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NBA PM: The Truth About Rookie Defense

Everyone talks about how rookies struggle on defense, but those criticized most often aren’t as bad as you think.

Steve Kyler

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The Truth About Rookie Class Defense

As the NBA swings to the back part of the season and teams race to the finish line and the postseason in some cases, more and more focus will shift toward predicting the end-of-season awards. One of the more interesting races to watch will be the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award. Minnesota Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns is the frontrunner, as he’s having an impressive and consistent rookie campaign that couldn’t have been scripted any better. Then, there is New York Knicks sensation Kristaps Porzingis, who has exceeded everyone’s pre-draft expectations. Looming in the third chair is likely Philadelphia 76ers center Jahlil Okafor.

No name in the rookie class is more polarizing these days than Okafor, whether it’s his over-hyped and overblown off-court antics, the perception that he’s the NBA’s worst defender or just a general dislike of a throwback big man who thrives in the low-post.

The off-court stuff is what it is. It’s never nearly as bad as it seems, but it’s certainly not a good look while campaigning for something (not that players actively try to get votes for such things).

The throwback style of play is what makes Okafor so special. He is arguably one of the most skilled low-post players in the game right now and he’s just a baby in his NBA career.

Which brings us back to the defense issue.

Before we get too far into this, it is important to say that almost no team in the NBA plays man-on-man defense. So trying to judge a player’s defensive prowess based on how he guards his man neglects that players have rules for how they guard that man based on the team defense. If the point guard misses his assignment, is that on the center for not being there to catch the play?

No one is going to look at Okafor and say he’s the next great defender. However, the stats say he’s not nearly as bad as some would paint him.

The NBA’s new SportVu camera technology allows for the tracking of things in a much more granular way. While there isn’t a great statistic to track defense, one that’s very credible is Defensive Field Goal Percentage, or what a player scores while being defended by another player. When you compare that percentage to a player’s average, you can see if the defending player is at least holding the offensive player to their average.

In looking at the rookie class, there were some interesting things that surfaced defensively, as measured by Defensive Foul Goal Percentage. Chicago Bulls forward Bobby Portis may be the best rookie defender who has played more than 30 games. Portis is holding offensive players to 37.8 percent from the field, while those same players are averaging 44.8 percent on the season.

Here are the top 20 rookies by Defensive Field Goal Percentage, based on 30 or more games played:

Player  Age  GP  DFG%  FG%  DIFF
Bobby Portis  21  36  37.8  44.8  -7
Kristaps Porzingis  20  60  42.4  46.6  -4.2
Nikola Jokic  21  56  45.6  48  -2.4
Jerian Grant  23  51  41.6  43.3  -1.7
Emmanuel Mudiay  19  45  42.9  44.2  -1.3
Myles Turner  19  37  45.3  46.1  -0.8
Justise Winslow  19  55  43.1  43.9  -0.8
Nemanja Bjelica  27  45  44.5  45  -0.5
Karl-Anthony Towns  20  58  46.6  46.9  -0.3
Jahlil Okafor  20  53  47.6  47.7  -0.1
Willie Cauley-Stein  22  42  45.8  45.4  0.4
Larry Nance Jr.  23  45  47.2  46.7  0.4
Trey Lyles  20  51  46.8  45.8  1.1
Lamar Patterson  24  32  45  43.8  1.2
Frank Kaminsky  22  57  46.6  45  1.6
Boban Marjanovic  27  33  49  47.4  1.6
Stanley Johnson  19  56  45.5  43.7  1.7
D’Angelo Russell  20  57  46.6  43.9  2.7
Rashad Vaughn  19  50  46.4  43.3  3.2
Devin Booker  19  50  47  43.7  3.3

The next part to look at is distance to the basket. When you measure Defensive Field Goal Percentage within 10 feet of the basket, things change a little. Within 10 feet, the top rookie defender ends up being Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis; he is holding opposing offensive players to 47.5 percent when their usual average is 55 percent.

Here are the top 15 rookies by Defensive Field Goal Percentage within 10 feet, based on 30 or more games played:

Player  GP  DFG%  FG%  Diff%
Kristaps Porzingis  60  47.5  55  -7.5
Boban Marjanovic  33  49  54.8  -5.8
Nikola Jokic  56  50.3  55.7  -5.3
Jahlil Okafor  53  50  54.8  -4.8
Karl-Anthony Towns  58  50.2  54.3  -4.1
Bobby Portis  36  50.4  53.9  -3.5
Myles Turner  37  50.7  53.9  -3.2
Frank Kaminsky  57  53  53.8  -0.8
Justise Winslow  55  53.2  53.4  -0.2
Willie Cauley-Stein  42  53.5  53.4  0.1
Nemanja Bjelica  45  54.1  53.9  0.2
Trey Lyles  51  55  54.4  0.5
Larry Nance Jr.  45  58.9  56.6  2.3
Jerian Grant  51  56.7  54.3  2.4
Lamar Patterson  32  59  55.6  3.4

The last part is closer to the rim, as measured by six feet or closer. When you look at Defensive Field Goal Percentage within six feet, the top rookie defender is again Porzingis, who is holding 49.6 percent on an average of 60.1 percentage. That’s a full 10.5 points below his oppositions’ average.

Another variable to consider is, how frequently are they defending a player at that distance? In the case of the six-feet sample, Indiana’s Myles Turner is seeing players within six feet 54.5 percent of the time, which makes his 50.4 percent Defensive Field Goal percentage on a 58.6 percent average all the more impressive.

Here are the top 15 rookies by Defensive Field Goal Percentage within six feet, based on 30 or more games played:

Player  GP  FREQ  DFG%  FG%  Diff%
Kristaps Porzingis  60  45.20%  49.6  60.1  -10.5
Boban Marjanovic  33  47.70%  50.7  59.1  -8.3
Myles Turner  37  54.50%  50.4  58.6  -8.1
Nikola Jokic  56  46.20%  53.7  61.2  -7.5
Jahlil Okafor  53  46.30%  53.8  60  -6.2
Karl-Anthony Towns  58  51.30%  54.5  59.6  -5.1
Richaun Holmes  42  38.80%  54.8  58.9  -4
Willie Cauley-Stein  42  30.70%  55.1  58.9  -3.8
Frank Kaminsky  57  34.10%  56  58.5  -2.5
Bobby Portis  36  36.60%  57  59.3  -2.3
Emmanuel Mudiay  45  26.30%  60.6  59.7  0.8
Justise Winslow  55  24.50%  60.3  59.4  0.9
Trey Lyles  51  33.60%  60.7  59.8  0.9
Stanley Johnson  56  21.20%  62.2  60.8  1.4
Nemanja Bjelica  45  41.10%  60.8  59.3  1.6

If you look at each chart, you’ll notice that Okafor ranks in the top 10 in total Defensive Field Goal Percentage among rookies. He ranks in the top five in both categories closer to the rim.

It’s safe to say Okafor has a lot of room to improve compared to the other veteran players in the NBA, but compared to his rookie class peers – including Towns – Okafor isn’t nearly as bad a defender as he’s often made out to be. Yes, he needs to do a better job getting in position at times (like all young centers), but when he’s actually guarding his man, he’s serviceable.

Also, some of Okafor’s defensive issues have more to do with the island he gets placed on, which wouldn’t occur on a better defensive team. Looking at the numbers and the situation he has been put in, it’s unfair how much hate Okafor has had to endure about his defense.

As the 20-year-old Okafor matures and his Sixers team matures defensive, both sides should see their numbers go up.

Some may argue the premise based on what they see on the floor; however, the stats paint a very different picture.

New Basketball Insiders Podcast

In the latest installment of the Basketball Insiders Podcast, our salary cap gurus Eric Pincus and Larry Coon discuss whether the Warriors could (and should) seriously pursue Kevin Durant, league parity, max salaries and more. Listen below:

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @AlexKennedyNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @SusanBible @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @eric_saar and @CodyTaylorNBA .

Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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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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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — The Lottery Version

Most of the next six weeks will be spent focusing on the race for the West’s No. 8 seed, but don’t lose track of the annual plummet to the bottom while attention is diverted elsewhere.

Douglas Farmer

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Despite every vague description of the 2020 draft class as weak, despite the NBA flattening the lottery odds a year ago, despite the competitive instincts genuinely within each roster throughout the league, tanking in the final months of the season is inevitable.

It will not be as pervasive as it may be leading into the already-hyped 2021 draft, and it certainly will not be as rampant as in The Process-headlined mid-2010s, but the idea of increasing lottery odds still holds logical merit. With the flattened odds, four subsets exist within the odds:

Nos. 9-14: Odds from 1 percent to 3 percent of landing the top pick.
Nos. 7-8: Odds of 6 percent.
Nos. 4-6: Odds from 9 percent to 12.5 percent.
Nos. 1-3: Odds of 14 percent.

In the run-up to May 19’s lottery, many will remind that both the New Orleans Pelicans and the Memphis Grizzlies lept from those 6-percent slots into the top-two spots in the draft a year ago — but the focus should still be at the absolute bottom of the standings, where the Golden State Warriors may already have locked up one of the 14-percent opportunities.

The Warriors’ 44 losses are five ahead of — or is it behind? — the Detroit Pistons’ 39, which would necessitate quite a winning boost to overcome, even with Stephen Curry returning sometime next month. The better question is, who will spiral to the other two 14-percent chances? Basketball Insiders may be devoting much of the week to the “Stretch Run” as it applies to the league’s leaders, but five other teams will be racing down to only two spots:

Cleveland Cavaliers: 14-40 currently, 2-8 in their last 10.
Atlanta Hawks: 16-41, 4-6 in their last 10.
Minnesota Timberwolves: 16-37, 1-9 in their last 10.
New York Knicks: 17-38, 5-5 in their last 10.
Detroit Pistons: 19-39, 2-8 in their last 10.

The trade deadline provided some clarity in these franchises’ grander plans, most specifically that the Pistons have little-to-no intent of competing in the near future. With Blake Griffin sidelined, Andre Drummond traded and Reggie Jackson bought out, Detroit’s starting lineup now features a pair of names that the more casual fan might struggle to spell — Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk and Sekou Doumbouya, for the record.

That three-game lead in the win column should not hold up for long. Consider their next six games: At Portland, at Denver, at Phoenix, at Sacramento, vs. Oklahoma City and vs. Utah. To be blunt, the Pistons will likely lose all six.

If anyone will match Detroit, it may be the Timberwolves, particularly with franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns out indefinitely with a wrist injury. Minnesota’s next six games may include plausibly-winnable games at Orlando and against the Dallas Mavericks, but the Timberwolves have already strung together losing streaks of 11 and 13 games this season. The trade deadline may have reinvented most of Minnesota’s roster, but Towns’ absence may spur another notable losing streak.

If any of these teams might separate itself with wins, it would be the Knicks. They started 4-18 under David Fizdale but have gone 13-20 since under interim head coach Mike Miller. That latter winning rate would have New York at 21 or 22 wins currently, if spread across the entire season to date. Continuing at that pace should distance the Knicks from the best lottery odds, albeit just to still plenty desirable chances.

If such a shift occurs in Cleveland under freshly-instated head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, then suddenly this lottery-driven stretch run may include only the Timberwolves and Pistons. The Hawks’ moves at the deadline — namely trading for Clint Capela and Dewayne Dedmon — suggest their time pursuing the most ping-pong balls has ended. Their results underscore the value of rising in the lottery no matter the draft; landing Trae Young may be best remembered, but the less-heralded drafting of De’Andre Hunter is increasingly paying off.

The 2020 version of notable tanking is more a selective stagger, one likely to apply to only a couple franchises — currently squabbling over a mere 1.5 percent in lottery odds. In any other avenue of life, that would hardly be enough to fret over, but when it may be the difference in landing Anthony Edwards, James Wiseman or LaMelo Ball, that 1.5 percent still means a great deal to these franchises.

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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run – Atlantic Division

Ben Nadeau praises the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, while also gently eulogizing another season gone wrong for both teams in New York.

Ben Nadeau

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The Stretch Run.

With 20-odd games remaining on the schedule, it’s officially make-or-break time for the majority of the league — unless your franchise rhymes with Los Shamjealous or Hillmockie, of course. With tantalizing lottery picks for those that bottom out or home-court postseason revenue for teams that push forward, the post-All-Star break jockeying is always fascinating.

As of Feb. 20, however, most of the Eastern Conference — and particularly so, the Atlantic Division — is cut and dried. From hyped-up expectations to the somewhat-disappointing, one of the conference’s perennially-strongest divisions is looking robust once again. Although all of them presumably lag behind the Giannis Antetokounmpo-led Bucks, the bloodbath for the right to face Milwaukee appears to be better than ever.

But before even getting into the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets’ varying playoff hopes, a rapid-fire eulogy for the New York Knicks must first be had. Fans who once dreamt off trotting out Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Zion Williamson — but ask the Nets and New Orleans Pelicans how life without them went, to be fair — had to settle for trading away Marcus Morris at the trade deadline earlier this month.

At 17-38, there are only a handful of franchises worse off in the standings department — Minnesota, Atlanta, Cleveland and Golden State — and absurdity continues to reign in Manhattan. David Fizdale was unceremoniously ousted in December and was replaced by interim head coach Mike Miller, who was then (accidentally) dissed by Steve Stoute on an ESPN morning show. Even Steve Mills was out as president after tapping Leon Rose, another superagent turned front office executive.

On the roster side, Frank Ntilikina is playing less than ever, the aforementioned Morris led the team in points per game (19.6) and Bobby Portis already shot down any idea of a buyout. Kevin Knox, 20, has seen his minutes and averages nearly halved, while Mitchell Robinson has only played more than 25 minutes on 18 occasions. The Knicks desperately have searched for continuity and clarity only to come up empty-handed time and time again.

Thankfully, RJ Barrett looks like the real deal and, according to Marc Berman of The New York Post, the Knicks have begun to look at the upcoming draft to nail down a scoring point guard as the next franchise cornerstone.

With some real, tangible turnover in New York — and some incredibly solid youngsters to boot — it’s far too early to anoint the franchise as revitalized, but they’ve taken some important first steps toward doing so.

And despite stealing away Durant and Irving during the offseason, their cross-river rivals in Brooklyn haven’t fared much better at all. Irving, when he’s played, has been sensational — unfortunately, he’s reached the floor in just 20 total games thus far and is now out indefinitely (again) after re-aggravating that troublesome right shoulder (again). The 27-year-old point guard missed the All-Star Game for the first time since 2015-16 and his season — plus whatever lingering postseason hopes the Nets had — are quickly setting. Durant, as planned, hasn’t logged a minute yet — and likely won’t — while Rodions Kurucs hasn’t matched last year’s breakout campaign and Joe Harris has seen a considerable drop from three-point range too.

At 25-28, Brooklyn owns the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference, some 2.5 games ahead of the Orlando Magic. It’s hard to imagine the Nets falling out of the postseason entirely — the ninth-seeded Washington Wizards are just 20-33 — but there’s little chance they catch the Indiana Pacers at No. 6, especially following the return of Victor Oladipo. If Irving is shelved for much longer and Durant sits out the entire year, the Nets’ best-case scenario becomes stealing a postseason game from Milwaukee or Toronto before bowing out in the first round.

After arguably winning the offseason, it’s a tough pill to swallow in Brooklyn — but, at the very least, there are undeniable better days ahead.

And then that leaves three: Toronto, Boston and Philadelphia.

Today, at 34-21, the 76ers are the most disappointing of the bunch as they often struggle to play to both Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid’s strengths at once. Simmons, 23, for all his other-worldly playmaking — and previous talk of a summertime-made jumper — has only attempted six three-pointers in 2019-20. The defense is as fearful as ever and rates at 106.1 — good for fourth-best, but sadly behind the Celtics, Raptors and Bucks — so counting the 76ers out of a deep playoff run would be downright shameful.

But in back-to-back-to-back contests before the All-Star break, the 76ers lost to the Celtics, Miami HEAT — the franchise occupying the No. 4 seed ahead of them — and Bucks. The deadline fits of both Glenn Robinson III and Alec Burks need some time, but Philadelphia is one of the few legitimate contenders in the conference that actually tried to improve their roster this month — which speaks to the still-strong internal hopes of the franchise.

Just as the Nets are nearly locked into the No. 7 or 8 seed, the 76ers won’t drop any lower than sixth place either. And although both Boston and Toronto have gained an inch of separation in the conference hierarchy, Philadelphia now finds themselves in the midst of a three-team brawl for home-court advantage in the first round. With Philadelphia’s unbelievable ceiling of potential and inherent inconsistency, it’s too early to predict where exactly they’ve fall come playoff time — but, make no mistake, this is a roster no opposing team will be excited to face.

On the other hand, Boston is peaking at just the right time as head coach Brad Stevens continues to push all the right buttons. Jayson Tatum, fresh off his first-ever All-Star berth, is a force to be reckoned with (22.4 points, 6.9 rebounds) and Kemba Walker has found himself right at home in the Garden. Surely the Celtics would love to avoid the Bucks for as long as possible and to do so, they’ll need to skip Toronto over the season’s final few months — however, even without Kawhi Leonard, that’s easier said than done.

The Celtics boast top-five ratings on both sides of the ball and, in spite of everybody’s doomsday-worthy proclamations, the 1-2 punch of Enes Kanter and Daniel Theis under the rim have more than sufficed. It’ll begin to sound like a repetitive cliche — and just wait for Toronto to fill out this trifecta — but Boston is still Boston: Hard-nosed and even harder-working, they’re an absolute shoo-in for home-court advantage in the first round at the very least.

But the Raptors currently stand as the Atlantic Division crown jewel, ready as ever to defend their conference throne.

You know the details by now: Leonard is dealt to Toronto and he wins the city their first-ever championship ring before signing with Los Angeles last July. Without last weekend’s All-Star MVP in tow, the Raptors were expected to sharply fall down the standings — playoffs, maybe, but this? Certainly not.

This is domination. This is an elite defensive unit. This is a franchise that not only lived on after their superstar left — but then thrived off that departure. Sans Leonard, the Raptors are only 40-15, good for the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. Crazier, right now, the Raptors are on pace to win as many regular-season games as they did with Leonard.

If not for the single-digit loss Bucks, they’d probably be the NBA’s darling story of the season once again. Pascal Siakam, 25, has blossomed into superstardom — 23.5 points, 7.5 rebounds — and is a more-than-worthy mark to pin the franchise’s back-to-back hopes upon. But perhaps even more impressive is Toronto’s ability to shuffle through next-man-up cards with reckless abandon. In fact, post-All-Star break, Terence Davis, an undrafted rookie, is the only player to have featured in all 55 games.

Every major member outside of OG Anunoby has missed a chunk of the season, too: Fred VanVleet, 10; Pascal Siakam, 11; Serge Ibaka, 11; Kyle Lowry, 12; Norman Powell, 17; Marc Gasol, 20.

And yet, they relentlessly compete like bonafide champions.

Toronto is likely destined for a second-round showdown with either Boston and Philadelphia — that much seems ultimately clear. But in the conference’s suddenly-thickening race to the top, for the first time in a long time, it’s still anybody’s best guess as to who will come out on top. Simply put, if you want star power — bank on Simmons, Embiid and the 76ers. If you want pedigreed basketball on both sides of the floor — there’s Walker, Tatum and the Celtics.

But if you want to back a franchise that was left for relative dead mere months after hoisting a championship trophy — well, Siakam, Lowry and the Raptors may just be the heavyweight title contender the conference has been waiting for.

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