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NBA Daily: Fixing The Minnesota Timberwolves

Ben Nadeau continues Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series by taking an in-depth look at the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Ben Nadeau

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Moving right along in Basketball Insiders’ yearly lottery-bound recaps, your talented and perennially disappointing Minnesota Timberwolves are up next. Our ‘Fixing Series’ aims to diagnose team-wide issues and offer future plans of attack heading into the offseason. And for what the Timberwolves lacked in the realm of consistent basketball, they made up for it in the drama department. From Jimmy Butler to Tom Thibodeau and everything in between, it’s been another eventful season for Minnesota — but one that still finds them far away from legitimate contention.

Armed with former lottery picks and a budding All-NBA centerpiece, Minnesota’s inability to put together a full campaign has become annual frustration. Still, there’s always next year and with a building block like Karl-Anthony Towns locked down, that hope will remain both palpable and plausible. The early season trade that brought in Dario Saric and Robert Covington for a disgruntled star will move the needle for seasons to come — but what must come next? First things first, however, the Timberwolves need to lock down their next head coach — whether that’s Ryan Saunders or not — and get ready to reload in June’s draft.

What Is Working?

In short order, the biggest and brightest successes for the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2018-19:

1. Karl-Anthony Towns

This paint-roaming menace is a special cat, let’s get the most obvious statement out of the way.

Towns is flat-out good. In fact, the former Wildcat had a near run-in with death last month and then responded by absolutely destroying his opponents over the next eight games — officially making the race for an All-NBA berth far more intriguing. Only two centers make more three-pointers per game than Towns — Brook Lopez and Kevin Love — but neither of them matches the 7-footer’s remarkable 40.1 percent mark. He’s a back-to-back All-Star, beloved by Minnesotans everywhere and continues to shoulder the franchise’s postseason hopes with each successive season.

As far as the unicorn discussion goes, Towns may not get as much hype as Giannis Antetokounmpo or Anthony Davis, but he’s the type of multi-faceted superstar that will run an opposing team over without warning. Towns ranks in the top ten for both blocks and rebounds, loaded the added bonus of shooting above 50 percent in all four seasons of his career thus far — an efficient game-changer from start to finish.

24 games: That’s the amount of 15-plus rebound efforts Towns has pulled down in the 2018-19 campaign, topping it all off with a 27-point, 27-board, four-block masterpiece against New Orleans. If he plays in his final three contests this season, Towns will have missed only three others in the last four years combined — an Ironman-level of reliability. Sooner than later, Minnesota will put the right tools around this flexible, impossible-to-defend big man and this team will flourish, undoubtedly.

And at 23 years old, it’s scary to think the best for Towns is yet to come.

2. Ryan Saunders

Ryan, the son of late coaching legend Flip, took over the reins on an interim basis in early January and although the results have been mixed, he’s earned another shot. First and foremost, he’s gotten the ball to the aforementioned Towns at an even higher rate and helped the famously-inefficient Andrew Wiggins to shoot more efficiently, a gargantuan task in of itself. But as far as shrewd business moves go, leaning harder on your potential Future Hall of Famer is always an easy, reliable first step.

If Towns does end up snagging an All-NBA selection — and a whole yacht’s worth of extra cash — then he’ll know exactly who to thank. The center himself has already thrown himself behind the new coach, recently mentioning that “[Saunders has] done a lot to earn it . . . I think he’s a great candidate for the job.”

In terms of a stamp of approval, it doesn’t get any better than that.

Minnesota originally had eyes for the postseason when they dismissed Thibodeau, but Saunders has done well with his fractured puzzle. Tasked with implementing Dario Saric and Robert Covington into the mix — then losing the latter for the season in January — and dealing with injuries to Derrick Rose and Jeff Teague, plus finding playtime for rookies Josh Okogie and Keita Bates-Diop, Saunder has responded optimistically.

It’s hard to tell if Saunders is the long-term answer just yet — the Timberwolves are just 17-22 under him — but if Minnesota isn’t going with a full rebuild (logistically and financially, they cannot), then giving the league’s youngest head coach another whirl seems like the appropriate choice.

If anything, after one of the most nightmarish starts to an NBA campaign in decades, Saunders has righted the ship and re-energized the roster.

3. Buckets

Even with a glaring lack of Jimmy G. Buckets, that hasn’t stopped his former squad from piling up the baskets — for years, it’s been their greatest strength. Despite their sub-.500 record, Minnesota currently holds the 13th-best scoring (112.7) and 11th-highest rated offense (110.7) in the NBA. At season’s end, the Timberwolves will have seven players averaging double-digits in points and most of the roster is hitting at 40 percent or better. Unfortunately, point-getting factor hasn’t been a major issue for Minnesota since Towns was drafted in 2015, but that’s just resulted in a less-than-sterling resume of one postseason appearance and a single, lonely win.

What Isn’t Working?

1. Andrew Wiggins

The Timberwolves’ franchise cornerstone has been on the hot seat for what feels like years now as a matter of not meeting his innate potential. Wiggins’ inefficiencies have been well-documented at this point and, unfortunately, at $25.4 million in 2018-19, people are going to notice. If he’s not within 0-3 feet (61.9 percent), Wiggins is a below-average marksman: 34.3 percent from 3-10; 32.6 from 10-16 and a downright disappointing 32.1 from three-point range. It’d be one thing if Wiggins’ struggles led him to rely on his strengths and get to the rim more often — instead, that’s hardly the case.

An unexplainable 73.5 percent of Wiggins’ field goal attempts are from 3-16 feet and beyond, fully exacerbating the issue by ignoring his one bankable reliability in lieu of tougher shots that he doesn’t have a history of making.

If Wiggins was a 24-year-old averaging 17.9 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists on 40.7 percent from the field — despite those harder-to-swallow numbers — that’d be one thing. However, he’s the 21st highest-paid player in the NBA this season and Wiggins will only earn much more from here on out. Wiggins has $146.6 million left in guaranteed money, an amount only bested by Stephen Curry, Devin Booker, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Towns — sadly, of the bunch, he’s the clear outlier.

There will always be lingering hope for Wiggins given his athletic skill set — but, by now, potential or not, the 6-foot-8 small forward has moved into a nearly untradable territory.

2. Gorgui Dieng

Speaking of bad contracts, Gorgui Dieng absolutely makes a strong impression himself.

An old-school center in every sense, Dieng will be paid $17.3 million in 2020-21, the final year of a big extension he signed almost three years ago. The only problem is that the center is averaging just six points and four rebounds over 13 minutes per game these days, numbers that are more akin to a bench-warming role than a featured contributor. Relegated behind the likes of behind Taj Gibson, a former Thibodeau favorite, Dieng has plateaued on an already-thin skill set.

His career-high in rebounds (8.3) happened way back in 2014-15, but it came at a rich 30 minutes per game to boot. Beyond that, Dieng doesn’t shoot three-pointers and isn’t an influence on the defensive end — so he’s not exactly knocking down the door to the rotation either at 29 years-old. While this is not as debilitating as Wiggins’ situation — both in usage and salary cap figures — it’s still a sizeable chunk of mostly dead space.

Perhaps Saunders can get the best out of Dieng — but unless the Timberwolves are willing to part with a pick or a young player just to move his contract, they’ll certainly have to try.

3. Everything Defensively

While the Timberwolves’ offense is among the league’s best, the defense continues to be outright atrocious. Even under the defensive-minded Thibodeau, Minnesota struggled to find a ball-stopping identity as they held a 110.9 (27th) rating in 2016-17 and chucked up a 110.1 (25th) mark in 2017-18. Somehow, that rating managed to get even worse this season and dropped to a miserable 112.0 rating, only outpaced by teams that had given up on the season in December.

And in the Western Conference, that’s a guaranteed recipe for disaster, no matter how many times you manage to drop 120-plus points on the opposition. Search no further than the 11 — eleven — times Minnesota has allowed 130 or more points in a contest, including a traumatizing 149-107 loss to the Butler-led Philadelphia 76ers in mid-January.

The promising potential of Josh Okogie can help in that regard and so will perimeter stalwart Robert Covington once he’s back to full health this offseason — but the rest? Well, they’re not exactly great on that side of the ball. With a filter of at least 20 games played at 20 or more minutes per contest, the 63rd-ranked Covington was Minnesota’s best defender by defensive rating this year at 105.6 — and he only played 22 games for them. Perhaps worse, the next Timberwolves player doesn’t check-in on the list until No. 104, Tyus Jones’ 107.

Unsurprisingly, that’s not exactly the look of a postseason-ready franchise.

Focus Area: The Draft

As of today, the Timberwolves own the 11th-highest lottery odds, a 9.4 percent chance of jumping into the draft’s top three slots. Over their final three games, Minnesota must face the Oklahoma City, Thunder, Toronto Raptors and Denver Nuggets — so an 0-for to the end the season definitely remains on the table. If they manage to pass the Los Angeles Lakers in the loss column (36-44, currently), the Timberwolves’ chances of leaping up toward the elite mix go to slightly-more probable 13.9 percent — a notable cause indeed.

But in the likely reality that Minnesota stays put at their present position, there are plenty of worthy prospects that could make a noticeable difference almost immediately. Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter, a perimeter-minded pest — and not dissimilar to Covington’s 3-and-D skill set — should be in franchise’s draft day crosshairs. Or, if they’d like to develop an extra rim-protecting presence across from Towns, Texas’ Jaxson Hayes offers plenty of high-flying potential at 7-foot-1. Minnesota’s middling place in opponent points in the paint (15th) and blocks (16th) per game would both benefit from anchoring Hayes in a budding second unit.

The Timberwolves also own the No. 43 overall pick, where a bevy on intriguing prospects will likely await them. If they have the patience to take on Missouri’s Jontay Porter, who re-injured his formerly torn ACL last month, then that’s a project worth taking on. Versatile collegiate standouts like Eric Paschall, Admiral Schofield and Carsen Edwards all make sense here as a flier, while steals guru Matisse Thybulle of Washington would be a terrifying duo alongside Covington.

Focus Area: Free Agency

For Minnesota, free agency will a tough sell for just about anybody right now.

Once July hits, the Timberwolves will be down to just eight players, plus Jeff Teague and his player option worth $19 million. Derrick Rose, Jerryd Bayless and Taj Gibson’s expiring deals will combine to free up about $31 million in cap space but the rest of the roster could use some major re-tooling.

In the past, Minnesota has tried to move Gorgui Dieng’s mammoth contract — again $17.3 million in 2020-21 — however, that’s been a total bust. That pesky Andrew Wiggins will make $33.6 million in 2022-23 — and, yes, there are no opt-outs there along the way either.

Tyus Jones has played well in spot minutes behind veteran guards since he was drafted four years ago, but his trip to restricted free agency might end up costing them. With both Teague and Rose done for the year, Jones has started the last 12 games for Minnesota and thrived. Even if Teague, 30, doesn’t decide to move onto a contender, Jones is a growing piece that they cannot allow to get away.

Frankly, the Timberwolves may just be stuck between a rock and a hard place — not good enough to attract true talent and not bad enough to ever fully tank out. Naturally, they’ll likely look for ways to move Wiggins or Dieng without attaching a heavy asset — but should they miss out there again, they’ll need to be careful to not compound their issues.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (RFA) could be the type of low-risk, high-reward asset that the franchise can afford to take a swing on this summer. Hollis-Jefferson’s bullish defense often allows him to guard across multiple positions, both at the three-point line and on the block. Pair him with Covington, the growing Okogie and another lottery pick and that’ll get the Timerbwolves one step closer to employing a respectable defense.

Other veteran options like Thaddeus Young (12.6 points, 6.5 rebounds), Al-Farouq Aminu (9.3, 7.4) and Trevor Ariza (14.5, 5.3) would all represent sturdy rotation contributors that wouldn’t capsize their books moving forward. If reaching the postseason again is their ultimate goal, there are plenty of small wins that the Timberwolves can find in free agency.

Instead of trying to hit a home run, Minnesota must simply focus on plugging that leaky defense — they’ve got more than enough offense.

Ultimately, the Timberwolves’ path to relevancy remains foggy. The roster seems to enjoy Saunders at the helm, but signing him to a real contract won’t solve their half-decade of problems overnight. Some of Minnesota’s brightest positives also double as their greatest weaknesses, so whoever takes over will have their work cut out for them. Teams can no longer just try to outgun others and manage to stay afloat in the ruthless Western Conference.

Worse, after all these years, Minnesota still hasn’t learned that lesson.

Maybe, finally, this summer — through trades, free agency and the draft — the Timberwolves can finally break from their lackluster mold.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his second year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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Mock Drafts

NBA Daily: 60-Pick NBA Mock Draft – 4/23/19

The annual Portsmouth Invitational is in the books, and the bulk of the early entry candidates have declared for the 2019 NBA Draft. Steve Kyler takes another look at all 60-picks in his latest NBA Mock Draft.

Steve Kyler

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The NBA Draft process is in full swing with teams gearing up for workouts and the annual NBA Draft Combine.

Last week, draftable seniors took the floor at the annual Portsmouth Invitational, and while the quality of the players that take part in Portsmouth has diminished over the years, that did not stop NBA executives from piling in and start working the back channels of the draft process, with fellow executives and agents.

Amusingly, some teams have already started to promise Summer League spots to obvious players that will go undrafted, and even have started to gauge interest on fringe draft guys in being a second-round pick and agreeing to a two-way deal.

While it’s way too early in the process to buy into interest from one team or another, it is interesting to hear how aggressive teams are being this early in the process to stake out guys they have interest in after the draft.

There were a few notables from Portsmouth worth watching in the work out process, including Nebraska’s James Palmer Jr. and Campbell’s Chris Clemons, who tied as the tournament’s leading scorers at 18.3 points per game. UNC Wilmington’s Devontae Cacok was the tournament leading rebounder at 10.3 per game.

FSU’s Christ Koumadje measured in as the tallest player at Portsmouth with an official measure of 7 feet, 4.25 inches, and a standing reach of 9 feet, 9.5 inches. He also notched the second highest field goal percentage at 76.5 percent on 13 of 17 shooting.

There are a few dates to keep in mind as the draft process ramps into full speed.

The NBA deadline to declare for the 2019 NBA Draft is 11:59 p.m. on April 29. Players must submit in writing to be a part of the draft.

The NBA Draft lottery, which will determine the top four selections of the 2019 NBA Draft, will be held in Chicago on May 14, just as the annual Draft Combine kicks off.

Players seeking to leave the door open to return to college must declare their intentions to withdraw from the draft by May 29.

The last date to withdraw from the draft by NBA is 5 p.m. on June 10. This is usually not college level players, this date is typically international players that opt out of the draft.

The 2019 NBA Draft is set for June 20th.

Here is this week’s 60-pick Mock Draft:

Here are the first-round picks that are owed and how those picks landed where they are.

The Atlanta Hawks were to receive the Cleveland Cavaliers’ first-round pick as a result of the Kyle Korver trade in 2017, which is top-10 protected. But based on the final standings, that pick will not be conveyed.

The Boston Celtics were to receive the Memphis Grizzlies first-round pick as a result of the three-team Jeff Green trade in 2015; the pick is top-eight protected and, based on the final standings, that pick will not be conveyed.

The Atlanta Hawks are to receive the Dallas Mavericks first-round pick as a result of the Luka Dončić – Trae Young swap on draft night in 2018. The pick is top-five protected and, based on the final standings, that pick will be conveyed.

The Boston Celtics are to receive the more favorable of either the Sacramento Kings or Philadelphia 76ers first-round picks as part of the Markelle Fultz pre-draft trade in 2017. Based on the final standings, that pick will be conveyed; the Kings pick is the more favorable and would convey to Boston.

The Boston Celtics are to receive the LA Clippers first-round pick as a result of the Deyonta Davis draft day trade with Memphis in 2016. The Grizzlies got the pick in their Jeff Green/Lance Stephenson deal at the deadline in 2016. The pick is lottery protected and, based on the final standings, that pick will be conveyed.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are to receive the Houston Rockets first-round pick as a result of the three-team deadline deal that sent out Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss.

The Brooklyn Nets are to receive the Denver Nuggets first-round pick as a result of the Kenneth Faried – Darrell Arthur trade in July 2018. The pick is top-12 protected and, based on the final standings, that pick will be conveyed.

The San Antonio Spurs are to receive the Toronto Raptors first-round pick as a result of the Kawhi Leonard – DeMar DeRozan trade in July 2018. The pick is top-20 protected and, based on the final standings, that pick will be conveyed.

The Phoenix Suns are to receive the Milwaukee Bucks first-round pick as a result of the Eric Bledsoe trade in 2017. The pick has top 3 and 17-30 protections, designed to yield a lottery-level pick to Phoenix. Based on the final standings this pick would not convey. Given that the debt is not settled this year, the Bucks pick in 2020 would be top-7 protected.

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NBA Daily: James Harden’s All-Around Deadly Game

Spencer Davies debunks the myths surrounding James Harden’s skill set by using a breakdown of the Houston Rockets’ first-round series vs. the Utah Jazz as evidence.

Spencer Davies

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“Lazy! Ballhog! Choker!”

The basketball social media universe is unforgiving for a number of players in the NBA. By scanning the timelines of many users in this world, you’ll see all kinds of arguments and debates—seriously or jokingly—rooted in recency bias due to the 24/7 news cycle rate at which news happens in 2019. A good chunk of these are referred to as “hot takes,” a.k.a. baseless claims meant to get a rise out of people reacting in real time.

Now, the issue with those viewpoints is that once something is proclaimed, it is set in stone. Some fans won’t bother to watch or listen when a player improves or adapts to whatever area was once a struggle. Above all else, they shudder to see success because it means they’re wrong. And who can be wrong about something in today’s world? Oh no, the horror.

In turn, that realization evolves into an actual hatred of a player’s game (and in some cases personal, unfortunately), causing a domino effect throughout and gaining traction to spread that disdain.

The target most seem to go after? None other than the NBA’s reigning MVP, Houston Rockets superstar James Harden.

Let’s get this out of the way first—yes, Harden embellishes. He does it more often than anybody in the league, probably. He’s also been given leeway on stepbacks regarding the gathers he takes. Just because that’s true, however, does not mean that every foul committed against him isn’t one, nor is every movement he makes a travel.

With the officiating the NBA has, you have to be mindful that a more demonstrative sell job is going to get you a call. Plus, if it works to your benefit and keeps working, why stop? Nobody wants to hear that, but if you look anywhere around this game you’ll recognize that plenty of players are doing the same exact thing.

That said, in the first-round series with the Utah Jazz, Harden hasn’t even been getting the number of foul calls we’re used to seeing him get anyway. If it weren’t for Game 3, he’d have been to the free throw line just eight times with only 12 personal fouls drawn. While it’s only a small sample size, to this point, his free throw rate is the lowest it’s been since last postseason.

Sure, he worked his way to the charity stripe twice as much Saturday, but that’s because his shots were not falling, meaning he had to take matters into his own hands to attack more frequently—especially with the Jazz forcing him right and going behind him defensively every possession.

Which brings us to the next point: Harden is an exceptional passer. Due to his isolation-heavy game, the common misconception is that Beard is a selfish player. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Since he’s put up less-than-ideal scoring numbers when he’s put it on the floor against Utah, Harden has found another way to positively impact the game with his distribution. His 6.7 assists per game off drives is far and away the highest average among the rest of the league in playoff time.

The main beneficiaries of these dimes have been two guys—Clint Capela and P.J. Tucker. If you want to know why Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni constantly raves over Harden’s playmaking ability, there’s your reason (threes and layups!)

In forcing defenses to collapse when he takes it to the hole, it more often than not leaves that pair open. When Harden comes in, Capela clears out just long enough to create space for a quick baseline cut and easy high handoff for two points.

Capela converts on 75 percent of the passes he receives from Harden, who’s averaged four assists per game to the big man this series. This has been one of the most deadly combinations for years, and the duo’s chemistry has only gotten stronger with more time together.

If defenses try to take away the alley-oop and crowd Harden at the point of attack, he’ll send it to his guys in the short corner almost every time. During this series, that man has been Tucker. All five of his three-point makes have come off a Harden assist. Sometimes others will occupy the spot as well and just wait for that kick out.

Harden’s also been able to locate the elbows pretty well, citing Eric Gordon and Gerald Green’s combined five three-balls as an example of that. If an overall career-best 48.6 assist percentage to start the postseason doesn’t turn people off to the “ballhog” narrative, nothing will.

It’d be remiss of this writer to not mention Harden’s work on the defensive end, too. Matched up against Joe Ingles and Ricky Rubio—the players he’s guarded most—he’s held those players in check.

He isn’t assigned to the best offensive weapons on the team—Mitchell has had his way against him—but Harden has limited Ingles to six points on 49 possessions and Rubio to eight points on 41 possessions, respectively. The whiff in transition with Royce O’Neale going right around him for an easy dunk looks terrible, but it’s nothing but a blip on the radar regarding the whole picture.

Cherry picking certain highlights and statistics is a common practice of the hot take culture to fit their perspective, so they’ll use that to their advantage in arguments. Don’t let it distract you from the fact that Harden is, without a shadow of a doubt, turning himself into one of the most cerebral players in the NBA.

Consider that this small stretch of elite basketball has come against a top defensive team in the league. Harden finds ways to dissect. There’s always the threat of a stepback three—over eight contested attempts per game in which he’s knocked down 38.5 percent of—going down. If he chooses to deliberately slow the pace down in the halfcourt, there’s a good chance he’ll zoom right by you to open up those previously mentioned options.

Going 0-for-15 to start Game 3 was historically poor, but Harden racked up seven assists and six steals during the struggles. He still proceeded to score a game-high 14 points in the fourth quarter and knock down the most critical three of the night to lead Houston to a clutch win on the road.

In the end, it’s not how you start. It’s how you finish.

Some of Harden’s detractors will still blind themselves of the truly special performances that are actually happening. At that point, it’d be better to admit you don’t like the guy rather than to invent reasons why he’s “overrated” on the floor.

While everyone has their opinion on Harden, D’Antoni has his own.

“That’s the best offensive player I’ve ever seen,” the Rockets head coach said last March. “It’s impossible to guard him. It’s impossible.”

D’Antoni’s been around this league for a long time.

Perhaps we shouldn’t take the opinion of a person that’s coached Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant and Carmelo Anthony lightly.

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NBA Daily: How Toronto Is Getting Past Its Playoff Demons

Even if they’re not facing the toughest opponent, multiple factors have helped the Raptors get over their playoff woes and dominate a playoff series, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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Being up 3-1 is usually child’s play for a No. 2 seed. For Toronto, it means so much more.

Since the Raptors’ rise to prominence in 2013, this is how every single playoff series for them has turned out.

2014: Lost to the fourth-seeded Nets team in seven games
2015: Lost to the fifth-seeded Wizards in four games
2016: Beat the seventh-seeded Pacers in seven games, beat the third-seeded HEAT in seven games, lost to the first-seeded Cavaliers in six games
2017: Beat the seventh-seeded Bucks in seven games, lost to the third-seeded Cavaliers in four games
2018: Beat the eighth-seeded Wizards in six games, lost to the fourth-seeded Cavaliers in four games

For the past half-decade, Toronto would either struggle to beat an opponent or get flat out embarrassed by it. In so doing, the franchise has developed a reputation for not being able to step up its game when the postseason comes around.

When the Magic stole Game 1 from the Raptors last week, fears of history of repeating itself surfaced. In the past, the Raptors have not responded well to obstacles. They may have been able to defeat an inferior opponent who showed some fight, but when the Raptors got over the hump, they made it harder on themselves than it had to be.

In the three games following Game 1, Toronto has bested Orlando three consecutive times, and they’ve done so relatively easily. The Raptors have beaten the Magic by an average of 18.67 points per game.

Beating the Magic, a team that hadn’t sniffed the playoffs in six years with a roster full of playoff virgins, is not what should be catching people’s eye. It’s that after several years of promising that things change for the better only to fail every time, Toronto has finally put its money where its mouth is.

Trading DeMar DeRozan – who had very well-documented struggles in the postseason – for Kawhi Leonard – the two-time Defensive Player of the Year and 2014 NBA Finals MVP – probably had something to do with that, but that was expected and more importantly, it hasn’t been just that.

Toronto’s success so far in the playoffs has not stemmed from Kawhi being a one-man show. In fact, there are multiple reasons as to how the Raptors have been able to make their playoff struggles a thing of the past.

The Continuing Rise of Pascal Siakam

There doesn’t need to be much explained about the third-year player because you’ve probably heard all about him. The New Mexico State alum has risen above the ranks to become one of the finer young players in the league and is one of the frontrunners for Most Improved Player. The refinement in his all-around game vaulted him to perhaps the second best player in Toronto.

The only question in hand was whether Siakam could keep up his impressive play in the postseason. This wasn’t out of lack of trust in him. It was because Toronto’s previous All-Stars like DeRozan and Kyle Lowry (more on him later) showed time and time again that they could not be trusted in a playoff series.

Pascal has put all those worries to bed. At least for the time being. Siakam has been nothing short of dominant in the four games that he’s gone up against Orlando, averaging 22.3 points on 53.8 percent shooting from the field as well as nine rebounds and 2.8 assists per game.

The highlight of his performance was his Game 3 stat line in which Siakam put up 30 points on 65/75/100 splits as well as 11 rebounds and four assists. Compared to DeRozan and Lowry, who sometimes had good playoff performances but just not consistently good performances. Pascal Siakam’s dependability should make the Raptors feel good about their chances as the postseason continues.

As it stands now, he has shown he is not afraid of the moment. Only time will tell if it stays that way for him.

Marc Gasol’s Presence

If trading for Kawhi was the evidence that Toronto wasn’t messing around with its window of opportunity, then trading for Gasol was the evidence that it would do everything in its power to reach its ceiling.

The Raptors pounced on the rare opportunity to acquire the former Defensive Player of the Year for pennies on the dollar, and Gasol’s acquisition has paid off big time since his arrival. Gasol not only provides them with a rim protector down low. He also brings a pretty advanced playoff pedigree.

Adding defense wasn’t necessarily a must for Toronto at the deadline, but an upgrade was definitely welcome. It didn’t take long for Gasol to take the starting center position from Serge Ibaka, and when he did, it got results.

The Raptors had the fifth-lowest defensive rating overall this season, allowing 106.8 points per 100 possessions. Gasol definitely made his own mark on the defense, as the Raptors actually had the third-lowest defensive rating – allowing 105.7 points per 100 possessions – after they had acquired him.

This postseason, Gasol’s impact on the floor couldn’t be more valuable. Coming into the series, Gasol’s task was to stop Orlando’s main source of offense, Nikola Vucevic. Vooch had his best season as a pro, averaging 21/12 on 52/36/79 splits, which earned him an All-Star nod.

Since the series started, Gasol has made life miserable for Nik, as Vucevic as averaged 12.5 points and 8.5 rebounds on 37/27/78 splits. According to NBA.com, Vucevic’s offensive rating is 98 when Gasol is on the court and 118 when he is off the court. Overall, both Vooch’s and the Magic’s net rating when he and Gasol share the court together is -19.8.

The Magic were plus-17 offensively with Vucevic on the court during the regular season, so if he’s not scoring, they are in trouble. Gasol has clearly made a ton of trouble for Orlando alone because of how he’s neutralized Vucevic.

If Gasol can stop one of the league’s most offensively talented bigs in Vucevic, that has to make the Raptors feel good about how he does against the center on their next most likely opponent, the Philadelphia 76ers.

Lessening Kyle Lowry’s Role

Outside of that abominable performance he had in Game 1, Lowry hasn’t been that bad since the playoffs began. Lowry’s averaging 14.3 points on 48/40/78 splits in Games 2 through 4. Those aren’t world-beater type numbers, but they are solid for a starting point guard.

That doesn’t change that Lowry’s numbers have declined in this year’s playoffs. Even though he’s averaging the same number of minutes he usually does, Lowry is averaging the lowest field goal attempts he’s ever had in the playoffs on average (9.5) as well as his lowest usage rate at 17.2 percent.

This is because the Raptors have relied more heavily on Kawhi and Pascal to shoulder the scoring load, which has done wonders for them offensively. Lowry is not a bad offensive option by any means. Leonard and Siakam have just proven to better at the moment.

Strangely enough, by decreasing his role offensively on the team, it somehow made him more effective overall as a player. Toronto is somehow a plus-50.7 when Lowry is on the floor, as the team has been dominant on both ends of the floor when he’s playing. Because his role isn’t as substantial as it had been in previous seasons, Lowry may just be playing in a role that was better suited for him. Some players do better when there isn’t nearly as much pressure on them.

Again, we expected that Toronto would do better after the personnel moves they made this summer. What we didn’t expect were these other subplots that made them more dynamic and much more of a threat in the postseason.

The road ahead only gets tougher for the Raptors, but if they can keep this up, then they might be the ones representing the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals – which could be enough success to make a pitch for re-signing Kawhi Leonard this summer.

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