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Raptors’ reserves rolling, and they don’t plan to let playoffs stop them

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DETROIT – Fred VanVleet remembers sitting on the end of the Raptors bench with teammates like Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam last season. None held a permanent rotation spot, and they discussed what they would do better if they got an opportunity.

“If you’re made of anything, nobody likes sitting on the bench,” VanVleet said. “So, we’re all kind of pissed off.”

They’ve gotten a chance to channel that frustration into production, and they’ve sure capitalized. Those four and C.J. Miles, who signed with Toronto last summer, lead the NBA’s best bench and comprise one of the league’s top lineups.

“The question has been whether we’re going to keep them in, that group, during the playoffs,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said without even being asked about the postseason, a time most teams shrink their rotation. “And why not? Until they prove us wrong and prove that they can’t perform in the playoffs, that’s our plan.”

Toronto is outscoring opponents by 9.4 points per 100 possessions with mostly reserves in, one of the best marks in the last couple decades. Here are the top benches by net rating since 1997, as far back as NBA.com data goes (with offensive rating/defensive rating/net rating):

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Many productive benches ground overwhelmed opponents into submission with tough defense. The Raptors’ reserves excel offensively and defensively. Their 110.8 points per 100 possessions ranks third among benches since 1997 (behind only the 2012 Spurs and 2018 Rockets).

Other benches are propped up by staggered stars who carry backups. Not in Toronto. The all-reserve lineup of Wright, VanVleet, Miles, Siakam and Poeltl is outscoring opponents by 22.2 points per 100 possessions. Of 43 five-man units to play 200 minutes this season, only the Timberwolves’ Tyus Jones/Jimmy Butler/Andrew Wiggins/Taj Gibson/Karl-Anthony Towns lineup has fared better (+23.4).

Here are the top lineups with at least 200 minutes (with offensive rating/defensive rating/net rating):

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Casey said he has seen opponents juggle their rotations to play more starters against his bench. Yet, the reserves have held up. That’s a big reason he has so much faith in the group for the playoffs.

But Casey didn’t have much choice to entrust these recently deep reserves with bigger roles initially.

The Raptors lost DeMarre Carroll (traded to Nets), P.J. Tucker (signed with Rockets), Patrick Patterson (signed with Thunder) and Cory Joseph (traded to Pacers) last offseason. Shedding that depth was necessary to re-sign Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka and remain under the luxury-tax line.

Of course, Toronto knew it had developing players who might have been ready for larger roles. But the way everything has come together has been incredible.

These players mesh so well. They space the floor and pass willingly. Wright, Miles, Siakam and Poeltl all have the length and mobility to swarm defensively, allowing the pesky, but undersized, VanVleet to aggressively pressure the ball.

They’ve formed an identity without commonality, the outliers adapting to the group.

They like to talk about how they’re young players trying to prove themselves. Wright is 25, Siakam 24, VanVleet 24, Poeltl 22. But Miles is 30 years old and in his 13th season

“The exuberance they have and the way they play the game, it keeps me in it,” Miles said.

They bring how they’ve all been overlooked. Wright and Siakam were drafted in the 20s. Miles was a second-rounder. VanVleet went undrafted. But Poeltl was a top-10 pick.

“I feed a lot off my teammates’ energy, also,” Poeltl said. “I’m the type of guy that, if we all get fired up, I get dragged along with that. And then, at that point, I also bring a lot of energy to the table. That drags my teammates with me.”

Another trait contagious among the group: unselfishness.

Some emanates from Wright and VanVleet. Both essentially point guards, they were competing for a spot on the depth chart a year ago. Now, VanVleet is in a contract year, and Wright will be eligible for a contract extension this offseason. Both admitted some trepidation about playing together.

“It would be easy for me to be selfish going into my contract year,” VanVleet said. “It would be easy for Delon to try to make his mark going forward.”

Yet, they make it work. When VanVleet initiates the offense, Wright cuts. When Wright initiates the offense, VanVleet spots up.

“It was really our first stint of having a role on a team,” Wright said. “So, I don’t think there’s no time to be selfish when you’re just getting your opportunity.”

Of course, that attitude can’t last forever. The Raptors’ reserves are tasting success and hungering for more.

“People are asking why we’re so good. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist,” VanVleet said. “We’ve got good players.

“We know most of us, if not all of us, can start on other teams. And that’s something that we hold to our heart.”

VanVleet probably won’t overtake Lowry or DeMar DeRozan to start in Toronto’s backcourt. But as a restricted free agent this summer, he’ll have the first opportunity to seek a starting job elsewhere. Toronto faces a potential luxury-tax bill next season and might decide not pay VanVleet, especially with Wright there.

For now, the Raptor reserves are just gearing up for the playoffs and enjoying each other’s company.

“The camaraderie we have as a unit is unbelievable,” Miles said. “It’s non-stop laughter, not-stop joking.”

The newcomer, Miles saw that brewing when he arrived over the summer. He recognized a group of young players who bonded over their lack of playing time and thought back to his first few seasons, when he was in the same boat. He told his emerging younger bench-mates he wanted to be part of what they were doing, not an outsider.

Now, they’re dominating.

“It’s really special when you think about it,” Miles said.

Grizzlies officially waive Dwight Howard, first step on his path to Lakers

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Lakers fans are uncomfortable with it, but the Lakers did a good job hedging their bet with a non-guaranteed contract: Dwight Howard is coming to the Lakers.

That process started on Saturday with the Grizzlies officially waiving Howard.

In theory, any team could claim Howard off waivers. In practice, no team is picking up his full $5.6 million salary.

Howard gave back $2.6 million in his buyout with the Grizzlies, which is exactly how much his veteran minimum contract with the Lakers will pay him.

Howard and JaVale McGee will have to tag team to play all the minutes at the five the Lakers need. Anthony Davis is their best center (and it’s not close, he’s arguably the best center in the NBA) but he wants to play the four most of the game, so for 30 minutes a night the Lakers need another big body at the five.

Howard has the potential to fill that role. For three seasons, from 2015-16 to 2017-18, Howard averaged 13+ points and 12 rebounds a night, was a big body on defense, and played at least 71 games in averaging 30 minutes a night. Exactly the kind of player the Lakers could use. The problem was Howard was never happy those years just playing that defense/set-a-pick-and-roll/rebound role. He wanted more touches and particularly in the post, which led to disruptions as he pushed for a larger role. It’s why he bounced around. Then last season he played just nine games due to more back and hamstring issues.

Howard is saying all the right things about accepting that role, and he convinced the Lakers to a degree, but that non-guaranteed contract shows the Lakers go into this eyes wide open. If Howard is up to his old antics, the Lakers can cut bait and move on.

It’s among the many things to watch in what should be an entertaining Lakers’ training camp this year.

On Mamba Day (8/24), former Lakers’ trainer Gary Vitti talks about what made Kobe great

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Kobe Bryant’s work ethic is legend.

It takes talent to become an MVP, 15-time All-NBA, 18-time All-Star, and lock future Hall of Famer. However, it was how Kobe got the most out of his talent that separated him from his peers. Long-time Lakers trainer Gary Vitti retired a couple of years ago and will soon publish an autobiography, “32 Years of Titles and Tears from the Best Seat in the House: What I Learned about Happiness, Greatness, Leadership and the Evolution of Sports Science.”

Vitti joined Hall of Fame photographer Andrew D. Bernstein this week on an episode of Legends of Sport to discuss his upcoming book, and he talked about Kobe (hat tip to CNBC).

“He was talented, but what if I told you he wasn’t the most talented guy out there? I’m telling you, and I’ve had them all, there’s nothing really special about Kobe. I mean he’s a big guy, but he’s not that big. He was quick, but he’s not that quick. He’s fast, he wasn’t that fast. He was powerful, but he wasn’t that powerful. I mean, there were other players that had more talent than he did, so what was there about him that more talented players had zero rings and he ended up with five?…

“He was tough in the sense that he took ‘can’t’ and ‘won’t’ out of his lexicon and he just believed that he could do it. Kobe taught me that talent is the most overrated thing in life; it’s what you do with your talent.”

Nobody in NBA history did as much with the talent they had as Kobe.

On Mamba Day, enjoy his ultimate mixtape highlights above and remember what it took for Kobe to get there.

 

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: ‘I am not Russell Westbrook. I’m just going to try to be myself.’

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Thunder fans are going to love Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

The Clippers did not want to give him up in the Paul George trade but had no real choice — Gilgeous-Alexander was a prize get for OKC. As a rookie last season he started 73 games, averaging 10.8 points and 3.3 assists per game for a 48-win playoff team. Playing the most difficult position to learn in the NBA. Gilgeous-Alexander grew as the season wore on and has a promising future.

But he is taking over for Russell Westbrook as the point guard for the Thunder, so the comparisons are inevitable. Even though they have radically different games. Gilgeous-Alexander handled the question well when asked, as reported by Erik Horne at The Oklahoman.

Gilgeous-Alexander smiled and said he could compete with Westbrook’s fashion sense. He also deflected any notion of pressure to live up to the legacy of the 2016-17 Most Valuable Player. “He set the bar pretty high,” Gilgeous-Alexander said…

“I am not Russell Westbrook,” Gilgeous-Alexander said with no malice. “I do not have the same name, same body type, stuff like that. So, I’m just going to try to be myself and be the best me and everything else will take care of itself.

“I’m just a basketball player. Regardless of the situation, I’m going to continue to work hard and play my game. I know that eventually it will come out. I don’t worry about starting. I’m not worried about accolades or things like that. I just work hard, keep my head down and (stay) true to who I am.”

That attitude is part of why Thunder fans will love him. Gilgeous-Alexander is confident but not cocky, and he knows his game.

That game is more traditional point guard, more game manager, than the dynamic and explosive Westbrook. Gilgeous-Alexander learned for a season under a smart, player-friendly coach in Doc Rivers, who built his point guard’s confidence up as the season wore on. Rivers showed the rookie how to be a professional, how to prepare, and most of all trusted Gilgeous-Alexander — and that trust included being matched up on Stephen Curry in a playoff series. Through it all, Gilgeous-Alexander showed real promise.

Whatever is next in Oklahoma City — and there is a lot of rebuilding to do with that roster, a lot of picks to be made still — Gilgeous-Alexander can help lead it. He will be at the heart of what is next for the Thunder.

Just don’t expect him to be Westbrook. There is only one of those.

NBCsports.com’s “50 best players in 5 years” recap: Players 50-26, including LeBron, Durant

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This summer , the NBA team at NBCSports.com decided to take on a thought experiment: What is the NBA going to look like in five years? Who will be the game’s best players? The All-Stars, the guys on the cover of 2K24, the guys with signature shoe deals?

We put our heads together, pulled out our crystal balls, and tried to project forward who would be the 50 best players in the NBA in five years — in the summer of 2024. We took into account a player’s age, his potential ceiling and how likely he is to reach it, injury history, and more. There were plenty of disagreements (and we don’t expect you to agree with all of our list), but we came up with one.

This is a quick recap of the players from the first week, with an excerpt from the write up of each player. To read more, here are the links to players 50-4645-41, 40-36, 35-31 and 30-26.

50. Cade Cunningham (Draft Class: 2021)
Cunningham is tailor-made for modern basketball. He’s 6-foot-7 and 220 pounds as a high school senior. He’s a tough, physical and athletic wing that was already considered a top 25 player in his class, but two years ago he decided to make the transition to playing the point full time. It’s worked…. He was the best player at the summer’s U19 World Cup despite playing two years above his age group. (Rob Dauster)

49. Emoni Bates (Draft Class: 2022)
He is a 6-foot-9 shooting guard from Ypsilanti, Michigan, who [as a freshman] led his high school team to the state title in 2019…. He’s already been dubbed the crown jewel of the 2022 NBA Draft. He hasn’t started his sophomore year yet and we are already saying he will be one of the 50 best basketball players on the planet when he turns 20…

He’s also the best prospect that many of the smartest people in grassroots basketball have ever seen, or have seen in a long, long time. As one former NBA player put it to me, “[those guys] are going to be good. He’s good now.”… Emoni has some killer in him. He’s uber-competitive. He’ll throw an elbow if someone is getting too physical. He’ll run his mouth after burying yet another step-back three in someone’s eye. (Rob Dauster)

48. Klay Thompson (Age in 2024: 34)
Our panel of voters may have been harsher with Thompson than almost anyone else in this five-year projection. The Golden State Warriors themselves believe and hope our ranking of Thompson is far too low — this past summer they gave him a new contract that will pay him $43.2 million the season before this ranking targets. Shooters tend to age well because that skill does not quickly fade… The fact he will miss a chunk of next season with a torn ACL impacted our voters because, long term, it could limit his non-shooting skills. (Kurt Helin)

47. Cole Anthony (Draft Class 2020)
He was the Russell Westbrook of high school and AAU basketball, a tremendous athlete and high volume lead guard that put up monster numbers…. In the modern NBA, we see a lot of point guards playing that role. Russ, John Wall and De’Aaron Fox are the guys that Anthony will look to follow in the footsteps of. But those guys are, or, in Fox’s case, project to be very soon, bonafide superstars in this league. Is Anthony talented enough to be a bonafide superstar? He certainly has the potential to be. (Rob Dauster)

46. Lonzo Ball (Age in 2024: 26)
With his defensive acumen, elite passing abilities and basketball IQ, Ball has a bright future ahead of him, especially now with Zion Williamson on the receiving end of those passes. If he can stay healthy, I truly think there’s a Jrue-Holiday-type career ahead of Ball. What better place to grow up in this league than alongside Holiday in New Orleans? At just 21 years old, there’s plenty of time for Ball to live up to lofty expectations as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 draft. Consider me bullish on Ball. (Tom Haberstroh)

45. Brandon Ingram (Age in 2024: 26)
Ingram — all skinny arms and legs, with potential he is trying to figure out — has been the poster child for the phrase “development is not linear.” There are stretches of games he looks like what the Lakers hoped to get in their No. 2 pick, a top-two scoring option for an NBA team. Then there are times you forget he is even on the court… He needs to be more consistent shooting the three, on the boards, and defensively. He’s got the potential to do all of that very well, but it just hasn’t come together for him yet. (Kurt Helin)

44. Jarrett Allen (Age in 2024: 26)
Just how good can Allen ultimately be? Very good if you ask anyone with the Nets. Former teammate Ed Davis thought Allen could become a $100 million player. Allen’s game and athleticism put his ceiling incredibly high…. Does Brooklyn believe in Allen? They just gave DeAndre Jordan a four-year, $40 million contract. While a lot of that is political (Jordan is one of Kevin Durant’s best friends), it’s a shot across the bow of Allen, who is going to have to prove he deserves to be the starter and the guy getting big minutes. (Kurt Helin)

43. Victor Oladipo (Age in 2024: 32)
Oladipo has played like a star just a season and a half. He’s missed half of last season with a quad injury that could cause him to miss a significant chunk of next season, too. There’s no guarantee he reverts to peak form, let alone remains this good at age 32. But Oladipo’s competitiveness, work ethic and tenacity are inspiring. Of the NBA’s go-to-scorer guards, none defend like him. He developed primary skills like shooting and ball-handling without losing his edge. (Dan Feldman)

42. CJ McCollum (Age in 2024: 32)
McCollum just signed a new contract with the Trail Blazers that will keep him in Portland through 2023-24. At age 27, it seems likely McCollum will continue to get better on defense… McCollum is a worker, and more importantly, has a mentality that he is a top dog. Lillard or not, McCollum will try to get the rest of the league to recognize his undeniability, and the only way to do that is to get better on D. (Dan Delgado)

41. RJ Barrett (Age in 2024: 24)
I also understand why there are people who question what RJ’s fit will be at the NBA level. There are legitimate concerns about his jumper. He’s left-hand dominant. He has not proven to be a lock-down defender. He’s ball-dominant, and he might not be good enough to play on the ball in the NBA. But after talking with people around the Duke program and that know RJ, I think that it is worth noting that he’s wired the way that Kawhi Leonard is and Kobe Bryant was. He’s uber-competitive. He has that alpha in him. And, most importantly, he is a worker. He may not end up having the potential to be a superstar in the NBA, but I do think he is the kind of person that is going to find a way to maximize every skill and physical tool he has. (Rob Dauster)

40. LeBron James (Age in 2024: 39)
He’s an unprecedented athlete with his combination of size, strength, speed and coordination. There’s so much room for his athleticism to slip and remain good enough. Not that LeBron is idly letting himself deteriorate. He invests heavily in taking care of his body. Perhaps most importantly, in recent years, LeBron has carefully selected when to exert full effort. LeBron also has the most basketball intelligence in the league. Even as his physical tools erode, here’s betting he finds ways to thrive. (Dan Feldman)

39. Marvin Bagley III (Age in 2024: 25)
With quick hops and amazing elevation, Bagley finishes above the rim so effortlessly. It’s easy to see that translating to other areas of his game – primarily defense. Bagley isn’t as overwhelmed defensively as it seemed he’d be entering the league. He has shown nice timing for blocking shots… Offensively, Bagley has also shown more skill than expected. His shooting range and ball-handling are trending in the right direction. (Dan Feldman)

38. Gary Harris (Age in 2024: 29)
At 24, Harris is a rare combination of young and established at the NBA’s most talent-scarce position. The base of his game is 3-point shooting and defense – the highly coveted skills that allow him to fit into any situation. But he also has enough all-around ability that a 3-and-D label sells him short. (Dan Feldman)

37. James Wiseman (Age in 2024: 23)
Wiseman has a chance to be really good. He stands 7-foot. He has the kind of length, mobility and athleticism that should allow him to thrive at the five in the modern NBA. He is a capable defender with the potential to be very, very good with some added strength and a bit of motivation. And he is skilled enough where he has the potential of one day doing all four things modern fives are asked to do – protect the rim, switch ball-screens, space the floor to the three-point line, be a lob target as a roll-man in ball-screens. (Rob Dauster)

36. Aaron Gordon (Age in 2024: 28)
Gordon is a damn good player. Not just a phenomenal athlete, although he is that, too, but Gordon is a player. He averaged 16 points and 7 rebounds a game last season, shot a career-best 34.9 percent from three, saw his assist numbers improve again (16.6% assist percentage), has the handles to create his own shot, has the versatility to play the three or the four, and he’s a quality defender on the perimeter or in the post… The question remains: Can Gordon take the next step and be a trusted go-to scorer in the crunch time of games? (Kurt Helin)

35. Caris LeVert (Age in 2024: 28)
LeVert is a skilled wing. He can shoot, handle and pass. It’s the package, coupled with his fluidity and 6-foot-7 size, that can lead to stardom (though maybe only low-end stardom, because LeVert isn’t particularly explosive). But LeVert must fill out his still-thin frame and avoid injuries. That’d also help his defense, which isn’t as stout as his length suggests it could be. (Dan Feldman)

34. Lauri Markkanen (Age in 2024: 27)
There are stretches of games when Lauri Markkanen’s play makes this ranking look too low. For example, last February he averaged 26 points and 12.2 rebounds a game, getting buckets inside and knocking down a couple of threes a game. For a month, Markkanen looked like the future All-Star and cornerstone of the Bulls the Chicago front office believes he will be. The question is, can he reach that ceiling consistently? He’s only 22, but he has yet to come anywhere near that. (Kurt Helin)

33. Damian Lillard (Age in 2024: 34)
Lillard might not be headed for a “Most Overpaid” listicle in five years the way some have assumed. Instead, Lillard could just as easily transition into a 3-point shooting, high-arc-passing veteran who annoys opponents to no end. Hell, he’s already shown he can take a step forward on defense without relying on his athleticism this postseason. (Dane Deldago)

32. Rudy Gobert (Age in 2024: 32)
Rudy Gobert is underrated. Sure, he has won the last two Defensive Player of the Year awards. But that gets him attention only at the end of the season, when people consider that award. In the midst of the action, Gobert has never even been an All-Star. By the time the playoffs start, his defense is again overlooked until the next year. Gobert is also good offensively. Though limited on that end, he knows his strengths and plays to them. He’s an excellent finisher, screener and offensive rebounder. Importantly, he doesn’t try to do too much. (Dan Feldman)

31. Stephen Curry (Age in 2024: 36)
I feel like the best shooter ever deserves a higher spot on this list. If you don’t think his superhuman ability to score from far away places won’t age well, consider the careers of Reggie Miller and Ray Allen, the only two players who have made more 3-pointers than Curry has in this league. Miller was starting playoff games at age 39. Allen was starting Finals games at age 38… Curry’s ranking suggests he’s at the tail end of his career, but he just increased his scoring average for the second consecutive season, averaging 27.3 points per game with pristine efficiency. (Tom Haberstroh)

30. Paul George (Age in 2024: 34)
George is a complete player on both ends in his prime now, but with a game that should age well so that he is still a significant contributor at age 34 in 2024. Last season he scored 28 points a game for the Thunder, shooting 38.6 percent from three, grabbing 8.2 rebounds a game, dishing out 4.1 assists per night, plus being one of the better and more physical wing defenders in the NBA. If those numbers slip some in the next half-decade, he’s still contributing a lot. It’s his play on that defensive end of the court that, while it likely will drop off some in five years, keeps him high on this list. (Kurt Helin)

29. Kevin Durant (Age in 2024: 35)
Durant is on the wrong side of 30 and has a torn Achilles. He left Golden State and his multi-star supporting cast for the Nets. Neither individual nor team success will come so easily. In the next five years, Durant has a chance to reshape his legacy. He’ll never completely shake taking the easier route to a title with the Warriors. But if he plays a leading role in a Brooklyn championship, even with Kyrie Irving also starring, that’d prove he can elevate a team to that level. (Dan Feldman)

28. D’Angelo Russell (Age in 2024: 28)
Russell earned his max averaging 21.1 points and dishing out seven assists per game while shooting 36.9 from three last season in Brooklyn. Numbers that made him an All-Star. His game is all about hesitation, starts and stops that throw defenders off, combined with fantastic court vision that lets him find the open big man rolling to the rim or the open shooter in the corner. Last season his assist percentage went up and his turnover percentage dropped… Russell also matured as a person, setting the stage for him to be a leader in Brooklyn and the kind of player other teams want in their locker room. (Kurt Helin)

27. Jaylen Brown (Age in 2024: 27)
What stood out watching Jaylen Brown when USA Basketball training camp came to Los Angles last week was that he was playing freely and aggressively. Like the Jaylen Brown of a couple of seasons ago, the one from the conference finals playoff run, not the cautious guy hesitating and looking to find his space at the start of last season. (Kurt Helin)

26. Myles Turner (Kurt) (Age in 2024: 28)
“Defensive Player of the Year is a big goal of mine, I want to obtain that by any means necessary,” Turner said. “All-Stars, obviously, that’s on everybody’s list of things to do. And just getting out of the first round of the playoffs, I’ve been in the league four years now and been to the first round every year.” (Kurt Helin)