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20 Contract-Year Players to Watch in 2016-17

Lang Greene looks at 20 upcoming free agents who are entering a crucial contract year in 2016-17.

Lang Greene

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It’s never too early to start discussing the upcoming NBA free agency class. Outside of your standard restricted and unrestricted free agents, there are an abundance of guys who hold player options for the 2017-18 campaign. With the league’s salary cap expected to exceed $100 million next season, most of these players will choose to opt out in order to cash in and secure a more lucrative multi-year deal.

Today, we’ll take a look at some players who are entering an important contract-year. To make this list of upcoming free agents more interesting, we’ve excluded a host of current All-Stars such as Stephen Curry, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and Paul Millsap. Guys with an All-Star appearance last season or those who are considered elite players were purposely omitted since they will clearly be paid regardless of how they perform in their contract-year.

Even with the stricter criteria, there are still plenty of players whom fans should be watching closely as the season develops. Here are 20 contract-year players to watch (not in any particular order):

Zach Randolph, Forward, Memphis Grizzlies
2016-17 contract:
$10.3 million
Free Agency Status:
Unrestricted

Randolph is a throwback in every sense of the word. Yes, his back-to-the-basket game in the low post is an ode to yesteryear when the game was played at a slower pace. But there’s also a picture of a much younger Randolph floating around from when he shared the court with Hall of Famers Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Randolph was a member of the Portland Trail Blazers with Pippen as a teammate and they were facing off against an aging Jordan, who was playing for the Washington Wizards. That’s old school.

But Randolph’s future is up in the air. The Grizzlies play an outdated style, have a quarter of a billion dollars invested in Mike Conley and Chandler Parsons and the team announced earlier this week that Randolph will permanently move into a sixth-man role. The veteran still has some gas left in the tank, but will he use all of his remaining fuel in Memphis?

Greg Monroe, Center, Milwaukee Bucks
2016-17 contract:
$17.1 million
Free Agency Status:
Player option for 2017-18

After reaching the playoffs during the 2014-15 season, the Bucks seemingly hit the jackpot the following summer by landing Monroe in free agency over large-market franchises that were also in pursuit of the veteran big man. However, Monroe’s first season in Milwaukee was filled with inconsistency, as the team missed the playoffs and his name was featured in plenty of trade rumors.

If things are shaky in year two, Monroe could look to free agency as an escape hatch.

Victor Oladipo, Guard, Oklahoma City Thunder
2016-17 contract:
$6.5 million
Free Agency Status:
Restricted

The Thunder could opt to lock up Oladipo long-term prior to the extension deadline on Oct. 31, but the team would essentially be bidding against themselves in the process. However, there’s also a risk if Oklahoma City allows the talented guard to hit the market next summer as well. Oladipo scored 34 points in his Thunder preseason debut this week versus Real Madrid and has seemingly transitioned into his new situation well after being traded from the Orlando Magic this summer. The Thunder will be looking for a second scorer to step up alongside All-Star guard Russell Westbrook after former league MVP Kevin Durant’s departure, and Oladipo is a guy who could flirt with 20 points a night if given the green light.

Gordon Hayward, Forward, Utah Jazz
2016-17 contract:
$16.1 million
Free Agency Status:
Player option for 2017-18

Back in the summer, we wrote about the damage caused by restricted free agency. The piece followed up on restricted free agents who signed offer sheets only to have their offers matched by their current franchise. Guys such as Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap, Roy Hibbert, Marcin Gortat and Eric Gordon either bolted as soon as they had the opportunity or were traded before their respective deals expired.

Back in 2014, the Jazz matched Charlotte’s four-year, $63 million offer for Hayward. The forward is undoubtedly a key building block for Utah, but historically similar situations haven’t ended well. Keep an eye on this situation.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Guard, Detroit Pistons
2016-17 contract:
$3.7 million
Free Agency Status:
Restricted

The jury is still out on Caldwell-Pope. The fourth-year guard continues to receive rave reviews from members of the Pistons coaching staff, but he’s also coming off a season in which he connected on just 31 percent of his three-point attempts (369). However, on the flip side, Caldwell-Pope has increased his scoring output every season and missed just eight games in his first three seasons. In 2016, Caldwell-Pope finished fourth in the league in average minutes per game (36.7). There will be suitors looking for a young guard, under 25, with starting and playoff experience next summer. Will the Pistons lock up Caldwell-Pope early or choose to see how the open market values his talent next July?

J.J. Redick, Guard, Los Angeles Clippers
2016-17 contract:
$7.4 million
Free Agency Status:
Unrestricted

The Clippers will more than likely be pre-occupied with re-signing All-Stars Blake Griffin and Chris Paul next summer (both have player options). Each of those guys are going to command top dollar for their services, so will this provide an opposing team with an opportunity to swoop in and steal Redick from the Clippers? Redick led the league in three-point percentage (48 percent) in 2016 and will be in high demand if he can avoid injuries (only 11 games missed over the past two seasons).

Dennis Schroder, Guard, Atlanta Hawks
2016-17 contract:
$2.7 million
Free Agency Status:
Restricted

The Hawks traded away Jeff Teague, a former All-Star in his prime, in order to give Schroder an opportunity to be team’s floor general. That’s a strong vote of confidence from Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer and also a little motivation in a contract year for the fourth-year guard.

Nikola Mirotic, Forward, Chicago Bulls
2016-17 contract:
$5.8 million
Free Agency Status:
Restricted

The Bulls had a frontcourt logjam of sorts in 2016, but with Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol moving on in free agency, there should be more time for Mirotic to earn minutes. Last season, Mirotic played 30 or more minutes in only 14 of his 66 appearances. But the forward did improve his three-point accuracy from 32 percent in 2015 to 39 percent last season. With elite slashing guards Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade added to the Bulls’ mix, Mirotic will be counted on nightly from the perimeter. If he continues to knock down those shots, his value will skyrocket.

Zaza Pachulia, Center, Golden State Warriors
2016-17 contract:
$2.9 million
Free Agency Status:
Unrestricted

Pachulia turned down multiple eight-figure payday offers in order to pursue a ring with the Warriors. It was a calculated risk the veteran was willing to take in order to add championship hardware to his mantle.  But the Warriors will also have free agency decisions to make on Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant (player option), Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston next summer, meaning Pachulia’s time in the Bay Area could be a one-and-done experience if the money gets tight.

Steven Adams, Center, Oklahoma City Thunder
2016-17 contract:
$3.1 million
Free Agency Status:
Restricted

The vast majority of NBA championship teams have guys on the roster who take pride in their blue-collar, bring-their-lunch-pail-to-work mentality.  Adams is the personification of this role-playing glue guy. From setting hard screens to delivering rough fouls to playing while hurt to his tenacious rebounding, the center will be an interesting name come free agency.

Jeff Teague, Guard, Atlanta Hawks
2016-17 contract:
$8 million
Free Agency Status:
Unrestricted

The Indiana Pacers wanted to add more offense and Teague provides a scoring upgrade over the departed George Hill at point guard. The former All-Star heads home, in a contract year, and will be given every opportunity to become All-Star forward Paul George’s chief sidekick.

Michael Beasley, Forward, Milwaukee Bucks
2016-17 contract:
$1.4 million
Free Agency Status:
Unrestricted

The Houston Rockets surprisingly traded Beasley prior to the start of the season. After Khris Middleton got hurt, Milwaukee was desperately seeking more offensive firepower. And for all of the criticism Beasley receives (and understandably so), there’s one thing everyone can agree on: the man can flat out score when given minutes.

P.J. Tucker, Forward, Phoenix Suns
2016-17 contract:
$5.3 million
Free Agency Status:
Unrestricted

Tucker, 31, could be a victim of the Suns’ ongoing youth movement. With rookies Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss looking to carve out minutes at forward, Warren’s presence and the team’s decision to sign veteran Jared Dudley to a $30 million deal this summer, all signs point to a crowded frontcourt in Phoenix. Will Tucker eventually become the odd man out?

Gorgui Dieng, Center, Minnesota Timberwolves
2016-17 contract:
$2.4 million
Free Agency Status:
Restricted

The Timberwolves will enter the season with plenty of hype and are predicted by many to be this year’s surprise team. But how long can the T’Wolves keep their young core together? Dieng’s impending free agency will be the front office’s first test in how much they’re willing to invest in seeing things through. Dieng is oozing with double-double potential, but the arrival of Karl-Anthony Towns did lead to a three-minute-per-game reduction in court time for the soon-to-be-free-agent. Coincidence? We shall see.

Nerlens Noel, Center, Philadelphia 76ers
2016-17 contract:
$4.4 million
Free Agency Status:
Restricted

The Sixers will head into the 2016-17 campaign with an extremely crowded frontcourt that features Ben Simmons, Jahlil Okafor, Joel Embiid, Noel and Dario Saric all figuring to get plenty of court time. Simmons is out for the first three months due to a foot injury, but the team still has a bottleneck. Noel, who has been mentioned in trade rumors, has publicly questioned the team’s decision to roster three young centers. Many believe Noel will be the odd man out and that a trade before the deadline is a strong possibility. That remains to be seen, but what is true is the fact the Sixers probably can’t get away with hoarding these young big men for an extended time period.

Patty Mills, Guard, San Antonio Spurs
2016-17 contract:
$3.6 million
Free Agency Status:
Unrestricted

Future Hall of Fame forward Tim Duncan retired this past summer and veteran guard Manu Ginobili is likely right behind him at season’s end. Mills, 28, has become a valuable member of the Spurs’ bench the past few seasons and boasts championship experience, which will be coveted on the open market. With the salary cap set to rise once again, Mills could be in for a plethora of lucrative offers and San Antonio will have to think long and hard about potentially handing out an eight-figure payday to their consistent role player.

Rudy Gobert, Center, Utah Jazz
2016-17 contract:
$2.1 million
Free Agency Status:
Restricted

The Stifle Tower is one of the league’s emerging big men and a core piece of the Jazz’s young core. Gobert provides elite rim protection and could become a nightly double-double performer in time. The Jazz can opt to extend Gobert before the Oct. 31 deadline or wait until next summer when the market will likely dictate a maximum price tag for the center. Utah did allow Gordon Hayward to secure a max offer from Charlotte back in 2014, so the precedent is there that the franchise may take a wait-and-see approach. Either way, when the smoke clears, Gobert is going to command top dollar and will undoubtedly get it.

Otto Porter, Forward, Washington Wizards
2016-17 contract:
$5.9 million
Free Agency Status:
Restricted

Despite making significant leaps in a variety of statistical categories last season, the jury is still out on whether the Wizards will pay top dollar to retain his services. Porter is an intriguing prospect in today’s 3-and-D league, but he’s been plagued by bouts of inconsistency during the course of his career. But Porter is only 23 and nowhere close to his physical prime, which would make allowing him to walk out of the door for nothing in return very risky.

Derrick Rose, Guard, New York Knicks
2016-17 contract:
$21.3 million
Free Agency Status:
Unrestricted

Once you get over the fact the league MVP version of Rose is likely never going to resurface, you’re still left with a very productive player who only missed 16 games last season while averaging 16.4 points and nearly five assists. While those numbers are nowhere close to what Rose once produced, they’re nothing to thumb your nose at. In New York, Rose won’t have franchise-player expectations. Those belong to All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony; however, Rose will be expected to be his primary sidekick. The Knicks took a risk in bringing in Rose, but are banking on the former MVP to be in peak condition heading into his contract year. And he needs to play well and stay healthy if he wants to cash in next offseason.

Danilo Gallinari, Forward, Denver Nuggets
2016-17 contract:
$15.1 million
Free Agency Status:
Player option for 2017-18

Gallinari averaged a career-high 19.5 points per game in 2016, but the veteran forward failed to appear in 60 games for the second consecutive campaign. The Nuggets are rebuilding and Gallinari will be relied on heavily as the team’s best offensive talent. But will a veteran with a history of injury problems opt out and price himself out of what Denver is willing to spend? Will the team look to move their talented forward at the deadline and go all-in on their youth movement? All indications are that both parties are completely satisfied with one another, but nine months is an eternity when it comes to NBA relationships. Let’s see if anything changes.

Which non-stars headed to free agency are you looking forward to watching this season? Leave your comments below.

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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 Sixth Man of the Year award once back in 2015. 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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