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Cheap Seats: Coaches Who Deserve Credit

Basketball Insiders’ interns look at a few NBA coaches who deserve credit for the job they’ve done in the 2013-14 season.

Alex Kennedy

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Every season, we welcome in a new group of interns and typically their work is done primarily behind the scenes. But now that the current group has been around for awhile, we’re giving them a platform to voice their thoughts on the NBA. Each week, Basketball Insiders’ interns Jesse Blancarte, Cody Taylor and John Zitzler will discuss a topic related to the league in Cheap Seats.

This week, the interns discuss some coaches who deserve credit this season. The Coach of the Year race will likely come down to Indiana’s Frank Vogel, Phoenix’s Jeff Hornacek, San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich and Portland’s Terry Stotts, and those coaches have received a lot of ink this year. Today, we wanted to recognize some coaches who haven’t gotten as much love:

Tom Thibodeau

The Chicago Bulls came into the season with high hopes; the long awaited return of Derrick Rose, the emergence of Jimmy Butler, consistent strong play from Luol Deng, and Joakim Noah bringing his usual unchecked passion and energy every night had fans excited. The team seemed poised to return to the form that netted them 62 wins and a berth in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010-11. Coach Tom Thibodeau would be equipped with his full arsenal of weapons, an opportunity that he surely had been longing for ever since the unfortunate injury to his former MVP point guard Rose.

Those expectations changed dramatically just 11 games into the season in a late November game against the Portland Trail Blazers. It was in that game when Rose would suffer another season-ending injury to his knee. A crippling blow to the Bulls’ chances of competing in the playoffs against the two elite teams in the East, the Miami HEAT and Indiana Pacers. With the East being so weak, the injury to Rose certainly didn’t remove the team from playoff contention, but even the most optimistic fan knew that it would be a monumental challenge to topple either of the conferences juggernauts without their star.

After the injury to Rose, the team was left in a very precarious position, a no man’s land of sorts. They were no longer talented enough to compete for the title, but still a playoff team in the poor Eastern Conference. The front office, not believing the current roster could compete for a title without Rose, would eventually trade their former All-Star forward Deng to the Cleveland Cavaliers, depleting the roster even further.

Without Rose and Deng, it was expected the Bulls would fade back in the standings and maybe even fall out of the playoff race. If you are familiar with Coach Thibodeau, you knew that wouldn’t be the case. When you play for Thibodeau, you are going to compete every second of every game. His team has done exactly that. As it stands today, the Bulls are 38-31, which is good for fourth in the East and if the playoffs started today would give them home court advantage. It’s remarkable when you consider the roster Thibodeau has been left to work with. The point guard duties in Rose’s absence are being split by veteran Kirk Hinrich and D.J. Augustin. Butler and Mike Dunleavy have been handling the majority of the minutes at the wing position with rookie Tony Snell spelling them at times. The strength of the roster is now in the frontcourt, led by All-Star Joakim Noah along with Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson. Noah has been brilliant, having possibly the best season of his career, Butler and Gibson are both very solid players and Boozer can score, but at times has been a liability on defense. The rest of the roster falls into the average to below average category.

Thibodeau somehow has been able to work wonders with who he has. The Bulls are second in the league in points allowed, only giving up 92.3 points a game. This shouldn’t come as a surprise as Thibodeau has proven to be a defensive mastermind, but is still impressive all things considered. Along with great defense, the Bulls have done a good job on the glass, ranking in the top 10 in rebounding as well. The team’s toughness is what really shows night in and night out. Thibodeau, along with Noah, ooze competitive spirit and that desire to win has been contagious among the rest of the team. The offense, however, has had its struggles, sitting near the bottom of the league in scoring. Thibodeau has done a great job utilizing Noah to try a spark the sometimes stagnant offensive attack. He often begins possessions in the high post, which allows him to survey the defense and find cutters or guys coming off screens, allowing Noah to take full advantage of his passing ability. Thibodeau has guided the Bulls to a 24-13 record since Deng’s departure, which is surprisingly a drastic improvement after going only 14-18 with Deng on the roster to start the season. The team has really come together over the last couple months and no one deserves more credit for that than Thibodeau. He has his guys playing great team ball and it is leading to wins.

This Bulls team will be a playoff team, most likely not a championship team but that certainly shouldn’t be considered a failure. Thibodeau has made the most of a roster lacking much depth and scoring punch, relying on his guys to fight every possession. His team has bought in wholeheartedly. The season could have easily been lost and no one would have criticized Thibodeau, knowing the adversity his team has faced. It’s hard to argue that any coach has done more with less. Approaching 40 wins in mid March with this roster is a phenomenal achievement. Win or lose, this Bulls team will be a nightmare opponent for whoever they meet in the playoffs. While they may be out-manned if the run into the Pacers or HEAT, there is no doubt Thibodeau will have his guys prepared to scrap and claw each game.

– John Zitzler

 Jason Kidd

Since the calendar turned to 2014, the Brooklyn Nets have been one of the hottest teams in the league. In 36 games played in 2014, the Nets have gone 26-10 versus 10-21 in the 21 games played in 2013. The team’s excellent turnaround has them in prime position going into the final stretch of games in the regular season. The Nets would be the fifth seed if the playoffs started today, with a first-round matchup against the Chicago Bulls. With remaining games against the New Orleans Pelicans, Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons, Philadelphia 76ers and a couple against the Orlando Magic, the Nets could find themselves as high as the third seed at the end of the season with home-court advantage in the first-round.

The Nets owe their resurgence to the man in charge, Jason Kidd. It was easy for analysts and experts to bash Kidd in the early part of the season, but Kidd has brushed that off and has led the Nets in the right path and he deserves more praise. Nets general manager Billy King has said just as much.

“Jason has been amazing,” King said on Friday. “Nobody is really saying how great a job he’s done. It is easy to attack people negatively, but when people have success you should give them the credit. A lot of our success that we are having is directed [by Kidd].”

When things go sideways in the NBA, the heat is usually directed at the coach first. It was especially easy to blame Kidd in his first year as a coach, transitioning from a player. So when the team started 10-21 with an expensive roster that features Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, many were calling for his job. One scout graded Kidd by giving him an incomplete, because “he doesn’t do anything,” according to Bleacher Report.

The Nets have been able to continue winning without the services of leading scorer Brook Lopez and veteran big man Garnett. Lopez suffered a season-ending foot injury back in December, and Garnett has been battling back spasms and has missed the last 11 games. Garnett’s timetable to return to the floor is unknown, but the Nets seem to be faring well without him as the team has won eight of those 11 games.

This season with the Nets, Garnett is averaging a career-low 6.7 points per game and the second-lowest rebounding total of his career with 6.7 per game. Even with the lowest production of his career, the Nets are still in need of his services if they hope to make noise in the playoffs.

Kidd is on record as crediting the Nets’ turnaround to the fact that the team is starting to trust each other more. It also seems like the team has more confidence in hearing what the players are saying.

Pierce has said that the team isn’t worried about where they’ll play in the postseason. Pierce said last week that the team is capable of playing anywhere in the league, citing their wins in Oklahoma City and Miami as examples. The Nets may want to find themselves playing at home come the first round of the playoffs as the team has won 11 straight games at the Barclays Center.

Deron Williams said this week that Kidd has done a great job with the team.

“He’s had a lot to deal with just with rotations,” Williams told Newsday. “It’s made it tough, but I think he’s handled it well, this being his first year. I think he prepares us well every game. I think he gets us ready to play, and then in the game, he puts us in good situations. So it’s a learning experience for him, and I think he’s grown game by game and you can kind of see that.”

– Cody Taylor

Brett Brown

Before everyone pulls out their pitch forks and torches, hear me out. I acknowledge that no one is going to give a Coach of the Year vote to the leader of the second-worst team in the league. The NBA, like all sports leagues, awards winning and admonishes losers. That will be reflected this year by a coach like Gregg Popovich, Jeff Hornacek or Doc Rivers winning the Coach of the Year award. However, I want to give some recognition to a coach that arguably has accomplished every goal he, and his team’s front office, set out to achieve this year.

The 76ers are not a winning team, but in terms of setting themselves up for a bright future, no one has performed as well as they have. Brett Brown is the captain of this ship (maybe a tank is a more appropriate metaphor) and has guided his young team through a historically bad season. In spite of the losing, this season has been a success.

On August 14, 2013, Brown signed on as the head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers.

“We went through an exhaustive search to find the right head coach for our organization—one who had a passion for developing talent, a strong work-ethic to help create the kind of culture we hope for, and a desire to continually improve,” Sam Hinkie, general manger of the 76ers, said in a statement. “Brett has all of that. He also has a wealth of experience as a head coach and a championship pedigree, to boot.”

After coaching in Australia, Brown joined the San Antonio Spurs in 1999, became the director of player development in 2002, and joined Popovich’s bench as an assistant coach in 2007 and was with the Spurs during each of their four championship seasons, which includes 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007. Credit Hinkie for finding a coach that has worked in player development, worked on a championship coaching staff, and was capable of building a team and creating a winning culture.

The season started off with a bang, as the 76ers unexpectedly knocked off the Miami HEAT, Washington Wizards and Chicago Bulls in its first three games. The 76ers had veterans Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes and Thaddeus Young on the team. These players are young, but probably not young enough to be part of a major rebuild. In fact, they are the sort of players that can fetch valuable draft picks from contending teams that are looking for that final piece to put them over the top.

As the season continued, Turner, Hawes and Young each continued to play big minutes and be significant contributors to the team, each playing well over 30 minutes a game. Brown was trying his best to win games, and managed to knock off teams like the Houston Rockets, Brooklyn Nets, Portland Trail Blazers, Charlotte Bobcats and New York Knicks. In doing so, Brown allowed his veterans to showcase their talent for other teams, while also playing standout rookie Michael Carter-Williams the second most minutes on the team. Brown tiptoed the line between showcasing his veterans’ talent, and featuring his young star and role players prominently.

At the trade deadline, the 76ers moved Hawes to Cleveland for two second-round picks and Earl Clark. They also moved Turner and Lavoy Lavoy Allen to Indiana for Danny Granger and a second-round draft pick. Granger and Clark were bought out, and the 76ers went into full tank mode.

Brown knew this would likely happen, but said he is up for the challenge, telling NBC Sports, “I just felt like I was at a stage where I wanted the challenge. And it would be a blemish on a coaching record, but I feel like, at this stage for me, that’s not my motivation. I hope to be a part of something special and build something special here.”

With Turner and Hawes gone, Brown now gets to play his young talent and develop players who may be with the team moving forward. Players like James Anderson, Tony Wroten and Henry Sims have been able to make a case for why they should have a place with the organization moving forward. Though the losses continue, Brown has his team competing. Just ask the Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks, all of whom the 76ers almost upset in its last three games, losing by single digits in each game. The 76ers’ losing streak currently stands at 23, and they are only three games back from the all-time record set by the Cavaliers in 2011.

While that number is certainly an eyesore, it is the result of a deliberate plan. Look at teams like the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers, who are also struggling this season. Mike D’Antoni runs a wide open offense and gives his players the green-light to shoot from the perimeter. On defense, the Lakers surrender points easily, and simply try to outscore their opponents each night. The players, many of which are on expiring deals, are putting up inconsistent performances as each takes their turn to get his stats and make a name for themselves before going into free agency. There is no rhyme and reason to the rotations, and players like Wesley Johnson are being asked to play out of position, which takes away from any value the team may have in evaluating individual players.

As for the Bucks, they acquired players like Caron Butler and O.J. Mayo this year to compete for a playoff run. Instead, Larry Sanders had a terrible year, missing time from an injury sustained in a bar fight, and the team has been a mess in general. While the Bucks have acquired under the radar talent in Brandon Knight and rookie Giannis Antetokounmpo, there is little to be optimistic about moving forward in Milwaukee. Bucks head coach Larry Drew has not orchestrated the same focused approach that Brown has in Philadelphia, and it shows through the frustration of players like Ersan Ilyasova, who is rumored to want out of Milwaukee.

This is why Brown deserves recognition. He has kept his eye on the big picture this season. He allowed Hinkie to make shrewd moves to execute a long-term plan toward rebuilding, featured his veteran players leading to trades for future draft picks, given Carter-Williams the room and guidance to grow as a player, and continues to get his players to compete every night in spite of the lack of overall talent on the team. Brown has been able to do this through a unified and concerted effort toward improving the team. He runs offensive and defensive schemes that will be effective in the future, executed by Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel and whoever the 76ers’ pick with their valuable lottery pick this offseason. If all of this wasn’t enough, Brown even went so far as to call season ticket holders personally to explain the team’s plan for the future, and convince them that they should renew their tickets for next year.

This year was about laying the foundation for a brighter future in Philadelphia. As newly appointed commissioner Adam Silver put it, it’s not “tanking,” it’s “rebuilding.” This year, no one has done a better job of “rebuilding,” than the 76ers, and Brown has done a masterful job of laying that foundation.

– Jesse Blancarte

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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Update: Eric Bledsoe Trade Talks

Michael Scotto updates the ongoing Eric Bledsoe trade saga.

Michael Scotto

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The sun has set on the 2017-18 season for Phoenix three games into the year.

The Suns fired head coach Earl Watson and promoted Jay Triano as the team’s interim head coach, as ESPN first reported. The Suns suffered an embarrassing 124-76 loss in the home opener against the Portland Trail Blazers. The final straw came during a 130-88 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on the road to drop the team to 0-3.

Then things went from bad to worse rapidly after a tweet from guard Eric Bledsoe.

General manager Ryan McDonough spoke with Bledsoe. Bledsoe told McDonough he was at a hair salon with a girl and the tweet wasn’t related to the Suns. McDonough didn’t believe that to be true and said the 27-year-old guard “won’t be with us going forward.”

Bledsoe spoke with McDonough and owner Robert Sarver privately several weeks ago. During that conversation the desire for a change was expressed, a league source told Basketball Insiders.

Since then, Phoenix has discussed trades involving Bledsoe around the league, sources told Basketball Insiders. In addition, Tyson Chandler has continued to be shopped by the Suns during that time.

Trade talks have rapidly picked up since Bledsoe’s desire to be traded was made public.

The Suns and Denver Nuggets have discussed a trade of Eric Bledsoe for Emmanuel Mudiay and other pieces, league sources told Basketball Insiders.

Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried has emerged as part of the trade package with Mudiay, league sources told Basketball Insiders.

Denver has shopped Faried for years. The 27-year-old forward is owed $12.9 million this season and $13.7 million next season. Mudiay is owed $3.4 million this season and $4.3 million next season. Mudiay will then become a restricted free agent if given a qualifying offer in the summer of 2019. For more information on Denver’s salary cap situation, click here.

The Suns also spoke to the New York Knicks and asked for No. 8 overall pick Frank Ntilikina and Willy Hernangomez in exchange for Bledsoe. The Knicks are not interested in that package, however.

Kyle O’Quinn is a candidate to be traded. Several teams have called the Knicks expressing interest in O’Quinn. New York wants to retain Hernangomez for the foreseeable future despite a lack of playing time early in the season. It’s also worth noting Hernangomez is a close friend of Kristaps Porzingis. Ntilikina is currently the point guard of the future in New York.

In addition, New York would need to add a salary filler to make the trade work financially. For more information on New York’s salary cap situation, click here.

The Milwaukee Bucks have also expressed interest in trading for Bledsoe, according to the New York Times. The Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers also have interest in Bledsoe, according to Amico Hoops.

Bledsoe is owed $14.5 million this season and $15 million next season before entering unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2018.

Bledsoe has averaged 18.8 points, 6.0 assists, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.6 steals per game with Phoenix. In addition, Bledsoe shot 45 percent from the field, 34 percent from downtown, and 81 percent from the foul line.

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NBA PM: Greek Freak Off to an MVP-Caliber Start

Giannis Antetokounmpo is the Bucks’ MVP and looks primed to be in the actual MVP race this season.

James Blancarte

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The NBA season is officially underway. Although each team has only played a few games so far, it has helped illuminate where many teams and players are in their development. For example, last night’s game in Oklahoma City gave a glimpse into how the Thunder will handle a late-game situation now that the team has three previous number one options. In the final minute, Russell Westbrook scored two of the Thunder’s last three baskets and assisted Carmelo Anthony on the final basket just before Andrew Wiggins hit a game-winning buzzer beater from well beyond the arc.

After three games, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s individual development has been one of the most exciting storylines to follow. A number of positive and far-reaching questions can be asked of Giannis. What is the ceiling for him? Can a player of his considerable talents continue to improve after winning Most Improved Player last season? Remember, Giannis was drafted in 2013 and is still only 22 years old.

When told in August that although he could win most valuable player, he could not also win most improved player as well, he responded with a simple, yet telling response.

“Why not?” Antetokounmpo responded.

While he continued to be lighthearted and moved on to the next topic, it’s fair to ask, “why not?” when it comes to Giannis. Through three regular season games, he is averaging 38.3 points, five assists, 9.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. These averages will likely regress to more sustainable numbers as the season continues. For now, however, his averages are in elite territory. In addition, his ability to impact the game is already getting to the point where LeBron James may be the only other player who can similarly fill up the stat lines while physically terrorizing opponents on both the offensive and defensive end of the court.

When asked who the “biggest freak in the NBA” is, Giannis elaborated that it was James due to his ability to impose himself on the game.

“The things [James] does, the veteran leadership he brings to the team, how big he is, how quick, how strong,” Giannis stated. “And at the end of the day, how smart he is. He can put his team in the right spots, make the right decision.”

In Saturday night’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers, Giannis willed his team to victory. It was Giannis demonstrating how big, strong and smart he was, putting his team on his shoulders and carrying them to an impressive win.
With less than a minute left in a close game, Giannis closed in with a well-timed double team on Damian Lillard and came away with a clean steal. The steal got the Bucks the ball back and Giannis was fouled, which put him on the free throw line. Unfortunately, he came up short on both attempts and the Bucks remained a point behind.

Despite missing the free throws, Giannis came up huge on the very next play. Giannis took on C.J McCollum one-on-one at the top of the key and created yet another steal. He then leaked out to receive the pass for a breakaway dunk that quickly gave the Bucks the lead with 11.4 seconds remaining.

On the next play, when Jusuf Nurkic set a high screen and roll, he received the pass on the roll and headed to the basket. Giannis’ primary responsibility was the shooter in the corner and yet he read the action correctly and was ready and waiting at the rim for Nurkic. Giannis times Nurkic’s shot perfectly and rejected him at the rim, which effectively ended the game in favor of the Bucks.

Giannis’ ability as defensive Swiss Army Knife was instrumental in the Bucks’ close win over Portland. In addition, Giannis has also made further improvements in an area of his that has received a lot of attention over the years. He continues to shoot a below average three-point percentage for his career (27.6) and has had a rocky start to this season as well (16.7). It’s likely that Giannis’ three-point shooting will be a significant limitation in his game for the foreseeable future. However, over his career, Giannis has shown an ability to improve his shooting percentage on two-point shots consistently, especially shots from 0-3 feet and 3-10 feet, per basketball-reference. As Giannis has gotten stronger and more explosive, he has developed a strong desire to attack opponents off the dribble and absorb contact at the rim. Whether he blows by his opponent outright or scores through opponents at the rim, Giannis has developed into an offensive force that few players in the league could hope to slow down.

In addition to his scoring, Giannis continues to display his unique ability to handle the ball in transitions and run the Bucks’ offense in the half court as a point forward. This sort of ability separates Giannis from the other elite wings in the league who don’t have the skill or vision to act as a primary playmaker. Giannis is doing much of what he did last year, but seems more aggressive and physically dominant through the first three games of this season. That sort of improvement of course puts Giannis in the MVP discussion (though it is incredibly early in the season to even start this sort of discussion).

Giannis was recently asked about his ability to win the MVP and wasn’t shy about his desire to win the prestigious award.

“I’m going to be one of the players that hopefully dominates the game. But I’ve got to still make sure that my team wins, that my teammates get better,” Giannis stated. “I’ve set the goal since the last game against Toronto last year, at the playoffs. I want to be the MVP this year.”

What helps solidify Giannis’ ability to be such a strong MVP candidate is also what makes his team less dangerous. The Bucks are woefully dependent on their star and, at least for now, lack the necessary depth to be a true contender in the East.

Through three regular season games, it’s clear that the Bucks will only go as far as Giannis can take them. And that is the key to Giannis’ budding MVP campaign. Let’s take a look at last year’s top five MVP candidates. Last year’s winner, Westbrook, has two new star-caliber players (Paul George and Carmelo Anthony) to share the spotlight, and the ball, with. James Harden is sharing the ball with Chris Paul, who is currently struggling with a knee injury. LeBron James and the Cavaliers are almost exclusively concerned with the postseason. Kawhi Leonard is similarly crucial to the San Antonio Spurs on offense and defense but has lingering health concerns and has yet to play this season. Finally, Isaiah Thomas is coming off a major hip injury and is not projected to play until January.

With so much uncertainty, Giannis has the opportunity to continue to draw attention as not only the most important player on the Bucks but perhaps the most valuable player in the league. Giannis’ early play this season indicates that this is possible. Despite his early-season outburst, Giannis is giving deference to LeBron James — though he admits he hopes to reach James’ level at some point in the future.

“Definitely [James is] the best player in the NBA. For a few years to come,” Giannis stated. “But I think a lot of players are getting better. Even myself. And hopefully one day we can get to that spot from him.”

Perhaps Giannis will take the spot as the best player in the NBA as early as this season. Considering how dominant he has been so far this season, it’s fair to ask “why not?”

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Wright Primed To Take Next Step With Raptors

Third year Utah alum Delon Wright is showing flashes of what he can do in an expanded role for Toronto.

Spencer Davies

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Backup point guards are essential to a team’s success.

They’re the floor generals of the second unit. They create for themselves to score. They collapse defenses in order for the others to get opportunities.

In some cases, these players perform so well that they outgrow the role they provide and force their way into the starting five—on that same team or elsewhere. Just look at past examples: Darren Collison, Eric Bledsoe, Reggie Jackson, Dennis Schroder, etc. The list goes on.

Kyle Lowry was 20 years old when he was drafted late in the first round of the 2006 NBA Draft by the Memphis Grizzlies. He studied the position behind veteran guards Chucky Atkins and Damon “Mighty Mouse” Stoudamire.

But even after showing promise in his rookie season, management decided to take Mike Conley Jr. the very next year. Though the two were about even in playing time, it was clear the Grizzlies favored youth over anything else, so in 2009, Lowry was dealt with the Houston Rockets in a three-way trade at the deadline.

At this point, Lowry had started in only 30 games over two-and-a-half seasons, so the keys to the car weren’t ready for him just yet. Aaron Brooks was a unique talent that Rick Adelman loved to throw out there along with Tracy McGrady and Kevin Martin.

Brooks started all 82 games in the 2009-10 campaign and blossomed into a scoring machine. He was shooting the lights out that year, and because of that, it was tough to sit him. Lowry still took advantage of his playing time, though, with plenty of floor run. He averaged nearly 14 points and seven assists per 36 minutes.

To the misfortune of his teammate and the advantage to Lowry the next season, Brooks struggled mightily with the jump shot that made him so deadly. After 34 games, the Rockets moved him in a deal to Phoenix for Goran Dragic and a first-round pick. Dragic was on his way to carving his niche in the league, but it opened up a door for Lowry to really take hold as “quarterback” of the team.

Circumstances arose once again, however. Houston had let go of Adelman and hired Kevin McHale in June 2011. Lowry and his new head coach did not have the same rapport. He unfortunately suffered from a bacterial infection and missed out on the beginning of the season, and towards the end, the emergence of Dragic led to his demise.

That summer, the Rockets sent Lowry to the Toronto Raptors for Gary Forbes and a future first-rounder. Once again, it was a fresh start for him, but also a brand new team with a different head coach.

It didn’t take long for the man to realize his true potential there. Aside from shuffling a bit with Jose Calderon as the starter in Toronto, Lowry found a home. The jump he made between that season and the next one was impressive.

Lowry got paid after that 2013-14 season and re-signed with the Raptors for four years. He earned three All-Star appearances and—aside from the postseason disappointments—led the team to new heights with his fellow All-Star backcourt partner DeMar DeRozan.

Toronto and its star point guard agreed to a three-year, $100 million deal over the summer to keep him running the show and to honor that contract well as he has always had. But now there’s somebody behind Lowry waiting to break out, and could very well be the one who gets the torch passed to him.

Delon Wright is ready to make his mark. When he entered the league, he was a reserve behind Cory Joseph and had to observe and soak in the experience of NBA life. For some rookies, they get the chance immediately, and for the others, they have to wait their turn. In this case, it was the latter.

Playing the waiting game ended up working out well for him. In the offseason, the Raptors went out and traded Joseph for C.J. Miles due to the loss of DeMarre Carroll. It was a move that not only addressed a need for depth at the wing but also opened a door for Wright.

So here we are, two games in. The Raptors are 2-0 and have outscored their opponents by 51 points. In those combined, Wright has received 55 minutes of playing time.

Despite the competition being the rebuilding Chicago Bulls and a Philadelphia 76ers team trying to find an identity, he looks extremely comfortable. You don’t want to take too much out a sample size as small as that, but neither the numbers nor the eye test lies.

Wright has played the third-most minutes on the team thus far. He’s done a great job on both sides of the floor but has truly made a difference on the defensive end. As of now, the Raptors are only allowing 83 points per 100 possessions with him on the hardwood. When he’s not, that number blows up to 98.9 using the same scale.

Offensively he’s almost been just as good. Wright has been aggressive as a facilitator and as a shooter, putting up 13- and 14-point games early on. He dished out five assists in the season opener and nabbed five rebounds in the second game. He has a higher offensive rating than both Lowry and DeRozan.

According to NBA.com, Toronto’s net rating with him off the court (12.9) is the second lowest to his lifelong teammate Jakob Poeltl (12.8). Take it with a grain of salt because it’s one week into the season, but Wright has the best net rating in the league (37.6) among those playing at least 25 minutes per game.

Call it garbage time play or whatever you want: He has the tools to succeed. The stature is there. The intangibles are evident. It’s all about putting it together over the course of an entire season.

If the trend continues, there’s no way Casey can keep him off the floor for long. We don’t know where Wright’s career could go. It’s way too early to tell. The Raptors are likely hoping for him to be the successor after this era of basketball has come and gone.

Lowry is the man in Toronto, as is DeRozan. Nothing is changing that anytime soon. But rest assured, Wright’s primed to take a big step this year and it’s going to be fun to watch.

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