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NBA Daily: How The Raptors Can Stay Competitive Next Season

With Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green off to Los Angeles, the Raptors will need offensive improvements in a few key areas to stay competitive. If everything comes together, Toronto could be a tough out in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Quinn Davis

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It seems like a lifetime has passed since the Toronto Raptors hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy in Oracle Arena. A playoff run fueled by impeccable team defense, plus heroic offensive performances from Kawhi Leonard, eventually culminated in the franchise’s first-ever NBA championship.  

Less than a month later, half of that equation decamped to Los Angeles in basketball’s biggest fallen domino: Leonard to the Clippers. Not long after, Danny Green followed suit and joined the Lakers. The exuberance that comes with a title was cut short, replaced quickly with worry and uncertainty.  Questions arose about the feasibility of the current roster and some asked whether a rebuild was in order. General manager Masai Ujiri, who architected the title-winning roster, was offered a position in Washington.  

Ujiri stayed put and decided not to attempt a roster tear-down either. Instead, the team brought in Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, while holding on to the remaining members from last year’s group. 

With Philadelphia and Milwaukee being the consensus favorites in the Eastern Conference, Toronto will have the rare opportunity to enter the 2019-20 season without lofty expectations despite their previous championship pedigree. Losing a star will do that but the Raptors still have a roster of smart, experienced and gritty players that could keep this team near the top of the conference ladder.

The core of Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol and OG Anunoby should keep this team afloat defensively, even if it’s not as elite as before. Head coach Nick Nurse will have the team competing on that end, so it’s certainly feasible that they could grind their way to some wins through that enduring identity. 

During the regular season, the Raptors went 17-5 without Leonard in the lineup, another key trait that should act as optimism for the upcoming season. That number is rather misleading, however, as the Raptors mostly beat up on lesser opponents, only going 4-5 against teams that made the playoffs when Leonard was given the night off. 

The Raptors also looked lost offensively when Leonard went to the bench in the playoffs. Their lack of shot creation outside of The Klaw was a glaring flaw, one that nearly derailed their title run in just the second round. For them to nab a top-four seed, and put up a fight in the playoffs, the Raptors will need offensive improvements from individuals and as a team.

Lowry is an obvious candidate for those improvements as he will operate as the fulcrum for Toronto. The long-time veteran was originally slated to play on Team USA during this offseason’s FIBA World Cup, but thumb surgery kept him out longer than anticipated. Now, the point guard will spend the rest of the summer resting and training for the upcoming campaign.  

Lowry’s efficiency took a hit in the previous year, that much is clear. There was a drop in his three-point percentage, down from 40 percent in 2017-18, to just under 35 percent last season. The pull-up threes were the culprit there as his efficiency dropped from 40 percent two seasons ago to just under 30 percent in 2018-19, per NBA.com. Also concerning was a decrease in fouls drawn, a facet in which Lowry has been historically elite. His shooting foul rate fell to just 8.8 percent, which puts him right at the 50th percentile for his position in that department, according to cleaningtheglass.com.

It is tough to pinpoint one reason for the decline.  It could be age — Lowry is now 33 years old and heading into his 14th season — or it could be simple variance when it comes to the pull-up shooting. One could also attribute some of the offensive passivity to Lowry trying to help his star teammate acclimate over the years.

Lowry largely served as a safety valve at the top of the arc, waiting for kick-outs and swing passes after he initiated the offense. Wildly, 50 percent of his shots registered as non-corner threes, putting him in the 96th percentile in that category.

Lowry is still a major cog for this Raptors team even with the efficiency decline. Toronto was about eight points per 100 possessions better offensively with him on the court than they were with him off, per cleaningtheglass.com. His passing is still elite and his frenetic energy created transition opportunities that the team relished. If those areas stay consistent, a bounce-back shooting season and an uptick in aggressiveness could go a good distance toward keeping this Raptors team near their best possible outcomes.

Pascal Siakam, the reigning Most Improved Player, will also take on a heavier offensive load, so his maintaining his efficiency on the higher usage will be a notable subplot for Toronto’s season.  The obvious area for Siakam to improve is his shooting — can he make another big-time jump? Siakam did shoot a tick over 37 percent from deep last season, but that was buoyed by his 42 percent mark from the corners, where the majority of his attempts came, per cleaningtheglass.com.  His 26 percent mark from non-corner threes was exposed in the playoffs last season as Philadelphia had Joel Embiid leave Siakam by his lonesome when he was standing anywhere around the top of the arc.  

Siakam’s finishing ability was his strong suit, converting 71 percent of his looks at the rim last season, according to cleaningtheglass.com. Often, he zig-zagged his way to the cup, using his quickness advantage against most opposing fours that tried to guard him. If teams guarded him with a wing, Siakam had no issue using his improved post game to punish that decision. The Raptors scored 1.08 points per possession out of Pascal post-ups last season, ranking him seventh in the NBA among players with at least 1.5 post-ups per game.

These forays to the paint will come with more resistance this season, of course, now that franchises can better prepare for the former breakout star. Increased scouting will have opponents sagging off above the break, while the glaring absence of Leonard and Green will allow for more help on drives and in the post.

Siakam was a steady passer last season, upping his assist percentage to 14.2, a strong number for his position. But if Siakam can handle more attention on defense, and his shooting improves, the Raptors’ offense will have more room to breathe. The blossoming star’s accuracy on long midrange shots — 48 percent — leaves room for optimism, as does his rate of improvement over the last two seasons.

Replacing the isolation scoring of Leonard will be a tall task, but just as pressing may be finding ways to space the floor without Green. Toronto shot just 32.6 percent on their three-point attempts with Green off of the floor, compared to 40 percent with him on, per cleaningtheglass.com.

As discussed, Lowry and Siakam will both need to be more consistent from deep. The aforementioned Gasol shot 36 percent from deep on the season but shot a blistering 44 percent after he joined the Raptors. Gasol hovering somewhere in the middle of those two numbers would be invaluable to the Toronto offense — that should go without saying. Serge Ibaka and OG Anunoby finding any additional assistance from outside would be a bonus.

The Raptors have a roster full of heady passers.  Fred VanVleet, Lowry, Gasol and Siakam are all willing ball movers — sometimes even too willing in the case of Gasol and Lowry.  The players on the receiving end of those passes will need to confidently shoot when open. As a team, the Raptors will also need to emphasize transition opportunities. Their halfcourt offense suffered without Leonard, and they will need to create better looks by turning that nightmare-worthy defense into easy offense.  

But if the Raptors are able to generate at least a league-average offense, their defense could keep them in the hunt for home-court advantage in the first round. The intangibles are there as well. Gasol, Lowry and Ibaka are grizzled veterans, while Fred VanVleet is as poised as they come — don’t forget: He’s been called “Steady Freddy” for a reason.

While the Bucks and Sixers are still heavy favorites to meet in the conference finals, it may be unwise to count out the defending champions from north of the border just yet.

Quinn Davis is a contributor for Basketball Insiders. He is a former collegiate track runner who currently resides in Philadelphia.

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NBA

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

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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