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Toronto Raptors 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Toronto Raptors.

Basketball Insiders

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In each of the past three seasons, the Toronto Raptors have set a franchise record for most wins in a season – from 48 victories, to 49 to 56. Led by DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and head coach Dwane Casey, general manager Masai Ujiri has slowly built a contender North of the Border.

Last season, the Raptors took the team that would eventually go on to win the NBA championship—the Cleveland Cavaliers—to six games before succumbing to LeBron James and company. Now, for the Raptors, anything less than returning to that point would probably be considered a disappointment. Coach Casey received a three-year extension while DeRozan, the franchise’s cornerstone, was re-signed on a five-year maximum contract worth $137.5 million.

Without question, we are currently witnessing the Golden Age of Canadian basketball. The only question is whether the Raptors have enough to truly contend with the Cavaliers or if they will be stuck being a bridesmaid yet again.

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 Toronto Raptors.

FIVE GUYS THINK

With the moves made by the New York Knicks and Al Horford finding his way to the Boston Celtics, the Raptors won’t be able to sleepwalk to the division title this season, but I see no reason to pick against them. I am a big fan of continuity and I have a tremendous amount of respect for Dwane Casey. More than anything else, the Raptors will need DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry to each prove that they are franchise cornerstones and they will have to prove that in the playoffs. Getting to the postseason, though, is a foregone conclusion. I see no reason why the Raptors won’t reign atop the Atlantic once again. My main concerns are around their ability to remain healthy for a full season and with how they will respond to losing the defensive edge that Bismack Biyombo provided. Truth is, I could see the Knicks or Celtics winning the Atlantic this season, but at this point, I’m not willing to bet against the Raptors.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Moke Hamilton

The biggest move for the Raptors this offseason was re-signing DeMar DeRozan to a five-year, $137.5 million deal. Keeping DeRozan means the Raptors can continue to work off of their dynamic duo in Kyle Lowry and DeRozan. The Raptors also have pretty good talent at just about every other position, but they’ll need a breakout year from someone like Jonas Valanciunas to have top-end talent on par with the elite teams in the league. Getting a healthy season from DeMarre Carroll could definitely help with that as well. Also, look for Norman Powell to build off of his solid rookie campaign and to be a significant part of the Raptors’ success. After years of having the same general core in place, the Raptors’ greatest strength may be their chemistry. However, it’s still not clear that this team can get past the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Jesse Blancarte

The Raptors had a breakthrough last season by reaching the Eastern Conference Finals after two consecutive disappointing first-round exits where they entered the playoffs as favorites. The talent is there to make another run, but the team’s move this summer didn’t do much to inspire a belief that the team can take the throne away from LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry spent the summer winning a gold medal at the 2016 Olympics and there should be some lift with forward DeMarre Carroll fully healthy. But there are new challengers emerging in the East, namely their division rival Boston Celtics, so the Raptors need to capitalize on their window of opportunity.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Lang Greene

It’s probably fair to say that there’s a consensus that Toronto is the preseason No. 2 team in the Eastern Conference, mostly because they lost exactly zero players of import after back-to-back monster seasons that finally saw them make some headway in the 2016 playoffs. Jared Sullinger was a sneaky-good acquisition, but for the most part fans should just expect business as usual for the Northerners this year. They’ll be right in the mix for another deep playoff run.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

– Joel Brigham

I will have to disagree with Joel, and Toronto fans won’t like it. I’m a big believer in the Boston Celtics – as I stated in their 2016-17 season preview – and I have them winning the Atlantic Division. With that said, I do think it’ll be very close and I think both squads are top three teams in the Eastern Conference. The big problem for Boston, Toronto and every other East team is that I still see a very large gap between the Cleveland Cavaliers and everyone else in the conference. I like this Raptors squad and expect them to win a ton of games in the regular season once again. But are they a legitimate contender to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy in the 2016-17 campaign? I don’t see it. I just can’t put them on the same tier as the true contenders around the league like the Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs. With that said, Toronto is beautiful and Drake is my favorite musician! Please go easy on my mentions, Raptors fans!

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Alex Kennedy

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: DeMar DeRozan

Since entering the league in 2009, DeMar DeRozan has slowly but surely improved his overall game. However, his most drastic improvements have come on the offensive end. DeRozan is coming off of a season in which he turned in a career-high scoring average of 23.5 points per game. He managed to increase his scoring average from the previous season by 3.4 points and did so while also raising his shooting percentage more than three points. Today, he boasts a very effective midrange game that has been augmented by a respectable three-point touch. Upon entering the league, DeRozan wouldn’t even consider taking three-point shots; now, after connecting on 34 percent of his looks downtown last year, he is able to stretch defenses and keep the opposition honest.

Despite the newly developed shooting prowess, DeRozan remains most effective at finishing around the basket. An explosive and dynamic finisher, he has no shortage of highlight-reel plays and creates the same sort of anticipation that Vince Carter once did when he breaks away for an uncontested finish.

Anyone who knows Dwane Casey knows how important it is to him that his players take care of the basketball, and the coach himself would tell you that this is a very underrated part of being a “good” offensive player. Even for someone who is as demanding as Casey, DeRozan’s 2.2 turnovers per 36 minutes leaves little room for more to be demanded, especially when one considers the amount of offensive repetitions and bailout plays DeRozan receives.

Top Defensive Player: DeMarre Carroll

General manager Masai Ujiri made quite a splash during the 2015 free agency period when he showed up to a meeting with DeMarre Carroll armed with a four-year, $60 million contract. Carroll signed with the Raptors and was thought to be a major piece for them, but injuries limited him to just 26 games in his first season with Toronto. What made Carroll a coveted free agent in July 2015, though, was his rare combination of size, foot speed, strength and agility. Standing at 6’8, Carroll has the height required of a small forward in the league, but his on-ball instincts and ability to read passing lanes make him effective at guarding opposing point guards and shooting guards. In today’s NBA, where pick-and-roll and motion offenses dominate most offensive schemes, having versatile players who can switch and effectively cross-match is a necessity for any contender. So long as Carroll can stay on the court, he will be a net-positive for the Raptors on both ends of the court, but particularly on the defensive end.

Top Playmaker: Kyle Lowry

Since arriving in Toronto in 2012, Kyle Lowry has truly come of age. It took Lowry nine years and four teams to eventually become an All-Star, but he has proven that he is among the league’s top point guards. Lowry was once regarded as a score-first point guard, but since arriving in Toronto, he has managed to change the perception of his game. He is two years removed from averaging a career-high 7.4 assists per game, but Lowry has become a floor general, and last season’s 6.4 assists per game is still respectable. He has greatly improved his ability to read defenses, especially while playing pick-and-roll as the ball handler.

Last season, Casey installed a fair amount of off-ball and backdoor action in his offense and Lowry found his teammates and created opportunities for others. In terms of athleticism, Lowry isn’t the most light-footed point guard. His first step isn’t exceptionally quick and he is more likely to create space for himself on a step-back than his is by blowing past his defender. Still, he is quite effective at orchestrating an offense and has excelled as the lead guard for a team that is a rising and improving contender in the increasingly competitive Eastern Conference.

Top Clutch Player: DeMar DeRozan

Over the years, there have been more than a few instances where DeMar DeRozan has come up big for his teammates. A buzzer-beating that sunk the Orlando Magic a few years ago immediately comes to mind, while last season, the Washington Wizards walked away from the Air Canada Center with a loss thanks to the heroics of DeRozan. There is a dearth of statistical evidence to support the notion that one player happens to be more “clutch” than another, but if and when the game has been on the line, Dwane Casey has been consistent in affording DeRozan the opportunity to determine his team’s fate. For the most part, DeRozan has made the right play and the correct decision.

What makes DeRozan especially valuable in late-game situations is his offensive versatility. He has proven capable of hitting a big midrange shot as well as getting to the basket. Best of all, he is a reliable free-throw shooter, evidenced by his career shooting percentage of 82.5 percent. Best of all, he is a willing passer in late-game situations. He rarely makes poor decisions with the basketball and is certainly the best option that Casey has when the game is hanging in the balance.

The Unheralded Player: Cory Joseph

After seeing Anthony Bennett’s time with the Raptors come and go, solace can be found in the fact that Cory Joseph’s homecoming has been much more productive. After spending four years as a member of the San Antonio Spurs, Joseph had a front row seat to Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan and the gold standard of NBA franchises. He experienced the gut-wrenching defeat the Spurs suffered at the hands of the 2013 Miami HEAT and the bliss of avenging that defeat in 2014. Having only recently celebrated his 25th birthday, the Toronto native has brought great experience with him back home, and it was something that was apparent at different points of last season. Although his numbers aren’t eye-popping, Joseph has slowly but surely become a solid rotation guard in the NBA and should only continue to improve as the years progress. A member of the Canadian national basketball team, the young point guard continues to ply his trade and should continue to serve as an efficient, consistent, careful point guard whose best days are still ahead.

Jonas Valanciunas deserves a mention here as well. Though not widely regarded as one of the more talented big men in the league, Valanciunas’ footwork and ability to see the court from the post are overlooked. If he can remain healthy, he can help the Raptors get to the next level.

Best New Addition: Jakob Poeltl

The Austrian Jakob Poeltl is easily the best addition to the Raptors this season. Despite winning 56 games this past season, the Raptors had the No. 9 pick in this year’s draft. That’s because of the 2013 trade that saw Andrea Bargnani dealt to the New York Knicks. Toronto exercised New York’s pick and selected Poeltl ninth overall.

Poeltl has an impressive collegiate and international basketball resume, and he will likely receive playing time from day one. Like most big men entering the league, Poeltl will need to add some size and strength in order to be able to compete everyday against the bigger and stronger veterans patrolling the interior. Already with solid footwork and good rebounding instincts, Poeltl brings a wealth of basketball experience with him to the NBA, and it’s likely to pay immediate dividends. It’s not every day that a successful team like the Raptors adds a talent like Poeltl, so he is easily their best new addition.

– Moke Hamilton

WHO WE LIKE

  1. Jonas Valanciunas

I’ve been on the Valanciunas bandwagon for a long time. Although still trying to improve his consistency, Valanciunas has a very smooth, fluid back-to-the-basket game and he can see the floor exceptionally well for a man his size. He is a hard worker, who puts a lot of time and effort into improving his craft. Coach Casey has compared Valanciunas to Zydrunas Ilgauskas. However, Valanciunas’ footwork, athleticism and mobility are far superior, and the 24-year-old’s ceiling remains incredibly high.

  1. Terrence Ross

Since being selected with the eighth overall pick of the 2012 draft, Terrence Ross has slowly but surely carved out a place for himself in Toronto. A fairly versatile player, Ross connected on a career-high 48 percent of his shots last season, including 39 percent from three-point range. His growth epitomizes two of the things we like best in Toronto: growth and continuity.

  1. Dwane Casey

My feelings about Dwane Casey and the job he’s done are well documented. After a brief and uneventful tenure as the head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Casey eventually found his way to the bench of the Dallas Mavericks and was one of the of the ringleaders of the 2011 championship squad. With him on the bench, Casey helped the Mavericks pull off one of the biggest upsets in NBA Finals history and, since then, he has worked tirelessly to deliver similar success in Toronto. Although the Raptors are still a few steps away from being a true championship contender, Casey has been there and done that and is working to deliver even better results to the fans of Toronto.

  1. Masai Ujiri

Masai Ujiri made a name for himself as the executive vice president of basketball operations for the Denver Nuggets and famously orchestrated the trade of Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks. In 2013, Ujiri became the first non-American to win the Executive of the Year Award and, shortly after, agreed to take over in Toronto. Since then, it is impossible to argue with the results. If Ujiri’s track record is any indication, the Raptors will continue to be in good hands.

  1. The fans of Toronto

We can say with certainty that the game of basketball has become the passion of Ontario. Vince Carter helped to birth an entire generation of great Canadian basketball players and the passion is evident. Good fans are an asset, especially in late-game situations and big moments. Players routinely feed off of the energy given off by their fans, and Toronto basketball fans are among the best.

– Moke Hamilton

SALARY CAP 101

The Raptors are one of the few teams that did not go under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap.  Instead, Toronto used their $5.6 million Mid-Level Exception on Jared Sullinger, and re-signed DeMar DeRozan to a five-year, $137.5 million contract via his Bird Rights.  The team still has the $2.2 million Bi-Annual Exception, but the roster has 14 guaranteed players with five vying for the one remaining spot (E.J. Singler, Fred VanVleet, Jarrod Uthoff, Yanick Moreira and Drew Crawford).

Next summer, the Raptors may have up to $13 million in spending power under a projected $102 million salary cap.  That assumes the team picks up the rookie-scale options on Lucas Nogueira, Bruno Caboclo and Delon Wright before November.  It also presumes that Kyle Lowry opts out of his final year at $12 million.  The Raptors are also likely to get the Los Angeles Clippers’ 2017 first-round pick, provided L.A. makes the playoffs.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Continuity and Chemistry: The Golden State Warriors will be an interesting team to watch this coming season. Kevin Durant has effectively replaced Harrison Barnes in the team’s rotation, and that disruption—and how Durant, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson adjust—will be interesting to observe. Indeed, chemistry and continuity are among the most important things an NBA team can have on its side, and the Raptors certainly do have that. DeMar DeRozan is entering his eighth season and has spent the duration of his career in Toronto, while Dwane Casey is entering his fifth season on the job. Long ago, Casey was thought to be a lame duck coach after he was inherited by Masai Ujiri in 2013, but since then, Casey has become the franchise’s sideline general. Casey has earned a reputation as being a defensive taskmaster who impresses his players with an encouraging but firm demeanor. Those who have played under Casey in the past have praised his remarkable people skills and his “open door, open question” policy as it relates to his players. Since taking over in Toronto, Casey has been instrumental in helping the franchise find consistency and strength and it has been reflected in the team’s success over recent years.

Jonas Valanciunas, Terrance Ross and, of course, Kyle Lowry have also found consistent productivity in Toronto. If Casey and Lowry can succeed in incorporating some of the newer faces into the culture and playing style that has become synonymous with Toronto basketball over the past few years, then the forecast in Toronto will continue to be bright.

– Moke Hamilton

WEAKNESSES

Depth and Toughness: The 2004 Detroit Pistons will likely be the gold standard for teams that depart from the typical construction of being built around one or two superstar players. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry have each experienced their fair share of playoff disappointments, and despite achieving success last season, each has been outplayed by the likes of other players who are clearly a tier above them. Dwyane Wade and Paul George each immediately come to mind.

For the Raptors, true success will be judged by how they perform in the playoffs, and as it currently stands, the team appears to be built around too many “what if” performers. Lowry performed miserably in the playoffs last season and both DeMarre Carroll and Jonas Valanciunas need to prove that they can remain healthy enough to make a difference when the games truly matter. In that regard, the team appears to lack depth, especially if and when an opposing coach successfully implements a strategy to take either DeRozan or Lowry out of the game. Can Cory Joseph, Terrence Ross or Patrick Patterson deliver when it counts most? Perhaps they could, but that’s not something that a wise bettor would gamble on.

In the final two minutes of an important playoff game, Casey and the fans of the Raptors need big-time players that can be depended on to lead the troops to victory. Based on each of their performances last season, and especially in the case of Lowry, there is room for concern.

Overall, the favorites in the Atlantic Division have a solid team capable of performing well, but if there is one concern in Toronto, it would be their lack of depth, especially considering the departure of Bismack Biyombo.

– Moke Hamilton

THE BURNING QUESTION

What are the Raptors missing?

Call it the curse of success. The Raptors are coming off of a 56-win season in which they advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals and took the eventual NBA champion to six games. From this point forth, accomplishing anything less would be viewed as regression, so the most pertinent question in Toronto now seems to revolve around what it will take to truly put the team in the class of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The short answer there would appear to be a dominant frontcourt player. It was hoped that Valanciunas could have become that type of player, and though he still may, it is not often that we see players take monumental leaps in their productivity after their fourth season. If the Raptors managed to walk away from this summer with a marquee post addition like Al Horford, Paul Millsap or Kevin Love, they would’ve had a legitimate shot at knocking LeBron James off of the top of the conference. Until then, they are still probably a step below.

Of course, it would help if DeRozan or Lowry were able to contribute at a consistently high level during the playoffs, but unless a team has superstar production from other positions – like Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in Golden State, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook previously in Oklahoma City or LeBron James and Dwyane Wade previously in Miami – being successful at the highest level requires dominant and efficient frontcourt play. The Raptors still seem to have a void in that regard.

– Moke Hamilton

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NBA PM: Lopez Leading On And Off The Court

Brook Lopez has been a valuable addition to the Los Angeles Lakers, both on and off the court.

Ben Nadeau

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In spite of the ongoing media circus, an inherently tougher conference and a roster that features just five players with more than three years of NBA experience, the Los Angeles Lakers are 8-10. Naturally, that won’t be good enough to reach the postseason in the West, but it’s better than most expected the young Lakers to fare. Their early season successes can be chalked up to their glut of budding talent — Julius Randle, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, among others — but there’s one other major driving force at hand here and his name is Brook Lopez.

Following years of will-they, won’t-they rumors, Lopez was acquired in a shocking blockbuster trade with the Brooklyn Nets just prior to this year’s draft. The Lakers were eager to get out from under Timofey Mozgov’s lengthy, albatross-sized contract, so they packaged him with the once-troubled D’Angelo Russell, shipping the pair off for Lopez and the No. 27 overall pick. The deal was largely made with financial implications in mind, but the initial returns on Lopez have been a massive win for the Lakers as well.

Although Lopez is currently logging a career-low in minutes (24.3), he still often leads the way for Los Angeles — like the night he effortlessly dropped 34 points and 10 rebounds on 6-for-9 from three-point range against his former franchise. Through 18 games, Lopez is averaging just 14.8 points and 5.1 rebounds — a scoring mark that ranks only above his rookie season with the New Jersey Nets in 2008-09 — but his statistical impact is key on this inconsistent roster nonetheless.

But beyond that, it seems as if some of Lopez’s biggest contributions this season have come off the court — just ask Kyle Kuzma and Ivica Zubac.

“[Lopez] has taught me how to be a professional,” Kuzma told Basketball Insiders prior to their game against the Boston Celtics earlier this month. “He’s one of the first guys in the gym, one of the last ones to leave.”

Lopez, who has carried his fair share of incredibly poor teams in the past — and often with a smile — is in the final year of the contract he signed back in 2015. His expiring deal worth $22.6 million made Lopez the perfect acquisition for a Lakers team hoping to shed cap space before the upcoming free agency period — where, allegedly, LeBron James and Paul George are both targets.

For a 7-foot center that just added a three-point shot to his game and knocked down 134 of them last season alone, Lopez may be one of the greatest trade afterthoughts in recent memory. The Lakers will likely finish in the lottery rather than the postseason, but Lopez — along with veterans Andrew Bogut, Corey Brewer and Luol Deng — have been a helpful presence for the slew of young Lakers as they adjust to professional basketball.

“They’re all great — they’ve been there, done that,” Kuzma said. “They have a lot of experience in this league, so it’s good to learn from those guys because they’ve played 10, 13 years and that’s what I want to do.”

Kuzma, of course, was selected with that No. 27 overall pick that the Nets sent to Los Angeles in the trade, and he’s been red-hot ever since. Following an impressive combine, summer league and preseason, Kuzma jumped into the starting lineup after Larry Nance Jr. fractured his hand just eight games into the campaign. Although the Rookie of the Year battle has been dominated by the Philadelphia 76ers’ Ben Simmons so far, Kuzma — averaging 16.8 points and 6.6 rebounds per game — has emerged as a strong runner-up candidate.

For Zubac, however, it’s been a slower start to his NBA career but with Lopez, he says, things have gotten easier.

“The whole summer, I worked on my three-point shot,” Zubac told Basketball Insiders. “But also [I worked on my] post offense too, that’s what [Lopez] is good at. I’m really focusing my game around the post, so that’s where I’m trying to learn.”

Last year, Zubac was a popular late-season member of head coach Luke Walton’s rotation and he finished his rookie year averaging 7.5 points and 4.2 rebounds in just 16 minutes per game. Unfortunately, the new arrivals and recent emergences have limited Zubac to just 10 total minutes over four appearances in 2017-18. Still, Lopez gives Zubac a mentor worth modeling his game after, even if it’s at the expense of real experience this season.

To get Zubac on the floor, the center has spent time with the South Bay Lakers, Los Angeles’ G-League affiliate, as of late. In two games, Zubac has averaged 21 points and 10 rebounds on 73 percent shooting from the field. Despite the lack of playing time, Zubac was more than happy to praise not only Lopez but the efforts of the other aforementioned veterans too.

“I can learn a lot from them and they help me play my game,” Zubac said. “Whoever’s on the court, whoever I’m playing with, I just try to learn as much as I can from them.”

Ultimately, though, it all comes back to Lopez.

Again, Lopez has averaged a career-low in minutes, but his contributions have been crucial in the Lakers’ overall standing thus far. In the games that Lopez has played less than 21 minutes, the Lakers are 0-5; but when he plays more than 30, the team is 3-1. On top of that, the Lakers are 5-1 when Lopez hits two or more three-pointers in a game as well. That sample size is still certainly small, but it’s nice indicator of Lopez’s inherent on-court impact, even when he’s not carrying the team on his shoulders.

“[He makes life] a lot easier for me,” Kuzma said. “He’s one of the most established scorers in the league and his career average is, like, 20 [points] a game. You can always count on him to be there every single night.”

While the Lakers can plan for a dream offseason haul involving James, George and others, they’ll have a tough decision facing them in July. Whether he’s efficiently stretching the floor, finishing off assists from Ball or setting the tone in an inexperienced locker room, Lopez has been quite the addition for Los Angeles.

This summer, Lopez enters unrestricted free agency and will likely garner offers outside of the Lakers’ pay range considering their big plans. If the Lakers decide to focus elsewhere, another team will reap the rewards. Until then, the youthful core in Los Angeles will benefit from having Lopez train and educate them each day.

“[Lopez] takes care of his body, he stays low-key and is never in trouble,” Kuzma said. “He’s the type of professional I want to be.”

Whether this is just a one-year detour in his extensively underrated career or the start of a great, new partnership, Lopez’s arrival in Los Angeles has been a huge success already. But as far as role models go for both Kuzma and Zubac, there are few choices better than Brook Lopez — both on and off the court.

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The Most Disappointing Teams So Far

Shane Rhodes looks at a few teams that have disappointed so far this season.

Shane Rhodes

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Approaching the season’s quarter mark, NBA teams are finally starting to settle into their respective grooves. As more and more players become comfortable, their teams begin to demonstrate what they can really do on the court. While some teams have exceeded expectations, a number of teams have underperformed and are looking worse, in some cases much worse, than expected.

Here are six of the NBA’s most disappointing teams so far this season.

6. Dallas Mavericks

The Dallas Mavericks were going to be bad this season. They just weren’t expected to be this bad.

At 3-15, the Mavericks currently hold the worst record in the NBA. They rank 27th and 22nd in offensive and defensive rating, coming in at 99.3 and 107.6, respectively. Collectively, they are shooting just 42.2 percent from the floor and 34.7 percent from three-point range, both below league average. Nerlens Noel, whom Dallas acquired at the trade deadline last season, has played sparingly.

But there is seemingly a light at the end of the tunnel. The Mavericks’ three wins have come against the Memphis Grizzlies, Washington Wizards and the Milwaukee Bucks, three teams that made the playoffs a season ago and are expected to do so again this season. Victories against the Wizards — who are currently the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference at 10-7 — and the Bucks — who boast one of the best players in the league in Giannis Antetokounmpo — are especially encouraging.

As of now, though, the team is still a mess on both sides of the ball.

5. Miami HEAT

The Miami HEAT were expected to be playoff contenders after a torrid second half last season that saw them win 30 of their final 42 games. Now, the HEAT are currently sitting at the 11th seed in the East and, with a record of 7-9, are currently boasting a worse record than the New York Knicks (9-7), Indiana Pacers (10-8) and the Los Angeles Lakers (8-10).

The offense just hasn’t arrived yet in South Beach. Miami has an offensive rating of 103.13, good for 26th in the NBA. They are shooting under league average from the field (44.5 percent) and from three (35.2 percent) and are fifth in turnovers per game with 16.6 per contest; not exactly a winning formula. The $50 million man Kelly Olynyk has contributed just 8.9 points and 5.3 rebounds in 18.9 minutes per game while the roster outside its starting unit looks flimsy at best. Dion Waiters hasn’t shot the ball as well as last season, either.

The schedule doesn’t get easier for the HEAT, with four upcoming games against the Boston Celtics, Minnesota Timberwolves, Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors in their next seven. Expect Miami to get even worse before they start to get better.

4. Milwaukee Bucks

Last season, the Milwaukee Bucks were the sixth seed in the East. They boast one of the best young cores in the league, headed by phenom Antetokounmpo and supported by the likes of Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon and, eventually, Jabari Parker.

Somehow, the Bucks find themselves at just 8-8.

In a weakened Eastern Conference, Milwaukee was expected to make a play for one of its top spots. Instead, the Bucks have gotten blown out by the Mavericks, while barely squeaking by teams like the Charlotte Hornets and Lakers. The Bucks are 23rd in the NBA in defensive rating with a mark of 106.5, worse than the Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls while also sitting at 23rd in net rating at -2.2, behind the Los Angeles Clippers (-1.7) and Utah Jazz (-1.3).

Antetokounmpo has yet to improve his stroke from beyond the arc, an undesirable albeit expected deficiency in his game. But, much of the Bucks roster hasn’t shot well from three. Middleton is shooting just 32.1 percent while big-acquisition Eric Bledsoe is shooting an abysmal 16 percent from beyond the arc since arriving in Milwaukee. If they can’t improve here it will be extremely hard for the Bucks to improve their position in the standings.

With six of their next nine games coming against teams at or below .500, the Bucks have a great chance to rebound from their sluggish start. That doesn’t change the fact that, with one of the NBA’s more talented rosters, the Bucks have been a major disappointment up to this point.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers

At the time of this writing, the Cleveland Cavaliers have won five straight games. Most would say that would or should exempt them from a list like this.

They would be wrong.

The collective record of the teams Cleveland has played during its five-game win streak? 35-48. It may be encouraging to the fans to see the team rattle off five straight, but the Cavaliers aren’t exactly beating the best teams in the Association. They have been careless with the ball as well, turning it over more than 15 times per game while

Their biggest problem, however, is the fact that they can defend absolutely no one. With a defensive rating of 109.4, the Cavaliers have the worst defense in the league. They have gotten away with a lackluster effort in the past, Cleveland’s current roster, outside of LeBron James, just doesn’t have enough offensive firepower to make up for it. And the offense has been good; Cleveland is currently averaging 110.9 points per game with an offensive rating of 109.4, but that leaves them with a big goose egg for their net rating.

The Cavaliers will continue to struggle to beat teams as they attempt to outpace them on the offensive end. For a team that has made three straight NBA Finals and has one of the greatest of all time on its roster, that should certainly be regarded as a disappointment.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder

Another “Big-3” was formed in the NBA after Paul George and Carmelo Anthony were paired with reigning Most Valuable Player Russell Westbrook in the offseason. However, the 2017-18 season hasn’t exactly gone according to plan for the Thunder

Labeled as a team to rival the Warriors for Western Conference supremacy, the Thunder have done anything but so far this season. While the individual stats counting of Westbrook, George and Anthony have looked good, the Thunder have not as a collective. The team sits at just 7-9, good for 10th in the Western Conference. They rank 19th, 23rd and 21st in the NBA in points, rebounds and assists per game, respectively while shooting 44.3 percent from the field and 35 percent from three, both good for 21st.

Westbrook’s early season shooting struggles have hurt the Thunder as well. Westbrook is shooting just 39.4 percent from the field and 32.5 percent from three. The dominance he displayed last season, especially late in games, just hasn’t appeared this season and the team is hurting because of it. If the Thunder want to move up in the standings, Westbrook will need to find a way to improve his shooting numbers; they will go as he goes much like last season, even with George and Anthony on the roster.

On a brighter note, the defense has been one of the best in the NBA. But if the Thunder can’t figure it out on offense and score well as a unit, they will continue to struggle, especially when having to face the high-octane offenses of the Warriors and Houston Rockets.

1. Los Angeles Clippers

When losing a player the caliber of Chris Paul, some regression is to be expected. Fortifying the roster with guards Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams and Milos Teodosic and forward Danilo Gallinari, however, the Clippers were expected to weather the storm, to an extent.

Early on the Clippers did exactly that. The team looked impressive in the early going, winning five of their first seven games and averaging 109 points per. Since then? Everything has seemingly gone downhill in Los Angeles, and fast.

The Clippers have lost nine straight by an average margin of 9.8 points per game. Thirteenth in the Western Conference with a 5-11 record, they have looked nothing like the playoff team they were expected to be and are by far the season’s biggest disappointment. They have played poorly on the defensive end, ranking 20th in the NBA with a defensive rating of 106.2. Opponents have shot 45.4 percent from the field and 37.1 percent from three against them.

Things haven’t been the greatest on offense, either. In Paul’s absence, the Clippers have dropped from 15th in assists per game a year ago to 28th this season, averaging just 19.6 per game. While they are averaging 104.9 points per game, they are doing so on just 44.1 percent shooting.

Injuries have played a major role in the Clippers struggles; additions Beverly, Gallinari and Teodosic have all missed or are currently missing time with injury. But it’s discouraging to see that Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are unable to elevate the Clippers outside of the Western Conference basement.

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NBA

NBA AM: Paul Millsap’s Injury Derails Denver

With Paul Millsap injured, the Nuggets hopes to become a contender take a hit.

Lang Greene

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After missing the playoffs for the past four seasons, the Denver Nuggets are a team on the rise. The team won 30 games in 2015, 33 in 2016, 40 in 2017 and are currently on pace to record 48 victories this season, which would be their most since 2013.

The squad features six players averaging more than 10 points per contest, not including two veterans in Kenneth Faried and Wilson Chandler, both of whom are career double-digit scorers. The Nuggets also boast one of the youngest teams in the league with only three players over the age of 30 (Paul Millsap, Chandler and Richard Jefferson).

But the team was dealt a huge blow this week when it was learned that four-time All-Star forward Paul Millsap will be out the next three to four months after suffering a torn ligament in his wrist.

Millsap was extremely durable during his first 11 seasons in the league, missing 10 games just once (2017). This injury marks the first time in Millsap’s career where he will miss significant time while roaming the sideline in designer suits.

Millsap signed a three-year, $90 million deal this past summer and his acquisition was viewed as the next step in bringing the team back into the realm of the playoffs.

After an early season adjustment period, Denver (10-7) has rattled off seven victories in their last 10 games. For the team, Millsap’s injury news couldn’t have come at a worst time.  The veteran was averaging 15.3 points and 6.2 rebounds through 16 contests. The points are his lowest since 2013 and the rebounding output is his lowest since 2010, but Millsap’s presence has helped stabilize the young Nuggets on the offensive and defensive ends of the floor.

The Nuggets do have a plethora of power forwards on the depth chart. Veteran Kenneth Faried has started 366 contests for the franchise since being drafted in 2011. Faried’s future with the franchise has come into question in recent years as his playing time and role in the rotation has consistently diminished. The signing of Millsap likely solidified that fate, however, by not dealing Faried, the Nuggets were able to keep an insurance policy in the fold.

Third-year forward and former lottery pick Trey Lyles is another candidate for an increased workload. Lyles is currently averaging 6.8 minutes in 12 appearances but is shooting a career high from the field (52 percent) and three-point range (42 percent) in his limited court time. Another like candidate for more playing time is second-year big man Juan Hernangomez, who has currently appeared in just six contests.

Offensively, the Nuggets will be able to absorb his loss. Guards Gary Harris and Jamal Murray score the ball efficiently while swingman Will Barton provides pop off the bench. The team will also likely ride the back of their franchise player Nikola Jokic a bit more as well, with the big man averaging just 11.6 shot attempts per game—third on the team.

Perhaps the biggest area the Nuggets will have to adjust is on the defensive end.

According to ESPN’s real defensive plus-minus (DPM), Millsap ranks 31st overall in the league (1.62). He ranks seventh among power forwards with at least 10 games played this season. Last season, Millsap was fifth among power forward and 14th overall in DPM.

The veteran’s track of improving a team’s prowess on the defensive end is proven and it’s exactly the type of “silent” attribute the Nuggets needed on a loaded young team still learning how to play on that side of the ball.

                              Paul Millsap – Real Defensive Plus-Minus
Season DPM League Overall Rank Power Forward Rank
2013-14 2.06                 63                   12
2014-15 2.22                 43                    8
2015-16 3.26                 12                    2
2016-17 3.35                 14                   5
2017-18 1..62                 31                  9

 

The Nuggets will be tested immediately without Millsap in the fold. The team travels to Houston (November 22) and will play nine of their next 13 games are on the road. This includes a six-game road trip from December 4 to December 13.

The team is currently 7-2 at home and just 3-5 away from the Pepsi center.

They will, for sure, be tested without Millsap.

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