3. Toronto Raptors
The Raptors are undefeated in February (6-0) and have registered five winning streaks of five or more games this season. Toronto is also 16–6 (.727) against teams from the Western Conference, which is the best record for any team versus the West this season.
Curry, Harden, George, Leonard and Antetokounmpo might have stronger MVP cases than James does this season, but that’s a different conversation.
“It’s hard to be the best player in the world for 15 years,” said Danny Green, who matched up against James in the NBA Finals in 2013 and ’14. “You’ve got a couple of young guys up and coming, proving themselves and getting better every year. It’s definitely a crowded conversation. The fact that [James] is a little older now … but when he turns that switch on, you know what he’s capable of. Regardless of who is on his team, he’s capable of beating anybody’s team in any playoff series, winning a series.
“If the Lakers are pushing the eight seed, it’s trouble for anyone they play against.”
Knowing that James’ dominance can’t last forever, the consensus choice for next up is Antetokounmpo, just 24 and an All-Star captain opposite James this season. He scored a game-high 38 points Sunday.
“It’s crazy,” Antetokounmpo said. “When I was coming into the league, I was looking up to him. Right now, I was in the locker room with ‘Team Giannis.’ I’m leading an All-Star team, picking teams with LeBron James. If you told me that six years ago, I never would’ve thought I’d be in this position right now.”
NBPA Vice President: Bismack Biyombo
— NBPA (@TheNBPA) February 18, 2019
3. Toronto Raptors (43-16)
The Raptors rolled into the All-Star break on a six-game winning streak. Marc Gasol gives the club another wrinkle with his playmaking ability while fellow newcomer Jeremy Lin should stabilize the second unit in the absence of backup point guard Fred VanVleet.
All-Star 2019 is in the books. With a 178-164 Team LeBron victory against Team Giannis, we say goodbye to another All-Star weekend. The Raptors organization was well represented in Charlotte; Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry played in the All-Star game, OG Anunoby was selected for the Rising Stars showcase, Danny Green participated in the three-point contest on All-Star Saturday night, and Masai Ujiri served as a camp director for the fifth annual Basketball Without Borders Global Camp.
Before we turn the page and shift the focus toward the final stretch of the regular season (where the Raptors are a franchise-best 43-16 at the break), here’s a look at some of the highlights from an extremely fun and successful All-Star weekend.
“The Basketball Africa League is an important next step in our continued development of the game of basketball in Africa,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement Saturday. “Combined with our other programs on the continent, we are committed to using basketball as an economic engine to create new opportunities in sports, media and technology across Africa.”
Former President Barack Obama applauded the announcement.
“I’ve always loved basketball because it’s about building a team that’s equal to more than the sum of its parts,” he tweeted. “Glad to see this expansion into Africa because for a rising continent, this can be about a lot more than what happens on the court.”
The NBA’s ties to Africa go a long way. Toronto Raptors forward OG Anunoby, whose parents are from Nigeria, and Hornets center Bismack Biyombo of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, were among the players who attended the NBA All-Star Africa luncheon Saturday, where the announcement was made.
Other players with ties to Africa include Joel Hans Embiid, a Cameroonian who plays for the Philadelphia 76ers. NBA global ambassador Dikembe Mutombo, who played for several teams, including the Atlanta Hawks, is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Raptors President Masai Ujiri is from Nigeria.
That teaser shrewdly underscores the main challenge New Balance has faced as they check back into the fiercely competitive performance basketball market with Kawhi Leonard—the NBA’s Mr. Spock; he of the savage postgame shutdowns and viral maniacal giggles—as their leading man.
How do you market a spokesman who barely ever speaks?
So far, the brand’s answer has been to let the Raptors superstar’s game—and, now, his shoes—do the talking. In Sunday’s All-Star Game, Kawhi delivered on the former, racking up an efficient 19 points and five boards to help Team LeBron complete a come-from-behind 178-164 victory over Team Giannis. But how did New Balance do with the latter? Will the OMN1S be able to compete with the giants—your LeBrons, your Kyries, your Currys—of the signature shoe world? And what does the sneaker’s release signify for Kawhi, his team and their fans? Let’s quickly run through all the major stakes for everyone involved.
The things we are likely going to remember from all-star weekend in North Carolina are a couple of outstanding dunks (by Giannis Antetokounmpo in the all-star game and by Hamidou Diallo during the dunkoff), Joe Harris shooting the lights out to upset Stephen Curry for the three-point contest crown and all of the off-the-court intrigue.
Speaking of that, there was commissioner Adam Silver talking of his dislike of trade requests earlier in the weekend (specifically the Anthony Davis situation) and making the eye-opening statement that 40% of the league’s players will become free agents this summer. That includes megawatt stars like all-star game MVP Kevin Durant, the best talent in Toronto Raptors history, Kawhi Leonard, Celtics standout Kyrie Irving, Philadelphia’s Jimmy Butler, Golden State’s Klay Thompson and DeMarcus Cousins and more.
More upheaval is at hand, but maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. Silver is happy with the league’s competitive balance and the way there isn’t really an off-season anymore, thanks to speculation about movement.
“It’s two sides of the coin,” Silver said.
“Some people could say, ‘oh, my God, look at all that player movement!’ On the other hand, that player movement could be very positive for a lot of teams.
“So while we certainly are becoming a 52-week-a-year sport, and it’s largely the result of tremendous interest in these players, and not just what happens on the floor, but how they choose to live their lives. I think we could do more a better job as a league in avoiding those situations where they get to the point where players are maybe demanding they’re be traded or, worst-case scenario, saying, ‘I’m not going to honour my contract.’” Or, we might add, players like Davis fibbing and saying they’d play for anybody.
Settle on the rotation
The one pox on the unofficial “first half” of the season was that the Raptors were never quite able to settle on a consistent rotation.
The move to that will be hampered by the absence of Fred VanVleet, who could miss another three weeks with a thumb injury, but coach Nick Nurse has to settle on who he will use in backup roles when the playoffs come, and he has to know what they will be able to handle.
It might come to deciding whether OG Anunoby or Norm Powell will get regular minutes. Each will get a chance to continue to prove himself for the next month or so.
The other eight players seem set — Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, Jeremy Lin and VanVleet, when healthy — but the fight for the ninth spot will be interesting.