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E vs D. – Raptors Down the Stretch

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With the Toronto Raptors and the NBA embarking on the last leg of the regular season, the trade deadline and the time leading up to it has sent ripples—not waves—across the league. There wasn’t a move or transaction that screamed “game changer,” including the deal Raptors president Masai Ujiri and general manager Jeff Weltman pulled off in acquiring versatile power forward Serge Ibaka.

Ibaka is a sure bet to clean up some of Toronto’s messes on defense and improve their timeliness on the glass, and he’ll be able to stretch opposing defenses with his shooting as well. That might take some time to integrate, however; meanwhile, Boston and Washington have moved ahead of Toronto by playing cohesive basketball. Both of those teams also have emerging and re-emerging stars.

In Cleveland, while the Cavaliers may not be dominating the standings or playing their best basketball, they made an early move in acquiring three-point specialist Kyle Korver last month and have recently held a workout for rusty-but-talented free agent center Larry Sanders. Also, the devastating Kevin Love injury has a few Eastern teams smelling blood and the Raptors appear to be one of them.

While the consensus is that Ibaka helps stop the bleeding that has seen Toronto drop to fourth place in the East, the real question is one of contention: Are the Raptors now positioned to truly compete for Eastern Conference supremacy? Are they contenders? Pretenders? Dead-enders?

PRESS writers Eric Fawcett and Darren Andrade debate the key points of concern for the Raptors as they head down the stretch.


SERGE IBAKA

D: Interesting times in Raptor Land. Despite his reputation for being a badass deal maker, silent-but-deadly Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri hasn’t made a big splash in a couple of seasons, mostly because the Raptors have been on the best two-year run in franchise history. Credit Ujiri for making a move the minute there was slippage, and you can now add the name of Ibaka to his impressive list of gets, addressing a gaping need for bigger power forward play in doing so.

I’m not convinced this makes the Raptors any more a contender than they were in December, but it should slow the terrible roll they’ve been on. Ibaka appears to shore up many of the needs we’re talking about here, but we have avoided diving deep into them since he has yet to play for his new team. Defending the more versatile big men of today is something Ibaka excels at, a perimeter-to-paint defender who rebounds well and has a refined offensive game that includes the three-ball. At his very best he can be a game changer, but it’s hard to tell if his Orlando decline was more a team thing or a bad spell. I’d bet on the latter and assume it is about to end, with Ibaka now sandwiched between Toronto’s All-Star duo Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, just as he was in Oklahoma City with Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.

E: After trading away one of the NBA’s best young shooters and a first round pick in a strong draft, I think Ibaka will be expected to do more than he’s capable of. We all know he is an elite defender, and that will definitely be in play when he is tasked with mopping up errors made by the Raptors’ porous perimeter defenders. He is often lauded as a guy who can switch out on pick and rolls, but his desire to pick up guards on switches leads him away from the hoop and unable to protect the rim and collect rebounds. His three-point shooting will be welcomed, but other than that not much can be expected offensively. Additionally, Ibaka’s atrocious 3.5 percent assist rate shows a player who struggles to pass the basketball, which could be troublesome if he gets trapped in the post. Toronto’s new big man will put on a rim protecting exhibition on a nightly basis, but outside of that skillset, expectations for Ibaka should be tempered.

D: Are you kidding me? Expectations should be through the roof! Do you have any idea how much money the Raptors are going to have to pay next summer if this all works out? Raptors fans should be convincing themselves that the team is going for it all this year by smashing bottles over their heads and burning Rob Babcock photos.

E: They might be doing that if it doesn’t work out, which is just as likely.

D: Can you burn a Masai Ujiri photo?

E: No. So far, unburnable.

DEFENSE


E: Defense wins championships. An adage long attributed to winning teams, it is not a gospel the Raptors embrace. Looking at the cavalry the Raptors roll out, it is not hard to see why this team struggles on their own end of the floor. Lowry is not short of hustle, but he is of height. DeRozan likes to drift on defense which gets him hung up on screens. The rookie Pascal Siakam shows misunderstandings of defensive fundamentals in several coverage situations, and Jonas Valanciunas has never had the stamina to put in sufficient effort on both sides of the floor. In a ground-and-pound playoff series, besides praying for DeMarre Carroll’s health, Toronto could try to find more minutes for superior defensive pluggers like Norman Powell, Cory Joseph, and Lucas Nogueira, but none of these players are anchors that are going to truly transform your defense.

The Raptors sit at a fairly pedestrian 16th in the league in defensive efficiency, and they allow opponents to shoot a strong 45.4 per cent from the field. Finishing defensive possessions has also been a massive struggle for Toronto, as they sit 25th in the league in defensive rebounding rate. A number that looks good for Toronto is their 8.6 steals per game, but their constant gambling can be troublesome, resulting in frantic attempts to clog the paint and leaving shooters open. Protecting the paint has also been a consistent struggle, as Toronto ranks in the bottom third of the league in shot blocking at 4.9 swats per game. Ibaka will definitely improve the interior defense, but staying out of foul trouble with the amount of plays at the rim will be a struggle. Do you think the Raptors will get enough stops to make a deep playoff run?

D: Defensive efficiency? Defensive rebounding rate? Shot-blocking no-shows? The word on the street is point differential, that old Phoenix Suns defense. The Raptors are company in the top five for point differential, so it’s working. Once upon a time you’d cringe at the 104.3 points the Raptors allow per game, but that’s less than Houston, Boston, Washington, and Golden State. In fact, only two top-10 teams—San Antonio and Utah—hold opponents to under 100 points per game. I’ve always struggled with determining whether or not that kind of strategy is constructed on purpose or if it is used as an excuse when a defense lacks. It certainly has never led a team to a championship, even if we remain a busted Steve Nash nose and an  Amar’e Stoudemire suspension away from ever knowing. That said, those gambles play a part in the Raptors averaging around 18 points per game off turnovers—another top five stat—and they own one of the league’s best differentials in that category as well. I’ll take old fashioned good timing and wins over efficiency rankings any day.

POWER FORWARD


E: Despite fielding fairly talented rosters over the past few years, the glaring hole in the Raptors lineup has been the power forward spot. Talented backcourt players, tough-nosed wings and shot blocking centers have come and go, but a quality player at the power forward spot has eluded the Raptors for years. Amir Johnson gave some serviceable minutes at the four during his time, but was more of a glue guy than player you loved in any particular matchup. The one-year signing of Luis Scola last year brought on some veteran leadership and a few hot shooting games, but his limitations came to light near the end of the year, and the playoffs saw him getting his name called to start, but only playing around 10 minutes per game.

This season hasn’t been much better. Siakam has been the every game starter, but has shown deficiencies on both sides of the floor. Other than running hard, the rookie hasn’t found rhythm on the offensive end, generally looking lost and confused in the Raptors’ offensive system.

The defensive side isn’t much better for Siakam, as his versatility is overshadowed by his tendency to get out of position chasing his man around the floor. Ranking at 58th in PER for power forwards, Siakam is well behind the average for starting fours.

If you think Patrick Patterson would be a better option, his 60th ranked PER amongst power forwards might make you reconsider. Despite being listed at a serviceable 6’9” and 235 pounds, Patterson seems to lose out on a lot of 50-50 rebounds, and seems to lack the muscular fortitude to allow him to compete with stronger players. A streaky three-point shooter, a lot of the bench unit’s offense sinks or swims on his slingshot-approach jumpers. If those shots aren’t falling, you aren’t getting much else from Patterson offensively, as his 38.5 per cent shooting is well behind the pace of most frontcourt players.

Jared Sullinger’s return from injury had been ho-hum, and I don’t think much can be expected from a player coming in ice cold late in the year who already struggles to get up and down the floor at the best of times. The acquisition of Ibaka will hopefully drop everyone down a spot to more comfortable positions in the rotation, but every power forward on the squad will have to elevate their play to get this team to another level.

D: What? Sullinger’s return didn’t do it for you?

Like you I’m utterly confused that the Raptors have struggled so badly in finding stability at power forward since the bolting of Chris Bosh. Not to say those are easy shoes to fill, but the Raptors have mostly stop-gapped the position with the one-year-wonders you mentioned. This is where your defensive rebounding concerns needed to be addressed, even with Valanciunas showing more signs of life in that department of late. With the trade season upon us I think it was a hole too deep to ignore.

Enter Ibaka, the big necessity, with Serge they will have finally landed a stud. I don’t think you will see much of the rookies when things matter most. They become insurance for the good thing they should have going with Ibaka in the lineup.

E: Also, you’ve now got a veteran piece coveted by many teams at the deadline in PJ Tucker. He’s a tough-as-nails forward who will be asked to do a large chunk of the heavy lifting defensively against muscular, talented wings that have given the Raptors trouble in the past. Though his defence and grit is going to come just as advertised, I think the reputation he has as a shooter is largely exaggerated. Though a capable shooter at 33.8% from the land beyond, I wouldn’t expect him to be ripping the mesh from a high rate outside. However, as a veteran stopper I think it’s safe to assume he will be a pivotal piece in the rotation if the Raptors are to make a run in the postseason.

Along with Lowry and DeRozan leading the way, this is the closest the Raptors franchise has ever been to fielding a “Big Three,” which is the least you need in the NBA to compete for gold balls.

INEXPERIENCE


E: Looking back at the last decade of NBA Finals teams, you see a lot of repeat appearances. Playoff experience is all over the teams we have seen in The Finals these past few years, and it’s something we do not see enough of on the Raptors’ roster. Valuable playoff contributors from veterans the past few years like Amir Johnson, Greivis Vasquez, Lou Williams, and Bismack Biyombo are gone, and the roles they held are now filled with younger players such as Nogueira, Powell and Siakam.

After inconsistent efforts in the postseason throughout the past years it would be great to have experience building through the team, not leaving through free agency. The star backcourt of Lowry and DeRozan has built up a wealth of experience, but after that the dropoff in playoff lessons learned is expansive. This season—before the arrival of Ibaka—the Raptors rotation relied on three players: Nogueira, Siakam, and rookie centre Jakob Poeltl, all guys that have zero playoff experience. Powell had a few great games in the postseason last year, but wasn’t a regular. With a fairly green roster when it comes to playoff experience and success, will the Raptors be able to overcome more veteran teams?

D: That’s a tough question. Your example of Lowry and DeRozan’s combined experience, which includes the ever-transformative Olympic experience, may be the answer. It’s not the worst thing to hang your hat on and I think you’re dismissing their two playoff wins against the Cleveland Cavaliers last postseason. Most people do because of the way they got slammed in their losses, but the Raptors still managed to take two playoff games from the eventual NBA champs. I think the real key here is if DeRozan and, to a larger extent, Lowry lead them with that experience. Amir, Greivis, and Lou never helped them to an East Finals berth. And no, the Nogueira/Siakim/Poeltl bob-and-weave does not replace how awesome Biyombo was last season. Still, this concern feels like another Raptors talking point that threatens to be a problem but really hasn’t been.

E: Hopefully the experience of winning every game by 40 in the Olympics will pay off.

D: Would you have rather seen DeRozan in the Drew League again?

E: Totally debatable.

BALL MOVEMENT

D: The purpose: the end goal of proper ball movement is to find the right man for the right situation; to best capitalize. It’s why the extra pass is so coveted. It is the master stroke of the process.

“At least eight or nine passes before a shot,” a coach I respect used to say.

Good movement scours the defense like a catfish looking for a hole in the net. To that end the Raptors do fine, with an offense of shooting bulldogs that seem delightfully set in their ways. And while you can point to their tied-for-dead-last NBA assist ranking as a drawback, it is important to note that they were just as “bad” last year when they went to the Eastern Conference Finals. Playoff basketball requires a lot of the obvious, the spectacular, plenty of guts, and a little bit of luck to contend, which is what the Raptors are trying to do. I can’t see ball movement being as high on the list of concerns as some people might have it, and it certainly doesn’t trump their rebounding and roster issues.

E: “Eight or nine passes before a shot” sounds a lot like wasted effort and a lot of chances for turnovers. Ball movement is one of the buzzwords in today’s NBA, but if you ask me, ball movement is tremendously overrated. Lobbing passes around the perimeter accomplishing very little might give a basketball watcher an inflated sense of “team basketball,” but if you don’t actually have the ball in the hands of your best playmakers, ball movement is useless. I’d rather be running sets with the rock in the safe hands of my best players, while offensive role players set screens and space the floor. Besides, no matter how key people think ball movement is, when the game goes into crunch time and play slows, no one is trying to zip the ball side to side as fast as possible—they play isolation ball, and since the Raptors do this most of the game anyway, they will be in great shape for this style of play. This is evidenced by how well the Raptors close fourth quarters as opposed to many other top teams. In this category, the Raptors are fine.

D: But the ball still ends up in the hands of the stars. Movement isn’t meant to fool the opposition into thinking it won’t. What if your best player isn’t a great ball handler? It’s part of  the process that helps pick apart strategy. I’m with you that the Raptors generally excel at the isolation game, but historically their late game set ups—for DeRozan specifically—haven’t always beared fruit. Head coach Dwayne Casey has improved in this area and late-game timeouts, and his screen game improves with the addition of Ibaka.

That said, this team has admitted to standing around and watching their dynamic backcourt in fourth quarters, something movement helps eliminate and betters isolation when it matters most.

With DeRozan that matters a lot. Like, all the time.

E: Lots of movement in that answer, D.

D: Buckets!!!

FATIGUE

D: DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are arguably the best backcourt in the NBA. They are, however, indisputably the most used.

De-Low are the only backcourt mates on the top 15 list of minutes per game and Lowry ranks first overall in the NBA for minutes per game with 37.7, just a hair ahead of LeBron James. Lowry has also played in four more games than the King, including all of the Raptors’ 1–7 record versus the NBA elite list of Cleveland, Golden State, San Antonio, and Houston.

Toronto’s screen assists are near the top of the league, and they are tops with 9.1 steals per game.

Activity.

Mid-season injuries to DeMar DeRozan coincided with the beginning of the Raptors’ struggles in January and his 34.2 percent usage rate ranked him fourth in the NBA at the All-Star break. More DeRozan is better and as a player hitting his prime, there should be little concern over his fatigue. His contract was earned in part by his durability—521 out of 574 games played in first seven seasons. It’s one of his biggest selling points and a main factor in his getting all that gwop last summer.

Lowry, on the other hand, is exiting his prime years on an ending contract and remains the team’s main catalyst. Squeezing as much as you can out of him now is just smart, even if it rings cold. The support that would normally be expected to relieve him of this “burden” has been injured (Delon Wright) or not quite good enough (Joseph).

The Raptors are deep enough to have avoided similar concerns with others despite a prolonged absence from Patrick Patterson and an even longer readjustment period from DeMarre Carroll, who seems to have finally rebounded from last year’s injury-plagued campaign.

No contender is better at taking care of the ball than the Raptors and few in the league are better at making the opposition pay for their own gaffes. The team averages 18.2 points off of turnovers per game, good for fourth overall. It has also helped them to a league-leading point differential in this category, double the second place LA Clippers. There is a difference between tired and careless, and their deficiencies have been roster-based, not fatigue-based. This might be a smaller-than-you-think window to truly contend with this group, especially with the injury to Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love, and the redline should be in full effect.

E: Trying to maintain that pace of play and relying on defensive gambling for steals is a great way to tire out legs without much payoff. That level of effort is tough for starters to maintain, but it should be the standard for the Raptors’ bench unit. Many people like to point to the Raptors’ depth, but poor stretches of play with their starters off the floor indicate that the depth people perceive is fool’s gold. As much faith as people have in role players like Joseph, Nogueira, Patterson, and company, they haven’t played well enough to earn that respect. When Lowry or DeRozan are injured, resting or strapped with foul trouble, this team has spun its tires and lost to the basement dwellers of the NBA. This has forced Casey to run Lowry and DeRozan on the floor for long stretches of tough minutes in games they realistically shouldn’t have to play the fourth quarter. If the bench doesn’t step it up and allow the Raptors’ stars to rest, fatigue will continue to add up and Toronto will have yet another tired playoff performance.

D: The bench has to be better, no doubt. The return of Patterson will help here, as he was finding his groove after a slow start. You are also right that even with benches shortening in the playoffs, it matters little if your top guys have been left to weather during the regular season. I’ve actually argued this point with some of our colleagues who say playoff depth doesn’t matter with the tighter second-season lineups. They say this mostly because a) they are stupid and b) have never heard of injuries or matchups. There is also a third point—which may be the biggest indicator of value of depth on a contender—and that is to help the stars get to the playoffs in one piece.

Still, it is what it is and the season is as much about figuring out what you are and adapting. A.C. Green is not walking through that door and the falling-on-the-sword act that the Raptors youngsters, of which there are many, will have to do between now and the playoffs should be enough to keep the older bones fresh.

E: You really believe that, don’t you?

D: I do, but might not admit I did in four months.

E: You can’t beat the Internet.

D: The what?

Press Basketball is a sports news organization that brings the old school mentality of the press room to the new age of sports media. Past the gloss and the stat lines lies a game that we all love and Press Basketball wants to remind you why. Featuring video programming, podcasts, written articles, and a community driven social platform, Press Basketball aims to be the “go to” outlet for basketball news in the new age of media.

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Lonzo Ball: The New Face of the Lakers

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Lonzo Ball is the new face of the Los Angeles Lakers franchise. The new savior. The Big Baller Brand is now here to stay and LaVar Ball’s family’s future is set. But is that enough?

Lonzo Ball is a great kid and athlete who knows his talent will take him to another level. The major question mark that remains is whether or not he will take the Lakers there as well. He has the platform and skillset to do so, but with that comes the added pressure from the city and league to basically become part of the next version of Kobe and Shaq. It’s too strainful for a young kid—a rookie—to achieve.  

Magic Johnson, the recently named President of Basketball of Operations for the Lakers, is taking an aggressive approach to get this team back into playoff contention his first year in. One of his first moves was sending D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov to the Brooklyn Nets for Brook Lopez and the 27th overall pick. Brook Lopez is definitely an upgrade at center, but has a couple of years already under his belt.   

Lopez will provide a much needed veteran presence with a great IQ for the game at his position. The only downfall is that a couple of years under his belt doesn’t really transfer to great experience, but simply wasted miles on his body. He isn’t as quick as he used to be and doesn’t even rank in the top 10 centers in the league. In fact, Bleacher Report had him last season at exactly 15 out of the top 30 centers in the NBA. While he is has improved by adding the three-point range to his arsenal, there is no doubt that he is nearly past his prime, and although he can still contribute on a nightly basis, who knows how much and what effect it will have with Lonzo Ball running the point.  

Ball has great court vision that has been often compared to that of LeBron James. Combined with his passing skills, he is a true PG with tremendous upside in the backcourt. With that being said, he will only reach a certain extent. His full potential is years from being maximized and people are buying into it early on. In fact, the pressure for him to lift a sub .500 team to the playoffs for the first time in five years is daunting. 

These are Lonzo Ball’s stats during his rookie—and only—year at UCLA: 

  • 14.6 Points
  • 7.6 Assists
  • 6.0  Rebounds
  • 1.8 Steals
  • 0.8 Blocks
  • 55.1 FG%
  • 41.2 3P%

He did a tremendous job maintaining that statline and even added a triple-double in the NBA Summer League, earning him the Summer League MVP.  

Don’t get me wrong, Ball seems ready for the challenge and is definitely a one-of-a-kind talent mirroring that of Steve Nash and Jason Kidd, but he is not an All-Star or MVP—at least, not yet. These way-too-early predictions that he is the Lakers’ new savior are farfetched. He has yet to face the elite NBA offensive threats and superstars that have been at it for 10-plus years. Defensively speaking he will not be able to keep up. Not in his first year. He still needs NBA experience and a more rounded roster to be able to reach the playoffs.  

He is off to a good start, but being named NBA Summer League MVP doesn’t necessarily mean a spectacular season is coming as some think it does. Especially if you consider the previous Summer League MVP winners.

Year Nat. Player Pos. Team
2012 Damian Lillard (co-MVPs) PG Portland Trail Blazers
Josh Selby (co-MVPs) PG Memphis Grizzlies
2013 Jonas Valančiūnas C Toronto Raptors
2014 Glen Rice Jr. SG Washington Wizards
2015 Kyle Anderson SF San Antonio Spurs
2016 Tyus Jones PG Minnesota Timberwolves
2017 Lonzo Ball PG Los Angeles Lakers

With the exceptions of Damian Lillard in 2012 and Jonas Valanciunas in 2013, the past five Summer League MVP winners have gone on to produce very mediocre NBA careers. All I’m saying is, don’t read too much into NBA Summer League. It’s the pre-preseason that no one really watches or cares about.  

The NBA season is nearing—exactly a month away—and my somewhat harsh criticism of Lonzo Ball isn’t too cruel. I am just not ready to jump on the Ball bandwagon following LaVar’s prophecies of his son being the Lakers prodigal son. He won’t be. Again, at least not yet. He needs to earn his spot and the transition will surprise him his first year in. It will hit him hard, but, despite my concerns, eventually Lonzo Ball will become a future NBA All-Star and a daring NBA point guard.  

Not yet though, and until then all we can do is prepare for his official NBA debut. Until then, we can enjoy and bask in his newly released rap single paying tribute to his little brother LaMelo Ball.  

If the NBA doesn’t end up being his calling in life, at least he has a back up career in mind.

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MELO-dy Cool

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Carmelo Anthony has been traded away from the New York Knickerbockers to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

You probably knew this before you laid eyes on these words.

It honestly doesn’t matter much who the Thunder traded away for “Melo” and who the Knicks received, because they weren’t anywhere near Melo’s overall value. But, it matters that Melo himself is gone and away from New York City, and for all his accolades, he honestly had a major part to play in his exodus.

Melo altogether is a player that both outplayed and underplayed his own potential. No one that saw him at Oak Hill Academy as a high schooler could for-sure say that he’d be a superstar, and everyone that saw him at Syracuse University might say he was a can’t-miss by then.

And he didn’t miss on most of what he’s teased, he’s delivered in a lot of ways; but, the reason why he didn’t work out in New York was because he was selfish to a fault in the key places that required compromise.

Do you remember how he got to Kings County in the first place? He forced a trade to the Knicks from his then-Denver Nuggets, a team that was teasing with talent abundant, but not unlike today, stuck in the mighty Western Conference. With title contenders like the San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers at that time of the NBA, the 2010–2011 season, the Nuggets just weren’t going to make the noise they wanted to make. Melo was a free agent-to-be at the completion of that season, and it was likely that he’d leave. His time with the Nuggets, a very successful time, had run its course. The change was coming, and he was catalyst to the change he wanted to see in his world. Nothing wrong with that.

The problem was that Melo didn’t want to wait for New York. He wanted New York then and there, and it didn’t matter how it was going to happen.

It didn’t matter that the Knicks weren’t in a position to compete for a title during that season, something he long wanted to bring to New York upon his eventual arrival.

It didn’t matter that the Knicks would have to gut their team’s best assets in a trade for the Brooklyn-born, Baltimore-raised native. It didn’t matter that if he waited until the season was over, he could be playing with a young and promising Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov (a revelation upon his arrival to the States from Russia), amongst others.

It didn’t matter that the Knicks would have to sacrifice draft picks for him, instead of keeping them upon signing later.

It didn’t matter to Melo.

And so, when he arrived in New York, in early 2011, he received the adulation and praise of a prodigal son. Sure, the team lost some valuable talent and depth, but surely Melo would will the Knicks into wild success — just like he did in Denver, right?

And sure enough, after he rebuked the Linsanity of 2012 when Jeremy Lin became an overnight NBA superstar and balked at the prospect of Lin’s resigning, he gained some success.

The 2012–2013 season saw Melo as the closest thing to being an MVP candidate that anyone had ever seen from him as a professional in an 82-game season, but not before being totally indifferent to former head coach Mike D’Antoni’s wishes for him to play more at power forward to stretch the offensive side of the ball for the Knicks and the defenses of the opposing league teams. D’Antoni quit before the end of the 2011–2012 season, because of Melo’s loathsome resistance to D’Antoni and the coach’s embrace of Lin.

A big aspect of Melo’s failure to bring glory to Manhattan was his resistance to doing what has made him a legend in USA Basketball. Having won multiple gold medals as a stretch-four shooter, that he refused to embrace that positioning as an NBA pro limited the ability of his teams to win.

As a four, Melo, who had gained grown-man weight from natural maturity and strength and conditioning, didn’t have to be the cavity in his team’s defense as he struggled as a man-to-man defender. Moving from his formerly-natural small forward slot could allow him to defend more ably and allow someone more fleet of foot to stop the dominant wings that Melo often matched up against. Becoming something different and better in a new place would’ve allowed him the opportunity to be greater than anyone had known him to be in an NBA uniform.

But, he refused and rebuked such a change.

And one last thing: Injuries and front office politics aside, Melo was loyal to the Knicks organization through and through. But, he had a choice to go.

So, to recap, Melo forced a trade to New York that gutted the talent of the roster, and then he refused to change to a position that would behoove him and the team in the journey to championship gain.

Well, he also had a chance to leave for greener pastures and become a Chicago Bull, where he could experience more success with a front office committed to his development and surrounding talent. He didn’t want to do that, and that’s fair. New York was home, but if he was going to win in New York, seeing as to how being the way that he’d always been wasn’t helping — that is shoot-first, ask questions and defend later — why return to The Big Apple if you aren’t going to change?

He saw what being a score-only wing was giving his teams — it gave his teams very little success for the vast majority of 14 years. Sure, his Nuggets and Knicks made the playoffs (not so much New York) much of the time, but he said he wasn’t playing for that.

In the end, Melo and the Knicks not working out could be seen before he even became a Knick, when Melo stomped his way out of Denver to play immediately for New York when it would’ve behooved him to stay put for two more months.

Championship or bust, they say.

He couldn’t really compromise too well for the chip, it appears.

In the end, Carmelo Anthony — despite years of league-leading jersey sales, runway appearances, and bright lights on the New York City streets with LaLa — was a big, fat, shining, New York bust.

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Reloaded Raptors Banking on Young Guns

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Masai Ujiri is a smart guy.

No matter which conference your team is in, you’re either stuck with the issue of figuring out how to combat/wait out the Warriors, or you’re stuck with the issue of figuring out how to combat/wait out LeBron James. For Ujiri’s Raptors, the latter is the elephant in the room. So when the offseason came, the club had some decisions to make that would indicate the direction of the franchise’s future, both immediate and long-term.

Ujiri and Toronto GM Bobby Webster were somehow able to re-sign Kyle Lowry for a three-year deal instead of the five years that Lowry desired, and then managed the same with Serge Ibaka. This effectively put the Raptors on a three-year timeline until the next big shift in the franchise. For these upcoming three years, the Raps will stay competitive with their tried-and-tested core, and they will simultaneously cultivate young talent around their stars.

It’s a great formula. LeBron is going to be 33 years old this December, and by the time Lowry and Ibaka’s contracts are up, he will be entering the twilight stage of his career. Suddenly, the East could be wide open again. Ujiri knows it, and he wants to be ready for it.

But what about the present? The Raptors lost a couple of their veteran role players this summer in the re-signing of their core, including Patrick Patterson (an advanced analytics darling), and P.J. Tucker (a terrific perimeter defender). The team also traded away DeMarre Carroll—who was never able to return to his Atlanta peak—to Brooklyn in order to shed his contract, as well as Cory Joseph to Indiana, who snagged them sharpshooter C.J. Miles—swiftly signed to a three-year deal, no less—as a return.

These changes have left the Raps with a squad that, outside of the starting lineup, is quite young. None of their bench players have played more than three seasons in the NBA, and their total average age is about 23 years old. A number of them have yet to see significant minutes, with Norman Powell, Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam, and newcomer K.J. McDaniels being the exceptions.

The regular season is a marathon, not a sprint, and the keys to racking up wins in order to put yourself in a good position come playoff time are chemistry and consistency à la the Spurs. If the Raptors are to continue their regular season success of the last few years, then they’ll need their young guns to step into formerly veteran roles and rise to the challenge.

Thankfully, a few of them already seem prepared to break out and have impactful seasons. Both Powell and Wright gave the team some fantastic minutes last year, especially in the playoffs. Norm in particular was a standout, putting the league on notice with his athleticism and tough defensive play. He was part of the best lineup the Raptors had in the postseason (a +5.3), and the team’s offensive rating shot up from 101.7 to 107.9 when he was on the floor compared to when he wasn’t.

In the first round against the Bucks, Powell went for 55/91/92 per cent shooting, averaging 12.4 points per game and torching his opponents. He was a key cog in helping the Raptors win that series and fully earned Dwane Casey’s trust, which is not an easy thing to do for a young player.

Wright didn’t get quite as much time to shine with CoJo being the primary backup point guard, but when he was on the floor he scrapped defensively and showed in flashes that he was able to run the team. His length and effort have been the two most noticeable qualities when watching him so far, and his nose-to-the-grindstone mentality is one that Casey must love.

Siakam is another high-energy guy, and good for a few minutes a game, although playing him for a substantial amount of time isn’t a great idea since he’s undersized and a below-average rebounder. Jakob Poeltl should get more run, and like Wright—though less frequently—he showed instances of strong play, both on the boards and around the basket.

Perhaps the two most interesting youngsters are the newcomers: Raptors 2017 draft pick OG Anunoby and K.J. McDaniels. Anunoby has been touted as an excellent defender, a grinder, and he already has an NBA body that should allow him to guard multiple positions on the floor. Unfortunately, he’s recovering from an ACL tear and therefore it’s possible he doesn’t even play this season. Still, this is the kind of player you get excited for as a fan and as a coach—he’ll likely be impactful right away, at least in one aspect.

As for McDaniels, he’s spent time bouncing around the league during his three seasons. He’s already played for Philadelphia, Houston, and Brooklyn, and has never had a chance to get comfortable. He’s another player with defensive potential—he’s got some pretty sweet block highlights—but has yet to find any sort of consistent shooting. If he can’t show Toronto something this season, he may be on the move again.

And finally, as we ask every year, is this the season when Bruno Caboclo breaks loose and starts going Brazilian Kevin Durant on the rest of the league? My answer: Unlikely. It may be hard to believe, but Bruno is still one of the youngest guys on the team at 21 years old. His time in the D-League—now the G League—can only be good for him, but his scoring dropped off significantly last season compared to the year prior, when he was putting up double-figure numbers almost every game. There’s still a lot of time left for Bruno to prove himself, and as such it’s tough to imagine that time being this season.

It’s difficult—though intriguing—trying to judge a group of players who don’t have an extensive NBA resume as of yet (I feel for you, Philly fans). Even if one has seen a player be productive in spurts, it’s impossible to know whether or not they’ll be capable of handling a bigger role long-term without actually seeing it. For the Raptors in particular, Powell is probably the only young player that the team has a good grasp on.

So let the experiment begin. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

And remember: It’s all part of the three-year plan.

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