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Sacramento Kings 2017-18 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders continues our season preview series with the new-look Sacramento Kings.

Basketball Insiders

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The Sacramento Kings are in the midst of an 11-year playoff drought, which is very unlikely to end this upcoming season. Last season’s team was built around DeMarcus Cousins, a lot of veterans and a few younger players – a group that was not talented or deep enough to have a realistic chance of earning a playoff seed in the deep western conference. Vlade Divac, vice president of basketball operations and general manager of the Kings, traded Cousins during All-Star weekend to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway, a 2017 first-round pick and a 2017 second-rounder.

Now that the Kings have moved on from Cousins, the team can start focusing on bolstering and developing its younger players. The Kings signed veterans George Hill, Zach Randolph and Vince Carter to significant contracts, who will likely serve as the team’s veteran leaders. The team is also bringing in De’Aaron Fox, Frank Mason, Harry Giles, Justin Jackson and Bogdan Bogdanovic. However, despite adding a lot of young talent and quality veterans, the Kings are still a long way from being a true playoff contender.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

I like the Kings a whole lot more than I did a year ago, but that still doesn’t change their standing in the Pacific Division, apparently. No rebuilding team makes a massive jump in the first full year of the rebuild, though, so some growing pains are to be expected from what is pretty easily the slickest batch of rookies in the league this year outside of Philadelphia. There are vets on this roster, too, which should help stack a few more wins on the season, but they aren’t ready for the playoffs just yet, no matter the injection of talent. Check back in two or three years.

5th Place — Pacific Division

– Joel Brigham

The Kings have quietly done a solid job of reassembling their core in their post-DeMarcus Cousins days, and they could also quietly be in line for a few more wins this year than we normally expect from a Sacramento franchise. Solid core pieces like Buddy Hield, Willie Cauley-Stein and Skal Labissiere are joined by Kentucky standout De’Aaron Fox plus UNC upperclassman Justin Jackson – and on top of that, the Kings went out and got veterans in George Hill and Zach Randolph. Combine all these with some decent role players like Garrett Temple, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kosta Koufos, and at the very least it seems like the Kings won’t be in direct contention for the cellar in their division or the conference. How many games they win will depend in part on the health of guys like Hill and Randolph, and on whether they’re in a position to tank later on in the season, but they seem like a near-lock for third in the Pacific Division for the third straight year.

3rd place — Pacific Division

– Ben Dowsett

For as long as we can remember, all the Kings seemed to have going for them was DeMarcus Cousins. In their first full season without him, it’s almost impossible to think that their prospects could be better than they ever were with him. Call it crazy, but I like what I see in Sacramento. I’ve been high on Buddy Hield for a long, long time and have similarly high expectations of De’Aaron Fox.

Vince Carter, Zach Randolph and George Hill are a trio of veterans that will fit in nicely with a group of youngsters that includes Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere and Justin Jackson. If Harry Giles becomes an everyday contributor, the Kings just might be in business.

Even without Chris Paul, the Clippers should be able to keep a hold on the second spot in the Pacific Division. The Suns will likely pick up the rear while the Kings and Lakers battle for the third and fourth spots. At this point, I’d give the benefit of the doubt to the Lakers, only because I think they have the more talented players of the bunch. However, I do think that the days of the Kings being a laughingstock are over. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and surprisingly, it looks brighter than it ever did with DeMarcus Cousins.

4th Place — Pacific Division

– Moke Hamilton

Generally depicted as the laughingstock of the NBA, the Sacramento Kings actually have some promise heading into this season for the first time in a long time.

After hitting what appear to be home runs in June’s draft with De’Aaron Fox, Justin Jackson and Harry Giles, the Kings have a slew of youngsters with big time upside. Their 2017 draft haul, which also includes former Naismith Player of the Year Frank Jackson, accompanies the likes of Buddy Hield, Skal Labissiere, and Willie Cauley-Stein as under-25 talent on their roster.

However, even with the signings of proven veterans like George Hill, Zach Randolph and Vince Carter, the Kings won’t be much more than regular season feisty this season. Barring some rapid progression amongst their young guys, Sacramento will be on the outside looking in of the playoff picture. But, the old heads should do their part in helping bring along what appears to be a large batch of young talent for the next era of Kings basketball.

Next season still appears to be pretty dim in Sacramento, but the long-term future looks bright.

3rd place — Pacific Division

– Dennis Chambers

The Kings finally decided to move on from DeMarcus Cousins and, surprisingly, the long term future suddenly looks rather bright in Sacramento. De’Aaron Fox, Justin Jackson, Harry Giles, Buddy Hield, Skal Labissiere and Willie Cauley-Stein make an interesting mix of young talent that should improve with the guidance of veterans like Hill, Carter and Randolph. The Kings made an interesting move by bringing in three expensive veterans. Sacramento could have brought in solid veteran personalities who cost less and wouldn’t require as much playing time, which would have allowed the Kings to maintain more financial flexibility. The young players would have had more time on the court and the Kings could have extracted extra assets from teams looking to dump salary. However, the Kings did well to bring in more veteran leaders and could ultimately move them in deals if contending teams are looking for that last piece to get over the hump. This year’s Kings aren’t going to make the playoffs, but the future is brighter than it has been in some time.

4th place — Pacific Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Zach Randolph

Randolph has been in the NBA since 2001 and is no longer capable of scoring 23 points per game like he could earlier in his career. However, entering his 18th NBA season, Randolph is still one of the most skill offensive big men in the league and is able to score in bunches. From backing opponents down in the post, sweeping across the lane for a hook or knocking down a 15-footer with a hand in his face, Randolph is a versatile offensive weapon that has been tormenting defenders for nearly two decades. Randolph will likely play fewer minutes this season than he has in the past, but he scored 20.7 points per 36 minutes last season – the third highest mark in his career. Unless Randolph loses a significant step this season and someone like Buddy Hield takes a step forward, Randolph should be Sacramento’s top offensive player this upcoming season.

Top Defensive Player: Willie Cauley-Stein

The Kings have a surprisingly high amount of capable defensive players, but Willie Cauley-Stein has the best tools to be a premier defensive player. At age 24, Cauley-Stein has the length and athleticism to be a high-impact defensive anchor at center. Cauley-Stein’s rebounding numbers are problematic and is something he is certainly going to have to address. But his mobility, timing and ability to even check wing players on the perimeter make him a versatile defender who could hit another stage as he continues to develop and gain experience.

Top Playmaker: George Hill

George Hill has never been an elite playmaker or passer, but he is the best the playmaker the Kings have this upcoming season. Hill is a strong ball handler who can often take his opponents off the dribble and attack the rim effectively. Hill is good at drawing in help defenders and finding open teammates either cutting to the basket or open behind the three-point line. Hill found a nice chemistry with his Utah Jazz teammates, often finding cutters like Gordon Hayward under the basket or bigs like Rudy Gobert or Derrick Favors for lobs. Hill has a much different cast of supporting talent to work with this upcoming season, but he still should be able to generate the same kind of opportunities in Sacramento that he did in Utah.

Top Clutch Player: Vince Carter

Vince Carter is now 40 years old and isn’t the high-flying dunk machine he once was. But Carter has aged like a fine wine and is still capable of knocking down three-pointers and hitting big shots in big moments. Earlier in his career, Carter made a number of difficult game-winning shots, including a few incredible dunks. Carter can’t jump over his opponents anymore or create the same level of separation in isolation situations. But if Kings head coach Dave Joerger can design some plays to get Carter an open shot in big moments, that will probably be about as good of a result as the Kings could hope for with the game on the line.

The Unheralded Player: Garrett Temple

Garrett Temple is a solid shooting guard who do a little bit of everything. He is a good shooter who can play off the ball, knock down three-pointers and make crisp passes when he isn’t open. However, if the Kings need him to play the point guard position for a few minutes here and there, he can do that as well. He is also a strong defensive wing that can slow down some of the better wing scorers in the NBA. Temple isn’t going to lock opponents down the way Kawhi Leonard can, but he is an underrated defender and should provide nice wing depth for the Kings this upcoming season.

Best New Addition: De’Aaron Fox

The Kings are bringing in several new players (Carter, Hill, Randolph, Frank Mason, Harry Giles, Justin Jackson, Bogdan Bogdanovic), but Fox is the most significant addition of them all. Selected with the fifth overall pick in this year’s draft, Fox is positioned to be the Kings’ point guard of the future. In one season at Kentucky, Fox averaged 16.7 points, 4.6 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 1.5 steals in 29.6 minutes per game. Fox was selected to the First-team All-SEC, SEC All-Freshman Team and also won SEC Tournament MVP award.

Fox struggles with his shooting and will need to have a few shooters to space the floor for him in order to make the most of his significant skill set. With the right lineups, Fox could make a nice impact as the backup point guard for the Kings this season. With Hill serving as a mentor, Fox projects to be a big time contributor for Sacramento for years to come.

– Jesse Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

1. Skal Labissiere

Labissiere is incredibly raw but has enormous potential. At 6-foot-11 with a huge wingspan, Skal has potential to be an impact player on both ends of the court. He needs to fill out his frame and needs to get a better overall feel for the game, but he has star potential. Worst case scenario, Skal becomes a floor-running big who creates easy scoring opportunities in the open court and off of lobs. Best case, he maximizes his notable skill set and physical tools and becomes a complete player on both ends of the court and a matchup nightmare in general. Nothing is certain with Skal, but his potential is tantalizing.

2. De’Aaron Fox

A crafty point guard with a versatile skill set and decent shooting mechanics, Fox has the makings of a future franchise point guard. He’s too slender to effectively guard the league’s best point guards on a nightly basis, but he should put on size over time. If he straightens out his shaky jumper and becomes an effective floor general, he could be the Kings’ long term solution at point guard.

3. Buddy Hield

Hield has been chastised for being the foundational piece in the Cousins trade, but he came on in a big way at the end of last season. His shooting comes and goes, but when Hield is on, he’s a tough cover. He’s not an elite athlete, but seems more than capable of using his size and craftiness to create space from some of the better wing defenders in the league. Hield also has some ball handling skills and can offer up some spot minutes as a playmaker. Hield may never get to the point where he should have been the foundational piece in a trade for Cousins, but that’s not the standard he should be held to. If Hield can become a lights out shooter and consistent defender, he will be a valuable long term member of the Kings.

4. George Hill

Hill comes at a steep price, but he is a very solid veteran point guard who can guide Fox in his development. Hill has some injury concerns, but if he stays healthy and plays up to his usual standard, he could become nice trade bait at some point in the future. The Kings invested a great deal into Hill, which limits what they can do with their cap space in the short term. But if Hill becomes a unifying leader for the Kings, that will be more significant than whatever he may produce on the court in the short term.

– Jesse Blancarte

SALARY CAP 101

The Kings invested in George Hill, Zach Randolph, Vince Carter and rookie Bogdan Bogdanovic with most of their cap room. Bogdanovic is the third-highest paid player on the team, earning roughly $9 million a season for three years. Sacramento still has up to $4.3 million in cap space along with their Room Exception for another $4.3 million, but the roster is currently full with 15 guaranteed players.

Assuming the team picks up options on Willie Cauley-Stein, Buddy Hield, Georgios Papagiannis, Malachi Richardson and Skal Labissiere before November, the Kings can get to roughly $29 million in salary cap space next summer, provided Kosta Koufos and Garrett Temple out of their contracts prior to July of 2018.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Youth. The Kings suddenly feature one of the more interesting and talented young cores in the NBA. Some of these prospects may fall short of expectations, but if even a few of them come close to maximizing their potential, big things may be in store for the Kings in the not so distant future.

– Jesse Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

Institutional stability. The Kings front office, including owner Vivek Ranadivé, have made some questionable decisions over the last few years. Between the draft and bringing in some talented veterans, it could be argued that the Kings’ front office is showing signs of progress. However, if Hill, Randolph and Carter fall short of expectations and have no tangible impact on the team’s culture or the young players’ collective development, we may start wondering whether the Kings were better off saving that cap space to opportunistically acquire more assets.

– Jesse Blancarte

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will The Kings Stay The Course With This Young Core?

We’ve seen teams in the past enjoy their own unexpected success a bit too much, which led them to trading off key young pieces for veteran talent in an attempt to expedite their rebuilding process. The Phoenix Suns did this not too long ago and are still toiling in an extended rebuild. If the Kings win more games than most people expect, will they mortgage their future by shipping off young core players in exchange for more veteran depth? Doing so would be a mistake that could have long term consequences. The Kings had an encouraging offseason. Now it’s time to see if they have the discipline to stay the course.

– Jesse Blancarte

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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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