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2015-16 Toronto Raptors Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Toronto Raptors’ 2015-16 season.

Basketball Insiders

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The Toronto Raptors are coming off of back-to-back Atlantic Division titles and have set new franchise records for single-season wins in each of the past two years. Although the current roster lacks the star power that Vince Carter and Chris Bosh brought to the Toronto in the past, one could certainly make the argument that we are currently witnessing the golden age of Canadian basketball, with the Raptors succeeding and plenty of young Canadians establishing themselves in the NBA (including Andrew Wiggins, Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph and Kelly Olynyk among many others).

But while the Raptors have played well, are they a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference? That is what we will find out this campaign, as they look to finally advance past the first round.

Basketball Insiders previews the Toronto Raptors’ 2015-16 season.

Five Thoughts

I’ve been somewhat critical of the Raptors this summer, stating several times that I didn’t like the contracts they gave to DeMarre Carroll and Cory Joseph and saying that I still don’t view them as a championship contender. But let me make something clear: I do think this is a very good team that will win a lot of games this season and easily take the Atlantic Division crown. They won 49 games last year and I could see them finishing right around the same win total (or improving on it) this season. I just wasn’t crazy about how much money they gave to Carroll and Joseph, and I’m curious to see if they can thrive in a bigger role outside of systems that made them look very good. As I said, I’m not sure Toronto is a title contender, but they will be a talented team that wins a lot of regular season games.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

-Alex Kennedy

‘They the North,’ and they also look poised to win their third consecutive Atlantic Division title. However, this year it would be nice if they could actually make it out of the first round of the playoffs. Losing Amir Johnson hurts, but Toronto reloaded reasonably well by adding Luis Scola and Bismack Biyombo at bargain basement prices. And anyway, the real bread and butter for this team is in the backcourt, which features Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross. DeMarre Carroll was a pricy but nice addition, and Jonas Valanciunas has more than paid his dues and looks ready for a breakout campaign. The Raps have a nice team this year, but they’ve had a nice team for almost three years running. What really matters now is doing something after the first 82 games.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

-Joel Brigham

The Raptors scored in free agency by landing former Atlanta Hawks glue guy DeMarre Carroll. The swingman adds instant toughness, grit and hustle. Having journeyed throughout the NBA, he can adapt quickly to a new team. Over the years, the Raptors have moved up the rankings in the East. However, despite their progress, they have fallen short each year once they hit the playoffs. The team has to take that next step in the postseason. They are constructed for regular season success. It is important they use their 82 games to put themselves in a better position to win when it matters.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

-Jessica Camerato

The Raptors entered the playoffs the past two seasons as the higher seed in their first-round series. But in both instances, Toronto was sent home packing in embarrassing fashion. On a positive note, future Hall of Fame forward Paul Pierce – the antagonist in both of those playoff eliminations – is now in the Western Conference. Toronto invested $90 million in free agency in DeMarre Carroll and Cory Joseph. The team is undoubtedly banking on the duo’s upside. Ross is up for a contract extension, but his disappearing act in the playoffs most likely led to the addition of Carroll from Atlanta. The Raptors should once again be in the Eastern Conference’s top five, but with the team’s recent playoff flame outs, advancing past the first round in the postseason is no guarantee.

1st Place – Atlantic Division

-Lang Greene

It’s easy to like the Raptors. They play hard, they play together and they are a team that believes in their head coach. All in all, the Raptors should have a fairly easy time winning the Atlantic Division for the third consecutive season, and I do expect DeMarre Carroll to make them a stronger team. However, I would still consider them to be a tier below both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls. The Raptors continue to have problems advancing in the playoffs, and they have only made it out of the first round once in their franchise’s history (2000-01). Without a legitimate superstar, it is difficult to imagine the Raptors breaking that trend, though it would obviously depend on how the bracket aligns. Regardless, I would pencil them in for another 45-plus win season and the Atlantic Division title. If Jonas Valanciunas fulfills his potential and gives them a consistent presence on the inside, then we can start talking about more. Until then, I’ll keep waiting.

1st Place — Atlantic Division

-Moke Hamilton

Top of the List

Top Offensive Player: DeMar DeRozan

DeMar DeRozan is only a 27 percent three-point shooter for his career, but he is still probably the best offensive player on Dwane Casey’s Raptors. Like Kyle Lowry, he takes the gross majority of his shots from mid-range, but shoots a bit better than average from that distance. Where he gets the nod over Lowry is that DeRozan is a more capable finisher both at driving the basketball and finishing in traffic. Hands down, Lowry is the better three-point shooter, but DeRozan is, without question, the better scorer. During the 2013-14 season, DeRozan averaged a career-best 22.7 points per game on 43 percent shooting from the field. Last season, those numbers dipped to 20.1 points per game on 41 percent shooting from the field, but at just 26 years old, expecting a bounce back year is not unreasonable. It’d be nice to see DeRozan do a better job of finding his teammates when they are in position to score, but we can live with his mediocrity in that area, considering he is a shooting guard whose primary responsibility to his club, historically, has been to score.

Top Defensive Player: DeMarre Carroll

Spend time around DeMarre Carroll and you’ll immediately notice the significant amount of time and energy he puts into stretching and doing agility drills prior tip-off of a great many of his games. He has long been regarded as a top-notch defender, and ended up being pursued by the Raptors because of the growth he showed on the other end of the floor. Focusing on the defensive end, though, Carroll’s exquisite timing and nose for the ball also translates to him being an above-average rebounder. The best thing about Carroll, though, is his versatility. His size and length does not diminish his mobility, and he is one of the more valuable players in the league in that he can effectively guard any of four positions on the basketball court. If he has anywhere near the impact on the Raptors this year that he did on the Hawks last year, at the very least, expect him to receive a few more votes for Defensive Player of the Year, as he has that type of game-changing potential.

Top Playmaker: Kyle Lowry

It may have taken him eight years, but Kyle Lowry has finally emerged as a force among NBA point guards. Even better for him, it appears that he has finally found a home in the league after spending time as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies and Houston Rockets before landing in Toronto. Lowry has traditional point guard instincts, even if he is still a bit too shot-happy. Over the last two seasons, his 7.4 and 6.8 assists per game are on-par for a starting point guard, but not necessarily near “top flight” status. Still, on a roster that only features Cory Joseph as its other playmaking point guard, Lowry is easily the top playmaker on the team. Jonas Valanciunas does have a unique presence in the post and does seem to see the floor well for a big man, but he is no Shaquille O’Neal and does not make the game easier for his teammates in the same way that Lowry does. With an additional mouth to feed on the offensive end in Carroll, Lowry will have the challenge of looking for another one of his teammates, but it is a challenge that he will probably welcome.

Top Clutch Player: Push

Over the years, we have seen both Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan make big plays down the stretch of games, even working in tandem to defeat the Boston Celtics last season. Together, Lowry and DeRozan have formed a nice one-two punch in Toronto and have partnered to guide the franchise to what is its most successful era. At the end of a game, if the contest is hanging in the balance, Coach Casey has shown a willingness to let his players play through it and, in tight situations, he trusts either Lowry or DeRozan. That makes the Raptors less predictable, and it is certainly not a bad thing to have two clutch players capable of shouldering the load. So here, we call it a push.

The Unheralded Player: Cory Joseph

The Toronto-born Cory Joseph spent the first four years of his career as a member of the San Antonio Spurs and saw his minutes and productivity increase last season. With a championship ring and a generous multi-year payday that was hard earned, Joseph has the type of character and experience that most NBA head coaches would love to have on their bench. That he is from Toronto and has extensive experience representing Canada in international FIBA tournaments makes the signing even better from a franchise point of view (as Masai Ujiri has stated he wanted to add Canadian-born players). Joseph is, of course, thrilled to be back home. From a basketball standpoint, he is still somewhat raw and trying to find his way, but on a roster with quite a few veterans, Joseph will enter camp as Lowry’s primary backup at the point guard spot. All things considered, he has been prepared to flourish in that role. Luis Scola and Bismack Biyombo will give the Raptors something, as well, but it is Joseph who is the top unheralded player.

Best New Addition: DeMarre Carroll

Aside from Wesley Matthews, DeMarre Carroll is one of the names that would immediately come to mind when one asks which players were overpaid this past summer. In Carroll’s case, a legitimate argument can be made as to why he is worth the $15 million annual price tag. Prior to last season, Carroll was primarily regarded as a versatile, plus-defender who excelled at both keeping players in front of him and making plays on the ball. Last season, he proved to be an above-average offensive player, converting about 40 percent of his three-point shots (and stepping up on offense for Atlanta in the postseason). Although he averaged just 12.6 points per game last season, his thriving in an equal-opportunity offense in Atlanta proves that he can excel in a team setting and one could easily argue that this increases his value even further. So long as Carroll’s success last season was no fluke, it appears as though the Raptors got a real game changer, and he is certainly the top new acquisition on a roster that has a few other fresh faces.

-Moke Hamilton

Who We Like

Masai Ujiri: Ujiri is regarded by most in NBA front offices as a nice person and an even better basketball mind. After a productive stint with the Denver Nuggets, Ujiri deserves credit for being in charge of a team that seems to have overachieved. He seems to have made smart decisions in re-signing both Kyle Lowry and Dwane Casey and managed to sign DeMarre Carroll — a two-way player who will make an impact in the win column. Ujiri still has some work to do in Toronto if he wants to transform the franchise into a championship contender, but at just over two years on the job, it is difficult to argue with the early returns.

Jonas Valanciunas: Although there are mixed reviews of Valanciunas, it’s important to remember he’s still improving and just turned 23 years old this summer. Valanciunas is far more agile than many of his peers, yet is not overly dependent on it to score baskets. He has traditional big man skills and sees the floor quite well for a man of his size. His rebounding could certainly improve, but over the course of his first three seasons in the NBA, he has increased his scoring average while raising his field goal percentage to 57 percent. Last season, Coach Casey told me that Valanciunas studies film of Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Arvydas Sabonis. If Valanciunas has it in him to want to be as good as those two, then we have something to look forward to. Consistency and strength may be his biggest challenges, but it’s certainly possible he can overcome them.

Luis Scola: Though clearly over the hill, the 35-year-old Argentinean still has some game left. Scola will give Coach Casey another big man who can play in the post. Even at his advanced age, Scola averaged almost two offensive rebounds per game last season and in Toronto, any extra possessions he can get the trigger-happy guards that he will be playing with will be a net-plus. Scola will provide veteran experience and seems like a good fit in Toronto.

-Moke Hamilton

Strengths

Last season, Toronto had the third-best offense in the NBA, scoring 108.1 points per 100 possessions. They finished only behind the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors (and the gap was relatively small). Offense is clearly the team’s biggest strength. Continuity is an advantage for Toronto as well. One thing that is often overlooked is the extent to which chemistry and continuity contributes to winning in the NBA. Oftentimes, teams that have been together longer thrive. It’s a simple concept that usually holds true. Dwane Casey, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross and Patrick Patterson have been together for a number of years, and although their roster looks underwhelming on paper, their continuity with one another and familiarity with each other’s tendencies may make a major difference in the win column. There are new pieces that need to be blended in, but the core players know how to play for Coach Casey and with one another, and that counts for a lot.

-Moke Hamilton

Weaknesses

While the team’s offense was great last season, the Raptors ranked 23rd in defense (allowing 104.8 points per 100 possessions). They opted to pursue defensive-minded players this offseason in hopes of improving on that end of the court. Health is another concern for Toronto. Nobody has ever accused Kyle Lowry or DeMar DeRozan of being iron men. Lowry seems to have overcome the injury issues that plagued him earlier in his career, as evidenced by his playing 79 and 70 games over the last two seasons, respectively. DeRozan, however, missed 22 games last season, and he was just one of quite a few Raptors who fell victim to attrition. Any success the Raptors will have this season will begin and end with the ability of these two to stay healthy.

Finally, point guard depth may be an issue too. Lowry is talented and Joseph has potential, but most NBA teams need at least three guards who are capable of orchestrating offensive sets or initiating action for their teammates. Joseph is still a young player developing into his own, meaning that Lowry is really the only proven floor general on the entire roster. Terrence Ross is a versatile wing player who can handle the ball on the perimeter a bit, but all in all, we would have liked to see the Raptors do a better job of filling the void left by Greivis Vasquez’s departure to the Milwaukee Bucks.

-Moke Hamilton

The Burning Question

Are the Raptors actually contenders?

The Joe Johnson-led Atlanta Hawks are probably this generation’s best example of a basketball team that was “stuck” in the middle. The Hawks weren’t bad enough to score high draft picks and they weren’t good enough to make deep playoff runs. The Raptors, despite breaking the franchise’s single-season win record in each of the past two years, were eliminated in the first round both seasons. In fact, the franchise has only advanced out of the first round once in its history, and that was all the way back in the 2000-01 season. Heading into the 2013-14 season, there were many that believed that newly installed general manager Masai Ujiri would tank the season, fire holdover head coach Dwane Casey and firmly commit to trying to land Andrew Wiggins. Obviously, that isn’t how things worked out. Ujiri brought back both Lowry and Casey and has now brought in DeMarre Carroll, evidently, in an attempt to continue building around his core and focusing on winning now. To this point, however, the Raptors do not appear to be a conference contender on par with teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Chicago Bulls. Even with Carroll, in today’s NBA, they are still at least two mediocre players (or one great player) away from being able to challenge out East. If Jonas Valanciunas can show consistent flashes of Arvydas-Sabonis-like play, then that would go a long way toward pushing the Raptors to the top of the standings. For now, though, they still very much seem a team in progress, but at least one that is headed in the right direction.

-Moke Hamilton

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.

Drew Maresca

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It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.

Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.

The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.

But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.

But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.

Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.

And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.

While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.

If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).

Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.

Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.

Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.

But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.

Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.

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NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups

With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.

Matt John

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The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.

Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.

Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…

We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.

The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.

Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.

Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.

Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.

While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.

Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.

This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.

Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.

Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…

Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.

It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.

Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.

With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.

Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.

But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.

Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.

The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.

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