It’s the quarter-mark of the NBA season already?! With most teams at, or approaching, the 20-game mark, we’ve got a fairly good sample size from which to begin making some assessments. Of course, there will be the odd surprise like:
- the pre-season Eastern Conference favourite Boston Celtics sitting at .500;
- the defending champion Golden State Warriors with seven losses before December (for reference, the Warriors entered the 2018 calendar last season with eight losses);
- last season’s other Western Conference finalist, the Houston Rockets, sitting at .500;
- a pre-season favourite to make “the leap”, Utah Jazz, are in the second(-to-last) spot in the West;
- the top three shooters from beyond the arc in terms of 3-pt FG%, are all big men: Meyers Leonard (53.3%), Bojan Bogdanovic (52.5%), and Nemanja Bjelica (51.6%); and
- five of the eight playoff spots in the West are currently occupied by teams that were not in the playoffs last year, including the Clippers, Nuggets, Lakers, Kings, and Grizzlies.
Wait, what? How did we get here? What pre-season prediction is actually happening true to form? Well, a good number of writers on this fine site, including myself, were incredibly excited when the Kawhi Leonard/Danny Green-for-DeMar DeRozan/Jakob Poeltl trade occurred. (Please stop calling it the Kawhi-for-DeMar trade, as it has become blatantly obvious that Danny was much, much more than a throw-in.) The move was — on paper — the type that could vault Toronto into unknown territory: Championship Contender. Validating that status would require continued improvement from the young players (hello Pascal Siakam), smooth integration of the new players (hello again, Danny), and, most importantly, the resurgence of pre-injury Kawhi Leonard.
Early returns are extremely positive with the possibility of even brighter days ahead. Pascal Siakam received his first Player of the Week award and is playing like an All-Star. Danny Green has re-discovered his shooting touch and ranks second in the league in on-off court Offensive Rating differential (trailing only Kyle Lowry!). Leonard is among the league leaders in points and steals per game, PER, and defensive rating.
If your glass is half-empty and we’re “only” a quarter of the way through, it should also be encouraging that the Raptors have the NBA’s best record — and have yet to play a perfect game, which suggests they have not yet reached their ungodly potential.
On-off leaders through Wednesday's games... pic.twitter.com/MEkzwCClRz— John Schuhmann (@johnschuhmann) November 23, 2018
November 27 @ Memphis Grizzlies
When the NBA schedule was released, we all circled a late-November date with a Western Conference juggernaut. We all visualized what it would take for Toronto to outplay one of the NBA’s best defensive teams. We couldn’t help but feel excited about upending a team led by an uber-talented point guard and his Defensive Player of the Year teammate.
Who knew we’d be talking about the Grizzlies!
Mike Conley is doing his best Kawhi Leonard impression. He too missed most of last season, and fans seem to have forgotten how special he is, only to be blown away by his resurgence this season. Conley is averaging 20.2 points and 6.3 assists per game — both would be the second-highest averages over his 11-year career. Conley also holds the distinction of having the most career Win Shares of any active player (65.3) while never being named an All-Star.
Conley’s long-time teammate Marc Gasol has spent all season reminding us why he won the highest defensive accolade in 2013. The Big Spain is averaging career-highs in rebounds (9.8) and steals (1.6), while anchoring a defense that’s allowing a league-low 100.8 points per game.
While the Gasol-Conley duo have been holding down the fort for Memphis for 10 years, the metaphorical torch appears to be passing to Jaren Jackson Jr. The highly touted rookie out of Michigan State waited all of two games before earning a spot in the starting lineup. He has been a monster on defense, earning a defensive rating of 95.4 when playing alongside Gasol. (FYI, that rating would lead the league by a wide margin). Here’s a list of all the players that can match Jackson’s averages of 1.1 steals and 1.9 blocks: Anthony Davis and Rudy Gobert. That’s it.
It’s a shame the year isn’t 1996. Having the (formerly Vancouver) Grizzlies and Raptors sitting atop their respective conferences at the same time might’ve made Canada temporarily forget about hockey. The magic number to look for in this game is 10. Memphis’ defense is no. 1 in opponent’s 2-pt field goals made, and no.2 in opponent’s 2-pt field goals attempted. This is a product of that outstanding front-court of Jackson/Gasol.
Beyond the arc, the Grizzlies allow only 10.3 3-pt field goals per game (7th in the NBA). The Raptors have only had four instances where they hit less than 10 threes in a game. Three of those four were losses, while the fourth was the Danny Green buzzer-beater game in Orlando last week. Toronto has bounced back nicely and hit 11, 17, and 11 triples since leaving Magic Kingdom. My magic 8-ball says the Raptors claw out a victory over the Grizzlies, 103-100.
November 29 vs. Golden State Warriors
Wow. I’m hitting my word count limit and haven’t begun writing about the Warriors. Question: Is a match-up with the Warriors less special if there’s no Steph Curry or Draymond Green? Curry is making good progress in his rehab and may return as early as the showdown in Toronto. However, groin injuries are no fun and even if Curry were to return to the lineup when the Warriors arrive north of the border, it’s likely he won’t be 100%. Green meanwhile had an MRI over the weekend on his toe and is listed as day-to-day.
Here’s my take on Curry, Green, and the Warriors: IT DOESN’T MATTER WHO PLAYS BECAUSE TORONTO IS DEFINITELY WINNING!!!
Over the nine games that Curry has missed, five were losses, while the victories included a home win over Brooklyn, a home win over Atlanta, a home win over Sacramento (who had possession, down one, with five seconds to play). The need for Curry in this lineup has never been greater.
Meanwhile, does anybody remember how Kawhi looked when he was single-handedly tearing through the Warriors defense in the ‘17 playoffs? It was only four minutes into the second half of Game 1 of Warriors-Spurs in the Western Conference Final, and Leonard already had 26 points and led his team to an improbable 78-55 lead. That’s when disaster struck in the form of Zaza Pachulia. The Spurs never recovered in that game (the Warriors outscored Spurs 58-33 after Kawhi left), or that series (Warriors swept), or even as a franchise (see Leonard, Kawhi circa February 2018).
One thing to be aware of is the 3pt FG%. Golden State ranks second in the league shooting 38.6 percent beyond the arc. Toronto, on the other hand, have managed to limit opponents to 32.8 percent from three (ranked 5th in the NBA). The Raptors have essentially taken a few pages out of the Warrior playbook, and created a roster full of shooters that could play at a quick pace while able to play cohesive, switch-ready defense. Toronto comes to play for these marquee match-ups at home (think Rockets last season and Celtics this season).
Yes, I realize we’ve been close-but-no-cigar over the last few meetings with Golden State, but this year feels different and special. The Raptors make the Warriors surrender, and win 125-117.
December 1 @ Cleveland Cavaliers
So, the Cavaliers are already 10 games under .500 and have lost the services of Kevin Love (at least until January) and JR Smith. Smith wants no part in Cleveland’s tanking efforts and has decided to leave the team and await a trade (This is still light years away from Washington’s level of dysfunction, but noteworthy nonetheless). Is anybody interested in acquiring JR Smith? How about Kyle Korver? These veterans should not be wasting the twilight of their respective careers by languishing on the Cleveland bench. Somebody save them, please (except you, Masai, please don’t mess with our perfectly perfect team that’s finally showing signs of cohesion).
Cleveland has done well recently, bagging upset victories last week over the Sixers and Rockets. The key to those wins has been Tristan Thompson. He has been cleaning the glass of late and primed for a date with Jonas Valanciunas. If you think I’m about to make a case for Cleveland, then stop reading. Raptors take a cavalier approach to tanking, and rock Cleveland, 130-107.