Culture Change + 1: The 2017-18 Toronto Raptors

Culture Change +1: The 2017-18 Toronto Raptors

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The Toronto Raptors’ off-season appeared to have been a disappointment in September. Re-signing Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry were good moves; however, these are aging veterans getting huge contracts. With the These moves stopped them from signing any big name free agents, which looked to hold the Raptors in a state of limbo. However, the disappointment has changed into optimism.

Masai Ujiri Press Conference

The Raptors have undergone a culture change internally, which has led to this change in weather. The architect of the Raptors’ recent success, Masai Ujiri, saw the potential of young guards Fred Van Vleet and Delon Wright. Accordingly, he traded Cory Joseph for cap space to sign C.J. Miles in mid-July, who gave the Raptors some much needed scoring and a greater ability to stretch the floor. Comfortable beyond the arc, Miles has given the Raptors’ offense a new weapon. The Miles move also signaled a change in the Raptors game-plan and their offense.

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After the moves by Ujiri, Raptors Head Coach Dwane Casey has retooled the Raptors and created a new system for the offense; turning it into one which emphasizes ball movement and encourages their players to shoot for three. Furthermore Casey’s offense has seen the Raptors play more of an up-tempo style, resulting in an increase in pace, from 94.7 in the previous season to 98.3. In doing so, Casey has dug into his depth and bench, which has resulted in an uptick of usage for young players. On paper, the Raptors offensive rating has only improved slightly from last season’s rating (112.3 to 113.5). However, when looking at their assist and three point statistics it becomes apparent where the Raptors have improved. Last season the Raptors ranked dead-last in assists per-game, their offense was static and often relied on isolation. Much of their prior offense did not engage all five players, and made it easier to defend. Team basketball is especially important come the playoffs, in past years the Raptors have been exposed in the playoffs, due to their previous isolation-heavy offense.

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This year, the Raptors rank 21st in assists per game, going from 18.5 assists per game to 22.8. The improvement in assists comes largely from their spacing and ball movement. They also have no fear to shoot from three; while last season they shot 24.3 3-pointers per game, this year they have skyrocketed to 32.1. While their 3-point percentage is down from 36.3% to 35.1%, their effective field-goal percentage is up from 51.7% to 53.8%, good enough for 6th in the NBA. This has been Casey’s greatest year in Toronto because of his ability to create an effective team-oriented offense, especially with his use of the second unit and young talent.

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Van Vleet and Wright have seen an uptick in minutes and production, and have been a key players in the Raptors Van Vleet’s net rating of 9.9 is 12th best in the NBA, yet is not even the best on the team. Rookie OG Anunoby has the 2nd best net rating in the league (14.4), and the 3rd best offensive rating (115.5). While these numbers are a bit skewed from Anunoby’s small sample size (21.3 minutes per game), the rookie has exceeded all expectations thus far. A perfect fit for the Raptors tough defensive style, he is the perfect two-way starter. Anunoby’s movement and effort on defense may even be more impressive, as he has the ability to lockdown the NBA’s best as a rookie. The rugged Raptors have continued to defend well, but to get players to embrace their new offensive culture, the Raptors needed their best player to buy in.

Toronto Raptors beat Indiana Pacers in game five 102-99 in their first round NBA playoff series

DeMar DeRozan is a different animal this year, and has been the leader for this Raptors offense. DeRozan’s scoring has dropped from 27.3 points per game to 25.3, but his efficiency, three pointers, and playmaking have all improved. DeRozan is averaging a career-high 5.0 assists per game, and has an effective field goal percentage of 51.8%, also a career-high. An obstacle for the Raptors superstar has been his inability to shoot from three, however, with hard work and an increased volume, DeRozan’s 3-point shooting has improved. He is shooting 3.1 three-pointers a game, which is an increase of 1.4 attempts compared to last season. Additionally, he is knocking down a higher percentage of threes. DeRozan is sporting a career-best 37% 3-point shooting percentage, a huge improvement compared to his 26.6% last season. As DeRozan continues to improve and gain confidence from the 3-point line, the Raptors will become even more potent offensively.

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The Raptors are a good basketball team, but they are not great. But, with one move, they can make the jump from good to great. In particular, the Raptors’ frontcourt could be better. Serge Ibaka and Jonas Valanciunas are not a scary combination; but, the addition of Marc Gasol would see the Raptors become contenders. The Memphis Grizzlies have had a disaster of a season thus far, and are unlikely to make the NBA playoffs. With the season awash, the Grizzlies have discussed moving Gasol. While nothing is imminent, the Raptors have an opportunity to get an NBA all-star. Gasol is potent from three, a former defensive player of the year, an elite rebounder, and an above-average passer. He is a great fit for the Raptors, as he provides rough and tough defense while spreading the floor and moving the ball offensively. This culture change is still in its infancy. It would be solidified and accelerated by acquiring Gasol.

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To add, you must subtract. It seems straightforward for the Raptors to subtract from the position they are adding at, which would mean trading Jonas Valanciunas. The Lithuanian, while highly regarded by the Raptors, has never risen to the heights the team had hoped for. His role has been in question for some time, and the new playing style the Raptors have adopted makes JV stand out as a sore spot. Now JV alone would not be enough but, with a first-round selection and a couple of secondary picks, this deal could get done. A comparable deal would be the DeMarcus Cousins deal between the New Orleans Pelicans and Sacramento Kings from a year ago. Gasol’s price would be lower though, as he is an older player and is not as valued as Cousins.

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The Raptors have a rare opportunity and need to get this deal done. Players like Gasol are rarely available, let alone on a contract that is not expiring. Gasol’s contract matches the team’s ideal timeline, as DeRozan is in his prime and Lowry and Ibaka will likely only have 2-3 quality years left as starters. Grabbing Gasol is a calculated risk, which would most likely not require parting with valuable assets, outside of JV. The culture change has started well, but it is not fully complete. It needs one more piece: Marc Gasol.

 

 

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Lonzo Ball: Basketball’s Greatest Project

Lonzo Ball: Basketball’s Greatest Project

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What comes to mind when thinking about Lonzo Ball? Some might say Lavar Ball, his out-spoken father. Others would say the Big Baller Brand, a sport apparel business founded by his father. Yet, when I hear Lonzo’s name, I think of the future. Recording the most assists in a season at UCLA ever, being the second overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft, and being the youngest player to record a triple-double in NBA history, Ball is worth the hype. Much of the focus on Lonzo has been negative. Many want him to fail, not because of his actions, but more his father’s and his brothers’ actions (LaMelo and LiAngelo), who have both landed themselves in trouble with the media. Lonzo, though, has been classy, and has been a professional throughout his young NBA career. Many are quick to judge Ball’s talent based off of his stat-line. But, those who watch him play understand Ball’s talent.

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Playmaking: Lonzo Ball has found success in the NBA off of the pick and roll. Watch here, where Ball uses the screen of his teammate Larry Nance Jr. to create a lane for himself, then has the patience to draw the double team and find Nance off of the roll. On the surface, this is a simple play that Ball has used effectively. However, the “simple play” shows Ball’s vision. Ball reads the situation and understand how it will play out before it happens. In this particular play, watch how Lonzo recognizes the established screen, and then a cutting teammate. Ball gives nothing away, and lays up a pass to Brandon Ingram. He also shows this vision in transition. The following play, Ball looks down the court and identifies an unestablished defender after collecting the rebound. Using this advantage, Ball hits his teammate, who has made himself available, and the teammate scores. This elite vision makes Ball a dangerous play-maker.

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Clutch: As the game intensifies, Ball becomes more confident and comfortable. Here, in overtime, Ball recognizes the shot clock being turned off, and slows down a fast-break into an established half-court offense. He finds Ingram, and instantly breaks for the corner to run a play, instead of running an isolation play. By getting open, Ball causes his opponents to panic, draws in multiple 76ers, and drives the basket to create more space for Ingram. After having three committed defenders on him, Ball passes back out to Ingram, who scores the game-winning shot. All of this, made possible by Ball’s vision and ability to slow down where other young players might panic.

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Shooting: Ball has shown below-average shooting thus far. Ball is attempting 11.1 field goals per game, and only makes 3.9. Moreover, Ball is shooting 29.7% from three-point range. However, where people need to be looking at is Ball’s fearlessness. Despite his struggles, Ball has no fears of shooting: while he may be a pass-first type of point guard, he is not afraid to shoot. The key here will be for Ball to find his shot. There are options with this:

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Option #1 (The floater): Lonzo’s most consistent shot is coming off of a pick and roll, where he reaches the free-throw line and launches a floater. Watch here, as the Lakers coaching staff continues to run him through the practice of timing and getting his floater off at speed. At 6’6, this shot is perfect for Ball: he has a height advantage over most guards, and it is not difficult for him to jump over a center protecting the rim.

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Option #2 (Mid-Range): It has been documented how Ball has struggled from three, however, in college he posted respectable numbers from three. The arc of the NBA three point line is 23 feet and 9 inches, while college’s arc is 20 feet and 9 inches. In a perfect world Lonzo takes a step or two in and then shoots his shot. This will help further develop his shot and Ball will be able to up his efficiency and confidence. Ball’s shot form is ugly, but it can be effective. Look here, as he consistently knocked down shots from 20-22 feet in college. The mid-range shot is a lost art form in today’s NBA game, but it has been utilized by some of the NBA’s best scorers, like DeMar DeRozan, and should be something Ball considers.

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Option #3 (Driving Layup): Ball’s 6’6 frame can make him a matchup nightmare as a point guard, and he can have success around the rim. With the ability to rise above defenders, Ball can find points in the paint. In this highlight, Ball uses the dribble hand-off, and ball screen set by Nance Jr. to get himself around the corner and then hold his line through contact with Klay Thompson for the bucket. Ball’s size and athleticism give him the ability to rise up and take contact while converting layups. Ideally he utilizes this shot, along with one of options #1 and #2.

 

Ball’s shooting obviously is not his main strength, as he is a pass-first point guard. However, having a key shot or two can make him an elite pass-first point guard. This would resemble the game of Jason Kidd.

Jason Kidd Stat-line for Rookie Season:

33.8 Minutes per Game

11.7 Points per Game

5.4 Rebounds per Game

7.7 Assists per Game

38.5% Field Goal Percentage

27.2% 3-PT Field Goal Percentage

3.2 Turnovers per Game

1.9 Steals per Game

0.3 Blocks per Game

Compared to

Lonzo Ball Stat-line for Rookie Season (Through 27 Games)

33.3 Minutes per Game

10.0 Points per Game

6.9 Rebounds per Game

7.1 Assists per Game

34.9% Field Goal Percentage

29.7% 3-PT Field Goal Percentage

2.9 Turnovers per Game

1.4 Steals per Game

1.0 Blocks per Game

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The pair sport similar stat-lines, having both been starting point guards in their rookie seasons. Kidd’s scoring production and efficiency were better, but their play-making abilities are alike, and Ball surpassed Kidd in rebounding. Paul Pierce, a future Hall of Famer, gave his take on Ball’s early struggles. Pierce explains that Ball, like Kidd, has struggled early on, but with time and experience, Pierce believes Ball will be a better player. Furthermore, Pierce believes the circumstances surrounding Ball – the Big Baller Brand, the Los Angeles Lakers, and being a Top-2 pick – has magnified Ball mistakes. He is under a microscope, and many wish to see him fail.

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In the midst of this there are some who have showed compassion for Ball. Following a Lakers loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, LeBron James pulled Ball aside and gave him some advice. James has said before that he believes Ball will “probably be great” if he continues to work hard. Ball seems to improve week by week, and with a fixed and capable shot, could become one of the NBA’s best point guards. Seeing Ball being compared to Kidd shows his great potential, perhaps they will continue to be compared when Ball’s career over.

 

Big thanks to my editor Geoff Marlowe as always, and a thank you to you the reader! I hope you enjoyed this piece and will be back for the next one in a week or less. For now enjoy your holidays and happy new year!

Unjustified Disrespect: Eugene Melnyk’s Last Stand

Unjustified Disrespect: Eugene Melnyk’s Last Stand

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In 2003, the Ottawa Senators had filed for bankruptcy, but were saved by Eugene Melnyk, a Toronto-born businessman who was eager to win a Stanley Cup. For nearly a decade he helped foster and create a culture of winning and consistency in Ottawa.

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On July 5th, 2013, he made his most infamous decision. Melnyk decided to not pay Daniel Alfredsson’s his requested salary, and the Ottawa Senators lost their greatest player in franchise history. Once heralded as the saviour of the franchise, Melnyk cast away the greatest Senator of all-time for a mere 1 million dollars. This show of disrespect for Alfredsson’s contributions not only wronged the Swede, but it wronged a fan-base who embraced Alfredsson as family.

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Melnyk’s downfall has accelerated over the past few weeks. There had been speculation regarding his desire to sell the team and his ability In the midst of this the NHL 100 Classic, a celebration of the Senators and Ottawa was looming. A win over the New York Rangers this past Wednesday had perked up the fan-base, who grew excited for the outdoor game and its festivities. Then, on the biggest weekend in team history, Melnyk decided to challenge and disrespect the city.

During the Senators’ alumni game on Parliament Hill, Melnyk used the media attention to make a statement.

“I think the market here has to prove itself, or you have to make changes. We’ve cut everything to the bone in the organization. We are probably one of the thinnest management groups in the league. The next thing you have to look at is players.” – Eugene Melnyk

Per Frank Seravalli: (https://twitter.com/frank_seravalli/status/941837557842690048)

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Before 30,000+ paying customers braved frigid temperatures at TD Place, Melnyk felt the need to question the market of the National Capital Region. Recall that Melnyk was fighting for his life in 2015, and used his celebrity status to skip the line and recruit potential volunteer donors. Over 500 people volunteered to donate their liver so Melnyk could receive his transplant. An experience which would have humbled most seems to be forgotten by Eugene. Not only this, but Melnyk used last year’s playoff struggles at the box office as ammunition against his fan-base.

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Melnyk, a long-time horse owner and inductee into the Canadian Horse Racing Hall of Fame claimed that the Rideau Carleton Horse Racetrack “is a little, tiny C track that wouldn’t even make it in the Idaho State Fair.” Melnyk made this comment because the City of Ottawa had declined his proposal and intent to build a casino close to the Canadian Tire Centre. These statements were not only damaging to the horse-racing community, but it was not received well by many regular attendees to the Rideau Carleton Raceway. Melnyk has built quite the reputation in Ottawa. Eugene Melnyk has disrespected the Senator fans on numerous occasions, and fans are bellowing their frustrations.

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#MelnykOut took Canada by storm this past weekend. The hashtag can largely be accredited to Abdi Omer, who first tweeted the phrase on December 14th, but peaked in usage on the 16th. The fan-base is clearly not pleased with their controversial owner who attempted to steal the spotlight on the Senators’ most important weekend in franchise history. Melnyk’s actions and comments have even expanded beyond Canada’s borders and reached the U.S. On Friday evening, Keith Olbermann aired his opinion on Melnyk and the Senators’ unique situation. Olbermann said, “This is not a bright man, even for an owner”. Olbermann highlighted an absolutely ridiculous situation, and brought worldwide attention to it.

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Melnyk’s comments were not mentioned to the Senators’ players until today, when Erik Karlsson was questioned as to his thoughts on Mr. Melnyk’s comments. Karlsson was quoted as saying “It’s none of our business.” Karlsson went onto make it clear that the team’s focus was on playing hockey. Gary Bettman and the NHL took a different line at the situation. “We believe in all of the places that we have franchises now.” Bettman would go on to say the NHL is not looking to threaten markets, and he believes that LeBreton Flats is “vital” to the Senators’ future success, and believes it will also benefit Ottawa as a city. Bettman firmly backed Melnyk’s ability to get a deal done, but I would be incredibly surprised, if he was the sole owner of the Senators as they move to LeBreton Flats.

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Recently, talks of selling the team have heated up, and the Desmarais family has emerged as a possible buyer for the Senators. The Desmarais family was with the Devcore, Canderel and DLS group, who were the competing bid against that of Melnyk’s for the LeBreton Flats development. This same group has previously tried to buy the Senators from Melnyk. The events from this weekend will remain in infamy for some time, and you can be sure that things will not got better for Melnyk if he continues to be the owner of the Senators. Therefore, I am willing to make a bet. By this time next year, Melnyk will not be the sole owner of the Ottawa Senators. I do see a possibility of him remaining a minority owner, but there is no way he could recover from this and remain the sole owner. He has betrayed Ottawa and the National Capital Region once again, and for many this was the last straw. This past spring, Melnyk blamed “previous management” for the Senators attendance woes, and Don Brennan, a post-media journalist, responded by saying “It must be Eugene Melnyk”. Many months later the narrative stays true. What is the problem Mr. Melnyk? Simply put, it is you.

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Your continuous penny-pinching roster moves have plagued the Senators and stained management’s reputation. The Alfredsson decision still has ramifications today, as Alfie recently stepped away from his hockey operations position with the Senators. Melnyk is even entertaining the thought of repeating negotiation history with Karlsson’s contract coming due. According to reports, Melnyk was quite “unhappy” after Karlsson made it clear he would not be taking a hometown discount. The Sens fan-base would likely launch into anarchy if Melnyk let Karlsson walk, as he did with Alfredsson. Furthermore, the constant belittling of Ottawa and its citizens is insulting. It is nearly impossible to sell a product to people, whom he continuously disrespects. Melnyk has expressed his frustrations and the fans have responded vigorously. It is time for new ownership in Ottawa.

 

 

My wonderful readers, thank you so much for your support. Apologies for the lay-off school and work gave me a busy November and December, but I am back and hoping to better than ever. I hope you enjoyed this piece and those which are to come. Thank you to Geoff Marlowe for the editing as always, and I hope that your eyes will grace Josh Saslove’ Sports Talk again in the near future. Happy holidays everyone!

Only in New York: A Unicorn Plays Basketball

Only in New York: A Unicorn Plays Basketball

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On June 25th 2015, the New York Knicks rolled the dice, by drafting the future face of their franchise, Kristaps Porzingis. It was immediately met with criticism. The draft was in Brooklyn, which led to an invasion of unimpressed Knick fans. Fans originally hated the pick. How did Porzingis react? “I have to do everything that’s in my hands to turn those booing fans into clapping hands.”

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The 7-footer is the prophecy, which the Knicks have been waiting for. Porzingis has become a star for the Knicks and is one of the best players in the NBA. In a pop culture sense, the most recent time Knick fans have been this happy was when Jeremy Lin took the Big Apple by storm, and started the multi month-long tear that was Linsanity. Porzingis is no short distance horse, though, he is a full-blown unicorn. As of November 12th, through 11 games, Porzingis has averaged 30.4 points per game, 7.3 rebounds, and has the 2nd highest player efficiency rating in the NBA at 30.62. He is responsible for 3.4 wins added to the Knicks record this year; the Knicks only have 7. The NBA season is just over a month old, and Porzingis has already taken the NBA and social media by storm: The Latvian superstar has obtained a following, and created attention for the Knicks that has not been present in years. The same fans who booed him on draft night, are now over the moon to have him.

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Porzingis’ contributions come from his ability to stretch the floor by shooting threes, his defensive skills, where he excels in the paint and at protecting the rim.  He is able to use his height as he rises above defenders, the big also grabs a large amount of offensive rebounds. When you factor in that Porzingis is only a mere 22-years old it is incredibly fair to say that the Latvian is just getting started.

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Porzingis’ success has been facilitated by successful off-season activity by the Knicks. The team let Derrick Rose walk, traded Carmelo Anthony, and had Phil Jackson fired as Knicks General Manger, all of whom were holding Porzingis back. Rose and Anthony were taking the ball and scoring opportunities away from Porzingis, and Jackson frustrated Porzingis by mentioning him in trade talks, and questioning his value on numerous occasions.

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Without these subtractions, Porzingis’ production would not have yielded such an  increase. Rose and Anthony’s style of basketball inadvertently affected Porzingis, as he struggled to find ball time. Porzingis has the 3rd highest usage rate in the NBA this season at 36.1%; however, the past 2 seasons, he had never made it above 25%. Playing similar minutes to last year, Porzingis has seen his field goal attempts rise from 14.9 to 21.5, and his free throw attempts from 3.8 to 7.3. Porzingis is the unequivocal star of the Knicks. Some say this was Phil Jackson’s plan all along, frustrate the 7-footer so bad that it would light an unquenchable fire underneath him. Thus, turning him into the NBA’s next prodigy. Whether this is true or not, one thing is certain. Porzingis is living proof that unicorns are not just a fantasy.

 

Author Notes: Just wanted to say thank you to everyone who has supported me over this past year, since I brought the Sports Talk back in its current format. It has been an absolute pleasure to write, post and receive feedback on these articles. I put out 28 posts in the first full year, and I am hoping to blast through that number and hit at least 40 this year. Huge thanks to Geoff Marlowe, for helping me along the way whether it be editing or spitballing ideas with me. And once more, thank you to you, the reader for taking your time to read my work. I sincerely appreciate, here’s to another great year of reading!

Duchene To The Sens: What Does It Mean?

Duchene To The Sens: What Does It Mean?

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Matt Duchene’s name was in trade rumours for nearly 2 years, and for the majority of that time his name was connected to Ottawa. After multiple failed attempts, Pierre Dorion’s persistence paid off, and on Sunday evening, the Senators finally got Matt Duchene. With the trade finally made, it comes time to break it down and analyze what all of this means.

The official deal:

Sens Receive: Matt Duchene from COL

Predators Receive: Kyle Turris from OTT, sign him to a 6-year $36M deal

Avs Receive: Shane Bowers, Andrew Hammond, 2018 1st round pick & 2019 3rd round pick from OTT, and receive Samuel Girard, Vladislav Kamenev and 2018 2nd round pick

In Duchene, the Sens gain an Olympic gold medallist who has hit 70 points in a season and is only 26 years old. Furthermore, he has a year remaining on his contract after this season, which buys the Senators time to sort out their salary cap situation. Duchene also brings more speed, and will arguably produce even more with the talent provided in Ottawa, like Mike Hoffman. Guy Boucher has talked a lot about “playing fast” and how Ottawa is best when doing so. Playing fast in Boucher’s mind is breaking out quickly, transitioning quickly and doing everything with speed. Duchene exemplifies this with his quick feet and stick. Here, Duchene goes the length of the ice in 7 seconds or less. He starts off with a quick breakout, transitions into an offensive opportunity, and finishes with a goal. This explosive speed is exactly what the Senators needed to add to their Top 6.

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To acquire Duchene, the Senators had to part with a Top 6 forward, losing Kyle Turris.  Contract talks between Turris and the Senators had broken down recently, though. The Sens were put in a position where they had to sign Turris in a short timeframe, or he would walk away during free agency. Yes, they gave up Turris, but his replacement is arguably the better player. As well, Turris immediately signed a 6-year $36M deal in Nashville, which means he will make $6M per year until he is 35. With this, the Sens likely dodged a bullet there. While $6M seems reasonable for Nashville, it would not have been on the table for Ottawa. If Turris accepted that contract with Ottawa, he would make approximately $2.8M after taxes; in Nashville, $3.6M. That is a huge, underlying factor, which likely made Nashville much more attractive at $6M a year. Dealing Andrew Hammond gives some cap relief, as his time was clearly up with Condon firmly secured as the back-up. Shane Bowers may have been a first-round pick, but the Senators prospect pool is incredibly deep at the moment, and they did not have to give up Logan Brown, Colin White or Thomas Chabot. The picks are fine to go, because the Sens are pushing right now and do not need to stock up on young talent. They want to win; this trade solidifies that notion.

With the Senators indicating that they want to win, let us look at what their current lineup, when healthy, looks like:

Forwards:

Bobby Ryan – Derrick Brassard – Mark Stone

Mike Hoffman – Matt Duchene – Ryan Dzingel

Tom Pyatt – Jean-Gabriel Pageau – Chris DiDomenico

Zack Smith – Nate Thompson – Alexandre Burrows

Additional Talent: Colin White & Filip Chlapik

Defensemen:

Johnny Oduya – Erik Karlsson

Dion Phaneuf – Cody Ceci

Freddy Claesson – Chris Wideman

Additional Talent: Thomas Chabot, Ben Harpur and Christian Jaros

Goalies:

Craig Anderson

Mike Condon

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If Thomas Chabot can make his way onto the Senators roster and replace Johnny Oduya, the Senators’ Top-6 defensemen would be battle-tested and ready to go. As for the forwards, moving Zack Smith could make the team better now and secure your future. Colin White will be coming off of IR soon, and is good enough to play in the NHL right now. His development could take a huge step forward this year. Smith has been somewhat underwhelming, and has a hefty cap hit of $3.25M, with 3 years left after the 17-18 season. If the Senators were to move him, they would not only free up a spot in the lineup for White, but would free-up cap space for July 1st, 2018. This is when Matt Duchene, Mark Stone, and Erik Karlsson all become available to sign extensions.

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The Senators’ salaries currently total $71.291M, with the cap at $75M. If Smith is moved, and White takes his spot $2.325M of cap space is freed up. Assuming Clarke MacArthur is eventually either placed on long-termed injured reserve or has his contract traded, this would free up an additional $4.65M, leaving the Senators with a $64.316M cap hit. If Karlsson is signed for $10.5M, Stone for $6.5M, and Duchene for $6.5M, this would put the Senators at a cap hit of $64.044M going into the 2019-20 season, where the cap would likely be over $75M. Even if Karlsson, Stone and Duchene, each wanted an extra million, there arguably could be space for that. Going into 19-20 they would have the following twelve players signed:

FWDs: Bobby Ryan, Mark Stone, JG Pageau, Matt Duchene, Mike Hoffman, Logan Brown

D: Dion Phaneuf, Mark Borowiecki, Erik Karlsson, Thomas Chabot

G: Craig Anderson, Mike Condon

10 current prospects who could be ready by 2019-20: Christian Jaros (D) (Age: 21), Filip Chlapik (F) (Age: 20), Drake Batherson (F) (Age: 19), Alex Formenton (F) (Age: 18), Max Lajoie (D) (Age: 20), Ben Harpur (D) (Age: 22), Christian Wolanin (D) (Age: 22), Marcus Hogberg (G) (Age: 22), Francis Perron (F) (Age: 21), Nick Paul (F) (Age: 22).

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And these moves would leave money for their young talent exiting their entry-level contracts (Colin White, Freddy Claesson and Cody Ceci). Furthermore, some of the young talent like Christian Jaros, Filip Chlapik, and Drake Batherson could very well be on the Sens roster by then, and could still be one Entry-Level Contracts, keeping costs down. If that is the case, they would have no problem being competitive and under the cap. The numbers don’t lie, and the math spells that these moves can secure the Senators’ future and keep them at an extremely competitive level.

 

Matt Duchene’s move to the Senators is a calculated risk, but a worthwhile one, especially considering his apparent want to play in Ottawa. This move is a step forward for the Senators, but it should not be the only one. They should consider empowering their young talent by moving older parts. Guy Boucher talked about “playing fast”, and these young players are incredibly quick and will only learn how to play Boucher’s style with more time on the ice. The Ottawa Senators are extremely close to replicating their Eastern-Conference Final run, and putting together a roster that can compete for years to come. It is a good time to be an Ottawa Senators fan.

Patience Is A Virtue: The Houston Astros Your 2017 World Champions

Patience Is A Virtue: The Houston Astros Your 2017 World Champions

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On Wednesday, the Houston Astros won their first World Series. The road to the World Series was a challenging one for the team: the Astros only other prior World Series appearence in 2005 saw them get swept, and prior to 2017, they had only made the playoffs 10 times in 54 seasons. The Astros lost 324 of their 486 games from 2011-2013. Fans attempted to remain optimistic as the Astros stockpiled prospects. Then, in 2014, Sports Illustrated published what will go down as one of the most legendary baseball articles in history.

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The June 2014 issue of Sports Illustrated included an article claiming that the Astros would be the 2017 World Series champions. The raised doubt throughout the baseball world, as many of the Astros prospects had yet to play in the MLB. The Astro on the cover was George Springer, one of the first pieces of the Astros’ project. Springer was taken 11th overall by the Astros in the 2011 MLB Draft, a selection seen as questionable. The risk panned out, as Springer was named World Series MVP.

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Jeff Luhnow was tasked with the Astros rebuild. Luhnow had won a World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011, and had drafted and scouted many of their core pieces. Luhnow demanded patience upon arriving in Houston, and preached a vision for a brighter future, trading away veterans and stockpiling draft picks. The Astros showed a glimpse of the future in 2015 with an ALCS playoff run. Following this, Luhnow moved to acquire veterans, including Josh Reddick, Brian McCann, Justin Verlander.

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“You won’t regret this decision if you decide to join the Houston Astros.” Dallas Keuchel, Houston’s ace,  made this sales pitch to Justin Verlander shortly before the trade deadline this season. Verlander had been a Detroit Tiger for his entire career, but the two were going in opposite directions: while the Tigers wanted to get younger, Verlander wanted to win. After rejecting other trade attempts, the 34-year old gave in and went to Houston. Verlander dominated in Houston, posting a 1.06 earned run average and five wins in five starts. The playoffs were no different, as Verlander led his team to the World Series by fending off the Boston Red Sox and capturing the ALCS MVP.

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Not all of these Astros were highly touted prospects or superstars, though. Jose Altuve tried out for the Astros in 2007 at the team’s Venezuelan facility. He was told he was “too short” and was cut. Altuve’s father pushed him to not take no for an answer, and Altuve returned and was eventually signed for $15,000. From age 17 to 21, Altuve played for the Astros affiliates in 7 different minor leagues before he finally got the call. Even after making the MLB, Altuve would return to Venezuela to play for the Astros’ winter league team. Altuve has gone from being “too short” to being a World Series champion, and is the odds-on favourite to be the American League MVP.

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At the end of the day, all the accolades and hype that came prior to this, they mean absolutely nothing to these gentlemen. As all of these men are now World Champions and have had this chapter told. For some, this is just the beginning of their illustrious careers, but for one it is likely the end of the road. Carlos Beltran, one of the most consistent players of his generation is now 40 years old, and well past his prime. This was rumoured to be his last chance at a World Series, and bi-god he got it done. Beltran became emotional at the end of his interview, dedicating the win to his birthplace, Puerto Rico. Beltran also spoke of what it means to him, and how when you reach the “Big Leagues”, you want nothing more than to experience this moment.

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Beltran’s case, sums up everything of what this World Series win means to Houston. After the devastating weather, which ravaged their fine city, many of its residents rallied around this team. Rebuilding their city may seem difficult, and it will take time, but they can look to the Astros for hope. An organization who was once a laughingstock is now on top, because they remained patient and worked hard. The Astros finally realized that moment, and the city felt it with them. Your 2017 World Series Champions, The Houston Astros.

Embrace The Hate: The Western Conference Arms Race

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The Golden State Warriors are the NBA’s most polarizing team: if you are not with them, you are certainly against them. This reality is apparent to those on the Warriors as well; Klay Thompson stated it best in claiming that “All the greatest teams are hated. So we embrace it.”  Thompson and his teammates are aware they are not well-liked, and they are even more aware of the ripple effects of the “super-team”, as Western Conference team owners have adjusted to the new reality and have opened their wallets to attract the NBA’s best talent.

The Western Conference was plus-42 in games against the Eastern Conference last year, and this number should be eclipsed this year. Players in the Eastern Conference have jumped ship to the West, including Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, Jimmy Butler and Paul Millsap. There are 12 teams in the Western Conference fielding playoff-calibre rosters, and 2 out of the other 3 teams (everyone other than the Suns) could feasibly compete for the last 2 playoff spots in the Eastern Conference. When was the last time a conference in the Big 4 was that deep?

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In 2010, Kevin Durant made a large statement. The Finals MVP called out the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers’ Big 3s; yet, 6 years later, Durant would follow the same path of those he criticized. Do not think players around the league did not notice. Kevin Durant leaving Oklahoma City set off a chain reaction, and, while it made the Warriors nearly unbeatable for an entire season, it inspired others to create their own super teams. The Oklahoma City Thunder, the Houston Rockets, and the Minnesota Timberwolves all beefed up in big ways this off-season, creating even more competition.

Speaking of competition, there are 5 teams in the West who are sure bets to make the playoffs: the Warriors, Spurs, Rockets, Thunder and Timberwolves. After that? It is wide-open. The race for the remaining 3 playoff spots may deliver some of the best basketball that the NBA has seen in years. This race will likely come down to the final weeks of the season, and will see the likes of Damian Lillard, Blake Griffin, and Anthony Davis fighting for a playoff spot. There will likely be 2 or 3 teams who miss the playoffs despite having a strong roster, and, because of geographical reasons, will be forced to watch, instead of participate in, the playoffs. The idea of abolishing conference seeding, and going by league-wide seeding, has never made more sense than now. Of the 16 best teams in the NBA, only 5 play in the Eastern Conference.

Here is my list:

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Top 16 NBA Teams:

  1. Golden State Warriors
  2. Cleveland Cavaliers
  3. Houston Rockets
  4. San Antonio Spurs
  5. Oklahoma City Thunder
  6. Boston Celtics
  7. Minnesota Timberwolves
  8. Toronto Raptors
  9. Washington Wizards
  10. Los Angeles Clippers
  11. Utah Jazz
  12. Portland Trailblazers
  13. Milwaukee Bucks
  14. Denver Nuggets
  15. Memphis Grizzlies
  16. Sacramento Kings

The only other Eastern Conference team worthy of the list could be the Miami Heat. The Western Conference’s chase of the Warriors has inspired competitiveness and a desire to win, players in the West will carry a chip on their shoulder each and every game. Do not be surprised if the Warriors have some hiccups during the regular season, and their road to the Finals may not be as simple as one would expect.

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These super-teams have been formed with a simple purpose: to beat the Warriors. While LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers will likely be awaiting whoever beats the Warriors, the goal remains the same, and the greatest climb will be beating Golden State. And do not be confused, not all these players are in their prime. There is a strong youth movement in the Western Conference. Look at the Minnesota Timberwolves, for example. Jimmy Butler is the veteran of their Big 3 at 28, with Andrew Wiggins only 22 and Towns merely 21. The T-Wolves are not even close to their full potential. The Portland Trailblazers’ average age is 24.9 years old, and they are still considered by many to be a playoff team. The talent stretches to all ages out West.

Last year’s NBA Rising Star Challenge featured Team USA vs. Team International, and 14 of the 22 participants were from Western Conference teams. Furthermore, 4 of last year’s East All-Stars are now playing their basketball out West. While this sucks for the Eastern Conference, it is gold for the NBA. Many east-coast viewers will be staying up late to watch the big boys play late at night, as the West Coast is truly best. What does this all mean?

  1. You should watch Western Conference basketball
  2. 11 Western Conference teams will have 40 or more wins
  3. The NBA should abolish conference seeding
  4. The Warriors are not going 16-1 in the playoffs
  5. The NBA will be the most entertaining it has been in quite some time

 

Welcome back basketball, it is going to be a great year, and thank you Golden State for inadvertently saving a horribly imbalanced product.

 

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