By: Same Page Team
The NBA season is running hard for Christmas, which means there is just enough time to get Reynolds, Grant and Osubronie together for another Three for 3. This time out, it’s quarter season reflections.
1) What has been your favourite storyline of the season so far?
Going into the 2014-2015 NBA season we knew certain teams were going to stink. The Lakers and Sixers were guaranteed to be in the lottery, but after hiring Phil Jackson as their President of Basketball Operations and signing Carmelo to the max contract, I think we all had higher hopes for the New York Knicks. Instead New York has lost 21 out of 26 games and are by far, my favourite story line to the NBA season.
The Knicks were hoping to rebound from their disappointing season that saw them finish 9th in the East and not make the playoffs. James Dolan decided that throwing $60 million at the Zen Master (Jackson) would quickly improve the team’s fortunes and help them avoid a rebuilding season. As Phil’s first move, he traded away Raymond Felton and a former Defensive player of the year, Tyson Chandler, for players who are usually used as pylons on the defensive end. To make matters worse they signed the recently retired, rookie coach Derek Fisher, who won five championships while playing for Phil. Their plan was to institute the triangle offense that had been the staple of Jackson’s success as a coach. Unfortunately, the Knicks are now tied for third worst in the league scoring 93.9 points per game. I guess the triangle offense really is more confusing to some than others.
Carmelo Anthony got what he always wanted. He was able to test out the free agent market and ultimately found 129 million reasons to stay in New York and a no trade clause. What could go wrong? Well, after one month with his horrendous team, he publicly admitted that Chicago would have been the “perfect fit.” He later threatened to beat up one of his teammates. The only thing we’re missing is Melo and J.R. Smith physically fighting over the basketball during a game ending play. OK, the last one may not actually happen, but don’t you want to keep following this storyline hoping it might?
The Golden State Warriors have finally made the leap. They sit 21-2 as we near the seasons quarter mark, the best record in the NBA. After two years of ‘growth’ under snake oil salesman Mark Jackson (“Believe in yourself! X’s and O’s? What are those? Mama, there goes my job!”), it turns out that all G-State needed was the right person to steer the ship.
Steve Kerr took a non-traditional route to his first head coaching position. He won five championships during his playing career as a lights out three point specialist for the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs. He ran the post-Colangelo Phoenix Suns as President and General Manager from 2007-10. And he spent the past four years not cutting his teeth as an assistant coach, but working as a broadcaster, providing colour commentary for both NBA and college games. So when he threw his name into the ring as a potential hire for the Knicks and Warriors jobs this past off-season, many wondered if he was really ready. They should wonder no longer.
The type of basketball the Warriors are playing can only be described as “next level.” Even without perennial 18-10 forward David Lee, to a man Golden State has embraced Kerr’s philosophy and has met marked success. Despite their flashy image, they were actually an excellent defensive team under Jackson – they just needed someone to actually diagram an offense. Kerr has done that, turning Steph Curry into an MVP candidate and Klay Thompson into a near All-Star. Harrison Barnes no longer looks irrelevant. Draymond Green has arrived. And the superb defense of Andrew Bogut and Andre Iguodala is the backbone of a team that looks to make its first NBA Finals. It’s nice when a team actually lives up to its potential; the Warriors are doing just that and they have Steve Kerr to thank.
Death. Taxes. Kevin Durant. Some things are constant. One of the biggest storylines coming into the season was how the Oklahoma City Thunder would resume, once again, their run to the title. Every year it feels like it could be the year, until it suddenly isn’t. Still: Death. Taxes. Kevin Durant.
OK, so Durant broke his foot before the season started. And then Russell Westbrook, the nuclear bomb of the NBA, broke his hand. Suddenly OKC, a team that has been a lock for the playoffs for the past five years, was knocked on its (presumably broken) back. You see, the Western Conference is not a normal conference. It doesn’t let a team go on a considerable cold streak; it doesn’t wait patiently for a team to get its best to players back; it does not care. Death. Taxes. Etc.
After 16 games, the Thunder were 5-11. In the East? No biggie. In the West? Good luck. Then Russell Westbrook came back on November 28th. (He went off for 32 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists in 24 minutes his first game back. No biggie.) Then Kevin Durant came back on December 2nd. Now the Thunder are 12-13 and sit in ninth place, a half game out of the final playoff spot in the West. This is the conference where most playoff teams are hovering around .700 or above. A team that has been a lock is now playing catchup. Isn’t that exciting? I mean, it’s something new, in any case. But still…. Death. Taxes. Kevin Durant.
2) Who has been the most surprising player in the East/West?
When the season started, Kobe Bryant was determined to help the Lakers prove that this wasn’t the lottery team many had predicted. We never thought Kobe would transform his game after 17 seasons and become the pass first guard they might have needed. It only took five losses for Kobe to be “Kobe.” Taking over his team, scolding his teammates and worrying about beating Michael Jordan’s scoring record. The only thing that surprises me was: what took Kobe so long?
With a misfit cast of players that just never reached their potential (Carlos Boozer, Jeremy Lin, Ed Davis) and the cocky Nick “Swaggy P” Young injured, Kobe has had no choice other than to shoot until his German made, robotic knees gave out (knock on wood). During this short time, he officially broke the NBA record for missed field goal attempts before passing MJ for third on the all time scoring list. We know Kobe is going to death stare his teammates into fully understanding the “Kobe System” or give up and ride the bench for the next two years. Either way Kobe Bryant will continue to find new ways to surprise me.
DeMarcus Cousins has had a bat shit season. He started the season on a torrid pace, averaging career highs across the board – points, rebounds, blocks, field goal percentage, free throw percentage. You name it and Cousins was doing it. At age 24, he wasn’t just assuming the mantle of the leagues top centre – he was ripping it away from Dwight Howard like Dennis Schroder at a balls buffet! The Kings jumped out to a surprising start and it was all because of the man they call Boogie.
Then, weirdness struck. At the tail end of a four game road trip, Cousins was scrapped from a premiere match-up with the Spurs in San Antonio. ‘Flu-like symptoms’ were cited as the cause and fantasy owners relaxed. Then he missed a second game. And a third. And a fourth. And well, we’re at nine and counting and fantasy owners sphincters are like that of Cameron‘s from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. On December 7th, it was revealed that Cousins had actually contracted viral meningitis, far more serious than ‘the flu’ and that he might not return until January. Fantasy owners weren’t the only ones freaking out. Kings owner Vivek Ranadive fired Kings coach Mike Malone after the team went 2-9 in Cousins absence and stories of his ‘theories’ on how to win have swirled. Malone was the first coach that convinced Cousins to use his physicality in the post to maximum efficiency. I’m curious to see how he’ll perform under new bench boss Tyrone Corbin, who stifled the development of Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors in Utah through sheer ineptness. Rumors say George Karl might be waiting in the wings – a guy who has coached Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton, Sam Cassell and Carmelo Anthony during his career might be the perfect guy to handle Cousins’ head.
This was the year the Charlotte
Bobcats Hornets were supposed to break out. They had a gutsy playmaker, a potent go-to offensive weapon, a defensive specialist, some character guys and a complement of role players. All they were missing was that spark to make the inert form of their team ignite into something blazingly memorable. That man was supposed to be Lance Stephenson, he of the living internet meme. So, um, what happened?
The Hornets are currently 6-18. Look at that number! Last year this team seem poised for, if not greatness, than at least a modicum of non-suckiness. They battled the eventual finalist Miami Heat in a memorable first round sweep. Al Jefferson, his legs barely working, kept going to work on the left block. Kemba Walker kept pushing for a victory. The team lost, but it was a moral victory. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist even spent the off-season reinventing his jump shot. He believed! As crazy as it sounds now, people were earmarking the Hornets as a team that could make some noise in the East. (Given the state of the East this year, as with most years lately, this isn’t that hard.)
Enter Stephenson, the additive agent who would bring explosive unity. Perhaps we should have seen it coming. Untethered from the demands of Indiana basketball, Stephenson is averaging a mere 10.3 points per game on 39 percent shooting (including an ungodly 16 percent from three; that is not a typo). His reckless game has not galvanized the team, it has instead undone all of the gains they’ve made. The season is lost once again in Charlotte, and its players are left wondering how it all blew up in their face.
Go ahead, ask Lance.
3) Are the Toronto Raptors for real?
After every game during this 19-6 start to the season, everyone is asking themselves the same question: Are the Raptors for real? This team wouldn’t be where they are if it wasn’t for the effort on the defensive end. So the real question we should be asking is: Is the Raptors defense for real?
Defense wins championships right? It can at least get deep in the playoffs. Dwane Casey served on the coaching staff, behind Rick Carlisle, when the Mavs shut down LeBron and the Heat back in 2011. He has instilled his defensive mindset in the Raptors during his tenure in Toronto. We saw it this year as the Raptors started off the season with a league best defensive rating. As expected that dropped when DeRozan went down with an injury. The worry now is that the Raptors will not survive their upcoming Western Conference road trip with the way they are playing now. Currently, Toronto is tied for 15th in the league with 99.1 pts/game allowed. This could be worse, but it disqualifies us from the elite teams. Casey will have to find a way to encourage the Raptors to protect the basket at all costs or they will not only lose the respect they have fought so hard to gain, but also a spot deep in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
When DeMar DeRozan tore his groin (GOOD GOD!), Raptors fans everywhere held their collective breath. Could this team really survive without its lone All-Star, leading scorer and longest tenured player? And if so, for how long? Was the dream season about to get a reality check?
The team has weathered his absence well, playing to a 6-3 record so far. Terrence Ross has stepped up admirably, switching to his more natural shooting guard position and improving his aggressiveness. He is more readily looking for his shot and has helped to fill the scoring void. More importantly, he no longer has that deer in the headlights look we saw versus Brooklyn in last years playoffs. Lou Williams and James Johnson have been excellent, providing bench depth that Toronto lacked last year. And Kyle Lowry has become the true alpha dog on the Raptors (if he wasn’t already) and has forced his way into being a dark horse MVP candidate. Don’t believe me? If I told you that DeRozan would miss significant time during the season, what seed would you have predicted the Raptors to take? Well they roared out the one seed before he went down… and they’re still there. Without Lowry, there’s no way that happens. When a void is created on a team, it forces those around that void to fill it. DeRozan luckily didn’t need surgery and should be back at full strength by the All-Star break at the very latest; the growing this team is doing while he’s out might serve as a galvanizing force come playoff time.
With my other other gig going on at Raptors HQ, I’ve had the opportunity to watch the Raptors up close for a couple of months now. This is a team that is easy to believe in. There is a sense of camaraderie and trust in the locker room that can, at the very least, bring about the best in everyone and reinforce a winning attitude.
Playing in the Eastern Conference makes it easy to qualify the success the team is having. With a 19-6 record, the Raptors have been mostly winning the games they are supposed to win. They’ve beaten Orlando three times, annihilated Milwaukee, and even put away West team’s they should beat (Sacramento, Denver, a Durant/Westbrook-less OKC). Still, there are concerns. As Osubronie mentioned above, the Raptors’ defense has been all over the map. At times they can crank it up, and others they can’t contain anyone on the perimeter. That’s the biggest the worry. Second: the sometimes creaky frontline. Each one of the Raps’ big men is limited in some way. Jonas still has IQ issues, Amir can still find himself hobbling, Patterson gets outrebounded, Hansbrough is Hansbrough. In certain matchups this problem can be eliminated or masked – Amir has looked OK as of late, Patterson has been shooting the lights out, Jonas is rebounding at least. But against truly elite teams (the Raps needed Chuck Hayes to deal with Marc Gasol, for example), the Raps may find themselves scrambling.
The strength of these Raptors comes back to that chemistry, though. This is a team that can run ten deep easily, everyone is playing hard, the winning still ongoing. Are the Raptors a championship-calibre team? Despite the Hollinger odds that indicate a 23 percent chance at the Finals (and a 7.9 percent shot at the title!), the Raptors still have a ways to go. The important thing now? People believe Toronto can get there.