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NBA Sunday: Dwane Casey’s Will to Fight

Once regarded as a lame duck coach, Dwane Casey has transformed the Raptors into an Eastern Conference contender.

Moke Hamilton

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The Toronto Raptors will enter play on March 20 having compiled a 47-21 record. Trailing the Cleveland Cavaliers by just 1.5 games in the standings, the Raptors are all but guaranteed to surpass last season’s win total of 49 games (which was a franchise record).

Slowly but surely, under the leadership of Dwane Casey and behind the decision making of Masai Ujiri, the Raptors have become one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference.

For months, it has been a foregone conclusion that the Cavaliers and LeBron James would simply waltz to their second consecutive Eastern Conference championship and make the NBA Finals.

Casey—perhaps one of the more underrated coaches in the entire league—clearly has other ideas.

* * * * * *

“When a bully comes up and someone attacks you like that, the only thing you can do is fight and I think our team did a good job of turning around and fighting back,” Casey said on March 18.

On that day, the Raptors pummeled the Boston Celtics in a game that didn’t really mean much to anyone. But for Casey, the win marked his 200th career win as the Raptors head coach and, although he previously passed Sam Mitchell’s franchise record of 156 wins as a head coach, his growth and maturity on the sidelines for Toronto is an amazing story, especially in an NBA that has become marked with coaching changes and impatient front offices.

This game in particular happened to be the fourth game in five nights for Casey and his team, and it was against another team jockeying for playoff position. Experiencing a bit of a slide themselves, the Celtics needed a win the worst way.

But if there is one thing that we have learned about these Raptors under Casey, it’s that they simply refuse to be outworked and out-hustled. It’s a identity that has been forged ever so consistently since Casey took over from Jay Triano back in June 2011.

Under his leadership, we have seen Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan become one of the premier backcourts in the entire league while Jonas Valanciunas and Bismack Biyombo have become everyday contributors. This season, as the Raptors seem poised to crush their franchise-record 49 wins from last year, it is worth noting that DeMarre Carroll has missed 45 games. Carroll, the recipient of a four-year contract worth $60 million from the Raptors last July, was the team’s prized acquisition of last summer and was signed partially to fill the void that the Raptors seemed to have at the small forward spot.

Turns out, it appears the Raptors may not have even missed him.

* * * * * *

An old adage in the NBA is that, sometimes, it’s not the trade that you make that is the difference; sometimes, it’s the trade that you don’t make.

Casey, originally appointed to succeed Triano by the Raptors’ former general manager Bryan Colangelo, was thought to be a stopgap.

When Ujiri was brought on as the general manager in 2013, everyone expected him to come in and do what general managers typically do. Blindly, a new general manager often takes over a team and tears down whatever remnants of the prior regime were there. They usually clean house and conduct fire sales and, without question, install their own staff.

Ujiri, though he certainly wanted to put his fingerprints on the franchise, was wise enough to sit back and survey the scene in Toronto before making any drastic decisions. If you can recall, there was a fair amount of chatter around the league that the Raptors, who had just turned in 23-win and 34-win seasons, would conduct a fire sale of their roster and “tank” the 2013-14 season. Back then, a young phenom by the name of Andrew Wiggins was on the precipice of the NBA and, as an Ontario native, would have been an amazing savior and draw.

Turns out the Raptors didn’t need him, either.

With Casey coaching for what seemed to be his career, he managed to pull some consistency out of Lowry—who the Raptors were openly shopping—as well as get meaningful contributions from Terrence Ross, Amir Johnson, Greivis Vasquez and Tyler Hansbrough.

At the team, the Raptors were thought to simply be a team of spare parts that would ultimately be just another broken down, stranded car on the side of the freeway. However, in the two seasons since, they have been the complete opposite.

Despite trading the talented Rudy Gay away during the early portion of the 2013-14 season, Casey would lead the team to a then-franchise-record 48 wins. That season, the Raptors also captured the team’s first Atlantic Division crown since 2008. To call the campaign a surprise would have been an understatement.

That summer, after wisely giving Casey and Lowry an opportunity to flourish together, Ujiri kept both and decided to build upon the foundation that had existed prior to his arrival, resisting to urge to raze it.

Now, following a 2014-15 campaign that saw Casey break his own single-season record, the team enters the final few weeks of the regular season with an outside chance to win 60 games and catch the Cavaliers for the first seed in the conference.

Indeed, the story of Casey’s rise has been remarkable to witness, just like his Raptors.

And on the day he captured his 200th win, Kyle Lowry said it best: “We always say, it’s not a one or two man show. It’s a 15-man show.”

Thus far, it’s been a pretty one.

In their franchise’s history, the Raptors have won just one playoff series – defeating the New York Knicks in their first round matchup back in 2001. To this point, the Raptors have never won a seven-game playoff series and are fresh off of series losses to the Brooklyn Nets (2014) and Washington Wizards (2015) in the last two postseasons.

As they sprint toward these playoffs, the Raptors have an opportunity to capture the top seed in the Eastern Conference and accomplish something remarkable this season.

Nothing is guaranteed, but the evidence suggests that the wisest thing to do would be to not bet against Dwane Casey. To this point, in Toronto, he has not disappointed.

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Cavs Woes Reason For Concern, But Not Dismissal

Spencer Davies takes a look at the Cavs’ issues and why we shouldn’t count them out just yet.

Spencer Davies

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are the classic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

When they’re on, they look like the defending three-time Eastern Conference Champions. When they’re off, they look like an old team that’s worn down and, at times, disinterested—and it gets ugly.

Take this past three weeks for example. After going on a tear of 18 wins in 19 games, the Cavs have dropped eight of 11 and are falling fast. Two of those three victories in that stretch were decided by four points or less against bottom-of-the-barrel teams in the East.

So what happened? For one, the schedule got significantly tougher. Beyond just the level of competition, Cleveland has been on the road for a long while. Nine of the games in this recent down period have been away games. The only time they’ve been home was for a quick second in mid-December and a short stay for New Years.

You’ve got to think about how that affects a psyche, not only from an on-court standpoint but also in regard to spending time with loved ones and family. LeBron James brought attention to his own homesickness on Christmas Day while he was in the Bay Area instead of in Northeast Ohio to celebrate the holidays. If it gets to him, you know it’s got to get to the other players as well. These guys are human beings with lives, and the rigors of travel can wear differently on people. Luckily for them, seven of their next nine games will be at Quicken Loans Arena.

With that being said, everybody in the NBA goes through it, so it’s no excuse for how flat the Cavs have been. Anybody on the team will tell you that, too. However, when you’re figuring out rotations and re-implementing players who had injuries, it’s not easy. This is exactly why nobody should envy Tyronn Lue.

He’s being asked to make room in his rotations and adjust on the fly as Cleveland gets guys back. When they went on that month-long run, the reason they had success was that the second unit really clicked. Dwyane Wade found his niche as the maestro of the bench bunch along with any mixture of Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, Channing Frye, and Jae Crowder. Lue had found the perfect group to spell LeBron James and company.

But then, Tristan Thompson came back and, with all due respect, it messed with their flow. The spacing is no longer there for Wade or Green to penetrate because the paint is clogged. It makes it easier on opposing defenses to just stick to Korver because there aren’t any other threatening shooters on the floor (besides Osman, maybe). Worst of all, the change basically kicked Frye—who has a plus-14 net rating, according to Cleaning The Glass—out of the rotation completely.

Deciding who plays and when is a tough job. Derrick Rose is set to come back soon. Iman Shumpert is coming along as well. Lue likes a 10-man rotation, but there are at least 12 players who deserve to be on that court. We already know Rose is expected to commandeer the second unit in Wade’s absence on back-to-backs. As for if Shumpert remains in Cleveland, who knows? It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how this situation is managed moving forward.

Isaiah Thomas, on the other hand, is somebody the Cavs have been waiting on to return since the season started. Despite LeBron being LeBron and Kevin Love having as great of an offensive year as he’s ever had on the team, the starting unit lacks an extra punch. Thomas can be that shot in the arm, and he proved that in his debut at home against Portland and on the road in Orlando. There are two snags that both he and the team are going to hit before the 29-year-old returns to his All-Star form: 1) He’s got to get his legs under him to regain the consistency in his game and 2) His teammates are going to have to adjust to playing with him.

These are not easy things to do. Remember, aside from Jae Crowder, there is nobody on Cleveland’s roster that has played with Thomas before. Add in that he’s trying to re-discover his own game and that makes for a pretty bumpy road, at least out of the gate.

Start here—put Thompson in the starting lineup. As poor of a fit he’s been on the bench, he has shown promising signs of a developing chemistry with Thomas. It’s only been four games, but he loves having a partner in the pick-and-roll game. That’s clearly where you’ll get the most production out of him and how he can thrive. He’ll provide hustle, second chance opportunities, and a semi-decent big that can at least bother some of the competition’s drives to the basket. Sliding Love over to the four might change his game a little bit, but you can still get him going in the post before giving him chances as a shooter to work him outside-in.

The resulting effect helps the second unit as well. They’ll get one of either J.R. Smith or Crowder, depending on who would be relegated there. Both of those guys can use a spark to get them going. Because of Crowder’s familiarity with Thomas, let’s say Smith gets kicked out. Maybe that gets him out of the funk he’s in? It also allows for Frye, who hasn’t seen more than 20 minutes in a game since December 4, to get re-acclimated to a group he truly helped on both ends of the floor earlier in the year.

Outside of the need to make a move at the deadline, the Cavs can figure this out. It’s understood that they’re the fourth-worst defensive team in the NBA, but they’ve gone through these kinds of ruts at this time of year, specifically since LeBron came back. There might not be statistical evidence backing up the claim of any improvement, but the track record speaks for itself.

The panic button is being hit, but pump the brakes a bit. This isn’t anything new. The pieces are a little different and things look as bad as they ever have, but in the end, the result will likely be the same.

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NBA Daily: Zach LaVine Has Solid Debut With Bulls

Zach LaVine put together a solid performance for the Bulls in his first game back from injury.

James Blancarte

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The Chicago Bulls are turning a corner this season. Zach LaVine is healthy after completing a year of rehabilitation from an ACL injury. LaVine’s return comes at a critical moment. The team is 13-7 over the last twenty games. Many of the wins in this stretch are over current competitors for a potential spot in the playoffs. This includes wins against the Charlotte Hornets (in overtime), the Philadelphia 76ers and three wins (one in overtime) against the New York Knicks. The stretch of winning ties into the return of forwards Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic. Having these key players back and winning this many games recently has changed the dynamics of what had been shaping up to be a losing season.

LaVine played in his first game of the season on Saturday and hit three of four three-point baskets while scoring 14 points in 19 minutes played. LaVine described how he felt physically and about the team’s recent run.

“I thought I did pretty good. I was tired as hell at first. But, we got the win,” LaVine said. “We’re going to keep this thing going.”

The team went into this season having parted ways with their franchise player, Jimmy Butler, in a trade that was derided by many for being lopsided. The trade netted the Bulls LaVine, point guard Kris Dunn and the sixth pick in the 2017 draft in exchange for Butler and the number 16 pick. The trade also allowed Butler to be reunited with coach Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota. For the Bulls, Dunn has greatly improved from the poor play of his rookie season in Minnesota. In addition, the Bulls selected Lauri Markkanen, whom has already displayed some serious talent and potential. Now with LaVine in the lineup, the Bulls can see the total value of the trade on the court.

So, where do the Bulls now stand? According to FiveThirtyEight, as of January 14, the Bulls are projected as having a three percent chance of making the playoffs with a projected record of 32-50. This is a jump from less than one percent (essentially zero percent) back on December 11, 2017. Still, three percent is not the most reassuring projection.

In addition, the recent shift to winning basketball also puts Chicago’s 2018 draft pick in a more precarious position. On December 6, 2017, the Bulls were 3-20 and were on pace to have one of the worst records in the league, if not the worst. Now every win moves the pick further away from a likely top three or even a potential number one pick and moves it closer to a top-10 selection or even middle of the first-round pick.

At the moment, the team is 16-27, good enough for 12th place in the Eastern Conference behind the Hornets, Knicks, 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks for the eighth and final spot in the playoffs. Being 6.5 games back and having seven more losses than the Bucks means the Bulls will need to continue winning at a high rate to make up the difference in the time left in the season.

LaVine didn’t hold back when it came to expressing his optimism regarding the team’s potential.

“I think we can make a push for this thing,” LaVine said. “That’s our job to do. That’s our job to do that,”

LaVine isn’t paying much attention to skeptics who still don’t believe the Bulls have much change to win anything meaningful this season.

“You know, we can’t control outside thoughts or anything,” LaVine said. “We’re ball players, we go out there and try to win every competition. You know, I think we’re good. I think we’re going to be good.”

In LaVine’s absence, Mirotic and Portis (despite their offseason scuffle) have emerged as two of the team’s best players. In addition, center Robin Lopez has done an admirable job keeping up his effort all season long while fulfilling his role as a veteran leader for the team. Lopez described the atmosphere on the team as positive recently in an interview with Joel Brigham of Basketball Insiders.

Despite the reason for optimism, it must be noted that the franchise might make another big trade that would diminish the team’s ability to be competitive this season. Despite his recent on-court success, reports are that Mirotic would like to be traded and that the Bulls asking price is a first-round pick.

Until such a move occurs, the Bulls appear poised to maintain their recent rate of success. Every win could cost the Bulls what could be a top overall pick in 2018. Regardless, the Bulls are surely feeling better about the results of the Butler trade, especially after LaVine’s impressive Chicago debut.

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NBA Daily: Lopez’s Enjoys “Old Guy” Role on Young Team

Robin Lopez is the old man on a very young Chicago Bulls team, but he says the camaraderie is a big reason why he’s happy there, and why the team is overachieving so much this year.

Joel Brigham

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When the Chicago Bulls started the season 3-20, nobody was surprised that they stunk. Everything was fine. They were supposed to stink. That was the entire reason they traded away Jimmy Butler for younger players in the first place. They wanted got their rebuild underway in earnest. (more…)

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