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NBA Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey

The Raptors Magic Number Is 30, 30 Three-Balls That Is

The secret to the Raptors 59 win season isn’t exactly a mystery. They fire up a lot of threes and the threat of the three-ball is what opens up the floor to get to the rim. When they aren’t shooting threes, the Raptors get a lot easier to guard.

“A lot of our three-point shooters had opportunities to shoot the ball and for whatever reason we were hesitating,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said after practice. “When you look at the film, they had plenty of time. We got to let it go, got to let it fly.”

As we wrote at the start of this series. These Raptors live or die by the three-ball.

The Raptors and the Wizards split the regular season series 2-2 and it was the three-ball that stood out in the results. In games where Toronto fired up over 30 threes, the Raptors won. When they didn’t, the Wizards came thru with the victory.

And it wasn’t lost on Wizards head coach Scott Brooks after Game One.

“We had the same amount of field goals, same amount of free throws, turnovers were pretty close, points off turnovers close, they just had eight more three’s than us,” Brooks said.

In those first two games in Toronto, the Raptors hoisted 65 threes and won both games. In the next two in Washington, they turned down shots and only fired up 46 three-balls and that’s a losing formula for Toronto.

As Casey indicated, it wasn’t the Wizards defense that ran the Raptors off the three-point line on the road. It was guys like Delon Wright turning down open shots to make a pass or waiting for defenders to arrive so they could drive. These Raptors have to be willing to let it fly like have been all season.

Now back in the friendly confines of the Air Canada Centre it should be easier for the Raptors to get back to the game plan that was so successful for them this season. If Toronto can get up 10 threes in the first quarter of Game Five, make or miss, they should be expected to hold onto their home court advantage. If not, this could be a long night for the home 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 Larry Millson

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl

Reward For Missing Raptors Bench: Best To Worst

Maybe it’s time for Toronto to offer a reward to anyone that can find their missing bench? Touted as the best bench in the NBA during the regular season, they’ve become the worst bench in the playoffs. The eye test backs up the numbers, it’s the Raptors starting unit that has been carrying the load against Washington.

This season the Raptors reserves led the league’s benches (per NBA.com) with  a net rating of +8.3 points and in the more straightforward plus/minus at +3.6. They weren’t just good, this bench turned more than a few games around for Toronto with their hustle and efficient play, but in the postseason, it’s been a different story.

With backup point guard Fred VanVleet on the shelf to start the playoffs, the Raptors second unit has had an embarrassingly bad -20.4 points net rating and a plus/minus of -7.3 points, both good for dead last among the playoff teams.

However, it hasn’t been VanVleet’s missing offense that’s the problem. The bench is scoring just 3.1 fewer points in 2.9 fewer minutes and they’ve been shooting the lights out from three-point range at 43.6 percent. The offensive production is fine, it’s the defense, rebounding, and a surprising drop off in sharing the ball that’s causing the problems.

In the playoffs the bench is garnering 6.8 fewer rebounds, 4.3 fewer assists and 1.2 fewer steals. Their defensive rating has shot up from a respectable 101.6 in the regular season to a terrible 120.1 in their three postseason games. The bench is only garnering 42.8 percent of the available rebounds which translates into lots of extra possessions for the Wizards.

With the numbers in full view, it’s easy to understand why the bench has looked so bad during the recent games.

It’s probably not fair to lay the blame at the feet of two second year players with a total of 36 minutes of playoffs experience between them prior to this season, but they kind of stand out and, even if they didn’t score, the hope would be Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl would hang onto their regular season chemistry and provide energy, defense and rebounding.

“We are letting them come to us and we are trying to react afterwards,” Poeltl said after the Game Three loss. “Me as a center, when I am guarding a guy like Scott or Morris, I have to find a good balance between being out for the shooters at the three and still being there to help at the rim for a guy like John Wall that’s coming down the lane. That’s really the difficult part for us to figure out.”

The Raptors big men off the bench simply aren’t finding that balance between guarding the three-point line and getting back to defend the rim and in today’s NBA where everybody shoots threes, that’s a big problem.

Between Poeltl and Siakam, their rebounds are down 2.3 per game, assists off 1.4 and steals have dropped to zero from 1.3. They are getting taken advantage off by a far more veteran group of Wizards big men that they haven’t been able to out-hustle or run into the ground. Those looks of “what did I do” as Poeltl picks up another foul or Siakam’s surprising lack of decisiveness (or confidence?) are not what Toronto has been used to seeing from these two all season.

Both Poeltl and Siakam exceeded expectations this year and they are going to get better, but the playoffs demand more than the regular season and these two are having to learn that on the job. Without the Raptors reserve big men playing up to expectations, Toronto’s bench will remaining “missing,” so they had better adapt fast.

 

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

 Featured image courtesy of Larry Millson

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Jonas Valanciunas

Are Wizards Still Using Last Year’s Raptors Scouting Report?

After a couple of games being shelled from deep in Toronto you’d think the Washington Wizards would have noticed that this isn’t last year’s Raptors team? But you could be mistaken, they still seem to be clinging to last year’s scouting report. From the postgame comments, the Wizards aren’t ready to accept that giving up a 122 points per game in their first round playoff series has been on them.

“There were a lot of guys who we didn’t expect them to make those threes,”Wizards guard Bradley Beal responded to Pro Bball Report after Game One. 

“There’s a lot of guys, we went over the scouting report, there’s guys making threes that’s not really their M.O. coming into the series,” Beal said after Game Two. 

“I really feel like it’s nothing crazy that’s beating us in terms of their sets and the offensive stuff that they’re running. I think we are just shooting ourselves in the foot coming out to slow starts, allowing guys to get open threes, allowing guys to get those shots, allowing guys to get layups. It has to be one or the other.”

The Raptors were the highest scoring team in the East this season doing exactly what Beal has described on a nightly basis.

So, are the Wizards actually looking at this year’s scouting report on the Raptors? Toronto was third in the NBA in three-point attempts and fourth in three-point makes this season. Almost everyone on the roster shoots threes. This team has nine players that attempted over 130 three-pointers during the regular season and outside of backup center Jakob Poeltl, everyone on the roster has the green light to shoot a three when open.

Even the Raptors traditional center Jonas Valanciunas will shoot the three if he isn’t guarded. He was 30-74 from three during the regular season and is already 1-2 in this series.

“They just don’t want us taking the two-point shot,” Wright told Pro Bball Report earlier this season. “I don’t even attempt to shoot them. My mindset is three-pointer or a lay-up.”

The only players on the Raptors averaging more than two midrange shots a game are are DeMar DeRozan and Serge Ibaka and they both average over 3.5 three-point attempts per game. Toronto has shifted away from being a top 12 team in scoring from the midrange last season to a bottom six team this year. These guys score over 75 percent of their points in the paint or from three.

NBA Toronto Raptors

“They play really well together,” Beal admitted. “You got to respect what coach Casey is doing and how he meshed and gelled that team together.

“We just got to go back to the drawing board.”

The drawing should probably include guarding the three-point line or this fan in Washington might not survive his next rant.

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors

Raptors Show Hustle Over Hype In Game Two Win

By Frank McLean

For the Toronto Raptors Tuesday night’s second game of their first round playoff battle with the Washington Wizards was uncharted territory. It was the first time the Raptors ever played a Game Two in a first round series up one game to nothing thanks to Saturday’s 114-106 win, so the worry was to keep the momentum up and not let down.

The theme of the night was written on the t-shirts that every fan had waiting for them at their seats “Hustle Over Hype”, that’s what head coach Dwane Casey wanted to avoid heading into Game Two, the hype after coming off a big win.

“When you get into the playoff situation, just because you win one game doesn’t mean anything,” Casey was saying before the game. “Behind one game, up one game, it’s a seven game series and you have to go on with that. It’s great to protect home court and have that mindset, but we are going into like we haven’t done anything.”

Well the Raptors past the test with a 130-119 win giving them their first ever two-games to nothing lead in a playoff series. They never let the hype of finally winning a game one get in their heads, but it was way they came out to start the game was something I have never seen in my 23-years covering the team.

They went on a 28-13 run to start the game ending the first quarter with a 44-27 lead that Washington would eventually cut to five with 7:52 left in the fourth quarter, but the Raptors would get the lead back up to 20 points and eventually win by 11.

Toronto hit seven three pointers in the first quarter, 11 in the first half overall and were 13-of-35 for the game. They broke three franchise playoff records in the game,

The 44 points in the first quarter was a new record for points in a quarter in a playoff game.

They lead 76-58 at the half and the 76 points was new record for points scored in a half in a playoff game.

The 130 points scored overall is also a new record for points in a playoff game.

And don’t forget DeMar DeRozan who tied his playoff career high with 37 points.

But you have to give the Wizards credit, they did get the deficit down to five in the fourth quarter.

It was all John Wall, the Wizards best player, who did his best scoring 22 second half points and that is someone Casey said the Raptors will have to do a better job defending the rest of the series.

“He was going where he wanted to go with the ball,” Casey said. “We got to do a better job of getting down in the stance, containing the ball, and the bigs have go to do a better job of protecting the rim. And we have (in the past), and we’ve done it, so it’s something that can be done, we just did not do a good job in the second half tonight.”

You had to feel sorry for Wizards coach Scott Brooks who in his post-game media conference looked like he had been put through the ringer. He credited a C.J. Miles three-pointer that killed their comeback at down five points in the fourth after starting the final frame down 15.

“C.J. Miles hit a big shot and John (Wall) had a good contest. Give him credit, he stepped up and made that,” Brooks said. “The momentum shifted when he made that shot. Tough to overcome 44 points in the first quarter, tough to overcome seven threes in the first quarter, but somehow we managed to do it. We probably ran out of gas a little bit.”

But this is a different Toronto Raptors team and as I said I have not seen anything like this in 23-years the franchise has been around.

They started the game with a killer instinct and when the Wizards John Wall slowly chipped away at the lead, they never folded up like a cheap suitcase as they’d done in the past.

The Raptors passed the test, so now it’s on to Washington where there are more uncharted waters to navigate.

 

 

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

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors C.J. Miles

These Raptors Live Or Die By The Three-Ball

The Toronto Raptors have been firing away from deep since before the season began. It was all part of the “culture change” promised by president Masai Ujiri and delivered by head coach Dwane Casey. These Raptors were going to live or die by the three-ball this season and they rode that change all the way to first place in the East.

“They are a good team,” Wizards head coach Scott Brooks said after losing Game One of their first round series with Toronto. “They are the number one seed for a reason.

“We had the same amount of field goals, same amount of free throws, turnovers were pretty close, points off turnovers close, they just had eight more three’s than us. They’ve been doing it all year, not 16 in a game, they averaged nearly 12 (three-pointers a game).”

From 8.8 made threes per game in 2016-17 to an NBA fourth best 11.8 made threes this year, the Raptors have embraced the three-ball and everyone shoots them. Even the guys teams aren’t prepared to guard outside like the high-energy forward Pascal Siakam, the historically paint-bound Jonas Valanciunas and the mid-range king DeMar DeRozan. It a volume approach as Toronto is just an average three-point percentage shooting team.

“DeMar even made some threes in the fourth,” Beal responded to Pro Bball Report after Game One. “They were 16-for-30 from three, so that hurts you when you’re competing, and on the road too. And there were a lot of guys who we didn’t expect them to make those threes. They made them.”

That Toronto fired up 30 three-balls in Game One really should not have come as a surprise to the Wizards. Over their four meetings this past season, the Raptors averaged 31.3 three-point attempts and as a team, they see no reason to change what got them to this point.

“We’ve been playing that style since training camp,” DeMar DeRozan responded to Pro Bball Report after Game One. “We’ve been pounding and pounding every single day, every single practice, every single shoot-a-round, every time we get on the court, we pound this style of play. Guys know where their shots are going to come from. (We) understand where to get shots from, where to get our guys shots from, it’s just second nature now. You have to go thru that training camp, preseason and early-on-season of doing it and now it’s just repetition and it’s second nature to us.”

The Raptors use the three-ball to stretch the floor and open up driving lanes for DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Siakam and versatile guard Delon Wright, who had a big impact in Game One.

“They just don’t want us taking the two-point shot,” Wright told Pro Bball Report earlier this season. “I don’t even attempt to shoot them. My mindset is three-pointer or a lay-up.

“I’m a driver, so teams try to pack the paint on me, so I have to be willing to take that open (three-point) shot. It will free up the guys that are driving. I have to be willing to take that three-pointer.”

The same mindset applies to everyone on the Raptors and it makes the Eastern Conference’s highest scoring team very difficult to guard. About the only way to stop them is to hope they miss shots.

“It’s definitely a pick your poison,” coach Scott said. “We just have to do it better.

“VanVleet did not play, but Wright came in and had a terrific game. That’s why they are hard to guard.”

“I think their bench was great, especially C.J. Miles, ” John Wall said. “I think they played well, made some big shots and that’s what they are going to do every game.”

Three-point specialist C.J. Miles was acquired during the summer to help make the transition to a three-point shooting roster happen and he’s been living up to his end of the bargain. Miles hit an NBA second most threes off the bench at 155 on the season and he hoisted the League’s second most attempts while on the court at over one three-point field goal attempt every three minutes. He’s been prolific and, taken in context, very effective.

“That’s been the main focus of what they have asked me to do since I’ve been signed, to be that threat, to carry that threat, but it’s a testament to guys looking for me, guys screening for me and the coaches believing in what I do,” Miles told Pro Bball Report. “I work at it extremely hard to be that threat. Obviously it can get a little crazy sometimes, but it is what it is. That’s what I am put out there to do.

“I understand you are not going to make them all and you you think about the fact that shooting 40 percent from three is elite, so that’s four out of 10, so if I miss three, the numbers are bound to balance out. That’s the way I look at it. As long as they are good looks, that’s the biggest thing.

“If it comes to me putting (the ball) down on the floor, it’s got to be because they made me, not because I passed up a shot to do it.”

Miles has been critical in getting the Raptors young players to buy into the “new culture” and not turn down shots just because they missed a couple and the proof is in the results. This style of play has worked for Toronto.

The Raptors and the Wizards split the regular season series 2-2 and it was the three-ball that stood out in the results. In games where Toronto fired up over 30 threes, the Raptors won. When they didn’t, the Wizards came thru with the victory. Both teams won a game in the other team’s building.

The concern about the Raptors since those early preseason games when it seemed every prospect knew their only chance of making this roster was to shoot threes at every opportunity was if the team’s All-Stars Lowry and DeRozan would stay on board at the first signs of adversity or an impact to their own personal stats. Now we know they’re on board.

Ujiri’s culture change is in full effect and these Raptors will live or die by the three-ball. As of now, it looks like they could ride this change all the way to the NBA Finals.

 

 

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

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan

Raptors Don’t Have To Change A Thing For The Playoffs

By Frank McLean

The Toronto Raptors won Game One of their first round playoff series with the Washington Wizards Saturday 114-106 by not changing a thing about the way they played in the regular season.

That was the theme in the two days leading up to the first game of this series.

On Thursday DeMar DeRozan made that quite clear when he sat down with the media because some people still think 59 wins overall and 34 wins at home was somehow a fluke.

“We did it 82 games,” DeRozan said. “We won 59 games. If that’s not the ultimate understanding of what got us here wasn’t a fluke, it really worked, we’re not going to sway away from that. I think that speaks for itself. We know what works for us, what got us here, and what’s going take us even further.”

And they did that. Raptors head coach Dwane Casey rolled out 11 players out of the 13 he dressed for Game One which is nothing different from what he did during the regular season. The subs known as the BENCH MOB contributed 42 of the 114 points scored.

That has been this teams MO all season, use everybody and make it work.

There seems to be a theory that come playoff time you have to shorten your rotation to eight players heck maybe seven. Casey has had success running out 10-11 men a night and let it be known that he does not subscribe to that theory.

“Our record, we had the number one bench plus-minus in the league, one of the best producing benches in the league and that’s who we are and that’s one of the main reasons I say that and we’ll stick to that,” Casey said.

Six players had 10 or more points. You could see the difference from other years in which everything was centered around DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. They were sharing the ball looking for the best shot and taking numerous three point attempts.

Down 59-55 at halftime they went on a 11-2 run hitting four straight three-point shots and grabbing a 66-61 lead. They were 16-of-30 behind the arch for the game, plus the real C.J. Miles came back hitting four-of-seven.

The Raptors looked confident throughout the game. They didn’t get rattled when they gave up the lead, something that in past playoff games would cause them to lose focus and get so far behind they couldn’t catch up.

“We been great at home all year,” DeRozan said. “It’s definitely something we took more pride in than ever and I think it showed. With that, we got that confidence this time around more than ever. Like I said, it’s one of them moments to where we feel like when we on our home floor, anything’s possible, and our swag is at an all-time high.”

It’s only one game, but the Raptors showed a confidence they have never shown in a playoff Game One during the Dwane Casey era. If they keep playing this way, it’s going to be a long postseason run and they don’t have to change a thing.

 

 

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

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors OG Anunoby

Rookie OG Anunoby Is The Raptors Version Of Otto Porter

It was just plain lucky that a college injury allowed OG Anunoby to fall to Toronto at 23rd in last year’s draft. The 6’8 combo forward came back months ahead of schedule and ready to play at the start of this season where he has shown all the potential to become the Raptors version of the Wizards Otto Porter or more.

The Wizards signed Porter to a $106 million extension last summer, but the third overall pick of the 2013 NBA Draft didn’t exactly have a rookie season to remember. A hip flexor injury cost him three months at the beginning of the season and when he returned, he barely played. It wasn’t until his second season in 2014-15 that he got minutes almost worthy of his draft status and as a second year player, those numbers weren’t as impressive as Anunoby put up this year.

Anunoby (2017-18): 74 g, 20.2 min, 5.9 pts, 2.5 rbs, 0.7 asts, 47.1% FG, 37.1% 3FG

Porter (2014-15):       74g, 19.4 min, 6.0 pts, 3.0 rbs, 0.9 asts, 45% FG, 33.7% 3FG

Although both players are legit 6’8 and are elite athletes, Anunoby has the advantage in physical tools across the board. (Based on NBA predraft measurements)

OG                          Otto

Weight                        232 lbs                    198 lbs

Reach                          8′ 11.5″                    8′ 9.5″

Wingspan                   7′ 2.25″                    7′ 1.5″

Hand length                 9.25″                      8.75″

Physical attributes aren’t the be-all and end-all in the NBA and heading into this year’s playoffs, Porter has a distinct advantage in experience. His length and athleticism made him a natural defender and in his fourth season he became one of the NBA’s elite three-point shooters earning him that massive four-year extension. While Anunoby performed well from the three-point line for a rookie and his defensive game is showing a lot of promise, he’s got a lot of development ahead of him to match what Porter has gone thru during 343 regular season games and 26 more in the postseason .

Through Anunoby’s rookie’s rookie season he’s been hot from three, then cold and finally recovering to shoot 46.7 percent from three over his last 14 games since returning from a mid-season injury on March 16th. The Raptors are hoping Anunoby can stay hot throughout the playoffs.

Raptors head coach Dwane Casey has given Anunoby a lot of latitude because of his defensive potential and flexibility summed up by his postgame comments after a recent game against Indiana.

“(Anunoby) did an excellent job,” Casey said. “I thought he did a heck of a job. He did a tremendous job of getting into (Victor Oladipo), being physical, using his length and size and we need that. That’s the OG that we need defensively. He made it hard on Oladipo.”

It wouldn’t be fair to put all the onus on Anunoby to offset what Porter will bring to the Wizards on offense and defense in their first round playoff match-up and fortunately the Raptors don’t have to. Casey can call on the more experienced and playoff standout (in first round series) Norman Powell or the 13-year veteran C.J. Miles who will make Porter work hard to defend the volume of three-point shots he can put up. Casey could even match up the fast and versatile Pascal Siakam on Porter if he becomes a problem from the outside.

Anunoby vs Porter is an interesting playoff match-up between a developing rookie and a young veteran with similar games and physical attributes. The Raptors are hoping Anunoby can grow up fast playing against a guy the team hopes he can surpass in the future.

 

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.

 

 

 

Cavs King James for Halloween 2017

NBA Halloween Hangovers

Perhaps it isn’t reasonable to expect young men to give up an excuse to party when the opportunity presents itself, but as is often the case, there is a price to paid for having too much fun and maybe a bit of a Halloween hangover contributed to some of the NBA blowouts the next night.

 

LeBron James was feeling good after a team meeting Joe Vardon reported on Cleveland.com ahead of Wednesday night’s disaster at home against the Pacers.

“It was needed and we’re receptive, and the best thing about it is guys got out everything that they wanted to, even with it being early in the season,” James said. “It was good, so, see how it translates on the floor too.”

It didn’t as the Cavs were embarrassed 124-107, but at least they had some Halloween fun.

As Vardon illustrated after the loss, the Cavs have now sunk to depths no one saw coming.

Here’s where the Cavs stand defensively this morning:

30th (worst) in the NBA in defensive rating (111.3), the primary statistic most use to give an overall grade.
30th in 3-pointers allowed (14.0 per game).
30th in 3-point field goal percentage (.418).
27th in opponent’s field-goal percentage (.470).
27th in opponent’s points per game (111.9).
22nd in opponent’s points off turnovers (18.6).

Head coach Tyronn Lue assuming the role of Captain Obvious summed things up.

“Lately we just haven’t been really good defensively,” Lue said.

No one is going to suggest the Cavs season is going down the tubes because of a Halloween party, but maybe, if only for appearance sake, everyone could have taken the night off to study film instead?

King James hasn’t released his claim as the scariest player in the NBA, it’s just the Cavs who haven’t been nearly as scary as they should be to start the season.

Lost in a 12 game Wednesday night slate of games were a couple of other teams looking like they were also suffering from a Halloween hangover.

The Toronto Raptors were on a two game road winning streak when they rolled into Denver after having Halloween night off and laid an egg losing 129-111. Even the preview by SB Nation Denver Stiffs Daniel Lewis had the Raptors winning this one. To put it mildly, Toronto’s veteran starting unit stunk looking exactly like a group that hadn’t gotten enough sleep the night before.

The Wizards had even less of an excuse than the Raptors as they dropped a 122-116 game to the rebuilding Suns at home.

Maybe the Wizards should have hit the sack a little earlier on Halloween night as well?

Well here’s hoping everyone had a fun Halloween and the Cavs and Raptors don’t eat to much turkey on Thanksgiving as they both have to play the next day.

 

  

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 Celtics Marcus Morris and Wizards Markieff Morris

Morris Twins Assault Trial Starts Monday

The Washington Wizards and Boston Celtics may not have long to wait to find out if and when they may have the services of Markieff and Marcus Morris this season. Jury selection is complete and their assault trial stemming from an incident a couple of years ago in Phoenix is set to start on Monday as described by Terell Wilkins and Adrian Marsh on azcentral.com.

Opening statements are scheduled to begin Monday in the aggravated assault trial of NBA players and identical twins Markieff and Marcus Morris, along with another man charged with them.

Two other defendants, Julius Kane and Christopher Melendez, chose to avoid trial and instead pleaded guilty on Wednesday to two counts of aggravated assault

The twins were playing for the Phoenix Suns at the time of the incident and the team quickly got out from under the potential issue by trading both players, so the ramifications basketball-wise now fall squarely on the two Eastern Conference teams vying for a top four seed in their conference.

Police say Erik Hood (the victim) identified the Morris twins as being part of the group that attacked him to the point of unconsciousness after hearing rumors that Hood had been sending “inappropriate” texts to their mother, Thomasine Morris.

While the facts of the case are yet to be determined in court and the Morris twins insist they were not part of the group that attacked Hood, the repercussions of a guilty verdict are serious. Nik DeCosta-Klipa on Boston.com provides a very detailed outline of the case and the potential implications for the players and their teams.

University of New Hampshire sports law professor Michael McCann noted that, under Arizona state law, the felony assault charges against Morris carry “a maximum prison sentence of 3.75 years and a presumptive sentence of 2.5 years.”

Given that Morris’s criminal history includes just one citation for misdemeanor battery, McCann says its unlikely he would receive “anywhere near the maximum sentence,” but could very well still face “some time behind bars or at least a suspended sentence, probation and required community service.”

Even a conviction not involving actual jail time is likely to elicit a response from the NBA and a suspension of 10 games or more.

Section 7 of the current NBA collective bargaining agreement mandates a minimum 10-game suspension for any player convicted of a violent felony

the commissioner has the right to punish players for lesser convictions

In the current environment, the NBA would likely feel compelled to suspend the Morris twins on admission of guilt to a misdemeanor charge or even on the settlement of a civil suit.

Hood reportedly suffered “a broken nose, a large knot on the back of his head and abrasions,” according to police records, and later identified Kane and the Morris twins as three of the five people involved in the attack.

In October 2016, Hood’s lawyers also filed a civil lawsuit against the Morris twins and the three other defendants, seeking compensatory and punitive damages.

The Morris twins are very good basketball players with important roles on their respective teams. They’ve even suggested this incident would never have gotten to trial if it weren’t for their minor celebrity status.

However, the media reports over the past couple of years do seem to confirm this isn’t a nothing incident exaggerated by an overzealous police force and piled on by the media. It’s understandable why the Suns didn’t want to have to deal with the issue.

This trial could be over before training camps open, so no one in Boston or Washington is expected to be waiting long to find out if this is a serious matter that could impact their team this season or just an annoying public relations problem.

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

Early Favorites For The NBA Most Improved Player Race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Denver Nuggets, Nikola Jokic

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

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

Portland Trail Blazers, Jusuf Nurkic

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

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

Utah Jazz, Rudy Gobert

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

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

Washington Wizards, Otto Porter

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

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

Cleveland Cavaliers, Jae Crowder

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

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

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

Toronto Raptors, Serge Ibaka

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

NBA Cleveland Cavaliers LeBron James and Boston Celtics Kyrie Irving and Toronto Raptors Kyle Lowry and Washington Wizards John Wall

The Best Big 3s In The NBA East

No one could say this summer in the NBA has been boring and it’s been big name players from the Eastern Conference making most of the noise. But the dust has settled, those big names have found new homes and the best Big 3s in the NBA East remain on the best teams from last season.

There was only four wins between the first place Celtics and the fourth place Wizards last year and in the 2017-18 regular season no one should be expecting it to have gotten any easier for the best in the East despite the player movement.

Your Big 3s for this season are:

Boston Celtics – last year 53 wins

Three current or former All-Stars: Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward and Al Horford.

Fourth? Marcus Morris averaged 14 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2 assists and shot 33.1 percent from three last season with a dysfunctional Pistons squad.

Last year the Celtics best 3 was Isaiah Thomas, Avery Bradley and Al Horford with Jae Crowder as a fourth, but as Horford is the only returning starter, chemistry could take quite a while to develop.

Cleveland Cavaliers – last year 51 wins

Three current All-Stars: Isaiah Thomas*, LeBron James and Kevin Love.

*If Thomas doesn’t start the season on time, one-time MVP Derrick Rose will fill in.

Fourth? Jae Crowder averaged 13.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists and shot 39.8 percent from three last year with the first place Celtics.

Toronto Raptors – last year 51 wins

Two current All-Stars: Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Serge Ibaka.

Note: Ibaka was acquired at the trade deadline last season. Toronto has four of last year’s five starters since the All-Star break.

Fourth? C.J. Miles averaged 10.7 points and 3 rebounds in 23.4 minutes with the Pacers last season and was acquired for his three-point shooting of 41.3 percent.

Washington Wizards – last year 49 wins

One current All-Star: John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter.

Fourth? Markieff Morris averaged 14 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.7 assists and shot 36.2 percent from three last season.

Note: The Wizards are the only team from last year’s top four in the East to return all five starters. They should look good right out of the gate.

The Best?

Based on the players individual stats from last season, the new Big 3s add up like this:

Best Scoring Big 3

1st: Cavs 74.3 points

2nd: Raptors 64.5 points

3rd: Celtics 61.1 points

4th: Wizards 59.6 points.

Note: If Rose replaces Thomas, the Cavs Big 3 averages 10.9 fewer points based on last year’s production which would still be good for second best.

Best Rebounding Big 3

1st: Cavs 22.4 rebounds

2nd: Raptors 16.8 rebounds

3rd: Celtics 15.4 rebounds

4th: Wizards 13.7 rebounds

Note: The Cavaliers, Raptors and Wizards all have above average rebounders outside of their top four players. The Celtics had the second worst rebounding differential in the East last season and have done nothing to improve the situation this summer.

Most Big 3 Assists

1st: Cavs 16.5 assists

2nd: Wizards 15.7 assists

3rd: Celtics 14.3 assists

4th: Raptors 11.8 assists

Best Big 3 Field Goal Percentage

1st: Cavs 48.2 percentage

2nd: Wizards 47.8 percent

3rd: Celtics 47.4 percent

4th Raptors 46.9 percent

Note: If Rose replaces Thomas, the Cavs Big 3 field goal percentage would be better based on last season.

Best Big 3 Three-point Shooting

1st: Cavs 7.3 makes at 37.2 percent

2nd: Wizards 5.9 makes at 39.3 percent

3rd: Celtics 5.8 makes at 39.2 percent

4th: Raptors 5.2 makes at 38.5 percent

Note: If Rose replaces Thomas, the Cavs Big 3 makes 3 fewer threes a game.

Wild Card

The Milwaukee Bucks have their own potential Big 3 in Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jabari Parker and Kris Middleton, except for the fact the 22-year-old Parker tore his ACL and may not be back until after January.

Conclusion

If Thomas doesn’t miss too many games, the Cavaliers Big 3 looks to maintain their level of dominance over the rest of the Eastern Conference, but even if he doesn’t return to his prior form, Cleveland still has a Big 3 that will compete with the rest of the best.

The East has four teams with Big 3s that should lead their respective clubs to over 50 wins next season. But has anything really changed?

 

  

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Cavaliers and Celtics trade Isaiah Thomas and Kyrie Irving

Cavs Cold Feet Could Be Good News For Raptors And Wizards

So the Cleveland Cavaliers are either getting a case of cold feet or just looking for an opportunity to extort another asset from the rival Celtics, but either way, this could be good news for the Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards.

The Cavs rookie general manager Koby Altman had already fleeced the Celtics by nabbing both the 23rd pick of the 2016 NBA draft, rookie center Ante Zizic plus the the rights to the Brooklyn Nets’ 2018 first round pick in the Isaiah Thomas for Kyrie Irving trade.

Altman only got that much because Thomas wasn’t ready to play when the trade was made. He had seen the medical reports before Friday’s physical. He knew Thomas and the Celtics had agreed on rest and rehabilitation instead of surgery. If he’s seen as having second thoughts now or even just asks for more assets, he may as well just call an already upset and potentially fragile Thomas a liar or a fool to his face.

Worse, backing out now, as is Altman’s right, means he’ll have to deal with an even bigger problem when he faces a very unhappy Irving whose trade value just crashed, doesn’t want to be there and likely believes, with cause, Altman just screwed with him.  This wouldn’t end well.

Joe Vardon on Cleveland.com reports,

The Cavaliers are indeed pausing to consider a “concern that we have” regarding Isaiah Thomas’ right hip

the team is conducting a “very deep and thorough review process” on Thomas

The Cavs’ options, ostensibly, would be to void the trade, which in Cleveland’s case would mean taking Irving back after a tumultuous breakup and sending away a potential lottery pick.

If the rookie GM was on the ball, he’d be out there squashing this speculation and assuring Thomas they want him in Cleveland – even if it wasn’t true.

Sometimes good business is making sure your assets aren’t going to be mad at you after you’re done.

Don’t believe for a minute NBA players aren’t influenced by the articles they read, ESPN talk show speculation and social media. Altman needs to get out ahead of this.

The biggest beneficiaries of Altman’s apparent indecision will be/ may already be/ the Raptors and Wizards who are both bringing back the cores from last season’s teams and if the Cavs and Celtics are in disarray, could find nothing to stop them from going on big early season runs in a weakened Eastern Conference that their rivals will not be able to overtake.

The only saving grace in all of this for Altman is if his medical team believes Thomas won’t be ready to play this season and the Celtics were trying to pawn off damaged goods on them. But if that’s the case, he should have just rescinded the trade on Friday.

Anyone missing David Griffin right about 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 and Toronto Raptors Jonas Valanciunas

Raptors Should Just Go For It This Season

Already deep in luxury tax territory and unsuccessfully looking to dump contracts even at the expense of potentially getting worse, Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri should be looking to do more than just being a top four team in the Eastern Conference. He should got for it and take his shot at getting to the NBA Finals.

As Basketball Insiders senior writer Joel Brigham reported recently, overall the East has gotten weaker with Jimmy Butler, Paul George and Paul Millsap heading west. The top four in the East aren’t about to change, although maybe things between the top teams could become at least a little more interesting.

Cleveland, Boston, Toronto and Washington look almost certain to keep their top-four status in the conference simply by bringing back the same players they had a year ago. Add Milwaukee to that conversation, too

Chicago, Indiana and Atlanta all made the playoffs last year but each will vie for the conference’s worst record next season after losing their stars

Boston took the first steps towards becoming more competitive with the Cavs by getting Gordon Hayward’s commitment for next season. Although they still have more moves left to create the needed cap space to sign Hayward and they’ll probably want to do something about carrying four small forwards that all need to play next season.

Expect the Wizards to match anything restricted free agent Otto Porter signs on July 6th.

The Raptors will bring back starters Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, but have lost rotation players P.J. Tucker and Patrick Patterson to free agency and are rumored to be looking to dump salary because of luxury tax concerns.

All three of these pretenders will be competitive during the regular season, but unless they have another major move up their sleeve, no one is going to give them more than a puncher’s chance at knocking off a healthy Cavs squad in the playoffs.

The Celtics with Isaiah Thomas, Al Horford and Gordon Hayward still need rebounding and they have the trade pieces to go get a difference maker. Of course the Celtics with Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Brooklyn’s 2018 first round draft pick could choose to tread water as a 50-win team while their young guys develop instead?

Built around John Wall and Bradley Beal, the Wizards will have continuity and if they can find some offense off the bench, it can be argued they don’t need anything else, but they really need that bench to step up.

The Raptors are built around Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Ibaka, but like the Celtics, they need another impact player if they are going to be more than pretenders in the East.

(Players shown in the positions they would like to play)

The Raptors could make do with the players they have, even if it isn’t practical luxury tax wise. Delon Wright has the size to play on the wing. DeMarre Carroll can play both forward spots and Ibaka can play power forward (like he has for most of his career.) But this isn’t the best use of team resources.

The favored move seems to be to find a team to take on Carroll’s salary to solve the luxury tax issue, but this doesn’t help re-balance the roster or help move the needle of the team’s outlook for next season.

No, Ujiri needs to go big if this team is going to be significantly better than last season. He needs to add an impact player, preferably while reducing his luxury tax position.

Once teams can actually start signing free agents on July 6th and reality sets in around the league, trade season can start in earnest and there is one multiple-time All-Star rumored to have shopped around at the draft because he wasn’t happy, the Spurs LaMarcus Aldridge.

The almost 32-year-old five-time All-Star power forward wasn’t named to the All-Star team for first time since 2012 last year. He posted his lowest scoring (17.3 points per game), fewest field goals made (6.9) and worst rebounding numbers (7.3) since his rookie season way back in 2006-07. However, he was still an impact player and as has been a big man trend, he added a three-point shot and hit 41 percent of his 56 attempts last season.

In addition to Aldridge being unhappy, general manager R.C. Burford isn’t going to have star point guard Tony Parker to start the season, if at all. It doesn’t look like free agency is going all that well either besides the return of Patty Mills, so an aging Spurs team could use some young ready-to-go players for next season.

If the Raptors sent Jonas Valanciunas, Cory Joseph and Lucas Nogueira to the Spurs for Aldridge, the Raptors would get another impact player who can shoot plus shave $4.5 million off their payroll, and the Spurs would get to fill some holes with a young starting center, a backup point guard they know well and a young developing big man.

The Raptors tax situation becomes a lot more palatable and the players fall into roles they prefer/fit.

If Aldridge can re-gain his All-Star form of a year ago, which should be a lot easier in the NBA East, Toronto would at least get a second look as a potential competitor for the Cavs come playoff time.

At this point in early July, nothing is set in stone, however, expect the Celtics to make a move to address those rebounding concerns, look for the Wizards bench to improve and the Raptors will do … something.

Ujiri created a three-year window with the contracts of DeRozan, Lowry and Ibaka, so he may as well go for it this year if he can and there may be no better opportunity to snag an impact player than the situation in San Antonio with Aldridge. That is unless Danny Ainge beats him to it.

 

 

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

   Featured image courtesy of Larry Millson

 

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors DeMar DeRozan

ESPN Wasting No Time To Forget Toronto Exists

It took no time at all for ESPN to forget Toronto even exists as they forecast the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors will meet in the NBA Finals again next year.

Sure the Cavs and the Dubs are heavy favorites no matter what any other team does this summer, but what the ESPN Forecast panel is predicting can only be called bizarre and insulting.

The third place 51-win Raptors don’t even get a sniff ahead of the Bucks team (4.4%) they eliminated from the playoffs, a 49-win Wizards team (2.2%) who they took two of three games from during the regular season or the dysfunctional Pistons (2.2%) who didn’t even make the playoffs.

This panel are either making a ton of assumptions about the inability of Raptors president Masai Ujiri to keep the key pieces of his roster together or, more likely, they just forgot Toronto has an NBA franchise.

The assumptions required to believe the Celtics will win the East next season are not any easier to make happen than those required for the Raptors to be back in the top three of the Eastern Conference.

The Wizards largely face the same challenges this summer that they faced last summer to take another step.

The Bucks are an up and coming team, but do they break thru next year?

The Pistons? Stan Van Gundy wouldn’t predict his team wins the East next year.

It might not be easy for the US based ESPN to remember “We The North” exists, but they could at least look at last year’s standings for some background info before forecasting next year.

There is no one in Toronto that shouldn’t take the Pistons being given a better chance than the Raptors to win the East as anything but a huge insult. Even the Hawks, Bulls, Pacers and Heat should be questioning how the Pistons are getting more respect from ESPN than they are.

 

 

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 Washington Wizards Brandon Jennings / New York Knicks

Why The Knicks Fell Apart This Season Phil Jackson

By Frank McLean

Thursday night the Washington Wizards hosted the New York Knicks for the NBA’s latest version of guaranteed win night which is what a team gets when they host the Knicks.

The Knicks didn’t disappoint as they lost 106-103 to drop their season record to 30-wins and 49-losses leaving them with only three more agonizing games left in their regular season schedule for their battered and bruised fans back in New York City.

If you remember back on December 22nd the Knicks were 16-13 and they looked like they were on their way to their goal of making a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

So what went wrong? How did the train fall of tracks?

Before Thursday’s night’s game the Wizards Brandon Jennings weighed in on what went wrong with the New York media saying that once the Carmelo Anthony trade rumors started from Phil Jackson in January it all fell apart.

Jennings started the season with the Knicks after signing a deal with the club in the offseason.

After playing just 58-games averaging 8.6-points a game he was waived by the Knicks on February 27th and then signed with the Wizards on March first for the remainder of the season.

Anthony as we all know has a no trade clause in his contract and it’s known that Jackson was actively trying to move Anthony before the trade deadline. Jennings said that it definitely was bothering Anthony.

“It definitely took a toll, I think, on the team. Because it wasn’t even about basketball anymore, it was more about what was going on with Melo,” Jennings said. It was one of the wildest situations he has been in during his eight seasons in the league.

Jennings added that it was “cool” playing with Anthony, but went on to say that Anthony had “a lot of pressure on him dealing with stuff with Phil.”  Jennings went on to say that it just wasn’t fair what Anthony had to go through.

“I think it was just a roller coaster, an emotional roller coaster for him this year with everything he had to deal with, which isn’t fair,” he said. “For a player to wake up every day and you’re hearing trade rumors and you might be gone and this and that. It was like a two-week span where everybody was hitting your phone about Melo leaving.”

Jennings has a point. The Knicks were in Toronto playing the Raptors in January just a couple of days after the first Anthony to be traded out of New York started when a story came out attributed from a former Jackson colleague that Anthony has to go because he can’t play the triangle offense.

By the time the Knicks came back to Toronto in March you could see that the rumors had taken their toll in the locker room and on the court.

Other factors have to be considered too. The roster mix just didn’t fit, they couldn’t play a simple defense and the fact they couldn’t or wouldn’t play the triangle.

But Jennings hit it on the head that once the Anthony trade rumors started that pretty well killed their season.

Of course the rumors won’t go away as speculation has it that the Knicks will pursue a trade in the offseason and Anthony has hinted he may agree to one.  Meanwhile things have worked out well for Jennings.

When he was waived by the Knicks it was a mutual parting of the ways by both parties.

“I’m on my contract year so I didn’t want to go home in April,” Jennings said about the matter. “I have a chance to go to the playoffs, so I’m really excited about that.”

Who wouldn’t be excited (to leave the Knicks this season)?

 

 

   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.

  

 

 

 

Top 4 teams in the NBA Eastern Conference 3-28-2017

So Who’s The Best In The NBA East Now?

It’s finally happened, the Cleveland Cavaliers have surrendered first place in the Eastern Conference with their 10th loss in 18 games since the All-Star break. The idle Boston Celtics assuming the half game lead on the back of an 11-6 run over the same period.

However, it isn’t safe to just assume the Boston Celtics are now the best team. The Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors have their own claims to make and the defending NBA Champion Cavaliers aren’t about to give props to anyone else reports ESPN senior writer Ramona Shelburne,

“That’s fine,” Cavaliers star LeBron James said when informed Boston had passed Cleveland in the standings with the 103-74 loss. “It matters more that we play better basketball than where we’re at. If that results in the 1, 2 or 3 seed, we need to play better basketball. That’s all it comes down to. I’m not worried about anything.”

Boston may temporarily hold down first place, but there are other measures that can indicate which team is currently the “best.” (NBA.com team stats)

NBA Eastern Conference net rating

The Raptors can lay claim to the best defensive rating and best net rating of the top four teams in the East, however, what is equally interesting is the Cavaliers terrible defensive rating. Only the Nets and Knicks are worse defensively than Cleveland this season.

The ESPN Basketball Power Index (BPI), a measure of team strength developed by the ESPN Analytics team, confirms the Raptors position at number one in the East. (Noting four teams in the West rank ahead of Toronto.)

However, the Raptors best argument for the strength of their team might come from focusing on just the games since the All-Star break. Notably, this period matches the concerns about the once heavily favored Cavaliers.

In the end, LeBron James and the Cavs have one stat they can hold over the three other teams challenging them in the East. In head-to-head games this season, the Cavs hold winning records over each of them.

It is going to take a lot to shake the confidence most of the talking heads will have in the Cavaliers ability to bounce back and play better once the postseason kicks off. The excuses relating to injuries and chemistry won’t count for much then and a LeBron James led team always makes it to the NBA Finals? Except for maybe this tidbit from the Celtics ESPN home page.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Celtics are in sole possession of the best record in the Eastern Conference this late into the season for the 1st time since the end of the 2007-08 season, when they won the title.

In the meantime, the Celtics are now favored to finish first in the East, but the Raptors can claim they are playing better, own the season series with the Cs and are the hotter team heading down the stretch. However, the best team won’t be known until the playoffs.

 
 

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.

 
 

Projecting The NBA East Playoff Seeding

Down to a dozen games to go and only three spots seem to have been settled when it comes to playoff seeding. Cavs, Celtics and Hawks appear to have locked in their current postseason rank and everyone else with a chance is still battling for position.

The Cavaliers only have a game and a half lead over the Celtics for first and ESPN projects they’ll finish two games ahead at the end of the regular season. Unless coach Lue goes a little overboard on this “rest” concept, only road games in San Antonio and Boston should really present a test to the team everyone has pegged as returning to defend their NBA title. Of course they’ll likely punt a few games unless Boston is really pushing them.

And Boston’s relatively easy schedule just might give them that opportunity to push the Cavs all the way to the end of the regular season. If it wasn’t for those recent unexpected losses to the Suns, Nuggets and 76ers, the ESPN prediction of a 7-4 run to the finish would look unreasonably conservative.

The Wizards will be doing well to finish out the last 12 games going 6-6. Losers of their last two games, they play 5th place Atlanta and last place Nets before heading out on a brutal five game road trip book-ended by Cleveland and Golden State.  They might need to win out in April to go 6-6. Fortunately it looks like the Hawks are too far back to pass them for 4th.

ESPN has Toronto passing the Wizards for 3rd place and if they win the games they are supposed to, the Raptors will be better than the projected 8-4 over their last 12 games and be ready to pounce on any unexpected major slippage by the Celtics for 2nd.

The real battle for playoff seeding begins at 6th and runs through 10th place. Someone isn’t going to make it who thinks they should.

The Pacers are trying to set some kind of bizarre record for alternating wins and losses (now at 14 games of a loss followed by a win) and if they can keep it up, they should grab one of the three remaining playoff spots. However, they have a tough remaining schedule, so the 5-7 ESPN prediction seems reasonable and could be bad news. A 41-41 record might not be enough for a playoff spot.

Milwaukee is hot and got hot at the right time, but Giannis Antetokoumpo turned an ankle and if he misses the usual two weeks, all bets are off on how the Bucks finish out the regular season. With Antetokoumpo, the ESPN prediction of going 6-7 seems ultra-conservative, without him, it might be generous.

The Pistons are in a tie with the Heat now and forecast to still be tied at the end of the regular season. Detroit needs to make hay from now to the end of March when they have seven winnable games because they aren’t making up any ground in April.

The Heat have won a home-and-home against the Cavs in March and then beat Toronto, but they face a tough schedule to the end of the regular season with Toronto twice more, Boston, Detroit, Washington twice and the Cavs again. They’ll have to perform without their third best scorer in Dion Waiters who might miss the rest of the regular season with an ankle injury.

The Bulls have the schedule to make up ground, but they haven’t been playing well and have lost Wade for the season.

The Hornets have a tough schedule ahead of them and just don’t seem to have anything left in the tank.

Playoff seeding 6th thru 8th is decidedly undecided.

 

 

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

  Featured image courtesy of Larry Millson

 

 

NBA East

Playoff Contenders And Pretenders In The NBA East

As NBA teams prepare for New Year’s celebrations, their coaches and general managers have to start facing up to some tough realities. Are they playoff contenders or pretenders in the East? Is it time to tank for the best possible NBA Draft Lottery ticket or go all in for one of the readily available last four playoff spots?

Currently there are eight teams fighting for the last four playoff spots in the Eastern Conference: Hawks, Wizards, Knicks, Bulls, Bucks, Pacers, Magic and Pistons and the 12th place Pistons are only three games back of the fifth place Hawks. Whoever can get and keep their act together over the final 40-odd games left in the season is in.

Just for perspective, ESPN Eastern Conference predictions have the Hornets, Celtics, Raptors and Cavaliers at better than 95 percent certainty of making the postseason. Although only the Raptors and Cavs are given any chance at advancing to the NBA Finals. Miami, Brooklyn and Philadelphia are already relegated to just playing out the string. ESPN also provides Strength of Schedule and the usual standings details to help round out where the teams in the East stand.

NBA East

The teams, their opponents, the fans or anyone else for that matter is under no obligation to just accept ESPN’s predictions. These eight teams are so close that the right move could solidify, boost or reverse (if the tank is in) the fortunes of any one of them.

Atlanta Hawks – ESPN 6th

The Hawks have made the postseason in each of the past nine seasons and if any organization has shown they can pull out the stops necessary to get back there again, this is it.

This team is full value for their .500 record. They have shown an ability to beat anyone, like the Raptors and Cavs and then lose to anyone as they did to the Timberwolves and Magic recently.

With fully half of this roster expected to hit free agency in July, one might expect the Hawks to do the rational move and cash in a high value player who will be tough to keep for a very mediocre team to get future assets, but pending free agents haven’t produced much in trade talks in recent years and it’ll be easier to just try to ride this group to a 10th in a row postseason appearance.

At this point, it wouldn’t be safe to go against the ESPN prediction.

Washington Wizards – ESPN 9th

The Wizards have reversed a terrible start to the season, but they did it playing a somewhat soft schedule that included a couple of wins over the Nets in December.

The best arguments for not just blowing up this roster are the two wins over Milwaukee and the wins over Charlotte and Detroit this month, all of whom ESPN has finishing ahead of Washington.

The Wizards financially committed to winning this season and should be actively looking for trades over the next six weeks to upgrade their roster, especially that terrible 29th ranked (worse than the Nets) bench. It wouldn’t take much to keep them solidly in the playoff picture.

If the Wizards don’t make a move, ESPN has got this prediction right.

New York Knicks – ESPN 10th

Will the Knicks break the hearts of their long suffering fans once again? Probably and it isn’t hard to see why. It’s challenging to project any team giving up nearly 108 points per game making the playoffs.

They are getting outscored by their opponents by the second biggest margin in this group of eight teams. They can’t beat good teams and the much anticipated string of injuries to this rather brittle roster has yet to really happen.

It’s easy to see the Knicks trying to turn draft picks into players that could help now and it might work – for this season, but hasn’t this organization had it’s fill of being taken advantage of by other teams for possible short term gain?

The Knicks making the postseason would be a real “feel good” story. However, the competition for one of those spots might just be too tough unless a few of their competitors decide to tank.

Chicago Bulls – ESPN 8th

Underachievers sums up the Bulls season and it might just cost head coach Fred Hoiberg his job, but if that happens, just throw out the ESPN prediction of 8th place. This team would be headed back to the Lottery and looking to retool for next year.

The Bulls have enjoyed the easiest schedule in the NBA and they are blowing it. Worse, they don’t seem to know why things aren’t going better and can benching Rajon Rondo in the second half of games really be the answer? Throw out the all the fancy ESPN stats on this one, since beating the Cavs on December 2nd, they’ve lost to every team that matters to go 5-10.

If any team needs to make a deal, the Bulls are it and they have assets other teams should be interested in. Assuming management can keep its focus, but this is one team that seems destined to return to the Lottery.

Milwaukee Bucks – ESPN 5th

A young Bucks team hasn’t fared so well thru a rough patch in the schedule, but they still hold the largest points differential of the teams in the group while playing the second toughest schedule. A 7-8 December includes losses to the Spurs, Raptors and Cavs twice.

Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker are the present and the future of this team and any tinkering with this roster has to take these two future (all?)-stars into account. Plus Kris Middleton could return from his hamstring injury after the All-Star break, so the pressure is off in terms of needing to add another impact player.

Sorry Greg Monroe, but the Bucks aren’t under any pressure to move you, but if any team has a point guard they’d like to swap for a big man?

This team is going to the postseason.

Indiana Pacers – ESPN 11th

Tied with Chicago for the easiest schedule in the NBA, a team featuring Paul George should be competing with Toronto for second place in the East instead of owning a spot in the Lottery. There were consequences to shaking up the roster and firing the head coach after what should have been considered a successful season last year.

A team that used to be known for playing big is getting crushed on the glass to the tune of almost 12 offensive rebounds given up and a rebounding differential approaching 5. Add that to the third worst bench in the NBA and what’s become a middle of the road starting group, and even a superstar isn’t going to save you.

A trade for a shooting guard that could score would help as would a big that could rebound, but the Pacers don’t have a lot to offer in return. Unfortunately, ESPN’s prediction of 11th place is looking to be rock solid.

Orlando Magic – ESPN 12th

Apparently someone forgot to mention that the NBA is a guard driven league these days?

The Magic have trouble scoring, they aren’t much of a three-point threat and they could use upgrades at both guard spots. Other than that, this team could be really good. Maybe a trade would help?

Bringing in Serge Ibaka on an expiring deal without the guard play necessary to get the most out of him could easily turn this into a terrible trade for the Magic when he walks away in free agency in July. So sooner rather than later, the Magic have to either trade Ibaka to get something back or trade someone else to get the help needed to turn this sinking Titanic around in hopes of convincing Ibaka to re-sign.

Either way, go with the ESPN prediction. The Magic’s plan for this season didn’t work.

Detroit Pistons – ESPN 7th

Stan Van Gundy is a really good coach, but even he seems flustered by the play of this group. Although, playing the second toughest schedule in the NBA could do that to a team expected to finish somewhere between 5th and 8th before the season began.

The Pistons have played 20 games against teams with a .500 record or better. The Bulls have only played 12, the Wizards 13, and the Hawks and Pacers 14. Van Gundy has his excuse for being in 12th place at 15-20 on the season (not that he’s using it.)

A middle of the road group of starters is supported by the East’s 4th best bench, so slipping into a playoff spot is well within reach and Van Gundy isn’t above rolling the dice on a trade. Although, all the Pistons may need to do is to wait on the schedule to turn in their favor and they’ll meet or exceed ESPN’s prediction.

In Summary,

Contenders: Hawks, Bucks, Pistons

Pretenders: Knicks, Pacers, Magic

Let’s Make A Deal: Wizards, Bulls

 

Who do you think can grab one of the final four playoff spots in the East?

Which teams pull the trigger on a deal – to make it? – or tank?

 

 

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 playoffs Cleveland Cavaliers Lebron James - Kyrie Irving - Kevin Love

Who Has The Star Power In The NBA East?

The NBA is a star driven league and the teams with the biggest stars seem to inevitably make it into the playoffs and the best on to the NBA Finals. However, no star is big enough to do it on their own, they need help on the level of the top 100 NBA players as described by SI.com’s Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney. SI might not be 100 percent right on their selections, but be assured, if a team doesn’t have more than it’s share of talent from this list, their playoff aspirations could be in trouble.

Eastern Conference teams with significant top 100 depth are:

Cleveland Cavaliers (5 players on SI’s top 100)

Assuming a deal eventually gets done with J.R. Smith (96th), the Cavs have SI’s number one ranked player in the NBA, LeBron James backed up by Kyrie Irving (25), Kevin Love (30) and Tristan Thompson (52). This returning starting five averaged an impressive 81.1 points and 31.1 rebounds.

Somehow it doesn’t seem fair that James gets to play with this much depth until one checks out the Warriors who have four players ranked in the top 20.

Boston Celtics (5 players on SI’s top 100)

The free agent acquisition of Al Horford (18th) gives the Celtics a top 20 player to play with Isaiah Thomas (45), Jae Crowder (53), Avery Bradley (72) and Amir Johnson (86). However, this likely starting five only averaged 74.1 points and 24.7 rebounds combined last year. The Celtics might just miss last season’s number 4 scorer and SI snub ranked in the “next 25” Evan Turner. Horford replaces Boston’s top rebounder and fifth leading scorer Jared Sullinger who signed with Toronto.

Orlando Magic (5 players on SI’s top 100)

It may come as a surprise, but the Magic really are a better and deeper team than last year’s 35 win squad, albeit with perhaps more depth at the 4/5 than usual? The acquisition of Serge Ibaka (42) fits in nicely with the smash-mouth style of new head coach Frank Vogel as does free agent Bismack Biyombo (91). They join Nikola Vucevic (75), Evan Fournier (95) and Aaron Gordon (99). A starting five Elfrid Payton, Fournier, Gordon, Ibaka and Vucevic averaged 65.5 points and 28.1 rebounds combined last year.

Orlando could be a playoff team, but with no star in the top 40, depth can only carry a team so far.

Toronto Raptors (4 players on SI’s top 100)

The Raptors top ranked players all played on last year’s 56 win team led by Kyle Lowry (14), DeMar DeRozan (46), Jonas Valanciunas (62) and DeMarre Carroll (73). SI snub Cory Joseph just missing the cut. Toronto’s starting lineup will include Sullinger from the Celtics replacing the 36-year-old Luis Scola. This anticipated starting lineup averaged a Cavaliers-like 78.8 points and 31.3 rebounds combined. Lowry is ranked as the third best player in the East and should be expected to carry his team far again this season.

Charlotte Hornets (4 players on SI’s top 100)

The Hornets live or die on the back of Kemba Walker (33), but he has help from Nicolas Batum (43), Marvin Williams (65) and Cody Zeller (94). Micheal Kidd-Gilchrist made the next 25 snub list despite only playing 7 regular season games last year. These five players averaged 68.9 points and 29.5 rebounds combined.

Washington Wizards (4 players on SI’s top 100)

No one ever said the Wizards didn’t have talent. John Wall (17), Marcan Gortat (55), Bradley Beal (58) and Ian Mahinmi (76) all make SI’s top 100. The presumed starting lineup includes Otto Porter and Markieff Morris with 74.5 points and 29.3 boards combined.

Atlanta Hawks (4 players on SI’s top 100)

This team doesn’t feel like a playoff contender, but Paul Millsap (15), Dwight Howard (34), Kyle Korver (70) and Kent Bazemore (90) indicate there’s still something here. Dennis Schroder takes over from Jeff Teague to lead this group at point guard, their combined averages were 62.6 points and 31.8 rebounds.

In a 30 team league, a middle of the pack team should have at least three players from SI’s list and five Eastern Conference teams do.  Teams hitting this mark include:

Chicago Bulls feature Jimmy Butler (16), Dwyane Wade (32) and Robin Lopez (82) plus three more in the next 25, Taj Gibson, Nikola Mirotic and Rajon Rondo, so maybe they are better than average?

Indiana Pacers feature the resurgent Paul George (9), Jeff Teague (57) and Thaddeus Young (66) plus two snubs in Monta Ellis and Al Jefferson. George is ranked as the second best player in the East, so expect the Pacers to be in the middle of the playoff pack rather than the middle of the conference.

Milwaukee Bucks have Kris Middleton (39), Giannis Antetokounmpo (48), Greg Monroe (63) plus Jabari Parker in the next 25. (Note: Middleton is expected to miss the next 6 months due to injury)

Detroit Pistons rely on Andre Drummond (29), Reggie Jackson (54) and Tobias Harris (77). Head coach Stan Van Gundy might be the real star in Detroit.

In theory Miami had Hassan Whiteside (35), Goran Dragic (61) and Chris Bosh (37), however, Bosh failed his preseason physical so maybe the Heat can stop pretending they can even be an average team this season?

The star power in the East suggests Cleveland remains unchallenged with Toronto, Boston and possibly Indiana fighting it out for next best. However, the depleted Hawks with four players in the top 100 may not be as badly off as anticipated if they can find the chemistry needed to keep their 9-year postseason run alive.

It should be noted that the Knicks are one of just three Eastern Conference teams to have less than three players on SI’s top 100 list as Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah fell into the snubbed category. The East and the West each have 50 players in SI’s top 100.

 

 

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

 

 

 


 

NBA Los Angeles Lakers 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.