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Dallas Mavericks 2017-18 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Dallas Mavericks in an interesting 2017-18 transitional season.

Basketball Insiders

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With a similar roster and young talent continuing to develop in preparation for the post-Dirk Nowitzki era, the Mavericks are in the middle of a rebuild while also being a team that’s hungry to compete. Returning the majority of their core from last year, they’ll look to move past a disappointing season and into a better direction.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

In some ways, when I look at the Mavs, I see a team in almost the same predicament as the Sacramento Kings. The Mavs have seemingly lost their way over the past few years, but are still widely considered to be a well-run team led by an intelligent front office. Unfortunately for them, the golden era of the franchise is behind. As Dirk rides off into the sunset, the hope for Mark Cuban is that Harrison Barnes, Wesley Matthews and Dennis Smith, Jr. can prove themselves capable building blocks to help his team get to the next level out West.

Obviously, I would have included Nerlens Noel in that conversation, but history has shown us that players seldom accept a one-year qualifying offer only to re-sign with their incumbent team the following season. Fortunately for the Mavs, they will enjoy the benefit of Noel attempting to prove himself worthy of a max deal this coming season. I doubt it’ll be enough to make them competitive in the tough Southwest, though, and am sure this season will be the first time the Mavs fail to qualify for the postseason in consecutive years since they failed to do so in 1999 and 2000.

5th Place — Southwest Division

— Moke Hamilton

The days of Dirk Nowitzki dominating for the Dallas Mavericks are gone, but by early accounts, the next face of the Mavs franchise is already in the building. Dallas selected point guard Dennis Smith Jr. with the ninth overall pick in June’s draft, and the uber-athletic North Carolina State product put on a show during the Las Vegas Summer League.

While much of next season will be spent battling to keep themselves out of the Southwest Division’s basement, Dallas appears to have a nice core of young players to finally bridge over into the post-Dirk era. Smith, along with Harrison Barnes, Nerlens Noel and Seth Curry, all look to have the makings of formidable group in the coming years.

However, that won’t be next year. The Mavs still have plenty of holes on their team and are stuck in a division where the four other teams will all be fighting their hardest for a playoff spot. In due time, though, Dallas.

5th place — Southwest Division

— Dennis Chambers

There are two things I feel fairly confident about this year when it comes to the Mavericks: Dirk Nowitzki is more mascot than player at this point, and Dennis Smith, Jr. is going to be the Rookie of the Year. It’s a weird year of transition this season as the team moves away from an all-time Hall-of-Fame talent and sort of begins something of a rebuild in earnest, but it’s a transition year that should see some good wins, if not a ton of them. Dallas plays in the harder conference, which doesn’t bode well for their playoff hopes, but that doesn’t mean it won’t still be an interesting year. Enjoy Nowitzki while he’s there, and gear up for the Dennis Smith experience. It’s all going to be fun, playoffs or not.

5th Place – Southwest Division

– Joel Brigham

The Mavs have spent years walking the tightrope between the end of the Dirk Nowitzki era and the start of a new one, and this year could follow a similar path. The Mavs may have found the steal of the 2017 draft in NC State guard Dennis Smith Jr., who impressed throughout summer play. They’re also still stocked with solid veterans like Wesley Matthews, Harrison Barnes and even Seth Curry, though it’s questionable whether this kind of core on top of Nowitzki and the young Smith will be enough to really push for a playoff spot out West. Nerlens Noel also returns to the fold, though issues in the rookie extension process and his subsequent signature of Dallas’ qualifying offer could mean this is his last year in town. Barring an additional move or two, the Mavs feel like they’ll be just short of the group that competes for those final few seeds in the West – though we should never count out Rick Carlisle. Unfortunately, the Mavs feel like the favorites to finish last in the Southwest.

5th Place – Southwest Division

-Ben Dowsett

The Dallas Mavericks have some nice players in Wesley Matthews, Harrison Barnes, Nerlens Noel, Seth Curry and the exciting rookie Dennis Smith Jr. However, this team doesn’t have the elite talent or depth to make a serious playoff push, which means this year is more about developing the young core players and laying the groundwork for long term success. Dirk Nowitzki is on the tail end of his career, but he is still capable of putting together some impressive performances. For Mavericks fans, this season should be about developing players like Smith Jr. and enjoying the final stage of Nowitzki’s hall of fame career. However, it should be noted that with Rick Carlisle at head coach, the Mavericks are always a threat to outplay expectations. While that isn’t likely to translate into a playoff berth for Dallas this upcoming season, it’s something to consider.

5th Place – Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Harrison Barnes

After signing a four-year, $94 million max contract with the Mavericks, it was obvious the franchise was putting a lot of stock into Barnes as their next superstar. The first season of his career for Dallas went pretty much as anticipated for a starter transitioning into a “go-to guy.”

Depending on who you ask, he even exceeded those expectations. Strictly as a scorer, the Mavericks can count on Barnes to put the ball in the basket. His 19.2 points per game led the way by far for a team that was lacking offensive production to put it lightly. He’ll need to work on snatching up boards and sharing the wealth more to be considered an all-around player, but things are looking up for the 25-year-old going into year two.

Top Defensive Player: Nerlens Noel

By acquiring Noel at the trade deadline in February, Dallas general manager Donnie Nelson addressed a desperate need and came through with flying colors. For most players in the NBA, it takes a minute to get used to a new system and different teammates. That was not the case for the 6-foot-11, 228-pound Kentucky alum.

Noel hit the ground running as soon as he arrived. His athleticism and constant activity brought a new dimension to the Mavericks on both ends of the floor. Noel’s leaping ability makes him a dual-threat as a shot blocker and rebounder. Expect him to really come through playing a full season with this team, especially since he’s betting on himself to earn a maximum contract next offseason.

Top Playmaker: Seth Curry

Up until last summer, Curry was a journeyman guard who had played for four teams in three years. His breakout season with the Mavericks may have finally been what he needed to stay put with a franchise or find a home for the long term, at the least.

Similar to his brother in The Bay, the 27-year-old is a three-point assassin. On nearly five attempts per game, “the other Curry” shot 42.5 percent from the perimeter. His skill set isn’t limited or one-dimensional, either. He has the skills to create his own shot as an efficient scorer. Just like Noel, he is also pegged for a solid campaign in a contract year.

Top Clutch Player: Dirk Nowitzki

Father time is undefeated, but Dirk Nowitzki isn’t being put out to pasture quite yet. The golden boy of Dallas has plenty left in the tank to contribute. It’s all about staying on the court and taking care of his body this year. He missed 28 games last season, which is the least he’s played since 2012-13.

Make no mistake about it, though: If there’s a high-leverage situation at the end of a game in a two-to-three point affair, Nowitzki’s getting the look. And in all likelihood, that vintage fade away mid-ranger basketball fans are all too familiar with will go through the net.

The Unheralded Player: Dwight Powell

Powell probably won’t cut it as an every day starting big in this league, but off the bench, he is constantly full of energy and makes a huge difference. Each and every night he hits the floor, you know you’re getting 110 percent of his effort.

The 26-year-old center is aggressive hitting the glass, giving Dallas second chances on the offensive end. He’s solid at finishing inside and has great leaping ability. Hopefully, the addition of Jeff Withey doesn’t take away from his playing time too much because he’s really blossoming into a good rotational player.

Best New Addition: Dennis Smith Jr.

Smith made this past July’s summer league his personal coming out party, displaying his versatile skill set and incredible 48-inch vertical on multiple occasions. Averaging 17.2 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 2.2 steals per game, he was named to the All-NBA Summer League First Team due to his efforts.

Picked by his fellow peers in the 2017 NBA Draft class as the pre-season favorite for Rookie of the Year, all eyes are on Smith to be the future of the Mavericks. The confidence is there. The natural ability is obvious. It’s on him to deliver, and chances are the former N.C. State star won’t disappoint.

– Spencer Davies

WHO WE LIKE

1. J.J. Barea

Riddled with injuries all throughout the 2016-17 season, Barea was never able to truly get a feel for his game. Towards the end of the year, his presence was felt, but the veteran was also fighting for consistent playing time due to the emergence of the young Dallas guards. With a fresh start going into the upcoming campaign, things should return to normal for the 33-year-old to be able to play a significant role for this team.

2. Rick Carlisle

Last year had to be a taxing one on Carlisle, who experienced his worst season as a head coach in his 15-year career. Considering the conditions, from roster turnover to debilitating injuries, the Mavericks tried to grind through to the best of their abilities in an extremely difficult Western Conference. Things won’t get any easier going into next season, but at least they’ve got a sense of direction with a good mix of veteran and young talent. If anybody can bounce back from adversity, it’s an elite basketball mind like Carlisle.

3. Yogi Ferrell

Due to a depleted roster and unforeseen circumstances arising in Dallas, the 23-year-old Ferrell was thrown into the proverbial fire with just 10 games of previous professional experience under his belt. Carlisle stuck him into the starting lineup immediately after signing a 10-day contract and looked like a genius for doing so. From that point on, Ferrell showed that he shined when the lights were shining brightest. He earned Rookie of the Month honors for February and turned that temporary deal into a permanent one because of his hard work. There is no indication that he’ll take a step back in his sophomore year with better talent around him.

4. Salah Mejri

For somebody that doesn’t touch the ball too much, Mejri is extremely successful underneath. He’s had limited playing time, but when asked to step in for the Mavericks, he’s done his job well. He’s your more traditional big that stands there and contests shots, picks up the slack on the boards and scores inside. Of course, with his size, it’s difficult to keep Mejri in a lineup going with the speed of today’s game. Heading into his third season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him get more playing time, though.

5. Josh McRoberts

It’s no secret that the majority of McRoberts’ career has been plagued by setbacks left and right. Following a frustrating tenure with the Miami Heat, a fresh start is just what McRoberts needs. The last time he was truly impactful as a vital piece of a team was in 2013. To put that in perspective, that was on the Charlotte Bobcats, who hadn’t yet re-branded at the time. However, if McRoberts is able to stay immune to the injury bug, he’ll make an impact with the reserves. It’s a welcome addition to a club that needs a dual-threat frontcourt option.

– Spencer Davies

SALARY CAP 101

The Mavericks have had the choice this summer to either stay over the $99.1 million salary cap or drop under. To date, they have stayed above by virtue of multiple trade exceptions (the highest at $1.5 million), their $8.4 million Mid-Level Exception and $3.3 million Bi-Annual Exception. Dallas could get to roughly $17.5 million under by waiving non-guaranteed players and renouncing their exceptions. Twelve players have fully guaranteed contracts, with seven hoping to earn one of three open roster slots. The favorites are Devin Harris with $1.3 million locked in, Jeff Withey $350,000 and Dorian Finney-Smith at $100,000.

Next summer, the Mavericks could get under the cap by about $51 million, provided Wesley Matthews opts out of his final year at $18.6 million. Dallas also has a $5 million team option on Dirk Nowitzki. Throughout the 2017-18 season, Nerlens Noel can block any trade, since he re-signed with the team on a one-year qualifying offer of $4.2 million.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Aside from ranking fourth in the NBA with an 80.1 percent conversion rate at the free throw line and defensively only allowing 100.8 points per game, there wasn’t too much good last season for the Mavericks as a whole. Looking ahead, there’s plenty to look forward to. For one, they’re starting the season out with a healthy squad, which was a battle for the entire previous year. Secondly, having a dynamic back court coupled with Noel in the starting lineup should allow the pace to increase and scoring opportunities to open up for everybody, an area where they ranked dead last in the league. Carlisle isn’t one to throw in the white towel because of one sub-par season. Dallas probably won’t be seeing the postseason, but they’ll compete in every game as their young core continues to mesh.

– Spencer Davies

WEAKNESSES

There’s inexperience with all of this young talent on the roster. Luckily for the Mavericks, they’ve got Nowitzki, Barnes, and Barea with meaningful postseason games under their belts. As the three-and-D wing, Wesley Matthews will have to step things up if he wants to keep his starting job. What also isn’t working in Dallas’ favor is a very crowded West. To say making the playoffs will be difficult is an understatement.

– Spencer Davies

THE BURNING QUESTION

How will Rick Carlisle handle the logjam at guard?

It’s a great problem to have, but there’s some serious thinking to do in how these rotations will shake out for the backcourt. With Ferrell and Curry breaking out last year, you’ve got to give them the platform to contribute.

But at the same time, what about Barea who is a consistent option? Devin Harris was one of the best defensive players on the team post-All-Star break (99.6 DRTG on/110.7 DRTG off). Let’s not forget you’ve got a potential budding face of the organization in Smith. He absolutely has to see the floor. It will be interesting to follow along throughout the season with this situation because there has to be an odd man out at some point.

– Spencer Davies

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NBA

Williams, Clippers Will Keep Pushing Through

The Clippers veteran guard chats with Spencer Davies in a one-on-one Basketball Insiders exclusive.

Spencer Davies

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For the second straight year, Lou Williams started his basketball season as a resident of California.

Despite being moved by the Los Angeles Lakers at the trade deadline back in February, it wasn’t a long stay for the 31-year-old in Houston. After bolstering the Rockets’ bench in a big way during their playoff stretch, the organization dealt the veteran guard to the LA Clippers, meaning he was going right back to the City of Angels.

Which begs the question—did he even relocate from his old place?

“Yeah, I moved,” Williams told Basketball Insiders in Cleveland on Friday. “But I ended up moving back into the same neighborhood that I was in, so it was all good.”

The familiarity with the area must’ve been comforting, but playing for three different teams in such a short amount of time can’t be easy. It’s only been 15 games, but he already notices a discrepancy between the two that share the same arena.

“Obviously when you have different people running it,” Williams answered when asked to compare the Los Angeles franchises. “I think the Lakers were in a different space than the Clippers are. The Clippers are a more veteran group, so two completely different atmospheres.”

Winning four straight games to kick off the 2017-18 campaign, the year started out great for he and his new team, but it’s gone downhill in a hurry.

The Los Angeles Clippers are hurting in every way. Literally.

Only halfway through a five-city road trip, they’ve lost eight consecutive games and 10 of their last 11. Key members of their team are absent and they have been plagued by injuries out of the gate.

First, it was international sensation Milos Teodosic who went down with a foot injury in just the second NBA game of his career. Then there’s Danilo Gallinari, whose ailing hip has kept him out of action for two weeks. To top it all off, Patrick Beverley is dealing with a sore right knee that has forced him to miss over a week as well (he’ll reportedly be active on Monday night).

Without the trio, the Clippers are missing a little bit of everything, and Williams is eager for them to return to the floor because of it.

“It’s three starters,” Williams told Basketball Insiders. “One guy’s our heart and soul on the defensive end. We have another guy who was leading us in assists and we have another guy who’s second in scoring.

“Three very important pieces of our team are missing. But we have other guys that’s stepping in doing the best job that they can. We’re just falling short.”

Aside from their most recent 15-point loss to the equally struggling Charlotte Hornets at the Spectrum Center, Los Angeles has competed and been in almost every game during the long skid.

In Cleveland, they led for most of the way until midway through the fourth quarter. It was a back-and-forth affair when the Cavaliers struck back, and once the game went into overtime, the Clippers went cold and ran out of gas.

Taking out the element of overtime, the “close game, but no win” trend has been apparent as they attempt to get over the hump for a victory. Williams sees his team battling. They’re just not getting the outcomes they desire.

“Just continue to push,” Williams said of how LA can climb the wall. “We’ll have a couple of guys back this week from injuries.

“We’ve been playing extremely hard giving ourselves an opportunity to win these games and just haven’t been able to finish. Get guys back, just continue to push. We’ll break through.”

If Williams keeps on producing the way he has, especially as of late, that could be sooner rather than later. Over the last five games, the scoring assassin has put up over 30 points in two of them and 25 in another. In addition, he’s averaged over four rebounds, four assists, and more than a steal per game during the stretch.

When asked about what’s made him so comfortable, he kept it simple.

“Just playing,” Williams told Basketball Insiders.” Taking what the defense gives me and try to make shots. That’s it.”

Williams is special when it comes to how much he can impact a game in the snap of a finger. Over the course of his career, he’s one of those guys that have been able to just go off at any given moment.

“Just continue to play,” he said. “Play [as] hard as I can. I never really think about it until after the game. I just go out there, play [as] hard as I can. Put myself in position to score points and live with the results.”

You can recall Williams being an elite sixth man in this league for just about every team he’s been a part of. Whether it was with the Philadelphia 76ers, Atlanta Hawks, Toronto Raptors, Lakers, Rockets or even with the Clippers now, he’s constantly been a guy to provide a powerful punch off the bench.

With the consistency and the energy he’s provided with second units throughout his career, it’s rather surprising that Williams has only won the Sixth Man of the Year award one time in his career. Having established this reputation, it should only be a matter of time before he’s rewarded again.

That being said, it’s got to be one of his aspirations, right?

“Not anymore,” Williams told Basketball Insiders, admitting he felt slighted in last year’s race. “Nah. Probably had one of the best seasons of my career and finished third, so I don’t really care no more.”

Furthermore, as one of the top sharpshooters the NBA has to offer, he told Basketball Insiders he doesn’t wouldn’t care to participate in the three-point contest, either.

Moving away from the individual side of things, Williams has enjoyed his time with the Clippers for the short time he’s been a part of the franchise.

One good reason is the opportunity to play under one of the league’s most respected head coaches in Doc Rivers, whom he credits has a unique manner of making adjustments.

“Doc is a high basketball IQ coach,” Williams said. “He knows how to break down the game on the fly, which is impressive. A lot of coaches, they make a lot of corrections at halftime or in film sessions. Doc makes them on the fly, which is great.”

Playing alongside two superstars isn’t so bad. DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin are a pairing that can dominate each and every time they step on the floor. In fact, having those two alone should be enough for the Clippers to get things turned back around.

When the frontcourt duo clicks on a nightly basis and the team returns to full strength, Williams believes that’s exactly what’s going to happen.

“It’s been fun,” Williams told Basketball Insiders of the experience with Griffin and Jordan. “Obviously, we would like to win some games and I think that tide is gonna turn once we get back healthy.

“But these two All-Star guys in this league that’s done an exceptional job for this organization—so it’s been a good time being with these guys.”

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NBA

NBA AM: All-Time Biggest Comeback Wins

The Warriors’ big 24-point comeback over the weekend was incredible, but where did it rank all time?

Joel Brigham

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One of the biggest NBA stories of the weekend was the Philadelphia 76ers scoring 47 points against the Golden State Warriors in the first quarter Saturday night, only to blow their 24-point lead in fairly embarrassing fashion.

Kevin Durant joked about not being able to lose to Philadelphia for fear for Joel Embiid peacocking on Twitter afterward, while Embiid wrote about taking the loss in stride, adding “blowing a big lead” to their arsenal of experiences to avoid repeating in games to come.

In any event, that 24-point comeback was one of the most impressive comebacks in NBA history, though the good news for the Sixers is that there have been bigger blown leads than their own. Some of them much, much bigger. Heck, the Miami HEAT blew a 25-point lead just two weeks ago, so crazier things have happened.

The following are those crazier things. These are the biggest blown leads in NBA history:

#5 Boston Celtics vs. L.A. Lakers (2008) – By the time Game 4 of the 2008 NBA Finals had started, the Celtics had taken a 2-1 lead in the series, and the pivotal Game 4 was going to go down in Los Angeles. From the get-go, the Lakers looked like they were going to tie the series with little problem, jumping out to a quick 26-7 lead and finishing the first quarter up by 21 points. The lead got as large as 24 at one point, with L.A. still holding a 20-point lead with six minutes left in the third quarter.

But Boston ripped off a 21-3 run to finish the third quarter, cutting the lead to two and making it a much more exciting game than the first two-and-a-half quarters suggested. Their spirits broken, L.A. lost the game and, eventually, the series.

#4 Utah Jazz vs. Portland Trail Blazers (2010) – The Jazz came into Portland for this February game back in 2010 without starting center Mehmet Okur, whose absence was felt immensely as the Jazz fell into a 25-point deficit, trailing by 23 halfway through the third quarter. After chipping away at that lead throughout the fourth quarter, Utah still faced a four-point hole with just 30 seconds to go in the game, but Deron Williams made a couple of free throws, the Jazz got a stop on the defensive end, and Carlos Boozer put-back a last-second miss to send the game into overtime, where the Jazz put the finishing touches on the remarkable comeback win.

#3 Minnesota Timberwolves vs. Dallas Mavericks (2008) – The Minnesota Timberwolves in 2008 were not good. Still rebuilding post-Garnett, they had no business jumping out to a massive lead over the much more talented Dallas Mavericks, but that’s exactly what happened. The mediocre Wolves built a seemingly insurmountable 29-point lead, but as it happens, the lead was in fact quite mountable, as the Mavericks ripped into that lead thanks in large part to 24 second-half points by Jason Terry. With a seven-point victory, the Mavericks pulled off an impressive 36-point turnaround, albeit against one of the league’s worst teams.

#2 Sacramento Kings vs. Chicago Bulls (2009) – In one of the most stunning comebacks in league history, the Sacramento Kings rallied from being down 79-44 with 8:50 remaining in the third quarter to demoralize a Bulls team that flat-out didn’t see it coming. Sacramento finished the quarter on a 19-5 run to cut the lead to 19, then got it down to 95-91 with 2:28 left in the game. Rookie Tyreke Evans outscored the entire Bulls’ team 9-3 the rest of the way, and the comeback was complete. All of this was in Chicago, and the city’s fans literally booed the Bulls off the court. Needless to say, that was Vinny Del Negro’s last season as head coach in Chicago.

#1 Denver Nuggets vs. Utah Jazz (1998) – In the midst of a seven-game winning streak, a Jazz team featuring Karl Malone and John Stockton did not enter this contest against Denver in 1998 expecting to fall into a 36-point deficit. The score was 70-36 at halftime with the lead expanding further in the third quarter, but that’s when Utah started to grind their way into the lead behind big nights from Malone (31 points) and Jeff Hornacek (29 points). Despite it being a record-breaking comeback, there was no one big remarkable moment. Rather, the Jazz just dismantled the Nuggets through attrition over the course the second half en route to a truly impressive come-from-way-behind victory.

The fact that teams have come back from deficits this huge is exactly why current NBA teams talk about never taking the foot off the gas. Almost no lead is safe, and that’s the beautiful thing about basketball. Sometimes the momentum shifts, and all that planned Twitter bragging goes right down the tubes. At least in Philadelphia’s case the team on the other end of the comeback was the defending champs.

And as this list proves, it could always be worse.

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NBA Sunday: Raptors Aren’t Extinct Just Yet

The Celtics should be a concern to the Cavaliers, but the Raptors shouldn’t be overlooked, either.

Moke Hamilton

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The Toronto Raptors aren’t extinct—not yet, anyway.

With the whirlwind of movement that dominates the headlines this past NBA offseason and the growth of several young players, we’ve spent far more time discussing the likes of the Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons, Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks than the team from up North.

We’ve asked ourselves whether LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers can win the Eastern Conference for a fourth consecutive year and whether or not the Washington Wizards are finally ready to give some credible resistance. Some of us have even gone as far as to predict that, in the ultimate irony, Kyrie Irving will lead the Celtics to the conference crown this season.

And that doesn’t even begin to talk about the storylines from out West.

All the while, quietly and meticulously, Dwane Casey and his Raptors have stalked, and you peer at the standings and realize that they enter play on November 19 at 10-5, tied with the Pistons for the second-best record in the conference.

What has made the Raptors thriving especially improbable is the fact that they’ve done it despite missing a few key contributors for a game or two. To this point, they have ranked respectably both in points allowed per game (102.6) and points allowed per 100 possessions (107.8). Those metrics rank them eighth and 11th, respectively.

So, where exactly do the Raptors fit in the grand scheme of things?

It seems like a question we’ve been asking for a few years now.

* * * * * *

Having qualified for the playoffs four consecutive years, Dwane Casey’s team has won three playoff series over the course of that duration, but haven’t exactly found timely and efficient play from their two star players in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.

Now, as the Eastern Conference begins to feature younger players with appreciable upside—Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, Ben Simmons and Jaylen Brown to name a few—it’s totally fair to wonder where the Raptors fit in. It’s also fair, believe it or not, to wonder whether they’ll be able to provide as much resistance to the Cavaliers as the Celtics.

In effect, the Raptors have become a modern day version of Joe Johnson’s Atlanta Hawks. After signing with the Hawks prior to the 2005-06 season, Johnson led the revival of the franchise. They would end up qualifying for the playoffs five consecutive years, but never advanced past the second round. A similar story can be told of Chris Paul’s Los Angeles Clippers.

The point is, however, that over the years, the Raptors have developed an identity and are a team whose hallmarks have come to be toughness and ball-sharing—two characteristics that most coaches would love to embody their team. While we’ve been paying close attention to the things that are brand new and exciting, the Raptors are the same old crew that they have been. And for a team like that, the 2011 NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks will continue to be the gold standard.

The Mavericks notably rebuilt and tore down several incarnations of their team around Dirk Nowitzki until the team was finally able to surround Nowitzki with the right complement of players to score one of the biggest upsets in NBA Finals history.

Whether anyone chooses to acknowledge it, the Cavaliers are vulnerable.

Entering play on November 19, LeBron James leads the league in both total minutes played (617) and minutes played per game (38.6). Of the players who will comprise James’ supporting rotation in the playoffs, the majority of them are players whose impact will be mostly felt on one side of the floor: offense. To this point, the Cavs have 10 different players averaging 20 minutes played per game—an incredibly high number. More than anything else, that’s a result of Tyron Lue playing with his rotations to figure out which units work best, while also taking into account that the team has been playing without both Tristan Thompson and Derrick Rose for long stretches.

Still, of those rotation players—James, Rose, Thompson, J.R. Smith, Kevin Love, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade, Iman Shumpert, Kyle Korver and Jeff Green—the simple truth is that it is only James who has performed like a true two-way player.

It’s a troubling trend upon which the Raptors—and other teams in the conference—could capitalize.

The best two words to describe the Cavaliers to this point in the season are “old” and “slow,” and that’s simply a fact. The club still ranks dead last in points allowed per 100 possessions and 28th in the league in points allowed per game.

In short, the Cavaliers, at least to this point, have certainly appeared to be vulnerable. It is those same Cavaliers that have ended the Raptors season each of the past two years.

You know what they say about third times—they’re often the charm.

* * * * * *

There’s obviously a long way to go, and any chance that Toronto would have to get past the Cavs rests in the ability of Lowry and DeRozan to find some consistency in the playoffs. Still, as the complementary pieces around them have slowly improved, we have spent the early goings of the season fawning over the brand news teams and storylines in the conference and have paid no attention to the old guard.

And depending on how the brackets play out, any Cavaliers foray in the conference finals might have to go through the familiar road of Toronto.

If that happens to be the case—if the Cavs do have to square off against their familiar foe—they’re ripe for the picking.

Just as they have been over the past few years, the Duane Casey’s team will be there waiting for their opportunity.

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