Week 1 Bubble Report

The wait is now officially over.  I know we’ve had scrimmages for a while now, but it feels different now that we have the NBA back with full force.  A few things to say off the bat before I get into the specifics; the NBA has demonstrated through the success of this bubble that they are the highest functioning sports league in the world.  How they were able to create a safe and enjoyable environment for its players and staff, how they were able to adapt to the no-fan format smoothly, how they were able to keep the owners and players steady financially while still having the call for social change in the spotlight.  It’s all worked out better than I dared hope, and Adam Silver deserves a lot of praise.  The NBA has threaded the most difficult needle sports has seen this century, and we should acknowledge that.

Ok, moving on…

 

The injury list

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One thing we were worried about happening as the NBA resumed was increased injury risk.  NBA players have their bodies and their lives on a strict schedule and with the new frequency of games and the acceleration from no basketball to pre-playoff basketball, we’ve already seen some scary injuries amongst high level players.

The first came before the bubble even started.  Domantas Sabonis was having a stellar year for Indiana.  A first time all-star and face of the Pacers, Sabonis was set to be one of the defining players in the Eastern conference playoffs before going down to a foot injury pre-scrimmage.  Reports say he’s making good progress but that Indiana doesn’t want to try and rush him back for this year’s run at the East.  This puts a real cap on what the Pacers can do to teams on the inside.  The Eastern conference is chock full of talented interior players, most notably Giannis, Joel Embiid, Bam Adebayo, and Marc Gasol.  The Pacers could really have used Sabonis, but I think they’re right not to try and rush him back and risk further injury.  If T.J. Warren continues to average 40 in the bubble, they may not even need him.

The two real sad injuries so far have been Ben Simmons and Jaren Jackson Jr.

The Triple-J injury is just a bummer.  The Grizzlies were one of the feel-good stories in the league this year and Jackson was playing incredible ball.  I’ve always really liked his game and it sucks now that he’s out.  This makes the race for the Western 8th seed even more wide open.  I can almost see Damian Lillard licking his chops at the prospect of an all or nothing game against the Jacksonless Grizz.

The Simmons injury has a little more consequence in the grand scheme of things.  We all remember how Simmons suffered a spinal injury before the league shut down in March.  We thought that it could spell a no-show from Simmons in the post-season, but since returning to the bubble he’s been playing better than ever.  That’s what makes this latest injury so heartbreaking.  The 76ers were finally starting to find some quality roll players to put around Simmons and Embiid, and it looks like it’s all for moot.  The one interesting thing will be what this’ll mean for next season (if there is one).  I’ve often said that if the Sixers disappoint in the playoffs again this year, it’ll be for the last time with this core.  Many have speculated the Simmons/Embiid pairing to be a bad marriage, and the argument of “They’re young, give them time” has been whittled away with each passing year.  I wonder if a Sixers run without Simmons will convince the team to run it back again.  I hope it doesn’t.  I’m a believer in both of them, I think they both have the upside to be MVP candidates one day, but the truth is they’re holding each other back.  If I were the Sixers, I would trade either of them to the highest bidder this offseason.

 

Yowch! That’s hot!

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On to something a little cheerier.  We’ve seen the on-court play, if not shaken, then stirred by the move to the bubble.  Some players have had trouble adjusting to the new environment and lack of fans, but some have come out like Al Pachino at the end of Scarface, guns a-blazin!

Some of these hot hands make sense.

Anthony Davis has looked like a monster.  Leading the bubble in effective field goal percentage and free throws made.  Thus far, the Lakers offence has looked half-interested at times, but AD has looked like Karl Malone out there.

Speaking of monsters, Luka Doncic has found a different way to post an obscene stat line in every Mavericks game so far.  First putting up a 28-point triple double against the Rockets, then dropping 40 on the Suns, and finally slapping 34 points, 12 assists, and a career high 20 rebounds to bury the Kings.  The Mavs haven’t won as much as their star’s stats would suggest, but Luka has left nothing to be desired.

Meanwhile, some of the hot hands are more out of the blue.

Far be it from me to talk about the Raptors, but Fred VanVleet has been on a tear lately.  He’s gotten to the point with his dribble drive that he’s picking teams apart like a surgeon.  He’s hitting 3s from everywhere, automatically finishing inside, and the scariest part is that it doesn’t look like just a hot streak.  We’ve seen guys in the past who heat up for a week or two and bomb shots left and right until they eventually return to the mean.  But with Fred it looks more like he improved his balance somehow over the break.  Before, I would think about how losing VanVleet to free agency would be a real bummer for the Raptors, but this stretch has convinced me that we absolutely, 105%, MUST keep him.  When Lowry starts to decline, Fred will be ready to take over, and I think I’ll be ok with that when it happens.

VanVleet, ok.  But T.J. Warren?  He’s always seemed like a more of a third banana to me.  A solid wing scorer who could get you 20 but couldn’t get you much else.  Well, up that 20 to 53 and that’s what we have with bubble T.J. Warren.  Who would have thought that after Oladipo’s fall from grace and Sabonis’s injury, T.J. Warren would absorb the scoring output of BOTH of those guys?  I doubt this is anything close to the new norm, but it’s fun to see the Pacers stay in the mix.  They’re a likeable team, and Warren has taken too much shit during his time in Phoenix for me to bring him down now.  I take back what I said last week about Bol Bol, T.J. Warren is the greatest player of all time.

 

Devin Booker

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It’s sometimes difficult to separate Devin Booker from the Zach Lavines, Trae Youngs, and D’Angelo Russells of the world.  Gifted offensive guards who will but up big stats and lose every night.  It’s taken me a while to fully develop an opinion on Booker.  I’ve always liked his scoring and his development from a 6th man at Kentucky to the face of the Suns franchise, but until now it was tricky to project what he could be in the league.  Well, now we can say that Devin Booker has fully come into his own.  The Suns are playing well, it may be a fluke, but still, Booker has had the most efficient offensive season of his career, he’s played the best defence of his career now that he has other ball handlers to take some of the scoring load off his back, and last Tuesday he rained points in at will against the likes of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard.  I don’t know what the Suns ceiling is, but with Booker proving he’s set for a career of all-star games and with Deandre Ayton improving on both ends, we may see them back in the playoffs before long.

 

I’m gonna try and make these reports weekly.  See you next Friday!

Biggest Takeaways from the NBA scrimmages

Basketball is back!

With the NBA bubble officially underway, us diehard fans have been serviced to a week and a half of pre-pre-season scrimmages.  It’s been a bit of a mixed bag.  On the one hand, the majority of these games are being played by the last guys on the bench (Yippee! Brad Wanamaker!), but on the other hand I’m just happy to have basketball back.

While it is the first whiff of NBA action we’ve had in months, I think it’s important not to read too far into these scrimmages.  Nobody’s giving 100% effort, teams are trotting out their deepest bench guys, and winning and losing has zero consequence.  All that said, I’ve definitely been reading into it.  I’m trying to keep everything in perspective, but basketball is basketball and games are games.  We can discredit what we’ve seen so far, but we can’t ignore it entirely.

So what have we learned so far?

 

Bol Bol is the greatest basketball player of all time

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The son of 7ft 7 Manute Bol has always attracted attention from the media.  Standing a modest 7’2” with a nearly 8 ft wingspan, Bol Bol dazzled scouts in high school and in college with his incalculable basketball potential.  Emphasis on incalculable.  Bol missed the majority of his freshman year at Oregon with a foot injury and has spent most of his first NBA season with the Nuggets sidelined as well.  His name, his shooting, and his length draw you in, his frame and injury risk draw you out.

We’ve been wondering vaguely all year when we were gonna at least get a glimpse of this kid.  Let’s at least see him run off the bench.  Get some reps.  Try to develop his game during garbage time at the end of games, but for 5 months we got nothing.  Well, now we got it.  Bol played in all three of the Nuggets preseason games and looked awesome.  Averaging a cool 14 points, 6 rebounds, shooting 35% from three, and swatting away 3 shots a night.  The most interesting part is that they’ve been playing him as a forward.  This allows the Nuggets to run a super dupersized lineup of

PG) Nikola Jokic (7’0)

SG)  Michael Porter Jr. (6’10)

SF) Jeremi Grant (6’8)

PF) Bol Bol (7’2)

C) Mason Plumlee (7’0)

It’s like trying to score against a pack of dinosaurs.

It’s very early, and it’s true he’s been putting up these numbers in meaningless games, but if Bol can play like this when it starts to matter the Nuggets may have yet another unicorn on their hands.

Again, we have to remind ourselves that this is preseason.  He’s playing against other 12th men in low pressure situations, but what we’ve seen so far has been encouraging.  I’ll be interested to see how the Nuggets use Bol during these seeding games.  It’s not playoff ball yet, but the games do start to matter now.  Has Bol played well enough to secure himself a real place on the Nuggets rotation?  I don’t know.  But he has earned the opportunity.  I’m excited to see what he does with it.

 

The Blazer’s bigs are back!

The Trail Blazers have been one of the sadder stories in the league this year.  What’s the opposite of a feel-good story?  A feel-bad story? A not feeling-well story?  Anyway.  The 2020 Portland Trail Blazers have been a not been a feel-good story.  Until now.

With the return of Zach Collins and Jusef Nurkic, Portland can now operate at max capacity for these 8 seeding games.  The two have looked good so far, particularly Nurkic, who has come back leaner than before and now doing serviceable defensive job switching onto wings and forwards.  Imagine if Jonas Valanciunas didn’t move around like he was wearing cinderblocks for shoes, that’s Nurkic.

Before the scrimmages, I was skeptical anyone would be able to snag the 8th seed from the Grizzlies.  The gap was too wide, and the teams were too inconsistent, but now with the Blazers looking like a new and improved version of their playoff team from a year ago, we may have a real slugfest on our hands for the last spot in the West.

 

The Lakers backcourt is better?

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After losing Rajon Rondo to injury and Avery Bradley to racial prejudice, Lakers fans were starting to get a little nervous about facing the playoffs with this backcourt.  Granted, Rondo and Bradley are not cornerstone pieces for the Lakers, but when potentially going up against Harden, Westbrook, Lillard, Morant, Lou Williams, Jamal Murray, or Donovan Mitchell, you want your best defensive guards on the case.  Rondo is set to return before the second round of the playoffs, but even still.

To compensate, the Lakers signed Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith.  Two world class knuckleheads who combine the confidence of Kobe Bryant with the habits of Jerry Garcia.  I was more than a bit concerned with how the Lakers would fair with a new guard rotation of Smith, Waiters, Caruso, and Quinn Cook, but so far the team has looked great.  Better even.

J.R. Smith has been one of the league’s best spot up 3-point shooters for years now, and he gives the Lakers the same floor spacing he gave the Cavs during their playoff runs.  Smith made 4 finals and 42 million dollars standing in the corner and hitting 3s.  If anyone knows how to play in a LeBron offence, it’s him.  Alex Caruso has quietly been one of the better perimeter defenders in the West this year, and while the Lakers will surely miss the defensive play of Avery Bradley, I think the team will actually benefit from giving Caruso more minutes.  He’s bigger and more switchable than Bradley, and while he’s not the same playmaker as Rondo, the offence is gonna flow through LeBron anyway.  One more thing, don’t let the big name fool you, Rondo hasn’t been a good defender for years now.

Maybe the strangest development yet has been the play of Dion Waiters.  If there was one weakness with the Lakers this season, it was their lack of shot creation when LeBron was off the floor.  Anthony Davis is great, but he’s still a big, and bigs need to be fed, Rondo is far past his prime, and Kuzma can occasionally create his own shot, but not really shots for others, and neither consistently.  For better or for worse, Dion Waiters is not afraid to create his own shot.  Waiters’ belief in himself is enough to make Kanye blush, but it’s that same willingness to take the offence into his own hands that makes him such a valuable sparkplug off the bench.  I’ve watched a lot of these scrimmages, and Dion Waiters holds the league record for most “no, no, YES” shots by a mile.  In the playoffs, LeBron will be running things for 38-42 minutes a night, but if Waiters can come off the bench and hit some shots in those extra 6 minutes, he’ll have served his team well.

 

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is here

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There’s something to be said about dominating lesser competition.  I noticed it in the box scores with Giannis and Harden, they would get to their 30 points with such absurd ease during these scrimmages as a testament to the gap between them and their opponents.  You can tell when watching the scrimmages who the real superstars are by how they’re able to score at will against lesser competition, and by that metric, SGA is a superstar.

The Thunder played him some extra minutes with and against deep bench guys in their games against the Celtics, Sixers, and Blazers, and it was almost embarrassing how he was able to dominate.  He did everything.  He cut through the defence with his signature twitchy style, he finished through contact, hit threes, everything.  I’ve long been an SGA believer because I believe in all my fellow Canadians, but in these scrimmages, he looked like a superstar.  Not a star, a superstar.

 

NBA.pngAnd the fun has only just begun.  We have our first real games today, Pelicans vs. Jazz at 6:30 and Lakers vs. Clippers at 9:00.  Brace yourselves folks.  The wait is over.  Basketball is back!

The Decemberists review

Yeah, this is a slight divergence from the NBA content you’re used to seeing from me.  I don’t know if this is just a one-time thing or what, but in this basketball draught I’m trying to expand this blog’s horizons.

While I might be a bigger basketball fan than I am a music fan, my physical, mental, and natural inclinations are all much more directed at the music world.  I play a few instruments decently well, I preform sometimes, I love to explore new genres and discover new artists blah blah blah.

Now that you have my credentials, here’s my degree:  Most of my musical knowledge I learned from my dad.  He’s a strong piano player and music fan in his own right, and through him I got what he and I like to call my “musical education”.  Banging his head in reminiscence of the hair he used to have, my father taught me the laws of the musical world.  Laws like;

  • Aretha Franklin is a goddess and should be treated as such,
  • Rush is the perfect Rock band for nerds like you and me,
  • Synths were born in 1979, died 1987, and should be remembered fondly but not too fondly,
  • Elvis is solid but all the black artists he covered do the song 120-300% better
  • The Cars are fun and dumb,
  • Radio Head is smart but not always fun,
  • Don’t be afraid to like sweet sentimental guys with acoustic guitars,
  • Don’t be afraid to like Showtunes,
  • Classical music does not suck,
  • Duran Duran does,
  • All of Elvis Costello’s music sounds the same and it still rules,
  • You have to learn about rap on your own because I’m white and grew up in Connecticut,
  • The best genre of music is good music.

I’m proud of my musical education.  And yeah, it leans late 80s, but that’s not a bad direction to lean.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about today.  I’m going to do a review of the Decemberists and rank their albums in ascending order.  An indie rock band from Portland Oregon, the Decemberists are special to me for a number of reasons.  First, they walk a cool line between rock and pop and folk and all other kinds of weirdness.  I love groups that cross genres.  They’re also really wordy.  If you listen to the lyrics closely, you’ll be able to hear the complexity of their storytelling and the fancy words they chose to tell them in.  More fuel for their fire of quirkiness, and more draw for literary nerds like me and my dad.  Lastly, they were one of the few bands I remember my dad and I discovering together.  Most of my favourite bands and artists are all old, or at least past their prime.  I remember I used to think that great music was a thing of the past.  That it lived and died in the 20th century, and that I’d missed the boat.  But to be able to live through the prime of a band like this, alongside my musical educator, that was what made me love the Decemberists even before I appreciated what they were talking about.

I’m pretty confident in saying that the Decemberists are my favourite band ever.  There are other groups I prefer at certain times for certain moods, but in preparation for this blog post I re-listened to all nine Decemberists albums and I didn’t skip a song.  I can’t think of another band I could do that with.

I know most of you reading this won’t know the band’s music as well as I do, but I encourage you to listen to one of these albums today.  If you’ve never heard of them, listen to a song, if you’ve heard one song, listen to an album, if you’ve heard one album, listen to a new one.  They’re really worth your time.

Anyway, let’s dive in…

 

#9 Castaways and Cutouts

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It’s unsurprising that a band’s debut album is their weakest.  Released in 2002, you’d think that a young band trying to start its career would conduct themselves with a green wild, a looseness and inexperience that would make their work messy, but in the case of the Decemberist’s Castaways and Cutouts it’s the rigidity that brings it down.  As a group, the Decemberists aren’t complex melodically, but it’s the lyrics and range of tunes they play that makes them so unique.  That’s why Castaways and Cutouts doesn’t work, it’s too slow, it’s too repetitive, it sounds like a kjillion other artsy college bands.  They show some signs of life with their ending track; Youth and Beauty Brigade, but by that point it’s too little too late.

I think the key struggle this album has is that the band hadn’t found themselves artistically yet.  They had a talented singer and lyricists, and were sophisticated people, but they didn’t have an identity.  In their own way, they showed their inexperience with this album.

Grade:  C

 

#8 Billy Liar

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It seems unfair.  This four song EP is 25% awesome 25% solid and 50% meh.  The title track of same name is one of the better hard openings of the band’s career.  No fade, no bullshit, just right into it with the solid piano chords and Colin Meloy’s unmistakable voice.  Unfortunately, the rest of the mini album isn’t as good, and to make matters worse, the song quality fades away.  The second-best song, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, is the second track of the album, then the third is the third best and so on.  This gives us an album that plays in descending order, something that should be avoided at all costs.  Because of its lack of length and oomph I can’t rank Billy Liar any higher than this, but it does get the nod over Castaways because of its brief flash of vibrancy.

Grade:  B-

 

#7 Her Majesty the Decemberists

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Similar to Castaways, Majesty has a lot of the same kind of repetitive strum strum songs that brought down the band’s first album.  The difference is three of Majesty’s eleven songs are really good.  If you want your ‘just deserts’, the songs to listen to are:

  1. Song for Myla Goldberg
  2. The Soldering Life
  3. The Chimbley Sweep

With these, we start to get some of the more ambitious musical elements that elevate the Decemberists into their prime (electric and acoustic guitar mix, brush drumming, upright bass, accordion) and some of the dark 18th century imagery that define the band’s narrative style.  The quality is inconsistent throughout the album, but we can see the gears turning here.  We get these little nuggets of what’ll make them great in the end, and that drives this album above the two mentioned before.

Grade:  B+

 

#6 What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World

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The quality really jumps here.  What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World got mixed reviews from mixed audiences on its release in 2015.  The band tried to simplify their songs a bit for this album to try and appeal to a more mainstream audience.  While this did work in the end, a handful of hardcore fans felt a bit betrayed.  They mostly bleat that classic pipe about ‘selling out maaaan’.  I wouldn’t listen to them.  Granted, you can hear the shift in this album compared to the others.  The songs are catchy for sure, but they don’t have the darkness, same level of creativity, or overall signature sauce as some of their other work.

Still, I really liked this album.  I was 14 years old in 2015 and wasn’t really attuned to any sort of depth, lyrical or otherwise, so it didn’t bother me that the band decided to lean pop with this one.  It didn’t bother the mainstream either.  Tracks like Make You Better got some real play on pop radio on the album’s release, and that song in particular even got its own music video staring Zach Galifianakis.

The band still uses its signature quirkiness to let us know that What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World is still a Decemberist album.  Philomena, a song all about the desire to perform certain oral acts, gives a raciness to a pretty subdued collection of songs.  Its ringing chorus of female sopranos makes this a standout track when listening to the album all at once.

Other standouts are Cavalry Captain for being maybe the most Rock & Roll, A Beginning Song, which ends the album with grandeur and beauty, and Anti-Summersong, which gives a nod to the band’s long time fans.  Anti-Summersong is a flip on the song Summersong from the band’s album Picaresque.  Here, they take the song’s original, darker, jangling, minor riff, and flip it major so that it sounds like a happy-go-lucky Western bop.

This album was a success, we can’t deny that, but it didn’t blow anyone away either.  I think that if not for the real genius we see in some of the later albums, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World could have ranked a lot higher.  It being this low should be a testament to the other albums rather than a knock on this one.  The only thing I don’t like about it is the title.  Too wordy right?  I can even find a good abbreviation for it like I did with the others.  Hmm.

Grade:  A-

 

#5 The Hazards of Love

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Hazards of love is by far the band’s craziest, and most ambitious album.  A three act, Shakespearian, Rock Opera, that features an overprotective Goddess, a shapeshifting deer, a double suicide, a triple filicide, rape, ghosts, and some of the most challenging vocal scores the band ever composed.  The whole thing is absolutely bat shit crazy and I love it.

It starts out with this girl Margaret finding an injured deer in the woods.  The deer then transforms into this dude William and the two fall in love.  William happens to be a sort of demi-god and the adopted son of the Queen of the forest.  William asks if the Queen could make him a mortal man so he can be with Margaret, but the Queen wants William to stay by her side and reminds him how she found him abandoned as a baby.  Finally, she agrees to let him see Margaret as a mortal for one day, with the promise that he’ll return to her side afterwards.

Meanwhile we get introduced to the Rake.  The Rake is a disgruntled widower who’s three children drive him nuts.  So, he kills them all and doesn’t feel any remorse for it (if I had to pick the catchiest individual song of the whole album, The Rake’s Song is probably it.  It’s dark and horrible and awesome all at the same time.  I feel bad listening to it at my summer camp though).  The Queen of the Forest asks the Rake to kidnap Margaret, and she puts them both on an island surrounded by water.  When William comes to Margaret’s rescue the Queen uses her power to churn the water into a riptide.  William begs the Queen to let him cross, promising to never be mortal again, and with the Rake about to force himself on Margaret the Queen relents.  The ghosts of the Rake’s children show up to save Margaret and the Queen calms the waters allowing William to cross.  Finally reunited, William and Margaret decide to get married right there, and rather than be separated forever they decide to take full advantage of William’s lingering mortality and they drown themselves in the moat.  Fun.

It’s kind of the ultimate test of Decemberist fandom.  The 17-track album is by far the band’s longest.  You have to listen to the whole thing from start to finish or else it doesn’t really make sense.  The entire album flows from one song to another like a Broadway soundtrack.  It also uses the guest vocals of Becky Stark to full effect for the female roles.  You fully appreciate the range of both Meloy and Stark on the song The Wanting Comes in Waves/ Repaid.

The only criticism I have for this album is that it’s hard to listen to.  The strangeness and ambition and complexity of the storytelling is what makes it such an artful masterpiece, but it can also make it inaccessible.  It comes with the territory, and I wouldn’t change a thing, but the band does push the boundaries of an indie/rock album with Hazards.  For better and for worse.

Grade:  A

 

#4 I’ll be your Girl

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The band’s most recent album shows the slightly more modern style of their new producer John Congleton.  Songs like Severed still give us those unmistakably dark and sophisticated lyrics, but they’re also more experimental with some techno sounds and synths.  Granted, they didn’t try to be something they’re not.  It’s a testament to the band’s maturity and experience that they were still able to stay true to who they were while still implementing new sounds and styles.  Songs like Rusalka, Rusalka/ Wild Rushes is classic Decemberists.  Creating an 8-minute long, weird, artsy, narrative track, derived from Slavic legend about a drowned girl is exactly the kind of song I’d expect from them.

What I like so much about Girl is how it’s more of a conversation than any of their other albums.

Does that make any sense?

They’re songs are really human and a few of them are really funny.  Songs like We All Die Young (which features a full children’s choir) and Everything is Awful (which speaks for itself) are legit laugh-out-loud moments.

It’s true there isn’t a “wow” song on this album.  I couldn’t pick one that knocked me off my feet, but top to bottom every song is good to really good.  It’s a strong, well rounded, enjoyable album, but it doesn’t have a genius moment.  That’s what puts it where it is.  I’m glad I was able to see the band on this album’s tour.

Grade:  A

 

#3 Picaresque

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Now we’re getting into the really good ones.

The peaks of this album are as good as you’ll ever see from the Decemberists.  Picaresque was really tough to rank because of that.  Because its best songs are some of my favourites, not just of the band, but just some of my favourite music period.

In 2005, this album opened on a drumroll and a howl that introduces us to a very different Decemberists than we’d seen before.  Using the musical skill of new addition Chris Funk, the whole album takes us on a wild ride from queens in the East to the ghost of a beggar, high school nerds and a henhouse of wives, finally ending on one of the best stories I’ve ever heard set to music, The Mariner’s Revenge Song.  In this we hear the tale of two seamen trapped in the belly of a whale, one telling the other how he had been pursuing him across miles and oceans to murder him in revenge.  The story ends with the guy promising to kill the other there and then and fading out with the song’s main riff playing faster and faster.  It’s a nearly 9-minute long song and it just kills me every time.  It’s so good.

So why is Picaresque only number 3?  Well, it’s not great all the way through.  50% of the album is some of my favourite music in the world, but the other half is pretty forgettable.  Maybe the in-between songs would be better if they weren’t surrounded by great ones, but I’m just calling it like I see it.

Still, if I had to make a list of my favourite Decemberists songs (and maybe I should), there would be more than a few from Picaresque.  The highs are really freaking high, and the lows are medium.  That’s pretty good.

P.S. The Mariner’s Revenge Song might be my #1 favourite song of theirs.  You MUST listen to it.

Grade:  A

 

#2 The King is Dead

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If you care to know, this is my dad’s favourite Decemberists album.  I can understand why.  Up and down it’s nearly flawless.  That’s the first word that comes to mind when I think of King.  Flawless.  It’s also the band’s most emotionally accessible album.  It may be their happiest album, which you wouldn’t think just from looking at the song titles.  Calamity Song?  Don’t be fooled, it’s a total jam.

I remember for about two months in the winter of 2012 my dad was totally obsessed with this album.  He listened to it over and over, he learned to play the songs on guitar, and I learned them after.  So, I have a lot of fond memories with this one.

Flawless.  Every song has a different mood, a different tone, but always with an energy that we really didn’t see on the band’s early work.  The opening track Don’t Carry it All sets the tone immediately with a simple but powerful array of major chords.  The band plays out the Kings is Dead with more raw spirit than any other album, and that is really rare to see from a band that makes most of its name in complexity and weirdness.

King also has the most beautiful ballad the band ever wrote in June Hymn.  Not to be confused with the album’s 5th track January Hymn, but the 8th track, June Hymn.  The two sort of parallel each other, each about raising your daughter and taking care of you house as the seasons change.  They’re just simple and beautiful, June Hymn especially.  The song is a bit of a microcosm for the album as a whole.  I love all the weirdness and stories the band gives us on their other stuff, but sometimes I just want to feel good.  The King is Dead isn’t a “feel good” album in the way we think of “feel good” albums, but it is the purest expression of music the band ever gave us.  When I pick up my guitar and play a Decemberist song, more often than not it’s one from King.

Grade:  A+

 

#1 The Crane Wife

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This is it.  I try to use words like genius sparingly.  I feel like hyperbole has become such a big part of fandom it’s almost expected.  Everything is genius, amazing, hilarious, devastating.  A term like genius should not be used every day.  It shouldn’t be used every week really.

All that said and considered, The Crane Wife is genius.

Every song is catchy but also so different.  You can listen to the whole album top to bottom, the storytelling is equal to Hazards of Love but it’s not so exhausting.  You can listen to it when you just want to relax, if you want to focus on it you can focus on it and be entertained by the majesty of the narratives, and if you want you can just sing along.  The album carries with it a strong message and a story all while diverting to separate short stories song by song.  The story of The Crane Wife is derived from a Japanese myth, but the album itself is about a war, but from the commoner’s prospective.  Each story has conflict at every turn, and with each story told, a different reaction to the strife.  I’ve never heard an album that covers more ground than The Crane Wife.  Never.

Let me break it down track by track…

The Crane Wife 3:  A soft opening.  It starts gently but then builds, still keeping its purity, but ends with a brass that you don’t often see from indie music.

The Island:  Mostly an instrumental flex.  It’s describing an island.

Yankee Bayonet (I will be Home Then):  I have no idea what they’re talking about in this song but it’s a jam with a faster pace than the one’s before.  I think it’s about coming back from war, but who knows?  I mostly love it fore it’s guitar and its chorus.

O Valencia!: A song playing off Romeo and Juliet.  We get the entire play in 3 minutes and 48 seconds while they make good on the exclamation point they put on the title.  They tell it modern, more like West Side Story, but we get all the same tropes.

The Perfect Crime #2:  They somehow give us the background track to an Ocean’s 11 movie while still making it artsy and folksy.  This song also has the best bass work the band ever did.

When the War Came:  Suddenly we have hard rock?  This is the hardest the band ever goes in the direction of metal and they somehow pull it off.  Singing with the force of Metallica while still sticking diligently to the album’s message of conflict and the story of war, this is the peak of the album’s bell curve in terms of raw energy.  It’s the biggest the band ever goes, but they do it with purpose, not just ‘hey, let’s play some rock & roll now’, they do it because they’re trying to encapsulate the savagery and magnitude of war.

Shankill Butchers:  They go from the biggest song of their careers to their most minimalist and haunting song in a matter of seconds.  Shankill Butchers is a legit horror story.  A creeping profile of an Irish street gang going out to thrill kill children in the night.  It’s the sharpest turn you’ll ever see, and they do it without sending us over the sidewalk.

Summersong:  Taking a title that sounds like a One Direction single and making it a minor keyed riff about a girl drowning at the beach.  Who else but the Decemberists?

 

Now we get to my favourite 20 minutes of Decemberist music.  The Crane Wife ends with three songs, each of which flow together so it’s really like one big 20-minute track.  The Crane Wife 1 & 2, Sons & Daughters, and After the Bombs.

The Crane Wife 1 & 2.  We hear a recounting of the Japanese myth of the crane wife.  A white crane that a man finds injured, nurses back to health, and falls in love with before it flies away.

Sons & Daughters takes us back to the war story, but now the conflict is over.  The people come out of hiding and celebrate in the streets.  This is a joyous resolution to a story we thought the band would end with grit and death.  Instead we get this picture of relief and ending with the whole town singing. “Hear all the bombs fade away.”

After the Bombs.  It’s sad.  Imagine now that you’re in the town.  The war is over, you’ve celebrated in the streets with hundreds of other people.  You then come back to your own little house with your husband or wife and celebrate with them.  Not sexually or anything like that.  It’s just pure and intimate.  Like an exhale.

The song is a promise of better times to come, but then it gives us one more tug at the very end.

“We will go dancing, until it all starts over again.”

It’s heartbreaking.  We’ve been on this wild rollercoaster all throughout.  We have all these different people and lives and infighting and we’ve now finally resolved it.  We’ve celebrated.  We can finally sleep.  But it won’t be forever.

That’s why this is the Decemberists best album.  That’s why this is my favourite ending to any album I’ve ever heard.  Because it makes you so happy and so sad all at once.  It relates to our lives within the framework of war, AND with the white cranes and gangs and all the crazy fantasy stuff.  I’ve never been able to feel all that with another band.  The Crane Wife isn’t catchier than The King is Dead.  I’d say it’s about the same, maybe a shade less.  But it’s also bigger.  It’s smarter and it’s heavier.  I reward this last 20 minutes of music with a sigh and a stamp of genius.

Grade:  A++

 

This post is new ground for me.  Please tell me if you want to see more music content on this blog, or if I should just stick to basketball.  I’m mostly just trying to stay afloat during this stretch before the season comes back, but maybe I’ve found something here?  I don’t know, you tell me.

My 2020 All-NBA Teams

 

For those of you who don’t know, the All-NBA teams work sort of like a positional “who done it best” for each year.  At the end of the NBA season we get to look back and rank the guys who’ve been the best at their respective positions; guard, forward, or centre, on each team.  Now, most years we would have had our All-NBA teams months ago, but because our planet is being ravaged by corona (the virus, solar winds, and the beer) we’ve had an extra two months to consider the matter.  Well I’ve considered.  So here they are, my picks for the 2020 All-NBA teams.

Just missed the Cut

Joel Embiid

Kyle Lowry

Kemba Walker

Khris Middleton

Bam Adebayo

 

First Team

Guard:  James Harden

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The 1st team is really all but a consensus.

It’s true the Rockets haven’t had the record they’d hoped when they traded for Russell Westbrook, but on the part of James Harden it’s not for a lack of trying.  Last season we saw him have one of the greatest scoring runs of any player in NBA history with a staggering average of 36 point a game.  While he hasn’t had quite that this year, he’s still having the 15th greatest scoring season ever, highlighted by a two month stretch where he averaged 40 a night.  Harden is a statistical juggernaut, he’s one of the greatest scorers to ever play the game, he’s improved his defence to a passable level, and he’s the lifeblood of a Rockets team that has contended with the top of the league for five years running.  This isn’t Harden’s best season, but there’s a huge gap between the first team guards and the rest so there’s not a ton of competition here.

The only argument against Harden’s 1st team nod is that the Rockets has been a bit of a disappointment.  We expected them to be a two seed or three seed, instead they’re treading water with the Jazz and Thunder.  If not for Harden however, the Rockets could throw their title aspirations completely out the window, so how much is really on him?

 

Guard:  Luka Doncic

Similar situation to Harden here.  The all-around statistical resume for Luka this season dwarfs anyone not named James, James, or Antetokounmpo.  Luka has missed time this season, but the time he’s spent on the court is more valuable than any other guard in consideration for this spot.  The only thing you could pin on Luka is his team’s inconsistencies.  They started off the year red hot, but since the midway point have only been about 500.  Still, Luka has been the focal point of the 3rd best offence in the league, and he’s only 21.

 

Forward:  LeBron James

Do we really need to debate this?  LeBron has led the league in assists this season with 10.6 a game, making him the largest NBA player to ever average double figures in this stat.  His Lakers are the first seed in a loaded Western conference.  He is a key part of one of the best defences in the league (people have been complaining the past few seasons about LeBron’s defence weakening but it’s really been stellar this year).  He’s resurrected Dwight Howard from the dead, he’s coexisted beautifully with Anthony Davis all while averaging his usual 27 points a game, and is still making a case for league MVP against one of the greatest single seasons in history being put up by Giannis.  LeBron is still LeBron.  In my humble opinion, he’s still the greatest player on the planet, and I won’t say otherwise until someone beats him in a fair fight (no super teams or cap spikes or J.R. Smith brain farts.)

 

Forward:  Giannis Antetokounmpo

Yet another no-brainer for the 1st team.  Giannis is probably the 2020 league MVP, he has had a record setting season in a lot of ways and there’s really nothing that could keep him off the first five for All-NBA.  It’s obvious.  Let’s move on.

 

Centre:  Anthony Davis

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Finally an opinion!

It took us this long to get to a non-consensus pick but here we are.  As the All-NBA teams go, the centre slot is the most polarizing to begin with.  In the modern game, positional basketball is looking like a thing of the past more and more every day.  So while Anthony Davis is listed as a Power Forward, I don’t think there’s any problem starting him at the centre here.  He plays centre half the time anyway.

So why Davis over Jokic?  A few reasons.  Firstly, for the first time in his life Anthony Davis is not the best guy on his team.  Has that mattered?  Not at all.  Davis slid into a new team and new system without missing a beat.  The pick and roll with him and LeBron is maybe the most unstoppable play in basketball right now.  Seriously, it’s scary.  They can both handle, shoot, screen, roll, finish, pass in, pass out, and are two of the 10 best athletes in the league.

The wins matter.  It’s true that no other centre in the league have a teammate like LeBron feeding them the ball, but the Lakers dwarf the W/L records of any other team with an All-NBA caliber big, so that argument is brittle at best.

Third is the consistency.  Davis has battled injury in the past but this season he’s played 55 of a possible 65 games (which put in context of an average NBA season is 69 of 82 games).  We were worried after last year’s groin tear with LeBron, and an increasingly older Lakers roster, how the team would fair health-wise, but the team has been thankfully healthy this year, and we should recognize that on Davis’s part.

And fourth is the defence.  Anthony Davis is the anchor of the best defence in the West.  He’s averaging his usual 2.5 blocks and 1.5 steals to go along with his ability to guard positions 1-5.  It’s rare enough that we see a guy able to play all five positions on offence, that we get a defensive player who you could justify switching onto any player in the league might be even rarer.  I believe there have only been nine of them this century:

Anthony Davis:  2013-

LeBron James: 2010-

Kevin Durant:  2014-

Giannis Antetokounmpo:  2017-

Kawhi Leonard:  2014-

Draymond Green:  2015-

Andrei Kirilenko:  2002-2007

Shawn Marion:  2002-2008

Kevin Garnett:  1997-2010

 

Anthony Davis has my vote for defensive player of the year, and for 1st team All-NBA.

 

Second Team

Guard:  Damian Lillard

An interesting case to be made here.  One of the best scorers in the world, Lillard and the Trail Blazers have taken a step back from their winning ways this year, but Lillard individually has made a case for best PG in the league.  You could point the Blazer’s finger of blame at injuries and not without good reason.  Jusuf Nurkic was playing at a near all-star level before going down last March, and while Portland has been able to stay competitive, they’re not as dangerous without him.  Their starting five was Lillard, McCollum, Hood, Carmelo, and Whiteside.  I have a pickup game with some guys on Sundays, and I believe that we could play that five, we would lose for sure, but we would definitely score on them.

That said, there few guards in this league better than Damian Lillard.  With Curry sitting most of the year and Russ and Kyrie being Russ and Kyrie, there was no better 2020 point guard than Damian Lillard.   He’s had the best statistical year of his career with averages of nearly 29 points a game, 8 assists, and 4 rebounds.  After Harden and Doncic, most of the league’s guards are either putting up huge numbers on bad teams (Beal, Young) or are taking a statistical dip while winning games (CP3, Kemba).  Lillard may not be winning as much as before, but he and the Blazers are still in the playoff race and Dame has the individual resume to walk confidently into any series.  I expect some fireworks from him when the NBA season resumes.

 

Guard:  Donovan Mitchell

Oklahoma City Thunder v Utah Jazz

I feel like we never properly represent this guy.  In his rookie and sophomore year he was getting an inordinate amount of positive media attention.  I was yelling at everyone to calm down, but noooooooooo.  You saw some cool dunks and thought he was the next Dwyane Wade.  But now, he’s having by far the best season of his career and the only Jazz thing we talk about is how white Joe Ingles is.

The Jazz’s record despite Conley’s regression has been, if anything, a feather in Mitchell’s cap.  Standing at a mere 6’1”, we often wondered how Mitchell would evolve at the shooting guard position.  Ideally, he would transition to a Harden-esq, Wade-esq, Oladipo-esq, part-time point guard, but when the Jazz brought in Conley we wondered how the two would coexist on the floor.

Have no fear, point guard Mitchell is here!

With Conley taking a dip, Mitchell took the reins and is now the Jazz’s primary ball handler.  He’s had a career year statistically across the board, scoring, assists, rebounds, shooting percentages, the works.  He’s been the primary offensive weapon on one of the better teams in the league, and he’s doing at all while picking up the slack for a disappointing supporting cast.  They may not be contenders, but this year has shown us the first glimpse of a prime Donovan Mitchell, and if the Jazz play their cards right, they’ll be contenders soon enough.

 

Forward:  Kawhi Leonard

It’s Kawhi, it’s obvious.  The only reason he isn’t on the first team because LeBron and Giannis are inhuman.  You could argue that Kawhi is the best player in the world right now, but Giannis and LeBron have won more, played more, and have put up better numbers this year.  So Kawhi is on the second team.  Boo hoo.

 

Forward:  Pascal Siakam

This is the most contended slot on these teams.  We can all agree on the forwards for the 1st team, and Kawhi is a lock for the 2nd team, but who is the other 2nd team forward?  The applicants are Pascal Siakam, Jimmy Butler, and Jayson Tatum.  All have had great seasons, all are deserving, but I believe it’s Siakam and here’s why…

First the raw stats for all three:

Points Rebound Assists Blocks Steals FG% 3P% FT%
Siakam 23.6 7.5 3.6 0.9 1.0 .46 .36 .800
Tatum 23.6 7.1 2.9 0.9 1.4 .44 .40 .80
Butler 20.2 6.6 6.1 0.5 1.7 .45 .25 .83

Butler’s are worse, Tatum and Siakam’s are almost identical.  The difference between them the winning.

All these guy’s teams are in the same conference and Siakam’s is the winningest.  The Celtic’s win% with Tatum playing is the same as normal at 67%.  With Jimmy Butler in the lineup the Heat’s win% goes up from 63% to 64%.  The Raptors are a different story.  With Siakam playing, the Raptors have a 75% win percentage, without him that plummets to 54%.  So there you go.  With him they are a 60 win team, without him they’re high 40s.

Individual statistics make the race a dead tie between Siakam and Tatum.  Even the advanced stats are mirror images of one another.  Yeah, Tatum is a better shooter, Siakam is a better finisher and passer, rebounding’s about the same, defence is similar with Pascal as a forward and Tatum as a wing, but the key is the winning.  Pascal Siakam wins more, and he does it with less.

 

Centre:  Nikola Jokic

Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Lakers

 

Jokic is really the only guy in consideration for this spot.  The only others you could really argue is Embiid, Gobert, or Bam Adebayo, and Jokic has won more with less help than all three of them.  His numbers are the usual 20 and 10 with 7 assists a night.  His 3-point shooting has taken a bit of a dip this season, but it’s still better than any of those guys.

Jokic belongs here.  No question.

 

Third Team

Guard:  Russell Westbrook

You can’t leave Westbrook off the All-NBA team this year.  He’s putting up his usual gaudy numbers all while playing second fiddle to James Harden.  It’s true that on offence he’s basically a rim runner but he’s scoring 27 a game and is leading all guards in rebounds this year so it doesn’t seem to matter.  We used to wonder if Westbrook could coexist with other stars.  Well, we saw it with Paul George, and now we’re seeing it with James Harden.  These two players hold the records for highest usage in a season, and now they’re playing together without stepping on each other’s toes.  Now that’s impressive.

 

Guard:  Chris Paul

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Let’s all remember that we thought the Thunder would suck ass.

We thought they could be the worst team in the league, but thanks to Chris Paul and SGA the Thunder have outperformed such teams as the Rockets, Sixers, and Pacers.  When looking at the guards for this final slot I was really only considering three; Kemba Walker, Kyle Lowry, and Chris Paul (all you Trae Young fans can stick his raw numbers up your butts.  Call me when he wins more games than the goddamn Knicks).  The raw numbers of Chris Paul aren’t why he’s considered.  His scoring averages of 18 points and 8 assists won’t wow you, but that’s not why any of these guys are here.  The reason we love guys like Lowry and Kemba is because they win games for their teams.  Lowry is so loved in Toronto because he makes the Raptors better.  He’s proven leader and deserves more recognition for that, Kemba too.  Winning should matter more than numbers.

If that’s the argument I’m making than who has improved his overall team this year more than Chris Paul?  The Thunder are deep in the playoff mix against all odds because of him.  Whether or not you want to attribute SGA’s growth to a CP3 mentorship is up to you, but either way, Paul has taken his team further than even the most optimistic Oklahoman could have dreamed.

 

Forward:  Jayson Tatum

Having been released from the dark spell that is Kyrie Irving, Tatum has fully realized the all-star potential we saw in the 2018 playoffs.  Since February, Tatum has been averaging 29 points a game and has been leading the Celtics to finals consideration.  He deserves this spot.  I could make the Tatum vs. Butler argument but I don’t need to.  They’re both here, and you can decide for yourselves who you like more.

 

Forward:  Jimmy Butler

Similar to Chris Paul in how Butler gets this spot.  He edges out guys like Khris Middleton because Butler is the unquestionable first option on one of the better teams in the league.  Butler has brought not only his skills but his culture to a Miami team that was looking for post-Dwyane Wade identity.  For the past four years the Heat have been celebrating the past more than planning for the future, but with Jimmy Butler in the driver’s seat they have ignited a bunch of late first-round picks and savvy free agents into the feistiest club in the league.  I love it when a team gets competitive this way.  When they grow through smart decisions rather than the luck of the lottery or the whims of star players.  The Heat have built a really fun team on the shoulders of Jimmy Butler, it’ll be interesting to see how far they can go in the playoffs.

 

Centre:  Domantas Sabonis

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Hot take alert!

Yes friends, I’m placing Domantas Sabonis over any Embiid/Gobert/Adebayo situation you want to argue for.  This guy is the most underrated player of the 2019-2020 season.  He’s putting up 20 and 12 every night, AND is having a historic passing season for a big man with 5 assists a game.  I love Bam, but Sabonis is not a point-centre like he is.  These are post passes and low-screen reads.  These assists are much harder to come by and are that much more impressive when they happen.  Maybe having his eyes so far apart allows him to see the floor better?

Sabonis has played so well that he essentially knocked out Myles Turner from the starting rotation, he’s been the best player on his team all year.  Brogdon has had a great season, but Sabonis has had higher peaks and has had them more often.

 

So…

The NBA is returning in less than a month.  As if we needed more excuses to watch TV. Be ready folks, it’s gonna be awesome!

2020 Eastern Playoff Preview

Last week you got the West, this week is the East.  There might not be as much drama, but it’s where I live, so it balances itself out.

 

  1. Charlotte Hornets

PJWash

There’s really no reason why the Hornets should make the playoffs.  Honestly the fact that they’re the 10th seed is a testament to the weakness of the East’s basement.  They have no real star, their leading scorer Devonte Graham is a score-first, undersized guard (an archetype that rarely leads to playoff success), and their roster is full of B-list prospects and C-list role players.  I guess their young guys can be fun at times, I’m a fan of P.J. Washington, and Miles Bridges and Malik Monk do cool dunks sometimes, but I don’t even know why they’d want to make the playoffs.  If by some miracle they make it into the 8th seed they will get the trouncing of their lives by the Bucks.  Expect to see Giannis sit out the final game if that happens, and then watch the Hornets still lose by 20.

Charlotte has backed themselves into a corner this season.  They’re not competitive, but they have too many regular season wins to push them into the top of the draft.  I only hope that they get lucky with a pick within these next few years, because while non of their young guys look like a franchise guy, they do make up a nice little base of young talent to prop a star up on.  At the same time, star players are the toughest thing to find in the NBA so the cards would really have to break right for Charlotte to get rich quick.  I guess there are teams with worse situations, but I’d rather be the Hawks or Knicks or Suns, at least they have some direction.

 

  1. Washington Wizards

Bradley-Beal

The Wiz might be sneaky good in the playoffs.  Why?  Because rumours have been circulating about the return of John Wall.  How bogus would it be for Milwaukee if they thought they had a cake walk through the first round just to get matched up with a Wizards team featuring Bradley Beal, Rui Hachimura, Davis Bertans, and now John Wall.  Granted I still don’t think the Bucks would have much trouble, but you’d much rather not have to worry about it.

As an opponent, the Wizards are one of the better offensive teams in the league while doubling as one of the worst defenses.  They rank 6th in the NBA this year for points scored and 2nd in points allowed, letting a whopping average of 120 points in every night.  This makes them unlikely to win a playoff series but they could take home a game or two.  We’ve seen in the past how teams that rely so heavily on scoring can be fickle for better or for worse.  So if the Wizards get red hot one night and now have a healthy John Wall leading the ball, they could very well steal a game or two from the Bucks.

Still, don’t count on the Wizards to make waves.  A lot would have to go right for them to even make the playoffs and don’t be so sure John Wall will be the same player he was before.  Remember how much Wall’s success relied on his speed and athleticism, and Achilles injuries are nothing to mess around with.  I’ve never been a John Wall fan but I hope that he can come back and be the player he was, I just wouldn’t bet on it.

 

  1. Orlando Magic

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If the Hornets are trapped on the dark side of limbo, the Magic are on the shinier one.  They get to make the playoffs and then get squished every year by the one seed.  Orlando is like what the Hornets will be in 3 years if nothing goes their way.

They’ve done their damnedest to create a roster of all PF/Cs, featuring such greats as Nikola Vucevic, Aaron Gordon, Mohamed Bamba, Jonathan Isaac, Khem Birch, and Al-Farouq Aminu.  Weirdly the most interesting prospect on the team might be Markelle Fultz.  He’s quietly had a promising rookie/sophomore/junior season averaging 12 points 5 assists and 3 rebounds shooting 47%.  He still can’t hit a three to save his life, but at least he’s contributing now.  For Orlando fans, they at least have a few defensive young guys coming along to pair with their offensive veteran core.  Especially Jonathan Isaac, who was having a really nice two-way season before he went down with a knee injury.  It’s a shame that he won’t be able to play in this year’s playoffs.  He’s the only person on the Magic’s roster that you could convince me will be something special one day, and guarding Giannis for a week and half is about the toughest tough love a guy can get.  The Magic have had a lot of chances at top prospects these last few years.  If they had been better at drafting, they might be fighting for the 5th seed rather than the 8th, but only time will tell if this team of giants, weirdos, and rejects can become something of note.  If nothing else, it’s weird.  I like that.

 

  1. Brooklyn Nets

kevin-durant-kyrie-irving

Any inkling that Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving could come storming back to upset the Raptors has been put to bed in typical weird Kyrie fashion.  Firstly, the two were deemed unavailable by the Nets medical staff, nothing surprising there.  But Kyrie has also stated that he is against the 2020 season returning at all.

Now I don’t want to throw Kyrie under the bus too much.  His reasoning is valid in that he wants to boycott the season due to the social issues going on in the United States.  He’s not alone, as many as 50 players have expressed concern about returning to play, most notably Kyrie Irving, and Carmelo Anthony.  It’s easier for them to say because neither of them are on contending teams anyway.  Still, I understand the notion.  Race in America is a far too serious issue for something like basketball to cloud the nation’s poise, but I have to wonder if a boycott would hurt or help the cause.  Now, as a middle class, Jewish, white boy, living in Canada, I know I have little to no authority on the matter, but I believe that having the season return would help BLM by giving a prominently black league the largest possible stage and platform to speak their truth.  I also think it can only help the progression of African Americans to see other people of colour in these positions of fame and power.  (Also, I just really want to watch basketball and would be legitimately heartbroken if they cancel the season on me now.  I know race is much more important but I just really want to watch basketball!  Can’t we just solve racism in America and finish the 2019-2020 NBA season at the same time?  Please?)  It’s an interesting take by an interesting guy in Kyrie.

Oh, and the Brooklyn Nets are fucked.  They’re gonna get crushed by the Raptors.  Caris LeVert might steal a game but probably not.  Moving on…

 

  1. Philadelphia 76ers

USP NBA: PHILADELPHIA 76ERS AT CHARLOTTE HORNETS S BKN CHA PHI USA NC

Just like the Rockets in the West, this year’s postseason is a real crossroads for the Sixers.  Maybe even more so.  Philly has been in a tricky situation for a long time, having the benefit of two young top-tier stars in Embiid and Simmons but also the frustrations that come with them.  Simmons has had four years to get himself some shadow of an outside game and has made zero progress on that end.  Embiid is maybe the best centre in the league but he’s injured half the time and he insists on playing outside in, taking 3-pointers rather than scoring in the post where he’s basically unstoppable.  I know I sound like an old head yelling at guys to take it in the post, but take it from a Raptors fan who watched as in a game 7 Embiid bricked jumper after jumper.

I have some sympathy for the Sixer’s front office.  As more time passes, we’re really starting to understand that Simmons and Embiid are a bad fit on the court, but you can’t blame Elton Brand for testing those waters as much as he did.  Three years ago, we looked these two guys and smelled a little Magic/Kareem action in them, but no luck.  This is why the 2020 playoffs is so important for this team.  They play the Celtics in the first round, and if they lose, I think that’ll be the nail in this core’s coffin.  It would take a real strong showing this post-season to convince the world that the Simmons/Embiid combo is worth another chance.  What’ll most likely happen is they’ll lose in the first round and trade Simmons in the offseason.  Why Simmons and not Embiid?

  1. They’re locked into the obscene Tobias Harris contract which means they’ll want to maximize the next three years and Embiid is really in his prime now.
  2. It’s easier to find a trade partner for a 23-year old forward with an injury history than a 26-year old center with an injury history.
  3. Embiid is a better player

All that said, the Sixers make the top of the East more nervous than any 6th seed I can remember.  The talent and upside and weirdness they can bring to the table is enough to scare even the Bucks, and while Philly has yet to deliver on any of the hype, it’s still intimidating.  Expect the first round to be a really good test for both Boston and the Sixers, two young teams trying to take the next step.

 

  1. Indiana Pacers

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Flying under the radar for the majority of the season, the Pacers have had minor successes at every turn, but now it’s time for the big show.  With a solid core of Victor Oladipo, Malcolm Brogdon, Domantas Sabonis, and Myles Turner, one thing comes to mind when looking at both the Pacers record and their roster; good, not great.  Besides Sabonis (who I believe is criminally underrated and should be recognized as the all-star he is and for currently posting one of the better passing seasons of any centre in history), the Pacers are due to give any team a run for their money.  Whether or not Indiana can actually beat anyone is yet to be determined, but I doubt they’ll just roll over to the likes of Miami.

The only thing that can push the Pacers past the first round is if Oladipo finds his feet again.  We all remember the guy from 2018.  A player who took LeBron to 7 games and averaged 23, 4, and 5 whist leading the league in steals.  Oladipo has had a bit of a rocky start since returning from his knee injury this season, but if he can return to all-star form that could tip the scales in the Pacers favour.

 

  1. Miami Heat

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Miami is also a team in the middle of the pack.  Like the Pacers, they’re really a step below the top of the East, but they have two things going for them that the Pacers don’t.  First, an F-you edge.  I’m sorry, I love the Pacers, but they just cannot compete with the Heat’s personality.  Tyler Herro has already proved himself as a motherfucker, Goran Dragic knows how to ruffle feathers as well as anybody, and Jimmy Butler has been the biggest bully in the league for 3 years.  That’s also the second advantage the Heat have.  Jimmy Butler.  Yes, his numbers are down, and yes, he’s not on the level of a  Kawhi or Giannis, but on the biggest stage he’s proven that he can routinely lead his team to victory.  There aren’t a lot of guys who can say that.  We know now that Jimmy Butler is at his best when he’s the guy.  He’s not a sidekick, or even a co-captain, he needs to be the man.  What we’re about learn is how good a Jimmy Butler lead team can be.  I expect the Heat to lose to Milwaukee in the end, but also that they’ll punch a few Bucks in the face as it happens.

 

  1. Boston Celtics

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As a Raptors fan, I’m offended and a little afraid of the Celtics and Jayson Tatum’s rise to power.  Besides my sports idol Bill Simmons dropping his pants whenever Tatum’s late season averages are mentioned, the Boston Celtics have been mostly a feel-good story this year.  Their more consistent success after replacing Kyrie with Kemba proves once again that not being a weirdo triumphs over raw talent.  All that said, they have a tough road ahead this post-season.  Starting off with a matchup against the 76ers (a team fighting for their pride and boasting as much weird, raw talent as anyone), then moving on to the Raptors (defending champs, best defence in the league, the picture of an intelligent basketball club).  Boston’s one weakness is its interior defence, which could be a real problem against a rim running team like the Sixers.  Remember, Embiid dropped 38 on the Celtics last December.  Also, the Celtics will have to hide Kemba Walker on defence.  I remember when Fred VanVleet was literally unplayable in last year’s Eastern Conference semi-finals because the 76ers played a lineup of all 6’8”+ guys.  How can you hide a guy barely bigger than Queen Latifah against a jumbo lineup of Ben Simmons, Matisse Thybulle, Tobias Harris, Al Horford, and Joel Embiid?  I still think the Celtics will figure it out, but it’s a really tough first-round for them.

Then they face my Toronto Raptors.

 

  1. Toronto Raptors

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Let’s ignore Toronto’s first-round matchup.  Moving into the second round, whoever they play, it’ll be a fight to defend their narrow lead as “best team without a mega star”.  Both Boston and Philly have been on Toronto’s heels for three years and now that Kawhi’s gone, the race becomes open again.  The Boston series is nearly a dead even matchup.  Tatum and Siakam are about as good as one another, Boston might have a bit more offensive firepower but Toronto is more consistent and well-rounded on D.  If the Raptors play Philly it’ll be a real revenge series for the Sixers.  Remember last year when Kawhi ripped Embiid’s heart out and he cried on national TV?  Well, I’d imagine he’d be pretty motivated to beat us after that.  This year’s playoffs will just be another test for Pascal, who has met every expectation as a role player, complimentary star, and now star. Last year he could afford to flit in and out of playoff games because we had Kawhi as a safety net, this year Pascal is the safety net, he needs to be an all-star every night.  Can he do it?  He hasn’t let us down yet.

The real advantage Toronto has over these other eastern conference contenders is the defence and how we play as a unit.  Leading the league in points allowed and defensive rating, Toronto might not have an MVP on their roster but they do have the highest baseline of any team but the Lakers.  The team identity and two-way system that won them the championship last year is still alive and well, and it would take a real coming of age story from Philly or Boston to knock the Raptors off.

Making to the Eastern finals is also important for maintaining face.  By most accounts (though still just whispers), Toronto is a leading candidate for the Giannis free agency in the summer of 2021.  Being a contending team without him and beating up on the rest of the East is like putting on mascara before batting our eyelashes.  We’re gonna try and woo him, and we might get him regardless, but it couldn’t hurt to look our best.

 

  1. Milwaukee Bucks

NBA: Boston Celtics at Milwaukee Bucks

Anything less than the NBA finals is a disappointment for the Bucks.  Giannis is on track to win his second MVP, the team was on track for a 60+ win season, and the only thing they have left to do is win it all.  This year is important for Giannis personally as well.  When you’re this good but haven’t won a championship yet, the talking heads will start gunning for you.  We didn’t count previous years against Giannis because of how young he was and because Kawhi was Kawhi, but Giannis is a big boy now and he needs to start winning big boy games.

Making the finals this year is also vital if the Bucks plan to keep Giannis after his contract is up.  If they can prove that Milwaukee is the best place for him to succeed in games then that’s all they can do for him, but if they continue to fall short, what do they really have to offer?  Money?  The cap is gonna go down thanks to this whole COVID mess so the Bucks will be able to throw more raw cash at Giannis than any other team, but he’s going to be making max money anyway so it’d have to be a heck of a lot more to pull him back that way.  My point is success this year is really important moving forward, if not for Giannis, then for the Bucks front office.

Assuming they make the finals, the Bucks will likely have to go up against the Lakers or Clippers.  Both match up reasonably well with the Bucks, the Clippers have the one-two punch of PG and Kawhi, the latter of which has been the only guy to consistently slow down Giannis in the playoffs.  The Lakers of course have their own one-two punch, and while neither AD nor LeBron has ever played Giannis in the post-season, they might be the only two guys in the league that can match the Freak physically.  It’s gonna be a slug fest.

The key to victory for the Bucks is the shooting.  Mike Budenholzer’s Pace & Space system is all centered around Giannis getting to the rim and then finding open shooters on the perimeter.  You know Giannis is gonna get his points, but it’s about the other guys getting theirs.  Brook Lopez has been inconsistent shooting this year, Eric Bledsoe has been hovering around 30% from 3 in the playoffs, and it’s not like Kyle Korver is gonna win you a playoff game anymore.  Middleton is gonna have to really step up here.  The Bucks have one mega star compared to the L.A. team’s two, the only way they make up that deficit is with the rest of their guys stepping up, which includes Budenholzer.  He’s been the coach of the year, he’s one of the best in the league, but Mikey-B has fallen prey to system stubbornness in the past.  His Pace & Space system has gotten his teams far, but he hasn’t had much of a counter when his opponents figure it out, he can get out-coached by great defensive teams and he’ll certainly be getting that against the Raptors and L.A.

 

Here’s my final 2020 playoff map

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East:Screen Shot 2020-06-14 at 1.01.50 PM

2020 Playoff Preview (West)

It looks like the NBA gears have finally started turning.  With the GM survey and the owner meeting last week, it looks like we might be getting some basketball back around early August.  The NBA plans to resume play with the 22 highest seeded teams, each will play 8 regular season games before entering the playoffs.  There will be a brief play-in tournament for the 8th seed, where the 9th and 8th spot will play for a shot in the playoffs.  In this, the 9th seed would have to defeat the 8th seed twice to advance, whereas the 8th seed only has to win once.

Understandably, I’m very excited.  Having basketball back will be a much-needed tonic amidst the talk of global pandemics, racism, a militarized United States, and the racoons becoming too smart for our birdfeeder’s security systems.

That said, I think it’s time we pick the NBA up where we left it off and review what the playoffs have in store.  We’re just looking at the Western conference today, I’ll do the East next week.  Let’s go in reverse order shall we…

 

#10 New Orleans Pelicans

1203190415.jpg.0The NBA would sure rather have New Orleans in the 8th seed over the Grizz.  Who could blame them?  In a year that’s sure to set the economy back a ways, the incentive to cash in on a Zion/LeBron playoff series is stronger now that it’s ever been.  While I’m reluctant to suck down all the Zion Kool-Aid, even I have to admit that it would be fun.  Watching Lonzo and Ingram battle the guy that traded them, seeing Anthony Davis bury his old team, and of course all the old King/new King headlines we’ll get with Zion and LeBron going at it.  While we shouldn’t bolster New Orleans unnecessarily, the case for them being the 8th seed is stronger than you would think.  Since Zion’s return to the court the Pelicans have improved their win percentage to 58%, which would put them in contention with Dallas for the 7th seed.  On top of that, before it was put on pause the Pelicans had the easiest strength of schedule in the league for the remainder of the season.  Do you know who had the most difficult?  The 8th seeded Grizzlies.

We may be trying to talk ourselves into New Orleans being in the playoffs, but they’re more deserving than their record suggests.  Don’t be too discouraged though, we’ll have plenty of time to watch Zion in the playoffs over the next 12 years.

 

#9 Portland Trail Blazers

Trail Blazers vs RocketsIf there’s one team the Lakers wouldn’t want to play in the first round it’s the Trail Blazers.  Yeah, the Grizzlies are deeper and the Pelicans have more upside, but Portland has Damian Lillard, and he’s pretty good at basketball.  Not to discredit the rest of the Trail Blazers roster, but the whole team starts and ends with him.  In a Western conference playoff without Curry, Lillard might be the best guard in the league, and while he doesn’t have nearly the supporting cast of a Harden or Donovan Mitchell, the Blazers have the potential to have the best offensive player in a playoff series.

Granted the Blazers would be playing the 1st seeded Lakers, a team that has two of the few stars with bigger names than Lillard, but the potential is still there.  We saw how dangerous he can be in last year’s playoffs when he exploded for 50 points and effectively ended the Russell Westbrook era in OKC.  It’s not much, but I wouldn’t want to play Lillard in the first round, that’s all I’m saying.

What would be really interesting is the play-tournament with him in it.  As good as he is, the Blazers have no chance of taking out the Lakers, which puts a bit of a damper on the whole Lillard experience.  But if we got to see him in a do-or-die series against the Grizz?  How fun would it be to see Lillard duel with Morant?  Blazers fans haven’t had a lot to look forward to this season, but a high stakes game against an upstart team like Memphis would be another great opportunity for Lillard to prove his metal.

 

#8 Memphis Grizzlies

ja-morant-2This team is in the same boat as the Pelicans in that they’re fighting for playoff experience over success.  Yeah, they’re gonna get their asses handed to them by the Lakers, but for this talented young core, that might be even more valuable than juking it out with a 4th or 3rd seed.  They’re not gonna win anything, so let them take their lumps, and learn.  Let them find out what it’s like playing against a fully locked in LeBron James.  Nothing in basketball is more difficult, so let them try, fail, and grow.

Memphis’s young core of Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Brandon Clarke has as much promise as any in the league.  Ja Morant is the best rookie point guard we’ve seen since Derrick Rose, Jaren Jackson Jr. has serious all-star potential, and Brandon Clarke is the exact kind of switchy, athletic forward that modern teams covet so much.  We all know Zion would be fun to watch, but it’s not like Ja is sitting around throwing entry passes and doing finger roll layups.  Would a Pelicans/Lakers matchup have more pure entertainment value?  Probably.  But I for one hope the Grizz defend their 8th seed.  A series against the Lakers would be so good for them, both as basketball players and as celebrities.  You know that that team would be playing for the largest audience of their lives, and if they can even steal one game from LeBron then they’d be waking the world up to the fact that they are just as young, fun, and dangerous as the Pelicans.

 

#7 Dallas Mavericks

Luka-Doncic-1024x683-1-1200x800I’m dreading this a little bit.  Dallas has had its ups and downs this season, starting out red hot and since trailing off a bit and sliding in the standings.  Porzingis has been solid but not the all-star he was two years ago, and the supporting cast isn’t weak but isn’t anything to write home about.  Of course, the Mavs saving grace is Luka Doncic.  Since entering the league, Luka has done no wrong.  Shattering rookie and sophomore records with ease and earning himself comparisons to such stars as Larry Bird and LeBron James.  His numbers are insane, averaging a 29, 9, and 9, he’s a shoe in for first team all-NBA this year, and he’s barely legal to drink.

I’ve been a Doncic fan since he was playing in Europe, which is why I’m more than a bit nervous to see him in this year’s playoffs.  Since entering the league he’s been operating at a nearly 100% approval rating.  I’ve never once heard anyone say, “y’know who I hate?  Luka Doncic.”

He’s young, smiley, a little doughy, and plays a flashy yet unselfish style that reminds us of the Magic Johnsons of the world.  I’m scared because Luka is headed into a death trap.  Going up against the 2 seeded Clippers, Doncic is about to play for the biggest viewing audience of his life and will have to do it whilst contending with the two of the best wing defenders this century.  You know Kawhi Leonard and Paul George will be giving Luka everything he can handle, and it’s not like he has another star on his team to take the pressure off.  Porzingis is a thought, but even on his best day I’m not sure he’d bring enough fire power to worry the Clippers.  If Luka gets his ass handed to him on national television, he may have to say goodbye to the universal and unconditional love he’s been enjoying.

 

#6 Houston Rockets

Atlanta Hawks v Houston RocketsThe Rockets used small ball to become one of the best teams in the West, they doubled down and added Chris Paul, they tripled down and started playing P.J. Tucker at the 5, now they’ve quadrupled down trading away Clint Capela and essential running Westbrook at the 5.  This strategy has gotten the Rockets far in the past, but after this particular run Houston fans might have to admit it’s gone too far.  The micro-ball they run may work in spurts, but I just don’t believe it has the consistency to take down a really good team in a 7-game series.  It’s true that with Westbrook on the payroll the Rockets are packing more firepower than ever before, but I just don’t know what they’re gonna do when they come up against true top tier big men.  And it’s not like there aren’t’ those bigs waiting for them.  They play the Nuggets with Jokic, then they’d play the Clippers with Harrell, and then the Lakers with Anthony Davis.  It’s a bad matchup at every turn.

These playoffs also look to be a crossroads for both Westbrook and Harden.  Both of them having some bruises from substandard postseason performances, the impending Harden/Westbrook date with destiny is sure to be one of the biggest subplots of the playoffs.  If they lose again, it will only further cement their reputations as stars that wilt when the lights are brightest.  If Jokic is able to beat the Beard in the first round, it’ll be one more slap in the face for Rockets fans and will add more fuel to the James-Harden-is-a-choke-artist and the stop-using-math-in-basketball-you-nerds movements.

 

#5 Oklahoma City Thunder

1905-131_11092019_warriors_thunder_beeker_0702Umm… what?  I’m not sure I addressed this team at all this year, but by god of all the teams to grab the 6th seed in the West the Thunder were not on my list.  Chris Paul’s return to form this season combined with a healthy year of Gallinari and the startling progress of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has turned the Thunder into a real thorn in the side of Western title contenders.  This team reminds me a bit of last year’s Clippers in that they don’t have a real superstar, but they’re chock full of near all-stars and are really well constructed.  That 3-guard lineup of Paul, Schroder, SGA, Gallinari, and Adams is one of the most dangerous in the league. Gilgeous-Alexander is about as close to an all-star as you’re gonna get, and the rest of the team is made up of savvy B+ level veterans who know who they are and how to win.  That said, the Thunder are still not among the top tier teams in the league, they won’t be knocking off the Clippers or Lakers anytime soon, but could they upset the Jazz?  Definitely.  We’ve seen in the past how the construction and fit of a team can be worth just as much as star power.  And it just occurred to me that the success of the Thunder is just more fuel to the Houston garbage fire.  Excuse me for being overly negative towards the Rockets, but if CP3 can make it further in the playoffs than Harden this year then I’m gonna have a real good laugh over it.

 

#4 Utah Jazz

TJ3U6BYXBJDXTDHPSSVZQTC2G4   For those of you who started the year saying the Jazz were a dark horse title contender, I hate to say I told you so.  Despite declining seasons from everyone but Mitchell and Gobert, the Jazz somehow managed to grab the 4th seed in the West.  I expect to see some real battles in the first round with these guys and the Thunder.  Both with young stars and well-built systems with savvy veterans backing them up.  The Jazz certainly have the firepower to make the Western conference finals but they still have a few kinks to hammer out, the first being the play of Mike Conley.  Conley has been playing at a near all-star level for the better part of a decade but since joining the Jazz late last summer hasn’t had nearly the same impact.  His numbers dropped from 21, 3.5, and 6.5, in last year to 14, 3, and 4 this year.  Not to mention that he’s also an undersized point guard in his 30s, so he’s not making any all-defensive teams anymore.  Conley has shown flashes of his former self, but we’ll have to wait and see what he brings against Chris Paul in the first round.

The second question mark for the Jazz is the team chemistry.  We all remember the embarrassing way Rudy Gobert introduced COVID-19 to the NBA and ignoring the fact that he invited the wrath of every karma god in heaven, Gobert’s slip up may have ruined the Jazz’s famously flawless locker room.  Donovan Mitchell also contracted COVID, presumably from his teammate, shortly after, and rumours of friction between the two have been circulating for a while.  We’re yet to know anything definitive, and that may not affect their relationship on the court anyway, but if the Jazz go down early expect to see an interesting offseason in Utah.

 

#3 Denver Nuggets

960x0            I’m coming out right here and picking the Nuggets as my team to surprise us this year.  It shouldn’t be a hot take to pick the 3 seed to make it a few rounds in the playoffs, but I feel like the world is laboring under the impression that the Rockets are still the 3 seed and they’re not.  News flash people, the Rockets are the 6thseed, and the Nuggets are the best Western conference team not based in Los Angeles.

After a slow start, Jokic has rumbled and rolled into his usual weird and awesome self, and the rest of the team has kept stride, the key difference is that they’re not green anymore.  After a deep run last postseason, the Nuggets are now playoff hardened and are ready to make a splash, and they have a lot of opportunity to succeed here too.  The first-round matchup against the Rockets?  Houston’s micro-ball gives Jokic as much free reign as he cares to take.  He’ll have to take it, but if they can knock off Harden and Westbrook then they could potentially bury that team as a contender.  The second round is just as interesting. With the Clippers one of the favourites to win it all, Denver will certainly be the underdog entering that series, but again Jokic is the X-factor.  The one weakness that Clippers team has is interior defence, if Jokic can exploit Harrell and Zubac on the inside then the Nuggets could have a fighting chance at an upset.  One more wrinkle in the Nuggets playoff dream is Jamal Murray.  I’m a devoted fan of all Canadian NBA players so I’ve been a Jamal Murray believer since he was playing at Kentucky.  That said, Murray could make or break the Nuggets post-season.  We all know that Jokic is gonna be good.  He has the potential to be great but we know he’s gonna be good.  We don’t know what we’re gonna get from Murray though.  We saw in last year’s playoffs how Murray could score anywhere from 12 to 35 points in a playoff game.  When he’s on, the Nuggets win.  When he’s not?  Hopefully Murray can take another leap this summer.  It’s gonna take the whole team to step up to the plate, but they can go far this summer if it all comes together.

 

#1 Los Angeles Clippers & Los Angeles Lakers

Clippers Lakers Basketball            There are really only three teams this year who could win it all.  Unless some major injury happens or there’s a crazy upset somewhere, the race for the title is between the Bucks, Lakers, and Clippers.  And rightly so, it’s fitting that with Durant injured and Curry out of the playoffs, the undisputed top 3 players in basketball are battling it out for supremacy.  Whoever comes out on top this year will have the crown for good, because they will all have to go through one another to get there.

The impending LeBron/Kawhi battle for L.A. is the most exiting personal rivalry we’ve had in years.  We’ve had great rivalries, but it’s usually LeBron against an entire team.  Now we get to see two guys battle for their city and their pride.  It’s the perfect sports narrative, I’ve never anticipated a non-finals series more, it’s gonna be absolutely incredible, somebody pinch me!

We all know I’m on team Lakers here, but it’s not just because of my extreme LeBron fandom.  As a Raptors fan I was fine seeing Kawhi walk last summer, I was grateful for what he gave us and was mentally prepared for him to leave, but I admit that seeing him win the very next year would be a bit of a bummer.  I think of him like an ex, I’m fine with Kawhi being happy, I just don’t want him being happier than me.

As a team, the Clippers should have no problems reaching the Western conference finals.  They should have no problems with Dallas and should be able to handle Houston or Denver as long as they play like we know they can.  They’re a really good team, we know this, they have two superstar players, a former coach of the year, and a great supporting cast including 3x sixth man of the year Lou Williams.  Even still, there have been some red flags circulating this team.  Paul George’s health will always be a concern, and coming back from quarantine won’t help him there, and now I think on it Kawhi has a pretty murky injury history too.  They still don’t have a reliable point guard (either going with Beverly who does nothing offensively or with Reggie Jackson or Lou Will who do nothing defensively).  But the biggest concern I’d have for the Clippers is the situation with their big guys.  Montrezl Harrell has been a really good energy big on the offensive end, but he can get fooled defensively and doesn’t have the size to match Jokic or Davis toe to toe.  So what?  Do they play Harrell anyway?  Do we see more Zubac minutes?  In a matchup against the Nuggets I’m confident that the Clippers will prevail despite their disadvantages inside.  But against the Lakers?  Remember not two years ago Anthony Davis went on a post-season rampage against two teams with weak interior defences.  First the Trail Blazers where he averaged 33 and 12 with 60% shooting and exploded for 47 in game 4 against poor Jusef Nurkic who was held to 11 and 8 in that series.  Then he went to play the Warriors, who despite having Draymond Green and Kevin Durant helping still averaged 28 and 15 a game.  Just like Kyrie in the 2016 finals, LeBron is the better player but Davis will be the better option in a series against the Clippers.

But the final and most important reason I believe the Lakers to be the better option is all the off-court stuff.  Think about it, LeBron missed the playoffs for the first time in 13 years last season, he is clearly hungry for his 4th ring and I believe that when locked in he is still the greatest player on Earth.  Similarly, Davis is hungry for his first taste of championship glory.  After toiling away on substandard New Orleans teams for all those years Davis has never been in a better situation than he is right now.  Combine that with the Laker’s young guys who are having their first winning seasons, Rondo, who hasn’t won since 2008, and Dwight Howard fighting for his legacy, and it starts to look like the perfect storm.  And I hate to play the Kobe card, but…Kobe.  LeBron vowed to win a ring for Kobe this year, and how fitting would it be for the Lakers to win it all in his honour.  I’m not gonna say the Lakers are the favourites, they’re not, it’s too close for that, but I would pick them to beat the Clippers if I had to.  Whether they’ll win it all is a question for another day, but they’re as good as anyone.

 

In a year where sports entertainment has been hard to come by, this year’s playoffs is gonna be an exceptional treat.   How many legacies are on the line?  Westbrook, Harden, Chris Paul, Lillard, Carmelo, Dwight Howard, maybe even LeBron.  It’s gonna be a good one folks, be ready for it!

Top 15 Raptors of all time

This is the longest post I’ve ever done.  Peruse at your leisure.

 

  1. Morris Peterson

A surprisingly short career for a player with the tools he had.  Peterson was in every way a man before his time.  Standing 6’8” and boasting legit 3-point range, you’d have to imagine that if Peterson arrived in the league today, he would be treated to the 21-Delay, drive and kick offence so many teams adopt.  Instead be spent his time running with the Vince Carter era teams of the early 2000s, teams that had shooters but stuck them for the most part inside the arc.  One thing that must be said about Mo Pete is his early loyalty to the Raptors franchise.  As you’ll see on this list, it was something of a style to play out your rookie contract in Toronto and then move on to another team.  If we like to complain now that Toronto isn’t taken seriously as an A list city, you should have seen what it was like in the late 90s.  Peterson’s tenure with the Raptors started in 2001 where a team featuring Vince Carter, Charles Oakley and Antonio Davis took the 1st seeded 76ers to seven games. Peterson stayed on the Raptors for seven years which shows a loyalty to winning over area code.  Peterson’s apex came the year after Vince left, in which he put up a solid 16 points, 2.5 assists, and 3.5 rebounds a game, shooting 40% from 3 on nearly 6 attempts.  Peterson was never a star, but he was a great complimentary player and valued winning enough to stay in Canada.  If nothing else, he’s better than the other scrubs behind him on this list.  Jeez, you should see my full extended list.  When I was brainstorming for this I went through and just wrote down names, I spent half an hour thinking of people before I realized I was considering Linas Kleiza vs. C.J. Miles.  It gets bad fast.

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  1. Tracy McGrady

Weird to see T-Mac this low right?  Wrong.

McGrady may very well have the strangest career of any blue chipper in the 2000s.  We remember him on Orlando where he was dropping 32 every night, guarding four positions, and helping to invent the point-forward offence.  And yes, McGrady at his best was as talented as maybe anyone to play the game.  We Raptors fans like to remember that it was here in Toronto where he made his start, but if you take a look at his time on here, you’ll find it’s not as impressive as we might like to think.  Drafted out of high school in 1997, McGrady only spent three years in Raptors colours where he averaged 11 points, 2.5 assists, and 5.5 rebounds.  He took a leap in his third year, but he left to play for the Magic the next season where he won the NBA’s Most Improved Player award.  Do you know what that award means?  It means you were mediocre, and now you’re good.  So, where do you think he spent his mediocre years?  If we were just looking at his best McGrady would be better than anyone on this list not named Kawhi Leonard, but we’re only looking at the Raptors years here and this is where those years land him.

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  1. Andrea Bargnani

Oh boy.  Here he is folks, the most disappointing player to ever put on a Raptors jersey, the biggest loser in our 25 years as a franchise, and despite it all, the 13th best player in our history.  You all know the negatives; we drafted Bargnani 1st overall in 2007 one slot above LaMarcus Aldridge.  Despite having deceptively good lateral mobility, he was an egregious defender protecting the rim, in the post, and against the pick-and-roll.  He was one of the most lackluster rebounders we’ve ever seen, and he never gave consistent effort on the offensive end either.

So why is he 13th?  We must remember that just because he’s a disappointment doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a failure.  Bargnani wasn’t a bad NBA player (I think I just threw up in my mouth), he was a 7-footer with real offensive gifts both from range and close to the basket.  He had really good hands, he could step out and shoot threes, and was an 82% free throw shooter for his career.  When he was asked to carry the offensive load from 2010-2012, he averaged 20 points a game, but through it all he was never good enough to be a star.  We asked him to be a star when we drafted him first overall and he wasn’t, we asked him to be a star when Chris Bosh left for Miami and he wasn’t.  Bargnani is not Chris Bosh, he’s not LaMarcus Aldridge.  Andrea Bargnani was the best player on maybe the bleakest team in Raptors history.  I remember during that time seeing some insurance commercial come on the TV and the two Raptors they had promoting it were Andrea Bargnani and Terrence Ross.  One of the lowest points of my life.  He was a big disappointment, but I’d imagine if you slotted him in as a role player for a good team he would have been remembered differently.  Imagine what Bargnani could have been playing with Steve Nash’s Suns or backing up Dirk on the Mavericks.  He could have averaged an important 14 and 5 for a good team, instead he averaged an empty 21 and 6 for a bad one.

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  1. Jose’ Calderon

Apex Jose’ Calderon?  In the 2009 season he averaged 13 points, 9 assists, and 3 rebounds, shooting 50% from the field, 40% from 3, and freaking 98% from the free-throw line.  I don’t care how good your aim is, the laws of probability and physics make it almost impossible to shoot 90% from the line, and he shot 98%.  Calderon may have only missed 3 free throws that season, but his stats are not why he’s ranked above players with bigger names than himself.  If Bargnani consistently underachieved in his role as a star, Calderon was the exact opposite.  He was an overachieving role player.  Caldy was the Raptors equivalent of Steve Kerr; a great shooter, a steady contributor, and knew never to try to do more than what he was capable of.  To be winner in this league you have to have some adults on your team.  I’m not talking about age or size or skill, I’m talking about maturity.  There are all-stars who are not adults, there are rookies who are, and Jose Calderon was a model NBA adult.  He knew who he was and consistently gave you quality minutes.  The reason he doesn’t rank higher on this list is because his stretch with the Raptors did not result in much winning.  Over the eight seasons Calderon played for the Raptors the team averaged a rough 29-53 record and never made it past the first round of the playoffs.  Calderon’s legacy could have been bolstered the way Kerr’s was by playing on a great team, but not everyone can play with Michael Jordan.  Instead Calderon will be remembered with reverence by the few who bother to remember him.

(Fun fact about Jose’ Calderon: he owns a massive pig farm in his home country of Spain.  He claims to have the best product on the market and credits the quality of Spanish ham to the pigs having an organic diet of mainly walnuts.  Go figure.)

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  1. Damon Stoudamire

One of the strangest NBA careers of the modern era, Damon only spent two years with the Raptors, but during that time carved out a place as the franchise’s first and only star.  Why is his career strange?  He was drafted by the Raptors in 1995, the team’s first year in the league.  He didn’t want to come to Canada in the first place and could barely keep a look of disappointment off his face while he shook David Stern’s hand on the podium.  He then went on a rampage his rookie year averaging 19 and 9 with 1.5 steals a game, taking home the rookie of the year and looking like the league’s next great point guard.  He spent one more year with the Raptors where he averaged basically the same numbers before demanding a trade and being shipped to Portland.  With the Blazers his numbers plummeted to 12 points and 6 assists a game.  He tread water with some average teams there, having some solid seasons but never reaching the heights he did in Toronto.  In the end, Stoudamire went to play two seasons for the Grizzlies before his body betrayed him, he played a few games for the Spurs but was out of the league before his 35th birthday.  A sad end for what should have been a great career.

So why is he here?  You have to remember that during those first two Raptors years Stoudamire was breaking rookie records left and right.  He was lightning fast, a deadeye shooter, and the team’s first star.  Did it ever amount to anything?  No.  Did it last very long?  No.  Did he even want to play for the Raptors?  No.  But for those first two years he was being compared to guys like Oscar Robertson.  I really considered putting him higher. but I’d imagine #10 would put up better numbers than Damon if everything flowed through him.  I guess Stoudamire left a lot to be desired, but for a minute there he was really really good, and that’s more than you can say for the guys below him.

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  1. Fred VanVleet

His chapter in our franchise’s history is far from over, but Freddy V already has a one of the most impressive resumes of any Raptor ever.

Steady Freddy may not be the most accurate nickname out there, we saw in last year’s playoffs how his inconsistency can hurt the team, but that also speaks to how important he is to the Raptors offence.  VanVleet’s size means his offensive identity all stems from his jump shooting, but when the man is firing on all cylinders he has gone toe to toe with Stephen Curry in the Finals.  It’s really kind of amazing, he’s a player with so few natural gifts, he’s often the smallest man on the court, he doesn’t have game changing ups, he’s not even that fast, but he has a knack for outthinking his opponents.  Being able to play the game with your mind rather than your body is a skill very few players can boast, often reserved for the LeBron James’s and James Hardens of the world, but Freddy’s got it too.  He can bomb shots from deep, he’s a career 84% free throw shooter and 40% 3-point shooter, he can finish around contact, and has a real underrated handle too.  VanVleet’s dribble is one of the most underrated parts of his game, not because he’s an incredible space creator or ankle breaker, but because his is one of the most unpluckable ball handlers I’ve ever seen.  The way he maintains his dribble in traffic, how he can weave through guys and stay under control is why we call him Steady Freddy.

The Raptors have had players like VanVleet in the past so why does he rank this high?  A few reasons.  First and most importantly, he won a championship.  Not only that, he played so well in the Finals that he actually earned himself a vote for Finals MVP over Kawhi Leonard.  It was probably a gimmick, but that’s how good he was in that series.  Secondly, Freddy has put up these numbers and been this vital to team success all while playing second fiddle to Kyle Lowry.  His stats have never been empty, every point he scores matters, and having him out there makes the Raptors a more dangerous team.  And lastly, Freddy is one of the few pure-blooded Raptors we have.  Most players who join the team do so as a pit stop or as part of a trade but Freddy is one of the few guys who was drafted by the Raptors, made his name on the Raptors, and looks locked into a future with the Raptors.  For a market that doesn’t attract big name free agents, his loyalty is valued even more, and in the case of Fred VanVleet, it’s great to see someone who was brought up so entirely under the wing of the organization.  Coming off last year’s playoffs and this year being the best statistical season of his career, Fred VanVleet’s place in Raptors history is only likely to grow.  The people love him, even if only has one facial expression.

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  1. Serge Ibaka

Is it weird that Serge has become so underrated?  It feels like only yesterday that we stole him from the Magic in that trade for Terence Ross and the pick that would one day be Anžejs Pasečniks (I consider myself pretty good at foreign pronunciation but I’m not even gonna attempt that).

Serge has spent close to four seasons with the Raptors, during which he helped break the franchise season wins record twice.  It’s no coincidence that Serge brought a winning energy to Toronto.  The two-time blocks champion was always more of an energy guy during his stint with the Thunder, but it was here in Toronto that he evolved into a truly skilled NBA big.  Though we’ve seen his rim protection decline as he ages, how he’s been able to adapt to the modern game is a real achievement that shouldn’t go overlooked.  Transitioning from power foreword to center was the easy part, Serge extended his shooting range a little more every year to the point where the defence has to respect him from out there.  He doubles as the lifeblood of the team alongside Kyle Lowry, he’s the Raptor most likely to punch someone in the face (something every great team must have), and he’s been among the league leaders in defensive win shares for the past three years.

In research for this blog I started to realise how much we take Serge for granted.  Do we remember that he was the key to the “Big” lineup we ran in last year’s playoffs?  That he’s the sole addition to the front line that held Giannis to his lowest series field goal percentage since his sophomore year?  Or that he was the only guy besides Kawhi that could hit a shot in game 7 of the Philly series and nailed two massive threes in that fourth quarter to keep us in the lead?  Is anyone even aware that this season, despite turning 30 and being moved to the bench, he averaged a career high in points with 16 a game?  Or that he upped his 3-point shooting to 40%?   Maybe he isn’t the athlete he once was, and you won’t see him block 4 shots a game anymore, but Serge Ibaka has played better basketball for Toronto than he ever did for OKC.  Last season I was on the fence on whether the Raptors should invest in Serge or Marc Gasol as their center for the future, but there’s no question anymore, Serge is the man.

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  1. Doug Christie

One of the great 3-and-D players we’ve seen, I like to think of Doug Christie as a rich man’s Danny Green.  Did you know that only 20 guards have ever made 4 or more all-defensive teams?  Doug Christie is one of them.  Christie’s time with the Raptors overlapped with the Vince Carter era and the first stretch of consistently good basketball in Toronto.  He falls into the category of guys whose skill sets were before their times.  A decorated defensive player like Christie will always be valued, and as a 6’6” guard he had the pleasure of taking on some of the best players in the league (Kobe Bryant, Ray Allen, etc.). I feel like modern basketball would have complimented his offensive game even more.  A great all-around player who spent the prime of his career on winning teams, that’s all you can ask of your non-all-stars.  Christie’s all-defensive team honours will buoy him historically and his playing for consistently winning teams means he can walk around swinging that 500. career win percentage like a big guy in a locker room.  Swing batta!

It’s a shame really how the world has forgotten about him.  Basketball players often need some sort of niche to stay relevant after they retire, that’s why so many great centers get forgotten.  Moses Malone, Willis Reed, Nate Thurmond, Dave Cowens, Alonzo Mourning, these are all all-time greats and hall of famers, but they get forgotten because they’re all rebounding and defensive minded and gritty, with no signature moment or singular quality to set them apart.  I anticipate this happening with the wing players from this era.  Not the LeBrons or Durants obviously, but the next tier down.  Will Kris Middleton be talked about by kids 30 years from now?  Or even Paul George?  I doubt it to be honest.  The same thing happens with Doug Christie.  A really talented two-way player that gets lost in the shuffle because his name is Doug and he doesn’t stand out.

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  1. Antonio Davis

Finally, some all-stars!  It’s a little disheartening when you make a list like this for other franchises and see how many all-time greats they have.  Did you know the Boston Celtics have had 33 Hall of Famers if you count coaches and executives?  They’ve also sent 28 different players to the all-star game over the course of their history.  The Raptors have sent…7.  Better than the Grizzlies at least who have only sent 3.  Yikes!

Anyway, let’s talk about Antonio Davis.  Another guy who gets lost in the shuffle due to the strength of his era.  Antonio Davis made his name as the lesser of the two Davis brothers, playing alongside Dale Davis and Reggie Miller on the Pacers.   Antonio Davis may have played second fiddle to Dale and Rik Smits in Indiana, but it was with the Raptors where he blossomed into an all-star.  Taking on the challenge of all the great centers during the 90s, AD averaged a solid 12.5 points, 9 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks a game with the Raptors, peaking in 2001 where he averaged 14, 10, and 2 blocks.  Davis had all the tools of an elite big man, he was a physical specimen with cannon-like arms and good foot work, he could shoot the midrange jumper forcing defenders to play him honest, and had the quicks at 6’9” to blow by his guys and get to the rim.   Looking at his skillset you’d expect him to have a more impressive career.  Playing on good teams with all-star perimeter players to compliment him, making deep playoff runs, and being able to be a factor on both ends of the court.  Sounds great, right?  So why wasn’t he better?  I think it had a lot to do with playing in other player’s shadow’s.  Antonio played college ball at the University of Texas El-Paso (a good school, not a legendary one), he was drafted by the Pacers as the 48th pick, and he was stuck as the third banana behind Dale and Smits all throughout the 90s.  It wasn’t until he left for Toronto that AD blossomed into an all-star, but by that time he was already 31 and had his stunted prime cut short by injuries and father time.  We only got to see three years of an unleashed Antonio Davis, lucky they coincided with Vince Carter so we could see some playoff runs.  My point?  You need some luck if you’re gonna make it in the NBA.

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  1. Pascal Siakam

I’m gonna try and keep this brief, partly because his prime has only just begun and there’s no way to tell what he’ll be for the next five years, and partly because I will be talking about him for as long as I have this blog and don’t want to get too repetitive.  I’ll just say this, there are dozens of players who exceed expectations, we crown a Most Improved Player every year, some of those MIPs go on to be stars and some don’t.  I’ve watched players improve leaps and bounds over the years I.E. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler, Hedo Türkoglu, but none of those players have ever threatened to win the MIP twice.  Pascal Siakam’s improvement as a player has already been honoured, but I don’t think enough people understand how historic it is.  In 24 months Pascal has more than tripled his scoring averages, nearly doubled his assist and rebounding numbers, all while maintaining respectable percentages.  But it’s so much more than the numbers with him.  Siakam has joined LeBron, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Anthony Davis as one of the best post-scorers on the planet, he’s a point-wing-forward-centre, whatever you want him to be, he can create his own shot on all three levels, AND (and I try to stay away from hyperbole but fuck it) name one true power forward in the history of the league that has a better handle than Pascal Siakam.  Last season he went from a role player to a borderline all-star, this year he went from a borderline all-star to an all-NBA talent.  Those of us who watch 99% of all Raptors games can break down his 2020 almost-star to super-star transition.

October:  Any doubt that Spicey-P would flourish as an alpha is immediately shot in the face as he averages 27 points through the first 10 games of the season.

November:  Ok he’s a star, but can he be the focal point of the offence?  Yes.  Pascal fully refines his dribble and post game turning from an elite system scorer to the head of the Raptors’ spear.

December:  Teams start treating Pascal like a star, doubling and denying him the ball.  It takes him a while to figure out how to beat that and be effective while playing as a facilitator but he figures it out.

January:  Coming back from injury forces Pascal to be a little more cautious with his body in games.  He relies more on his jump shot for a stretch and, look at that!  He evolves from a 3-point shooter to a 3-point shot creator.

February:  Siakam starts to develop a killer instinct.  It’s not that he’s coasting his minutes early in games, he just doesn’t play with a petal-to-the-metal attitude for 48 minutes.  But if the game is on the line late?  It’s startling how he can flip that switch.  He stops taking jumpers and drives it hard to the rim, slashing and dancing around slower bigs and finishing through wings.  There were a couple games late this season where we were giving a bad team too much opportunity and they made it close in the fourth quarter.  In all of those games Pascal swooped in and buried them basically single-handedly.  That’s not a star, that’s a superstar.

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  1. DeMar DeRozan

You might hear me say I have a complicated relationship with some of the players on this list.  I say that but it’s rarely true.  Bargnani was on my favourite team but he sucked and we lost all the time.  There, explained.  Vince Carter was really good for us for a minute but then got pouty and stabbed us in the back.  There, explained.  But my thoughts on DeRozan?  That is a bit complicated.

I remember previous eras of basketball, but it was during the Lowry/DeRozan years that I became an obsessed NBA fan.  Bosh was my first love, Bargnani was the unfortunate rebound, but DeRozan was my first serious relationship.  4 all-star games, 2 all-NBA teams, and the star scorer on one of the best teams in the league.  People nag him for not being able to shoot threes but he was a pretty great scorer at his best, peaking in 2017 where he averaged 27.3 points a game.  You can watch him play today on the Spurs, he’s still a great athlete (he was elite when he was young, watch his dunk highlights), and while his offensive strengths are not always the most effective, they are fun to watch.  He has a smoothness to him and a patience that is rare in this league.  His quirks are quirky, they make him different and an entertaining watch.

Where it gets complicated is after he was traded.  While he was on the team, I thought he was one of the best players in the world.  I defended his faults and praised his strengths.  I was such a big DeRozan fan that I took some pretty strong stances on him being better than the other 2-guards in the league (Jimmy Butler and Klay Thompson, shhh).  It wasn’t until after he was gone that I was able to view him with some perspective.  To continue with the girlfriend analogy, when we were together, I thought they were the most amazing person in the world.  It wasn’t until after the breakup that I realized they were just fine.

Even if he consistently fell short on making the jump from star to superstar, and often choked in the playoffs, DeRozan’s greatest gift to Toronto was creating a winning culture here.  He and Lowry turned one of the most dejected franchises in the league to what it is now, and though DeMar could never win us a championship, it was on his bedrock that the foundation of our title was built.

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  1. Chris Bosh

Guys who chose winning over personal glory; Bill Russell, Kevin Love, Klay Thompson, Clyde Drexler, George Washington, Severus Snape, Spider-Man, and Chris Bosh.  It’s interesting that Bosh is best remembered for his time as a third wheel on the Heat.  It’s only to be expected, the city of Miami, the attention around LeBron, the championships and long playoff runs, being on national TV every night, it doesn’t surprise me.

When Bosh chose to go to Miami and win titles nobody in Toronto blamed him.  He had given us seven years of stellar play, highlighted by two playoff appearances and a 2010 season where he put up an efficient 24 and 11.  Where Vince had weaseled his way out of Toronto in disgrace, Bosh’s departure was about as gracious as you could have hoped for.  We understood that he had done all he could for us and that leaving the city was nothing personal but the best move for his career.  It was very Canadian on both sides.  We could talk about his Miami years, how he became one of the greatest 3rd options ever, how it was he who got the offensive rebound that led to the Shot in 2013, but you’ve heard it all before.  He got his rings and went down in history.  How could you ask him to give that up for six more mediocre years putting up stats in Toronto?

All I ask is that the world remember how good Bosh was when he was “the guy”.  How he was one of the first stretch bigs once we really started understanding how useful they were, how he dragged some pretty bad Raptors teams to the playoffs, how he was an all-star 11 out of his 13 years in the league, and how much skill he had to have to cut it as a star.  He wasn’t a freak athlete, he was a finesse big man, like Dirk rather than Shaq.

All of this to say that Bosh has one of the highest approval ratings of any star I can remember.  He was smart and eloquent and gracious off the floor, and a damn good basketball player on it.  He was beloved in Toronto and left like a gentleman.  Even in Miami, when they were proudly adopting the “villains of the league” moniker, Bosh was never hated like LeBron or Wade.  I just ask that we remember Bosh in his entirety, he was the guy who got me into basketball and I’ll always be grateful for that.

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  1. Vince Carter

The most polarizing player we’ve ever had, Vince’s career in Toronto is a bit like Popeyes chicken; it’s incredible while it’s happening, but it’ll take 15 years to recover from and forgive how it left you.

Why do I rank Vince 3rd?  His highs were high and his lows were low, but I don’t think we remember either accurately.  What was his great career achievement?  A dunk contest?  A second-round duel with Allen Iverson which he lost?  Vince’s flair is his greatest asset, but that’s not basketball, a windmill dunk is worth just as much as a layup.  Remember how I said Doug Christie is underrated because of his lack of a calling card?  Vince is the opposite, overrated because he was so distinctive.  Vince had six years with the Raptors, two of which he spent being a mopey ball of angst of which my 15-year-old self would be proud.  He peaked his third year in the league and spent his time as an alpha succeeding in meaningless moments and not working as hard as he should, coasting on his natural gifts.  I don’t know if you can tell but I’m not the world’s biggest Carter fan.

All that said he’s still a hall of fame level player.  He holds the record for most years in the league, he was an 8x all-star and 2x all-NBA guy, and at his apex he battled Kobe Bryant for the title of top SG in the league.  But that’s not the biggest reason he ranks this high.  While I do shake my head at how his dunks and flashiness have grossly inflated his legend, it might have saved all basketball in Canada.  Let me explain; in the late 90s, basketball was not only suffering in Canada, it was suffering around the world.  The combination of Jordan withdrawal, league expansion diluting team talent, and the cultural clash of moving into the hip-hop era resulted in the ugliest era of basketball we’ve seen since the 1960s.  Moving to Canada was not helping either, players didn’t want to play here and Canadians weren’t particularly interested in the NBA.  The teams sucked, the fans sucked, it all sucked.  Then Vince shows up like a bolt of lightning and pulls not only Canadians, but the entire world to Raptors games.  He was the most popular player on the planet, and there is no doubt in my mind that if the Raptors didn’t draft Vince Carter, they would have been moved to another city just like the Grizzlies were.

Vince saved basketball in Canada, it’s a fact, but we have to remember that he did it with cool dunks.  He was always a better entertainer than winner and that’s ok, but when comparing basketball players it has to be about playing basketball.

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  1. Kyle Lowry

The Raptors have had some all-stars in their history, a few all-NBA guys too, but Lowry is the only one who could credibly pull off the speech from Braveheart.

The dude is a dog, he’s not the most talented star we’ve had or the most skilled but no Raptor has ever given more of himself to the team.  His signature move?  Taking the charge.  I’m about 5’10”, 170, I’ve taken charges in pickup games against guys who are around 6’3”, 250, and let me tell you, that shit hurts.  Lowry’s about 6’0”, 190 and he takes charges against guys who are 7’0”, 300.  Ouch.  Over the past four years Lowry has set an NBA record for most charges taken with 105.

When we won the title in 2019 Kawhi was our best player, but Kyle was our leader.  He was the one who exploded for 14 points in the first quarter of game 6.  Kyle Lowry is the antithesis of Vince Carter; he doesn’t play with flash but with grit and determination and heart.  He’s played for three franchises throughout his career, but he will always be a Toronto Raptor to me.  I would follow that guy to the bottom of the ocean.

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  1. Kawhi Leonard

One year, that was all it took to crown Kawhi the greatest Raptor ever.  Everyone knows that in that one year he accomplished more than anyone else who came before him and reached a higher level than any other player we’ve had’, but what makes one season of Kawhi better than eight seasons of Lowry?

  • Kawhi will go down as one of the 30 greatest players ever and he spent the best season of his career with the Raptors.  It is the signature year of one of the all-time greats and he spent it here.  That holds weight.
  • He had one of the greatest statistical playoffs ever. He snagged the title of top player in the league from LeBron James and dethroned a Warriors team that was supposed to win like 12 titles.  That playoff series is legendary, from The Shot against Philly, to dunking on Giannis, to hitting the final free-throws to seal the deal in game 6 of the finals.
  • Everyone else who even comes close to Kawhi’s level didn’t stay on the Raptors for too long anyway. Vince left, Bosh left, DeMar was traded.  I value longevity, but Kyle is the only one who can ride that high horse and he’s never really been a superstar.
  • The competition isn’t that tough.  The Raptors have one championship, we’ve never had an MVP or another top player of all-time.  Vince is the closest thing we had to a world class superstar and we all know how that went.  We are not the most decorated franchise is what I’m saying, so one year of Kawhi goes further here than it would on say, the Lakers.

If you wanna argue that Kawhi’s year in Toronto was a pit stop, that he was never really a Raptor, that his time with us was hollow, then I ask what you really want from your basketball team?  This is what we play for, a championship and a world-class superstar who takes us there.  If you would rather tread water as a solid B+ team for ten years then be my guest, but then why are you even competing?  At some point, winning has to be about winning, not coming close or setting personal bests, but actually winning.  With Kawhi we got a taste of greatness, we took a big swing and it landed.  Sure, it was short-lived, but it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to basketball in Toronto.  With Kawhi, we were winners.

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Raptors Game Review: Defeating the 96′ Bulls

TORONTO-RAPTORS-CHAMPIONSHIP-JOURNEY-HUTCHINS04-JUNE18.jpgThe NBA in the year 1996 was defined by one team; the Chicago Bulls.  Five Hall of Famers, back-to-back-to-back titles, and of course his Airness himself, Michael Jordan.  The 96’ Bulls remain the second winningest team in NBA history with a 72-10 record, 87-13 if you count the playoffs.  For Jordan this year, loses were hard to come by, but on the rare occasions they did happen they came at the hands of the top tier teams of the league.  Usually.

If the 96’ Bulls were the definition of majesty and success, the 96’ Raptors were the exact opposite.  A virgin expansion team in the middle of their first year in the league, the Raptors finished the season 21-61 with the worst record in the East.  A roster made up of players other teams gave away and one talented rookie in Damon Stoudemire, it seemed almost cruel to pit them against Jordan, Pippen, and the rest.  No one expected the Bulls to lose on any night, but on this night least of all.

Welcome back to the Raptors game review segment of this blog.  Today we will be going back as far as we can to review the first big victory in Raptors history.  I’m trying to tap into the revived Jordan-mania circling around The Last Dance documentary.  This is how the Raptors fit into the Jordan story.  Or maybe how Jordan fits into the Raptors story?  Oh I don’t know.

Here are tonight’s rosters…

Bulls                                                                                 Raptors

Starters

PG) Ron Harper                                                              PG) Damon Stoudamire

SG) Michael Jordan*                                                      SG) Alvin Robertson

SF) Scottie Pippen*                                                         SF) Tracy Murray

PF) Toni Kukoč                                                                PF) Carlos Rogers

C) Bill Wennington                                                         C) Oliver Miller

Bench

PG) Steve Kerr                                                                  SG) Doug Christie

SG) Randy Brown                                                             C) Zan Tabak

SF) Jud Buechler

PF) Dickey Simpkins

C) John Salley

If you look at the Bulls roster and feel like something’s missing, you’re right, good job, you win a cookie.  Dennis Rodman had been suspended by the league during this stretch and was not available to play.  Why was he suspended?  Well, earlier that month in a game against the New Jersey Nets, Rodman received two technical fouls in the first quarter, ejecting him from the game. Rodman seemed to disagree with referee Ted Bernhardt’s decision to eject him and proceeded to headbutt Bernhardt in the face, and quote; “caused a scene” before leaving the arena.  He was suspended for six games without pay and fined $20,000.  So, y’know, typical Rodman stuff.

The Bulls roster is pretty self-explanatory.  Jordan is the greatest player of all time, Pippen is a top 40 player of all time, Kukoc is a sixth man of the year, and Harper, Kerr, and Buechler are all top tier roll players.

The Raptors roster is a little murkier.

Alvin Robertson had been a 4x all-star and was the defensive player of the year in 1986, but has had his career ruined by injuries in the early 90s.  While only 33 years old, the 96’ season was Robertson’s last in the league.  He’s still a savvy veteran, but really just a shell of his former self.

Oliver Miller had a 10-year career in the NBA but was really more of a backup big.  He averaged a solid 14 and 7 this season, but never put up double digit scoring any other year.  He’s instantly recognizable on the court because his head and body are both completely round.

You see a young Doug Christie coming off the bench for Toronto.  He had bounced around a lot up until this point and was really a year away from becoming the all-defensive player we know.  Still, he’s a good 3 and D player and would guard Jordan about as well as you could hope.

The one bright spot on this Raptors team was Damon Stoudamire.  When he was drafted 7th overall in 1995, Stoudamire was against coming to Canada at all, but he thrived with the unlimited opportunity provided by playing on an expansion team.  As a rookie he averaged a mean 19 points, 9 assists, and 4 rebounds, to go along with 1.5 steals and 39% three-point shooting.  The shooting is telling not just by the percentage but by the volume, taking nearly 5 five long ball attempts a game, which translated to the modern NBA is like taking 10.  These lofty numbers got Stoudamire Rookie of the Year honours over guys like Kevin Garnett and Jerry Stackhouse and earned him the nickname “Mighty Mouse” (He was only 5’10”).

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Let it be known that the Jordan and the 96’ Bulls were so good and so famous that their entire season was basically one big traveling road show.  As they enter the arena you hear the whole place erupt.  Jordan was the most famous athlete in the world, and he dwarfed everyone and everything around him.  When the announcer introduced the visiting team’s starting five and got to the part about “a 6’6″ guard from North Carolina, number 23, Michael Jordan.”  The Skydome cheered like he was their own.  Jordan was a force, always.

Both teams take the floor slowly, stretching.  They jump for it and Toronto gets the first possession.

The game starts off rough with a few missed shots from the Raptors.  The Bulls turn it over leading to a big dunk in transition from Carlos Rogers, but the Chicago responds with a slithery finish inside by Toni Kukoc.  One thing you can tell from the start of this game is the emergence of shooting from the younger players.  Damon Stoudemire and Doug Christie force the Bulls to respect the three-point jump shot leading to increased spacing on the offensive end.  Three straight three point attempts off the drive and kick going back and forth. 

As the first quarter goes on it feels like the Bull’s stars are scoring at will, but their will wavers on and off.  It’s so clear that the Raptors are taking this much more seriously than their opponents, but also that the Bulls can afford to play at half speed.  Jordan hits fadeaway jumpers with absurd ease, and Kukoc gets some easy putbacks at the rim.  Despite getting open looks however the Bulls can’t string together a run, and Toronto is scrapping for everything.  They move the ball along the perimeter, they push the pace in transition, and Damon Stoudmamire hits jumper after jumper.  The first quarter ends with some turnovers on both sides and the Raptors go into the break with a 28-23 lead.  Jordan has a 9-point first quarter, but Stoudamire has 8 of his own.

The second quarter opens up with three straight turnovers.  The Raptors’ Zan Tabak hits a weird hook shot over John Salley, and the Bulls have a possession where they miss three straight and get three straight offensive rebounds.  As we all know, the Bulls run the Triangle offence, a motion based offence that focuses on creating open jump shots.  The Bulls are still an inside first team though, with Kukoč, Jordan, and Pippen looking to score from the midrange in rather than from 3.  The Bulls also play on the offensive boards and the rebounding battle gets more physical as the game goes on.  In the scuffle Ron Harper and Carlos Rogers get a little heated and get right in each others’ face.  The refs break it up and both players go their separate ways on the floor.  This is so alien to the 21st century NBA fan who is used to such things being penalized by a ten-minute break and double technical fouls at least.  In this game however both guys just go in opposite directions.  It’s refreshing honestly.

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I would like to write in gripping detail about the quality of basketball being played in this game, but it’s just not there.  The Raptors look like a college team with a lottery point guard and a bunch of other guys.  Damon Stoudamire doesn’t seem to miss the entire first half, moving the ball around to his teammates with ease and grace, knocking down every open jumper.  He even pulls up for three in transition around the 5-minute mark and just sticks one in Jud Buechler’s eye.  The rest of the Raptors are clearly working hard out there, but the skill level is visibly apparent.  In layman’s terms, these guys can’t play for shit.

The Bulls are the exact opposite this quarter.  They clearly have the skill and don’t have to work nearly as hard for each point they score.  To a fault maybe.  The whole team seems half interested, with Scottie Pippen laying off his guys on defence and the whole Bulls team playing it at 50%.  Every once and a while MJ decides he’s gonna score and it’s almost funny how easily he puts the ball in the basket against these scrubs, but he’s scoring at his own leisure.  I don’t hold this laissez faire attitude against the Bulls, they’re the best team in the league, 3-time champions, and probably all hung over.  But they dug their own graves in this one, that’s all I’m saying.

With the amount of 3s the Raptors are taking you’d think they’d have a coach from 2020…oh wait they do!  Brendan Malone is the 54-year-old head coach of the Raptors here.  If you recognize that name, he was the assistant coach on those Dwight Howard Orlando teams from the late 2000s.  The league changed a lot from 96’ to 08’ but you can see the early flashes of floor spacing strategy that turned that Orlando team into a title contender.  The Bulls can’t catch a break at the rim, Kukoc misses a wide open putback and Scottie Pippen misses an even more wide-open layup.  The Raptors come back knocking down 3 after 3 after 3.

Steve Kerr hits back to back jumpers near the end of the half, but the Raptors guards are too hot.  Doug Christie hits from outside, Tracy Murray hits from the corner, and Damon Stoudamire rains down pull up triples in a very modern NBA fashion.  The Bulls finally get the monkey off their backs to end the half and start finishing strong but they can’t take the lead.  The half ends 56-54 Raptors.

 

The second half opens with a missed jumper by Scottie Pippen.  His shot has been off all night which gives the Raptors a much-needed stroke of luck.  He’d only recently returned from some nagging injuries and seems to be just shaking off the rust in this game.  The Raptors miss one inside and the Bulls come off the break and find an open Toni Kukoc for a 3-pointer on the wing.  It struck me how many 3-pointers were both taken and made in this game.  Usually when watching late 90s games we see a lot of ugly, low post, smash mouth basketball.  In the 1995-1996 season, the league average for 3s attempted in a game was 16.  In this game we saw the Bulls attempt 18 threes and the Raptors attempt 21.  And they were hitting their shots too.  It should be noted that this was the era of the shortened 3-point line.  The previous season had seen a record breaking amount of long balls attempted due to the NBA moving in the 3-point arc.  Even still, this game was a gunfight.

Kukoc singlehandedly leads the Bulls back to a thin lead to start the second half, but the Raptors answer back with Stoudamire hitting a jumpshot over Jordan.  Michael seems to wake up a little here taking the Raptors’ smaller guards into the post and putting a spin move on Alvin Robertson.  Stoudamrie answers back with another jumper but Jordan responds again, drop stepping two Toronto defenders and slamming it along the baseline.

jordan-toronto-1988_o4wuna.jpgWe get a highlight when Ron Harper goes to the foul line.  He misses the first but makes the second free throw.  As soon as the ball goes in the basket Alvin Robertson immediately sprints full tilt down the floor.  Oliver Miller grabs the ball from under the rim, puts one foot outside for the inbound, and rifles a pass full court down to the breaking Robertson.  This is like a quarterback throwing 30 yards of his back foot, except the ball is heavier and less aerodynamic.  The pass is right on the money and Robertson gets the easy handoff to Carlos Rogers for the layup.

The Bulls move the ball beautifully but just can’t finish at the rim.  Every time you think they’re about to wake up and bury Toronto they fall back asleep.  Chicago has possessions passing and in transition that remind you why they’re the kings of the league, but they never play at full throttle.

As the 3rd quarter ticks down the game starts to get a little more physical.  Jordan starts jawing with Carlos Rogers and Oliver Miller gets poked in the eye leading to him coming nose to nose with Bill Wennington.  It’s fun to see people hold these two back because Wennington looks like an overgrown Kenny Loggins and Oliver Miller has the body of a pullout couch.  Weird pair is all I’m saying.

The third ends with the Raptors hitting bombs from deep.  Tracy Murray hits back to back 3s and Carlos Rogers hits as well.  The Bulls get the last shot which is a miss by Steve Kerr, but Michael gets comes flying in to tap it home on the right side.  Still a close game through 3, Chicago leads 83-79.

 

The fourth opens up in back-and-forth fashion with both teams trading buckets inside.  Zan Tabak cleans up on the glass and Damon Stoudamire stays aggressive, driving the ball on Steve Kerr.  The Bulls hang with but the Raptors keep hitting their shots.  Zan Tabak was on the Croatian Olympic team that battled the Dream Team, and seemed to find new life playing against his old teammate and countryman Toni Kukoč.

Coming down to the final five minutes the game is tied at 94, but as we get into crunch time you start to feel the Bulls buckling down.  Kerr and Jordan hit some jumpers and Kukoč cleans up on the offensive glass.  The Raptors hang with them, egged on by an exited crowd.  They’ve taken the Bulls this far and start to play like they believe they can win.

Michael has other ideas.  Being the demon he is, MJ seemed to smell the hope in the air and gets turned on by it.  He pulls up and fades away from the wing

Boom

He works himself into the post and takes his signature fading jumper from the elbow

Boom

He finishes an and-1 under Christie.  Free throw?

Boom

Fades again from the elbow

Boom

Jordan sucks the hope out of the sold-out Skydome in a minute and a half.  The lead still isn’t huge, but Jordan scored like 10 points like it was nothing.  The Bulls lead 104-103 with 2 minutes remaining.

stoudamire-jordan_gci5p5adlwf41dwtqx87y2ie4.jpgDamon Stoudamire gets fouled and goes 1 or 2 from the free throw line.  This gives him a new career high of 30 points.  Hurray.

Christie misses two free throws but Damon grabs the offensive board.  The Raptors reset at the top of the arc and run a motion play for him, Stoudamire gets the step on Kerr, the defence collapses on him, but he scoops it under the outstretched arm of Bill Wennington to give Oliver Miller an open dunk.  Tie game.  Damon Stoudamire’s speed is ridiculous in this game.  I’ve only seen a handful of players accelerate like he did in his prime.  He makes Steve Kerr look like an old lady.

Jordan hits a leaning jumper to quiet the crowd.  Alvin Robertson, the former defensive player of the year is helpless against him.  Bulls by 2 with 30 seconds left.  Brendan Malone calls timeout and the Raptors run a screen-and-break play out of bounds.  This gives Tracy Murray a quick two points at the rim.  Tie game. Bulls call timeout.

During the break, the broadcast cuts to Isiah Thomas in the stands.  Isiah is the GM of the Raptors just FYI.

“Think he wants to hop on the court and take Michael on Leo?”

“I’m sure he does!”

I doubt it to be honest.  Isiah Thomas was wearing a suit and I expect that would prohibit his basketball playing ability.

The Bulls throw it in to Jordan with the game on the line.  He turns right and takes it to the rim, Murray clobbers him but no foul is called.  The ball is knocked into the air and Miller gets the rebound, he tries to call timeout but Jordan swipes at him for the steal and the refs call Jordan for the foul before the timeout is taken.  Chicago is in the bonus so this sends Oliver Miller to the free throw line.  Miller shot 66% from the line this season so his free throws were a tad more stressful than you’d want.  He goes 1-2 and the Scottie Pippen grabs the rebound.  Timeout Chicago.  20 seconds to go, Raptors by 1.

5d09264d23cf0904af0d5d23.jpegJordan dribbles up the court slowly, maliciously.  At the top he drives to the right wing and gets doubled, Jordan hands it off to Kerr, who hands it off to Pippen at the top of the three-point line, the clock is ticking down and the Bulls have to get up a shot.  Scottie gives a pump fake but no dice, he swings it to Kerr who has to take a shot, he pulls up for a long 3-pointer with 2 seconds left, but it’s no good.  Long rebound goes out to Michael Jordan who fades baseline and buries the jumper.  But no, he didn’t get the shot off in time, time expires and the Raptors, an expansion team from Toronto Canada, defeat the 96’ Bulls, and the whole team hugs like they just won the title.

 

So, what are the big takeaways from this game?  In a vacuum this is a regular season game like any other.  It was an upset, sure, whatever, these things happen.  Who cares?  Why are we watching this game and writing about it 25 years later?  Here’s why; this was a true David and Goliath game, not just an upset, an impossible upset.  And like David, this was the first meaningful victory in the franchise’s young life.

So what?  You might say.  The Raptors went 3-10 to close out the season after this game.  What was achieved?  Remember everything is relative, remember that the Raptors were the lowest of the low this season, a bottom barrel expansion team from another country.  So for us at the time, this victory was about the best basketball we were gonna get.

This game is also informative about the players on the Raptors roster.  Nearly every man on the team had the best statistical year of their career during this season, mainly due to increased opportunities of being on such a crappy team.  While the quality of overall play suffers, you get all these positive microcosms of who these guys were as players all at once.  You want to know who Tracy Murray was?  Watch this game.  You wanna know about Oliver Miller?  Watch this game.  And I know you probably don’t want to know about these roll players and bench guys, but when all these guys peak at once you get more for your time by watching one game.

The one guy you really should want to learn about is Damon Stoudamire.  He finished this game with 30 points and 11 assists, went toe-to-toe with Michael freaking Jordan, and won.  In the mid 90s Stoudamire was breaking rookie records left and right for steals and assists, which makes the disappointment of his career arc even more strange.  In Toronto he averaged 19 and 8 over a three year stretch before joining the Trail Blazers and dropping to 13 and 6.  This decline is strange enough, but it’s even more outlandish when you look at his time in Toronto and see that his rookie year was his best of his career.  How many players can you say that about?  Maybe Stoudamire benefited from the same inflated opportunities that helped all his teammates, maybe his short stature and reliance on speed meant he could never have a long career in the NBA, but when the man was good, he was really really good, and it feels like he should’ve had a better career.damon.jpg

This game was the birth of winning basketball in Toronto.  Like any birth, it was kinda gross, painful to watch, and not really unique, but that doesn’t make it any less special.  The franchise has had better game, and better years, but this was the start of it all, and we shouldn’t forget it.

I tried to time this game review in the middle of Jordan fever.  The Last Dance has been pushing MJ to the front of our minds for weeks, and without live NBA games this is about the best we got.  I’m starting to hear some positives about the NBA returning this summer, stay tuned and keep you ear to the ground for that.

Hope y’all are keeping upbeat in this crazy basketballess world.  I’m moving into the 2010s for the next game review.  Look forward to DeMar DeRozan’s 52 points against Milwaukee.

Everybody stay healthy, stay safe, stay away from me.

Raptors Game Review: Game 7, 2001

Hello everyone!  Hope you’re staying up-beat in your anti-corona bunkers.  Me?  I’ve decided to start a new segment for this blog.  Raptors Game Reviews!  I usually market this as an NBA blog but I know it leans Raptors.  What can I say?  Bias is powerful when left unchecked.  In the weeks when I don’t post an NBA blog, I will post a review of some of the great games from Raptors history.  That said, I doubt this segment will last very long.

For my kickoff review I wanted to remind all us dear Raptors fans of our humbler beginnings.  In the span of 10 months we’ve gone from one of the more beaten-down franchises in the league to the kids with the new bike.  We have every right to be too big for our britches, we did just win the whole damn thing less than a year ago, but I think we’ve been kissing our own asses a lot this year and it’s time for a taste of humble pie. Don’t worry, I’ll be back to lapping up the Masai Ujiri Kool-Aid soon enough, but for today, let’s look back on an era before our great and glorious GM ever graced the stage.

Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Philadelphia 76ers vs. Toronto Raptors, 2001.  Yes, 2001.  Before Kawhi hit “the shot” this game had “the shot”, only this one didn’t go in.  Let’s set the scene…

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In the year 2001 the Shaq/Kobe Lakers are trying to win their second title, Allen Iverson is the league MVP, Mike Miller is the rookie of the year, and NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys are battling it out for pop music supremacy.  Also, Vince Carter is by far the most popular player in Canada, and one of the most popular players on the planet.  Coming off his legendary 2000 dunk contest and the best season of his career averaging 27 points a game, Vinsanity is part of a new wave of electric, young, shooting guards that are taking the league by storm.  I call these guys the Michlones because they were each trying to do an impression of Michael Jordan.  The Michlones are; Allen Iverson, Vince Carter, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, and Ray Allen, and at the time, you could argue that Vince was the best of all of them.

The 2000-2001 Raptors were a solid five seed, 47 wins, a well-rounded team of high-level role players, and a superstar in Vince.  They were suffering some by the play of one Tracy McGrady, who had left Toronto in free agency the previous summer and had been putting up monster numbers for the Orlando Magic.  This stung a bit, but the Raptors were still competitive.

The playoffs had been going well for Toronto.  They had upset the 4th seeded Knicks in 6 games and had fought tooth and nail with the one seeded 76ers and brought them to a game 7.  This series has become legendary for the individual duel between Vince and Iverson, who had swapped 50-point scoring nights in games 2, 3, and 5.  Interestingly in this game, neither star was great shooting the ball.

Both teams have had some minor injuries to their benches but are relatively healthy otherwise, here are the rosters for the Sixers and Raptors that night.

76ers                                                               Raptors

                                         Starters      

PG) Aaron McKie                                          PG) Alvin Williams

SG) Allen Iverson*                                        SG) Vince Carter*

SF) Jumaine Jones                                         SF) Morris Peterson

PF) Tyrone Hill                                               PF) Charles Oakley

C) Dikembe Mutombo*                                 C) Antonio Davis*

 

                                           Bench                                             

Eric Snow                                                        Chris Childs

Kevin Ollie                                                       Dell Curry

Rodney Buford                                                Jerome Williams

Todd MacCulloch

 

                         DNP  

Raja Bell                                                          Kornel David

Matt Geiger                                                    Michael Stewart

George Lynch                                                Eric Montross

Keon Clark

 

What do you need to know about these guys?  Besides Vince and Iverson there are two all-stars on the floor.  Both centers.  Dikembe Mutombo, who is 34 years old and has just won his fourth defensive-player-of-the-year award (an NBA record).  And Antonio Davis, who had just had the best season of his career where he averaged 14 points and 10 rebounds with 2 blocks a night.  Some other notable role players include Morris Peterson, who is a rookie this year but is already showing his value as a long, three-and-D player after a strong 17 points and 7 assist night in game 6.  Also, Aaron McKie, Iverson’s running buddy in the backcourt.  McKie was a strong, steady, point guard who complimented Iverson beautifully.  He had just won the 2001 sixth man of the year award but has been starting in these playoffs for his defence against Vince.  The Raptors also had Charles Oakley on their roster, but he was far from the prime of his career.

As both teams take the floor the energy in the arena is palpable, and audible.  Now remember, game 7 jitters are for real.  Look at the first three minutes of any game seven ever, I guarantee you both teams have slow starts offensively.  There’s too much adrenaline and nerves and stakes and everything for teams to shoot well right out the gates.  The same thing happens here with this game.  The tip goes the way of the 76ers and they immediately send it to Iverson who puts up a quick, leaning, midrange jumper which misses.  Mutombo grabs the offensive rebound and puts up a clumsy hook shot over Antonio Davis, which clanks off the rim.  This sequence immediately shows off the identity of the 76ers offence, give the ball to Iverson and let him create for himself or others, then crash the offensive glass when the shot goes up.  The team doesn’t just belong to Iverson, the team is Iverson, and you can see that by how quickly they get him the first shot.  Mutombo’s hook shot is also informative.  You see his long arm unravel when he shoots, which lets you appreciate the nine-and-a-half-foot standing reach that lets him block so many shots, but you also see the clunky, limited offensive game he has.  There is no fluidity to his movements, you can almost see him think about what he’s going to do as he brings the ball down (something nobody 7’2” should ever do) and put up that clumsy hook.  Mutombo is one of the best there is at what he does, but he doesn’t do much more than that.

To start, both teams come out running like gangbusters.  You can see the tension of an elimination game as they both rush shots and make silly mistakes leaving the game scoreless through the opening minute and a half.  The first bucket we see is an impressive faceup drive along the baseline by Antonio Davis.  As a star, Davis has become somewhat lost and forgotten to time, but this was an all-star move to start off the game.  It also exposes the one defensive weakness of Mutombo, who, while is maybe the greatest rim protector ever, at this point in his career had the footspeed of a cement block.  This was taken advantage of by Davis in this series.  Midrange jumpers forced Mutombo to play him honest from outside, and the superior quickness of the younger Davis allowed him to blow by on drives to the rim.  Mutombo is the bigger name here, but Davis quietly dominated the defensive player of the year in this series.

raptors-76ers.jpgThe next minute is a mini run by Charles Oakley, who hits back to back jumpers from the left baseline.  Sixers call timeout.

They come back and immediately go into a half-court press.  Hoping to bother the less comfortable ball handlers of Toronto and prevent them from running the fast break, a strength of this Raptors team.  The 76ers could take advantage of having multiple ball handlers on the court at once with Iverson and then either Snow or McKie, while the Raptor’s off-guard was Vince, who could lead the offence but not as a point guard.  This is really effective as the 76ers take the next five minutes in a barrage of free-throws and easy buckets off turnovers.  We even get an Iverson dunk, something that is liberating for any basketball player south of six feet tall *cough* *cough*.

At the end of the first quarter the 76ers lead 31-21.  Philly has built this lead by winning the mental game most of all.  They came out with much more poise than the Raptors, who were forced to take fewer and more difficult shots from the midrange and outside.  The 76ers got to the line more due to their pressure inside and on the glass and won the turnover battle off their own defensive energy.  Toronto didn’t seem ready to play until the final two minutes of the quarter, where Vince Carter has a brief moment where he seems to realize that he’s the best player on the team and should probably be taking the lead in a game 7.  Carter’s inconsistent effort was a staple of his career as a star and will certainly play a factor here.

In the second quarter the Raptors bounce back with an 8-0 to start.  Vince draws doubles and Dell Curry and Chris Childs knock down jumpers, and Antonio Davis takes it strong with a two-handed slam in traffic.  Defensively the Raptors pick it up as well, staying level-headed and not allowing the speed of the 76ers to force errors.  Iverson does not have his shot going, taking quick, pull-up threes early in the shot clock.  Still, the threat of Iverson as a scorer has so much gravity on the floor the Raptors defence has to collapse on the drive, which allows him to pass out of doubles to get teammates open looks.  Iverson distributes the ball very well in this game, able to lead the team offensively even when he isn’t shooting his best.

The Raptors run comes to an end when they start getting sloppy again.  A full court pass attempt becomes a turnover, Charles Oakley misses a wide-open layup, and the Sixers are just destroying the offensive glass.  However, one bright spot for the Raptors has been Alvin Williams.  Williams has been playing excellent defence against Allen Iverson, hounding the MVP with and without the ball.  Iverson still can get anywhere he wants to on the floor, but Williams is forcing him to be a distributer rather than a scorer, which is definitely the version of Iverson you’d rather play against.

The first half ends 50-42 for the 76ers

 

The third quarter goes back and forth.  The Raptors cut it to two and then let it slip, and then bring it back and then let it out again.  Vince Carter isn’t doing much thus far, most of the offence being generated from Alvin Williams, Charles Oakley, and Antonio Davis.  Especially Davis who is just taking it to Mutombo.

One funny moment of this quarter is when Iverson takes a tough fall on a drive and spends the next minute is grimacing up and down the court.  After a timeout the Sixers come back and the sideline reporter, Andrea Joyce give this report; “The training staff say he landed on his left tailbone and were icing it in the huddle.”

This is funny for two reasons.  One, they were icing his butt in the huddle, and two, human beings don’t have a left tailbone, tailbones go down the middle.

The Raptors offence improves a lot this quarter.  Shooting 8-11 to Philly’s 5-9.  The Raptors have a much more jump shooting offensive style, a style which when it’s clicking can be unstoppable, but if you’re not hitting your shots than you’re pretty much cooked.  Chris Childs hits two 3s, Dell Curry hits one, and Vince and Antonio Davis are steady factors throughout.  Though down the stretch of the third Davis starts to get into foul trouble.  This will cause him to sit late in the 4th quarter when he picks up his 5th foul.

The third quarter ends in a barrage of turnovers and free throws.  Neither team gives an inch. 69-66 Philly.

 

The fourth starts off with a big dunk by Jumaine Jones, but Vince responds with his first field goal in what seemed like ages, hanging and flipping it left-handed up over Mutombo.  Both teams shoot the lights out to start the fourth.  Through to the five-minute mark the 76ers deny Carter the ball and the Raptors can’t get him going.

Don’t get me wrong, the Sixers defence against Vince has been good, but he hasn’t been fully locked in all game, mostly putting in bursts of effort at the ends of the quarter that don’t go that far.  The game is neck and neck entering the final stretch and Vince won’t score in the final four minutes.  Raptors down by 2.

For the pivotal possessions of the game the Sixers execute their signature play.  Give the ball to Iverson and clear out the entire left side of the court for him.  This isn’t a bad strategy but Iverson just doesn’t have his shot tonight.  He drives down the middle and gets hounded at the rim.  The 76ers crash the glass and come up with the offensive board.  Back and forth this happens with this Raptors getting one shot on offence and the Sixers having multiple attempts to score due to their rebounding.

Down by 4 now the Raptors stop the Sixers on a possession that saw three offensive boards.  They break down the floor and Dell Curry, channeling the spirit of his son Steph (a 13-year-old in the stands at this time), hits a pull up three in transition to bring the Raptors within 1.

The Sixers once again put it in the hands of Iverson.  He plays the pick and roll with Mutombo, drives right, pulls up, but the jumper is long.  The ball is bobbled out and the 76ers come up with another big second chance.  Eric snow gives it up to Iverson, who immediately gets doubled and sends the ball back to Snow.  Snow puts up a long two that misses.  Rebound Toronto.  Timeout.

Down by one with two seconds to go, everyone in the building knows the last shot is going to Vince.  They set up a screen play with Dell Curry inbounding.  Antonio Davis sets a big pick to get Carter the ball (it was a moving screen but nobody calls that in the playoffs).  Vince catches the ball on the left side wing, he flares to his left while being hounded by Tyrone Hill.  On the wing, he pump fakes his man into the air, swings the shot around, and gets an open look to win the game.

 

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raps4-0.jpgBut misses.  76ers win 88-87.  Carter smiles, embarrassed.

 

Both Vince and Iverson had tough games scoring.  I don’t hold this against either of them though, each guy had been too hot in the previous games and drew way too much defensive attention to go for a big night.  Instead their performances were written in the assist column, Iverson with 16 and Vince with 9.

So who did score in this game?  Aaron McKie and Antonio Davis.

Davis was a man.  I admit, before watching this game I was never so impressed with AD.  He was a one-time all-star, a solid double-double guy for his career, and a pretty underwhelming big man in an era that featured; (I encourage you to listen to the Benny Hill theme while reading the list) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MK6TXMsvgQg

 

Shaquille O’Neal

 

Hakeem Olajuwon

 

David Robinson

 

Tim Duncan

 

Patrick Ewing

 

Kevin Garnett

 

Chris Webber

 

Dirk Nowitzki

 

Vlade Divac

 

Karl Malone

 

Dikembe Mutombo

 

Shawn Kemp

 

Alonzo Mourning

 

Jermaine O’Neal

 

Ben Wallace

 

Elton Brand

 

Arvydas Sabonis

 

Derrick Coleman

 

and Rik Smits

But this game was proof that Antonio Davis was deserving of the title of all-star.  He outmaneuvered, outthought, and outplayed the greatest shot blocker of the modern era, and he was the best player on the floor in a game 7.  Big win here for AD.

Aaron McKie?  The defensive strategy for both teams in this game was “I don’t care who shoots as long as it isn’t that guy.”  Both the Raptors and Sixers decided to give the rest of the team open looks if it meant stopping the stars, and in the end the best roll players were the ones who won the game.  Aaron McKie had an incredible night on both ends, playing part-time point guard with Iverson, hitting open jumpers when they doubled him, AND guarding Vince Carter all night, holding him to 20 points and 33% shooting.  McKie lead the 76ers in scoring with 22 points, he grabbed 7 boards, and shot 50% from the field.  He swung the game, no question.

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Before the 2019 championship I would have been sad watching this game.  For 15 years this was the pinnacle of basketball achievement for the Raptors.  The missed shot that would have sent the team to the conference finals.  Wait, what?  The conference finals?  Yes, this was the second round guys.  Vince Carter’s playoff apex on the Raptors was the second round.  What we didn’t know at the time was that Vince Carter would never be as good again.  He would spend three more years in Toronto where he would get progressively pouty and uninterested in team success.  He wanted out of the city, and he didn’t care who knew.  In the end he had the lowest apex of any of the Michlones, and it really didn’t seem to bother him that much.  He kicked ass in dunk contests and popularity contests, but not basketball games.  Not the important ones anyway.  That’s about the least Jordanesque thing you can do.

This is why I think Vince Carter is overrated by NBA fans.  He’s buoyed historically by his dunks and his flair and his oh-my-freaking-god-22 years of NBA play.  But when you’re making the case for Vince as a superstar and the first moment you bring up is a dunk contest?  That’s an excuse, not an argument.  Vince was an exceptionally talented, wildly entertaining, star, but not a superstar.  At his best he was able to hang with the top players in the league, and lose.  Of all the Jordan impersonators in this era, Vince’s interpretation was the least accurate.

What was this game in the end?  The brightest moment for an expansion team from Toronto, Canada.  This was the Raptors’ peak when they were still a new franchise, second class, unproven.  This game was legendary for a fanbase tortured by failure, but not anymore.  This game was remembered by a team used to losing, but we don’t lose like this anymore.  The Raptors have come a long way from this game, all the way in fact, and I’ll take the more recent memories any day.

2020 NBA Draft Teaser Trailer

In early April we usually have March Madness behind us, a full season of college hoops, and all the information we’re going to get about the prospects before the draft.  As we’re all aware, this year has been anything but usual.  We’ve had no March madness, and most of the top NBA draft prospects have either been injured, suspended, or played half-seasons overseas.  Between the consensus of this years draught of top tier talent, the lack of information, and the screwed-up schedule, my annual draft diary has never been less accurate or harder to argue with.  For those of you who don’t watch the top draft prospects outside of the tournament, here’s a brief outline on the players that first stood out to me.  I’ll make an updated more detailed list before next season starts, but for now you get a teaser trailer of my favourite guys in this year’s draft class.

 

James Wiseman

Projected to go #1 this year before his NCAA suspension, Wiseman boasts all the tools and talent of a gifted but limited center.  While this shouldn’t be held against him, it does carry some weight if we’re talking about him going #1 overall.  Wiseman is a 7’1” athletic freak with an NBA ready body, a condor wingspan and handspan, and a 38-inch vertical leap.  The athleticism of Wiseman cannot be understated, but the most intriguing aspect of his physical gifts is his speed.  Wiseman not only towered above his fellow college big men, but he also outran them on the fast break.  The defensive potential of Wiseman is his selling point in the draft.  A true centre with the size and strength to bang with the Embiids of the world, and with the speed to switch and keep up with the NBAs best guards.  The offence is where Wiseman’s weaknesses show.  In high school and college all of his scoring came basically off dunks and alley-oops.  He scores in the post, but he doesn’t really have any moves besides the ol’ shove and go, and most of his success there comes from his size.  He is willing but not able to shoot jumpers yet consistently, but he has a solid free-throw form so the basis for shooting range is there.  Wiseman truly is a top tier talent, but with NBA teams in the lottery you have to think of what he’ll be longterm.  NBA centers with no jump shot, no real offensive moves, and haven’t played competitive hoops since high school have a lot to worry teams with.  But the upside of Wiseman as a defender and raw athlete is too juicy to pass up.  Also note that his season-long suspension was due to an administration technicality on the part of the University of Memphis and Penny Hardaway, not the character of Wiseman himself.  All that said, he’s a lock for the top 3 and it isn’t really that close.

NBA comp:  Dwight Howard, Clint Capela

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Anthony Edwards

A Super athletic combo guard, Edwards has good size and strength at 6’4” with great explosiveness and ups.  He doesn’t quite have the skillset to match his elite body but the potential for greatness is there if he can add some more finesse to his game.  The jump shot is inconsistent but he has a decent form, he’s much more effective attacking the basket.  The allure of Edwards may draw teams to him in the draft, but he’s probably a year or two away from being who he’s gonna be.  Defensively he can keep up with any guard in the league, but like most young players with his athleticism, Edwards can be erratic on that end.  I’d love to see him in Detroit playing on and off with Derrick Rose, he’s certain to have at least one monster dunk next season.

Player comp:  Poor man’s Russell Westbrook, Jaylen Brown

 

Obi Toppin

Another great athlete, this time at the power forward position, Obi Toppin’s fate in the NBA depends a lot on where he gets drafted.  Just like how Amare’ Stoudemire became a star while playing with Steve Nash, Toppin can similarly become a great player if he’s paired with the right situation and point guard.  At 22 years old, Toppin is one of the more seasoned prospects in the lottery and can most certainly help a team in “win now” mode.  I’m not sure he has star potential, he’s not much of a shooter, his handle can be effective but looks hideous, and his play style is completely dependent on his athleticism.  On the other hand, Toppin has been averaging 20 points, a block, a steal, 7.5 rebounds, and shoots 63% from the floor, so it doesn’t seem to be much of a problem for him.  Yet.  I’d love to see him on the Warriors where he can thrive off Steph and Draymond’s passing and catch lobs and play the dunker spot or the small ball five.  In the NBA he will be an instantly effective role player, but I personally don’t see him becoming more than that.

Player comp:  Dwight Powell, Kenyon Martin

 

Deni Avidja

A 6’9” stretch forward from Israel.  His numbers playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv aren’t insane, but that’s to be expected when playing second fiddle to older former NBA players like Amare Stoudemire and Tyler Dorsey.  His ceiling may be the highest in his draft class, with legit 25-foot range and great passing vision and handle for his size, he has the blueprint for the kind of perimeter scoring force that every team is looking for.  He’s not the fastest player in the world but has good strength for an 18-year old and has learned a basic but effective post-game focusing on aggression.  The best part about his game is his craftiness and playmaking at the forward position.  This shows a basketball IQ beyond his years and combine this with his shooting and we’re starting to see the potential for an offensive virtuoso.  Playing in Europe against professionals for a few years has definitely helped mould Avidja into a high IQ rookie, but he needs to show that he can be more than just an elite role player if he wants to make a splash in the NBA.  With the lack of no-brainer talent in this year’s class, expect to see the allure of Avidja’s ceiling as a player attract suitors on draft night.

Player comp:  Danilo Gallinari, Michael Porter Jr.

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LaMelo Ball

It seems like LaMelo has been in our lives for years.  Definitely the most famous draft prospect this year, LaMelo carries a lot of the same strengths and weaknesses he did when he dropped 92 points as a sophomore in high school.  Much like his brother Lonzo, LaMelo boast great size for a point guard (Lonzo 6’6”, LaMelo 6’7”), they both have amazing passing vision, and both have undeniable quirks when it comes to scoring the ball.  LaMelo plays with a style and flash that’ll carry him far as a rookie trying to win crowds, but that can backfire when it comes to his in-game decision making.  You see his passing and shooting highlights and can understand the upside of a locked-in LaMelo Ball, but he may turn out to be an all or nothing type prospect with some real bust potential.  The shooting is the X-factor here.  LaMelo has fixed his shot form this past year and now releases the ball with a much more natural motion.  That said he still falls in love with the 3-point shot, and while that can lead to big scoring nights when he’s hitting, it can be equally negative when he’s not.  At worst, you’re getting a 6’7” playmaker with the potential for real 3-point marksmanship.  That’s a pretty good baseline in a draft with so many unknowns.  The decision making and defensive effort will always be in question, but that is up to the NBA teams to hammer out.  Personally, I would love to see LaMelo on the Bulls or the Knicks.  A team that would put his passing on full display while having the huge fan base to bolster him off the court.  At the end of the day LaMelo is as talented as anyone in the draft, the only thing holding him back is himself.

Player comp:  Jumbo Jason Williams, Trae Young?

 

Vernon Carey Jr.

While I admit Duke lottery prospects are a guilty pleasure of mine, Vernon Carey is one of my favourite Blue Devils in years.  A strong, bruising, PF/C, standing at 6’10” and 260 pounds, Carey’s frame allows him to bang with the bigs, but it’s his skillset that sets him apart.  He doesn’t have great length or vertical explosion, but he’s really strong and has exceptional footwork.  That’s what stands out the most to me, he has quick feet, soft hands, and a polished post game.  The rebounding is another strongpoint.  He uses his strength and low centre of gravity to get himself into position on the boards, but also has a great awareness of where the ball is going to come off the rim.  Those instincts and nose for the ball is something you just can’t teach.  The drawbacks of Carey are the shooting and that his strengths revolve around an older style of play.  Don’t be fooled by his 38% 3-point percentage, he barely shoots them.  This limits him offensively on the court, and while NBA players have learned to shoot before, Carey doesn’t seem too interested in adapting the long ball.  On the whole this kid is one of the safest bets in this year’s draft.  He fights and rebounds at a high level, he can play at the four or the five, he can handle himself scoring around the rim, and has a great motor and basketball IQ.  I’d love to see the Celtics use their Memphis pick on Vernon Carey Jr.

Player comp:  Wendell Carter Jr, Zach Randolph.

 

Cole Anthony

The son of former NBA player Greg Anthony, there is something to be said about prospects who grew up in and around the NBA.  Adapting to the travel schedule is easier for them and the whirlwind of NBA life and the competition is less foreign.  On the court he reminds me a lot of Fred VanVleet, a smaller and offensively focused pure point guard.  Cole Anthony probably has the most reliable jump shot of anyone in the lottery, which opens up the floor for him to drive and dish.  He’s got good vision and a smooth handle based around hesitations and changes of direction.  His biggest struggle so far has been with injury, missing most of this college season with a torn meniscus.  While this of course needs to be taken seriously, Anthony’s smaller frame and perimeter play style isn’t so reliant on athleticism that this injury should derail his effectiveness on the court.  With the swath of guard talent in this year’s lottery, expect Anthony to fall in the draft and get picked up in the 6-12 range.  I like his game.  He’s already shown more skill than his dad.

Player comp:  Fred VanVleet, Jalen Brunson

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Stay healthy, stay safe, stay away from me.