Three Things I Liked and Disliked – Pacers at Raptors Game # 1

The Toronto Raptors pulled of a 7-point victory over the Indiana Pacers in the inaugural game of the new NBA season. This was a contest that obviously showed that both teams are still ironing out the kinks from the new season. Both the Pacers and Raptors are also implementing brand new offensive schemes and players.

There were 33 combined turnovers (20 from Toronto) and just a lot of weird, empty possessions and overall lack of continuity. The Raptors ended up prevailing at the end, 106-99, after being down by as many as 16 points early in the second quarter. Here are the three things I liked (or didn’t like) about this game.

1. I liked J-Val getting touches and closing out the game

Last season, Jonas Valanciunas was not allowed to close out games. Regardless of his performance in the first three-quarters, he’d often give way to a smaller lineup comprised of Pat Patterson and Amir Johnson.

Combined with an overall lack of touches and offensive plays called at his disposal, it made for a player who lacked confidence and at times, unfairly blamed and criticized for a lack of production.

So when the game started, it was refreshing to see JVal actually getting plays called for him. He was a tough handle in the low block especially for a team that let go of their two best post defenders from last season in Roy Hibbert and David West. JV finished with 21 points and 14 rebounds on 8 of 11 shooting from the floor. JV flashed his patented mid-range game (he made 2 of 5 shots from 10 to 19 feet), that is often follows his weird and robotic pump-fake. But he showed some new wrinkles in his game, including a nice power dropstep, a shoulder shimmy that transitioned into a baby-hook, and superior hands than in the past. JV has been damning when he catches a pass and instead of using his size and taking the ball up straight to the basket, he’ll often bring it back down, gather himself which leads to strips and turnovers. That was barely the case against Indiana.

Best of all, DeMar and Kyle trusted him and continued to feed him down low. Last season, you could’ve counted on two sets of hands the amount of times JV got waved off by the Raptors most ball-dominant players (Lou Williams might’ve been the most egregious perpetrator). That was not the case as DeMar and Kyle were willing and able to let the big man eat. He was by far our best and most efficient player against a weak Pacers frontline.

And when the important late fourth quarter minutes came, Dwane Casey rewarded him for his solid play and staying out of foul trouble. He was only subbed out once within the final 2 minutes of the ball game for defensive purposes and was back right away after Bismack Biyombo fouled out.

Speaking of defense, Casey had JV, for the most part, staying back on pick and rolls, as opposed to the trapping and hedging he had the big Lithuanian executing last season. It meant less over-rotation and better rim protection (Pacers shot 40% from the paint).

Many Raptors fans were disappointed with the way JV’s minutes were handled last season, so it’s encouraging that Casey is recognizing that giving JV at the end of the game will only add to the development of the 23-year old center.

2. I liked the Defensive Intensity

The Pacers as a team shot below 40% (Toronto was 10-1 when they held opposing teams below 40%) and their best players, Paul George and  Monta Ellis shot 23 and 27 percent respectively. For George, that can be attributed to rust and only playing his 8th game in the past two season, whereas Ellis is still getting integrated into a new system, but I was impressed with Demarre Carroll’s intensity and ability to stay in front of players. He was also active with deflections and 50-50 balls and helping regain possession when it was lost. Holding Paul George to 4 of 17 shooting is no easy feat.

A defensive 3 was of the biggest priorities this offseason, so of course, it was very concerning when Carroll was lying in agony, holding his rest early in the 2nd quarter. All worries were for not as he ended up returning back to game action shortly thereafter.

Overall, the rotation were crisp, the communication was better and the rim protection, a huge issue last year, was much better.

I mentioned already that JV’s usage in pick and roll defensive situations against Indiana, was a considerable improvement in how his skills would be deployed, while also hiding his deficiencies. That strategy gave up mid-range shots in which the Pacers converted only 5 of 26 shots (19 percent).

Bismack Biyombo is going to terrorize teams in the paint. He was only credited with one block, but there were numerous occasions where he either caused a tie up, or used his athleticism to alter shots.

3. I didn’t like the Offensive inefficiency

If you know me, I am notoriously very hard on DeMar DeRozan for reasons mostly within his control. He’s an inefficient offensive player, in love with long-two’s. And he has a tendency to over dribble, over-drive and settle for fadeaway jumpers with a hand draped all over his face. I cannot understand why he feels the need to make shots more difficult than they already are.

DeMar started 3 of 9 while operating in his typical shot wasting manner. He finished 7 of 17 with 25 points but was again bailed out by 15 free throws to make his final point output much better than it seemed.

He was at least a willing passer and finished with 6 assists. He found cutters in the half court offense, as player movement needs to be a point of emphasis for the Raptors.

Still, despite being only the first game of the season, many of the concerns that Raptor fans had with DeRozan are already resurfacing. Yes, he made a big fall-away shot against elite defender Paul George in the waning moments of the fourth quarter, but if the best player you can draw up out of a timeout is DeRozan doing two behind the back dribbles that transition into a tough fadeaway against one of the top 10 perimeter defenders in the league, the percentages suggest you will fail more so than succeed.

Outside of DeRozan, I thought Carroll had trouble adjusting with a lack of ball movement. Michael Grange had a great stat that said that 99% of Carroll’s 3pt makes were assisted. Carroll is not a pull-up jump shooter. He excels at movement and slashing. There were instances where he was getting out of his comfort zone. That’s the caveat to having a player like DeRozan who freestyles too frequently. It stagnates the offense, renders player movement useless, and players take matters into their own hands when the game flow breaks.

This will continue to be a concern for the team, I believe, until Casey stops giving DeRozan the free reign to shoot at will (in other words, Casey will need to be fired).

Other game notes

  • Corey Joseph clearly looked tentative, which is normal in his first game with completely new teammates. The two point guard lineup, with DeMar at the 3, Carroll as the stretch 4 and JV at the 5 was the second most used lineup and was a +11.
  • Obviously, it is waayyyyy too early to determine which lineups are optimal, but I know Raptor fans who lived through the Calderon, T.J. Ford days, Lowry, Calderon and Lowry, Vasquez know that when they see a two point guard lineup, they cringe. Casey, for some strange reason, always gets aroused at the thought of playing to point guards, despite its defensive deficiencies. It will be curious to see if the matchup (George Hill and Monta Ellis, as starters are essentially a two point guard lineup due to size) dictated Casey going small in the backcourt, or if it is a prediction of things to come. Hopefully it is the former.
  • Terrance Ross fouled twice very early and couldn’t really get back into the game. Just an awful start for him…
  • More Luis Scola please! I know he had 4 fouls in 17 minutes with 4 turnovers. His rebounding was key during the Raptors early first quarter struggles. Even with only one assist, he was actively trying to create offense from the elbows. I’m not worried about Scola’s potential contributions offensively, but I am not sold with him as a starter.
  • Patrick Patterson finally realized the offseason was over and made some long-distance shots (2 of 5 from 3-point). His shooting is desperately needed and I think Casey is waiting for him to heat up in order to insert him back into the starting lineup.

Toronto travels to Boston next on Halloween eve.

New Name and New Focus: Eastern Conference Preview

For the 2 or 3 people who have followed this blog under its previous name (52isthemike, where I wrote solely about the NFL), I’m happy to announce that I’m back. Same blog, different name and different focus. I took a break from writing about the football, generally due to my newfound disgust with the NFL and it’s ridiculous rules.

That’s not to say I won’t write about the NFL, but my main focus will be on basketball this year.

The NBA, right now, is the best sports league in the world. It has THE preeminent stars, the game has never been better. The new analytics wave has caught the eye of casual to diehard fans alike and parity, which has been a complaint from many NBA detractors, is more profound.

Follow along and feel to let me know of any constructive feedback.

Without further ado, here’s my Eastern Conference Preview…


Basketball is back and I couldn’t be happier. The NBA has been on fire for the past 5 seasons. Every season, the story lines get juicer. You had the Heatles and LeBron a few seasons ago. Then, the King’s return home, which was derailed by the Warriors randomly having one of the 10 best seasons from any team ever (#1 in offense, # 1 in defensive efficiency).

This year, I’m foaming at the mouth at some of the preseason storylines. Can Kevin Durant return as a top 2 player? The Warriors are drawing hate from the entire league. Can they repeat as champions? Can my Raptors make it past the 2nd round? Will Cleveland finally win a title? Can Houston’s band of crazies put it all together and win a championship for Houston. The Clippers are nuts, but have amazing depth. I didn’t even talk about the Spurs.

Guys, the depth that the NBA has from an entertainment standpoint has never been better and I absolutely cannot wait for it to start. Here’s my team-by-team Eastern Conference preview.

Atlantic Division

Boston Celtics

Record last season: 40-42

Key additions: Amir Johnson, David Lee

What a job Brad Stevens did. He took a roster that was destined for the lottery as soon as Rajon Rondo was traded to Dallas and gave the Cavs a run for their money, albeit in a four game sweep. Stevens has these guys playing beautiful team basketball, but he’s also getting a knack as a very good player developer. Isiah Thomas,  who averaged a little over 19 points per game, once he was traded to the Celtics, looked rejuvenated in Celtics green. Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley form one of the best defensive backcourts in the league. They will absolutely hound dudes once they cross mid-court.

The backcourt depth is solid and there’s room for improvement. Once Smart’s offensive game catches up to his defensive acumen, the Celtics will be in business. The front court has tons of depth too. Amir Johnson is a consummate glue-guy: he’s routinely been one of the best screeners and pick and roll defenders from his position. He signed a 2-year, $24 million contract (in which only the first year is guaranteed) and Johnson will be a fan-favourite in Boston from the first tip. The rest of the front court comprises Jared Sullinger, a bully in the post, who cannot defend and is constantly out of shape, but he’ll be a great second unit guy.

Tyler Zeller and Kelly Olynk offer much of the same skills as face up bigs. David Lee is the wildcard. He’s a sieve defensively, but man can he score. People forget he’s an easy 20-10 guy, who is a tremendous passer and can hit the mid-range J. I loved that trade for Boston.

I didn’t even mention pests like Jae Crowder who can defend like crazy on the perimeter, Evan Turner (who has come out of nowhere and quietly been very good in Boston) and Jonas Jerebko who can do a multitude of things.

I like this team. They have a lot of similar pieces who fit in well as a cohesive unit. Stevens will put these guys in the right positions to succeed. There is no star power, but the constant moving and cutting in Stevens’ system will create open looks for them. Thomas is the key force here. He’ll come off the bench, but close out games for the Celtics, run pick and roll and put defenders in a bevy of ankle breakers.

In the East, you never know, but Boston’s limitation come in the form of rim protection and needing that one guy who can get his shot anytime he wants. The Celtics are primed for a big trade with the assets they have (both young players and 2 potential first round picks from the Brooklyn Nets, Dallas Mavericks). Danny Ainge is never content with his roster and he’s looking to turn some of his young players in one marquee one (DeMarcus Cousins)?

The playoffs are definitely on the horizon, but I’m just not sure that a 2nd round appearance can be attainable with this core.

New York Knicks

Record last season: 17-65

Key additions: Robin Lopez, Aaron Afflalo, Kristaps Porzingis, Kyle O’Quinn

Oh those Knicks. Carmelo Anthony only played last season to fulfill his duty as the host of the All-Star game in New York. Derek Fisher is out there banging wives of ex-NBA players and getting beaten up by said NBA players. And Phil Jackson is continuing to collect checks (to the tune of over $9 million), to do very little as President of the team.

Not sure what the end game is in New York. I admittedly have always hated the Knicks, but cannot help but feel for their fans. Are they supposed to build around Melo? Kris Porzingis could be legit, but the additions made in the offseason suggest a win-now strategy. As good as people say he looked in summer league, the fact remains that they still passed up on the likeks of Justice Winslow, Willie Cauley-Stein, Emmanuel Mudiay and Stanley Johnson. All players with considerable upside, but could also help them win now.

Lopez and Afflalo are fine NBA pros, but they don’t move the needle that much (a lot of people also like Kyle O’Quinn quite a bit). You get the sense that there’s no long-term roadmap to truly build a team here and the Knicks, sorta like the crosstown Nets are winging it.

The Knicks will no doubt be better. A healthy Melo, no joke, is good for at least an extra 10-15 wins.

The point guard situation is still dire with Jose Calderon as the lead man. I love Jose, but has hasn’t been able to defend in years. Outside of the starting lineup, there some good young talent. Langsont Galloway and Cleanthony Early have some decent potential. Former 2nd overall pick, Derrick Williams will get a final crack at sticking with a roster. And Jerian Grant, their other first rounder, has size and defensive ability at the point.

That still only takes you to about 30 wins, but the general consensus would be that the Knicks are good enough to be a mid to late-lottery team. Oh but wait, their pick is top 3 protected and would go to my Raptors!

Toronto Raptors

Record last season: 49-33

Key additions: DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph, Luis Scola, Bismack Biyombo

It has not always been easy being a Raptors fan. I’m infinitely grateful for two straight playoff trips, two all-star appearances, an All-Star game in 2016 and the marketing/branding genius of MLSE to get Drake as an ambassador. The “Win The North” mantra/slogan, while overplayed has done wonders for how we are seen in the American media.

All that is fine and dandy, but this is year 5 for Dwane Casey and it’s time to make some headway in the East. Aside from the Cavs, you cannot tell me that there’s one team that is light years better than Toronto. Back-to-back playoff defeats in the first round have left a sour taste in my mouth. The Brooklyn loss in 2014 hurt, but it was expected with Pierce, Garnett and Iso-Joe Johnson against our young core. Last season’s embarrassing loss was unacceptable. Sure, Kyle Lowry was injured, DeMar DeRozan was inefficient and Jonas Valanciunus’ pick and roll defense was abysmal, but a 4-game sweep, getting completely outplayed and punked by John Wall and Bradley Beal, sorry but just no. And we lost to this coach (I do like Wittman now, more on that in my Wizards preview).

Masai Ujiri still had not put his imprint on the team until this offseason. Carroll was a great addition, notwithstanding his salary of 4 years, $64 million. With the salary cap boom, it will be chump change. I LOVE the addition of Cory Joseph. “He’s a winner and has intagibles” is some of the biggest bullshit you can say about a player, but this team needs guys from good systems. You get that from Carroll and Joseph who worked respectively with Mike Budenholzer and Gregg Popovich.

Then sprinkle in more frontcourt depth to the tune of Bismack Biyombo and Scola. Byombo has stone hands and a non-existent offensive game, but his rim protection is as good as it gets and he’ll supplant J-Val in a moments notice for those times when he looks lost on D. Scola is a pro’s pro. I love his high post operated offensive repertoire. Give it to him on the elbows and let the wings cut and screen. He’ll find open guys all day.

My concerns for this team are the following:

  1. DeMar is just not very good. He’s supposed to be a plus midrange shooter but he only knocks down 36% from there. The unquestioned king of the long two. He’s in-line for a max contract next offseason, but I have my doubts if this team is better with him on the court.
  2. Patrick Patterson as a stretch four (off the bench) is fine. But he cannot rebound and his defense leaves a lot to be desired.
  3. J-Val has to become a viable center. Scratch that, a top-10 center. I wonder how much he understands of defensive schemes. He’s also limited in terms of his movement and help defense. Offensively, he’s solid. He had a PER over 20.0 last season and his mid-range game will do wonders for Kyle Lowry in pick and roll situations.
  4. We need Terrance Ross to become Jamal Crawford-lite. Or even Tony Delk. Heck, I’d take Gerald Green type production from him!

The division is weak enough and Toronto is clearly the best team here. Winning the division, closing in on 50 wins, won’t be hard. Losing in the first round again, is not acceptable. I also want to see a better offensive system than the “DeRozan/Lowry, dribble for 10 seconds and hoist a long 2” strategy we have now.

This is the biggest season in Raptors history. Where they finish will determine if they give this current core another run or not. They have some prospects in Norman Powell, Delon Wright and Bruno Caboclo and as mentioned, the Knicks lottery pick can be used to acquire a disgruntled star. I’m not worried about the future, but moreso want us to avoid mediocrity.

Brooklyn Nets

Record last season: 38-44

Key Additions: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, (Andrea Bargnani (LOL!)

Ugh, not much to say here. For the 5 people who will read this, pretty sure only the most hardcore of hoops heads will still read what I have to say about the Nets.

There is really nothing great about this team, they are undoubtedly the most boring team in the league. Tom Ziller and Paul Flannery have said it, Zach Lowe has said it and search engine optimization seems to agree as well.

The present is bleak for the Nets. Brook Lopez is good, but only at scoring. He’s a mediocre rebounder, poor rim-protector and has recurring foot issues . Joe Johnson will likely be on another team by the deadline. Thad Young got paid and I’m not sure if 4-years $50 million is a crazy market for him or in-line with what stretch 4’s should be making.

The Nets don’t have many prospects, but they finally were able to get a first-rounder after years of punting on the draft. Rondae Hollis Jefferson will be a nice wing defender for them. But the future will be bleak as their draft picks will be going to the Celtics due to the remnants of the KG-Pierce trade

The best course of action is here that Billy King finally gets let go. Joe Johnson’s contract expires at the end of the season and they’ll have enough room for at least one, possibly two max contracts. The allure of NYC isn’t really there. I don’t see players lining up to hang out in Williamsburgh. And Barclays is a snoozefest. Look at the attendance during the playoffs. Brook Lopez must stay healthy for Brooklyn to become a popular destination for free agents.

Philadelphia Sixers

I look forward to watching Jahlil Okafor, Nerlens Noel and Bob Covington.

Sorry guys, but that’s all I got.

Central Division

Detroit Pistons

Man, I’ve grown to love Stan Van Gundy over the years and I’m so happy he’s back on the bench. He’s one of the best coaches in the league from a tactical standpoint and his soundbites are second to none. The FORM A FUCKING WALL bit is hilarious, as are his takes on officiating and the league in general. And just last week,while the Pistons were taking part in a charity event, SVG had a picture taken of him looking straight gangsta.


What a beauty.

Last season, Detroit started 3-19, made a little run during the second half of the season and during various points, were close to challenging to getting the 8th seed in the East. They ultimately finished 32-50 and ended up in the lottery.

The roster is starting to take shape. Gone are Josh Smith via the stretch provision. The previous regime had tried to put Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond together in the frontcourt, and it formed one of the worst starting units in the league in 2013-2014. Oh yeah, Monroe is gone too as it was clear he could not fit with Andre Drummond.

SVG is going to do whatever it takes to make Drummond out as a Dwight Howard clone. Drummond is in the same mold of a behemoth  center, who can block shots, eat on the glass and dunk everything in sight. He also has zero post moves, is a 35 to 40%  free throw shooter and his range starts at the restricted circle and ends at the hoop. He’s not quite Dwight Howard yet, but this season, he’ll finally have the lane all to himself and his potential is still enormous.

The rest of the roster has been constructed to be similar to those late 2000’s Magic teams that made one conference final and another final appearance.

Ersan Ilyasova will likely start at the 4. He can stretch defenses with adequate 3-point shooting while doing poor man’s Andrei Kirilenko type things. I’ve always liked his game in Milwaukee although he has regressed a bit. Aside from him being Turkish and white, he fits the Hedo Turkoglu role well.

Marcus Morris will bring intensity and craziness from Phoenix, where he’s finally separated from his brother Markieff. Morris will either start at the 3 or slide to the 4 to provide a big mismatch. I can see him as the Rashard Lewis of this group.

Reggie Jackson was acquired mid-season and extended to the tune of 5-years, $80 million, much to the chagrin of John Wall. I’ve never thought much of Jackson, despite a few solid performances for the Thunder, but he was actually really good with Detroit after the trade from OKC. He posted a line of 18/9/5 and shot 43% from the field and 34% from deep. The shooting numbers are passable, but the key for him will be the pick and roll and making the correct reads every time. SVG system is predicated on hitting the roll man (Drummond) for easy buckets or the spot up shooters in the system. He’s the Jameer Nelson of this group.

Brandon Jennings gets relegated to the bench, but will still play tons of minutes once he returns. He played very well before his achillies injury last season (which will sideline him for another 4-6 weeks), but his game still isn’t controlled enough to trust for 35 minutes per. Besides, if Kentavious Caldwell-Pope cannot develop the shooting stroke that teams fell in love with in the 2013 draft, Jennings will see plenty of time at the 2-guard spot.

I love what I hear from Stanley Johnson, who has a chance to be real special. He’ll likely start on the bench for now, but everything that I’ve read suggests a potential elite defender in the making.

SVG added other stretch bigs in the form of Anthony Tolliver, who has always been a capable 3-point marksman for his size and position

Aaron Baynes got paid a large sum of money for his output, to the tune of a 3-year, $20 million deal. Baynes is serviceable though, and despite his destruction at the hands of Blake Griffin last April, will be a valuable contributor to Detroit’s front court depth.

The additions the Pistons made on the surface don’t look groundbreaking, but this is clearly an SVG team and he’ll adequately be able to play his system better than he was able to last season.

Playoffs are not likely, but Detroit will compete like crazy and be a sneaky fun team to watch by my estimation. They should be closer to 40 wins this season as well.

Chicago Bulls

Record last season: 50-32

Key additions: Bobby Portis, Fred Hoiberg.

Tom Thibodeau had a .647 winning percentage in his 5 seasons as head coach for the Bulls. His teams were routinely top-5 in points allowed per possession and from a defensive standpoint, were always one of the toughest teams to play against.

But personality did him in. Unwilling to work with Bulls management and team physicians, Thibodeau wanted it his way or the highway. There were rumors of unrest between Thibodeau and general manager Gar Forman, as well as the former head coach clashing with trainers regarding the amount of minutes he was giving to players. Thibodeau’s offenses also were not the most sophisticated.

Fast forward to this season and enter Fred Hoiberg, who played over a decade in the NBA, has front office experience with the Timberwolves and had great success at Iowa State.

Hoiberg is expected to have a more liberal approaching to coaching and dealing with players and he’ll add some new wrinkles on offense.

The same familiar faces are back that have won 394 games in 5 seasons. Derrick Rose  isn’t the same MVP calibre player from 2011 and had a trying offseason, but even at 70% of what he used to be, that is still a top 15 point guard. Jimmy Butler is a fabulous player who made the leap as a potential top-5 2-guard. Hoiberg should lift his offensive game to another level.

The front court has tons of experience anchored by Pau Gasol, who is as good as he ever was. Gasol posted 18/11/2 with a PER of 22.7, this at 35 years of age.  Taj Gibson provides near elite defense and rebounding, with Nikola Mirotic as a stretch four, who needs to actually stretch (31% from 3 point range).

The concerns lie with Joakim Noah who has not looked completely healthy this preseason and struggled with injuries in 2014. Noah, a former defensive player of the year in 2013 and 4th in MVP voting may be relegated to the bench as a means to free up the paint. A Gasol-Noah starting front court clogs the lane considerably.

The Noah situation is a small worry, regardless, he’s still a fine player can contribute defensively and act as a point center on offense. Chicago’s depth has the chance to be terrific. Bobby Portis, their 1st round pick, will be able to stretch the floor and grab rebounds. Doug McDermott will finally get an opportunity and he can shoot it from deep as well. I like Tony Snell and you cannot forget Mike Dunleavy Jr. who will be out a few months due to injury, but who also stretches the floor.

It is not inconceivable that the Bulls can:

  1. Finish with the best record in the East (regardless of Rose’s health, which is the key towards this team being really good; not relying on Rose whose health is now a wildcard)
  2. Still finish top 5 in defense
  3. Finish top 5 in offensive efficiency (there’s tons of shooting to surround great interior players)

Still, the Cavs are the crown jewel of the conference, but we should not discredit, nor forget the Chicago.

Milwaukee Bucks

Record last season: 41-41

Key additions: Greg Monroe, Greivis Vasquez

The Bucks are the IT team this preseason. They captivated us with their exciting defense, length on the wings and young players. They went through a very successful re-brand and picked up a top 5 free agent. Who would’ve thought that the Bucks would be…cool.

Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton had very solid seasons. Jason Kidd plans on playing the Greek Freek at all 5 positions this season. Middleton is a legit NBA stopper and 3pt shooter. Those are hard to find. Jabari Parker is going to be real good, but he’s coming off an ACL injury, so expectations may need to be tempered a bit.

I like the additions of Greivis Vasquez, who’s a big point guard who can shoot and still play the 2. Greg Monroe is a minus defender, but his post game and passing will be welcomed additions. The key is, with a passer like Monroe, you need some shooting on the wings. Milwaukee was 8th in 3-point field goal percentage but bottom 5 in 3-point field goals attempted. Michael Carter-Williams will have to knock outside shots because Monroe can find you on the double team, but teams will play off on MCW. Again, that’s why you have Vasquez (whose cajones’ are as big as anyone in the league) and Jerryd Bayless who can knock outside shots.

Milwaukee should be a near lock playoff team. My concerns are with MCW and the continued development of their young players who will be relied upon to be key pieces this season. Jason Kidd has also won me over as a legit NBA coach. The Bucks will be very exciting this season and Fear the Dear will be a prevalent theme in the NBA this year.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Record last season: 53-29

Key additions: Mo Williams

Even the most ardent LeBron James detractor could not help but marvel at last seasons Finals performance in June. Over 35 points per game, over 13 rebounds per game and close to 9 assists per contest. Absolutely otherwordly numbers while playing close to 46 minutes per game, running pick and roll, dominating the ball and still many times, taking on the toughest or second toughest matchup on the perimeter.

But even LeBron knows that for him to finally bring a long-awaited title to Cleveland, he must do more to empower the likes of Kevin Love and further contribute to Kyrie Irving’s development.

Many a time, Kevin Love was a spectator. He had a hard time adjusting to being a third option. He kept getting left out of LeBron’s team selfies and was even sub-tweeted by LeBron a few times.  Love certainly had to make an adjustment from being the top dog to essentially, a glorified spot-up shooter under David Blatt in year one. Let’s remember, this was a player who was a borderline top-7 player as a 25 and 12 guy, and one of the best offensive rebounders in the game.

I thought Love looked very engaged in the playoffs and thrived as a spot up guy until Kelly Olynyk popped his shoulder. Love and James re-hashed their relationship and apparently spoke right before he re-signed with Cleveland and all should be forgotten this season. LeBron is smart. He knows he needs a motivated Love to win it all. LeBron mentored Irving last season and got him to be less ball-dominant and become a willing passer and defender.

This is arguably the best team LeBron has had. Tristan Thompson will be one of the most expensive bench players, having recently signed a 5 year, $82 million deal. Thompson was an absolute beast in the finals, acting as a force on the offensive glass and showing he’s one of the best pick and roll defenders and switchers in the league, keeping Stephen Curry at bay many times.

The big man rotation is strong with Andy Varajeo returning. Timofey Mozgov was a top-5 rim protector. Opponents shot 33% at the rim when Moz was on the floor. He’s an effective dive man on the roll, making him an extremely dangerous player when LeBron has the ball. He can hit mid-range shots too.

And you have the regular cast of crazies in J.R. Smith, who can shoot you in and out of a game. Iman Shumpert who has ample 3 and D potential and Mo Williams, who will be a viable backup and spot-starter while Irving is still recovering from injury.

This team is 8 deep and without very little doubt, the favourites to come out on top in the East. I have no qualms about them sacrificing wins in the regular season to ensure LeBron is as fresh as possible. We saw how good he looked after his mini sabbatical. The defense is very good, despite Love and Irving being minus defenders and the team can rebound the shit out of the ball.

I also think David Blatt is allowed to implement more of his princeton offense. LeBron WANTS Love to be more involved so that will mean less camping out of the perimeter and more operation from the elbows and the high post where he can use a plus post game, superior passing and range that stretches all the way out deep. Blatt got too much flak last year, but he should be credited for the defense they played and recognizing the best way for them to win was with the ball in LeBron’s hands.

This Cavs team is very good. Health, in my opinion is the only worry I’d have with them not winning it all.

Indiana Pacers

Record last season: 38-44

Key additions: Monta Ellis, Myles Turner

Paul George is back and hopefully as good as new. The NBA sucked just a little more without his all-around awesomeness on the court. Massive kudos to Frank Vogel for getting this team a game from the 8th seed, but that lottery pick and missing the playoffs was definitely a plus for that team. Another “cheap” playoff appearance might have given Larry Bird enough reason to avoid breaking up the previous core.

Lance Stephenson left last season and seemingly shat the bed with awful play and poor shooting. Good move.

Roy Hibbert was still an elite defensive big man, but god, he was plodding the Pacers and a detriment to any ability they had to up their pace. Good move.

David West declined an $11 million option and left for San Antonio. Amazing move.

Luis Scola was not offered to return. Another good move.

Indiana has been in the bottom five of pace per game for the last 3 seasons.  They have opted to move away from their plodding style and rightly so.

Paul George will be asked to play more stretch four, much to his chagrin. By all accounts, he’s been terrific during the pre-season. Dunking on fools, showing his versatility and actually looking quite good at power forward.

Monta Ellis was brought in to alleviate some of the offensive workload off of George, who routinely is taking on the toughest defensive assignment every game. He’s moody and you never know what you’ll get from him night-to-night, but when he’s on, his mid-range game and ability to drive will benefit the entire offense.

George Hill is tough as nails, can defend 1’s and 2’s and has improved his scoring virtually every season. He had a PER of over 21 last year and advanced metrics had him as one of the best point guards in the East.

Depth will be an issue, so rookie Myles Turner, who is raw but can stretch the floor will need to have a big impact. Ian Mahimi is a good defensive big, but is offensively limited.

Vogel can coach the hell out of a team, so I have no doubt that he’ll make the most out of this roster. The defections should actually benefit the Pacers, which will allow them to run more, shoot more three’s and be more versatile defensively. A fourth or fifth place finish makes a lot of sense in the East and with the return of Paul George. He’s worth at least an extra 5-10 wins.

Southeast Division

Orlando Magic

Record last season: 25-57

Key additions: Mario Hezonja

With one of the best young cores in the league, the Magic are gonna be fun to watch. Mario Hezonja has been compared to J.R. Smith with a better jump shot. He’s sending bounce pass alley-oops and scouting reports out of college have said he has the chance to be one of the best heat-check guys in the league.

Elfrid and Payton and Victor Oladipo can’t shoot a lick, but they are fun as hell to watch and both have the potential to be elite defenders. But yeah, the shooting is a problem and they are going to have to make end-roads on that front. Oladpio went from 32 to 34% from year 1 to year 2. An incremental difference, but one that must continue to free up room for Nikola Vucevic to continue to operate down low. Payton has a weird form that will have to be worked on so he becomes league average from outside.

Tobias Harris returned to the Magic, which was a great move on their part. They can always trade him if they want to make more room for Hezonja, but there was no point in letting go of an asset in Harris who will be cheap in the salary cap boom. Last season, only 6 players averaged 15 points per game, 6 boards and shot over 35% from 3. Tobias Harris was one of them. He can play as a 3 and D or as a stretch four quite easily. At 23 years of age, he’s still young enough to fit in this core and improve considerably. His game will mesh well with Vooch, who will is due for an all-star appearance this season. He’s a load on the low block with a nice mid-range game and solid passing ability.

Aaron Gordon is really the key here. He only played in 47 games and he could realistically be blocked by Harris or Hezonja. The raw athleticism is there but Scott Skiles might want to add a more reliable player at the wing and have Harris start at the power forward position.

Speaking of Skiles, the Magic are getting a big time coach who knows how to teach defense and will ride the young guys, hard. I know he has a reputation to rely too much on veterans, but he’s helped develop some young point guards in Jason Kidd back in Phoenix, Ramon Sessions and Kirk Hinrich. The issue with Skiles is that by year 3, players are generally sick of his grinding personality, but the hope here is that the Magic have a lot of kids who could easily still be in college and those grinding type coaches generally adhere well to younger squads.

I like this Magic team from a pure talent standpoint. They are athletic as hell and will run teams out of the gym if they are not careful. Ultimately, the backcourt shooting worries me and I’m not sure Payton and Oladipo develop as of yet into the players we expect them to be. But it will be fun again in Orlando with a 35 win floor the bare minimum.

Atlanta Hawks

Record last season: 60-22

Key additions: Tiago Splitter

Last year was fun in Atlanta. The Hawks had the best twitter account, the best in-game music via organ and the best record in the East.

Four all-star representatives. Jeff Teague, Al Horford, Kyle Korver and Paul Millsap. Their starting five was named players of the month of January in the East on the backbone of their 17-0 record. It truly was a record season for the Hawks whose attendance also soared. They were top 5 in 3 point shooting, top 5 in assists and top 5 in scoring efficiency. Aesthetically, the team was brilliant, getting the moniker of “Spurs West”. Mike Budenholzer deservedly won coach of the year for orchestrating a team first offense where anyone can hurt you.

Still, it never felt at all like Atlanta was ever going to challenge either the Cavs or the Bulls. And the didn’t. They struggled against the Nets in the first round. The Wizards nearly beat them thanks to a Paul Pierce bank shot. If John Wall is healthy, forget it. The Hawks prevailed and met the eventual Easter Conference champs, but they were too much for their teams oriented attack. Kyle Korver was lost for the series and DeMarre Carroll suffered a bad knee sprain. Jeff Teague was not able to hit outside shots and the Cavs defended the Hawks pick and roll to perfect thanks to Tristan Thompson.

The result in the offseason was the Hawks letting Carroll find greener pastures and trading for Tiago Splitter for virtually nothing. Splitter is a great defender in the post and provides depth and insurance for Al Horford should his pectoral issues re-surface or he leaves via free agency in 2016.

The biggest question mark is finding a replacement for Carroll for this season. Kent Bazemore, Tim Hardaway Jr., who was acquired from New York and Thabo Sefolosha, who will return from a brutal and ridiculous leg break from an overzealous racist cop are the wing options opposite Kyle Korver. Bazemore has been named the starter, but I can see Thabo closing out games due to his superior defending.

Otherwise, Atlanta is solid but unspectacular. Jeff Teague is great, Horford is so underrated and Millsap is finally getting his due. Korver is as good a sharpshooter as the league has seen in quite some time and he opens up so much room for the rest of the team. But you get the sense that, the Hawks, as good as they were last season, never really had a chance to win it all. Now this season, they lost their best perimeter defender, the East is getting better and Atlanta just does not have that one player they can go to when they absolutely need  bucket. While that has never been the ecosystem of coach Bud’s system, nor Popvich’s for that matter (Duncan is one of the top 20 players ever and Kawhi Leonard is borderline top 15 right now), that dominant one-on-one player was sorely missing against Cleveland. We saw LeBron absolutely toy with Millsap on defense in the ECF, Teague neutralized and Horford ineffective.

The Hawks will be good in the regular season, as their team-first system adhere’s itself to the ebbs and flows of teams not always being locked in. But once the playoffs start, the Hawks will be at the mercy of the toughest defenses in the East.

Charlotte Hornets

Record last season: 33-49

Key additions: Nicolas Batum

There’s not much to like about the Hornets. They play with the slowest pace in the league are devoid of shooting and they now lost Michael Kidd-Gilchrist for the season with a bad shoulder.

I loved Kemba Walker in college, but he’s just become an inefficient chucker in Charlotte. The frontcourt also makes little sense. Al Jefferson is so fun to watch if you like traditional back to the basket big men, but he’ll be paired with Cody Zeller, Frank Kaminsky, Tyler Hansborough and Spencer Hawes. The Hornets passed on four draft picks from the Celtics in order to move up to the 9th spot that Charlotte owned in order to draft Kaminsky.

There is still not rim protector and there’s a lot of guys there, aside from Jefferson, who are very similar (may or may not be a white guy joke)

And then there’s Batum who had an awful season, with reports surfacing he was dealing with a bad divorce. When he’s right, he’s an above average defender, solid three-point shooter and great passer at his position. If he’s right, he brings a dimension that Lance Stephenson would’ve brought last season, had he not been awful.

Call me crazy, but I think Jeremy Link ends up being the better point guard. Walker has never impressed me as a ball distributor. Lin isn’t anything to be scared of but I’m just really bullish on Walker.

The good news is that so far this preseason, the Hornets are taking tons of 3’s. It took Steve Clifford some time to realized that their offensive scheme,  won’t allow them to improve.

The defense will still be there, but I’m not at all buying into this team from an offensive standpoint. I think they can easily finish as the worst team in the East and that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing. Rich Cho has gone on long enough thinking this team can compete even in the mediocre Eastern Conference. Patchwork moves to try to get the 8th seed are not a sound way to build a team and the sooner the Hornets bottom out, the better.

Washington Wizards

Record last season: 46-36

Key additions: Jared Dudley

I’m not sure what to make of the Wizards. Are they really good? Is Randy Wittman smart after thoroughly outcoaching Dwane Casey. Can Bradley Beal take the next step? Is John Wall is superstar?

The answer to most of these would likely be yes but with some caution. Wittman waited until the playoffs to actually play a small ball lineup with Paul Pierce as the stretch four. Otto Porter was also unleashed at the 3 and 4 positions and he could be in-line for a breakout season.

Pierce is gone, but Jared Dudley should do fine in the same role, while being younger with fresher legs and better defensively.

Beal and Wall can be the best backcourt in the game. They are so damn close. Wall does things with the ball that make zero sense. His speed, but moreso, his ability to change speeds and still look controlled while breaking down a player off the dribble is a thing of beauty. He hit 40% of his mid-range shots, which makes him even more deadly off pick and roll, where teams have generally always played under the pick and given Wall the shot. Not anymore.

Beal is a sharpshooter that does not always want to sharpshoot. He has to stop taking long three’s and has vowed to do so this season. Of his 851 field goal attempts, 238 of them were considered of the long-two variety and  Beal only made 33% of them. Beal needs to develop as a ball handler, but if the playoffs are any indication (23 ppg on .41/.37/.83)  he’s well on his way to being a top 3 shooting guard. He’s due for a contract extension and considering his talent, age and the lack of really good two-guards, Beal is in line for a near max contract. Barring an injury, he should get it, but Beal needs a healthy season under his belt. He’s missed 54 games in his first three seasons.

The front court worries me a bit. Nene is in a contract year, but quite frankly he had an awful season and shows up 25% of the time. Gortat is still an effective player, but his age and lack of mobility worry me defensively. Look for Kris Humphries to play a lot of minutes at the 5. He’s been shooting a lot of 3’s in preseason.

I mentioned Otto Porter who had a fine postseason, averaging 10 points per game and 37% from three. Paul Pierce acted as a mentor for Porter and seemed to have taught him how to be a professional. If he breaks out, the Wizards will be in serious business.

Martell Webster is healthy and will add another wing defender on the perimeter. Kelly Oubre Jr. has all kinds of athletic ability, but he’s not ready for big minutes. Dudley, once more, will replace Pierce as a pseudo-stretch-four and leader. Dudley is loved wherever he plays and is a good teammate.

So to conclude, are the Wizards really good? I think so. They are better than the Hawks due to Wall and Beal being a superstar and potentially all-star duo. The wing depth and solid and the frontcourt, the weak link, is just good enough to manage. I’ve seen some talk of Washington as a top four team, not only in the East, but also top-4 in terms of playing in the ECF. That’s a bit optimistic for my liking, but I can be convinced to that happening so long as the Beal, Porter and Wall development continue. Call me crazy, but I believe in Wittman.

Miami Heat

Record last season: 37-45

Key additions: Justice Winslow

It was inevitable that the Heat would drop off after the Decision 2.0. I think most still expected Miami to make the playoffs, but considering Chris Bosh suffered a serious season-ending blood cot, Wade missed his patented 15-20 games per season and Goran Dragic had to re-adjust with a new team, the 37 wins weren’t all that surprising.

Thankfull for the Heat and NBA fans, Bosh is back and 100% healthy. He’s so freaking good. I argued with people saying that Bosh is on par, if not better, than LaMarcus Aldridge. I stand by that as Bosh is an elite man and team defender, solid post scorer and can knock down big 3’s, but I digress. The point is, Bosh is a top 20-25 player and he means as much to the Heat as current day Dwyane Wade. Speaking of Wade, he’s still a boss and when healthy, there’s maybe 1 or 2 shooting guards I’d take over him at most. Gerald Green was brought in for those back-to-back dates or DNP-CD’s that Wade will need to rest his aching knees. Green is a wild card and plays like a mad man half the time, but he’s still serviceable and can get hot at any moment.

It’s good to see that there’s some youth on this team, finally. Hassan Whiteside was dominant from a defensive standpoint once he joined the Heat. He average a double-double in 48 games, with 11 points, 10 boards and nearly 3 blocks per game. The Heat allowed a staggeringly low 97 points per 100 possessions with Whitewise on the floor. He’s a pure shot blocker who still has so much room to grow. There are skeptics who are not convinced that Whiteside is the real deal and the half a season sample size isn’t enough to anoint him as the next Bill Russell. Regardless, Whiteside is coming in incredibly cheap and right now is a key piece for the Heat.

Goran Dragic and Wade, from a talent standpoint is a top-5 backcourt, but that’s two ball dominant guards who are not great shooters. Wade’s defense has fallen and Dragic has never been a big stopper. Offensively, they do the opposite of complementing each other. If anyone can get this to work, it’s Erik Splolestra, who is as good a tactician in the game from the sidelines. There are some interesting lineups that can come out of this, when Wade sits out. Chalmers, Dragic and Green can be an interesting offensive lineup that provides a bit more shooting.

Justice Winslow was a great bargain pick as the 10th overall selection. Winslow has an NBA-ready body and athleticism oozing from all over the place. Pat Riley made nice depth moves to bring in Amare Stoudamire (as long as he is not asked to do much defensively) and the aforementioned Green. Josh McRoberts returns after missing all but 17 games last season. He gives Miami a brilliant passer and a great compliment to Bosh as another stretch big.

The Heat are reliable and the East, while improving, is not at the level yet where there’s 3 to 4 teams battling for the 8th spot. Miami will challenge Washington and 3rd to 6th place should not be out of the question.

The NFL’s Rulebook Problem

Football has always been a complex sport with regards to schemes, strategies, terminology and mostly, the rules. When I started watching sports, some 20 years ago, Hockey and Basketball were the first one’s that piqued my interest. They were simple in terms of terminology, penalty calls and the basis of the sport; take a black or orange object and put it into a net. That’s as easy and as simplistic as you can get.

Football comes along and it takes a shitload of time to get used to. My buddy Nathanial often says that he cannot get into football because of how complex the rules are and the that there are far too many of them. He doesn’t even acknowledge the sport because of the subjectivity of the rules and the actual gameplay. It actually makes it hard for casual fans of the sport to stay engaged in my opinion but that is not here nor there for that discussion. If you take it a step further, and ask someone (an NFL referee) to explain every rule that exists in the rulebook, you be hard-pressed to not get different interpretations of the same rule. More on that in a bit.

And as the season’s have come and we get more controversial calls (Bert Emmanuel Rule, Tuck Rule, Calvin Johnson Rule etc.), there are more interpretations, more offseason rule changes by the competition committee and more debate the following day about the calls (or non-calls) that transpire.
The Cowboys-Packers matchup was easily the most anticipated game of the weekend and rightly so. You have the best quarterback in the league in Aaron Rodgers against the perceived perennial choker in Tony Romo. The preamble of the contest made many, including me, giddy. Dubbed the Ice Bowl II, as a re-match of the sub-zero temperature Cowboys-Packers game of 1967 in Lambeau Field for the NFL Championship, this game was hyped even more than Tom Brady versus Joe Flacco, or Peyton Manning facing his old team, the Indianapolis Colts.  When it comes to the NFL, it’s all about the narratives…NARRATIVES, NARRATIVES, NARRATIVES. The NFL will do anything to create a storyline. See New Jersey Governor Chris Christie in the press box celebrating with Jerry Jones after the Cowboys’ wildcard win? Don’t tell me the NFL doesn’t love that. Dubbing a game the Ice Bowl II when the temperature pales in comparison to the original contest nearly 50 years ago and it not even being a championship game? Oh the narratives!

So when Dez Bryant, seemingly caught a near 45-yard pass on a fourth down play, over Sam Shields, high-pointing the ball and jumping out of Lambeau field, only for the referees to call it an incomplete pass, you know the NFL is loving this as well. No, I am absolutely not a conspiracy theorist, but the NFL isn’t hating the fact that talk radio, podcasts and all other media forms will be discussing about “completing the process”, “a football move”, “a move common to the game” and any other subjective interpretation that NFL referees use to reverse a call, all throughout the week. The ambiguity of NFL officiating and the rule book sucks for fans and even more for teams that are affected by questionable calls, but the NFL isn’t hating this at the same time. And we’re all sucked in, so much so, that I’m writing about this instead of breaking down the game and even worse, defending the Cowboys. Ugh.

Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk had a great piece last week about the NFL having a problem. He alludes to the fact that not only is the rule book overly complex, but the officiating is kinda bad as well. We all know about last week’s pass interference and subsequent non-pass interference call against Anthony Hitchens on Brandon Pettigrew. Hitchens actually fouled Pettigrew before that pass interference play, by tugging on the tight end’s jersey, which should have produced an illegal contact play for five yards. But I digress… Hitchens was called for a 15-yard penalty which would’ve led to an automatic first down. And by called, I literally mean called as in the head reference announced the penalty only for him to be overruled by the head linesman. Mike Pereira couldn’t believe that the call was overturned, proving again that the ex-head of officiating and the current officials are nowhere near the same page. I echoed Bill Simmons saying on one of his recent podcasts that he had never seen a flag thrown, a penalty announced only for it to be rescinded. It was ridiculous, but again, what does the NFL love? Those Narratives!

Back to the subjective nature of the NFL rule book. Pass interference calls are tough, but generally, like a foul in soccer, or an obstruction penalty in hockey, they are generally the same. But rules regarding catching the ball? The so-called football move is still completely up to the discretion of the referees and to this day, I do not know what it entails. In Dez Bryant’s case, it very well looks like he is making a move towards the end zone but as per Mike Pereira mentioned during the broadcast, it isn’t a move common to the game. My take is that, this rule needs to be completely re-done because of its subjective nature and the fact that it could be interpreted too many different ways. Did Gene Steratore apply the rule to the letter of the law? Most likely he did and as Vice President of Officiating, Dean Blandino tweeted,

But that play, as did the Calvin Johnson non-touchdown in the 2010 season opener (can’t believe that play is already four years ago) shows the depth to which proving a catch is in fact a catch is extremely difficult.

In the Colts-Broncos game, Josh Cribbs was fielding a punt. He caught the ball and was nearly simultaneously was drilled by Omar Bolden, causing the ball to be jarred. The call on the field was a fumble, as the ball was loose and eventually recovered by a Broncos player. Mike Carey, who was a veteran official, retiring last season, who now works for CBS  and chimes in on all penalties and official reviews, believed that the call would stand because similar to a catch from a pass from the line of scrimmage, the punt returner who catches the ball must maintain possession through the process of the catch, just like Dez Bryant should’ve right? He was wrong (based off the ruling), as he most of the time always is. The head referee claimed that Cribbs was downed by contact. At this point, I’m about ready to give up because I have no clue what is or is not a fumble, catch, penalty or incomplete pass. And while Luck threw an interception on the ensuing drive, that play would’ve given the Broncos terrific field position, had the fumble call stood as called.

Here’s Carey’s tweet after the game.

It’s not just catches that are infuriating people with the NFL rule book. Last week during Wild Card weekend, Cam Newton threw what seemed like an obvious intentional grounding penalty while under duress from the vaunted Arizona Cardinals blitz packages. It ‘fit’ the criteria. He was not outside the pocket, the throw barely reached the line of scrimmage and there was not a single receiver within the area. Somehow, the referee’s did not call it, claiming that a receiver (it was actually an offensive lineman) was close enough for it to be an incomplete pass. Intentional grounding is probably the most discretional call there is considering there isn’t a marker for where the quarterback’s pocket is. It’s a different imaginary box for every single referee and completely subjective. Still, the call was so egregious, one has to wonder what the refs were looking at there.

The worst part of all of this, Mike Carey, Mike Pereira and all of these former lead officials, provide nothing to the broadcast. They undermine their former colleagues and make calls even more subjective. Carey as I mentioned, is constantly wrong and it gives the appearances that the rules are not properly being interpreted by the officials (or Carey is just really bad at his job). And while Pereira bats a higher percentage than his CBS rival, he shows how incompetent those referees can be. NFL officials have no clue what is going on and the NFL rule book has become an every weekend algebra problem. It’s time to make some changes.

Why Game One against Brooklyn is the biggest game in Raptors History.

I’m stepping away from my NFL expertise to comment a little bit on what I perceive to be the biggest basketball game in Toronto Raptors history. Yes, more than game seven against the Sixers in 2001, yes more than Vince’s first home game and yes, way more than Bosh’s return as well.

The hyperboles do not start there though. This is by far the best Raptors team in franchise history as evidenced by the 48 wins this season, a team-record.

What is different from this team than in years past? Well for one, this is a group of young players who adore playing with each other and they thrive off the fact that they have been castaways from previous teams and even to some extent from Raptors fans as well. Trust me, I know having been  fan of the team for more than 15 years, we are as fickle as they came. This is a fan base that LOVES this team. They may not be large in numbers, but the intensity you see from the die-hard core cannot be denied. Just a quick visit to the website will show you the dedication that exists. So when I say we are a loyal group, it is very true, but the fickle nature of Raptor fans have led them to love and hate many of the same players on the team, but only because we expect so much out of the team and players.

Many of the qualities that Toronto sports fans have grown to love, qualities that were laid by a foundation of gritty play from the likes of Wendell Clark, Mats Sundin in hockey, to Alvin and Jerome Williams and Charles Oakley in basketball, have set the standard for what a Toronto athlete should be. And you see it in this group. Amir Johnson is a lunch-pale, meat and potatoes kind of guy, who thrives on executing the intricate nuances of basketball that mainstream fans and media will rarely pay attention to, such as setting picks with timely rolls to the basket, hedging on defenders and pogo-stick like rebounding. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan show those same traits with their play this season both ranking in the top-10 in minutes per game, with Lowry ranking first in charges taken. Both players were seen as not fitting part of the ‘tank for Andrew Wiggins’ plan,  which was supposed to net the team a top pick in the offseason. Instead, Lowry and DeRozan have been the most integral factors in the resurgence. And then you have Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson and Chuck Hayes, who were jettisoned to Toronto after the Rudy Gay trade; a trade that has yielded an Eastern Conference best 41-21 record since December 6th. Even second year players Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas have felt the wrath of the fickle Raptors fans, who, at times, wished that other players were chosen at their spots. Now, both players, while still young, are playing their best ball of the season, especially Valanciunas, who’s been averaging 15 points and over 10 rebound in his last 10 games.

So what makes this game better than the aforementioned three from years past? It’s the ‘us against the world’ mentality and the sense of Nationalism that the Raptors have finally adopted. No longer are they trying to avoid being labeled as the NBA’s stepchild. They’re embracing it. The Raptors have gone on an extensive marketing campaign (“We The North and the “Northern Uprising”, which may or may not have been taken from Game of Thrones), one that was actually meant for next season’s 20th anniversary of the team’s inception. Drake was heavily involved in it and if you had told me this four months ago, I would’ve laughed at the thought of the rapper representing my favourite team. But this campaign has been nothing short of terrific. It truly encompasses what Raptors fans have been dealing with for years: the fewest amount of Nationally televised games, American players who think coming to Toronto is the second coming of going to Siberia and developing blue-chip talent only to have them leave. This campaign is saying that we don’t care what you think about us We’ve been trying and caring for nearly two decades and have failed. We’re going with what we got and there is no one stopping us. The Raptors are relishing their perception as outsiders in the NBA.

And let’s be honest, the hype around this year’s playoffs would not be as big if we faced the Wizards or Bobcats. Both teams are actually worse match ups for the Raptors as they can match up from a youth standpoint and the Bobcats have a behemoth in the middle with Al Jefferson, who the Raptors have never been able to contain. Somehow, the big bad Nets remain the team that most Raptors fans didn’t want to face. It could be the fact that Paul Pierce can still score 19 in his sleep with limited athletic ability, or that Kevin Garnett, a seasoned veteran and future Hall of Famer, can get into the head of the most focused of players. Garnett is one of the more polarizing players in the league, but he is also one of the most vilified by fans. He attacks lesser known players, yet backs down from one’s that are of his size. Second year centre Jonas Valanciunas will have to avoid all the noise that comes with Garnett’s play.
The Nets seemingly tanked their final six games in order to face Toronto and they are definitely not denying it. Based off the interviews from general manager Masai Ujiri, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Amir Johnson, they really do not care about the tanking. It’s just another low blow from their friends down south who feel the need to show disdain from a team who finished third in the East and gave the Pacers a run for their money in every game they played them in. In years past, with the old regime led by Chris Bosh, I have no doubts that this team would’ve crumpled at the thought of playing the Nets. They also would’ve let the issue with the tanking become bigger than it is. Now, they used the disrespect as a rallying cry against one of the oldest and slowest teams in the league. Make no mistake about it; The Nets can be beat and this really was the best matchup for the Raptors, who can run circles around Brooklyn with their overall team speed.

Canadian basketball is at its zenith with an NCAA tournament filled with potential first rounders. It is very likely that we will see back-to-back first overall picks from the city of Toronto. Youth ball in the country is at an all-time high and kids are not looking solely at hockey as their sport of choice growing up. This playoff run for the Raptors has propelled the team as the main attraction in the city with the Leafs doing their typical disappearing act in April and the Jays only 15 games into their season. The anticipation is majestic and I know you couldn’t pay me or any other Raptors fan a million dollars to miss this game. The city and crowd have been dying for a winner and to get playoff action and I have no doubt that the ACC will be an absolute madhouse tomorrow.

Giants show aggressive approach in free agency

The Mara and Tisch ownership conglomerate of the Giants have always been big proponents of doing whatever it takes to win. Despite the backing, Big Blue has built its teams from a foundation based on good drafting and the development of young players. Over the course of the last decade, the Giants have been rather judicious with their use of free agent money, as the only really big free agent acquisitions were Kareem McKenzie (2005), Antonio Pierce (2005), Plaxico Burress (2005) from Pittsburgh, Antrel Rolle (2010) from Arizona. Not world-beater type of names to say the least.  However, the last time the Giants made these big free agent signings, it propelled them to Super Bowl titles in 2007 and 2011. It leads credence to the fact that when the Giants do break the bank, they often make good on a volume of moves, and that is the case here in 2014.

After two straight non-playoff seasons, Jerry Reese has used some shrewd maneuvering in order to create the necessary cap space in order to become a major player in free agency. In the process, the Giants let go of key components of their team in guard Chris Snee, receiver Hakeem Nicks and defensive linemen Linval Joseph. Mattias Kiwanuka restructured his contract allowing the Giants to finally “pony-up the dough”. Although it took some time for their acquisitions to matriculate, the last three or four days have been as exciting a period for Giants fans in the off-season, as they made an 11th hour push to acquire some key defensive pieces

The moves the Giants made, the signing of Walter Thurmond, Quinton Demps and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, clearly show the fans and the rest of the league that New York will not take another season of mediocrity. So what if the Giants already had a solid defense. Detractors of the moves will say that the reason for the Giants struggles were primarily on Eli Manning. Regardless, Jerry Reese has positioned the team to make a serious run now and for the foreseeable future by completely bolstering what was originally an average secondary into one that could rank top-five in the league.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Denver Broncos

We’ve all heard the adage: “This is a passing league.” The blueprint to winning the Super Bowl has been set by the Seahawks and everyone is at an arms race for quality defensive backs. What a better way for the Giants to start drawing such a blueprint than by adding a player from the defending championship Seahawks. Walter Thurmond, who many considered the best slot-corner in the league. According to Pro Football Focus, Thurmond allowed a paltry .85 yards per snap in the slot and the overall quarterback rating on passes intended his way was 74. When he was covering slot receivers, that rating dropped further to 69. With the way the league is geared towards freeing up slot receivers, Thurmond, on a one-year $3.5 million deal is an absolute bargain.

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie has had an up and down career. He was highly touted in his first two seasons at Arizona, went to Philadelphia and laid an egg, but got a second wind in Denver. Last season for the Broncos, he was rated as the fourth best cornerback in the league, according to Pro Football Focus. ‘DRC’ has the length and speed that elite corners need in order to cover the bigger receivers. The term and dollars are fair value for a player who’s arguably among the top ten corners in the league. Rodgers-Cromartie was signed for 5 years at $39 million and will be getting $14 million guaranteed and $16 million in the first two years, making this deal relatively front-loaded. This acquisition relegates the struggling Corey Webster to a 4th or 5th corner and pairs Rodgers-Cromartie with Prince Amukamara, the Giants 2011 first-round pick. Amukamara had a tumultuous first couple of seasons, but is slowly rounding into form as a solid cornerback.

When considering that the Giants can now line up Thurmond, Rodgers-Cromartie along with Amukamara, Stevie Brown (who intercepted eight passes in 2012) and Antrel Rolle who had a fine Pro Bowl season, New York surely has the makings of a ball-hawking pass defense. Demps is a depth signing who can help fill in if there are any injuries. His special teams acumen increases his value. Speaking of special teams, the Giants also signed Trindon Holliday who is one of the fastest return men in the league. He should figure into a special teams unit that was 26th and 27th in punt and kickoff returns respectively.

Of course, teams do not win divisions in free agency and we all know teams have added many pieces in the past only to have success not come to fruition. Jerry Reese has added the pieces on the defensive end for Perry Fewell to re-establish his attacking defense. I’ve mentioned many times that the front and back-end complement each other and the bolstering of the Giants secondary can only do wonders to a stalling Jason Pierre-Paul.

It’s clear that Jerry Reese wants the Giants to make a big run. New York Daily News Giants beat writer Ralph Vacchiano had tweeted that the Giants, in the six days of free agency, had signed or re-signed 16 players for a total of over $105 million including the aforementioned Rodgers-Cromartie, Thurmond, Demps, Rashad Jennings and just today, Mario Manningham, the Super Bowl 46 hero who made one of the most improbable sideline catches in history.

If 2007 and 2010 are any indication, the Giants’ moves this off-season could be a dangerous coup against the teams in the upper-echelon of the NFC.