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NBA Sunday: For Knicks, Hardaway Jr. Deal Is A Major Risk

While Tim Hardaway Jr. may prove worth a $71 million investment, signing him was a major risk.

Moke Hamilton

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Tim Hardaway Jr. is a fine basketball player. Since being drafted by the New York Knicks in the first round of the 2013 NBA Draft, his star has risen fairly consistently.

He is a young professional who has clearly shown signs of progression over the course of his four-year career and, if he maximizes his potential, can be a great scorer at the NBA level.

Hardaway, however, simply isn’t worth a $71 million investment, and he absolutely isn’t worth the risk for the Knicks. You don’t need Amar’e Stoudemire’s goggles to see that.

As expected, the signing of Hardaway was met with mixed reaction from Knicks fans, while most of the NBA media and personnel who have spoken on the matter agreed that the contract tendered to Hardaway would qualify as overspending.

In the interest of being impartial, it’s fair to point out that at 25 years old, Hardaway still has room to grow. His ceiling is still unknown and better days may very well lie ahead. After all, recall the NBA’s collective response to the five-year, $55 million contract that the Boston Celtics signed Rajon Rondo to in 2009. People felt the same way about the four-year, $44 million deal that the Golden State Warriors inked Stephen Curry to in 2013.

For the most part, in the NBA, young players are paid on promise; you simply have to take risks if you want to win big. Daryl Morey took, for example, a monumental risk on James Harden when he acquired him from the Oklahoma City Thunder back in 2012. Morey was willing to roll the dice, and it’s safe to say that turned out well.

So, in all fairness, Hardaway could potentially be the next Harden. As the NBA’s salary cap continues to rise over the coming years, the nearly $18 million Hardaway will average could be considered a bargain.

The major issue with the Hardaway signing, however, is the simple absurdity behind the fact that merely days after announcing the ouster of Phil Jackson, the Knicks re-signed a player that the franchise traded away. It looked especially foolish to consider that Hardaway was indirectly traded for Derrick Rose, whom the Knicks had to renounce in order to sign him. It cost them Robin Lopez in the process, and indirectly resulted in the team signing Joakim Noah to what most people would consider to be one of the worst contracts in the league today.

An intelligent front office would have never found themselves in that type of situation. Considering the fact that it’s the Knicks, the attention paid to the signing, of course, would get amplified attention.

The Hardaway signing also appears somewhat foolish for the Knicks simply because, at least to this point, Hardaway has not proven himself to be a difference-maker on both ends of the basketball court. He has made significant strides on the defensive end, but to frame his signing as anything more than a monumental risk would be biased. The simple truth is that Knicks fans, being dedicated as they are, often find themselves in the unenviable predicament of having to convince themselves that the front office is making wise decisions, or decisions that are indicative of foresight and of seeing the entire forest, rather than one or two trees.

For example, when the Knicks decided to amnesty Chauncey Billups back in 2011, the educated NBA observer knew that the decision was asinine. The Knicks simultaneously lit the get out of jail free card they had for Stoudemire and his problematic knees while also removing themselves from consideration for Chris Paul. Had the Knicks played that situation differently, Paul could have forced his way to the Knicks in the same exact manner he forced his way to the Rockets. This was a scenario that Paul and Anthony had spoken of, and it’s no coincidence that the two are nearing the formation of their long overdue partnership in Houston.

Without question, the front office in New York absolutely lacked the foresight required to realize that while paying Carmelo Anthony a maximum-salaried contract wasn’t the best of ideas, giving him a 15 percent trade kicker and a no-trade clause was moronic. Years later, the Knicks have discussed the possibility of buying Anthony out simply because he has the power to veto any trade brought to him. Had Anthony not had a no-trade clause, Phil Jackson would have long traded him to a small market team that knows that it would never have the opportunity to sign a player with the box office appeal of Anthony. He would have long ago been traded to Sacramento, Orlando or Charlotte, for example, if not for the no-trade clause.

Noah’s contract has already been discussed, ad nauseam. Still, his signing of a four-year contract further illustrates the central point; the Knicks don’t think ahead.

So, as it relates to Hardaway, reports out of Atlanta suggest that the franchise—while valuing him quite highly—drew a line in the sand of $50 million for re-signing the guard. That the Knicks offered Hardaway almost 50 percent more and included a 15 percent trade kicker certainly qualifies as overpaying.

While other fans will point to contracts offered to the likes of Dion Waiters and Kelly Olynyk as evidence of Hardaway’s contract being within the realm of reasonability, there are a number of differences between every other NBA team in the league and the Knicks. The first, and most important, is that the Knicks do not know who will be running their front office next month, much less next year. The team doesn’t have an identity, so signing a fairly one-dimensional player to such a rich four-year deal doesn’t make sense without having leadership in place.

Secondly, as the NBA world sat back and saw the Boston Celtics sweat and eventually sell Avery Bradley for cents on the dollar, we realize that the reason they did so was because of the lack of flexibility that their payroll situation afforded. The Celtics literally scrambled because their miscalculations left them just short of $1 million short of what they needed to offer Gordon Hayward a full maximum contract. This serves as dispositive evidence that in the NBA, when it comes to managing the salary cap, every single dollar counts. That’s why Hardaway on an $11.5 million contract would have looked much, much better than Hardaway on a $17.5 million contract.

Finally, it would be wise to point out a simple truth as it relates to building a winning franchise in the NBA: it’s not wise to clog your cap situation until you know who your primary building blocks are, and the key to winning in the entire ordeal is drafting building blocks and signing pieces around them while they still qualify as cheap labor on rookie contracts. Stephen Curry’s contract, though not a rookie deal, exemplifies the point; had the Warriors not had him signed to a $12 million salary, they would not have had the cap space available to sign Kevin Durant. Had the San Antonio Spurs not had their core players signed to relatively cheap deals, they would not have been able to sign LaMarcus Aldridge as a free agent. Had the Celtics not wisely managed their payroll, they would not have been able to sign Al Horford. For the Knicks, the wisest thing to do would have been to sign lesser-known players with potential to low-risk, short-term contracts, build slowly around Kristaps Porzingis and Frank Ntilikina and take inexpensive rolls of the dice and hope to find players who could become difference-makers. A player like Justin Holiday, for example, would have been ideal.

Point blank, in the NBA, it’s wise to use your salary cap space to sign auxiliary pieces to a core of three or four young players, and until that core is on the roster on inexpensive contracts, refrain from signing players to big-money deals, because those are the deals that look asinine two or three years down the line. That is, of course, you are signing a certified winner, which Hardaway is not.

As the Knicks brief flirtation with David Griffin ended, we would point to the recently deposed Sam Hinkie for his brilliance in one regard—Hinkie made a habit of using his salary cap space as a dumping ground for bad contracts from other teams. In return, he would demand a draft pick or two. Part of the reason why Hinkie left the cupboard stocked in Philadelphia was because he long ago understood that salary cap space in the NBA could be used as currency.

That was never more aggressively than it was with Hinkie, and now, in Brooklyn, Sean Marks managed to absorb the contract of DeMarre Carroll—one that the Toronto Raptors were eager to rid themselves of—and net two future draft picks in the process.

That, for purposes of team-building, was brilliant. Unfortunately, it’s been far too long since we have been able to describe a move made by the New York Knicks as such.

So, as the Knicks move forward with Hardaway Jr. and Porzingis as their core, it is entirely possible that the two could emerge as a dynamic duo that leads the Knicks back to prominence.

Here and now, however, the Hardaway Jr. signing, for the Knicks, simply appears to be a foolish roll of the dice that isn’t likely to make a substantial difference for the franchise.

In the NBA, salary cap space is an asset that can be wisely used for a number of purposes. For a time, it appeared that the Knicks realized this. Then, with the stroke of the pen and the signing of a $71 million offer sheet, it all came crashing down.

Indeed, history often does repeat itself. For the Knicks, it just always happens to be the wrong type.

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NBA PM: Los Angeles Clippers 2017-18 Season Preview

After the loss of star Chris Paul, Basketball Insiders previews the LA Clippers for 2017-18.

Basketball Insiders

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Earlier this offseason, Chris Paul decided to take his talents to Houston to play alongside James Harden. With this decision, the Los Angeles Clippers we have known for the last few years came to an end. However, rather than leaving the Clippers empty handed, Paul opted into the final year of his contract, which allowed Los Angeles to trade him to the Rockets in exchange for Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Wiltjer, Darrun Hilliard, DeAndre Liggins, a protected 2018 first-rounder and $661,072. It’s never good to lose an elite talent, but this was as ideal of an outcome as a team could reasonably hope for in this sort of situation.

Shortly after Paul was traded, Blake Griffin re-signed with the Clippers on a five-year, $173 million contract. The deal signaled that the Clippers were not going to strip down the roster and start a full rebuild. Instead, the Clippers invested heavily in Griffin, acquired Danilo Gallinari in a sign-and-trade deal with the Denver Nuggets and Atlanta Hawks, signed Milos Teodosic and Willie Reed and added new executives to restructure the team’s front office.

The Clippers added a lot of fresh faces, but necessarily said farewell to several key contributors and role players, including J.J. Redick, Luc Mbah a Moute, Marreese Speights, Raymond Felton, Alan Anderson and Brandon Bass. With a fresh new roster, based heavily around Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, the Clippers enter the season with several questions, including how far this team can go in the postseason.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Clippers did an admirable job bouncing immediately back from Paul’s decision to take his talents to Houston. The team is deeper than it has been in recent seasons, though they lack the high-end talent they had when Paul was on the roster. It’s not clear how far this team can go in the playoffs, but the team has potential. If nothing else, this season will be more interesting that the last few have been. Rather than predictably falling short in the playoffs because of a lack of depth and health issues, this squad has the talent to withstand a few injuries and the chance to create a new identity. The Clippers can’t reasonably expect to overtake the Warriors this season, but they should be competitive on any given night, regardless of who their opponent is.

2nd Place – Pacific Division

— Jesse Blancarte

The days of dreaming about raising a Clippers championship banner at Staples Center followed Chris Paul to Houston. It’s over.

Even still, credit the franchise for making lemonade from their lemons; they recovered nicely from Paul’s departure. I wouldn’t be shocked for the Clips to flirt with 50 wins this season, but that’ll depend on Blake Griffin’s health and the ease with which Milos Teodosic is able to make the conversion to the NBA. Aside from that, there’s a lot to like — Danilo Gallinari is a stud, Patrick Beverly is underrated and Lou Williams is still a prolific scorer. I also happen to think that both Sindarius Thornwell and Jawun Evans are certified NBA players, so the Clippers are one of the teams I will be paying closest attention to this season.

I do expect the Kings to be much-improved, as well, but in the end, I’d expect Doc Rivers to figure out how to put all these new pieces together and carry his Clippers to the playoffs for the seventh consecutive year.

2nd place — Pacific Divison

— Moke Hamilton

Basic math suggests that the Los Angeles Clippers minus Chris Paul equals a huge step backward as a franchise, but I’m not entirely sure that’s true. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are still in the fold, after all, and the return for Paul wasn’t bad. Pat Beverley is an elite defender at the point guard spot, and electric Euro backup Milos Teodisc brings the offense that Beverley can’t. Lou Williams can replace some of the bench scoring lost from Jamal Crawford, while there’s plenty to like still about the team’s kids — Montrezl Harrell, Sam Dekker and even rookie Sindarius Thornwell. They lost their captain, which hurts, but I don’t see any reason why they can’t still compete at an elite level this season considering how well they restocked. I’m not out on LAC just yet.

2nd Place – Pacific Division

— Joel Brigham

Despite Chris Paul handcuffing the Los Angeles Clippers into trading him this summer, they somehow managed to turn around and receive an impressive haul for the all-star point guard.

In return for Paul, the Clippers acquired Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker, and a few more pieces. By moving Paul, Los Angeles had enough money in the bank to pair Danilo Gallinari and Milos Teodosic with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. With this group of players, the Clippers should still be plenty competitive in a deeper Western Conference, and ultimately should find themselves in the playoff picture this season. Not bad for losing arguably the best point guard in the entire league.

2nd place — Pacific Division

— Dennis Chambers

It’s never easy to lose a consensus top-10 player in the NBA, and the Clippers acquitted themselves nicely despite being forced to send Chris Paul to Houston this offseason. Their massive trade haul with the Rockets included strong pieces like Patrick Beverley, Sam Dekker, Lou Williams and others, and they also made some smart signings in Danilo Gallinari and Milos Teodosic. Will a deeper, more diverse roster be enough to make up for the loss of Paul? It’s tough to say, though we have to expect at least some drop-off. The health of DeAndre Jordan and especially Blake Griffin will loom large for this bunch, and there could be a few fit issues with a guy like Gallinari, who will play a lot of small forward despite being better-suited as a four man at this point in his career. Expect the Clippers to be right there competing for the final few playoff spots in the West.

2nd Place — Pacific Division

— Ben Dowsett

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Blake Griffin

Blake Griffin, when healthy, is one of the most dynamic offensive players in the league. He still struggles with his jumper, but his combination of size, strength and skill makes him an efficient scorer and effective playmaker from the power forward position. Griffin averaged 22.8 points per game last season and shot 33.6 percent from three-point range on a career-high two attempts per game. If Griffin can improve his three-point shooting even by just a few percentage points, it will force opponents to guard him more closely on the perimeter, which could open up more opportunities to attack the basket off the dribble. Additionally, Griffin is still one of the best playmaking power forwards in the league. Last season, Griffin averaged 5.2 assists per game – a number that could easily increase this season with the exit of Paul. Griffin isn’t quite as physically explosive as he was earlier in his career, but with Paul out of the picture and a more refined offensive game, Griffin is in a position to take his game to another level. Much of the Clippers’ success this season will depend on how effectively Griffin can manage being the focal point on offense.

Top Defensive Player: DeAndre Jordan

The Clippers have, for the most part, been an average-to-good defensive team over the last few seasons – thanks in large part to DeAndre Jordan. Jordan entered the league as a raw, physically gifted center. Over his career, he has steadily improved and refined his game. The result is Jordan is now one of the most physically gifted and effective defensive centers in the NBA. He’s still prone to making a few mental errors on most nights (biting on pump fakes, failing to rotate to help a teammate, etc.), but also consistently contests shots at the rim, blocks shots, rotates effectively on the perimeter and hauls in plenty of rebounds. Patrick Beverley comes in as a close second here, but Jordan anchoring the defense from the center position is arguably more important than Beverley’s perimeter defense.

Top Playmaker: Milos Teodosic

The Clippers signed Milos Teodosic to a partially-guaranteed, two-year $12.3 million contract (with a player option on the final season). Teodosic, 30 years old, has arguably been the best player in Europe over the last few years and is one of the best passers currently playing the game of basketball in any professional league. Teodosic spent the last few years playing for CSKA Moscow of the Russian League and VTB United League. NBA fans may not know much about Teodosic and many have likely never even seen him play before. However, if Teodosic’s game translates to the NBA, it won’t take long for NBA fans to take notice. Teodosic’s passing skills and court vision remind us of players like Steve Nash, John Stockton or perhaps even Jason Williams. Teodosic will struggle on the defensive end of the court, but expect him to quickly develop chemistry with his teammates on offense, especially the high-flying Griffin and Jordan.

Top Clutch Player: Danilo Gallinari

Danilo Gallinari isn’t generally considered to be one of the NBA’s top clutch players, but he has proven himself to be an effective scorer and playmaker in late game situations. Gallinari has suffered through knee and other injuries over his career but he is still a very capable scorer. He is a good spot up shooter, can score in isolation, in the post and gets to the free throw line frequently. Gallinari is also a good playmaker and is as much of a threat to create an easy scoring opportunity for a teammate as he is to score himself in a clutch situation. Gallinari probably looks to draw a foul too often in these situations, which can get him into trouble, but with the game on the line, he is probably the team’s best option to either get a bucket or create a scoring opportunity for a teammate.

The Unheralded Player: Patrick Beverley

Patrick Beverley has established a reputation for being one of the grittiest, tough-nosed point guards in the league. Whether he is facing off against Russell Westbrook or Ramon Sessions, Beverley is going to give maximum effort to lock down his opponent. His box score numbers won’t blow anyone away on most nights, but he will make the Clippers a better team and will often keep his opponents in check.

Best New Addition: Danilo Gallinari

Gallinari comes to Los Angeles at a hefty price, but he addresses several areas of need for the Clippers. Gallinari is probably better suited to play the power forward position at this point in his career, but he can still manage to play small forward as well. The Clippers have been in desperate need of a quality small forward and Gallinari should help in that regard. However, Gallinari’s ability to play power forward should allow the Clippers to create some interesting small ball lineups that, in theory, should be quite effective on offense. The issue with Gallinari is his health. Gallinari has only managed to play in 70 or more regular season games twice in his career and the last time was in the 2012-13 season. Gallinari is off to a bad start this season health wise as he injured his hand in an on-court altercation earlier this offseason.

— Jesse Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

1. Jerry West

Jerry West has established himself as one of the best team architects in the NBA. West’s fingerprints are all over the Golden State Warriors, who have assembled and maintained one of the most talented rosters in NBA history. Looking for a new challenge, West agreed to join the Clippers as a consultant this offseason and his fingerprints already appear up and down the Clippers’ current roster. It can be argued that he should have opted for a complete rebuild after Paul left, rather than retooling the team’s roster on the fly. As impressive as the Clippers’ roster reconstruction has been this offseason, there’s a legitimate argument that they aren’t good enough to win a championship and too good to land into top-draft picks to rebuild with. While this may be the case, we trust West to make the necessary moves to put the Clippers in a position to be successful.

2. Patrick Beverley

The Clippers are in search of a new identity and culture, which is something Beverley can have a big impact on. Earlier this offseason, Beverley said that he hoped his effort and approach to the game would have a positive effect on his teammates and give the team a new identity.

“Me providing the leadership I provide. Trying to change the culture a little bit,” Beverley said. “You think of L.A. and you think of lights, camera, action. All of that is fun for sure. But at the end of the day, they judge you by wins and losses and how hard you play, and how you putting on for the city. If I can just be fortunate to bring my culture to the team, try to change the culture a little bit to kind of a blue collar, grit and grind kind of team and potentially make the playoffs and when you make the playoffs, anything can happen.”

The Clippers have a reputation for complaining to the officials too often and falling short of expectations. If the team adopts Beverley’s hard-nosed approach to the game and learns to stay away from the officials (or at least tone it down), their reputation across the league could transform quickly.

3. Blake Griffin

Despite the departure of CP3, Griffin returns to the Clippers on a max-contract with the hope of not only maintaining the team’s standard of play, but improving on it. It won’t be easy, however. Paul is still one of the best overall point guards in the league and has been the focal point of the team’s offense since he first put on a Clippers jersey. Griffin has the skills to thrive both as a scorer and playmaker, which will likely be on full display this season. Health has been a problem throughout Griffin’s career. With Paul gone, any time Griffin misses will be even more detrimental than it has been in past seasons (though Paul and Griffin played quite well over the years whenever the other was injured). If Griffin has better luck with health and thrives in the absence of Paul, Griffin could have a big season.

4. Sindarius Thornwell

The Clippers purchased the No. 48 pick in this year’s draft from the Milwaukee Bucks and used it on former South Carolina guard Sindarius Thornwell. Last season, Thornwell averaged 21.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 2.1 steals while shooting 44.5 percent from the field and 39.5 percent from three-point range. Thornwell earned First-Team All-SEC honors and was named the SEC Player of the Year. Thornwell, who played four years of college ball, does not have the upside of other prospects, but he was arguably college’s most productive player last season and brings youth, athleticism and skill to the Clippers. It’s not clear how Doc Rivers plans to utilize Thornwell with this year’s roster, but if he proves to be a reliable contributor, he would be a big boost for the Clippers.

— Jesse Blancarte

SALARY CAP 101

The Clippers stayed above the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap, re-signing Blake Griffin while sending Chris Paul to the Houston Rockets via sign and trade. By acquiring Danilo Gallinari and using most of their Mid-Level Exception on Milos Teodosic, Sindarius Thornwell and Jawun Evans, the Clippers are hard-capped at $125.3 million. They’re close to that line with 14 guaranteed players, limiting their ability to use their $7.3 million trade exception for Paul, which expires in late June.

Before next season, DeAndre Jordan can opt out of his contract. If the Clippers stumble this season, they may be better off shopping Jordan instead of risking he leaves outright as a free agent. Before November, Los Angeles needs to decide on 2018-19 options for Sam Dekker and Brice Johnson. The Clippers could have a decent amount of cap room next July (roughly $35 million) but that relies on Austin Rivers, Wesley Johnson, Teodosic and Jordan all opting out.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Depth. During the CP3 era, the Clippers constantly struggled to manufacture adequate depth on the roster. With three massive contracts between Paul, Griffin and Jordan, the Clippers had little flexibility to bolster the roster. Now, the Clippers have invested heavily in Gallinari and the other players acquired in the trade for Paul. The result of this is a deeper roster that doesn’t have as much top-end talent, but isn’t scrapping the bottom of the barrel for help either.

— Jesse Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

While the Clippers’ roster is deeper than it has been in years, the absence of Paul means the Clippers no longer have an elite Big 3 to build around. While other teams like the Warriors feature several superstar talents, the Clippers are down to Griffin and Jordan. Will these two be enough to carry the Clippers deep into the playoffs? It’s unclear what the duo and this new roster is capable of, but this season should be more interesting that recent seasons in Los Angeles.

— Jesse Blancarte

THE BURNING QUESTION

Should the Clippers have opted for a full rebuild rather than retooling on the fly after the loss of Chris Paul?

The Clippers had the opportunity to shed all of their major salaries and rebuild from the ground up. Rather than engaging in a Sam Hinkie style rebuild, the Clippers re-signed Griffin, invested in Gallinari and rounded out the roster with several veterans and young prospects with guaranteed salaries. The Clippers could still unload these players in trade if it’s clear this roster cannot compete with the elite teams of the league, but that doesn’t seem likely. Instead, the Clippers will likely earn a bottom-four seed in the Western Conference and will hope that moving forward they can bolster the roster through opportunistic trades, solid drafting and internal development. We will never truly know whether the Clippers would have been better off by engaging in a full rebuild, but if this teams falls flat this season, people will second guess the team’s offseason strategy to retool on the fly.

— Jesse Blancarte

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Indiana Pacers and Jarrod Uthoff Agree To Deal

Michael Scotto

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The Indiana Pacers and free agent forward Jarrod Uthoff have agreed to a one-year, partially guaranteed deal, a league source told Basketball Insiders.

Uthoff, who shot 46 percent from beyond the arc in the G-league last year before being called up by the Dallas Mavericks, gives Indiana 20 players heading into training camp.

Uthoff passed on EuroLeague offers as well as offers from three other NBA teams, Basketball Insiders has learned.

The 24-year-old forward averaged 4.4 points and 2.6 rebounds in 12.8 minutes per game while playing in nine games for the Mavericks last season.

For more information on Indiana’s salary cap and roster situation, click here.

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Toronto Raptors 2017-18 Season Preview

The Toronto Raptors have made an enormous financial commitment to their roster, will it be enough to matter in the East? We take a look at the Raptors in this season preview.

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The band is back together in Toronto for another go at postseason glory. After re-signing Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, the Raptors bring back two of their top three scorers from last season and look poised to prey on the weak Eastern Conference in an attempt to finally unseat LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

With some fresh faces in the mix for Toronto, and hopefully full seasons from Lowry and Ibaka to pair with what appears to be the prime version of DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors are about to embark on what looks like their third consecutive 50-win season.

While the continuity and experience are there for the Raptors, will it finally be enough to get over the hump and past the Cavs? Only time will tell.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Toronto brought the gang back this summer to continue trying to take their shot at an NBA championship.

In retaining both Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, the Raptors kept their two biggest weapons alongside star shooting guard DeMar DeRozan, effectively keeping their window of competition among the East’s best open. Despite keeping old faces around, the Raptors did manage to add some fresh blood into their equation, hoping to finally break through to the next level. C.J. Miles crosses the border into Toronto after a trade that sent Corey Joseph to the Indiana Pacers. The Raptors also added OG Anunboy in the first round of this year’s draft.

Whether the same core plus a few new sidekicks can help Toronto get passed Cleveland and Boston is still up for debate, and barring catastrophic injuries, probably unlikely. However, the Raptors will still be plenty competitive this season, as they have been for years now.

2nd place — Atlantic Division

— Dennis Chambers

It’s okay if you’ve started to get bored by the Toronto Raptors. There were no splashy moves this summer, which came after yet another uninspiring postseason showing. Kyle Lowry is awesome, and DeMar DeRozan is one of the league’s elite scorers at this point, but neither player has been all that great in the playoffs the last few years. Serge Ibaka doesn’t look as athletic as he did in Oklahoma City, and Jonas Valanciunas doesn’t appear to have much more ceiling to grow into. These guys are what they are at this point, and while the addition of C.J. Miles will help with three-point shooting a bit, there just wasn’t enough change here for me to think bigger things are coming. They’re a high playoff seed in the East, for sure, but it’s hard to expect much out of them in the postseason based on what we’ve seen from them in the recent past.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

— Joel Brigham

In what should be remembered as a fairly excellent summer, the Raptors were able to ride both sides of the competitive fence. They retained Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka – both on sizable contracts, but nothing ridiculous, and with only three-year terms to match the remaining guaranteed time on DeMar DeRozan’s deal. This means they’ve clearly identified this three-year period as their competitive window. They’ve also retained young talent on the roster, such as Norm Powell, Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl and 2017 draftee O.G. Anunoby. They’re set for both the present and future.

Whether the present side is enough to get them over the hump and into an NBA Finals remains to be seen, and feels unlikely for now. The Raptors did add shooter C.J. Miles, but they also lost both Patrick Patterson and DeMarre Carroll. Unless the playoffs bring some new answers for the Clevelands and Bostons of the world, they could be in roughly the same competitive spot a year from now.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

— Ben Dowsett

After clocking “only” 51 wins last season, the Raptors saw a fairly impressive streak come to an end—it was the first time since the conclusion of the 2011 season that the team failed to increase their prior season’s win total.

The team also saw their three-year reign atop the Atlantic Division come to a halt, as the Celtics managed to finish two games ahead of them in the standings.

At this point, most people believe that the Raptors have peaked, and I’d tend to agree. DeMar DeRozan remains one of the more underrated shooting guards in the league, and at 28 years old, he probably hasn’t played his best basketball yet. The same can’t be said of Kyle Lowry, however, as he will turn 32 years old in March. The most interesting thing to see as it relates to the Raptors is the extent to which the minutes created by DeMarre Carroll’s trade to Brooklyn impacts some of the younger players on the roster. If rookie OG Anunoby hits the ground running or if Jonas Valanciunas or Norman Powell take a significant stride forward and become stars, then maybe the Raptors will have a chance to fight for something other than a berth in the second round of the playoffs.

If not, though, we’ve likely already seen the best of this group, and we’ve likely seen their reign atop the Atlantic end.

2nd place — Atlantic Division

— Moke Hamilton

The Raptors did well to retain their most important players this offseason and structure their contracts in a way that allows Toronto to go in a different direction in three years, should it become necessary. For now, the Raptors seem destined to remain a tier below the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers. The loss of Patrick Patterson may have more of an impact on Toronto than most predict, but the addition of C.J. Miles will add some much needed floor-spacing. Toronto is going to have to hope that some of its younger players have improved enough so that they can effectively fill the roles that veterans like DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph , Patterson and P.J.Tucker held last season. Even if the Raptors’ younger players step up, it won’t amount to anything unless Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan find a way to perform at their usual levels during the postseason. For a variety of reasons, both star guards have struggled to make the kind of impact that are expected of them in the games that matter most. Until they figure out how to overcome this, the Raptors can’t hope to compete with Boston or Cleveland, regardless of how well the rest of their players perform. Also, can we please get more playing time and a bigger role for Norman Powell?

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

— Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player – DeMar DeRozan

Now in the midst of his prime and coming off of a career year, DeMar DeRozan has separated himself from Kyle Lowry to become the clear-cut top option on offense.

Last season, while Lowry struggled with injuries, DeRozan found himself as the head honcho of the Toronto Raptors’ offense. Scoring a career-high 27.3 points per game was one thing, but DeRozan dominated the ball on offense and turned in a massive 34.3 percent usage rate. Much is known about DeRozan’s inability to connect from downtown, and he shot his worst percentage from beyond the arc last season since 2011-12. However, his ability to cut defenders up in the midrange is unparalleled and slowly, but surely, that skill is becoming a lost art in today’s NBA. But DeRozan makes it work.

With a healthy (and paid) Lowry, plus a few more options that can shoot from outside, DeRozan should be fully capable of replicating his career year this season using the extra lane space at his disposal. If the Raptors expect to trade punches with the big dogs of the Eastern Conference, they’ll need a big year from their star shooting guard.

Top Defensive Player – Jonas Valanciunas

While DeRozan carries the torch for the Raptors on offense, their defensive anchor comes in the form of 7-foot center Jonas Valanciunas.

In the age of small ball and shooting from deep, Valanciunas provides a little blast to the past for the Raptors in the way he uses his large frame to take up space and plug up the middle of the lane. Last season, Valanciunas led Toronto in Defensive Win Shares with three, and was second on the team in Defensive Rating, posting a 105 in that category.

Along with being the team’s anchor defensively, Valanciunas is the Raptors top defensive rebounder as well. So, after the big man does his job in terms of affecting the opponent’s ability to score, he’ll rip down the loose ball as well to turn it back over to the Toronto offense.

With multiple 20-point scorers and capable shooters on the roster up across the border, the defense hinges itself on the 7-footer from Lithuania.

Top Playmaker – Kyle Lowry

For the last five seasons, the Raptors’ top playmaker has been the same guy. And this summer, Toronto made sure that same guy would bear this title for at least three more seasons.

Kyle Lowry is the catalyst behind the Raptors offense that again holds the task of trying to dethrone the Cleveland Cavaliers and battle with the Boston Celtics for Eastern Conference supremacy.

While battling injury last season limited Lowry to just 60 regular season games allowed DeMar DeRozan to explode his scoring total, the Raptors offense as a whole felt the effects of losing their starting point guard. When Lowry wasn’t on the court for Toronto, their Offensive Rating dropped from an impressive 115.9 down to a 108.1.

Lowry doesn’t just represent the Raptors’ point guard and leader in assists when he’s on the court for Toronto; their offense as a whole surges from his ability to score efficiently at all levels and operate the unit as a well-oiled machine.

Top Clutch Player – DeMar DeRozan

As the Raptors’ alpha dog on offense, it’s generally a good bet to place the ball in DeRozan’s hands come crunch time as well.

Last year, as noted, DeRozan had a lot of time to himself on offense. As a result, he logged a decent amount of minutes in the “clutch time” of games. Of the 41 games that DeRozan and the Raptors were in a “clutch” situation (either the 4th quarter or overtime with less than five minutes left with either team’s lead being less than five), Toronto was 22-19. DeRozan himself managed 3.6 points in 3.4 minutes of those particular situations, good for 14th best in the entire NBA.

When the game is on the line for the Raptors, their best bet is to get it to their best scorer and let him go win the game.

The Unheralded Player – Norman Powell

When the star backcourt players for Toronto need to catch their breath, Norman Powell is waiting in the wings to pick up their slack.

Playing just 18 minutes a game last season, Powell managed to score 8.4 points per game and provided the Raptors with a much-needed scoring punch off of the bench. In just his second season, Powell saw a serious increase in action as he began to consistently prove his worth in the Raptors’ second unit.

Without the name recognition or the big contract that some of the other Toronto backcourt members possess, Powell tends to fly under some radars in terms of attention paid to. However, with another year and a bigger role under his belt, the Raptors’ bench scoring dynamo could see himself get even more opportunities this season. Judging from the track record, Powell will be right there to produce when called upon, too.

Best New Addition – C.J. Miles

Coming over in a trade from the Indiana Pacers, C.J. Miles represents the Raptors best new piece this season.

With Miles’ ability to score from the outside and play multiple wing positions, he adds a level of versatility and relief to Lowry and DeRozan that they didn’t have last season. Playing alongside two potent scorers like the backcourt duo in Toronto, Miles should be able to hoist open jumpers on more than a few occasions this season. After shooting 41.3 percent in Indiana last year running beside Paul George, there’s cause for belief that Miles can provide similar consistency up north.

While the Raptors posted one of the best offensive ratings in the league last season, they still were relatively average when it came to shooting three-pointers. As the rest of the NBA begins to adopt the long-ball mentality, Miles is the perfect addition to a Raptors team that is looking to make a deep playoff run.

— Dennis Chambers

WHO WE LIKE

1. Masai Ujiri 

For another year, the Raptors’ general manager has kept the team relevant among the league’s powerhouse clubs. By signing Kyle Lowry to an extension, bringing back Serge Ibaka, acquiring the likes of C.J. Miles and drafting OG Anunoby, Ujiri allowed his franchise another season to make a deep playoff run.

Instead of bolting from beyond the border to the New York Knicks front office opening, Ujiri stayed put to man the fort he’d built into a legitimate contender in the East. And instead of letting some of his core players walk, Ujiri ponied up the necessary cash to keep the wheel turning in Toronto for at least a few more years.

Ujiri may never become the architect of a team that wins a title in Toronto, but he for sure has been the builder of one of the most successful stretches in franchise history.

2. O.G. Anunoby

Before tearing his ACL during his sophomore season at Indiana, O.G. Anunoby was regarded as a potential lottery pick in last June’s NBA Draft. Instead, he wound up falling due to injury and the Raptors snatched him up with the No. 23 pick.

If Anunoby returns to form though, he could present himself as an important perimeter option defensively for the Raptors. Standing at 6-foot-8, Anunoby measures out a 7-foot-2 wingspan, making his length and athletic explosiveness a combination that’s hard to get around. As a freshman at Indiana, Anunoby was responsible for guarding Jamal Murray during a NCAA Tournament matchup. The Hoosiers won that game, and Anunoby forced Murray to shoot 1-of-9 from beyond the arc.

Anunoby is a project, and coming off of injury doesn’t help that, but if he can put the health concerns behind him and develop the way Toronto is hoping he can, Anunoby could potentially wind up as the steal of the 2017 draft.

3. Dwane Casey

Dwane Casey has been responsible for shaping the Raptors into the contender that they have been over the last four years. While Ujiri has consistently placed upgrades and quality pieces in Casey’s hands, he’s ultimately been the one in charge of putting them all together to make it work.

And he’s done just that.

Over the course of the last four seasons, Casey’s lowest win total with Toronto is 48 wins, back in 2013-14. Since then, and coupled with the emergence of DeRozan and his pairing with Lowry, the Raptors have been a force to be reckoned with amongst the teams in the East (not named the Cavaliers). While Casey has never gotten the Raptors over that final hump — let’s be honest, there’s not much he can do about LeBron James — he’s consistently taken his team deep into the postseason and made them a more than watchable product.

What the Raptors have in Casey is a leader who is more than capable of meshing egos, game-planning at an elite level, and placing his team and players in a position to compete night in, and night out.

4. Norman Powell

The proverbial underdog on the Raptors squad, Norman Powell put himself on the map last postseason.

After turning in a strong sophomore campaign, Powell was asked to step into the starting lineup amid injury problems for five games during Toronto’s last playoff run, and boy did he answer the call. In just 25.2 minutes a night during the playoffs, Powell managed to score 11.7 points and shot a more than impressive 44.1 percent from downtown, giving the Raptors another scoring option that they needed with an ailing Lowry.

While on the court for the Raptors in the playoffs, Powell helped the team spike their Offensive Rating from 101.7 to 107.9. At just 23 years old, and through only two NBA seasons, Powell performed beyond his years for Toronto in the playoffs.

Heading into this season, Powell seems to have already earned his stripes and could be in position for another jump in production this season. Should he continue to develop, the Raptors may have another dangerous weapon to pair with their star-studded backcourt.

— Dennis Chambers

SALARY CAP 101

The Raptors are flirting with the NBA’s $119.3 million luxury tax threshold. Currently, they’re slightly over by a small margin, invested heavily in Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas. Of the four, Valanciunas is the most likely to be moved, if Toronto can find a suitor. The team is hard-capped at $125.3 million, which may get in the way of the team utilizing their Bi-Annual Exception of $3.3 million. Similarly, Toronto won’t be able to use most of their sizable trade exceptions ($11.8 and $7.6 million) until next July.

Looking ahead, the Raptors project to be over next summer’s salary cap (estimated at $102 million). Both Lucas Nogueira and Bruno Caboclo are eligible for extensions, with an October 17 deadline. The team also needs to decide on 2018-19 options on Jakob Poeltl, Delon Wright and Pascal Siakam.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

For a team that’s coming off of their fourth straight playoff run, the Raptors are loaded with experience. Simply put, they’ve got a bunch of guys that have been there before and know what it takes to grind out the long NBA season and get themselves to May basketball.

With a core of DeRozan, Lowry, Ibaka, and Valanciunas, Toronto has guys in place that have experienced deep postseason runs. In a year where there could be some turnover of new teams at the bottom of the playoff standings, the Raptors could find themselves in a matchup with some fresh blood that may be too green to handle the moment.

What the Raptors do so well, especially in that aforementioned playoff scenario, is getting teams to commit fouls, shooting fouls in particular. Last season, Toronto was the best team in the league when it came to free throws per field goal attempt, where they averaged .233 per shot. By possessing the ability to wear down opponents and get them into foul trouble while simultaneously getting the opportunity for free points, the Raptors have a unique skill that will benefit them greatly come the postseason.

— Dennis Chambers

WEAKNESSES

Unfortunately for the Raptors, what they have in experience they lack in any real depth. Today’s NBA calls for its most elite contenders to have three, maybe even four, star players. Toronto has two bonafide stars, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Serge Ibaka is a nice player, but he’s no star.

Last season, the Raptors had just four players average double-figures (not counting Terrence Ross who now plays in Orlando). Those scorers weren’t even spread out, either. DeRozan averaged 27 points, Lowry 22, Ibaka scored 14, and Jonas Valanciunas pitched in 12 points a night. After that, it drops off the Raptors. Trying to beat teams like Cleveland and Boston who are going to have a bevy of players who can drop 20 points in a blink of an eye is going to be a challenge should either one of Toronto’s star guards have an off-shooting night.

Along with their lack of star power, the Raptors are an average three-point shooting team at best, and in today’s league that’s just not good enough. Last season, Toronto ranked 21st in three-pointers made and 22nd in attempts. Luckily for them, their efficiency in taking those shots was decent, with a team average of 36.3 percent. With Lowry back at full health and the addition of C.J. Miles, hopefully, the Raptors can improve their outside shooting. Otherwise, they may not be able to produce those quick big-time runs the rest of the league seems to be adopting.

— Dennis Chambers

THE BURNING QUESTION

Can the Toronto Raptors finally get themselves over the hill with their current core and past the Cleveland Cavaliers?

How do I say this nicely? No.

Listen, while the Toronto Raptors are a very good basketball team, they lack some of the key ingredients to truly break through to that next level. Unfortunately for them, there’s not much they can do about it. They don’t have the cap space or the assets to acquire that crucial third-star player, and the duo of DeRozan and Lowry isn’t quite good enough to hang banners in Air Canada Centre.

More than anything though, it’s just bad timing. The Raptors impressive core and stretch of good basketball hits the brick wall otherwise known as LeBron James year after year. Sometimes, no matter what you do, it’ll never be enough to take down one of the great ones.

— Dennis Chambers

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