The Toronto Raptors fit the profile of a team that should be going for it all right now. They have two likely All-Stars in their primes, and they just opened the vault in free agency for a perfect positional fit who turns 30 this summer.
And after two straight first-round playoff losses, including an embarrassing sweep against the Washington Wizards last season that nearly resulted in a coaching change, the Raptors are hungry to prove their guard-heavy brand of ball can win in April and May.
"It's cool to make the playoffs," Kyle Lowry told ESPN.com. "It's not cool to lose in the first round anymore. The goal is to make the Finals."
Toronto is one of just four teams in the top 10 in both points scored and allowed per possession. The offense was powerful last season, but those Drakes relied too much on pull-up jumpers and the floppy ref-baiting of Lou Williams -- junk that doesn't hold up against playoff defenses. They've shaved away five pull-up jumpers per game and replaced them with better stuff -- catch-and-shoot looks, free throws and about nine more drives to the basket, according to SportVU tracking data research.
Lowry and DeMar DeRozan work as co-point guards, coaxing the defense in one direction before swinging to the other side as opponents rush to tilt back into balance:
"We've gotten really good at attacking gaps," coach Dwane Casey told ESPN.com.
After bleeding points last season, the Raptors hired Andy Greer, a Tom Thibodeau lieutenant from Chicago, to help Casey install a more conservative scheme on defense. Masai Ujiri, the team's general manager, spent almost $95 million combined on three defense-first free agents: DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph and Bismack Biyombo. The defense hasn't been as air tight as Casey would like, especially when Jonas Valanciunas is on the floor, but the Raptors feel more like a solidly built house.
"This is the best team I've ever played on," DeRozan told ESPN.com at shootaround in New York last week, a few hours after learning Carroll had undergone knee surgery that will keep him out most of the regular season.
Yet there is a lingering sense that we've seen this movie twice before: the Raptors as a perfectly nice team not good enough to advance, and not sure how to close the gap. "How do you get from good in the NBA to great?" Ujiri asked. "That is really hard."
Ujiri has the tools to try, and the rest of the league is waiting impatiently to see if he'll use them. Ujiri has moved cautiously in Toronto. He has stuck with Casey despite near-constant rumblings about the coach's job status, and he spent most of the first two seasons learning the roster, unwinding the Rudy Gay trade and retaining guys whom his predecessor, Bryan Colangelo, drafted. He has made only trades that were risk-free fleece jobs. Replacing Williams and the beloved Amir Johnson with Carroll marked Ujiri's first major shot at remaking the Raptors as his own.
We have no firm idea what exactly that team is. Carroll and Valanciunas have played just 15 games together, and Carroll hasn't been healthy since injuring his knee in the conference finals. If higher-ups think the healthy version of that team could push Cleveland, Ujiri has assets to dangle ahead of next month's trade deadline: the Knicks' pick in the coming draft (thanks, Andrea Bargnani!), a future pick from the Clippers and all his own picks plus a gaggle of young guys who can't get on the floor because the Raptors are too good.
Toronto could flip some of that for help on the wing, or an upgrade at power forward -- the biggest long-term hole on the roster. "We already have so many young players," Ujiri said. "And those extra picks over the next two years -- we can't use all those picks. So [a trade] is always something you're looking at."
Alas, most signs point toward inertia -- especially for a team that wins just enough that any shake-up feels like a gamble. With at least 13 teams chasing playoffs spots in the East, there may not be enough sellers willing to swap good players for future assets. "[Commissioner] Adam [Silver] has done a great job creating parity," Ujiri said. "I don't know if that will create more deals or less deals, but it seems like less to me."
Lottery teams with trade targets on pricey, long-term deals, like Brook Lopez, Thaddeus Young and Danilo Gallinari, may choose to keep those players instead of scrambling to fill an expanding cap in a barren free-agent market. Fanciful, star-laden deals rarely happen, even if you'd love for the Raptors to act boldly. The Knicks aren't trading Carmelo Anthony, who can veto any deal. Toronto would be a perfect fit for Al Horford, but the Hawks view him as a long-term cornerstone, even as he approaches unrestricted free agency this summer.
And how about this doozy multiple executives pitched to me: When Memphis throws in the towel, how many extra goodies would Toronto have to attach to Valanciunas to entice the Grizzlies into a Valanciunas-Marc Gasol center swap? (The answer, it appears: way too many). Without including Valanciunas, the Raps don't have the goods to compete with Boston, Philly, or even Phoenix in the "trade for a superstar" derby; they'll have to look one tier down.
It's hard to find a workable match among more realistic big men: Markieff Morris, Kenneth Faried, Ryan Anderson, Channing Frye, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Young and perhaps one or two others. Ujiri almost never trades first-round picks, and unless he thinks the Raps are really one nudge away from the Finals, he's not going to break that rule for a veteran on the decline (Frye), a malcontent (Morris) or an impending free agent about to make big money. The Nuggets might demand more than just the Knicks' pick for Faried, an original Ujiri selection, league sources say. Faried might not be worth that much to the Raptors, anyway; he can't shoot, and he's not a major defensive upgrade over Luis Scola or Patrick Patterson.
If the Raps can nab Morris for less than a first-round pick, they should gamble on him. Even then, Toronto would have issues sending out matching salary. Terrence Ross is the kind of young player on a mid-sized deal who lubricates any trade, but he's stuck in poison-pill status until the offseason after signing an extension in October.
And that's when the Raptors will have to make some huge decisions that could chart their course for the half-decade.
If the Raptors lose early in the playoffs again, they will face a simple question: Is this core good enough that improvement from the players on hand is all they need to approach Cleveland's level?
That starts with DeRozan, a lock to decline his option and hit free agency this summer. A bunch of teams, including DeRozan's hometown Lakers, are prepared to offer him a max deal starting at $25 million per season, and the Raptors know they will have to spend big to keep him.
In Denver, Ujiri re-signed every core guy. Each deal on its own was good, and tradable. DeRozan at the max would be movable, too. But do that enough times, and suddenly you're capped out. Suddenly, this is your team. Bring back DeRozan at the max, and the Raptors would blow past next season's salary cap and have about $105 million on the books for 2017-2018, when the league and players union project the cap will be about $108 million.
No one is ever really stuck in the NBA -- no one except the Brooklyn Nets, anyway. Ujiri could get off money in a pinch. But things become harder when you're capped out. You need to move more pieces, to more places, just to sign someone. Some signing mechanisms vanish. Mega-contracts are trickier to move than $10 million deals. "It's something we have to study," Ujiri said of the Raptors' cap sheet. "We are always studying. We believe in our players. They are growing together. You make these assessments as you go."
DeRozan is particularly interesting, because the Raptors have an obvious succession plan: Ross at shooting guard, alongside Carroll, giving them above-average 3-point shooting at all three perimeter positions. Ross hasn't earned that sort of trust, but spending $35 million per year on two shooting guards would cramp Toronto's ability to add at other positions of more dire need.
But replacing DeRozan would be hard. He has gotten about as good as any guard can get without a 3-point shot -- a hole in his game Toronto doesn't feel as much, now that all their power forwards can shoot 3s. A year or two ago, most teams would have run away from a DeRozan max deal. Hell, we all pilloried Colangelo for paying him $9 million per season in fall 2012. Back then, DeRozan was a low-IQ passer who barely ran the pick-and-roll; he shot 32-of-90 on that play in 2011-12, with a high turnover rate and few assists, per Synergy Sports.
Today, DeRozan runs as many as Lowry, and he's among the half-dozen most efficient pick-and-roll ball handlers in the league, per Synergy. He has hit 98-of-197 shots out of the pick-and-roll this season, and he's dishing dimes at a career-best rate.
The younger DeRozan couldn't slow down, manipulate the defense and hunt passes like this:
He uses the same heady change-of-pace game to fool help defenders into thinking their job is done before bolting to the rim:
DeRozan still takes a few preposterous midrange shots every game, but he's making enough of them, and he's getting to the rim -- and the foul line -- like a madman.
"To be honest," Casey said, "I didn't know he could be this kind of pick-and-roll player."
Years of hard work are paying off. DeRozan spent dozens of hours watching film of pick-and-roll experts, and he focused on Sam Cassell and Prof. Andre Miller, Ph.D., to see how ground-bound slow-pokes shredded defenses. If they could do it, surely a high-flier like DeRozan could. "I loved watching how those old guys worked," he said. Even when he watches games with friends, DeRozan will freeze the action as a player slithers around a screen and tick off that player's options. "I try to show my friends how to look at the game like we players do, and they're just like, 'What the hell are you looking at?' " DeRozan said, laughing. " 'What the hell are you trying to show me?' "
The lack of a 3-point shot should make DeRozan a liability away from the ball, but he never stops flying around picks. That makes him a natural fit for Lowry, who is happy to spot up for 3s when the defense sags toward DeRozan curling off a screen:
Getting Lowry stand-still shots like that represents a big part of DeRozan's value: Lowry doesn't have to do all the heavy lifting, and even Skinny Lowry might break down -- as Less-Skinny Lowry did last season -- under the burden of being a full-time go-to guy. Ross and Carroll certainly aren't ready to absorb DeRozan's possessions in the event Toronto lets him walk.
But you know who might be? Valanciunas. The big fella goes through entire halves when he doesn't get a single back-to-the-basket touch; he's shooting less via post-ups this season than last season, even though Casey trusts him now in crunch time. He has also taken just 21 shots directly out of the pick-and-roll, about one per game -- an unfathomably low number for a high-volume screen-setter.
It's unclear why Toronto's guards feel more comfortable passing to Biyombo, who sometimes plays like he's wearing oven mitts, than Valanciunas. Part of it is probably Biyombo's quickness; Toronto's big men set picks high on the floor, and perhaps Valanciunas just can't cover all that distance to the paint in sync with Toronto's speedy guards. Those guards also love to "snake" the pick-and-roll -- hoops lingo for swerving back in the direction of a pick -- and right into Valanciunas' path:
Valanciunas is ready for more on offense, provided the coaches trust him. The questions come on the other end, especially if the Raps can't find an ace defender at power forward to put next to him. Valanciunas appears more comfortable in the team's new scheme, which plants him in the paint, but he still ranks among the league's worst rim protectors by most available measures. Speedy ball handlers can beat Valanciunas to the rim when he rotates from the weak side in a crisis.
He hangs back so far that opposing guards can gather a head of steam and simply jet around him. "He's a work in progress," Casey said. "But he's better than he was. The scheme has helped him. He's someone we feel OK playing in the fourth quarter now."
You see progress -- possessions on which Valanciunas remains hyper-aware of both his man and the ball, and darts to the basket in time to quash an emergency:
A coach once told me that the key to being a good rim protector is the ability to "ignore the fluff" -- to sniff out bogus action happening around you and focus on the real danger. This is Valanciunas ignoring the "fluff" of Otto Porter floating behind a Marcin Gortat screen and freaking out Gary Neal at the rim:
Maybe relying more on Valanciunas unlocks a path to a higher ceiling, and a more flexible cap sheet: move on from DeRozan, chase the other stud free agents everyone will chase, and if you whiff on them, sign two rotation fits into DeRozan's salary slot -- a shooting wing (Kent Bazemore?) and a power forward (Jones?).
Ujiri's a shark. He won't go in any non-DeRozan direction unless he knows he has replacements in the bag. And if he wants DeRozan in the end, he can offer a fifth season no other team can match -- an extra year of security for which DeRozan might exchange some annual salary.
Toronto can't offer that to Horford, who could start at power forward next to Valanciunas, soak up some of DeRozan's scoring and shift to center in spacier lineups. Ujiri has long been connected to Nicolas Batum, who will also likely command a max deal amid the unprecedented salary-cap spike. Batum isn't as explosive as DeRozan, but he can shoot 3s, he's a (slightly) better passer and he can defend more positions. Pair him with Carroll, and the Raps would have two wings who can both shoot 3s and slide to power forward -- basic ingredients to the kind of powerhouse small-ball lineups Golden State discovered.
When I reported over the summer that Batum and Toronto harbored some mutual interest, Batum emphatically expressed his desire to remain in Charlotte. Still, expect Ujiri to at least sniff around the possibility of slotting Batum into DeRozan's salary slot.
"We want to be the kind of team that can go after anybody," he said.
But the status quo remains the most likely scenario: Batum and Horford stay home, and Toronto brings back DeRozan rather than risk losing him for nothing -- or, more accurately, for the unknown of free agents they might lure with DeRozan's $25 million. It's unclear what a $10 million player is anymore. In this nutty market, that theoretical Bazemore/Jones combination might run you more than $25 million.
That sounds crazy, but an informal poll of a dozen front-office executives on Bazemore's next average salary drew answers ranging from the mid-level exception, to $12 million, to "who the hell even knows?"
That status quo with DeRozan is fine. This team is really good, and they'll get better as Valanciunas, Ross and all the babies -- Bruno Caboclo, Bebe Nogueira, Delon Wright and Norman Powell --- develop together. Ujiri could re-sign DeRozan and upgrade at power forward over the summer by packaging Ross and other assets once Ross' poison-pill restriction expires.
DeRozan is also promising, again, that he will start shooting more 3s. "I have no problem shooting 3s," he said. "I just feel like I can get to the basket at will, so it almost feels like settling. But I know I have to take them, so now I'm just gonna shoot it."
Ujiri also has to decide if Casey is the coach he wants, though both Lowry and DeRozan endorsed Casey's return in separate interviews with ESPN.com. "The grass ain't always greener," Lowry says. "I want him back, but it's not my decision."
Another first-round loss would decide that question for him, but things become more complicated in a happy way if the Raptors advance. The Raptors almost went from mediocre to awful when they dealt Gay and flirted with trading Lowry to New York two seasons ago. They want to be great -- the kind of team that lands star free agents, plays on Christmas (the organization is pushing hard for that) and competes for the championship.
The road there is uncertain, and by default, it may depend on the team's current players. If they don't prove good enough by the time Lowry can hit free agency again after next season, they'll have to search for ways to pivot. "We've made good progress, but in the end it's about winning -- and winning big," Ujiri said. "That's the hard part."
10 Things I Like and Don't Like
1. The early-ness of a LeBron James cross-court pass
It's weird how little we talk about LeBron these days. One subtle thing that has always separated him: He doesn't just dissect the chessboard more than anyone; he does it faster, and that extra half-second is part of what makes him a hoops genius.
One tiny example: As he backed his man down on the right block against Toronto last week, a second defender slid over to wall off James' path to the basket. That required a third Raptor to sneak away from a shooter on the weak side to patrol the open Cav at the rim. James has seen this exact layout a gazillion times and dutifully whipped a cross-court laser to that shooter on the left wing for an easy triple.
A lot of triple-threat scorers who demand attention can make that same pass. Here's the difference: They usually watch those three defenders rotate into position, survey the scene and make a decision after the defenders have set their feet -- so that they are primed to move in any direction.
James zipped that pass as the two defenders were just starting their rotations. In other words: They were coming toward him, and he threw the ball in the opposite direction. They had no chance. He did it with such nonchalance; it was almost as if he found the whole thing boring.
Never forget to appreciate this dude.
2. The J.J. Redick-DeAndre Jordan super catch-and-roll
For the second straight season, the Clippers are managing just fine without Blake Griffin. The Clips have scored nearly 115 points per 100 possessions in eight games without Griffin -- about nine points above their season-long mark.
This is not to say L.A. is better without him. The Clips have feasted on cream-puff defenses, and they'll need every path to points and lineup flexibility to even think about competing against the Western Conference juggernauts.
But as the Clippers move forward, they have to at least think about how well they seem to function with Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan and J.J. Redick zipping around in a smaller, spacier, spread pick-and-roll system -- without Griffin cluttering up the elbows. Look how much strain Redick places on an opposing defense simply by curling around a Jordan pick and catching a pass from Paul:
All five Charlotte defenders scrunch inside to neuter this threat. Redick has been sizzling all season, and both Cody Zeller and Kemba Walker lunge toward him to shut off Redick's jumper. Zeller's rotation leaves Jordan uncovered, forcing both Marvin Williams and Jeremy Lamb to slide down toward the paint -- and risk posterization.
Williams' rotation is at least five feet longer with Paul Pierce in Griffin's place; Pierce is at the 3-point arc, while Griffin would be around the elbow. Those extra few feet mean everything. If Williams can rush to Jordan more quickly, everyone else can stick closer to their assignments.
Again: Griffin is a legit superstar, and the Clippers are better with him. Griffin's post game, and especially his killer passing, allow the Clips to thrive in tight spacing that would strangle most teams. And remember: Two years ago, Griffin carried the Clips when Paul missed a month with a shoulder injury. Paul is also 30, with a history of knee injuries, and he's shooting at career-worst levels from almost every spot on the floor. If the Clips eventually decide to deal one of their three stars, you could make a strong case that it should be Paul.
They don't have to deal any of them -- at least not yet. This is a really good team. But they're in Year 3 of proving they can hang with just two of them, and they should be wondering how much they'd lose allocating one of those three max-salary slots to a couple of solid rotation guys.
3. Orlando, playing its two position-less weirdos together more
In Orlando's past 10 games, coach Scott Skiles has paired Tobias Harris and Aaron Gordon for almost nine minutes per game -- way more time than he gave the duo earlier in the season. That's healthy; the Magic have a lot invested in both Harris and Gordon, and they need to investigate how the two mesh.
They can switch on defense, and Gordon can try his hand defending elite wing scorers. Spacing becomes clunky on offense when they play alongside a traditional center and one of Elfrid Payton/Victor Oladipo, but the Magic have still outscored opponents by about 10 points per 100 possessions since Christmas with Harris and Gordon sharing the floor, per NBA.com research.
That's a tiny sample size. It may not hold up, and Skiles is under pressure to win now. But the Harris-Gordon combo opens exciting possibilities, and the more Gordon is out there hopping around, the more entertaining Orlando is.
4. Return of the beasts
5. Fake runs
During a rare happy stretch of Philly's blowout loss to the Hawks on Friday, the Sixers' broadcast team pointed out that Philly was on "an 8-3 run." I know the Sixers aren't good enough to put together normal NBA runs, but an 8-3 scoring gap is not a run. It is a randomly occurring blip that happens every game. If the other team hits a 3, you're practically even.
Outscore an opponent 10-0, or 16-2, and that's a run.
On a related note: Please do not tell me how Player X was "close" to a triple-double unless he hit at least eight in all three categories. Do not label a guy who put up 19 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists as having been "just four assists away from a triple-double." Just four? He barely made it halfway! This is like a high school kid telling his parents: "I got 60 percent on my math test. I was only 40 percentage points away from acing it!"
6. Dwyane Wade's bag of tricks
Whenever Wade kisses some old-man floater off the glass, one bench guy will stand and spread his hands apart as if he's opening a bag. A second reserve will reach into the imaginary bag. The gag: They are mimicking Wade dipping into his "bag of tricks," and as he ages, Wade relies more and more on guile.
7. Ian Mahinmi, figuring out how to pass
Two or three seasons ago, Mahinmi was an incompetent passer. He had never cracked even 35 assists in a season, and when he tried to throw any pass longer than five feet, there was a decent chance it would fly 10 rows into the stands.
Now he's doing stuff like this amid the blur of a pick-and-roll:
The pass is nice, but it's the thought process that is really impressive -- knowing where your targets are going to be before you catch the ball, and understanding which of them is most likely to be open. Considering where he started, it is shocking Mahinmi can map the floor like this. Good for him.
8. Sacramento's off-ball defense
What is it about the Kings that makes them unable to play passable defense away from the ball, regardless of who is coaching the team or which players are in the game? Ben McLemore still can't navigate around a pick to save his life. The Kings are constantly sending two or three help defenders into the paint, leaving shooters open all over the place.
And god forbid anyone ever gets back on defense. Sacto battled Golden State on Saturday night, but they gave the Warriors six or eight easy points by paying zero attention as a Golden State player jogged behind the defense. It's hard to beat good teams in the NBA starting from that kind of deficit.
9. Arron Afflalo's gliding up-and-under
When Carmelo Anthony is pinging the ball around, Afflalo gets to mix in in some tasty, catch-and-shoot 3s with the shoulder-shaking, post-up moves that emerge organically in the triangle.
Afflalo's post game is all shoulder gyrations, step-throughs, pump-fakes and countermoves. It is jagged art. He squeezes just enough efficiency from midrange looks that would be awful shots for 90 percent of NBA players. Afflalo's version of the up-and-under is almost a slide -- a gliding pivot move that doesn't really have much "up" or "under" but still tricks everyone.
Afflalo is shooting 60 percent on post-ups, per Synergy Sports research, the second-best mark in the league behind only Kevin Durant.
10. Mike Malone shaving his beard
A hirsute tragedy. I'm honestly almost angry about this. Malone is a proud, New York-raised Irishman, and the combination of a bald head and graying beard made him look like a badass who might fight you outside one of the city's finest Irish alcohol-serving establishments. It suited Malone's classic fiery coach temperament. Bearded Malone belonged in Frank Costello's gang.
Clean-shaven Malone is just another coach.