The Toronto Raptors are on the rise. No, really.

April 3, 2012

By Jack Maidment

After playing with the kind of lethargy normally associated with a morgue employee, the Toronto Raptors found themselves in a familiar 21-6 hole early against the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday February 12.

They were doing everything they were supposed to: not playing defense, not making shots, not really doing much of anything.

Just as advertised.

The offensively challenged Lakers proceeded to pour in 34 points in the first quarter, a season high for an opponent of the Raptors. Oh, and Kobe was scoreless.

What happened next was deeply surprising and for those who doubt the veracity of the Mayan 2012 prophecy perhaps a little worrying.

The Raptors gave the Los Angeles Lakers a game. An actual game with lead changes and everything. Unbelievable.

Toronto have been in the NBA basement for so long that writers could feel confident copy and pasting season projections for years: Replace Bosh with Barnani, Carter with DeRozan, cap up the word ‘soft’.

But on this particular lunchtime the Raptors did something new. They showed some heart. They fought.

The old Raptors would have thrown in the towel; hopelessly out matched and outclassed by NBA royalty.

But this time they dug in and found a way, clawing back an 18 point deficit over three quarters and actually going ahead with under a minute to play on a Jose Calderon jump shot from the free throw line.

Nobody thought the point guard’s shot was going in. He may have been in the midst of a career night, he scored 30 points, but nobody in the Air Canada Centre thought he was actually going to sink it; that’s what years of perpetual losing will do for a fan base.

But he did.

And if the Lakers didn’t have a player who can consistently make fadeaway 18ft baseline double-teamed jump shots the Raptors would have tasted an improbable victory.

Despite the loss, 94-92, and many similar this season, the Raptors and their fans should be encouraged by the performance and the overall effort of the team under first year head coach Dwayne Casey.

They have had close losses before, plenty in fact, but the one against LA felt different. The ones they have played against Chicago, Miami and New York have felt different. The games have felt real, like the Raptors actually had a chance. Like they are actually going somewhere.

If you google news search Raptors+heart you get 90 results. And most of those also include the words ‘lack of’.

But if there is any justice in the world that should change this year.

Their roster may be… interesting, and a little short on elite NBA talent, but team basketball and belief can be great equalisers.

That and the fact they have Jonas Valancianas stashed in Europe, a legitimate seven foot center with oodles of potential and the toughness to protect Andre Bargnani, and a probable top five pick in this year’s draft.

With Bradley Beal, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Andre Drummond and Harrison Barnes likely to be available it’s not a bad time for things to start looking up.

Next year their starting five could be Jerryd Bayless (I believe), DeMar DeRozan, Andrea Bargnani, Jonas Valuncianas and Top-5 Draft Guy X from the deepest Draft in years.

Get on the bandwagon early. Next season the Raptors will rise.

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A turning point for the Toronto Raptors

February 13, 2012

By Jack Maidment

After playing with the kind of lethargy normally associated with a morgue employee, the Toronto Raptors found themselves in a familiar 21-6 hole early against the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday afternoon.

They were doing everything they were supposed to: not playing defense, not making shots, not really doing much of anything.

Just as advertised.

The offensively challenged Lakers proceeded to pour in 34 points in the first quarter, a season high for an opponent of the Raptors. Oh, and Kobe was scoreless.

What happened next was deeply surprising and for those who doubt the veracity of the Mayan 2012 prophecy perhaps a little worrying.

The Raptors gave the Los Angeles Lakers a game. An actual game with lead changes and everything. Unbelievable.

Toronto have been in the NBA basement for so long that writers could feel confident copy and pasting season projections for years: Replace Bosh with Barnani, Carter with DeRozan, cap up the word ‘soft’.

But on Sunday lunchtime the Raptors did something new. They showed some heart. They fought.

The old Raptors would have thrown in the towel; hopelessly out matched and outclassed by NBA royalty.

But this time they dug in and found a way, clawing back an 18 point deficit over three quarters and actually going ahead with under a minute to play on a Jose Calderon jump shot from the free throw line.

Nobody thought the point guard’s shot was going in. He may have been in the midst of a career night, he scored 30 points, but nobody in the Air Canada Centre thought he was actually going to sink it; that’s what years of perpetual losing will do for a fan base.

But he did.

And if the Lakers didn’t have a player who can consistently make fadeaway 18ft baseline double-teamed jump shots the Raptors would have tasted an improbable victory.

Despite the loss, 94-92, the Raptors and their fans should be encouraged by the performance.

They have had close losses before, plenty in fact, but this one felt different. This one felt real, like they actually had a chance.

If you google news search Raptors+heart you get 90 results. And most of those also include the words ‘lack of’.

If there is any justice in the world that should change after their monumental come back on Sunday.

Their roster may be… interesting, and a little short on elite NBA talent, but team basketball and belief can be great equalisers.

Just ask the Knicks.

(On a similar, but unrelated note, I felt the need to share this quote. It’s great: “You got two minutes, you have Kobe Bryant on the floor, you have Pau and Drew on the floor. What is there to really worry about except play hard and win the game?” Ron Artest.)


Blake Griffin is The Power Forward

November 9, 2010

For almost 15 years Tim Duncan  has been The Archetype, the man who best represents what it means to play the four spot in the NBA.

And as his career fades, albeit gradually, into the history books, the Los Angeles Clipper’s rookie big man and former #1 NBA Draft pick Blake Griffin is firmly placed to grab the gaze and the plaudits afforded to The Best Power Forward in the Game.

Because make no mistake Griffin is the best in the NBA right now and it is not a debate.

8 games. That is all the time he needed to crush any worries about his surgically repaired knee and to impose his authority on to the NBA to the tune of 18 and 11.

If you were the GM of any franchise starting from scratch right now and you could have your pick of any power forward in the game for the next 10 years tell me you don’t take Griffin.

He rebounds, he scores from everywhere, he runs the floor. He even plays defence. Yes, he plays for an awful team, but but the stench of Clipper mediocrity wont last long, not with number 32 on the floor.

Quite simply Blake Griffin is not a power forward.

He is The Power Forward.


NBA Draft 2010: Stephenson, Orton, Cousins, Aldrich and Lawal. Steals.

June 27, 2010

by Jack Maidment

Drama. Not a word you would associate with this year’s NBA Draft. With few surprises on the board and even fewer on the trade table this was a night that requires a little more digging than usual.

Who did well?

First and foremost the Chicago Bulls, who, with the deal that will send Kirk Heinrich to the Washington Wizards, have now got enough cap room to pursue two big-time free agents.

There can be little doubt that the Bulls are sitting in pole position to attract LeBron, Wade and co: big market, oodles of money, history, a top-three point guard and a dominant and energetic big man who needs to win.

Oh, and Luol Deng aka The Porcelain Man.

The Heinrich deal works out pretty well for the Wizards too as he can combine with John Wall to form one of the most physical and effective defensive backcourt pairings in the League.

Heinrich’s spot up shooting and range from three should also give Wall the space to penetrate and wreak havoc on the offensive end.

The Sacramento Kings profited handsomely from the Minnesota Timberwolves passing on DeMarcus Cousins because he had said he didn’t want to go there and because David Kahn is like the NBA version of The Riddler.

Two Drafts and two immense players for the Kings. A Tyreke Evans-Cousins tandem should be fruity indeed and even a fifty per cent fulfilment of the big man’s talent would see him become a truly dominant center.

He is enormous.

Curve ball time.

The Orlando Magic had a great draft.

Daniel Orton and Stanley Robinson. Late first and second round picks but with a lot more potential to make an impression than a number of other team’s picks.

Orton entered the Draft hidden by the hype that surrounded the rest of his team mates from Kentucky, but make no mistake, given some time and the tutelage of Dwight Howard and Patrick Ewing he could and should be a fantastic player.

As for Robinson, there is certainly the hint of Gerald Wallace in his do-it-all style and his ability to make an impact on both ends of the floor make him the potential steal of the second round.

The only problem for both of these players is whether or not they will get enough playing time to progress.

The Magic were not the only team to get better at the pivot position with the Oklahoma City Thunder doing what they do best to address their need for a big man.

Sam Presti has a knack for striking Draft gold and the trade he orchestrated to take Cole Aldrich to OKC by way of New Orleans’ pick gives them a gritty rebounder and shot blocker who is as tough as hell and whose lack of offensive game will not matter a bit with Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Green providing all the scoring needed. And he is cheap.

Honourable mention:

Ganai Lawal picked 46 by the Phoenix Suns the man from Georgia Tech is the perfect fit for an up-tempo system. He can run the floor all night long, can finish and most importantly he can rebound with ferocity. Help on the glass was exactly what the Suns needed and Lawal is an absolute steal this late in the second round.

Lance Stephenson out of Cincinnati, picked 40 overall by the Indiana Pacers, has long been held in high regard. There is not a record in New York city basketball that he doesn’t hold and his physical strength and shot creation should translate well to the NBA if he is given a chance to do his thing. He needs the ball. The question is if he will get it.


NBA 2010 Offseason: One to Cherish

June 22, 2010

by Jack Maidment

With one Game 7 victory the Los Angeles Lakers brought to a close another NBA season and ushered in the much vaunted free agency class of 2010. Beyond that and the Draft? Not much, so let us savour every last morsel of relevant basketball related information until the League goes in to its recuperation period.

In a matter of days those who can will be making their runs at the player(s) who they believe can save/help/resurrect their franchises.

For New York it means persuading LeBron that there is more to life than winning.

For Chicago it means showcasing Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah as the two-three punch on a potential championship team.

For Miami it means retaining Dwyane Wade.

Everyone else will flail and fail; or at least try and pass off Joe Johnson as a saviour.

And Chris Bosh will tell all that will listen that he can be the centre piece of a winning team.

All of this will take place while the Lakers sit on a roster that looks good to dominate the NBA for the next three years.

With the undoubted demolition of the Boston Celtics, LeBron’s contract status and Vince Carter still playing for the Orlando Magic, the standard out East will be no where close to the challengers this year gone.

Something major will have to take place in the West to turn the race for the Conference Crown into something more than a one horse cake walk.

In short: LA is the King. And the King stay the King until.

As for the Draft the Wizards can look forward to a future with John Wall in charge. What happens to Gilbert Arenas (he stays, plays, doesn’t explode) will have a large bearing on how big a turnaround the Wizz can hope for.

Meanwhile Evan Turner’s move to Philadelphia should inject some life into a Sixers franchise long bereft of relevancy.

Beyond that the draft is a mixed bag but cherish it because in a few weeks all there will be is Summer League.

Urgh.


NBA Draft 2010: Wall, Turner, Favors and Cousins are the new Fab Four

May 21, 2010

by Jack Maidment

The NBA Draft usually has the power to change the fortunes of three, maybe four teams.

That is not to say that other teams don’t get players that help them get better, but in terms of a dramatic change in fortunes, only a handful of teams truly benefit.

Last year it was Sacramento with Tyreke Evans, Golden State with Stephen Curry and Milwaukee with Brandon Jennings.

The year before that? Chicago with Derrick Rose, Oklahoma with Russell Westbrook and New Jersey with Brook Lopez.

This year’s Draft has two stand outs in John Wall and Evan Turner and then two players just below them in terms of talent and projected ability: DeMarcus Cousins and Derrick Favors.

In this Draft it would appear the pieces have fallen almost perfectly, four players made to fit the four teams that have been blessed with one of the top four picks.

No doubt they all would take Wall given the chance and the same can be said for every team in the NBA if they were in with a shout. He will go #1, that much is certain.

As it is the Washington Wizards got the right to take Wall and change the face of a franchise in desperate need of some serious reconstruction.

Gilbert Arena remains and so does his horrific contract.

Can the two of them play together? Arenas has never been a pure point as Wall is and so he will undoubtedly play off the ball in a role that could allow him to thrive, especially in his first season back in which he will be doing his very best to focus on basketball and not guns or anything other distraction.

Arenas used to be The Man in the nation’s capital but any problems this time round will see some sort of deal to get rid of him. Someone will be stupid enough to take him on. Memphis anyone?

If Philadelphia do not take Evan Turner with the number two pick there will be a riot.

He will fit nicely with Andre Igoudala on the wings and he will in all likelihood have plenty of opportunity to bring the ball up for the 76ers who lack a solid point guard.

Picking third overall, the New Jersey Nets will be the first team with anything even mildly resembling a dilemma.

Cousins or Favors.

The safe money would be on Favors who would be the perfect foil to Brook Lopez in the Nets’ front court.

Favors is a power forward in the 99th percentile in terms of his athleticism and that makes him the perfect compliment to Lopez’s more crafty post up game.

Two years down the line the Nets will have one of the most intimidating front courts, regardless of what happens with free agency this summer.

Minnesota again find themselves at the sharp end of the lottery and the question this year will be whether or not David Kahn is capable of an even more perverse Draft performance than last year.

If sanity prevails the answer should be no. Cousins is almost a perfect fit. The man is enormous and character issues are beginning to seem more smoke than fire.

Taking Cousins fourth would allow the Wolves to move Al Jefferson who has proved to be an extremely efficient low post scorer, but a tendency to sit large amounts of time on the injured list and the inability to play with Kevin Love should see him gone.

Love is one of the games best big man passers and a body like Cousins to take care of the banging would allow him to use more of his skills which have been stymied by playing with Jefferson.

In fairness taking Cousins probably doesn’t get the team too far away from the Lottery next year, but any improvement must be a good thing, right?

The top four effectively picks itself and those four players are best positioned to have the impact their prospective new employers desire.

However, it is worth remembering that Brandon Jennings went 10th overall last year.

There will be bargains to be had.

I like Stanley Robinson, Xavier Henry and Eric Bledsoe as this year’s mid to late sleepers.


LeBron to NY? Now that is an easy decision.

April 5, 2010

by Jack Maidment

As you might expect, there is a lot of conjecture surrounding LeBron James and the choice he will make this coming summer.

Stay or go. That is the question.

From what you read and what you here there are apparently only two options: remain in Cleveland or head to New York.

Fair enough. I am in agreement with almost everybody else in thinking these are the only two realistic and viable options, barring some sort of mythical agreement between Wade, Bosh and James to take less money and start a super team someplace.

Ian O’Connor wrote a piece for ESPN this past week in which he suggests that LeBron simply must go and play for the Knicks because, according to Mr O’Connor New York is much better than every where else.

Or something along those lines.

Apparently winning a championship in NY City is more of a big deal than anywhere else.

Ok.

I’m going to disagree with that.

And here is why.

Imagine you are the captain of the English football team and through some freak occurrence you end up winning the World Cup in South Africa.

But the team you are playing for isn’t your homeland but Brazil, or Italy, a country to which you have little affinity.

Would lifting the World Cup be special?

Of course.

But how much better would it be lifting it while representing the country, the people and the communities that run through your veins and make up who you are?

Is the same not transposable to LeBron?

He is after all a young man born and raised in the state of Ohio.

The city he calls his own, Akron, is a matter of minutes from the arena he plays every other night.

Anyone who has seen More Than a Game will know just how much the area means to LeBron.

And yet, all of this seems to be superseded in the minds of writers when they have anything to say on the matter.

Its all about New York being the biggest market and how great Knicks’ fans are and how much fun LeBron would have in the city.

Some of that may be true.

But he already plays for his hometown team and the admiration Cleveland Cavalier fans show him can not be matched anywhere.

Go to New York and he will be loved but not in the same way.

He will be a mercenary waging war for a team and a city with which he has no bond, no connection, except for a liking for one of the baseball teams.

You can forget your bigger market, your smaller amount of money, your great fans, your ‘unsurpassable’ victory parades and everything else that goes with The Big Apple.

All of that pales into insignificance with bringing a title to the place you hold dearest.

Some things cannot be bought.

He will stay.