1. Finals or Not, Ujiri Will Be Fine Either Way
Masai Ujiri has always been held in high acclaim amongst his general managerial peers, especially after following exec Mark Warkentien in Denver and keeping the Nuggets on the winning path since the start of this decade, ultimately leading them to a 57-win season and earning himself the 2012-13 NBA Executive of the Year award.
After acquiring Andre Iguodala, Danilo Gallinari and the lottery pick that became Jamal Murray in various Denver trades, Ujiri became a hot commodity in the League, ultimately landing the Toronto Raptors president title job in April 2013.
Ujiri’s six-year process is at zenith stage right now, with Toronto atop the Eastern Conference just like last year with a record (24-9, .727 winning percentage) just like last year (59-23, .720).
But as oppose to last year, hope is now alive in Canada this season because former Cleveland Cavalier and Miami Heat superstar LeBron James no longer rules the Eastern Conference as his teams did for the past eight East Finals.
Now the NBA world actually believes Toronto can get past the Celtics and 76ers—in addition to the Bucks and Pacers—with a faith far greater than the weak faith displayed in past seasons, despite great Raptors records (163 victories in the previous five seasons).
Has anything changed?
No. Not really.
Other than LeBron becoming a Laker and giving East teams hopes beyond the conference finals. Other than that, Toronto is playing the same great regular-season ball it always has.
Only now, based on roster makeup—fairly or unfairly—mainstream opinion consequently makes the Raptors the Eastern Conference favorites for the first time (Toronto +165 to win the East Finals, Boston +260 and Philadelphia +390, according to FanDuel).
Some speculate Kawhi Leonard has made the difference in perception. And that may be true on some level.
But once you truly analyze the situation, one realizes the Raptors are great—with or without Kawhi, with or without departed DeMar DeRozan, who is now a San Antonio Spur.
Did you know Kawhi has missed eight of Toronto’s 33 games already?
Did you realize the Raptors actually are 7-1 in games without Kawhi, with a +115 margin of victory, registering a +14.4 average on the plus-minus scale?
Do not get me wrong. Kawhi is a legit MVP candidate in Toronto, after averaging 26 points and 8 rebounds on 25.6 Player Efficiency Rating with +9.0 On and +5.9 On-Off net ratings.
But just as vital is All-Star playmaker Kyle Lowry, who is averaging 14.2 points and 10.0 assists on 18.4 PER with +13.7 On and +20.8 On-Off net ratings.
Just as important is NBA Most Improved Player favorite Pascal Siakam, who is averaging 14.4 points and 6.2 rebounds on 19.2 PER with +14.0 On and +19.0 On-Off ratings.
We can go on and on about the exploits of starters Danny Green and Serge Ibaka. About Sixth Man of the Year candidate VanVleet, Jonas Valanciunas and other reserves.
But when we do, know that everything all boils down to one common denominator: Masai Ujiri.
Even the head coach, former assistant Nick Nurse, was a summer promotion, given by Ujiri.
Think about how tough it was to fire Dwane Casey, whose only crime as 2017-18 NBA Coach of the Year was that he could not find a way to win a game off of LeBron’s team in the NBA Playoffs, time and time again.
Think about how tough it had to be to trade DeRozan, a nine-year Raptor, away, even if it was for a gem like Leonard.
Yet Ujiri did it.
And the Raptors are in a better place now because of it.
There will be those who call this season a failure if Kawhi Leonard, who enters free agency this summer, signs elsewhere in 2019-20, especially after the Raptors traded DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl and a 2019 first-round pick to the Spurs last summer for Leonard and Green.
Yet, nothing can be further from the truth.
If the Leonard trade fails, Ujiri simply will land himself yet another star in yet another trade, just as he has time and time again.
I mean, Ujiri re-signed his All-Stars Lowry and DeRozan whenever their contracts came up for renegotiation.
Ujiri acquired Ibaka for Terrence Ross and the 25thpick in 2017.
Ujiri landed Siakam with the 27thpick in the 2016 NBA Draft; Delon Wright with the 20thpick in the 2016 draft; signed undrafted Fred VanVleet following the 2016 draft.
This is a man who is masterful at his craft.
If Ujiri loses Leonard next summer, Toronto is still a 50-win team.
And with Leonard, the Raptors may become a championship contender. Who knows?
That is why he is already the 2018-19 NBA Executive of the Year in my book.
With or without a championship.
With or without Kawhi.
2. Prospecting in Sacramento
I believe there are five stages to an NBA player’s career: Prospect (22-year-olds and under); Peaking (23-26 year-olds); Prime (27-30 year-olds); Plateau and Plummet (post 31-year-olds).
Which brings us to the curious case of the Sacramento Kings, who currently boast a roster of four talented prospects (De’Aaron Fox, Marvin Bagley, Harry Giles and Skal Labissiere), among another set of good players who are in their prime (Buddy Hield, Willie Cauley-Stein, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Yogi Ferrell) with another peaking veteran (Nemanja Bjelica).
Nobody is older than 30 on this roster, yet the Kings finally have crossed the .500 threshold with a 16-15 record, despite starting a 21-year-old point guard (Fox) and playing a teenager (Bagley) 23 minutes per game.
It truly is a sign of great things to come if head coach Dave Joerger can coax this type of production out of such an inexperienced roster.
Should Fox and Bagley continue along their predictive path to greatness, the Kings may become a strong playoff contender as soon as the 2020 or 2021 NBA Playoffs.
After all, Hield, Cauley-Stein and Bjelica are all having career years when it comes to efficiency and traditional statistics.
Who would not want to have a plus-defensive center (Cauley-Stein) that also averages 14 points and 8 rebounds?
Who would not want to have a stretch 4 (Bjelica) who averages 11 points in 24 minutes per game, while making 49 percent of hs 3s and 58 percent of his 2s?
Who would not want a perimeter defender (Iman Shumpert) off a 2016 NBA championship team, or a shooting guard (Hield) who averages 19 points per game on a .596 true shooting percentage?
With all of these key players coming together in their prime and peak seasons, it becomes obvious why the Kings are peaking when they do.
It also becomes exciting to see their immediate future—should exec Vlade Divac keep this group together—as Fox and Bailey continue to improve.
Fox is already recreating the Kings in his fast-paced, fastbreak image, with Joerger getting the team to buy in to the point guard who averages 18 points and 7 assists in 32 minutes per game.
It does not hurt that this style also behooves forward-center Bagley, who was averaging 13 points and 6 rebounds in 23 minutes per game, with a .592 true shooting percentage before he suffered a bone bruise on his knee last week (he should be ready to play before New Year’s).
Joerger is already on record comparing his guard and forward to Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, which we believe is hyperbolic, yet in the ballpark considering Fox’s career arc is already on a similar path to Westbrook, John Wall, Derrick Rose and Kyrie Irving at similar age.
As for Bagley, his size puts him more in line with the Anthony Davises and Chris Boshes of this world, which is also high praise indeed.
Indeed, it may be too early to call the Kings the next version of Thunder 2.0.
But we do know, as the prospects mind-meld with their teammates and potentially turn into All-Stars in the near future, the Kings’ kingdom surely can expand.
Long live, Sacramento, dare we say?
3. A Star Is Not Born
It was too early to give Donovan Mitchell the star tag last spring just because the Utah Jazz rookie guard averaged 24 points per game in the playoffs for a second-round team.
After all, Mitchell’s efficiency and team metrics specifically said the was rook merely a good starter—nothing more, nothing less—in both the 2017-18 regular season (16.7 Player Efficiency Rating, .541 true shooting percentage, +7.0 On and +6.9 On-Off net ratings) and 2018 postseason (16.8 PER, .512 true shooting percentage.
Yes, because he was 21, Mitchell was a special prospect. And he was a good player. He is a good player
But to project him as an instant star was hyperbolic at best.
That said, it would not surprise me to see Mitchell playing in the 2020 or 2021 All-Star Games.
However, when the mainstream media elevates a youngster to star status too soon, it becomes tough to maintain expectations when tough times eventually set in.
After all, most elite prospects do not become All-Stars until post-collegiate age (only 19 of 57 active All-Stars played in All-Star Games at age 22 or younger, according to Basketball-Reference’s age specifications; furthermore, only 14 of 47 active All-NBA players earned All-League accolades at age 22 or younger).
Which brings us to the present, when the Jazz sit second-to-last in the West with a 15-17 record, while Mitchell, now 22 years old, remains the team’s high scorer (21 points per game) for an offense that ranks 25thin team efficiency, as Mitchell posts similar metrics to last season (15.4 PER, .517 true shooting percentage, +1.9 On and +1.9 On-Off net ratings).
In essence, the Jazz second-year prospect is once again a good starter and volume scorer on a team that is now fighting to get its head above .500 water.
He is not a disappointment.
He is the same good prospect, good player he was last year.
If we expected him to be an All-Star, then the fault lies with us.
Expectations must be managed—see Mitchell, Donovan; see Tatum, Jayson; see Brown, Jaylen—in this day and age where we are too quick to predict All-NBA status for players who really are fringe All-Star candidates at best.
So hail to the young prospects that have already showed they are good players.
It is no shame not to be at All-NBA status, justlikethat.
Remember, most elite prospects do not become All-Stars or All-NBA players until they are 23-, 24- or even 25-years-old.
4. The Four Corner Pieces
Center Nikola Vucevic should get some All-Star votes, but Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier and D.J. Augustin will not be holding their breath in hopes of earning a trip to Charlotte for 2019 NBA All-Star in February.
Still, the aforementioned four are all enjoying a career renaissance and are having career-best seasons as they try to get their Orlando Magic to .500 status and into the 2018 playoffs.
Nobody nowhere expected new head coach Steve Clifford to take over a 25-57 franchise and steer it to a 14-16 record as he has, yet here we are a week-and-a-half before New Year’s.
And credit must be given to the Most Improved-candidate center, the big-money power forward, the space-setting shooting wing and the diminutive journeyman point guard.
The four Magic starters have been so dependable as a unit, they boast an impressive +4.1 net rating whenever they share the floor together (532 minutes thus far).
Consequently, most fifth puzzle pieces that Clifford plugs into that four-man combo comes back aces, whether he uses Wesley Iwundu (+6.6 net rating per 100 possessions in 168 minutes together), Jonathon Simmons (+4.0 in 108 minutes) or Terrence Ross (+16.7 in 89 minutes).
By no means, is the Magic’s fantastic four squad a killer lineup like Golden State’s Lineup of Death squad or anything like that.
We just find it intriguing how Clifford is making the most of a flawed roster and is turning lemons into lemonade with limited resources.
Who knows Orlando might be able to sneak into the playoffs with an all-around lineup that features a center (Vucevic) who can get his shot anywhere on the court; a power forward (Gordon) who gets most of his high-percentage shots at the rim on the run or at the three-point line; two guards (Augustin and Fournier) who shoot nearly half their shots beyond the arc and space the floor just right for their bigs.
It’s not rocket science, what they are doing in Orlando, but it is getting the best out of players like Iwundu, Simmons and Ross, which is saying something.