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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

Basketball Insiders

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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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NBA Daily: Five Storylines to Watch Down the Stretch

Shane Rhodes breaks down five storylines to keep an eye on as we approach the postseason.

Shane Rhodes

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The NBA was as active as ever prior to All-Star Break. Multiple trades (some of the blockbuster variety) were made as Anthony Davis rumors swirled, players butted heads with the media, and buyouts were made. There was news abound.

And there should be even more to come with teams prepped for the stretch run.

The last push toward the postseason has always been a tense one, for teams in and teams out alike. But what could be the biggest stories as we head into the last weeks of the regular season?

The Eastern Conference Arms Race

The battle for Eastern Conference supremacy has shown to be a hard fought one.

With LeBron James gone, there has been power-vacuum in the East, with multiple teams vying for the spot of best in the Conference. The Milwaukee Bucks have had the upper hand for much of the season – and should be considered the favorite to end the regular season in the top spot – but just 7.5 games separate them from the fifth-seed Boston Celtics, with the Toronto Raptors, Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers sandwiched in between.

While the NBA as a whole may seem cut and dry – the Golden State Warriors and everyone else – the East is not so simple. The Bucks, Celtics, Pacers, Raptors and 76ers all have talented rosters, but there is, effectively a deadlock between them. No one roster in this group is significantly more talented than another and no one team has shown that they can get the better of the other four on a consistent basis; every game between them has been competitive, and that should only reach another level as they square off against for the right to go to the NBA Finals.

Aside from the postseason positioning, the stretch-run for these individual teams could prove crucial to their offseason. Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris are all expected to hit the market and, if their respective teams fade, the chances of retaining their services may fade as well.

The Competitive Postseason Bubble

There are a number of teams, both Eastern and Western Conference, that have found themselves on the post-break postseason bubble.

In the East, just five games separate the sixth-seed Brooklyn Nets and the 11-seed Washington Wizards. While it may not be the cream of the crop going at it every night, these last few games will almost certainly be more competitive as players watch the standings and teams look to make up ground and push their seasons onward through April.

Out West, it’s more of the same.

Just four games separate the fifth-seed Houston Rockets and the 10-seed Los Angeles Lakers. Likewise, an uptick in competitive energy should be expected. However, there may be a bit more fireworks out West, as the Sacramento Kings, who have surprised everyone this season, look for their first postseason-berth since 2006. Meanwhile, the Lakers, in their first season with James, may miss the postseason altogether after they were pegged as a near-lock before the season.

The Utah Jazz, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers all present their own interesting scenarios as well.

Regardless of the final outcome in either Conference, expect an exciting, if not frantic, end to the regular season.

The Three-Man Race for the MVP

Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden and Paul George have each put forth superhuman effort this season. In a neck-and-neck race for the Most Valuable Player award, these three have proven to be invaluable to their respective teams and shown on a nightly basis that they belong among the NBA elite.

But, only one of them can win the award. So, who will take home the hardware?

Each player has made a compelling case so far; what Antetokounmpo does for the Bucks — and what he does to the box score (27.2 points, 12.7 rebounds, six assists per game) — on a nightly basis is self-explanatory; James Harden has willed the Houston Rockets into the postseason picture with some historic scoring numbers; and Paul George has shown that he is one of the best two-way players in the NBA and shouldered the load in Oklahoma City as Russell Westbrook has struggled.

As teams inch closer to the postseason, most will take the opportunity to rest their stars. If anyone of these players fades down the stretch — whether it be because of rest, fatigue or otherwise — the others could almost certainly use it to their advantage. If none of them slow down, however, the race between Antetokounmpo, Harden and George could prove one of the tightest we’ve ever seen.

The Anthony Davis Situation

The New Orleans Pelicans and Anthony Davis are caught between a rock and a hard place.

Anthony Davis doesn’t want to continue his career in New Orleans, but he does want to continue playing this season. However, the Pelicans have the right to protect themselves from a potential Davis injury, one that could irreparably damage his trade value and New Orleans’ future. Meanwhile, the NBA will almost certainly not want Davis, a premier player, languishing on the bench.

So, where do things go from here? Well, they get pretty awkward.

The Pelicans, Davis and the NBA need to come together in agreement on the best path forward for all parties involved and, with a handful of games remaining, they don’t have long to do so. At the very least, expect Davis to play far fewer minutes than he is accustomed to as the Pelicans look to minimize any and all injury risks.

The Battle for Zion

Not every team has the chance to make the postseason. But, with a generational talent like Zion Williamson on the line, not every team wants to make the postseason this year.

The New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, have wallowed near the bottom of the NBA barrel for the entire season, all with their eyes fixed on Tuesday, May 14: the NBA Draft Lottery. While the NBA instituted a new lottery system to discourage tanking — the bottom three teams share the best chance at the top pick — it hasn’t stopped these teams from losing as many games as possible in a bid to make Williamson the first player off the board in the 2019 NBA Draft.

In a weird, backward way, it could be fun to watch these five teams “compete” for the bottom three spots and, eventually, the rights to Williamson.

As we inch closer to the postseason, don’t expect the NBA to wind down. While it may not seem as eventful trade season, these last few weeks of the regular season have a chance to be some of the most eventful of the entire year.

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NBA Daily: Examining the Eastern Conference Contenders

Matt John takes a look at the four titans who will be fighting for the Eastern Conference crown this May.

Matt John

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The day after the trade deadline passed, LeBron James had some interesting things to say about the arms race that was going down between the Eastern Conference titans.

“They know they ain’t gotta go through Cleveland anymore,” James said. “Everybody in the East thinks they can get to the Finals because they ain’t gotta go through me.”

It’s notable that the Lakers are currently toeing the line between making the playoffs and playing the lottery odds. That does, however, beg the question: What if LeBron stayed in Cleveland?

Now if that had happened, then a lot of things would probably be different for the Cavaliers right now. There’s no telling if they would have kept the pick the Nets owed them, or if they would be playing Kyle Korver, George Hill, and J.R. Smith right now.

It would have added another intriguing wrinkle to what has been the tightest formerly-five-currently-four-man race going on at the top of the Eastern Conference in quite some time. Whether you agree that Cleveland would still be the frontrunner in the East with James, there doesn’t really appear to be a clear-cut favorite to represent the East anymore. Plenty of fans and analysts would give their takes on who stands out among the pack, but there’s no consensus pick.

In a sense, LeBron’s kind of right. He was a tyrant – or a “King” if you will – that set the bar year-in and year-out for the past decade. It gave his rivals motivation to play at one hundred percent, though it made the East a little predictable. With LeBron gone, the suspense as to who will take his throne makes it all the more fun.

The season is now coming down the home stretch. With less than 25 games left, Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia, and Boston will fight tooth and nail to get home court advantage over each other. Who has the edge? Well, let’s take a look.

Milwaukee Bucks
Record: 44-14
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .465 (27th overall)
Record against competitors: 5-2

They finally did it. After years of looking as incredible as they were inconsistent, the Bucks have hit a breakthrough. It turns out all they needed was to put the right personnel around the Greek Freak (i.e. floor spacers and impact defenders). Oh, and a coach who could bring all of the notable talent together. The pieces are now fitting into place for the Bucks. Giannis is now going full-throttle with a supporting cast who only make Milwaukee all the harder to stop. Their league-leading point differential (9.6) tops the league by a fair margin, which indicates that this may not only be a fluke but the first sign of the glorious future we all believed the Bucks had.

MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo – If it weren’t for James Harden putting up legendary numbers, Giannis would be the frontrunner for MVP. So much has been said about him that there’s not much to be added, so let’s leave it at this. Many have said if he starts hitting threes, he’ll be unstoppable. When you see his dominance in the paint – he’s shooting 77.3 percent in the paint – it makes you wonder if he really has to.
X-Factor: Eric Bledsoe – He’s had a nice bounce-back after a rocky half-season in Milwaukee. The record still stands that he was outplayed by Terry Rozier in his first playoff action as a starter. If the Bucks are to maintain their success in the postseason, Bledsoe must avoid a repeat performance from last postseason.
Unsung Hero: Malcolm Brogdon – People can scoff all they want at Brogdon’s Rookie of the Year Award. The fact is, the Bucks absolutely need him. They are +7.1 with him on the court, good for second behind, well, who do you think?
Pivotal Question: Will the supporting cast (including Coach Bud) keep it up in the playoffs?

Toronto Raptors
Record: 43-16
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .450 (30th overall)
Record against competitors: 6-5

Do you know what’s odd about the Raptors? Going by net rating, they’ve actually taken a step back this season. Last season, the Raptors had the second best offensive rating (113.8) and the fifth best defensive rating (105.9). This season, they have the seventh-best offensive rating (113) and the eighth best defensive rating (107.4). Yet somehow, the genuine belief is that this is the best team they’ve ever assembled. With Marc Gasol and Jeremy Lin added to the team, the Raptors have made it clear that they’re not messing around.

MVP: Kawhi Leonard – Remember when Kevin Durant implied that Kawhi was a system player for the Spurs? Maybe that’s why Kawhi wanted out because he’s proven that notion wrong. He hasn’t skipped a beat in Canada and has even averaged career-highs both in scoring and rebounding average. He’d be an MVP candidate if he hadn’t missed 16 games.
X-Factor: Kyle Lowry – If Leonard is going to be the alpha dog of this team, he needs a second-in-command. Lowry’s numbers have dipped, but he’s got the experience. He’s folded in the playoffs before. Perhaps with less pressure, he can step up his game.
Unsung Hero: Serge Ibaka – With everything else that’s gone right for Toronto, Ibaka’s full acclimation to the center position has given him new life offensively. He’s putting up some of the best scoring, rebounding, and assist averages he’s had either ever or in years.
Pivotal Question: Will Nick Nurse get the team finally past its long-lived playoff demons?

Philadelphia 76ers
Record: 38-21
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .486 (21st Overall)
Record against competitors: 1-7

We have seen three iterations of the Sixers this season. One with Dario Saric and Robert Covington, one that added Jimmy Butler, then one that added primarily Tobias Harris among others. That’s a lot of talent to integrate in such a short time. Lucky for them, by adding Butler and Harris, the Sixers have the most talented starting five in the East. The Process is now at 100 percent capacity. They may have holes, but their Warriors-esque talent level may make it so that it won’t be a problem.

MVP: Joel Embiid – At age 24, Embiid has now taken his first steps into superstardom. 27.3 points, 13.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists along with 1.9 blocks is sure to Joel among the ranks of the league’s top centers. Perhaps what’s most encouraging is that, before this recent knee ailment, Embiid has only missed five games.
X-Factor: The Bench – The Sixers also loaded up the second unit by adding Boban Marjanovic, Mike Scott, Jonathon Simmons and James Ennis III. By doing so, they really are committing to positionless basketball. It honestly could work if they use it to the best advantage they could.
Unsung Hero: Jimmy Butler – Butler’s fit with the Sixers hasn’t been smooth, but, even with the decreased scoring numbers, Butler is quietly putting up some of the most efficient percentages he’s ever had this season, both from three and the field itself.
Pivotal Question: Will they be able to stop any elite point guards?

Boston Celtics
Record: 37-22
Strength of Remaining Schedule: .516 (10th Overall)
Record against competitors: 6-3

The Celtics are somehow a team that’s played badly enough that they’re a disappointment yet played well enough that people shouldn’t give up on them. After a mediocre start, most of the results that have come from the Celtics have been positive. That’s come with some frustrating losses, but the team has been resilient after every bad stretch they’ve had. A common characteristic of Brad Stevens teams is that they play at their best as the season approaches its end. With their guys finally getting past their injury issues, we may see more of the same in the best way yet.

MVP: Kyrie Irving – Kyrie’s chaotic free agency plans have gotten in the way of what’s been a great season for him. He’s put up his usual scoring numbers, but his passing, rebounding and defense have been the best they’ve ever been. The Celtics have proven their fine without him. They’re still better off having him on the court.
X-Factor: Gordon Hayward – It’s been reported to death by now that Hayward’s made some encouraging process in recent weeks. Let’s leave it at this – if he is 100 percent by the playoffs, that makes the Celtics so much scarier. People forget just how good Gordon Hayward was merely two years ago.
Unsung Hero: Al Horford – After the last Celtics-Sixers game, many believe Horford is going to be a matchup problem for Embiid. Correction: Horford’s skillset and IQ make him a matchup problem for everyone.
Pivotal Question: Will they find a consistent rhythm by the season’s end?

Some of you are probably going to be outraged that Indiana is not included on this list, and for good reason. They still are the third-seeded team in the East, they’ve just recently had a six-game winning streak snapped, and they have one of the league’s best defenses.

With all due respect, it’s pretty simple. No Victor Oladipo, no contest. The Pacers are still one of the most well-liked and well-rounded teams in the league. It doesn’t change the fact that in the playoffs, having star power gives a huge advantage. Without Oladipo, Indiana is completely deprived of it.

If it’s any comfort, with a fully healthy Oladipo next season, they are more than worthy of being put with this group.

Here’s to hoping that by next year, this group will stay the same when he does.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Are The Kings Destined For The Playoffs?

As the season starts up again after the All-Star Break, Jordan Hicks looks into the Sacramento Kings and what it will take for them to end their playoff drought.

Jordan Hicks

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Sacramento Kings fans should be incredibly happy regardless of how this season ends.

For the first time in what seems like forever they have a promising young team that is not only winning games, but maintaining a certain form of consistency doing so. With the foundation of youthful stars like De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Marvin Bagley III, how can Kings faithful not be hyper-optimistic?

The Kings are geared for success over the course of the next few years, but could their time come sooner than that? Do they actually have a shot at making the playoffs this season? The trade deadline acquisitions of Harrison Barnes and Alec Burks, two vets that can make an instant impact, make it seem like they believe their time is now.

Breaking things down, the question becomes – what actually needs to happen for the Kings to make the playoffs this season? The simple answer is to win games.

What have they been doing thus far to put more ticks in the W column? Shooting the three efficiently jumps out. They are currently fourth in the league in three-point percentage at 37.7 percent. While this number is oddly similar to last season’s percentage, they are shooting about seven more threes per game.

Sacramento is also playing incredibly quick basketball. They are second in the league in pace (the number of possessions per 48 minutes). Some could argue that this doesn’t always translate into a positive outcome, but for Sacramento it does. They are leading the NBA in fastbreak points at 21.7 points per game and are sixth in the league at points in the paint. Their defense is translating into offense as well, as they are second in the league at points off turnovers.

While their strengths are definitely elite, they clearly have weaknesses, too. They sit in 18th for both offensive and defensive rating, good for a -1.2 net rating. They are an abysmal 28th in free throw shooting.

Apart from Willie Cauley-Stein – who likely isn’t a major part of their future – they lack an elite rim protector. This leaves their defense prone to giving up more points in the paint. They are currently 26th in the league at opponent points in the paint. The lack of rim protection clearly correlates with their inability to grab defensive boards. They are tied for last in the league at opponent second-chance points.

One would assume that if the Kings simply tighten up their defensive focus that they would be able to close out strong and make the playoffs. They are currently ninth in the West, only one-and-a-half games behind the Clippers who just traded away their best player in Tobias Harris and two-and-a-half games behind the Spurs, who are somehow putting together a strong season despite losing Kawhi Leonard via trade and Dejounte Murray to injury.

As the season gets deeper, however, the Kings won’t be the only team tightening things up for a final playoff push. Every other team will likely be doing the same thing. While the Kings are just a small shot from the playoffs, both the Lakers and Timberwolves are nipping at their heels as well.

The Warriors, Nuggets and Thunder have done enough to separate themselves from the pack, to a degree at least. So that essentially leaves eight teams fighting for the remaining five slots. You can likely write off the Clippers, as they traded away their star player for future assets, and quite possibly the Timberwolves, as they may not have enough depth on their roster. This leaves the Kings and Lakers. If history has taught us anything, it’s that LeBron James likes to play in the postseason.

Sacramento has 24 games left to play this season. Their next two are at Oklahoma City and Minnesota. If they can somehow manage to squeak out one win in that stretch that will keep them above .500 and still fighting for a spot. After that stretch, 11 of their final 22 games are against teams projected to make the playoffs. Apart from two games against the Knicks, one against the Suns, and one against the Cavaliers, none of the remaining 11 games not against playoff teams will be “gimmes.”

Their final three are away against Utah, home against New Orleans and away against Portland. For sure they will be battling with two (and potentially three) of those teams for playoff positioning.

As far as the Lakers – who after their head-to-head win Thursday are a game behind Sacramento and two games out of the playoffs – their schedule isn’t much easier. 15 of their final 24 games are against projected playoff teams. That victory over Sacramento at Staples could actually end up being incredibly important for who makes the playoffs and who loses out.

Whether or not the Kings make the playoffs is anyone’s guess. If Fox and Hield play elite ball to close out the season, that will definitely increase their chances. Strong play from deadline acquisitions Burks and Barnes will also play a huge role in the Kings’ final push.

Like previously mentioned, Kings’ fans should be happy either way. This is the brightest the team’s future has been in well over a decade.

But the Kings likely won’t settle for “promising” or “up-and-coming.” They want success now, and making the playoffs will give them the reward that they’ve been working so hard for.

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