Tag Archives: Trail Blazers

You are here: Home / Archive
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 Andrew Nicholson Magic Wizards Nets and Trail Blazers

Canadian Andrew Nicholson Becomes An NBA Free Agent Again

Canadian forward Andrew Nicholson was drafted 19th overall by the Orlando Magic in 2012 and after a less than inspiring four years, it must have felt like he hit the jackpot when the Wizards signed him as a free agent to a four year $26 million contract last summer.

It all fell apart in Washington, however, as he had only played in 28 games by the All-Star break when he was traded to Brooklyn for Bojan Bogdanovic in a multi-player deal. Only seeing action in 10 games with the Nets wasn’t a good sign either and he’s become trade ballast in yet another deal, this time headed to Portland for Allen Crabbe.

Luxury tax savings was the only thing on the Trail Blazers minds and Nicholson will be stretched and waived for the big time savings.

All this means is Nicholson still gets his money and will be a free agent once again this summer who can sign with any team that will have him in the NBA or overseas.

The 6’9 250 lb forward averaged 6.5 points, 3.2 rebounds and 15.1 minutes in 247 games with the Magic and steadily improved his three-point shooting to 36 percent on 2.0 attempts per game in his fourth season.

The move to Washington was a disaster, but someone should give this potential stretch-four a second chance.

 

 

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 San Antonio Spurs Tim Duncan

Ranking the NBA Western Conference 2016-17

By Danny Thompson, Full Court Press Radio

The Western Conference went through a season in 2015-2016 where they had one team break the all-time wins record with 73. Another team won 67 games and two more teams had over 50, but none of those teams brought home the Larry O’Brien trophy. So with the defending conference champion Golden State Warriors adding some guy named Kevin Durant. Can anyone in the West keep up with them?

1. Golden State Warriors

Key Additions- Kevin Durant, Zaza Pachulia and David West
Key Losses- Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli, Leandro Barbosa and Andrew Bogut

Outlook – Let’s be honest here, the Warriors could have re-signed everyone and still would have been in this spot. They won 73 games and finished one game short of winning their 2nd consecutive championship. So what do they do? They go out and add one of the top 5 players in the NBA in Kevin Durant to a team that has the 2 time MVP in Stephen Curry and All-Stars Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. The real question is, can they find the same type of chemistry on this roster that they had last year?

2. San Antonio Spurs

Key Addition: Pau Gasol
Key Losses: Tim Duncan and Boris Diaw

Outlook – Well it had to happen eventually, Tim Duncan retired this summer after a stellar career in San Antonio. I’m not going to take up this entire space by talking about his career, but even though he didn’t have his best season ever, you have to mention how big of a loss it will be. Not to mention they lost Boris Diaw’s versatility as well. So how does R.C Buford and the front office fix that problem? You go out and sign future Hall of Famer Pau Gasol to replace Timmy. Problem solved, now can Golden State stop the best frontline in the NBA in Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge and Kwahi Leonard? One can only hope that we get this matchup in the Western Conference Finals.

3. Los Angeles Clippers

Key Addition- Brandon Bass
Key Loss- Jeff Green

Outlook – The Clippers get this spot by default. Oklahoma City lost Durant and no one else in the West behind them made a splash to pass them for this spot. They made some questionable contract choices (Austin Rivers), but they brought back Jamal Crawford and brought in guys like Bass, Raymond Felton and Marreese Speights for depth. The real question is with Blake Griffin and Chris Paul being potential free agents next summer, can they make a deal for one of them and still remain a top player in the West? Decisions, Decisions, Decisions in Los Angeles.

4. Portland Trail Blazers

Key Additions- Festus Ezeli and Evan Turner
Key Loss- Gerald Henderson

Outlook – Portland did a lot of re-signing of their main core guys like C.J.McCollum, Allen Crabbe, Meyers Leonard and Maurice Harkless to extensions over the last few weeks. Then they brought in swingman Evan Turner and big man Festus Ezeli to a team that has Damian Lillard leading the way. Portland surprised a lot of people last year (Including this writer right here) and made the 2nd round of the playoffs. They will not be surprising this year, but one can only wonder if can they be even better than they were last year? Head coach Terry Stotts will have this team at peak form come playoff time.

5. Utah Jazz

Key Additions- George Hill and Joe Johnson
Key Loss- Trevor Booker

Outlook – Yes, finally, the Jazz will make it back into the playoffs and this time they are dangerous. Joe Johnson provides a late game closer to go along with Gordon Hayward. Veteran point guard George Hill, allows Dante Exum to ease back into the NBA after missing last year with an ACL injury. The Jazz have so much young talent on this team and a top 7 Head Coach in Quinn Snyder, this is the year that all of the stars align in Utah. I didn’t even mention yet that they have Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors in the frontcourt.

6. Memphis Grizzlies

Key Addition- Chandler Parsons
Key Losses- Matt Barnes and Lance Stephenson

Outlook – The big story in Memphis was the re-signing of Conley to the richest contract in the league’s history. The number is still mind-blowing at this point, but now it’s time for him to earn it. Last season it seemed like every key player in Memphis was hurt as some point. They are finally healthy, All-Star Marc Gasol, Conley and newly added Chandler Parsons will help new Head Coach David Fizdale ease his transition to the main spot in Beale Street. Gone are the days of Grit and Grind in Memphis, but this team won’t be an easy out come playoff time.

7. Oklahoma City Thunder

Key Additions- Victor Oladipo and Ersan Illysova
Key Losses- Kevin Durant, Dion Waiters, Serge Ibaka and Randy Foye

Outlook – As much as I don’t want to put them here, the Thunder still have Russell Westbrook (For Now). As long as he’s still in Oklahoma, the Thunder are a playoff team. Westbrook should have an MVP season and if you think 18 triple doubles were something, wait until this year. Now they have some BIG questions: Can Steven Adams can continue the play from his playoff run last year? Can Victor Oladipo be the 2nd scoring option and be light years better than Dion Waiters? Most importantly, can Enes Kanter live up to the contract that he signed last season? If the Thunder can answer yes to all of these questions, then they will be back in the Playoffs. If they can’t, the Russell Westbrook trade rumors will be at the highest level possible.

8. Houston Rockets

Key Additions- Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and Nene
Key Losses- Dwight Howard and Terrance Jones

Outlook – Well this should be one of the most entertaining teams in the NBA. New Head coach Mike D’Antoni has the perfect superstar to be the focal point of his team in James Harden. This team is loaded with shooters and athletic guys. The reason why the Rockets can’t be a contender is because Harden isn’t the best and most willing defender in the NBA and that could be a serious problems on that side of the ball. But the Good News is that Clint Capella will be in the top 10 in rebounding this season and with Harden, Anderson, Gordon and Trevor Ariza, the Rockets will lead the NBA in 3 pointers made as a team.

9. Dallas Mavericks

Key Additions- Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut
Key Losses- Chandler Parsons, David Lee and Zaza Pachulia

Outlook – Mark Cuban strikes out again this summer on attracting a major free agent to pair with Dirk Nowitzki, but he took Harrison Barnes away from Golden State. If Barnes can live up to his potential, the Mavericks could be on to something special. But what should scare Mavericks fans is that Barnes did go missing for major stretches over the past 2 seasons. But now that he doesn’t have to be in most cases a 4th option on offense, this could be the year the “Black Falcon” can finally soar. This will be the team that gets in the playoffs if Oklahoma City decides to trade Westbrook or if Houston can’t outscore teams or any of the previous teams on the list has a major injury. It would be nice to have Dirk have one more deep playoff run.

10. Denver Nuggets

Key Additions- None
Key Losses- D.J. Augustin

Outlook- Denver really didn’t do anything this summer besides re-signing Darrell Arthur, Mike Miller and drafting combo Guard Jamal Murray in the NBA Draft. The Nuggets are one of those teams that when you look at the roster, you see a lot of solid NBA players, but there isn’t one of them currently that screams out superstar. That’s why the Nuggets can’t break into the playoff list as of now. Now if they send a few of those solid pieces (Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried and one of the 3 big men they have) for a player like Russell Westbrook or Blake Griffin, then we can talk about meaningful games in April and May.

BTW- Will Barton is extremely fun to watch.

11. Minnesota Timberwolves

Key Addtions- Jordan Hill and Cole Aldrich
Key Losses- Tayshaun Prince

Outlook – This is the most exciting team in the NBA, point-blank. Not Golden State, not Houston and not even Cleveland. Minnesota is the place if you need to watch only one team all of next season. Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins are the franchise building blocks and rookie Kris Dunn could make the Wolves become the 1st team in the NBA’s history to have 3 consecutive Rookie Of The Year winners. No team has a better core under the age of 25 (Wiggins, Towns, Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad, Dunn, Ricky Rubio and Georgi Dieng), than Minnesota. But that is also the reason why I can’t put them in the playoffs just yet. Even though Tom Thibodeau is the brand new head coach and he’s the best defensive coach in the league, it’s going to take one more year before these Pups become Wolves and cause serious damage in the NBA.

12. Sacramento Kings

Key Additions- Aaron Afflalo and Matt Barnes
Key Losses- Rajon Rondo, Marco Belinelli and Quincy Acy

Outlook – The good news is that the Kings have one of the Top 6 players in the entire league in DeMarcus Cousins and he looks slimmer and in great shape playing for Team USA. After that, there isn’t much good news. The bad news is that there isn’t much around Cousins in Sacramento. Rumors are that Rudy Gay wants out and the only solid player they have returning is Darren Collison. They didn’t help themselves in the Draft and Kings fans are still waiting on Willie Cauley-Stein and Ben McLemore to finally live up to their potential. Adding Afflalo and Barnes will provide veteran help and fill the shooting guard and small forward spots, but without a direction for this roster, new coach Dave Joerger will be in for a long year.

13. Phoenix Suns

Key Additions- Leandro Barbosa and Jared Dudley
Key Losses- Jon Leuer and Mirza Teletovic

Outlook – Phoenix has a bunch of players at the same positions and it’s going to be interesting to watch Head coach Earl Watson try to put it all together. They ended up with two top 8 picks in the NBA Draft, but they drafted two guys that play the same position in Dragon Bender and Marquese Chriss. Then they drafted Tyler Ulis making the Suns the only team in the NBA with five or more backcourt players from the same college (Kentucky). They have breakout superstar candidates in Devin Booker and Alex Len as the building blocks of a very good team. Now if they could move either Eric Bledsoe or Brandon Knight to get that wing player they need, could they jump back into the playoffs? Knight and T.J Warren for Rudy Gay sounds really nice doesn’t it?

14. New Orleans Pelicans

Key Additions- Langston Galloway, Solomon Hill and E’Twan Moore
Key Losses- Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon and James Ennis

Outlook- Normally I would say that a team has an idea and an identity of how they are going be shaped and I don’t really know what the Pelicans are doing? They lost sharpshooters Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon to Houston and replaced them with Hill, Galloway and Moore for about the same amount of money. I’m not sure if that is considered an upgrade or even a swap of similar talent. From the looks of things, unless Tyreke Evans, Jrue Holiday and rookie Buddy Hield can put up All-Star numbers, whatever superstar Anthony Davis does will be for nothing. This could be the worst team in the Western Conference, but Davis alone puts them one spot up from the bottom.

15. Los Angeles Lakers

Key Additions- Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov
Key Losses- Kobe Bryant, Brandon Bass and Roy Hibbert

Outlook – The Lakers are going to be better than last year which is a good thing. D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson form a solid 1-2 punch in the backcourt and Julius Randle was a double-double machine last year. They drafted Brandon Ingram with the 2nd overall pick in the NBA Draft and he has all the makings of a franchise player in the next season or two. Now they went out and overspent on Mozgov in hopes that he will return to the 2015 playoff form that he had with the Cavaliers. They are adding pieces and at least they aren’t Brooklyn Nets bad. The good news is the young talent will have a great teacher in new Head coach Luke Walton. Now if they can just not give away all their pieces for Russell Westbrook, then the future will be bright in the City of Angels, but it’s going to take some time.

 

 

Danny Thompson Full Court Press Radio hostDanny Thompson is the Creator and Host of NBA Full Court Press Radio and Lead Columnist for FULL COURT PRESS RADIO.

Check out more from Danny here.
Reprinted with permission.

Featured image courtesy of Vernon Chang @MoVernie

 

 

 


 

NBA Golden State Warriors Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson

NBA Western Conference’s Best Starting Lineups 2016-17

By Danny Thompson, Full Court Press Radio

In the Western Conference this year we all know what the Golden State Warriors have done with their signing of Kevin Durant to the already dangerous team they had in place. But the real question is who is after them in the best starting 5’s list? Well here are my opinions

1. Golden State Warriors – Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Zaza Pachulia

Reason – Is there a real reason why they wouldn’t be number 1? I’m going to give one reason why, 4 of the top 20 players in the entire league are in this starting 5.

2. San Antonio Spurs – Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol

Reason – They lost a lot of defense at the center spot with Tim Duncan retiring, but insert one of the most skilled big men in the league’s history in Gasol. Add him to Aldridge, arguably one of the best two way players in Leonard, the sharp-shooting Green plus the always dangerous Tony Parker and the Spurs are right back in business.

3. Los Angeles Clippers – Chris Paul, J.J. Redick, Wesley Johnson, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan

Reason – The number 2 spot was all theirs until the Spurs signed Gasol. Jordan established himself as one of the best in the league last season (1st team All-NBA selection) and his ceiling continues to grow. Paul and Griffin are in contract years, so you already know what kind of years their going to have. Redick has always been so consistent. Now if this team can add a replacement for Johnson, then they could be a serious challenger to be the best unit in the entire NBA.

4. Memphis Grizzlies – Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Chandler Parsons, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol

Reason – Parsons brings a very athletic wing to go along with the same 4 guys that have been in Memphis for it seems like forever. He brings a lot of what Rudy Gay would have provided when he was in Memphis. The real question is, can he stay healthy? Two major injuries in the last 2 seasons puts up a serious red flag. Otherwise Memphis hit a home run in the offseason. This unit is really dangerous.

5. Utah Jazz – George Hill, Gordon Hayward, Joe Johnson, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert

Reason – Utah is my pick to be the biggest sleeper in the entire league. Johnson adds another solid shooter and closer to this group. Hill will provide a steady and solid starting point guard until Dante Exum is ready to take the job over and Hayward just fills stats sheets. Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert have the potential to be the best power forward-center combination not named Blake and DeAndre in the Western Conference.

6. Portland Trail Blazers – Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Evan Turner, Al-Farouq Aminu and Mason Plumlee

Reason – Portland adds Evan Turner’s all-around skill which should allow Lillard and McCollum to have more freedom to play off the ball. Aminu quietly had a solid season and if Plumlee can continue his play that he showed in the playoffs (7.0 ppg 11.8 reb and 4.8 ast) then this ranking might be a bit too low.

7. Houston Rockets – Patrick Beverley, James Harden, Trevor Ariza, Ryan Anderson and Clint Capela

Reason – This is a typical Mike D’Antoni lineup. Harden, Ariza and Anderson will let it fly from arc, Capela will grab all of the rebounds and Beverley will just be solid but not spectacular. Mind you this isn’t D’Antoni’s Phoenix style 7 seconds or less, but they could score just as many points as them. Look for Harden and the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook to fight for the scoring title.

8. Oklahoma City Thunder – Russell Westbrook, Andre Roberson, Kyle Singler, Ersan Illyasova and Steven Adams

Reason – If it was my choice Victor Oladipo and Enes Kanter would be in the starting lineup, but with not having enough quality talent on the bench, you have to spread the wealth. Westbrook with this lineup could still surpass the 18 triple-doubles that he had last season. Adams is turning into a very good center and Roberson has shown signs of improvement each season he’s been in the league. Illyasova and Singler both bring solid outside shooting to this group.

9. Minnesota Timberwolves – Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, Andrew Wiggins, Gorgui Dieng and Karl-Anthony Towns

Reason – We all know how special Towns and Wiggins are in the present and in the future. They are going to be dynamic and spectacular. As far as the other 3 guys in the lineup, that remains to be decided. Ricky Rubio has outstanding court vision but he can’t hit a jumpshot. Zach LaVine is talented, but can he play shooting guard? Dieng is a solid interior defender and matches well with Towns, but can he develop an offensive game to match? But we can all agree that this is the team everyone will be watching on NBA League Pass this year.

10. Dallas Mavericks – Deron Williams, Wesley Matthews, Harrison Barnes, Dirk Nowitzki and Andrew Bogut

Reason – In the game of Father Time vs. All-Time great, Dirk is starting to lose the battle. This could be his last year being a franchise player. Now the real question is can Wesley Matthews regain his 2014-2015 season form in time to help out Dirk. Deron Williams days as being a top level Point Guard are over with and Andrew Bogut has to stay healthy. The big signing of Harrison Barnes leaves one to hope that he lives up to the contract.

11. Denver Nuggets – Emmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried and Nikola Jokic

Reason – Solid group of 5. Nothing spectacular and each of them knows their roles and play them very well. Mudiay has the chance to really standout especially if he cuts down on the turnovers. This could be the year in which Gallinari breaks the 20 point per game club.

12. Sacramento Kings – Darren Collison, Ben McLemore, Rudy Gay, Willie Cauley-Stein and DeMarcus Cousins

Reason – Cousins is so talented but hopefully that new coach Dave Jorger will get the best out of him and the rest of this group. McLemore needs to find the tools that made him at lottery pick a short time ago. Collison is very underrated at the point guard spot.

13. Phoenix Suns – Brandon Knight, Eric Bledsoe, P.J. Tucker, Alex Len and Tyson Chandler

Reason – So many guys not playing should be the real story. Honestly, this lineup might not make it out of November because Devin Booker is ready to breakout and be a star. With Knight and Bledsoe on the roster it’s going to be a real problem getting him minutes right away. Both rookies (Dragon Bender and Marquese Chriss) aren’t ready to be starters, so Alex Len has to play out of position for the time being.

14. New Orleans Pelicans – Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, Solomon Hill, Anthony Davis and Omer Asik

Reason – The only reason why this unit isn’t last is because Anthony Davis is one of the top 5 players in the entire league. Ideally, Buddy Hield will join this group and move Evans and Hill into the frontcourt with Davis at Center. New Orleans better find a center quick because Asik is the worst starting center in the entire league.

15. Los Angeles Lakers – D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Luol Deng, Julius Randle and Timofey Mozgov

Reason – Well, it was a hard decision between spots 12-15 but someone had to be in this place. Russell, Clarkson and Randle will be solid players in this league but Deng is a bit older and is the perfect placeholder until Brandon Ingram explodes on the scene in L.A. But Mozgov better return to form to bring this unit out of last place.

 

 

Danny Thompson is the Creator and Host of NBA Full Court Press Radio and Lead Columnist of FULL COURT PRESS RADIO.

Check out more from Danny here.
Reprinted with permission.

 

 

 



 

NBA Los Angeles Lakers Timofey Mozgov

Buyer’s Remorse Coming Soon After NBA Free Agent Signings

Sure the NBA Salary Cap has gone up by over $20 million and it’s expected to go up by another $20 million over the next five years, but that doesn’t justify some of the contracts being handed out early in free agency this summer. $20 million per year contracts are still going to be about a fifth of your team’s salary cap space, buyer’s remorse is going to be a common theme in the not too distant future.

Brooklyn Nets

The Brooklyn Nets are hardly going to be alone after this summer as a team that is trying to take a massive risk on completely unproven players. In just the latest of “What were they thinking?” moves by NBA teams with too much money burning a hole in their GM’s pocket, the Nets have given an offer sheet to the Trail Blazers restricted free agent Allan Crabbe at $75 million over four years.

You can be forgiven if your next question is Allen who? The 24-year-old Crabbe has played three NBA seasons, started a career total of 17 games and last year he “broke out” to average 10.3 points and 2.7 rebounds. He can shoot the three-ball and has nice numbers for developing player to come off your bench, but paying $19 million a year for a reserve player you hope is going to turn into a starter doesn’t constitute taking a calculated risk, it’s more like rolling the dice and needing double sixes to win.

This offer sheet appeared just as offers to free agents were starting to look sane again.

The Nets are also reported giving an offer sheet to Miami Heat restricted free agent guard Tyler Johnson at $50 million over four years that is back end loaded at $18.9 million for year three and $19.6 million for year four.

Johnson has only two years in the NBA under his belt and averaged 8.7 points and 3 rebounds in just 36 games played with the Heat last year. Maybe the Nets will get lucky and Miami will match? If not, the Nets could have around $40 million tied up in two unproven young players a couple of years from now. These two guys had better look like All-Stars in the not too distant future.

Washington Wizards

The Wizards are going to pay the soon-to-be 30-year-old center Ian Mahinmi $16 million a season for four years. They do know his career averages are 5.1 points and 4.3 rebounds?

Mahinmi did “break out” to average 9.3 points and 7.1 rebounds as a full-time starter for the first time in his career with the Pacers last season, but have the Wizards heard that Marreese Speights just signed for the veteran’s minimum?

Houston Rockets

Ryan Anderson was a hot commodity in free agency. The career backup stretch-four has played starter’s minutes when he wasn’t hurt and this suspect defender can fill the net from the outside. However, missing games is the norm for Anderson and the Rockets are betting $80 million over four years he’ll play enough to earn his paycheck.

Anderson has missed 96 games over the last three seasons and he was coming off the bench for the lowly Pelicans – Do the Rockets know something no one else does?

Orlando Magic

The Magic are tried of losing and they wanted to change the culture of their team. Well, Bismack Biyombo will help with that and he’s getting paid up to $18 million a year to make it happen.

Biyombo was really good in home games with the Raptors and filled in nicely when starter Jonas Valanciunas was injured. However, the offensively challenged Biyombo averaged 5.5 points and 8 rebounds. He gives a team rim protection and boards, but that’s a lot of money for a player best suited to split the minutes at center with someone that can score.

Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers needed veteran help, but their options were limited as few players were willing to take their money, so the made the fading 31-year-old Luol Deng an offer he couldn’t turn down, four years and $72 million.

Deng is a good locker room guy and mentor for a young team that isn’t expected to win, but as this team develops its talent, that deal is going to look very expensive. Deng’s scoring average has dropped for three years in a row as he gets slower and more perimeter oriented.

Piling on the future hit to the Lakers salary cap space is another four year deal that will pay the 30-year-old journeyman center Timofey Mozgov $16 million a season. Do the Lakers know Mozgov career averages are 6.9 points and 5 rebounds and that’s about what they should expect next year?

Portland Trail Blazers

The Trail Blazers are a team on the rise and adding a 28-year-old veteran like Evan Turner does make sense, but did they have to pay him $75 million over four years?

A career 10 point 5 rebound 4 assist wing, Turner is versatile and experienced, but the only time he has put up the big numbers that might justify a $19 million a year salary was on a really bad 76ers team. On good teams, he has reverted to the mean or a little less.

Free Agency Is Always A Little Crazy

There are plenty of free agent deals out there besides these that could generate some buyer’s remorse in the not too distant future. However, high profile guys are always going to be paid by some team based on what the CBA permits regardless and it’s getting hard to criticize any $10 million salary in a $94 million salary cap world, but $20 million for a journeyman or a prospect? Can buyer’s remorse be all that far away?

 

 

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 Indiana pacers Boston Celtics Portland Trail Blazers Evan Turner

NBA Free Agency Deals – They Must Be Mad List

Salaries of NBA players in free agency were going to go up this summer. We knew this. The Salary Cap rose by over $20 million, so teams had more money to spend and the current collective bargaining agreement between the players and the owners splits revenues about 50/50.

Most of the deals agreed to only look expensive when compared to past seasons, so don’t get your shorts in a knot over most of those big contracts being handed out, that’s just the new reality. They’ll be even bigger next summer.

However, that doesn’t mean every deal made was a good deal. This summer is no different than past summers in that respect. Some teams just can’t stop themselves.

New deals on the “What were they thinking – they must be mad” list include:

Los Angeles Lakers
Luol Deng 4-years $72 million
Timofey Mozgov 4-years $64 million
Jordan Clarkson 4-years $50 million

The Lakers headed into free agency suggesting they’d be prudent and cautious, then Mitch Kupchak lost his mind. So much for protecting salary cap space for next year’s really impressive crop of big name free agents.

Luol Deng at 31-years-old is in obvious decline. He’ll give you what he’s got and he’ll be a good veteran, but at $18 million per season …. really?

Do the Lakers know Timofey Mosgov is a career 6.9 point 5 rebound center?

The Jordan Clarkson deal is steep, but it’s for your own young player putting up good stats on a bad team, so you have to hope the GM knows what he’s doing in this case. (Not feeling all that confident right about now.)

Utah Jazz Joe Johnson 2-years $22 million

The 35-year-old Johnson’s stats have been in steady decline for 4 straight seasons – even taking that slightly better 24 game stint in Miami into account. He’s probably a nice steadying influence on a young team, but get used to the 40 percent shooting he was putting up for the Nets as that’s his reality and it’ll continue to get worse.

New Orleans Pelicans Solomon Hill 4-years $48 million

Hill averaged 4.2 points and 2.8 rebounds with the Pacers last season and the only saving grace to this contract is Hill’s age. Hopefully he’ll get better – a lot better.

Portland Trail Blazers Evan Turner 4-years $75 million

So the list of top flight free agents wasn’t all that long this year, but that’s no reason to spend $19 million per season on a 10 point 5 rebound 4 assist guard like Evan Turner. This veteran will help Portland, he’s not a bad player or an unknown quantity, but he’s not a front line starter either and he’s getting paid like one.

Orlando Magic D.J. Augustin 4-years $29 million

$7 million per season isn’t big money under the new salary cap, but it’s money that should still get you a solid rotation player – a sure thing and D.J. Augustin is anything but a sure thing. Augustin’s impact on NBA rosters has been up and down like a toilet seat. Solid in Charlotte, awful in Indiana, nice in Chicago, Toronto cut him, okay in OKC, nice in Denver, couldn’t shoot again in his second stint in OKC. The Magic had better hope he’s a fit in Orlando because he’s theirs for the next 4 years.

The Tempting to Dump On Them List

New York Knicks Joakim Noah 4-years $72 million

If Joakim Noah is physically okay, no one will be laughing at the Knicks for this deal. If they got it wrong again? Everyone will be – “I told you so!”

Atlanta Hawks Kent Bazemore 4-years $70 million

$17.5 million per season just seems like a lot for a solid “3-and-D” wing who’s just okay at shooting the long ball and his three-point shooting percentages have been dipping in each of the past two seasons. Is betting on a 27-year-old to take their game up another notch reasonable?

Memphis Grizzlies Chandler Parsons 4-years $95 million

The Mavericks felt a little burned after giving Parsons a max deal to steal him away from Houston two years ago. Will The Grizzlies feel the same way two years from now?

Conley, DeRozan, Drummond, Beal, Batum, Whiteside, and Fournier grab headlines because of the massive size of their pending new contracts, but these players were always going to get paid based on what the CBA permitted. The numbers are big, but no one should have been surprised.

If your team didn’t make a list, don’t worry. It’s still early in the process. However, the longer things go, the more likely any deal that gets signed will look like a good deal – for the 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.

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

 

 

 


 

NBA Portland Trail Blazers Terry Stotts

Trail Blazers Terry Stotts For NBA Coach Of The Year

By Frank McLean

As we head towards the end of the NBA regular season and gear up for the start of the playoffs, pundits like myself start taking a look at who should win the various awards for their achievements during the regular season.

In my opinion, there has been only one candidate for NBA Coach of the Year honors and that’s Terry Stotts of the Portland Trail Blazers.

Nobody had Portland being a playoff contender before the season began. The reason is teams that replace four-fifths of their starting line-up from one season to next usually don’t make the playoffs.

Portland said good bye to Robin Lopez, LaMarcus Aldridge, Wes Matthews and Nick Batum. Damian Lillard remained as the only starter from last year.

Brought in to play with Lillard in the starting five was Al-Farouq Aminu and Noah Vonleh at forward, center Mason Plumlee and C.J. McCollum at guard who has teamed up with Lillard to give Portland as good a one-two punch at that position than any team in the league.

At the All-Star break Portland was sitting at .500 with a 27-27 mark. Since then they have gone 14-10 and are in sixth place in the Western Conference at 41-37 just a half a game back of Memphis who have a game in hand on Portland.

“The key to our success is that we have a great group of young players who have worked hard from the beginning to just get better,” Stotts said when Portland visited Toronto in early March. “They are getting better individually and collectively and they are a hungry group.

“They showed what they can do at the beginning of the season and the goal was to get better and we have done that.”

The main cog to Portland’s success has been Lillard. In early February when the teams for the All-Star game in Toronto were announced his name was absent. People who follow the NBA on a daily basis felt this was an injustice.

Lillard went crazy in February averaging 29.8 points a game and scoring 20-plus in 12 straight games, but it’s his leadership skills that Stotts praises.

“From pre-season workouts and on you see things in the locker room and in the huddles, you see the things you want from your best player and your leader,” Stotts said. “He has a great way about him to get the most out of his teammates.”

With four games left in the regular season they have not mathematically clinched a playoff spot, but only a disaster would see them not get to the postseason and that seems unlikely.

Also, this is a team that could pull off a first round upset if they get the right match up. However, right now they would get Oklahoma City where they would be the heavy underdog. If they can make up the Grizzlies half game advantage and finish in fifth place they would get the LA Clippers and that might be a better fit.

Regardless, balloting for Coach of the Year is based on the regular season.

With all the big changes to the Trail Blazers roster last summer, Portland making the playoffs should be good enough for Stotts to win NBA Coach of 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.

 

 

Trail Blazers Terry Stotts Explains Winning
Stotts could be considered lucky that everything has come together for the Trail Blazers and his team is exceeding expectations, but luck had nothing to do with it.

 

 


NBA Toronto Raptors Dwane Casey

Toronto Raptors Casey For Coach Of The Year

With a baker’s dozen worth of games left in the NBA schedule, the season isn’t over and little is set for a lot of teams, but the field for this year’s Coach of the Year (COY) candidates is down to four or five and the Toronto Raptors Dwane Casey should be at the top of that list.

A COY should be having a good season with better than expected results and an objective look back at ESPN Summer Forecast provides a benchmark for the preseason consensus. There is no requirement to agree with the ESPN panel of more than 200 members, but they say it’s “produced the most accurate predictions in the game.” At least it was done before any games were played and it’s done by a very diverse group which should eliminate bias.

Our list of candidates comes down to six head coaches. In the West: Steve Kerr, Gregg Popovich and Terry Stotts. In the East: Dwane Casey, Brad Stevens and Steve Clifford.

Steve Kerr, Golden State Warriors, expected finish +13 wins better than projected

Last season 67-15, ESPN summer projection 60-22, current record of 63-7 projects to 73-9

If last year’s COY runner up Steve Kerr had of coached the entire season in Golden State, there wouldn’t even be a race. We now expect the Warriors to tie or beat the all-time NBA record for wins in a season. But when you miss the first half of the season, how can you still vote for the guy when assistant coach Luke Walton was running the show at the same pace?

Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs, expected finish +11 wins better than projected

Last season 55-27, ESPN summer projection 57-25, current record of 59-11 projects to 68-14

Three-time Coach of the Year winner in 2002-03, 2011-12 and 2013-14, there are those in the media who’d give the award to Pop every year, but that isn’t how the NBA awards are handed out.

Exactly how ESPN managed to only project the Spurs to gain two wins after adding All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge and David West to an already deep roster is a little confusing and the bold attempts to argue how tough it must be for Pop to integrate all that talent seems more than a little forced. Ask almost any other coach and they’ll beg to be struck down by having to deal with another All-Star on their roster.

To put it bluntly, Pop is a great coach with a great team who is having a great season, but who honestly didn’t expect it?

Terry Stotts, Portland Trail Blazers, expected finish +11 wins better than projected

Last season 51-31, ESPN summer projection 31-51, current record of 36-35 projects to 42-40

Stotts basically lost his entire starting lineup sans Damian Lillard and his team was supposed to be rebuilding with a crop of promising but unproven young talent. To put it mildly, some of those guys have played a lot better than expected.

Projected to finish 11th in the West and currently precariously perched in 6th 1.5 games ahead of the 9th place Jazz, the Trail Blazers are a success story. If they can hang onto a playoff spot, Stotts will get some votes for COY.

Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics, expected finish +7 wins better than projected

Last season 40-42, ESPN summer projection 40-42, current record of 41-30 projects to 47-35

Brad Stevens has created a lot of believers in the media. He got a few COY votes last year and he’ll likely get a few more this time, but Boston has been stubbing their toes at the wrong time.

Not long ago the Celtics were considered to be the biggest threat to the second place Raptors, but a recent four game skid has taken the shine off an otherwise better than expected season. You can’t be lowering expectations heading towards the end of the season and still be in the COY race. Stevens needs to turn this ship around fast.

Steve Clifford, Charlotte Hornets, expected finish +12 wins better than projected

Last season 33-49, ESPN summer projection 35-47, current record of 41-30 projects to 47-35

The Hornets have been red hot since the All-Star break and are rocketing up the standings to be wedged in a three-way tie for fourth in the East with the Hawks and Boston. The third place Heat are only a half game in front of this pack. Forecast to finish in 10th, it’s safe to say the ESPN panelists didn’t see this coming.

Clifford has earned some votes for COY and if he can win the Southwest Division, he’ll get even more attention.

Dwane Casey, Toronto Raptors, expected finish +11 wins better than projected

Last season 49-33, ESPN summer projection 44-38, current record of 48-31 projects to 55-27

If you are looking for proof that ESPN doesn’t really pay much attention to the only team north of the border, look no further than their summer projection. Objectively the Raptors improved in the off season, but somehow the ESPN panel consensus was for five fewer wins?

Under Casey the Raptors number of wins has increased each season from 23 in 2011-12 to 34 to 48 to 49 and now projected at 55 wins this year.

Toronto has been closely tracking the first place Cleveland Cavaliers all season as the second best team in the Eastern Conference and are now just one loss back of the leader with 13 games left. Second place at a minimum is secure, eight losses in front of the third place Heat.

The Raptors franchise has never won 50 games in a season. They have never finished better than third place in their conference. Already in contention, if Casey can lead his team to a first place finish, it’s going to be hard to argue against him for COY.

 

 

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 Portland Trail Blazers Ed Davis

Ex-Raptors Series: Ed Davis Has Figured It Out In Portland

Ed Davis was drafted by the Toronto Raptors 13th overall in 2010 as a skinny athletic 21-year-old power forward that needed to find a way to make his mark in a man’s game. His skill and energy made him a fan favorite, but he still got shipped off to Memphis in his third season as part of the trade that brought Rudy Gay to Toronto.

Davis was a likable young man during his time in Toronto, but he never gave the impression that he knew his game still needed a lot of work. Getting pushed out of the way in the post was an all too frequent occurrence and he had to work hard for whatever he was going to get. At the time, working hard, especially off the court, wasn’t something that seemed to cross the young Davis’ mind nearly often enough. He needed to mature and the school of hard knocks was about to make an impression.

“I think sitting on the bench for a year and a half in Memphis really matured me,” Davis told Pro Bball Report. “I’ve seen a lot of things. I’ve been humbled, so I just try and take my experiences and try to help other guys out and use all the negative times I’ve had throughout my career as to not take things for granted.”

After his rookie deal expired and the Grizzlies let him explore free agency, Davis discovered just how humbling the NBA can be as he ended up signing a minimum deal with the woeful Lakers. However, the school of hard knocks seemed to inspire Davis and he had a good year on a bad team. The Trail Blazers noticed and signed him to a three-year $20 million contract last summer.

It isn’t easy to evaluate talent playing in a bad situation, but Davis’ evolution was for real and he’s having the best season of his career coming off the bench for a surprising playoff contender. He’s figured out how he can help a team.

“Just how I can come in and help a team somehow, however that might be,” Davis said. “Come off the bench, bring energy, change the game up. Whatever I can do to help the team get extra possessions, the hustle plays and things like that.”

Davis is older (26) and stronger, but he still isn’t about to push anyone around. He is, however, rebounding at an impressive rate at both ends of the court (18.9 percent of available boards) and he’s taken his shooting up a notch (60.9 percent).

“He keeps getting better and feeling more comfortable with what we are doing at both ends,” Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts said. “He’s a great guy, a great teammate. He has a knack of getting a shot off in the paint. He is a versatile defender and he complements what we are doing. His ability to guard inside guys and outside guys has really helped us.

“He still is not a bulky figure, but he really holds his own against some of the bigger guys in the league. He finds a way to get things done. Sometimes it’s a little unorthodox, but he finds a way to be productive at both ends of the court.”

Davis has enjoyed some big games with Portland. He’s put up eight double-doubles so far this year and perhaps more importantly, 16 double-digit rebounding efforts. Davis has figured out how to help a team and he is part of the reason Portland is in the playoff picture rather than tanking for a draft pick right now.

 

 

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 San Antonio Spurs LaMarcus Aldridge

Raptors Have The Inside Track To Get LaMarcus Aldridge

Toronto had better be ready for what’s coming. For the first time anyone can remember, a current All-Star free agent wants to talk about joining the Raptors. LaMarcus Aldridge will be visiting with several NBA teams the moment free agency opens and Toronto unexpectedly could have the inside track, although he will be in demand as discussed by Basketball Insiders Steve Kyler.

Aldridge will start meeting with teams tonight in Los Angeles, with the Lakers expected to be the first team to pitch, followed by Houston, San Antonio, Phoenix and Dallas. Toronto and New York are expected to get the final two meetings on Thursday.

While every team will be throwing their best influencers at Aldridge in the attempt to convince him to sign with them, the Raptors Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have been doing some recruiting of their own and in no small measure, they are the reason Toronto has their foot in the door. The Raptors other advantage is they have the salary cap space to make a maximum offer without doing anything and that’s something the other ‘favorites’ simply can’t say.

Sources say that veteran point guard Kyle Lowry may have been in Aldridge’s ear a little to help secure the sit down. The Raptors dumped off the contract of Greivis Vásquez to ensure they had a full max salary slot to offer and are pitching the “one player” away concept. The fact that both Lowry and shooting guard DeMar DeRozan are said to be actively recruiting helps the Raptors since both are well respected by other NBA players.

Trail Blazers

If Aldridge wanted to re-sign with the Trail Blazers he would. His current team can offer the most money on the best terms and would instantly cave to any contract demand they’d be permitted to honor under the CBA, but Aldridge knows all that and he’s still looking elsewhere. It’s a very nice safety net that isn’t likely to be used.

Lakers and Knicks

The Lakers and the Knicks have lots of salary cap space, great markets and almost no team to speak of to join. Unless Aldridge is moving for lifestyle, neither of these markets is ready to add a big name player and promise much of anything beyond an improving future. If Aldridge wanted to help a team rebuild, he didn’t have to leave Portland.

Returning home to Texas must have its appeal for Aldridge. No state income tax, great climate, and familiar surroundings – it’s a option a free agent could only hope for, but…

Houston

Houston has $54.6 million in guaranteed salaries for next season plus a $2.7 million cap hold for Patrick Beverley and that only leaves about half as much cap room as the Rockets need to make a max offer. Home is nice, but that kind of a discount isn’t going to get the job done. The Rockets will have to jump through several flaming hoops to create enough space without downgrading their roster in order to sign Aldridge.

Dallas

Dallas has almost $35 million in salary cap space, but with only four players under contract, they have a lot of work to do before they’ll be able to convince anyone about what kind of team they’ll be able to field. Maybe Aldridge is willing to be that first piece in the door that helps attract some viable warm bodies to play with – he’ll have to be patient and take some risks if he wants to play in his hometown next season.

San Antonio

The Spurs have that cachet that only winning can bring. What they don’t have is salary cap space. With only $34 million in guaranteed contracts on the books, it looks like there is plenty of room to sign Aldridge, but look again. There’s a cap hold of $15 million for Tim Duncan. There are cap holds totaling $16 million for restricted free agents Cory Joseph, Aron Baynes and Kawhi Leonard. Not to mention the $22 million in cap holds for Manu Ginobili, Danny Green and Marco Belinelli. The Spurs might deem it worth it to jump thru the necessary hoops and lose most of their long list of free agents (except Duncan) in order to nab Aldridge? Might.

The most likely scenario that makes room for Aldridge is to immediately re-sign Duncan to a favorable deal, make that rumored trade of Tiago Splitter and his $8.5 million contract to Cleveland for Brandan Haywood’s non-guaranteed deal happen and risk losing just about every other free agent they control except Leonard and hopefully one more player. It would be worth it.

Phoenix

Phoenix appears to have room for Aldridge and there is no doubt they’d like to land the All-Star, but their apparent space is heavily encroached by the $8.9 million cap hold of Brandon Knight and it will take some nerve to walk away from him. The Suns can do this if they really want to.

Toronto

Toronto has about $24 million in salary cap space and other than this year’s draft picks, no cap holds they aren’t prepared to walk away from. Aldridge slides beautifully into the Raptors existing starting lineup of last season at power forward, taking the spot vacated by free agent Amir Johnson and that alone must have Aldridge’s attention:
1) Aldridge will not be expected to play center in Toronto.
2) The Raptors won 49 games last season missing their All-Star shooting guard DeRozan for 22 games and featuring the 9.3 points and 6.1 rebounds of Johnson at power forward. Slide in the 23 points and 10 boards Aldridge knows he is good for and the Raptors will instantly gain a ton of respect in the weak East.

If Aldridge has become the least bit frustrated about having to fight through the Spurs, Clippers, Thunder, Rockets, Grizzlies and now the Warriors every year, a trip east to a winning Raptors organization should start looking pretty good indeed.

It will always be tough to argue against joining the Spurs, assuming the Spurs can get the job done quickly enough to make room for Aldridge, but if that room comes from sending Splitter to Cleveland, the Raptors could still come out of this situation smiling big time.

With Splitter in Cleveland, the Cavaliers will have to say good-bye to Tristan Thompson or say hello to another $40 million in luxury tax.

The Cavs will likely owe the league well over $70 million in tax if Griffin re-signs his key free agents, so those rumors about using Brandan Haywood’s $10.5 million non-guaranteed deal to bring in yet another player for depth – at a luxury tax cost of about $4.75 per dollar or $47.5 million – seem to ring just a little hollow.

It’s one or the other but not both in Cleveland.

Similarly, the Spurs will be hard pressed to keep RFA Cory Joseph as they’ll have other more pressing needs on the wing, opening the door for the Raptors to swoop in and grab both of the young Canadian free agents they covet. That would represent a very good day in Toronto.

Nothing should surprise anyone when it comes to free agency, but on the eve of an epic movement involving more superstars than you could shake a stick at, the Raptors appear to have the inside track on landing one LaMarcus Aldridge and if that falls through, a first rate consolation prize of Thompson and Joseph.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Detroit Pistons Media Day

Who Wants The Pistons Josh Smith?

The Detroit Pistons have requested waivers on forward Josh Smith and will eat the balance of his $54 million contract rather than give away draft picks and take back players they would rather not have. It is commendable of Head Coach, President and chief bottle-washer Stan Van Gundy to admit that a very expensive player simply isn’t working out with his team and risk paying a very athletic forward to help out some other team. So who wants Smith?

Sacramento Kings 12-15

The obvious first choice is the Sacramento Kings who may have been the only team that Van Gundy was able to generate any trade interest in his rather expensive forward.

The Kings have looked like a potential playoff team in the West when DeMarcus Cousins has been in the lineup and adding a talented player like Smith would seem to be the type of move that could tip the scales in their favor. From the outside looking in, the only fly in that ointment could be Rudy Gay. How many tweener forwards that like to drive and aren’t known as effective floor spreaders can a team put on the court at the same time without clogging up the paint?

The Kings don’t need Smith’s rebounding and definitely can’t afford his three-point shooting, but they could use his help defense to boost their weak steal and block numbers.

The Kings probably don’t make the playoffs this year in a very competitive Western Conference without a significant addition, so they should be willing to give Smith a chance to be the guy that gets them over the hump.

With the Pistons paying out the balance of his contract, Smith should be willing to take the NBA veteran’s minimum over the next couple of years, but if he wants more cash, there are teams out there that can offer more. The Hawks, Bucks, Magic, 76ers, Suns and Jazz all have salary cap space available according to Basketball Insiders. The Celtics, Rockets, Thunder, Spurs and Raptors have their Bi-Annual Exception available and at least a dozen teams still have some usable portion of their Mid-Level Exception left. However, Smith will be in the favored position every NBA veteran seems to love – the ability to join a true contender without having to worry about getting paid.

The bigger question every contender will be asking is, will Smith be willing to accept the role his new head coach assigns him? There should be no doubt Smith could help a lot of teams, but it could be by coming off the bench or playing significantly reduced minutes from what he has been used to.

Smith has been to the playoffs six times and if that’s enough, he has lots of viable options and he can likely have a lot bigger say in how he is used, but if he wants to join a conference contender, his options suddenly get a lot tighter and the Kings really shouldn’t be on that list.

Houston Rockets 19-7

The Rockets could use help at small forward, but Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones have been great at power forward, so Houston doesn’t need help with their bigs. There may be mutual interest, but Smith probably doesn’t make them better and past history says playing Smith at small forward is inviting disaster.

Dallas Mavericks 20-8

After trading for Rajon Rondo, the Mavericks suddenly have an obvious depth issue at power forward and a win-it-all-now mentality. If Smith wants his shot at an NBA title, he’ll be hard pressed to find a better situation than backing up Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas on the NBA’s highest scoring team. Add in Dallas having about $2.5 million in salary cap space and this looks like an easy deal for both sides.

Portland Trail Blazers 22-6

Another top Western Conference team with depth issues at power forward is Portland. The light-hitting Thomas Robinson is backing up LaMarcus Aldridge and the Trail Blazers could really use a backup to reduce their star player’s minutes and provide some security in case Aldridge misses a few games here and there. Sitting at second place in the West, it shouldn’t take much to convince Smith that Portland is for real.

Los Angeles Clippers 19-8

If any team in the West could use a jolt to the system it is the disappointing Clippers. A team loaded with talent that has underperformed expectations and backup power forward is the obvious weak link in the chain. The Clippers would have to cut someone – say goodbye to Hedo Turkoglu or Glen Davis ( or Jared Cunningham’s salary isn’t guaranteed) – and add to their luxury tax bill, but they need Smith – maybe more than he needs them.

Toronto Raptors 22-6

The Toronto Raptors find themselves unexpectedly in first place and leading the Eastern Conference by two games over Atlanta and Washington. The only knock on the East’s highest scoring team has been in their decidedly average ability to grab rebounds and protect the rim – something Smith excels at.

The Raptors are a collection of players where team chemistry has made the total significantly better than the expected sum of their parts and any tinkering might upset the balance, so President and General Manager, Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri won’t face any criticism if he passes on Smith. However, if Smith were to buy into the concept of putting winning ahead of personal playing time and stats, he could be the missing piece the Raptors need to come out of the East this season.

If Smith wants a bigger payday and/or lots of playing time, he should check out the Lakers, Knicks, HEAT, or any number of other teams he could likely talk his way onto without too much difficulty. A player like Smith on a cheap contract will be too hard for most general managers to pass up.

 

 

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

 

Valanciunas and Batum

Valanciunas And Batum Battled For Bronze At FIBA World Cup

In a game that came down to a free throw contest in the final minute after the Toronto Raptors Jonas Valanciunas and the Portland Trail Blazers Nicolas Batum had traded baskets all game, it was France finally winning the Bronze medal at the FIBA World Cup in Spain 95-93.
 


 

Both Valanciunas and Batum played over 34 minutes and kept their respective teams in this contest. Batum led all scorers with 27 points on 8-12 shooting and 9-11 from the free throw line. Valanciunas led Lithuania with 25 points and 9 rebounds on 8-12 shooting and 9-10 from the charity stripe. However, it was the savvy veteran play of the Spurs Boris Diaw hitting improbable shots around the basket in the fourth quarter that swung the game in France’s favor. Diaw played over 33 minutes and scored 15 points on 6-10 shooting.

Valanciunas spoke with Emmet Ryan of Ball in Europe after the game.

VIDEO: Valanciunas says FIBA World Cup has been a learning experience

“I have grown every time I’ve stepped on the court,” Valanciunas said. “So I feel I’ve got something.”
 

 
NBA training camps open in about two weeks.

 

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_DeMar

DeRozan Stars But Raptors Fall Short in Portland

It was a game of two very different halves and an unbelievable effort from the Raptors newest All-Star DeMar DeRozan wasn’t enough to overcome a bad start and Portland escaped with a 106-103 victory.

Coming into Portland after playing the Nuggets the night before, the Raptors were flat in the opening half.  Missing open shots and playing fast and loose at the defensive end.  The Trail Blazers poured in 57 points behind a first half 18 point 11 rebound double-double from their All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge and their other All-Star, Damian Lillard, scored 15 points.  The Raptors shot just 35 percent from the field and were out rebounded 28-19 as they headed into the break down 17 points.

Amir Johnson was ineffective guarding Aldridge as his sore ankle didn’t permit him the mobility required to cover one of the NBA’s top scoring power forwards and a combination of Chuck Hayes and Patrick Patterson had to take over.  Lillard seemed to be able to breeze through the Raptors defense at will in the first half and was uncharacteristically efficient in the paint.

Toronto undoubtedly missed the flu-bug bitten Greivis Vasquez off the bench as the seldom used Julyan Stone had to be pressed into service and Lowry played 44 minutes.  Toronto’s effective 2 point guard lineup of Vasquez and Lowry simply wasn’t available.

The Raptors were down by 19 points 4.5 minutes into the third quarter, but then momentum swung in Toronto’s favor.  The Raptors closed to within 5 points before Lillard and Mo Williams hit a pair a three-pointers and Portland headed into the final frame up 83-74.

A fourth quarter surge by the Trail Blazers to bring the lead back to 16 points only delayed the Raptors comeback as Toronto held Portland scoreless for 4 minutes and 50 seconds and took a 103-102 lead with 25.4 seconds left on a pair of DeRozan free throws.

Lillard hit the winning runner with 11 seconds left and DeRozan dribbled the ball off his foot on the Raptors final chance.

The Raptors had their opportunities to win this game, but missed 4 shots in a row when they were down 102-101 before DeRozan finally got to the free throw line.  Then DeRozan had two chances to drive for the winning bucket in the final seconds after Portland retook the lead, but was thwarted each time.

After a very quiet 6 points in the first half, DeRozan scored 30 points and collected 10 dimes in the second half as he set a career-high with 12 assists in the game.  DeRozan was the Raptors offense in the second half.  According to Elias, ‘DeRozan is the only player in the last 10 seasons with 30 points and 10 assists in a half.’

The Raptors All-Star snub Kyle Lowry had 12 points and 3 assists in the first half and 11 points and 5 assists in the second half as Toronto’s only steady performer in this game.  Jonas Valanciunas contributed 18 points and Patterson had 13 points and 9 rebounds in the loss.

Aldridge continued his strong play in the second half to finish with 27 points and 15 rebounds.  Lillard almost disappeared after half except for the game winning bucket as he ended up with 21 points and 7 assists.  Nicolas Batum contributed 18 points and Wesley Matthews had 21 points.

The Raptors continue on their long Western Conference road trip with a stop in Utah on Monday.

The Trail Blazers start a road trip of their own in Washington on Monday.

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.

Also check out:

Jonas Valanciunas in scrum
Raptors Jonas Valanciunas: Beyond The Hype
“I have learned a lot and I’ve had good times and bad times, but everything – I am taking like a lesson and trying to get positive things from every situation,” Valanciunas said.  “I think I have learned a lot and still have a long ways to go.  A lot to learn and I don’t know a lot of things – I am still learning.  I am still a young player.”

Portland Trail Blazers media day 2013

How Can The Raptors Beat Portland?

Portland is 33-13 on the season and has only lost 5 times at the Moda Center, so the 25-21 Toronto Raptors will be in tough after winning last night in Denver while the Trail Blazers had the last 3 days off.  Toronto has lost to Portland in their last 5 visits here.

These 2 teams met in November before the Raptors traded Rudy Gay to Sacramento and it was Gay who forced overtime with a buzzer-beating layup.  Gay had 30 points and 10 rebounds, DeMar DeRozan scored 29 points and Jonas Valanciunas had 19 points and 9 rebounds.  Portland won the game 118-110 behind big performances from LaMarcus Aldridge with 25 points and 11 rebounds, Damian Lillard with 25 points and 8 assists plus 24 points from Nicolas Batum.

This version of the Raptors is dramatically different than the team Portland faced in Toronto and it isn’t easy to know what to expect.  Since the Gay trade, the Raptors are 19-9 while the Trail Blazers are 16-9.

Recently, Portland has been on a bit of a slide, losing 4 of their past 6 games and Toronto has gone on a run, winning 5 of 6.  However, the Trail Blazers have beaten up on Eastern Conference teams all season, going 15-2 so far.  Their confidence will be high.

The 2 teams couldn’t be more different.

Toronto has developed into one of the better defensive teams in the NBA, scoring 99.3 points per game while holding their opponents to an NBA fourth best 96.5 points.  They pass and rebound well and at their best, they play a very disciplined game.

Portland, on the other hand, is the highest scoring team in the NBA at 108.4 points per game.  They rebound very well and have made the second most three-pointers in the league.  If their shots are falling, the Trail Blazers can beat anyone.  On the other end of the court, Portland is 27th in opponent’s scoring, giving up 103.4 points per game.  They have given up the most two-point attempts in the league and their opponent’s shoot for a higher field goal percentage on average.  It’s all about the long ball in Portland.

There is really only one way to win in Portland this season.  The Raptors must defend the three-point line and their own offense had better not take the night off.  The last time these 2 teams met, the Trail Blazers were 15-32 from beyond the arc and if they can repeat that performance, the Raptors will have little chance of escaping Portland with a victory.

 

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.
Also check out:

TOR_Valanciunas_Jonas
Raptors Jonas Valanciunas: Beyond The Hype
“I have learned a lot and I’ve had good times and bad times, but everything – I am taking like a lesson and trying to get positive things from every situation,” Valanciunas said.  “I think I have learned a lot and still have a long ways to go.  A lot to learn and I don’t know a lot of things – I am still learning.  I am still a young player.”

TOR_DeRozan_DeMar
Raptors NBA All-Star Press Release
The NBA announced Thursday that guard DeMar DeRozan has been named as a reserve to the Eastern Conference team for the 2014 All-Star Game. DeRozan is the fourth Raptor selected to the All-Star Game, joining Vince Carter (5X), Antonio Davis and Chris Bosh (5X).  DeRozan will make his third appearance at NBA All-Star Weekend. He participated in the Sprite Slam Dunk in 2010 and 2011 and played in the 2011 T-Mobile Rookie Challenge.

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.

Portland Trail Blazers media day 2013

Trail Blazers Terry Stotts Explains Winning

The Portland Trail Blazers are not supposed to be 16-3 and leading the NBA’s Western Conference.  They are not supposed to be beating the Spurs and the Thunder and the Pacers.  So what is Head Coach Terry Stotts secret?

He has a very young team that has talent, but almost anywhere else in the NBA that talent would be giving up minutes to develop nice young prospects like rookie Allen Crabbe and sophomores Meyer Leonard, Will Barton and Victor Claver.  Not in Portland, however, none of these players has even seen 23 minutes of court time yet after 19 games.

“Last year was much more about developing the young guys,” Stotts said.  “We are still a young team.  We have 8 players that are either in their first or second year.  We do have a young roster, but the guys who are playing and contributing are primarily guys who have been in the league for a while.”

Even this year’s 10th overall draft pick C.J. McCollum is not guaranteed playing time when he finally gets back from his foot injury.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” Stotts said.

Stotts has been letting his key guys develop chemistry by maintaining roles and playing them big minutes, something a number of other teams could be doing if they were really putting winning games ahead of player development.

“It’s been a 9 man rotation,” Stotts explained.  “It is important that the guys out on the court have a good rhythm and play well together.  We have a nice flow going and a good rhythm with everyone that is getting in the game.

“It is hard to play more than 9 guys, but the emphasis is we are in it to win games and continue to improve.”

Stotts has been able to use this strategy in part because General Manager Neil Olshey acquired the veteran pieces needed for Stotts to implement it.  Point Guard Mo Williams and center Robin Lopez filled 2 very big holes in last season’s rotation.

Portland Trail Blazers media day 2013“(Williams) is a great playmaker, a scorer, but he’s a facilitator,” Stotts said.  “He can come in and be a primary ball handler, but he can play with Damian (Lillard) as well so you get 2 playmakers on the court at one time.  Having scoring and having the ability to maintain a certain level of play when your starters are on the bench is really important.”

Portland Trail Blazers media day 2013“(Lopez) has brought a defensive mindset.  He is very much a team guy.  He is about winning and he is a selfless player that competes every minute he is on the court and that kind of attitude just permeates the team.  He has the respect of his teammates.  Obviously, we are a better defensive team this year in part because of him and the mentality that he brings.”

Also, it’s obvious Olshey hasn’t been breathing down Stotts neck to ‘find out what he’s got’.  Olshey is letting his coach play the guys he thinks he can win with.  Those young guys nailed to the bench will just have to wait for their opportunity to happen.

“It is a long season and opportunities crop up,” Stotts said.  “Whether its injuries or matchups or foul trouble or whatever it is – a losing streak – so the message to anyone who is not in the rotation is to just keep playing hard and improving and be ready when that opportunity comes.”

Stotts could be considered lucky that everything has come together for the Trail Blazers and his team is exceeding expectations, but luck had nothing to do with it.  Stotts gave his team – his players – the opportunity to show they could be this good.  Other teams that are losing close games while developing young prospects instead of playing their best players might want to take notes.

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.

Trail Blazers Win While Raptors Evaluate Instead

When the Portland Trail Blazers visited the Air Canada Centre recently, they were on an unanticipated 5-game winning streak that was about to get much longer and Head Coach Terry Stotts explained why his team was doing better than the pundits anticipated.

“It’s been a 9 man rotation,” Stotts explained.  “It is important that the guys out on the court have a good rhythm and play well together.  We have a nice flow going and a good rhythm with everyone that is getting in the game.

“It is hard to play more than 9 guys, but the emphasis is we are in it to win games and continue to improve.”

In Toronto, Head Coach Dwane Casey talked about a tight 8-9 man rotation in October, but once the season got underway, he has used absolutely everyone on the roster in minutes that mattered and even now the rotation seems to be influx.  Only DeMar DeRozan averages over 36 minutes per game.  The Raptors have 8 players averaging over 16 minutes per game and 10 players averaging over 10.  Adding in D.J. Augustin, who started the season as backup point guard, and Steve Novak, who has been in and out of the lineup due to injury, and Casey has been relying on 12 different players early in the season.

This flies in the face of what Raptors insider Jack Armstrong suggested the Raptors needed to do in order to be successful this season.

“If you are going for the 6, 7, 8th seed, certain guys have to play heavy minutes. If the Raptors want to be a playoff team, they have to be all-in with their top 5 guys,” Armstrong said.  “Guys like Ross, Augustin, Dwight Buycks, Julyan Stone, Quincy Acy, and Austin Daye will have to win their minutes in practice and hope for an injury to see any significant court time that matters.”

That is not the way things have gone in Toronto and one has to wonder if some of those close losses could have been victories if the Raptors were putting winning ahead of player evaluation and development.

Together, the Trail Blazers top 4 players: LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews and Nicolas Batum average 36 minutes per game each.  Starting center Robin Lopez averages 29.3 minutes and sixth man Mo Williams averages 27.3 minutes.  No other player on the team averages over 15 minutes and only the other 3 key reserves even reach double-digits.

This is very different from last season in Portland.

“Last year was much more about developing the young guys,” Stotts said.  “We are still a young team.  We have 8 players that are either in their first or second year.  We do have a young roster, but the guys who are playing and contributing are primarily guys who have been in the league for a while with the exceptions being Thomas Robinson, Damian (Lillard) and Joel Freeland, all of them being second year guys.”

Rookie Allen Crabbe, sophomores Meyers Leonard, Victor Claver and Will Barton are seeing little to no playing time.  Even the injured C.J. McCollum, who was drafted 10th overall by the Trail Blazers in June, isn’t guaranteed minutes by Stotts on his return.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we get there,” Stotts said.

Toronto has invested significant time in developing sophomores Terrence Ross and Quincy Acy. Rookie Dwight Buycks is now the backup point guard.  Playing young inexperienced guys can give a team a lift, but you have to live with their mistakes as the veteran Steve Novak pointed out.

“(Our young guys) have really given us lifts, very big lifts a lot of times,” Novak said. “They make rookie mistakes, they make young mistakes like we all did.”

What the Trail Blazers did this past summer was to plug the two big holes in their rotation at center and first off the bench with experienced players.  Lopez is a true 7’ center with 5-years of NBA experience who can provide some defense and hustle.  Williams is a proven 10-year NBA veteran point guard that can start and effectively run an offense and provides some real firepower backing up Lillard.

“(Williams) is a great playmaker, a scorer, but he’s a facilitator,” Stotts said.  “He can come in and be a primary ball handler, but he can play with Damian (Lillard) as well so you get 2 playmakers on the court at one time.  Having scoring and having the ability to maintain a certain level of play when your starters are on the bench is really important.”

“(Lopez) has brought a defensive mindset.  He is very much a team guy.  He is about winning and he is a selfless player that competes every minute he is on the court and that kind of attitude just permeates the team.  He has the respect of his teammates.  Obviously, we are a better defensive team this year in part because of him and the mentality that he brings.”

The Raptors filled the holes on their roster with players to be evaluated.  From the free agents Tyler Hansbrough and D.J. Augustin who the Pacers let leave this summer, to Austin Daye who the Grizzlies passed on keeping, to Denver’s free agent, the injured Julyan Stone and the undrafted rookie Buycks.  Toronto went with young prospects they hoped could be developed or do more if given the opportunity.

Where Portland went with the sure thing, Toronto gambled and while the gambles may pay off – Hansbrough – or not – Augustin, the Trail Blazers’ veteran additions immediately made their team better.

This season Stotts has tightened down his rotation, is relying on his top 6 players to win games, has a couple of proven veteran additions to bolster his top 6 and isn’t using playing time to develop players.  The result has been an impressive 10 win 2 loss start to the season and first place in the Northwest Division.

Casey has only used fewer than 10 players in a game once this season, 2 of his starters average less than 30 minutes per game and the sixth man averages less than 20 minutes.  Plus, Casey has been using every player the Raptors acquired in the summer plus their own young guys from last season in meaningful minutes to find out what he has and to develop his talent.

The Raptors have caught a break with their player development and evaluation strategy as the Atlantic Division is looking more like the Titanic Division lately. The Raptors are first in the Atlantic Division with a 5-7 record as no team is even close to .500.

On closer inspection, the Raptors taking Stotts’ team to overtime and losing at the Air Canada Centre recently is more impressive than disappointing.

Where the Trail Blazers will need a strong season just to make the playoffs in the Western Conference, it is beginning to look like early predictions of several Eastern Conference sub-.500 teams landing in the post season could come true.  The contrast in approaches to the season and in the two Conferences couldn’t be more dramatic.

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.

Trail Blazers Bomb Away To Beat Raptors In OT

The Trail Blazers have won 5 games in a row and took down the Celtics in Boston on Friday, but the Raptors were hoping their stingy three-point defense could stop this offensive juggernaut.  However, this became a contest between the Trail Blazers jump shooting prowess and the Raptors ability to score in the paint that ended in a 102 tie in regulation, but 3 Portland long balls in overtime tipped the balance in the Trail Blazers favor 118-110.

“They are one of the few teams that keeps 3 three-point shooters on the floor at all times and that stretches your defense,” Head Coach Dwane Casey said.  “That’s why they are second in the West at 8-2.”

Head Coach Terry Stotts runs a tight 9 man rotation with starters Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge and Robin Lopez together with sixth man Mo Williams getting the bulk of the minutes.  This group has offensive chemistry and is dangerous early in the clock.

The Raptors were embarrassed by their effort in a home loss to Chicago on Friday and looked to bounce back today.  A big effort from starters Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas together with Tyler Hansbrough will be needed on defense and at the rim as Portland gives up the most points in the paint in the NBA.

First Quarter 31-29 Trail Blazers

The Raptors go inside for 4 buckets in the paint to start the game and the Trail Blazers nail a couple of early three-pointers as each team goes to their strengths as this game is running exactly according to script.

Portland goes inside continuously to create open three-point shots, they keep a lot of pressure on the defense with their shooting, but have no answer for Toronto in the paint.

Rudy Gay leads the Raptors with 12 points on 6-7 shooting.  Valanciunas has 11 points shooting 4-5.  Batum, Aldridge and Matthews have 8 points each and the Trail Blazers are 4-7 from three-point range.

Second Quarter  57-54 Portland

The second quarter is more of the same.  With their fifth three-pointer of the game, the Trail Blazers have 90 made-threes in their first 10 games, the most at this point in the season in Trail Blazer history.  Portland finishes the half shooting 7-15 from deep.  They even turn down potential layups for a clean three-point shot.

Toronto continues to go inside and has 30 points in the paint at the half.  Raptors continue to live in the paint, but its the DeMar DeRozan show as he scores 13 points in the quarter on 4-9 shooting and 5-6 from the free throw line.

DeRozan leads all scorers at half with 17 points,  Valanciunas has 13 and Gay has 12.  Matthews leads Portland with 16 points on 4 three-pointers.  Aldridge has 15 points.

Third Quarter 79-69 Trail Blazers

Trail Blazers up their defense and rebounding to hold the Raptors to just 15 points, but continue shooting jumpers from all over the court and hitting killer three-balls.  Portland doesn’t draw many fouls as no one believes they are driving to score – this team drives to create open three-point shots and they are good at it.

Aldridge leads the Trail Blazers with 19 points.  DeRozan leads the Raptors with the same.

Fourth Quarter 102-102

Portland starts the fourth hot and goes on a 10-4 run to build a 16 point lead in the first 3 minutes, but Toronto wakes up to get back to within 10 with 6.5 minutes to go.

The Raptors keep getting suckered into covering the player inside when the Trail Blazers play is almost always to kick the ball back out for the three-point shot.  It is hard to close the gap on the Trail Blazers.

Steve Novak comes in for Hansbrough with 4 minutes left and the Raptors stuck 11 points.  6 points from Gay helps bring the Raptors back to with 5 points with 1.5 minutes left.  Lowry’s free throws cut the lead to 3, but Aldridge gets to the line to extend the lead back to 5 points with 45 seconds left.  DeRozan drives and quickly gets to line, but misses the second free throw that’s grabbed by Fields.  Then its DeRozan driving for the dunk.  102-100 Portland with 35 seconds left.

Raptors defense holds off Portland and Fields grabs the board.  At the other end Williams forces a jump ball with DeRozan, 7.5 seconds left.  DeRozan wins the tip and Raptors scramble for the ball and get the timeout with 4.3 seconds left.  In bounds goes to Gay who drives and scores as time expires.

Gay was clutch down the stretch of the fourth quarter leading Raptors back from 13 points down.

Overtime  118-110

Lillard and Gay trade threes and have 5 points each to open the overtime scoring, but Lillard hits for 2 more and Batum nails a three.  Raptors down 5 with 1.5 to go, but its Batum who nails another bomb, 115-107 Portland.

DeRozan hits a three, but the Raptors have to start fouling to extend the game.  Matthews splits a pair of free throws, but Steve Novak misses the corner 3 and this game is all but over.

Final Stats

Gay led the Raptors with 30 points and 10 rebounds on 12-27 from the field and DeRozan had 29 points shooting 11-27, but it wasn’t enough to offset the high scoring Trail Blazers.  Valanciunas had a season high 19 points and 9 rebounds on 8-11 shooting.  Lowry just missed the triple-double with 10 points, 7 rebounds and 10 assists.

Portland had 3 players with over 20 points led by Aldridge with 25 points and 11 rebounds.  Lillard had 25 points and 8 assists. Batum was big as well with 24 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists, plus hit a team high 5-8 three-pointers.

Portland shot 15-32 from deep and the Raptors scored 62 points in the paint as neither team could stop the other defensively for long.  This was an especially tough loss for the Raptors after fighting back from a big fourth quarter deficit only to lose in the last 2 minutes of overtime.

“It’s tough when you put forth so much effort and still come out with the ‘L’, ” Gay said.

The Raptors head to Philadelphia on Wednesday before returning home for 4 in a row at the Air Canada Centre starting with Washington on Friday.

Portland heads to Brooklyn for a game on Monday and then plays in Milwaukee on Wednesday.

Be sure to check out our Raptors Box Score, Pregame Report and game day extra.

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.

Raptors (4-6) vs Trail Blazers (7-2): Pregame Report

The 4-6 Toronto Raptors were embarrassed on Friday night by the Bulls, but hope to show their resilience by bouncing back against the third hottest team in the NBA on Sunday.  The 7-2 Portland Trail Blazers have won 5 games in a row and are the early surprise team of the season.

The Trail Blazers are averaging 103.1 points per game led by 21.9 points from LaMarcus Aldridge and 19.6 points from Damian Lillard.  They are also one of the NBA’s best rebounding teams and have grabbed 39 more boards than their opponents so far.

Portland has been winning the games in front of them, but other than an early win over the Spurs, they have just been beating the teams they are expected to.  On the 5 game win-streak, they have beaten the Kings twice, the slumping Pistons, won the home half of two games against Phoenix after losing to the same team earlier on the road and defeated the Celtics on Friday in Boston.  They are getting the job done, but really haven’t proven anything yet.

Head Coach Terry Stotts is using his roster like a coach bent on making the playoffs.  A tight 8 or 9 man rotation is in effect with his top 6 players getting the vast majority of the minutes.  Stotts hasn’t been putting player development ahead of winning games this season.

The Raptors superior three-point defense will be tested by Portland.  The Trail Blazers have hoisted 54 more three-point attempts than their opponents and they have connected on 41.3 percent of them.  The Trail Blazers have been vulnerable inside, however and give up a league worst 48.2 points in the paint.

After 10 games, the Raptors lost 1 to Charlotte they shouldn’t have and unexpectedly won 1 against the Grizzlies.  The Raptors have played 3 sets of back-to-back games and had one of the heaviest schedules of games in the NBA.  A 4-6 record is right about what should have been expected from this team.

The Raptors play at the slowest pace in the NBA, dead last among 30 teams.  They are scoring 95.6 points per game despite being 27th worst shooting team in the NBA and they are holding teams to a fifth best 95 points per game even though their opponents are shooting 45.9 percent.  Toronto has accomplished this unlikely feat by out rebounding their opponents on average by 3.6, holding teams to a fifth best 31.6 percent from three-point range and averaging 1.7 fewer turnovers.  The result has been 4.6 more shots per game for Toronto.  It’s often been ugly basketball, but the Raptors have been able to keep themselves in games this way.

The poor shooting extends to Toronto’s 3 top scorers.  DeMar DeRozan averages 19.7 points on 40.3 percent shooting.  Rudy Gay also averages 19.7 points, but on just 37.3 percent from the field and Kyle Lowry has 12.6 points on 39.8 percent shooting.

The Raptors average almost 7 more points per game in the paint than the Trail Blazers and Raptors power forward Amir Johnson is going to need to come up big as his team’s best shooter averaging 10.2 points on 55.1 percent shooting.  Big contributions will also be needed from Jonas Valanciunas and the Raptors best physical player, Tyler Hansbrough.

These two teams should be evenly matched, the Raptors three-point defense against one of the league’s best three-point shooting teams and the Raptors three big men challenging the NBA’s weakest paint defense.  Casey might want to tighten up his rotations against Stotts though.  The Raptors will be playing against the best players Portland can put on the court and they’ll be more than happy to teach the Raptors prospects how things get done in the 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.

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