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Nike Hoop Summit World Team Report

Nate Duncan takes a look at the NBA prospects on the World Team after last week’s Nike Hoop Summit featuring the top players both domestically and abroad.

Nate Duncan

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This is the second part of our Nike Hoop Summit report, focusing on the World team. As with our Team USA report, the players are divided into tiers based on likely NBA potential.

Potential Stars

Emmanuel Mudiay, Point Guard, Committed to SMU

The most important thing to understand about Mudiay is that he absolutely is a point guard despite being 6’5 in shoes with a 6’8.5 wingspan. He has a very solid handle and can execute advanced dribble moves and hesitations in the pick-and-roll, as well as create separation with his crossover. He has above-average quickness, although he is more a very good athlete than a nuclear Derrick Rose, John Wall, or Russell Westbrook type.

Mudiay was relatively unimpressive in some of the practices I saw, but his stated plan was to get his teammates involved more in practice before taking over in the game. That is ultimately what he did, shooting 8-18. That could have been much better had he not missed a few bunnies at the rim, but he certainly showed the ability to penetrate and push the ball for layups on the break even against the athletic Team USA roster.

The Congo native’s jump shot is not great, and his range at this point is much more midrange than FIBA 3. But his form is solid and he is beyond the point where players like Derrick Rose and John Wall were with their jumpers at an equivalent stage. Mudiay is going to SMU next year, where he will be coached by Larry Brown. That should help him smooth out the rough edges of his game, assuming he can get along with the demanding coach. Brown was the reason he went to SMU, so one would think it should work out well.

Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, Shooting Guard, Ukraine

The 16 year-old Mykhailiuk was already covered in detail in the first practice report, and I saw little to change my opinion later in the week. The Ukrainian’s only weaknesses are his physical strength* and propensity to take a few bad jumpers. In the game, one fairly ridiculous attempt from behind the backboard in the right corner earned him a seat on the bench for much of the contest. In total he played only 13 minutes. This was a shame because even right now he is a much better player than either Jamal Murray (32 minutes) and Brandone Francis (19 minutes), and might have helped boost the World’s 82 offensive efficiency.

*He has already filled out quite a bit in the last year or so, as evidenced by the below video from when he was 15.

As it was, Mykhailiuk still had a chance to show off some nice passes against the US press and get a couple of deflections that illustrated his quick hands on defense, but he finished 1-4, 0-3 on threes. Ultimately, Mykhailiuk looked the part of a future lottery pick. He speaks excellent English, and there is a decent chance he comes to the US to start college in the fall as one of the youngest freshman in the country.

In the meantime, the dunk contest footage at the start of this video provides an excellent idea of his athleticism.

Make sure to also read: Duncan’s scouting report on the USA’s top players in the Nike Hoop Summit

Karl Towns, Center, Committed to Kentucky

Towns had a disappointing game relative to his performance earlier in the week, as he only managed 17 foul-filled minutes as a result of some questionable calls. But it was telling that his absence was a major factor, as the World team played the US evenly when he was in there. He had two impressive blocks of shots in the air, including a helpside swat of a Jahlil Okafor jump hook up near the square of the backboard. He frustrated Okafor’s attempts to post him up as well, showing off his improved strength. Towns and Okafor even got into it at one point before he was unjustly charged with his fourth foul. It is noteworthy how much Towns has improved his ability to mix it up inside over last year’s Hoop Summit.

Offensively Towns had a nice catch and finish and a solid postup for a one-footed hook coming across the lane, but missed a couple other hooks inside. He did not get much chance to play pick-and-pop on the perimeter, and did not shoot a jumper during the game. Nevertheless his length, movement and shooting ability make him a very intriguing long-term prospect even if he never develops into a one-on-one post scorer.

It really is a tough call between Towns and Okafor for best big man prospect in the class of 2015. Okafor has the better pedigree and feel for the game, and will be in the perfect four-out system to showcase his skills at Duke next year. Towns is going to what will be a very crowded Kentucky frontcourt, and John Calipari may not really use his shooting ability at all.* I fully expect Okafor to have the better year next year, but I may slightly prefer Towns as a long-term prospect at this point due to his shooting and potential as a rim-protector.

*He could conceivably deploy some enormous units with Towns at the 4 since he can shoot, then go with a massive zone defense, but that does not seem like Calipari’s style.

Potential NBA Rotation Players

Trey Lyles, Power Forward, Committed to Kentucky

In other settings, such as the U-19 World Championships last July, Lyles was able to use his strength and footwork to get buckets inside. But this was not Lyles’ best week, as he proved unable to get much going during practices or the game. He was usually matched up with Towns in practice, and proved unable to overpower him or really get clean looks off against his length. He had to resort to a lot of fadeaway jumpers, which predictably did not convert at a high rate. He had similar problems finishing inside against Team USA’s athleticism during the game, as he shot 3-11 despite taking all of his shots in the lane. Lyles did finish with 11 rebounds, five offensive, in his 25 minutes. His jumper was not really falling this week, but he has solid form and looks comfortable enough shooting in the 15 foot range.

Lyles moves well laterally for his 250 pound size, playing at the top of the World’s 3-2 zone that pressured upcourt to take time off the shot clock. He also has a solid rebounding mentality and hits the glass hard. He too has been compared to Carlos Boozer, but I think he has more quickness and a higher skill level at this point than Boozer did, as well as much more length with his 7’3.5 wingspan and 6’10 height in shoes. He does not really block shots, nor is he going to dunk on people, but he is by no means a bad athlete either. These attributes mean that Lyles should be able to at least avoid being a defensive liability in the NBA.

In Related: Basketball Insiders’ NBA Draft page

Damien Inglis, Combo Forward, France

The French small forward has an NBA body and then some at a chiseled 6’8, 240, with a 7’3 wingspan and huge hands. Unfortunately, he does not play with the greatest intensity, so a lot of his athleticism doesn’t quite translate. At no point during the week would one have described him as playing particularly hard. The effort was not bad, but it did not stand out either. The contrast between he and the American wings one year his junior was striking. That was exacerbated by the fact he did not appear to have much feel or many moves aside from simply a three point set shot.

That shot does appear to be a weapon though. He has a very compact release and has clearly worked on not bringing the ball down to his waist before shooting, although he doesn’t have the highest release point. He is shooting 40 percent on threes on limited attempts in French Pro A competition, and while he may not become quite that level of shooter in the NBA he should at least be a threat from beyond the arc. He does not turn 19 until May, so he has plenty of time to work on his skills.

Because he is not a particularly gifted scorer or ballhandler, Inglis is perhaps most intriguing as a small ball spotup four. He should be able to hold up strengthwise at that position, and did not get taken advantage of under the basket at the bottom of the World’s 3-2 zone. He is not really a shotblocker though, nor did he particularly impress on the boards.

If Inglis can up his intensity level and prove he can hold up as a four, he becomes a much more intriguing prospect.

Fringe/Second Round NBA Players

Clint Capela, Center, Switzerland

Capela was being talked about as a lottery pick before the week started, but that would be a major reach in my opinion. This is now the second time I’ve seen him in person after the 2013 adidas Eurocamp in Treviso, and he did not stand out in either setting. Lyles, Towns, and Inglis started over him, and rightfully so based on their practice performances.

At 6’11, 222 with a 7’4 wingspan, Capela’s skills are limited to blocking shots and finishing alley oops around the rim.* He has a herky jerky jump shot that actually went in a few times, but it did not look smooth enough to be a major weapon for him. He looks like his skill level is always going to be more center than power forward, and that is a problem given how thin he is.

*He did have one nice layin finish from behind the backboard during the game, but that was an aberration.

Most concerning is Capela’s lack of feel overall. He was the most likely World player to make mental errors, although there may have been a bit of a language barrier involved there as well. During the game, he picked up four fouls in the first half with some silly over the backs. Throughout the week he did not prove particularly adept at finding creases for guards to give him dumpoffs, and his few postups invariably resulted in wild misses or turnovers. He also is very weak right now. In a 2 on 2 drill in which the defense switched the pick and roll, Capela proved totally unable to post up even against guards.

Capela has some potential due to his length and solid if not outstanding jumping ability, measured at 31 inches at the 2013 Eurocamp. However, his skill level and feel leave a lot to be desired. I do not see him as better than an early second-round prospect at this point.

College/International Players

Jamal Murray, Combo Guard, Canada

Murray goes 6’4.5 with a 6’8 wingspan, weighing in at 195 pounds. His best attributes are his shooting ability and his February 1997 birthday, making him a year younger than every player in the game but Mykhailiuk. He is very steady for his young age, earning a game-high 32 minutes.* And he also is an excellent shooter for a high school junior, with easy range out to the FIBA line. During one impressive sequence, he drained two consecutive threes as the pick and roll ballhandler when his man went under the screen. Murray is not really a point guard, but can handle the ball and bring it up in a pinch. He largely handled the ball for the World team as the closest thing to a point guard when Mudiay sat.

*This may have been aided by the fact that coach Roy Rana is also the coach of the Canadian junior teams.

The Canadian’s biggest weakness is a lack of athleticism. He does not appear to be a particularly good leaper, nor does he create separation off the dribble without a screen. He could certainly stand to improve his defense, which is a worry given his lack of elite quickness. Murray was guarding Tyus Jones at the end of the game and got torched a couple of times by him one-on-one as Team USA put the game away in the fourth quarter.

It is hard to give Murray a high ceiling due to his lack of athleticism, but he should make a nice college player with his shooting ability. An NBA future may be too much to ask unless he can develop into a J.J. Redick level shooter and improve his quickness.

James Birsen, Small Forward, Turkey/Fenerbahce

I first saw Birsen at the 2012 Eurocamp, when he was still 17. Since then he has grown to 6’10 and gotten a little stronger, but he is a below average athlete and probably always will be. He has not improved as much as one would have hoped in the last two years, despite the fact he plays in the Euroleague for Turkish powerhouse Fenerbahce. He has nice vision and willingly takes FIBA threes with solid form, although these did not fall at a particularly outstanding rate for him during the week.

Birsen can put the ball on the deck but lacks the quickness to get by his man, often having to settle for a contested jumper near the free throw line with his man still in front of him. He will throw the occasional incisive pass and willingly moves the ball, but his lack of explosion really limits his upside. He seems to fit the stereotype of the old school Euro small forward: someone who is tall and can shoot but lacks the athleticism to play on the wing or as a big. He logged a number of minutes as a smallball four with the World big men in foul trouble, but it is not his natural position.

As a smart player in a good program who already has some high-level experience, Birsen might be worth a draft and stash late in the second round whenever he eventually comes out. If he becomes an absolute money shooter and gets strong enough to mix it up inside, it’s possible he could find a role in the NBA. But it is likely that his limited physical profile will prevent that from happening.

Nikola Jokic, Center, Serbia/Mega Vizura

Jokic might have been the most skilled big man at the Hoop Summit when you consider his outside shooting, but his complete lack of strength and explosion really limit his NBA future. The 19 year old was reportedly very solid in the first two practices, and he showed flashes of that later in the week. He is deadly in the post when he gets a smaller player switched onto him, and is an excellent shooter out to the FIBA arc, even on pick and pops.

But it really is hard to see him surviving on the interior in the NBA. Although he somehow weighed in at 253 lbs, he sure doesn’t look it. He is thin, but also has zero muscle definition and can’t jump at all. At 6’11 with a 9’3 standing reach, he still is barely able to dunk even when wide open. And challenging shots is not his forte either; for comparison, look how much higher Towns gets on this dunk despite their similar standing reaches.

Jokic was also totally overmatched in post defense against Jahlil Okafor during the game.

Perhaps this sounds harsh, but Jokic is being talked up as an NBA prospect and it is hard to see how he gets there unless he can really improve his athleticism. Given how his body looks, that does not seem to be in the offing even if he does hit the weights.

Gao Shang, Wing, China

Gao was somewhat superior to recent Chinese prospects at the Hoop Summit, as he at least did not look totally out of place in the practices. He has a nice release on his jumper and can drain international threes. He earned the nickname “G-Money” from the coaching staff since he compiled the best record in the shooting drills. At 6’7, 220 he is muscular and doesn’t get pushed around.

Gao is not a particularly skilled dribbler or passer, and was not really able to finish inside either. He moves his feet pretty well, but still has below-average NBA athleticism. Unfortunately, he required an interpreter which did not help in picking up some of the schemes, and he only played three minutes in the game. Nevertheless, one NBA scout remarked to me that he killed the World team’s momentum early in the fourth quarter as the US broke away from a 61-61 tie at the end of three. Gao is not really an NBA prospect, but should have a reasonable international career.

Brandone Francis, Shooting Guard, Committed to Florida

Francis turns 20 in September, but the Florida commit was not really able to make an impact here.  He is a shooting guard with good form on his jumper, but does not appear to have FIBA range yet.  That jumper is his best attribute, as his body is a little doughy at 6’4.5″, 208.  He doesn’t have a lot of explosion or ability to get by guys off the dribble, nor did he really make any great passes during the week.  He should have a nice college career, but an NBA or even high-level international future would be a major surprise.

A Cautionary Note

It is important to remember that we are dealing with just a few practices here, and thus a rather small sample size. For instance, I wrote earlier that Justise Winslow struggled to finish non-dunks inside. This was based on a sample of about eight shots over the course of the week. Obviously, much more evaluation is needed to arrive at a definitive evaluation of these prospects, especially in separating out the upper echelon.

Nevertheless, in-person scouting trips like this prove quite valuable to gauge players’ athleticism, see their work habits and how they respond to coaching in practice, and get a sense of how they interact with their teammates.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst and attorney. He writes regular features for Basketball Insiders and chats weekly at 11 Eastern on Tuesdays.

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Williams, Clippers Will Keep Pushing Through

The Clippers veteran guard chats with Spencer Davies in a one-on-one Basketball Insiders exclusive.

Spencer Davies

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For the second straight year, Lou Williams started his basketball season as a resident of California.

Despite being moved by the Los Angeles Lakers at the trade deadline back in February, it wasn’t a long stay for the 31-year-old in Houston. After bolstering the Rockets’ bench in a big way during their playoff stretch, the organization dealt the veteran guard to the LA Clippers, meaning he was going right back to the City of Angels.

Which begs the question—did he even relocate from his old place?

“Yeah, I moved,” Williams told Basketball Insiders in Cleveland on Friday. “But I ended up moving back into the same neighborhood that I was in, so it was all good.”

The familiarity with the area must’ve been comforting, but playing for three different teams in such a short amount of time can’t be easy. It’s only been 15 games, but he already notices a discrepancy between the two that share the same arena.

“Obviously when you have different people running it,” Williams answered when asked to compare the Los Angeles franchises. “I think the Lakers were in a different space than the Clippers are. The Clippers are a more veteran group, so two completely different atmospheres.”

Winning four straight games to kick off the 2017-18 campaign, the year started out great for he and his new team, but it’s gone downhill in a hurry.

The Los Angeles Clippers are hurting in every way. Literally.

Only halfway through a five-city road trip, they’ve lost eight consecutive games and 10 of their last 11. Key members of their team are absent and they have been plagued by injuries out of the gate.

First, it was international sensation Milos Teodosic who went down with a foot injury in just the second NBA game of his career. Then there’s Danilo Gallinari, whose ailing hip has kept him out of action for two weeks. To top it all off, Patrick Beverley is dealing with a sore right knee that has forced him to miss over a week as well (he’ll reportedly be active on Monday night).

Without the trio, the Clippers are missing a little bit of everything, and Williams is eager for them to return to the floor because of it.

“It’s three starters,” Williams told Basketball Insiders. “One guy’s our heart and soul on the defensive end. We have another guy who was leading us in assists and we have another guy who’s second in scoring.

“Three very important pieces of our team are missing. But we have other guys that’s stepping in doing the best job that they can. We’re just falling short.”

Aside from their most recent 15-point loss to the equally struggling Charlotte Hornets at the Spectrum Center, Los Angeles has competed and been in almost every game during the long skid.

In Cleveland, they led for most of the way until midway through the fourth quarter. It was a back-and-forth affair when the Cavaliers struck back, and once the game went into overtime, the Clippers went cold and ran out of gas.

Taking out the element of overtime, the “close game, but no win” trend has been apparent as they attempt to get over the hump for a victory. Williams sees his team battling. They’re just not getting the outcomes they desire.

“Just continue to push,” Williams said of how LA can climb the wall. “We’ll have a couple of guys back this week from injuries.

“We’ve been playing extremely hard giving ourselves an opportunity to win these games and just haven’t been able to finish. Get guys back, just continue to push. We’ll break through.”

If Williams keeps on producing the way he has, especially as of late, that could be sooner rather than later. Over the last five games, the scoring assassin has put up over 30 points in two of them and 25 in another. In addition, he’s averaged over four rebounds, four assists, and more than a steal per game during the stretch.

When asked about what’s made him so comfortable, he kept it simple.

“Just playing,” Williams told Basketball Insiders.” Taking what the defense gives me and try to make shots. That’s it.”

Williams is special when it comes to how much he can impact a game in the snap of a finger. Over the course of his career, he’s one of those guys that have been able to just go off at any given moment.

“Just continue to play,” he said. “Play [as] hard as I can. I never really think about it until after the game. I just go out there, play [as] hard as I can. Put myself in position to score points and live with the results.”

You can recall Williams being an elite sixth man in this league for just about every team he’s been a part of. Whether it was with the Philadelphia 76ers, Atlanta Hawks, Toronto Raptors, Lakers, Rockets or even with the Clippers now, he’s constantly been a guy to provide a powerful punch off the bench.

With the consistency and the energy he’s provided with second units throughout his career, it’s rather surprising that Williams has only won the Sixth Man of the Year award one time in his career. Having established this reputation, it should only be a matter of time before he’s rewarded again.

That being said, it’s got to be one of his aspirations, right?

“Not anymore,” Williams told Basketball Insiders, admitting he felt slighted in last year’s race. “Nah. Probably had one of the best seasons of my career and finished third, so I don’t really care no more.”

Furthermore, as one of the top sharpshooters the NBA has to offer, he told Basketball Insiders he doesn’t wouldn’t care to participate in the three-point contest, either.

Moving away from the individual side of things, Williams has enjoyed his time with the Clippers for the short time he’s been a part of the franchise.

One good reason is the opportunity to play under one of the league’s most respected head coaches in Doc Rivers, whom he credits has a unique manner of making adjustments.

“Doc is a high basketball IQ coach,” Williams said. “He knows how to break down the game on the fly, which is impressive. A lot of coaches, they make a lot of corrections at halftime or in film sessions. Doc makes them on the fly, which is great.”

Playing alongside two superstars isn’t so bad. DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin are a pairing that can dominate each and every time they step on the floor. In fact, having those two alone should be enough for the Clippers to get things turned back around.

When the frontcourt duo clicks on a nightly basis and the team returns to full strength, Williams believes that’s exactly what’s going to happen.

“It’s been fun,” Williams told Basketball Insiders of the experience with Griffin and Jordan. “Obviously, we would like to win some games and I think that tide is gonna turn once we get back healthy.

“But these two All-Star guys in this league that’s done an exceptional job for this organization—so it’s been a good time being with these guys.”

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NBA AM: All-Time Biggest Comeback Wins

The Warriors’ big 24-point comeback over the weekend was incredible, but where did it rank all time?

Joel Brigham

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One of the biggest NBA stories of the weekend was the Philadelphia 76ers scoring 47 points against the Golden State Warriors in the first quarter Saturday night, only to blow their 24-point lead in fairly embarrassing fashion.

Kevin Durant joked about not being able to lose to Philadelphia for fear for Joel Embiid peacocking on Twitter afterward, while Embiid wrote about taking the loss in stride, adding “blowing a big lead” to their arsenal of experiences to avoid repeating in games to come.

In any event, that 24-point comeback was one of the most impressive comebacks in NBA history, though the good news for the Sixers is that there have been bigger blown leads than their own. Some of them much, much bigger. Heck, the Miami HEAT blew a 25-point lead just two weeks ago, so crazier things have happened.

The following are those crazier things. These are the biggest blown leads in NBA history:

#5 Boston Celtics vs. L.A. Lakers (2008) – By the time Game 4 of the 2008 NBA Finals had started, the Celtics had taken a 2-1 lead in the series, and the pivotal Game 4 was going to go down in Los Angeles. From the get-go, the Lakers looked like they were going to tie the series with little problem, jumping out to a quick 26-7 lead and finishing the first quarter up by 21 points. The lead got as large as 24 at one point, with L.A. still holding a 20-point lead with six minutes left in the third quarter.

But Boston ripped off a 21-3 run to finish the third quarter, cutting the lead to two and making it a much more exciting game than the first two-and-a-half quarters suggested. Their spirits broken, L.A. lost the game and, eventually, the series.

#4 Utah Jazz vs. Portland Trail Blazers (2010) – The Jazz came into Portland for this February game back in 2010 without starting center Mehmet Okur, whose absence was felt immensely as the Jazz fell into a 25-point deficit, trailing by 23 halfway through the third quarter. After chipping away at that lead throughout the fourth quarter, Utah still faced a four-point hole with just 30 seconds to go in the game, but Deron Williams made a couple of free throws, the Jazz got a stop on the defensive end, and Carlos Boozer put-back a last-second miss to send the game into overtime, where the Jazz put the finishing touches on the remarkable comeback win.

#3 Minnesota Timberwolves vs. Dallas Mavericks (2008) – The Minnesota Timberwolves in 2008 were not good. Still rebuilding post-Garnett, they had no business jumping out to a massive lead over the much more talented Dallas Mavericks, but that’s exactly what happened. The mediocre Wolves built a seemingly insurmountable 29-point lead, but as it happens, the lead was in fact quite mountable, as the Mavericks ripped into that lead thanks in large part to 24 second-half points by Jason Terry. With a seven-point victory, the Mavericks pulled off an impressive 36-point turnaround, albeit against one of the league’s worst teams.

#2 Sacramento Kings vs. Chicago Bulls (2009) – In one of the most stunning comebacks in league history, the Sacramento Kings rallied from being down 79-44 with 8:50 remaining in the third quarter to demoralize a Bulls team that flat-out didn’t see it coming. Sacramento finished the quarter on a 19-5 run to cut the lead to 19, then got it down to 95-91 with 2:28 left in the game. Rookie Tyreke Evans outscored the entire Bulls’ team 9-3 the rest of the way, and the comeback was complete. All of this was in Chicago, and the city’s fans literally booed the Bulls off the court. Needless to say, that was Vinny Del Negro’s last season as head coach in Chicago.

#1 Denver Nuggets vs. Utah Jazz (1998) – In the midst of a seven-game winning streak, a Jazz team featuring Karl Malone and John Stockton did not enter this contest against Denver in 1998 expecting to fall into a 36-point deficit. The score was 70-36 at halftime with the lead expanding further in the third quarter, but that’s when Utah started to grind their way into the lead behind big nights from Malone (31 points) and Jeff Hornacek (29 points). Despite it being a record-breaking comeback, there was no one big remarkable moment. Rather, the Jazz just dismantled the Nuggets through attrition over the course the second half en route to a truly impressive come-from-way-behind victory.

The fact that teams have come back from deficits this huge is exactly why current NBA teams talk about never taking the foot off the gas. Almost no lead is safe, and that’s the beautiful thing about basketball. Sometimes the momentum shifts, and all that planned Twitter bragging goes right down the tubes. At least in Philadelphia’s case the team on the other end of the comeback was the defending champs.

And as this list proves, it could always be worse.

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NBA Sunday: Raptors Aren’t Extinct Just Yet

The Celtics should be a concern to the Cavaliers, but the Raptors shouldn’t be overlooked, either.

Moke Hamilton

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The Toronto Raptors aren’t extinct—not yet, anyway.

With the whirlwind of movement that dominates the headlines this past NBA offseason and the growth of several young players, we’ve spent far more time discussing the likes of the Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons, Philadelphia 76ers and New York Knicks than the team from up North.

We’ve asked ourselves whether LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers can win the Eastern Conference for a fourth consecutive year and whether or not the Washington Wizards are finally ready to give some credible resistance. Some of us have even gone as far as to predict that, in the ultimate irony, Kyrie Irving will lead the Celtics to the conference crown this season.

And that doesn’t even begin to talk about the storylines from out West.

All the while, quietly and meticulously, Dwane Casey and his Raptors have stalked, and you peer at the standings and realize that they enter play on November 19 at 10-5, tied with the Pistons for the second-best record in the conference.

What has made the Raptors thriving especially improbable is the fact that they’ve done it despite missing a few key contributors for a game or two. To this point, they have ranked respectably both in points allowed per game (102.6) and points allowed per 100 possessions (107.8). Those metrics rank them eighth and 11th, respectively.

So, where exactly do the Raptors fit in the grand scheme of things?

It seems like a question we’ve been asking for a few years now.

* * * * * *

Having qualified for the playoffs four consecutive years, Dwane Casey’s team has won three playoff series over the course of that duration, but haven’t exactly found timely and efficient play from their two star players in DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.

Now, as the Eastern Conference begins to feature younger players with appreciable upside—Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, Ben Simmons and Jaylen Brown to name a few—it’s totally fair to wonder where the Raptors fit in. It’s also fair, believe it or not, to wonder whether they’ll be able to provide as much resistance to the Cavaliers as the Celtics.

In effect, the Raptors have become a modern day version of Joe Johnson’s Atlanta Hawks. After signing with the Hawks prior to the 2005-06 season, Johnson led the revival of the franchise. They would end up qualifying for the playoffs five consecutive years, but never advanced past the second round. A similar story can be told of Chris Paul’s Los Angeles Clippers.

The point is, however, that over the years, the Raptors have developed an identity and are a team whose hallmarks have come to be toughness and ball-sharing—two characteristics that most coaches would love to embody their team. While we’ve been paying close attention to the things that are brand new and exciting, the Raptors are the same old crew that they have been. And for a team like that, the 2011 NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks will continue to be the gold standard.

The Mavericks notably rebuilt and tore down several incarnations of their team around Dirk Nowitzki until the team was finally able to surround Nowitzki with the right complement of players to score one of the biggest upsets in NBA Finals history.

Whether anyone chooses to acknowledge it, the Cavaliers are vulnerable.

Entering play on November 19, LeBron James leads the league in both total minutes played (617) and minutes played per game (38.6). Of the players who will comprise James’ supporting rotation in the playoffs, the majority of them are players whose impact will be mostly felt on one side of the floor: offense. To this point, the Cavs have 10 different players averaging 20 minutes played per game—an incredibly high number. More than anything else, that’s a result of Tyron Lue playing with his rotations to figure out which units work best, while also taking into account that the team has been playing without both Tristan Thompson and Derrick Rose for long stretches.

Still, of those rotation players—James, Rose, Thompson, J.R. Smith, Kevin Love, Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade, Iman Shumpert, Kyle Korver and Jeff Green—the simple truth is that it is only James who has performed like a true two-way player.

It’s a troubling trend upon which the Raptors—and other teams in the conference—could capitalize.

The best two words to describe the Cavaliers to this point in the season are “old” and “slow,” and that’s simply a fact. The club still ranks dead last in points allowed per 100 possessions and 28th in the league in points allowed per game.

In short, the Cavaliers, at least to this point, have certainly appeared to be vulnerable. It is those same Cavaliers that have ended the Raptors season each of the past two years.

You know what they say about third times—they’re often the charm.

* * * * * *

There’s obviously a long way to go, and any chance that Toronto would have to get past the Cavs rests in the ability of Lowry and DeRozan to find some consistency in the playoffs. Still, as the complementary pieces around them have slowly improved, we have spent the early goings of the season fawning over the brand news teams and storylines in the conference and have paid no attention to the old guard.

And depending on how the brackets play out, any Cavaliers foray in the conference finals might have to go through the familiar road of Toronto.

If that happens to be the case—if the Cavs do have to square off against their familiar foe—they’re ripe for the picking.

Just as they have been over the past few years, the Duane Casey’s team will be there waiting for their opportunity.

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