 of them. Blatche was auditioning for a contract. Who wants him?

Puerto Rico 1-4

Stud – Proving you just can’t keep a good little man down, the Timberwolves J.J. Barea leads the tournament in scoring with 22 points per game.

This isn’t an easy tournament to put up impressive numbers in. Through the group stage teams play five games in six days and even the main guys on each team usually only average a little more than 20 minutes per game. It can be especially tough on NBA players that haven’t played internationally before. The rules are different and they often don’t know anything about the player opposite them. No excuses though, these games are played for National pride and everyone participating is expected to bring their “A” game.

The Win or Go home portion of the tournament starts on Saturday.

Check out all of the leading scorers at the FIBA World Cup here.

 

 

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_Ross_Terrence

Rising Raptors End A Decade Of Losing In Denver

It has been over a decade since the Raptors have won in Denver and it’s been even longer since they last won 11 games in the month of January, but Toronto went into the Mile-High City on the last day of the month and took care of business on both counts.

The Raptors like to play defense and the Nuggets like to run, but without Ty Lawson and Nate Robinson, Denver was going to have issues playing run and gun.  By the time it was over, Denver had turned the ball over 23 times and far too often, it was the result of passes to nobody, the Nuggets missed their point guards and lost 100-90 in a game that got completely out of hand during the third quarter.

Toronto lead by as many as 25 points early in the fourth quarter and with the score 99-75, didn’t score another field goal after the 7:43 mark.  It wasn’t because of a lockdown Denver defense either and Head Coach Dwane Casey let his players know about it.

Coach Casey 2“I let the players know about it,” Casey said.  “I was disappointed in the close.  It is a four quarter game.  If you are serious about being a winning team and we haven’t done anything in this league to think that just because we have a 20 point lead, they are going to walk away and teams are going to do what you want to do.  We got to finish out games and be strong physically and mentally.”

 

To start, the game was played fast and loose with little regard for defense and both teams shot 50 percent or better in the first half.  The Raptors leading the first quarter 29-25 on a buzzer-beating three-pointer by Kyle Lowry and winning the second quarter 31-28 on a spectacular fast break dunk by Terrence Ross over the head of Kenneth Faried with 5 seconds left.

In the third quarter, the Raptors decided to start playing their game, holding the Nuggets to just 17 points, while Toronto’s newest All-Star DeMar DeRozan found his offensive form and scored 14 of his game-high 19 points.  This contest was over by the time the third quarter ended and the Raptors backed into an easy win.

Terrence Ross played well for Toronto, scoring 18 points on 7-10 shooting to go with 2 steals and 3 blocks.  Ross was a disruptive force at both ends of the court – spectacular dunkage notwithstanding.  Off the bench, Tyler Hansbrough, a masked Patrick Patterson and John Salmons all made big contributions as the Raptors reserves outscored the Nuggets bench 31-22.

Evan Fournier and J.J. Hickson led the Nuggets with 18 points each and Randy Foye did his best at point guard with 10 points, 16 assists and 8 turnovers, just missing the suspect triple-double.  Fournier added 7 turnovers, but no assists.  Things are not going to be easy for Denver until they get at least one of their point guards back.

With the win, the Raptors go 11-6 in January to tie a franchise best first set in 2002 and improve their overall record to 25-21.  They now lead the Atlantic Division by 4 games over the Brooklyn Nets and maintain a half game lead over the Hawks for third place in the Eastern Conference.  Toronto’s winning ways go back to December 8th when the team told Rudy Gay he had been traded to Sacramento.  The Raptors are 19-9 since then.

Toronto heads to Portland on the back-to-back to play the Trail Blazers on Saturday.

The Nuggets remain at home and play the Clippers on Monday.

On a historical note, the Chris Bosh led Raptors were 4 games above .500 at 26-22 on January 31, 2010 after beating Indiana.

Check out our Raptors Game Info page and Pregame Report.

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.

Check out:

Masai Ujiri at podium
Ujiri’s Dilemma: Raptors Veterans Are Winners
“I wouldn’t say me and the newly acquired guys are the answer,” Chuck Hayes said.  “We are all just committed, that is all it is.  Our chemistry is great.  There are no egos in this locker room.  Everybody is enjoying it.  When you enjoy working together, everything falls into place.”

Therein lies Ujiri’s dilemma.

Denver Nuggets Media Day

Wounded Raptors and Nuggets Face Off

The story in Denver is who’s hurt and who is going to play when the Raptors face off against the Nuggets at the Pepsi Center tonight.  Both teams may have shortened benches, but it’s the Nuggets that have been hit the hardest.

Danilo Gallinari is done for the season, JaVale McGee (stress fracture) hasn’t started running yet, Nate Robinson has a sprained ACL and Ty Lawson is doubtful with a strained left rotator cuff.

“We don’t know if Lawson is going to play,” Head Coach Dwane Casey said.  “There are rumors that he is going to play.”

The Raptors questions revolve around their leading scorer DeMar DeRozan, Patrick Patterson and to a lesser extent, Tyler Hansbrough.  However, Casey said, “All the guys went through practice and shoot-around,” so there is a chance Toronto could have everyone available.  Everyone except Landry Fields who recently had wrist surgery.  Amir Johnson has a sore ankle, but he never misses games for just being sore.

Patterson has a cast on his broken nose and expects to wear a mask until it’s healed, even though he took the mask off because of problems with depth perception on Monday.  Hansbrough played limited minutes on Wednesday, so he should be good to go and it’s been 6 days since DeRozan turned his ankle making him a game-time decision.

The last time these 2 teams played was in Toronto on December 1st a week before the Rudy Gay trade and the Raptors gave up an early 27-12 lead as Denver’s bench came in to dominate the game.  The Nuggets reserves outscoring the Raptors bench 72-16 leading to a 112-98 Denver victory, but Toronto is a completely different team now.

“I think we are a different team now,” Casey said.  “We should be.  They ambushed us at our own place the last time.  We got into a big lead, then they turned it on and ambushed us with energy and just hard play and that is what we got to do here.”

The Raptors are 2-0 without DeRozan and the Nuggets lost to Charlotte on Wednesday without Lawson.

While the 24-21 Raptors are hot, winners of 4 of their past 5 games, the 22-22 Nuggets are unpredictable with just 3 wins over the past 8 games that included defeating the Pacers and Warriors, but losing in Utah and a home loss to Cleveland.  Randy Foye stepped up to produce 33 points on Wednesday in Lawson’s absence making the Nuggets even tougher to figure out.

This is the first of 5 games in 8 nights for the Raptors as they kick off another Western Conference road trip.  If the Raptors win tonight, it will be the first time they have won 11 games in January since 2002.

 

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.
Check out:

Masai Ujiri at podium
Ujiri’s Dilemma: Raptors Veterans Are Winners
“I wouldn’t say me and the newly acquired guys are the answer,” Chuck Hayes said.  “We are all just committed, that is all it is.  Our chemistry is great.  There are no egos in this locker room.  Everybody is enjoying it.  When you enjoy working together, everything falls into place.”

Therein lies Ujiri’s dilemma.

Denver Nuggets Media Day

Nuggets Center Timofey Mozgov Finally Breaks Out

At 27 years old, Denver Nuggets center Timofey Mozgov has finally started to break out in the NBA after 3 seasons of typically being the third center on his team.  This year, the Nuggets only true centers are JaVale McGee and Mozgov.  That doesn’t mean Mozgov is trying to do anything outside of his skill-set, however, the big man is just doing what his coach asks from him.

“I try to listen to the coach and do what he wants,” Mozgov said.  “I try to go hard on the court and play good defense and give (what I can) on offense.  I don’t want to do nothing strange – just simple things.”

It hasn’t been an easy road for Mozgov in the NBA.  A young veteran player from Russia when the Knicks signed him to a 3-year deal in 2010 and then traded him to Denver a few months later, Mozgov struggled with the language barrier in addition to trying to learn a different style of game.

“My first year was hard,” Mozgov said.  “First of all, I have bad English and I still have bad English, so I didn’t understand the coach sometimes. I didn’t understand the guys.  I didn’t feel the game.  I had to learn a lot, so it was really hard.

“It is all about experience.  The more you play, the more experience you get.  It’s simple and the year I didn’t play a lot was hard, especially when you don’t play a lot and then you play, you understand that it is a different league and a different style.”

Finally this season things are starting to come easier.

“Now I understand you.  I understand Coach.  I can speak with the guys.  It is much easier,” Mozgov said.  “Not just every season, even very game it feels better.”

Mozgov’s opportunities increased after McGee broke his leg and he has taken advantage to put up some big games.  The most impressive being a 17 point 20 rebound effort in a big win over the Nets.  However, even with McGee out, Mozgov hasn’t started a game as Denver likes to play an up-tempo small ball lineup much of the time.

“I think I can run a bit and score easy buckets, but it is nice to stay in the half court and not run, that makes it much easier,” Mozgov explained.

“For me it is not a big thing, but it is nice to be a starter.  For me, the most important (thing is to) just be on the court and (have) the coach trust me and let me play.  It is still nice to be the starter, but it more important to see the coach trusts you and keeps you on the court.”

Plus he looks at McGee’s injury as an opportunity, but easily keeps his situation in context.

“We have a saying in Russia that when somebody has a (misfortune), you can create something good out of it,” Mozgov said.  “(McGee) is still with the team, he is going to come back and he is going to help a lot.  There is competition between us, two big guys competing is normal, but we are on the same team and I care about him too.  I want him to get back because he can help us.”

Right now with an 11-7 record after a 0-3 start to the season, Mozgov sees not just himself, but his team getting better every game.

“It was a new coach, new guys, new coaching style, so a lot that is new is going on this season and there was not really much time to prepare,” Mozgov said.  “So every game we are just getting better.”

The Nuggets locked up Mozgov with a new 3-year $14 million deal in July that looked out of place with his usage and production over the past 3 seasons.  However, right now, the Nuggets look like they may have locked up quite the bargain.

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.

Denver Nuggets Media Day

Nuggets Bench Blasts Raptors 112-98

The Denver Nuggets visited the Raptors on a 5 game winning streak and watched as their bench scored 72 points to carry them to the 112-98 victory.  Nate Robinson scored 18 fourth quarter points to crush any hopes the Raptors had of pulling this game out at the end.

TOR_Hansbrough_TylerThe game started amidst a minor controversy as Head Coach Dwane Casey wouldn’t release his starting lineup until game time as forward Tyler Hansbrough got his first start of the season in place of Amir Johnson.

The Nuggets started Kenneth Faried, Wilson Chandler, J.J. Hickson, Randy Foye and Ty Lawson.  Toronto started Hansbrough, Rudy Gay, Jonas Valanciunas, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.

First Quarter 31-25 Raptors

Raptors go to Valanciunas in the post for their first offensive set.  The hook shot misses, but the Raptors start running and beating the Nuggets at their own game.  Halfway through the first quarter its 20-8 Raptors.  Johnson subs in for Hansbrough after 7 minutes with Toronto leading 23-10, Hansbrough making his impact felt on the boards and all over the court.  Valanciunas takes seat with 1.5 minutes left and the Raptors up 11. Instantly,  Timofey Mozgov finds the rim unprotected for 4 quick points and the quarter ends 31-25 Raptors.

Second Quarter 47-45 Nuggets

TOR_Stone_JulyanJulyan Stone starts the second quarter as the changes continue for Coach Casey.  The ball definitely moves better with Stone initiating the offense compared to recent second quarters and Stone deserved a couple more assists on open shots he helped create, but the Raptors hot first quarter shooting was going cold.

After 6 minutes, Lowry subs in for Stone with the Raptors up 2 points, but Toronto’s cold shooting becomes frozen and the Raptors only score 4 more points in the quarter to fall behind 45-47 at the half.

Denver’s bench scores 27 points in the half led by 7 points from Andre Miller and they out score their starters by 7.  The Raptors are led by 12 points from DeMar DeRozan.  Rudy Gay is filling up the stats sheet with 9 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals and a block.

Third Quarter  76-72 Nuggets

The second half  opens with a nice flow to the game.  Up and down action and well executed sets with the occasional decent defensive play. Raptors up 60-58 after 6 minutes.  After subbing in for Hickson, Mozgov continued his strong play off the bench getting blocked twice and then finishing with a dunk on the same play to keep the Nuggets within 2 points.

Quarter ends with DeRozan blocking Lawson on the fast break, but seconds later he suffers a brain cramp as he lets Darrell Arthur steal it from behind to score with 2 seconds left, 76-72 Nuggets.

Lawson leads the Nuggets with 16 points and 5 assists.  Mozgov has 8 points and 12 rebounds, 2 boards off his career high.  DeRozan leads the Raptors with 17 points and 7 rebounds.  Valanciunas has his fourth double-double of the season.  However, the Nuggets bench continued their assault on the Raptors as soon as they arrived in the third quarter.

Fourth Quarter 112-98 Nuggets

Nuggets reserves keep up the pressure in the fourth quarter, quickly building an 8 point lead and responding to every Raptors push.  Mozgov records his first double-double of the season and Robinson scores 10 points in the first 7 minutes as the Raptors just can’t stop the Nuggets reserves from scoring.

Raptors did eventually did work their way back to within 5 points a couple of times, but the Nuggets responded.  At the end, it was Robinson hitting back-to-back three pointers to put them up 107-96 with 1:39 left.  Robinson putting his guns away and staring down the Raptors bench.

Robinson led the Nuggets with 23 points.  Mozgov scored 16 points and pulled down a career high 15 rebounds.  Darrell Arthur scored 14 points on 7-7 shooting.  The Nuggets bench outscored their starters 72-40.

“Tonight was all about the contributions from our second unit,” Head Coach Brian Shaw said. “Our starters didn’t really have it going at all and our second unit, Andre Miller, Nate Robinson, Jordan Hamilton, Darrell Arthur and Timofey Mozgov came in and got us back into the game in the second quarter and when they came back at the end of the third quarter, when we were kind of struggling and stuck in the mud, they got us going again.  72 points off the bench is huge for us tonight and that’s what it takes, contributions from everybody on this team.”

The Raptors bench only scored 16 points.

Toronto was led by Rudy Gay with 23 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocked shots.  Valanciunas had 18 points and 11 rebounds and the Raptors got 17 points from each of DeRozan and Lowry.

Julyan Stone played 9 minutes off the bench backing up Lowry and had 2 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal and 0 turnovers.  Most importantly, he didn’t do anything overtly wrong and made a few good hustle plays.  Hansbrough did seem to give the Raptors starting unit a noticeable lift and created space for his teammates with his physical play.

The Nuggets head to Brooklyn for Tuesday, Cleveland on Wednesday and Boston on Friday.

The Raptors head west to face the Warriors on Tuesday, the Suns on Friday and the Lakers on Sunday.

At 6-10, Toronto remains alone in first place in the Atlantic Division a half game ahead of Boston (7-12) and a full game ahead of Philadelphia (6-12).  Apparently, no one wants to win this division.

Checkout our Raptors Box Scores page and Pregame Report.

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.

Denver Nuggets Media Day

Raptors (6-9) vs Nuggets (9-6): Pregame Report

Surprise, the 6-9 Toronto Raptors still lead the Atlantic Division and on Sunday afternoon, they will host the streaking Denver Nuggets at the Air Canada Centre.  The Nuggets have won 5 games in a row and are 8-2 without starting center JaVale McGee who is out with a broken leg.

The Nuggets are coming off a 97-95 win over the Knicks in Denver on Friday led by guards Ty Lawson, Randy Foye and Nate Robinson off the bench.  This team likes to push the pace and put up points and has only failed to crack the 100 point barrier twice in the past dozen games.  They average 104.5 points per game, but give up 102.9, however, during the current streak, the Nuggets have reduced their points allowed to 97.6 without giving up anything on the offensive end.  This team is coming in hot.

Lawson leads the Nuggets in scoring with 20.9 points and 8.3 assists, but this is a balanced attack with 5 players averaging double-digit scoring.  Forward Kenneth Faried leads the team in boards with 10.7 points and 9.1 rebounds, however, he suffered a right quad contusion on Friday and it is questionable for Sunday.  The injury probably isn’t serious, but the absence of his high-energy game would be noticed if he can’t go.

This is the first of a six-game Eastern Conference road trip and the Nuggets will be motivated to get off to a good start.

The Raptors are coming off a tough loss to the Miami HEAT where they closed to within 2 points mid-way through the fourth quarter, but just bricked too many free throws down the stretch to pull out the victory.  The game before was a disappointing loss to the Nets as the Raptors outscored Brooklyn 14-1 down the stretch only to lose by 2 points.

Toronto likes to play at a relatively slow pace and have outscored their opponents 96.9 to 96.4 on average.  Their 6-9 record may disguise that the Raptors have been a tougher team than they appear as 4 of their losses have been by 2 points or in overtime and they have 3 losses to the Pacers and HEAT.  Toronto is 1 of only 4 teams in the Eastern Conference to have outscored their opponents on average this season and may be the toughest team the Nuggets face on this road trip.

DeMar DeRozan leads the team with 21.9 points per game, but over the past 6 games, he is averaging 28 points on 51.3 percent shooting from the field and 45.2 percent from three-point range.

Rudy Gay is averaging 19.5 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.3 blocks, but is shooting just 37.9 percent from the field.  Gay has never shot this poorly, but seems to be feeling the pressure of being the ‘star’ in Toronto and has taken too many bad shots plus missed shots he should have made.  The effort level has been there as has some clutch end of game shooting, but Gay just can’t seem to start off games shooting well.

Point guard Kyle Lowry is third on the Raptors in scoring and has really stepped up his effort lately with stretches of All-Star level play.  Over the past 5 games, Lowry has averaged 14.8 points, 8.2 assists and 2.8 steals and has been providing leadership at key moments in the games.

The Raptors have started Lowry, DeRozan, Gay, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas in every game so far this season with inconsistent results and the start against Miami on Friday may finally have convinced Head Coach Dwane Casey that it’s time for a change.  Johnson has been ineffective lately and Valanciunas looked really young the last 2 games, but Casey wasn’t handing out any clues about what he might do on Sunday.

“It is something with the start of the game,” Casey said.  “Whether it is a lineup change or a change in personality, we got to look at something at the start of the game.  We got to look at it and see where we are.”

Starting Tyler Hansbrough wouldn’t be such a bad idea.

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 NBA Western Conference Playoff Hopefuls

When ranking the NBA Western Conference, it is hard not to notice that coaching may have become the biggest determinate of change. The Clippers would still have doubters if Doc Rivers wasn’t running the show. It would be hard to not at least consider the Grizzlies a Western Conference Finals threat if Lionel Hollins was still there and how does an organization part with George Karl after he wins Coach of the Year?

After our top five of the Clippers, Thunder, Spurs, Rockets and Warriors, there are the weakened Grizzlies and Nuggets franchises that should be able to stay in the playoff picture followed by group of hopefuls where a debate should rage about the virtue of being a one-and-done playoff team in the eighth spot versus tanking for a better draft pick in June.

Too Good To Fail?

6. Memphis Grizzlies – 56-26 last season, projected 48-34

There isn’t anything more frustrating in professional sports than watching a well-built successful franchise knock itself down a peg in order to save money. 33-year-old Tayshaun Prince is an acceptable fill-in for Rudy Gay, but he is on the downside of his career and simply can’t provide the offense Gay did for 6.5 seasons in Memphis. The Grizzlies traded Gay to save money and they moved a plethora of lesser but solid players for the same reason.

The Grizzlies still have a good roster, however and if it wasn’t for handing the heading coaching job to Hollins’ assistant Dave Joerger, it might be easier to believe this would still be a 50-win team. Memphis is going to find out just how much an experienced and successful head coach contributes to a team’s record. It isn’t likely they are going to like the answer.

It is easy to sympathize with the financial realities of operating a small market franchise, but that isn’t going to help the Grizzlies win more games this season. The question in Memphis shouldn’t be if the team can stretch to win 50 games, but rather how far below 50 wins will they end up.

7. Denver Nuggets – 57-25 last season, projected 44-38

The Denver Nuggets were a franchise in disarray this summer. 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. Free agent Andre Iguodala spurned Denver’s offer to join the Warriors and free agent Corey Brewer opted for the Timberwolves. Danilo Gallinari is still rehabbing a partially torn ACL and hopes to return sometime in December, but the Nuggets will be starting this season without 3 of their top 5 scorers from last year and a brand new rookie head coach.

Big changes in management also mean big changes in style. The Nuggets were built to facilitate the open court style of Karl and new Head coach Brian Shaw is known for the Lakers’ triangle offense he played in and was schooled in as a player and an assistant coach in Los Angeles. Perhaps this explains why last year’s starting center Kosta Koutos was traded and JaVale McGee will be given his chance to play more than the 18 minutes a game Karl thought he deserved.

There are a lot of unknowns in Denver this season, but Ty Lawson, Andre Miller, Wilson Chandler and Kenneth Faried should be able to stave off disaster and keep the Nuggets from slipping too much until Gallinari returns to provide some offensive punch. The number of wins above .500 will largely depend on Shaw, but the Nuggets are still a playoff team this season.

The Fight For Eighth

8. Minnesota Timberwolves -31-51 last season, projected 42-40

This is a roster bouncing back from injuries to Ricky Rubio, Chase Budinger, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic, but each of these players have shown enough to get everyone excited to see what they could do playing together for an entire season. Minnesota didn’t wait for their best players to get healthy, this summer they picked up free agents Brewer from the Nuggets and Kevin Martin from the Thunder. A team that has been suspect on the wing for some time just got stronger.

The Timberwolves have spent nine years in the lottery and have experienced more than their share of bad luck and questionable management decisions, however, they head into this season with something new, justifiable hope. Healthy and a little deeper than in the past, it is Minnesota’s turn at the postseason again.

9. Dallas Mavericks – 41-41 last season, projected 40-42

No one believes the past two summers are what Mavericks owner Mark Cuban envisioned when he blew up his 2010-2011 championship roster. Dallas has a collection of talent for the second year in a row that screams .500-team. While this group could sneak into the playoffs if other teams stumble, the only truly redeeming feature of this roster is the less than $30 million in players’ salaries guaranteed after this season.

Dallas has a group of veterans in Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, Vince Carter, Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis who will put on a show, but there is no reason to expect they will do any better than last year’s Mavericks. Cuban has put his franchise on hold for another season.

10. Portland Trail Blazers – 33-49 last season, projected 37-45

There is some optimism around Portland this summer. They did pick up some players who could help the team garner a few more wins than last year.

Mo Williams is a solid veteran backup point guard and should play additional minutes at shooting guard if the Trail Blazers don’t mind letting rookie C.J. McCollum languish on the bench. Robin Lopez will be the team’s best center and let LaMarcus Aldridge play at his natural power forward position. The question becomes, how many minutes does Meyers Leonard get to play this year and which of Lopez and Leonard is the team’s center of the future. Thomas Robinson is on his third team after just one season, if Portland believes the fifth overall draft pick of 2012 has a future in the league, they have to find at least 20 minutes a night for him.

The Trail Blazers are too good to be bad and need to find minutes for their young players whether that results in wins or not. This season should have a slightly better record than last year, but winning is probably going to take a back seat to player development.

11. New Orleans Pelicans – 27-55 last season, projected 36-46

New Orleans projected starting unit of Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Anthony Davis and Ryan Anderson has an average age 23-years-old. This team’s best players are young, developing and a long ways from their projected prime and that is not usually the formula for a playoff appearance.

A lot of people suggested the Pelicans were making a run at the 2014 postseason when they exchanged Nerlens Noel and a future protected first round draft pick for Holiday, but maybe New Orleans just wanted a 23-year-old All-Star and thought they got the better of the trade. It would be hard to argue with them.

The Pelicans have question marks with their depth and potentially bigger unknowns with a couple of their starters. Eric Gordon had surgery on his ankle again in May and after playing in just 51 games over the past two seasons in New Orleans, whether or not Gordon will be the offensive player he was with the Clippers is unknown. The Kings tried to move Evans from guard to small forward and it would be stretch to say the experiment was a success in Sacramento. There is no reason to assume Evans can play small forward at a high level in New Orleans either.

In New Orleans, questions should be looked upon more as opportunities. This team has acquired some good young talent and their future is ahead of them. The current starting unit may gel and produce earlier than expected or take time to develop and future moves may be required, either way, the Pelicans are on the right path.

Risks and Obstacles

Any team hoping to land one the last three playoff spots in their conference is going to have risks and issues to deal with, but with the Grizzlies and the Nuggets seemingly locked into two of those spots, the rest of this group is really in for a fight.

Dallas will be waiting to take the last playoff if other teams stumble or decide to tank for a better lottery pick. Both Portland and New Orleans are going to be developing young players and letting the chips fall where they may. The Timberwolves, however, have the talent and the motivation to grab that last playoff spot if only that dark cloud of bad luck hanging over this team can disperse for a season and they are due, Minnesota has been waiting a long time to watch postseason action again.

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

Be sure to check out our Ranking of the Top Five NBA Eastern Conference Teams and our Ranking of the NBA Eastern Conference Playoff Hopefuls.

Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre. A member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association, Stephen is the editor and publisher of Pro Bball Report. You can follow Stephen on twitter @stevesraptors

 

Raptors To Sign Point Guard Julyan Stone

Not exactly the bid splash many fans in Toronto were hoping for, but Raptors President and General Manager, Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri has reached back into his Denver connections once again to reacquire a backup point guard he had originally signed for Nuggets in 2011. Adrian Wojnarowski Yahoo! Sports reports,

“Denver Nuggets free-agent guard Julyan Stone has reached agreement on a two-year deal with the Toronto Raptors, league sources told Yahoo! Sports.”

Stone was an undrafted senior out of UTEP and played 26 games over two seasons with the Nuggets. At 6’ 6” he has good size and reach to defend either guard spot, but his 207 minutes of playing time in the NBA provides little indication of his potential. Extrapolating his college, NBA D-League and NBA stats, he could be a decent rebounding guard that can pass the ball.

This is in effect a one-year deal with a team option for a second season. However, Ujiri does have firsthand knowledge of Stone’s work ethic and potential, so he must believe Stone wasn’t given a real opportunity under Coach George Karl in Denver.

Assuming Ujiri finds Head Coach Dwane Casey another more proven guard this summer, Stone will have his work cut out for him to earn a spot in the rotation. Stone is 24 years old and this probably represents his last chance to stick in the NBA.