Kyle Lowry’s Weight Loss
By Joshua Riddell
An Instagram photo this summer made Kyle Lowry the unofficial captain of NBA.com Lang Whitaker’s Team Musclewatch. It wasn’t clear what impact this weight loss would have on-court, but after a few preseason games, we are starting to get a picture of what we might be able to expect.
Lowry has been dominating offensively so far to the tune of 91 points in just 75 minutes through the Raptors first three preseason games. He’s on a mission after being swept by the Washington Wizards in the opening round of the playoffs last season and seems determined to not let that happen again. Posting an effective field goal percentage of just 36 percent in that series, it seemed as though Lowry had worn down and was simply out of energy in the playoffs.
It can be hard to quantify how much weight loss will help a player throughout the season. LeBron James’ weight loss last offseason seemed to zap him of the energy and physicality that made him a superstar. He had to famously take some games off to rejuvenate and return to his normal playing weight.
This weight loss appears to only be helping Lowry, with the caveat that it’s still extremely early. With his slimmed down frame, he has seen an increase in half-court speed, looking much more explosive driving to the rim. While he’s improved his burst, he hasn’t lost his toughness as he continues to absorb contact with no fear, averaging 8.7 free throws attempts per game.
There is a long season ahead of Lowry and one of the main storylines for the Raptors will be how Lowry maintains his weight. It won’t be as easy to be a workout warrior through injuries or stay disciplined with eating habits during long road trips (or even losing streaks). A loss of fitness could put Lowry in the same exhausted position come playoff time, stagnating the Raptors offense yet again.
On the other hand, a revitalized Lowry could be the missing piece for Toronto. They haven’t been able to get over the hump and win a playoff series in either of the last two seasons, and a locked-in top offensive weapon could be what they need against their biggest conference competition.
They might not be good enough to win the East but Lowry is intent on not closing the season like he did last year.
The Evolution of Randy Wittman and the Wizards
by Bryan Toporek
It’s no secret that shot selection was one of the Washington Wizards’ biggest Achilles’ heels in 2014-15. The Wizards attempted 28.9 mid-range shots per game, tied with the Minnesota Timberwolves for the league’s third-highest mark, while firing just 16.8 three-point attempts a night, the fourth-lowest mark. Considering all four of the conference finalists finished among the NBA’s top five in made treys per game, the Wizards’ mid-range-heavy approach appeared to clash with the modern way of constructing a successful offense.
To head coach Randy Wittman’s credit, he acknowledged that fatal flaw before it became Washington’s undoing. The Wizards bolstered their three-point acumen in the playoffs, jacking up 23.3 shots per game from beyond the arc, while cutting down on their mid-range looks (22.2 a night). That change in strategy coincided with Wittman deploying Paul Pierce at the 4 more frequently rather than playing Nene and Marcin Gortat alongside one another, as that frontcourt duo often clogged up the Wizards’ spacing.
Though Pierce is now taking up residence in Los Angeles with the Clippers, Wittman and the Wizards remain committed to joining the modern-day NBA if this preseason is any indication. Washington has knocked down 10.7 treys over its first three preseason contests, the league’s fourth-highest mark, while firing 26.3 attempts from beyond the arc each game. The Wizards haven’t completely eschewed Wittman’s beloved mid-range jumpers—they’ve taken 22.0 per game, which is roughly in line with the NBA average—but it’s a marked decline from their regular-season mark in 2014-15.
Encouragingly, Wittman also appears set on installing a four-out, one-in system as the Wizards’ primary starting lineup. According to Jorge Castillo of the Washington Post, Wittman plans on starting Marcin Gortat at the 5 and benching Nene, last year’s starting 4, in favor of having the Brazilian serve as the team’s backup center. Castillo expects Nene to “start occasionally, but only against teams that have front lines featuring two traditional big men, a dwindling segment of the NBA.” That likely means Nene will start against teams like Chicago or Memphis, but he’ll have no place in the starting lineup against Golden State or Indiana.
Given the success Washington had with Pierce at the 4 in the playoffs, it would be wise to test out a lineup comprised of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter, Jared Dudley and Gortat, particularly in the early going. Pace-and-space offenses are here to stay, and Nene’s lack of three-point range—he’s gone just 4-of-36 on triples throughout his 13-year career—significantly crimps Washington’s offensive upside.
The Rise of Bobby Portis
By Jeff Feyerer
When Bobby Portis fell into the Chicago Bulls laps at no. 20 in the 2015 NBA Draft, it was assumed by most that the 15-16 season would be seen as a redshirt year for the youngster out of Arkansas. With a plethora of experience manning the frontcourt positions in front of Portis between Pau Gasol, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic, it was hard enough divvying up minutes between four people.
But regardless of your perception of the NBA preseason and your ability to separate the signal from the noise, Portis’ performance thus far has been impressive and telling. Through four games, Portis is averaging 12.5 PPG and 12.3 RPG in 25.7 MPG and showing the hustle and energy you would expect from someone fighting for minutes. His fit in new coach Fred Hoiberg’s system is clear. After using his innate rebounding instincts to clutch onto a board, he is immediately thinking about getting into transition, setting up for the early drag screens prevalent in Hoiberg’s transition offense. With the ability to take the ball off the dribble or take aim from distance, defenses will have to be careful how they play him.
Like any rookie, he’s still learning on the job. He needs to slow the game down and often tries to rush a shot after hauling in an offensive rebound, a trait of an overeager, energetic player. He’s shown the ability to block shots, but getting used to the strength of NBA frontcourt players and the footwork necessary to mitigate any shortcomings in this area is not going to happen overnight.
How the Bulls frontcourt situation shakes out is anyone’s guess. Gasol isn’t going anywhere, but his minutes will be reduced from the 34 per game he was seeing last year. Mirotic is one of the two most untouchable guys on the roster (along with Jimmy Butler) and his minutes should skyrocket. Noah has been hurt and is a free agent after this year, but has long been the vocal leader of this team. Further muddying the waters, Hoiberg has thrown out some lineups with Doug McDermott at the 4, hoping that any defensive liability he causes is outweighed by his ability to stretch the defense from deep. If someone were to be shipped out, Taj Gibson would be the likely guess, but coming off recent ankle surgery, teams might be hesitant.
It’s a good problem to have, adding a talented rookie to a quartet of starting-caliber big men, but finding the solution that both benefits the Bulls and satisfies the desires of the players involved is trickier. The Bulls were loaded in the frontcourt before. If Portis’ preseason performance is a true indicator of things to come, they have a surplus.
The Spurs Frontcourt is Amazing
By Jesse Blanchard
Tim Duncan, as a rule, generally never displays any emotion. But in a brief sequence midway through the first quarter of a Monday night preseason game against the Miami Heat, Duncan took that façade to frightening new levels.
Perched atop his spot at the elbow extended, Duncan’s blank gaze tracked LaMarcus Aldridge working his way to the low block, setting up against a fronting Chris Bosh. With a nonchalant flick of the wrist—bordering somewhere between boredom and inevitability—Duncan lofted a pass over Bosh, leading Aldridge directly to the rim for an easy basket.
The brief sample size of minutes that the San Antonio Spurs new starting lineup have played together isn’t enough to portend the adjustments this unit still has to make. This is an offense that will be different than the one San Antonio has grown accustomed to. The ball will still ping around, but no longer will dribble penetration fuel the chaos of a frantic, scrambling defense.
Tony Parker still triggers actions by making the proper reads coming off the initial actions, but the offense will be evermore predicated on the Spurs frontcourt subtly moving into open spaces, creating new passing angles for quick high-lows; with Aldridge acting as the pressure release valve, Kawhi Leonard the tidal wave, and Duncan navigating the currents.
Duncan scored 14 points, hitting all seven shots, all on a minimal amount of movement. So effortlessly did he score, and so expertly did he work off and with Aldridge, that Duncan could operate in his capacity for another two or three years if wanted to. With a game of film to study, Aldridge also found easier shots within the Spurs system to supplement the difficult shots he so aptly creates from the post already. In his second preseason game with the Spurs, and his first alongside Duncan, Aldridge scored 17 points on 7-12 shooting and eight rebounds.
But the chemistry between the two is somehow less impressive than the strides Kawhi Leonard appears to have made this summer. There’s no noticeable additions to his skillset—just the same gradual refinement that has gone on throughout his early NBA career. And it’s hard to say that he’s gained considerable mass. But Leonard looks stronger.
There’s a noticeable decisiveness to his game—a plan of attack not always apparent last year—that imbues each sense with a sense of authority. Leonard looked comfortable attacking, his outlets now second nature. There are hints of bolder playmaking, squeezing in bounce passes through tight windows.
All of this, and Boris Diaw still has yet to make his debut. His return should provide the Spurs with even more flexibility and playmaking along their frontcourt.
These aren’t going to be the Spurs of the past few years, but watching the synergy between Duncan and Aldridge, going far back enough, there are definitely the hints of some Spurs teams you can remember.