Put Up or Shut Up: The Raptors’ Roadmap to Beating King James

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For the 3rd straight year, the Toronto Raptors will face LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Playoffs. The past 2 years were immensely disappointing for the Raptors. 2016 saw them lose a 6-game series, where they were, quite frankly out-classed in Games 5 & 6. To add salt in the wound, last year they were utterly embarrassed as they got swept to the curb in 4 games. In both of those series the Raptors were underdogs according to seeding, talent and experience. However this year, while the Raptors remain underdogs in talent and experience, they hold the seeding advantage over the Cavs. Accordingly, they hold home-court advantage – the Air Canada Center is a hostile environment where the Raptors are not only comfortable, but thrive. Therefore, the excuses need to stop, it’s time to put up or shut up for the Raptors.

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Of the 3 years the Raptors have met Cleveland, the Cavaliers have never been weaker. Kyrie Irving is gone, Kevin Love has been woefully inconsistent as of late and the Cavaliers’ bench and role players are a shell of their former selves. The Cavaliers are more dependent on LeBron than ever before. He willed them through a grueling 1st round series against the Indiana Pacers, which went 7 games and came down to the wire. That being said, the Raptors cannot stop King James offensively and they absolutely cannot match him in star power. But, there are 4 ways in which they can improve their chances at dethroning King James – and they will need to excel at all 4 if they want a chance at redemption.

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#1: Sticking To The Game-plan

Earlier this year I wrote about how the Raptors underwent a drastic culture change. A team who undermined themselves in the playoffs with their isolation-heavy offense, the Raptors took a step forward this year by improving their ball movement and 3-point shooting. The Raptors attempted 35.4% more 3-pointers this season as compared to last, and ranked 4th in 3-pointers made. During the 1st round, the Raptors torched the Washington Wizards from 3-point land, cashing in on 41% of their attempted 3’s – up 5.2% from their regular-season numbers. Re-visiting ball movement, their assist numbers were also up 31.5% as they have increasingly emphasized team basketball. This helped up the Raptors scoring to 111.7 points per game, good enough for 4th in the NBA. Unfortunately, their ball movement has begun to dip during post-season play. The Raptors dropped from 24.3 assists per game to 22.2, and DeMar DeRozan – the Raptors best player in isolation – has seen his scoring frequency drop from 49.2% in the regular season to 36.8% during the 1st round. With DeRozan likely to go head-to-head with LeBron on offense, isolation will want to be avoided, as the Raptors ball movement and team basketball will prove to be more successful than asking DeRozan to consistently beat LeBron 1-on-1.

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#2: More Jonas and Less Serge

Toronto’s Head Coach Dwane Casey is finally starting to see value in his starting center Jonas Valanciunas. Valanciunas averaged 24.7 minutes per game during the regular-season, but during the first 4 games of the 1st round he played 23 minutes or less. Including playoffs when Valanciunas plays 23 minutes or less the Raptors are 33-15 (68.75%) compared to 27-10 (72.97%) when Valanciunas plays 24 minutes or more. The Raptors series against Washington changed altogether when Valanciunas got court-time during the 4th quarter something that had previously eluded him under Casey’s tutelage. The Raptors were +25 in just under 15 minutes when JV played in the 4th quarter, as opposed to the Raptors usual 4th quarter center, Serge Ibaka who was just +2 in slight less than 24 minutes of 4th quarter play. Ibaka is not what he once was, and his overall effectiveness, particularly this post-season is similar to that of his sophomore year. Furthermore, JV has proven to be a much better match-up versus Cleveland this year compared to Ibaka, who despite more minutes was significantly outdone by JV in points per game, rebounds per game, plus-minus and shooting efficiency against Cleveland. The Cavaliers have failed to find consistency at center, as Tristan Thompson has been an up and down rollercoaster all season, so this would be the ideal time for Valanciunas to bang bodies down low. He would be tested defensively, specifically if he was matched up with Kevin Love who can spread the floor, but this is the challenge JV needs to reach another level. I believe Valanciunas is the x-factor for this Raptors team, and that he can be a difference maker. With an uptick in minutes for JV, and a reduction in minutes for Ibaka, both players can benefit. Valanciunas being a match-up nightmare, and Ibaka providing more impactful minutes with his additional rest.

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#3: Contest the Glass and Shots

It is easy to see why the Raptors must contest the glass, as the more rebounds they grab the less time they give LeBron to run the Cavaliers offense. While the Cavaliers do not excel at grabbing rebounds (14th of 16 playoff teams), they are tough on their opponents down-low, as they contested 39.1% of the rebounds in their series versus Indiana (3rd of 16). Contesting rebounds wears down opponents, and can slow down their offense or even create extra possessions for your offense. The Raptors contested 35.8% of the rebounds versus Washington, and while that is great, their rebounding overall was underwhelming. The Raptors lack great rebounders as they try to play small, but this is where Valanciunas and Jakob Poeltl are important as they can make a huge difference on the glass. The European duo will likely be rotated on and off for each other in many of the Raptors lineups against Cleveland, and accordingly when on the court these 2 need to be absolutely ferocious in the paint. Among qualified players, only 14 players have contested 50% or more of their rebounds this playoffs – and both JV and Poeltl find themselves on this list. These numbers not only need to be maintained, but improved by the supporting cast. Rebounding must be by committee, just like the defense. At 1:22 of TSN’s segment with Jack Armstrong & Leo Rautins, the pair expertly break down how the Raptors closed out Game 6 versus Washington. Not only were shots being contested, but as soon as the ball went into the air 4 Raptors collapsed into the paint, so as to box out and rebound the ball. The Raptors led round 1 of the playoffs in contested shots, contesting 70 shots per game. However, that was largely because of their defense inside the perimeter. The Raptors ranked 2nd last in contested 3-pointers, something which will need to improve against a potent 3-point shooting team like the Cavs. The Raptors will need to contest everything versus the Cavaliers, and accordingly wear them down.

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#4: The 1-2 Bench Punch

The bench includes the unsung heroes of the Toronto Raptors; from Delon Wright to Pascal Siakam, the Raptors bench is the best in the league. They can go deeper than any other team and they can mix and match with the best because of their depth. They bring defense, energy and team basketball. Anyone can get hot from the field, many can lockdown a hot scorer and they will all go to war. However, there are 2 players who stand above the rest. In the 1st round the Raptors were without Fred VanVleet, an undrafted sophomore out of Wichita State, but his impact was felt in Game 6. The Raptors were +12 with VanVleet on the court, and he gives them unmatched poise and confidence in the 4th quarter. VanVleet has shown this poise and confidence, by playing more 4th quarter minutes than any other Raptor this season. He is crucial for helping close out games, but he has help in Delon Wright who has also been incredible down the stretch for Toronto. Wright is longer than VanVleet and offers more versatility defensively as despite being a point guard he stands at 6’5 with a 6’7 wingspan. Watch here, how Wright uses his length and size to create something out of a dead possession. Not only is he a floor general when Lowry is not on the court, but he is also lethal off-the-ball as his basketball IQ helps him find open shots. From the same game as before, we see Wright never take his eyes off the ball while moving his feet to give Lowry a secondary option, which in turn results in a high percentage 3-pointer. These 2 will be vital to match Cleveland when they go small, and they can protect Toronto’s big men by closing out the perimeter.

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At the end of the playoffs last year I was admittedly frustrated with the Toronto Raptors and thought they were cooked. However, with a reworked culture and playstyle, the Raptors have gone to another level, and have a legitimate shot at beating the Cavaliers. Now while they can, the million dollar question is: will the Raptors be able to defeat LeBron James and the Cavaliers? Unfathomable to my former-self a year-ago, I am now going to answer yes. In most scenarios I would pick LeBron regardless of who he was playing against. But, this year feels different. LeBron’s supporting cast is as weak as ever, and the Raptors have never been stronger. This smells like a 7-game series that will be a war. One thing I am certain of is that the Raptors need to stay the course with their reworked culture, while following the outlined roadmap. Otherwise King James will simply be all too much to handle. This is it Toronto, there is no time for talking or complaining.

 

It is time to put up or shut up.

 

Thank you for reading, and I hope you have a wonderful day. Go Raps Go!

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LeBron Season: Where will LeBron James land this summer?

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LeBron James is the best basketball player in the world –  this is an irrefutable fact and needs to be acknowledged. On numerous occasions he has won the NBA Championship, each time as the best player in the world, and has even delivered upon his promise to bring the fledgling Cavaliers franchise a championship.

Getting down to business, LeBron is in the last year of his contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Cavaliers made a number of  moves at the trade deadline to help them both in the future, and for the remainder of this season. This begs the question: will LeBron stay, or go? I believe his mind is already made up. This July, LeBron will be taking his talents to a new destination.

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The Cavaliers have been attempting to prepare for life without LeBron for awhile. The team’s recent moves, while productive and calculated in the short-term, are more focused on the future rather than the now. The players they brought in (George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance) are not rentals, but rather insurance policies, as the Cavaliers know the likelihood of LeBron’s departure is quite high. With LeBron’s departure seemingly imminent, the question remains: where would LeBron go? Let’s visit where LeBron is at both professionally and personally.

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He is one of the most accomplished basketball players of all-time, achieving the title of world’s best player, as well as building a global brand. LeBron’s brand includes: Klutch Sports Group – the brainchild of Rich Paul and LeBron – was the 34th ranked sports agency by commissions ($20.7M) in the world during 2017. During the All-Star Game, LeBron had the phrase “More Than an Athlete” on his shoes, a slogan used by both him and his production company Uninterrupted. LeBron’s initial $1 million investment in Blaze Pizza is now estimated to be valued at a minimum of $35 million. On top of all of this, LeBron has a minor stake in Liverpool FC. It is clearly evident that one of the world’s top athletes’ business interests extend well beyond the basketball court. Therefore, it would only make sense for LeBron to take his talents to a bigger U.S. market in an effort to further expand his brand. According to this theory, only 3 NBA teams would make sense for LeBron.

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Firstly let’s open with the obvious one. The Los Angeles Lakers and LeBron have been linked for some time. LeBron has had quite a few television and movie ventures, so it would only make sense that the star makes his commute to Hollywood much shorter. Furthermore, Klutch Sports’ current location is Cleveland, Ohio. Assuming LeBron wants to continue its growth, a bigger market such as Los Angeles would be a great business move. In December, LeBron, who spends off-season time in L.A., bought a second home in the Brentwood neighbourhood. Additionally, rumours have surfaced that LeBron’s family has been scoping out private schools in the Brentwood area for his children. However, recently the Los Angeles Lakers have cooled off on their expected pursuit of LeBron.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Golden State Warriors

First reported by Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne, the Lakers are intending to shift their focus and priorities to the 2019 free agency class. A class which would include the likes of Kawhi Leonard and Klay Thompson, both Los Angeles natives. However, the Lakers did make moves at the trade deadline to clear cap space for not only the summer of 2019, but for this summer as well. The hunt for LeBron could still be on for the Lakers, but I believe their little brother could slip in and steal The King away.

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“Our ultimate goal isn’t to beat one other team…. It’s to beat 29 other teams. If you tell me you were the top team in L.A., but the 28th team in the league, I say to heck with that.” Steve Ballmer, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers has made it apparent that his intentions for NBA success remain focused on winning the NBA Championship. What better way to position your franchise than to have the best basketball player in the world? LeBron could easily end up on the Clippers. The Clippers off-loaded Blake Griffin’s max contract this season to make cap room, and, with some tinkering of the roster, there could be a Clippers future with LeBron James. With the Clippers front-office working overtime to make cap room, Jerry West, now a consultant for the Clippers, has the opportunity to lure LeBron to the franchise. A man LeBron refers to as “The Godfather”, West was brought in by Steve Ballmer for this exact purpose: to attract and recruit the best basketball players in the world. It must be reiterated that this move for LeBron would not only be a great move on the court, but off the court too, as he would not only be in Los Angeles, but he would also be aligned with multi-billionaire Steve Ballmer. The Clippers may seem to be a darkhorse in this race, but as time continues to pass, it seems more and more plausible for LeBron to be a member of the Los Angeles Clippers.

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Another plausible destination for LeBron is Houston. Teaming up with Chris Paul, James Harden, and the rest of the Rockets,they could turn an already established title-contender into a potential favourite, even over the Warriors. This move for LeBron would undoubtedly be more oriented towards winning and basketball, but it would also leave room for growth off the court as well. Houston is a Top 10 media market in the U.S., one of the fastest growing cities in America, and has tax exceptions to allow LeBron to retain more of his paycheque. Houston would be a great location for LeBron to move his empire. It seems like a perfect fit, except for one potential problem. LeBron is very passionate about politics, and going to Texas means he would be in a state which primarily supports Donald Trump – someone who LeBron does not see eye to eye with. Many are probably thinking, “Ya, but why would LeBron care?” To those people, remember LeBron’s motto “More Than an Athlete”. Would this be a deal-breaker for LeBron? No way, but I believe that LeBron’s political agenda will certainly have an influence on his decision as to where he would like to play.

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Those are the three teams which best fit my theory for LeBron. Does this mean LeBron to Los Angeles or Houston is a sure thing? Absolutely not, there are plenty of other teams which may make sense too. But, none seem to compliment LeBron’s on-court play and off-court interests quite like these three franchises. A lot of things could change by July, but rest assured, we will be kept guessing and theory-crafting all the way up until LeBron James signs his next contract.  

Disagree with me, or have some feedback? Let me know on Twitter (@sassysaslove), on my personal Facebook, or in the comment section below. Please do not forget to share my work with your friends, and to stay tuned for more of my posts. Thanks for stopping by, and I hope to grab your attention again sometime soon.  

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!

A League Of Its Own: Irving for Thomas

A League Of Its Own: Irving for Thomas

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Kyrie Irving will play his first game of the 2017-18 NBA season in Quicken Loans Arena on October 17th. Irving won’t enter as a Cavalier, though. People called Celtics fans crazy when trade rumours hinted that Irving could be traded for Isaiah Thomas. Yet, on Tuesday evening, an impossible deal became a reality. Danny Ainge’s overhaul is complete: Kyrie Irving is the final piece of the puzzle. But, will Kyrie be enough to push the Celtics over Cleveland?

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Isaiah Thomas’ injury in the 2017 NBA Playoffs brought Boston’s championship hopes to a halt, as the team managed only one victory against the Eastern champion Cleveland Cavaliers. The Celtics and Cavaliers will likely meet in the same place this year. But, the series will now focus on LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. This is the dream scenario. The greatest basketball player in the world versus his former sidekick, who was accredited with winning him a title in 2016. LeBron who got back in the gym immediately after losing the NBA Finals vs Kyrie who mocked LeBron with Steph Curry after the video was posted. The series will pit the greatest player in the world against an old teammate. The rivalry will be good; however, Irving will need to elevate his play to make it great.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyrie Irving

Kyrie Irving is an extremely talented player, who has shown an ability to step up in important moments. However, Irving has never been “the guy”. Having lived in LeBron’s shadow for the majority of his NBA successes, Irving has played a supporting role alongside one of the all-time greats. Now, Irving has been given the starring role on the Celtics, and must run with it. These improvements must come in his play-making ability. Irving did not control the ball while in Cleveland, despite being point guard. Ball-handling duties lay with Lebron James, and Kyrie benefited from his elite play-making. It will be a different story in Boston, as Irving will be running the show. For the Celtics to excel, Irving must thrive as the star of the team.

Now what has LeBron been left with in Cleveland?

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The full package for Irving saw Cleveland receive Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the Nets 2018 1st round pick. Thomas is a downgrade from Irving in the long-term; though, Thomas had a spectacular season last year, leading the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals. Cleveland knows exactly what it will get from Crowder, a gritty defender who will come off the bench and play tough minutes. Zizic and the Nets pick give the Cavaliers flexibility. If the season goes poorly, they can hold onto these assets and start stacking prospects and picks. Although, the more likely avenue is for the Cavaliers to shop Zizic and the Nets pick, and get another piece. That begs the question: who will this piece be?

NBA: Sacramento Kings at New Orleans Pelicans

The exiled, loud mouthed, and talented Demarcus Cousins. Why not? One of the best big men in the NBA, and a considerable upgrade over Tristan Thompson. Cousins is likely on his way out of New Orleans by the end of the season anyways, as he has an expiring contract. This way, the Pelicans can stockpile an extremely valuable pick with the Nets pick, and potentially even land a prospect in Zizic. Another weapon that LeBron can spread the floor with would bring the Cavaliers that much closer to the Golden State Warriors, and maybe help them create an inside presence that the Warriors could not handle. Obviously, this is the best case scenario for the Cavs, and would not happen overnight. This is a trade that would likely happen mid-season if the Pelicans’ experiment with Cousins and Davis continues to fail. It would be a gamble. With this likely being LeBron’s last season in Cleveland, the Cavaliers may sell the proverbial farm for one final run at the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

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The first of its kind, the Irving-Thomas trade has the chance to be historic for both sides. A win-win trade, where both teams could be better in the short-term. Boston will be better off long-term, if Irving takes the next step. Although, the onus now falls on the aforementioned Irving. He got his wish, he is the finally “the guy”. The Duke product needs to seize this opportunity and never look back. Kyrie has a chance to step out of LeBron’s shadow, the spotlight is on him.

Head on over to my Twitter (@sassysaslove) or my Facebook to continue the discussion!

Please also vote on this week’s Twitter Polls:

Thanks to everyone who read this article, it feels great to be back writing after the summer off, and I will be trying to pump out even more content this year! As always, thank you to Geoff Marlowe for helping with the editing process, and I will hope to see you again next week for more of JSST!

Just My Thoughts: The World of Sports (May. 4-10)

Something Smells: The NBA Playoffs Are Not Special

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It would be an understatement to say that I like sports: if I’m not watching a game on TV, I’m likely checking scores in other games or following breaking stories on the Internet. This spring, though, I have found myself watching little of the NBA playoffs. While I stay up to date on Twitter watching highlights and clips, I cannot bear to sit through an entire game. The game has become dominated by two super-teams, and the first three rounds serve only as formalities in reaching their inevitable faceoff. The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers are both 8-0 through the first two rounds and their average margin of victory is 13.06 points. It is rare that their opponent is competitive. While Cleveland and Golden State’s runs are impressive, they represent the worst of sports.

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A third-straight Cavaliers/Warriors Finals is the product of the larger issue in the NBA playoffs: a lack of parity. The problem lies with the lack of competitiveness in the playoffs now. Only one lower seed has been able to beat a higher seed in the NBA playoffs thus far, when the Utah Jazz took down the Los Angeles Clippers in seven games. The series was unquestionably the best of the NBA playoffs in the first round. The largest margin of victory in any game was eight points, and every game was tight. Though, the victor of that series had little to celebrate: Utah would go on to play the Warriors in the second round, and be bumped to the curb in four games and forgotten.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Phoenix Suns

Where is the parity? The NBA has a flawed model allowing teams to spend into the luxury tax. The luxury tax is in place to attempt to increase parity by taxing teams who spend over the salary cap. This cap is a “soft cap”, allowing teams to go over it by paying a penalty. The absence of a “hard cap”, however, has resulted in unprecedented disparity. Teams are able to assemble rosters of superstars that can only be beaten by one team – coincidentally, another super-team. The Golden State Warriors have benefited from Stephen Curry’s inexpensive contract, but have spent well past the salary cap in acquiring the likes of Kevin Durant. The Cavaliers, with Lebron James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving, have also employed this strategy.

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The era of Cleveland/Golden State finals match-ups has shown the need for a hard salary cap to ensure parity in the league. A hard cap would keep super-teams from assembling and make the early rounds of the playoffs competitive. Consider the National Hockey League for proof of a successful hard cap. While the NHL had endured decades of super-teams, the 2005-06 season brought a hard cap, and with it, newfound parity.

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The hard constant dogfight to stay at the top. NHL teams are constantly forced to re-organize, bring in short-term players, and be loose with their players in order to create their best product. Consider the Chicago Blackhawks. Their general manager, Stan Bowman, has been remodeling the team since their Stanley Cup in 2010. The Hawks have had to trade the likes of Dustin Byfuglien, Patrick Sharp, Brandon Saad, Andrew Ladd, and Nick Leddy to stay within the salary cap. These trades have seen elite players improving their new teams, furthering parity throughout the league. But, these moves have also kept the Blackhawks competitive for nearly a decade.

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Conversely, consider the Golden State Warriors. They have traded away worse players for upgrades. This summer the Warriors managed to acquire Zaza Pachulia for Andrew Bogut and Harrison Barnes, and then traded Festus Ezeli. It does not seem to make sense to trade away all these role players, but of course they used this freed up money to acquire Kevin Durant. Instead of having to downgrade, the Warriors in their third year at the top of the NBA got a serious upgrade easily. The Hawks finally won a title after 49 years and instantly had to trim the fat. If the NBA wants to have competitive playoffs with consistent parity, there needs to be a shift in how money is spent on players, by spreading the talent of the league.

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The NBA is a wealthier enterprise than the NHL, and with their latest TV deal of $24 billion it is very difficult to argue that owners are not making money. With this mind, there is lots of money in place that could make the league much more competitive. With a proper salary cap in place, it is reasonable to believe that the NBA playoffs could truly be unpredictable. When was the last time the NBA had a Cinderella win the NBA Championship? 1995 is the answer. The Houston Rockets came in as a sixth-seed, having only won 47 games in the regular season. Led by Hakeem Olajuwon, the Rockets were able to upset three 60-win teams, and then take down the Orlando Magic and Shaquille O’Neal in the NBA Finals. This was an incredible run, and can be best defined as unpredictable, something like this would never happen in the NBA today.

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The consistent results, and predictable outcomes are getting old. Charles Barkley from the NBA on TNT, provided a quality soundbite this past Monday, when he said he would rather watch the NHL playoffs than the NBA playoffs. Barkley went onto talk of how the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets match-up hardly mattered, as whoever would win that would simply be served to the Golden State Warriors on a platter. The Spurs and Rockets could play seven games against one another, and could have the best series of the playoffs. Yet, like the Utah Jazz in the second round, it will all be squandered by a super-team from Golden State.

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It is difficult to argue that super-teams are good for basketball, even from a financial standpoint. Super teams could bring a massive drop in the NBA’s viewership. This past season national viewership dipped by a modest 6%. However, the NBA took a big hit in local ratings. As of the first week of February, NBA regional sport networks reported they were down 15% in viewership. The ratings were not just dropping in small markets either, with Cleveland seeing a 28% drop-off in viewership compared to 2015-16 and seeing a 35% drop-off in viewership. Chicago and Cleveland are considered two of the NBA’s hottest markets, yet even they are seeing a large drop.

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It is time for change in the NBA. The Canadian markets are on fire right now, as the Toronto Maple Leafs’ local viewership rose by 27%, and Edmonton Oiler broadcasts were up an astounding 40%. CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada block at 7pm EST saw a 9% increase in viewership, while the 10pm EST block saw a 6% increase. The NBA lacks this growth, because they are bound to have the same narrative of Cavaliers and Warriors for three years in a row. While their ratings will not likely take a hit in the Finals, they will experience pain on the way there. No one will want to see the 28 other teams. All they will want to see is the two super teams play each other. Make every game matter again NBA.

 

Note to my readers: Sorry I could not provide you with the tidbits this week! I believe that with my schedule this summer I will subtract the tidbits for the summer, as I simply do not have the time to complete them and be satisfied with them. I will continue to attempt to punch out an article each week, however, and hope you stay along for the ride! Thank you for your support as always!

Special thanks to Geoff Marlowe for helping with the editing work and a big thank you to you the reader for taking your time to read my work! Appreciate it! Hope you continue to read along, if you have any suggestions/comments/questions, please feel free to inbox me or talk to me on Twitter @sassysaslove.