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Three things we learned Sunday: As losses, worries pile up in Toronto big trade may follow

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It was a slow day on the court in the NBA, but we had a trade, and with the trade deadline looming everything gets viewed through that prism. Here are our takeaways from the day.

1) Raptors blow 16-point lead to lose again, Kyle Lowry is among the worried. Is it time for a desperate move in Toronto? A couple of months ago, Toronto was the clear-cut No. 2 team in the East. They couldn’t get by Cleveland, but Boston and everyone else was well back in the rear-view mirror. The Raptors were on pace for more than 50 wins, a trip back to the conference finals, and then who knows?

Then the calendar flipped to 2017. The Raptors are 9-13 in 2017, have fallen to fourth in the East behind Boston and Washington, and have lost five-of-seven after blowing a 16-point lead in the fourth quarter to fall to the Pistons 102-101 Sunday. It was Detroit’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope who had the final five points including the game winner.

This game was a microcosm of all that has gone wrong in Toronto. Their once-stout defense (fourth in the NBA in December) was shredded by sh Smith, Tobias Harris, and Caldwell-Pope. The Raptors offense down the stretch was very heavy on DeMar DeRozan isolations, which the Pistons knew how to defend. After the game, Kyle Lowry was frustrated and cryptic and wants to see a move.

That something could well be a trade, ideally one for a power forward. After Atlanta has pulled back on moving Paul Millsap — which may not be the smartest move, as Sean Deveney and I discussed in the latest PBT Podcast — a Serge Ibaka trade with Orlando has moved to the front burner (there are other possible moves, such as Denver’s Danilo Gallinari). On paper, Ibaka is an upgrade and what the Raptors need because he can defend the rim on defense and both score inside or space the floor on offense. He’s not what he was in Oklahoma City, and teams are worried about paying him long-term as his body ages (his knees are a concern), but as a rental he works. The problem is the cost. Remember Orlando gave up Victor Oladipo and the first-round pick that became Domantas Sabonis to Oklahoma City for Ibaka, now they want to recoup their losses since it’s unlikely Ibaka re-signs with them this summer as a free agent. Nobody, including the Raptors, want to overpay for a rental. The price has to come down, and it should because Orlando has no choice.

Will that trade or another solve the Raptors’ problems? Not by itself, but it could be the shakeup the team needs. However, Masai Ujiri is not under pressure from Raptors ownership to make a move — the ownership group sees this as a golden age of Raptors basketball, last season was the best record and deepest playoff run in franchise history, and they are making money. Yes, they’d like a title, but there is not a “win at all costs” pressure to make a move. Ujiri can be patient. He doesn’t need to be desperate.

But the Raptors need something to turn the ship around this season.

2) Portland kind of wins trade of big men with Nuggets.
We did have a trade of big men Sunday: Portland sent center Mason Plumlee and a 2018 second round pick to the Denver Nuggets in exchange for Jusuf Nurkic and a 2017 first round pick, according to reports. The trade will be finalized Monday.

Who won? I don’t love this deal for either side, but I think Portland came out on the better end.

In Plumlee, Denver gets another big to pair with rising star Nikola Jokic — Nurkic was not that guy (coach Mike Malone tried early in the season but it was a disaster at both ends with Denver being outscored by 15.6 points per 100 possessions). Plumlee is a good playmaker who could play a little four with Jokic if they want to go big, although I have serious questions about how that combo would defend. Plumlee’s best role might be as a backup big who plays when Jokic sits — Plumlee could help Denver’s second unit make significant strides. Either way, this was a move designed to win more games now and help Denver hold on to the eighth seed and a playoff slot in the West. The challenge is Plumlee is a free agent this summer, and how much is Denver willing to pay a backup center? More than other teams that covet Plumlee’s passing?

Portland is going to miss Plumlee’s playmaking short term, but they were not going to be able to pay him this summer what the market will bear, so rather than let him go for nothing they got quality back. It may not help them in the short-term chasing Denver in the eight seed this season, but it’s a good long-term play. Nurkic could be a good center, although his post-up heavy style could be an odd fit in the quick, guard-dominated Blazer offense. He’s still on his rookie deal for another year, the Blazers have time to figure it out. They also got a first-round pick — that’s three Portland has this June in a deep draft. Portland could keep them although the more likely move by GM Neil Olshey is to flip them, either at the deadline or on draft night, into something else he wants. Portland isn’t done dealing. The bottom line is the Blazers got a couple of quality assets for a guy they were going to have to let walk this summer anyway.

3) Upset of the day, the Knicks beat the Spurs. Off the court, there was no subtlety to what the Knicks were doing, even Sean Spicer would think this is a little obvious and on the nose. After owner James Dolan got destroyed in the public relations battle with Charles Oakley following the latter’s ejection and arrest last week, surprise but Latrell Sprewell, Larry Johnson, Bernard King, and Bill Bradley were all on hand at Madison Square Garden Sunday and all got video tributes. Dolan looked 2 a.m. at the bar by yourself desperate with all this.

But that wasn’t a surprise — the Knicks beating the Spurs? That was a surprise. On the fourth game of their long, annual rodeo road trip the Spurs played like a team that really enjoyed Friday night out on the town in New York. They were listless. Well, except for the one-man show and MVP candidate that is Kawhi Leonard, who had 36 points. Right now, he’d be third on my MVP ballot for the season, he has been nothing short of brilliant.

However, the Knicks had balance. Derrick Rose and Kristaps Porzingis played well (KP seemed to have some of his missing confidence back), as did new starter Willy Hernangomez with 12 points and a few key defensive plays. But this was a game Carmelo Anthony clearly wanted on his way to 25 points and seven rebounds. He keyed the Knicks win.

After Kyrie Irving trade, here are five biggest threats to Warriors

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Let’s be honest: The blockbuster Kyrie Irving trade to the Boston Celtics likely means the NBA Finals goes five games instead of four.

The Golden State Warriors can be that good. They won 67 games last season with the NBA’s top offense and second-ranked defense, now they have been in the system for a year as a unit, know each other better, and made some good offseason additions. The Warriors will be better. And they still have Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson. The Warriors are the clear favorites to repeat as NBA champions.

But life rarely follows the script. So who are the biggest threats to the Warriors? Here are the top five.

1) The Houston Rockets. Houston won 55 games last season with the NBA’s second-ranked offense and a style of play that can hang with the Warriors — then they added Chris Paul to the mix. Plus GM Daryl Morey added quality veteran wing defenders such as P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute, guys picked up in part to match up with the Warriors firepower. On paper, Houston is the NBA’s second best team and the one best poised to challenge the Warriors. It’s fair to wonder if Chris Paul and James Harden can share the backcourt and the ball — and if they can find a tempo that works for them — but coach Mike D’Antoni isn’t worried. It’s also fair to question if this team can be good enough defensively, even though they added good defenders. Still, the Rockets are a threat and a contender.

2) The Cleveland Cavaliers. The reason they are here is not the trade, it’s LeBron James. He remains the best player on the planet (although Durant is close). But the trade helps. In terms of pure offensive production, Isaiah Thomas matched or even bested Irving last season, IT is an All-NBA player for a reason. Also, the Cavaliers pick up the kind of “3&D” wing they have desperately needed in Jae Crowder. And if another player they really want/need comes available, they have assets in Ante Zizic and that Brooklyn first round pick to get him. Cleveland gets this spot because they are the clear favorite to win the East again, and if they are back in the Finals they have a shot despite an aging roster. The Cavs have beaten the Warriors in the Finals before.

3) The Boston Celtics. Admittedly, there is a bit of a drop off after those first two. I see Boston as more of a threat in two seasons (2018-19) and beyond, but after this trade they have quality players at key positions — Irving at the point, Gordon Hayward on the wing, and Al Horford in the paint. Boston also has one of the best coaches in the league in Brad Stevens, who will put Irving in better situations (so long as Irving buys in and doesn’t just force isolation action, as he did at times in Cleveland). What Boston needs is guys like Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum to develop, and Marcus Smart to step up, to become real contenders. They also need to show they can defend, they traded away some of their best defenders this summer. That and a stronger defensive presence in the paint. All that said, Boston has a legitimate shot to beat Cleveland and come out of the East, and if they reach the Finals, then the Celtics at least have a puncher’s chance against the Warriors.

4) The San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs won 55 games last season, had the best defense in the NBA, and with Kawhi Leonard they have their own superstar. The Spurs are going to execute and make plays. They will miss the depth that Dewayne Dedmon and Jonathon Simmons brought, but they added the scoring punch of Rudy Gay off the bench. What we know is the Spurs will not beat themselves, that they will be in the hunt, and we should know by now not to sleep on them.

5) The Oklahoma City Thunder. I think this is a dark horse contender. What we know is that the Thunder should be a top five defensive team — they were 10th in the NBA last season, they brought back their core guys (Andre Roberson and Steven Adams are key here), and they added an excellent wing defender to the mix in Paul George. The Thunder will get stops. If George and Russell Westbrook can figure out how to play well together on the offensive end — last season the Thunder were middle of the pack offensively with the Westbrook show — and get in the top 10, they become a team that could surprise some people.

Thon Maker, all 7’1″ of him, sat in economy class to get flight going

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If you are six-foot or taller, economy class on a modern airline feels cramped. But at least the airlines make up for it with a delicious full meal a bag of peanuts and a free movie.

Can you imagine a 7’1″ guy in economy?

The Bucks’ Thon Maker did it on a recent United flight and the passenger next to him Paul Kuzma posted about it on Facebook (hat tip to onmilwaukee.com).

Well, a missed #United flight found me on a rebooked one. After ending up in an upgraded Economy Plus (yay!) middle seat (not so yay!), volunteers were asked one by one, row by row, if one would relocate to the last row of the plane, middle seat….

My heart leapt again when I came to the last row and BOTH the middle AND aisle seats were open! I stowed my gear in the middle seat area but sat in the aisle seat, hoping.

Alas, it was too good to be true! Moments later, a 7’1″ tall young man who could not even stand completely straight in the aisle of the plane made his way our direction. My heart sunk, not for me, but for him! I saw him emerge from an Economy Plus window seat!

I told him I was so sorry, knowing this would be uncomfortable for him. He nonchalantly said it was worth it to get this delayed flight going. He had practice to attend in the morning and had a 2+ hour drive to get where he was headed after landing….

I had to ask how in the world he ended up in the last row. He also had missed a flight and was rebooked on this one. He was assigned his original FIRST CLASS seat. He had settled in there when a flight attendant told him the person who had paid for that seat on THIS flight had shown up, albeit very late. They had to move him to Economy Plus.

Once there for a while, his story mirrors mine. Requests were being made for someone to move to the last row and no one was volunteering. So he volunteered, wanting the flight to begin.

He couldn’t even fit his knees into the Economy seat! Every time the snack cart came by or someone had to use the restroom, he had to get up and move out of their way.

The entire flight, there was not a hint of resentment in his voice. He was even happy to allow me a picture with him and an autograph. Class act, Thon!

Somewhere a cranky old NBA player is saying “we always used to have to fly commercial…” and sorry old man, but that doesn’t make it easy or right. There’s a reason NBA teams moved away from that (and it wasn’t to save money).

Good on Maker for being willing to sacrifice when plenty of other normal-sized people couldn’t be bothered.

And if the name Kuzma is familiar, the author says his is the second cousin once removed of the Lakers’ rookie Kyle Kuzma.

PBT Podcast: Breaking down the Kyrie Irving trade

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Is LeBron James more likely to stay in Cleveland now?

Are the Boston Celtics contenders? Are they better set up for the future?

There are a lot more questions that come out of the surprise Kyrie Irving trade to the Boston Celtics for Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and the 2018 Brooklyn Nets pick. It’s a deal that is a big win for Cleveland, they got more than they should have expected in return. However, this is in no way a bad deal for the Celtics.

Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports break it all down in this latest PBT Podcast.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, or listen and subscribe via iTunes (just click the button under the podcast), subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out our new PBT podcast homepage and archive at Audioboom.com.

Report: Clippers reach deal with Michael Winger to be new GM

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We knew this was coming, now it’s about to be official.

Former Oklahoma City Thunder assistant GM Michael Winger is about to take over as the general manager of the Los Angeles Clippers. They offered him the job last week, now the sides have agreed to terms, and he will sign a deal soon, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Oklahoma City Thunder executive Michael Winger has reached an agreement in principle to become the general manager of the LA Clippers, league sources told ESPN on Wednesday.

Doc Rivers is no longer the guy with the hammer in Los Angeles, he will just be coaching the Clippers (and still getting $10 million a year paychecks, in case you think he’ll just walk away). The power structure now has Lawrence Frank at the top as the President of Basketball Operations, with Winger doing to work under him. The Clippers are expected to hire Trent Redden, one of David Griffin’s former right hand men in Cleveland, to work under Winger as an assistant GM. The Clippers also are expected to hire another assistant GM soon.

Frank, Winger and crew take over a team in transition. Chris Paul is gone, but the Clippers locked up Blake Griffin on a max deal this summer, they got a good veteran point guard in Patrick Beverley from Houston, and they signed Danilo Gallinari. They picked up some good young players in the CP3 trade such as Montrezl Harrell and Sam Dekker (who they now need to develop). The Clippers should be in the mix for one of the final three playoff slots in the West next season, but that doesn’t answer the bigger picture questions. Are the Clippers a team rebuilding for the future on the fly? Are they looking to stay good and relevant until they can get their new building in Inglewood constructed? Are they a year or two away from a total rebuild?

Steve Ballmer ultimately gets to make that call. It will be up to Winger to execute it.