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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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Ride The Wave

Back in October the sky was the limit. LeBron had decided to move to LA and join the Lakers. Things were good then.

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Back in October the sky was the limit. LeBron had decided to move to LA and join the Lakers, drawing in a decent support team and a lot of talk that the West was looking incredibly dominant next to a “weaker” East. Things were good then.

Five months later and things couldn’t be farther from that idylistic picture. The East thrived without the King and GMs put together some of the most noteworthy teams in a while. And the Lakers? The Lakers currently sit in the 11th spot of the Western Conference with very little hope of making it to the playoffs. They’re a team that is constantly attacked for their lack of chemistry, skill, and effort. For the first time in a long time, LA became synonymous with “hopeless”.

This wasn’t the future we saw for the King.

On the heels of a night filled with one of his greatest achievements ever, the Lakers as a team walked away with a loss to the Denver Nuggets. A night that began on a high note went out on one that was equivalent to sour candy. Furthermore, a frustrated team left an arena, hopped on social media, and found a bevy of congrats for their star player, while enduring the storm that came with another Lakers loss.

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The answer is unfortunately, yes. It’s always going to be this way, and there is no fighting the current, but there is beauty in riding the wave. Embracing that moment when the wave comes crashing down on you is important, because it’s always going to happen, but your attitude will always be remembered. LeBron rides high, and keeps things in the positive light for the media, but he’s got to realize that they are writing his story, and he doesn’t have to play into their’s. Ride the wave, and take the loss in stride with all the great that has come with it, but take the loss because your part of a team that is.

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Something Out of Nothing

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It’s March 2016, and I’m driving with Alan Shane Lewis to Montreal to meet with Marc Griffin and Phil Boileau. We’re meeting to speak about this exciting new idea I pitched to them. We were tired of spinning the wheels on our own individual internet shows, and I told them that it was time we stopped waiting for a network and became the network.

We spoke that weekend about creating a community of content creators that all loved ball and came together to make unique content with unique voices – voices we felt were never heard in the mainstream. This community was the base of Press and we’d continue to push forward from that spot. We spoke about some amazing show ideas, article ideas, social media plan. It was truly an exciting time, and still one of the best weekends of my life.

Two years later and that group is a lot smaller, and that idea is Press Basketball.

It caught fire at the beginning and we had people joining our bright shiny new plaything left, right, and center. It was exciting, but now I kind of realize that a lot of it was just that we were that “bright shiny new thing”.

We ended up with a lot of Press Basketball “members” but when I stepped back and looked at what was happening… it wasn’t what I’d imagined. The fire burned out. The idea was gone. We had just become another thing trying to stay alive, waiting for some deus ex machina to show up with money and make everything okay.

I’ve gone through most of my life making something out of nothing. It’s never easy, but when it happens it’s always worth it… ALWAYS. Press made me feel alive at a point. It was literally all I could think about, and while it still is on my mind, it doesn’t make me feel alive. This hurts more than I can ever explain.

Changes are coming my friends. We’re not laying down and dying, and if we do it’s not going to be like this.

The core of Press will be setting fire to a lot over the next few weeks and I personally can’t wait for this to start. From the ashes something new will rise (I watched a lot of XMEN growing up).

Stay tuned, because it’s not over.

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