Ilgauskas named one of the best Cavaliers ever

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Ilgauskas.jpgTo commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Cleveland Plain-Dealer has made a list of the 40 greatest players in franchise history. LeBron unsurprisingly occupies the #1 spot, followed by Mark Price. What’s interesting is that center Zydrunas Ilgauskas comes in at the #5 spot, between legendary high-flyer Larry Nance and current Cavaliers color man Austin Carr. 

While the Cavaliers are celebrating Ilgauskas’ past achievements, his current status with the team is in limbo. Ilgauskas has been replaced in the starting lineup by Shaquille O’Neal, and his large expiring contract makes him the Cavs’ most valuable trade chip. The rumor that has dominated NBA All-Star weekend says that Ilgauskas is reportedly on the table for the Suns’ Amar’e Stoudemire. He is also rumored to be part of a package for either Antawn Jamison or Troy Murphy. 
While LeBron has been the savior of the franchise, Ilgauskas has been its anchor. Ilgauskas has been with the team since they drafted him in 1997. He became the franchise’s all-time leader in games played earlier this season, and also holds franchise records for minutes played, blocked shots, offensive rebounds, and total rebounds.
During his tenure with the team, Ilgauskas has transformed his game to fit what the franchise has asked of him. He’s slowly gone from a low-post scorer and primary offensive option to a spot-up shooter who spaces the floor for LeBron and company, giving them the space they need in the lane. He was long considered a defensive liability, but has defended the rim for one of the NBA’s top defenses over the last few years. 
After starting his whole career, he has taken his demotion to the bench in stride. He’s never complained about his new role, even though he’s struggled to find his shot in a reserve role. He has been as impressive off the court as on it, and is universally considered one of the true “good guys” in the NBA. 
Unfortunately for Ilgauskas, basketball is a business. As much as the franchise values what Ilgauskas has brought to the team over the years, they may not be able to pass up the opportunity to use his contract to upgrade the roster. The organization reportedly intends to secure a buyout agreement with whatever team trades for him, which would allow Ilgauskas to return to the team after 30 days off.
However, there’s no guarantee that would work, as it’s against the rules to make a buyout agreement an official part of any trade. Any team that trades for Ilgauskas’ contract could try to turn it into some assets for themselves before the trade deadline, which would further complicate a potential buyout. There’s also the nagging detail that handshake deals haven’t always worked out for Cleveland in the past. The Cavaliers were able to acquire Joe Smith after a buyout last year; trying to pull the same maneuver two years in a row may be pushing their luck. 
Completing a major trade always involves making some tough basketball choices. What makes trading Ilgauskas such a tough decision for GM Danny Ferry is that there’s more than basketball at play.

Report: Pistons retiring Richard Hamilton’s number

AUBURN HILLS, MI - JUNE 16:  Richard Hamilton #32 celebrates after Linsey Hunter #10 of the Detroit Pistons scored in the fourth quarter against the San Antonio Spurs in Game four of the 2005 NBA Finals at The Palace of Auburn Hills on June 16, 2005 in Auburn Hills, Michigan. The Pistons defeated the Spurs 102-71.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
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The Pistons retired Ben Wallace’s number last month and Chauncey Billups’ this week.

They’ll soon be joined in the Palace rafters by another from the 2004 championship team – Richard Hamilton’s No. 32.

Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press:

No date has been set but Richard Hamilton will be the next Piston from the 2004 NBA championship team to have his jersey retired, No. 32, according to a person with firsthand knowledge of the organization’s thinking.

I would’ve retired Ben’s and Billups’ number and left it at that from the 2004 team. Despite the myth of a perfectly balanced starting unit, those two were a cut above the rest – Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace.

Perhaps unfairly, Ben and Billups also get credit for exiting Detroit on better terms. They were the first starters to go, so fans don’t associate them with the team’s decline. Plus, both returned to finish their careers with the Pistons.

Hamilton, on the other hand, became whiny as a contract extension locked him into a team that didn’t win as much as he wanted (but paid him more than he was worth). It got so ugly, Detroit bought him out, eating a substantial portion of his salary.

The good far outweighed the bad, though. Hamilton led the Pistons in scoring every season between 2003 and 2010. He provided a seemingly endless supply of energy, running around screen after screen away from the ball. His scoring with then-Ron Artest guarding him during the 2004 Eastern Conference finals – a defensive slugfest at its best – was instrumental in putting Detroit over the top.

This probably opens the door for Rasheed and Prince getting their numbers retired, too.

As someone who grew up in Michigan and cheered those Pistons, I’m not at all upset with this decision. Hamilton is a reasonable choice for number retirement, as are Sheed and Prince.

I just wouldn’t done it if I were in charge.

Dwight Howard says he hasn’t asked Rockets for trade: ‘I’m not running’

HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 25:  Members of the Houston Rockets huddle on the court during their game against the San Antonio Spurs at the Toyota Center on December 25, 2015 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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The Rockets are reportedly working with Dwight Howard‘s agent on trading the center.

Spin from the other side…

Marc Stein of ESPN:

Dan Fegan, agent for Dwight Howard, issues statement to ESPN: “I’m not privy to what the Rockets are doing or not doing with respect to Dwight Howard. What I can say, with 100 percent certainty, is that Dwight has not and has never asked the Rockets for a trade. And neither have I.”

Rockets center Dwight Howard, reached Thursday by ESPN, says in reference to earlier statement from his agent Dan Fegan: “Dan’s statement is true. I have not asked the Rockets to trade me. Nor have I talked about right trades. I want to win. I want this situation to work. I chose this team. And I’m not running because we have been faced with some adversity.”

I could believe Howard hasn’t asked for a trade. I could also believe he has. Newsflash: Sometimes players and agents lie to the media.

Howard hurt his reputation with his mangled exit from the Magic and alienated many by bolting from the Lakers. It seems he doesn’t want to diminish his reputation further, which could be accomplished by not requesting a trade – or saying he’s not requesting a trade.

But the distinction matters only so much here, because the ball is in Houston’s court.

With Howard set to become a free agent, the Rockets might want to trade him before having to give him a big long-term contract. And if the Rockets want to deal him, it makes sense for both sides to work together.

Houston can get more return for Howard if he quietly pledges to re-sign with the team dealing for him. He can determine which teams he’d make that promise for and get a larger contract by getting traded and then re-signing rather than just leaving Houston to sign in the summer.

As far as Fegan saying he’s not privy to what the Rockets are doing with Howard, that’s deliberately misleading – maybe he doesn’t know their specific, exact plans – at best or negligent at worst. Who’d want an agent who didn’t know the team’s plans for the client?

Raptors’ DeMar DeRozan becomes bona fide star just in time for Toronto All-Star Game

Toronto Raptors' DeMar DeRozan (10) celebrates scoring during his team's 101-81 win over Miami Heat during an NBA basketball game in Toronto on Friday, Jan. 22, 2016. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – DeMar DeRozan admits he’s a terrible planner.

“Don’t ask me, are we going to go to dinner next week and what time?” the Raptors wing said. “Because I don’t know. You’ve got to ask me an hour before. … A hour before I’m hungry, I decide.”

That blind spot makes it easier for DeRozan to focus on the task at hand, especially with so much – Sunday’s All-Star game in Toronto, an opportunity for playoff redemption and a max contract in free agency – ahead of him.

DeRozan, already an All-Star and two-time 20-point-per-game scorer, is having his best season by a decent margin. His Raptors are 35-17 and looking increasingly capable of challenging the Cavaliers for the Eastern Conference title many already handed Cleveland.

And it’s because DeRozan never got too comfortable with what he already accomplished nor too caught up in what he could accomplish. Calling himself the “most mellowest person,” DeRozan just tries to stay in the moment.

Toronto coach Dwane Casey credited DeRozan for working on one aspect of his game each offseason, including “just handling the ball in the post and not throwing it in the fourth row” when they first worked together. But saying DeRozan polished only one skill since last year would be selling him far too short.

DeRozan has transformed his offensive game, becoming more effective than ever.

Start with his ability to get to the basket. That had long been a strength, but DeRozan has taken it to another level this year. He ranks seconds in the NBA in drives per game (11.6):

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And third in free-throw attempts per game(8.3):

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How does someone so mellow find the aggression to play a style that generates so much contact?

“I grew up different from a lot of people,” said DeRozan, a Compton native. “I grew up in an aggressive area. I had an aggressive lifetime for a long time. I just felt like, I’ve seen a lot of stuff and did a lot of stuff at a young age that make you mellow now, but once you grow up in that aggressive nature, it’s just always going to stick with you.”

DeRozan said he found a difference balance in his life at USC, where he spent only one year, as he hilariously told teammate Kyle Lowry.

DeRozan’s one year in college helped make him the No. 9 pick in the 2009 NBA draft, but he entered the league with one glaring deficiency: outside shooting. DeRozan made just six three pointers at USC – and even fewer, four and five, his first two NBA seasons.

Still not quite to league average, DeRozan has at least become a credible threat beyond the arc this season, shooting a career-high 33.7%:

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These shots at the rim and from beyond the arc are coming at the expense of long 2s. After peaking at 36.5% three years ago and remaining a far-too-high 33.8% last year, DeRozan is taking just 24.4% of his shots between 16 feet and the 3-point arc:

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For someone who declared just last year, “I don’t care about analytics at all. I could give a hell about them,” his game has sure become more analytically friendly.

The previous two years, DeRozan had the second-lowest true shooting percentage among 20-point scorers – ahead of only Kobe Bryant last season and LaMarcus Aldridge the season prior. Now, DeRozan’s true shooting percentage (54.8) is above league average for the first time since his rookie year, which – not coincidentally – was the only time his usage percentage fell below league average.

There’s a tradeoff between volume and efficiency, and DeRozan was on the wrong end of it. He was increasing his scoring by taking more bad shots.

His improved efficiency hasn’t come with shifting the shooting burden to less-capable teammates, either. DeRozan’s usage percentage (29.7) is a career high and ranks above Carmelo Anthony‘s, Kevin Durant‘s and John Wall‘s.

The turnaround is all the more stunning considering how limited DeRozan looked as an inefficient gunner.

A whopping 74.5% of his long 2s were assisted in 2010-11. That number fell 47.5% last season, which look more ridiculous if not for the great height from which it fell. For perspective, Isaiah Thomas – another player on both the drives and free-throw attempts leaderboard – has just 34.2% of his long 2s assisted.

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Essentially, DeRozan was taking too many bad shots – and needed help getting them.

This year, DeRozan looks much more in control with the ball in his hands. Only 26.8% of his long 2s are assisted, not that he’s taking that many shots from that range, anyway.

He’s also using his greater control to dish a career-high 4.7 assists per game. Continuing the trend, it’s a substantive improvement. DeRozan isn’t throwing foolish passes in the hopes of upping his assist numbers. His turnovers remain characteristically low, and his assist-to-turnover ratio is a career best.

DeRozan has looked the part of a star the previous couple years. This season, he has produced like a star, too.

Lowry has watched the process unfold.

“It’s just being comfortable in your own skin,” Lowry said. “He doesn’t worry about what anybody says. He’s going to be comfortable in his own skin at all times.”

Lowry and DeRozan have developed a fun bond in their four seasons together, and it’s special they’ll represent the Raptors together in the Toronto All-Star game.

DeRozan was an All-Star in 2013, when the Raptors became good enough to warrant an All-Star but reserve-voting coaches still seemed bitter at Lowry, a superior player who’d clashed with his coaches when younger. Lowry got his first All-Star appearance last year, fans voting him a starter.

This year, both deserve to be there.

The next step is turning their individual success into team success. Despite holding home-court advantage the last two years, the Raptors were bounced in the first round – by the Nets in 2014 and Wizards in 2015. Toronto hasn’t won a playoff series since 2001, which was also the last time it produced two All-Stars (Vince Carter and Antonio Davis).

With DeRozan playing like a true star, this could be the year the Raptors break the drought.

Individual riches for DeRozan should follow.

He reportedly and logically plans to opt out of a contract that would pay him $10,050,000 next season. The upside? A max deal projected to be worth more than $145 million over five years if he re-signs or $110 million over four years elsewhere.

DeRozan always probably could have pulled at least one max offer in what will be a player-friendly market next summer. But this improvement makes it far more likely he’ll have his pick of max options, and not just from teams as desperate as the Lakers.

Despite not looking ahead often, DeRozan says he has one plan for handling free agency: Calling Lowry.

“I’m putting it on Kyle,” DeRozan said. “I don’t know. I’m going to put in on Kyle when that day comes. So, whatever he says, that’s where I’m going to go.”

So, that means DeRozan will return to the Raptors?

“At the end of the day, I’m his friend first,” said Lowry, who spurned heavy outside interest to re-sign in 2014. “He’s going to make a decision on what’s comfortable for him, and I’m going to support everything he does – just like he did for me.”

That’s very nice, but doesn’t Lowry at least hope that process leads DeRozan back to Toronto?

“At the end of the day, I’m going to support my friend – no matter what it is,” Lowry said.

There was long reason to doubt the relative emptiness of DeRozan’s numbers. But what’s clear: The people around him believe in him.

“He hasn’t reached the ceiling of his game yet,” Casey said, “and that’s the great thing about him, because he is a worker.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo sprints from behind to reject John Wall dunk (video)

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There’s a lot to like about Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Maybe his most impressive ability? How quickly he covers ground.