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Toronto Raptors 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Raptors tinkered with an already impressive roster this offseason. Will their changes payoff? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the Raptors in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

Basketball Insiders

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The Toronto Raptors enter 2018-19 with high expectations. The team has been a reliably strong squad, qualifying for the playoffs in each of the previous five seasons. That success reached a peak last season, when the Raptors won 59 games in route to the number one seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. But simply reaching the playoffs isn’t enough for the Raptors and GM Masai Ujiri. Ujiri parted ways with 2017-18 coach of the year Dwane Casey in favor of former assistant coach Nick Nurse. And he capitalized on Kawhi Leonard’s fractured relationship with the San Antonio Spurs, swapping DeMar DeRozan and others for the 2014 NBA Finals MVP along with Danny Green.

The Raptors enter this season with as much boom-or-bust potential as any roster in the league. The team could flourish with an upgraded roster. Or they could flounder due to injury and/or chemistry issues. Will Leonard return to form as the potent scorer and lock down defender that we last saw in 2017? Or will the trade backfire on the Raptors and set off a series of events that culminates in a complete rebuild?

FIVE GUYS THINK…

Masai Ujiri took a huge gamble this offseason and the payoff could be huge. Trading for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green gives the Toronto Raptors some impressive defensive versatility. I can’t wait to see what Nick Nurse is able to do with a roster full of impact defenders and Kyle Lowry and Leonard leading the offensive attack. Having said that, there are some concerns. We still aren’t sure whether Leonard has fully recovered from his lingering leg injury. Green was limited last season by a groin injury. This team has thrived off of talent and chemistry, which may be compromised with DeMar DeRozan now in San Antonio and Dwane Casey in Detroit. This team has a high ceiling and a surprisingly low floor. The other big concern is Leonard’s long term future. He will hit unrestricted free agency next summer and several reports have him favoring a move to Los Angeles. A lot can happen between now and then, but this situation will hang over Toronto all season.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Jesse Blancarte

For the NBA fans and analysts out there who subscribe to the “worst or first” philosophy that says you should be either competing for titles or picking at the top of the lottery for blue chip talent, this Raptors offseason was nirvana. By pushing all their chips in on Kawhi Leonard, who has just one year left on his deal and seems a real threat to bolt after a single season, they’ve positioned themselves for Leonard’s decision to dictate the franchise’s direction. If he leaves, you rebuild around a young core that’s solid but lacks a star. If he stays…well, you’re laughing. It’s hard to get a read on Leonard’s true thinking at this point, but competing for an Eastern Conference crown and perhaps even giving the Warriors a run for their money in the Finals likely couldn’t hurt their efforts toward keeping him. The Raps have a ridiculous amount of lineup versatility assuming full health from Leonard; Danny Green is an underrated part of that same trade, even if he had a down year last season. They’ll have the best player on the floor in any series against Boston if Leonard returns to his prior form, and the East’s playoffs could be extremely entertaining.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Ben Dowsett

Props to Toronto for going all in. They didn’t have a second’s hesitation to trade their franchise’s best player of all time for Kawhi Leonard. If you’re a contender with a realistic chance to acquire an MVP candidate in his prime, you take it no matter what. Leonard by himself potentially gives Toronto that extra gear that they’ve been craving for the past half-decade. The Raptors were one of the best teams in the league on both sides of the floor last season, so now that they have Leonard, they can’t afford to screw this up. Leonard’s expiring contract and supposed desire to go to Los Angeles makes this a do-or-die situation for the Raps. This is the magnum opus for Toronto because Leonard will either be the beginning of a glorious era or the end of a disappointing one.

2nd Place – Atlantic Division

– Matt John

It’s a new era in The North. Kawhi Leonard is coming to re-define Raptors basketball under head coach Nick Nurse. The organization kept the majority of its core intact outside of moving DeMar DeRozan, meaning Kyle Lowry is still going to be the man in charge of the offense. Danny Green is an underrated acquisition who came along with his former San Antonio Spurs teammate. Though Jakob Poeltl is gone, Toronto’s bench is looking to be just as effective as it was last year behind Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and veteran C.J. Miles. Coming off an impressive first season, O.G. Anunoby is the perfect understudy to Leonard as well. With all of this said, the Atlantic’s top is stacked. They’ll most likely finish in the top four of the Eastern Conference, but their division foes are just better at this point. That doesn’t mean they won’t surprise come mid-April.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

– Spencer Davies

I get the logic. The Raptors were stagnating, especially in the playoffs. They needed to do something, and trading for Kawhi Leonard was maybe the right move. Too often we get caught up in next year and the future. The reality is you have to have an eye on the future. But you also have to play in the present and if the young core that was good last year takes another step and Kyle Lowry and Leonard click, then Toronto could be pretty special. But as they say, that’s an awful lot of “ifs” to bank on. If it all doesn’t work out, then the Raptors strip things down and rebuild. But at least they tried right? With Dwane Casey out, and so much change, it’s hard to peg the Raptors above Boston and Philly. They could be really good, but change at this scale is a huge unknown.

3rd Place – Atlantic Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kawhi Leonard

When healthy, Leonard is a top-three player in the league – his most recent healthy season (2016-17) was capped off by him single-handedly pushing the Warriors to the absolute brink in the opening game of the 2017 Western Conference Finals. The Spurs were up 62-42 at halftime behind Leonard’s offensive and defensive heroics. But Leonard sprained his ankle in the third quarter and missed the remainder of the series, and the rest is history.

That anecdote demonstrates Leonard’s influence as much as any can. He affects his team’s ability to succeed unlike almost any other active player, LeBron James included. He is that good. In his last complete season (2016-17), Leonard averaged 25.5 points, 3.5 assists, 5.8 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game. He finished third behind Russell Westbrook and James Harden in the MVP race in a season when the Westbrook averaged a tripled-double and Harden averaged 29.1 points and 11.2 assists per game. But can he recover from the quad injury that sidelined him last season and the subsequent rust that goes along with the time off? If so, the Raptors could post their best year in franchise history, again.

Top Defensive Player: Kawhi Leonard

In case you don’t already know, let me reiterate: Kawhi Leonard is also an exquisite defensive player. Much in the same way Michael Jordan dominated games on both sides of the ball in the late 80s and early 90s, Leonard can take over an entire game almost single-handedly – hence the two defensive player of the year awards.

Leonard’s dimensions are tailor made for defensive success. He stands 6-foot-7 tall with a 7-foot-3 wingspan. He has exceptionally large hands at 9.8 inches long and 11.3 inches wide; comparatively, fellow defensive specialist Klay Thompson’s hands are 8.8 inches long and 9.3 inches wide. Leonard weighs a sturdy 230 pounds: enough to bang with many power forwards, while maintaining the quickness and agility necessary to keep wings in front of him and elevate to block shots with ease. In 2016-17, Leonard averaged 1.8 steals and .8 blocks per game. Leonard is the rare athlete who can play passing lanes, but rarely gets beat back door. He can just as easily jump a passing land and turn a steal into an easy buck as he can chase down a fast break and surprise opponents from behind. The Raptors have a number of other qualified defenders. But when healthy, Leonard is arguably the league’s best defender.

Top Playmaker: Kyle Lowry

Kyle Lowry is an incredibly effective scorer and distributor. He is widely considered a top-10 point guard. Lowry creates space for himself and can also bully opposing point guards on his way to the rim. Despite his scoring prowess, Lowry doesn’t impose his will on games terribly often.  He understands the need to get his team involved. And he did so successfully last season, posting 6.9 assists per game. In fact, Lowry’s assist production has remained within a half an assist per game of his 2017-18 average every season since 2010-11.

But as referenced above, the 6-foot, 205 pound guard can also score the ball. He averaged 16.2 points per game last season, which was a relatively big step back predicated on the need to get others more involved. He is a rare talent who can create for himself as well as for others. With the addition of Leonard and Green, look out for Lowry to continue to build his reputation as an elite playmaker.

Top Clutch Player: Danny Green

Danny Green is an excellent shooter despite what his 2017-18 averages imply. He shot 36.3 percent from three-point range, which is right in line with the league average. But most of Green’s career has been spent stretching the floor for greats like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard. Duncan retired prior to last season, Parker and Leonard both missed stretches with quad injuries and Ginobili was far from his old self in 2017-18. The Spurs operated with more of an egalitarian philosophy last season – a necessity, but one that hindered Green’s production given the increased attention defenses were paying to all Spurs players.

But history is on Green’s side when it comes to being clutch. Let’s not forget, Green broke Ray Allen’s NBA Finals three-point record in 2013, which included going a perfect five for five in Game 2 and seven of nine in in Game 3. 2013 was not an anomaly. He is a career 39.3 percent shooter from deep. Green can still sink shots, and he has proved he can do so in the biggest of moments. If the Raptors find themselves in tight games late in the season or in the playoffs, look for plays to be drawn up for Danny Green.

The Unheralded Player: Jonas Valanciunas

Jonas Valanciunas is a bit of a throwback to bigger centers of decades past. He doesn’t have the traditional pre-2000s, back-to-the-basket game that would be expected of centers from that era, but he is a powerful big, standing 7-feet, and weighing in at 255 pounds. His  7-foot-6 wingspan aids him in collecting rebounds. Valanciunas pulled in 8.6 per game in 2017-18 in 22.4 minutes. Put differently, that’s 13.8 per 36 minutes, which would have ranked third in the entire league.

But Valanciunas is more than just a big body that can rebound. Valanciunas is a skilled scorer who boasts an effective mid-range game. He shot 40.5 percent from three-point range on 74 attempts. While plenty of centers shot more attempts last season, that’s still a better percentage on more attempts than the career high of either David Robinson or Patrick Ewing, two of the best shooting centers of the 1990s.

Further, Valanciunas is primed for a bigger role with the Raptors, and deservedly so. He posted 12.7 points last season in only 22.4 minutes per game. That’s 20.4 points per 36 minutes. And yet Valanciunas has only cracked the Raptors’ top three in usage rate once. Fortunately for him, Coach Nurse appears to be a Valanciunas fan, as is evidenced by his work with and comments about Valanciunas dating back to 2013. Valanciunas is Toronto’s only real low-post scorer – a necessary facet to the Raptors’ success.

Best New Addition: Kawhi Leonard

By arriving in Toronto and instantly registering as the team’s best offensive and defensive player, Leonard is also clearly its best new addition. But the caveat is that he must be healthy. He hasn’t played competitively on a regular basis since the season before last. That’s a lot of rust to shake off. If healthy, Leonard registers as probably the best new addition of anyone across the league this offseason.

– Drew Maresca

WHO WE LIKE

1. OG Annunoby
Annunoby is the quintessential, modern-day NBA player. He is long, athletic and skilled. Annunoby runs the floor effectively and possesses an excellent motor. He is 6-foot-8 with a better-than-7-foot wingspan. He has a good build for a 21 year old at 232 pounds. His offensive game still needs work, but he did sink 37.1 percent of his three-pointers last season.

Annunoby’s potential is well supported by his per-36 numbers: 10.6 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.3 steals and .3 blocks per game. His defensive versatility is enticing. While his defensive contributions are noteworthy, his salary is probably equally alluring to a team as cash-strapped as the Raptors. If Leonard re-signs, the Raptors will be over the salary cap for at least the next three seasons. Meanwhile, Annunoby is entering only his second year in the league and is locked into a team-friendly rookie deal for as long as the next four seasons. Annunoby is no doubt an asset, but is he a foundational piece or a role player?

2. Serge Ibaka
Ibaka is a known commodity, but that doesn’t make him any less effective. He is a 6-foot-10, 235-pound center/forward who shoots 36 percent from three-point range while averaging 2.2 blocks per game. His blocks per game were down dramatically last season (1.3) from his career high in 2011-12 (3.7), but his long-range shooting, rebounds and points per game remain mostly on par with his career averages.

Ibaka is no longer the player the Thunder chose to hang onto over James Harden, but the Raptors will rely on him as its main backup center since Jakob Poeltl was included in the Leonard trade. But as long as he blocks shots and shoots an above-average percentage from downtown, he will have a place in Tornoto’s rotation.

3. Pascal Siakam
With Ibaka slated to spend a good chunk of his time at back-up center, an opportunity exists for Pascal Siakam to back up the power forwards. The 24-year-old has decent upside and should see increased playing time given how he performed last season. In only his second season in the league, Siakam’s playing time doubled – his points, rebounds and assists per game all saw precipitous increases, as well. The 6-foot-9 Siakam boasts an impressive 7-foot-3 wingspan, which further cements his place in the rotation as a defensive-minded player. And like many other big men, rumor has it that Siakam has added the three-ball to his arsenal.

4. Fred VanVleet
Fred VanVleet enters the 2018-19 season with high expectations. He had a breakout year last season, posting 8.6 points per game on 41.4 percent shooting from three-point range in 20 minutes per contest. VanVleet is a crafty 6-foot point guard who can finish in traffic. Despite having only two seasons of experience, he plays with the confidence of a veteran. VanVleet led the Raptors in minutes played in the fourth quarter in 2017-18 and began to find a nice rhythm prior to injuring his shoulder in April. VanVleet’s win share was an impressive 4.7. He has been looked over for much of his basketball career, dating back to his recruitment Wichita State, or lack thereof. But VanVleet proved last season that he can play a pivotal role for a competing team. Expectations  are high for the diminutive guard, but he seems to thrive under pressure.

– Drew Maresca

STRENGTHS

The Raptors bench was a driving force for its success in the past, including last season. The team’s next-man-up mentality is especially evident when examining point differentials. The team’s lineup was a +14.9 per 100 possessions when it had at least one bench player on the court, whereas the five starters were a +9.1. This juxtaposition is not uncommon for the Raptors, which had an even bigger contrast in its starters point differential compared to the differential of its lineup with at least one substitute in the lineup in each of the previous three seasons. In fact, last season is the first in the last four years in which the starters had better than a +3 differential. That should only continue to improve next season with the infusion of Leonard and Green.

But the bench’s point differential speaks to the team’s versatility and talent beyond its starting five. The bench boasts well-rounded players like Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam, C.J. Miles, Greg Monroe and Serge Ibaka – many of whom smartly shoot a majority of their shots from three-point range or within two feet of the rim.

The versatility and confidence that each of the team’s bench players brings to the game is incredibly valuable and varies player to player. Each complements the next very nicely, from VanVleet’s creativity, to Wright’s play making, to Monroe’s post game, to Ibaka’s three-point shooting and (decreasing) shot-blocking ability.

The team’s bench is as strong as it has been in years. The Raptors featured a 10-man rotation in 2017-18 and yet only two of its starters averaged more than 26 minutes per game – the only team in the league to do so. Relying more heavily on the starting lineup is rarely a problem for a team, but it alleviates pressure on an already talented group of mostly young players; but, if the starters falter, the bench will almost certainly be ready. That is an almost can’t miss recipe for success.

– Drew Maresca

WEAKNESSES

The Toronto Raptors have experienced four-straight seasons that ended in disappointment, all due to a lack of top-tier talent. That’s not to say the team wasn’t talented – they were. Just not talented enough to get past the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers. While James has fled the Eastern Conference for the sunny skies of L.A., there is still elite talent back East that will prove difficult to overcome for any team – and there will most definitely be elite talent awaiting whoever the Eastern Conference champion is come June of 2019.

I am inclined to believe that the Leonard-DeRozan deal was a net-positive for the Raptors because it adds an elite player to an already capable roster. But modern-day championship contenders feature multiple top-tier contributors: the Rockets have two of the top five players in the league in James Harden and Chris Paul; the Warriors feature an embarrassment of talent with Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green; and the Celtics feature Irving, Al Horford, Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum – all of whom are stars in their own right. The Raptors have one transcendent talent and another very good player, which is not quite equivalent to the other contenders. So then, where does Leonard’s help come from deep into the playoffs?

Still, Leonard of all players understands the by-committee approach having played his entire career for Coach Gregg Popovich. And Leonard might be the only player in the league other than (and maybe not even) LeBron James who single-handedly strikes fear into the hearts of  the Warriors– see the above anecdote about Leonard’s Game 1 heroics against Golden State in 2017.

And the Raptors do have an abundance of not-quite elite players, but ones who have a role and execute it to perfection. Will the Raptors team-centric approach payoff? They could be the exception to the super team-rule, which took off following the formation of the Miami HEAT’s big three in 2010.

– Drew Maresca

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will the Leonard/DeRozan Trade Pay Off?

The Raptors swung for the fences this past offseason. They dismantled a team that set a franchise record for wins to chase championships. While the timing was ironic given how the team that had sent them home from the playoffs in each of the three previous postseasons just lost its megastar, you can’t help but respect the big-risk, big-reward move.

DeRozan was under contract for the next three seasons at $27,739,975 per year. DeRozan is an incredibly productive player, but is one of the two best players on a championship contender? We know that when healthy Kawhi Leonard is. And the trade also netted the Raptors shooting guard Danny Green, who brings defense and shooting at a time when 3-and-D players are valued highly by front offices and coaches alike.

If Leonard is healthy, there is clearly more talent on the Raptors roster entering this season’s training camp than there was this time last year. But that’s a big gamble. The team agreed to the trade without any indication from Leonard that he was willing to re-sign, and without any definitive assurances he was healthy. And Danny Green experienced a considerable dip in production last year, albeit without his superstar teammate on the court to serve as the Spurs’ focal point. Still, both are legitimate questions that need to be addressed.

Even still, were the Raptors going to advance to the NBA Finals with the roster with which it ended the 2017-18 season– past the Celtics and Sixers – let alone win a championship? Unlikely. But if this roster gels, they have the requisite talent and star power to do just that. Yes, it’s a long shot. But it’s a shot, none-the-less. And if Leonard decides to walk, the team can embrace a rebuild instead of hanging onto mediocrity for the foreseeable future. The move indicates that the team’s front office is more serious about winning championships than filling the arena, which should be welcome news to Raptors’ fans and players alike.

– Drew Maresca

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NBA

Who The NBA’s Top Road Warriors?

Jordan Hicks takes a look at the teams boasting the top-five road records in the league and breaks down what makes them so good away from home.

Jordan Hicks

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Winning in the NBA is not easy by any means — but a victory on the road is almost more valuable than one at home. Maybe not as far as standings are concerned, but road wins are harder to come by in the league. Being able to get victories away from home can shoot your team up the standings faster than anything else.

Each year there are new teams that impress. Whether it’s expected franchises such as those led by LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard — superstars with historically great track records, rosters that must do so to meet lofty expectations. But there are always surprise newcomers such as the Miami HEAT or the Dallas Mavericks, too. Either way, a large chunk of those aforementioned team’s success relies heavily upon their ability to get wins on the road.

Who are the best road warriors this year? What teams are posting the highest records away from their home cities at the halfway point? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the top five teams in that realm, plus points to certain reasons they may be finding success.

No. 1: Los Angeles Lakers (19-4)

This first one should come as no surprise. For one, they are led by LeBron James. Secondly, they are co-led by Anthony Davis. Do you even need a third reason?

Listen, everyone thought the Lakers would be good. But did anyone think they’d be this dominant and click this fast? Honestly, high-five if so. But it’s not just those two that are doing all the work. Players like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are thriving, Dwight Howard is having a mini-resurgence, Kyle Kuzma is playing for his roster spot and Rajon Rondo is still dishing dimes at a high rate – though not as high as King James.

LeBron is averaging 26 points, 10.9 assists and 8.4 rebounds on the road, almost a triple-double. Davis is just behind scoring-wise at 25.9 points and almost a double-double with 9.2 rebounds. Kuzma is shooting 47.2 percent from the field and scoring just over 15 a game and, most surprisingly, leading the team in plus-minus at a plus-7.1.

With multiple road-wins against the Mavericks — and one each over the Miami HEAT, the Utah Jazz, and the Denver Nuggets — what’s not to appreciate? The Lakers appear to be the clear front runner in the Western Conference and their impressive road record is a large reason why.

No. 2: Milwaukee Bucks (18-4)

On top of the road-win totem with the Lakers sits the Milwaukee Bucks. They’ve been every bit as dominating as the Lakers, which is helped, in part, to the much-weaker bottom of the Eastern Conference. But this by no means is a knock on their talent level. Just like the Lakers are the current kings of the West, the Bucks are dominating the East.

Giannis Antetokounmpo appears ready to secure his second consecutive MVP award. He’s even more dominant than he was last year and he’s finally shooting the three at a respectable clip.

While Antetokounmpo’s numbers seem to be pretty steady overall when compared to his road numbers, Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton both see a bump in production when playing away from their home arena. Although the Bucks have an insanely-impressive point differential of plus-13.8 at home, it dips to just plus-11.4 when they play on the road. This is a true testament to their consistency as they travel.

The Bucks appear to lack the road-win resume that the Lakers bolster, but with solid wins against the Los Angeles Clippers and Houston Rockets, they can clearly take care of business against evenly-matched opponents.

No. 3: Dallas Mavericks (14-5)

By far and large the biggest surprise this NBA season has been the Mavericks. A few smart people probably had them penciled in as a surprise eighth-seed, but it’s almost a guarantee no one had them in as a playoff lock as early as December.

The reason they’re playing so well? Luka Doncic. He’s only half an assist away from averaging a triple-double on the road and he’s scoring more to boot. In fact, the Mavericks are averaging just 115.1 points at home compared to a whopping 118.6 on the road.

What’s even crazier is the fact that Dallas’ offensive rating while on the road not only leads the NBA — it’s over four full points greater than the Lakers at No. 2. The gap between them and second place is as big as the space between Los Angeles and the eleventh-ranked team.

The Mavericks boast quite the slate of road wins including the Nuggets, Lakers, Bucks, Rockets and Philadelphia 76ers. Yes, you read all those names right. One thing is for certain, the Mavericks will be a nightmare for whoever has to play them in the playoffs – regardless of seeding.

No. 4: Toronto Raptors (14-7)

You would think that after Kawhi Leonard’s departure that the Raptors would have slightly folded, but they’ve almost picked up right where they left off. Sure, Leonard’s absence was going to leave some sort of void, but it’s amazing just how well Toronto has fared this season.

They boast the second-best road defense with a rating of 102.7, just behind the Bucks. They also have the fourth-best net rating away from home.

The three-headed monster of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and Kyle Lowry has been as effective on the road as it has been at home. Thanks to the ever-improving play of Siakam, Toronto should comfortably find themselves with home-court advantage come playoff time. They might not have what it takes to repeat as champions, but they’re absolutely going to make life tough for whomever they end up facing.

Solid road wins against the Boston Celtics and Lakers certainly look impressive on the resume, but they’ll need to continue to improve as a unit if they want to make any noise in the playoffs.

No. 5: Denver Nuggets (13-7)

The Nuggets are having an interesting season. Gary Harris hasn’t been playing well at all, Jamal Murray hasn’t been turning heads either, but Nikola Jokic is still feasting on any opposing center thrown his way.

The biggest surprise so far? The stellar play of second-year rookie Michael Porter Jr. He’s only averaging about 15 minutes per game but, on the road, he’s scoring 8.3 points per game on 56 percent from the field and 51.6 percent from three. His NBA sample sizes aren’t quite big enough yet, but it’s becoming more and more clear just how good he’ll become.

Despite no one else on the roster improving much from last season, the Nuggets still find themselves in the upper-echelon of the Western Conference — and their stellar road play is a major reason. With solid road-wins against the Lakers, Mavericks and Indiana Pacers, the Nuggets are primed to finish the second half of the season strong. If Porter Jr. continues to improve and see expanded minutes, Denver could turn into a real threat out west.

All the teams on this list have been pretty impressive up to this point in the season, but there is still a long way to go. Will the Bucks or Lakers get dethroned as the road warriors of their respective conferences? Only time will tell.

But if one thing is certain in the NBA, road wins are no “gimmes,” regardless of opponent. The above teams all deserve their rightful spot on this midseason list. How many will remain come April?

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NBA

The Next Frontier in Basketball: Results-Based Mindfulness

Jake Rauchbach outlines how firing and rewiring the brain’s neuro-networks via Brain-Based Training – Player Development is the next frontier in basketball.

Jake Rauchbach

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The mind cannot tell the difference between what’s being experienced in real life and what is deliberately being visualized within the constructs of the mind. High-Performers have intuitively known this.

Science is now showing this. The brain has the ability to affect physiology and improve motor skill sets without lifting a finger.

For example, through visualizing desired outcomes, a person can rewire new neuro-networks (or pathways) in the brain, requisite for acquiring optimal motor function skills. This is based upon contemporary brain-based research.

The implications of these developments on the player development and performance space could be massive. Before we dive further into how, let’s first cover some foundational brain mechanics.

The Brain’s Neuro-Networks

According to some of the latest Epigenetic and neuroscience work by Dr. Joe Dispenza, the brain is comprised of a multitude of neuro-networks.

Neuro-networks are informational highways that transfer both information and commands. These networks are wired and rewired based upon our most consistent habits and behaviors.

According to Dispenza, people can upshift physiology, performance and career success through applying High-Performance Mindfulness techniques that rewire the brain’s neuro-networks.

Employing consistent visualization helps to fire and/or rewire these neuro-networks to more efficiently execute the specific task at hand. Additionally, employing leading-edge High-Performance methods takes this one step further by supercharging the process.

Current Approaches

The current player development landscape generally leaves out likely the most important element of unlocking human potential and high-performance, the impact that systematically firing and rewiring neuro-networks in the brain has on statistical improvement.

This approach is much like honing muscle memory in a very specific, supercharged way, weeding out unproductive subconscious programs while installing productive programs, having the effect of boosting physiology, focus and, of course, performance.

Probably the most leading-edge and powerful way to do this is through the implementation of Brain-Based – Player Development methods. These methods can be applied for performance optimization and in the injury recovery process. More on performance in a minute, but first, let’s look at the recovery piece.

High-Performance Mindfulness for Injury Recovery

According to Dr. Milo Sewards, Head Orthopedic Surgeon of Temple University Athletics, one of the biggest areas that is left unaddressed during the rehabilitation process is the unhealed psychosomatic element. This is especially true after players are cleared to physically play.

“Players have to be able to clear that final mental hurdle that prevents them from being able to get back to not just participating but performing,” Sewards says.

According to Dr. Sewards, tools like this are a powerful way to address these issues.

“I have seen some incredible things happen, some efficacy with these techniques, and getting some guys back from injuries with these techniques back to a very high level of performance,” he says. “I would love to see all of this take off and be widely accepted.”

Empirical Evidence

High-Performance tools addressing the mental hurdles that Dr. Sewards mentions above have been shown to quickly and effectively eliminate leftover psychosomatic elements from past injuries, but that is not all.

Take, for example, a study published in the Journal of Neurophysiology in 1992, where three test groups were used. Group No. 1 employed five, one-hour physical workout sessions per week for four weeks to improve arm strength. The second group just mentally rehearsed the same arm exercise that Group 1 did, without physically lifting a finger. Control groups did not exercise their arm or mind.

As you would expect, at the end of four weeks, Group 1 exhibited a 30% increase in muscle strength. But get this, the group that purely mentally rehearsed the exercise without any physical training, displayed a 22% increase in muscle strength!

Fascinating stuff, right? Another study, performed by Harvard researchers, took a group and divided it in half. One group practiced a five-finger piano exercise, two hours a day for five days. The other group’s members mentally rehearsed the exercise as if they were sitting at the piano without physically moving their fingers in any way.

Brain scans of both groups after the exercise revealed that they created a significant amount of neural activity. The group’s brain scan that only visualized the outcome was very similar to the group that had physically rehearsed.

There is big-time relevance here in regards to helping players improve.

Science continues to show that there are tangible improvements and progression taking place through Rep’ing the mind in a very specific way.

Optimizing Load Management

Efficient workflows are valued over old paradigm, sheer workload routines like never before. This is part of the reason why Load Management has become a priority. Career longevity and injury prevention have moved to the center.

Brain Psychology Player Development, that allows players the chance to improve on-court performance and physiology without increasing repetition of physical wear and tear, is an extremely valuable organizational asset.

Methods that optimize mental focus, emotional dissonance and statistical performance, without increasing the physical load on the body, are at a premium. For these reasons, combined with the scientific efficacy mentioned above, there could be a perfect storm brewing for massive market disruption.

The work-harder-for-longer model of player development is not resonating with the players as it once did. Combine this with leading-edge techniques shared within coming online, and the standard practices of improving basketball performance could change quickly. Players such as Aaron Gordon, LeBron James, Kevin Love and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are infusing their routines with mind-based methods.

Considering that very few teams currently employ these methods in a systematic or customized fashion, there exists a HUGE opportunity for those forward-thinking organizations.

Optimizing On-Court Statistical Performance

High-Performance – Player Development Coaches have been showing that these methods influence on-court statistics upwards.

Case studies showing 10%, 20%, 30% and sometimes 40% improvement in the same season, have become routine and commonplace for the professional, national team and college players who trust and employ these processes.

You may want to read The Next Step in Player Development and How to Improve Shooting Percentages Installments. I discuss this at more length there.

Both players highlighted below experienced improvement in no less than five statistical areas in the course of the same season after implementation of mind-based methods. Here are examples of players describing how this work positively affected their game:

FIBA Cup, Daequan Cook: https://vimeo.com/361200434

FIBA Cup Captain, Tal Dunne: https://vimeo.com/322145121

In Closing

For players and teams looking to gain a distinct edge in the development & performance space, the most efficient way to do this is through employing systematic processes that fire and rewire subconscious neuro-networks and produce high-performance.

Mind-based methods have been shown time and time again to facilitate this.

Based on growing empirical evidence, results and social proof, the next frontier in basketball could be mind-body methods that unlock performance.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Collin Sexton’s Reading And Reacting A Work In Progress

Spencer Davies looks at Collin Sexton’s recent trends since the Cleveland Cavaliers traded Jordan Clarkson and his progression over the team’s last five games, including a long road trip against strong competition.

Spencer Davies

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Year 2 in the NBA can be just as much of a challenge as a rookie season.

On one hand, your expectations rise — individually and team-wise. On the other, 29 teams key-in on tendencies through film study.

They’ll make adjustments to ensure you don’t get to your usual spots, forcing you to find a way to counteract. They’ll sniff out what makes you tick on the defensive end and gameplan ways to make you uncomfortable. And if you’re a shooter, they’ll contest and close-out harder than you’ve ever experienced.

In-house, things change. The roster is never exactly the same. Sometimes, there’s a lot of turnover in that department. Heck, you might have a new role and new coaching staff to learn from — and in some cases, your front office could be undergoing a shift.

Such factors can send a confident young player into the doldrums of a sophomore slump, a phenomenon that isn’t picky about choosing who, and when, to strike.

Entering the season, Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton was a prime candidate to fall into this trap. With John Beilein making the jump from college to pro as his new head coach, No. 5 overall pick Darius Garland entering the mix as the team’s proverbial shiny new toy and All-Star big man Kevin Love fully healthy after an injury-plagued year, there were plenty of reasons to think that Sexton may go through some regression.

Following a blazing start from deep and continuing the momentum he established as a rookie, Sexton looked as if he began to hit a wall. In the second half of November and all of December, he went absolutely ice cold. And as a player that thrives as a natural scorer in attack mode, he reverted back to his negative tendencies — driving into trees with nowhere to go, turning the ball over due to poor decision-making and playing one vs. all-type basketball.

Sexton’s momentum picked up again, however, when Beilein staggered him and his starting backcourt partner’s minutes. Garland and the then-healthy Kevin Porter Jr. developed a chemistry on the floor that allowed for consistent ball movement to find the next guy. In an effort to experiment with different rotations, Sexton saw time with a mixture of lineups where he was a facilitator, yet he shared that role with Jordan Clarkson, a microwave-scoring sixth man with a similar style of play.

On Dec. 23, the Cavaliers parted ways with Clarkson via a trade with the Utah Jazz in exchange for little-used former 2014 fifth overall pick Dante Exum. The goal of this deal was not only to bring in a reclamation project in Exum, but to open up minutes for the squad’s younger, inexperienced players — Porter, Garland and Sexton — in key moments. And since this all went down, Sexton has been on the come up, slowly but surely.

Over the course of the year, Sexton’s had a floater down pat to finish over the top of defending bigs. He’s had to have that tool in his arsenal, too, because the NBA’s best shot-blockers have been feasting on his drives inside. Fear The Sword’s Justin Rowan astutely points out the number of shots the 21-year-old has had swatted away vs. the number of assists he’s given out (quite a disturbing ratio), which beckons the argument of him being a bad passer while simultaneously making bad decisions to challenge guys with almost a foot more of height.

These are valid concerns and will continue to be as long as it doesn’t change. Forcing the issue with your head down in a lose-lose situation can’t work in this league. At the same time, we also have to remember he’s still an inexperienced player navigating his way through his second season. Plus, from the point Clarkson was moved, Sexton’s scoring average is an encouraging 22.3 points per game on 46.1 percent from the field and 41.9 beyond the arc.

“Just reading and reacting. Especially like, we go over a lot of pick-and-roll stuff in practice, so I’m starting to just understand where I get my shots and stuff,” Sexton said Wednesday at Cleveland Clinic Courts.

Due to the success of that aforementioned floater, teams are prepared to pack the paint when they see Sexton going inside with a head of steam. Beilein’s noticed most of his players’ difficulty in seeing who’s out on the perimeter while maintaining eyes on the rim.

Though he’s still had bad moments in numerous situations to try and finish over multiple defenders, Sexton has seemed to discover a solution.

“When it’s like that, I’ve just got to make sure I keep spraying out and keep trying to get assists for my teammates. And making the right play, don’t try to force anything,” Sexton said. “If I don’t have it, then make the right play and hopefully my teammates knock it down.

“It’s tough,” Sexton admitted. “Just because at the last second, they might slide over and then I may have to pump a little bit and then pass it. But it’s tough. I’ve just got to make the right play. If I feel like I have the floater, just float it and don’t even think about it.”

It’s even tougher with Cleveland’s current roster, which isn’t exactly built for catch-shooting and hesitates to take them. There are only a handful of perimeter shooters — Love, Garland, Cedi Osman, Larry Nance Jr. — that the team can depend on. This goes without mentioning a sub-30 percent conversion rate that his teammates have when they attempt a triple off of one of Sexton’s passes. Maybe they aren’t put in the best spots or aren’t spacing the floor well-enough to help his case. Regardless, those shots have to fall.

As Garland’s confidence as a floor general has increased, so has his usage, leading Beilein to play Sexton off the ball, a role that the coaching staff believes suits his game despite necessary adjustments to get him to that point. We saw a different version of Sexton last week on the road — and even early on Monday in a 106-86 clunker against the New York Knicks.

“What we’ve been telling Collin is, he creates so much attention and can score the ball at such a high clip that so much is going to be there for him,” Love said of Sexton at Thursday’s morning shootaround. “He’s so fast, he can get into the paint so well and he puts such pressure on the defense — just looking at where he can make reads, that’s a combination of film, a combination of a willingness to find guys and just picking it apart and seeing it.

“He’s done a lot better job. (There were) a couple of quarters, a few halves where he was able to really see what he was capable of and setting up his teammates and then the game just opened up for him, and I think that’s going to continue to happen for him…He’s only going to get better.”

Perhaps his role should be brought up as well. Sexton isn’t a traditional point guard, as detractors would like to use against him when bringing up assist numbers. Rather, he’s a score-first combo player that Beilein wants to see continue hunting for buckets. That should not excuse hurtful mistakes during the course of games, though, and both the player and the coach know it.

“Just try not to force it. If it’s not there, don’t even pass it,” Sexton said. “If it’s like in-between, don’t even try to force it or anything like that. So we’ve just got to make the right passes when it comes to that. (Stop) trying to make the hero pass, maybe like a no-look or a little pocket pass when you don’t got to force it, you’ve just got to make the right play.”

In three of the last five games, Sexton’s dished out at least four assists. Sure, it’s a meager number to some, but it’s still progression — especially for somebody who’s spending time getting to his spots without the ball in his hands. When he’s brought it up the floor to start games, there’s been a concerted effort to find Love and others on the perimeter. The sooner Sexton realizes the ball will come back to him after initiating an action of some sort, the better off he and the Cavaliers will be.

“I think he’s seeing it,” Beilein said of Sexton’s vision. “I think we all will go back to our instincts, especially in tough times and he’s getting better at understanding that, because we want him to keep trying to score, now. He’s got really good 2-point numbers in some situations. It’s that fine line for him to discern, ‘Is this the best shot, is this the best play?’ And he’s very receptive of learning that.”

There seems to be a common misconception that Sexton doesn’t want to pass the ball. Should we really buy that? Or should it be taken in consideration that:

Cleveland is telling him to be the hunter? That he legitimately doesn’t see his teammates with defenses hounding him in the moment? That he doesn’t want to push his own possible limitations? That there’s not too much strength behind those passes in the first place?

These sound like excuses, yes, but if you counted how many times Sexton’s said “caught in-between” this year, you might be able to see it from that perspective. When you overdrive into traffic, you usually get into trouble. There have been quite a few instances where he, and Garland, have put themselves into a winless predicament. That shouldn’t be seen as somebody who will never get it. It should be seen as one-half of a combined 40-year-old backcourt with less than two seasons of experience trying to figure things out.

“It’s the NBA. You have to adjust,” Sexton said. “That’s how it is. You have to make sure you do that on the fly. And when it’s like that, you’ve got to really lock-in and really focus on different players and making sure you’re reading them.”

As Cleveland.com’s Chris Fedor asked a local frustrated fan, “Why do we take near-20-point scorers who just turned 21 for granted and say, ‘Well those guys are a dime a dozen?’”

(If you’d like a personal opinion on that, refer to this Tweet.)

It’d be foolish to say that these same miscues won’t repeat themselves. It’s bound to happen with the high usage he has on this team. He has to be better, and he has to be smarter.  However, if the progression comes in those areas little by little, then Sexton’s development will still be right on track regarding this embryonic point of his career.

You can demand that he uses his quick burst of speed and knack for getting into the paint to get others involved, but you can’t act as if points don’t matter — even if it’s not by the most efficient means of scoring. Some guys aren’t aggressive without being told to be. He is not one of those players because failure isn’t a fear of his.

His work ethic is matched by few. His desire to be great is palpable. His attitude is exceptional.

Sexton broke out with loads of confidence in the second half of his rookie campaign.

If history repeats itself, Cleveland will have to acknowledge Young Bull’s sophomore surge.

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