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.

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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.  

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.

 

 

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!

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!

Embrace The Hate: The Western Conference Arms Race

NBA: Golden State Warriors-Championship Celebration

 

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.

 

Thank you all so much for reading! It truly means the world to me, and now having much more time at my disposal I can promise this will once again become a weekly activity! So please every week feel free to read and give me feedback, this is how I can always continue to improve! I enjoy so much writing and I enjoy it even more when I get feedback and know people are reading my works. So thank you again for reading, it is my absolute pleasure to share my work with you.

Thanks also to my editor Geoff, who commits time to making sure my work is at its best quality. If you have any recommendations or would like to continue the conversation hit me up on Facebook or on Twitter or Instagram @sassysaslove!

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!

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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!