The 2018-19 NBA Champions enter this season with mostly the same roster – sans their best player and NBA Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard. Leonard represents a huge loss for the Raptors, but don’t feel too badly for the Association’s only professional Canadian team.
The Raptors can easily initiate a rebuild during the 2019-20 season if that’s their desired course of action. They should still be highly competitive considering they returned virtually everyone but Leonard. And retooling around Pascal Siakam will be a cinch considering how well he complements other players and positions.
But if the Raptors struggle, they can speed up the rebuilding process by trading away veterans like Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol, for whom there should be a market considering they’re both on expiring contracts and still serviceable starters. Fortunately, the Raptors don’t have to make a decision on whether or not they want to rebuild just yet. They can take their time assessing how well their team performs and pull the trigger on deals closer to the trade deadline – when contenders typically get more desperate and become willing to part with future assets to score key veterans.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
It’s going to be a major turnaround for the Raptors. One minute they were on top of the world having won their first championship in franchise history. The next, Kawhi Leonard was out the door on his way to Los Angeles. It was always a distinct possibility though that no matter what happened, Leonard was going to leave, and Masai Ujiri did a good job of stockpiling the team with assets. Pascal Siakam has emerged as a legit building block. OG Anunoby was looking like one too before his injury. They refused to give up all their draft picks in a potential Paul George trade to keep Leonard. Whatever direction the front office decides to go in, they’re well suited. They still have enough talent on the team to remain competitive in the Eastern Conference. They added a couple of reclamation projects in Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Ujiri had a strong case for Executive of the Year last season and as long as he’s in charge, the Raptors will be in good hands.
4th Place – Atlantic Division
Congratulations to The Six on its first NBA Finals win. Last season was a magical run and a blast to watch. The Raptors paid a hefty price to win a championship, though. Kawhi Leonard headed home to the west coast and Danny Green will be in the same city of Los Angeles with a different team. So now, Toronto is left with Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka – all on expiring contracts. It will be interesting to see whether this core big four (Pascal Siakam as option No. 1, of course) can navigate a wide-open Eastern Conference. We certainly know that Fred VanVleet is a capable backcourt partner for Lowry, and OG Anunoby’s return will afford him valuable minutes in a crucial season. However, if things aren’t going as planned in this upcoming year, it wouldn’t be surprising in the least to see one or two of those big contracts moved for draft capital or future assets. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was a solid pick up to fill a void at forward. Maybe Nick Nurse’s group gets the best of both worlds by making the postseason and preparing for what’s down the line. Regardless of what happens, 2018-19 was all worth it in the end. We’ll see if momentum can carry The North forward or if this is the start of a new Raptors era.
4th Place – Atlantic Division
– Spencer Davies
How the mighty have fallen. The Raptors, to a degree, leveraged their future on the Kawhi Leonard trade. They bet that they could convince him to stay (they couldn’t); and if not, that it would be prudent to avoid paying $30 million+ to stars who weren’t delivering championships (e.g. DeMar DeRozan). They surprised everyone – probably themselves, too – when they won the 2018-19 NBA championship in their first year with Leonard on the roster. Now, they must deal with the fallout from the gamble.
Fortunately for the Raptors, Pascal Siakam was the breakout star (and MIP) of the year in 2018-19. His presence alone should instill confidence and hope. The Raps also managed to add some versatility to their roster by signing Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. But neither signing moves the needle too much.
The Raptors appear primed for a rebuild, but seem willing to be patient in doing so – maybe waiting to see who becomes available before the trade deadline. Regardless, they have too much talent to finish below the Knicks, but probably not enough to finish higher than fourth in the ultra-competitive Atlantic Division. The playoffs are a possibility, but matching the team’s recent levels of success seems like a long shot.
4th Place – Atlantic Division
It is easy to write the Raptors off after losing Kawhi Leonard in free agency, but the truth is the Raptors are still a very, very formidable team. Sure, there may be some hangover from such a magical title season a year ago, but the pressure is off almost everyone. Typically teams carry the burden of repeating into the season, and that’s frankly not something the Raptors have to worry about; they can simply play. Head coach Nick Nurse isn’t going to be questioned if the team doesn’t win 60 games; he can just coach. The Raptors have some ending-contract guys they may look to move if the season isn’t competitive, but what’s more likely is that the Raptors are competitive because they were when Leonard had “load management” games last year. Winning 58 games likely isn’t in the cards, but it would be surprising if the Raptors fall off. In fact, home court in the playoffs still seems plausible, especially for a team playing with house money on the expectations front.
3rd Place – Atlantic Division
– Steve Kyler
First things first, congratulations to the Toronto Raptors for winning their first championship in franchise history last season. Of course, losing Kawhi Leonard in free agency hurts, but winning the championship last season makes the initial trade for Leonard worth it. The Raptors are now left with a talented, but perhaps not elite roster. Pascal Siakam is on the rise and could turn into one of the best overall forwards in the league in short order. I like the addition of young, athletic forwards like Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis Jefferson. Whether this team can make serious noise in the playoffs this upcoming season is in question but I think the front office will give this team a fair chance to show that it can compete at the highest levels, even after losing Leonard. If the team underperforms, we could see some deals go down. Masai Ujiri is a calculated dealmaker and won’t let sentiment get in the way of making deals he thinks help his team in the short and long term. That means even players like Lowry could be on the move this upcoming season, assuming another team makes a legitimate offer for his services.
4th Place – Atlantic Division
– Jesse Blancarte
FROM THE CAP GUY
Outside of losing Kawhi Leonard in free agency to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Raptors have had a relatively quiet summer. The team added Stanley Johnson via its Bi-Annual Exception ($3.6 million) and used most of its Mid-Level Exception ($9.3 million) on Patrick McCaw, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Dewan Hernandez and Matt Thomas. In doing so, Toronto triggered a hard cap at $138.9 million. That shouldn’t be an issue, given the team will probably head into the season below the NBA’s $132.6 million tax threshold.
Pascal Siakam, arguably now the Raptors’ best player, is eligible for a contract extension before the start of the season. If the team chooses to wait until he’s a restricted free agent next July, he’ll only take up $7.1 million in cap space unsigned. That may be reason enough to wait, given Toronto could have over $80 million in cap space before the 2020-21 season, depending on what the franchise does with Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet and other expiring contracts. Before November, the Raptors also need to decide on OG Anunoby’s rookie-scale option.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Pascal Siakam
Siakam isn’t a traditional offensive workhorse. His three-point shot leaves much to be desired; he was a horrible three-point shooter for his first two seasons, but he improved to a 36.9 percent three-point shooter last year. But old habits die hard and Siakam regressed in the 2019 postseason, shooting just 27.9 percent from three-point range and only 23.8 percent in the Finals.
But that’s not the whole story on Siakam. He is an uber-athletic, 6-foot-9 forward who can be relied on to get to the rim in one-on-one situations. He demonstrated an improved jump shot last season. And taking on the first-option role might not have as dramatic an effect on Siakam as it does on most players; Siakam’s per-36 numbers were better last season when his usage rate was at its highest.
But will he continue to improve? He did turn 25 in April, and that is around the age where players begin to level off regarding making major improvements to their games. Regardless, Siakam is a great piece. He’s eligible for an early extension this season until October 21 though, so the Raptors must decide just how much they like him.
Top Defensive Player: Pascal Siakam
While Siakam appears primed to take on the lead offensive role for the Raptors, he is also their most important and versatile defender. Siakam’s ridiculous 7-foot-3 wingspan allows him to cover much more ground than most 6-foot-9 forwards can. His defensive win share has steadily increased each year and it reached a career-best 3.6 in 2018-19. Siakam also posted the best defensive rating of all Raptors last year.
He is an above-average on and off-the-ball defender, and he anticipates passes and shot attempts brilliantly. Siakam will be leaned on even more heavily this season, as he will be viewed as a leader on both the offense and defense. He’ll have to defend other teams’ best wings and bigs. And he’ll have to be very deliberate in expending energy given the ridiculously large work load he’ll be asked to tackle on both sides of the floor.
Top Playmaker: Kyle Lowry
Lowry took a noticeable step back last season, scoring less than he had per game since his first season in Toronto (2012-13) and posting a worse shooting percentage than he has in the previous five seasons. But he was good enough in The Finals to help secure the Raptors first championship, chipping in 16.2 points and 7.2 assists per game. Lowry willingly took a backseat to Leonard last year; his selflessness is a hugely helpful attribute considering many stars would resist a decreased role. But it was for Leonard and it yielded a championship.
Will his willingness to be Toronto’s second fiddle begin to wane now that Leonard is no longer a Raptor? Either way, his playmaking abilities should help keep the Raptors afloat; and if he must carry more of the load, that’s okay because he’s done so before. But will the Raptors keep him around beyond the February trade deadline?
Top Clutch Player: Norman Powell
With Danny Green heading to the Lakers, Powell appears poised to step into the starting two-guard spot – and with good reason. Powell shot 40 percent on 2.8 three-point field goal attempts per game last season. But 2.8 three-pointers per game was a career-high, and it’s not that many threes for a sharpshooter in the modern NBA. Can he maintain the strong shooting with increased volume? There’s no reason to think he can’t.
Powell shot 37.5 percent from three-point range last season when playing 30 or more minutes, and he shot 36.5 percent in the nine games combined when he shot five or more threes. Further, Powell continued his hot shooting into the 2019 playoffs, posting 38.7 percent from long-range through 23 games. So last season’s numbers suggest that Powell is still more than proficient from distance under duress, and when playing more minutes and shooting more threes. Hopefully for Toronto, that trend continues as the sample size increases.
The Unheralded Player: OG Anunoby
Anunoby is well-positioned for a strong year. He increased his scoring average by about a point per game in 2018-19 to 7 ppg. His usage also jumped from 12.4 to 15.5 and his PER remained mostly unchanged (dropping to 9.8 from 10). Anunoby’s dimensions (6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-2 reach) and age (recently turned 22) are feathers in the young forward’s cap. He is built in the Siakam mold – a versatile player who can affect the game in a number of ways. The Raptors are hoping he will have a similarly successful breakout year similar to Siakam’s 2018-19. And considering Leonard’s departure, there will absolutely be an opportunity for him to prove his worth in the frontcourt.
Best New Addition: Stanley Johnson
Stanley Johnson has not lived up to the high expectations inherited by lottery picks. But he’s moved on from the Detroit Pistons (and New Orleans) and gets a fresh start in Toronto. Johnson is a very athletic forward who can lock down opposing wings. He must work on his three-ball, but he’ll definitely have a role on the Raptors and he’ll help form a capable frontcourt rotation that can switch off on guards in pick-and-rolls, while also defending most power forwards. Johnson needs to focus on his offensive game, as he’s never even averaged 10 points per game. But despite being drafted back in 2015, he’s still only 23-years-old. Johnson still has time to mature and grow into his NBA game. Hopefully, for Johnson and Toronto, that happens with the Raptors.
WHO WE LIKE
1. Rondae Hollis Jefferson
Hollis-Jefferson is a scrappy and versatile defender. He plays the small forward spot and is equally well-suited to be a small-ball power forward. Hollis-Jefferson’s dimensions are similar to that of Anunoby and Siakam, and all three give the Raptors a dangerous group of defenders who can switch all screens and defend multiple positions. He doesn’t shoot the three-ball well, but he doesn’t shoot many threes. He is otherwise pretty efficient offensively and can score when given the right opportunities; and his athleticism aids him well – on both sides of the court.
2. Fred VanVleet
VanVleet proved his worth last season. He enters 2019-20 as one of the best backup point guards in the NBA, and he should only build on his career year. VanVleet averaged 11 points and 4.8 assists per game last season, and he finished third in Sixth Man of the Year voting. VanVleet is a hard-nosed defender and should be far more confident in 2019-20 considering his experience. Unfortunately, VanVleet’s stature prevents playing him alongside Lowry for too long. Otherwise, he might have a case to become a full-time starter.
3. Serge Ibaka
Ibaka had a resurgence of sorts last season. He scored and rebounded the ball better than he has since 2013-14. And while he shot poorly from three-point range, he posted a higher overall shooting percentage than he has since 2013-14, too. His role changed entering last season, as he only started approximately 68 percent of games in which he appeared (compared to all of the games he appeared in in his previous five seasons) – and his new role obviously suited him. The presence of Marc Gasol was also helpful, allowing Ibaka to rotate between backup center and a stretch four. He plays well with Lowry and VanVleet. And while Ibaka blocks fewer shots than he once did, he limited opponents to shooting 52.6 percent at the rim when he was defending – which is on par with Rudy Gobert and Joel Embiid. Ibaka appears to have at least one more good year left in him, and considering he’s still only 30 years old, he might have even more than that.
4. Masai Ujiri
Ujiri is viewed very favorably around the league – in fact, he is seen as one of the very best general managers and/or team presidents in basketball. Ujiri has fleeced his share of opposing teams. He takes chances, but he sees the bigger picture better than most. Most recently, he swooped in and snatched up Leonard from the Spurs shortly after it became obvious that the situation had become irreconcilable; and in doing so, he won the Raptors their first NBA title and freed up their cap situation moving forward. Ujiri is excellent at team building and he instills confidence in his staff, the coaching staff and the roster. He is an executive players and coaches seem to enjoy working for, which will continue to benefit the Raptors for as long as he remains with the team.
Versatility. The Raptors boast a good amount of versatility – especially at the forward and center positions. Their roster boasts a number of ultra-versatile wings/forwards who will enable them to defend opponents at a very high level. Siakam, Anunoby, Hollis-Jefferson and Johnson are all long and capable defenders, and their athleticism makes them all very dangerous in transition. While none of the aforementioned players are overly adept three-point shooters, they are full of potential – and none are older than 25. And they’re able to share the floor with one another and switch most screens really effectively, causing nightmare matchups for opposing wings/forwards.
Their flock of centers also provides interesting versatility. Gasol played less impressively last season than he had in previous years, but he looked better in the FIBA World Cup and was named to the tournament All-Star Five. Gasol morphed into an above-average shooting big a few years back and connected on 36 percent of his three-pointers in 2018-19. And while Gasol might not be quite as strong a defender as he once was, his ability to stretch the floor and pass the ball from the perimeter presents additional options for the Raptors.
And then there’s Ibaka. And while Ibaka’s three-point shooting was down last season, he launched fewer long balls last year than he has since 2013-14. And Ibaka seemed to understand the importance of good possessions and took more shots from the mid-range last year than in the recent past – and he scored more last season (15.0 points per game) than he has in years for that very reason. Ibaka and Gasol’s complimentary skill sets make the Raptors even more dangerous.
No star power. Not that the Raptors necessarily wanted it this season, but their one true, current star just recently left to head back home to Los Angeles. The Raptors would have preferred to run back their 2018-19 roster, but they took a Leonard-or-bust approach when they traded DeRozan for Leonard. The Raptors knew they might not return Leonard and they were OK with the possibility of losing him because, in adding him last season, they also offloaded long-term, high-level salary. But regardless of their team-building preferences, the success of NBA teams in 2019-20 is contingent on star power – and the Raptors really don’t have much.
They might not be down for long – depending very heavily on if Pascal Siakam is able to develop into a superstar this season – but given the competition in the Eastern Conference, the Raptors could be the first team since the 2004-05 Los Angeles Lakers to miss the NBA Playoffs the very next season after winning a championship, and the fourth team to ever do so, joining the 1998-99 Chicago Bulls and the 1969-70 Boston Celtics.
THE BURNING QUESTION
Will the Raptors hold or fold?
They not-too-subtly dealt DeMar DeRozan with a contingency plan of jump starting a rebuild if Leonard didn’t re-sign. Well, Leonard didn’t re-sign. Now it’s time to pay the piper.
The Raptors must decide if they’re going to try to get something back for Lowry, Gasol and others. Otherwise, the majority of the roster expires following 2019-20, so they’re rebuilding by choice or not. The Raptors will probably be patient in the early part of the season. But if it looks like they’re on the bubble regarding the playoffs, they will probably become sellers. The market for point guards (Lowry), centers (Gasol), etc. at the time they decide to deal will dictate how much they get back. The Raptors should – and probably will considering the savviness of Ujiri – be proactive in fielding offers. And if they get one that improves the roster long-term, they would be well-served to take it. However either way, the Raptors appear primed to initiate a rebuild beginning next offseason at the very latest.
NBA Daily: The Hot Seat – Western Conference
Matt John takes a look at head coaches and general managers in the Western Conference whose jobs might be on the line.
Back on Monday, Basketball Insiders took a look at which personnel from the Eastern Conference could be in danger of losing their jobs. In case you missed it, check it out here.
Previously, we discussed the notion that there’s always one guy you’d never suspect to lose his job to get hit by the Hot Seat – Kenny Atkinson’s mutual parting a few weeks back was just that.
Before we dive into the jobs on the line in the Western Conference, there’s something else that must be pointed out about the Hot Seat. It’s true that when it comes to job performance in the NBA, most of what determines your fate stems from the question: “What have you done for me lately?”
Joe Dumars’ time as the general manager of the Detroit Pistons is a good example of this. Outside of infamously drafting Darko Milicic over Carmelo Anthony in 2003, Dumars had a near-perfect track record after taking over from 2000 to 2006. Following the departure of franchise icon Grant Hill, Dumars did the following:
– Acquire Ben Wallace in a sign-and-trade with Orlando for Hill. Wallace then went on to become one of the best rim protectors of his era and all-time
– Brought in Chauncey Billups on a cheap deal just before Billups became Mr. Big Shot
– Traded Jerry Stackhouse for Richard Hamilton, who became a perfect complement next to Billups in the frontcourt
– Drafted Mehmet Okur, Tayshaun Prince, Amir Johnson and Jason Maxiell, all productive players that were taken after the lottery
– Replaced Rick Carlisle with Larry Brown
– Basically stole Rasheed Wallace mid-season
Naturally, this created a great era of basketball for Detroit. They won a championship, went to two consecutive finals, and went to six consecutive conference finals from 2003-08. Not many can say they were able to win a championship after losing a superstar and failing to draft one when they had the chance, but Dumars can.
But then came the fall of 2008: That bred the awful Billups-for-Iverson deal. Paying top dollar for the ill-fated Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva contracts. Putting together a frontcourt of Josh Smith, Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. If Dumars didn’t have an incredible run earlier as general manager, how long would he have lasted after putting the team in mediocrity?
Given the massive amount of franchise success to his name, he kept his job long after things nosedived for Detroit. It’s that same sort of success that guarantees leaders like Gregg Popovich and Rick Carlisle will keep their job for as long as they want, even if they are sitting at home when the playoffs start.
The following people are on the hot seat not because they haven’t necessarily experienced success with their team — but because they haven’t had enough to keep their job should they fail in the situation they find themselves in now.
“Figure It Out… And Quickly Now”
Mike D’Antoni — Houston Rockets
D’Antoni has a lot of success both with the Rockets and as an NBA head coach in general. So much so that if he retired right here and now, he’d make a case for the best coach to never win a championship. Even so, the pressure on him to get Houston over the hump is stronger than it’s ever been.
Obviously, going to the small-ball lineup is something D’Antoni has no issue deploying. In fact, he embraces that gameplan. But even this may be too tall of a task for him. In the past, he used perimeter guys to soak up minutes at the power forward and center spots, but he usually had at least one pure big in his rotation. Now he doesn’t.
With Robert Covington and Clint Capela out, the Rockets don’t have any rotation players taller than 6-foot-8. In fact, the only one who’s actually measured at that height is Jeff Green, who was not only cut from Utah mid-season but spent most of the year riding the pine before Houston inquired about his services. Can you really call it small-ball if you have no bigs to begin with?
D’Antoni wouldn’t be here if this experiment was definitively working — they’re in the mix, but certainly not full-on contenders at this moment. For a while there, it looked like it was. Houston won seven of its first eight games, coming with notable wins coming against the Lakers, Boston (twice) and Utah. They then followed it up with a four-game losing streak with losses at the hands of New York, Charlotte and Orlando.
A record of 8-5 honestly isn’t too bad with such a drastic mid-season change, in retrospect. Russell Westbrook was playing some of the best basketball of his career, while James Harden was a little more off than usual. Still, the mixed results were scary given what the Rockets have ahead of them if the playoffs eventually come.
If Houston doesn’t get to the championship round or, at the very least, go further than they did last season, D’Antoni might get the lion’s share of the blame. Either way, D’Antoni’s contract extension talks with owner Tilman Fertitta didn’t go… smoothly either. As bad as that all may sound, with his reputation, he wouldn’t have much trouble finding another job.
“We Cannot Lose Another Franchise Player… We Just Can’t”
Ryan Saunders/Scott Layden – Minnesota Timberwolves
First, some props are due for both Saunders and Layden. In Layden’s case, he should get the credit for stealing Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez away from the Denver Nuggets. Then as a follow-up, he acquired D’Angelo Russell to appease Karl-Anthony Towns and give him the best scoring guard he’s ever had.
For Saunders, he’s integrated them pretty well mid-season. Beasley and Hernangomez are both playing excellent basketball right now for the Timberwolves. Russell is doing his usual thing. Appearances, finally, are on the rise for the talented squad.
Has that changed Minnesota’s fortunes one bit? Nope! Since the Timberwolves made their mid-season roster shakeup, they’ve gone 3-10, which puts them at 19-45, good for second-worst and only ahead of the injury-decimated Golden State Warriors.
It’s numbers like those that make the Wolves’ promising start back in October feel like an eternity ago. It wouldn’t matter if the season resumed or not, the Timberwolves weren’t making the playoffs. Worse, Towns was not happy with the team’s lack of success for most of the season. What Minnesota has to ask themselves is how long will he be willing to put up with such a lack of progress.
Bringing Russell aboard was the smart, obvious, and let’s face it, inevitable move. Pairing your franchise player with his friend has brought his spirits up, but the continued losing might not indefinitely postpone these feelings forever.
The real pressure on Layden and Saunders doesn’t come from only how the Timberwolves do, but how they fare against their competition next year. Excluding the conference’s top seven, their younger competitors — New Orleans, Memphis, Sacramento, Phoenix — are further along in developing their team than Minnesota. Worse, Golden State and Portland are also going to be much healthier next season. Making the playoffs in the Western Conference is going to be quite the mountain to climb, especially for Minnesota.
If they can’t get over that hump, Minnesota will have to do something to keep Towns happy. That might start with getting rid of Layden and Saunders.
This list may be short, but that’s because it’s hard to see other coaches and general managers being put on the hot seat right now. Ether because their seasons have gone well, their seasons have gone badly for reasons that were out of control, or there’s too much loyalty there for anyone to get fired.
The one coach who might eventually be on the hot seat is Quin Snyder. He’s done an excellent job for Utah over these past several years, so his one hiccup shouldn’t be enough to put his job in jeopardy. That’s more of a wait-and-see situation. Even if it doesn’t get better, it took several years for Toronto to dismiss Dwane Casey because he did so much for that organization.
Oklahoma City’s season has gone so surprisingly and enjoyably well that Billy Donovan’s job should be just fine. Some will blame Neil Olshey for what happened to Portland this season, but with all that happened with Jusuf Nurkic and their other injuries, what were his options?
Alvin Gentry would have made this list, but it wasn’t his fault that Zion Williamson missed most of the season. Now that the generational prospect is back, New Orleans has most definitely turned a corner and went 11-8 since his debut. It might be too late both due to the injury bug and COVID-19, but their improvement over the last few months should make Gentry’s job safe for now.
Luke Walton or Vlade Divac would also be prime candidates for this list, but who knows what’s going on in Sacramento’s collective head?
Right now, it looks like a lot more jobs in the Western Conference are safe than not at the moment. That can all change in a short amount of time, but we don’t know anything, really. Here’s to hoping that no one will lose their job in this league – especially at a time like this.
NBA Daily: Under The Radar – Western Conference
David Yapkowitz takes a look at players from the Western Conference that deserve their due for stepping up this season despite receiving less attention.
NBA basketball is on an indefinite hiatus for the foreseeable future, but here at Basketball Insiders, we’ve still got some content to keep you entertained.
We kicked off last week with a look at some of the top upcoming free agents around the league, started this week with coaches and executives who could be on the hot seat, and we’re transitioning into looking at players who may have been flying under the radar this season.
There are various reasons why a player could be flying under the radar. Playing in a small market, not being on a playoff team, etc. Whatever the reason may be, here’s a look at some of the players in the Western Conference who have been under the radar this season.
Chris Paul – Oklahoma City Thunder
With all the attention Chris Paul has gotten throughout his career, it’s funny to think of him being on an under the radar list. But he really hasn’t gotten his proper due for this season he’s putting together. At the start of the season, the Thunder looked like a fringe playoff team at the absolute best. Thanks to Paul’s leadership, they were in contention for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs and surely would have given anyone a tough opening series.
In his 15th season, Paul’s numbers are right around his career averages. He was putting up 17.7 points per game, 4.9 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 1.6 steals. His 48.9 percent shooting from the field is the third-highest mark in his career. As of publishing, the Thunder were actually ahead of the Houston Rockets in the standings; the team that traded Paul last summer.
Torrey Craig – Denver Nuggets
Craig is in third NBA season, all with the Nuggets. He went to a small NCAA Division 1 school (University of South Carolina Upstate) and spent the early portion of his career overseas in Australia and New Zealand. He originally began his NBA career on a two-way contract, earning a standard contract after his first year and now becoming a mainstay in the Nuggets rotation.
His numbers have gone up every year he’s been in the NBA. This season he was shooting career-bests 46.2 percent from the field and 33 percent from the three-point line. What has really stood out about him, however, is his defensive ability. He’s quietly become one of the better perimeter defenders in the league. On a team full of offensive firepower like the Nuggets, his skill-set is a much-needed asset.
Ben McLemore – Houston Rockets
There was a time when McLemore was a lottery pick and supposed to be one of the future building blocks for the Sacramento Kings. That didn’t end up panning out and when he joined the Rockets on a non-guaranteed contract this past offseason, it was widely seen as his last shot to prove himself as an NBA rotation player.
He has certainly answered the call this season. He emerged as an invaluable member of the Rockets rotation. He established himself as a legitimate 3&D player. Early in the season when his shot wasn’t falling, he was still contributing on the defensive end. As of now, he’s shooting 44.5 percent from the field and 39.5 percent from three-point range. He’s been a starter for Houston and he’s come off the bench. He’s certainly done enough to earn himself another contract in the offseason.
De’Anthony Melton – Memphis Grizzlies
Melton played in a total of 50 games last season as a rookie for the Phoenix Suns. This season, he was on pace to surpass that. In his second year in the league, he’s become a key piece for a Grizzlies team that was hanging on to the eighth spot in the West. He has a versatile skill set and he can play multiple positions.
Melton was putting up 8.1 points per game, 3.7 rebounds, and 3.0 assists. He’s a legit combo guard. He’s comfortable with the ball in his hands and running the offense. He is also a strong defensive player. There is a lot of young talent on the Grizzlies and Melton is perhaps the most underrated one.
Landry Shamet – Los Angeles Clippers
Shamet had an immediate impact as a rookie last season, especially in the Clippers entertaining first-round playoff series against the Golden State Warriors. Last season, he started 23 of the 25 games with the Clippers after the trade with the Philadelphia 76ers. He began this season as a starter, but has since transitioned into a bench role.
His numbers and minutes have dropped off since the arrival of Marcus Morris and Reggie Jackson, but he still is a valuable part of the team. He’s averaging 9.7 points per game and shooting 39.2 percent from the three-point line. He can play both on and off-ball. He is especially adept at moving without the ball to get open.
Georges Niang – Utah Jazz
Niang started his time with the Utah Jazz on a two-way contract and has gradually worked his way into the Jazz rotation. When Utah waived Jeff Green back in December, Niang was the beneficiary of increased playing time. He has fit in well as a small-ball four-man who can space the floor.
He’s shooting a career-best 41.6 percent from the three-point line and earlier this year was among the top three-point shooters percentage-wise in the league. He comes into the game, plays his role and doesn’t try to do too much. A key utility guy who does what is asked of him and can contribute to winning.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.