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Serge Ibaka To Win Defensive Player Of The Year?

Serge Ibaka has elevated his game this season. Has he done enough to land him the Defensive Player of the Year award?

Susan Bible

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Serge Ibaka, the Oklahoma City Thunder’s shot-blocking luminary, may collect the league’s prestigious Defensive Player of the Year award in the next few weeks. While critics and fans alike have taken note of Ibaka’s increasing offensive contributions this season, his already-impressive defensive prowess has markedly improved as well.

He tops the league in Defensive Impact (statistics measuring defense, considering blocks, steals and defending the basket); players defended by Ibaka are shooting just 44.2 percent at the rim this year. Plus, he leads the league in total blocks (209). Ibaka is averaging 15.2 points and 8.6 rebounds compared to 13.2 points and 7.7 rebounds last year. He’s logging increased numbers in assists, steals, field goals and even three-pointers. He ties teammate Kevin Durant in double-doubles (27) despite averaging about six minutes less in playing time.

Ibaka provided a remarkably straightforward and simple answer when asked to explain what in particular has led to his improved season.

“Just focus,” Ibaka told Basketball Insiders. “Focus, because being in a league where everybody works hard, you definitely (have to) be focused and try to consistently do that.”

At just 24 years old, with his prime still years away, what is the ceiling of the 6’10 power forward? How much better can he get?

“Ceilings are fiction, to be honest,” veteran Derek Fisher said. “You can go as high as you want. I think Serge has not just all the physical abilities, but the mindset of coming to work every day to work hard and get better. Come in early, before practice, after practice, weight room, taking care of his body, rest, recovery; so, as far as he wants to take it, that’s how far he can go.

“Hopefully we go into the offseason the way we want to. I don’t worry about Serge in the offseason. He’s definitely going to get better regardless how he ends this season.”

Durant and Kendrick Perkins appear ready to give Ibaka the Defensive Player of the Year designation now. He ranked among the top three in DPOY voting in the past two seasons.

“He’s the best defensive guy in the league, I think, for his position,” Durant said.

“He does a great job defensively,” Perkins echoed. “I don’t know how you can’t give him Defensive Player of the Year.”

As Thunder coach Scott Brooks continually points out, stats provide valuable information in measuring Ibaka’s many contributions, but they certainly don’t capture how many shots and plays he alters as he greets opponents entering the paint.

“That’s what makes our defense good,” Brooks said. “When everybody is participating, and when we do have a breakdown, he’s out there backing everybody up and covering for everybody’s mistakes.

“He’s right there with the best defensive players in the league. He’s right there with the Defensive Player of the Year.”

Whether one subscribes to his “IBlocka” nickname or “The Serge Protector,” Ibaka deserves a lot of credit for helping the Thunder maintain its fifth ranking in Defensive Rating throughout the recent injuries to top defenders Thabo Sefolosha and Perkins.

“It’s incredible,” said Sefolosha of Ibaka’s ability to protect the paint. “But at the same time, we don’t want it to turn into a curse where we just let guys go to the basket hoping that Serge is going to be there to block shots. We got to guard our man.

“The way he changes shots, the way he blocks shots, the way he grabs the rebounds, he’s a force out there. And we’re definitely happy to have that.”

“He’s been doing it all season long,” Russell Westbrook said. “He’s the best shot-blocker in the league.”

Ibaka has certainly come a long way from those early days when Brooks relied on hand gestures during practice as he was learning English. While his accent remains fairly pronounced, Ibaka’s communication skills have proven to be a real difference-maker in reaching higher levels of play.

“It’s pretty scary sometimes,” shared Reggie Jackson on the language barrier. “You don’t know if he has the best understanding of basketball, and he’s playing this well. It’s just scary to see what’s going to happen when he puts it all together.”

Those fans cheering on the top row of the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City can hear Ibaka’s booming on-court instructions as he directs the defense. He says Perkins has been instrumental in helping him become a vocal presence; in turn, is he teaching the Thunder’s rookies how to improve in that area?

“Of course,” Ibaka replied. “Helping the rookies, like Steven (Adams). He’s young. Andre (Roberson), you try to help them. That’s what I did. That’s what makes us different and everybody tries to get better.”

“I’m starting to understand what Serge is talking about in the back,” newcomer Caron Butler said with a smile. “I’m catching on to his accent; it’s coming.”

Fisher explains how Ibaka’s improved communication has added value in other tangible ways, such as in mentoring his teammates and providing sound leadership.

“I think that’s one area where he’s continued to mature and feel more comfortable stepping into a leadership role vocally in terms of saying the right things to his teammates, speaking up when he feels like something is on his heart or on his mind,” Fisher said. “That all factors in to being on a team and being part of a group. That also adds value to your team, so that’s an area where he’s continued to improve. I think he’ll continue to bring value to the organization in that regard.”

Jackson summarizes his view of Ibaka’s season thus far.

“He’s been spectacular,” Jackson said. “He’s been great for us, especially in pick-and-pops. He’s just been hot. Probably the best guy in the league at it, I’m pretty sure of that.

“He’s been shooting the ball pretty well. He’s been understanding whether to pick-and-pop, the times he needs to roll, (and) he’ been doing a great job of finishing at the basket for us strong. He’s still just been a tenacious defender. The sky’s the limit for him. He’s so athletic.”

As for Ibaka’s opinion on how improve his game, he said this: “Just keep working, working on my defensive moves. On offense, keep working to shoot better and try to keep (getting) better on defense, too.”

In a league full of players devoted to excelling on the defensive end of the floor, move Ibaka even higher on that list. The panel of sportswriters and broadcasters casting their ballots for the Defensive Player of the Year may decide he’s at the very top this season.

Susan Bible covers the Oklahoma City Thunder for Basketball Insiders and writes about all NBA teams. She is a Senior Newslines Editor and contributes to fantasy basketball coverage.

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Golden State Warriors 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Golden State Warriors have been the top team in the West for the last four years and with year five with this core group together on deck, they are showing no signs of slowing down. Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Warriors in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave all summer, you’re probably aware that DeMarcus Cousins is now a member of the Golden State Warriors. No, the Warriors didn’t trade Klay Thompson or Draymond Green to acquire Cousins. Rather, the Warriors signed him to one-year, $5 million contract as a result of the Achilles injury that sidelined him late last season and scared teams away from making significant, long-term offers for his services. Cousins will continue rehabbing for the first few months of the season. While he won’t offer any immediate help, he could be a big-time difference maker in the postseason if he is able to return to even 75 percent of his pre-injury form during the regular season.

Aside from Cousins, the Warriors re-signed Kevin Durant to a two-year $61.5 million contract with a player option on the final season. Additionally, the Warriors made some changes around the edges of the roster, while returning each of their star players. Basically, the Warriors enter the upcoming season as the overwhelming favorites to win the championship and could be more dangerous than ever with Cousins working his way back from his injury.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Adding Cousins has tremendous upside but my prediction is that he won’t have the major impact that many people expect. Even if Cousins is healthy, he doesn’t necessarily fit with the Warriors’ starting lineup. If he accepts a role as the offensive leader of the bench unit, I think he could wreak havoc against opposing second units. But it’s hard for me to imagine Cousins embracing that role if he is anywhere close to full strength. In the starting lineup, Cousins would struggle to keep up with the pace of the offense, would likely become a ball-stopper, would demand the ball in the post frequently and would take a lot of ill-advised three-pointers. I could be wrong about all of this of course. Cousins could embrace the Warriors’ pass-first mentality and make the team an unstoppable force on offense. But based on Cousins’ history, I think it’s fair to be skeptical.

1st Place – Pacific Division

– Jesse Blancarte

What kind of world is it to live in as a franchise when you can sign an All-Star starter from last season in free agency, and your title odds aren’t impacted whatsoever? Only the Warriors could tell us. Sure, DeMarcus Cousins is coming off a potentially devastating Achilles tear that few have ever come back the same from, but the sheer star power of this roster got even more overwhelming over the offseason. There might be rising powers in the East in Boston and Toronto, and the Rockets will try to run things back for another shot at the crown, but make no mistake: The Warriors are the runaway title favorites, and only significant injuries or other major catastrophe can change that. At this point, the offseason might be more intriguing for this franchise than the actual basketball itself.

1st Place – Pacific Division

– Ben Dowsett

Need we say more about what the Warriors are capable of? Unless you’ve been living under a rock, they are the clear-cut favorites to three-peat. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson continue to be the Splash Brothers. Kevin Durant understands what he needs to do in order to win ball games on a nightly basis. Draymond Green is more than just a glue guy these days who is as suffocating of a defensive player as anybody else in the NBA. Oh, and Golden State just added a four-time All-Star in DeMarcus Cousins who is aiming for a maximum deal next offseason when he returns to the floor. Good luck to those who are trying to take down this dynasty!

1st Place – Pacific Division

– Spencer Davies

Just when you thought the league’s best team couldn’t get any more unstoppable. The Warriors come into this season as the league’s reigning champion that somehow landed a multi-time all-star to fill in their one weakness at center. There isn’t much else to say about the Warriors that hasn’t already been said. They have arguably the most talented NBA roster of all time, playing with at least two of the NBA’s most talented offensive players of all time still in the prime of their careers. This team could slack enough in the regular season to get the eighth seed and STILL be the overwhelming favorite in the loaded Western Conference. The Warriors are so good that DeMarcus Cousins could flop badly – a real possibility coming off that Achilles injury – and it wouldn’t hurt them at all. The Warriors are that just that unfathomably good.

1st Place – Pacific Division

– Matt John

It was hard to envision how the Warriors could get better, and then the unimaginable happened, a dry market place collided with a major injury to a player with a spotty and checkered past – the end result is the Warriors got an All-Star Center in DeMarcus Cousins for peanuts. Yes, he’ll likely miss most of the year, but if he’s back in the post-season the Warriors may not have a peer in the NBA. The one thing that will catch the Warriors eventually is all those extra miles. Steph Curry has logged 2,596 playoffs minutes over the last four Finals runs. For perspective, Damian Lillard played 2,670 minutes in the regular season last year. All these runs to the NBA Finals will catch up at some point, and that is a real threat. On the surface, no one looks like they can seriously challenge the Warriors if healthy, the question is can they manage the workload enough to make sure they can stay that way?

1st Place – Pacific Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kevin Durant

Durant is arguably the most devastating singular offensive force in the league. He’s roughly seven-feet tall, athletic, a deadly shooter from anywhere on the court, a good passer and can get his shot off in just about any situation. You can argue that Stephen Curry has a claim as the team’s top offensive player because he orchestrates the Warriors’ offense and generates easy scoring opportunities for his teammates more frequently than Durant. However, Durant gets the nod here for being the most lethal individual scorer and unstoppable offensive force in the NBA.

Top Defensive Player: Draymond Green

On a team that features impact defenders like Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant Shaun Livingston and Jordan Bell, Draymond Green still stands out as the team’s defensive ace. Green won Defensive Player of the Year in 2017, has earned NBA All-Defensive First Team three times (2015–2017), NBA All-Defensive Second Team once (2018) and led the NBA in steals in 2017.

Green is a unique defensive player. He isn’t a towering defender anchoring a team’s defender under the rim like Rudy Gobert. He isn’t a lockdown wing defender like Kawhi Leonard. Rather, Green is a barrel-chested forward who can guard a point guard beyond the three-point line, stick with players as big as LeBron James as they attack the rim, guard opposing centers in the post and block shots as a weak side shot blocker. Green can effectively defend all five positions and is the glue that keeps the Warriors’ defense together. He even plays center for periods in the Warriors’ well-known “Death Lineup,” which is a nightmare matchup for opponents on both ends of the court.

Top Playmaker: Stephen Curry

Steph Curry may not tally the most assists per game in the Association, but he is one of the NBA’s best ball-handlers, one of its best passers and one of its top overall playmakers. Durant’s presence makes the Warriors’ offense consistently imposing, but it’s Curry who can turn it into a well-orchestrated, high octane flurry of backdoor passes, open three-pointers and layups at the rim. Curry can get a little too caught up in the moment at times and start making ill-advised passes that lead to untimely turnovers. However, with Curry you are more than happy to take the good with the bad.

Top Clutch Player: Kevin Durant

The Warriors have a lot of options in this category. Klay Thompson can go off for multiple three-pointers in key moments of close games. Curry has a history of knocking down exceedingly difficult shots in clutch situations. But Durant is the guy who can pull up on a player as long and athletic as Giannis Antetokounmpo and still shoot right over him as if no one was in front of him. Durant is the guy who can’t be locked down by any individual defensive player. You can run every trick in the book to keep Durant from scoring on you in a clutch situation, but more often than not he is going to get a good look and often times bury a clutch shot over multiple defenders. I won’t argue too much if you go with Curry on this one. But with the game on the line, I am putting the ball in Durant’s hands.

The Unheralded Player: Andre Iguodala

Consider this: On a team featuring Curry, Thompson, Green, Durant and several capable backups and role players, the Warriors and their fans were fretting over the injury to Andre Iguodala that limited him in last season’s playoffs. With so much talent, it would be easy to think that Iguodala is a luxury to have but not a necessity – like icing on a cake. If you talk to the Warriors’ players, however, they would push back on that idea. Iguodala is no longer the lockdown defender he once was and is a streaky offensive player. But he executes his role on both ends of the court consistently, is a capable defender and seems to always make the right play. When it was reported that Iguodala would not be able to play in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, Steve Kerr gave his thoughts on what the team would be missing without Iguodala.

“He’s a great defender,” Kerr said of Iguodala. “He’s an organizer. He’s a guy who settles us down. He continuously makes the right play. We’ll miss all of that.” That pretty much sums up what you need to know about Iguodala and his importance to this stacked team.

Best New Addition: DeMarcus Cousins

Yes, Cousins is coming off of a devastating injury that has derailed the careers of top players in the past. For the Warriors, it doesn’t really matter. They are still adding a superstar center to a team that can thrive without him and become truly unstoppable with him if he makes a full recovery. Some are concerned that Cousins could add some toxicity to the Warriors’ locker room, but this is a team full of veteran superstars and disciplined role players. If any team can handle Boogie in the locker room, it’s the Warriors. There is just so much upside to this move that it’s hard to focus too much on the potential downsides. If Cousins has a great season and helps the Warriors win another championship, it is all but guaranteed he will get a big contract from another team and will move on after this season. That would still be ideal for the Warriors, who are happy to have his services even for just this season.

– Jesse Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

1. Quinn Cook

After going undrafted in 2015, bouncing around the G-League and being signed and waived by several NBA teams, Cook finally found a home last season with the Golden State Warriors. Cook has shown significant improvement in every facet of his game since he left Duke and is now a very capable backup guard. He averaged 9.5 points, 2.7 assists, and 2.5 rebounds per game while shooting 48.4 percent from the field and 44.2 percent from three-point range in 33 regular season games last season. Cook filled in whenever injuries sidelined his teammates and did an admirable job. He is not an elite passer or playmaker, but he is capable of starting when necessary to do so and is a team-first player. He also is playing on an extremely team-friendly contract.

2. Bob Myers

Bob Myers is, in large part, responsible for the Warriors’ recent run of success. He was named the team’s general manager in 2012 and has been instrumental in drafting key players, executing major transactions and instilling a culture of inclusion in the Warriors’ front office, which has altogether resulted in a historically talented roster. Myers has had a lot of help along the way, but it can’t be overstated how much of a positive impact he has made as the team’s top executive. Give Myers credit for making bold moves that have paid off in a major way – the most recent being the addition of Cousins.

3. Shaun Livingston

I have followed Livingston’s career closely since he was drafted fourth overall by the Los Angeles Clippers in 2004. From his early career, to the nearly career-ending knee injury, to his journey through the G-League, to his championship runs with the Warriors – Livingston has always carried himself as a true pro (though he did have an unfortunate encounter with a referee last season). Livingston is another veteran presence for the Warriors and always does what the team asks of him.

Livingston is kind of an anomaly in the modern NBA. He isn’t a threat from three-point range and makes most of his offensive impact from mid-range. Livingston isn’t great at any single thing but, like Iguodala, always seems to make the right play at the right time.

4. Steve Kerr

Steve Kerr has quickly established himself as one of the best head coaches in the NBA. He is a strong tactician and strategist, communicates effectively with his players and has somehow managed to maintain balance on a team stacked with superstar talent and large egos. I wouldn’t blame anyone for taking issue with his, at times, confusing rotations. But any shortcoming with Kerr is largely outweighed by his abilities both as a strategist and a manager of a locker room featuring some big personalities.

– Jesse Blancarte

STRENGTHS

This team has more star talent than probably any NBA team ever assembled. Two All-Star players could be sidelined and this team would still probably have more star talent than any opponent it faces on any given night. And beyond the star talent, the Warriors feature several players who can effectively fill in and keep things moving along without any major setbacks.

– Jesse Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

The Warriors aren’t any more susceptible to injuries than any other team. But injuries have been a concern over the last few years, especially leading up to the postseason. If this were NBA 2K and injuries were taken off, this Warriors team could probably win 75 regular season games. But in the real world, injuries could cost this team anywhere from five to 10 games in any given season.

– Jesse Blancarte

THE BURNING QUESTION

What impact will DeMarcus Cousins have this season?

I have previously mentioned my concerns regarding what kind of impact Cousins is likely to have this season. It’s clear that if healthy, Cousins could make this team nearly unstoppable. But if injuries are a lingering concern, and if Cousins doesn’t want to embrace a role more fit for a Sixth Man, things could get awkward in Golden State. I am confident that the Warriors can handle a scenario in which Cousins becomes a distraction. But this situation will be a focal point of attention until we get some clarity on what role Cousins can and will play for the Warriors this season.

– Jesse Blancarte

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Houston Rockets 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Houston Rockets proved a year ago that they were as formidable a challenger in the West as we’ve seen in a while. Although the roster has evolved, the question remains, did they get better? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Rockets in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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Last year, it was about proving the skeptics wrong for Houston. This year, it’s about proving that they can keep it up.

A few months ago, the Houston Rockets were a half-decent three-point shooting performance from one of the biggest upsets in NBA history and their first trip to the NBA Finals since 1995. Getting the number one seed while almost toppling one of the most talented teams ever assembled would usually make their season a wild success. For the Rockets,. though, that wasn’t enough.

That brings us to this season. Bringing up what the Rockets lost this summer is pretty much beating a dead horse at this point, so let’s summarize it like this: While Houston kept its star power, it lost players who brought intangibles to the table. Who they replaced said players with has brought much doubt as to whether Houston can repeat last season’s performance, much less win a championship.

No matter what setback(s) they may have faced this off-season, the Rockets’ goal remains unchanged. They want their next title. Though the roster has gone through a little shakeup, the Rockets should still be one of the league’s best teams.

But is it enough to get them over that colossal hump that is the Golden State Warriors? Well, let’s take a look at what their team looks like.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Houston Rockets were the biggest threat to the Golden State Warriors at the beginning of the offseason. However, I’m not sure that’s the case anymore. Last season, with a stable of versatile defenders, the Rockets were able to implement a very aggressive, switch-everything scheme against the Warriors in the playoffs. The Rockets’ defense gave the Warriors problems in the Western Conference Finals, but Houston couldn’t overcome the loss of Chris Paul to a hamstring injury. This summer, the Rockets lost Trevor Ariza to the Suns and Luc Mbah a Moute to the Clippers and added several new players, like Carmelo Anthony. I think the Rockets have the talent to push the Warriors in a seven-game series, but they won’t be able to use the same defensive schemes that made life miserable for Golden State. The Rockets had an okay offseason all things considered, but I don’t think they closed the gap on the Warriors in a meaningful way.

1st Place – Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

It’s hard to shake the feeling that last season might have been the Rockets’ best shot at beating the current iteration of the Warriors. The losses of guys like Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute really hurt their wing depth, an area that was already somewhat thin – and also vital to any hopes of making it past the behemoths in Golden State and out of the Western Conference. Carmelo Anthony looks like a big name to help replace them, but is he really effective at this point? The Rockets will always be among the league’s elite with James Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela on the roster, but Paul isn’t getting any younger and Mike D’Antoni’s rotations were already dangerously short. It feels bad to be so negative about a group that’s unquestionably one of the league’s best, but the goal has always been a title for this team in Houston, and they look further away from it than this time last year.

1st Place – Southwest Division

– Ben Dowsett

The big news of the summer for the Rockets was the acquisition of Carmelo Anthony. They needed to fill the void left by the departure of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, so it’s on the 10-time All-Star and James Ennis to replace them. The upside of this is Houston’s main core is still intact. Chris Paul, James Harden and Clint Capela know each other’s tendencies and how to play off one another so well. Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker are perfect for the secondary roles that they are assigned. Guys like Brandon Knight and Marquese Chriss are solid additions to bolster this squad’s depth as well. Mike D’Antoni will have to experiment with rotations, but the talent is most definitely still there. We’ll see how it stacks up with the other giants in the Western Conference.

1st Place – Southwest Division

– Spencer Davies

For a moment there, Houston was in the driver’s seat to the NBA championship, but only so briefly. After all that transpired this summer, there are severe doubts surrounding the Rockets’ ability to repeat last season’s success. Their perimeter defense on paper took a hit, and Chris Paul isn’t getting any younger. Still, as long as James Harden is running things and Paul is his running mate, the Rockets will be one of the league’s best teams. Losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute hurts, but Carmelo Anthony and Brandon Knight can add some firepower that could make up for what the Rockets lost. If they don’t, then Houston will need to make some more moves. Because whether they like it or not, the clock is ticking.

1st Place – Southwest Division

– Matt John

It is easy to look at the Rockets through a negative prism… they lost Trevor Ariza, they added Carmelo Anthony, Jeff Bzdelik is retiring. There are plenty of negatives, but when you look at the end of the day roster coming to camp, the Rockets may have traded off a little defense in exchange for a whole lot more firepower. The Rockets were tremendous last season and there is no reason to believe they won’t be tremendous again this season – the question is, will they be tremendous in the post-season? That’s a huge unknown. The Rockets are a better basketball team; it’s unclear if they’ll be good enough to derail the Warriors, but they sure are equipped to try.

1st Place – Southwest Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: James Harden

It speaks volumes about you when you’re teammates with one of the best point guards of all time – who’s still reasonably in his prime – and you’re the obvious pick. James Harden has been in the MVP conversation in three of the last four years. This past season, he finally made it all the way to the top, getting named the league’s Most Valuable Player without much question.

His numbers continue to be outright ridiculous: 30.4 points, 8.8 assists, and 5.4 rebounds a game are legendary-type numbers. What makes Harden so incredible to watch is his lack of predictability. He’s an expert at getting the right shot, finding the right pass, or overall making the right decision. His style isn’t necessarily the most fun to watch – Harden is a flopper and knows how to draw fouls that slow down the game – but he knows how to orchestrate an elite offense by himself. Until Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry separate, which may or may not happen, James Harden is the league’s top offensive weapon at the top of his prime.

Top Defensive Player: Clint Capela

Houston made Capela a very rich man this summer, and for very good reason. The Swiss center has gradually become one of the league’s top rim protectors in the couple of years. Last year alone, Capela saw a gradual increase in both rebounds (10.8) and blocks (1.9). In fact, Capela’s 137 total blocks ranked second in the league behind only Anthony Davis.

What should excite Houston is that Capela is still only 24 years old who is playing in a system that suits his strengths, so his ceiling could potentially be even higher. Future star may be a stretch, but Houston could still even more improvement from Capela in the coming years. Best-case scenario: Capela winds up becoming what Houston hoped Dwight Howard was going to be.

Top Clutch Player: Chris Paul

Paul doesn’t exactly have the best resume when it comes to playing in the clutch, but he’s proven that he can step it up when his back is up against the wall. Whether it’s for the better or worse of the team, Chris Paul has never been afraid of the moment. This was best evidenced by him pretty much single-handedly beating the Warriors in an intense Game 5 during the Western Conference finals.

His statistics in the clutch are pretty solid as well. Paul only played in 21 games last season that were deemed clutch, primarily because he missed a good chunk of the season with injury and when he played, Houston’s games were rarely close. In those games, Paul has a plus-minus of +3.5, averaging three points a game and shooting 59 percent from the field, including 50 percent from three. Harden has an even shakier history in the clutch, so Houston should feel fortunate to have CP3 in crunch time.

Top Playmaker: James Harden/Chris Paul

This is is definitely one topic where everyone can agree these two are dead even. Paul and Harden are two of the league’s very best distributors, which played a huge role in Houston arguably having the best offense in the league last season.

Houston, believe it or not, ranked among the lowest in overall team assists, averaging 21.5, a game which tied for 26th overall in the league. Harden and Paul together account for 16.7 of the team’s assists, good for about 78 percent. That makes it all the more impressive that they had the league’s highest offensive rating at 114.7 points per 100 possessions. Their efforts offensively proved to be for Houston’s benefit as well. The Rockets’ offense was +8.1 when Paul was on the floor and +6.6 with Harden on the floor. As long as one of these two are on the floor at all times, Houston’s offense will be in good hands.

The Unheralded Player: Eric Gordon

Eric Gordon is evidence of the abundance of riches the Rockets have. He is perfectly capable of being the second guard on a championship team. Yet, he’s the Rockets’ third guard. Because he plays for a team whose two best players play the position as him, Gordon falls a bit under the radar, but his impact on the floor is undeniable.

Gordon gives Houston a potent offensive option off the bench who fits quite well in Mike D’Antoni’s offense and complements Harden and Paul quite well. This is evidenced by his scoring output, as his 18 points per game average last season was the best he’s had in years. Better yet, his contributions get results for Houston. Gordon’s net rating placed him first on the team among players who played at least 1,000 minutes, as the Rockets were +10.3 overall when Gordon was on the floor.

The real triumph to all of this is seeing Eric Gordon salvage his career so swiftly after all he’s been through. Hopefully, it just gets better from here on out for him.

Best New Addition: Carmelo Anthony

Even at this point in his career, who would have thought that when you call Carmelo Anthony your best new addition this summer, you have to follow that up with, “By default”?

Though not the sexy name he once was, Carmelo Anthony is still capable of putting up 15-20 points a game. Since he has experience playing with both James Harden and Chris Paul on Team USA, ‘Melo may prove to be a better fit than the skeptics give him credit for. Even if he continues to play below expectations, it’s not like Houston invested much in him. If the guy stinks, the Rockets won’t play him. If he thrives, they found another dimension to their team. It doesn’t matter what happened last season in OKC. Adding Carmelo Anthony for $2.4 million provides minimal risk.

Adding him to the Rockets isn’t really low-risk/high-reward, but rather a low-risk/high-enough-reward for the Rockets.

– Matt John

WHO WE LIKE

1. Mike D’Antoni

Even though he’s won Coach of the Year with two separate teams, D’Antoni’s best coaching of his career may have come last season. On top of having the league’s best offensive rating – surprising absolutely no one – he finally disproved the fallacy that he can’t coach defense. Houston had the league’s sixth-best defensive rating, which can be attributed to their improved personnel on the defensive end. However, having better defenders can only work so well if they are utilized properly, which was the case under D’Antoni. Offensively, the Rockets should still be top of the line, but for Houston to stay in the discussion with Golden State, D’Antoni needs to build off his success defensively despite what he lost.

2. Daryl Morey

The Rockets’ general manager never ceases to amaze. He somehow was able to find a taker for Ryan Anderson’s mammoth contract, acquired a potentially better player in Brandon Knight, and even received intriguing young talent in Marquese Chriss, whose career outlook is still up in the air. That’s masterful work for a guy who didn’t really have much to work with this summer. When people count him out, Daryl Morey always manages to have something up his sleeve. That’s why nobody should sleep on Houston. The Rockets may take a step back, but never underestimate what Morey can do.

3. Brandon Knight (or Brandon Knight’s contract)

It really is a shame to see how much has gone wrong for Knight. Because of injuries and playing on a rebuilding team, Knight hasn’t done anything relevant in the NBA since 2015. It’s important to remember that he is only 26 years old, so the potential he has on this team could be much higher than people think. If Knight returns to form, he’s going to be a fantastic addition to Houston’s high-octane offense. If he doesn’t, then he’s going to be a valuable trade asset if Houston decides to search for another wing this season.

4. PJ Tucker

So much has been made about the 3&D wings the Rockets lost. What about the one premier 3&D wing they still have? Tucker proved to be a smart investment by Houston last season, as he gave the team more needed three-point shooting and tough-as-nails defense. Tucker also gives the team a fair amount of good leadership and is a pretty good rebounder for a man of his size. Now that he’s the only proven 3&D wing they have – James Ennis could prove this notion wrong – expect Tucker to have an even bigger role.

– Matt John

STRENGTHS

The Rockets have two of the league’s best all-around guards playing under one of the league’s most brilliant offensive minds. Those three components alone make them one of the NBA’s best teams. Harden and Paul proved to be one of the league’s best backcourts, and should that lead to a title, they could be among one of the best of all-time, if they weren’t already. Also, despite all the skepticism that came from adding him, Carmelo Anthony still is another proven offensive option that could add some more pizzazz to the league’s best offense. Adding him to a team that has Clint Capela, Eric Gordon, and PJ Tucker should make Houston a great all-around team no matter what.

– Matt John

WEAKNESSES

Last season may have proven that Mike D’Antoni can coach defense after all, but only if he as the personnel to do it. Houston’s defense should be fine overall, but losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute hurts their perimeter defense and more importantly, their versatility. Those two aspects weren’t the main ingredient, but they played a huge role in Houston’s improvement last season. Carmelo Anthony is expected to take Ariza’s spot in the starting lineup, but he’s hardly ever been a plus defender. In a league where teams take advantage of defensive mismatches now more than ever, Carmelo is bound to get picked on. Again, the Rockets’ defense should be fine, but if it’s not elite this time, then their season may wind up in disappointment again.

– Matt John

THE BURNING QUESTION

Is this the team Houston goes with when the playoffs come around?

As long as they have their whole team healthy in time for the playoffs, Houston should still be an elite team. However, the reason why they almost toppled the Warriors was because, along with their starpower, they had players that gave Golden State matchup problems. With Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute gone, that advantage isn’t nearly as strong as it once was. Adding Carmelo Anthony’s scoring and/or James Ennis’ defense could potentially soften the blow, but if it’s not enough, then the Rockets could be in trouble. Houston has to remember that Chris Paul is on the wrong side of the 30, so they have no time to waste.

There is a chance that Houston does just fine even with the hits they took, but the odds aren’t in their favor. If Houston does take a step back, then they better look for the best wing they can get on the trade market.

– Matt John

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NBA

Toronto Raptors 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Raptors tinkered with an already impressive roster this offseason. Will their changes payoff? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Raptors in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

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The Toronto Raptors enter 2018-19 with high expectations. The team has been a reliably strong squad, qualifying for the playoffs in each of the previous five seasons. That success reached a peak last season, when the Raptors won 59 games in route to the number one seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. But simply reaching the playoffs isn’t enough for the Raptors and GM Masai Ujiri. Ujiri parted ways with 2017-18 coach of the year Dwane Casey in favor of former assistant coach Nick Nurse. And he capitalized on Kawhi Leonard’s fractured relationship with the San Antonio Spurs, swapping DeMar DeRozan and others for the 2014 NBA Finals MVP along with Danny Green.

The Raptors enter this season with as much boom-or-bust potential as any roster in the league. The team could flourish with an upgraded roster. Or they could flounder due to injury and/or chemistry issues. Will Leonard return to form as the potent scorer and lock down defender that we last saw in 2017? Or will the trade backfire on the Raptors and set off a series of events that culminates in a complete rebuild?

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Masai Ujiri took a huge gamble this offseason and the payoff could be huge. Trading for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green gives the Toronto Raptors some impressive defensive versatility. I can’t wait to see what Nick Nurse is able to do with a roster full of impact defenders and Kyle Lowry and Leonard leading the offensive attack. Having said that, there are some concerns. We still aren’t sure whether Leonard has fully recovered from his lingering leg injury. Green was limited last season by a groin injury. This team has thrived off of talent and chemistry, which may be compromised with DeMar DeRozan now in San Antonio and Dwane Casey in Detroit. This team has a high ceiling and a surprisingly low floor. The other big concern is Leonard’s long term future. He will hit unrestricted free agency next summer and several reports have him favoring a move to Los Angeles. A lot can happen between now and then, but this situation will hang over Toronto all season.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Jesse Blancarte

For the NBA fans and analysts out there who subscribe to the “worst or first” philosophy that says you should be either competing for titles or picking at the top of the lottery for blue chip talent, this Raptors offseason was nirvana. By pushing all their chips in on Kawhi Leonard, who has just one year left on his deal and seems a real threat to bolt after a single season, they’ve positioned themselves for Leonard’s decision to dictate the franchise’s direction. If he leaves, you rebuild around a young core that’s solid but lacks a star. If he stays…well, you’re laughing. It’s hard to get a read on Leonard’s true thinking at this point, but competing for an Eastern Conference crown and perhaps even giving the Warriors a run for their money in the Finals likely couldn’t hurt their efforts toward keeping him. The Raps have a ridiculous amount of lineup versatility assuming full health from Leonard; Danny Green is an underrated part of that same trade, even if he had a down year last season. They’ll have the best player on the floor in any series against Boston if Leonard returns to his prior form, and the East’s playoffs could be extremely entertaining.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Ben Dowsett

Props to Toronto for going all in. They didn’t have a second’s hesitation to trade their franchise’s best player of all time for Kawhi Leonard. If you’re a contender with a realistic chance to acquire an MVP candidate in his prime, you take it no matter what. Leonard by himself potentially gives Toronto that extra gear that they’ve been craving for the past half-decade. The Raptors were one of the best teams in the league on both sides of the floor last season, so now that they have Leonard, they can’t afford to screw this up. Leonard’s expiring contract and supposed desire to go to Los Angeles makes this a do-or-die situation for the Raps. This is the magnum opus for Toronto because Leonard will either be the beginning of a glorious era or the end of a disappointing one.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Matt John

It’s a new era in The North. Kawhi Leonard is coming to re-define Raptors basketball under head coach Nick Nurse. The organization kept the majority of its core intact outside of moving DeMar DeRozan, meaning Kyle Lowry is still going to be the man in charge of the offense. Danny Green is an underrated acquisition who came along with his former San Antonio Spurs teammate. Though Jakob Poeltl is gone, Toronto’s bench is looking to be just as effective as it was last year behind Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and veteran C.J. Miles. Coming off an impressive first season, O.G. Anunoby is the perfect understudy to Leonard as well. With all of this said, the Atlantic’s top is stacked. They’ll most likely finish in the top four of the Eastern Conference, but their division foes are just better at this point. That doesn’t mean they won’t surprise come mid-April.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

– Spencer Davies

I get the logic. The Raptors were stagnating, especially in the playoffs. They needed to do something, and trading for Kawhi Leonard was maybe the right move. Too often we get caught up in next year and the future. The reality is you have to have an eye on the future. But you also have to play in the present and if the young core that was good last year takes another step and Kyle Lowry and Leonard click, then Toronto could be pretty special. But as they say, that’s an awful lot of “ifs” to bank on. If it all doesn’t work out, then the Raptors strip things down and rebuild. But at least they tried right? With Dwane Casey out, and so much change, it’s hard to peg the Raptors above Boston and Philly. They could be really good, but change at this scale is a huge unknown.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kawhi Leonard

When healthy, Leonard is a top-three player in the league – his most recent healthy season (2016-17) was capped off by him single-handedly pushing the Warriors to the absolute brink in the opening game of the 2017 Western Conference Finals. The Spurs were up 62-42 at halftime behind Leonard’s offensive and defensive heroics. But Leonard sprained his ankle in the third quarter and missed the remainder of the series, and the rest is history.

That anecdote demonstrates Leonard’s influence as much as any can. He affects his team’s ability to succeed unlike almost any other active player, LeBron James included. He is that good. In his last complete season (2016-17), Leonard averaged 25.5 points, 3.5 assists, 5.8 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game. He finished third behind Russell Westbrook and James Harden in the MVP race in a season when the Westbrook averaged a tripled-double and Harden averaged 29.1 points and 11.2 assists per game. But can he recover from the quad injury that sidelined him last season and the subsequent rust that goes along with the time off? If so, the Raptors could post their best year in franchise history, again.

Top Defensive Player: Kawhi Leonard

In case you don’t already know, let me reiterate: Kawhi Leonard is also an exquisite defensive player. Much in the same way Michael Jordan dominated games on both sides of the ball in the late 80s and early 90s, Leonard can take over an entire game almost single-handedly – hence the two defensive player of the year awards.

Leonard’s dimensions are tailor made for defensive success. He stands 6-foot-7 tall with a 7-foot-3 wingspan. He has exceptionally large hands at 9.8 inches long and 11.3 inches wide; comparatively, fellow defensive specialist Klay Thompson’s hands are 8.8 inches long and 9.3 inches wide. Leonard weighs a sturdy 230 pounds: enough to bang with many power forwards, while maintaining the quickness and agility necessary to keep wings in front of him and elevate to block shots with ease. In 2016-17, Leonard averaged 1.8 steals and .8 blocks per game. Leonard is the rare athlete who can play passing lanes, but rarely gets beat back door. He can just as easily jump a passing land and turn a steal into an easy buck as he can chase down a fast break and surprise opponents from behind. The Raptors have a number of other qualified defenders. But when healthy, Leonard is arguably the league’s best defender.

Top Playmaker: Kyle Lowry

Kyle Lowry is an incredibly effective scorer and distributor. He is widely considered a top-10 point guard. Lowry creates space for himself and can also bully opposing point guards on his way to the rim. Despite his scoring prowess, Lowry doesn’t impose his will on games terribly often.  He understands the need to get his team involved. And he did so successfully last season, posting 6.9 assists per game. In fact, Lowry’s assist production has remained within a half an assist per game of his 2017-18 average every season since 2010-11.

But as referenced above, the 6-foot, 205 pound guard can also score the ball. He averaged 16.2 points per game last season, which was a relatively big step back predicated on the need to get others more involved. He is a rare talent who can create for himself as well as for others. With the addition of Leonard and Green, look out for Lowry to continue to build his reputation as an elite playmaker.

Top Clutch Player: Danny Green

Danny Green is an excellent shooter despite what his 2017-18 averages imply. He shot 36.3 percent from three-point range, which is right in line with the league average. But most of Green’s career has been spent stretching the floor for greats like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard. Duncan retired prior to last season, Parker and Leonard both missed stretches with quad injuries and Ginobili was far from his old self in 2017-18. The Spurs operated with more of an egalitarian philosophy last season – a necessity, but one that hindered Green’s production given the increased attention defenses were paying to all Spurs players.

But history is on Green’s side when it comes to being clutch. Let’s not forget, Green broke Ray Allen’s NBA Finals three-point record in 2013, which included going a perfect five for five in Game 2 and seven of nine in in Game 3. 2013 was not an anomaly. He is a career 39.3 percent shooter from deep. Green can still sink shots, and he has proved he can do so in the biggest of moments. If the Raptors find themselves in tight games late in the season or in the playoffs, look for plays to be drawn up for Danny Green.

The Unheralded Player: Jonas Valanciunas

Jonas Valanciunas is a bit of a throwback to bigger centers of decades past. He doesn’t have the traditional pre-2000s, back-to-the-basket game that would be expected of centers from that era, but he is a powerful big, standing 7-feet, and weighing in at 255 pounds. His  7-foot-6 wingspan aids him in collecting rebounds. Valanciunas pulled in 8.6 per game in 2017-18 in 22.4 minutes. Put differently, that’s 13.8 per 36 minutes, which would have ranked third in the entire league.

But Valanciunas is more than just a big body that can rebound. Valanciunas is a skilled scorer who boasts an effective mid-range game. He shot 40.5 percent from three-point range on 74 attempts. While plenty of centers shot more attempts last season, that’s still a better percentage on more attempts than the career high of either David Robinson or Patrick Ewing, two of the best shooting centers of the 1990s.

Further, Valanciunas is primed for a bigger role with the Raptors, and deservedly so. He posted 12.7 points last season in only 22.4 minutes per game. That’s 20.4 points per 36 minutes. And yet Valanciunas has only cracked the Raptors’ top three in usage rate once. Fortunately for him, Coach Nurse appears to be a Valanciunas fan, as is evidenced by his work with and comments about Valanciunas dating back to 2013. Valanciunas is Toronto’s only real low-post scorer – a necessary facet to the Raptors’ success.

Best New Addition: Kawhi Leonard

By arriving in Toronto and instantly registering as the team’s best offensive and defensive player, Leonard is also clearly its best new addition. But the caveat is that he must be healthy. He hasn’t played competitively on a regular basis since the season before last. That’s a lot of rust to shake off. If healthy, Leonard registers as probably the best new addition of anyone across the league this offseason.

– Drew Maresca

WHO WE LIKE

1. OG Annunoby
Annunoby is the quintessential, modern-day NBA player. He is long, athletic and skilled. Annunoby runs the floor effectively and possesses an excellent motor. He is 6-foot-8 with a better-than-7-foot wingspan. He has a good build for a 21 year old at 232 pounds. His offensive game still needs work, but he did sink 37.1 percent of his three-pointers last season.

Annunoby’s potential is well supported by his per-36 numbers: 10.6 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.3 steals and .3 blocks per game. His defensive versatility is enticing. While his defensive contributions are noteworthy, his salary is probably equally alluring to a team as cash-strapped as the Raptors. If Leonard re-signs, the Raptors will be over the salary cap for at least the next three seasons. Meanwhile, Annunoby is entering only his second year in the league and is locked into a team-friendly rookie deal for as long as the next four seasons. Annunoby is no doubt an asset, but is he a foundational piece or a role player?

2. Serge Ibaka
Ibaka is a known commodity, but that doesn’t make him any less effective. He is a 6-foot-10, 235-pound center/forward who shoots 36 percent from three-point range while averaging 2.2 blocks per game. His blocks per game were down dramatically last season (1.3) from his career high in 2011-12 (3.7), but his long-range shooting, rebounds and points per game remain mostly on par with his career averages.

Ibaka is no longer the player the Thunder chose to hang onto over James Harden, but the Raptors will rely on him as its main backup center since Jakob Poeltl was included in the Leonard trade. But as long as he blocks shots and shoots an above-average percentage from downtown, he will have a place in Tornoto’s rotation.

3. Pascal Siakam
With Ibaka slated to spend a good chunk of his time at back-up center, an opportunity exists for Pascal Siakam to back up the power forwards. The 24-year-old has decent upside and should see increased playing time given how he performed last season. In only his second season in the league, Siakam’s playing time doubled – his points, rebounds and assists per game all saw precipitous increases, as well. The 6-foot-9 Siakam boasts an impressive 7-foot-3 wingspan, which further cements his place in the rotation as a defensive-minded player. And like many other big men, rumor has it that Siakam has added the three-ball to his arsenal.

4. Fred VanVleet
Fred VanVleet enters the 2018-19 season with high expectations. He had a breakout year last season, posting 8.6 points per game on 41.4 percent shooting from three-point range in 20 minutes per contest. VanVleet is a crafty 6-foot point guard who can finish in traffic. Despite having only two seasons of experience, he plays with the confidence of a veteran. VanVleet led the Raptors in minutes played in the fourth quarter in 2017-18 and began to find a nice rhythm prior to injuring his shoulder in April. VanVleet’s win share was an impressive 4.7. He has been looked over for much of his basketball career, dating back to his recruitment Wichita State, or lack thereof. But VanVleet proved last season that he can play a pivotal role for a competing team. Expectations  are high for the diminutive guard, but he seems to thrive under pressure.

– Drew Maresca

STRENGTHS

The Raptors bench was a driving force for its success in the past, including last season. The team’s next-man-up mentality is especially evident when examining point differentials. The team’s lineup was a +14.9 per 100 possessions when it had at least one bench player on the court, whereas the five starters were a +9.1. This juxtaposition is not uncommon for the Raptors, which had an even bigger contrast in its starters point differential compared to the differential of its lineup with at least one substitute in the lineup in each of the previous three seasons. In fact, last season is the first in the last four years in which the starters had better than a +3 differential. That should only continue to improve next season with the infusion of Leonard and Green.

But the bench’s point differential speaks to the team’s versatility and talent beyond its starting five. The bench boasts well-rounded players like Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam, C.J. Miles, Greg Monroe and Serge Ibaka – many of whom smartly shoot a majority of their shots from three-point range or within two feet of the rim.

The versatility and confidence that each of the team’s bench players brings to the game is incredibly valuable and varies player to player. Each complements the next very nicely, from VanVleet’s creativity, to Wright’s play making, to Monroe’s post game, to Ibaka’s three-point shooting and (decreasing) shot-blocking ability.

The team’s bench is as strong as it has been in years. The Raptors featured a 10-man rotation in 2017-18 and yet only two of its starters averaged more than 26 minutes per game – the only team in the league to do so. Relying more heavily on the starting lineup is rarely a problem for a team, but it alleviates pressure on an already talented group of mostly young players; but, if the starters falter, the bench will almost certainly be ready. That is an almost can’t miss recipe for success.

– Drew Maresca

WEAKNESSES

The Toronto Raptors have experienced four-straight seasons that ended in disappointment, all due to a lack of top-tier talent. That’s not to say the team wasn’t talented – they were. Just not talented enough to get past the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers. While James has fled the Eastern Conference for the sunny skies of L.A., there is still elite talent back East that will prove difficult to overcome for any team – and there will most definitely be elite talent awaiting whoever the Eastern Conference champion is come June of 2019.

I am inclined to believe that the Leonard-DeRozan deal was a net-positive for the Raptors because it adds an elite player to an already capable roster. But modern-day championship contenders feature multiple top-tier contributors: the Rockets have two of the top five players in the league in James Harden and Chris Paul; the Warriors feature an embarrassment of talent with Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green; and the Celtics feature Irving, Al Horford, Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum – all of whom are stars in their own right. The Raptors have one transcendent talent and another very good player, which is not quite equivalent to the other contenders. So then, where does Leonard’s help come from deep into the playoffs?

Still, Leonard of all players understands the by-committee approach having played his entire career for Coach Gregg Popovich. And Leonard might be the only player in the league other than (and maybe not even) LeBron James who single-handedly strikes fear into the hearts of  the Warriors– see the above anecdote about Leonard’s Game 1 heroics against Golden State in 2017.

And the Raptors do have an abundance of not-quite elite players, but ones who have a role and execute it to perfection. Will the Raptors team-centric approach payoff? They could be the exception to the super team-rule, which took off following the formation of the Miami HEAT’s big three in 2010.

– Drew Maresca

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will the Leonard/DeRozan Trade Pay Off?

The Raptors swung for the fences this past offseason. They dismantled a team that set a franchise record for wins to chase championships. While the timing was ironic given how the team that had sent them home from the playoffs in each of the three previous postseasons just lost its megastar, you can’t help but respect the big-risk, big-reward move.

DeRozan was under contract for the next three seasons at $27,739,975 per year. DeRozan is an incredibly productive player, but is one of the two best players on a championship contender? We know that when healthy Kawhi Leonard is. And the trade also netted the Raptors shooting guard Danny Green, who brings defense and shooting at a time when 3-and-D players are valued highly by front offices and coaches alike.

If Leonard is healthy, there is clearly more talent on the Raptors roster entering this season’s training camp than there was this time last year. But that’s a big gamble. The team agreed to the trade without any indication from Leonard that he was willing to re-sign, and without any definitive assurances he was healthy. And Danny Green experienced a considerable dip in production last year, albeit without his superstar teammate on the court to serve as the Spurs’ focal point. Still, both are legitimate questions that need to be addressed.

Even still, were the Raptors going to advance to the NBA Finals with the roster with which it ended the 2017-18 season– past the Celtics and Sixers – let alone win a championship? Unlikely. But if this roster gels, they have the requisite talent and star power to do just that. Yes, it’s a long shot. But it’s a shot, none-the-less. And if Leonard decides to walk, the team can embrace a rebuild instead of hanging onto mediocrity for the foreseeable future. The move indicates that the team’s front office is more serious about winning championships than filling the arena, which should be welcome news to Raptors’ fans and players alike.

– Drew Maresca

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