The Miami HEAT were one of the best stories in the NBA last season. For a team that fell just short of the playoffs, the HEAT certainly played as well as any team in the league in the second half of the year.
Of course, it wasn’t pretty during the first half of the season. The team went 11-30 during their first 41 games and were practically written off by most experts. But this group stayed together and continued to chip away and would compile a 30-11 record in the second half of the season to narrowly miss the playoffs.
This HEAT team opted to bring back most of its free agents this summer and they feel confident with this group moving forward. Will it be enough to return to the postseason?
Let’s preview the 2017-18 season for the Miami HEAT.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
When Pat Riley is pulling the strings for your organization, anything is possible.
At least, that was the sentiment this summer when the HEAT organization was hopeful that it had a chance at landing prized free agent Gordon Hayward. Ultimately, Hayward wound up in Boston, but that probably won’t keep the HEAT out of this season’s playoffs.
With a healthy Dion Waiters alongside Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside, Miami has a formidable cast to make a run at the playoff spot they missed ever so slightly last season. Missing the playoffs last year did, however, allow Miami to land Bam Adebayo. The former Kentucky Wildcat impressed in the summer league and should prove as a valuable reserve during his rookie season.
A weakened Eastern Conference plus an improved HEAT team looks to surely equal a playoff appearance this season.
2nd place — Southeast Division
— Dennis Chambers
The Miami HEAT overachieved last year, finishing the season .500 and only missing the playoffs because the also .500 Chicago Bulls owned a tiebreaker. They invested significant cash in bringing back essentially the same team for another go and will probably play middling basketball. Kelly Olynyk and Bam Adebayo are nice additions, but not necessarily the kind of star power that pushes a team into the next echelon of competition. Simply by removing some of last year’s competition, though, Miami should be a lower-half playoff seed. Even if they overachieve again this season, their ceiling is probably 47 or 48 wins.
3rd place — Southeast Division
— Joel Brigham
Despite finishing the 2016-17 season with a respectable (and surprising) 41-41 record, by virtue of losing the tiebreaker to the Chicago Bulls, the HEAT was forced to watch last season’s playoffs from the confines of South Florida. After walking away from the draft with Bam Adebayo and signing Kelly Olynyk, though, Erik Spoelstra has a few more tools in the box to keep building.
With an identity and a foundational core that features Hassan Whiteside, Justise Winslow, Goran Dragic and the re-signed Dion Waiters, the HEAT should rightfully enter the season with renewed hopes of returning to the postseason, especially with the considerable steps back that a few of the teams that finished above them last season have taken. If things break right in Miami and the team is able to stay relatively healthy, a finish as high as fifth in the conference isn’t out of the question. I’d probably still put the Bucks in that fifth seed, but they play the games for a reason… And when the games are played, rest assured, the HEAT will show up and put up a fight for the division crown down in the Southeast.
2nd place — Southeast Division
— Moke Hamilton
After a strong stretch run to close the 2016-17 season, the HEAT will try to capture that magic for an entire year. Miami committed big money to guys like James Johnson and Dion Waiters, plus newcomer Kelly Olynyk, and they’ll need something close to that strong post-All-Star showing from their group to justify essentially locking this in as their team. They’ll continue to run out an offense strong on spacing, captained by Goran Dragic at the point. They’ll rely on Erik Spoelstra’s strong team defensive scheme, something new draftee Bam Adebayo should only help with. A big question will be how much Justise Winslow has to give after a shoulder injury last season—a strong showing could have the HEAT surprising some teams, while a disappointing performance could see them fighting just to make the playoffs in the East. Assuming the median outcome, they should finish in the middle of the pack in the Southeast.
3rd place — Southeast Division
— Ben Dowsett
The Miami HEAT had limited options in terms of what do with their roster this offseason. Give the HEAT credit for investing in the core of players that overachieved last year, though. Sure, James Johnson’s deal will probably look bad after a year or two, and Dion Waiters will always be a risky player to invest in, nevertheless, with a strong culture in Miami and head coach Erik Spoelstra leading the way, this team has the tools to surprise the league again.
3rd place — Southeast Division
— Jesse Blancarte
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Goran Dragic
As the team’s leading scorer from a season ago, Dragic projects to again be the top offensive player this season. Perhaps it was Dwyane Wade leaving, but Dragic appeared to be more comfortable on the offensive end as the team’s primary ball handler last season.
Dragic averaged 20.3 points, 5.8 assists, 3.8 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game last season while shooting 40.5 percent from three-point range. He was afforded the opportunity to run the offense at a faster pace, which best suits his style of play.
In a time where three-point shooting comes at a premium, Dragic certainly has lived up to expectations. He was instrumental for the HEAT all season long and it seems reasonable to believe he’ll continue to be one of the team’s most valuable players.
Top Defensive Player: Hassan Whiteside
It shouldn’t be a surprise to see Whiteside as the team’s top defensive player. He averaged a career-high 17 points, 14.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game last season. Whiteside led the league in rebounds and finished fourth in blocks.
Much of what allowed the HEAT to boast a top-five defense last season was having Whiteside down in the paint. While his blocks were down last season from the year before, his presence in the paint still makes things difficult for the opposing players to get clean looks.
Whiteside finished fourth in the league in defensive rating (99.9), fourth in defensive win shares (5.3) and fifth in block percentage. He held opponents to 51 percent shooting within six feet of the rim. To put that into context, Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green held opponents to 48.3 percent shooting at the same distance.
Whiteside squashed any doubt about how he’d perform after signing a monster contract summer. Now, it’s time to show that he can maintain his dominance on the defensive end.
Top Playmaker: Goran Dragic
Without Dwyane Wade in the picture, Dragic proved to be a great leader for the HEAT on the court. He benefited by the opportunity to get out and run last season and was very effective getting his teammates involved.
Dragic has proven over his nine years in the NBA that he can be very good at attacking the basket and kicking out to the open man when needed. As we’ll cover in the next section, he led the team with 81 total points in clutch situations and came up with several big plays throughout the season.
When the HEAT needed a big play, the team could count on Dragic to make it.
Top Clutch Player: Tyler Johnson
While we could have highlighted Dragic here, we are going to take a look at Johnson during clutch moments last season.
Of course, we can’t forget when Dion Waiters hit the game-winning shot against the Golden State Warriors with .6 seconds left to continue the team’s 13-game winning streak. Memes were created with Waiters’ pose following the shot, t-shirts were made and Twitter exploded after it. It was arguably one of the top moments of the season for the HEAT.
As Waiters came up with the shot of the year against the Warriors, Johnson was quietly one of the team’s best clutch performers last season. The NBA defines clutch stats as the final five minutes of a game when a team is either ahead or behind by five minutes. Johnson ranked as the team’s second-best player in these moments.
While Dragic led the team with 81 total points last season in clutch situations, Johnson was second on the team with 67 points. He shot 44.9 percent (22-of-49) from the field and 45 percent (9-of-20) from three-point range in clutch situations.
Johnson’s percentages were actually slightly better than Dragic’s and he was the team’s top three-point shooter during these moments. Many HEAT fans may remember his performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers when he scored eight of his 24 total points during overtime to help the team to a key win.
For the HEAT, having all three of these players in Dragic, Johnson and Waiters on the roster has been very beneficial. An argument can be made for each player as the team’s best clutch player and it’s likely a good problem to have for head coach Erik Spoelstra.
The Unheralded Player: Udonis Haslem
Each year, we highlight players in this category that don’t receive nearly as much love as they should. Haslem is a perfect candidate for this title and it isn’t even close.
Haslem serves as the team’s captain and is the leader in the locker room. While Haslem hasn’t played much over the past couple of seasons, he serves a much larger role than that. Haslem is the HEAT’s voice and heart and soul of the team. The leadership that he brings to the team is clearly very valuable to the HEAT to bring him back for a 15th season.
Ask any current or former HEAT player what Haslem means to the team and it likely won’t take long before they mention his leadership skills, toughness and professionalism. It speaks volumes for his character for the team to bring him back for another season.
As the franchise’s all-time leader in rebounds, Haslem has become a strong mentor for the team’s younger players. He even spoke to members of the summer league team on exactly what it means to be a part of the HEAT culture.
It’s obvious that Haslem has earned a place among the franchise’s all-time greats and he’s back for at least one more season.
Best New Addition: Kelly Olynyk
Given that the HEAT opted to retain most of its roster, the best new addition candidates basically came down to Olynyk and rookie Bam Adebayo. While Adebayo certainly has potential, we opted to highlight Olynyk here.
Now, the decision to sign Olynyk to a four-year, $51.2 million contract was a bit out of left field, but his addition figures to help bolster the team’s frontcourt depth. With the addition of Olynyk, the team now has Hassan Whiteside, Olynyk and Adebayo on the depth chart in the frontcourt.
Olynyk figures to be a welcomed addition to the team given his ability to space the floor, which is something the HEAT have lacked in recent years. He averaged nine points, 4.8 rebounds and two assists per game last season for the Boston Celtics while shooting 35.4 percent from three-point range.
HEAT fans may remember one signature performance by Olynyk during last season’s playoffs. In Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Washington Wizards, Olynyk recorded 26 points, four rebounds and four assists on 10-of-14 shooting from the floor to help the Celtics advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.
While those sort of performances may not happen regularly, Olynyk has proven that he can be an effective scorer off of the bench or as a starter.
— Cody Taylor
WHO WE LIKE
1. Erik Spoelstra
It is becoming a yearly tradition to highlight head coach Spoelstra for the HEAT. It was easy to disregard the accomplishments he had with the Big Three, but it’s becoming increasingly evident that he can coach very well no matter who is on the team.
Coaching a roster that didn’t boast too many household names, Spoelstra nearly led one of the best comebacks in regular season history. As the team once sat at 11-30 last season, it would have been easy for the team to throw in the towel and begin looking ahead to the offseason. In fact, many believed the HEAT were better off tanking and positioning themselves for a better draft pick.
Instead, Spoelstra stuck the course and so did his players. After beginning with a lowly 11-30 record, the team finished by going 30-11 in the second half of the season. It was the best second-half record ever by a team that missed the playoffs. Many even believed he had a legitimate argument to win Coach of the Year–he finished second.
The team is hoping they can ride that momentum into the 2017-18 season and it seems reasonable to believe they’ll pick up right where they left off.
2. James Johnson
The HEAT prioritized retaining most of its roster this offseason and most fans were delighted to see a new contract for Johnson. After having a career year, Johnson made the decision to hand him a new four-year, $60 million contract an easy one.
In 76 games last season, Johnson averaged a career-high 12.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.1 blocks per game. It was by far the best season of his eight-year career after having stops in Chicago, Toronto, Sacramento and Memphis.
The team signed Johnson to a one-year, $4 million deal last offseason and it’s safe to say he exceeded expectations by a longshot. He committed to himself by getting better on the court and off of the court. He transformed his body by dropping nearly 40 pounds of weight and nearly eight percent of body fat thanks to the HEAT’s training staff.
Based on his progress and improvements during his first season with the HEAT, we expect Johnson to become a valuable piece to this team.
3. Josh Richardson
Richardson is just the latest in a long line of success stories in the NBA. As a former second-round pick by the HEAT two years ago, it was reported earlier this week that he has agreed to a four-year, $42 million contract extension with the team.
Although Richardson was hampered by injuries last season, the HEAT have seen enough in him that they believe he can continue to develop and become a meaningful player in the future. In 53 games last season, Richardson averaged a career-high 10.2 points.
Richardson has proven to be one of the team’s best shooters. During his rookie campaign two years ago, he shot 46.1 percent from three-point range. He struggled shooting last season after converting on just 33 percent of his three-point shots, but that dip in shooting could be due to dealing with knee, ankle and foot injuries.
He did show flashes of great play during the final month of the regular season. In six April games, Richardson averaged 15 points, 3.2 rebounds and three assists while converting on 53 percent of his three-point attempts. It should be fun to see his progress should he stay healthy this year.
4. Dion Waiters
Waiters has already established himself as a fan favorite after just one season in Miami. Of course, it helps that he hit a game-winning shot against the Golden State Warriors. His pose after hitting that shot has been plastered on memes, t-shirts and social media. It’s safe to say that HEAT nation has fully embraced him.
Waiters opted to sign a one-year, $2 million contract with the team last year, in essence, betting on himself. It worked. The team rewarded him with a four-year, $52 million contract.
Last season, the guard turned in nearly his best season to date after averaging 15.8 points, 4.3 assists and 3.3 rebounds in 46 games. He also shot nearly 40 percent from three-point range. As he begins his second year in Miami, look for him to continue to make the highlight reels and stir it up on social media.
— Cody Taylor
SALARY CAP 101
Miami went under the salary cap this summer to sign James Johnson, Dion Waiters and Kelly Olynyk to multi-year deals. The HEAT still own their $4.3 million Room Exception but may be invested already in a full roster of 15 (with 13 guaranteed players plus two partials in Rodney McGruder and Okaro White).
Next summer, Miami projects to be over the cap with heavy investments in Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic, Tyler Johnson and their recent signings. Before November, the HEAT need to pick up Justise Winslow’s 2018-19 team option.
— Eric Pincus
The HEAT had excellent chemistry on and off of the court last season. With the additions of several new players last season, it seems remarkable.
They showed this strength during the team’s improbable second-half run. Multiple players stepped up during this stretch to help the team rise up in the Eastern Conference. Some teams may have opted to give up once they went 11-30, but this group stayed together and nearly made the playoffs.
Based off of the success the team had in the second-half of last season, the front office opted to bring back the majority of their free agents. They re-signed Dion Waiters and James Johnson, while they opted to keep Wayne Ellington on the roster, as well.
The team now has a ton of depth and appears to be in good shape for next season.
— Cody Taylor
If you look at this HEAT team on paper, they don’t project to have many weaknesses. The offense ranked 16th in the league in efficiency. The defense was ranked inside the top five and head coach Erik Spoelstra is widely regarded as one of the best head coaches in the game.
But one area in which can be seen as a weakness could be the team’s lack of superstar talent. While Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside are certainly good players, they’re not superstars. The HEAT have serviceable players at each position, but is it enough to get them deep into the playoffs?
Many have wondered if this HEAT team will be able to duplicate its second-half success with its current roster. Of course, the team has certainly tried to sign some of the league’s top free agents over the years, but have come up just short in doing so.
The HEAT figure to be in the race for a playoff berth all season long, but the lack of superstar talent could be what ultimately prevents them from making a deep playoff run.
— Cody Taylor
THE BURNING QUESTION:
After keeping its core together, will that be enough to make a run at the playoffs?
In what many project to be a weaker Eastern Conference this season, the HEAT will find themselves back in the postseason this year. They came up a tiebreaker with the Chicago Bulls short from making the playoffs last season and likely would have been a problem for the Boston Celtics in the first round. Now, they’re armed with a few more weapons and have depth all across the board. It’s not a matter of if they make the playoffs, but rather a matter of how high they can climb up the standings and whether or not they have what it takes to advance.
— Cody Taylor
NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — The Lottery Version
Most of the next six weeks will be spent focusing on the race for the West’s No. 8 seed, but don’t lose track of the annual plummet to the bottom while attention is diverted elsewhere.
Despite every vague description of the 2020 draft class as weak, despite the NBA flattening the lottery odds a year ago, despite the competitive instincts genuinely within each roster throughout the league, tanking in the final months of the season is inevitable.
It will not be as pervasive as it may be leading into the already-hyped 2021 draft, and it certainly will not be as rampant as in The Process-headlined mid-2010s, but the idea of increasing lottery odds still holds logical merit. With the flattened odds, four subsets exist within the odds:
Nos. 9-14: Odds from 1 percent to 3 percent of landing the top pick.
Nos. 7-8: Odds of 6 percent.
Nos. 4-6: Odds from 9 percent to 12.5 percent.
Nos. 1-3: Odds of 14 percent.
In the run-up to May 19’s lottery, many will remind that both the New Orleans Pelicans and the Memphis Grizzlies lept from those 6-percent slots into the top-two spots in the draft a year ago — but the focus should still be at the absolute bottom of the standings, where the Golden State Warriors may already have locked up one of the 14-percent opportunities.
The Warriors’ 44 losses are five ahead of — or is it behind? — the Detroit Pistons’ 39, which would necessitate quite a winning boost to overcome, even with Stephen Curry returning sometime next month. The better question is, who will spiral to the other two 14-percent chances? Basketball Insiders may be devoting much of the week to the “Stretch Run” as it applies to the league’s leaders, but five other teams will be racing down to only two spots:
Cleveland Cavaliers: 14-40 currently, 2-8 in their last 10.
Atlanta Hawks: 16-41, 4-6 in their last 10.
Minnesota Timberwolves: 16-37, 1-9 in their last 10.
New York Knicks: 17-38, 5-5 in their last 10.
Detroit Pistons: 19-39, 2-8 in their last 10.
The trade deadline provided some clarity in these franchises’ grander plans, most specifically that the Pistons have little-to-no intent of competing in the near future. With Blake Griffin sidelined, Andre Drummond traded and Reggie Jackson bought out, Detroit’s starting lineup now features a pair of names that the more casual fan might struggle to spell — Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and Sekou Doumbouya, for the record.
That three-game lead in the win column should not hold up for long. Consider their next six games: At Portland, at Denver, at Phoenix, at Sacramento, vs. Oklahoma City and vs. Utah. To be blunt, the Pistons will likely lose all six.
If anyone will match Detroit, it may be the Timberwolves, particularly with franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns out indefinitely with a wrist injury. Minnesota’s next six games may include plausibly-winnable games at Orlando and against the Dallas Mavericks, but the Timberwolves have already strung together losing streaks of 11 and 13 games this season. The trade deadline may have reinvented most of Minnesota’s roster, but Towns’ absence may spur another notable losing streak.
If any of these teams might separate itself with wins, it would be the Knicks. They started 4-18 under David Fizdale but have gone 13-20 since under interim head coach Mike Miller. That latter winning rate would have New York at 21 or 22 wins currently, if spread across the entire season to date. Continuing at that pace should distance the Knicks from the best lottery odds, albeit just to still plenty desirable chances.
If such a shift occurs in Cleveland under freshly-instated head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, then suddenly this lottery-driven stretch run may include only the Timberwolves and Pistons. The Hawks’ moves at the deadline — namely trading for Clint Capela and Dewayne Dedmon — suggest their time pursuing the most ping-pong balls has ended. Their results underscore the value of rising in the lottery no matter the draft; landing Trae Young may be best remembered, but the less-heralded drafting of De’Andre Hunter is increasingly paying off.
The 2020 version of notable tanking is more a selective stagger, one likely to apply to only a couple franchises — currently squabbling over a mere 1.5 percent in lottery odds. In any other avenue of life, that would hardly be enough to fret over, but when it may be the difference in landing Anthony Edwards, James Wiseman or LaMelo Ball, that 1.5 percent still means a great deal to these franchises.
NBA Daily: The Stretch Run – Atlantic Division
Ben Nadeau praises the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, while also gently eulogizing another season gone wrong for both teams in New York.
The Stretch Run.
With 20-odd games remaining on the schedule, it’s officially make-or-break time for the majority of the league — unless your franchise rhymes with Los Shamjealous or Hillmockie, of course. With tantalizing lottery picks for those that bottom out or home-court postseason revenue for teams that push forward, the post-All-Star break jockeying is always fascinating.
As of Feb. 20, however, most of the Eastern Conference — and particularly so, the Atlantic Division — is cut and dried. From hyped-up expectations to the somewhat-disappointing, one of the conference’s perennially-strongest divisions is looking robust once again. Although all of them presumably lag behind the Giannis Antetokounmpo-led Bucks, the bloodbath for the right to face Milwaukee appears to be better than ever.
But before even getting into the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets’ varying playoff hopes, a rapid-fire eulogy for the New York Knicks must first be had. Fans who once dreamt off trotting out Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Zion Williamson — but ask the Nets and New Orleans Pelicans how life without them went, to be fair — had to settle for trading away Marcus Morris at the trade deadline earlier this month.
At 17-38, there are only a handful of franchises worse off in the standings department — Minnesota, Atlanta, Cleveland and Golden State — and absurdity continues to reign in Manhattan. David Fizdale was unceremoniously ousted in December and was replaced by interim head coach Mike Miller, who was then (accidentally) dissed by Steve Stoute on an ESPN morning show. Even Steve Mills was out as president after tapping Leon Rose, another superagent turned front office executive.
On the roster side, Frank Ntilikina is playing less than ever, the aforementioned Morris led the team in points per game (19.6) and Bobby Portis already shot down any idea of a buyout. Kevin Knox, 20, has seen his minutes and averages nearly halved, while Mitchell Robinson has only played more than 25 minutes on 18 occasions. The Knicks desperately have searched for continuity and clarity only to come up empty-handed time and time again.
Thankfully, RJ Barrett looks like the real deal and, according to Marc Berman of The New York Post, the Knicks have begun to look at the upcoming draft to nail down a scoring point guard as the next franchise cornerstone.
With some real, tangible turnover in New York — and some incredibly solid youngsters to boot — it’s far too early to anoint the franchise as revitalized, but they’ve taken some important first steps toward doing so.
And despite stealing away Durant and Irving during the offseason, their cross-river rivals in Brooklyn haven’t fared much better at all. Irving, when he’s played, has been sensational — unfortunately, he’s reached the floor in just 20 total games thus far and is now out indefinitely (again) after re-aggravating that troublesome right shoulder (again). The 27-year-old point guard missed the All-Star Game for the first time since 2015-16 and his season — plus whatever lingering postseason hopes the Nets had — are quickly setting. Durant, as planned, hasn’t logged a minute yet — and likely won’t — while Rodions Kurucs hasn’t matched last year’s breakout campaign and Joe Harris has seen a considerable drop from three-point range too.
At 25-28, Brooklyn owns the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference, some 2.5 games ahead of the Orlando Magic. It’s hard to imagine the Nets falling out of the postseason entirely — the ninth-seeded Washington Wizards are just 20-33 — but there’s little chance they catch the Indiana Pacers at No. 6, especially following the return of Victor Oladipo. If Irving is shelved for much longer and Durant sits out the entire year, the Nets’ best-case scenario becomes stealing a postseason game from Milwaukee or Toronto before bowing out in the first round.
After arguably winning the offseason, it’s a tough pill to swallow in Brooklyn — but, at the very least, there are undeniable better days ahead.
And then that leaves three: Toronto, Boston and Philadelphia.
Today, at 34-21, the 76ers are the most disappointing of the bunch as they often struggle to play to both Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid’s strengths at once. Simmons, 23, for all his other-worldly playmaking — and previous talk of a summertime-made jumper — has only attempted six three-pointers in 2019-20. The defense is as fearful as ever and rates at 106.1 — good for fourth-best, but sadly behind the Celtics, Raptors and Bucks — so counting the 76ers out of a deep playoff run would be downright shameful.
But in back-to-back-to-back contests before the All-Star break, the 76ers lost to the Celtics, Miami HEAT — the franchise occupying the No. 4 seed ahead of them — and Bucks. The deadline fits of both Glenn Robinson III and Alec Burks need some time, but Philadelphia is one of the few legitimate contenders in the conference that actually tried to improve their roster this month — which speaks to the still-strong internal hopes of the franchise.
Just as the Nets are nearly locked into the No. 7 or 8 seed, the 76ers won’t drop any lower than sixth place either. And although both Boston and Toronto have gained an inch of separation in the conference hierarchy, Philadelphia now finds themselves in the midst of a three-team brawl for home-court advantage in the first round. With Philadelphia’s unbelievable ceiling of potential and inherent inconsistency, it’s too early to predict where exactly they’ve fall come playoff time — but, make no mistake, this is a roster no opposing team will be excited to face.
On the other hand, Boston is peaking at just the right time as head coach Brad Stevens continues to push all the right buttons. Jayson Tatum, fresh off his first-ever All-Star berth, is a force to be reckoned with (22.4 points, 6.9 rebounds) and Kemba Walker has found himself right at home in the Garden. Surely the Celtics would love to avoid the Bucks for as long as possible and to do so, they’ll need to skip Toronto over the season’s final few months — however, even without Kawhi Leonard, that’s easier said than done.
The Celtics boast top-five ratings on both sides of the ball and, in spite of everybody’s doomsday-worthy proclamations, the 1-2 punch of Enes Kanter and Daniel Theis under the rim have more than sufficed. It’ll begin to sound like a repetitive cliche — and just wait for Toronto to fill out this trifecta — but Boston is still Boston: Hard-nosed and even harder-working, they’re an absolute shoo-in for home-court advantage in the first round at the very least.
But the Raptors currently stand as the Atlantic Division crown jewel, ready as ever to defend their conference throne.
You know the details by now: Leonard is dealt to Toronto and he wins the city their first-ever championship ring before signing with Los Angeles last July. Without last weekend’s All-Star MVP in tow, the Raptors were expected to sharply fall down the standings — playoffs, maybe, but this? Certainly not.
This is domination. This is an elite defensive unit. This is a franchise that not only lived on after their superstar left — but then thrived off that departure. Sans Leonard, the Raptors are only 40-15, good for the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. Crazier, right now, the Raptors are on pace to win as many regular-season games as they did with Leonard.
If not for the single-digit loss Bucks, they’d probably be the NBA’s darling story of the season once again. Pascal Siakam, 25, has blossomed into superstardom — 23.5 points, 7.5 rebounds — and is a more-than-worthy mark to pin the franchise’s back-to-back hopes upon. But perhaps even more impressive is Toronto’s ability to shuffle through next-man-up cards with reckless abandon. In fact, post-All-Star break, Terence Davis, an undrafted rookie, is the only player to have featured in all 55 games.
Every major member outside of OG Anunoby has missed a chunk of the season, too: Fred VanVleet, 10; Pascal Siakam, 11; Serge Ibaka, 11; Kyle Lowry, 12; Norman Powell, 17; Marc Gasol, 20.
And yet, they relentlessly compete like bonafide champions.
Toronto is likely destined for a second-round showdown with either Boston and Philadelphia — that much seems ultimately clear. But in the conference’s suddenly-thickening race to the top, for the first time in a long time, it’s still anybody’s best guess as to who will come out on top. Simply put, if you want star power — bank on Simmons, Embiid and the 76ers. If you want pedigreed basketball on both sides of the floor — there’s Walker, Tatum and the Celtics.
But if you want to back a franchise that was left for relative dead mere months after hoisting a championship trophy — well, Siakam, Lowry and the Raptors may just be the heavyweight title contender the conference has been waiting for.
NBA Daily: Collin Sexton’s First All-Star Weekend A Success
Spencer Davies looks back at Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton’s first-time experience at NBA All-Star weekend in Chicago.
It was early Friday afternoon at the Wintrust Arena in Chicago, the stage was set to kick off a laid-back weekend of celebration on NBA All-Star Weekend and commend the hard work of the brightest young talents, both national and international, the league had to offer.
The events of the 72-hour spectacle are meant to be enjoyed, connecting with others and soaking in the experience as a reward rather than being a full-on competition. Added to the U.S. Team roster as a replacement for injured Miami HEAT rookie Tyler Herro, Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton did just that. Between a multitude of media appearances in the bright lights with cameras all around, the 21-year-old upstart took advantage of the opportunities to expose his personality to a national audience.
But amidst the fun, Sexton still went the extra mile as he always does. Phil Handy, a former Cavaliers assistant who worked famously with Kyrie Irving and the man that conducted Sexton’s pre-draft workout with Cleveland, was the head coach of the U.S. Team. So the one they call Young Bull decided to take full advantage with a post-practice workout when the floor cleared.
“[He’s worked with] great guards, yeah. He’s a great guy,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders. “He just told me to continue to get better, continue to work, continue to strive to be great. He talked to me a little bit about Kobe [Bryant] and his time with him, so I just got a good takeaway from him.”
Additional work at a practice to improve his game and prepare for an exhibition contest during a time that was meant for fun? It’s par for the course in his world. Just weeks prior following the Cavaliers’ loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on the road, a team source revealed to Basketball Insiders that Sexton went to Cleveland’s practice facility after landing in Northeast Ohio in the early morning hours to hone his craft.
“Dude’s motor doesn’t stop,” the source said.
“Oh naw, I work hard. When I feel like…if I’m on the court, I’mma do whatever I’ve gotta do. No days off, whatever,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders of his never-ending drive. “If it’s taking care of my body or just stretching or lifting, it’s not always about shooting and stuff like that. You’ve just gotta do the little things and that’s going to help you in the future.”
Though Sexton wasn’t used to the kind of attention he was receiving in the Windy City, he was determined to prove that he belongs. Usually taking a business-like approach to downplay things of this nature, he admitted how amazing it felt to achieve the milestone and be a part of the most popular three-day stretch the NBA has to offer.
“I feel like all my hard work, it paid off. So I’m glad to be here, especially with these group of guys, really good group. It’s an honor,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders that Friday morning.
Among star-studded sophomore names such as Luka Doncic and Trae Young, as well as human-highlight-reel rookies like Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, a motivated Sexton made his mark on the floor.
“I’m a dog too, so I’mma go out there and show everybody I can represent as well.”
— Spencer Davies (@SpinDavies) February 15, 2020
In 20 minutes of action, he poured in 21 points, nabbed five rebounds and dished out three assists. He shot 9-for-14 from the field, including three triples on six tries. And he even had a reverse jam on a bounce pass to himself, though he joked that it was “kinda weak.”
“At first, I was just chillin’ out there, wasn’t playing too hard. Then, you know, I can turn it on pretty quick,” Sexton said.
“Honestly, I just go out there and just play my game. Honestly, no matter who I’m put in the room with, I’mma do what I do,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders. “It’s exciting just because of like all the attention they bring, but me, being myself . . . I’m a dog too, so I’mma go out there and show everybody that I can represent as well.”
Sexton was the 20th Cavalier in franchise history to represent the team in the Rising Stars game since its inception in 1994. With a grin on his face naming those wine-and-golders who came before him, he was thinking ahead about the teammates that could now follow his lead.
Basketball Insiders saw a side of Sexton that hasn’t been seen much in Cleveland. He started a long media tour Thursday with a Yahoo-sponsored pop-a-shot contest followed it up with an NBA TV sitdown interview alongside Dennis Scott. While the next day was entirely centered on Rising Stars, he continued Saturday with an appearance for Metro By T-Mobile during a media-player role reversal contest and finished off at a Mountain Dew barbershop sit down with the legendary Scottie Pippen and other notorious players from the league.
Through all of the losing, through all of the tumultuous nature of his one-and-a-half seasons with the Cavaliers — who are hiring their fourth coach since the 2018 NBA Draft — Sexton is not going to change his approach. He’s not going to change who he is. He’s not going to veer into a different path because of another shift in direction.
“It’s a great experience for me just to take my bumps and bruises, to go out there and pretty much just play hard each and every night, and that’s what I’mma do,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders. “It’s tough losing because no one wants to lose. I feel like we’re moving in the right directions and we’ll get better and start winning.”
Whether people want to believe it or not, what he’s doing is working just fine.
All-Star Weekend proved it.
NBA7 days ago
NBA Daily: Russell Westbrook — Full Throttle
Headlines4 days ago
Sources: DeMarre Carroll, Spurs Agree to Buyout, to Sign with Rockets
NBA7 days ago
NBA Daily: Trade Deadline Gives Jerome Robinson Opportunity And Encouragement
NBA5 days ago
NBA Daily: In Context: The Elam Ending & The 2019 NBA Finals