On cloud nine? This year’s version of the Toronto Raptors seems legit


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Download this podcast episode on iTunes

By L.C.

The Toronto Raptors have been a good to almost great regular season team since the 2013/14 season. Their combined record from then to now has them at a very pretty and impressive 126-82; a total of 44 games over the .500 mark. They have won back to back Division titles (likely headed for a third) and are currently riding an eight game winning streak putting them second in the East only a few games behind the supposedly scary Cleveland Cavaliers.

Being a team from Canada, basketball has certainly evolved over the years and players who have dawned Raptors jerseys would be the first to tell you they are starting to get the respect they deserve from their opponents and from American media outlets. Time, patience, success and consistency have started to slowly change but the team from Toronto won’t warrant the respect they seek until they overcome their playoff demons and move past the first round of the playoffs.

To shed a little light on their team history, Toronto has won a first round playoff series once dating back to 2000/01 when Vince Carter was a member of the team. Since then their playoff record is a combined 8-19 losing series’ in pretty embarrassing fashion to the Detroit Pistons, New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets, Orlando Magic and more recently the Washington Wizards. Their roster wasn’t always perfect and they never seemed to get the best from their go to guys when the game got close but the fact of the matter is in order to get noticed around the NBA, you have to perform when it counts and the Raptors have yet to prove they can do that. This year, like most Toronto sports fans love to say, could be different.

According to Hollinger ESPN stats, the Raptors currently sit sixth in total offensive efficiency behind teams who are widely considered to be the NBA’s elite in Golden State, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Cleveland. That stat may not mean much to most Raptors fans as they actually ranked higher last season and finished third in total offensive efficiency, so why am I mentioning this as a positive? The Raptors got swept by the Wizards! Here is why and I will get to an even more important stat after.

Last year the Raptors were an offensive team to a flaw. Sure they put up points (108.1 compared to this year’s current 105.2) but they were a much worse defensive team than they are right now. These are Lou Williams’ (-3.1), Greivis Vasquez’ (-2.2, -2.1,) and Tyler Hansbrough’s (-0.5, -0.2) defensive box plus/minus when they played for Toronto which happen to all sit on the negative side. The players general manager Masai Ujiri replaced them with – Bismack Biyombo, Luis Scola, DeMarre Carroll and Cory Joseph – have posted a combined defensive plus/minus rating of +1.8 compared to a combined rating of -8.1 from the other three players no longer around. While it may not be a revealing statistic for most, it does go to show how Toronto’s defensive game has improved without the offensive minded Williams and Vasquez. Oh and to make matters worse, Williams’ and Vasquez hold a combined defensive rating of -6.6 this year on their new teams. Meanwhile in Williams’ only season with the Raptors he did post a Win Share (An estimate of the number of wins contributed by a single player) of 6.6 which was the highest of his career. This season with the Los Angeles Lakers it has dropped to a 3.3 while Vasquez posted a combined WS of 5.4 during his two seasons with the Raptors. This season? It’s at -0.1 with the Milwaukee Bucks. While I hate to point the finger at former players, it’s evident based on these stats that Ujiri made a good call in letting Williams walk and trading Vasquez for assets.

Getting back to team stats, the Raptors are winning games so far this season thanks to a balanced offense mixed in with a significantly improved defense. According to Hollinger’s stats, the Raptors were 23rd in total defensive efficiency last year (104.8) compared to this year where they sit 10th with a rating of 100.9, respectively. This also goes back to who Ujiri brought in to replace his single minded offensive players. In addition, Toronto’s defensive rebound rate is currently fifth best in the NBA at 78.1 compared to last year’s 73.3, which had them tied in 24th place. Last but not least, the Raptors are holding opponents to 96.8 points per game – currently fourth best in the NBA – where last year they ended the season allowing opponents to score 101 PPG which was 19th best. Considering the Raptors finished third in the East last year with 48 wins while posting below average defensive statistics proves they weren’t as good as many people thought.

I am detailing these stats because they are important to make note of. While Toronto struggled mightily last year to maintain a defensive edge, it’s a different story so far this season thanks to a much better approach at both end’s of the floor. Keep in mind the Raptors have played most of this year without Carroll – their prized free agent signing who excels on defense – and without Jonas Valanciunas as both missed time with injury. Add that to how Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have played, the Raptors are getting contributions from a number of players in a variety of different ways. More importantly their role players don’t just come off the bench to score and instead are finding ways to play efficient and good all around basketball leading the Raptors to their current 29-15 record and eight game win streak.

While the Raptors still aren’t considered a top tier team (they still have some issues closing out games in the fourth quarter and put up occasional clunkers versus teams below .500) they are proving they deserve to be labeled as threats due to their improved all around play. Ladies, gentleman and fellow fans and friends, the fact the Raptors are on this win streak should sit very well with all of you. While it won’t truly matter until they win a playoff series, the fact that these current statistics are all significantly better than the accomplished but flawed team who got swept last year means that the Raptors are headed in the right direction.

Let’s hope everything falls into place down the stretch.

 

How could the big U.S. snowstorm affect Sunday’s game in Charlotte?


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Bank of America Stadium covered in snow

By Ozzy

If you’re from South Carolina one thing is for sure, you aren’t used to snow. Maybe you’ve never seen it before? Well now you have a taste. Bank of America stadium employees began clearing the snow for the big game Sunday.

Usually fans that go to a Carolina Panthers game are wearing shorts and a t-shirt, but people have gone to the stadium and posted pictures of them wearing snow gear. Definitely a different sight.

Those who watched the divisional game against the Seahawks last weekend were exposed to the already slippery turf, and this weekend is sure to be worse after the storm. Panthers are lucky to be practising in Charlotte on snowy turf. Team staff has adjusted players cleats for practise in order to prepare for game-time conditions.

The Arizona Cardinals on the other hand are not in Charlotte just yet so their practise has been consisting of sunny skies and warm temperatures. They will see quite the adjustment when they arrive this weekend.

Do I think this will play a role in the teams actually game performance? No, the reason is for one, Carolina has played in these conditions this season. Take the NY Giants win for example. Back on December 20th, the temperature at MetLife Stadium was 6 degrees celsius. They’ve also been practising on the snow and in the cold as I mentioned above. Arizona played in Seattle against the Seahawks on November 15th in 10 degrees celsius, and won that game. So both teams have experience playing in cold games and winning away from home. Maybe that’s where Arizona has an edge coming into this game on the road?

But above all, they are professional athletes with professional coaching and training staff. They are always ready for whatever the weather throws at them, or what Cam or Carson throw at them (see what I did there).

My pick still remains in the Panthers hand. Home field advantage and their defence should hold up and bring them to the Superbowl.

 

Click here to read our full tune-up for this game.

NFL Conference Championship match ups are what we all predicted


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Click to download this podcast episode on iTunes

By L.C.

When it comes to football and predicting who wins and who loses, it’s obvious you aren’t always going to get it right. At the end of the day an individual with vast knowledge on the game could attempt to consistently predict the outcome for years and not have much luck where another person who doesn’t follow football whatsoever could get 10 out of 10 right on any given week.

It’s how it goes and believe me, it’s happened to a lot of people I know.

This past weekend of football – the Divisional Playoff games – saw a handful of fairly predictable outcomes come to light. The always lethal yet still under manned New England Patriots beat the Kansas City Chiefs 27-20 as Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick did what they normally do, the Arizona Cardinals beat the Green Bay Packers 26-20 in an absolute thriller in overtime (I’ll get into details later), the Carolina Panthers got out to an early 31-0 lead over Seattle only to eventually hold off the Seahawks 31-24 and finally the Peyton Manning led Denver Broncos beat the very undermanned Pittsburgh Steelers (much to my dismay) by a final of 23-16.

According to my advanced football knowledge, that sets us all up for a Denver vs. New England/ Carolina vs. Arizona semi-final which is what a ton of people expected it to be anyways. The Panthers were tremendously efficient and consistent all year long going a combined 16-1 heading into this weekend’s match up with the Cards. The soon to be MVP Cam Newton proved that he can perform in the playoffs, as did his entire team, spanking the Seahawks in the first half. While the second half was a different story,  good teams find ways to win which is exactly what the Panthers did. Meanwhile the Cardinals overcame the heroics of Green Bay and quarterback Aaron Rodgers who came back on the final drive to tie the game with no time left on the clock. Rodgers pulled off one of the best Hail Mary throws I have ever seen (the second time he’s done that this season by the way) which was caught by the relatively unknown Packers receiver Jeff Janis sending the game to overtime. The Cardinals created a little magic of their own thanks to Carson Palmer’s ridiculous pocket scramble and Larry Fitzgerald’s catch and run which ended up sealing the game for his team.

That brings us to the match-up most anticipated aka the best of the best in the NFC. Both teams currently hold combined records of 30-4 which, last I checked, is pretty darn good. Both teams have exceptional defences which ranked in the top 10 in most categories and both have capable offences with Arizona holding a bit of an edge though it’s closer than you would think.

The Panthers have an edge at running back with Jonathan Stewart set to play after an impressive performance versus the Seahawks where he ran for over 100 yards and a touchdown. Meanwhile the Cardinals current running back position is a bit up in the air after a let down game from rookie David Johnson and little to no help from second string back Andre Ellington. At the wide receiver position the Cardinals have more depth and more options but as was proven all year, Newton doesn’t need a go to guy to put up points as he spreads the ball out incredibly well. Of Newton’s 35 TD’s, 17 of them went to a combined combo of tight end Greg Olsen and receiver Ted Ginn. The rest of them were mixed in evenly to Jerricho Cotchery (3), Devin Funchess (5) and Corey Brown (4).

Meanwhile in Arizona the Cards possessed the most lethal passing attack during the regular season leading the league in total yards and were second in touchdowns. Speaking of spreading the ball out efficiently, Palmer – who also had 35 TD’s – arguably did an even better job in that department. Their three top receivers John Brown, Michael Floyd and Fitzgerald caught 22 touchdowns combined proving all three can find the end zone at any given moment. In saying that, I give the edge to Arizona in the passing department but only slightly.

I think this game will come down to how both quarterback’s perform under pressure from their opposing defences. If the Panthers O-Line give Newton time to find receivers and scramble, they should be able to put up points. Another key will be how Carolina’s D fares against Palmer. At age 36, he can’t move as much as Newton so if the Panthers provide pressure it could lead to him making quick passes that could turn into picks thanks to the Panthers lethal secondary.

 

L.C.’s NFC Conference Championship Pick:

Carolina

Ozzy’s NFC Conference Championship Pick:

Carolina (obviously)
***
Concluding with the AFC are two teams – or future hall of fame quarterbacks – that headline the match-up. The Denver Broncos defeated the depleted Steelers in the divisional game last week thanks to a mediocre to decent performance from Manning and a costly Steelers fumble. What has helped guide Denver all year has been their top ranked defence which gave up a league low 200 Net passing yards per game along with the second fewest rushing yards allowed per game. While it will be interesting to see how Manning plays, the Broncos will go as far as their defence takes them.

The Patriots meanwhile continue to win and do so with a lot of key injuries. They got receiver Julian Edelman back which gives them a boost but also have Rob Gronkowski ailing a bit. With a struggling offensive line, the Broncos can help their cause immensely if Brady is pressured and sacked consistently. While the Patriots run game won’t and hasn’t been a factor, the Broncos need their two guys Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson to create space. The edge goes to Denver in the run game but that’s not a huge advantage nor is it saying much.

While I don’t have much faith in Manning’s arm, he does have a better receiving corps than Brady at the moment. Gronkowski is still all Brady should and probably will need though and with Edelman back and in his second week returned from an injury, those two should provide their QB with options. If Broncos receivers limit their drops and Manning hits them consistently it would make the game a whole lot more interesting.

This game, in my opinion, takes less analysis in order to predict who should win. The Pats have been football’s best team the last decade or so and that is proven thanks to their amazing track record. Brady and Manning will get all the attention but it’s both teams who should get credit for whoever wins.

L.C.’s AFC Conference Championship Pick:

Patriots

Ozzy’s AFC Conference Championship Pick:

Patriots (copying me)

 

DeMar DeRozan’s future with or without the Raptors


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Download the podcast on iTunes

By L.C.

Much has been made recently of the news surrounding current Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan opting out of his contract to test the free agent waters this summer. At first that sounds alarming but if you dig a little deeper and do some research, you would eventually find out that the NBA Salary Cap is expected to rise significant amounts ($22 million dollars in fact- maybe more).

That would mean, my dear friends and listeners, that DeRozan opting out to get a pay raise is what any normal human being would do. If he stays with Toronto he’s going to get paid anyways so the story focus should be more about what the Raptors will do with or without him in the near future since things could begin to get interesting.

Heading into this summer – depending on what happens in the playoffs – the Raptors will possess the New York Knicks first round pick (Thanks Andrea Bargnani) along with a Knicks second rounder in 2017. Not to mention Toronto still have their own first round pick in 2016 which gives them ample of options if general manager Masai Ujiri wants to move one. In all honesty, it looks like a safer bet he dangles one of those picks out there in order to acquire some roster help.

So what if in the summer DeRozan returns? He will get a major raise and will come back to a Raptors team that have some decisions to make with a number of key positions. Kyle Lowry has a player option (like DeRozan) in 2017/18 which should make things even more interesting when that time comes and only DeMarre Carroll, Jonas Valanciunas and Cory Joseph are key roster players locked up long term. The Raptors also have four young players in Bruno Caboclo, Delon Wright, Norman Powell and Lucas Nogueira all of whom have a legitimate chance to develop with the team.

Meanwhile, Luis Scola will be a free agent at season’s end and with Patrick Patterson’s ineffective play thus far, the Raptors could decide to target a starting power forward through trade with one of their draft picks. One name being tossed out there is current Atlanta Hawks big man Al Horford who will be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end. It’s probably an unrealistic idea but if Horford happened to hit the open market, the Raptors would likely show some interest (depending on the DeRozan outcome). Another scenario could see the Raptors pursuing current Charlotte Hornets swingman Nicolas Batum, whom Toronto shared mutual interest with this past off-season before he landed in Charlotte. If DeRozan leaves it could open the door for the Raptors to pursue a player like Batum who could either play the three or four with Terrence Ross slotting into whatever position Batum doesn’t play.

That in itself raises another question as Ross’ inconsistencies have left him in the doghouse with a lot of fans. Ross signed an extension earlier this year much to the dismay of many Raptors supporters, but considering the upcoming cap situation it was actually a very smart move by Ujiri as Ross could eventually be regarded as a reasonable and youthful asset. Partner him with one of their draft picks and the Raptors could acquire someone through trade to either help them at the three or four position.

What fans need to remember is that there is still a long way to go this season. The Raptors currently sit at 25-15, a very respectable record, and are second in the much improved Eastern Conference. They have managed to succeed without Carroll and Valanciunas in their lineup as both have missed time with injury. While Carroll doesn’t have an official timetable to return, the Raptors have been able to make do without their prized free agent signing which goes a long way in showing how much DeRozan and Lowry have stepped up in his absence. Not to mention they have gotten some help from 23 year-old fan favourite Bismack Biyombo who filled in admirably for Valanciunas when he was injured. That, partnered with the Raptors much improved defence, has helped guide Toronto thus far.

The only thing that matters this year is for Toronto to make noise in the playoffs. By then Carroll should be fully healthy and barring any other substantial injuries, Toronto should have what it takes to move on past the first round and at least make an impact come post-season. If they fail to do so a lot more changes will be coming this summer, but let’s not think negatively shall we?

Until then Raptors fans, enjoy and get behind your team as they have done enough to warrant it.

 

Don’t forget to listen and subscribe to our podcast on this topic and more!

A.A. to L.A. and why it’s a brilliant move for the former Blue Jays general manager


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Download the podcast on iTunes

By L.C.

Okay Blue Jays fans y’all can stop with the bitterness.

Just kidding you have the right to officially be as bitter as you want but only for a limited time. It has an expiry date.

Most of the Toronto sporting world supported the Blue Jays and their wild run to the playoffs, a feat that hadn’t be accomplished since 1993. Finishing with a record of 93-69 and clinching a division title in the process was a team constructed by the man in charge named Alex Anthopoulos. He brought with him the swagger and willingness to go for it all; something that hadn’t been seen in quite a long time in Blue Jays land.

Russell Martin, Marco Estrada, Josh Donaldson, Troy Tulowitzki, David Price, Ben Revere, LaTroy Hawkins and Mark Lowe are all players (all of them good ones in fact) that were brought in last year to help Toronto make a run at a World Series. On top of that, the Blue Jays and their fans were able to witness the second most memorable home run in team history thanks to Jose Bautista’s bat flip seen round the world which clinched them the ALCS. Yes, times were good.

But then they quickly turned sour after the Jays were beaten up by the Kansas City Royals and eventual World Series champions. Anthopoulos’ contract was a hot topic and Mark Shapiro, formerly the Cleveland Indians team President and GM, was hired as the fresh face in the 6 after long time Jays team president Paul Beeston announced his retirement at season’s end. In a true turn of events, AA declined to return to Toronto – the organization he had been with 2003 – and stepped down as general manager. It caused havoc. Media outlets buzzed, fans screamed and cried and a ton of people wanted to know the answer to the simplest yet most debated question.

Why?

No one truly knows other than AA himself and his close family. Maybe Shapiro has an idea too. But the truth of the matter is, Anthopoulos probably made the right decision if his most recent promotion was a possibility before he declined to return to the Blue Jays.

On January 12, 2016, it was announced that AA had been hired to be the Los Angeles Dodgers’ vice president and director of baseball operations. It was actually reported before that he had accepted a role with the Dodgers but the position wasn’t specified. Well now we know and if people were expecting him to accept a scouting role with LA they were wrong. Big time.

Anthopoulos being hired by the Dodgers isn’t surprising. He has maintained a good relationship with current President of Baseball ops Andrew Friedman and fellow Canadian and current Dodgers GM Farhan Zaidi. The Dodgers, you should know, have a crowded front office loaded with roles filled by fairly well known and accomplished individuals, which is why the Anthopoulos hiring isn’t at all out of the woods. The job presented him and his family the opportunity to move from Toronto to LA all the while working for one of the most prominent and historic franchises in sports. Similar to Price signing in Boston for record breaking money, who could say no to that?

I will not for a second chastise and say that Anthopoulos getting hired by the Dodgers is a bad move because it isn’t. Were the Jays perfect under his guidance as general manager? No. Did all of his decisions and moves work out? No. Is every GM perfect? Never. Was this past season memorable? It sure was. Fans should embrace what he accomplished during his time here, respect it and move on. Shapiro and current Jays GM Ross Atkins are in charge now and it’s probably best to give them time to see what can be done to help continue on the path of success.

Anthopolous’ decision to go to LA is a great one for him and his career moving forward. The man had a terrific past season in Toronto, didn’t get what he wanted and moved on. For Blue Jays fans, you all have a right to be at least a little mad (even bitter) right now, but in time you should all get over it.

What’s done is done. Let’s move on.

 

Coming Soon


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