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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

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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

NBA Daily: Under the Radar – Eastern Conference

Flying under the radar is rarely seen as a good thing amongst athletes, but to be identified as somebody under the radar is categorically different. Drew Maresca identifies the five best “under the radar” players in the Eastern Conference.

Drew Maresca

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Flying under the radar is a double-edged sword for professional basketball players. On the one hand, it grants anonymity, allowing them to get where they want to go on and off the court with relative ease. But on the other hand, it’s a slap in face when someone’s body of work warrants more recognition than it’s received. Very few people grow up wanting to be underground stars. They might admire said stars. But professionally, most people want to prefer to be successful and mainstream.

But fans already know the successful and familiar basketball players. So instead, Basketball Insiders is identifying the best of the rest. We’ll pick five players who, despite their strong play throughout the 2019-20 season, managed to go relatively unnoticed. That’s not to say we’re selecting scrubs. It means we’re picking five players with whom the average sports fan should be more familiar than they are.

Because there are so many candidates, we thought it was best to divide the talent pool by conference. David Yapowitz will cover the Western Conference’s top under the radar candidates; but first, let’s identify the five best Eastern Conference players who flew under the radar in 2019-20.

Caris LeVert

Locally, LeVert is seen as a rising star who can score and create for others. Still, injuries and superstar teammates have hampered his coming out party.

Granted, LeVert missed 24-consecutive games from November 12, 2019 – January 2, 2020, but he averaged 16.7 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists in 31.5 minutes per game prior to the All-Star break. And he was still on the mend from a 2018-19 injury.

And yet, LeVert only garnered 21,394 total All-Star votes and only 3 player votes. Comparatively, teammate Spencer Dinwiddie received 459,419 and 30 total player votes. And for the sake of context, Giannis Antetokounmpo led all Eastern Conference players in All-Star voting with 5,902,286 total votes and 258 total player votes.

And LeVert performed even better in the 11 games after the All-Star break. He averaged 24.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game following the break including a 51-point performance in a win at Boston on March 3.

His silky-smooth game is tailor-made to complement Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn. And as much as the rhetoric around the Nets is that they plan to search for a third start to complement Irving and Durant, they will be hard-pressed to do better than LeVert — who is signed to a more-than-affordable contract that will pay him $16.2 million in 2020-21, $17.5 million in 2020-21 and $18.79 million in 2022-23.

LeVert is still only 25-years-old and in his fourth season in the NBA. He might be under the radar for now, but he won’t be for long.

Cam Reddish

The versatile 6-foot-8 Reddish was a blue-chip recruit when he entered Duke approximately 18 months ago. But his passive style of play led to him taking a backseat to his two superstar teammates, RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson. But Reddish’s positives still shined through, leading to him being selected 10th overall in the 2019 NBA Draft by the Atlanta Hawks.

The Hawks were an interesting fit for Reddish considering they also drafted De’Andre Hunter, another three-and-D wing. But playing alongside a gifted player like Trae Young creates more than enough space to learn how one fits into the NBA game without receiving too much attention from the defense or criticism from the media.

And it’s worked out pretty well for Reddish – especially of late. Reddish was already seen as one of Hawks best defenders, according to former teammate Chandler Parsons. But Reddish’s offensive output has also surged of late. After averaging just 9.3 points prior to the All-Star break, Reddish surged to 16.3 points per game in the 11 games since. Further, he’s shooting 50% from the field – compared to only 35.3% before the All-Star break – and his three-point percentage is also up to 38.9% from 31.6%.

Reddish might not have the star power of his college teammates, and he may never be the Hawks first or second option offensively; but he’s proven to be a resounding net positive. And at only 20-years-old, he’ll almost certainly get even better and garner the type of attention we expected him to before his lone college season began.

Derrick Rose

It’s hard to slot Rose into a group of “under the radar” players considering he’s a former NBA MVP. But post-injury Rose has been a significantly different guy than the MVP-version we saw before.

Rose has proven that he can still score the ball, even if teams have been unwilling to give him a chance. After a difficult season in New York and a tumultuous 2017-18, in which he played only 25 games with the Cavaliers and Timberwolves, Rose bounced back in 2018-19 with Minnesota.

But there are some significant differences between Rose’s serviceable numbers last season and his output this year. First of all, his PER is back above 20 for the first time since 2011-12 – that’s an accomplishment in itself. Technically, it’s up from 19.5 to 21.1, but an increase of 1.6 is noteworthy pertaining to this statistic.

That’s not all — Rose also averaged more assists per game (5.6) in 2019-20 – than he has since 2011-12. And he received more minutes this season than he has in any of the previous five seasons.

And while Rose was almost as effective in 2018-19 as he was this season, he’s played far more in 2019-20. Rose played in only 62% of the Timberwolves’ games in 2018-19, starting in 15 of them. But this season, Rose played in 75% of the Pistons’ games, starting almost as many (13) despite the shortened season.

Rose will be 32 by the time the 2020-21 season begins, whenever that may be. No one knows how many more years he has left in him. But at least for now, he’s looked over far too often by the media. But maybe that might give him the motivation he needs.

Duncan Robinson

Tyler Herro is the probably the surprise story for the HEAT this season. And if not him, it’s Kendrick Nunn. But they both received significant recognition for outperforming expectations. Duncan Robinson has outperformed expectations, too – only he’s flown under the radar more than his fellow up-and-comers. But don’t let that fool you – Robinson has been every bit as surprising.

Robinson was an undrafted rookie last season spending the majority of the year with the team’s G League affiliate (Sioux Falls Skyforce). He did appear in 15 games with the HEAT in 2018-19, but his minutes and overall effect were limited. That has not been the case this season. Robinson’s marksmanship has been on full display in 2019-20, as has his durability. He’s played in all 65 of the HEAT’s games, scoring 13.3 points per game on 44.8% shooting from three-point range – good for fourth-best in the entire league.

The HEAT have an interesting team dynamic in which lots of people contribute. But within that, it’s hard for all major to contributor to get their due: Jimmy Butler obviously gets the credit – albeit probably less than he deserves; Bam Adebayo entered this season as someone NBA-folks had an eye on; Goran Dragic and Andre Iguodala are established; and Herro and Nunn have been showered with praise for their respective performances. But Robinson’s personality is softer and more laid back.

Robinson might not be under the radar for long, but he’s there for the time being.

Devonte’ Graham

We were on the fence about Graham’s inclusion. If it were a “breakout players” piece, he would be a shoo-in. After all, he only averaged 4.7 points per game in 46 games in 2018-19. But this piece is about a player receiving too little credit for their accomplishments in 2019-20 and not about surprising performances.

Still, Graham makes the cut. If Graham were on a higher-profile team, he would have received more than his share of notoriety. He led the Hornets in points (18.2 per game) and assists (7.5 per game) as a second-year player, meaning that he was the main focal point for opposing defenses for the majority of the season.

Playing for the 23-42 Hornets – and doing so in a smaller market – did Graham no favors. Still, he established himself as a fearless scorer who finishes at the rim with both hands and gets his shot off incredibly quickly. Graham will be an All-Star sooner than later. But for now, he’s still unknown to casual sports fans – and even some not-so-casual ones.

Being an under-the-radar guy can be seen as a badge of honor or a backhanded compliment. Either way, all five of the players identified in this article are significantly better than the sports world believe they are. But don’t count on that being the case for long.

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NBA

The Six Things We’re Watching

With no light at the end of the tunnel in sight, Basketball Insiders has compiled three burning questions and three content-focused areas to keep you preoccupied in these strange times.

Ben Nadeau

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Basketball is back!

Well, technically – 16 NBA players will be playing basketball. Online. In a video game. Hey, that still counts, right?

Along with a few shining moments of optimism, the sporting world is slightly less of a barren hellscape than it was a week ago – even though the rest of the planet continues to burn. Sports have often been an escape for many, so sheltering-in-place – ahem, the right thing to do, by the way – is reaching absolute critical mass in terms of daytime boredom.

That said, while the internet is a bottomless pit of sadness, it’s still capable of producing golden moments of light, too – albeit far less frequently and often sandwiched between 800-1,000 tweets from users with egg profile pictures. So, while Basketball Insiders continues to grease the old writing wheels, there’s some other great stuff out there to pay attention to as well.

As it was assigned: Here’s The Six Things We’re Watching right now, alternating between serious considerations and those of a more fun variety.

1. Fun: The NBA 2K20 Tournament

Remember the content goldmine that was Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum’s Instagram Live? This week, that realm of potential entertainment another considerable step up. Presented by ESPN, a 16-player NBA 2K20 Tournament will be aired on the charter stations. Considering the competitive nature of these professional athletes – and how seriously they take the multi-console game – this event should be a sight for sore eyes all weekend. 

Kevin Durant will open the tournament against Derrick Jones Jr. later tonight, with Deandre Ayton versus Zach LaVine after that. Luckily, it also means that we could see the debut of Durant on the Brooklyn Nets – although in a slightly different context than originally thought. In other matchups, Michael Porter Jr., a guy who regularly clowned on others in 2k, will try to upset Devin Booker, somebody often found on Twitch during his free time.

Beyond that, the trash talk between Patrick Beverley and Hassan Whiteside will be worth tuning in for, assuredly; while stars like Trae Young, Donovan Mitchell and DeMarcus Cousins should spice up the proceedings too. 

And, not for nothing, but when an Esport gets a legitimate shot at an attention-starved mainstream audience, that’s beautiful news.

2. Serious: How will this long break change the salary cap?

Yet, no matter how many virtual dunks are thrown down, there’s still the very real question of how this impacts the bottom line.

Although the ultimate projected impact of the preseason debacle in China was overstated – for now, of course – but with the lost games, revenue and no end in sight, it might do untold damage to the Association. As covered on Basketball Insiders last week, the upcoming free agent crop isn’t the strongest in history but any financial blows would be significant to a sport that had been flying high in popularity as of late.

For prospective free agents, like Glenn Robinson III, that could change the offers during a modified offseason. Hell, right now, the NBA has paid out the next installment of contract agreements, those due on Apr. 1, but have made no guarantees moving forward. Needless to say, the longer this situation goes on, the bigger an impact it’ll have on all sides of the game – both on the court and in the front offices.

3. Fun: The Last Dance

Right now, we all need a good story or two to lean on and ESPN, thankfully, has moved up the release date of The Last Dance, a 10-part Michael Jordan-centered documentary, from June to mid-April. Per the mega-conglomerate itself, this is something worth watching:

“‘The Last Dance’ takes an in-depth look at the Chicago Bulls’ dynasty through the lens of the final championship season in 1997-98. The Bulls allowed an NBA Entertainment crew to follow them around for that entire season, and some of that never-before-seen footage will be in the documentary.”

And perhaps acting as the very sweet cherry atop the world’s already greatest sundae, The Ringer’s Bill Simmons thinks that the sure-fire hit is camp posturing as LeBron James builds more steam in the GOAT conversation.

If the planet is going to be stuck inside for the next three months at least, why not debate Jordan vs. LeBron for the 100,000th time – but this moment with some new fuel on the fire.

Mark your calendars, the first episode airs on Apr. 19.

4. Serious: What happens to the NBA Draft and Offseason?

Unsurprisingly, the NCAA has opted not to extend an extra year of eligibility in the wake of its big tournament getting the axe. While losing March Madness was painful enough, it means there’s no Stephen Curry-like Davidson (and subsequent lottery) rise. There will be no Carsen Edwards or Grant Williams, no Cinderella stories making a name for themselves on the grandest stage. And while that means less fun for all of us at home, it also means that the NBA Draft has been irrevocably altered – but it’s just a snowball effect from there.

If there’s no draft until the season ends, then when do workouts happen? If there are no workouts, what do these prospects do in the meantime? If there’s no Big Dance, then is the prospect pool more or less set? And if we’ve had no season, which means a delayed draft, then, certainly, there’s no offseason and free agency until then either – and that last one might cause conniptions.

After consecutive action-packed and surprise-worthy summers, this one – if it even falls remotely close to the warmer months at this point, really – is setting up to be a reset and refresh more than anything else.

In our free agent guides, there’s not an overwhelming amount of star power out there, nor will many athletes on options risk cushy salaries in a post-pandemic landscape. Will the draft be a footnote in a hectic offseason? What about summer leagues and training camps? Is there a reality where the 2020-21 season is shortened or altered too?

While we don’t know a whole lot about actually finishing this campaign, the longer this pause goes on, the tougher the questions will be about moving forward, too.

5. Fun: Podcasts Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop

In lieu of a frequent content calendar, Steve Kyler, our publisher and fearless leader, has been hittin’ the ‘casts hard.

There’s this story-filled one with veteran John Henson. For another player’s take, there’s Shane Larkin, an overseas superstar. Or, if you’re looking for something fresh, try his chat with Tyler Relph, an elite trainer. 

Cody Toppert. Josh Oppenheimer. Ryan Pannone. The list goes on and on – and will continue to do so – because we are content machines and every bit helps as the globe tries to persevere.

6. Serious: Will the remainder of the season be shortened? 

Could the NBA run a shortened season from one venue with quicker postseason series? According to Marc Berman of the New York Post, “nothing is off the table.” On one hand, that’s significant news as the league seems willing to do whatever it takes to crown a champion. Ultimately, that’s grand for those running on basketball fumes these days – but it must be asked: At what cost?

No fans? No home-court advantage? No heightened drama of long, drawn-out series? The locations rumored to be in the running for such an event are Las Vegas, Orlando, Atlantic City, Hawaii, Louisville and the Bahamas. While the league appears to be unwilling to drop series down to winner-takes-all status — such as the NFL playoffs, for example — shorter options like best-of-three face-offs may be the most logical.

If this is the type of decision that needs to happen – then, sure, the show must go on. To guarantee that the rest of the basketball calendar moves along on schedule and the 2020-21 season can move ahead (mostly) on time, then this is an option that must be considered. The financial implications, too, must be deafening in order for the NBA to debate over handicapping their massively-popular product like this.

Either way, such a choice will likely not be made until we effectively flatten the curve as a collection population, so small potatoes — stay inside!

Bonus: Fun + Serious: The Rules of BenBall

When I was a child, I frequently created games for myself – honestly, we probably all did. 

This was not for a lack of nearby friendships or an unpopular status at school – but because I had an active imagination and a need to gamify everything. As a senior in college, my roommates and I spent over $50 at a CVS to invent an indoor board game. And, after all, I am the proud owner of a BFA that basically amounts to fiction writing and reading books, so, it should come as no surprise that I got my creative start by concocting solo sports activities to avoid doing math homework.

Far back as I can remember, I’ve played BenBall and now, for the first time, I’m putting the rules in writing so that you can fabricate your own competitive atmosphere during these stay-at-home quarantines. In all likelihood, pickup basketball has already been banned by your local government and, in some harsher situations, rims have even been taken down.

But the best part of BenBall is that you don’t need anybody else to play – all you need is a hoop, a ball and your very lovely self. 

Now, I must stay this first: It wasn’t always called BenBall. In fact, for a solid decade, it had no name at all. If you asked my mother what the name was, she’d likely just sigh at the memory of all the half-finished paper brackets found tucked underneath rocks or windshields to aid on those particularly blustery days in Maine. 

“I swear to God,” she used to say. “If you don’t bring in that paper before I have to scrape it off wet pavement, I will disown you.”

BenBall only became BenBall in 2016 and only after my old co-workers began to tease me for asking them to play a game that always seemed to take a dramatic turn just as I was about to lose. I never once changed the rules – and never, ever to win a game – but as the sole proprietor of the challenge, I always saw their point-of-view. Even if they were just being sore losers. 

So, without further ado, here’s how BenBall works:

  • BenBall is played to 21, with a twist rebuttal period at the end.
  • Optional: Create a bracket of your favorite teams or players – this is what 13-year-old Ben did with fervor when a friend/brother/father was not in the immediate vicinity. (*) 
  • First, find the three-point line; if your court or driveway does not have one, designate a spot.
  • You, in insolation, will be playing on behalf of both teams. This means that you must be impartial and not consciously or unconsciously miss shots to influence results. BenBall is an unbiased competition, please, treat it as such.
  • A turn begins by taking a three-pointer from anywhere behind the arc, a make is worth two points. 
    • If the first shot is converted, you will shoot another three-pointer. In fact, you will shoot three-pointers until you miss once.
  • Upon the miss, you must chase down the rebound and shoot from wherever that location is. (^)
    • If this basket is made, it’s worth one point and your turn is over. 
    • If the ball bounces back out to the three-point line, that shot would be good for two points and then your turn is over.
    • You may not get points for tipping in a rebound on your second shot. If you miss your second shot, too bad – your turn is over.
  • If the ball takes a bad skip off a rock or an ill-placed car, you may – like Monopoly – play by altered house rules. For example, at the Nadeau household, you were allowed to toss yourself a one-bounce alley-oop from anywhere during the second shot stage to salvage a point. ($)
  • Once your turn is over, tally your points and begin your foray as the opposite and opposing player. 
    • Yes, in a way, you’re playing unguarded 1-on-1 with yourself, but we’re taking what we can get here.
  • Continue until a player reaches 21 and then freeze.
  • At which point, the losing player – whether real or imaginary – gets a rebuttal opportunity by shooting three-pointers to catch up.
    • They must, within a regular BenBall possession, close the deficit to within two points.
    • If they make a three-pointer, they’re awarded two points and another shot.
    • If they miss, their possession (and thusly, the game) is over unless their rebound allows them a second three-point attempt. If that shot is good, they continue in their rebuttal phase.
  • If the losing player gets within two points of the winning player, their turn immediately ends and the game resumes normally.
  • Play until somebody is up by more than three points in the post-rebuttal phase.

*As a child, I loved putting Richard Jefferson up against Paul Pierce, Carmelo Anthony versus Kevin Garnett, etc. Typically, in my brackets, division battles would flow into conference-wide showdowns and the Finals, if I ever made it that far, would feature an East-West matchup. Should you feel less imaginative during the bracket-making process, just filling it in with the most recent postseason seeds is an effective time-saver.

^If that’s under the hoop for a lay-up, congrats! If it’s behind in the garden behind the hoop (sorry, mom), well, you’re out of luck. If it gets stuck under a car, you must shoot from your back in an adjacent location.

$ This was particularly helpful because launching a 40-foot bomb from behind the hoop and in the neighbor’s lawn was a fool’s errand.

Of course, this game can be played with your isolated significant others – but given the circumstances, a little mental creativity never hurts either.

In the end, we wish nothing but the best of luck out there, readers. If you’re got rule changes to BenBall, please tweet them at me, I’d love to hear them. I’ve been playing a version of this game for over a decade now but it is not a refined, untouchable contest by any means. However, this is a foolproof way to squash those ants in your pants, get a workout and maybe even earn a favorite player that much-deserved ring.

It’s still impossible to tell where this NBA season will end up – both in 2020 and beyond – but there’s plenty of content, questions and solo-sided games to keep you preoccupied. As always, keep it tuned to Basketball Insiders for more excellent content like this and, as a final reminder, stay home – although, admittedly, a short venture into the driveway for some BenBall is perfectly reasonable too.

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NBA

NBA Daily: 8 Free Agents – Southwest Division

Spencer Davies rounds out Basketball Insiders’ Free Agent series by looking at some of the better names in the NBA’s upcoming 2020 class this offseason.

Spencer Davies

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It’s time to wrap up our Free Agent series here at Basketball Insiders!

Last week, we covered five divisions and the best players that could possibly be entering this offseason’s market. We’ll finish things off with the Southwest Division, which has perhaps some of the more intriguing names on the list compared to the others.

A Tier Above The Rest

Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans – Restricted – $7,265,485

In a class considered “weak” by many voices around the NBA, Ingram very well could be the big fish…if it can be caught. According to Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com, the Pelicans are expected to match any offer sheet that is extended his way. That’s for good reason, as the fourth-year swingman has blossomed with the Pelicans at a rapid rate.

Coming off his first All-Star campaign, Ingram’s numbers have exploded across the board as New Orleans’ first option in essentially equal the amount of playing time he had with the Los Angeles Lakers. He’s gotten much more comfortable with the three-ball and is thriving in head coach Alvin Gentry’s fast-paced offensive system. The points have come by easier and with great efficiency.

Executives seem to believe that a maximum contract is in Ingram’s future, but that won’t make Pelicans back off one of their most important franchise cornerstones moving forward. Barring an unexpected change of heart on the front office’s part, expect these two to continue their relationship and maintain a highly-talented young core in NOLA.

Elite Secondary Scorers

DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs – Player Option – $27,739,975

This situation is a tough one. Individually, DeRozan is having himself another impressive season. His 59.7 true shooting percentage is a career-best by far, and he is an absolute assassin in the mid-range game and aggressive drives to the bucket do the brunt of his damage. Unfortunately, however, this has not translated into consistent winning. The Spurs are creeping closer and closer to missing out on the playoffs for the first time in over two decades under Gregg Popovich.

Why does this matter? One, DeRozan is reportedly not too thrilled with how things have shaken out in San Antonio. Two, the impact of the coronavirus will likely lead to a decrease in the league’s salary cap, which could make it more difficult for him to turn down over $27 million next season. Leaving money on the table might not be the wisest of moves for a 30-year-old whose game — albeit mighty dangerous offensively — isn’t suited for the perimeter-oriented, efficient nature that the league covets. While it might not be the perfect match for either party, DeRozan and the Spurs will probably spend next year together.

Tim Hardaway Jr., Dallas Mavericks – Player Option – $20,025,127

Hardaway’s situation is similar logistically to DeRozan’s, yet the complete opposite in terms of his relationship with his current team. Per Sports Illustrated’s Dalton Trigg, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban foresees a long-term future with the 27-year-old in Dallas and the feeling is mutual. Again though, with a salary cap plummet, Hardaway may very well elect to exercise his player option for nearly $19 million and revisit a new deal the following offseason.

Looking at the production, Hardaway has done his part — and then some. For a player who some considered a salary dump in the Kristaps Porzingis trade with the New York Knicks, he has exceeded those expectations by becoming one of the top shooting threats in the entire NBA at a 40.7 percent clip. He’s an ideal teammate for Luka Doncic’s drive-and-kick style, while he can step up as the team’s go-to guy in stretches where he’s needed.

You Know What You’re Going To Get

P.J. Tucker, Houston Rockets – Non-Guaranteed – $17,650,000

Would the Rockets really let go of one of their most influential locker-room voices? Though unlikely, the decision might be resting on what happens with current head coach Mike D’Antoni, whose contract expires after this season. Remember that Tucker is the team’s starting small-ball five after Houston moved Clint Capela, making him an even more integral piece of its rotation. What other “role player” logs over 34 minutes on a nightly basis?

Tucker’s prowess on the defensive end is crucial to the Rockets’ success, and he’s automatic from the short corners with the opponent collapsing on their penetrating guards. As it stands, he is guaranteed $2,569,188 until July 1. If Houston decides to keep him around as Shams Charania reported, Tucker will make the full $7,969,537 for the 2020-21 campaign.

Derrick Favors, New Orleans Pelicans – Unrestricted – $17,650,000

Believe it or not, Favors is still only 28 years old and that’s with a decade of experience under his belt. He’s still got plenty left in the tank as a dependable paint presence, whether that’s as a starter or as a leader of a second unit. Boasting a 62 percent field goal percentage, he makes his mark in the post and finishes at a high rate inside. There’s definitely mileage on the tires, but there’s plenty left in the gas tank.

Worth A Gamble?

Josh Jackson, Memphis Grizzlies – Unrestricted – $7,059,480

De’Anthony Melton, Memphis Grizzlies – Restricted – $1,416,852

Ben McLemore, Houston Rockets – Non-Guaranteed – $2,028,594

This trio here is a prime example of young talent shining with an organization that took a chance on each of them. Be it underwhelming in their previous stint or simply not being a fit elsewhere, things didn’t work out originally for any of these guys. Yet in the NBA, all it takes is an opportunity. With a second (and in McLemore’s case, third or fourth) chance to prove their worth on this stage, these players have flourished in different ways.

Jackson spent the majority of his time in the G League with the Memphis Hustle, where he was to earn his way back up to the NBA. He followed through on this plan and has since joined the Grizzlies’ rotation on a permanent basis. It’s a small sample size to justify a big-time payday — and his past behaviors off the floor might cause some teams to be hesitant — but Jackson should drive interest from teams that lack wings and have money to spend. With a strong support system and cultural structure helping him mature, rolling the dice on Jackson could pay huge dividends.

Melton came along with Jackson in a trade with the Phoenix Suns, and he turned out to be the more immediate boost to the team. It took until December for the second-year guard to become a fixture in Memphis head coach Taylor Jenkins’ rotation — but when he received the opportunity, he took it and ran with it. Traditional numbers don’t particularly suggest the true difference he has made, so let’s go to the advanced ones.

According to Cleaning The Glass, the Grizzlies are 11.1 points per 100 possessions worse with Melton off the floor, putting him in the 96th percentile among his NBA peers. He is a heady defender and has a knack for making the right play on the offensive end of the floor — a true team-first guy. He’ll be a restricted free agent this summer, so we’ll see what teams go after him and if Memphis will match whatever offers are thrown his way.

The Rockets gave McLemore a shot to prove himself in the first half of the season, and he didn’t let them down. In order to play for that team, you’ve got to be able to shoot — and he answered the bell, specifically in a stretch from December to February where he knocked down 43 percent of his triples over a 40-game span. One would have to surmise that the arrival of Robert Covington has stunted his role a bit now, however. That shouldn’t take away from the fact that there clearly is something there still with the former 2013 No. 7 overall pick. He’s not a superstar by any means, but a 27-year-old scoring wing that’s rediscovered himself could prove to be a steal. Of course, that’s if Houston waives him prior to June 30.

The rest of the bunch is full of older veterans on expiring deals: Courtney Lee, E’Twaun Moore, J.J. Barea, Tyson Chandler, Thabo Sefolosha, Jeff Green, DeMarre Carroll, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marco Belinelli. Younger players such as Bryn Forbes and Jahlil Okafor will be out there, as well as little-used swingman Bruno Caboclo.

Kenrich Williams is absolutely worth a look, though he is restricted. Frank Jackson is in the same boat with his Pelicans teammate. There’s a threesome of guys with player options — Austin Rivers, Willie Cauley-Stein and Jakob Poeltl — that will probably generate interest.

As you can see, the crop coming out of the Southwest Division might be the best of the slim pickings the league has to offer this offseason. Let’s hope that we get this resolved soon and back to hoops so it can come sooner rather than later!

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