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Examining Extinction

Examining Extinction

Per our best estimations, velociraptors last roamed the Earth between 71 and 75 million years ago, yet they live on in the public consciousness thanks to the imagination of Steven Spielberg and Jurassic Park.

Those silver screen raptors were scaled and menacing, sophisticated and calculating -- apex predators who had refined hunting to the point of artistry.

Real velociraptors weren’t.

“They were the size of a big turkey or a small wolf,” Dr. John Hutchinson, an evolutionary biomechanist and professor at the Royal Veterinary College in London, explained to Business Insider during a 2015 interview. “The evidence of their brain is that it’s no smarter than a pretty dumb bird, like an Emu.”

A big turkey with the intelligence of an emu is a far cry from Spielberg’s velociraptors who, in fairness to the creative genius behind them, were modeled off of another breed of raptor named Deinonychus -- a decidedly less sexy name than velociraptor.

Those raptors are also likely where Spielberg’s vision of the creature hunting in organized packs came from. To date, all identified velociraptor fossils have been found alone whereas groups of deinonychus fossils have been unearthed in North America. The logical extension of being a small solo hunter is that velociraptors also couldn’t pursue large prey.

“It spent the vast majority of its time eating small things, which likely included reptiles, amphibians, insects, small dinosaurs and mammals,” said David Horne, a paleontologist at Queen Mary University in London.

Still, the mainstream resonance of those silver screen velociraptors reached far. So far that the NBA’s Toronto Raptors drew inspiration from the film for their initial branding. But while Toronto’s original aesthetic was influenced by Spielberg’s raptors, the current team more closely resembles our best understanding of what velociraptors actually were -- solo scavengers adept at hunting weaker teams but lacking the organization and physical tools to sit atop the league.

That comparison is scathing. And aggressive. And depending on how much real estate the Raptors own inside your heart it will read as either entirely unfair or wholly accurate or somewhere within the chasm that separates those two views.

Both those opinions are fair, because by nearly every measure this season was all at once the greatest in their 23 year existence, and among the most profoundly disappointing.

Toronto won a franchise record 59 games this season -- eight better than the one before and three more than their previous all-time best -- but what makes that mark even more impressive is how they reached it.

Assistant coach Nick Nurse dragged the Raptors offense out of the past with a redesign that emphasized ball movement and three point shooting -- a needed change that came at least two years later than it should have -- and Dwane Casey ventured out of his comfort zone to trust a bench full of young and largely unproven players. 

If the goal was improvement, the results were the best kind of staggering.

Courtesy: Cleaning the Glass

Courtesy: Cleaning the Glass

Toronto finished with both a top five offense and defense for the first time in franchise history, according to Cleaning the Glassby dialing back on their mid-range shots and ramping up the number of three-pointers they took, all while averaging 24.3 assists per game -- the fourth most in the NBA and nearly six more per game than the year before.

While Kyle Lowry and Demar DeRozan were still the Blue and Chris Pratt of the Raptors' Jurassic World, Toronto's self-anointed "bench mob" were just as -- if not more -- responsible for the team's success.

Excluding garbage time minutes, the combination of Fred VanVleet, Delon Wright, C.J Miles, Pascal Siakam, and Jakob Poeltl spent 598 possessions on the court together -- the second most of any combination of Raptors players. In that game time, they outscored opponents by 14.9 points/100 possessions. Not only is that mark better than Toronto's starters who, for reference, outscored opponents by 9.1 points/100 possessions, it's also good enough to rank in the 81st percentile among all lineups in the entire league. 

Those metrics may be advanced statistics, but it doesn't take the mathematical brilliance of John Nash Jr. to understand how massive that is. The list of NBA teams who featured an arguably better collection of backups may be limited to the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, and Boston Celtics -- all of whom are currently vying for a finals berth.

But in the postseason, rotations shorten. The reasons for that trend vary -- bench players can easily fall into uncomfortable match ups against objectively more talented players in opposing teams' starting fives, the specific skill sets of role players may or may not have any significant value in a given series. In the end, the result is the same: depth shines dimmer than the brilliance of starters when the stage is biggest. 

Perhaps even more important for the Raptors 2018 playoff run was that growth and personal development, both individually and as a collective, aren't static. Improvements and regressions are to humans as ebbs and flows are to the tide - natural and necessary. By the time the dust settled on Toronto's playoff run -- a shaky first round win against Washington followed up by a second consecutive four game sweep to the Cleveland Cavaliers -- it was abundantly clear that the old Raptors still very much lived on in the hearts, bodies, and minds of these new ones. 

Against Cleveland, Toronto's offense was erratic, at most attempting 40% of their shots from three-point range and at worst attempting just 20%.

Looking at the box scores in the moment, and looking back on them now, DeRozan's regression to literal rock bottom from long range is arguably the most noticeable. He made a total of zero shots from beyond the arc in the series. At no point in the season was he shooting well enough from distance to replace Hawkeye in the Avengers, but he still made a respectable 34.8% of his catch-and-shoot attempts, per NBA.comThat isn't enough to stop Thanos. But it's enough to make defenses think, to make them second guess abandoning him in the corner to help defend a Kyle Lowry drive or double-team Jonas Valanciunas in the post.

The Raptors likely would have needed more than that to take this series, their problems ran deeper. In round one against the Wizards, Toronto averaged 13.5 turnovers per game, leading to an average of 15.5 Washington points. The number of turnovers remained stable against the Cavs, but the points they led to ballooned to 17.8 points per game. For reference, only the New Orleans Pelicans allowed more -- and that came against the world destroying Golden State Warriors. 

Toronto's oft-praised bench also abandoned them, being outscored by 8.4 points/100 possessions. In part, that falls on coaching decisions. Toronto's two most effective combinations of 5-man lineups featuring bench players in the playoffs played a combined total of zero minutes together in the regular season. That's not to say those lineups didn't know how to play together -- they are professional basketball players who have been doing this their whole lives -- but familiarity breeds the kind of instinctual decision making that can turn a split second decision into a half second advantage. 

Given how they played on defense, Toronto could have used every advantage available to them. Kevin Love spent half the series looking out of sorts before coming alive in games two through four with averages of 25 points and 11 rebounds across that stretch. Toronto also allowed the Cavs to take at least 28% of their shots from beyond the arc across all four games and, to the Cavs credit, they converted on 41.1% of them -- led by Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith who made a combined 24 of their 38 attempts. 

Shot selection and shot making alone never tell the whole story. They're an ongoing dance, a give and take between what the defense reveals and what the offense finds and one offense happened to have the most transcendent player of his generation, and perhaps of all time, playing for them. However, LeBron aside, not stopping players down low and also not stopping players on the perimeter is not a good way to try to win games. 

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) hits the game-winning shot as Toronto Raptors' OG Anunoby (3) and CJ Miles (0) watch during the second half of Game 3 of an NBA basketball second-round playoff series, (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Cleveland Cavaliers' LeBron James (23) hits the game-winning shot as Toronto Raptors' OG Anunoby (3) and CJ Miles (0) watch during the second half of Game 3 of an NBA basketball second-round playoff series, (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Being swept for a second consecutive year sounds bad and looked worse but it still undersells the devastation it wrought because it glosses over how close the Raptors came to averting it. Toronto was one Valanciunus tip-in or one VanVleet three pointer and one missed LeBron buzzer beater away from having a 2-1 series lead. But in the end,  that's what basketball comes down to -- a handful of moments and their timing. As they always seem to, Toronto came out on the wrong side of both.

Would that 2-1 lead, earned in dramatic fashion, be enough to empower the Raptors into believing that this is the year? Would it be enough to give Casey the clarity and presence of mind to iron out his in game adjustments and not play Lucas Nogueira? Would it be enough to matter against a LeBron James who spent this second round playing one on one against Michael Jordan's ghost and no one else?

Maybe. There's certainly a universe in which it is, in which the Raptors are now in the Eastern Conference finals doing their best to solve the unsolvable Brad Stevens' Celtics paradox, but it isn't this universe, and maybe thinking it could be was never more than hoping ceilings exist to be shattered. 

Coming into the season, only the boldest of Toronto fans would have predicted an NBA finals run -- Vegas set the team's over/under for wins at 48.5. But then LeBron's Cavaliers imploded and were rebuilt and looked weaker than they have during this tour of duty in Cleveland. And then Boston was hurt. And then Toronto finished first in the Eastern Conference. And then they didn't flame out in the first round.

It had been strictly possible before -- anytime a team makes the playoffs they have a literal chance at winning a championship -- but this is the first year it felt like Mount LeBron could actually be climbed, which is why going home before taking even the first steps up that mountain feels so thoroughly disappointing. 

Toronto's second round series was many things: the latest entry in an all time great's case for being the greatest to ever play, a real-time horror movie for Raptors fans who spent the last six months dreading this precise possibility, a lesson in the ways success re-writes expectations. 

That lesson isn't novel, it's just rarely explicitly acknowledged. When goals are achieved, they're never enough. Making the playoffs becomes winning a playoff round, winning one playoff round becomes winning two playoff rounds, winning two playoff rounds becomes winning the conference and punching a ticket to the NBA finals.

Striving for greatness is good, expecting it solely because your last goal was achieved leads to disappointment. 

Seven years ago, when Dwane Casey was first hired, a run of five consecutive playoff appearances and four division titles was a fantasy. But as the goal shifted from playoff appearances to finals berths -- perhaps inappropriately -- the narrative shifted with it. After another playoff disappointing and disaster laden exit, the Raptors faced a choice: make one of the only adjustments they can reasonably and obviously make, or stare in the mirror long enough to admit that maybe, just maybe, the team hit a ceiling that is made of concrete instead of glass.

To be fair, that ceiling is situated at a lofty height that most teams in the NBA are actively trying to reach. But running it back yet again and hoping the playoffs would unfold differently sounds like Einstein's definition of insanity, and staring in the mirror that long is terrifying so, Toronto fired Dwane Casey -- much to the outrage of certain corners of the internet.

Many of those arguments devolve into claims that the firing wasn't fair, versus counter arguments emphasizing that the change was needed. As is the case with many internet debates, both those views can be true -- a decision can be both justified and unfair.

After seven years with the team, deciphering precisely where his shortcomings start and end and his players' begin is an arduous -- if not impossible -- task. Reduced to a simple example: did DeRozan's penchant for isolation mid-range scoring influence Casey's offensive framework, or did Casey's old school designs shape DeRozan during his formative years?

Neither statement is necessarily an indictment of Demar or Dwane. Good coaches build their systems around the strengths of their personnel, just as good players adjust their personal games to accommodate team strategy. But eventually that dynamic -- just like any other relationship -- can reach a point where it stops being symbiotic and starts being toxic.

Could a different coach coax more out of this Raptors team? Could he or she push them into the uncomfortable places necessary to break away from being good and venture into the realm of being great?

More importantly, even if such a move only gives the Raptors a 20% chance of making the finals, is there another option that moves the needle more?

There are hypotheticals, of course. There always are, ESPN Trade Machine artists live for the off season. 

But Toronto has no cap room and their high end talent who could be moved to massively reshape the core, Lowry and DeRozan, are awkward fits on rebuilding teams and contending teams alike -- $30 million stars who are too good to keep a bad team in the hunt for a high draft pick but likely not good enough to push a playoff team over the top given what they would have to give up in exchange.

Is any team fielding calls about Serge Ibaka or Valanciunas? Unlikely. Norm Powell or Delon Wright? Perhaps, but reshuffling the bench -- Toronto's best asset this year -- for a marginal improvement elsewhere doesn't seem to resemble any kind of guarantee for success. 

Maybe one of those hypothetical trades will happen. Maybe it will matter. Maybe Casey's replacement will breathe new life into a team pushed to the brink by LeBron's meteor. Those futures are all strictly possible, but they also ignore the simple fact that some ceilings can't be broken, and all windows close.

Whether the current version of these Raptors continues to grow and evolve or they join real velociraptors in obsolescence, the future likely remains one without them in it. 

Boston is two wins away from a NBA finals appearance with both Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward, or approximately $50 million worth of salary, out with injuries. Philadelphia played the lottery more aggressively than any franchise before them, and they now have two potentially transcendent stars, a number one overall pick whose ceiling is as mysterious as his floor is ambiguous, and the tenth overall draft pick this year. Milwaukee has one of the best seven players in the entire NBA with Giannis Antetokounmpo and just hired a coach who might finally create a system within which he can thrive. That's all without mentioning the most important moving piece in the East -- the king and queen of the chess board -- LeBron James, who could return to Cleveland this off season to avoid the Western Conference Royal Rumble.

To say these Raptors must change and evolve to continue to compete is a misnomer. Evolution is a gradual and passive process by which one path is selected instead of another over a massive number of years. Rather, the Raptors are faced with a choice: continue to be what they are, or be something new -- it is as simple and as complicated as that.

Five Completely Off The Wall, Contrarian Trades Involving Kawhi Leonard

Five Completely Off The Wall, Contrarian Trades Involving Kawhi Leonard

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