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NBA Boston Celtics Gordon Hayward

Gordon Hayward Symbolizes The Risks Taken In RFA

No one is questioning if Utah Jazz restricted free agent (RFA) Gordon Hayward is a nice young man and a very good basketball player, but after the Bobcats owner Michael Jordan opened the vault and made a maximum contract offer to the four year player, Hayward does symbolize the huge risks teams will take to get talent with a lot of room left for improvement.

The challenge with acquiring a RFA is their current team can match any offer and the Jazz have been making sure everyone knows that their intention when it comes to Hayward, so Jordan’s only chance at stealing the young forward is to bid so high and offer such generous perks that the Jazz approach him for a sign and trade or simply back away.

Hayward had a very good rookie season, played well when the Jazz had some decent talent around him the next two years, but last season his shooting fell off a cliff as “the man” in Utah. He put up good numbers, but not outstanding ones as a volume shooter and playmaker without a star beside him averaging 16.2 points on 13.4 shots, 5.1 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.4 steals and 2.8 turnovers in 36.4 minutes – all career highs – but he shot 41.3 percent from the field and 30.4 percent from three-point range which represented big drops to career lows. Hayward’s shooting has fallen off at least 2 percent each season since his rookie mark of 48.5 percent.

The Draft Express Gordon Hayward 2014 Free Agent Scouting Video nails the good and the bad of Hayward. His strengths are: capable shooter (capable?), passing, height for position and he’s young. His weaknesses are his athleticism, length, strength and foot speed on defense and his challenges when creating for himself and finishing over smaller opponents in the post.

The Jazz were justifiably reluctant to offer Hayward a max deal. They probably could have dodged this situation by doing an extension a year ago and now the Bobcats have pushed them into a dilemma they would have preferred to avoid. One of these two teams is going to be accepting the risk of just how much further Hayward can develop his game because at an average of $15 million per season for the next 4 years, last year’s production simply doesn’t cut it. These are the chances a team takes to steal a good young RFA.

 

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.

 

 

Thibodeau and Casey

Every Playoff Spot In The NBA East Is Up For Grabs

The home stretch for playoff seeding in the NBA Eastern Conference kicks off this week in a big way as no team knows where they will end up and only the top 4 teams have guaranteed themselves a spot in the postseason so far. First place is still up for grabs and thanks to the Hawks run of 6-20, both the Knicks and the Cavaliers are now eyeing the eighth and final playoff spot in the East as attainable over the last 2 weeks of the regular season.

Battle For First

Indiana Pacers, 52-22, 8 games remaining, leading

The Pacers have let the HEAT back into the race for first in the East by going 5-5 over their past 10 games and they have a tough schedule ahead. Spurs, Pistons, Raptors, Hawks, Bucks, HEAT, Thunder and Magic give them an even split of 4 tough and 4 easier games remaining. They’ll need to beat the HEAT again to stay ahead in this race.

Miami HEAT, 50-22, 10 games remaining, 1 game back

The HEAT would be in first place already if they could have pulled out the win in Indiana and the rematch in Miami should decide who gets first place. The HEAT face the Raptors, Bucks, Timberwolves, Knicks, Nets, Grizzlies, Pacers, Hawks, Wizards and 76ers. The schedule might look easier than Indiana’s, but there are 7 teams fighting for playoff position or even survival in that group. The HEAT can’t afford to slip up if they want to pass the Pacers.

Battle for Third

Toronto Raptors, 42-31, 9 games remaining, leading

The Raptors can essentially win the Atlantic Division and get a lock on third place or give the advantage to the Bulls depending on how their next 3 games go. Toronto faces the HEAT, Rockets, Pacers, Bucks, 76ers, Knicks, Pistons, Bucks and Knicks. It’s likely no matter what happens this week, the Nets will stay in close proximity to the end.

Chicago Bulls, 41-32, 9 games remaining, 1 game back

Looking at the schedule, the advantage has to go to the Bulls. Facing the Celtics, Hawks, Bucks, Wizards, Timberwolves, Pistons, Knicks, Magic and Bobcats gives them the most winnable schedule among the teams with a shot at third place.

Brooklyn Nets, 39-33, 10 games remaining, 2.5 games back

The Nets refuse to go away in the Atlantic Division race and have given themselves a chance to overtake the Raptors. However, a slightly more favorable schedule than Toronto may not be enough to overtake the Raptors if both teams continue to win the games they should. The Nets face the Rockets, Knicks, Pistons, 76ers, HEAT, Magic, Hawks, Magic, Knicks and Cavaliers.

Battle for Sixth

Washington Wizards 38-35, 9 games remaining, 4 games back of third

The Wizards are too far back to make a serious run at a top 4 spot in the East and they are about to face a serious challenge for sixth. The Wizards play the seventh place Bobcats twice and have a game left against the HEAT. Things could get interesting fast if the Wizards lose in Charlotte on Monday. Washington’s remaining schedule is Bobcats, Celtics, Knicks, Bulls, Bobcats, Magic, Bucks, HEAT and Celtics.

Charlotte Bobcats, 35-38, 9 games remaining, 3 games back of sixth

The Bobcats can determine their own destiny. Beat the Wizards twice and claim sixth for their own. Their remaining opponents are the Wizards, 76ers, Magic, Cavaliers, Wizards, Celtics, 76ers, Hawks and Bulls.

Battle For Eighth

Atlanta Hawks, 31-41, 10 games remaining, leading

The Hawks have lost 20 of their past 26 games and their last 6 in a row or there wouldn’t be a battle for eighth. The Hawks face 76ers, Bulls, Cavaliers, Pacers, Pistons, Celtics, Nets, HEAT, Bobcats and Bucks. If they can win even a few games and hold off the Cavaliers, they should still sneak into the playoffs.

New York Knicks, 31-43, 8 games remaining, 1 game back

The Knicks have both put themselves in this position and given themselves a chance to get out of it, but they are going to have to play better than they have all season to close the deal. New York plays the Jazz, Nets, Wizards, HEAT, Raptors, Bulls, Nets and Raptors. That’s 7 playoff teams in a row to close out the season. They have to win to get in, excuses won’t cut it now.

Cleveland Cavaliers, 30-45, 7 games remaining, 2.5 games back

It’s been a rough season for the Cavaliers, but with 7 games left, they might just have the most favorable schedule of the 3 teams competing for eighth. They can’t do it on their own, but neither the Knicks nor the Hawks should be considered locks to win any games. The Cavaliers face the Magic, Hawks, Bobcats, Pistons, Bucks, Celtics and Nets. They have a chance.

It will be a big week for all the teams in the East vying for position and as usual, if they don’t get their work done early, they risk not being able to count on the top teams in the league playing their best players over the last few games. Once seeding starts to settle out at this time of year, some pretty funky looking lineups and results can start to happen, you can’t count on the top team that beat you last week taking care of business against the team you are competing with next week.

The difference this year from prior seasons may be that no one will be secure in their seeding right up until the final couple of games. It should be a great run.

 

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.

 

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Pro Bball Week in Review 03/30/14
On Pro Bball Report last week: free Landry Fields, Tyler Hansbrough has playoff toughness, Patrick Patterson set to return, Terrence Ross on defense, Raptors can set a road wins record, pregame and post game stories and a lot more.

Thibodeau and Casey

Underestimating The NBA Eastern Conference Again

The annual woe-is-me calls are emanating from your favorite NBA analysts, if only my team was in the NBA East.  First, get over it.  Second, injuries screwed up the Eastern Conference this season, but once the teams began to adjust, there was nothing to apologize for.  Outside of the Atlanta Hawks inability to deal with losing All-Star center Al Horford for the season, injuries to the Knicks and Detroit’s inability to find anything resembling team chemistry, there’s been nothing wrong with the top eight teams in the East.

Sorry, Minnesota, but you can’t be under .500 in your own conference, division and lose critical games to Eastern Conference teams during your recent home stand and expect any sympathy and one team in the West that deserves to be playoff team is going to miss out – that’s life, it isn’t always fair.

The top 4 in the West are tough, as tough as the top 2 in the East, but since those other soon to be Eastern Conference playoff teams (minus the eighth seed) made their mid-season adjustments, they have just as just as good , if not better than, the next 5 in the West.

Brooklyn Nets 32-30, 6th place, current run 22-9

The Nets lost Brook Lopez early on and injuries to Deron Williams and Andrei Kirilenko hurt their start badly, but in 2014, they are winning 71 percent of their games and that’s pretty much what was expected if the season hadn’t started out so poorly.  The Nets are 9th best in points allowed this season and 14-11 versus the West.  They won’t win 50 games and it might be too late for them to win the Atlantic Division, but any team that disrespects this group of proven All-Stars does so at their own peril.

Chicago Bulls 35-28, 4th place, current run 26-12

Head Coach Tom Thibodeau has a lot of respect around the league and his team’s number 1 ranked defense should put a scare into any playoff contender no matter what their record says.  The Bulls lost Derrick Rose for the season after 10 games and traded their leading scorer Luol Deng for luxury tax relief at the beginning of January, but instead of falling apart, they pulled together and got better.  Since December 19, the Bulls have won 68.4 percent of their games and that’s nothing to gripe about.

Toronto Raptors 35-27, 3rd place, current run 28-14

Raptors President and General Manager, Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri’s mantra this season was he would let the players determine what he would do next.  A 6-12 start that meant Rudy Gay was gone and he’d try something else.  It worked.  Since the 4 players the Raptors got back from the Kings arrived, Toronto has won 66.7 percent of their games and that’s at a rate no one saw coming.  The winning isn’t by accident, Head Coach Dwane Casey’s players are giving up the 4th fewest points allowed in the NBA and they have a winning record against the Western Conference.  The Raptors had the talent to be a playoff team in October, but the chemistry just wasn’t there, now the chemistry has everyone scratching their heads and wondering if this could become the best season in the franchise’s history.

Charlotte Bobcats 30-34, 7th place, current run 15-11

The Bobcats weren’t supposed to be here.  The signing of Al Jefferson aside, they were too young and inexperienced to win this season.  Apparently someone forgot to tell Kemba Walker as the Bobcats prized point guard is finally starting to show those clutch leadership skills that made him famous in college.  In a recurring Eastern Conference theme, the Bobcats allow the 5th fewest points in the league.  They might be offensively challenged, but good luck trying to score on this group.  Charlotte has won 57.6 percent of their games since January 11th and that’s good enough to challenge for a playoff spot in either conference.

Washington Wizards 33-30, 5th place, current run 31-23

After a 2-7 start, the Wizards have hung around the .500 mark for most of the season only to finally break through and stay above it recently.  Winning 57 percent of their games after the first 9 is a reasonable level for a playoff team.  Kind of reminds one of a decent 8th place team in the West.  The Wizards are 12th for points allowed.

Atlanta Hawks 27-35, 8th place, current run 2-14

The Hawks were 4 games above .500 just a few days after Horford was lost for the season at the end of December and by some miracle, they were still 4 games above .500 on February 1st.  However, backup center Pero Antic missed over 6 weeks after January 23rd and their other center Gustavo Ayon was lost for the season on February 19th.  The collapse of the Hawks is understandable, they were expected to be a .500 club with everyone available.  The inability of the Pistons, Knicks or Cavaliers to take advantage of the situation is the bigger mystery here.

If you were wondering if the East had the weakest final 6 playoff seeds in living memory, you need to check the record books a little closer:

2009 Atlanta 4th, 47 wins
2008 Cleveland 4th, 45 wins
2007 Toronto 3rd, 47 wins
2006 Denver 3rd, 44 wins
2005 Boston 3rd, 45 wins
2004 Miami 4th, 42 wins

Those records didn’t ruin the NBA playoffs and similar finishes in the East this year won’t ruin these playoffs either.

The current Eastern Conference playoff seeds 3-7 hold down the number 1, 4, 5, 9 and 12 spots for the fewest points allowed in the NBA.  They don’t have the offensive flash of their Western Conference counterparts, but isn’t the analogy, scoring can win in the regular season, but defense wins in the playoffs.  Play on.

 

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.

 

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High School Basketball Star Aquille Carr Is Back On Track
Everything didn’t go as the 5’7 high school basketball phenom Aquille Carr had hoped after he decided to forego college last spring.  He has found his trip to the pros a lot tougher than he expected.   “I am looking at Summer Leagues, but I am not (considering) not getting drafted,” Carr said.  “We are just thinking about getting to the NBA.”

CHA_Zeller_Cody

Charlotte Bobcats Rookie Cody Zeller Is Having Fun

The Charlotte Bobcats are unexpectedly sitting in an Eastern Conference playoff spot and their 21-year-old rookie center Cody Zeller has been having fun in his first NBA season. The change from college has been huge and Zeller has a lot to learn, but its better when you are winning a few games along the way.

“It is definitely a learning process being a rookie in the NBA,” Zeller said. “You have a lot to learn, but everyone has been good about trying to help me out, the coaches, the vets, everyone along the way. We are winning, so everything is better when you are winning.

“It’s definitely fun. It could be a lot worse than playing basketball for a living.”

Like many rookies, the biggest adjustment is the change from the college game to the NBA. Everything is different, the schedule is tougher and the level of competition is so much higher. Zeller is just trying to contribute whatever he can for now.

“I think it’s just playing 82 games against the best players in the world,” Zeller said. “You have the most talented players every night, whether you play good or play bad, you got another game the next night, so you have to put it behind you whether it was a good or a bad game and get ready for the next one.

“The biggest thing is just to learn the game. There are so many new things. Defensive principles, offense – what a team is looking for – there is a lot learning, so it’s a big process. Later on I’ll be able to develop more skills and make more of an impact, but right now I am just trying to do whatever I can to make an impact on winning.”

On the Bobcats, winning comes from defense. Charlotte is one of the lowest scoring teams in the NBA. Most of the time, this team wins ugly or not at all. Zeller is all in with Head Coach Steve Clifford’s program.

“Coach Clifford is big on defense,” Zeller said. “We won a lot of games just playing defense. We won a lot of games that haven’t been pretty, but they go down as wins still, so that has been big for us all year and hopefully we can keep that up.

“It’s just the basic principles we started with in training camp and not getting away from those. It’s the little details like communication. We don’t have too many crazy shot blockers or anything. We play a good fundamental defense.”

Looking back at last season, Zeller can see where he’s been and it provides a solid context for what he is up against now.

“I am learning,” Zeller said. “You know, now when I watch a college game it seems so hectic because in an NBA game, you have spots you want to get to, you have players you want to get in isolation – little things here and there.”

Zeller is averaging just over 16 minutes a game in Charlotte and he is having an impact at the defensive end of the court by grabbing over 18 percent of the available defensive rebounds. His offense has a long ways to go, but in Coach Clifford’s system, his defense should keep him on the court and having fun winning some ugly games.

 

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

 

PHI_Carter_Williams_Michael
Be sure to check out our NBA Rookie Watch

NBA Charlotte Hornets Kemba Walker

Bobcats Kemba Walker Does What Kyrie Irving Hasn’t

It’s been almost three years since Kemba Walker was drafted ninth overall by the Charlotte Bobcats after the junior had led Connecticut on that improbable run to a National Championship.  He wasn’t just the team leader, Walker hit numerous clutch shots and was the best point guard in college basketball that season, winning the NCAA Basketball Tournament Most Outstanding Player award.  Playing in just 11 games, Duke freshman Kyrie Irving went number one overall in the same draft, but that was based on projections and wasn’t based what happened on the court in college.

In their rookie NBA seasons, Irving proved the talent evaluators right by winning Rookie of the Year honors and tearing through the league scoring 18.5 points per game.  Walker struggled in Charlotte playing on a historically bad 7-win team and started just 25 games.

“It’s a different basketball game going from college to the NBA,” Walker said.  “It is just a learning experience.  I had to adjust to the game.  It takes time and not everyone is going to come in and be great right away and that was me.  I wasn’t going to be great right away and I always learnt from my mistakes and I just wanted to get better each and every year.  In the off season I put in the time, I put in the work and it just shows during the year.  Last summer I put in a lot of work and even during the season, I am still putting my work in and it is just showing in the games.”

Walker was much better as an NBA sophomore and has taken his game up another level this season as the Bobcats have finally started to put some talent around him and some of their other young players have started to mature.

“I am definitely getting better,” Walker said.  “I am putting in the time.  I am watching film, just getting better, learning from all my mistakes.  That is how you get better and I definitely feel it myself.”

Surprisingly, the once beyond terrible Bobcats are fighting for a playoff spot and Walker has been stepping up as a team leader and clutch player once again.  The promise that was obvious in college is starting to show at the professional level.

“No question, I am definitely the leader of this team,” Walker said.  “I wouldn’t have it no other way.  Guys look to me.  Basically, the way I go, the team goes.  I definitely wear that hat and I am excited to.”

The now two-time All-Star Irving on the other hand hasn’t led the Cavaliers anywhere.  Cleveland replaced their head coach in the off season and has tried to surround Irving with more talent, but if anything, Irving has regressed in his third NBA season and the Cavaliers are in disarray.  The physical skills the talent evaluators identified before the draft are still there, but the intangibles seem to be missing.  Where Walker has been providing leadership in Charlotte, the same can’t be said for Irving.

Maybe it’s just the maturity of being 23-years-old that is giving Walker the edge over the younger Irving at this point and the 21-year-old point guard will develop his leadership skills over time.  After all, at Irving’s age, Walker was just a struggling NBA rookie.  There is something to be said for developing your leadership skills over 3 years in a winning college program.

 

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.

 

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Bobcats Rookie Cody Zeller Is Having Fun
“It is definitely a learning process being a rookie in the NBA,” Zeller said. “You have a lot to learn, but everyone has been good about trying to help me out, the coaches, the vets, everyone along the way. We are winning, so everything is better when you are winning.  It’s definitely fun. It could be a lot worse than playing basketball for a living.”

TOR_Casey_Dwane

Raptors Slide Lets Nets Back Into Race

The Raptors slide continued in Charlotte on Martin Luther King Day for 1 win and 3 losses in a rough week while the Nets returned from London to defeat the Knicks to go 2-0 over the same period and get back into the Atlantic Division race.  Brooklyn now sits just 2.5 behind the division leading Toronto Raptors.

“Right now we have a bunch of guys that are giving in to fatigue and nicked-up,” Head Coach Dwane Casey said.  “It’s a long season, but again you tell a lot about who you are in these situations.

“Young players don’t understand how much energy it takes to play 82 games.”

A week ago Saturday, the Raptors defeated Brooklyn 96-80 to stop a Nets 5-game winning streak.  Then Toronto defeated Milwaukee 2 days later to go 2 games above .500 and take a 4.5 game lead in the division, but with 4 games in 6 days and a couple of players injured, the Raptors were about to take a tumble.  First it was a brutal display of shooting that led to a close loss in Boston.  A bounce-back win over Minnesota followed by loses to the Lakers and Bobcats on the back-to-back for a 1-3 record against 4 sub-.500 teams.

The loss to the Lakers was especially tough because the young Raptors were seduced into a D’Antoni style pickup game that gave a bad defensive team a chance to win.

Los Angeles Lakers Media Day
Raptors Get Seduced Into A D’Antoni Game

For some unknown reason, the Raptors find ways to lose in Charlotte.  This loss is hard to explain other than the Raptors – once again – lost their focus just long enough to hand another victory to the Bobcats and just like their last game against Charlotte, Monday’s game did say a lot about the Raptors.

Charlotte Bobcats Media Day
Bobcats Define Raptors in 104-102 OT Win

For the second game in row against the post-Rudy Gay era Raptors, the offensively challenged Bobcats dropped 100 points on Toronto.  At some point, those of a more superstitious nature are going to start believing in a Bobcats’ curse.

The Raptors did claw their way back from a 30-deficit to close to with 1 point and had 2 chances to tie the game at the end, but happy endings just don’t happen for Toronto in Charlotte.  This kind of finish has occurred before and far too often.

SAC_Hayes_ChuckChuck Hayes set a new season high for points and rebounds with 12 and 13 for the double-double as the Raptors bench once again was the strongest part of the rotation.  Greivis Vasquez had 15 points, 7 rebounds and 9 assists and was a +23.  The bench contributed 44 points against Charlotte.

The Nets buried the Knicks 103-80 on Monday to create some space in the Atlantic Division.  New York, Boston and Philadelphia are all now at least 5.5 games back of Toronto.  This has become a 2-horse race, a race that may be decided by a January 27th game in Brooklyn that will break the season series tie between these 2 teams.

The Raptors young players have a game every other day to the end of the month.  Coach Casey is going to get a good look at just how much energy they have.

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.

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Bobcats Define Raptors in 104-102 OT Win

The offensively challenged Charlotte Bobcats faced the Toronto Raptors at the Air Canada Centre on Wednesday and put up over 100 points in a back and forth 104-102 overtime victory for the visitors.

It was only the third game for Head Coach Dwane Casey’s new roster since the Rudy Gay trade, but in some ways it defines the Raptors and their season.  The Raptors are talented enough to play with the rest of the mediocre to bad teams in the Eastern Conference playoff race, but are putting the emphasis on developing their young players.

TOR_Casey_Dwane“We are still in the building process,” said Casey before the game. “It is about Terrence Ross, growing him, getting him better.  DeMar DeRozan is still a work-in-progress.  Jonas Valanciunas is still a work-in-progress.  We are still building – still in the improvement process of getting these guys better until further notice.”

TOR_Valanciunas_JonasAs is common with the Raptors, Toronto started off with a play into the post for Jonas Valanciunas and the Raptors young center showed something new by passing out and re-posting deeper.  On the pass back, he easily scored over Al Jefferson with a short hook.  Valanciunas also putback an offensive board 2 plays later, but points were hard to come by in the first quarter as both teams shot under 32 percent from the field and the Bobcats took an 18-15 lead on a late Kemba Walker three-pointer.  Bobcats turning the ball over 5 times to the Raptors 4.

SAC_Salmons_JohnIn the second quarter, the Raptors bench came alive as John Salmons scored 8 points on 2 three-pointers and then DeRozan started hitting shots to add 11 points to a 32 point Raptors quarter.  Toronto hit 12 of 18 shots while Charlotte added 7 more turnovers to their total and shot 8-18 from the field in a listless effort.  New Raptor Greivis Vasquez had a big second quarter with 5 points and 3 assists off the bench.

Toronto started the second half with a 10 point lead that ballooned to 16 points before things started falling apart.  Anthony Tolliver subs in for the Bobcats and scores 7 quick points.  Walker goes off with back-to-back three-pointers, an and-1 drive and a jump shot to close the gap to 65-64.  The quarter ends in a 70-all tie and the offensively challenged Bobcats have responded with 33 points.

Charlotte Bobcats Media DayIn the quarter, Jefferson scored 10 points for the visitors to go with Walker’s 11 and Tolliver’s 7.  Ross scored all of his 5 points for Toronto in the third quarter, DeRozan added 9 and Vasquez scored 4.

A wild fourth quarter saw the lead change several times and Kyle Lowry hit the game tying three-pointer with 12 seconds left.  DeRozan stole the ball from Walker as time expired to send the game into overtime.

The Raptors had every opportunity to win this game in overtime, but they shot just 3-11 over the final 5 minutes and although DeRozan denied it, he looked completely gassed at the end, shooting 1-4.

The Bobcats had their own chance to win this game from the free throw line, but both Gerald Henderson and Walker went 0-2 with less than 20 seconds left to setup Walker’s heroics with just 1 second left on the clock.  After DeRozan tied the game from the line, Josh McRoberts in-bounded the ball to Walker who hit the game winning jump shot.

Charlotte Bobcats Media Day“I set a back screen for Gerald (Henderson),” Walker said.  (“I was open,” interjected Henderson.) Then Big Al (Jefferson) set a screen for me. So it was kind of pick the picker. I guess there was a little confusion on the defensive end and I just found myself pretty open.  Josh (McRoberts) made a great pass to me and I had a second so I could turn around and set my feet and get a good shot up.”

Walker finished the game scoring 29 points on 10-18 shooting.  Big Al Jefferson set a season high with 24 points, he also had 11 rebounds to record the double-double.  The usual Raptors killer, Henderson, had a quiet 11 points.  The Bobcats turned the ball over 20 times.

TOR_Johnson_AmirDeRozan led all scorers with 30 points on 11-26 shooting and 8-10 from the free throw line.  Lowry had 17 points and 6 assists.  Vasquez had 9 points and 8 assists, but shot just 4-15 from the field.  The Raptors out rebounded the Bobcats 50-40 and the hard working Amir Johnson recorded a 10 point 13 rebound double-double.

The Raptors will get another chance at the Bobcats when they visit Charlotte on January 20th.  Fans can get a free ticket to the game with the donation of a six-pack of socks to the Cody Zeller Sock Drive.

Toronto starts a 4 game road trip against Dallas on Friday.

Charlotte plays in Detroit on Friday.

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.

NBA Charlotte Hornets Kemba Walker

Raptors Face Nemesis Bobcats: Pregame Report

The 9-13 Toronto Raptors face the surprising 11-14 Charlotte Bobcats on Wednesday night at the Air Canada Centre.  The Bobcats defeated the Raptors 92-90 earlier this season when Head Coach Dwane Casey let the Bobcats run out the clock because he thought his team would get the ball back in time for a last second play.  Oops – that stung!

While Toronto has found imaginative ways to lose in Charlotte, they have managed to win the last 3 games against the Bobcats at home and the Raptors need to win this one before heading out on a very tough 4 game road swing over Christmas against the Mavericks, Thunder, Spurs and Knicks.

SAC_Vasquez_GreivisIt would be unfair to use the Raptors season statistics as a guide for the current roster.  Four games ago, Toronto sent Rudy Gay, Quincy Acy and Aaron Gray to Sacramento, waived D.J. Augustin and received Greivis Vasquez, John Salmons, Patrick Patterson and Chuck Hayes in return.  Now, as Casey says, “We got a bench.”

TOR_Johnson_AmirAmir Johnson has reclaimed his spot in the starting lineup and has been playing out of his mind – averaging 20.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2 blocks over the past 5 games.

Terrence Ross has started the last 3 games and is averaging 15.7 points and 5 rebounds.

Vasquez, Salmons and Patterson have all claimed key rolls off the bench and the once ball hogging Raptors are averaging 23 assists per game.

Maybe this is just the result of everyone stepping up after a big trade, the adrenalin boost incoming players get as they feel the need to prove themselves and the need to show one can be a good teammate after watching the general manager shake up the roster, but hopefully this is change that sticks and the team continues to play better.

The Bobcats are sixth in the East at 11-14 and are coming off a nice win at home over the Sacramento Kings – a game in which Rudy Gay left with a sore right knee.  However, Charlotte has enjoyed a milk toast schedule of weak teams so far this season.  Their opponents have averaged a winning percentage of 46.6 percent according to the ESPN Hollinger power ranking.  Only Miami, Boston and Chicago have faced an easier schedule.

The Bobcats are young and developing, but they have held opponents to the second fewest points per game in the NBA (92.3).  Unfortunately, they are second last in scoring at 90.6 points per game, but these Cats have feasted on bad teams early in the season.

Charlotte Bobcats Media DayKemba Walker leads Charlotte in scoring and has been hot in December, averaging over 20 points per game.  Al Jefferson has been a big contributor and is averaging a double-double 15.4 points, 10.5 rebounds, 1.4 blocks and 1.1 steals over his past 10 games.  Gerald Henderson has been inconsistent, producing anything between 10 points and 20 points on any given night, but big games from Henderson often end up in a Bobcats victory, so he is a guy the Raptors must keep under control.  Henderson had 23 points in the Bobcats win over Toronto in November.

Toronto is 2-0 with their new bench players from Sacramento.  This will be the team’s first real test after several days of practice to see if their early success was just shock and adrenalin or something more.

Special Note:
Raptors Partner With NBA Cares & UNICEF For Philippines Typhoon Haiyan Relief
All donations made in-game tonight will be matched by the Raptors.

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

Raptors Lose at Bobcats 92-90 Strange Ending

The Charlotte Bobcats hosted the Raptors in the tail-end of a back-to-back series for both teams. Charlotte looking for a chance to get above .500 in what must seem to be forever and the Raptors needing to prove they really are a playoff contender despite a tough early schedule, but it was the Bobcats who prevailed 92-90 in yet another very strange Raptors loss in Charlotte.

Raptors Head Coach Dwane Casey let his team play out the final 27 seconds without fouling even though his team was down by 2 points. Gerald Henderson fired off a long distance three-pointer as the shot clock expired that hit the rim and time expired before Toronto could rebound the ball.

“We felt like we had 5 seconds and as soon as we got the rebound, we was going to call time out,” Casey explained post game.

Casey was wrong.

With injuries to Brendan Haywood and Al Jefferson, the Bobcats start their “kid line” averaging 23-years-old of Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Gerald Henderson, Josh McRoberts and Bismack Biyombo.

The Raptors starting lineup is relatively veteran in comparison with Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas.

Raptors Quincy Acy and Steve Novak are inactive tonight. Toronto hasn’t won in Charlotte since March 29, 2010!

First Quarter 32-18 Bobcats

Bobcats open with a soft zone on defense, four players hugging the paint that frustrates Toronto early. At the other end Henderson attacks DeRozan and hits 2 jumpers in a row to put the Bobcats up 6-0.

Raptors start going inside and get Valanciunas going, but team shoots 6-17 early. Henderson owns DeRozan going 5-7 for 10 points in 8 minutes. Coach Casey subs in Landry Fields to guard Henderson with the score 21-12 Bobcats.

Valanciunas has 8 points on 4-7 shooting. No one else on Toronto has more than 2 points.

Henderson has 12 points on 6-8 shooting. Jeff Taylor off the bench has 7 points on 3-4 shooting.

Bobcats out rebounding Toronto 10-8.

Second Quarter 53-53

Raptors second unit worked the game back to 10 points, but can’t shoot well enough to get any closer. This game has gotten ragged.

Kidd- Gilchrist is putting together a nice game – 4-4, 8 points.

Tyler Hansbrough did get a nice little cheer on a made basket from the UNC crowd. Hansbrough has 9 points to lead the Raptors mid-way through the second quarter. His effort is helping the Raptors get back into this game after being down by 16 points.

Raptors start playing harder, following Hansbrough’s effort. DeRozan passes to Lowry for a three, next DeRozan hits a 3, then DeRozan for another 3-pointer to tie game at 51.

Half-time

Henderson leads all scorers with 14 points on 7-10 shooting. Taylor has 10 points on 4-7 shooting.

Hansbrough leads the Raptors with 9 points on 4-4 shooting and started the Raptors comeback in the second quarter. Gay, Valanciunas and DeRozan have 8 points each.

Bobcats are shooting 56.4 percent from the field and are out rebounding the Raptors 17-16.

Third Quarter 76-70 Bobcats

Raptors start fast led by Gay’s effort. 6 points and 2 offensive rounds took Toronto to 62-57 lead, but Bobcats storm back with a 11-0 run. Hansbrough comes back in.

Casey inserts defensive specialist Julyan Stone with the Raptors down 68-62.

Raptors have gone cold from the field and don’t scored a field goal for 7 minutes. Gay scoring on either end of the drought.

Gay leads the Raptors with 18 points on 7-19 shooting. Valanciunas has the 12 point 10 rebound double-double.

Henderson has 21 points on 10-15 shooting. Taylor has 13 points on 5-9 shooting.

Fourth Quarter 92-90 Bobcats

Raptors close the gap to 80-78, but seem to lose focus and effort as Charlotte goes on an 6-2 run. Ross missed an 18 footer, DeRozan misses an 18 footer, DeRozan misses a 25 footer – just poor shot selection in a close game. 86-80 Bobcats.

Bobcats get up 90-82, then Gay hits a layup and Fields scores in close to bring the Raptors to within 4 points with 2.5 minutes left. Walker airball, DeRozan fast break, 90-88 Bobcats.

Raptors can’t finish at the rim and its Kidd-Gilchrist with the layup. Next trip DeRozan is fouled, goes 2-2 from the line 92-90 Bobcats – 43 seconds left.

DeRozan drives, maybe fouled, maybe not, but teardrop is short. 2 second clock-shot clock differential, but Raptors don’t foul?

Out of bounds, but it’s Charlotte ball – 5.2 sec left, 3.3 on the shot clock. Henderson fires the long three-pointer that hits the rim and time expires before Toronto can even attempt to rebound the ball. Seems like a huge end of game coaching error by Casey.

Game Stats

Henderson leads all scorers with 23 points on 10-17 shooting. Kidd-Gilchrist has 14 points on 6-7 shooting. McRoberts goes for 13 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists. Biyombo ends up with 8 points, 11 rebounds and 3 blocked shots.

Gay leads the Raptors with 20 points and 5 rebounds on 8-21 shooting. Valanciunas with 12 points and 10 rebounds. DeRozan had 14 points on 5-16 shooting as he struggled with Henderson at both ends of the court. Johnson had 13 points and 7 rebounds. The entire Raptors bench was on the plus side of the plus/minus while all the starters were in the minus as the starters were flat throughout much of this game.

Raptors barely out rebound the Bobcats 38-37.

The 2-3 Raptors travel to Indiana to face the Pacers on Friday and return home Saturday to play the Jazz. This loss hurts.

The 3-2 Bobcats play their next 2 games at home, the Knicks on Friday followed by the Hawks on Monday.

Be sure to check out our Raptors Box Score 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.

Raptors (2-2) at Bobcats (2-2): Pregame Report

The Toronto Raptors will face the Bobcats tonight in Charlotte with both teams flying in late last night after playing the front end of a back-to-back. The Bobcats arriving after a 102-97 win against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden, the Raptors after suffering a 104-95 defeat at the hands of LeBron James and the Miami HEAT at the Air Canada Centre.

Last night the Bobcats broke a 16 game road losing streak that goes back to February 19 against the Orlando Magic and tonight’s game at home gives the Bobcats a rare chance to have a plus .500 record during the regular season – something that hasn’t happened since the end of 2009-2010.

The Bobcats held onto a small fourth quarter lead that the Knicks closed to within 2 points with 6 minutes to go, but from this point to the end of the game, the Knicks jacked up 8 long range bombs with Carmelo Anthony finally connecting on 1 with 16 seconds left to get back to within 3 points of the Bobcats. Charlotte hit 3-4 free throws in the dying seconds to win 102-97 as both Raymond Felton and Metta World Peace missed very long range shots to end the game.

The Raptors were disappointed with the loss to the HEAT as the team took themselves out of the game at the start of the fourth quarter by turning the ball over 8 times in the first 4 minutes. It took 8 minutes before Kyle Lowry finally sunk the team’s first field goal of the final frame.

The Raptors had tied the game at 71 with 3 minutes left to go in the third quarter, but the stretch of ineptitude to start the fourth enabled the HEAT to go on a 19-3 run that Toronto could not overcome.

“We had a stretch of turnovers – 5-in-a-row, 6-in-a-row – when we gave our starters a blow and it broke our back a little bit,” Head Coach Dwane Casey said post game.

Actually it was 8 turnovers in the first 9 possessions of the fourth quarter and it wasn’t all at the hands of the reserves. DeMar DeRozan kicked things off with 2-in-a-row, Rudy Gay had 2, D.J. Augustin had 2, Landry Fields had 1 and Tyler Hansbrough had 1. Part of the problem was Miami came out in the second half and stepped up their intensity. The HEAT are one of the league’s best defensive teams and this was the first time this season the Raptors faced that kind of pressure.

The HEAT started the third and fourth quarters like a championship level team and ran up big early leads, but the Raptors didn’t fold and pushed back to a tie late in the third quarter and to within 6 points late in the fourth quarter.

“We put ourselves in a position to win,” Casey said. “We were 6 down and had possession of the ball.”

Unfortunately, the Raptors didn’t have LeBron James to close out the game. James finished with 35 points and scored late to break a 16-6 Raptors run and then set up Ray Allen for the dagger three-ball that finished off the Raptors hopes.

The Bobcats don’t have the HEAT’s level of talent – few teams do. They are being led by guards Kemba Walker and Ramon Sessions. Walker is averaging 18.5 points, 3.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2 steals in his first 4 games. Sessions is second in team scoring with 13.8 points.

Free agent center Al Jefferson has only played in 1 game due to a sprained ankle and will miss tonight’s game. Center Brandon Haywood is expected to miss 3 months following foot surgery. The Bobcats are led on boards by Bismack Biyombo (6.8), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (6.3) and Jeff Adrien (6.0).

The Bobcats are averaging less than 90 points per game on the season having failed to score over 85 points twice already. Charlotte currently has the second worst field percentage as a team in the NBA at 40.1 percent.

The Raptors are led by DeRozan in scoring at 20.5 points per game. Rudy Gay is averaging 16 points and 9.5 rebounds as he struggles shooting from the field, but is leading his team in rebounding early on. Second year center Jonas Valanciunas is averaging 9.3 points and 7.5 rebounds in 23.3 minutes.

The Raptors are averaging 95 points per game, but are collecting 47.5 rebounds per game, 15 at the offensive end of the court. The Bobcats are averaging just 41.5 rebounds missing both of their veteran centers.

This is a big game for both teams, but for very different reasons.

There is a lot of pride at stake for the Bobcats as no one expects much from this young developing team and this game represents what could be their only chance to have a plus .500 record this season. Walker is developing into the effective scoring point guard envisioned when he was drafted. Some early success this season could go a long ways to boosting his confidence and speeding up his development.

The Raptors hold playoff aspirations, but with a tough early schedule, games against non-playoff teams are must win whether they are on the road or at home. Toronto cannot afford to lose any winnable games in November if they are to hang around the .500 mark through this difficult period.

Be sure to check out our Raptors Box Score

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 Worst Teams In The NBA

As NBA teams rush towards the start of training camp in about two weeks, certain teams have already made it obvious that ping pong balls in the Draft Lottery will be more important than wins.  Other teams may not be ready to admit it, but it seems fairly obvious they will be joining the battle for the best possible draft pick next June as well.  After all, this may be the most impressive draft class since LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade went in the top five back in 2003.

Our top five teams in the East are the Bulls, HEAT, Nets, Pacers and Knicks and our top five in the West are the Clippers, Thunder, Spurs, Rockets and Warriors.   Our playoff hopefuls of Pistons, Raptors, Hawks, Wizards, Bucks and Cavaliers in the East and Grizzlies, Nuggets, Timberwolves, Mavericks, Trail Blazers and Pelicans in the West are going to fight it out for the last three playoff spots in their respective conferences and no one in these groups should be expected to obviously tank the season until after their record says this isn’t going to be their year.

Some of the lottery bound teams have just too much talent to reach the bottom while others have been taking steps to ensure they’ll have a chance to compete for dead last.  However, it is organizations that decide to tank and even on really bad teams, the players still want to win.  There are no guarantees that a team’s best laid plans will work in either direction.

 

Too Good To Reach The Bottom

8. Boston Celtics – 41-40 last season, projected 33-49

Boston didn’t have to let Head Coach Doc Rivers out of his contract and trade Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett if they were going to take steps to ensure a return to the playoffs this season.  The Nets believe Pierce and Garnett make their team a contender and the Nets are right.  However, the Big Three era in Boston was over.  Point guard Rajon Rondo will miss the start of the season and probably a lot more before his rehab is done.  This team will likely be relying on rookie point guard Phil Pressey and a rookie center Kelly Olynyk.  There is little value to the Celtics in watching Boston’s veterans get minutes ahead of Jordan Crawford or MarShon Brooks.  It shouldn’t even surprise anyone if rookie Brazilian big man Vitor Faverani gets minutes ahead of Kris Humphries.

Boston is rebuilding and they have done nothing to hide that fact.  Their new rookie Head Coach Brad Stevens received a long term deal so he wouldn’t have the pressure of trying to win straight away.  The organization has collected six first round draft picks to use or trade over the next three years.  No one should expect the Celtics to be rebuilding for long, but they are rebuilding this season.

The Celtics have too much talent to reach for the bottom, but they can ensure themselves of a top 8 draft pick in June without overt tanking and that is a strategy this organization will be comfortable with.

7. Sacramento Kings – 28-54 last season, projected 32-50

The Kings made some nice additions this summer.  Rookie shooting guard Ben McLemore is an uber-athlete with amazing hops, long reach and three-point shooting range.  Greivis Vasquez is a big point guard with decent scoring ability and a willingness to pass the ball.  Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is a solid defender at either forward spot.  However, these positive changes are not going to change anyone’s opinion about the Kings this season.

Center DeMarcus Cousins is the player that could move this team from the lottery to playoff contender and everyone is waiting for him to grow up and do it.  While that is probably not a fair expectation this season, if Cousins finds his maturity and McLemore is as good a rookie as his natural gifts suggest, this might be the last season the Kings can be left out of the playoff conversation for a while.

6. Los Angeles Lakers – 45-37 last season, projected 29-53

The Lakers only made the playoffs last season on a herculean effort from Kobe Bryant to drag a talented dysfunctional team kicking and screaming out of the lottery where their play suggested they deserved to be.  Videos of Bryant running on an anti-gravity treadmill in August only serve as a stark reminder that last year’s savior is not going to be there on opening night October 29th against the Clippers.  Unfortunately, Bryant’s Achilles tendon rehab program isn’t the only question mark on the Lakers’ season.

Pau Gasol is still in Spain rehabbing his knees after having surgery and stem cell injections in May and another big concern is the surgically-repaired plantar fascia tear in his right foot from last season.  Maybe Gasol will be fully recovered for the start of the year and maybe he can get through this season without missing too many games, but at 33-years-old, seeing will be believing.  One could choose to ignore that the 39-year-old Steve Nash has been nursing a bad back for years, but at the end of July, the point guard was still dealing with nerve issues resulting from last season’s fibula fracture.  How well Nash can perform this season is anyone’s guess.

Dwight Howard is gone and for all the complaints, he still led the NBA in rebounding last season and was second on the Lakers in scoring.  Metta World Peace was amnestied and the Lakers best defensive player after Howard was also fifth in scoring.  One would be hard pressed to say any of the off season additions have made the Lakers a better team than last year.

If Bryant comes back early and plays like he did at the end of last season and Gasol and Nash are healthy enough to perform at a high level, then this team will be in the playoffs.  It would take a lot of nerve or purple and gold colored glasses to predict that was going to be the case.

5. Charlotte Bobcats – 21-61 last season, projected 28-54

It was a surprise when the Bobcats signed free agent center Al Jefferson to a 3-year $40.5 million deal, after two seasons of beyond bad, targeting dead last in the NBA had become expected.  This team will at least be more fun to watch this season.

A starting lineup of Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller and Al Jefferson only averages 23-years-old and while there is plenty of firepower, it will be matched by mistakes at the other end.  This team is still under development, but with the veteran Jefferson to anchor center and put up a few more points, the development process should become a lot more positive and the light at the end of the tunnel will no longer be assumed to be an oncoming train.

The Battle For Last

4. Utah Jazz -43-39 last season, projected 26-56

When the Jazz let Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Mo Williams and Randy Foye leave, took back a boat load of salaries no one wanted for 5 future draft picks, and added two 2013 first round draft picks to this season’s roster, the message was clear.  The Jazz were tired of mediocrity and the rebuild was on.

It was time to see what Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter and Alec Burks could do in starting roles and if the rookie Trey Burke could be this team’s point guard of the future, but everything the Jazz did this summer was about the future and wins are going to be tough to come by.

Even if this implausibly young starting lineup exceeds all expectations, this team has almost no depth and will suffer immeasurably if any starter is missing games, but developing this core and adding another top draft pick next season is absolutely the right way to go.

3. Orlando Magic – 20-62 last season, projected 25-57

The Magic have done an exceptionally good job of rebuilding out of the ashes of their Dwightmare.  Just Hedo Turkoglu and Jameer Nelson remain from the team that went to the 2009 NBA Finals and 2010 Eastern Conference Finals with Dwight Howard and neither player’s contract is guaranteed past this season.

Last season Nikola Vucevic, Maurice Harkless, Andrew Nicholson showed they were part of the future and the second overall 2013 draft pick Victor Oladipo is a potential future All-Star guard.  The rebuilding isn’t done and another high draft pick in 2014 is definitely in the plans, but the Magic are on the right path.  They just might have trouble winning the race to bottom with the young talent they have already collected, but maybe not?

2. Phoenix Suns – 25-57 last season, projected 20-62

The Suns didn’t win a lot of games last season and based on the moves they made this summer, that number is going to drop.  The Suns traded veteran wing Jared Dudley for Eric Bledsoe and flipped Caron Butler for a pair of young prospects from the Bucks.  Luis Scola was traded for Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee and a protected 2014 first round draft pick.  Then the team ended the Michael Beasley experiment.

While Bledsoe is a great asset to pick up, the Suns already have a starting point guard in Goran Dragic and this series of moves alone should help the team compete for dead last.  The clincher was replacing 12-year veteran head coach Alvin Gentry with the rookie Jeff Hornacek.  The coaching move was not unexpected and Hornacek could prove to be the right choice, but as a rookie coach in a tough situation, it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect him to add any wins to the record this season.  The Suns gave Hornacek a 4-year deal in recognition of the work ahead.

The Suns have some nice young assets on this roster and a few valuable veterans that could be moved before the trade deadline.  New Suns General Manager Ryan McDonough should be busy this season.

1.  Philadelphia 76ers – 34-48 last season, projected 18-64

76ers fans have a facebook page called Winless For Wiggins that references the team’s 1972-1973 season where the 76ers lost 20 games in a row and won a total of just 9.  It is hard not to believe that the goal in Philadephia this season is very different.

 

Of course no team can go winless for an entire season, but the Bobcats did keep their win total to 7 games two years ago, even though that was taking tanking to an unnecessary extreme.  Last place is achievable with double-digit victories.

Veteran Head Coach Doug Collins got this team to overachieve for two of his three seasons in Philadelphia, but he has been replaced by rookie Head Coach Brett Brown who received a 4-year deal.  Everyone knows this rebuild is going to take time.

This roster is young, suspect and ideal for tanking.  Veteran Jason Richardson is unlikely to play this season after knee surgery.  The team dumped All-Star Andre Iguodala for nothing but wishing and hoping last summer and traded All-Star Jrue Holiday for the injured 2013 sixth overall draft pick Nerlens Noel.  The 19-year-old Noel is considered to be a future building block player, but the emphasis on the word future can’t be strong enough.

Rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams will be leading this team that still features Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young, Spencer Hawes and a cast of suspects.  However, this cast couldn’t hold their season together with Collins coaching and Holiday running the show.  An almost Winless For Wiggins season might just be in the cards.

Risks and Obstacles

The race to the bottom is not an easy one to win.  Your own players are not going to cooperate.  However, by stripping out key players and coaches and then emphasizing the rookies and developing young players, it is possible to make a strong push for last overall.  With all the talent available in the 2014 NBA Draft, a lot of teams will have ping pong balls on the brain around All-Star weekend and this year’s race has the potential to get pretty ugly in the second half.

Who do you think finishes in the bottom 3 in the NBA?  Which one of these teams out tanks the others to win the most ping pong balls?  Can any of these teams be a playoff contender this season?  Let us know in the comments below.

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

Anti-Hack-A-Shaq Coach Palubinskas

Why can’t so many big men hit free throws? Hack-A-Shaq, its offspring Hack-A-Howard and hack-a-anyone, who bricks it from the free throw line, has become an annoying distraction far too often. The solution seems obvious. Hire a free throw shooting coach to work with your suddenly short-armed big man or play small ball in the fourth quarter of tight games.

Free throw master Ed Palubinskas has been preaching his solution for decades and he proved it worked with Shaquille O’Neal way back in the 2000-2001 season with the Lakers. Palubinskas was the best U.S. collegiate free throw shooter in 1970 at 92.4 percent. He was the second leading scorer at the 1972 Olympics and the leading scorer at the 1976 Olympics while playing for the Australian National team.

This Australian-Lithuanian visited Lithuania for the first time recently and talked about his experiences as Mr. Perfect with Karolis Tiškevičius on SportoTV.lt.

“This is the first time (I’ve visited Lithuania),” Palubinskas said. “I know it sounds crazy. I have tried to get over here quite a few times, but never could make the right connection. I feel like home. Of course there is a big connection with Lithuanian people. When the Lituanians are playing the United States, I am just eating it up. They don’t even know where Lithuania is, most of the people.

“I was raised in Australia. My father was Lithuanian and my mother was Russian. (When) I broke my leg, my ankle and I was out for about 4 months and my mother didn’t want me to play football, Dad said, ‘Lietuviai won a World Championship in 1937, why don’t you start playing basketball.’ I never saw a basketball before, I never touched a basketball. Realistically, I got into basketball by accident.”

Palubinskas was always a good shot, but he attributes perfecting his understanding about shooting to a second accident that gave him the opportunity to study why he couldn’t be better.

“I was always a good shooter,” Palubinskas said. “But (in) 1981 – I had a car collision – I broke my arm, my leg, my ribs. I was in hospital for 2 weeks. At that time I was shooting 94 percent, everything was about perfection. So, I got out and was in a wheelchair and again an accident changed my life. The wheelchair helped me get to 99 percent and I have been shooting 99 percent for the last 30 years. It was revolutionary stuff and that is what I am trying to do now. I am taking this to the world. I am trying to improve the world. My concepts and scientific principles are doable. You can learn those principles. The problem with the world is they lack the knowledge. I am not physically special, but they don’t have the information to understand what makes perfect shooting happen. I have only missed 3 free throws in 18 years of competition.”

Exactly how many free throws Palubinskas may have missed in various types of competition since his accident may be the subject of some debate, but what can’t be questioned is the extraordinary shooting accuracy he has been able to demonstrate over the years. He holds a number of Guinness Book of World Records including free throws made in an hour and free throws made blind-folded.

In 2000, Palubinskas talked his way into the Lakers organization to help a floundering Shaquille O’Neal with his brick-laying performances from the charity stripe. The game’s most dominate big man at the time was being stopped by a technique dubbed Hack-A-Shaq. If you couldn’t stop him in the paint, you could definitely stop him by putting him on the line.

“When I finally got involved (with the Lakers), there was Phil Jackson, Magic Johnson, Bill Sharman, Jerry West in the Lakers organization at that time and they invited me,” Palubinskas said. “Who in the world knew me and (Shaq) was 38 percent at that time. 38 percent with all the best experts in a $650 million franchise and no one could do anything. First game after one-month (Shaq) went 0-11 and I’m working with – here’s the TV, that’s his shooting coach right there, the last game of the year, 13-13. It was amazing and we improved 30 percent and of course we won the championship ring, a second championship, so it was a tremendous experience and he improved. It finally got to the stage where no one talked about Hack-A-Shaq. They didn’t talk about it because he was now level with the rest of the respectable (guys). We could have done better, but then he went to Miami and that was it.”

O’Neal raised his free throw shooting from 39 percent in November 2000 to 65.1 percent in April 2001 and that one season with the world class shooting coach Palubinskas put O’Neal on the right path for two more years in Los Angeles before the old Shaq returned to the stripe. At least for a while, Hack-A-Shaq wasn’t as good an option as before.

As far as Palubinskas was concerned, O’Neal didn’t continue to improve his free throw shooting because he wasn’t motivated to do so. The reality was O’Neal was famous for what he could do under the rim, there was nothing he could ever accomplish from the free throw line that could bring him the notoriety of overpowering another big man for a thunderous dunk.

“He called me Mr. Perfect and I called him Mr. Aristotle,” Palubinskas said. “One of the problems with Shaquille was the fact that he wasn’t emotionally involved. He made $20 million a year, he didn’t have the passion, the burning desire to really want to fix this part. He did what he needed to do, but he didn’t go above and beyond.”

Palubinskas still gets calls from time-to-time from other NBA big men in trouble at the foul line. Two summers ago Dwight Howard brought Palubinskas in as a shooting coach a year after Palubinskas had publicly offered his services. Unfortunately, it took a season to improve O’Neal’s stroke back in 2000, so a month in the summer obviously wasn’t going to be enough to fix Howard.

The most recent NBA team to hire Palubinskas is the Charlotte Bobcats. Palubinskas explained Owner Michael Jordan brought him in to work with big man Bismack Biyombo and wing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Palubinskas says they took big steps in their shooting under his guidance. It will be worth watching them from the charity stripe this season to see what kind of improvement Palubinskas was able to make.

You can watch the entire SportoTV.lt interview with Edas Palubinaskas on YouTube. The commentary is in Lithuanian, but the interview is in English. Thanks to Mantas Bertulis, Administrator at Sporto TV for requesting that we write this article.

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

Who Are The NBA Summer League Headliners?

The tournament portion of the Las Vegas NBA Summer League is underway and with pride on the line, there should be a bit more effort placed on team play and defense, but probably not. There have still been some great individual performances, however, with the possibility of more to come.

Jonas Valanciunas – 3 games, 20 points and 9.3 rebounds

Jonas Valanciunas has been feeling the love from the media in Las Vegas and many have the Raptors center pegged as the Summer League’s top overall performer. Three games of 18 plus points on 52.9 percent shooting and 24-27 from the free throw line, Valanciunas has been a force in the paint against Summer League competition. This has been a great place for the seven-footer to practice that running hook shot he likes to use as he sweeps laterally through the paint five or so feet from the basket. So far, defenses have either been letting Valanciunas practice the moves he is working on or fouling to stop him.

Thomas Robinson – 4 games, 9.5 points, 13.3 rebounds, 1.3 blocks

Things started slow in Summer League for Thomas Robinson, but he has been in beast mode these last two games. A 12 point 18 rebound effort in an overtime loss to the Bulls on Tuesday followed by a 13 point 17 rebound game in a close win over Atlanta. Already on his third team since he was drafted 5th overall last summer, these last two Summer League games are what should be expected from this naturally gifted athlete against this level of competition.

Andrew Goudelock – 3 games, 22.7 points

A scoring guard that played 40 games with Lakers as a rookie, but only one NBA game outside of the D-League last year, Andrew Goudelock can score. He put up 26 and 31 points in his first two games behind some great shooting, but only 11 points the next time when his shot wasn’t falling. It would be nice to see if the 6’ 2” guard could be a true point guard and facilitate some offense, but this might not be the right venue. Goudelock is hitting 60 percent of his three-point bombs in Summer League, but it has already been established he can do that. FC Barcelona is interested in signing Goudelock according to Sportando.

Jeff Taylor – 3 games, 21 points

A rookie with the Bobcats last year, Jeff Taylor is having a solid Summer League experience in Las Vegas. After three games of 19 points or better on decent shooting of 47.7 percent, Taylor and Cody Zeller (15.3 points) have been carrying the offensive load for the Bobcats. A successful NBA Summer League may be just what Taylor needs after his non-descript season last year.

Josh Akognon – 4 games, 20.5 points

Josh Akognon auditioned for the Mavericks on 10-day contracts at the end of last season and the audition continues in Las Vegas. The 5’ 11” point guard is making the most of it with three games of over 20 points and hitting 41.9 percent of his 31 three-point attempts. Akognon has followed up a 7-7 performance from the free throw line against the D-League Selects with an 8-8 effort against the Clippers to help the Mavericks advance to the second round of the tournament.

Malcolm Thomas – 2games, 12 points, 16 rebounds, 2 blocks

Malcolm Thomas has played 3 NBA games with the Spurs, 5 games with the Warriors and most recently 7 games with the Bulls since he left San Diego State in 2011, but after stints in the D-League and Europe, he now holds an NBA record. Thomas owns the all-time NBA Summer record for rebounds in a game with 22. It doesn’t matter what league he is playing in, 22 rebounds is really something. Thomas suffered a leg injury and didn’t play in the Bulls 3rd Summer League game.

John Henson – 2 games, 14 points, 14 rebounds, 3 blocks

This isn’t really a surprise, John Henson was a very active player with the Bucks last season and where the thin-as-a-rail power forward has strength issues at the NBA level, he should dominate in Summer League. All we are really getting out of his performances here is confirmation that as Henson gets older and stronger, he’ll be a good NBA player.

Aron Baynes – 3 games, 11.7 points, 10.7 rebound, 1.7 blocks

This senior from Washington State played four seasons in Europe before the Spurs picked him up for 16 games last season. An off the radar 26-year-old seven-footer that has caught the eye of the Spurs, anyone want to bet against that? He put up 19 points, 15 rebounds and 2 blocks in his last Summer League game.

Some other Summer League participants that are getting noticed include Jack Cooley, Cody Zeller, Tyler Zeller, CJ McCollum, John Jenkins, Marquis Teague, Mike Scott and Deshaun Thomas.

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.

Welcome To NBA Tank Nation

Wiggins presser2The 2014 NBA Draft is one the most anticipated drafts since the Cavaliers took LeBron James in 2003. There are just as many potential superstars available next June. This draft is so enticing that some NBA fan pages are actually promoting going winless next season just to have a chance at a game changing player like Andrew Wiggins – 76ersWinlessFor Wiggins.

The usual suspects expected to tank for Wiggins include Orlando, Charlotte, Phoenix and New Orleans, although there is still time to change their minds and both Charlotte and New Orleans are doing things that will add wins next season. These teams have been overtly joined by Utah, Philadelphia and possibly by the “I think thou dost protest too loudly” Boston Celtics. After Friday’s announcement by Dwight Howard that he’s taking his talents to the great income tax free state of Texas, the Lakers may soon be on this list as well. It’s not too late to join this exclusive club for other NBA franchises and you can believe there are fans of certain teams that are wondering why their club isn’t on board yet.

Reasons for tanking the 2013-2014 season extend beyond the unusually deep and franchise changing draft next summer. July 2014 could see a jaw dropping list of available free agents if certain players opt out of their contracts. It will still be impressive if just the players on expiring deals are there.

Just some of the best players who can decide if they would like to be free agents next summer include:
ETO – early termination option, PO – player option

LeBron James – ETO
Dwyane Wade – ETO
Carmelo Anthony – ETO
Chris Bosh – ETO
Zach Randolph -PO
Rudy Gay – PO
Tim Duncan –PO
Amar’e Stoudemire – ETO
Andrea Bargnani – ETO

Some of the notable players on expiring contracts this season are:

Kobe Bryant
Paul Pierce
Dirk Nowitski
Luol Deng
Paul Gasol
Andrew Bogut
Danny Granger
Ray Allen
Vince Carter
Marcin Gortat
Shawn Marion
Emeka Okafor
Caron Butler
Metta World Peace

Just to tease some teams, there could be some pretty impressive restricted free agents available as well:

DeMarcus Cousins
Paul George
John Wall
Greg Monroe
Derrick Favors
Avery Bradley
Lance Stephenson
Eric Bledsoe
Evan Turner
Larry Sanders
Ekpe Udoh

These lists do not represent every free agent expected to be available in July 2014, that list would just keep going and going and going. Hoopsworld keeps a reasonably comprehensive and up-to-date list of all the possible 2014 NBA free agents. If there ever was a year to clear salary cap space, this is it and those teams that can combine the ability to land a franchise changing rookie with one or more franchise players could be setup for a long run of success.

The teams best set up to go WinLessForWiggins and attack free agency next summer include:

Charlotte Bobcats – ready to go.

Orlando Magic – setup up to do both.

Utah Jazz – joined Tank Nation and cleared the decks for next summer.

Philadelphia 76ers – just need to dump a little more talent and they are there.

Phoenix Suns – ready, but could use a salary dump.

New Orleans Pelicans – recent moves may have taken them out of this race.

Dallas Mavericks – have the potential to join the club.

Detroit Pistons – would find it easy to get on board.

Los Angeles Lakers – tweak the roster and tell Kobe to rehab next season and they can do it too.

Boston Celtics – did half the job, hired a college coach and just need to finish the work they started.

Toronto Raptors – would need to dump a couple of key players to have a shot at tanking.

Sacramento Kings – may not do it on purpose, but wouldn’t find it hard to join.

Washington Wizards – have the potential, but probably too good to tank.

Milwaukee Bucks – will probably have trouble with the tanking aspect.

Should your team go WinlessForWiggins and create salary cap space for the 2014 free agent class? Let us know in the comments below and tell us how you feel about NBA teams joining Tank Nation.

Stephen Brotherston has covered the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre since 2009. A member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association, Stephen is the editor and publisher of Pro Bball Report.

Should Raptors Grab Tyrus Thomas

Yet another top draft pick of the infamous 2006 NBA Draft is about to be unceremoniously dumped by his team. Tyrus Thomas, drafted fourth overall and traded to the Bulls on draft night for the second pick LaMarcus Aldridge, is about to be amnestied by the Charlotte Bobcats to make room for free agent Al Jefferson. Charlotte had signed Thomas for 5 years and $40 million dollars in the summer of 2010, but after the past two seasons, releasing him is hardly a surprise.

Thomas was the Anthony Bennett of his draft class, an uber-athletic undersized power forward with a massive wingspan and seemingly unlimited potential. By many measures Thomas was the best rookie defender that year, blocking an outstanding 6.2 percent of opponents two-point shots while he was on the floor and raking in 21.1 percent of the available defensive rebounds. He didn’t play big minutes as a rookie, but he did show steady improvement over his 3.5 seasons in Chicago. Not quite measuring up to expectations, the Bulls shipped him off to Charlotte and the Bobcats still owe Chicago a first round draft pick as part of that deal.

It all started going off the rails for Thomas after signing his big deal in Charlotte. In January 2011, Thomas tore the lateral meniscus in his left knee. Up until then he was having something that could be considered a breakout year. In 21.6 minutes per game, he was averaging 11.1 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks. His block rate was back up to his rookie numbers and his rebounding rate was higher. The result was a very respectable defensive rating 0f 102 points surrendered per 100 possessions. Things, however, were about to change.

Thomas only played seven more games after his injury in January and it can be months after any knee surgery before a player regains all of his prior athleticism. He was married that summer and developed an undisclosed stomach ulcer that caused him to lose 20 lbs before the start of the next season. 2011-2012 was not a year to remember for Thomas.

The Bobcats went young and finished the year with just seven wins under Head Coach Paul Silas. Silas apparently didn’t know why Thomas had shown up to camp 20 lbs underweight and the relationship didn’t go smoothly. Thomas spent part of December in a walking boot after a sprained ankle. He had sore legs through much of January and finished the season with knee and elbow issues. The disillusionment with Thomas became palatable in Charlotte as he dragged himself through the worst season of his career to date.

It might have been hard to imagine how things could get any worse, but they did. Thomas’ next Head Coach Mike Dunlap lead the still obviously tanking Bobcats to a 17 win season and Thomas’ relationship with Dunlap wasn’t any better than with Silas. Thomas kicked off the 2012-2013 season with a bruised heel and after playing in just eight games, he tore a calf muscle that sidelined him six weeks. In the meantime, Thomas’ wife was involved in an incident outside of a bar and bad press combined with injury and bad play was creating a very tough environment. Thomas only played in a handful of games during January and was mysteriously absent from most contests except for a reported knee bruise. After only playing twice in February, the Bobcats admitted they had asked Thomas to just stay home to work out and rehab. The team turned him loose again in April for 10 minutes a night over eight games, but by this time, it was pretty obvious Thomas’ future was not going to be in Charlotte.

Will anybody take a chance on Thomas next season? If he demonstrates his knee and calf have fully recovered, the answer would have to be yes. The Bobcats may have overpaid this developing prospect back in 2010 and there is no doubt Thomas has had little but bad luck since then, but as an amnestied player, the next team can try him out for the NBA minimum and that should sound like a gamble worth taking.

In the season and a half before his injuries playing solid rotation minutes for a backup, Thomas had a PER of 16.8 and 18.2, a defensive rating of 97 and 102, a block rate of 5.5 and 6.2 percent and a defensive rebounding rate of 23.6 and 22.5 percent. Those are the numbers of a very solid NBA player. In the handful of games he played last year, he even hit 37.5 percent of his three-point shots, but one might want to watch him do this in scrimmages for a while before believing it.

The 6’ 8” Thomas has a 7’ 3” wingspan and had a 39.5” maximum vertical leap out of college to go with outstanding speed. If he still has the athleticism he was drafted with, the Raptors wouldn’t be taking much of a chance giving him a second (I guess third?) look.

Stephen Brotherston has covered the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre since 2009. A member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association, Stephen is the editor and publisher of Pro Bball Report.