Following the Toronto Raptors’ sole blemish on an otherwise perfect month of February, an overtime loss to Milwaukee in their first game after the All-Star break, you could forgive guys in the locker room for lamenting a missed opportunity. A late comeback wasn’t enough to overcome a sluggish opening and middle period to the game; lines like “vacation is over” could be heard.
At the same time, there was a sense that interrupting an almost comically easy stretch might not have been the worst result in the end.
“Nobody wants to lose, we damn sure don’t want to lose,” DeMar DeRozan said following the game. “But a night like today is a great learning lesson for us. There’s a lot of things we can take from this.”
The Raptors are in a unique position where both sides of this coin can be true simultaneously. What was already a well-oiled machine for two consecutive 50-win seasons has added even more polish – in a lot of ways, this year has been something of a cakewalk.
Toronto outscores opponents at over double the per-possession rate of any other team in their conference; they’ve led by over 20 points for more time than the defending champion Warriors this season, second in the league behind only the Rockets. Without an early-season hot streak from Boston that likely inflated the Celtics’ record a bit beyond their actual team quality, the Raptors would be cruising to the East’s first overall seed.
Their bench, long a source of frustration (especially with Kyle Lowry off the floor), has become one of the best in the league. DeRozan has expanded his game in a couple important ways. Casey has leaned on depth more than in the past, both from a usage and minutes standpoint. There’s a pretty easy case to be made that this is the most complete Raptors team in franchise history. And naturally, it’s easy to jump to conclusions from afar.
“Believe me, I go the other way as far as believing the hype,” coach Dwane Casey said. “I know what’s coming around the corner.
“You know you can’t believe the hype. You have some people wishing and hoping it goes that way. They probably have that story already written and ready to put it in. But you can’t believe the hype.”
As Casey said, he’s setting the opposite tone entirely for his group. Zoom out even further than we have so far here, and Toronto is really in the same situation as the last couple years – just with different window dressings. The East’s presumed final boss is still alive and well in Cleveland. Things have changed for the Raptors, but none of it will matter if it ends in another loss to the Cavs in May.
About that bench: It’s been incredible, and Casey deserves a huge amount of credit. The Raptors struggled to break even when Lowry rode the pine in previous seasons, and got destroyed in those minutes in the playoffs. They outscore teams by near-Warriors levels when he sits this year.
That’s a great sign, right? Well, yes…and no. Maybe. It’s another two-sided issue, it turns out.
The positives first, and there are a couple.
For one, this hasn’t just been an increase in minutes. It’s been an increase in responsibility for several guys, and one that could matter come playoff time. Toronto has run into problems in previous postseasons when smart opponents loaded up their defensive game plans against Lowry and DeRozan. With an offense built so heavily around those two and their prodigious creation abilities, the supporting cast often simply seemed at a loss for what to do when some of that burden shifted onto them.
Casey’s reliance on his bench this year might help mitigate that this time around. Lowry and DeRozan are carrying by far their smallest load in years, the former in particular. Meanwhile, guys like Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright are possessing the ball for over twice as long every night as last year, per player tracking data from Second Spectrum.
The Raptors were dead last in percentage of baskets assisted last year, at just 47 percent – they’re up about 10 percentage points this year, clearly more capable of playing a more diplomatic version of offense than past Toronto teams.
Whether this was Casey’s original goal or not, the hope is that reps in this kind of role pay off when the games matter most.
“It’s great when we can do some misdirection type of things, just mix it up,” DeRozan said. “A lot of teams understand and know our plays when it comes to me and Kyle.”
The bench has been so successful that there’s a real case for continuing to play them as a unit in the playoffs, something that’s pretty rare in the league today. Color this writer skeptical, but the fact that it’s even a reasonable conversation is a pretty huge leap from where this group was last year.
There’s a flip side here, though. These great depth minutes haven’t exactly come at playoff intensity, or often anywhere close. The Raptors have spent more time up by double figures in the fourth quarter than they have with the score within five points; they’ve played just 104 “clutch” minutes on the year, with the score within five and under five minutes remaining in a game (only five teams have played under 100 such minutes).
They’ve been bad in those stretches, too – they have the league’s fifth-worst per-possession rating. Calling clutch time a direct approximation of playoff intensity is obviously foolish, but it’s at least a moderately useful proxy. Does the fact that Toronto has struggled so badly in the periods when defenses are keyed in on Lowry and DeRozan foreshadow badly for this group? Or do we trust the larger overall depth sample we’ve seen?
Maybe the toughest area to parse, though? Rest, which is always a popular topic for top teams headed down the stretch.
For one, the bench’s success has had the additional effect of providing plenty of down time for the primary guys. Lowry and DeRozan are playing over six fewer combined minutes per night on the year, with the brunt of that difference allowing Lowry to get to a much more manageable number. It’s to the point where Casey is actually being asked about getting his stars more time on the floor the rest of the year to help keep them in rhythm.
“I’m sure it’s coming, whether it’s on purpose or not,” Casey said. “That’s been talked about.”
We’re entering nebulous territory here – there’s only so much reasonable speculation to be had about player loads and fatigue. But once again, there are two sides to the conversation: Keeping guys in rhythm is one thing, but toeing a very imprecise line between that and tiring them out down the stretch is tough, to say the least.
Casey has given guys like Lowry and DeRozan games off near the end of the year in the past couple seasons, but it sounds like he’s reticent to go that route this time around.
“As far as resting players and giving guys days off and things like that, we’ve got to really examine that,” Casey said. “That hasn’t really helped us a lot [in the past].
“I don’t know if it takes our rhythm away or what it does to us, but I think it’s kind of discombobulated us a bit in the past. I like the rhythm we have now, but there is some thought as far as making sure guys can play bigger minutes [in the playoffs]. We’ll see.”
So will it be enough? Can Toronto’s faithful dare to dream?
In the end, despite all the changes around the margins, the answer could just as easily end up coming back to the lead actors. DeRozan has dedicated himself to improving lacking areas of his game after two straight subpar postseasons; he’s hit another level as a playmaker, and while he’s still not terrifying anyone as a three-point shooter, he’s become respectable enough to keep teams somewhat honest.
Can he keep it up against the kind of playoff attention he’s wilted under in the past? Will Lowry’s big reduction in minutes and load this year allow him to have more success? Can an improved bench and a perhaps-weakened Cleveland squad – plus potential home advantage and the ability to avoid both the Cavs and Celtics until the conference finals – narrow the gap even further?
It’s hard to answer these questions right now, but the fact that they’re reasonable questions at all is meaningful on its own. Let’s see if things are different this year north of the border come April.
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.