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Is the 2015 Free Agent Class Better than 2014?

Which free agent class is better: the 2014 class or the 2015 class? See which players will be available in each summer and decide.

Jesse Blancarte

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The NBA’s regular season is over, which means free agency is right around the corner. This summer’s list of free agents is fluid as many players have the choice to opt out of their current contract in order to secure a new, longer contract with their team or another team; players such as Carmelo Anthony, Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph have to decide whether they want to test free agency now or at some point down the road. This often precludes a potential free agent from ever actually hitting the market. Also, players can extend their current contract and avoid free agency. This happens less often under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, but is still possible. Thus, here we will be making educated predictions on whether players such as Anthony, Gay and Randolph will enter this summer’s free agency pool or put off the bidding war for their services until next offseason.

In some years, NBA free agency includes a star-studded cast, like in 2010 when LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Carlos Boozer, Amar’e Stoudemire, Joe Johnson and Dirk Nowitzki among others were all free agents. More often, however, there are one, two or maybe three stars who are free agents and generate a lot of buzz, such as Chris Paul and Dwight Howard last year.

Considering this, let’s take a look at who may be available this upcoming offseason.

Notable 2014 Unrestricted Free Agents:

Early Termination Option:

Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Andrea Bargnani

Player Option:

Tim Duncan, Josh McRoberts, Darren Collison, Glen Davis, Danny Granger, Chris Andersen, Anthony Morrow, Mo Williams, Rudy Gay, Channing Frye, Zach Randolph, Nick Young, Andray Blatche

Currently in Final Year of their Contract:

Dirk Nowitzki, Lance Stephenson, Pau Gasol, Paul Pierce, Jerryd Bayless, Kris Humphries, Andrei Kirilenko, Shaun Livingston, Luke Ridnour, Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng, Spencer Hawes, C.J. Miles, DeJuan Blair, Vince Carter, Shawn Marion, Aaron Brooks, Rodney Stuckey, Steve Blake, Jermaine O’Neal, Andrew Bynum, Jordan Farmar, Jordan Hill, Chris Kaman, Jodie Meeks, Mike Miller, Beno Udrih, Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Michael Beasley, Mario Chalmers, Greg Oden, Ramon Sessions, Dante Cunningham, Al-Farouq Aminu, Jason Smith, Greg Stiemsma, Thabo Sefolosha, Emeka Okafor, Boris Diaw, Kyle Lowry, Marvin Williams, Trevor Ariza, Marcin Gortat

»In Related: Full 2014-15 Cap Space Projections

Nobody’s free agency decision has created more speculation and interest than Anthony’s. This is due to the disappointing season that the New York Knicks had, and their questionable ability to become a contending team in the next few years. ‘Melo can forgo the final year of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent this summer to potentially join a team with significant cap space, like the Chicago Bulls or Houston Rockets. Anthony’s free agency situation is in flux and will garner the most interest throughout the league. New York is still considered the favorite to retain ‘Melo, but at age 29, he may just take his chances moving forward in Chicago or Houston.

The Big Three in Miami similarly have the option to forgo the final year of their contracts and sign with any team that has cap space. However, given their success in Miami, and their close relationship, most insiders and fans believe that James, Wade and Bosh will either choose not to exercise their early termination options this summer to put off their free agency by one year, or re-sign long-term with the HEAT. However, if Miami gets bounced in the playoffs and the long-term health of Wade becomes a major issue, James may look to other teams. While this scenario seems unlikely, it’s not implausible. Wade had to miss a lot of games this season to preserve himself for the playoffs, and he has been injury prone throughout his career. Additionally, Bosh has taken a back seat to James and Wade since teaming up in Miami, and may look to go elsewhere in order to reestablish himself as a franchise player. Don’t forget that in Toronto, Bosh was the franchise cornerstone who put up huge numbers each season.

These are not the only major players to potentially hit free agency this upcoming season. Players like Duncan, Gay and Randolph can forfeit significant money in the last year of their contracts in order to secure a long-term deal. Duncan is a Spur for life and would most likely retire before joining another team, so he doesn’t impact this list too much. However, Gay and Randolph are both players that are set to make major money next year, but may benefit more by re-signing with their teams, or another team, for more guaranteed years at a lower annual salary. Gay has stated that he would like to stay in Sacramento, and Randolph has had his best seasons in Memphis. However, if other teams make significant offers to either player, they will have to seriously consider moving to a new team.

Nowitzki is in a similar situation to Duncan. Nowitzki is more likely to retire than leave the Mavericks, so he is not a major factor in terms of free agency. Teams like the Houston Rockets and Miami HEAT may come calling to woo Nowitzki, but the safe bet is that he remains in Dallas. However, Gasol, Pierce and Deng are some players who will draw a lot of attention this offseason. Gasol and Pierce are looking for their last significant contracts, and could potentially end up anywhere this offseason. Deng could stay with the Cavaliers, but he has not been a natural fit since arriving from Chicago. Cleveland should be considered the favorite right now, but teams like the Suns and Lakers are reportedly interested.

Stephenson is another player to keep an eye on. Stephenson is a nightly triple-double threat and has a very diverse skill-set. Though he has had some behavioral issues, such as recently butting heads with teammate Evan Turner, Stephenson is very talented and will get a lot of interest from teams this offseason.

Notable 2014 Restricted Free Agents:

Avery Bradley, Greg Monroe, Evan Turner, Eric Bledsoe, Isaiah Thomas, Patrick Patterson, Greivis Vazquez, Gordon Hayward, Jordan Crawford, Ed Davis, P.J. Tucker

In general, restricted free agents are less likely to leave their team, as most franchises tend to match any offer sheet their player receives. However, this year some very talented players could be available. For example, when former Detroit Pistons president Joe Dumars signed Josh Smith to a large contract this past offseason, he made it increasingly difficult for the team to retain Greg Monroe. Monroe has emerged as one of the most talented young bigs in the league, but with Smith on board (who is virtually unmovable due to the size of his contract and poor outside shooting) Monroe may be lost to a team willing to offer a max deal. If Monroe secures a max offer from another team, the Pistons will have the option of matching the offer sheet, but it will be a difficult decision. Two other examples are Eric Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas, who have both shown flashes of brilliance throughout this season and may interest other teams enough to receive near max, or max contract offers. In these scenarios, the Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings and Detroit Pistons would have to make a tough decision, deciding to match the offer sheet or let the player walk or try to work out a sign-and-trade to get something back for losing the player.

Gordon Hayward and Evan Turner are in similar situations. They are both players who have value, but they are not bona fide stars. Therefore, other teams may be willing to offer Hayward and Turner significant contracts in the hopes that they will continue to improve and someday be worth that contract offer. This will put pressure on their current teams to either pay them more than they may be currently worth, or let them walk away for nothing. This is what happened a few seasons ago when the Golden State Warriors offered Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan a four-year, $43 million offer sheet, which seemed ridiculously pricey at the time. The Clippers decided to match the offer, though the cost was higher than what they wanted to pay. Fortunately for the Clippers, Jordan has developed enough that he is now worth that contract.

Overall, with names like Anthony, James, Wade, Bosh, Gay, Stephenson, Bledsoe, Thomas, Monroe, Hayward, Deng, Gasol and Pierce available, this is a very talented free agency class. Additionally, there are also some potential gems like Shaun Livingston and Kyle Lowry who will be available as well. However, as talented as this pool of players may seem, a lot of the talent potentially available will likely re-sign with their current teams, which diminishes the potential talent that will actually be available.

The summer of 2015 has a lot of talented names that will be potentially available as well. Here are some of the more notable players likely to hit free agency the following summer:

Notable 2015 Unrestricted Free Agents:

Early Termination Option:

Thaddeus Young, Jared Dudley

Player Option:

Jeff Green, Brook Lopez, Gerald Henderson, Al Jefferson, Monta Ellis, Roy Hibbert, David West, Chase Budinger, Kevin Love, Arron Afflalo, Goran Dragic

Will be in Final Year of their Contract:

LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMarre Carroll, Paul Millsap, Louis Williams, Brandon Bass, Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett, Marcus Thornton, Gary Neal, Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy, Anderson Varejao, Samuel Dalembert, Wayne Ellington, Brandan Wright, Will Bynum, Omer Asik, Omri Casspi, Jeremy Lin, Luis Scola, C.J. Watson, DeAndre Jordan, Steve Nash, Marc Gasol, Kosta Koufos, J.J. Barea, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Ronny Turiaf, Tyson Chandler, Nick Collison, Kendrick Perkins, Jason Maxiell, Jameer Nelson, Ronnie Price, Gerald Green, Robin Lopez, Wesley Matthews, Dorell Wright, Jeff Ayres, Marco Belinelli, Austin Daye, Manu Ginobili, Danny Green, Tony Parker, Landry Fields, Tyler Hansbrough, Chuck Hayes, Amir Johnson, John Salmons, Jeremy Evans, Andre Miller

The big name that has everyone’s attention for 2015 is Kevin Love. Love has never made it to the playoffs and has not given much indication that he wants to stay in Minnesota long-term. Love can forgo the last year of his contract and hit the market as an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2015. Teams like the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers are reportedly keeping tabs on Love and may avoid adding any significant salary this upcoming offseason in case Love does decide to leave Minnesota.

While Love headlines the 2015 class of free agents, there are other talented players who will potentially be available as well. Players like Rajon Rondo, Goran Dragic, DeAndre Jordan, Brook and Robin Lopez, LaMarcus Aldridge, Marc Gasol, Arron Afflalo and Paul Milsap will all potentially be available as well.

While teams like the Los Angeles Clippers, Phoenix Suns and Portland Trail Blazers are likely to retain players like Jordan, Dragic and Aldridge, it is less clear what will happen for players like Rondo and Brook Lopez. Rondo, when healthy, is one of the best point guards in the league. Similarly, Lopez, when healthy, is one of the most talented centers, despite his low rebounding rate. With Boston rebuilding and Brooklyn experiencing so much success without Lopez, Rondo and Lopez may be on the move.

There are also some other names that may be obtainable, like Tyson Chandler, Amir Johnson and Carlos Boozer (note: Boozer may be amnestied this offseason and would then join the 2014 crop of free agents). These players are not likely to receive the types of offers that Aldridge or Gasol will, but they are talented pieces who can significantly help a team looking to add a solid veteran. Another notable player is Afflalo. Afflalo is one of the best two-way shooting guards in the league, but has been hidden away in Orlando. With the Magic rebuilding, Afflalo is likely to change teams either through a trade this upcoming offseason, or in free agency in 2015.

Notable 2015 Restricted Free Agents:

Pero Antic, Mirza Teletovic, Bismack Biyombo, Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Jae Crowder, Kenneth Faried, Quincy Miller, Kyle Singler, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Patrick Beverley, Nick Calathes, Norris Cole, Brandon Knight, Khris Middleton, Ricky Rubio, Alexey Shved, Iman Shumpert, Reggie Jackson, Tobias Harris, Doron Lamb, Kyle O’Quinn, Nikola Vucevic, Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris, Joel Freeland, Derrick Williams, Kawhi Leonard, Alec Burks, Enes Kanter, Glen Rice Jr.

The list of restricted free agents in 2015 is deeper than the list for 2014, but it could shrink if some of these players ink extensions. Names like Jimmy Butler, Kenneth Faried, Klay Thompson, Partrick Beverley, the Morris twins, Iman Shumpert, Reggie Jackson, Tobias Harris and Enes Kanter may be available if they continue to increase their value and become too expensive for their current team to keep. Some names that will not likely make it to free agency are Kyrie Irving, Ricky Rubio and Kemba Walker. These players will likely agree to a contract extension with their current teams as they are cornerstone pieces for their franchises.

However, for players like Reggie Jackson, Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler, they may get offers that their current teams are not comfortable matching. For example, Jackson has shown that he is very talented, but with Russell Westbrook ahead of him, does it make sense for the Thunder to keep Jackson if he is offered a contract worth over $8 million a year? Probably not when teams like the Clippers, Bulls and Nets have backup point guards like Darren Collison, D.J. Augustin and Shaun Livingston playing big minutes for $2 million or less. Leonard is more likely to be retained by the Spurs no matter what since Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are in the latter parts of their careers and Leonard is considered a cornerstone piece moving forward. Similarly, Butler is likely to be retained by the Bulls unless he is given an unexpectedly large contract offer.

Comparing the two free agent classes, it seems that there is more talent available this upcoming offseason with names like James, Wade, Bosh, ‘Melo, Gay, Randolph, Bledsoe, Monroe, Gasol, Stephenson, Pierce, Deng, Lowry, Duncan and Nowitzki all potentially available. However, a lot of these players, like James, Wade, Bosh, Bledsoe, Duncan and Nowitzki are almost certain to re-sign with their current teams and so it is difficult to say that they should really be included in this year’s free agent class. This summer’s free agent pool has big names, but it may end up being somewhat anticlimactic.

Names like Love, Rondo, Afflalo, Millsap, Jordan, the Lopez twins, the Morris twins, Jackson, Shumpert, Faried, Harris and Kanter are more likely to join new teams if they are given big enough offers. So while the biggest names may be technically hitting free agency this upcoming offseason, it may be in 2015 when significant free agents will actually be available to teams looking to make big signings. This is why teams like the Lakers and Knicks may forgo adding any major salary this offseason and hold off for 2015. When looking at the talent that will be available during these next two years, the biggest names will technically be available in 2014, but there will likely be more talent that is actually on the move in 2015.

Of course, these are all fluid situations, and the final list of players actually available each offseason may look very different in the future than it does today.

Leave your thoughts below on which class of free agents you think is more talented, and what players you think may be on the move in the next two seasons. If you think this list overlooked some significant names that could impact the 2014 or 2015 free agent markets, let us know in the comments section.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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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 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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