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NBA Orlando Magic Nikola Vucevic

Raptors Should Target Magic Center Nikola Vucevic

Raptors president Masai Ujiri has openly stated more than once he likes to develop his own young talent, but at some point the goal has to become winning and despite the recent slide, Toronto could be as close as one solid player away from upsetting the favorite Cavaliers in the East this year. That player could be Magic center Nikola Vucevic and there is every indication that he’s available.

“If there is one team that really has to look at the NBA trade deadline seriously it’s got to be the Toronto Raptors,” said Basketball Insiders editor Steve Kyler. “They are one player away from being legitimate challengers in the Eastern Conference.

“Let’s face it, they are not the challenger they would like to be and let’s face it, they could be. They got some assets they could move and the window is not going to be any more open for the Toronto Raptors than it is right now.”

The Magic are having a very disappointing season, the recent 114-113 win over the Raptors in Toronto notwithstanding. Vucevic, who put up 25 points and 10 boards (in a showcase effort?) in Toronto, has been bumped in and out of the starting lineup because, despite general manager Rob Hennigan’s best intensions this past summer, the Magic are a poorly constructed team. Too many quality big men needing minutes and too few quality guards to spread the floor and set up the bigs.

Sending out guard Victor Oladipo for pending free agent power forward Serge Ibaka last summer and signing free agent center Bismack Biyombo seemed like good ideas at the time, but it took minutes away from Aaron Gordon in a crowded frontcourt and left the Magic with a backcourt that’s suspect and unfortunately plagued by injury problems.

“The Magic are probably working the phones now and just seeing what’s available out there and if they find a right fit, then I think they ultimately make a move to help get their team some additional scoring power,” Basketball Insiders Cody Taylor said.

Re-signing Ibaka has become a career-saving necessity for Hennigan as pending free agents just don’t return much in trade during the season, so getting the most possible for Vucevic has become the best way out of this self-inflicted jam.

Fortunately for Henningan, Vucevic is tailor made for solving the rebounding allergic Celtics biggest problem and almost certainly would vault Boston ahead of Toronto this season and possibly beyond. That in itself should be enough to rattle Ujiri (it would certainly rattle the fan base), but the Raptors need to solve their own rebounding issues this season and they need to add another reliable scorer to the All-Star duo of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry if they want to advance their own cause.

That’s good news for the Magic. Henningan should be able to get value back for his double-double center despite the bargain contract he’s on.

Now in his sixth NBA season, the 26-year-old 7′ Vucevic has recorded a team-high 20 double-doubles during the 2016-17 campaign and now has 178 double-doubles during his NBA career. Bounced in and out of the starting lineup this season, he has 10 double-doubles off the bench and is averaging 14 points and 9.7 rebounds.

“We asked (Vucevic) for a while to come off the bench, but he’s back in the starting lineup,” Magic head coach Frank Vogel said. “He’s a team player, (has) a great attitude putting the team first when we asked him to do that. Back in the starting lineup, we are running more offense thru him.

“He has responded to me asking him to improve on the defensive end. For the most part this year, he’s been really good (on defense).”

Vucevic is known for his offense, but to get ‘smash-mouth basketball’ Vogel to compliment him on his defense is either a significant change or an overt sales job.

“Vucevic is a handful for anybody,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said. “He is so talented, so skilled with the basketball that he causes a problem for everybody. He’s not your typical back to the basket center. He’s going to face you first and if you don’t react properly, he’ll knock down a jump shot, so you got a multitude of things you got to guard. The face-up game, plus the back-down game, plus he has a very dominant left hand. He can use that left hand as well as his right.”

A scorer throughout his NBA career, Vucevic has added three-point range to his jump shot this season, averaging one deep attempt per game and hitting on 31 percent of them. Of course in Toronto, he went 3-4 from three as the Raptors failed to guard him standing just outside the three-point line at the top of the arc. It seems every center in the NBA is being looked as a potential floor-stretcher and Vucevic, at least, has legitimate range on his jump shot and should be able to become proficient.

“All centers now are kind of migrating out there (three-point line),” Casey said. “It’s the next evolution of centers. Lucas (Nogueira) is migrating out there and JV (Jonas Valanciunas) is migrating out there. I think that’s going to be the new wave. That’s the new thing with the NBA now.”

In Toronto, Nogueira has shown three-point potential in a handful of attempts, but Valanciunas is still working on hitting a consistent jumper at any range. Right now it’s just Patrick Patterson at power forward and an inconsistent DeMarre Carroll in small lineups. The Raptors could really use another big man to stretch the floor.

The hope in Toronto was the Hawks would part ways with All-Star power forward Paul Millsap, but with Atlanta now just one game back of the third place Raptors, the slim possibly of snagging the Hawks soon-to-be free agent have become even more remote. The Magic’s own soon-to-be free agent Ibaka would be a similar catch, but it would be very tough to part ways with the talent the Magic is going to want back in return for what could easily become a very short term rental.

Vucevic is a lot younger and cheaper than Millsap and unlike Ibaka, he has two years remaining on his contract after this season. In the two seasons prior to this year, Vucevic averaged 18.8 points and 10 rebounds. For a Raptors team in need of someone who could pick up some of the rebounding load and be a legitimate third scoring option, he seems to fit the bill.

Vucevic has 62 career games with 20+ points and 10+ rebounds, six career 20-point/20-rebound games and two career 30-point/20-rebound outings.

There’s nothing like having a player show up in your building and rub your team’s current deficiencies in it’s face. It would become especially painful for the Raptors if Vucevic was doing was he does for the (now) second place Celtics instead of the struggling Magic.

 

 

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.

 Featured image courtesy of Larry Millson

 

 

 

 

 

NBA San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich

Spurs Plan On Interrupting Cavs Vs Warriors Part Three

By Frank McLean

It’s not a secret that NBA fans and those in the management offices at ESPN in Bristol, Connecticut want a Cleveland Cavaliers versus Golden State Warriors for a third year in this year’s NBA Finals.

With both teams being the winner of one of each of the last two finals you can imagine the ratings bonanza the rubber match would be for the self-proclaimed “World Wide Leader in Sports”.

Well don’t tell that to San Antonio Spurs coach Greg Popovich.

Making their annual visit to Toronto this week Popovich said he’s not ready to concede to the Warriors the Western Conference title for a third straight year regardless if they have added some guy named Kevin Durant.

“You do the best you can to take advantage of whatever weaknesses or strengths they might have. You have to go against their weaknesses, try to figure out what their strengths are and take’em away,” Popovich said about taking on the Warriors. “And that’s what this is all about. So the challenge is what makes it exciting. If you’re of the mindset that where you say what’s the point, then you’re in the wrong business.”

So Popovich is not going to sit down and kiss the Warriors championship rings and why should he?

Since he took the job in 1999 the Spurs have won five NBA championships, averaged 55-wins per season and are on pace for a second straight year of 65-wins.

When you see Popovich as a grumpy old coach in a wrinkled sports coat and khaki pants when he is interviewed on television, in most part it’s an act. When you ask him thoughtful questions he will give you thoughtful answers.

He is also humble.

His peers in the NBA, and that include Raptors coach Dwane Casey, feel that Popovich is not just the best coach in the NBA, but all of sports.

Popovich’s stock answer when you say this to him is that he had Tim Duncan for a long time and that made him look good. Popovich knows that if you don’t have good players a coach is not going to look smart. That’s something every coach I have ever come across well tell you, if you don’t have the horses, you aren’t going to win.

His theory of coaching a game is pretty simple and it explains how he lasted almost 20-years in the same job.

“The game starts and you play the game, you do your best. You make adjustments, make substitutions, get certain groups on the court, call timeouts, yell and scream and beg and love and be crazy and then you win or you lose and then what happens? You go to dinner. Sometimes the best part of the evening.”

He also had high praise for Dwane Casey who each year on the job has gotten his team to win more games than the previous year. Raptors fans may not want to hear this, especially with the club on a five game losing skid and social media is calling for his head as a result.

“It is difficult (to do that),” Popovich said. “You’ll see people have two good seasons or one, it goes down for two or three and then maybe it comes up a little bit and then the owner fires him. That seems to be the deal. But to sustain it and to sustain it and do better every year is a difficult thing. And what Casey’s done here is implemented a culture and a system. It doesn’t happen immediately, but as you all know by now, they’ve bought in, everybody knows what the deal is. He’s going to be consistent, he’s going to be demanding, he’s going to be fair.”

It’s too bad Popovich and the Spurs only come to Toronto once a year. Like I said, when you get Popovich engaged, he is one of the best quote machines in the league.

And as far as I’m concerned he is one of the best coaches in all of sports. The only person who comes close to him is in the NFL and that’s Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots who has won four Super Bowls in six appearances and is heading for his seventh appearance in the big one during his tenure there.

I’m sure the Warriors wish they only had to deal with Popovich and the Spurs once a year.

 

 

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 Toronto Raptors Jonas Valanciunas and Patrick Patterson

Dog-Days Of January Stink For The Toronto Raptors

By Frank McLean

The month of January is the beginning of a new year. It’s a time of hope, a new beginning as we start a new year with a clean slate so to speak and we try and not make the same mistakes that we did in the previous year. In reality, the dog-days of January stink.

After all the excitement of a December holiday season with family and friends and ringing in of the new year, January is a like a lump of coal you hope wasn’t in your Christmas stocking. The formerly red hot Raptors went 6-7 after Boxing Day.

January is one giant party-pooper. The weather is cold and damp and cloudy. Daylight hours are short and it’s still pitch dark before 6pm. It’s called the blahs and we all get it.

The Toronto Raptors are going through their own period of January blah’s right now and it showed Friday night in Charlotte where they suffered their biggest margin of defeat this year, a 34-point beat down by the Hornets.

The score was 113-79 and the 79-points the Raptors put up, as well as the 33.7-per cent field goal percentage, were season lows.

After a big month of December where the Raptors put up a 10-4 record, they head into Sunday night’s home game against the Phoenix Suns with more losses than all of last month.

“Yeah, we’ve been in a little funk lately,” Kyle Lowry said after Friday’s game. “We’re not playing on all cylinders right now.

“I just think it’s that time of year. No excuses at all. There’s just this mental fatigue, a little bit of travel fatigue, but no excuses. I think we might have done something like this, maybe, about this time last year? I don’t know, I’m not sure, but it happens. As a team we will figure a way out of it.”

There is something to what Lowry said. It is that time of year, the mental and travel fatigue.

The calendar we use in everyday life says we are in the middle of the first month of the beginning of the year. On the basketball calendar it says they are at the half way point.

As we hit the middle of January teams are at the midway point of the regular season schedule. Teams can see the All-Star Game on the horizon where they get a nice five day break featuring no games, no practices, and a chance to walk away from the grind and recharge their batteries before they hit the stretch drive before the playoffs.

Right now, those playoffs that seems like light years away from happening.

That five day break is four weeks away which is not that far off, but in the case of the Raptors counting Sunday’s game there are still 14-games to play before they can rest.

Now this is where Raptors coach Dwane Casey has to do his best coaching job to help his team “keep their eye on the prize” so to speak. Keep the team focused and keep a little midseason funk from turning into a long losing streak.

Casey knows where the problem is.

“Right now we’re going through maybe a week of bad offensive shooting,” Casey said on Friday about how the last week went. “Against it still says nothing about your defense. That’s when your defense has to pick back up. Your defense has to carry you until your offense comes back around. You go through that during the season. The most important thing is we stay together, stay positive. Everybody goes through it. It’s not an excuse. We have to fight our way out of it. It’s up to us.”

Casey hit the nail on the head in his comments that everybody goes through this. Every team in the NBA goes through a cold streak during the season regardless if they are playoff contender or not.

If talk to the coaches of the other 29-teams in the NBA they will all tell you that, yah my team is starting to think about the break coming up and I have to work harder to keep them focused.

Just like school kids waiting for the winter break to come and week away from school. NBA players are no different.

The Raptors are going through their own January blahs right now. This is a very focused group of players in their locker room and the leadership in their will not let this slump fester.

So don’t panic Raptors nation.Their body of work over the last two seasons have shown that there is too much talent on this team for it to last long. With five of their next six games at the Air Canada Centre, things should turn around quick.

 

 

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 Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey 2016

Raptors Can Set A Mid-Season Franchise Win Record This Weekend

It may not feel like the Toronto Raptors are better than last year, but after enduring the toughest schedule in the Eastern Conference to start the 2016-17 season, this team, at 25-13, is headed into the softest possible stretch of games with an opportunity to set a mid-season record for wins at the half-way mark.

Toronto has an opportunity to tie the record for the most wins through 41 games in team history with home victories Friday vs. Brooklyn (8-30) and Sunday vs. New York (18-22) and still have a game in hand. The Raptors had 27 wins through the first 41 games of the 2014-15 campaign.

After beating Boston on Tuesday, the Raptors have four consecutive games remaining against weak Atlantic Division opponents and the Raptors are 6-0 against their division rivals this year. Better, the Raptors have won five straight games versus Brooklyn and have an opportunity to match the team-record for consecutive wins against the Nets on Friday. They have also won four games in a row over the Knicks, so reaching the 27 win mark the fastest in team history on Sunday is something they should definitely accomplish.

Then the opportunity to break the franchise record at the halfway point in the season with their 28th win comes in Brooklyn on Tuesday.

After beating up on the Nets, Knicks and Nets again, the Raptors face the 76ers (11-25), Hornets (20-19) and then can look for some revenge against the Suns (12-27). The result should be a seven game winning streak that takes this team to a never before seen 31-13 mark before matching wits with the Spurs at the ACC on January 24th.

ESPN continues to project the Raptors to set a new franchise record for wins in a season at 57, marking the fifth year in a row head coach Dwane Casey will have led his team to a higher win total. ESPN also continues to project the Raptors as the most likely team in the East to win an NBA Title – sorry Cavs.

Season highlights after 38 games:

  • DeMar DeRozan scored a season-high 41 points January 10th during Toronto’s 114-106 victory over Boston for his third straight game with 35+ points. He is the first Raptor to record three consecutive games with 35-or-more points since Vince Carter.
  • Jonas Valanciunas set career highs for total rebounds (23) and offensive rebounds (11) January 10th vs. Boston. He also grabbed season-high 12 defensive boards. Valanciunas collected 10 rebounds in the fourth quarter becoming the first Raptor since Reggie Evans in 2010 to record 10 rebounds in a quarter.
  • According to the Elias Sports Bureau, DeMar DeRozan (41 points) and Jonas Valanciunas (23 rebounds) became the first duo in team history to record 40+ points and 20+ rebounds in the same game.
  • Kyle Lowry leads the NBA East with 126 three-pointers made, 20 more than Kemba Walker. This season he became the first player in team history to finish a game shooting 6-for-6 on three-pointers.
  • DeMar DeRozan leads the East in scoring with 1071 points, 83 more points than Isaiah Thomas. He is second in free throws made (287) to Jimmy Butler (320).
  • The Raptors lead the East in scoring at 110.7 points per game
  • Toronto has the best road record in the East at 12-7

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

FIBA Team Canada Anthony Bennett

Canadian Anthony Bennett To Join Fenerbahce In Turkey

Former number one overall NBA draft pick from Canada Anthony Bennett will join FIBA club team Fenerbahce In Turkey after bring cut by the Brooklyn Nets earlier this week as reported by Sportando.

Bennett was originally drafted by the Cavaliers in 2013 and traded the next summer along with Andrew Wiggins to Timberwolves for Kevin Love as part of a three-team deal. He was waived by Timberwolves the next summer and signed as a free agent by the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors waived him in March and he was signed as a free agent by Brooklyn in July.

Bennett played in 23 games with the Nets before being waived on January 9, 2017. He had played in 151 games and 1,905 total minutes averaging 4.4 points and 3.1 rebounds in the NBA over parts of four seasons.

As a freshman at UNLV in 2012-13, Bennett averaged 16.1 points and 8.1 rebounds.

The biggest winner out of this move may be Canada Basketball as Bennett will learn the FIBA game ahead of this summer’s international play.

 

 Featured image courtesy of Larry Millson

NBA Brooklyn Nets Brook Lopez

Is The Stretch-5 Brook Lopez An Answer For The Raptors?

There doesn’t appear to be much of a market for the 28-year-old Brook Lopez, but this new stretch-5 version of the Nets center deserves a second look and the Toronto Raptors should be asking if he is the answer to their need for another big man capable of impacting today’s game?

Once upon a time not so long ago Lopez was an NBA All-Star, one of the top scoring centers in the entire league and top-10 at blocking shots, but that year was sandwiched in-between a couple of injury shortened seasons and Lopez really still hasn’t fully recovered his reputation, even though he’s played over 70 games in each of the past two seasons and has only missed three games this year.

This season Lopez is averaging 20.1 points, 5.1 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 0.5 steals and 1.7 blocks. His assists are up nicely and his rebounds are down, but part of that is from hanging out more on the perimeter where he is firing 5.2 three-point attempts and connecting on 36.4 percent of them. On corner threes his average jumps to 45.8 percent. He is one the best shooting stretch-5 true centers in the NBA this year and he gets blocks too.

It been suggested by ESPN’s Marc Stein that all Brooklyn wants is a couple of first round draft picks in return for Lopez. The Nets (foolishly) traded their future to the Celtics for a chance at becoming a contender that never happened and now they don’t even have the assets to rebuild. Not that any NBA team feels the need to bail them out of this mess of their own making, but to poach an asset for cheap? A GM has to listen.

Part of the problem is Lopez makes $21.1 million this year and $22.6 million next year, but unlike so many of the other potential impact players being talked about (Paul Millsap, Serge Ibaka), at least he is not just a rental.

Unfortunately his contract means most teams will have to send back at least $16.1 million in salaries and it isn’t likely the players going back would all be on expiring contracts and of limited value. This will become something resembling a real trade if the Nets can get two first round draft picks out of it as well. At least a GM knows the Nets interest is sincere. The Nets, unlike the Hawks, really are playing for nothing. The need to tear down and rebuild right now is very real.

But how would Lopez fit on the Raptors with Jonas Valanciunas entrenched at starting center and Lucas Nogueira doing a respectable job backing him up. Well the Raptors have been unexpectedly experimenting with Nogueira playing along side of Valanciunas in order to provide some needed shot blocking, speed and athleticism and it seems to be working. The two big men provide an effective paint deterrent and a difficult match-up for opposing teams. This gives head coach Dwane Casey options.

Casey could look to splitting the minutes at center between Valanciunas and Lopez depending on the match-up. A traditional rebounding center in Valanciunas and a stretch-5 in Lopez who would finally give the Raptors an effective countermove when the Cavaliers go small with the 6’11 Channing Frye stretching the floor. Nogueira and Patrick Patterson splitting the minutes at power forward would give the Raptors a rotation of four big men, two of whom can stretch the floor, that few teams could match.

If Raptors president Masai Ujiri believes Lopez has made the leap to becoming a stretch-5 and that’s the missing piece in his team’s rotation, this is a deal that needs pursuing. The Raptors need more offense to contend.

It would take a combination of Terrence Ross ($10 million), Jared Sullinger ($5.6 million) and one of Bruno Caboclo, Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam or Fred VanVleet to make the trade math work. Undoubtedly, which young player gets thrown in would determine how many draft picks Ujiri might part with. Like with any trade Ujiri has gotten involved with, if the price got too steep, he would walk away.

There are few players that are truly plausible trade targets where the team with the star has to take virtually anything that’s remotely reasonable, but the Nets are that team. It’s a team in a situation Ujiri has been able to bend to his advantage in the past.

Rumors are beginning to surface that the Nets are considering parting ways with their franchise cornerstone in Lopez, and Lopez (fantasy) owners should be rooting for that outcome. He’s skilled enough to have solid value regardless of his uniform – Rotoworld Jan 8 – 3:34 PM.

Lopez scoring 20 points per game is nothing new and aren’t skilled big men that can shoot the prized possessions in today’s high scoring NBA?

 

 

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 Toronto Raptors Kyle Lowry

Toronto Raptors Need To Add More Offense To Contend

It was bad enough in the NBA East before the Cleveland Cavaliers traded for three-point marksman Kyle Korver, but now more than ever you need incredible offense to contend for a spot in the NBA Finals and even the Toronto Raptors averaging an East leading 110.6 points per game don’t have enough.

NBA EAST

No team in the East is holding opponents under 100 points per game and only three teams in the West are, but teams in the West are still giving up 104.7 points per game and they are scoring (105.4) at an even higher clip than the East’s inflated numbers.

The NBA is now a high-scoring, three-point shooting, defense-second league. You don’t stop players like Russell Westbrook (31.2 points), Anthony Davis (29.1 points), James Harden (28.2 points), DeMarcus Cousins (28.1 points), Isaiah Thomas (28 points), or DeMar DeRozan (27.8 points), you outscore them or you fail. This year traditional scoring leaders like LeBron James (26.2), Kevin Durant (25.9), Stephen Curry (24.8), Kyrie Irving (24.3) aren’t even given much of a chance at a scoring title. You need more.

Cavs Nation on Facebook

The Warriors got theirs. They lead the NBA at 117.5 points per game with three players that can’t be stopped averaging over 20 points per game. The Cavs have their own triumvirate averaging over 20 per game, a bevy of shooters and a strangle hold on first in the East.

Most teams are lucky to have one reliable 20 point scorer and the Raptors with DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are blessed with two, but even two isn’t going to be enough these days. When it seems like everyone that matters is giving up over a 100 points except the Spurs (97.5), you are fighting a trend that no defensive scheme is going to overcome – unless maybe you have a Kawhi Leonard on your team.

When you are leading the East in scoring, adding more offense doesn’t necessarily seem like the right solution, but the Raptors have been most often getting beat because they can’t always keep up in today’s shoot-out oriented NBA.

After an October anomaly, he Cavs have beaten Toronto 121-117 and 116-112 and as noted, Cleveland just added more firepower. The Warriors won by 127-121 and 121-111. Then losses to Clippers 123-115, Hawks 125-121, Bulls 123-118 and Rockets 129-122 only serve to illustrate what’s going on in the NBA.

Maybe Raptors head coach Dwane Casey is right that his team doesn’t need to do anything, but that’s except when it comes to the Cavs. It’s only reasonable to expect Cleveland to continue adding to their firepower between now and the last day to add players eligible for the postseason. The team Toronto can’t keep up with on the scoring front is going to add more scoring.

President Masai Ujiri has made it pretty clear the Raptors won’t sell off their young assets for short term gain. It’s been reported he tried to land Paul Millsap and Serge Ibaka last summer and in all likelihood is still trying, but the price has to right. Otherwise, the fallback position of the Raptors and apparently even their closest competitor, the Celtics, is to wait this thing out and see what develops on what are still very young and developing teams.

They can always just wait on LeBron James to get old?

 

 

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.

Featured image courtesy of Paul Saini
Instagram:  @fylmm.lifestyle and  @paul_saini

 

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Kyle Lowry

Raptors Crash And Burn On A Back-To-Back Again

The Toronto Raptors must believe the NBA schedule makers like to engage in some kind of sick humor, there have been some brutally tough back-to-back sets for Toronto in the first half of the season. Cavs on the road followed by the Warriors at home in November being the best-worst example.

Then Sunday’s game against the Rockets marked the shortest turnaround time between games for the Raptors this season at 22 hours. Toronto played at 8 pm ET game in Chicago on Saturday and then tipped off at 6 pm ET at home the next night. The Raptors lost in overtime to the Bulls and then faded in the fourth quarter against the Rockets to lose both ends of a back-to-back for the fourth time this season.

No team likes to use the schedule as an excuse and back-to-backs were not an issue for the Raptors last season, finishing with a record of 20-14, but this year hasn’t gone so well and at 6-8, most of their losses this season have come as a result of these challenging sets.

It’s not the “ordinary” back-to-backs that are hurting the team. The Raptors have won both ends of Hornets/Knicks, Lakers/Hawks and Timberwolves/Celtics. It’s the combination of games against elite teams and/or the teams that have historically given the Raptors trouble where disaster has struck.

Toronto has lost both ends of the back-to-backs against @Cavs/Dubs, @Kings/@Clippers, @Dubs/@Suns, and @Bulls/Rockets.

The NBA may as well just given the Raptors a couple of nights off and the Ls with the Cavs and Warriors on a back-to-back – thanks for nothing. The loss to the Kings in Sacramento was the infamous time running out despite time still on the clock game as Terrence Ross hits the game-tying buzzer-beater that wasn’t. Losing the next night in L.A. to a very good Clippers team wasn’t a surprise after that. Playing a second back-to-back set that includes the high-scoring, high-tempo Warriors before January is just cruel. Then there’s the Bulls, who Toronto had lost nine games in a row to heading into that game. Putting the high-scoring Rockets as their next opponent 22 hours later virtually guaranteed the Raptors were going to run out of gas.

The Rockets were “just” the fourth team currently ranked in the NBA’s top-10 for win percentage the Raptors have faced on the second night of a back-to-back with the opponent resting the night before – Golden State, L.A. Clippers, Boston and Houston. The Raptors will potentially face this same situation with the Bulls again before the NBA All-Star Break February 14-15 when they play in Chicago, then home to take on Charlotte in Toronto 22 hours later.

Maybe head coach Dwane Casey could’ve squeezed out a couple more wins by punting the fourth quarters of the games against the Cavs or Dubs in the first game of those back-to-back sets, but he would have been giving up the measuring stick against the competition that really matters in May and June. And even after the toughest schedule in the NBA’s Eastern Conference according to ESPN, the Raptors still hold down second place at 24-13.

 

 

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.

 Featured image courtesy of Larry Millson

 

 

 

NBA Atlanta Hawks Paul Millsap

Paul Millsap To The Raptors Could Be Next

It could be a franchise changing move if Raptors president Masai Ujiri can find a way to bring the Hawks Paul Millsap to Toronto and there more than a few people out there that believe it’s a real possibility.

It not like the Hawks weren’t considering just such a move this past summer.

The Hawks would be looking for as much as possible in return for the All-Star, but his expiring contract should limit just how far teams will go to get a potential rental. The situation should eliminate any team that doesn’t believe acquiring Millsap will make them a contender this year.

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst: “I was talking to an executive just yesterday about a potential Toronto-Atlanta trade and he was like, ‘If they can get two assets out of it, then Atlanta would have done a good job.’ The two assets are Patrick Patterson and Terrence Ross. If he were Toronto, he wouldn’t offer more than Patterson and Ross.”

This will continue to be the hot story in the NBA until the Hawks overtly pull Millsap off the market.

 

 

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.

 Featured image courtesy of Larry Millson

 

 

 

 

NBA Atlanta Hawks Paul Millsap

There’s Smoke For A Paul Millsap To The Raptors Trade

Old saying, ‘where there’s smoke, there’s fire’ and there’s a ton of smoke suggesting the Atlanta Hawks will trade All-Star Paul Millsap with the most probable destination being the Toronto Raptors as discussed on ESPN Radio Truehoop Podcast on January 3rd (at about the 28 minute mark).

The discussion opens with the idea Toronto sends Patrick Patterson, Terrence Ross, Jakob Poeltl and Delon Wright for Paul Millsap and Kris Humphries suggesting that trade would give Toronto the advantage over Cleveland in the playoffs.

It was noted that Atlanta has developed a reputation for asking for “the moon and the stars” in trade talks and not getting anything done.

Brian Windhorst: “I was talking to an executive just yesterday about a potential Toronto-Atlanta trade and he was like, ‘If they can get two assets out of it, then Atlanta would have done a good job.’ The two assets are Patrick Patterson and Terrence Ross. If he were Toronto, he wouldn’t offer more than Patterson and Ross.”

“There is absolutely a bad taste on the mouth after losing Al Horford for nothing. And that’s something they don’t want to get burned twice.”

Of course nothing precludes the parties from expanding the trade, especially if the Hawks become more future oriented and are looking for pieces to rebuild with rather than maintaining a playoff seed for this season. The Raptors are loaded with young players and draft picks if the Hawks want to head in that direction.

It should also be noted that Raptors president Masai Ujiri has a reputation for being the fleecer rather than the fleeced. It’s the Hawks who are feeling the pressure in this situation and unless they can drum up a number of competing bids for the expiring contract of Millsap, they aren’t going to get “the stars and the moon” and getting burned by another All-Star leaving in free agency for nothing will push them to make a deal happen.

The more solid trade for a Raptors team looking for a clear-cut advantage over the rival Cavaliers would be along the lines of Ross, Sullinger, Wright and a first round draft pick for Millsap. Both Patterson and Sullinger are on expiring deals, so if the Hawks are looking to rebuild, it shouldn’t matter to them, but Patterson is a key defensive cog on Toronto’s second unit. Patterson matters to Toronto.

The Truehoop panel had no trouble coming up with alternative destinations for Millsap, but the most motivated potential trade partner should be the Raptors. Of course, if Atlanta stalls, Ujiri may have other equally interesting options.

 

 

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.

 Featured image courtesy of Larry Millson

 

 

 

 

NBA OKC Thunder Serge Ibaka

Trade Possibilities To Get The Raptors To The NBA Finals

If you listen to Raptors president Masai Ujiri and head coach Dwane Casey, Toronto has everything they need to compete with the Cleveland Cavaliers right now. They don’t need a trade to get to the NBA Finals, but the biggest fly in that ointment (aside from losing to the Cavs three-times already this season) is the fact that this team has three rookies and four more players still on their rookie deals, so when Patrick Patterson went down with a sore knee, Casey has been forced into scramble mode to replace him.

“We’re guessing,” Casey said after the win over the Lakers. “I am telling you right now we’re guessing. We are trying to find that combination.”

Seemingly invisible to the “experts” that follow the NBA is the fact that Patterson is the lynch pin that makes two of the top three best five man units in the NBA work. A fact that isn’t lost on Casey.

“Things that Patrick does well in his offensive approach, in his defensive approach, are huge,” Casey said.

Ujiri will only be able to trade Patterson to upgrade his roster by ripping him from Casey’s cold, dead fingers.

To solve what should be temporary problem, Casey has been trying more minutes for rookie forward Pascal Siakam, playing Lucas Nogueira at power forward despite his young big man still trying to figure out what to do at center, giving DeMarre Carroll a turn at the four and even just flat out going with small ball, but the results have been mixed.

The Raptors might find an in-house solution to Patterson’s absence and in the process prove Ujiri right about this team having all the pieces they need, but it’s more likely Toronto finds out their lack of depth catches up to them a bit and their “solutions” need more seasoning before they are truly ready to take this team to the next level.

Almost forgotten, Toronto does have a potential solution in Jared Sullinger assuming he gets back before the All-Star break and rounds quickly into the rebounding and stretch-four/five big man they thought would be available before breaking his foot in the preseason. But, Sullinger isn’t expected to be the “third star player” many think will be necessary for Toronto to get by the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals.

However, the potential for acquiring that “third star” seems to be developing if Ujiri is willing to take the big risks necessary to take his team to the next level this season.

Raptors Trade Bait

Terrence Ross, 5th year, 6’7 wing, 20.8 min., 10.8 points, 2.3 rebounds, 1.1 steals, 41.2% three-point shooter, $10 million salary plus 2 more years

Norman Powell, 2nd year, 6’4 guards/wing, 14.7 min., 6.3 points, 1.7 rebounds, 0.8 steals, 40% three-point shooter, $0.9 million on rookie deal

Ross and Powell are equally deserving and in each others way backing up DeMarre Carroll ($14 million and 2 more years remaining). There just isn’t enough minutes to go around, so Ujiri needs to pick two guys to go forward with. What would make things really interesting is if the Raptors believe they could run with Ross backing up Powell at small forward?

Pascal Siakam, rookie, 6’9 forward, 18.2 min., 33 starts, 5 points, 3.7 rebounds, 0.5 steals, 0.8 blocks, $1.2 million on rookie deal

Ujiri hates to part with “his guys,” but Siakam was never supposed to be a starter in Toronto as a rookie.

Jared Sullinger (injured) $5.6 million expiring, Delon Wright (injured) $1.6 million rookie deal, Jakob Poeltl $2.7 million rookie, Fred VanVleet $0.5 million rookie, Bruno Caboclo $1.6 million 3rd year prospect.

Both Sullinger and Wright are expected to return sometime in January.

Lucas Nogueira was going to be the limited minutes reserve center before Sullinger was injured and it’ll be challenging to take away his minutes once Sullinger returns. He’s improved so rapidly this season that he may have become almost unavailable.

As much as Jonas Valanciunas seems to be a somewhat insignificant part of this team’s success during the regular season, that’s only “seems to be.” JV turns into an indispensable monster in the playoffs. If would take a lot to even get a response.

Atlanta Hawks – Paul Millsap, $20 million, 2017-18 P.O. $21.4 million

The Hawks have reason to believe Millsap will opt out at the end of this season and reason to fear he’ll look for better opportunities elsewhere in free agency, but Millsap is the player that makes the Hawks a playoff team this year and that would make it a 10-year continuous stretch run in the postseason. Plus Atlanta ranks in the bottom half of the NBA for attendance despite their long term success, so it isn’t going to be easy to give up Millsap without a significant return.

Toronto would have to send back at least $15 million in salaries to make this trade and it shouldn’t be expected that Atlanta will be easy to deal with. They need a power forward, small forward and/or a guard.

A package of Ross, Sullinger and Wright would be intriguing, assuming Atlanta can be convinced both Sullinger and Wright will be able to play soon. Toronto has the Clippers protected 2017 first round draft pick to use as a sweetener. As much as the Hawks will want a boatload of talent back, the Raptors have to find a way to mitigate the risk that Millsap walks away in July.

The unspoken issue with Millsap is he’ll be 32-years-old in February and looking for a new long term deal worth upwards of $150 million as a free agent in seven months.

Sacramento Kings – DeMarcus Cousins, $17 million, 2017-18 $18 million

If you believe the press clippings, everyone wants Cousins, but there are two issues. One, the Kings haven’t shown any interest in trading him and two, he is a potential chemistry disaster anywhere he goes.

The Raptors acquired Patterson from the Kings and if you read between the lines, he hated it there and there was one very big reason for it. Unless Cousins’ teammates from TEAM USA, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, say otherwise, there is little chance the Raptors would even entertain bringing “the best center in the game” to Toronto.

Assuming Lowry and DeRozan give their blessing and the Kings change their mind, the cost is going to be steep. Jonas Valanciunas, Norman Powell, Delon Wright and a couple of first round draft picks for openers.

Acquiring Cousins is the ultimate high risk high return move and if, stress if, the Kings make him available, there will be significant competition.

 Orlando Magic – Serge Ibaka $12.3 million

The Magic traded a pretty good scoring guard to get the pending free agent Ibaka and as of now, they could really use a wing that can score from the outside in the worst way. A backup point guard with a future that could set up their bigs would be very useful too.

Orlando should be motivated to do something. In 12th place, but only 1.5 games out of 8th, the season seems salvageable and on the brink of collapse at the same time. It should be safe to assume that no playoffs equals no chance of re-signing Ibaka.

Ross and Siakam and/or Wright for Ibaka and Mario Hezonja would help to re-balance both teams rosters. The Magic should be able to squeeze a draft pick out of Toronto as well.

Orlando Magic – Nikola Vucevic $11.8 million, plus two years averaging $12.5 million

A starter sent to the bench, Vucevic was a significant double-double machine before this season when the Magic screwed up their big man rotation. He’s not seen as a star, but he averaged 18.7 points and 9.9 rebounds over the past two seasons. As a center with some stretch-five potential (30 percent from three on 0.8 attempts this year), the 26-year-old should draw interest for his current and longer term potential.

Ross and Siakam for Vucevic and Hezonja would re-balance both teams rosters. Not nearly as exciting as acquiring Ibaka for Toronto, but cheaper, more practical and less risky going forward.

Philadelphia 76ers – Nerlens Noel $4.4 million, 2017-17 Q.O. $5.8 million

The 76ers are motivated, but the market is soft for this oft-injured young big man who has fallen out of a terrible 76ers rotation.

Noel could be an impact player right away, despite some obvious concerns. He can block shots, rebound and finish at the rim, if he can learn to accept coaching and accept a role that’s likely less than he wants and less than it will be in a few years, then he’s a guy worth taking a risk on. Noel’s image problem is likely as much a creation of his untenable situation as anything he’s done.

The hard part is figuring out if he moves the needle and who the Raptors would be willing to give up to get him?

Patience

There’s still seven weeks until the NBA trade deadline and the Raptors have yet to see what Sullinger can bring to the table. If he can get in game-shape fast enough, he might just sell Ujiri on standing pat. Toronto’s rebounding and starting unit concerns this season should end with Sullinger’s return.

Then there’s the list of teams in the East who will have to decide soon if they are contenders or pretenders and what to do about it. Players who are not on anyone’s radar at the beginning of January could be hot topics in a couple of weeks.

If Ujiri makes a move now, it has to be for a player he would want no matter what shakes out later on and the move that seems to have the highest probability of happening that could actually move the needle for Toronto is to make a hard push for Ibaka.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Cleveland Cavaliers LeBron James

ESPN Favors Toronto To Represent The East In The NBA Finals

Apparently last year’s 56-win season and trip to the Eastern Conference Finals by Toronto wasn’t an aberration, it was just part of a trend as the Raptors led by their two All-Stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have continued the journey this season and are presently favored to represent the East in the NBA Finals this year by ESPN.

ESPN’s Ben Alamar writes,

The Raptors have ridden their offensive prowess to the No. 2 spot in ESPN’s Basketball Power Index and currently have the best chance to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals at 48 percent.

After playing their final game of calendar 2016, ESPN projects the Raptors to win 58 games this season, one fewer than the Cavs, but their Analytics team gives Toronto a 12.1 percent chance at an NBA title compared to just 8.9 percent for Cleveland. The Warriors continue to dominate projections with a 64.3 percent chance of winning it all this year.

While LeBron James and the Cavaliers will have a lot to say about how the rest of this season and the playoffs play out in the East, to this point Toronto has the top two offensive rated five-man units and the first and third best net rated five-man units in the entire league. So just maybe the objective analytics at ESPN is on to something.

 

Featured image courtesy of Paul Saini
Instagram:  @fylmm.lifestyle and  @paul_saini

 

Raptors Are The Toughest Team In The NBA But It’s Not Enough

The Toronto Raptors have taken on the personality of head coach Dwane Casey and All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry to become one of if not the toughest team in the NBA, but unfortunately that’s not enough in a Conference where LeBron James has been to the NBA Finals every year for over half a decade.

NBA TV Canada host of The Hangout and Courtsurfing Akil Augustine discusses the state of the Raptors with Pro Bball Report editor Stephen Brotherston and what it might take for the team from “The North” to take that next big step and get to play for a Championship.

 

Podcast with Akil Augustine

 

“The Toronto Raptors are the toughest team in the NBA and the most cohesive team in the NBA,” Augustine told Pro Bball Report. “Unfortunately they are not the most talented team in the NBA, but I feel they are the team that gets the most return for the players they have on the court.

“I see them as not necessarily overachievers anymore, but true achievers in that second spot that they hold. I believe they can hold for a season, they held it last year and I believe they truly defined themselves as better than the remainder of the Eastern Conference, but not as good as the “one” team running the Eastern Conference which is the LeBron James led Cleveland Cavaliers.”

It took less than 30 games into the 2016-17 season to confirm the Raptors hadn’t slipped from last season’s franchise record setting 55-win pace and the teams fighting for playoff positions behind them hadn’t made up any ground on Toronto. However, even if Toronto wins 55 to 60 games this season, that isn’t going to be enough to get them out of the Eastern Conference.

“Until they either go all in and gamble on bringing a third figure into the locker room, then I believe that’s where they are stuck and they have a huge decision to make,” Augustine continued. “Are you going to go all-in on not only a third player, but also on Kyle (Lowry’s) contract and I can’t see a franchise that’s seen the amount of success we’ve had in the last few years with him at point guard turn their back on him.”

The Raptors need a player that can help them get by the Cavs, but it needs to be the right player. This team doesn’t lack for scoring, they have two All-Star guards and anyone they bring in has to mesh with them or it simply isn’t going to work.

“I think they need the talent of a third dominant player, but to bring in a third ball stopper, a guy who needs touches … is difficult and that’s the conundrum,” Augustine explains. “If it’s going to be a third guy, it’s got to be the perfect guy because this locker room is so finely tuned.”

The reality facing the Raptors is there just may not be that perfect player to add that can get them past LeBron James and company.

“At this point with LeBron James being LeBron James, he’s a generational player and you look back to the decades of the nineties when certain people didn’t get championships. The Charles Barkley’s of the world. Karl Malone left the league without a championship and it was because there was a generational player in Michael Jordan.”

Be sure to check out the entire podcast for some great insight on this challenging situation for the Raptors.

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Akil Augustine Keep up with everything Akil Augustine is up to by following him on Twitter @AkilAugustine

 

 

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 Philadelphia 76ers Bryan Colangelo

76ers Would Like Their Process To Be Like The Raptors

After four consecutive trips towards the bottom of the NBA standings by the Philadelphia 76ers, “Trust The Process” could be about all a jaded fan has left to hold onto, but the vibe and the feel surrounding this team is starting to change. They’d like their journey to start resembling that of their division rival Toronto Raptors who similarly spent five seasons in the NBA Lottery before climbing back to respectability in a process of their own.

“(The Raptors) are a really good example. I respect the path they have taken to be in this position and to watch them play in the Eastern Conference Championship last year and be as competitive as they were,” 76ers head coach Brett Brown said. “They are still sort of young and growing. I think it is an excellent example for us. I think Bryan Colangelo deserves a lot of credit for being a significant part of that.”

It had become apparent that numerous top draft picks wasn’t going to be enough to revive the 76ers chances, so in April after some direct interference by the NBA head office, the 76ers went out and hired an executive who had successfully started the process of turning around a losing franchise before. Two-time NBA Executive of the Year Bryan Colangelo.

Colangelo had a long run of success with the Phoenix Suns, although some people might (mistakenly) be giving a lot of that credit to his Dad, but what happened in Toronto is all his doing, the good, the bad, and the rebuild.

Maybe it was luck, the type of luck the 76ers would lovingly embrace, but Colangelo made the off season moves during his first year in Toronto that reversed a four-year slide and immediately made the Raptors a playoff team. Some bad luck, bad coaching moves, an infamous first overall draft pick in Andrea Bargnani and the disastrous free agent signing of Hedo Turkoglu can be blamed for the Raptors quick reversal of fortune, but the 76ers should be secure in knowing Colangelo can identify talent.

The Raptors team that just went to the Eastern Conference Finals has Colangelo’s fingerprints all over it. From current head coach Dwane Casey, to the draft picks of DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross, to the trade for Kyle Lowry, the Raptors rebuild might have taken too long for Colangelo to see it through to the end, but the result of the process looks pretty solid.

Success in Toronto probably wouldn’t have happened if incoming president Masai Ujiri hadn’t kept things together and built on what came before him. Ujiri kept the best of what Colangelo was able to do, maintained a strong element of consistency and added to the process rather than changing course.

“I look at this team (Toronto) and they have been able to keep it together,” Brown said. “I think there is a culture of defense. There is a culture of good people and I think those cornerstones are part of most successful teams.”

Toronto showed patience in the face of demands from the fanbase to get better faster and the 76ers are going to face the same challenges going through the development process with their young stars.

“You go from growing to developing to winning is when those guys develop into guys making winning plays,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said. “Some guys take longer to develop. It takes time. There is no magic wand where you can rush the process. It’s how hard guys work, how hard they commit to the program and Philadelphia is doing it the right way. They are committed to the program. Brett Brown is one of the bright basketball minds in the league as far as teaching, developing, growing.

“(The 76ers) have a course. They are growing. They are sticking to it and we started out here doing that. We flipped it a little bit and made some moves to accelerate the process so to speak.”

Colangelo has already started making moves to reverse his team’s fortunes, but there is no way to force the growth of Nerlens Noel, Joel Embiid, Jahil Okafor or Nick Stauskas. Rookies Dario Saric and Ben Simmons (once he’s cleared to play) will be behind this group in experience and only time will fix that. Additional trades to bring in veterans to ease the big man logjam are undoubtedly in the 76ers future, but these can’t be forced either. Doing things right takes time.

“But again, there are no set number of years that you can say, (for example) in year two we should be here because you don’t know how fast those players are going to develop,” Casey said. “If you have a philosophy and a belief system that you have that should help you win eventually, you have to stick to it. If you are flip-flopping every year with every number that you read or suggestion you go with, you are not going to be very successful. You can’t just change every day or every week or every month with the wind.”

Despite being an active GM, Colangelo showed a lot of patience during his rebuild of the Raptors and not every move he made worked out. But, if anything, he stuck to his core and kept looking for the right additions. Things didn’t happen overnight and he didn’t get to finish the job, but if the 76ers can follow the same process, there is no reason they can’t end up on the same path as Toronto.

 

 

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 Toronto Raptors Jonas Valanciunas, DeMarre Carroll, Kyle Lowry & DeMar DeRozan

Raptors Are Ahead Of Last Year’s Pace At The Quarter Pole

By Frank McLean

As we sit at the quarter pole of this current NBA season for the Toronto Raptors things are pretty much the same as they were when the 2015-16 season ended in late May as Toronto was eliminated by the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Final. The Raptors are the second best team in the conference.

After the Cavaliers knocked off the Raptors on Monday night for their third win against Toronto this season the standings looked like this, Cleveland sitting in first at 14-5, and the Raptors sitting in second at 14-7. Although, after 21 games last year, these Raptors were 12-9.

Forget the rest of the Eastern Conference, and yes just like last year you still have nine other teams fighting for the other six playoff  berths in the conference, but realistically if the Cavaliers and Raptors are at full strength roster wise, those nine squads are just not good enough to win a best of seven series against either team.

The Cavaliers know that there is only one team that could be a roadblock for them making a third straight appearance in the NBA Finals and that’s the Raptors.

“They have had our attention for a long time,” LeBron James was telling the media earlier this week in Toronto about the team that actually fought back and lasted six games in the conference final last spring.

“I think they’ve had the NBA’s attention. You don’t need them playing well and us not playing well or us playing well and them not playing well for them to get our attention. I think it’s there.”

“It’s a team that’s first of all well-coached,” James added. “It starts with their two-headed monster, (DeMar) DeRozan and (Kyle) Lowry. Their complimentary guys have been playing great. Their role players have been playing great. DeMarre (Carroll) and Patrick (Patterson), Terrence Ross coming in and giving them big minutes, obviously Cory Joseph being a solid backup point guard for them as well. Even some of the younger guys, they’ve been coming into the game have come in and played some good ball”.

Kyrie Irving also talked about the Raptors one-two punch at guard.

“Their two-guard set is one that just separates them in the league. DeMar, Kyle, they do an unbelievable job of leading this team offensively. And defensively, they compete every possession. They take advantage of different lineups you have because one of (Lowry or DeRozan) is on the floor almost every minute of the game.”

But still the Raptors are just the second best team in the conference and until they figure out a way to beat the Cavaliers they won’t be taking the next step of playing in the NBA Finals.

So the ball is in the court of president Masai Ujiri and general manager Jeff Weltman to make the trade that puts them over the top.

The Raptors are in a similar spot that the Toronto Blue Jays were in at the start of the 1990’s. After making the American League Championship series in 1985 and 89 and losing to Kansas City and Oakland, they needed to make a roster shifting trade to become a championship ballclub.

GM Pat Gillick made the trade that put the Jays over the top sending Tony Fernandez and Fred McGriff to San Diego for Joe Carter and Hall Of Famer Robbie Alomar and as they say “the rest is history.”

So when do Ujiri and Weltman make the trade that puts the team in a position to make a championship run?

They do get their free agent signing of the summer, forward Jared Sullinger back around the all-star break from his foot injury suffered in the preseason. His defence and rebounding will help and it will be like getting player in a trade deadline deal without giving up someone.

But the question remains, does the Raptors management do something this year or wait?

The Raptors are getting the best season DeMar DeRozan has ever put out, averaging 28 points a game with 10 games of 30 points plus already.

But then you have starting center Jonas Valanciunas still not playing in crucial parts of games where you expect your starting center to play.

This team will win 50-plus games again, win the Atlantic Division title for a third straight year, and finish no lower than second in the East.

That’s why everybody will be watching what the Raptors do between now and the March first trade deadline.

Do they make a run now for a championship or wait until later?

Time will tell, but opportunities to win can be fleeting.

 

 

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 Toronto Raptors Kyle Lowry

Three Is The Key For Raptors And Cavs

The game of the week in the NBA should be the rematch at the Air Canada Center between the 13-5 Cleveland Cavaliers and the 14-6 Toronto Raptors with first place in the Eastern Conference on the line. The style of play between these two teams couldn’t be more different, but the three is the key for both of them and it’s why Cleveland has beaten the Raptors twice this season already.

The Raptors are on a six game winning streak and the Cavs have dropped three in a row, but throw all that out as Cleveland is taking their opponents in last season’s Conference Finals seriously and LeBron James isn’t about to let his teammates put out another subpar effort.

The two teams have met on each others court already this season with the Cavs winning close games each time. A  107.5 – 104 margin of victory that can be attributed to Cleveland hitting on 12.5 of 32.5 three-point attempts while the Raptors were focused on the midrange and put down just 8.5 of 22.5 three-balls.

However, those contests came during the first 10 games of the season and things have changed dramatically since then for Toronto.

The Raptors started out this season looking like a team that had forgotten how to shoot the long ball, hitting on just 31 percent of 22.9 three-point attempts per game. DeMar DeRozan carried the team in scoring, but that just wasn’t enough against the Cavs.

Queue the next 10 games for Toronto after losing their second game to Cleveland 121-117 in mid-November and the Raptors got hot from outside and were about to get hotter. In the current six game winning streak Toronto is outscoring opponents 117.2 – 94.2 and they are hitting 50.6 percent of their 26.3 three-point attempts. While that’s still not at the same volume as the Cavaliers, the 13.3 makes matches the Cavs season average.

Cleveland is top five in three-point attempts (34.3), makes (13.3) and percentage (38.9), however, in their last two games they failed to attempt over 30 for only the second and third time this season. However, don’t anticipate they’ll shoot under 30 three-point attempts again in Toronto. The Cavs are deep in three-point threats with five players attempting more than four long balls per game.

The Raptors rarely get the respect they deserve from the US media who seem to forget the NBA Champion Cavs only won one more game than the Raptors last season. This third meeting between them is too close to call, but the three will be the key and neither team can have an off night from deep and be favored to win.

 

 

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.

Featured image courtesy of Paul Saini
Instagram:  @fylmm.lifestyle and  @paul_saini

 

 

 



 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Jonas Valanciunas Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan

Raptors Go For First Place In The East Vs The Hawks

The surging (5-0) Toronto Raptors can claim a share of the top spot in the Eastern Conference with a win over the slumping (0-5) Atlanta Hawks at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday night.

The Raptors improved to 13-6 on the season with an easy wire-to-wire 113-80 win over the Lakers at home on Friday night to move to within a half game of the Cavaliers who lost their third game in a row as they fell 111-105 to the Bulls in Chicago. Toronto now plays the rare at home back-to-back tonight and the biggest concern may be to not look past the Hawks to the rematch against Cleveland on Monday.

Atlanta started out the season at 10-5, but a left hip injury to All-Star Paul Millsap in Utah has sent a team that was already starting to slide into a tailspin. Millsap played through the pain in losses to the Jazz, Lakers and Warriors, but he was finally sat down in the Hawks last two games and he isn’t expected to play against Toronto.

On Friday night the Hawks were crushed 121-85 by the Pistons and have now lost eight of their last nine games. They have been outscored by their opponents 104.4 – 92.7 over this stretch, however, the Raptors need to be cautious as this team started the season at 9-2 and dominated their opposition 107.8 – 98.2 including big wins in Cleveland (110-106) and against the Bulls (115-107).

The Raptors, in contrast, have been red hot over their past five games, dominating their opponents 115 – 96.2 as their offense has been firing on all cylinders led by All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry who is averaging 22.6 points and shooting 62.9 percent from three-point range over that span.

DeMar DeRozan who was leading the NBA in scoring until recently has retouched reality during the winning streak averaging just 20.8 points over the past five games, however, even he is hitting on 44.4 percent of his three-point attempts and contributing 6 boards and 6 dimes per game as defenses have decided to get the ball out of his hands at any cost. That cost has been letting Lowry and the rest of the Raptors three-point threats see a lot of open looks and they’ve been sinking them at a 50 percent clip, so eventually opponents may decide it’s better to let DeRozan shoot again.

Head coach Dwane Casey continues to preach defense, but after giving up an average of 105.5 points per game prior to the winning streak, his charges have kept their opponents below that in each of the past five games. The result may still not be up to Casey’s standards (it never is), but at least the trend is finally in the right direction.

The Raptors have lost both ends of their two previous back-to-back sets this season, so they shouldn’t be overconfident.

If Toronto can claim this winnable game against the Hawks, they’ll improve to 14-6 and sit in a virtual tie with the idle 13-5 Cavaliers. Cleveland has already defeated Toronto at the Q and at the ACC this season, so expect the Raptors to be motivated on Monday.

Note: The Toronto Raptors are in the midst of a six game homestand and the ACC has been sold out for 101 consecutive games including the regular season and the playoffs.  The streak began Nov. 11, 2014 vs Orlando and is the longest in franchise history.

 

 

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 Los Angeles Lakers D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle & Jordan Clarkson

Lakers, Knicks, Pelicans And Jazz Are Better Than Their Records

The top teams of last season remain the top teams through the first full month of this year, so after April maybe nothing changes, but last year’s Lottery Teams in Los Angeles, New Orleans, Utah and New York look a lot better and the early signs point to the Lakers, Pelicans, Jazz and Knicks being playoff teams this season.

As of the end of November NBA teams have played 16 to 20 games and the early rust or lack of chemistry has started to fade. The revamped Warriors and the consistent Cavaliers remain the best in the league with the Clippers, Spurs and Raptors not so far behind. These five sit atop their respective conferences and are the only teams in the Association with winning records against opponents with a .500 record or better.

Expanded NBA Standings 11-30-2016

This early in the season the NBA standings can be misleading as teams will not have all faced the same level of competition, so one way to level the playing field is to look at records against opposition that are .500 or better.

The big changes atop the conferences are the better than expected start from the Clippers who aren’t underperforming this year and the modest, but expected, decline by the Thunder sans Kevin Durant. However, the Thunder are just one of two teams with a .500 record against winning clubs, the other team being the surprising Lakers.

Only those wearing purple and gold colored glasses had pegged the Lakers as a playoff team prior to this season and their youth may yet betray them, but the 9th place Lakers (10-10) are 6-6 vs teams with a .500 record or better and the losses that have kept them below the playoff line were against the Mavericks (3-14), Timberwolves (5-13) and the improving Pelicans (7-12).

In contrast to the Lakers, the Grizzlies and the Trail Blazers are above the playoff line thanks to a very soft schedule and going 8-2 against sub .500 teams.

The oft injured Pelicans dug themselves a deep hole to start the season by going 0-8, but they’ve started digging themselves out by starting to win against .500 or better teams. They’ll need to stop losing to the sub .500 crowd (1-5) like the recent loss to the Mavericks, but this team should soon be a lot better than their 7-12 record.

The Knicks currently reside in 9th place in the East, right where some of us thought they’d end up, but they’ve had a tough schedule to start the season and going 6-8 versus teams that are .500 or better and 3-1 against sub .500 clubs suggests this is a playoff team if injuries don’t derail them.

The NBA is just starting to round the quarter pole of the season, so a lot of things can still happen to improve or decimate a team’s fortunes, but the early trends suggest that while the top of the league may be stagnant, there could be big changes to the rest of the playoff picture before this is over.

 

 

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 Kyrie Irving

Raptors Face Ultimate Test Of Style Vs Cavs And Warriors

No one can say the NBA schedule makers don’t have a sense of humor. The NBA’s fourth place overall Toronto Raptors face the favorites in the Eastern Conference tonight in Cleveland (second place overall) and then return home on the back-to-back to face this season’s Western Conference favorites Golden State (third place overall) in Toronto. This will be the ultimate test of style for the midrange focused Raptors. The Cavs and the Warriors love the long bomb, tossing up over 30 three-point attempts per night and burying opponents in an avalanche of points.

Led by the NBA’s leading scorer and midrange specialist DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors reside near the bottom of the league in three-point attempts and makes and are 15th in the NBA (opponents shoot 34.2 percent) at defending the long ball. Overall their defense holds opponents to a 7th best 43.4 percent shooting versus the Cavaliers 8th best 43.8 percent and the high scoring Warriors NBA median 44.7 percent, but they all do it so very differently.

Raptors head coach Dwane Casey sets his defense to protect the paint first then runs teams off the three-point line, but so far Toronto’s opponents are attempting an NBA 7th most 30.2 attempts in the restricted area, although, the Raptors defense here is holding teams to a 6th best 57 percent shooting. Maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise practicing against DeRozan that the Raptors are the NBA’s 2nd best team at defending the midrange (34.5 percent) and the fifth best team defending two-point shots (47.5 percent). It makes up for their very average defense of the three-point line.

As Casey often says, you have to take away something, and in Toronto they protect the paint.

The Cavaliers are one of the better teams at keeping opponents out of the paint altogether, giving up just 25.6 field goal attempts in the restricted area, but once there, teams score relatively easily (top 10 worst) at a 62.6 percent clip. The Cavs also give up a top 10 worst (41.9 percent) from midrange, but overall their defense has been more than adequate while scoring 109.4 points per game. It’s early in the season and the Cavs might be excused for playing just enough defense to win.

The Warriors “started slow” this season, but only by last year’s standards and they currently lead the NBA scoring 116.4 points per game. No other team has cracked 110 points on average. However, the Warriors give up 108 points per game, so they don’t appear to be winning with defense and their only losses have come when scoring 100 points or less themselves.

Opposing scorers that like to drive must be looking at the Warriors defense and licking their chops, it should be a big night for points. Golden State gives up an NBA 4th worst 64.4 percent opponent’s shooting in the restricted area. However, while the Warriors are bottom 10 at defending two-point shooting overall giving up 49.7 percent inside the arc, they are top 10 at defending the midrange (38.5 percent opponent’s shooting) and top 10 defending the three-point line (33.2 percent opponent’s shooting). They are a jump shooting team that can defend jump shooters.

The Cavaliers host the Raptors tonight at The Q where they completely dominated Toronto last season. Recently the two teams met in the second game of this season in Toronto with the Cavs pulling out a 94-91 victory on a last minute Kyrie Irving three-pointer followed by three-point misses by Patrick Patterson and Kyle Lowry. The Cavs were able to make their 12 made three-pointers standup in a tough defensive battle.

Toronto lost two close games with the Warriors last season by an average of 113.5 to 109.5 with Golden State sinking 27 three-pointers over the two games. If the Raptors want to steal a game here, they have to slow the pace down to something more to their liking and not get sucked into the “fun” of scoring easy buckets. The Warriors aren’t going to lose many shootouts this season.

The Raptors have been successful bucking the three-point focused trend in the NBA, but they face two of teams that have dominated by moving in this direction and these two games represent an early season ultimate test of opposing styles for Toronto.

 

 

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.

Featured image courtesy of Paul Saini
Instagram:  @fylmm.lifestyle and  @paul_saini

 

 

 


 

 

NBA Detroit Pistons Andre Drummond and Toronto Raptors Jonas Valanciunas

Raptors Home Opener Features Valanciunas Vs Drummond

The Toronto Raptors tip-off their 22nd season in the NBA by hosting the Detroit Pistons at Air Canada Centre on Wednesday night and a league that has in recent years been overlooking traditional big men, this contest features the recurring rematch of the paint-bound seven footers Jonas Valanciunas and Andre Drummond.

Drummond and Valanciunas will always be linked in Toronto as Drummond is the defensive center the Raptors bypassed in the 2012 draft to take three-point specialist Terrence Ross because they had already drafted the young Lithuanian center Valanciunas the summer before and he was set to make his Raptors debut that fall.

Battle lines and future comparisons were set between the two young centers and while the Raptors have enjoyed significantly more team success since the centers rookie seasons, Drummond has easily won the popularity contest and created second thoughts in the Toronto fan base.

The Pistons finally made it back to the postseason last spring with a 44-38 record after six straight trips to the NBA Draft Lottery and were swept out in four straight by the Cavaliers. The 56 win Raptors returned to the postseason for the third straight time and eventually lost to those same Cavs 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Drummond has gotten all the publicity in this “relationship” as he has continued to put up ever more gaudy numbers during the regular season. Last year the Pistons center averaged 16.2 points, 14.8 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.4 blocks in 32.9 minutes while Valanciunas appeared to lag with just 12.8 points, 9.1 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 26 minutes as he split time with Bismack Biyombo.

Since Drummond and Valanciunas entered the league in 2012, the Raptors are 9-5 versus the Pistons and the two bigs are a lot closer in stats head-to-head than their regular season totals would indicate. Valanciunas averaging 14.9 points on 62.3 percent shooting, 8.7 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in 14 games versus Detroit. Drummond averaging 11.9 points on 50 percent shooting, 11.8 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in his 14 games. One of the big differences coming at the free throw line where Drummond’s struggles have been epic, scoring fewer points on nearly twice as many attempts (36.5 percent) as Valanciunas (72 percent). Drummond has actually been getting worse from the charity stripe over the past three seasons.

This seems to be the year Raptors head coach Dwane Casey will finally be forced to “free Valanciunas” as Biyombo was lost to free agency and his replacement Jared Sullinger is going to miss a few months with a broken foot. On opening night, the Raptors backup center will be rookie Jacob Poeltl. For Toronto, there couldn’t be a better and more interesting matchup for opening night than Detroit.

Toronto will open the season missing Sullinger (left foot surgery), center Lucas Nogueira questionable (ankle sprain) and point guard Delon Wright out until December (shoulder surgery).

Detroit will be missing Reggie Jackson (left knee rehab).

Last year Toronto won the season series 2-1 outscoring the Pistons 105-103.3 with the edge coming at the free throw line 20.7-27.3 versus 16.3-26 and pretty much all of that discrepancy can be attributed to Drummond’s inability to connect from the charity stripe. So these two teams should be expected to put on a good show.

The Raptors won this year’s preseason game in Detroit 103-92 with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan combining for 53 points in a blowout not reflected by the final score.

“They ran their stuff with a lot of tempo, a lot of speed and we weren’t able to match that,” (Tobias) Harris said. “The physicality got to us early on and that’s something we have to adjust to and really adapt to when we’re playing against teams that can impose their will. We have to learn and grow from it.”

But that was preseason and everybody is ready to get beyond what happened in those meaningless games.

“We are really looking forward to tomorrow’s game,” Valanciunas said after practice on Tuesday. “Enough of preseason, we need some real games.”

 

 

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.