The Toronto Raptors could soon find themselves in uncharted territory. They’ve never been the top seed in the East, and the 2015-16 campaign represented their only trip to the conference finals. Those achievements don’t comprise much of a resume for a franchise that joined the league in 1995.
Prior to the recurring post-season appearances that began in 2013-14, the Raptors had advanced past the first round of the playoffs just once (in 2000-01). Their rosters have featured perennial all-stars like Vince Carter and Chris Bosh, but the Raptors were unable to cobble together a supporting cast capable of defeating juggernauts like the Jordan-era Chicago Bulls during their tenure.
The latest iteration has been constructed for playoff longevity. Backcourt stalwarts Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan were joined by defensive maven Serge Ibaka for last season’s playoff run, and his aggressive style has been balanced by the steadiness of seven-foot center Jonas Valanciunas.
Toronto’s presence among the league leaders in team statistics wouldn’t be possible without its depth. As of this writing, Toronto is third in scoring at 122.4 points per contest, which includes significant contributions from C.J. Miles (10.3 average in only 18.9 minutes per game) followed by backup guards Fred VanVleet (8.7 PPG) and Delon Wright (8.2 PPG).
The Raptors are second in blocks per game (6.0), but Serge Ibaka (who is known for excelling in that category) actually trails teammate Jakob Poeltl (1.3 vs. 1.2 on average) despite playing an extra nine minutes per game. Furthermore, they wouldn’t have drained 879 treys (third-best) without contributions of the aforementioned VanVleet, Wright and (surprisingly) Ibaka to complement Lowry’s impressive total of 218 (tied for third as well).
With their squad firing on all cylinders, their primary Eastern Conference foes seem inferior by comparison these days. The Boston Celtics, who emerged as early favorites, are now tasked with completing the stretch run without both Kyrie Irving (out 3-6 weeks following left knee surgery) and Gordon Hayward; the Philadelphia Sixers are intriguing, but still probably a year or two away from becoming a legitimate threat (Toronto has won three of four meetings); and the Washington Wizards have been unable to keep pace without point guard John Wall.
That leaves the Cleveland Cavaliers, who eliminated the Raptors from the playoffs for the past two seasons. The Cavs’ prowess has been diluted by the Kyrie Irving trade, injuries to Kevin Love (who is being evaluated for a concussion) and the need to reinvent their roster on the fly at the trade deadline. Their team defense is bottom-four in points allowed, opponents’ field goal percentage and in creating turnovers.
But statistical inadequacies can be overcome with LeBron James on the roster. He is capable of willing a team to the NBA Finals on his own. James continues to fill the stat sheet on a nightly basis and he still plays like he has a chip on his shoulder. For all intents and purposes, he is the greatest obstacle in the Raptors’ next-level quest.
For the Raptors, small forward has been their Achilles’ heel this season. Rookie O.G. Anunoby leads the team with 54 starts, in which he averaged a paltry 20.7 minutes and 5.7 points per game. His defensive rating of 102.7 isn’t terrible, but he appears to be functioning as a placeholder while he continues to develop on the job. Backup Norman Powell (105.8 defensive rating) doesn’t offer much resistance and his numbers have regressed in general versus the prior season.
Given the glaring mismatch in a man-to-man scenario, Toronto will need to provide help-side defense (as the Miami HEAT did on Tuesday night) with their shot-blocking specialists and force James to pass out of double teams. Unfortunately for the Raptors, James’ 9.7 assists per game this season are well above his career 7.2 average and he is on pace for an all-time high in that category. Still, it’s probably in their best interest to force the supporting cast to beat them in what will likely be high-scoring contests.
Although the teams split their two meetings (with one remaining), the more recent matchup occurred post-trade deadline, so that seems indicative of how they will perform against one another going forward. LeBron has averaged 30.5 points against the Raptors so far, which exceeds his overall 27.5 PPG by more than 10 percent.
As mentioned previously, the Raptors are on pace to enjoy home court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. They are currently 30-7 at the Air Canada Centre, which has been far better than the Cavs’ 19-18 road record to date. The opportunity to capitalize upon this disparity in the postseason will be paramount.
Predicting the Raptors’ chances against the elite teams from the Western Conference is arguably pointless until they show the ability to advance beyond their own bracket. Hearing “O Canada” before an NBA Finals game would be an accomplishment in and of itself, though.
NBA Daily: The Summer’s Most Impactful Coaching Hires
There have been a lot of coaching swaps this offseason, but there are only a select few that should impact what happens next year.
Building a successful team is like cooking a meal. The players serve as the ingredients, while the coach serves as the cook who stirs the ingredients. A championship team requires the right ingredients just as much as it requires an adept cook.
Take the Warriors for example. Mark Jackson played an important role in putting Golden State back on the map in 2013. However, after it was clear that he wasn’t capable of pushing them much further the following year, they replaced him with Steve Kerr.
That made all the difference. The Dubs went from pseudo-contender to legitimate contender, thanks to their new coach revolutionizing the team’s offense. The team went from the league’s 12th-ranked offense in the league the previous season (107.5 points per 100 possessions) to its second (111.6). Stephen Curry’s evolution into a basketball supernova led the way of course, but it was Kerr’s revisions to the team that pushed them to another level.
It all started with how he handled his rotation. Making Draymond Green a full-time starter while also transitioning Andre Iguodala into the sixth man made the Dubs all the more lethal as a team. The final touch was forming the “Death Lineup”, which consisted of Curry, Green, Iguodala, Klay Thompson, and Harrison Barnes, that made Golden State nearly impossible to stop.
Golden State had a roster built for a title. All they needed was a coach who could get them the best results. Kerr was the man for the job.
That goes to show how vital a coach is to a franchise that has high aspirations.
Because of success stories like Golden State, we saw quite a few coaching changes this summer from teams hoping to have a Hollywood ending much like the Warriors.
Milwaukee Bucks – Mike Budenholzer
Poor Coach Bud. It’s not his fault that the Hawks team that he guided to 60 wins in 2015 slowly disintegrated over the last three years. Luckily he got out of there to avoid having to take on a rebuild. So now, he gets a fresh start in Wisconsin.
Budenholzer’s stock has gone down considerably since winning the Coach of the Year three years ago. That being said, he’s shown that when he has lemons, he can make lemonade. Now that he is running the show in Milwaukee, he is coaching one of the more unique situations in the league. Coach Bud now has a superstar at his arsenal in Giannis Antetokounmpo, which is something he never had in Atlanta.
It’s true that Milwaukee has been one of the league’s frequent underachievers since they kicked the tires of the Greek Freek era, but their talent cannot be understated. Remember that Coach Bud once made the likes of Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver All-Stars, statuses that they’ve never come close to regaining since. If he can do that with guys like Teague and Korver, imagine what he can do with Giannis and Co.
Milwaukee has also done a solid job building a team that fits Budenholzer’s emphasis on floor stretching. Adding Brook Lopez and bringing back Ersan Ilyasova should give a team that ranked 21st in three-point percentage more spacing. That’s quite impressive since Milwaukee had the ninth-best offensive rating in the league (109.8).
Milwaukee’s been trying to find their big break for a while now. They may have found theirs in Coach Bud.
Detroit Pistons – Dwane Casey
Nobody had a harder spring than Casey. Usually, winning Coach of the Year would be a moment worth treasuring, but in Casey’s case, it was far from it. Leading up to getting the award, Casey and the Raptors were swept by the Cavs for the second consecutive time, then he got fired shortly afterward. Casey getting Coach of the Year this season was pretty much like Dirk Nowitzki getting the MVP in 2007 after getting upset by the Warriors in the first round.
Thankfully, Casey’s illustrious resume was good enough for him to land on his feet just about anywhere. That anywhere happens to be Motown, where he’s replacing Stan Van Gundy as head coach. Detroit also has not had the most success since they’ve turned to Andre Drummond. That could be attributed to the unfortunate injuries that they’ve had to deal with in the last two years.
Despite having the persistent monkey on his back come playoff time, Casey has improved his craft in response to his failures. The Raptors saw improvement every year when Casey ran the show, and now Casey has the chance to show he can do the same in Detroit.
It will be an interesting transition going from the Raptors to the Pistons. Though not as talented as Toronto’s, Detroit’s strength should primarily come from their frontcourt. Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond should be one of the league’s best frontcourt pairings on paper. Casey has a reputation for making things work, so now that they will have a full season together, they may shine more than they did last season.
One particular question that should be answered is if Toronto’s problem was Casey or his roster. That may be answered by how Detroit does this season. Oh hey, speaking of Toronto…
Toronto Raptors – Nick Nurse
There seems to be a fair amount of optimism surrounding Nurse. Supposedly, he was the reason why the Raptors’ offense improved so much last season. Casey executed it to perfection, but Nurse was the one who designed it. Now, he’s at the forefront on a team that is desperate for success now more than ever.
This is Nurse’s first gig as a head coach, and the pressure is going to be on. It’s not just that Toronto’s been trying to get past its playoff demons. Now that they have Kawhi Leonard, they have to do everything in their power to keep him around — tall order given he seems hellbent on going to L.A.
Still, Leonard is an upgrade over DeMar DeRozan. Acquiring him, along with promoting Nurse, shows that the Raptors aren’t playing around. Being the head coach for one of the league’s powerhouses is a big break for Nurse. This may be his only to chance to prove he deserves a spot in this league.
James Borrego – Charlotte Hornets
Another Popovich protegee moving up through the ranks! Borrego has had some head coaching experience, though it was with the Orlando Magic, who were not going anywhere, three years ago. Now he’s going to Charlotte, a team that’s in a pretty tough situation right now.
Right now, Charlotte is hard-capped on a roster that does not have much room for improvement. The team has not made the playoffs in two years, and it’s hard to imagine how they improve from where they currently are. However, that might be why they hired Borrego.
Instead of going for a known name like Stan Van Gundy or Jeff Hornacek, they went with a guy who has learned under the NBA’s best coach for several years. Coach Bud became a great coach after learning from Pop, so perhaps Borrego may follow in his footsteps. This is a pivotal year for Charlotte since Kemba Walker’s bargain contract is expiring. If Borrego can help Charlotte return to the playoffs, then that could do wonders for them.
Note that David Fizdale, Lloyd Pierce, and Igor Kokoskov weren’t named. It isn’t fair to include them because the teams they are running are currently in the rebuilding phase with little expectation. They could be very impactful hires down the line. Just don’t expect a lot from them right away.
Same goes for J.B. Bickerstaff, but that’s because he already was the Grizzlies’ head coach. Now he’s full-time instead of interim. Call it cheating if you want to.
As for those who have been named, these hires should have a significant impact on what happens in the Eastern Conference playoff race this season. One of these hires could very well put their team in the finals, while another could put them in the NBA lottery.
NBA Daily: Five Second-Rounders Looking For Rookie Season Role
Although far from guaranteed, there are five recent second-rounders who could work themselves into important roles in 2018-19.
After months of speculation, rumors and workouts, the NBA Draft and their respective summer leagues are finally well in the rearview mirror. With training camps up next, franchises can begin to flesh out their rotations and decide the early season fates of their newly-arrived rookies — even if their selection didn’t come with as much fanfare or hype.
And although draft day studs like Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III are nearly guaranteed to contribute immediately, much of the class’ future is still up for grabs — a statement particularly true for those that followed the first round. Whether it was a strong summer league showing or a picture-perfect landing spot, here are the five second round draftees poised to leave a mark in 2018-19.
Kostas Antetokounmpo, Dallas Mavericks
2017-18: 5.2 points, 2.9 rebounds on 57.4 percent shooting
Much as been made of the youngest Antetokounmpo’s controversial decision to come out this spring, but his faith was rewarded by Dallas with the draft’s final selection. Back in June, our Spencer Davies dove into Antetokounmpo’s time at Dayton and it’s not difficult to see why the Mavericks took a swing on the raw 6-foot-11 prospect. Over four games in Las Vegas, Antetokounmpo averaged five points, 2.5 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks per game on 58 percent from the floor — which, of course, is not eye-popping but could foreshadow a role moving forward.
Between Dirk Nowitzki, Dennis Smith Jr., Harrison Barnes, DeAndre Jordan and the ever-talented Luka Dončić, Antetokounmpo will not be called upon to carry the scoring load at any point. On a two-way deal, the Mavericks have the luxury to develop the Greek-born stopper in the G-League until he’s ready to make a difference — but for a defensive-minded Rick Carlisle, that day could come sooner rather than later. With Dwight Powell and Ray Spalding fighting for minutes at power forward, Antetokounmpo could be an option at the three, where Barnes has just Dorian Finney-Smith behind him.
For a franchise that ranked 18th in DEF RTG (107.4) last season and will strive for their first postseason berth since 2016, giving spot defensive specialist minutes to Antetokounmpo seems like a win-win partnership.
De’Anthony Melton, Houston Rockets
2016-17: 8.3 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.9 steals on 43.7 percent shooting
After missing an entire season due to an improper benefits scandal at USC, Melton serendipitously fell to the Rockets way down at No. 46 overall. At 6-foot-3, Melton has a shot to contribute on both ends immediately as an above-average defender and a microwavable scorer. During his Las Vegas debut, Melton tallied 16.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, four assists and a summer league-leading three steals across five contests — albeit at an improvable 38 percent from the floor. As a tenacious playmaker, Melton should get ample opportunity to impress with a franchise looking to avenge their brutal Western Conference Finals defeat last spring.
On top of learning from one of the best point guards in league history, there also happens to be little competition for Melton in the rotation. In July, the Rockets signed Michael Carter-Williams, a former Rookie of the Year winner that averaged just 4.6 points, 2.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists in 52 games for Charlotte in 2017-18 — and, well, that’s it. For a three-point bombing franchise like Houston, neither guard fits particularly well in that regard, but Melton’s 28.4 percent clip in one season as an 18-year-old still projects better than Carter-Williams’ 25 percent mark over five years.
Chris Paul missed 24 regular season games last year, but the Rockets are still willing to head into training camp with a second-round rookie and Carter-Williams holding down the backup point guard slot — that alone says far more about Houston’s faith in Melton than anything else.
Élie Okobo, Phoenix Suns
2017-18: 12.9 points, 4.8 assists on 39.4 percent from three
Outside of Džanan Musa and the aforementioned Dončić, the Phoenix Suns’ Élie Okobo entered draft night as the most promising overseas prospect in the bunch. Okobo, a 6-foot-2 Frenchman, could feasibly become the Suns’ franchise point guard by season’s end. The playmaking 20-year-old has just Brandon Knight ahead of him on the depth chart, a formidable NBA point guard, but one that does not fit Phoenix’s current rebuilding plan. Admittedly, his statistics won’t jump off the page just yet — 2.3 points, 3.5 assists in four summer league contests — but the potential for Okobo is certainly here.
While it’s worth noting that Okobo didn’t score in three straight contests after his impressive debut, he appears to be a suitable backcourt partner with franchise cornerstone Devin Booker. Whether he’s connecting with a backdoor cut in stride or hitting difficult running floaters, there are plenty of positives to take thus far. With a postseason appearance looking unlikely for the Suns, it’ll make sense to give Okobo the reins before long — even if they can’t move Knight’s contract worth $15.6 million in 2019-20.
Mitchell Robinson, New York Knicks
Needless to say, Mitchell Robinson could be an absolute treat for the New York Knicks.
For much of the pre-draft process, it looked like Robinson was a shoo-in first rounder, with many speculating that he even received a promise from the Los Angeles Lakers at No. 25 overall. Once the first 30 picks came and went without Robinson — who elected to pull out of the draft combine in May — the Knicks were more than happy to scoop him up. Across five summer league contests, Robinson averaged 13 points, 10.2 rebounds and a competition-leading four blocks per game on 67 percent from the field.
On a team-friendly four-year deal worth just $1.8 million in 2021-22, Robinson already looks like a bargain. But beyond his first-round talent at a second-round price, there’s a real chance that Robinson can contribute for New York right away. Following the recent news that Joakim Noah will be stretched if the Knicks can’t find a suitable partner by training camp, that leaves exactly two centers left on the roster: Enes Kanter and Robinson. The 7-foot-1 prospect is a natural replacement for the departed Kyle O’Quinn, while the newly-minted David Fizdale should love Robinson’s shot-changing impact defensively.
Even if Robinson shuttles back-and-forth to and from Westchester throughout the season, he could still seamlessly slide into the Knicks’ rotation from day one.
Jevon Carter, Memphis Grizzlies
2017-18: 17.3 points, 6.6 assists, 3 steals on 39.3 percent from three
Earlier this week, Matt John put forth an excellent case for what should be a comeback season for the Grit-And-Grind Grizzlies — but there’s one second-rounder still currently flying under the radar. Despite a stellar final season at West Virginia, Carter dropped into Memphis’ lap and there are few that so elegantly fit the franchise’s identity without effort. As the reigning back-to-back NABC Defensive Player of the Year, Carter should split the backup point guard minutes with newcomer Shelvin Mack, if not more by season’s end.
The additions of Jaren Jackson Jr., Kyle Anderson and Omri Casspi, along with renewed health from Mike Conley Jr. and Marc Gasol, will have Memphis eying the postseason once again — but Carter will likely be a fan favorite long before then as well. During his lengthy summer league initiation, Carter pulled in 11.4 points, 4.3 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 1.1 steals over seven games. Although his 35 percent clip from the floor could use some restraint, he won’t need to shoulder offensive responsibilities with the Grizzlies.
Carter’s hard-nosed style of play will enhance an uncharacteristically poor Memphis defense from last season, with his years of extra experience allowing the bullish ball-stopper to drop into the rotation from the get-go.
With franchises focused on their high-ranking lottery picks, many second round draftees (and their often non-guaranteed contracts) will never carve out a consistent NBA role. But from backing up future Hall of Famers to filling a hole in the rotation, it should surprise no one if Antetokounmpo, Melton, Okobo, Robinson and Carter earn some big-time opportunities in 2018-19. Last year alone, Semi Ojeleye, Dillon Brooks and Jordan Bell all quickly found their niche at the professional level — so who will it be this year?
NBA Daily: Poeltl Looking Forward To New Beginning With Spurs
Spencer Davies looks at the under-the-radar portion of the DeMar DeRozan-Kawhi Leonard trade and how Jakob Poeltl is already embracing the change.
One month ago, a superstar-swapping trade between the Toronto Raptors and San Antonio Spurs was agreed upon.
The deal—which once again sparked a national debate about player loyalty—sent a reportedly disgruntled Kawhi Leonard to The North in exchange for Masai Ujiri’s franchise cornerstone, DeMar DeRozan.
Longtime Spur and veteran sharpshooter Danny Green was also moved to Toronto, while San Antonio acquired a protected future first-round draft pick and 22-year-old big man Jakob Poeltl.
Remember, Poeltl was an integral piece of a talented Raptor bench that produced a better net rating than their starters, as well as nearly all five-man groups in the league.
While the majority of pundits have gone back and forth about who won the trade, few have mentioned the ninth overall selection in the 2016 NBA Draft. Being involved in the transaction admittedly caught Poeltl “a little bit off guard.”
But entering his third year as a pro, the seven-foot Austrian is embracing the change and a brand new start with one of the most well-respected organizations in sports.
“That’s one of the things I’m most excited about, just the fact that this program has such a big history in developing players,” Poeltl told reporters in his first media appearance since the move. “I’m really excited for the process. Gonna be a lot of work, but I’m looking forward to it.”
From what he has heard from players who have been a part of the Spurs in the past and those who are currently there, it’s an unselfish group of people. They consider it a family environment.
“Everybody is just in it together,” Poeltl said. “From the very top to the very last guy on the bench or in the gym. It’s really like a great atmosphere, at least from what I’ve heard. So I’m looking forward to actually experiencing it myself.”
As soon as Poeltl got to San Antonio, he gazed at the championship banners hanging inside of the gym and quickly realized the expectations he’ll have to fulfill this season are a little higher than where he came from.
“It’s crazy, it’s different,” Poeltl said. “Obviously in Toronto, we didn’t have banners like that. Like we’re on a good way there, but this program here has some tradition to it. Over the last 20 years been a great basketball team. Obviously, you can tell by the championships and all the accomplishments.
“It’s a little bit of pressure, too. Like we’re trying to live up to that. There’s obviously a very high standard here, so we’ve gotta come in and put the work in and really show what we’ve got on the court as a team.”
Poeltl hasn’t wasted any time in immersing himself into the culture. In fact, he’s been working out at their practice facility since he arrived and feels like there’s a “natural chemistry” already with his new teammates.
In the weight room, Poeltl came across the forever face of the Spurs and future Hall-of-Fame forward, Tim Duncan. The conversation between them was short, sweet and casual. Basketball wasn’t brought up, as that will likely be saved for another time when the season approaches.
Duncan still sticks around and helps in practices from time-to-time, but he won’t be there every day. Somebody else who will be, however, is Pau Gasol, a fellow international center that Poeltl looks forward to learning from.
Though those two will be able to give veteran advice and priceless pointers, Poeltl’s most crucial teachings will come from the Spurs lead general—Gregg Popovich. Like with Duncan, on-court discussions were not the focus of their first interaction.
“We went to dinner,” Poeltl said. “We didn’t really talk too much basketball. It was more just like trying to get to know each other, like a first impression. I think there’s more than enough time for us to talk basketball and really learn what the Spurs are all about on the basketball court.
“But it was a really good conversation. Like I really enjoyed it. He’s a very down-to-earth type guy for if you think about what he’s accomplished in his career. He’s really cool.”
Once training camp comes and the dialogue does take a turn towards the hardwood, Poeltl will be all ears. As it stands now, Poeltl’s niche is the hustle guy. He picks up the scraps, corrals offensive rebounds and dives after loose balls, but don’t pigeonhole “role player” to his name. He plans on doing more in San Antonio.
“I take a lot of pride in that,” Poeltl said. “I think I do a lot of the little things out there—set good screens, be in the right places, making good reads off of my teammates and making plays for my teammates at the same time. Obviously like for me, that’s my role right now and I’m really enjoying that.
“I’m working on my game every single day in practice and I’m trying to develop more offensively and defensively so I can take on more responsibilities in the future.”
Moving on from the team that drafted you to another can be difficult. Luckily, Poeltl isn’t coming alone.
“Obviously it helps to have a familiar face like a guy that I’ve played with over the last three years,” Poeltl said of DeRozan. “Like I know how he plays basketball, he knows me. I think we play well together.”
In the two years they have played together, Poeltl has noticed DeRozan fine-tune his game. Although he is first and foremost a pure scorer, his all-around offense is getting better.
DeRozan’s reads on the opposition are crisper, as are the adjustments he makes due to that. He understands when to take games over and has involved his teammates more and more with each season.
It’s no surprise that the four-time All-Star guard is coming to the Spurs with a statement to make. All he’s done since being drafted is improve and devote himself to his second home in Toronto. He hasn’t uttered one favorable comment towards the front office he feels betrayed him.
Witnessing the kind of player DeRozan is when he’s pushed, Poeltl expects we’ll see a whole other side of him unleashed this year.
“It’s a little bit scary, to be honest,” Poeltl said. “Because I know what he can do when he has a chip on his shoulder, when he gets that extra motivation. I think he’s gonna be ready.”
Poeltl doesn’t have quite that big of a score to settle with the Raptors.
He’s just ready to give his all to an organization in a blue-collar town that matches the kind of work ethic he’s had since he started playing the game.
“That’s kinda how I’ve been for my whole basketball career,” Poeltl said. “Just get the work done.”