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NBA Daily: Why Toronto Should Stay the Course

The Raptors may have suffered another humiliating playoff exit, but that doesn’t mean their window of opportunity is closed, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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It was supposed to be different this time.

After going through what seemed like an eternity filled with disappointment and despair, the Toronto Raptors appeared poised to get over their long-standing playoff hump this season. They won a franchise record 59 games, they had the highest point differential in the east (No. 2 overall), they deservedly earned the number one seed in the conference, but best of all, it had looked like the entire makeup of the team had changed.

Coming into the season, many believed that the Raptors had peaked, but somehow, they had taken another step forward. Toronto went from being ranked in the top 10 in both offensive rating (109.8, sixth overall) and defensive rating (104.9, eighth overall) last season to top five in both categories this season – 111 in offensive rating (third overall) and 103.4 in defensive rating (fifth overall). This was thanks to the terrific play of the second unit, Dwane Casey’s schemes transitioning the team from iso-ball to motion offense, and DeMar DeRozan’s evolution into an MVP candidate.

With all their improvements this season, and the east looking short on competition, it appeared the stars were finally aligning for the Raptors.

Until they didn’t.

After taking out the Wizards in the first round, the Raptors eagerly awaited Cleveland for their third consecutive playoff match-up with Lebron. But for the third straight season, the Raptors fell apart in spectacular fashion to the Cavaliers. With yet another initially promising Toronto season going down in flames, this leaves the team with the million-dollar question: Is it time to blow it up?

They would have good reason to. The team’s playoff woes are still prevalent. After getting humiliated by LeBron again following a tough six-game series with the eighth-seeded Wizards, it’s clear that the Raps still can’t find that extra gear when they play with higher stakes.

Worse yet, for the past few years, the Raptors have been regarded as a team that needed that extra push towards contention, and while they’ve done what they can, they don’t have the assets to do it. Their payroll gets even more expensive next season when Norman Powell’s extension kicks in, raising it to approximately $126 million, they have no first-rounder this year thanks to the DeMarre Carroll trade, and they have no expiring contracts.

The Raptors aren’t running low on options. They are OUT of options, which is why blowing it up should be considered, but it may not necessarily their best option (currently). Although starting from scratch would make sense, the Raptors do have reasons to give this team one more chance.

Rebuilding Won’t Be As Easy

As we know, teams who put their stars on the trade market rarely get equal value back for them in the long-term. DeRozan and Kyle Lowry could fetch good young value back, but since neither has the reputation of a Lebron or a Durant, they’re not going to fetch a ton. Even if they hypothetically do, resorting to tanking is not going to be as fool-proof as it once was.

When the NBA said they were going to crack down on tanking, they meant it. Lottery reform is set to take effect next season, so re-building through the draft won’t be so simple. With these new rules, the NBA has changed the lottery so that the odds are spread more evenly among lottery teams. While that would give a team that wasn’t among the very worst teams better odds, it still makes no promises.

To add to that, there is no guarantee that what the Raptors draft in their re-build with will lead to a team that’s better than the one they currently have. Intentionally relying on the lottery is always risky. We’ve seen teams that have reaped the rewards from egregiously tanking over the past several seasons like Philadelphia, but we’ve also seen teams that are still in the same place years after they originally started tanking like Orlando. But even in Philadelphia’s case, tanking led to jackpots such as Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons as much as it led to massive duds like Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor.

Re-building is the sensible choice, but, as is what always happens with the lottery, it’s a massive gamble. Especially now.

Uncertainty Surrounding the Eastern Conference

For the past three years, the Raptors’ issues in the playoffs have started and ended with LeBron James. It’s no secret that the King is firmly in Toronto’s head, but in their case, he might be the only mental obstacle in their way of a finals berth. With LeBron’s upcoming free agency, it’s possible that he might not be a problem for them past this season.

LeBron is going to weigh his options this summer. Returning to Cleveland will be one of them, but rumor has it that LeBron’s new home next season will be between three teams: Lakers, Sixers, and Rockets. If LeBron decides to migrate out west, then Toronto’s window may not be closed after all.

That, of course, leaves the rest of the conference, or more specifically, their Atlantic Division rivals. It is true that Boston will get Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving back next season, but who knows how long it will take for them to fully get back to where they were? Even if they start at 100 percent, neither they or anyone else on the roster are the basketball demigod that LeBron is.

There’s also Philadelphia. The process is finally starting to pay off in Philly, but the team has shown in these playoffs that it will still need time to work out kinks before it makes some serious noise. Of course, that would all change if LeBron goes there this summer, but that’s all speculative.

There are also the other competitors in the east such as Indiana, who pushed LeBron to the brink not too long ago; Washington, who is unpredictable but has plenty of talent; and Milwaukee, who has one of the best young players in the league, among others.

Point being, if LeBron James leaves the eastern conference this summer, then the path to the NBA finals gets easier for Toronto if it keeps the team together.

The Team’s Ability to Evolve

There have been two consistencies the Raptors have displayed in the Dwane Casey era:

1. Their failure to step it up in the playoffs
2. Their ability to improve every season

Casey has made steady progress every year since taking over as head coach of the Raptors. His first season, the Raptors won 23 games in 2012 (on pace for 28 in a full-length regular season), and that number has risen to 59 only six years later. Sure, Casey has made his mistakes, but he has shown time and time again that he has learned from them. That hasn’t translated into very much playoff success, but at the same time, Toronto has never ceased to exceed expectations.

Hardly anyone thought Toronto was capable of taking another step forward coming into the season, but they found a way to do it. Their improved play on both sides of the floor this season led to the most successful year they’ve ever had as a franchise. It is a shame that it ended yet again in heartbreak, but their steady improvement over the years has proved that they haven’t given up on themselves.

Perhaps this season was as good as these Raptors are going to get, but keeping the team together would be the only way to find out.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southeast Division

With the All-Star Break behind us, the final stretch of NBA games has commenced. Quinn Davis takes a look at a few teams in the Southeast Division that have a chance at making the dance.

Quinn Davis

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Well, that was fast.

With the NBA All-Star break in the rearview, there are now fewer than 30 games to play for all 30 NBA teams. In other words, time is running out for certain teams to improve their seeding in the conference.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we will be looking at a certain subset of teams that are right on the border of making or missing the playoffs. In this edition, the focus will be on the Southeast Division.

The Southeast features three teams — the Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards — operating in the lower-middle-class of the NBA. These three will be slugging it out over the next month-and-a-half for the right to meet the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.

The two remaining teams are the Miami HEAT and Atlanta Hawks. As this is being written, the former is comfortably in the playoffs at 35-20, while the latter is comfortably gathering more ping pong balls at 16-41.

In this space, the focus will be on the three bubble teams. The Magic are currently frontrunners for the eighth seed, but the Wizards and Hornets are within striking distance if things were to go awry.

Led by head coach Steve Clifford, the Magic have ground their way to the eighth seed behind an eighth-ranked defense. Lanky wing Aaron Gordon is the standout, helping the Magic execute their scheme of walling off the paint. The Magic only allow 31.3 percent of opponent shots to come at the rim, putting them in 89th percentile in the league, per Cleaning The Glass.

Following a post-break loss to Dallas Mavericks, the Magic sit at 24-32 and three games up on the ninth-seeded Wizards. While a three-game margin doesn’t sound like much, that is a sizable cushion with only 26 games to play. Basketball-Reference gives the Magic a 97.4 percent chance to make the playoffs.

The Magic have the third-easiest remaining schedule out of Eastern Conference teams. They have very winnable games coming against the Bulls, Hornets, Cavaliers, Knicks and Pistons. They also have multiple games coming against the Brooklyn Nets, the team they trail by only 1.5 games for the seventh seed.

The Magic are prone, however, to dropping games against the league’s bottom-feeders. It can be difficult to string together wins with an offense this sluggish. The Markelle Fultz experiment has added some spark in that department, but his lack of an outside shot still leaves the floor cramped.

After a quick analysis of the schedule, the most likely scenario appears to be a 12-14 record over the last 26 games, putting the Magic at 36-46 come season’s end. A record like that should not be allowed anywhere near playoff basketball, but it would probably be enough to meet the Bucks in round one.

If the Magic go 12-14, that would leave the Wizards, fresh off a loss to J.B. Bickerstaff and the Cleveland Cavaliers, needing to go 17-11 over their last 28 games. They will need to finish one game ahead as the Magic hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.

The Wizards finishing that strong becomes even more farfetched when you consider their remaining schedule. They have the second-toughest slate from here on out, per Basketball-Reference.

The Wizards do have a trump card in Bradley Beal, who is the best player among the bubble teams in the East. He has now scored 25 points or more in 13 straight games and has been the driving force behind the Wizards staying in the race.

He has also picked up his defense a bit following his All-Star snub in an effort to silence his critics. The increased focus on that end is nice, but it would’ve been a little nicer if it had been a part of his game earlier in this season when the Wizards were by far the worst defense in the league.

Even if Beal goes bonkers, it is hard to see a path for this Wizards team to sneak in outside of a monumental collapse in Orlando. Looking at their schedule, it would take some big upsets to even get to 10 wins over their last 28. Their most likely record to finish the season is 8-20 if all games go to the likely favorites.

The Wizards’ offense has been impressive all season, but injuries and a porous defense have been too much to overcome.

The Hornets, meanwhile, trail the Wizards by 1.5 games and the Magic by 4.5 games. They have won their last three in a row to put themselves back in this race, but they still have an uphill climb.

The Hornets also may have raised the proverbial white flag by waiving two veterans in Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The goal coming into this season was never to make the playoffs, so they are likely more interested in developing young talent over these last 27 games.

If the Magic do play up to their usual levels and go 12-14, it would require the Hornets to go 18-9 to finish the season against the sixth-toughest remaining schedule in the East.

Devonte’ Graham and his three-point shooting have been a bright spot for the Hornets, but it would take some otherworldly performances from him and Terry Rozier down the stretch to put together a record like that. Basketball-Reference gives this a 0.02 percent chance of happening (cue the Jim Carrey GIF).

Barring a miracle, the eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference are locked in place. The only questions remaining are how seeds 2-6 will play out, and whether the Magic can catch the Nets for the seventh spot.

The Wizards will fight to the end, but it is unlikely they make up any ground given the level of opponents they will see over the next six weeks. The Hornets, meanwhile, are more likely to fight for lottery odds.

At least the playoffs should be exciting.

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The Pressure Is On Anthony Davis

The Rockets’ and Clippers’ strong commitments to small-ball show that the Lakers’ opponents are zeroed in on stopping LeBron James. If the Lakers want their next title, Anthony Davis has to prove he can take over for a contender. Matt John writes.

Matt John

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LeBron James is the greatest basketball player of his generation and arguably of all-time. No matter how old he is or how many miles he has on those tires — 48,014 minutes total as of Feb. 20, good for eighth-most all-time among NBA players =- he is not to be underestimated. The Los Angeles Lakers know they have a window on their hands, but with LeBron on the wrong side of 30, they know that this window won’t be for too long. Unfortunately, so do their opponents.

This brings us to his partner-in-crime, Anthony Davis. Throughout LeBron’s era of dominance, he’s always had a Robin to his Batman. Dwyane Wade needed time to adjust to it. Kyrie Irving was so perfect for the role that he grew tired of it. Anthony Davis has embraced it since day one.

LeBron and AD have been as good as advertised. Together, the two of them possess a net rating of plus-10.3 when they share the court. They don’t actually run the pick and roll as often as we thought they would – LeBron only runs 26 percent of his plays as a handler while Davis has been the roll man for 13 percent of his plays – but when they do, it’s efficient.

LeBron’s effective field goal percentage as a pick-and-roll handler is 47.5 percent and draws and-1’s at 3.5 percent, which is pretty high for that sort of play. He ranks in the 67th percentile as a handler. Davis’ effective field goal percentage as a roll man is 61 percent and draws and-1’s at 4.9 percent. He ranks in the 72nd percentile as a roll man.

They may not run this in LA primarily because their old school play of playing big probably eats up the spacing. Since the Lakers have the fourth-highest offensive rating in the league, scoring 113.6 points per 100 possessions, it’s not a problem at the moment. This might change in the playoffs, but we’ll get to that.

Something else to note is that Davis’ numbers have stayed relatively the same since going from New Orleans to LA. His scoring average has gone down just a tick, but that’s to be expected when you’re playing next to LeBron James. Davis’ rebounding numbers have taken a more noticeable dip, but having him play next to Dwight Howard or JaVale McGee probably has something to do with that.

He and LeBron have led the Lakers to the best record in the Western Conference. According to Tankathon, they have the 10th-easiest schedule for the rest of the season, so the odds are in their favor of finishing out on top. Of course, their elite production as a duo is about as shocking as Martin Scorsese’s movies getting nominated for Oscars.

The Lakers are expected to make their deepest run since the last time they won the title in 2010. Even if they are among the league’s biggest powerhouses, they’ll have plenty of competition along the way in the Western Conference. Without going into too much detail about who that is — because you probably already know who that is — let’s focus on the two competitors who have been making major shakeups since the trade deadline, the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Clippers.

Both may have executed different trades, but both had the same goal in mind when they made them.

When the Rockets traded Clint Capela — their only traditional center that was playable — for Robert Covington, a two-way wing that they believed they could mold into a small-ball five, they traded their size for switchability and versatility. Not only that, they doubled down on their strategy by bringing in the likes of DeMarre Caroll and Jeff Green, two swingmen who have played some minutes at center in their career but very, very few.

When the Clippers traded Moe Harkless — who was doing just fine for them as their third wing — they opted to go for an upgrade at the wing spot instead of another big by trading him among others and a first-round pick for what’s likely to be a short rental of Marcus Morris. They could have used Harkless to get another big to combat the Lakers’ size, but instead opted to add more grit to the wing department. The deal also opened up a few more spots on the roster, but they too opted not for more size, but for another scorer in Reggie Jackson.

Acquiring those wings demonstrates that they have coined the exact same gameplan to taking down the Lakers should they face them in the playoff — slowing down LeBron James.

Slowing down LeBron is a strategy that just about everyone has been familiar with since 2003, but very few have been successful at executing it because, well, there doesn’t really need to be an explanation when it comes to the subject of LeBron James.

By doing everything in their power to make LeBron’s life miserable, they are in effect going to dare everyone else on the Lakers to beat them, and that starts with Anthony Davis.

We know how good Anthony Davis is, but we don’t really know how good he’s going to be when the stakes are higher. Davis’ numbers in the playoffs should hardly concern the Lakers’ faithful. He’s averaged 30.5 points and 12.7 points on nearly 53 percent shooting from the field. The one number that could be concerning is that those averages come from only 13 playoff games total.

Davis is hardly to blame for the lack of playoff success in his name. Injuries ravaged the Pelicans continuously, and the best players he’s played with in the postseason are Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Rajon Rondo. The numbers suggest he carries his weight.

He should have less weight to carry when and if the Lakers enter the playoffs, but because their competitors are doubling down on their small ball to make sure LeBron’s covered as tightly as possible, the pressure will be on Davis to keep it going.

Posting up against small lineups shouldn’t be an issue for Davis because he’s been efficient on post-ups this season. On a frequency of 22.8 percent, Davis has a points per possession (PPP) of 0.95 when posting up. Davis is averaging five points while shooting 47.8 percent from the field in the post up throughout the entire season. His efficiency in the post up ranks him in the 63rd percentile. He’s not Joel Embiid or even LaMarcus Aldridge in that area, but he’s reliable.

Still, time will tell to see if it translates in the playoffs. In the Lakers’ most recent game against the Rockets, we got our first sample of how LA will fare against Houston’s new scheme. LeBron struggled with it, putting up just 18 points on 8-for-19 shooting while turning it over six times. The switchability and intelligence that their defenders possessed made life difficult for him.

It was a different story for Davis. He had an excellent game. 32 points on 14-of-21 shooting, 13 rebounds and 3 blocks because he dominated the very undersized center Houston threw at him. Despite that, the Rockets prevailed 121-111.

They were more than happy to let Davis dominate them as long as they took LeBron out of his comfort zone, and it worked. Games like that should make you want to keep your eye on this. Teams know that LeBron James is a nuclear weapon during the NBA playoffs. They have yet to see if Anthony Davis can be the same. If he can’t pick up the slack when LeBron is off his game, then that changes the ballgame.

Davis is an elite player. He has done a lot in his NBA career. He hasn’t had the opportunity to show that he can take over for a contender when the stakes are dialed to 11. When the playoffs arrive, we’ll finally see what he can do.

There shouldn’t be much doubt as to if Davis can do this. There should be much pressure as to if he’ll be able to do enough.

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NBA Daily: Picking Up The Pieces In Portland

The Portland Trail Blazers continue to fight for their playoff lives. Damian Lillard’s recent injury is just another obstacle that this team must hurdle to survive. Chad Smith looks at one player that may be emerging off of their bench just when they need it most.

Chad Smith

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The home stretch has begun, and most teams around the league are pushing for a better playoff seed.

The postseason begins in less than two months and many teams are just hoping that they are able to be part of it. That is the case in Portland, where the Trail Blazers find themselves on the outside looking in as they trail the Memphis Grizzlies by 3.5 games for the final spot in the West. They also have four teams right behind them that are hungry for playoff basketball.

The story of the 2019-20 Blazers has been injuries. It began last season when they lost their starting center Jusuf Nurkic to a devastating leg injury that he has still not fully recovered from. Zach Collins was more than ready to fill in, but he suffered a shoulder injury in their third game of the season and has been out since having surgery on it. The organization made a Hail Mary trade for Hassan Whiteside, who has actually played very well for them this season.

Rodney Hood had been a staple for Portland since they acquired him, but he was lost to a season-ending injury earlier in the year. Desperation may have ultimately led them to sign Carmelo Anthony, but he has undoubtedly been a positive addition to the club. The trade Portland made with the Sacramento Kings was thought to have just been a cost-saving move, but Trevor Ariza has been an excellent fit with the first unit.

The latest setback came in their final game before the break when the face of the franchise suffered a groin injury. Damian Lillard has been having an MVP-worthy season, on the heels of what was one of the greatest playoff buzzer-beaters in league history. Fortunately, the injury was deemed mild, and he should only miss a few games. It may be cliché, but it has been the moniker for Portland all season: Next man up.

Early in the season, it appeared as though their 2018 first-round pick Anfernee Simons was going to have a breakout year. After putting up strong numbers in the first couple of months, he was seen as a highly sought after trade target. Simons has cooled off considerably since then, and it has been the play of their other second-year guard, Gary Trent Jr., that has turned some heads.

Appearing in just 15 games as a rookie last season, Trent Jr. has had more opportunities to show what he can do this year. Amid all of the injuries and movement in Portland, he has shown the ability to hit shots and defend. The sophomore swingman just turned 21 last month, but he has the maturity and understanding of a player with more experience.

A large part of that can be attributed to his father, Gary Trent, who was traded to the Blazers after being selected 11th overall in the 1995 draft. While he didn’t turn out to be an All-Star player, he did play for nine seasons and appeared in more than 500 games. His son may not end up being a star, but they both know this is an excellent opportunity for him to showcase his talents.

The former Duke product began his rise in the middle of January after putting up 30 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder, followed by another 20 points against the Dallas Mavericks. He didn’t slow down in the final handful of games before the All-Star break, either. He scored double-digits in four consecutive games against tough competition in Denver, San Antonio, Utah and Miami, where he shot 65 percent (20-for-31) from deep. Those final two games were against elite defenses, in which he put up 38 points while shooting 7-for-15 from downtown.

So far in the month of February, Trent Jr. has shot 48 percent from the floor, 45 percent from three-point range, and is averaging 12 points and 1.4 steals per game. Those are all solid numbers for a third-string guard, but now he will be relied upon more heavily in the absence of Lillard.

It will be interesting to see the adjustments that Terry Stotts makes without his superstar point guard on the floor. CJ McCollum will likely have a higher usage and handle the ball more than he has before. The Blazers struggle mightily with shot creation. While the veteran two-guard will be looked upon to provide play-making for this group, it will be up to guys like Trent Jr. to knock down open shots and make the correct reads and rotations on defense.

Stotts appears to be leaning on Trent Jr. more often — and for good reason. Both he and Simons played in all 15 games in January, with Simons averaging about one more minute per game. Trent shot 39 percent from deep compared to Simons’ 23 percent. What Stotts really likes is how Trent Jr takes care of the ball. In those 15 January games, he had just four total turnovers. He also played 36 minutes in one of those games and finished without a single turnover.

As good as Whiteside has been at protecting the rim, Portland remains one of the worst defensive teams in the league. It ranks 26th in opponent scoring and has the 27th-ranked defensive rating. Trent Jr. is much bigger than the aforementioned Simons. He is actually bigger than McCollum and Lillard. The size and length that he possesses allow him to guard multiple positions and really help create deflections.

In his role as an off-ball scorer, Trent Jr. just fits really well alongside the Blazer backcourt. Even when one of them is out, he has found a way to excel. Over his last 15 games, he is averaging 12.5 points per game on 44.2 percent shooting from three-point range. They may need Trent Jr. to steal some minutes from the McCollum and Lillard, as they both rank among the top 12 in minutes per game.

Easing all of these injured players back into the rotation is going to be tricky. There will be some bumps and some hiccups along the way, but time is simply not on their side. They have just 26 games remaining, and several teams are fighting for that same spot. The good news for Portland is that only four teams have an easier remaining schedule.

A healthy Portland team is a dangerous playoff team. Getting Lillard back is paramount, but getting Nurkic and Collins back into the rotation with Carmelo and Whiteside would be monumental for this group.

A potential first-round matchup with the Los Angeles Lakers would be tantalizing, to say the least. It will take some work for this team to get back into the playoffs, but then again, they have never backed down from a challenge.

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