The Extra Pass: Raptors’ salary dump trade could mean a few more wins, too; plus Sunday recaps

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LOS ANGELES — Make no mistake, this was first and foremost about money. And future flexibility.

Raptors GM Masai Ujiri made a smart trade sending Rudy Gay out of town in a deal that sets his team up for the future by removing up to $12.4 million from the books next season. This summer  Andrea Bargnani’s anchor contract and now Rudy Gay’s oversized one are off the Toronto books. This Gay trade was all about the financial savings.

But it could mean a few more wins in there here and now, too.

Without the duplication of Gay and DeMar DeRozan’s talents the Raptors offense on Sunday night against the Lakers played faster and had better spacing then it has in some time. There was less isolation and more pick-and-roll. The Raptors got 28 percent of their shot opportunities from either the ball handler or roll man in the pick-and-roll against the Lakers (up from 22 percent on the season) while the Raptors got just 7 percent of their shots from isolation plays (down from a 12 percent average on the season).

The result was a 106-94 win spoiling Kobe Bryant’s return.

Part of the good play can be attributed to the Raptors pulling together when shorthanded — something we see all the time in sports for short runs.

“I don’t think anyone was prepared for it happen today,” Kyle Lowry said after he scored 23 Sunday night. “I didn’t. You don’t expect it to happen this fast or this soon. You say you feel something coming but you can’t say anything until it happens and now that it happens you say ‘we knew it.’”

However, the improvement in the Raptors offense — ranked 17th in the NBA in points per possession — may well be more than just a one-night boost.

Without Gay getting his team-high 18.6 shots a game — with one-in-four coming from an isolation play — the Raptors offense looked improved.

“The floor was spaced a lot,” Amir Johnson said after he dropped 32 on the Lakers. “They pay attention to DeMar a lot, especially coming off those curls. So when you have that big (defending Johnson) help, he was able to get that dunk pass and I was able to get those layups. It was working for us tonight.”

Lowry was happy, too.

“I’m really happy how we played, the ball moved out there, swinging, everyone chipped in it was a great effort from everyone.”

Nobody in the Raptors locker room had a negative word to say about Gay — just the opposite, most players seemed upset to have lost a teammate they genuinely liked.

“Rudy is a prince of a guy,” coach Dwane Casey said. “He’s a dynamic, athletic wing player, he gets to the basket at will. He can shoot the ball, handle the ball, we were using him more in drag situations, pick-and-roll situations and he was growing into that role, doing a better job getting a feel for the defense. And that was a different role for him to do that but he was growing into it, getting better with it.”

Still, the offense looked better.

Now on top of that thanks to the trade Toronto adds a playmaking guard in Greivis Vasquez, a solid vet in Chuck Hayes, and a guy who can provide some wing depth in John Salmons. We’ll see how it all fits together — and who gets moved again before the deadline, this is a roster in flux — but all the pieces could fit together a little better than it has up to this point.

Toronto did not make this trade trying to win the sad Atlantic division — for the Raptors this is about saving money and roster flexibility. Gay is not the kind of guy Masai Ujiri wants to build around, especially not if he picks up his $19.3 million option for next season. This trade was about financial flexibility.

But with the Raptors starting five being +19 against the Lakers (who were out of sync with the Kobe’s return) you have to wonder if this might mean a few more wins this season, too.

—Kurt Helin

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Celtics 114, Knicks 73: New York didn’t bother to show up for this one, as the early noon tip-off time at home once again proved to be too much for the Knicks to deal with. The team fell behind by 25 points in the first quarter, didn’t hit a field goal for the game’s first six-plus minutes, and essentially erased any good feelings they created by coming out of their nine-game losing streak with consecutive wins by a margin of more than 30 points each.

Heat 110, Pistons 95: Detroit handed Miami one of its five losses on the season less than a week ago, so you can bet that the Pistons got the Heat’s full attention in the rematch. That meant a near triple-double performance out of LeBron James, who finished with 24 points, seven rebounds and nine assists, and a blistering 32-17 third quarter where the Heat put this one away for good and turned the final 12 minutes into nothing more than extended garbage time.

Thunder 118, Pacers 94: It’s easy to dismiss this loss for the Pacers, considering how dominant they’ve been to start the season along with the fact that a Spurs-Thunder road back-to-back isn’t exactly the fairest of schedules to deal with. But Kevin Durant turned in an above-average performance regardless of what his opponent’s circumstances were, and finished with 36 points and 10 rebounds to lead his team to the win — perhaps because he was tired of hearing about Paul George and his breakout season thus far. George had 32 points and five rebounds of his own in the losing effort.

Rockets 98, Magic 88: This one wasn’t as close as the final score would indicate, mainly because the Rockets held a lead of 22 points in the third quarter and lost focus in the final period by shooting a dismal 5-of-22 from the field over the game’s final 12 minutes. James Harden finished with 27 points and 10 assists, and Dwight Howard added 20 points, 22 rebounds and three blocked shots.

Raptors 106, Lakers 94: Kobe Bryant was back on the court, but as had to be expected he was rusty and his teammates were not used to playing with him. Kobe had 9 points on 2-of-9 shooting, with eight rebounds and eight turnovers. The Lakers five starters combined to shoot 25 percent and none scored in double digits — they were that out of sync. Meanwhile Amir Johnson was back home in Los Angeles and dropped 32 in front of his friends, while DeMar DeRozan (26 points) and Kyle Lowry (23) slashed their way into the lane. The Raptors scored 60 points in the paint on the night. Rudy Gay who?

Fans to vote on “Best Dunk,” “Best Assist,” other categories handed out at NBA Awards show

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Fans are going to get their say at the NBA Awards Show, coming June 26 on TNT. Drake will be the host, and we to come up with an under/over on the number of players Drake gives a bro hug to during the ceremony.

That’s the night the NBA will hand out its Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year, Coach of the Year, and every other major postseason award — except for All-NBA Team, which has to come earlier. The media have already cast their votes for these awards.

Where the fans get to come in is the fun awards, categories created just for this event:

• Dunk of the Year
• Best Style
• Block of the Year
• Assist of the Year
• Game Winner of the Year
• Top Performance of the Year

The NBA already narrowed down the list of choices for each category to three, and voting opens tonight. Just go to  www.nba.com/nbaawards and cast your ballot, or on Twitter or Facebook just post the #AwardName and First/Last Name of their winner (for example, #DunkOfTheYear  Larry Nance).

These awards should add some energy — and good highlights — to what has the potential to be a stuffy event. It’s a bunch of NBA players in suits in a ballroom in New York, this is going to feel like a branding event at times. The NBA is hoping the fans can liven it up.

Here are the categories, with the hashtags for voting:

#DunkOfTheYear
• Los Angeles Lakers’ Larry Nance, Jr. vs. Brooklyn

• Minnesota’s Zach LaVine vs. Phoenix

• Oklahoma City’s Victor Oladipo vs. Atlanta

#BestStyle
• Cleveland’s Iman Shumpert
• Chicago’s Dwyane Wade
• Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook

#BlockOfTheYear
• San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard vs. Houston
• New York’s Kristaps Porzingis vs. Brooklyn
• Miami’s Hassan Whiteside vs. Toronto

#GameWinnerOfTheYear
• Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving vs. Golden State
• Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook vs. Denver
• Phoenix’s Tyler Ulis vs. Boston

#TopPerformanceOfTheYear
• Phoenix’s Devin Booker 70-point game vs. Boston
• Houston’s James Harden nets 53-16-17 triple double vs. New York
• Golden State’s Klay Thompson scores 60 in three quarters vs. Indiana
• Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook with most points in a triple-double, 57-13-11, vs. Orlando

#AssistOfTheYear
• Golden State’s Draymond Green to Stephen Curry to Kevin Durant
• Denver’s Nikola Jokic with no-look pass
• LA Clippers’ Chris Paul with wraparound pass

Report: USC’s Elijah Stewart intended to declare for NBA draft, forgot

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Declaring for the NBA draft is like declaring bankruptcy: You can’t just bellow it and expect it to take effect. You actually have to fill out the paperwork.

That’s why USC’s Elijah Stewart wasn’t among the 192 early entrants to the 2017 NBA draft.

Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress:

Stewart:

Givony’s report will do little but embarrass Stewart. It’s unlikely Stewart would’ve been drafted, and he likely would have withdrawn to return to USC for his senior season. Perhaps, he would’ve gotten helpful feedback from the NBA before that point, but that’s minimal.

The real problem, though, isn’t Stewart’s inattentiveness, to whatever extent is exists. It’s that the NCAA won’t allow players to maintain eligibility while having an agent.

If Stewart had proper representation, there’d be no questioning whether he intended to declare for the draft. His agent would’ve handled it, one way or the other.

If the NCAA were truly about educating players, it’d allow them to have guidance from experienced professional agents. Agents don’t have to conflict with amateurism (not that amateurism is a worthy goal, anyway).

But teaching players is not the NCAA’s true goal. The NCAA prioritizes keeping its cartel in tact and money flowing to coaches and administrators.

Agents might steer players from that corrupt system entirely or at least help them leverage their immense power to gain better compensation than a wage-fixed scholarship.

This incident should spark discussion about the unseemly lengths the NCAA goes to to protect its money-makers from its revenue-generators. Instead, it’s much easier to make Stewart a punchline.

Kevin Durant gets a hoot out of meme with Draymond Green

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You’ve seen the Draymond GreenKevin Durant meme, right?

Here’s the video with my favorite caption:

In the latest episode of “Still KD,” Durant watches the meme, reads other captions and calls it “hilarious.”

Russell Westbrook: ‘Oklahoma City is a place that I want to be’

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The Thunder want to sign Russell Westbrook to a contract extension that projects to be worth about $207 million over five years.

But does he want to sign it?

Westbrook, via Royce Young of ESPN:

“That’s something, like I said, I haven’t thought about anything, obviously,” Westbrook said. “Everybody knows that I like Oklahoma City and I love being here and I love everybody here. But I haven’t even thought about that. Obviously, Oklahoma City is a place that I want to be.”

Westbrook noted that his wife is expecting their first child in May, and that’s where his focus is right now. Asked whether there’s a timetable on his decision about a potential extension, Westbrook lightheartedly jabbed back.

“No. What did I just say? Like you don’t care about my baby?” he said. “You must not. You didn’t hear that part, huh?”

Though it was painted as Westbrook showing his loyalty to the Thunder in stark contrast to the departed Kevin Durant, Westbrook’s renegotiation-and-extension last summer was also his way of receiving the highest-possible salary.

This is a different case.*

*So, it seems. It’s unclear whether the new Collective Bargaining Agreement will allow Oklahoma City to renegotiate Westbrook’s 2017-18 salary up to the designated-veteran-player rate, but I’m presuming not.

Westbrook will have 10 years of experience when an extension would kick in. A typical advantage of a designated-veteran-player contract is allowing a player with eight or nine years experience, who’s typically limited to a starting salary of 30% of the salary cap, to receive a starting salary of 35% of the salary cap. But Westbrook will be eligible for 35% of the salary by then simply due to his years of service.

In other words, an extension signed this summer would pay Westbrook the exact same amount he could receive as a free agent in 2018.

So, would Westbrook sign that extension? It’d guarantee him a huge salary and protect him in the event of injury or decline. But Westbrook is so good, he’s extremely likely to get the max in 2018-19 no matter what. With only minimal risk, maybe he’d rather maintain flexibility.

Westbrook appeared to embrace leading the team, and he truly seems happy in Oklahoma City in a way I didn’t expect when he signed last summer. His image is so tied to loyalty to the Thunder, it’d be tough to spin an exit.

But Oklahoma City is relatively locked into a roster that will have a hard time winning multiple playoff series. Westbrook wants to win.

I don’t know whether he’ll accept an extension this summer rather than delaying a year, but if he won’t ink a deal this year, that should be a concerning indicator to the Thunder about their chances of re-signing him in 2018.