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Can Toronto’s Backcourt Push Raptors to a Deep Playoff Run?

Eric Saar takes a look at whether the improving backcourt duo of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry can propel Toronto past the first round of the playoffs.

Eric Saar

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The Toronto Raptors face an important question this season: Can the evolution of DeMar DeRozan and “Skinny Kyle Lowry” launch the team to a deep postseason run?

The lone NBA team located outside of the United States has made the playoffs out East in consecutive years behind 48 and 49-win seasons, led by their backcourt duo of DeRozan and Lowry. However, Toronto has been kicked out of the postseason in the first round both years.

In 2014, as the third seed, the Raptors lost in a closely-contested series with the sixth-seeded Brooklyn Nets, who were led by a mishmash of veterans such as Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson. Ultimately, the Raptors lost Game 7 by a single point. Then, in 2015, Toronto got swept as the fourth-seed by the fifth-seeded Washington Wizards (who were also led by Paul Pierce), including a series-sealing 125-94 blowout. While that is better than being the Philadelphia 76ers or the Los Angeles Lakers at the moment, being stuck as a good team that can’t advance deep in the playoffs creates somewhat of a predicament and isn’t an ideal position to be in.

The Raptors are currently in what is known as “NBA purgatory,” which is a situation where a team isn’t good enough to truly contend for a championship and isn’t bad enough to rebuild in the draft with top lottery picks. A contender is generally considered to be a team that has enough talent to potentially beat any team in a seven-game playoff series and only needs a few things to tip in their favor to do so. There are only a handful of these teams every year.

The Phoenix Suns are a good example of a team that has been in NBA purgatory. The Suns haven’t made the playoffs since Steve Nash was on the team and Alvin Gentry was the head coach. Since 2010, the Suns have teetered between rebuilding and being competitive for a playoff berth, but were never bad enough to nab a high draft pick. The Raptors are in a slightly different, but equally dangerous position. As a playoff team they won’t receive a top draft pick and, while their your core of players is getting playoff experience, they arguably have hit their peak as currently constructed.

Can that change with the evolution of their backcourt duo that we’ve seen thus far this season? Currently, the Raptors are 23-15, clumped with all the other East teams competing for a playoff spot (as of this writing, nine teams are within seven games of first place).

Kyle Lowry

The first thing you notice about Lowry this season is how much weight he lost. In fact, he’s almost unrecognizable. He wasn’t extremely heavy before, but at his listed height of only 6’0, he seemed relatively large. That is not the case anymore. Lowry said during the offseason that he played less pick-up and lifted weights less and focused more on cardio and conditioning in the hope of being prepared “for 82 games and a long playoff run.”

With the new and improved Lowry, the Raptors might be able to get there. He’s cooled off a bit as the season has gone on, but the stats still show his improved production. The 29-year-old upped his points per game from 17.8 to 20.6 with about one more minute played per game on average. His overall efficiency didn’t take a hit with his increase in shots as his field goal percentage went from 41.2 percent to 41.4 percent. The biggest improvement is in his three-point accuracy, which jumped from 33.8 percent last year to 37.5 percent so far this season. While this jump in three-point percentage may not seem like a big deal, it is the difference between being considered a non-threat from distance to being comfortably above league-average, which forces opposing defenses to zone in on this aspect of Lowry’s game.

He’s put in the work to help his team this offseason and the results are paying off so far this season.

DeMar DeRozan

DeRozan, three years younger than his backcourt counterpart, picked up his game when Lowry cooled off from his hot start. In December, DeRozan averaged 25 points per game, more than the 23 points he’s been averaging on the season, or the 20.1 points he averaged last year.

A lot of his production is coming off of drives. According to NBA.com, DeRozan is second in the league in drives per game (11.8), behind only Reggie Jackson (12.0) of the Detroit Pistons. To add some context to this, Russell Westbrook is seventh (10.6), James Harden is 11th (9.6) and his teammate Kyle Lowry is 14th (9.2). DeRozan’s field goal percentage of 52 percent on these drives is the best out of these “high-volume drivers” with the exception of Rajon Rondo’s 54.7 percent on 10.2 drives per game. DeRozan gets fouled the third-most (17.2 percent of the time) when he drives to the hoop among this category of players, falling close behind Russell Westbrook’s 19 percent foul-rate and Harden’s ridiculous 23.8 percent.

Both Lowry and DeRozan are likely heading for their second All-Star game in February that will actually be hosted in Toronto. In the second returns for All-Star voting, Lowry came in third and DeRozan in sixth among East guards, however, they will likely be added to the roster by the coaches’ vote.

Friday’s nine-point victory over the Washington Wizards was a demonstration of why these two players need to make the All-Star team and also illustrated the evolution they have undergone. DeRozan had a season-high 35 points as well as eight rebounds, while Lowry had 21 points, along with 10 rebounds, four assists and four steals.

Playoff hopes

Where does the evolution of the Raptors’ two leaders, combined with their standing in the Eastern Conference put them come playoff time?

With their defensive stopper and big-time offseason acquisition, DeMarre Carroll, out for six-to-eight weeks due to an arthroscopic procedure on his knee, the Raptors could falter in the standings. By the end of the season, they may end up with home-court advantage, but that hasn’t necessarily helped them in the past as they hosted both the first round series they lost the last two seasons.

Fortunately, with the exception of the Cleveland Cavaliers, it isn’t a stretch to say this new and improved Raptors backcourt (and a healthy Carroll come playoffs) can beat any team in the East in a seven-game series. The question is, will they? The answer is, arguably yes. Depending on injuries to other teams and matchups, they may even get to the Conference finals, but the chances they beat out the Cavs and get to the NBA Finals are depressingly minuscule, unfortunately for Raptor fans.

The Raptors have a good, young core. However, if they falter in the playoffs again, Toronto’s management may have no choice but to trade the oldest member of their core (Lowry, age 29) and build around Jonas Valanciunas (23) and re-sign DeRozan (26) at the max, if he opts out of his player option at the end of the season.

The Raptors find themselves in a tough position, but with the significant improvements of both Lowry and DeRozan, there is a chance they could find more success in the 2016 playoffs than they have in past postseasons.

 

Based in Arizona, Eric Saar is an analyst for Basketball Insiders. He has covered the league for several years. He loves to converse about the NBA on Twitter, so follow him at @Eric_Saar. Eric graduated with honors from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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NBA

Rookie of The Year Watch – 12/13/17

Shane Rhodes checks back in on what’s become a relatively consistent Rookie of the Year race.

Shane Rhodes

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It has been a pretty ho-hum Rookie of The Year race so far in the 2017-18 season, with the top rookies staking their claims to this list at the beginning of the season and, for the most part, staying there. While there has been some movement up and down over the season and since our last installment, for the large part those who were on the list remain on the list.

Those players have earned their spots on this list with their play, however. This rookie class is one of the better, more exciting classes in recent memory. These players have just managed to remain at the top of the hill.

Let’s take a look at this week’s rankings.

stockup456. Lauri Markkanen, Chicago Bulls (Last Week: Unranked)

By virtue of John Collins missing time due to injury, Markkanen jumps back onto this list. However, that’s not to say Markkanen has played poorly this season. On the contrary, the former Arizona Wildcat and current Chicago Bull has played very well; it’s just hard to get recognized when you are on the worst team in the league.

Markkanen is averaging 14.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, third and second among rookies, respectively, while adding 1.3 assists per game as well. Athletic enough to get his own shot and big enough to be a mismatch when he’s on the floor, Markkanen is probably the best (healthy) offensively player the Bulls have. While his defensive game isn’t great, his defensive rating of 106.4 still ranks ninth amongst rookies.

Perhaps most importantly, Markkanen inspires hope for a brighter future in Bulls fans that have watched the team plummet from the 50-win team it was just three seasons ago.

stockup455. Dennis Smith, Jr., Dallas Mavericks (Last Week: 6)

His shooting percentages continue to underwhelm and the Dallas Mavericks still have one of the worst records in the NBA, but Dennis Smith Jr. has been one of the Mavs’ bright spots this season while averaging 14.4 points, four rebounds and four assists per game.

While he hasn’t been a great shooter overall, Smith Jr. has managed to be a big contributor on offense for the Mavs, with an offensive rating of 101.4, ninth among rookies, and an assist percentage of 25.2 percent, fourth among rookies. He is second on the team in scoring behind Harrison Barnes’ 18.4 points per game as well. He is still a work in progress, but Dallas has found a keeper in Smith Jr.

stockdown454. Kyle Kuzma, Los Angeles Lakers (Last Week: 3)

While the Lakers have stumbled over the past few weeks, Kuzma continues to play well when he is on the floor. He still paces the Los Angeles Lakers in scoring with an average of 16.1 points per game, third among rookies, while also dishing in 6.6 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game.

Kuzma is now second among rookies in double-doubles with eight on the season and three in his last five games. With a diverse offensive game, the power forward should continue to impress as the season goes along.

stockup453. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz (Last Week: 4)

Donovan Mitchell has been electrifying in recent weeks. Second in scoring among rookies, Mitchell is averaging 17.3 points per game to go along with three rebounds and 3.2 assists. As his confidence has grown, so to have his field goal percentage and three-point percentages. Mitchell has led the Utah Jazz in scoring in 11 of their 27 games, and is second on the Jazz in scoring too, behind Rodney Hood’s 17.7 points per game.

Mitchell became the second rookie ever, first since Blake Griffin in 2011, to score more than 40 points in a single game after going for 41 against the New Orleans Pelicans. Coupling that with his high-flying athleticism, Mitchell has been one of the best rookies to watch this season.

stocknochanges452. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics (Last Week: 2)

Jayson Tatum is on pace to be only the second rookie ever to lead the league in three-point percentage. In over 38 years, the only other player to do it was Anthony Morrow, who shot 46.7 percent on 2.7 attempts per game during the 2008-09 regular season. Tatum is currently shooting 50 percent on over three attempts per game.

The 19-year-old forward has also made a near seamless transition from the isolation-dominated basketball that he played at Duke, and has flourished as the third, fourth and sometimes even fifth option on offense, having scored in double digits in 25 of 29 games and averaging 13.8 points per game on the season. His defense continues to be better than advertised as well.

Tatum has been Mr. Clutch among rookies as well. In the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime, Tatum has 14 field goals on 21 attempts, seventh in the entire NBA and tops among rookies. In fact, Tatum is the only other rookie in the top 15 in clutch field goals.

While Mitchell has been on fire recently, Tatum has performed well enough to this point where he is still in control of the number two spot among rookies. But the race for this second spot is close and will continue to be close throughout the season. The race for the number one spot on the other hand? Not so much.

stocknochanges451. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers (Last Week: 1)

It would make for a very boring race if Ben Simmons remained at the top of this list for the entire season. And it looks increasingly likely that that is going to be the case.

Try as they might, the other rookies just can’t hang with Simmons; none of them have the right combination of production and physicality to keep pace with the point-forward. Tatum has been better than advertised while Mitchell and Kuzma have exceeded all predraft expectations, but none of them can produce what Simmons has. With averages of 17.5 points, 8.9 rebounds and 7.7 assists per game, Simmons would be just the second rookie in NBA history, the first since Oscar Robertson during the 1960-61 season, to finish the season with that stat line.

So, unless they combine their powers to become a being with superhuman basketball skills, the other rookies don’t stand a chance against Simmons in the race for Rookie of the Year.

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Mock Drafts

NBA Daily: Another 2018 NBA Mock Draft – 12/13/17

Basketball Insiders’ publisher Steve Kyler drops his latest 2018 first-round NBA Mock Draft.

Steve Kyler

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A little less than a month ago we dropped the first 2018 NBA Mock Draft, which was met with a lot of disdain. Which is often a good thing because it sparks the discussion in NBA circles.

Since that Mock dropped, we’ve seen a bit more play out of some of the top prospects and many of the assumptions made almost a month ago are starting to settle into place a little more clearly.

The prevailing thought from NBA scouts and executives is that the possible 2018 NBA Draft class has a lot more questions than answers. The common view is that outside of the top 3 or 4 players there could be a very wide range on who the next 10-12 players will be; so expect for the second tier to evolve a lot over the course of the college basketball season.

A couple of things have started to surface among NBA scouts and executives, there seem to be three camps emerging around the top overall player – Duke’s Marvin Bagley III and international phenom Luka Dončić, seem to be the leading names mentioned most, with Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton making a strong push into the discussion. We can safely call this a three-horse race at this point.

The prevailing belief is that none of the three is far and away better than the other as a professional prospect, making it more likely than not that the top player selected will have a lot more to do with which team ultimately lands the pick, more so than the player themselves.

This class also seems to be brimming with promising athletic point guards, which unlike last year’s draft, could provide a lot of options for teams still trying to find that impact point guard.

There also looks to be 27 players in the projected top 100 that are 6’10 or bigger, eight of which project in the top 30. To put that into perspective, there were 11 players 6’10 or bigger drafted in the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft, and 17 total in the 60 2017 NBA Draft selections.

As we get into the 2018 calendar year, we’ll start to do deeper dives into the tiers of players and their possible NBA strengths and weakness.

So, with all of that in mind, here is the second 2018 first-round NBA Mock Draft.

Here are some of the pick swaps and how they landed where they are currently projected:

The Philadelphia 76ers are owed the LA Lakers 2018 Draft pick, unprotected, as a result of the 2012 Steve Nash trade with the Suns. The Suns traded that pick to the 76ers as part of the Michael Carter-Williams three-team trade with the Milwaukee in 2015.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are owed the Brooklyn Nets first-round pick as a result of the Kyrie Irving trade this past summer.

The Minnesota Timberwolves are owed the Oklahoma City Thunder’s first-round pick as part of the Ricky Rubio trade this summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would not convey.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Miami HEAT’s first-round pick as part of the Goran Dragic trade in 2015, it is top-seven protected and would convey to Phoenix based on the current standings.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Minnesota Timberwolves first round pick as part of the Adreian Payne trade in 2015. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Phoenix Suns are owed the Milwaukee Bucks first-round pick as part of the Eric Bledsoe trade. The pick only conveys if the Bucks pick lands between the 11th and 16th pick, which based on the standings today would not convey.

The Brooklyn Nets are owed the Toronto Raptors first round pick as part of the DeMarre Carroll salary dump trade this past summer. The pick is lottery protected and based on the current standings would convey.

The Atlanta Hawks are owed the Houston Rockets first round pick as part of a three-team deal with the LA Clippers and Denver Nuggets involving Danilo Gallinari and taking back Jamal Crawford and Diamond Stone. The pick is top-three protected and based on the current standings would convey.

Check out the Basketball Insiders’ Top 100 NBA Draft Prospects http://www.basketballinsiders.com/top-100-nba-draft-prospects/

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Insiders Podcast

PODCAST: How to Keep LeBron in Cleveland

Basketball Insiders

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The media seems to think LeBron is as good as gone this offseason, but Joel Brigham and Spencer Davies discuss why that may not be the case. That, and conversation about whether NCAA or Euroleague success is more valuable in evaluating draft talent.

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