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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 Daily: Kaiser Gates Determined To Silence His Doubters

He may not be listed on some draft boards or seen as an impact player by certain individuals, but Kaiser Gates knows what he’s made of.

Spencer Davies

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If you’re looking to further your career at the next level but coming out of college as a prospect on the fringe, you’d better be willing to work twice as hard to draw attention from the basketball world.

Attending the Preparation Pro Day in Miami with team representatives and scouts watching, Kaiser Gates wanted to show everybody who was there that the chip on his shoulder would drive him to silence his doubters.

“I feel like I have a lot to prove,” Gates said in Miami. “I feel like a lot of the guys in the draft this year, I’m just as good if not better than (them), so I gotta show that.”

After three years at Xavier University, the 22-year-old decided it was time to move on from the program and passed on his senior year to enter the NBA Draft. The news came as a surprise to many, considering he might’ve gotten the opportunity to earn an even more expanded role next season with the departure of Musketeer favorites Trevon Bluiett and J.P. Macura.

The numbers across the board weren’t exactly eye-catching. Primarily a wing, Gates knocked down 37.8 percent of his threes as a junior. He averaged 7.2 points and 4.6 rebounds in almost 24 minutes per game.

Looking at conference play in the Big East, those figures took a dip. Gates shot less than 30 percent from deep and really struggled to contribute offensively for Xavier against tougher opponents.

There was an incredible discrepancy in shot selection over his three-year collegiate career. Astoundingly enough, 300 of his 409 career attempts came outside of the arc. The other 109 tries were twos, which he converted at a 54.1 percent rate.

It’s hard to ignore statistical evidence when it comes to evaluating players, but misuse and fit could have been more prominent factors in this case. It’s something that happens quite a bit at school programs with prospects, and Gates believes that he could be added to that list of mishandled talent.

“I don’t think I’m inconsistent at all,” Gates said. “At Xavier, I know my stats showed that I was inconsistent. Playing at that school it was a great experience—great guys, great coaches.

“Just kinda like my situation and the way I was playing at that school didn’t really allow me to showcase my full talents, and with that being said, it’s kinda hard to stay consistent not doing something I’m used to doing.”

Furthering the point, it’s not easy to be judged off that information, which some use as the only indication of what you’ll bring to the pros. Gates plans on using that as motivation whenever he meets with different teams.

“I would come in and people would just assume like, ‘Oh he could shoot a little bit, play defense, a little athletic.’ But I know on the flip side, I know what I can really do and like, my full potential.

“So when I know that and see what teams already think, already have in their head, just now it’s up to me to prove to them what I can do and show them what I can do.”

So what does that exactly entail?

“My first few years or so, I’ll probably be more of a three-and-D guy—stretch the floor, play defense make hustle plays, rebound the ball, things like that,” Gates said. “But as I’mma grow, (I’ll) look to expand on my game. Maybe work out the pick-and-roll a little bit and expand from there.”

Thus far, the 6-foot-8, 228-pounder has reportedly worked out for multiple organizations, including the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls. He is enjoying the draft process and his growth as a player since it started.

He may not be listed on some draft boards or seen as an impact player by certain individuals, but Gates knows what he’s made of. And if he can attract the right set of eyes, he’ll be in good shape.

“You could get 30 workouts and that one team could fall in love with you,” Gates said.

“That’s what [my agent] Aaron Turner’s always talking to me about. He’s always said, ‘It only takes one team.’”

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NBA Daily: Second-Round Draft Steals to Watch

Several possible second round picks have a chance to make an impact at the NBA level, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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The NBA Draft is upon us this week. The hopes and dreams of many basketball players will become reality. Each year there are players who are drafted in the second round who end up outperforming their draft selection spot.

A premium has been placed on draft picks in recent years. Even second round picks have become extremely valuable. For a team like the Golden State Warriors whose payroll might limit their ability to sign quality rotation players (veterans taking discounts to win a ring notwithstanding), smart drafting has seen them scoop up steals like Patrick McCaw and Jordan Bell. Both those players have emerged as key rotation guys on a championship team, and both were taken in the second round.

The second round is an opportunity to pick up overlooked young talent on cheap contracts. Sure, it’s rare to get a Manu Ginobili or an Isaiah Thomas or a Draymond Green that goes on to become an All-Star caliber player, but plenty of quality contributors can be found.

Here’s a look at a few guys who have a great chance at becoming second round steals.

1. Allonzo Trier – Arizona

Outside of DeAndre Ayton, there may not have been a more valuable player to the Arizona Wildcats last season than Allonzo Trier. He was the Wildcats second-leading scorer at 18.1 points per game. There have been questions about his supposed selfish style of play, but he’s been a solidly efficient player his three years at Arizona.

This past season as a junior, he shot 50 percent from the field and 38 percent from the three-point line. Over his three years in college, he was a 47.5 percent shooter from the field and a 37.8 percent shooter from the three-point line. He’s also an 82.3 percent shooter from the line. And he did dish out 3.2 assists this past season.

Trier is a scorer, plain and simple, an efficient one at that. Despite this, his name has failed to appear on many mock drafts. The few that actually project the second round as well have him being drafted near the end. At 6-foot-5 and 205 pounds, Trier has great size for a shooting guard in the NBA. A sixth man type scorer is probably his best projection at the next level.

2. Brandon McCoy – UNLV

The Runnin’ Rebels didn’t quite have such a noteworthy year, which might explain a little about why Brandon McCoy is flying under the radar. UNLV posted a 20-13 record and failed to make the NCAA Tournament. Despite that, McCoy managed to emerge as their biggest bright spot.

In his lone college season, he led UNLV in scoring with 16.9 points per game on 54.5 percent shooting from the field. He also pulled down 10.8 rebounds per game and was their leading shot blocker at 1.8 blocks per game. For a big man, he shot a semi-decent 72.5 percent from the free-throw line.

He has good size, he’s a legit seven-footer. He moves well on the floor and with some work, can be a very good defensive player. Part of what might be causing him to get overlooked is he doesn’t have much in terms of a mid-range game, a necessity for big men in today’s NBA game. But that can be worked on. At any rate, he can be a high energy big off the bench, good to come in and block some shots, grabs some boards and clean up around the rim. Every team could use a guy like that.

3. Devonte Graham – Kansas

One year ago, Devonte Graham’s Jayhawk teammate Frank Mason III was also being overlooked in the draft. Like Graham, the major issue working against him was his status as a four-year college player. Mason went on to be one of the bright spots for the Sacramento Kings, establishing himself as a legit NBA point guard.

This summer, Graham is looking to do the same. Mason was also a bit on the shorter side, coming in at 5-foot-11. Graham has little more size than that at 6-foot-2. He was the Jayhawks best player for most of the year, putting up 17.3 points per game while shooting 40.6 percent from the three-point line. He also dished out 7.2 assists per game.

Most mock drafts have consistently had Graham being drafted early to middle second round. Being a college senior, he has leadership abilities. He’d be perfect for any team looking for a solid point guard off the bench.

4. Chimezie Metu – USC

For much of the mock draft season, Chimezie Metu’s name appeared as a first round selection. But in recent weeks, as other names began to climb up the draft ladder, Metu it appears has fallen back into the second-round. It’s interesting though, as his skill set for a big man appears to project well in today’s NBA game.

He was the Trojans’ best player as a junior this past season. He put up 15.7 points per game on 52.3 percent shooting from the field. He pulled down 7.4 rebounds while averaging 1.7 blocked shots. Although the percentages may not reflect that, he has an improving jump shot. He’s quick and mobile defensively.

He’s got all the tools be able to guard the post as well as switch out and guard other positions if need be. With a little more work, he can be a good jump shooter. With the evolution of today’s game, Metu has the perfect build and talent to find success as a modern NBA big man.

5. Tony Carr – Penn State

Tony Carr has been a consistent second round pick in most mock drafts. There has been the occasional one here or there that had him being drafted at the end of the first-round, but the second round is most likely where he’ll hear his name called.

Carr was the best player for a Nittany Lions team that ended up winning the NIT. This past season as a sophomore, he put up 19.6 points per game and shot 43.3 percent from the three-point line. He was able to pull down 4.9 rebounds per game and he dished out 5.0 assists.

He can play both guard positions and create for himself or his teammates. There have been question marks about his athleticism and ability to defend at the NBA level, but all a team needs for him to do is come in off the bench, run the offense a bit and get a few buckets. He’s definitely capable of doing that.

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NBA Daily: Kawhi Leonard Would Look Good In a Knicks Uniform… In 2019

The Knicks need to take a page out of the Sixers’ book… and trust the process.

Moke Hamilton

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The NBA world nearly stopped last week when reports circulated that Kawhi Leonard wanted out from San Antonio.

All of a sudden, within a few days, both he and Kyrie Irving were both reportedly open-minded about taking their talents to New York.

And while either (or both) of the two would look great as Knicks uniforms, they’d look much better in orange and blue in 2019.

After all, only a fool does the same thing over and over and expects different results.

Seven years ago, the Knicks the made mistake of trading their farm for a superstar caliber small forward. His name is Carmelo Anthony, and we all know how that story ended.

If you want to make the argument that Leonard is a better player than Anthony was at 27 years old, that’s your right, but one thing that not even Max Kellerman could argue is that smart teams simply don’t trade assets for players they could ultimately end up getting for free. That’s exactly why Paul George spent last season flanking Russell Westbrook instead of arguing with LaVar Ball.

So if Leonard or Irving wants to eventually take up residence in New York City, they can prove it… Next year.

If there’s one thing the Knicks historically imprudent front office should have learned from Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, it’s that.

This summer, after hiring David Fizdale, Scott Perry will have another opportunity to prove that the job at Penn Plaza isn’t too big for him, so it’ll be interesting to see whether he even publicly entertains the idea of attempting to make a splash this summer or whether he continues to hold steadfast to the belief that there are not shortcuts on the route to contention.

The right play for the Knicks is to follow the route that the Lakers took as it relates to Paul George—refrain from dealing valuable assets for players that you could sign for free. Danny Ainge hit home runs with Gordon Hayward and Al Horford and by essentially adding each of them to an existing core of young talent—and more importantly, refraining from acquiring either via trade—the Celtics now have an embarrassment of riches.

The Knicks don’t have those kinds of problems, and as it stands, have little aside from Kristaps Porzinigis going for them. With the Latvian unicorn expected to miss the majority of next season, they’ll probably have a lottery pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. That could be paired nicely with Porzingis, Frank Ntilikina and the ninth overall pick that they’ll have in the 2018 draft.

In other words, one year from now, the Knicks could have four of their own lottery picks under contract—Porzingis, Ntilikina, and whichever players they will have selected in 2018 and 2019. Between now and then, the team would be best served scouring the G-League and overseas markets to find cheap help that can contribute at the NBA level. Let the young guys play, let them develop and then carry them into the summer of 2019 with a clear plan in place.

That type of prudent management will not only help the Knicks in the long run, it will go a long way toward convincing soon-to-be free agents and player agents that Perry and his staff actually know what they’re doing.

If they play things right, and if the team managed to unload either Courtney Lee or Joakim Noah, they could open up the very real possibility of landing both Leonard and Irving, but instead of trading the farm for them, they’d have a realistic shot at signing them. They’d be adding them to the core instead of sacrificing it for them. Imagine that.

From where most people sit, Irving seems to have an ideal situation in Boston, and his entertaining the idea of taking his talents elsewhere seems curious, at best… But so did the choice of leaving LeBron James.

Irving has been consistently rumored as having real interest in playing in New York when he’s able to test the market next July, and depending on who you ask, there does seem to be a genuine level of concern in Boston that he could opt to take his talents elsewhere.

Growing up in the shadows of Madison Square Garden, the young guard knows better than most what winning in New York City would do for his legacy. At the end of the day, would one championship in New York make Irving a legendary figure among the likes of Kobe Bryant or LeBron James? Probably not. But one thing we can call agree on is that winning in a single championship in New York would do much more for Irving than winning a single championship in Cleveland or even a single title in Boston.

As it stands, fair or not, history will always look at Irving as the “other” player on James’ championship Cavaliers team, even though he was the one who made the biggest shot of James’ career.

And with the success of the Celtics this past season, truth be told, Irving helping lead the Celtics to a championship with the team’s current core in place wouldn’t necessarily cement his legacy in the way it would have had we not seen Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown show signs of being franchise-caliber players.

Because Irving is a shoot-first guard, he’ll continue to unfairly carry the reputation of being someone who doesn’t make his teammates better. He’s no Steve Nash, but he is truly special. Just don’t tell the national media that.

Because of the circumstances, he’s now in a bit of a catch-22. He’ll get less of the credit than he’ll deserve if the Celtics manage to win an NBA title and more of the blame than he’ll deserve if they fail to.

Still, even if Irving and/or Leonard end up elsewhere, the summer of 2019 will feature other free agents including Kemba Walker—the only “true” All-Star caliber New Yorker in the NBA—and Long Island product Tobias Harris. Jimmy Butler, Khris Middleton, Kevin Love and Nikola Vucevic, too.

Going from Leonard and Irving to Walker and Butler might seem like a sad story of riches to rags, but one could very easily make the argument that adding two high-quality All-Star caliber starters to a core featuring Porzingis, Ntilikina and two lottery picks would do more to make the Knicks contenders than unloading the cupboard in an attempt to bring one in.

If that sounds like exactly what the Celtics did, that’s because it is. The Lakers, too. There’s a reason why they’re the most winningest franchises in NBA history, it would seem.

One thing we know for sure in the NBA: there will always be marquee free agents. The Knicks just need to do a better job of being able to attract them.

So this summer, if Perry wants to continue to earn favor with Knicks fans with even half a brain, the best thing to do might actually be to do nothing.

In other words, if the Knicks have truly learned anything from the futility of their recent past, it’s that they should try to be more like Magic Johnson and Danny Ainge. 

So if word eventually gets to Perry that Leonard’s interest in the team is real, and if Irving decides that he wants to take up residence in his backyard to try to succeed where Patrick Ewing, Stephon Marbury and Patrick Ewing fell short, Perry’s response should be simple.

“Prove it.”

Either would look great in a Knicks uniform, but they’d look much better in a Knicks uniform in 2019.

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