There’s something about the looseness of the Toronto Raptors this season that makes you wonder—is this the year they break through?
Take a hilarious pre-game exchange, for example. Getting set for their rubber match with the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena, veterans C.J. Miles and Kyle Lowry are sitting down at their lockers just hanging out.
The morning beforehand, Basketball Insiders conducted an interview with Pascal Siakam, so Miles was asked about the second-year forward and his progression. He began to rave over him and the plethora of young talent on the team’s roster. That is, until an interruption happened in the midst of his words.
*Siakam walks by and messes with Miles*
Miles: I’m talkin’ about you.
Siakam: Stop lyin’ dawg. What you talkin’ about?
Miles: Pascal is [expletive]!
Siakam: That’s crazy man.
Miles: See what you did? You did this. I was on your side until 10 seconds ago.
After the shenanigans, Miles got back to his thoughts on Siakam and three other sophomores he plays with as a part of a talented bench that has been “battle-tested.”
“Pascal—he’s just Mr. Do A Little Bit Of Everything, basically,” Miles told Basketball Insiders. “He just plays with a ton of energy and he does whatever it takes. You love having guys like that on your side.
“Just getting that confidence. That’s the biggest thing. Our league is about confidence, opportunity. A lot of guys come in with talent and ability. I think it’s just about having the chance to play themselves into a rotation, and if they’re working on the sideline, it always shows when they get the chance. And that’s what happened. It showed that those guys have been working the last two years ‘cause they got a chance to be thrown out there and they were ready.”
That still may be an understatement. The five-man group of Miles, Siakam, Jakob Poeltl, Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright is one of 26 units that have played on the floor for 315 minutes or more this season. Only the Philadelphia starters have a higher net rating than their plus-18.9 among the aforementioned combinations in the NBA.
When it comes to Toronto’s best defensive units, Siakam is a common denominator. The two rotations that allow the least amount of points per 100 possessions feature the 24-year-old (95.6 and 98.8, which are good for the only figures under 100).
“Everyone has a chip on their shoulders,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “Just a couple of GOATs on the team (smiles)—Delon, Fred, Jak. We got guys that work hard and I think it’s just good to see that we’ve been playing pretty good.
“We just play ball. We just hoop and we got that little chemistry going. Hopefully, we keep it going.”
So why is it that this collection of 20-somethings has been able to get the job done? You can boil it down to the faith that Raptors head coach Dwane Casey has in them, especially in crucial and late game situations.
“It means a lot,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “I think a lot of young players don’t get that privilege unless you’re like…Who’s getting that right now? I don’t know. But yeah, you see my point.
“We don’t really get that a lot (in this league), so it means a lot. We’ve proven that we’re capable of handling that and he’s trusting us to handle it when we have to.”
For Miles, he was surprised that “an old-school guy like Case” would afford this prominent of a role to guys so early in their respective careers, but he’s also been the one who has worked with them since day one.
“They’ve stepped up to the challenge,” Miles told Basketball Insiders. “He got a chance to see those guys work every single day. And then, it’s hard to shorten that rope when those guys continue to play well and continue to overcome obstacles and continue to show that they can take a punch and get back up. So you earn trust, and they’ve done it.”
Casey’s method in handling the situation has been simple—don’t be afraid to hand them to the keys to the car. Sometimes it’ll go well, sometimes it won’t—but they’ll gain the proper knowledge from it regardless.
“They’re learning, and it’s been that way all year,” Casey said. “I know their numbers have been really good, but they’ve been up and down all year. They’ve learned from their mistakes and some of their failures, which all young guys are gonna go through. That’s the positive of that—that you do get that experience and learn from it.”
In a disappointing 110-99 loss to the Boston Celtics six days ago, one of those lessons manifested itself when things went awry. Leading by two points after three quarters, Toronto was outscored 28-15 in the final period. It wasn’t because they weren’t trying, but rather one of those times where the inexperience came into play.
“I don’t think it was lack of effort,” Casey said. “I think it was execution, doing the little things that’s gonna help that group play well offensively and defensively. I’m not questioning our guys’ effort. I think right now we’re playing hard, but not playing smart. That’d be the way I would describe it.”
“We had a slippage [in Boston],” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “At least we felt like we did, ‘cause I don’t think we played bad, but we’re just so used to us playing better. Had a little slippage. I think we’re pretty good at usually bouncing back, so we’ll be alright.”
Luckily for the Raptors, if things go downhill, there’s always the duo of Lowry and a guy named DeMar DeRozan to carry the load. At times, Casey likes to mix them in with players in the second unit. Siakam told Basketball Insiders that’s how he sees things shaking out in the postseason.
“It’s not gonna be all five of us at the end of a game,” he joked. “It’s gonna be starters in there. And if he can throw some youth in there to run with the vets, it’s good.”
Speaking of DeRozan, the outlook on him as a spectator and playing as his teammate has been two different experiences for Siakam.
“He’s just getting better every day, every year, man,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “Like I didn’t know him before the two years that I’ve been here—well I knew him before, but I’m saying I didn’t actually know him.
“I think it’s one thing to just watch basketball when you’re in college and stuff and knowing that DeMar DeRozan is one of the great players in the league. The other thing is just being on the team with him—seeing what does and how he works and the things he’s been able to do on the floor is incredible. So I think All-Star, my favorite player for sure.”
As for his own view on how he’s come along for Toronto this year, Siakam believes the most significant improvement has come as a ball-handler and a distributor. Casey has referred to him as a point forward multiple times, but he doesn’t go that far just yet.
“I don’t even wanna say all of that,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders when asked if that’s what he considers himself. “I’m just a ballplayer man. I’m trying to play and get my teammates involved and play the game the right way.”
The skill has been in his arsenal since he started playing. Now it’s just showing at the highest level in basketball.
According to Cleaning The Glass, the Raptors are scoring 113.7 points per 100 possessions with Siakam on the floor on an effective field goal percentage of 54.7 percent, ranking him in the 90th and 88th percentiles individually among others. In addition, his assist percentage (2.9 to 12.3 percent) and assist to usage ratio (0.25 to 0.8) has skyrocketed in just one year.
“It’s been something that I don’t think people saw coming,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “It’s something that I’ve always had and I’ve been working on and now seeing that development just gives me even more room to just even work harder and get even better at it.
“I think now that you have that freedom, I think it opens up a lot more things. Usually, it’s like, ‘Okay, I’mma work on this and address this for my development. I don’t know if I’mma do it in a game.’ But hey, now that I know that I can do it in a game, it helps even more to just work on it more.”
Siakam will keep attacking every day and get better with each game, as will the other young guns on Toronto’s roster.
In the meantime, Miles will continue to encourage them as the oldest member of the quintet. Nearing the end of his 13th season in the league, he put into perspective what it’s like to be the veteran, mentioning a time where he played for the Cavaliers in his eighth NBA season as the turning point for him grasping life as a professional.
“I was 25 but I was five, six years more than a lot of guys that were on the team,” Miles told Basketball Insiders. “Me and Luke Walton were the oldest guys the first year.
“But now at this point, I think I really understand it. I didn’t understand it then. It took me some time because I was still trying to figure myself out, but now I think I’ve embraced it as much as I can. And a lot of knowledge I was handed over the years, I just try to share it.”
Neither Miles nor Siakam have experienced life in the playoffs with this team. Outside of Wright and Norman Powell, the same can really be said for the other young guys on the roster.
In four straight years, it’s been a punch to the gut. Their last couple of postseason appearances have resulted in eliminations in the Eastern Conference semi-Finals and Finals, and the previous two years before that resulted in first-round exits. Seeing the late-season struggles serves as a reminder of those shortcomings, just sooner than what we’re used to seeing.
Prior to the dominant rebound victory over Boston, the Raptors had dropped four out of six games. There was a glaring lack of coverage on the perimeter where opponents shot 45.9 percent from deep and made over 11 threes per contest. It’s something they desperately want to get fixed before the regular season concludes.
“I mean, we just gotta do a better job,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “Be engaged more. It’s mostly communication. We get a little lazy sometimes, but I don’t think it’s a big deal. We gonna figure it out.
“Usually we execute pretty good in the last five minutes or something of the game, but recently a little bit we’ve gotten away from it a little bit. We lost some tough games.”
Despite the down stretch, Toronto remains the top seed in the East and can clinch it with a win over the Indiana Pacers on Friday night. Because of their last victory, it’s highly likely they’ll earn that number one spot and home-court advantage in the conference.
It’s an accomplishment that the team should be proud of, but they are hungry for more than that. They want to go far.
Forget the outside noise. Forget the past. Siakam is focused on now.
“I know this year, we got a pretty good team,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “I think our combination of youth and vets gives us a really good chance. I just like our chemistry. I like our chances. I don’t know about other teams, but I like our chances.
“I’m putting my money on the Raptors.”
The Problem With ‘Championship Or Bust’
Should an NBA Title be the only measuring stick when we’re talking about a team’s success?
In this day and age, there’s a constant need for instant gratification. It goes for everything, really, but especially for sports.
Before the 2017-18 NBA season kicked off, the general outlook on the league was that the regular season would be a waste of time. People dubbed the Golden State Warriors as clear-cut repeat champions. Other then that franchise, there were maybe one or two others that could put up a fight with such a juggernaut.
While that story has yet to play out, others are developing quickly.
The all-of-a-sudden dangerous New Orleans Pelicans are the only ball club to have advanced to the second round of the playoffs as the sixth seed in the Western Conference. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are deadlocked in a tied series with an Indiana Pacers team that everybody seemed to believe was lottery-bound before the year began.
After falling nine games under .500 in late January, the Utah Jazz have caught fire and are up two games to one against the league’s reigning league MVP and a re-constructed Oklahoma City Thunder roster. We’d be remiss to leave out the sensational play of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid as the Philadelphia 76ers continue to show how dominant they’ve been in a hard-hitting affair with a gritty Miami Heat bunch.
The start to this postseason trumps last season’s already. There is a competitive fire within the majority of these encounters. It’s all on the line to prove who will be the best of the best.
And having said that, there can only be one that takes home the Larry O’Brien trophy.
One. That’s it. In the last 18 years, there have been a total of eight different organizations that have earned the right to call themselves champions. All things considered, it’s not that many.
But there’s a giant misconception about parity in the NBA that needs to be thwarted.
This league is filled with talent, top to bottom. Just like in any sport, you have the basement dwellers still trying to right the ship. Whether it be coaching, injuries, or inexperience—they’re attempting to find their way. That’s why those players are sitting at home in late April.
Then there are those who are not merely spectators, but are involved in the remaining field of 15 teams (sorry, Portland Trail Blazers). Of course, in their minds, there is a common goal of winning a title, as it should be.
However, is it fair to quantify the success of every one of these franchises simply based on whether they accomplish that goal or not? Heck no.
Are we supposed to just forget about the progress made from end-to-end? What if — hear this out — both teams have talent and one just beat the other?
Building championship basketball takes patience. There has to be some semblance of playoff experience involved. Continuity is a must have. You might not want to hear it, but the postseason is where the seeds are planted, where the understanding of the stage really starts.
There can be a collection of young players who have been teammates for years, but have never taken part in the playoffs before. Sometimes there can be a team that’s full of veterans that have been there, but they may not have played together as a collective unit. Each one of them has a different background in a different setting.
It’s a whole different beast at this point. Some are so naive to see how elevated and intense the environment really is, so they assume a team that loses a few games isn’t championship material. Newsflash: Not one team in the history of the NBA has gone 16-0 in the playoffs.
And then, the ones who fall—whether it be in The Finals, conference finals, or in first two rounds—those organizations didn’t accomplish anything. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
So in this basketball world we live in where everything has to be a 20-point victory with zero losses and it’s “championship or bust” as the measuring stick, take a step back and appreciate the work it took to even get to the postseason.
Win or lose, many of these teams are building towards bigger things in the future. These experiences will make that clear in the years to come.
NBA DAILY: Who’s the Next Donovan Mitchell?
Donovan Mitchell provided elite value at the back end of the lottery. Who might that player be this summer?
The entire reason that so many non-playoff teams worked so diligently to blow their seasons was to get the best odds possible for the first overall selection in the 2018 NBA Draft. Watching LeBron James (a former first overall draft pick) do what he’s done to the league for the last 15 years, the desire to land a top pick is understandable. Ben Simmons, the heir apparent and likely Rookie of the Year, also was a first overall draft pick a couple of seasons ago.
In fact, of the 38 former first overall picks dating back to 1980, 28 of them would evolve into All-Stars, and it seems like only a matter of time before Simmons is added to that list, too. A higher percentage of top picks have been named All-Stars than any other slot in the draft. Numbers don’t lie. There is no pick more valuable than the very first one.
Donovan Mitchell is good, too. Like, really good. He’s so good that there’s just as strong an argument for him as this season’s Rookie of the Year as there is for Simmons. Mitchell, though, was not a first overall pick. He was picked 13th, at the back end of the lottery.
He isn’t alone in landing elite value for teams picking outside of the lottery’s top half. Devin Booker was picked 13th in 2015. Giannis Antetokounmpo was the 15th selection in 2013. In 2011, Klay Thompson was picked 11th, while Kawhi Leonard was chosen with the 15th pick that same year. Paul George went 10th overall in 2010.
In other words, there are plenty of really good prospects every summer to give late-lottery teams hope. They might not generate the same hype as the guys vying for that top overall selection, but they’re also clearly a lot better than the tiers of players that start coming off the board in the 20s and 30s. All-Stars lurk in the 10-to-15 range of the draft, especially in a loaded class like the one we’re looking at this summer.
That begs the question: who is this year’s Donovan Mitchell?
Here are three possibilities:
Back in November, a series of unfortunate circumstances in a game against Minnesota led to a mass ejection of Alabama players that resulted in just three players being allowed to play the final ten minutes. Sexton was one of those three players and led a Crimson Tide rally despite the lopsided Minnesota power play. ‘Bama outscored the Gophers 30-22 in those final 10 minutes despite being down two players, and Sexton finished the game with 40 points. That’s how good he is.
Of course, he could slip in this draft if only because there are so many flashier names ahead of him. It appears as though seven players (DeAndre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson, Marin Bagley, Michael Porter, Mo Bamba and Trae Young) likely will be drafted before him, which puts him in a category with guys like Mikal Bridges, Wendell Carter, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Miles Bridges, and Kevin Knox. Sexton probably will fall somewhere in that range, which means he would fall somewhere between the eighth and 13th pick.
He is competitive, charismatic and incredibly driven, so there’s a really good chance he does well in interviews and workouts and shows how elite he is. On the other hand, if he falls to the Sixers or Hornets or Clippers, some non-tanking team could end up with one of the biggest stars of the draft.
Coming into his sophomore season, Bridges was considered one of the top NBA prospects in college basketball, and while that is still true to a certain extent, his stock dropped a bit this past season while several players—including his teammate Jaren Jackson, Jr.—saw their own stocks rise.
Despite a minor loss in momentum, Bridges is one of the most NBA-ready players projected to be selected in the lottery. He’s still young enough to have a high ceiling, but he’s older and more physically mature than a lot of the other players vying to be drafted in his neck of the pecking order. He does nearly everything well, from ball handling to rebounding to shooting, and he can play both ends of the floor. His athleticism is his calling card, and that added to everything else he does well makes him a lock for some measure of NBA success.
He has his flaws, but he’s probably an All-Rookie First Teamer that will be selected after ten players that aren’t. That makes him a potential steal on the back-end of the lottery.
This time last year, Porter was a 17-year-old kid deciding whether or not to reclassify and play at the University of Missouri with his older brother Michael Porter, Jr. and under his father Michael Porter, Sr., who is a member of the coaching staff there. Obviously big bro is a high lottery pick, but the younger sibling was the 11th rated prospect in his high school class (the one with Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett) before reclassifying.
He has declared for this summer’s draft but hasn’t yet hired an agent. If he stays in, he’ll be the youngest player in the draft, and mid-first round is where teams start gambling on the uber-young players with mountains of potential rather than older, more proven college players.
In Porter’s case, that could mean a mid-to-late first-round team ends up with a tremendous bargain, even if it takes him a few years to grow into himself. He’s 6-foot-11 but is incredibly smart and well-rounded on offense. He shoots threes (he hit 110 of them as a freshman at Mizzou), but he’s know for his vision and passing more than anything. That’s a modern-day stretch-four or stretch-five if ever there was one, and getting him a year before his time could be a way for a team to steal a deal in the middle of the first round.
With the playoffs in full swing, most observers are focused in on the battles for conference supremacy. For many of the NBA’s other teams, though, the draft preparation process has begun.
In short order, we’ll see which teams end up snagging the next Donovan Mitchell.
NBA Daily: Pelicans Might Be Better Off Without DeMarcus Cousins
Without DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis has excelled. It might not be a coincidence.
Forget Kawhi Leonard, the most interesting storyline of this NBA summer is going to be DeMarcus Cousins.
By now, if you’ve wondered whether the New Orleans Pelicans would be better off without the talented big man, you’re certainly not alone.
Just ask the Portland Trail Blazers.
On Saturday, the Pelicans pulled off an improbable sweep of the third-seeded Blazers in the first round of their best-of-seven playoff series. And while the immediate question that comes to mind is what to make of the Blazers, a similar question can be (and should be) asked of the Pelicans.
Without question, Cousins is one of the most gifted big men the NBA has sen in quite some time, but it shouldn’t be lost on any of us that Anthony Davis began to put forth superhuman efforts when Cousins was absent.
Ever heard the saying that too many cooks spoil the brew?
That may be pricisely the case here.
Sure, having good players at your disposal is a problem that most head coach in the league would sign up for, but it takes a special type of player to willingly cede touches and shots in the name of the best interests of the team.
We once had a similar conversation about Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, mind you. Those that recognized that Westbrook’s ball dominance and inefficiency took opportunities away from Durant to be the best version of himself once believed that the Oklahoma City Thunder would have been wise to pitch Westbrook to New Orleans back when Chris Paul was still manning their perimeter.
For what it’s worth, with Cousins in the lineup, he averaged 18 shots per game. In the 48 games he played this season, the Pelicans were 27-21. With him in the lineup, Davis shot the ball 17.6 times per game and scored 26.5 points per contest.
In the 34 games the Pelicans played without Cousins, Davis’ shot attempts increased fairly significantly. He got 21.9 attempts per contest and similarly increased his scoring output to 30.2 points per game.
Aside from that, Cousins’ presence in the middle made it a tad more difficult for Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday to have the pace and space they need to be most effective. With both Davis and Cousins, the Pelicans struggled to consistently string together wins. Without Cousins, they improbably became the first team in the Western Conference to advance to the second round.
That Cousins tore his achilles tendon and is just a few months from becoming an unrestricted free agent combine to make him the most interesting man in the NBA.
* * * * * *
With Chris Paul having decided that the grass was probably greener with James Harden and Mike D’Antoni than it was with Doc Rivers and Blake Griffin, the Clippers fulfilled his request to be trade to the Houston Rockets and re-signed Griffin to a five-year max. deal. In doing so, they both gave Griffin a stark reminder of what life in the NBA is like and provided a blueprint for teams to follow when they have a superstar player with whom they believe to have run their course.
The glass half full perspective might be that Davis has simply become a better, healthier, more effective player and that with Cousins, he would have another weapon that could help catapult the Pelicans ever further toward the top of the Western Conference. But the half-empty glass might yield another conclusion.
At the end of the day, although he still hasn’t appeared in a single playoff game, Cousins is regarded as a game-changing talent and is one of the few players available on the free agency market this summer that could justify an annual average salary of $30 million. In all likelihood, the Pelicans will re-sign him for a sum that approaches that, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best move.
In the end, the Clippers traded Griffin for Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, a first round pick and a second round pick. All things considered, it was a great haul for the Clippers when you consider that, just a few months prior, they could have lost Griffin as a free agent and gotten nothing in return.
Remarkably, after seeing Griffin dealt to Detroit, in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on a collision course with the Golden State Warriors. Their health a constant concern, the team will have to deal with the pesky perimeter defense of Holiday and Rondo and versatility and two-way effectiveness of Davis.
Nobody gave New Orleans a chance against Portland, and for sure, not many people are going to believe in their ability to score an upset over the defending champions. But believe it or not, New Orleans has become a different team. And they’ve done so without Cousins.
Indeed, believe it or not, the Clippers gave us a blueprint for what a team should do when it has a superstar who might not be the best long-term fit for their program.
And if the Pelicans were wise, they’d be smart to follow it.