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Fixing the Toronto Raptors

The Toronto Raptors exceeded all expectations this season, but what’s it going to take for them to improve from here? Moke Hamilton makes some important suggestions.

Moke Hamilton

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With DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas each making an appreciable leap this past season, fans of the Toronto Raptors witnessed both Kyle Lowry and Dwane Casey put together great seasons and help lead the team to its winningest season ever and just the franchise’s second Atlantic Division championship.

The rise of the Raptors was especially amazing to witness considering the thoughts across most media circles of the NBA was that the Raptors were likely going to be tanking in order to give themselves a better opportunity to score a high draft pick and select the Toronto-born Andrew Wiggins.

Clearly, the aforementioned four had different ideas.

It took the Brooklyn Nets all of seven games to bump the Raptors off, and with DeRozan, Valanciunas and Lowry just 24, 21 and 27 years old, respectively, there is reason for optimism in Toronto.

Naturally, that poses the very common question as to how a team on the ascent can get themselves to the next level. Most often, free agency and the draft are most often mentioned as the primary means by which a still progressing team can get to the next level.

Continuity and natural progression are often overlooked.

Fortunately, though, general manager Masai Ujiri has already made an important decision by opting to re-sign Dwane Casey to a three-year deal. Now, it remains to see what the future holds next, but here is what it should…

Re-Sign Kyle Lowry and Greivis Vasquez

This past season, Kyle Lowry put together his finest year as a professional. He kept his weight in check, managed to stay on the floor and progressed as a floor general, even turning in great performances in the playoffs. His pending free agency is something that has been discussed in Toronto all season long and while he lacks the body of work to suggest that he is in the same class as Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo, he is expected to come at a more reasonable price in the $11 million range. For the Raptors, retaining him is a must.

Lowry has developed chemistry with his teammates and has recently gone on the record as saying that he is happy in Toronto and wants to return. Ujiri would be wise to make that happen.

As for Greivis Vasquez, now playing on his fourth team, he has struggled to find a home, though there were times this past season when he made big plays for his team. With a qualifying offer of just $3.2 million this summer, Vasquez was originally thought to be insurance in the event of Lowry’s departure.

Instead, he has become a good running mate. Retaining them both makes most sense for the franchise.

Find A Perimeter Defensive Specialist

Down the stretch of their Game 7 loss to the Brooklyn Nets, Joe Johnson had his way with every defender that Casey threw at him. It exposed a hole in the Raptors’ roster.

Defense is not something that can be fully outsourced—the top players on a team set the tone and galvanize teammates with effort. Neither Lowry, DeRozan nor Patrick Patterson are turnstiles, but for this team, which seemed to struggle offensively during stretches, they each need to do the heavy lifting scoring the ball.

Most championship contenders have at least one Bonafide Defensive specialist. Shane Battier, Tony Allen, Kawhi Leonard and Thabo Sefolosha all come to mind.

Landry Fields is not the answer there, and in the playoffs, since games will inevitably slow down and pit halfcourt offense against halfcourt defense, the Raptors would be wise to invest a few dollars into a rangy stopper who can guard both the shooting guard and small forward positions.

Otherwise, the next time they play in a Game 7, they may be undressed by a player of Johnson’s size and skill, once again.

Play Through Jonas Valanciunas More

In a league where truly dominant big men have been few and far between, Jonas Valaciunas has shown some early signs of being a very capable offensive contributor. Operating from the post, he has shown great poise, patience, grace and touch. The next two stages for his offensive progression are developing a consistent and reliable go to move and becoming a more proficient midrange shooter.

After just his rookie season, Valanciunas has shown tremendous growth and everyone around him speaks of how he soaks critiques and directives up like a sponge.

For a big man that seems to have potential, repetitions are most important. Next season, Valanciunas needs more isolation opportunities in the low box and a more prominent place in the Raptors’ offensive pecking order. This becomes infinitely more true in the event of Lowry’s departure, but even if he is retained, Valanciunas’ development operating from the post will open the game up, allow the Raptors to depend less on their perimeter playmaking and overall, become a more off offensively efficient team.

Be Patient

Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither are NBA champions. For the Raptors, this season marked evident progress toward the team’s long-term goal of becoming a contender. Although it ended in the first round, it is important for Ujiri to understand that there are good things happening in Toronto and it all begins with the players who currently make up the team’s roster. A look around the league shows that the teams that tend to find themselves in the conversation of potential champions have a common theme—continuity.

Ujiri seems to understand this, at least at this point. As NBA head coaches have become more and more disposable, there were many who believed that Casey would be ousted by Ujiri, mainly because general managers in the NBA tend to prefer to install their own head coaches.

Having been tapped to be Jay Triano’s successor, it was widely speculated that Ujiri would push Casey out and bring in his own head coach. But after such a positive showing over the course of the season, Ujiri has rewarded Casey with a new contract.

If the same fates await Lowry and Vasquez and if the Raptors continue to develop DeRozan and Valanciunas, with some good fortune, patience and continuity, the Raptors may prove that their rise this past season was no aberration.

Spend Prudently

Before re-signing any of their free agents to be or exercising any of their team options, the Raptors have $39 million in salary commitments next season. Of that, almost $16 million is being spent on the trio of Landry Fields, Steve Novak and Chuck Hayes.

As deep as the coffers may be for Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, the truth of the matter is that in the NBA’s new economic era, restrictions on team spending on midlevel exception usage mean that each team must manage its books and finances astutely.

With a team on the brink, having $5 million available to throw at a tier two free agent could make all the difference in the world and if those kinds of financial commitments are made to players who ultimately do not merit consistent minutes, it is a wasted opportunity.

As the Raptors get set to begin their offseason, they have a number of questions to answer, though the most important one—the coach—has been answered.

So the long answer is, the Raptors may not need to be fixed as much as they need to congeal. A solid defensive team with capable young players and a fair amount of athleticism just had the most successful season in franchise history.

That is no fluke, and if the Ujiri follows these five suggestions, you can rest assured that you have not heard the last of his Raptors.

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NBA Saturday: Kuzma Is The Main Attraction In Los Angeles

Kyle Kuzma, not Lonzo Ball, is the rookie in L.A. that is turning heads around the NBA.

Dennis Chambers

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Out in Los Angeles, there is a dynamite rookie first-round pick lighting it up for the Lakers, invoking memories of the days when the purple and gold had homegrown stars.

That’s Kyle Kuzma. He was the 27th pick in the NBA Draft. Twenty-five picks after Lonzo Ball, the rookie that first sentence would have presumably been about had it been written three months ago.

Ball’s early season struggles are well-noted. He’s missing shots at an all-time bad clip for a rookie, his psyche seems a bit rattled, and he isn’t having the impact most Lakers fans would have hoped he would from the jump.

All of that has barely mattered, though, in large part to the show Kuzma has been putting on just 16 games into the 2017-18 season. In Friday night’s loss to the Phoenix Suns, Kuzma put up 30 points and 10 rebounds for the Lakers, the most by an NBA freshman so far this year. That performance was Kuzma’s sixth 20-point game of the young season, another rookie best. And to top it all off, Kuzma was the first rookie to reach the 30-point, 10-rebound plateau since none other than Magic Johnson, back in February of 1980.

Kuzma’s path to the NBA was much different than Johnson’s, though, along with his rookie counterpart Ball. Those two prospects were highly-touted “superstar potential” guys coming out of the college ranks. Kuzma? Well, he was a 21-year-old junior out of Utah who didn’t make the NCAA Tournament his last year and was a career 30 percent three-point shooter as an amateur.

The knocks on Kuzma began to change during the NBA Draft process and came to a head for the Lakers when long-time scout Bill Bertka raved about his potential.

“He got all wide-eyed,” Lakers director of scouting Jesse Buss told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. “And he said, ‘If this guy isn’t an NBA player, then I don’t know what the f— I’m looking at.'”

The Lakers took a chance on the 6-foot-9 forward who had a rare combination of a sweet shooting stroke to accompany his low-post moves that seemed to be reminiscent of players 20 years his senior.

Fast forward from draft night to the Las Vegas Summer League, and everyone could see with their own two eyes the type of player Los Angeles drafted. The numbers were startling: 21.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.4 blocks, 1.1 steals, and 48 percent from beyond the arc out in Sin City for Kuzma, all capped off by a Summer League championship game MVP.

Summer League stats should be taken with a grain of salt, but what Kuzma did in July was proved he belonged.

Through the first month of Kuzma’s rookie campaign, when the games are actually counting for something, all he’s continued to do is prove that his exhibition numbers in Vegas were no fluke.

After his 30-point outburst, Kuzma now leads all rookies in total points scored (yet still second in scoring average), is fourth in rebounds per game, third in minutes, and third in field goal percentage.

By all accounts, Kuzma is outperforming just about every highly-touted prospect that was taken before him last June, and sans a Ben Simmons broken foot in September of 2016, he would be in line for the Rookie of the Year award if the season ended today.

Following Wednesday night’s loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, head coach Brett Brown had more than a few nice things to say about Kuzma.

“He’s a hell of a rookie,” Brown told NBC Philly’s Jessica Camerato. “That was a great pick by them.”

Brown went on to commend Kuzma for being “excellent” Wednesday night, when prior to his game Friday against the Suns, Kuzma set a career-high by scoring 24 points.

For all of the praise and the scoring numbers Kuzma is bringing to the Staples Center, his Lakers team sits at just 6-10 on the season, and has been on the wrong end of a number of close games so far this year.

While that’s good for second in the Pacific division right now, behind only the Golden State Warriors, it isn’t likely that type of success (or lack thereof) will get the Lakers to the playoffs. So, despite all of the numbers and attention, Kuzma isn’t fulfilling his rookie year the way he had hoped.

“It is cool, but I’m a winner,” Kuzma told Lakers Nation’s Serena Winters. “I like to win, stats don’t really matter to me. I just try to play hard and I want to win.”

Few projected the type of impact Kuzma would have this early on in his career, and even fewer would have assumed he’d be outperforming the Lakers’ prized draft pick in Ball. But surprising people with his game is nothing new to Kuzma.

From Flint, Michigan, to Utah, to Los Angeles, Kuzma has been turning heads of those that overlooked him the entire time.

With one month in the books as the Los Angeles Lakers’ most promising rookie, Kuzma has all the attention he could’ve asked for now.

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Kelly Olynyk Strengthens the HEAT Bench

David Yapkowitz speaks to Kelly Olynyk about his early showing in Miami.

David Yapkowitz

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The past few years, Kelly Olynyk carved out a nice role for himself as an important player off the Boston Celtics bench. He was a fan favorite at TD Garden, with his most memorable moment in Celtic green coming in last season’s playoffs against the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

With Boston pushed to the limit and finding themselves forced into a Game 7, Olynyk rose to the occasion and dropped a playoff career-high 26 points off the bench on 10-14 shooting from the field in a Celtics win. He scored 14 of those points in the fourth quarter to hold Washington off.

He was a free agent at the end of the season, and instead of coming back to the Celtics, he became a casualty of their roster turnover following Gordon Hayward’s decision to sign in Boston. Once he hit the open market he had no shortage of suitors, but he quickly agreed to a deal with the Miami HEAT, an easy decision for him.

“It’s awesome, they got a real good culture here,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “The organization is great, the city is great, the staff from the top down they do a good job here.”

Olynyk was initially the HEAT’s starting power forward to begin the season. In their opening night game, a 116-109 loss to the Orlando Magic, he scored ten points, pulled down five rebounds, and dished out three assists.

The very next game, however, he found himself back in his familiar role as first big man off the bench. In that game, a win over the Indiana Pacers, Olynyk had an even stronger game with 13 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, including 60 percent from three-point range, eight rebounds, and four assists.

Throughout the first eight games of the season, Olynyk was thriving with his new team. During that stretch, he was averaging a career-high 11.4 points per game on a career-high 55 percent shooting from the field and 60. 8 percent from downtown.

“I’m just playing, I’m just playing basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “They’re kind of letting me just play. They kind of let us all just play. They put us in positions to succeed and just go out there and let out skills show.”

For a HEAT team that may not be as talented on paper as some of the other teams in the Eastern Conference, they definitely play hard and gritty and are a sum of their parts. Night in and night out, in each of their wins, they’ve done it off the contributions from each player in the rotation and Olynyk has been a big part of that. Through Nov. 16, the HEAT bench was seventh in the league in points per game with 36.6.

In a win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 5, Olynyk was part of a bench unit including James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, and Wayne Ellington that came into the game late in the first quarter. The score at that point was 18-14 in Miami’s favor. That unit closed the quarter on a 16-6 run to put the HEAT up double digits. After that game, head coach Erik Spoelstra recognized the strength of the HEAT bench.

“Our guys are very resilient, that’s the one thing you’ve got to give everybody in that locker room, they’re tough,” Spoelstra said. “This is all about everybody in that locker room contributing to put yourself in a position, the best chance to win. It’s not about first unit, second unit, third unit, we’re all in this together.”

In Boston, Olynyk was part of a similar group that won games off of team play and production from every guy that got in the game. They were also a tough, gritty team and Olynyk has recognized that same sort of fire in the HEAT locker room.

“It’s a group of hard-nosed guys that can really grind it out and play tough-nosed basketball,” Olynyk told Basketball Insiders. “We can go a lot of places. We just got to stick together and keep doing what we do. We can compete with anybody and we just got to bring it every single night.”

At 7-8, the HEAT currently sit outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. Olynyk has seen a bit of a decrease in playing time, and likewise in production. He’s right at his career average in points per game with 9.5, but he’s still shooting career-highs from the field (54 percent) and from three-point range (47.4).

It’s still very early, though, and only one game separates the 11th place HEAT from the 8th place Magic. The HEAT are definitely tough enough to fight for a playoff spot, especially with Olynyk around helping to strengthen their bench.

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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