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What’s Changed North of the Border?

Has enough changed to get the Raptors over the hump in the Eastern Conference this year?

Ben Dowsett

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Following the Toronto Raptors’ sole blemish on an otherwise perfect month of February, an overtime loss to Milwaukee in their first game after the All-Star break, you could forgive guys in the locker room for lamenting a missed opportunity. A late comeback wasn’t enough to overcome a sluggish opening and middle period to the game; lines like “vacation is over” could be heard.

At the same time, there was a sense that interrupting an almost comically easy stretch might not have been the worst result in the end.

“Nobody wants to lose, we damn sure don’t want to lose,” DeMar DeRozan said following the game. “But a night like today is a great learning lesson for us. There’s a lot of things we can take from this.”

The Raptors are in a unique position where both sides of this coin can be true simultaneously. What was already a well-oiled machine for two consecutive 50-win seasons has added even more polish – in a lot of ways, this year has been something of a cakewalk.

Toronto outscores opponents at over double the per-possession rate of any other team in their conference; they’ve led by over 20 points for more time than the defending champion Warriors this season, second in the league behind only the Rockets. Without an early-season hot streak from Boston that likely inflated the Celtics’ record a bit beyond their actual team quality, the Raptors would be cruising to the East’s first overall seed.

Their bench, long a source of frustration (especially with Kyle Lowry off the floor), has become one of the best in the league. DeRozan has expanded his game in a couple important ways. Casey has leaned on depth more than in the past, both from a usage and minutes standpoint. There’s a pretty easy case to be made that this is the most complete Raptors team in franchise history. And naturally, it’s easy to jump to conclusions from afar.

“Believe me, I go the other way as far as believing the hype,” coach Dwane Casey said. “I know what’s coming around the corner.

“You know you can’t believe the hype. You have some people wishing and hoping it goes that way. They probably have that story already written and ready to put it in. But you can’t believe the hype.”

As Casey said, he’s setting the opposite tone entirely for his group. Zoom out even further than we have so far here, and Toronto is really in the same situation as the last couple years – just with different window dressings. The East’s presumed final boss is still alive and well in Cleveland. Things have changed for the Raptors, but none of it will matter if it ends in another loss to the Cavs in May.

About that bench: It’s been incredible, and Casey deserves a huge amount of credit. The Raptors struggled to break even when Lowry rode the pine in previous seasons, and got destroyed in those minutes in the playoffs. They outscore teams by near-Warriors levels when he sits this year.

That’s a great sign, right? Well, yes…and no. Maybe. It’s another two-sided issue, it turns out.

The positives first, and there are a couple.

For one, this hasn’t just been an increase in minutes. It’s been an increase in responsibility for several guys, and one that could matter come playoff time. Toronto has run into problems in previous postseasons when smart opponents loaded up their defensive game plans against Lowry and DeRozan. With an offense built so heavily around those two and their prodigious creation abilities, the supporting cast often simply seemed at a loss for what to do when some of that burden shifted onto them.

Casey’s reliance on his bench this year might help mitigate that this time around. Lowry and DeRozan are carrying by far their smallest load in years, the former in particular. Meanwhile, guys like Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright are possessing the ball for over twice as long every night as last year, per player tracking data from Second Spectrum.

The Raptors were dead last in percentage of baskets assisted last year, at just 47 percent – they’re up about 10 percentage points this year, clearly more capable of playing a more diplomatic version of offense than past Toronto teams.

Whether this was Casey’s original goal or not, the hope is that reps in this kind of role pay off when the games matter most.

“It’s great when we can do some misdirection type of things, just mix it up,” DeRozan said. “A lot of teams understand and know our plays when it comes to me and Kyle.”

The bench has been so successful that there’s a real case for continuing to play them as a unit in the playoffs, something that’s pretty rare in the league today. Color this writer skeptical, but the fact that it’s even a reasonable conversation is a pretty huge leap from where this group was last year.

There’s a flip side here, though. These great depth minutes haven’t exactly come at playoff intensity, or often anywhere close. The Raptors have spent more time up by double figures in the fourth quarter than they have with the score within five points; they’ve played just 104 “clutch” minutes on the year, with the score within five and under five minutes remaining in a game (only five teams have played under 100 such minutes).

They’ve been bad in those stretches, too – they have the league’s fifth-worst per-possession rating. Calling clutch time a direct approximation of playoff intensity is obviously foolish, but it’s at least a moderately useful proxy. Does the fact that Toronto has struggled so badly in the periods when defenses are keyed in on Lowry and DeRozan foreshadow badly for this group? Or do we trust the larger overall depth sample we’ve seen?

Maybe the toughest area to parse, though? Rest, which is always a popular topic for top teams headed down the stretch.

For one, the bench’s success has had the additional effect of providing plenty of down time for the primary guys. Lowry and DeRozan are playing over six fewer combined minutes per night on the year, with the brunt of that difference allowing Lowry to get to a much more manageable number. It’s to the point where Casey is actually being asked about getting his stars more time on the floor the rest of the year to help keep them in rhythm.

“I’m sure it’s coming, whether it’s on purpose or not,” Casey said. “That’s been talked about.”

We’re entering nebulous territory here – there’s only so much reasonable speculation to be had about player loads and fatigue. But once again, there are two sides to the conversation: Keeping guys in rhythm is one thing, but toeing a very imprecise line between that and tiring them out down the stretch is tough, to say the least.

Casey has given guys like Lowry and DeRozan games off near the end of the year in the past couple seasons, but it sounds like he’s reticent to go that route this time around.

“As far as resting players and giving guys days off and things like that, we’ve got to really examine that,” Casey said. “That hasn’t really helped us a lot [in the past].

“I don’t know if it takes our rhythm away or what it does to us, but I think it’s kind of discombobulated us a bit in the past. I like the rhythm we have now, but there is some thought as far as making sure guys can play bigger minutes [in the playoffs]. We’ll see.”

So will it be enough? Can Toronto’s faithful dare to dream?

In the end, despite all the changes around the margins, the answer could just as easily end up coming back to the lead actors. DeRozan has dedicated himself to improving lacking areas of his game after two straight subpar postseasons; he’s hit another level as a playmaker, and while he’s still not terrifying anyone as a three-point shooter, he’s become respectable enough to keep teams somewhat honest.

Can he keep it up against the kind of playoff attention he’s wilted under in the past? Will Lowry’s big reduction in minutes and load this year allow him to have more success? Can an improved bench and a perhaps-weakened Cleveland squad – plus potential home advantage and the ability to avoid both the Cavs and Celtics until the conference finals – narrow the gap even further?

It’s hard to answer these questions right now, but the fact that they’re reasonable questions at all is meaningful on its own. Let’s see if things are different this year north of the border come April.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA Daily: Trade Watch Northwest Division

David Yapkowitz identifies and breaks down the potential trade candidates in the Northwest Division.

David Yapkowitz

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We kick off a new series this week at Basketball Insiders. With the Jimmy Butler saga finally over, we’re taking a look at other players in each division who are possible trade candidates.

Some teams have holes in their respective rosters that they need to patch up. Others have contracts that are expiring or just don’t make sense for the team anymore. Some players and teams just need to move on at this point for a variety of reasons. Here’s a look at some of those situations, starting with the Northwest Division.

1. Tyus Jones – Minnesota Timberwolves

There’s an argument to be made that when he actually receives regular playing time, Tyus Jones is the best overall point guard on the Timberwolves’ roster. He’s been the primary backup for Minnesota for the time being with Jeff Teague out with an injury.

However, with Derrick Rose’s reemergence this season, it remains to be seen what happens once Teague returns. It’s no secret that Tom Thibodeau has his preference for veteran guys and Jones has often found himself as the odd man out. The Phoenix Suns, desperate for a point guard, have been rumored to have interest in him.

Jones was apparently close with Butler, if that means anything, and it just seems like his future is elsewhere. If the Timberwolves aren’t going to use him properly, then maybe a split is necessary. Should Minnesota really look to deal him, they probably won’t have any shortage of suitors.

2. Gorgui Dieng – Minnesota Timberwolves

A few years ago, Gorgui Dieng looked like an up and coming prize for Minnesota. He ended up being rewarded with a big contract based off of that. But since then, he’s seen both his playing time and production decrease.

The Timberwolves reportedly tried to include Dieng in possible deals for Butler in order to offload his contract. Obviously that didn’t happen, and Minnesota is locked into his contract for two more seasons after this one.

Backup big man Anthony Tolliver has surpassed Dieng in the rotation at this point as he’s a better fit as a stretch big man in today’s NBA. It’s hard to imagine any team trading for Dieng straight up with that contract but the Timberwolves could try and include him any potential Jones deal.

3. Oklahoma City Thunder – In Need of Outside Shooting

The Oklahoma City Thunder don’t have any bad contracts per se, nor do they have any players that they’re aggressively looking to move on from. They do, however, have a glaring need and that is three-point shooting.

Currently, they’re shooting 30.1 percent from the three-point line as a team. That’s not going to get it done in today’s league if they truly want to be among the Western Conference’s elite. They do have Patrick Patterson reemerging as one of the better stretch fours in the league (38.6 percent), but after that everyone just kind of drops off a bit.

The Thunder could certainly use the addition of another outside shooter as the season goes on. Kyle Korver is rumored to be available although he’s been linked to Philadelphia recently. Perhaps they could put in an inquiry with the Miami HEAT about Wayne Ellington if the HEAT continues to struggle. Either way, unless the guys they already have step up, perimeter shooting will need to be addressed.

4. Meyers Leonard – Portland Trail Blazers

It’s not that Meyers Leonard has been bad for Portland, he’s actually been decent so far this season. But with the contract he has, Portland isn’t getting the value they expected when they entered that deal.

Instead, Zach Collins has supplanted him in the rotation, and Caleb Swanigan is close to doing so as well. Leonard has been mentioned in trade rumors for some time, so perhaps this season is the one where he and the Blazers part ways. His contract is expiring next season so that might be enticing to some teams.

He isn’t a bad player, and there might be a team out there willing to take a chance on an athletic big man who can run the floor and even stretch defenses out to the three-point line. At any rate, it might be time for both parties to go their separate ways.

5. Tyler Lydon – Denver Nuggets

The writing was on the wall when the Nuggets declined Tyler Lydon’s third-year option prior to the start of the season. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

He suffered an unfortunate injury early in his career and just hasn’t been given an opportunity to prove his worth as an NBA player. He played well in the G-League last season and has promise as a stretch big man. It’s just obvious that it won’t be realized in Denver.

He’s worth taking chance on for a team looking to add intriguing, youngish talent – especially since it shouldn’t cost too much to acquire him in a deal.

As the season progresses, there will be other situations around the division that might emerge on the trade front. But, as of now, these are arguably some of the most active situations to keep an eye on.

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Tip-ins and Treys from Around the NBA

Basketball Insiders

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The Butler Has Arrived in Philly

If you’re a Sixers fan you have to be thrilled that their perennial number one picks, borne of spectacular franchise failure, are finally bearing fruit. Joel Embiid has more than lived up to his lofty billing and is averaging over 28 points per game this season while Ben Simmons is emerging as a young superstar in his own right. Although the jury is still out on Markelle Fultz, it appears that he is beginning to assimilate and trying to contribute to his team’s fortunes. But this group of young guns needed a bona fide All-Star veteran to add a maturity component that the team has been missing and they found the perfect complement in Jimmy Butler.

As we all know, Butler was a disgruntled member of the Minnesota Timberwolves and, at age 29, saw his window to compete for a championship in his prime dwindling by the day. Minnesota understood they had two chances of signing Butler after this season, slim and none, and Slim just left town. Although he has been called everything from feisty to irascible, Butler brings a passion that either turns teammates off or makes them better. It’s a fair assumption that his brand of swagger will have a positive effect on younger players which is why the Philly brass believes he will bring a championship conclusion to The Process.

Of course, it was regrettable that the 76ers had to deal young talent in Robert Covington and Dario Saric but if Philadelphia can lock up Butler to a long-term deal then it will be worth trade. However, if the four-time All-Star decides that the City of Brotherly Love is not his favorite place then it will be a costly one-year rental. Nevertheless, Butler brings the Sixers closer to the NBA Finals if the young blood buys into who he is and what he brings to the table. That question will begin to be answered when he dons a 76ers jersey for the first time on Wednesday night in Orlando.

Sun Setting on Melo in Houston

Carmelo Anthony was brought to Houston as an experienced veteran with enough gas left in the tank to serve in a capacity that is foreign to the 10-time NBA All-Star – role player. But the Houston Rockets have underperformed and underachieved this season as they sit in mid-November as a sub .500 club, a monumental fall from grace after a 65-win campaign last year. After a dismal 1-of-11 shooting night from the field that garnered all of two points in Houston’s 98-80 loss to Oklahoma City, Melo has been a DNP the last two games and it appears that this marriage is headed for an early divorce.

Anthony’s reps are reportedly reaching out to other clubs to see if there will be a taker for the 34-year-old’s services but as of this point, no one is answering the phone. The wheels have come off the wagon and the dynamic in the Western Conference is changing as the best online sportsbooks are dealing the surging Denver Nuggets as 4 ½ point home favorites over the Rockets on Tuesday night. To highlight how far the mighty have fallen, last February these teams met in Mile High and it was Houston that was favored by four and they did not disappoint their backers as they covered the number in a 119-114 victory.

Perhaps it’s just early season jitters for the Rockets and no one would be surprised if James Harden and the boys went on a prolonged winning streak. But right now they are just another struggling group looking to get on the right side of the standings. Whether Carmelo Anthony will be part of that resurgence, if it does indeed occur, is anyone’s guess.

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NBA Daily: A Little Bit Of Trouble In Paradise

Even with all their success, the Warriors’ most recent incident may suggest that there’s something ugly going on internally, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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It’s tragic to see an all-time team crumble from within.

When an empire falls because of its own hubris, it’s dead forever. Teams like the Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant Lakers are a prime example of a fallen empire because of such. As the Lakers won titles year after year, the tension between the two of them became so palpable that their egos surpassed their talent, infecting their play on the court.

It was a shame that the dysfunction came to a head in 2004 because the Lakers had arguably their most talented team in the Shaq/Kobe era that year. Even with all the drama behind the scenes, they still made the NBA finals. We’ll never know for sure what could have been with the 2003-04 Lakers. What we do know was that everything blew up after that season because their superstars couldn’t stand each other anymore.

Nearly a decade-and-a-half later, we must now ask ourselves: Are we seeing the same thing happen to the Golden State Warriors?

If we’re basing this entirely off the incident that happened both during and after the Warriors and the Clippers squared off on Monday night, then absolutely not.

For those of you who don’t know, multiple Warriors – including Kevin Durant – got heated at Draymond Green after his attempt to be the hero at the end of regulation led to him losing the basketball as time expired. This forced the game into overtime, where the Warriors eventually lost. It was a rather questionable decision on Green’s part because, with all due respect to the three-time NBA All-Star, he had more reliable closers in both Durant and Klay Thompson to pass the ball to and he neglected them.

One thing should be made clear: Occurrences like these are pretty common. Teammates get in fights all the time, and not necessarily because they hate the others’ guts. They get into these little confrontations usually for the love of the game. Emotions understandably ran high after Green tried and failed to be the man as time expired. Certain things were brought up that are definitely worth going over, but this could easily be swept under the rug in a matter of weeks.

However, rumors of a potential Warriors’ self-combustion go all the way back to last June. After Golden State won its second consecutive title and third in the last four years, David West had this to say that caught our attention.

Perhaps not everything was peachy in the Bay Area. West was calling it quits, so there was no need for him to hold anything back. Still, since he wouldn’t elaborate, all he said at that time could be dismissed as mere gossip.

What we had then was smoke. Now we have fire.

Something that’s also got people’s ears burning has been Durant’s caginess surrounding his upcoming free agency this summer. We can’t take that as proof of discord because it doesn’t prove a thing. Everything surrounding Durant’s silence in regards to his future is purely speculative.

Or, it was.

As Durant and Green had their confrontation in the locker room, Green reportedly brought up Durant’s impending free agency this summer. That is very telling of what might be on the Warriors’ minds, or at the very least, Green’s. It’s bothering him that he does not know what Durant plans are this summer. While Green may not be the most likable player in the league, his concerns are understandable. The uncertainty of a team’s long-term future can easily rattle any players’ mind. Just ask Cleveland.

Green could have made a better case for himself had he not reportedly called Durant an expletive name repeatedly. No matter what conclusions you may draw from this, the fact also remains that -after they got all the dirty laundry out – Green was suspended for one game.

Before all of this happened, all of the talks about the Warriors’ possible breakup was a bunch of hot air. Now, we have confirmation that things have gotten a little uneasy.

It’s also a possibility that this one little quarrel is as bad as it gets. Perhaps Green just had to get his concerns about Durant out in the open, and the two of them will cleanly resolve their issues. If this winds up being the height of the tension in Golden State, then this entire matter will be irrelevant as the Warriors pursue their third consecutive championship.

It also sounds impossible that a team that talented that has experienced that much success in the last several years would get sick of playing together. Some may think that what happened with O’Neal and Bryant was just an anomaly, but in recent years, we’ve seen a few elite players opt to leave their original teams in spite of their success.

Just a few months ago, Kawhi Leonard decided he didn’t want to be the face of arguably the league’s most well-run franchise anymore. The year before that, Kyrie Irving was fed up with being the Robin to LeBron James’ Batman despite a championship and two other finals appearances. Should it be mentioned that King James himself left his two previous teams after making the NBA Finals four consecutive times with both of them? Maybe what we’re seeing from this is that success does not always breed happiness and/or loyalty.

Getting back to the Warriors, say this is the first in a long line of public incidents that will compel Durant to leave. That doesn’t mean the end for Golden State. They still have the Splash Brothers, as well as Green. Managing the team without Durant wouldn’t be easy, but they won over 70 games without him three years ago. They’d probably still be a good enough team that it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if he left.

That is, of course, going off the notion that Durant is leaving this summer, which is by no means set in stone. As cliche as it sounds, we can only wait to see if things get worse from here for the Warriors.

But if things are actually as rocky as they appear, imagine what they could be like when DeMarcus Cousins comes back.

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