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.

Playing (basketball) with yourself

The NBA in the wake of the Corona Pandemic

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I’m writing this from an underground nuclear bunker.  In light of the new apocalypse, the NBA, MLB, NCAA, and NHL have all ground to a stop.  So, as the most infectious plague in decades ravages our planet, I ask the same question anyone would in these trying times.

What are we gonna do about basketball?

I ask that not just about watching the NBA, I’ve cut playing basketball out of my own life too, and let me tell you, it’s been rough.  I’ve been feeling some serious withdrawal from my lack of hoops.  You know me, I play organized ball at least three times a week, and as much as I love my family, playing against 13, 15, and 50-year-olds doesn’t give me the same type of buzz.  I’ve found myself shivering under the rim at my local playground asking for handouts like a junkie.

“One-on-one?  Anyone for a one-on-one?  Cold and hungry.  One-on-one?”

Times have been hard.

While it sucks that we can’t play, I encourage anyone out there to hold off for now.  Before I really started thinking about it, I had no idea that playing pick-up with a bunch of dudes is basically a giant germ meet-and-greet.  Think about all of the other-people sweat you get on your hands.  Bleh.  Not that the hygiene of it would have mattered before, but for now I’d like to stay as uninfected as possible for as long as I can.  If you’re fit enough to be playing basketball, then protecting yourself from the disease is really more about protecting other people.  Do the right thing here hoops fans.

Maybe even worse than not being able to play is the lack of NBA content.  Sitting at home all day might not be so bad if I could at least watch the games every night, but no mas.  And yes, safety first, and I’m totally behind the NBA decision to postpone, but it still sucks.

Late last week, the NBA released this statement about its hiatus and plans for the future.

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The NBA suspended its season on March 10th and plans to take at least 30 days.  We can only hope that things will start returning to normal by April 10th but I wouldn’t be surprised if the suspension lasted longer than that.

Now, if I look at this like true fanatic, I’d say it’ll be interesting to see how this break could affect the rest of the season and the playoffs.  Most of the awards seemed already locked up, but LeBron had been making some serious ground in the MVP race when the season stopped.  I expect that this break will take the edge of his MVP resurgence but might help him in the post season.  We all know LeBron is superhuman, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned this season it’s that if you give him a bit of rest, he’ll be that much better when he returns.  The regular season was really winding down anyway, but I think what’ll be more interesting is how they rejigger the offseason.  Will they push the start of the 2020-2021 season back even further to accommodate play into June and maybe July?  I’d be fine either way, I’m really just curious what it’ll be like if we have to play the NBA finals in August.

And what if we have to play the finals in a stadium with no fans!  I don’t think it’ll come to that, or maybe I just really hope it won’t.  By all accounts this pandemic will last 1-3 months, which could really mess with the regular season but should be fine by the late playoffs.  I’m trying to stay optimistic here, so if you have some inside info about how this will really last 6 months, please don’t tell me.

I see the NBA starting the regular season up again around mid to late April, without fans, and then we might get to see some people (though still less than we’re used to) in the arenas by the second or third round of the playoffs.

The priority should be the health and safety of the players.  Because it’s such a tightknit community, the spread of COVID-19 within the NBA is cool microcosm of what it’s like in the country at large.  So far, we’ve had five players who’ve tested positive for COVID-19, ironically, they all play different positions giving us a strong NBA starting five.  The starters for the Corona team are:

  1. PG) Kyrie Irving
  2. SG) Donovan Mitchell
  3. SF) Kevin Durant
  4. PF) Christian Wood
  5. C) Rudy Gobert

There might be some defensive trouble in the backcourt, and some spacing problems in the frontcourt, but these five actually would work really well together.  Ignoring for now that the Karma gods have most certainly cursed Rudy Gobert for all eternity.  You watch, I don’t know how much long-term flack he’s going to get over introducing the virus to the league, but he’s gonna have a hard time making the all-star team next year when he gets zero fan votes.

And yes, there will be a next year.  I think it’s important for NBA fans, but really everyone, to remember that this will not last forever.  Someone very wise told me an interesting story that helps me moving forward during this trying time.  It goes like this:

The Biblical King Solomon of Judea tasked his chief advisor to find him a magical ring that would make a happy person sad and a sad person happy.  The advisor, eager to complete his task and set out at once.  He looked far and wide all over the land but could not find any ring like the one his King described.  Just as he was about to give up hope, the advisor saw a little shop tucked into the wall of a dirty street.  He figured “what the hell” and went looking inside.  To his delight the advisor saw sitting on a dusty shelf was just what he was looking for.  He returned to the palace with the ring in hand, and when he was led into the throne room of the King, he was greeted with some skepticism by the other advisors of the court.  Solomon called him forward and the chief advisor handed his King the ring that would make a happy person sad and a sad person happy.  Solomon looked at the ring, and he saw that inscribed on its stone were the words; “This Too Shall Pass.”  And he knew his advisor had succeeded.

The world is going through a rough patch, there’s no doubt about it, but while we deal with it it’s important to know that this too shall pass.  The end of the 2019-2020 NBA season is going to be weird but rest assured that it’ll be back to normal by 2021.

I’ll keep posting during the league suspension, so stay tuned for next time when I talk about what we missed out on for March Madness.

3/4 Season Rookie Report

maxresdefaultI have so much I want to talk about!  I want to write a preplayoff piece about both conferences!  I want to write a 2020 draft piece!  A March madness piece!  An NBA awards piece!  So much is happening!  AAAHHHHH

But I’m being patient.  I’m saving all those for the next few weeks, and for now I’m taking advantage of these year’s rookie class while we can still call them that.  I’ll probably discuss the Ja vs. Zion race when I write my NBA awards blog, but in this final and most accurate rookie blog post of the year I want to rank the 11 best rookies of the year in reverse order.   Note that this is not a piece on the rookie of the year award, my number one guy is not necessarily my rookie of the year.  Also know that everyone on this list has a bright future so no disrespect to your favourite rookie if you think he should be higher on the ladder.

#11 Coby White

Listen, I know he’s had some big scoring nights lately, I know he’s fun and funky and has just finished the best month of his career, but Coby White is the most overrated rookie in his draft class.  He has a lot of scoring ability, but he shoots literally every time he gets the ball.  He has good size for a point guard, but outside style combined with his lackluster defence makes his length and height pretty much moot (we also have to subtract six inches now that he’s tied his hair down).  Most importantly, he’s just not the kind of player the Bulls need right now.  They don’t need another score first, all or nothing, no-defence guard, they already have Zach Lavine!  I know the shooting and the scoring numbers look nice from far away, but his percentages are not good, and you can count on him to shoot it every time.  I was a big fan of his at North Carolina, but in basketball there are ball hogs by necessity and there are ball hogs by ego.  I don’t know what Coby White’s ego is like but his team does not need another ball hog.

 

#10 Terence Davis

I’m so happy I was right about this guy.  As soon as I saw him play for the Raptors’ summer league team, I knew we had a steal here.  Just look at him, he has the perfect combination of speed, size, and strength to defend either guard position, he’s the whole package offensively with his knock down three point shot, and he’s a good creator going to the rim.  He did luck out a bit playing for the Raptors who’s backcourt of Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet conceal Davis’s only weakness of mediocre playmaking.  Davis can score like a point guard but he can’t really create for others yet, still, give him time.  Finding hidden gems in the lower half of the draft has carried the Raptors further than any team but the Spurs, and with Lowry now entering his mid 30s the Raptors may have found their backcourt of the future in VanVleet and Davis.  Having TD on a cheap contract will also help Toronto financially during the Giannis sweepstakes.  If Giannis leaves the Bucks, the Raptors will have Lowry’s expiring max contract to throw the Freak’s way.  If Davis continues his upward trajectory, fans in Toronto can feel a lot better planning for a future without Lowry with yet another dangerous and affordable guard in Raptors colours.

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#9 Tyler Herro

I’ve written about Tyler Herro and I’ve talked about how much I admire his F-you edge.  While he hasn’t quite been the offensive dynamo we saw early in the season, having a deadeye shooter like that around primarily slashing players like Bam and Jimmy Butler is going to be very important for Miami’s playoff success.  Herro may be J.J. Redick 2.0 but the key difference here is that Herro is younger, bigger, and has already shown more offensive upside.  He’s out with an injury right now, but he should be back in time for Miami’s first round matchup.  If the Heat play the Bucks, Herro’s spacing will be key for the heat scoring against the wall that is the Milwaukee’s interior defence.  His shot and his confidence will take him far in this league, it’ll be interesting to see how he holds up in the eye of the playoffs.

 

#8 Eric Paschall

I don’t think I knew how much I liked Eric Paschall until now.  His scoring stats aside, I think that if the Warriors could pick anyone in this draft class to pair alongside Curry, Klay, and Draymond, the only person they’d take before Paschall is Zion.  His combination of physicality, touch, speed and strength make him the perfect modern power forward for the Warriors machine.  He is a bit older, but I think that actually helps his team win now.  He’s more mature than his fellow rookies and fits the timeline in a way where he can be a contributing player right away.  The only question is on defence, where he can get fooled and beat by craftier, more mobile forwards, but the Warriors’ can get some help on that end in the offseason.  Paschall also isn’t much of a pick and roll guy, but the Warriors run a motion-based offence anyway so it’s not as important.  I think this is a perfect example of how system and fit can make or break a player’s career.  I’m excited to see Paschall play alongside the full Warriors roster, but now that we have Curry back, we can get a little taste of how he’ll look with Golden State back to peak performance.

 

#7 Rui Hachimura

I’m much more comfortable being critical of players who have no fans.  I can dish as much dirt on the Wizards as I want and nobody will ever call me out for it.  It’s great.  Whether justified or otherwise, I’ve never been a fan of Rui Hachimura.  He always seemed to me as a system player whose raw ability elevated him above weak competition, and while his raw numbers this year may look like step in the right direction, the closer you look at it the more questions you have.  Hachimura has been averaging an efficient 14 points a game to go along with 6 rebounds.  Solid numbers.  But on a team like the Wizards who are looking for anyone to fill the void and are currently the most all-offence-no-defence team in the league, Hachimura’s scoring is more a result of circumstance.  He is a solid system scorer, he can hit outside jumpers, he has a strong body for a rookie forward, and always works hard on the floor, but he doesn’t have any shot creation ability or real offensive identity.  I think this is the most telling stat to describe his offensive limitations; Hachimura averages 11.5 field goal attempts per game, 75% or those attempts are assisted by a teammate.  For some context, Ja Morant averages 13.6 field goal attempts a game and his assisted percentage is 25%.  Ok, so maybe it’s because Morant is a point guard that that percentage is so low.  R.J. Barrett, who is a wing man and is averaging similar raw scoring numbers to Hachimura, he averages 12.9 field goal attempts a game and has a 33% assisted rate.  Hachimura is a strong system player, but has a long way to go before he’s anything more than that.

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#6 Brandon Clarke

Similar to P.J. Washington, Brandon Clarke is what is known as a floor raiser.  They may not have the electricity to be the face of your franchise, or score 40 for you in a playoff game, but they can always be counted on for 12-18 points, 6-12 rebounds, and in the case of Brandon Clarke, elite level defence.  We’ve all heard the Draymond comparisons but the key difference here is that Clarke is already a better shooter than Draymond ever was.  Now, I will not slander the name of the Green machine without mentioning that Draymond is also an elite playmaker, one of the ten best defensive players ever, and has held the belt as the league’s toughest co-star for the better part of a decade.  Brandon Clarke has a long way to go, but the mold and role he plays for his team are very reminiscent of Dray.  It’ll be interesting to see how Clarke progresses as a star.  With Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson occupying most of opponent’s defensive attention, Clarke will have a real opportunity to solidify himself as a legitimate third option.  For now, the Grizz really have an established first and second option on offence with the rest of the team taking turns being the third guy.  And while we’ve seen Clarke step up at times, the consistency is key here.  If nothing else Brandon Clarke will be a great role player, but if he continues to grow alongside Morant and Jackson we may be witnessing the birth of a new big three in Memphis.

 

#5 P.J. Washington

He’s 21, but still the polish and maturity Washington has shown this season is impressive.  Joining a team doomed to a losing record could break the spirit of immature players, but instead Washington not only became the face of the Hornets future, he did so in all the right ways.  He is a complimentary star, he is a modern NBA big that fights on the glass and on defence, he can switch from center to forward to wing on both ends of the court and can catch fire as a three-point shooter.  Washington has been able to carve out a vital role on his team without having the ball in his hands and without having plays run for him.  While he doesn’t look like an all-NBA level talent, could he be the second or third option on a contending team?  Definitely.  The shooting and switchability is his greatest strength.  Those two skills mean he can come into any system or situation and become an effective, efficient player who will always contribute to winning.  As Charlotte continues to search for their next young core to carry them into the future, they can be confident that in P.J. Washington they have found a star who will compliment his teammates and always raise the floor of his team.

 

#4 Kendrick Nunn

Despite being 24, and probably having the lowest ceiling of anyone on this list, it would be disrespectful not to talk about Kendrick Nunn.  A scrappy combo guard, what Nunn brings to the table is about him in the present rather than the future.  If he never gets any better than he already is than he’s still an above average NBA player.  He’s been playing on and off the ball when Jimmy Butler is on the floor and has been the second perimeter option on one of the most dangerous teams in the East.  Will Nunn ever be an all-star?  Probably not.  But he’s a reliable 16, 3, and 3, and has proven he can be an important piece on a competitive team.  Nunn is sure to have a long and successful NBA career, and for a guy who was undrafted and playing in the G League last year, his success story should be celebrated.  I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do in the playoffs this spring, particularly on defence where he has struggled thus far.

 

#3 R.J. Barrett

You have no idea how many times I wanted to write about him but held back.  The weirdest part about this year with R.J. Barrett is that I find myself becoming a Knicks fan.  That makes me the only convert Knicks fan on planet Earth.  How many times this decade do you think someone has said “I think I’m becoming a Knicks fan.”  I’ll tell you how many.  Zero.

I watch every minute R.J. plays, his box score can make or break an evening for me, it’s becoming a little creepy.  But through all of it I find my Barrett fandom has been rewarding me more and more often.  Especially lately; Barrett tied his career high in scoring against Houston this past Monday and did so with efficiency from the field and from 3.  With the game on the line, he took on one of the league’s best defenders in P.J. Tucker and beat him off the dribble to win.  It’s unlike the New York media to be anything but obnoxiously loud, but in the case of Barrett’s slow but sure upward trajectory they’ve been uncharacteristically quiet.  Since returning from all-star weekend Barrett has been averaging 17.3 pts, 3.1 ast, 4.6 reb, and shooting 48% from the field and 33% from three.  I know this is a small sample size, but Barrett has been on this upswing really since he returned from his ankle injury last month.  He’s been playing better and better, and I know the karma gods may smite me for saying this but the Knicks management have actually been making smarter decisions lately.  Under Steve Mills, Scott Perry, and now Leon Rose, the Knicks have traded Marcus Morris, a guy who was clogging the offence, taking touches away from the young guys, and was never gonna buy the team more on the market than he did when they traded him.  They entrusted the future of the team to the young core of Barrett, Randle, and Robinson (and Knox if he ever gets good).  And while they’re still one of the worst teams in the league they do now find themselves with a talented young core moving forward.  The Barrett/ Robinson pick and roll is real, they got some serious chemistry.

For the first time in a long time, there is a glimmer of hope in New York.  Now whether or not that hope is realized is still a long way away, but the Knicks front office has not made a hideous mistake in nearly three months, and that’s reason to celebrate.  All bias aside, I truly believe R.J. is the best rookie this year after Zion and Ja.  I know it stings for Knicks fans to miss out on two superstar rookies like that but be patient!  R.J. may not be the sensation they are yet, but he has as much potential as anyone, and by all accounts an incredible work ethic.  Whatever the best version of R.J. Barrett is, we’ll see it, and it’s going to be something to see when we do.

 

#2 Ja Morant

If anyone has suffered from the explosive emergence of Zion Williamson it’s gotta be Ja Morant.  If you remember way way back to December of 2019, we were talking about Ja Morant as this incredible rookie point guard who was the next John Wall or Derrick Rose or whatever.  As we continue to drool over every dunk, block, and offensive rebound Zion gets, we need to do so with the knowledge that we have an equally awesome rookie tearing it up in Memphis.  Ok, maybe not equally awesome, but still pretty awesome.

Let me be clear about one thing; my reservations about Zion were more about his durability and checking the hype around him.  Granted he’s exceeded my expectations but I always knew he’d be good.  I’m not counting that as an error for me, I wasn’t wrong damnit, I wasn’t!  But if you want to dish the dirt on me about someone you can look no further than my early takes on Ja Morant.  I admit it, I was wrong about him.  I was worried that he wasn’t a good enough shooter, that his passing was solid but not great, that he was athletic but not strong enough.  I was wrong.  Ja has been everything the Grizzlies could have hoped for and more.  He’s the most explosive guard in the league besides De’Aaron Fox, his jump shot is reliable and respectable, he wins games, and makes his teammates better.  What sets him apart I think from the other super quick guards in the league is the way he’s able to maintain control of himself when moving at top speed.  You see rookies like Coby White fly around the court like a firework, but then they explode and scatter into ash around your head (metaphors guys).  Ja not only has the bounce to make the athletic play, he has the coordination and balance to make the smart play too.  Between Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Clarke, and Dillon Brooks, the Grizzlies look like they’ve found a talented young core that can all play together, grow together, and do so each in different ways.  Ja as the ball handler and offensive conductor, Brooks is the 3-and-D wing, JJJ is the two-way stretch big, and Clarke is the Draymond doing all the nitty gritty stuff.  I really am cheering for this Memphis team to live up to its potential.  Ja Morant, I was wrong about you, you have proven that.

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#1 Zion Williamson

I knew he was gonna be good, but this good?   While watching him all last year at Duke everyone saw the worlds apart he was from his college competition athletically.  What I didn’t catch was how he was worlds apart from his NBA competition athletically.  The only concern I had for Zion was his injury risks, and while that still is a concern (and may always be a concern) the rest of Zion has never stopped getting better and better and better.  He’s a monster, athletically, he’s bullying everyone not named Giannis or LeBron, he’s playing point center on a team whose win percentage has improved by 15% since he entered the rotation, he’s shooting nearly 60% from the floor and 40% from three, and he’s averaging the most points per game of any rookie since Allen Iverson.  I always knew Zion would be good, but I did not expect him to be this good this soon.  We are truly witnessing the birth of a star here, I can’t wait for him to play in the all-star game next year.

 

For a rookie year everyone said was top heavy we sure got a bunch of good, young, players.  Tune in next time for my march madness outline, aswell as my first takes on this upcoming NBA draft.

How we can improve our all-star weekend?

6a31fb2f-f08b-4f68-81a9-8c752c4610ae         With all-star weekend behind us, the eyes of every NBA fan now officially shift to the playoffs.  The NBA doesn’t have any more big events until the post-season (unless you count the contract extension deadline and I don’t) so for the next few months we’re not really going to have a lot to look forward to.  This lack of immediate drama could be even more pronounced because of just how great this all-star weekend was.  Since the legendary dunk contest in 2016, All-star weekends have been floating somewhere between B+ and C grades for the past few years.  But between the new format of the big game, Zion in the Rising stars challenge, and Aaron Gordon-gets-snubbed 2.0 in the dunk contest, and we’ve definitely had one of the better All-star weekends in a while.

Part of what made this weekend so successful was the changes the NBA made to the formatting of the contests and games.  This was highlighted by this years’ all-star game, in which we saw more defense down the stretch than we had in decades.  But it was also a standout year in smaller ways, with the addition of the Mountain Dew shot in the 3-point contest and the selection process for the rising stars.  The NBA prides itself on being a league that is constantly working to improve its product, and All-star weekend is a great testing ground to see how the fans will react to new additions.  Expect to see Commissioner Adam Silver trot out something new every All-star weekend for as long as he holds his job.  Because I know he reads my blog, I’m gonna do some quick pitches for what I’d like to see added to all-star weekend going forward.

 

The Celebrity game

Every year, the weekend kicks off with the highly anticipated celebrity game.  Listen, I know this is the least popular event of the weekend and I know that the TV ratings for the celebrity game are less than 1% of the dunk contest, but if I had to be honest, I love this event.  It’s just so stupid and fun, and it doesn’t try to be anything else.  I wouldn’t change anything about the format or the game or anything, just the players.  The celebrity game will always be a second-class event, but if we continue to get second-class celebrities then it will most definitely stay that way.  And if we start to leak into the realm of third-class celebrities then it’ll only dip accordingly.  I understand that for this event the NBA tries to find people with at least a bit of basketball experience, and while it’s great to see that Lil Rel Howery kinda has a jump shot, that’s not why people watch this event.  I love that they include retired NBA stars (although can we please do better than Darius Miles and Quentin Richardson?) I love that they include WNBA stars, but rather than get a C+ rapper who can actually play basketball, let’s get A list celebrities who can barely dribble.  This will give more scoring opportunity to the NBA and WNBA stars, and we’ll get to laugh at famous people, which really is what this game is all about.  My all-time celebrity all-star game wish list is to have Barak Obama play.  He’s A+ level famous, he loves basketball, and apparently is pretty good at it.  If he plays one day, you’ll never hear me complain about this event again.  I mean it.  Never.

 

The Rising stars challenge

The rising stars challenge is fun for two reasons.  One, it’s fun to see young guys who aren’t stars yet get some recognition and time to shine.  Two, this game is 120% of the all-star game athletically and maybe 60% of the skill.  Everyone is a giant, uber-athletic child, and for an hour and a half we get to watch them fly around and do cool dunks and shoot from half court .  Fans never care as much about this event so we don’t get as much backlash about the players not trying on defense.  The only controversy we hear about is with the selection process.  Every year there’s a player who gets snubbed and we have to hear their fans mope about it for a month.  With social media and the passion of players and fans we will always have people who feel they got the short end of the stick for these things.  Bradley Beal was a prime example this year.  But while the all-star game selection is pretty fair, the rising stars challenge has some weird rules that end up keeping more deserving players out.

To fix it, we first have to get rid of the USA vs. World system.  It punishes American players and creates a weird power imbalance during the game.  I would return to the Rookie vs. Sophomore system we had a few years ago.  This will allow more rookies to participate, and rookies are really focus of this event anyway.  By their second year in the league we have a much shrewder idea of who a player is, and at the bottom of the selection list I’d rather see some spunky not-ready-yet rookie than a solid contributing second year player.  Seeing Moritz Wagner bump out a Matisse Thybulle and Terence Davis is just disappointing.  With this selection system we’ll be able to showcase more talented rookies, while still keeping the top-tier sophomore talent around.  We still want as much Luka as possible.

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The Skills challenge

Hold on to your hats people, I’m coming in swinging with this one.

We need to get rid of the skills challenge all together.  Why?  Because while it’s fun to see the big guys defeat guards in a contest the guards should be better at, nobody really cares about this event.  It’s not a real measurement of a player’s skills the way the dunk contest and the 3-point contest are.  It’s not exiting or flashy, it never sparks any narratives, and it’s an hour a of national television that could be better spent on something else.  We see all-star skills challenges in other sports like Hockey, and those make a lot more sense.  But for an NBA event, it doesn’t check any of the important boxes.

So what do we replace it with?  The only good part about the skills challenge is the mono-a-mono style of the competition.  It creates more suspense and pushes the players to give more of a shit.  These guys are competitors by nature, so the best way to keep them interested is through real competition.  We need to embody the 1 v 1 format of the skills challenge while changing the actual challenge.  We need a 1-on-1 tournament.  It would operate with the same matchup format as the skills contest, with an eight-man bracket that splits up bigs and smalls until the finals.  Games to 11 with 2s and 3s.

This event is totally fool proof.  NBA players play 1-on-1 with each other all the time.  It’s a matter of pride and is always competitive.  If we could create an event like this that pushes players to really try, focuses on real important basketball skills, and will definitely produce some highlights and twitter drama, why wouldn’t we?  The one wrinkle would be what level of player would be interested in this contest.  I understand that superstar players don’t want to risk losing in front of everyone and making themselves look silly, but at the same time the best players in the league all truly believe they can take anyone 1-on-1.  It could be the most competitive event of the weekend because there’s real pride involved.  Maybe we won’t see a LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant matchup in this tournament, but I could see players like Louis Williams, or Joel Embiid play.  How fun would it be to see them in the finals going at it?  Or what if we saw Kyrie Irving and James Harden breaking each other’s ankles for ten minutes straight?  If Adam Silver takes any of my words to heart today, please let it be these: “Change the Skills challenge to a 1-on-1 tournament, it’s better for the planet.  We’ve had almost 20 years of people not watching the skills challenge, and now it’s time to give the people what they want.”

 

The 3-point contest

This event is actually fine, it’s just a little long.  Maybe cut it from 8 contestants to 6?  Or make it just two rounds?

 

 

The Dunk contest

Similar to the 3-point contest, the dunk contest is pretty close to perfect.  It’s the most anticipated event of all-star weekend, and despite having a little hiccup in the early 2010s, this decade has shown us some of the best dunks ever.  Everyone loves the dunk contest, but in the wake of the Aaron Gordon controversy, and the back to back to back to back to back perfect scores this year, there is one problem with the dunk contest that can be very easily fixed.

Let’s just score the dunks on a scale of 100 instead of 10.  It all but erases the possibility of a tie, it’s much harder to get a perfect score when the judges are able to express subtleties in their ratings, and it would just be a more accurate way of judging the contest in general.  I think if the judges were scoring everything out of 100, Aaron Gordon would have two dunk contest trophies instead of none.  But mostly this is just a way of keeping the contest as fair and accurate as possible.

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The All-star game

With the new format of the game being such a huge success, I don’t think we need to change anything more about the rules of the contest.  But with players like Paul George out and Kris Middleton in I think it’s time we change the selection process.  The player/fan/media voting is great, but I think that in the same way we got rid of the East and West split for the game, we need to get rid of it for the voting as well.  The all-star game is about the best players in the world, and having the voting go by conference punishes players in the more star-studded half of the league (West).  Again, it’s about making the selection as fair as possible and as entertaining as possible.  I like Kris Middleton as much as the next guy, but there are a lot of guys I’d rather see in the game

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2020 has shown us one of the best all-star weekends ever, and it’s important to remember that as we talk about ways it can improve.  The NBA always puts on a great show, a better show than any other league’s all-star festivities.  The success of the weekend is fully based around the love people have for the game and for the league.  It’s all about showcasing the talent and fellowship of the NBA and its players, and in the wake of a truly trying year in the basketball world it’s good to have a time to celebrate all that we still have.

The final stretch of the regular season is ahead of us and there’s no looking back now.  The break is over and it’s time to get back to business.  This year’s all-star weekend was great, and I think we can all expect similar greatness for the rest of the NBA season and the playoffs.  I for one am ready for it.  You know what?  I take back what I said before, it only gets better from here!