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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

NBA Daily: Lee Awaiting Opportunity, Staying Positive With Knicks

Drew Maresca has a chat with Courtney Lee about his situation with the New York Knicks and staying ready for when an opportunity comes his way.

Drew Maresca

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Drew Maresca caught up with Knicks guard Courtney Lee about the team's rotation and how he approaches his work despite not receiving playing time.

Basketball if a fun sport that’s grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry. It brings people of all ages great joy, employs thousands and allows millions of fans to remove themselves from their daily lives and immerse themselves in the sport of their choice.

But there is a colder side to the sport, one in which ability is overlooked in favor of intangibles. The NBA is, after all, a business. And like any business, office politics play a role. This is a side that we’re all at least marginally familiar with. We’ve all seen players traded or cut because they do not fit the team’s timeline or because they were brought in or drafted by the previous management team.

This is not to infer that there’s anything insidious about the business of basketball, but players are people with families and bills and routines just like the rest of us. Of course, teams have the right to operate as they see fit – after all, we’re talking about individual contracts worth between $385,000 and $37.5 million per year that add up to payrolls exceeding $100 million annually.

But often times, players are reduced to their contracts and cap holds rather than being valued for their contributions on – and off – the court. Players understand the business they’re in, but there’s something that feels wrong about the league’s politics when it supersedes the natural order – when effective players sit in favor of less qualified ones. This is probably most prevalent when a team fast tracks a rebuild.

And for the first time in what feels like forever, this issue is front and center in New York. To the delight of Knicks fans, the team has finally embraced the concept of bottoming out. Tanking is a notion the Knicks have toyed with and ultimately either balked at or botched nearly every season since 2001. They’ve instead chosen to side with short-term fixes over long-term solutions.

With Scott Perry at the helm this season as general manager, the Knicks are making smart, calculated decisions. They are playing their young guys, which allows for them to develop valuable experience that can’t be learned from the bench or in practice. It also has the residual payoff of more losses, which means better odds come the 2019 NBA Draft Lottery.

But losing is tough. It can cause fatigue within a fanbase, a roster and an organization. Dennis Schroder, backup point guard for the Thunder, recently spoke about his experience with the Hawks regarding this very topic with The Oklahoman.

“I wanted to be in a winning organization,” Schroder said. “You just can’t go out there and try to lose.”

Back in New York, no one on the Knicks sympathizes more strongly with what Schroder went through than Courtney Lee. Lee is in an unusual position. He is too good to get on the court for his team because playing him would result in more wins and less playing time for younger guys. But he’s relatively expensive for his age, counting for $12 million against the salary cap this season and he’s owed nearly $13 million for 2019-20.

Lee is 33 years old, but has played some of his best basketball in recent seasons. In fact, he averaged a career high 12 points per game just last season. Furthermore, he is a career 38.9 percent shooter from deep, and he is viewed as a capable defender, a good teammate and someone who doesn’t need touches to impact the game. And yet, he’s received nine consecutive DNP-Coach’s Decisions (including Thursday’s game against the Wizards in London).

Theoretically, the Knicks can point to the neck injury Lee suffered in training camp. There’s an element of plausible deniability there – he was hurt so he could still be hurt.

But Lee upended any such excuse following the 76ers game on January 13.

“I feel good,” Lee told Basketball Insiders. “It happened back in training camp. I feel 100% now.”

Lee understands the business side of the NBA. He has played for seven NBA franchises in his 11 professional seasons.

“It’s not the first one,” Lee said with a chuckle regarding the DNPs. “I’ve been dealing with it, man. At this point you just understand what’s going on – the thought process behind it. The best thing I can do is just stay positive, keep cheering my teammates on and be ready for whatever happens.

“If it’s here getting in the game or getting traded somewhere, just making sure I’m staying in shape and ready to contribute. I just have to live in the moment. Have to tell myself to stay ready, stay prepared, stay in shape because there’s always light at the end of the tunnel – that’s my mindset.”

And fortunately for Lee, he could reach the end of the tunnel sooner than later. The NBA Trade Deadline is less than a month away, and the Knicks would like to double down on their youth movement. Moving Lee, Enes Kanter and/or Tim Hardaway Jr. would help the team open up the requisite cap space to offer a free agent a max deal this coming offseason.

Lee could easily find himself on a team competing for a playoff spot in the very near future. He would almost certainly help the Rockets, the Nuggets and the 76ers, as well as a number of other teams. But in the NBA, it’s never that straight forward. Teams must not only see the benefit of adding the player in question, but also feel compelled to deal with the other team’s front office. And teams know the Knicks want to go shopping this summer, so nothing is guaranteed for Lee.

One thing Lee has going for him that is far from guaranteed is transparency, which he receives from New York’s coaching staff daily.

“Coach Fizdale communicates a lot,” Lee said. “He’ll talk to me before the game (about the potential for DNPs) or he’ll touch base during the game. He does a good job with that.”

Fizdale has been open about his feelings toward Lee and the position he’s in.

“Courtney has been an incredible pro,” Fizdale said in an interview with NorthJersey.com. “I mean, he’s been like a big brother to all of these guys. They love him. They love being around him. He doesn’t do things like, you see times when veterans aren’t playing, they take young guys down in certain ways. Courtney’s been the guy that’s like no, go play. And like he tells me every day ‘Coach you need me, I’m here. I’m ready.’”

Lee has echoed those same sentiments all season long.

He’s just waiting to be given an opportunity to prove it.

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G-League

NBA Daily: G League Guards Showing They Belong

Jordan Hicks spoke with NBA hopefuls Trey Lewis and Isaiah Cousins about their current games, playing in the G League and more.

Jordan Hicks

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The Utah Jazz currently have three players out due to injury – all three point guards, coincidentally – so one might say they are a little shorthanded. Because of this, both of their two-way players – Tyler Cavanaugh and Naz Mitrou-Long – have been called up to travel with the team. Unfortunately for Utah’s G League affiliate, the Salt Lake City Stars, they are left short-handed.

Add this to the fact that their first overall draft pick – and arguably their most important player, Willie Reed – is done for the season.

Things like this aren’t uncommon for the G League. In essence, that is primarily why it is there. As a developmental league for the NBA, it is used to both groom young talent, as well as have players readily available when needed (for teams lucky enough to have a program in their area).

In recent years, the SLC Stars have helped groom current Jazz rotation players Georges Niang and Royce O’Neale.

In a league that is growing more and more competitive with every game, every advantage a team can get is clearly a plus. Therefore, having the Stars so close has definitely been a huge positive for the Jazz.

Because a couple of heavy contributors are missing games, guys who are typically important role-players need to step up and be the key guys for the team.

Basketball Insiders had the chance to catch up with two of their young guards – Isaiah Cousins and Trey Lewis – after a recent home loss to fellow G League team the Stockton Kings (affiliate to the Sacramento Kings). In a close game where the Stars were slightly outmatched, these players stepped up in a big way and almost led the Stars to an unlikely come-from-behind victory.

Isaiah Cousins is having a career year with the Stars. His third year in the G League – and second with the Stars – Cousins is averaging 12.7 points, 6.4 assists and 4.6 rebounds a night. He’s currently second in the league in assist to turnover ratio at 3.27.

“Making the right reads and [not trying] to force anything,” Cousins told Basketball Insiders. “Whatever the scouting report is, each team has a different defensive scheme each game, so I look at the scouting report and see what they are going to do.”

Isaiah alluded to the fact that preparation is what helps him take care of the ball so well. In a league where taking care of the ball is essential to winning games, solid point guard play is a must. Cousins’ development in that area goes hand-in-hand with his ability to someday make an NBA roster.

“This is my third year in the G League so I’m experiencing and understanding the game now,” Cousins said.

When asked what position Cousins sees himself playing in the NBA, he noted his versatility.

“I think I’m a point guard, but I can play multiple positions and I can guard multiple positions,” Cousins said. “I do a little bit on-ball and off-ball. Basically, wherever a job is open, I’ll take it.”

Trey Lewis has been instrumental to the Stars’ winning record coming off the bench. Averaging 11.6 points and 2.3 assists, the team relies on his scoring and playmaking abilities to pull-ahead.

Although he isn’t in the starting lineup, Lewis finds himself closing out many games, thanks in part to his clutch shotmaking. Just over two weeks ago Lewis hit a big, go-ahead three-pointer with just seconds left to seal a home win. On the season – in which Lewis has only participated in 13 games due to an early-season ankle injury – Trey has already dropped 20+ points on four occasions.

Lewis played for a handful of teams during his collegiate years, ultimately ending up on Louisville with current Jazz star Donovan Mitchell. Lewis and Mitchell are now playing basketball for the same organization and living in the same city. “[Mitchell] is somebody who I talk to on a daily basis. We push each other, we motivate each other, and we support each other so it’s been great.”

Lewis garnered the essential skill of shooting the deep ball in college. While playing for Cleveland State in the Horizon League, he led the conference in threes made, knocking them in at a 42.3 percent rate.

After playing overseas in Germany for two seasons where he was a two-time All-Star in the BBL, Germany’s top basketball league, Lewis came back to the states.

“My goal since a little child has always been to play in the NBA,” said Lewis when asked why he came to the G League. “I feel like I had two great seasons overseas and felt like this was the next step to get to where I want to go.”

As the NBA continues its move to a heavy three-point shooting league, players are finding they need to adapt in this sink-or-swim situation. Players that can’t shoot the deep-ball – at least at a respectable mark – need to hold elite skills in other areas.

Luckily for Lewis, three-point shooting has always been a strength for him.

Basketball Insiders asked him where he gets his confidence from behind the arc.

“Just hard work; my regimen every day, sticking to my routine, getting my reps, and that builds confidence,” Lewis said. “I know I can hit those shots in needed situations.”

The window has opened for NBA teams to sign 10-day contracts. Whether they eventually end up with the Utah Jazz or with an entirely different franchise, it doesn’t matter. Cousins and Lewis will continue to grind so they can have their shot at a spot in the league. But for now, they will continue to work for their current team and help the Stars try and lift the G League championship trophy at the end of the season.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Potential 10-Day Contract Players

Basketball Insiders takes a look at a few players who could be prime candidates for 10-day contracts.

David Yapkowitz

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January 5 was an important deadline in the NBA in that it marked the first day teams can begin signing players to 10-day contracts.

Usually reserved for younger, unproven talent looking to get their first shot in the NBA, recently NBA veterans have started going the 10-day route to refresh their careers and get back in the league. For example, Corey Brewer just recently signed a 10-day contract with the Philadelphia 76ers.

These contracts are very beneficial for teams in that there’s essentially no risk, and the potential for a high reward. It’s a relatively cheap tryout for teams to get a quick look at players who can potentially be helpful. Best case scenario, they end up finding a solid contributor. If not, then the player is no longer with them after 10 days.

Here’s a look at a few players who could be candidates for a 10-day contract.

1. Willie Reed

The veteran big man has had his taste of the NBA. He began last season as the Los Angeles Clippers’ primary backup to DeAndre Jordan. With the emergence of other players, however, his playing time decreased and he was ultimately traded to Detroit in the Blake Griffin trade.

The Pistons then shipped him off to the Chicago Bulls for Jameer Nelson, and the Bulls proceeded to cut him. He ended up being the first overall pick of the Salt Lake City Stars of the G League.

This season with the Stars, he’s been one of the best big men in the G League. Reed has put up 20.1 points per game on 66.5 percent shooting from the field, 11.3 rebounds and 1.8 blocks. He’s still a quality rotation player and could help a playoff team in need of some size off the bench.

2. John Jenkins

Another NBA veteran, Jenkins developed a reputation as a sharpshooter during his early years in the league, but didn’t do much else. His last appearance in the NBA was last season when he was brought to training camp by the Atlanta Hawks.

He ended up being one of the Hawks’ final cuts before the end of camp, and he subsequently chose to play overseas. He returned stateside this season, where he joined the Westchester Knicks, the New York Knicks’ G League affiliate.

Jenkins has had a very strong season thus far, putting up 24.8 points per game on 47.2 percent shooting, 42.8 percent from the three-point line, 3.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists. Perhaps the biggest changes in his game have been his playmaking ability and his development into a more versatile scorer. Any team in need of some bench scoring should give him a look.

3. Anthony Bennett

Keeping with the trend of NBA veterans using 10-day contracts to get back to the league, the former No.1 overall pick in the 2013 draft has begun to put people on notice this season.

Bennett last saw NBA minutes two season ago with the Brooklyn Nets. He wasn’t that bad during his stint in Brooklyn, but the Nets cut him almost halfway through the 2016-17 season. Aside from a brief stop overseas, Bennett has been playing in the G League.

This season with the Agua Caliente Clippers, Bennett has looked like he’s ready for another shot in the NBA. He’s been averaging a modest 13.0 points per game on 54 percent shooting from the field. One of the biggest additions to his game though has been his expanded shooting range. He’s knocking down 43.6 percent of this 5.1 three-point attempts. He’s worth another look for a team in need of a stretch big man.

4. Bruno Caboclo

Another player with NBA experience, it’s probably not fair to call Caboclo a veteran seeing that he rarely saw playing time in the league. When he was drafted by the Toronto Raptors, his selection caused quite a bit of confusion, leading to Fran Fraschilla’s now famous quote of him being, “two years away from being two years away.”

Caboclo toiled on the Raptors’ bench for about four years before being traded to the Sacramento Kings. He finally was able to see some minutes with the Kings, but still didn’t show much. The Houston Rockets invited him to training camp but ultimately cut him.

Caboclo joined the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the Rockets G League affiliate, and has since been showing that he may very well be worth a 10-day contract. He’s averaging 16 points per game on 51 percent shooting from the field, 42.5 percent from downtown, 7.2 rebounds and 2.9 blocks. When he was drafted, the expectation was he’d develop into a 3&D wing but that didn’t happen. He’s looking much closer to that now. For a team in need of a wing defender who can shoot from distance, he’s worth a look.

Again, 10-day contracts have become a very valuable and inexpensive way for NBA teams to try out potential contributors. If the player pans out, then you have a relatively cheap guy in the rotation. If they don’t, you cut your losses after 10 days. It should be interesting to see if these vets are able to parlay their G League success into a path back to the NBA.

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