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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: What’s Next In Portland And Orlando?

With the passing of Rich DeVos in Orlando and Paul Allen in Portland, what’s next for those franchises?

Steve Kyler

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What’s Next In Portland And Orlando?

The NBA lost two massively influential owners this year in Orlando’s Rich DeVos and yesterday’s news of the passing of Blazers’ owner Paul Allen.

While it’s early in the process, there is a growing sense in both situations that the teams both titans owned will likely change hands in the not so distant future.

Here is what we know at this point:

In Orlando’s case, the team’s ownership was moved into a family trust some time ago, with the prevailing hope from the elder DeVos that the team would stay in the family after his passing. The team is currently controlled by Dan DeVos, who is chairman and governor of the team.

DeVos has said recently that the family has no intentions of selling the team, yet there are not very many in NBA circles believe that will be the case in the longer term.

The Magic are one of the teams to watch in terms of changing owners, however, they are not a team that can relocate given the very restrictive lease terms they agreed to when they landed their arena deal.

Another factor with the future of the Magic is the massive development taking place across from the Amway Arena that’s been led by the current Magic ownership. The project is just getting underway, and league sources believe the value of the Magic franchise could take a big jump up once that project is finished.

There has been talk for some time in NBA circles that current Clippers head coach Doc Rivers would have interest in an ownership stake in the Magic should the team become available. The same is true of NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal, who currently has a minority stake in the Sacramento Kings. O’Neal has been vocal over the years that he’s ready to talk should the Magic hit the market.

In Portland’s case, obviously, the news of Paul Allen’s sudden passing makes the Blazers future murky. Allen’s holding company Vulcan Inc. technically owns the team, and the belief is nothing will change on that front in the short term.

As John Canzano chronicled for the Oregonian, Allen’s sister Jody is his closest surviving relative and there is a sense she may not want to own the Blazers in the medium-term.

Bert Kolde, who is Vice Chairman of the Trail Blazers, will continue to run the day to day aspects of the business according to reports and insiders. There is some concern that, with Allen’s passing, the unlimited green light to spend and acquire assets that had become so common under Allen’s leadership may not be as aggressive.

During the summer, one insider commented that the Blazers were always active in trying to move around for draft picks and assets and never afraid to leverage cash to get things done. That may change with Allen’s passing.

If the Blazers hit the market, and many expect that they might in the near term, it’s believed re-locating the franchise wouldn’t be a consideration, especially with how successful Portland has been as a smaller NBA media market.

One thing to keep in mind is that, with NBA franchise valuations well over the $1 billion mark, a fast transaction in either team’s situation isn’t likely.

As with all things in the NBA, these are fluid situations, especially with the Blazers – so both will be situations to watch.

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NBA Daily: Six Pointers For The Season

On a night that is sure to be full of hot takes, highlight videos and overreaction, Spencer Davies has some pointers that you should take into consideration for the upcoming season.

Spencer Davies

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It’s time to celebrate, NBA fans.

We are officially one sleep away from tipping off the 2018-19 season. The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, two heavy Eastern Conference title favorites, will square off first, followed by the defending champion Golden State Warriors hosting the Oklahoma City Thunder.

On a night that is sure to be full of hot takes, highlight videos and overreaction, here are some pointers headed into the year that you should take into consideration within the grand scheme of things.

Reminder: There Are 82 Games

The first week of the NBA season is under a gigantic microscope. Some teams are going to look unbeatable, others may not look quite as good and a handful might seem downright awful. We have to remember that a lot of these ball clubs have a different energy about them. Whether it’s a new front office, a new head coach, roster turnover or simply needing time to jell, not everything is going to be sunshine and rainbows from the jump—and even if it is, that could be short-lived.

Don’t Fall For Fake Accounts

One time or another, everybody has been bound to fall for a complete farce. Everybody is susceptible to seeing a fake account on Twitter and immediately reacting without checking the validity of the source. It’s a natural response. But make sure that if you’re following along with a trade rumor and/or developing event, the information is coming from a reliable reporter with multiple confirmations. This is especially important on trade deadline day.

Rookies Will Have Ups And Downs

Arguably the best part about the start of a new NBA year is seeing fresh talent hit the hardwood. They are living a real-life dream and, for most of them, you see the true love they have for the game through their play. In any case, they are getting used to an unfamiliar stage and a higher level of basketball. There will be flashes and struggles, but more often—inconsistencies. It’s hard to find out if a player is the “next ________” just as it is dubbing a rookie a bust right away. Give these guys time to mature and enjoy it.

Watch For Quotes Taken Out Of Context

This happens a ton in the world of sports. When reading what a player says ahead of or after a game, make sure you’re getting the full story. It’s easy for a video to get chopped and edited to create a juicy narrative and rile things up. While we do have plenty of feuds in the league stemming from what happens in between the four lines—in addition to an abundance of intriguing stories—there’s a lot of something made out of nothing situations that are best to just ignore.

Referees Are Not Out To Get Your Team

Last season was an especially complicated one for the NBA officiating contingent. Criticism came from all angles, from media to players to coaches, as it does almost every season. Part of it is warranted, but let’s not forget how difficult the job is. The frantic pace of the game is evolving with each year, and the bang-bang plays are growing tougher to determine because of it. Missed calls and anticipated calls are a killer for momentum in any case, but the stripes are here to do their job the best they can. It’s fine to look at tendencies, but don’t come up with conspiracy theories because your team isn’t getting a favorable whistle.

Surprises Happen: Good Or Bad

With 30 squads loaded with the best basketball talent in the world, it’s truly an “any team, any night” kind of league. There are going to be upsets and there are going to be blowouts. Aside from the teams on the wrong side of the rout too many times, most of these won’t matter with the bigger picture intact. If a ball club makes the playoffs and is set to contend, they ultimately won’t care about a lopsided defeat from November.

There are also factors beyond teams’ control that are inevitable, unfortunately. We don’t know who will go down with injuries, but they are a part of the game. You hope that the severity of the setbacks are never the worst-case scenario, yet somehow it always tends to occur and, in turn, affects his organization’s plans for the season. Let’s hope this doesn’t happen, and if it does, have it be at the bare minimum.

These pointers arent’ meant to be a buzz kill, of course. This league is all about entertainment and enjoyment for its fans, so have fun with it. That’s what it’s here for.

There’s much more to a season, but we’d figure to pass along some tips as we await for another great year of NBA action.

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NBA Daily: The NBA Ten Years Ago

With the 2018-2019 season on the horizon, Basketball Insiders’ Matt John takes a trip down memory lane to look at where the league was ten years prior.

Matt John

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It’s time to take a trip down memory lane – all the way back to 2009.

It was a different time then. The country’s first black president was inaugurated, Swine Flu was petrifying the nation and Justin Bieber was an innocent teenager just trying to make a name for himself. It was a time to be alive, particularly for NBA junkies.

There were some interesting storylines going on in the NBA, like the somewhat growing concern of ballplayers preferring to play overseas after Josh Childress went to Greece. Or the Seattle Supersonics switching cities to become the Oklahoma City Thunder under certain circumstances. However, the 2008-2009 season overall served as a transitional year for the players.

Some of the NBA’s youngest stars such as LeBron James, Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony were achieving success, as individuals and in the team setting. They were becoming the present face of the league while established veterans – such as Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter – were becoming the past. Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade had already shown themselves as two of the bright young stars in the league, and Kevin Durant was right around the corner. The 2008-2009 season was when the new generation of young NBA stars started making its mark.

Having said that, looking back at today, what should the 2008-2009 season be remembered the most for? Well, several things.

The NBA Champion

As you probably remember, the Los Angeles Lakers won their 15th NBA title in 2009.
The LakeShow deserved it. Detractors will make excuses – which I’ll get to – but the Lakers were a well-crafted team that was difficult for every team in the league to stop. Ten years later, only one question remains about them: Would they have worked as well in today’s NBA?

There’d be little reason for them not to. They had a top-10 NBA talent of all-time still at the top of his game in Kobe Bryant. However, while Kobe may have been their best player, the dirty little secret about the 08-09 Lakers was that their frontcourt was what made them tough to stop. They had one of the best offensive centers in the league in Pau Gasol, one of the NBA’s most versatile players ever in Lamar Odom and a promising young big in Andrew Bynum. The one commonality between these three: None of them were floor spacers.

Back then, stretching the floor wasn’t as much of a necessity as it is now. Also, teams didn’t value small ball nearly as much as they do now. Could that Lakers frontcourt have broken the trend, or would the league’s shooting evolution have limited their effectiveness? We’ll honestly never know, but it’s something worth pondering.

If X Team(s) Had Just Been Healthy…

Every season has that one team that many wonder what would have been had a certain player not gotten hurt. In 2009, the obvious injury to turn to was Kevin Garnett’s. The Celtics that year looked as good as ever until Garnett went down with a season-ending knee injury.

Boston did well without him, but Garnett’s injury left fans with unfulfilled desires. Perhaps the Celtics could have won it all had Garnett been available, but his injury was on them. Reportedly, the organization knew Garnett had bone spurs in his knee before the season started and played him hoping he’d be fine. Had they been more cautious, maybe they’d have 18 banners right now. This shows that when you’re a contender, you should take proper precautions for when the real games begin.

Besides, the Celtics weren’t the ones victimized the most by injuries. The ones that came the closest to beating the Lakers were, and that team was the Houston Rockets.

Many forget that the Rockets were expected to be title contenders leading up to that season. They had Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming leading the way, but after they stole the player formerly known as Ron Artest from the Kings, expectations were sky high in H-Town.

It didn’t take long for things to go south. McGrady’s knee was so troublesome that it knocked him out by mid-season. Hope was not lost, though. The Rockets managed to snag the fifth seed in the Western Conference without T-Mac and even advanced to the second round.

After splitting the first two games with the Lakers, Yao’s broken foot in Game Three of the conference semi-finals put the final nail in the coffin. The Rockets still fought until there was no fight left in them, as the Lakers eliminated them in seven games. The Rockets pushed the eventual NBA champs to the brink despite losing both T-Mac and Yao. If there’s one team that was robbed of their potential that doesn’t get enough credit, it’s the 2008-2009 Rockets.

The Deal That Could Have Changed So Much

If you thought the Chris Paul trade to the Lakers could have altered the entire landscape of the NBA, wait until you hear about this nixed trade that happened in 2009. On Feb. 18, New Orleans agreed to trade Tyson Chandler to Oklahoma City for Joe Smith and Chris Wilcox. Basically, the then-Hornets were dumping Chandler to the Thunder. That was until Chandler’s “turf toe” raised enough red flags to convince OKC to rescind the trade.

After all that’s happened since then, it’s amazing wondering what could have been. The Thunder were one of the league’s worst teams when they traded for Chandler, so who knows what they would have done with him that season. His presence could have impacted whether they got James Harden in the draft that year. Serge Ibaka came over the following season, so imagine what he and Chandler would have looked like together. Trading for Chandler would have meant that he wouldn’t make it to Dallas, which probably meant no title for the Mavericks in 2011. It also would have meant the Thunder trading Jeff Green for Kendrick Perkins would be nixed, too.

So much could have been different had OKC rolled the dice with Chandler. Maybe they wouldn’t have lost Durant. Maybe they would’ve formed a dynasty. Maybe LeBron nor the Warriors wouldn’t have won any titles this decade. All of that could have come from one rescinded trade. It’s understandable that the Thunder didn’t want to take the risk with Chandler’s toe, but at times like those, the potential outweighs the risk.

Pull The Plug! Or Don’t!

One of the seasons more prominent storylines was the fall of the Detroit Pistons. After being among the Eastern Conference’s powerhouses for several years, Detroit’s downfall came when they agreed to swap Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess for Allen Iverson.

While the Denver Nuggets reaped all the benefits from this deal, Detroit crumbled from one of the top seeds to the eighth seed in the conference. In hindsight, the Pistons underestimated how much Billups had left in the tank and overestimated how good their opponents were. When you consider that the Orlando Magic was the reigning Eastern Conference Champion at the time – and the Pistons beat the Magic the previous year in a five-game playoff series – maybe the Pistons would have had a chance.

When you have a window of opportunity, even if the outlook isn’t great, you take advantage of it until you can’t anymore. The Pistons instead folded early and have never recovered since. This trade would have been forgivable had the Pistons used the cap space they got from Iverson’s expiring deal wisely.

Instead, they used it on Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva the following summer. Woof.

“Success Is Fleeting”

It was mentioned earlier that Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony were achieving success both for themselves and for their teams. Both played in the ideal situations for them.

Howard played for a team that had reliable shooters who spread the floor along with smart playmakers who could run the pick and roll with him. Howard may have been a shot-blocking terror, but he also benefited from having agile defenders on the wing. Howard’s dominating presence down low made it difficult for defenses to figure out who to cover, which helped the Magic power their way to the NBA Finals.

Anthony played for a team that had an MVP candidate for a starting point guard in Chauncey Billups. “Mr. Big Shot” knew exactly where to find Anthony which greatly helped ‘Melo’s efficiency as a scorer. Carmelo also played for a team whose frontcourt finally got past its injury issues. With everything going Denver’s way, they had one of their most successful playoff runs in years, pushing the Lakers to six games in the Western Conference Finals.

When the Magic and the Nuggets went on their playoff runs in 2009, Anthony was only 25 while Howard was 23. Making it that far into the playoffs is terrific when you’re that young, but little did they know, that was far as they would get in their primes.

Looking at where they are at now, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard will more likely than not be Hall-of-Famers, but they’ll be remembered for being two superstar talents who could have done so much more in their careers had their hubris not gotten in the way. As their careers unfolded, both infamously burned bridges because things had to be done their way, which in turn, hurt their opportunities for success.

One can’t help but wonder if the success they had in 2009 played a role in their egos. Whether it did or not, young players coming into the league need to know that maintaining success in the NBA is not a given no matter how good you are. You never know when the glory days will be taken away from you.

The 2008-2009 season was remembered for many other things as well. LeBron had finally taken the reins as the league’s indisputable best player, a label he still has yet to relinquish, as he went on to win his first MVP award. It was also the one and only year we got the closest resemblance to a full season from the injury-plagued Greg Oden. Hilariously, it was also the year when we realized that maybe fans had a little too much power in all-star voting, as Iverson and McGrady were voted in as starters purely on reputation.

There are many other reasons to remember the 2008-2009 season. Ten years from now, what will the 2018-2019 season be remembered for?

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