Last season, The Minnesota Timberwolves missed the Playoffs for the tenth year in a row. Subsequently, Kevin Love demanded to be traded, and was ultimately sent to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for two number one overall picks, Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett. With a lot of incoming young talent, and Flip Saunders succeeding Rick Adelman as head coach, this season’s Timberwolves are sure to look a lot different than last year’s.
Basketball Insiders takes a look at the 2014-2015 Minnesota Timberwolves.
Five Guys Think
While it’s true that the Timberwolves were bad last year, and that they’ll probably be even worse this season without Kevin Love, it’s hard not to love what they got out of the summer’s highest-profile trade. Love was leaving no matter what, yet somehow Flip Saunders managed to get the last two years’ worth of #1 overall picks for him, including future superstar Andrew Wiggins. For his part, Wiggins really seems to be embracing his opportunity to lead a bad team and in fact appears to prefer it over playing a tertiary role behind LeBron James and Kyrie Irving in Cleveland. Anthony Bennett had a strong Summer League and looks much trimmer, so there’s promise there, as well, and getting Thaddeus Young from Philadelphia as part of that three-way trade was a really nice bonus. Strong move for the Wolves, all things considered. It certainly brightens their future quite a bit.
5th Place – Northwest Division
The Minnesota Timberwolves haven’t reached the playoffs since the 2004 campaign, a distant time ago when Kevin Garnett was once a perennial MVP candidate for the franchise. On paper, at first glance, another trip to the lottery seems more plausible than a spot in the playoffs after the loss of All-Star forward Kevin Love to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a summer deal. However the deal allowed Minnesota significantly retool on the fly securing the last two No. 1 overall picks in Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett. The team also acquired veteran forward Thaddeus Young who is a guy ready to contribute right away. So while the 2014-15 campaign is likely another without a playoff berth, make no mistake things are looking up in Minnesota.
4th Place – Northwest Division
– Lang Greene
It is not everyday that a free agent that is certain to flee as a free agent fetches the players selected with the top overall picks in two consecutive drafts. For that, Flip Saunders deserves credit; he certainly made lemonade out of lemons. The proponents of the T-Wolves accepting a package in return for Love that was headlined by Andrew Wiggins—a group that includes me—mostly understood and believed that Wiggins has the potential to be a special player in the long-run. For the Cavs, the trade made sense simply because the franchise did not have time to sit back and wait for Wiggins to develop into a star. The T-Wolves do. And for those that were quick to label Anthony Bennet a bust after one poor season marked by injury and poor direction from a since-fired head coach, they may eat their words soon enough. In the end, whether the Canadian combination can lead the T-Wolves to a place Love never did—the playoffs—they will each need to prove to be special talents at the NBA level. For now, the T-Wolves are married to those two, but it is with a few of their other players where the questions appear. With almost $70 million due to the combination of Nikola Pekovic and Kevin Martin over the next four years, the T-Wolves would be wise to ship each of them out, bottom out, stockpile draft picks and allow Wiggins and Bennett to develop. What is more interesting to consider is whether the franchise should commit to Ricky Rubio as a franchise player. Thus far, Rubio’s NBA tenure has been marked by inconsistency and disappointment. He has not come close to fulfilling the lofty expectations that followed him to the NBA, but here and now, the T-Wolves must decide whether he will be a part of the future or not. After the Love trade, the T-Wolves are stuck in the middle. They are a team with about $70 million committed to their 2014-15 ledger, but one that appears to be set for a rebuild. There is a fork in the road that seems to diverge with Pekovic, Martin and Rubio. Saunders certainly has some important decisions to make. As for this coming season, if the best the Wovles could do with love over the course of his six-year career there was 153-323, there is no question that their 10-year playoff drought will hit 11.
5th Place – Northwest Division
– Moke Hamilton
The Timberwolves did a terrific job getting significant long-term pieces back for disgruntled star Kevin Love, and their future looks bright as a result. Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and a first-round pick gives them building blocks going forward. Throw in Ricky Rubio, Zach LaVine, Gorgui Dieng, Shabazz Muhammad and Glenn Robinson III, all of whom are under 24 years old, and the Wolves have some players to get excited about going forward. The acquisitions of Thaddeus Young and Mo Williams, coupled with returning veterans like Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer and J.J. Barea among others, also gives Minnesota some veteran pieces who can keep them competitive (and potentially end their playoff drought) while their young guys develop.
4th Place – Northwest Division
– Alex Kennedy
If there’s one thing the Minnesota Timberwolves fan base is immune to getting excited about after a 10-year (and counting) playoff drought, it’s the dawn of a new era. But, this fresh start featuring Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and Thaddeus Young, who they acquired this August while ridding themselves of the disgruntled Kevin Love and a couple of other excess pieces, really does hold a lot of promise. They’re relying heavily on Wiggins becoming their next star, but there’s enough veteran talent in place to make it to where the expectations won’t be too daunting from day one. There’s immense pressure on him, but more long-term than short-term. As great as Love was individually, a very low bar has been set for this year’s Timberwolves team to clear. And, with the depth and athleticism they’ve added this offseason, they very well could flirt with being a .500 basketball team – something they only did once with Love.
4th Place – Northwest Division
– Yannis Koutroupis
Top of the List
Top Offensive Player: Move over Kevin Love, and enter Nikola Pekovic. Standing 6’11, and weighing in at 285 pounds, Pekovic is one of the most physically imposing big men in the league. In addition to his size, Pekovic is a skilled offensive player with an especially effective right-handed hook shot. With Love heading to Cleveland, Pekovic will take a higher priority offensively and will be the sole big man in the lane with the undersized Thaddeus Young taking over for Love. Pekovic averaged 17.5 points per game last year, third behind only Love, and Kevin Martin. Martin may score more than Pekovic on any given night, but Pekovic will be Minnesota’s only major threat in the painted area this upcoming season and a focal point in the Timberwolves’s offense.
Top Defensive Player: One of the biggest issues the Timberwolves had last season was their inability to protect the rim. Pekovic and Kevin Love as a frontcourt tandem simply could not keep opponents from scoring near the basket. But with Pekovic missing significant time last season because of an Achilles injury, Gorgui Dieng had the opportunity to fill in and show what he could do on both ends of the court. Last season Dieng blocked 2.2 shot per 36 minutes and contested many more each night. Entering this season, Dieng is still the only real rim protector for the Timberwolves. Number one overall pick Andrew Wiggins has the potential to be a lockdown defender, and the team’s best defensive player moving forward, but Dieng’s defensive ability to protect the rim makes him Minnesota’s top defensive player for the time being.
Top Playmaker: Ricky Rubio has been one of the flashiest passers in the world since he was a teenager playing in Spain, but Rubio is more substance than style. Last season Rubio averaged 8.6 assists per game, good for third best in the league in just 32.2 minutes per game. Bump Rubio’s minutes up to 36 per game, which is roughly in line with the amount of minutes played Ty Lawson and John Wall, and Rubio would have finished second in the league in assists per game behind only Chris Paul.
Top Clutch Player: First, it must be noted that the Timberwolves were awful last season in late game situations. The Timberwolves lost their first 11 games of the season in games decided by four points or less. This trend did not end until January 24 when Kevin Martin hit a game winning shot against the Golden State Warriors. This offseason, the Timberwolves signed point guard Mo Williams to backup Ricky Rubio. Williams, age 31, is an eleven year veteran and has hit game winning shots as a member of the Milwaukee Bucks, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Utah Jazz. Mo Williams may not be Kobe Bryant in terms of clutch shooting, but he may be the best clutch shooter in Minnesota this upcoming season.
The Unheralded Player: Overshadowed by the additions of Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett is the addition of power forward Thaddeus Young. Young is not Love, and will fall well short of replacing Love’s nightly production, but Young is talented, young, and experienced. Last season, Young averaged 17.9 points, six rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 2.1 steals per game. Young isn’t a superstar, and doesn’t generate buzz the way Wiggins does, but he will be a big factor in whether or not the Timberwolves compete for a Playoff spot this upcoming season.
Best New Addition: Thaddeus Young will likely have the biggest impact of all the new players heading to Minnesota this season, but Wiggins is a potential franchise player that Timberwolves fans can base hope for the future on. Wiggins has been compared to a young LeBron James in the past, but is more likely to end up as an elite two-way wing player like Paul George, which is pretty darn good. If Wiggins can improve his game quickly like George did, he’ll be one the best players in the league in just a few years.
– Jesse Blancarte
Who We Like
1. Andrew Wiggins: As previously stated, Wiggins is a potential franchise player and gives Timberwolves fans a reason to hope for a better future. Wiggins will have plenty of off-nights in his rookie season, but that should be expected for any 19 year old rookie, no matter how good he may be. Best of all, Wiggins reportedly preferred to be in Minnesota over Cleveland, looking to embrace a leadership position, rather than just another piece.
2. Gorgui Dieng: Last season, on March 20, Dieng registered 22 points, 21 rebounds, and 4 assists and made 10-of-11 from the free throw line. Four days later, Dieng registered 15 points, 15 rebounds, two assists and one block. These are two of Dieng’s biggest games from last season, but are flashes of how good he can be moving forward. Also, as previously stated, Dieng is the only defensive anchor the Timberwolves currently have, and is insurance in case Pekovic struggles with injuries again.
3. Zach LaVine: Zach LaVine is arguably the most athletic player to come out of this year’s draft class, and yes, that includes the ultra-athletic Wiggins. LaVine has said that he wants to play both guard positions, and showed flashes of that at the Las Vegas Summer League. If LaVine can learn to effectively play the point guard position, we may be labeling him as the steal of this year’s draft in a few seasons.
4. Flip Saunders: After vetting candidates to take over for outgoing head coach Rick Adelman, team president Flip Saunders hired himself as the next head coach of the Timberwolves. Saunders hiring himself while names like George Karl and Lionel Hollins were available has been questioned, but guess who was coaching the Timberwolves the last time they were in the postseason over ten years ago? Flip Saunders. But even if you’re not on board with Saunders hiring himself as head coach, he still deserves credit for landing two number one overall picks in Wiggins and Bennett, and acquiring Young to replace Love.
5. Anthony Bennett: Anthony Bennett may have had a disappointing rookie season in Cleveland, but is still a significant talent that could bounce back this upcoming season. Entering his rookie season, Bennett was recovering from a shoulder injury and was out of shape. He has reportedly slimmed down this offseason, and underwent surgery to remove his tonsils and adenoids to improve his sleep apnea. Bennett is now breathing better and looking to show that he was worth being selected number one overall in the 2013 NBA Draft.
– Jesse Blancarte
Youth and athleticism. This team is now built for the future with Rubio, Wiggins, LaVine, Bennett, Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad making up one of the most exciting young cores in the league. Youth is not a recipe for winning at the highest levels, but for now this team will at least be one of the most exciting in the league to watch. Even some of the older players are athletic enough to keep up with the young guys, including Corey Brewer, Chase Budinger and Thaddeus Young.
Winning close games. This team struggled to close out close games last season, and that was with Kevin Love on the roster. Veteran players like Kevin Martin and Mo Williams have hit big shots at times throughout their careers, but beyond those two there aren’t many proven clutch shooters on this roster. Execution in late game situations is key, but with so many young players on the roster, and Flip Saunders entering his first season back on the bench for Minnesota, closing out games will again be a struggle for the Timberwolves.
– Jesse Blancarte
The Salary Cap
The Timberwolves are hard-capped by virtue of their $3.75 million Mid-Level Exception deal with Mo Williams, but Minnesota is well below the luxury tax line. Barring a trade or buyout, the team is set with 15 guaranteed players. Camp invites Kyrylo Fesenko and Brady Heslip may have a difficult time sticking to the regular season. The Wolves picked up a $6.3 million traded player exception in the Kevin Love deal. Minnesota also has $1.6 million of their MLE left, but as noted – no roster space. Ricky Rubio is eligible for an extension before the season, otherwise he’ll become a restricted free agent next summer.
– Eric Pincus
Here is a very interesting thought exercise: Should Minnesota have been willing to make the Kevin Love trade even if all indications were that he wanted to stay and re-sign a long-term maximum contract? Back in March, I rated Love as the fourth-best player in the league, and at 26 I think he is a good bet to remain in that lofty strata for the next three years or so before declining due to age. Love would also require a new super maximum contract, and could really maximize his money by re-upping right as the 2016 TV contracts kick in, or when he becomes a 10-year veteran. In any event, he would likely be worth it, but his cap number would be one of the biggest in the league over the next five to seven years assuming he continues to play well.
Would Minnesota have been able to build a championship contender around Love? The rising cap would have provided increased flexibility for a team that was largely capped-out in the near term. And it is possible that development from Gorgui Dieng and a trade of Nikola Pekovic for some wing help might have enabled Minnesota to become a solid playoff team even in the loaded West. But it is very difficult to envision the Wolves’ 2013-14 core contending for a championship even with Love. Granted, solid playoff contention probably sounds like nirvana to tortured Wolves fans at this point, but if we look at it from the lens of winning a championship the odds were low indeed.
So the Wolves were not exactly throwing away a wonderful future with the Love trade. Whether it was a desirable transaction depends on what one thinks of Wiggins and Bennett. If one assumed that the Wolves would get the typical number one pick production from each of them, it’s obviously a great trade. But we can probably foreclose that possibility for Bennett at this point after his miserable rookie year, although I do not think he is a total lost cause. Wiggins on the other hand certainly has the potential to be a superstar. That said, even number one picks are unlikely to become top-five players in the league the way Love is right now. And I believe it is unlikely Wiggins reaches superstar status. Nonetheless, many and perhaps most disagree with me.
So it is a close case whether this would have been a good trade or not in a vacuum. For Minnesota to get this return with Love’s free agency gun to their head is remarkable, even if it was more the product of fortunate events in Cleveland than amazing management.
That said, the decision to obtain Young (a potential free agent in 2015) from the Sixers over taking Miami’s top-10 protected pick seems very shortsighted. Young will either leave for nothing or need to be overpaid next summer. Neither scenario is preferable to having a cost-controlled draft pick that is likely to fall in the late teens based on Miami’s performance this year. The upside is getting slightly closer to playoff contention this year, but very likely falling short.
This is a team with a lot of variability given how much they will be relying on young players. Many of them, like Wiggins and LaVine, are unlikely to be winning contributors in their first years. But there is a slight chance they might. In this best case scenario, the Wolves actually sneak into the playoffs as the bottom of the West playoff field takes a step back to more normal levels. Wiggins turns into a viable three and D player right away, and Young is a defensive upgrade on Love. Rubio, Wiggins, Brewer, Young, and Dieng form an ultraathletic unit that runs the ball down teams’ throats and effectively switches everything defensively. Young, Dieng, and Pekovic are a solid frontcourt rotation, and Saunders figures out how to play Dieng and Pekovic together effectively. Rubio takes a step forward, and Minnesota’s defense moves into the low teens while the offense avoids dropping into the 20s after Love’s departure. This team was one of the unluckiest in recent memory last year, with the point-differential of a 48-win team. They could drop off significantly and not see nearly the decline in record that might be expected from losing Love if they have better luck.
Love did much more for this team than anyone, even the stats-inclined, realized. The offense completely grinds to a halt without adequate spacing. Wiggins can’t hit from outside, Rubio continues to be one of the worst shooters in NBA history, none of the other young wings step up, Dieng and Pekovic together hurt the spacing even more, and the team finishes in the bottom-five offensively. Wiggins has a huge adjustment to NBA defense and doesn’t really help the team on that end, and it slips into the 20s as well.
– Nate Duncan
The Burning Question
Will Flip Saunders embrace the youth or play the veterans and fight for the playoffs?
The current thinking in the NBA is that if a team isn’t a contender, it should bottom out and keep building up through the draft. But Flip Saunders made it clear by acquiring Thaddeus Young that he wanted to compete for a Playoff spot next season, rather than bottoming out and adding more young talent through the draft like the Philadelphia 76ers. The Timberwolves now have a roster that is split between talented, but inexperienced players and solid veterans. Flip Saunders will have the task of playing his young players to get them experience, while trying to compete for the Playoffs. The question is whether he will sacrifice developing his younger players in favor of playing his veterans in an attempt at earning one of last Playoffs spots. In a loaded Western Conference, it makes more sense long-term for Saunders to give his younger players as much time and experience as they can handle and live with the results, even if that means an 11th season outside of the Playoffs.
– Jesse Blancarte
Monte Morris: Waiting for his Chance
Nuggets two-way guard Monte Morris talks to Basketball Insiders about his time with Denver.
Monte Morris has only seen action in three NBA games with the Denver Nuggets this year. While most players who receive little playing time spend most of their time at the end of the bench cheering their teammates on, Morris’ situation is a bit different. He’s spent the majority of his rookie year in the G-League.
The NBA’s minor league has grown tremendously since it’s inception in 2001. All but four NBA teams have a G-League affiliate now. There are plans for the New Orleans Pelicans to have their own team by next season, and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has spoken about having a team in Mexico.
As part of the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement, they expanded the partnership between NBA teams and their G-League affiliates even more by adding two-way contracts. Essentially creating a 16th and 17th roster spot, two-way players are allowed to split time between an NBA team and the G-League.
For Morris, two-way contracts are an added opportunity for players to make an NBA roster.
“It’s a good chance for guys to make a roster, especially second-round picks to get a chance,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “With two-way contracts, I feel like they’re going to get a lot better as far as rules and things like that go. This is the first year so they’re testing it out, but it’s a good opportunity. It’s a blessing at the end of the day.”
Morris was drafted by the Nuggets with the 51st overall pick in last summer’s draft. Second round picks are not afforded the guaranteed contract stability that comes with being a first-round pick. He was tabbed for a two-way contract almost immediately after he was drafted.
He had a stellar four years of college at Iowa State, where he was one of the top point guards in the nation as a senior. He also had a strong showing in Las Vegas with the Nuggets’ summer league team.
The Nuggets were a little crowded in the backcourt to begin the season with Jamal Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay ahead of Morris in the rotation. When Mudiay was injured and out of the rotation, Mike Malone opted to go with Will Barton as the backup point guard. The Nuggets’ trade deadline acquisition of Devin Harris pushed Morris farther back on the depth chart.
“The toughest thing is just staying mentally tough, staying true to yourself, and developing your own craft,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “Just not losing that self-confidence cause you might not play when you go up. When you come down here [G-League], take advantage of it, have fun, and keep getting better.”
Morris has definitely done his part to stand out in the G-League. The Nuggets are without a sole affiliate, so they’ve used the Houston Rockets G-League team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, to get Morris additional experience. In 36 games with the Valley Vipers, he’s put up 18.2 points per game on 47.8 percent shooting from the field, 35.6 percent from the three-point line, 4.6 rebounds, 6.6 assists, and 1.8 steals.
He believes that if called upon, he can be a major contributor for the Nuggets. There are certain aspects he can bring to the team and he thinks it’s possible for him to play with Murray in the backcourt together.
“I think I can bring energy off the bench. I feel like me and Jamal Murray, the way the game is going you can play small ball. I feel like I can bring pace to the game and play defensively,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “I like getting after it when I’m up there with those guys on defense and getting guys open shots. I know we got a lot of scorers, my goal would be getting everybody their shots.”
Morris has been able to show he can produce at the NBA level, even if it’s a small sample size. On Feb. 9, only the second game he’s played in with Denver, he scored ten points on 4-5 shooting from the field, dished out six assists, and nabbed three steals against the Rockets.
Players on two-way contracts are allowed a maximum of 45 days with the NBA team. Those days are not solely game days; they include practices and travel days as well. Once those 45 days are up, NBA teams have the option of converting a two-way contract to a standard NBA deal provided they have roster space.
If a player uses up the 45 days and does not have their contract converted, they go back to the G-League. They can rejoin their NBA team once the G-League season ends but are not able to play in the playoffs.
For now, Morris is just biding his time, waiting for his opportunity. He’s staying ready for when the Nuggets might need him. In the meantime, he’ll continue to take advantage of what the G-League has to offer.
“It’s definitely a good starting point. It’s just all about how guys attack it on and off the court,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s just being a pro and not losing confidence in your ability when you go up and don’t play. You just got to be ready, you’re really one injury away, one call away to step on and have to play.”
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.