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Déjà vu time with the 2020-21 Raptors and the Eastern Conference

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Toronto lost a pair of rotation players to Los Angeles and are not expected to host a playoff series. Their East rivals all got better. This sounds eerily familiar, doesn’t it?

Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images

Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

The Toronto Raptors are expected to under-perform — after a season of over-achievement — due in part to two players leaving for teams in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, their East rivals have made significant splashes in free agency and through trades, seemingly increasing their chances of contending for a title.

At a macro level, there are similarities to the upcoming shortened NBA season to the unexpectedly long NBA season that finished just six weeks ago. Before dissecting and downplaying the various transactions (and non-transactions) of their conference foes, let’s take a look at how the Raptors changed.

Toronto Raptors

In - Aron Baynes, DeAndre’ Bembry, Alex Len, Malachi Flynn, Jalen Harris

Out - Serge Ibaka (LAC), Marc Gasol (LAL), Dewan Hernandez, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (MIN), Malcolm Miller

The ‘In’ category doesn’t look that spectacular, until you factor in the re-signings of Fred VanVleet and Nick Nurse, as well as the hiring of offensive guru, Chris Finch. While Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka have gone ring-chasing in L.A., a pair of former Suns look to brighten up the centre position. Baynes will quickly, if not already, become a fan favourite because of his bone-crushing, semi-legal screens and endless hustle plays. For players who played at least 40 games and averaged 20 minutes or more, Baynes was among the league leaders in % of loose balls recovered on offense (#6), charges drawn (#4, three spots behind a certain teammate), and screen assists (#23). Len protects the rim and grabs rebounds like few others. According to CleaningTheGlass.com, Len ranked very high in block percentage (89th percentile among bigs), offensive rebounding FG% (92nd percentile), defensive rebounding FG% (88th percentile), and offensive rebounding FT% (97th percentile).

Despite having a defense that opponents feared, Toronto’s half-court offense was the weak point that eventually led to their demise. Enter Chris Finch.

“I think much of what I did with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers was revolutionary, but it was built on what Chris Finch had started with the encouragement of the Rockets front office. I extended it, and what I began calling the shot spectrum is now accepted wisom throughout the NBA.”

This excerpt from Nick Nurse’s book, Rapture, speaks to Finch’s role in shaping Nurse’s current offensive philosophy. As if being the architect of Houston’s offense wasn’t enough, Finch’s legend would grow with two more Western Conference teams. In Denver, he built an offensive juggernaut around the little-known-at-the-time, Nikola Jokic. From there, Finch was hired by New Orleans, where he effectively navigated the DeMarcus Cousins-Anthony Davis frontcourt. Then, after Cousins went down with a season-ending injury, managed to turn Nikola Mirotic (remember him?) into a versatile forward who would make Pelicans fans forget about Boogie, and help New Orleans sweep Portland in the first round of the playoffs!

Add in the continued growth of Toronto’s core of the future — Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby — and your safest pre-season bet is to not bet against the 2019 champs!

Milwaukee Bucks

In - Jrue Holiday, DJ Augustin, Torrey Craig, Bryn Forbes, Jordan Nwora, Bobby Portis

Out - Eric Bledsoe (NOP), Sterling Brown (HOU), George Hill (OKC), Ersan Ilyasova, Kyle Korver, Robin Lopez (WAS), Wes Matthews (LAL), Marvin Williams

Not included in the ‘Out’ category is all of the draft picks the team sacrificed for Holiday. Before slandering, I should point out that I fully expect the Bucks to finish the regular season as the top seed in the East, and for Giannis Antetokounmpo to re-sign in Milwaukee (whether it’s for the supermax extension or next summer is irrelevant). However, as I ranted during last week’s podcast, how could he trust such a bumbling front office? Let’s cycle through all of GM Jon Horst’s missteps.

  • They messed up the Bogdan Bogdanovic sign-and-trade because (a) the free agency moratorium had yet to be lifted; (b) he hadn’t even agreed to sign and; (c) even after free agency started, they couldn’t (legally) do the transaction because they inexplicably waived Ersan Ilyasova and his very usable $7 million trade filler.
  • They messed up the Jrue Holiday trade because (a) if Giannis does leave, they’ve leveraged their future for a 1-year rental; (b) the 2025 and 2027 first round picks are unprotected and immensely valuable if Giannis leaves and; (c) while Eric Bledsoe has his playoff demons, he’s finished higher than Jrue in All-Defense voting the past two seasons, and has comparable stats in every category except points and FG%. Holiday has played 12 playoff games over the last eight seasons.
  • They messed up the DJ Augustin trade because they could have included him in the Holiday as part of a sign-and-trade, thus allowing the Bucks to keep their mid-level exception (MLE) for more valuable free agents.
  • They messed up Pat Connaughton’s contract (part 1). The originally reported deal had him signing for two years (second year player option) at $8.3 million via the MLE. However, since that was used on Augustin, the contract was revised to a longer term (three years) and almost double the amount ($16 million).
  • They messed up Pat Connaughton’s contract (part 2). He’s actually quite charitable and seemingly a nice guy, but he’s also... a gross gentrifier???

Philadelphia 76ers

In - Tony Bradley, Seth Curry, Terrance Ferguson, Danny Green, Dwight Howard, Isaiah Joe, Tyrese Maxey

Out - Alec Burks (NYK), Al Horford (OKC), Raul Neto (WAS), Kyle O’Quinn, Josh Richardson (DAL), Zhaire Smith (DET)

I used to work for a company where I had weekly meetings with my manager, reviewing the week’s work. “Used to” is the keyword because I wasn’t that great in the role and oftentimes tried to make it appear that I was busier than I actually was. He quickly caught on that I would highlight simple tasks/projects while spending little time talking about major projects. He told me, “don’t confuse movement with progress.”

This is not to say Daryl Morey is on his way out of the job he just got. However, the moves that were made should not be confused with progress.

Yes, Morey did outstanding work to rid the Sixers of the ungodly contracts of Al Horford. Yes, Morey was able to shore up the biggest weakness — shooting — through trades (Curry, Green, Ferguson) and the draft (Joe, Maxey). But haven’t the Sixers really just taken one step forward after falling two steps back?

Just 19 months ago, this team was four bounces and one overtime period (hypothetically) from eliminating the Raptors and having a real shot at getting a title? The leadership and clutchness of Jimmy Butler, as well as the floor spacing and shot-making of JJ Redick, have still not been replaced. Sure, they’re headed in the right direction, but they started from a really low position.

Brooklyn Nets

In - Bruce Brown, Jeff Green, Landry Shamet

Out - Jamal Crawford, Dzanan Musa (DET), Garrett Temple (CHI)

Depending on how you feel about Steve Nash’s coaching pedigree, the biggest moves were not made during the offseason. They were made last offseason. Only now is when we finally get to see how it pans out.

We’ve seen what Kyrie Irving paired with the NBA’s best player can produce. But how healthy will Kevin Durant be? He’s on the wrong side of 30 (32 actually) and coming back from a devastating achilles injury. What about Irving’s health? Over his 9-season career, he’s played 70+ games only three times (and only once in the last five). Will Nash start KD’s pal, DeAndre Jordan, at centre, even though the younger and better centre, Jarrett Allen, rides the pine and is thrown into trade rumours all season long? What happens with Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie’s development? Both had breakout seasons in 2019-20, but will surely take a backseat to Irving and Durant, while also joining Allen in constant trade rumours.

Let’s say all of these questions are answered positively and everyone’s healthy, where exactly will the defense come from? There are simply way too many questions to confidently project this team to the heights that some have placed them, solely on name recognition.

Boston Celtics

In - Jeff Teague, Tristan Thompson, Aaron Nesmith, Payton Pritchard

Out - Gordon Hayward (CHA), Enes Kanter (POR), Vincent Poirier (OKC), Brad Wanamaker (GSW)

The biggest name listed above is headed out of Boston and, while it’s comical how much Charlotte was willing to pay for Hayward, he takes a big chunk of bench scoring with him. While Marcus Smart’s insertion in the starting lineup while Hayward was out proved to be addition by subtraction, it further highlighted the lack of offensive depth on the Celtics roster. Don’t get me wrong, Boston still has as good a starting lineup as any in the league and should be in the conversation as an East contender. But can you really trust Teague as your 7th man or either of the rookies to complete the 8-man rotation?

Miami Heat

In - Precious Achiuwa, Avery Bradley, Mo Harkless

Out - Jae Crowder (PHX), Derrick Jones Jr. (POR)

The defending East champs lost one key rotation piece and one key dunk champ. In their place, the team is bringing in three players that have not played organized basketball in nine months! Bradley sat out the bubble. Harkless was a casualty of the Delete Eight. Achiuwa’s last game was March 8 against the Houston Cougars.

While those three try to work themselves into game shape, the rest of the squad will be learning the nuances of load management. The Heat join the Lakers in having the shortest off-season of any team in NBA history (without the benefit of, you know, winning the title). Goran Dragic, Jimmy Butler, Andre Iguodala, and the living corpse of Udonis Haslem are all over 30 and more than likely to have healthy scratches sprinkled throughout the season.

Yet, the defending East champs have the least amount of questions heading into the season. Bam Adebayo is locked in as their big man of the future (and present). Tyler Herro looks primed to avoid the sophomore slump. Duncan Robinson — and the rest of the Heat for that matter — is ready to prove last year was no fluke.

*******

As it stands, the Raptors have a similar mindset: last year’s defensive juggernaut was not a flash in the pan. The losses they endured in free agency may not look as bad when the new acquisitions take the court (or a seat next to Nurse). In fact, the outcome of free agency could go a long way in convincing a max free agent to fly north of the border (whenever that’s allowed).

For now, the focus is on the 2020-21 season. It’s a campaign that’s looking rosier with each passing day and each Bucks misstep!