There’s something about the looseness of the Toronto Raptors this season that makes you wonder—is this the year they break through?
Take a hilarious pre-game exchange, for example. Getting set for their rubber match with the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena, veterans C.J. Miles and Kyle Lowry are sitting down at their lockers just hanging out.
The morning beforehand, Basketball Insiders conducted an interview with Pascal Siakam, so Miles was asked about the second-year forward and his progression. He began to rave over him and the plethora of young talent on the team’s roster. That is, until an interruption happened in the midst of his words.
*Siakam walks by and messes with Miles*
Miles: I’m talkin’ about you.
Siakam: Stop lyin’ dawg. What you talkin’ about?
Miles: Pascal is [expletive]!
Siakam: That’s crazy man.
Miles: See what you did? You did this. I was on your side until 10 seconds ago.
After the shenanigans, Miles got back to his thoughts on Siakam and three other sophomores he plays with as a part of a talented bench that has been “battle-tested.”
“Pascal—he’s just Mr. Do A Little Bit Of Everything, basically,” Miles told Basketball Insiders. “He just plays with a ton of energy and he does whatever it takes. You love having guys like that on your side.
“Just getting that confidence. That’s the biggest thing. Our league is about confidence, opportunity. A lot of guys come in with talent and ability. I think it’s just about having the chance to play themselves into a rotation, and if they’re working on the sideline, it always shows when they get the chance. And that’s what happened. It showed that those guys have been working the last two years ‘cause they got a chance to be thrown out there and they were ready.”
That still may be an understatement. The five-man group of Miles, Siakam, Jakob Poeltl, Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright is one of 26 units that have played on the floor for 315 minutes or more this season. Only the Philadelphia starters have a higher net rating than their plus-18.9 among the aforementioned combinations in the NBA.
When it comes to Toronto’s best defensive units, Siakam is a common denominator. The two rotations that allow the least amount of points per 100 possessions feature the 24-year-old (95.6 and 98.8, which are good for the only figures under 100).
“Everyone has a chip on their shoulders,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “Just a couple of GOATs on the team (smiles)—Delon, Fred, Jak. We got guys that work hard and I think it’s just good to see that we’ve been playing pretty good.
“We just play ball. We just hoop and we got that little chemistry going. Hopefully, we keep it going.”
So why is it that this collection of 20-somethings has been able to get the job done? You can boil it down to the faith that Raptors head coach Dwane Casey has in them, especially in crucial and late game situations.
“It means a lot,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “I think a lot of young players don’t get that privilege unless you’re like…Who’s getting that right now? I don’t know. But yeah, you see my point.
“We don’t really get that a lot (in this league), so it means a lot. We’ve proven that we’re capable of handling that and he’s trusting us to handle it when we have to.”
For Miles, he was surprised that “an old-school guy like Case” would afford this prominent of a role to guys so early in their respective careers, but he’s also been the one who has worked with them since day one.
“They’ve stepped up to the challenge,” Miles told Basketball Insiders. “He got a chance to see those guys work every single day. And then, it’s hard to shorten that rope when those guys continue to play well and continue to overcome obstacles and continue to show that they can take a punch and get back up. So you earn trust, and they’ve done it.”
Casey’s method in handling the situation has been simple—don’t be afraid to hand them to the keys to the car. Sometimes it’ll go well, sometimes it won’t—but they’ll gain the proper knowledge from it regardless.
“They’re learning, and it’s been that way all year,” Casey said. “I know their numbers have been really good, but they’ve been up and down all year. They’ve learned from their mistakes and some of their failures, which all young guys are gonna go through. That’s the positive of that—that you do get that experience and learn from it.”
In a disappointing 110-99 loss to the Boston Celtics six days ago, one of those lessons manifested itself when things went awry. Leading by two points after three quarters, Toronto was outscored 28-15 in the final period. It wasn’t because they weren’t trying, but rather one of those times where the inexperience came into play.
“I don’t think it was lack of effort,” Casey said. “I think it was execution, doing the little things that’s gonna help that group play well offensively and defensively. I’m not questioning our guys’ effort. I think right now we’re playing hard, but not playing smart. That’d be the way I would describe it.”
“We had a slippage [in Boston],” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “At least we felt like we did, ‘cause I don’t think we played bad, but we’re just so used to us playing better. Had a little slippage. I think we’re pretty good at usually bouncing back, so we’ll be alright.”
Luckily for the Raptors, if things go downhill, there’s always the duo of Lowry and a guy named DeMar DeRozan to carry the load. At times, Casey likes to mix them in with players in the second unit. Siakam told Basketball Insiders that’s how he sees things shaking out in the postseason.
“It’s not gonna be all five of us at the end of a game,” he joked. “It’s gonna be starters in there. And if he can throw some youth in there to run with the vets, it’s good.”
Speaking of DeRozan, the outlook on him as a spectator and playing as his teammate has been two different experiences for Siakam.
“He’s just getting better every day, every year, man,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “Like I didn’t know him before the two years that I’ve been here—well I knew him before, but I’m saying I didn’t actually know him.
“I think it’s one thing to just watch basketball when you’re in college and stuff and knowing that DeMar DeRozan is one of the great players in the league. The other thing is just being on the team with him—seeing what does and how he works and the things he’s been able to do on the floor is incredible. So I think All-Star, my favorite player for sure.”
As for his own view on how he’s come along for Toronto this year, Siakam believes the most significant improvement has come as a ball-handler and a distributor. Casey has referred to him as a point forward multiple times, but he doesn’t go that far just yet.
“I don’t even wanna say all of that,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders when asked if that’s what he considers himself. “I’m just a ballplayer man. I’m trying to play and get my teammates involved and play the game the right way.”
The skill has been in his arsenal since he started playing. Now it’s just showing at the highest level in basketball.
According to Cleaning The Glass, the Raptors are scoring 113.7 points per 100 possessions with Siakam on the floor on an effective field goal percentage of 54.7 percent, ranking him in the 90th and 88th percentiles individually among others. In addition, his assist percentage (2.9 to 12.3 percent) and assist to usage ratio (0.25 to 0.8) has skyrocketed in just one year.
“It’s been something that I don’t think people saw coming,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “It’s something that I’ve always had and I’ve been working on and now seeing that development just gives me even more room to just even work harder and get even better at it.
“I think now that you have that freedom, I think it opens up a lot more things. Usually, it’s like, ‘Okay, I’mma work on this and address this for my development. I don’t know if I’mma do it in a game.’ But hey, now that I know that I can do it in a game, it helps even more to just work on it more.”
Siakam will keep attacking every day and get better with each game, as will the other young guns on Toronto’s roster.
In the meantime, Miles will continue to encourage them as the oldest member of the quintet. Nearing the end of his 13th season in the league, he put into perspective what it’s like to be the veteran, mentioning a time where he played for the Cavaliers in his eighth NBA season as the turning point for him grasping life as a professional.
“I was 25 but I was five, six years more than a lot of guys that were on the team,” Miles told Basketball Insiders. “Me and Luke Walton were the oldest guys the first year.
“But now at this point, I think I really understand it. I didn’t understand it then. It took me some time because I was still trying to figure myself out, but now I think I’ve embraced it as much as I can. And a lot of knowledge I was handed over the years, I just try to share it.”
Neither Miles nor Siakam have experienced life in the playoffs with this team. Outside of Wright and Norman Powell, the same can really be said for the other young guys on the roster.
In four straight years, it’s been a punch to the gut. Their last couple of postseason appearances have resulted in eliminations in the Eastern Conference semi-Finals and Finals, and the previous two years before that resulted in first-round exits. Seeing the late-season struggles serves as a reminder of those shortcomings, just sooner than what we’re used to seeing.
Prior to the dominant rebound victory over Boston, the Raptors had dropped four out of six games. There was a glaring lack of coverage on the perimeter where opponents shot 45.9 percent from deep and made over 11 threes per contest. It’s something they desperately want to get fixed before the regular season concludes.
“I mean, we just gotta do a better job,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “Be engaged more. It’s mostly communication. We get a little lazy sometimes, but I don’t think it’s a big deal. We gonna figure it out.
“Usually we execute pretty good in the last five minutes or something of the game, but recently a little bit we’ve gotten away from it a little bit. We lost some tough games.”
Despite the down stretch, Toronto remains the top seed in the East and can clinch it with a win over the Indiana Pacers on Friday night. Because of their last victory, it’s highly likely they’ll earn that number one spot and home-court advantage in the conference.
It’s an accomplishment that the team should be proud of, but they are hungry for more than that. They want to go far.
Forget the outside noise. Forget the past. Siakam is focused on now.
“I know this year, we got a pretty good team,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “I think our combination of youth and vets gives us a really good chance. I just like our chemistry. I like our chances. I don’t know about other teams, but I like our chances.
“I’m putting my money on the Raptors.”
NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension
Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.
Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.
In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.
At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.
The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.
There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots.
A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks.
Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.
More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter.
But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic?
It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.
Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.
Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.
NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track
D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.
D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.
The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.
Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.
Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.
The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.
COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.
The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.
Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).
Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?
Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.
Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.
Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.
On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.
Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).
But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.
At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.
And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.
To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.
So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.
NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?
Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.
Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.
It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.
Goga Bitadze and Pacers assistant coach Greg Foster got into a heated discussion.
Myles Turner and multiple other players got involved to attempt to break up the confrontation. pic.twitter.com/9Xr96HmJg8
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 6, 2021
We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.
The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.
If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.
In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.
TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be
Report: Mike D’Antoni ‘leader in the clubhouse’ to become the next Pacers head coach https://t.co/42Ik5nPTyU
— NBA Central (@TheNBACentral) May 6, 2021
Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.
Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.
For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.
There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.
That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.
Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.
Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.