Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Predictions for the 2014-15 Toronto Raptors

It's that time of year and Toronto's best sports franchise is back. I was trying to figure out how to frame this year's predictions, so I decided I'd steal these questions from my favourite Raptors' website.

It feels strange this year, because the NBA is generally a highly predicative league. That is, with only five players on the floor, assuming teams stay healthy, there isn't a lot of unexpected movement. That's what made the raptors season last year so surprising after the Gay trade, because they did move.

However, the change in pieces explained that. So did the break through seasons for Lowry and Derozan. And so now we're at a very strange place. The Raptors are expected to win the division. They are expected to get to the playoffs, expected to get to the second round of the playoffs. And unlike the Blue Jays, who made a trade and before seeing the results on the field were predicting a World Series appearance, we know this Raptors team will be good. How good, we're not sure. But they play an entertaining, unselfish style, they go two deep at every position, and will grind other teams into the ground with their relentlessness. As a fan, what more can you ask for. (Except for signing Kevin Durant next season. Drake, you there?)

1. What will the Raptors record be?

Almost guaranteed to be in the 44 to 52 range. A lot of prognosticators seem particularly bullish on the Raptors getting to 50 wins. I'm not. The Eastern conference has become more balanced with LeBron's shift to Cleveland and the return of Rose to Chicago, though it clearly remains the weaker conference. Toronto started 6 - 12 before the trade last year, but everything after that went as smoothly as one could imagine. No injuries, other than Johnson's wonky ankles. They had great team chemistry, and everyone accepted their roles. 

Some have suggested that Lowry's breakout was due to a contract year. Or that we're bound to see a dip in play. Nothing we've learned about Lowry has suggested that he will be anything less than he was last year. And Derozan has looked even better in the pre-season, his confidence skyrocketing after making the US World championship squad. 

So where does that leave us? I'm predicting another 48 win season, which in an improved conference with more parity, is actually an upgrade. They'll win the division title and lose in the second round to the Bulls. 

2. Do Lowry or DeRozan make the All-Star team?

Yes. It's a much harder path for Lowry, but if he puts up the numbers in the first half of the season that he had last year, he'll make it. And Derozan is -- depending on Dwayne Wade's health -- the best or second best shooting guard in the East. 

Their record will come into play here, bu their schedule favours a fast start. If they're leading the division with a decent record, say eight or nine games above .500, they'll get two in the game. Thinking back to last year, I still get frustrated thinking about Lowry's exclusion. Here's hoping the fans stop being idiots and voting in a player like Irving. The next time Irving plays defense will be the first time. He's a decent offensive player but the most overrated player in the Eastern Conference, and it's not close. Raptor fans, make sure you vote.
3. Take a guess at the numbers for Ross and Valanciunas

For both players, the steps they need to make won't be found in their individual numbers. (Not the basic stats anyway, in the advanced stats those steps ARE measured. For the purposes of this site, I try to keep the advanced numbers to a minimum, though I'll reference them occasionally.) For JV, his biggest contribution will be on the defensive end. He needs to better on his rotations, he seemed to arrive a step too slow last year. He also needs to play with an edge. Centers in basketball are like centers in football, they need to play smart and mean. He's packed on some muscle and its his third season. Bigs always take longer to develop. I fully expect him to be better this year. And despite that lumbering shot fake, if he develops anything going to his left, he can be a scoring machine down low. I'm saying 15PPG and 10RPG, but watch closely his work on the defensive end.

As for Ross, he's got a great role model in Derozan. I just don't think he has DD's fire. He can shoot it though, and he's got unbelievable athletic ability. Let's see, agains, like JV, what his perimeter defense looks like this year. He can't coast and he can't stop the ball on offense. He needs to hunt his shots and move the ball. I'd like to see 3 assists per game. If he gets to that, you'll know he's moving in the right direction. I'll go with 13 PPG, 2 RPG and 2APG. Again though, it's going to be more nuanced as to marking his improvement this year.

4. What change would you like to see on offense?

Not much. They need to move the ball like they did last year. We'll see how they integrate Lou Williams and James Johnson (who sometimes thinks he's a scoring point guard) and how that affects the chemistry and flow. They also need to get Valunciunas more involved. Last year he saw the ball early and they never went back to him. The young center can score, keep him involved. 

5. What change would you like to see on defense?

Where to begin. Casey is an excellent defensive coach, and he has some new toys this year, particularly James Johnson, who can guard positions 1 - 4. And when Amir Johnson is on the floor, one of the best pick and roll big men defenders in the NBA,  the Raptors are capable of playing elite defense.

Let's see how JV adjusts, and whether Derozan can play at least average defense. Lowry is an excellent defender, and Ross has shown flashes. Their defense will decide what happens this year, because the team can score.

Final thoughts
The Raptors have a chance to be very good. They are one of the deepest teams in the NBA, and the deepest in the Association. If any of their young core takes a significant step forward they'll challenge for one of the top two seeds in the conference. Their schedule, however, somewhat demands they get out to an early start. Which means Casey has to figure out very quickly how his new pieces fit into his rotations. It's a concern, but not a major one. The kids have another year to grow, and the vetrans like Lowry and Derozan won't let this thing get off the rails. In other words, Raptors' fans can prepare for a fun season of solid and enjoyable basketball, and if the chips fall right, they just might find their team in the Conference Finals. 

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Man at The Garage (RAOK Alert)

A couple of weeks ago, my missionary father-in-law was headed to a week long retreat outside the city. He'd been having issues with his car, so one of the other men volunteered to drive. The man suggested that my dad drop off the car at his mechanic. (I'd explain what was wrong with his car, but since the only thing I readily identify about automobiles is their size and colour, so I'll refrain from explaining it, err, trying to explain it, here.) Suffice to say, the bill came out to well over a hundred dollars. When my father-in-law tried to pay, the mechanic said that someone else had already taken care of it. This person identified himself only as a Christian and asked that his name not been given. A true random act of kindness.

When dad first told my wife and I this story, I felt something lift inside my chest. Maybe it's because you need to know my wife's parents. I know people hear all kinds of stories about missionaries, and some of them are disturbing and awful. But Tim and Lorna are extraordinary people. Everything about them is soft and gentle and loving. Tim grew up in Ethiopia, where his dad was a missionary, and became one himself. When he met Lorna, the two of them went back there where they built English schools and dug wells and did everything they could to help a people in need. My wife moved 21 times before she was 16 years old, and through everything -- a drought, a civil war -- they stayed firm, an example of love and kindness with little consideration to themselves.

Here in Canada, they continue to serve as missionaries, albeit in a different capacity. They are, without question, two of the most loving people I have ever met. They have adopted a very simple, very kind life, and it is always a joy to spend time with them. (It's difficult to explain, but when you're with them, it feels like everything slows down. Like the hurried and harried needs of our ultra-fast society are somewhere in the background. It's like breathing clean air after so many years of rushing to take a breath.)

That someone, a random stranger, would pay for their repairs, struck me as either wonderful coincidence, or God (and using a Humphrey Bogart voice, of course) ordering someone to 'do them a solid.'

I started wondering what would happen if every Christian, if every person of faith, stopped campaigning for who shouldn't be included and ripping every "sinful" act every committed, and simply started doing this. Obviously, I included myself in these considerations and decided that the entire world would start believing whatever people who espoused such kindness had to say. Who wouldn't?

In the end, at least for that one person who payed the bill, it wasn't about credit. It wasn't about being recognized for their generosity. And it wasn't about showing the world how great they were or how much better their religion was. It was an act of kindness, from one person to another, to two of the sweetest people you'll ever meet. Ah yes, a Kind Life indeed. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

5 Things: Bills 43 Jets 23

1. Turnovers: (Jets 6 Bills 0)

This is the most predicative stat in football when it comes to wins and losses. It's not QB rating, it isn't yards, and it isn't sacks. It's turnovers. Both Jets quarterbacks had bad games, though Vick was able to move the ball in the first half with his legs. (more on that later) Geno Smith threw interceptions on three consecutive possessions in the first quarter. About as bad a game as I've ever seen from a NFL quarterback. Vick was picked off and fumbled twice. Even still, with a 4 - 0 turnover edge in the first half, the Bills only led by 7 at the half. (24-17) Why?

2. Three and outs.

The Bills simply couldn't convert on third downs today. ( I believe they finished 2 for 12) The reasons for this extend to the fabulous Jets front seven (as good as it gets in the NFL. Amazing) and the poor showing by the interior of the Bills offensive line. Their running game was non-existent, which meant their play action was also non-existent. And their were times when it looked llike Orton simply held the ball too long in the pocket. When you have a six to nothing turnover edge, and when you start six times in the opponents territory, 43 points isn't enough. Have to do better in this regard going forward.

3. The offensive line

I've been hammering the O-line for the past few weeks because their guard play has been abysmal. As in, all world awful. However, Urbik started today in place of of the rookie Henderson, who was little more than a pylon in Minesota, and played okay. The problem today was Eric Wood, their normally solid center. Understand, the Jets' Wilkerson (defensive rookie of the year last year) is a force, but Wood got blown off the ball consistently, which meant their running backs had nowhere to go. If your center gets beaten that badly, the play is over. Period. That's the worst game I've ever seen from Wood. I expect him to be better going forward.

As an aside, football is interesting to casual fans because it's easy enough to follow the ball on a given play. However, if you want to see what's happening from a more analytic perspective, watch the line play. That is, do not watch the quarterback. Take your eyes off the ball and watch the line. On television, you can't see downfield anyway. So watch the lines. This is where the game is won and lost. It always takes me longer to watch a Bills game because so often I'll rewind a play if i missed what happened on the line. I should add that Glenn has been very solid at left tacle, and the other rookie (also Henderson) has been steady on the right side. The problem is in the middle, which is why they can't run the ball.

4. Defense

This game belonged to the defense. The defensive line goes eight deep. Four of those guys are pro-bowlers. At the end of the first half Vick got the Jets into good position by using his legs. In the second half, I kept an eye on the Bills D-line to see how well they stayed in their lanes. (When you have an exceptional running QB like Vick, you can't cheat, take faster angles to get to the quarterback, because if you miss, he can get around you for a big gain. This is much harder than it looks, since every defensive lineman is trained to get to the QB) Only ONE play in the second half did the Bills lose contain (Jerry Hughes) and picked up four sacks. They were disciplined. And they were dominant.

But as great as they were, what has me really excited is the linebacking play of Preston Brown, the rookie from Lousiville. 'For SO many years the Bills struggled with their linebacking play. But with Bradham and Brown and Alonso coming back next year, they have a terrific group of LB's for the first time since 2000. I'm convinced that it's the improved play of the linebackers that has them in playoff position going into week nine. Well, that and this guy...

5. Sammy Watkins 

So much was written about the Bills giving an extra first round draft pick for this guy. It is an EXTREMELY high price to pay to move up five spots in the draft. I'm telling you, it was worth it. Yeah, yeah, sticking his arm in the air and slowing down and getting caught was a good teaching moment (sorry, it wasn't showboating, it was celebrating) but 3 catches, 157 yards and a touchdown later, he was the difference. Forget he's a rookie, he's a star right now. His route running and hands are far beyond his years. This guy is going to be great.

I should mention Kyle Orton, who threw four touchdowns and didn't turn the ball over. He's not perfect -- he still holds the ball too long in the pocket sometimes and he isn't mobile at all -- but he has guts. In the first half, on a third and seven he took a shot down the field. It ended up being a Bills three and out, but he's not afraid to throw it down the field. That same willingness led to the "should have been Watkins TD throw."

The Bills look dangerous to me, even without their top two running backs. There's much to fix, but they have a really good defense, a star receiver, a QB who can make the throws and a strong kicking game. Right now, they look like a playoff team.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

5 Things: Bills 17 Minnesota 16

This is probably the biggest win for the Buffalo Bills franchise in years. That they were expected to win this game doesn't matter, the way they won is what counts: a last second TD pass to Sammy Watkins in a drive that included completing a fourth and twenty. I watched most of the fourth quarter with the sound off. (It's easier to see what's happening without the noise. Not exactly like watching coaches' tapes, but it's better) Okay, let's go to five things.

1. Turnovers are the most predicative stat in football. The Bills turned it over four times (the Vikings had two), two of them in the red zone. That the Bills were able to overcome those two turnovers speaks to the quality of their competition. (Look what happened against New England) If they don't clean that up, this season will be over in short order. They have to do a better job taking care of the football.

2. The Bills lost CJ Spiller (broken collarbone) and Fred Jackson (MRI coming) which meant a lot of time for Anthony Dixon. The issue isn't Spiller, who aside from that 51 yard run today before he got hurt, hasn't been effective this year. Some of that blame has to go to the coaching staff, which hasn't been terribly creative in getting him the ball, but that's not where the problem lies. (More on this in point 3) Fred Jackson is the more valuable player, the one who will be hard to replace. He's their leading receiver out of the backfield, and terrific at picking up blitzes on third down. Mr. Steady always picks up positive yardage, and knows how to run between two terrible guards. They do have Bryce Brown, who they picked up for a fourth round pick from the Eagles at the draft and who ran well in pre-season. Worried about losing Jackson, but that isn't the biggest concern going forward. No. 3 is.

3. The Bills probably have the worst set of guards in the league. Cyril Richardson was responsible for 3 sacks today (maybe even 4) and Erik Pears on the other side is just as bad. Richardson replaced Kraig Urbik, who shouldn't be playing in the NFL. Glenn is fine at left tackle, and Wood is a very good center, but playing with those two guards is like playing short-handed on every play. They're awful. To my earlier point about Spiller, he isn't a natural, between the tackles runner. He needs bigger holes than a huge back like Dixon or a slitherer like Jackson. Those holes, the push, hasn't been there this year. Just watch the Cowboys. Look at the holes Murray gets from that great offensive line. (Use your PVR and freeze it on replay. What do you think Spiller would do with holes like that?) I don't know how they fix this during the season, but it's tough to get the ball down the field to Watkins or run between the tackles when your two guards are getting blown out on every other play. The worrying part is that other teams will start blitzing the A-gap (the spot between the center and the guards) like Minnesota did in the second half. Especially without a great blocking back like Jackson.

4. Sammy Watkins. Two first round picks for one player is a lot, but wow, he looks like he might be worth it. He gets open consistently. Has great hands. Runs excellent routes. And doesn't seem at all wowed by either the moment or himself. If he stays healthy, the Bills have a generational talent. Spectacular game today, and when they needed him the most, there was no way they were going to anyone else. A rookie, but seven games in, already the most dynamic player on that offense and the one the other teams (sans Revis island) have to stop.

5. I understand that Bills fans are testy. I get it. I've been a fan for thirty years, and the last fifteen have been brutal. But we have to stop ripping the team when they win. It's hard to win in the NFL. When the Bills won against Detroit a coupe weeks ago, I heard numerous fans suggesting it was the Lions' kicker, who missed three field goals, and not the great play of the Bills' defense, that won them the game. Hey, kicking is an important part of the game. And today it's been fans suggesting that a close win like this over a bad opponent at home means they're not a playoff team. Um, not winning enough makes you a non-playoff team. They won. Relax. Enjoy it. Next week marks the halfway point of the season and the Bills are still in it. My point, stop ripping the team when they win. They've done it little enough over the past fifteen years that you should be enjoying the result.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

5 Things: Patriots 37 Bills 22

1. There was a big question early in the season after the Patriots started 0 - 2 if this was the year Tom Brady was finally finished, that his decline as one of the greatest to ever play was eminent. Yeah, about that. Facing a very good Bills defense in the second half, and without top rusher Stephen Ridley and nothing but a bunch of question marks for receivers, Brady put up 24 points, including a couple of pinpoint throws down the field. Oh, and did I mention that he lost one of his starting offensive linemen (Dan Connolly) from a line already filled with question marks? Brady is still great. Which means the Patriots will probably win the division. Again.

2. I became a Bills fan in 1988, when the Dallas Cowboys fired legendary coach Tom Landry. I've been one ever since. These 14 years and counting of the Bills not even making the post-season, after such startling success in the nineties, has been failure on something approaching spectacular levels. In a league like the NFL, 14 years without making the playoffs is like 40 in Major League baseball. It's just mind boggling. So today's game, with a chance to grab the division lead, and the gap in talent much closer than it's been in years, the Bills laid an absolute egg in the second half. Brady is now 23 - 2 all-time against the Bills. I doubt that's going to change very soon.

3. It isn't that the Bills do not have talent. They do. The problem is that the places that lack talent means they employ players who are SO below replacement level they bring down the team. Duke Williams, for example, is a tremendous special teams player. But he's a terrible safety. His two penalties today were of the "what the hell was that" variety.

On the offensive line, Erik Pears has been awful at guard for them. He was today, as well. Most casual fans do not understand guard play, the offensive linemen who line up on each side of the center. Here's a quick tip to help you understand if you're getting good guard play. Your ability to rush the ball, and your ability to protect the quarterback up the middle. Well, the Bills haven't been able to garner a consistent rushing attack all year, and that's with a duo (trio?) of talented backs. Eric Wood is a solid center. Pears gets thrown around and beaten so often, plays are wrecked before they even begin.

In the back end, McKelvin should not be playing. As a nickel back in certain situations? Maybe. But he got exposed today, as did Graham back at safety. The one touchdown was a direct result of his being out of position.

When one player on a unit is horrific, the talent level around them almost doesn't matter. All about the weakest chain.

4. Lack of offensive creativity. At some point, they have to figure out how to get CJ Spiller going. The line isn't good enough to open holes for him (like Dallas does for DeMarco Murray) but he's too good a playmaker not to get him involved. Put him in a Percy Harvin role. Get him the ball in space. Otherwise, you'll be starting drives 2 and 11 or 2 and 13 like they did today.

5. Speaking of the offensive line, watching Dallas beat Seattle today should be a lesson. The Cowboys have three top picks on their offensive line. Zach Martin, their 16th overall pick this year, played four years at Notre Dame. (I might have missed two of them.) He's a guard, the least glamorous position in football, and he's changed everything for them. They run the ball with authority, and they protect the quarterback. The Bills haven't had consistent guard play since they let Andy Levitre go to the Titans a few years ago. Now that they have a new owner, maybe they need to start paying more for a position that is vital to winning but gets no publicity. It's great to have Sammy Watkins on the outside. But if you can't run the ball, and your quarterback doesn't have time to throw it down the field, then it doesn't matter how good your skill guys are.

Friday, October 10, 2014

5 Things: Raptors vs. Celtics (Pre-season)

I started doing "5 Things" last year after Raptor games, and this year we're going to try and make it a regular feature, time willing. It's great to have basketball back, even if it's only pre-season.

After winning 48 games last year and pushing Brooklyn to seven games in the opening round, the Raps are looking to grow from last season's unexpected success. They re-signed Lowry, Patterson and Vasquez, and are hoping their young players like Ross and JV continue to improve.

Now, this is the pre-season, so you always want to be careful with your evaluation. Coaches aren't trying to win so much as trying to find the right combinations, allow the new players (like Lou Williams and James Johnson) get comfortable. So any analysis needs to keep that in mind. With that all said, here are my Five Things from tonight's game.

1) Demar is ready

Demar Derozan was a first time all-star last year. He made Team USA over the summer, as a surprise pick. He's clearly ready for the regular season. He looked decisive and confident tonight, and even showed flashes on the defensive end. If DD becomes even an avergae defensive player (and his 3 stroke looked very good tonight) he'll take yet another step towards stardom. He's already an all-star. Tonight, the Raptors looked decidely different with him on the floor.

2) Second Unit still finding its way

They added Lou Williams, a scorer, and James Johnson, as good a lockdown 3-4 defender in the NBA for their second unit, but it may take a while for those guys to figure out how to play together. The second unit got ripped tonight. There were clear communication issues, and when Williams isn't scoring, and JJ believes he is a scorer, there are problems. They did carry the first unit's unselfishness with them, which is a good sign, but they were something of a mess on the defensive end.

3) Defensive issues

Coach Dwane Casey said before the game the offense was ahead of the defense. No kidding. Awful transition defense, slow rotations (particularly JV), and a general lack of intensity brought to mind their late season struggles on that end. This is a concern going forward. People have lauded a backup duo of Williams and Vasquez, but neither of those guys play defense, and if they aren't scoring, JJ cannot cover for them completely. They'll give away leads like they did tonight with regularity.

4) More Defensive Issues

I don't want to hammer on this, but the Raptors ability to play good team defense (They finished in the top ten in the NBA last year) is this season's most concerning, and most important, issue. Boston shot over 50% tonight. The Raptors don't seem to recognize individual players on the floor. Jumping out at Evan Turner on the 3 point line, for example, so he can make the extra pass to a better shooter. Or not identifying that Avery Bradley has a jump shot and not guarding him until he scored 20 points in the first half. Everything about their defense screams desperation. I won't hammer on the whistle in the pre-season, but the fact that the Raptors got 2 technicals in a freaking pre-season game should indicate some frustration towards that part of the game. I blame this on frustration and some guys consistently not being where they were supposed to be. Give someone an open shot in the NBA, they're going to make it.

5) Kyle Lowry

Only fitting that this post start and end with the Raptors two best players. Lowry makes such a huge difference because even in a pre-season game, he gives a shit. He's the only truly good defender among the Raptor guards, and when he's out there, this is a completely different team. there are concerns going forward, mostly on the defensive end, but so long as Derozan and Lowry stay healthy, they'll compete and win their fair share of games. And that's all you can ask from your favourite team.