Last summer, there were three teams that were rumoured to be going after Eric Bledsoe in trade talks. Orlando, Phoenix and our Toronto Raptors. As we know, it was the Suns that won the Bledsoe sweepstakes and a team that everyone picked to be one of the worst teams in the league, right now has a winning record in the West (10-9). If the Suns played in the Eastern Conference, they would be a third seed. In the West, they are sitting at nine.

Bledsoe is currently averaging 18.8 ppg on .491 from the field, grabbing 4.2 rpg and dishing out 5.9 apg while sharing point guard duties with the equally impressive Goran Dragic. Together, those two lead a very surprising Suns team that has done just about everything management can to tank, including trading their productive starting center, Marcin Gortat, to Washington for a guy who might never play again and a first round draft pick.

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The Suns also have first round picks from Minnesota AND Indiana. So they will have four first round picks, in 2014, three of which will probably be pretty decent. And they are probably a Dragic trade away from quickly losing ground in the West and entering the tank zone, if they choose.

About the only thing not to like about what the Suns are doing is them deciding to go with the stupid trend of sleeved jerseys.

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I mean, is there ANYONE who really thinks these sleeved jerseys look good? Why are teams doing this? But I digress…

The Raptors, on the other hand, traded away the guy who had a negative impact on the team and strengthened the bench. They had apparent momentum after a strong finish the previous season, but while the Suns are doing better than expected, the Raptors have been a major disappointment for most Raptor fans and currently sit with a 6-11 record, good for 10th in a horrid East.

After the debacle that happened in Golden State, this game against the Suns is a gut-check. Too many of the Raptor players seemed to be fine with losing the 27 point lead. Hold on, let me just clarify this. Not only did the Raptors give up a 27 point lead, but it was a 36 point turnaround in less than two quarters.

You almost need to want the other team to win in order to allow that. A game like that has so much stench to it, that a roster purge seems almost inevitable just to get rid of it. Kind of like what Dallas did when they collapsed in the Finals against the Heat in 2005. Only two players remained on that team when they went to the Finals five years later and won.

Of course, the Raptors roster remains intact, for now.

Some fans will want me to point to some positives. Like the Raptors defense, that is rated 12th in the league. Of course, this is the same defense that gave up 42 points in the all important fourth quarter against the Warriors. Zach Harper, of CBS Sports, looked at just how poor the defense was in that game, and it’s a bit horrifying. He even included screenshots, for those who like pictures.

He also included this Tweet:

Ouch.

And they gave up 36 points to Denver in the fourth quarter in the previous game.

They had played good defense in the fourth quarter in many of the other recent games, but consistency is what separates good teams from bad teams. If the Raptors don’t play good defense, they don’t win because they are one of the worst shooting teams in the league and back in the basement in assists.

The teams that the Raptors have had the most success against have been lower scoring teams, like Memphis and Boston. The Raptors are near the bottom of the league in pace, and we saw what happened against Golden State when the pace sped up. The Raptors simply don’t have the firepower to compete with higher scoring teams.

The Suns are a middle of the road team in scoring, but near the top of the league in field goal percentage. Interestingly, they are near the bottom of the league in assists, just a few slots above the Raptors, despite basically starting two point guards. This could be an indication that the Suns might have trouble against a good defensive team. The question is whether the Raptors will be playing good defense tonight. And whether they will do it for a full 48 minutes.

THREE BURNING QUESTIONS

Will DeMar DeRozan continue his hot shooting?

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DeRozan has shot 50% or more in 7 of the last 9 games, and has shot 46% from the three point line in those same 9 games. And he’s scoring 25.4 ppg during that time. While it might seem it will last forever, logic dictates it won’t. The degree of difficulty in a lot of the shots he’s been hitting has been high, and lots of players go through hot streaks. The question is how long will it last.

He had a similar 9 game streak at the end of last season. And no Raptor fan can forget Bargnani’s mythic 13 games.

Phoenix features a small backcourt (Green, who is a shooting guard, starts at small forward), and DeRozan usually plays well against smaller opponents he can post up. If Bledsoe defends him, though, Bledsoe is a strong defender, and I literally mean strong. He might give DeRozan difficulty in the post, if he defends him, but DeRozan should have his way with Dragic.

Will Rudy Gay continue to suck?

Rudy Gay

Gay was finalist in Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose’ Least Value Player Award, for the first Birdmester of the season. Simmons, on his most recent BS Report, also called Toronto the worst team in the league to watch, thanks mostly to Rudy Gay.

The stats don’t even do justice for how bad Gay is playing. He’s become the butt of jokes among NBA analysts almost on the level of Rob Ford. Okay, not really, but Toronto is not looking good, right now, thanks to the combination of Ford and Gay. When Golden State was in the midst of it’s comeback, Gay was nowhere to be found. Not exactly what you want from what is SUPPOSED to be your best player.

In theory, Gay should dominate the much smaller Green, inside, but coach Casey will probably end up going small to match the Suns, moving Gay to the four. And Gay will probably continue to pound the ball into submission as he makes up his mind whether to take a long two or a contested long two. Decisions, decisions.

Will Jonas Valanciunas play more than 27 minutes?

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Phoenix has the type of front court that Valanciunas tends to dominate. Channing Frye has decent size, but he doesn’t really have the strength or bulk to defend Valanciunas in the post well. And the only other players on the roster above 6’10 are rookie Alex Len and Viacheslav Kravtsov, who have combined for a total of 54 minutes.

This is the type of game that Casey should use Valanciunas to punish the smaller Phoenix players, but we all know how much he likes to go small. Playing small will play right into the Suns hands and will mean we won’t see Valanciunas in the fourth quarter, as usual.

POSITION BREAKDOWN

POINT GUARD

No matter who plays point guard, the Suns have an advantage. Bledsoe is physically dominant and Dragic is a crafty player who makes those around him better. Lowry and whoever backs him up will have their hands full.

Edge: Suns

SHOOTING GUARD

DeRozan has been on a hot streak, but both Dragic and Bledsoe are simply more productive players than DeRozan. If DeRozan isn’t scoring, there’s not much he can do to help the team, unlike Bledsoe and Dragic. The one advantage DeRozan has is his size and his history for playing well against smaller opponents.

Edge: Raptors

SMALL FORWARD

Gerald Green takes four fewer shots than Gay, yet scores just two fewer points. Gay does shoot better from the three point line, get to the line more, grab more rebounds and actually dishes out more assists than Green. Of course, my guess is that Green actually touches the ball about thirty minutes less a game than Gay does. Gay is a better player, but he hasn’t been playing that way. Still, there’s always the chance Gay will actually decide to have one of his better games.

Edge: Even

POWER FORWARD

The Raptors have Amir Johnson, who was one of the few who played well against the Warriors, and Tyler Hansbrough, who has played well enough to get pushed into the starting lineup. The Suns have one of the Plumlee brothers. I’m not sure which one, but I’m not sure it matters. They both play pretty much the same way. They also have BOTH Morris twins, and they both are having very good seasons.

Edge: Even

CENTER/CENTRE

As I said, this is the type of matchup Valanciunas should do well in. Both he and Frye play the same amount of minutes and score about the same amount of points. But while Valanciunas does most of his damage in the paint, Channing takes 4.6 threes a game and hits close to 40% from there. Will Valanciunas be able to defend Frye on the perimeter?

I’m going to go with Valanciunas, but there’s a chance that Frye could have a great game because there really isn’t a big who can defend him out at the three point line, and players like Frye tend to have big games against the Raptors.

Edge: Raptors

COACHING

While Casey’s days might be numbered, rookie head coach, Jeff Hornacek, has been a great find for Phoenix. The team has overperformed, they look well coached and he’s done well with a oddly constructed roster. Hornacek has been able to relate to the young roster and gain their respect.

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Edge: Duh!

PREDICTION

On paper, the Raptors look like they are a more talented team than the Suns, but the game isn’t played on Paper. The Suns have been playing well, while the Raptors are the leading candidate to have the next players only meeting. As far as I know, there isn’t a Raptor who has a house in Phoenix they can all get together (they’re 2-0 after such events), so it’s hard to envision the Raptors breaking their losing streak just yet.

Score: Suns 94 – Raptors 86

  • bobloblaw

    Very good read

  • caccia

    But they did go bowling! Derozan says he averages around 100. That’s what I call “pounding the rock.”

  • Andrey

    Do I even care at this point

  • thegloveinrapsuniform

    Great, great post.

    The only thing i dont agree with is the Raps losing, hehehe.

  • 0010

    Conspiracy theory about Jonas’ minutes:

    Masai told Casey that he will be judged solely on player development, not wins and losses.

    Jonas is the only player sure to be on the team after the trade deadline.

    So Casey is limiting Jonas’ playing time and keeping him out of rhythm early to keep his numbers low. As the season goes on, he’ll give him more time and call plays for him later in the game to get his stats and confidence up. Jonas will be playing nearly 40 minutes by the end of the season. Every play out of a timeout will go to Jonas in the post.

    Then Casey will say to Masai, “Our guy wasn’t much in the beginning of the season, but look how much he grew over the course of the season.”

    So that’s why Jonas is in the doghouse now. If he starts the season on fire, and other players Casey tried to develop end up traded, then Casey has no success to point to.

  • SR

    It is a gut check game, and I expect a Raps win. They’re gonna be extra focused and putting in extra effort. They’ll want this one, and they’ll do what it takes to get it.

    If they come out like a wet noodle, though, then the season is officially done. If that’s the response to the GSW game, there’s absolutely no reason to keep a spineless roster together (other than Tank Mode: Stealth).

  • robertparrish00

    It’s like groundhog day. You know what is going to happen b4 it does. Same storylines, same results. History is repeating Casey, time to change things up. Go Raps Go!

  • arsenalist

    Great post dude! You’re pretty confident of the Casey sacking, eh? When the season started I looked at this roadtrip, and specifically this game, as one that if we lost after a slow start to the season that Casey might be in trouble. The only thing that’s changed is that Phoenix is actually playing decent ball and losing to them isn’t as big of a shame as one thought at the start of the season.

    I’d also like to thank Eric Bledsoe for keeping my fantasy team floating, despite injury. What a great trade that was for the Suns and let us not forget the BC connection in that deal. The second-round pick that the Suns shipped to the Clippers was Toronto’s after BC traded it for Sebastian Telfair.

    I’m not sure why Bledsoe wasn’t extended after that deal. If someone could explain that to me that would be great. Also, aren’t the Suns supposed to be tanking this year? What happened to that? We can totally help them out by shipping them Gay.

    • http://www.wearingfilm.com/picketfence/ Tim W.

      I really have no idea whether Casey will be fired, but you have to believe that Ujiri’s at least thought about it.

      I think the Suns wanted to wait and see with Bledsoe. Too many teams have extended players and overpaid them for no reason (cough*Raptors*cough) instead of wait and see what the market would dictate. I’m not sure it’s the smartest thing the Suns could have done because of how many teams will have cap room this summer. Someone is sure to offer him an outrageous contract the Suns won’t match.

      • DanH

        I’m a big proponent of waiting, and your reason is solid, but not my main one. You also gain one or two years of contractual control that way. Extending is very limited in years, signing not so much. I think, with superstar players in particular, that extending a rookie contract is pretty foolish. The player can be locked up longer by re-signing as a free agent. More security for both player and team that way.

        Plus, the reality is, if you wait and match an offer on a RFA, there’s a VERY good chance there would be a trade market for the player at that price tag, since the market set it. If you extend them on your own… Maybe not so much.

        • http://www.wearingfilm.com/picketfence/ Tim W.

          In theory, not extending your superstar might be a good idea, but in practice, I’m not sure that’s the best thing to do. It would be a perceived slight to the player, and alienating your franchise player probably isn’t the best thing to do. Those types of things can linger.

          The idea that a player whose offer sheet has been matched is more tradable also might be more true in theory. If you overpay him when you extend him, then obviously you’ve made a bad decision. But letting him go to restricted free agency can backfire, depending on the circumstances. All it takes is one team to give the player an outrageous offer sheet hoping you won’t match (like, say, Landry Fields)). DeAndre Jordan was overpaid in restricted free agency, as was Eric Gordon.

          Most of the worst contracts in the league have been “earned” because of free agency.

          It’s a risk, but you have to figure out just what the risks are. Next year, with so many teams with cap room and so few really good players available, I would be surprised if someone doesn’t offer Bledsoe somewhere in the $12-14 million range.

          • DanH

            Clear communication would be important. Any discussion at all with the player’s agent and they would undoubtedly be on board. More money for more years. Everybody wins.

            Free agency is certainly the least cost-effective way to acquire a player. I don’t know that I agree that so much of that is on RFA deals. UFA deals are the worst, due to the open market. The possibility of tying money up in a deal that gets matched, then missing out on other free agents really slows down the market for RFA’s. It can often suppress contract values rather than inflate them.

            Looking quickly at the list of top earners, the worst contracts I see there were signed in unrestricted free agency or via extension to avoid going to RFA. Amare, Joe Johnson, Gay, Boozer, Granger, David Lee. Al Jeff and Josh Smith this offseason were both UFAs. Okafor was a RFA, but not a matched offer – the Bobcats signed him outright without letting the market determine his value. Still, he probably counts against my point. Eric Gordon is a good example of your point – but he seems to be an exception rather than a rule.

            So, sure, there’s a risk of someone wildly overpaying, but it happens rarely enough that I think it’s a bad idea to let that risk colour your strategy when it comes to managing assets.

  • JHP

    Good read! I think the Sun’s will win by 5 and it will be close the whole way.

    I wonder how long it will take this team to get to 12 wins ?

  • Kovalainnen

    About a jerseys, it’s nothing more but money. A true fan who comes to the game, where his team playing long sleeves wants to look like a team member and he has to buy that jersey, because he’s a true fan and it’s not enough to have a home, away and sleeve-less alternate jersey

    • http://www.wearingfilm.com/picketfence/ Tim W.

      What does being a true fan have to do with buying horribly overpriced merchandise?

  • Mexiballer

    I will go against the grain and predict a solid performance by the Raptors and a win.

  • passtherock

    Rudy Gay for Omer Asik, beg for a draft pick, and whatever else it takes to clear the salaries? Houston could use a SF and as much as I like Rudy as a scapegoat for the raps, getting a defensive center could be useful to pair with Jonas. It won’t make the team any better, but at least other guys will get to touch the ball and the raps might not be the worst team to watch in the NBA any more, maybe.

    • http://www.wearingfilm.com/picketfence/ Tim W.

      Why on earth would the Rockets need a small forward when they already have one who actually takes good shot, works well with his teammates and has a positive assist to turnover ratio? Rudy Gay would be a step down from Chandler Parsons.

      Plus, Houston doesn’t do that deal straight up (even if salaries worked, which they don’t) let alone adding a draft pick.

      • passtherock

        Ya fair enough. Just dreaming here. Parsons back is dicked though and Rudy is having a below average year. You think a team wouldn’t take Gay over Parsons if money wasn’t an issue?

  • sleepz

    Phoenix typically starts PJ Tucker instead of Green at the 3.

    Bledsoe vs Lowry tonight. Love that match-up. The way those 2 play, there will be blood.lol

    • http://www.wearingfilm.com/picketfence/ Tim W.

      Apparently it didn’t matter who started at SF. The Suns won that matchup.

  • rapierraptor

    Rating the Gerald Green vs. Rudy Gay matchup as “even.” Yikes, current state of the Raptors in a nutshell.

  • Ghotte

    In the middle of the 3rd it looked like Casey had lost them…

  • Reed

    Where are the Tim. W haters who were criticizing him for the 6-14 prediction now? Also where are the anti-tank ppl?