With the 2014-15 NBA season around the corner, we asked several of our writers to make predictions about the upcoming campaign. Today, we take a look at the Eastern Conference and tomorrow we’ll take a look at the Western Conference.
Top Point Guard
Lang Greene: John Wall, Washington Wizards. Former league MVP Derrick Rose has the name and Kyrie Irving will likely play on the best team in the conference, but Wall is the best at his position and entering his prime. Wall has improved nearly every facet of his game and is poised to take the Wizards to the next level.
Nate Duncan: Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls. This is a very tight four-way race between Rose, Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry and John Wall. Irving was great in the World Cup, but his floor game has lacked in the past and he’ll be third in the offensive pecking order in Cleveland. Lowry was the best in 2013-14, but likely will regress from a career year. Wall has been steady, but has not shown the ability to take over games. Rose has the highest previous ceiling of these players, and while he is an injury risk he will have the most opportunity to dominate should he prove healthy. He is the pick, although I don’t feel great about it.
Jessica Camerato: Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics. Two words: Contract year. Rondo thrives under the spotlight and when proving his value. This time around, eyes will be on him as he plays his first full season since an ACL injury in the midst of an expiring deal.
Joel Brigham: John Wall, Washington Wizards. There are, in fact, quite a few really good point guards in the Eastern Conference, but Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose haven’t looked like themselves after returning from knee injuries, and Kyrie Irving still has to prove he can rise to the challenge in Cleveland this year. Wall, meanwhile, has shown unbelievable growth over the last couple of seasons. He’s now not only a good scorer and distributor, but a solid defender, shooter and floor general, as well. Until someone else knocks him down a peg, he’s the best there is in the East.
Moke Hamilton: Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls. Although Rose’s knee is a serious concern, he gets the pick because John Wall and Rajon Rondo still have some appreciable holes in their game. With that said, Wall has impressed me immensely and nearly won this designation.
Top Shooting Guard
Lang Greene: DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors. DeRozan’s hard work and dedication have been on display this summer. He has made it no secret he’d like to be considered among the league’s elite one day and the five-year veteran is relentless during the offseason trying to achieve this goal. The Toronto Raptors are riding high and DeRozan’s growth is a key driver in the franchise’s recent change of fortune.
Nate Duncan: Dwyane Wade, Miami HEAT. Dwyane Wade is older, battled injuries and faltered in the Finals, but on a per minute basis he is so far above anyone in the East that you cannot pick anyone else, especially given the prospects of an increased role this year for Miami.
Jessica Camerato: Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards. The Wizards are poised to be contenders in the Eastern Conference and Beal will be one of the driving forces. His backcourt chemistry with John Wall will be even stronger and he has a new group of veterans to help him along the way.
Joel Brigham: DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors. A first-time All-Star last year, DeRozan has really come into his own as a leader for the burgeoning Toronto Raptors. He’s one of the best scorers at his position in the conference, but he’s also an underrated defender. This was between DeRozan and Bradley Beal, and DeRozan gets the slight nod because he’s a little closer to his prime than Beal.
Moke Hamilton: Joe Johnson, Brooklyn Nets. Slowing down as he may be, Joe Johnson has been arguably the top clutch player in the entire league over the past year. He has become more efficient and discerning with his shot selection. Bradley Beal, Lance Stephenson and DeMar DeRozan aren’t too far behind, though.
Top Small Forward
Lang Greene: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers. James is the best player on the planet right now and his arrival in Cleveland immediately pushed the Cavaliers to the forefront of title contention. James spent years in Miami maturing, won a couple titles and now heads back home attempting to bring an ever elusive championship trophy to Cleveland. Can he get the storybook ending?
Nate Duncan: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers. Next.
Jessica Camerato: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers. He’s the top small forward in the East, top small forward in the game and the top player in the league. LeBron James is the most dominant player in the NBA and earns top honors at his position.
Joel Brigham: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers. No one’s going to argue about this. He’s better than anyone in the game right now, including Kevin Durant, and his second go in Cleveland can’t be anything but a smashing success. Last season was a bit of a regression for him statistically, but he’ll be reenergized for his first season back home.
Moke Hamilton: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers. Were you expecting the Easter Bunny? At this point, it is time to start considering where LeBron James ranks among all-time great NBA players, especially if he succeeds in bringing the elusive NBA Championship to Cleveland.
Top Power Forward
Lang Greene: Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers. The Western Conference is loaded with talented power forwards. While the Eastern Conference has talent at the four, Love shoots to the top of the list with his change of address. Love is a volume scorer and rebounder who should continue thriving now that he’s playing with elite level talent.
Nate Duncan: Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers. Next.
Jessica Camerato: Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers. If Kevin Love isn’t the best at his position, then what was all the fuss this summer? Love dominated offseason headlines and will dominate on a contending team with massive star power.
Joel Brigham: Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers. It will be interesting to see how Love’s game translates to a truly unique Cleveland roster, but as far as talent is concerned, there’s no one like him in the Eastern Conference. He’s the best rebounder in the game today and offers outside shooting not typical at all for his position. While it’s true his numbers could dip on a team with so many offensive weapons, he’s still the most gifted power forward in the conference by a wide margin.
Moke Hamilton: Chris Bosh, Miami HEAT. Four years of playing third-fiddle to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade helped everyone forget that he is arguably the best all-around power forward in the game. Now, the refocused Bosh will have an opportunity to remind us all.
Lang Greene: Al Jefferson, Charlotte Hornets. The East has plenty of centers who bring the heat. Guys such as Chris Bosh, Brook Lopez, Al Horford, Marcin Gortat, Andre Drummond and Roy Hibbert all have their moments. But none of those guys carry their respective franchises like Jefferson, who is the biggest driver in Charlotte’s current momentum.
Nate Duncan: Chris Bosh, Miami HEAT. Bosh will likely start again at center for Miami this year, although it is unclear whether he or Josh McRoberts will guard the center on defense. Bosh is not a conventional center, but he offers the best combination of defense and all-around offense among East centers. Like Wade, he should play much better with more of a scoring role in Miami this season. Joakim Noah will likely take a step back this year from a career year last season, and even then his offense was so far below Bosh’s that it eclipses Noah’s superior defense. Andre Drummond needs to vastly improve his defense to be in this conversation.
Jessica Camerato: Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls. Noah can burn his opponents all over the box score. He is one of the most versatile big men in the game and should thrive once again with the return of Derrick Rose and addition of Pau Gasol.
Joel Brigham: Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls. By no means dominant in the way that, say, Dwight Howard is dominant, Noah is scrappy and energetic enough to drive any opposing center insane. The defending Defensive Player of the Year is the guru of defensive rotations, and his length and energy give him that little extra something that puts him among the league’s elite. He’s also arguably the game’s best passing big man, so while his jumpshot is the ugliest this side of Shawn Marion, it doesn’t matter when he does so many other things so well.
Moke Hamilton: Al Jefferson, Charlotte Hornets. You don’t make a move to a long-suffering franchise in Charlotte, help them transform their culture and make a rare playoff appearance without improving your stock immensely. So, yes, Big Al, I’m showing you the love here.
Top Sixth Man
Lang Greene: Taj Gibson, Chicago Bulls. Reports are swirling that Gibson isn’t too keen on being utilized primarily in a bench role next season. But the latest development doesn’t change the fact Gibson is one of the league’s most productive players off of the pine, a trend that will likely continue in 2014-15.
Nate Duncan: Taj Gibson, Chicago Bulls. Gibson is perhaps the league’s best defensive power forward, and should have won the Sixth Man Award a season ago. His minutes will be reduced this year with Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic on board, but the East is not exactly awash with great bench players who clearly will be in that role. Whoever among Josh Smith or Greg Monroe does not start in Detroit could be a candidate, as could Channing Frye if he comes off the bench in Orlando. Patrick Patterson could also emerge in Toronto.
Jessica Camerato: Taj Gibson, Chicago Bulls. Gibson finished second last season in Sixth Man voting. Now he will have even more talent on his team and will be a key member on a squad fighting for top position.
Joel Brigham: Taj Gibson, Chicago Bulls. While Gibson wasn’t the starter last year for the Bulls, he was the guy who finished games most often, and having him on the floor very often gave Chicago the best chance to win. Honestly, were there no Pau Gasol in the mix, Gibson would have been a breakout candidate expected to put up some huge stats as a starter. As it stands, he’ll likely play the same role he did last year, which means big production in big minutes, using his stifling defense to help the Bulls win big games down the stretch.
Moke Hamilton: J.R. Smith, New York Knicks. Flush the 2013-14 season down the toilet when he was dealing with a surgically-repaired knee and you’ll easily see that, just one year removed from winning the award for being so, J.R. Smith is the top sixth man in the Eastern Conference. When healthy.
Top Head Coach
Lang Greene: Erik Spoelstra, Miami HEAT. The HEAT have reached the last four NBA Finals, winning two championships in the process. Yes, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James were key contributors in that run, but to discredit Spoelstra would be taking the lazy route. Spoelstra is well respected in league circles and there’s a good reason – the man can coach.
Nate Duncan: Tom Thibodeau, Chicago Bulls. The East has some solid coaches on some of the up-and-coming teams, but this status is Thibodeau’s for the foreseeable future given the way he has consistently maximized the talent in Chicago since his arrival in 2010.
Jessica Camerato: Tom Thibodeau, Chicago Bulls. I’ve said this over and over again, just wait to see what Thibodeau can do with a healthy roster. He has one of the best minds on the sidelines, but he hasn’t had the pieces on the court. This season he does and will be the driving force behind this contender.
Joel Brigham: Tom Thibodeau, Chicago Bulls. While he’ll have to figure out a way not to play Jimmy Butler 49 minutes a game, the reality is that Thibodeau will have more talent this season than he’s had since joining the team in 2010. A defensive specialist, Thibs has a way of getting his players to buy completely into his team-first system, and that has resulted in a consistently dominant, hard-working Bulls squad that almost always outperforms their talent level. This guy is worth 5-10 regular season wins all by himself. Let’s see if that can finally translate to a Finals appearance for Chicago this year.
Moke Hamilton: Tom Thibodeau, Chicago Bulls. Injuries mean absolutely nothing to Tom Thibodeau, who—despite losing some talented pieces—continues to have his teams motivated, prepared and disciplined enough to stay true to his hard-nosed defensive system. They also continually managed to win.
Lang Greene: Pat Riley, Miami HEAT. Losing a top-tier talent like LeBron James in an offseason isn’t an easy hit to absorb. But Riley took the blow and also managed to put together a decent roster which should still land the HEAT in the middle of the East playoff race next April.
Nate Duncan: Masai Ujiri, Toronto Raptors. Ujiri’s work since arriving in Toronto a bit more than a year ago has been exemplary. He fleeced the Knicks in the Andrea Bargnani trade, transformed the Raptors into the third-best team in the East with the Rudy Gay trade, and then held onto all of his key free agents at very reasonable prices this summer while picking up some high-upside bench players. Honorable mention goes to Gar Forman in Chicago. Despite some personal foibles by the front office, the Bulls have drafted very well and also hired Thibodeau.
Jessica Camerato: David Griffin, Cleveland Cavaliers. Lure LeBron James back to Cleveland in free agency? Check. Sign Kyrie Irving to a contract extension? Check. Pull of a mega trade to land Kevin Love? Check. GM David Griffin has transformed the Cavs from a lottery-bound team to an instant title contender that should dominate in the East this season.
Joel Brigham: Masai Ujiri, Toronto Raptors. For some reason, teams love to give Ujiri their draft picks, as he always seems to find a way to turn garbage into gold. He somehow managed to get draft selections out of Andrea Bargnani and found someone to take on Rudy Gay’s massive contract. This offseason, he re-signed all the major components of the team that won the Atlantic Division last year. His mistakes are few, and his successes are impressive. Toronto is under good leadership for as long as he’s in the big chair.
Moke Hamilton: Pat Riley, Miami HEAT. Although there are a few worthy of mention here, Pat Riley was the chief architect of a HEAT contender with Tim Hardaway, a champion with Shaquille O’Neal and a near-dynasty with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. He can build my team, anytime.
Lang Greene: Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks. Bucks fans have a legitimate reason to be happy this season. The arrival of Parker, who wanted to be in Milwaukee, gives the team a centerpiece for its rebuilding project. Parker is arguably the most ready to contribute rookie in his draft class and should be able to get buckets right out of the cereal box.
Nate Duncan: Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks. The Chicago product was the most NBA-ready scorer in the draft, and should have the most opportunity to break out right away on a Bucks team that is desperate for scoring punch. Nerlens Noel, technically a rookie as well, is a solid second choice if he can stay healthy. Nikola Mirotic may be the best rookie this year on a per minute basis, but will probably be the fourth big man in Chicago.
Jessica Camerato: Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks. Parker could have easily been the first pick in the draft. Selected second, he is full of potential and will have room to shine on a Bucks team eager for his talent.
Joel Brigham: Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks. Arguably the most mature, NBA-ready player in this year’s draft, Parker has been dropped into a situation where he sort of has no choice but to succeed. Huge minutes will be there for him, which should mean good statistics for him across the board. He’s a born leader and a superstar-in-training. Consider this year one of the Jabari Era in Milwaukee. Barring injury, he’s a shoe-in for Rookie of the Year.
Moke Hamilton: Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks. With Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jason Kidd, Jabari Parker will be given the keys to the offense and the basketball heart of Milwaukee. He’s ready for this challenge.
Lang Greene: Michael Carter-Williams, Philadelphia 76ers. Carter-Williams was clearly the cream of last year’s draft class in season one and the Sixers will once again rely heavily on the talented guard each and every night. There’s not much to chair for these days in Philadelphia, but Carter-Williams is definitely a building block for the future.
Nate Duncan: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks. Can we cheat and say Noel again here? The 2013 draft was not exactly chock full of impact performers. Antetokounmpo has the athleticism to eventually be the best player from that draft, but he did not do that much as a rookie and it is unclear given his youth how much impact he can have this year. I don’t believe in Michael Carter-Williams as much due to his regression throughout the season a year ago and his miserable shooting. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is a dark horse here given his summer league performance and Detroit’s desperate need for athleticism and shooting on the wing.
Jessica Camerato: Michael Carter-Williams, Philadelphia 76ers. Carter-Williams set the tone in his award-winning rookie campaign. This season he will be joined by Nerlens Noel and possibly Joel Embiid. A point guard equipped with more weapons on the floor should only improve.
Joel Brigham: Victor Oladipo, Orlando Magic. With Jameer Nelson gone, Oladipo really is the leader of this team now. As the best two-way player in the backcourt, he should take a huge leap forward in his sophomore campaign. Michael Carter-Williams may have won Rookie of the Year, but his stats were inflated on a bad team. Oladipo, meanwhile, is a genuinely excellent NBA player serving as the centerpiece of a fascinating young team.
Moke Hamilton: Michael Carter-Williams, Philadelphia 76ers. When a rookie gives you about 17 points, six rebounds and six assists per game, it’s not only enough to win him the Rookie of the Year Award, it’s enough for me to dub him the top sophomore in the conference.
The Sleeper Team
Lang Greene: Detroit Pistons. The Detroit Pistons could be this year’s under the radar franchise in the East or they could easily remain in the league’s basement. Newly crowned head coach Stan Van Gundy has imported shooters, which were lacking last season, and their solid assortment of big men should thrive as a result. Not much is expected of Detroit heading into training camp, but there’s enough talent to potentially turn a few heads.
Nate Duncan: Detroit Pistons. As I wrote in our season preview, the Pistons have a lot of talent and should get a massive coaching upgrade with Stan Van Gundy. If he can work his Magic (pun intended), particularly on defense, Detroit could surge into the mid-40s in wins.
Jessica Camerato: Charlotte Hornets. Let’s leave the past behind them. These are not your Hornets of old. They made noise last season and landed Lance Stephenson in free agency. The Hornets should turn heads this season as a playoff team.
Joel Brigham: Atlanta Hawks. Somehow, the Atlanta Hawks made the playoffs last year despite not having Al Horford for the majority of the season. With Horford healthy and another full year under the severely underrated Mike Budenholzer, Atlanta should be right back in the thick of things again. No one ever expects them to be a playoff team, but for the last couple of years at least, they’ve found a way.
Moke Hamilton: Washington Wizards. Quietly, in Washington D.C., the Eastern Conference’s most talented backcourt may reside, but it’s not all about them. With Marcin Gortat, Nene and Paul Pierce, even without the departed Trevor Ariza, the Wizards have serious potential.
Who Wins the Conference?
Lang Greene: Cleveland Cavaliers. Unless the Miami HEAT surprisingly defy the odds after losing the game’s best player, it’s safe to assume the East will crown a different champion for the first time since 2010. The Cleveland Cavaliers are the frontrunners to represent the conference in the NBA Finals heading into training camp. But the club has to build chemistry on the fly and also have a rookie head coach still learning the ropes. Still, all things considered, the Cavaliers should pull it out.
Nate Duncan: Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavs have a major weakness defending the rim, but have the potential for a historically great offense. The Bulls are the only team that projects to really challenge them, but they face many more health questions than the Cavs. What’s more, the high-end superstar talent on the Cavs is much more useful in the playoffs compared the the Bulls’ advantage in depth.
Jessica Camerato: Cleveland Cavaliers. The roster speaks for itself. Whether they can go all the way in their first season together remains to be seen, but the Cavaliers have what it takes to rule the East.
Joel Brigham: Cleveland Cavaliers. While the Bulls and Cavaliers are the clear preseason favorites to win the conference, it’s hard to buy into a Bulls team that relies so heavily on Derrick Rose. We just have no idea what kind of player he’ll be over a full season, or if he’ll even make it through a full season. The health and overwhelming talent on this Cavs roster is a much easier bet. Don’t worry about a lack of postseason experience; both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love have won on big stages before. They’ll be fine, and in fact they’ll probably be better than anyone else in the East. Make it five straight Finals appearances for LeBron James.
Moke Hamilton: Cleveland Cavaliers. Only a fool would bet against LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Consider: this may be the fifth consecutive year that James plays in the NBA Finals. Not even Kobe or Jordan ever accomplished that.
Monte Morris: Waiting for his Chance
Nuggets two-way guard Monte Morris talks to Basketball Insiders about his time with Denver.
Monte Morris has only seen action in three NBA games with the Denver Nuggets this year. While most players who receive little playing time spend most of their time at the end of the bench cheering their teammates on, Morris’ situation is a bit different. He’s spent the majority of his rookie year in the G-League.
The NBA’s minor league has grown tremendously since it’s inception in 2001. All but four NBA teams have a G-League affiliate now. There are plans for the New Orleans Pelicans to have their own team by next season, and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has spoken about having a team in Mexico.
As part of the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement, they expanded the partnership between NBA teams and their G-League affiliates even more by adding two-way contracts. Essentially creating a 16th and 17th roster spot, two-way players are allowed to split time between an NBA team and the G-League.
For Morris, two-way contracts are an added opportunity for players to make an NBA roster.
“It’s a good chance for guys to make a roster, especially second-round picks to get a chance,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “With two-way contracts, I feel like they’re going to get a lot better as far as rules and things like that go. This is the first year so they’re testing it out, but it’s a good opportunity. It’s a blessing at the end of the day.”
Morris was drafted by the Nuggets with the 51st overall pick in last summer’s draft. Second round picks are not afforded the guaranteed contract stability that comes with being a first-round pick. He was tabbed for a two-way contract almost immediately after he was drafted.
He had a stellar four years of college at Iowa State, where he was one of the top point guards in the nation as a senior. He also had a strong showing in Las Vegas with the Nuggets’ summer league team.
The Nuggets were a little crowded in the backcourt to begin the season with Jamal Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay ahead of Morris in the rotation. When Mudiay was injured and out of the rotation, Mike Malone opted to go with Will Barton as the backup point guard. The Nuggets’ trade deadline acquisition of Devin Harris pushed Morris farther back on the depth chart.
“The toughest thing is just staying mentally tough, staying true to yourself, and developing your own craft,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “Just not losing that self-confidence cause you might not play when you go up. When you come down here [G-League], take advantage of it, have fun, and keep getting better.”
Morris has definitely done his part to stand out in the G-League. The Nuggets are without a sole affiliate, so they’ve used the Houston Rockets G-League team, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, to get Morris additional experience. In 36 games with the Valley Vipers, he’s put up 18.2 points per game on 47.8 percent shooting from the field, 35.6 percent from the three-point line, 4.6 rebounds, 6.6 assists, and 1.8 steals.
He believes that if called upon, he can be a major contributor for the Nuggets. There are certain aspects he can bring to the team and he thinks it’s possible for him to play with Murray in the backcourt together.
“I think I can bring energy off the bench. I feel like me and Jamal Murray, the way the game is going you can play small ball. I feel like I can bring pace to the game and play defensively,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “I like getting after it when I’m up there with those guys on defense and getting guys open shots. I know we got a lot of scorers, my goal would be getting everybody their shots.”
Morris has been able to show he can produce at the NBA level, even if it’s a small sample size. On Feb. 9, only the second game he’s played in with Denver, he scored ten points on 4-5 shooting from the field, dished out six assists, and nabbed three steals against the Rockets.
Players on two-way contracts are allowed a maximum of 45 days with the NBA team. Those days are not solely game days; they include practices and travel days as well. Once those 45 days are up, NBA teams have the option of converting a two-way contract to a standard NBA deal provided they have roster space.
If a player uses up the 45 days and does not have their contract converted, they go back to the G-League. They can rejoin their NBA team once the G-League season ends but are not able to play in the playoffs.
For now, Morris is just biding his time, waiting for his opportunity. He’s staying ready for when the Nuggets might need him. In the meantime, he’ll continue to take advantage of what the G-League has to offer.
“It’s definitely a good starting point. It’s just all about how guys attack it on and off the court,” Morris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s just being a pro and not losing confidence in your ability when you go up and don’t play. You just got to be ready, you’re really one injury away, one call away to step on and have to play.”
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.