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At least the Raptors avoided a catastrophic slide

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I’m grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

After his team’s fourth straight playoff disappointment – even the team’s run to the 2016 Eastern Conference finals included barely scraping by with home-court advantage in the first two rounds then losing in the most lopsided six-game series ever – Raptors president Masai Ujiri declared a need for a “culture reset.”

How he planned to implement that was another question.

DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas alone were guaranteed more than $160 million. Other players were also owed enough that Toronto would have only limited means to replace its best player, Kyle Lowry, if he walked in unrestricted free agency – which seemed quite possible.

It appeared Ujiri was on the brink of pushing the button on a halfhearted detonation. It could have taken the Raptors years to tear down and maybe even longer to build back up.

And it’s not as if Ujiri had complete control. Lowry could have left and made preservation an unavailable option.

But after the foundation of the Raptors’ best era in franchise history shook and settled, they rebuilt a downsized structure atop it that includes only some of the previous furnishings.

Toronto re-signed Lowry and Serge Ibaka to three-year contracts – Lowry for $93 million and Ibaka for $65 million. The players get fairly high salaries, but at least the Raptors can move onto their next chapter in a few years. It’s a logical compromise.

Those deals came at a major immediate cost, though. Toronto is apparently unwilling to pay the luxury tax for a team that has shown no way to get past the Cavaliers. So, there was a large drain on production around the Raptors’ top players. Outgoing this summer:

Toronto even had to include a lottery-protected first-round pick and a second-round pick and incur a $1 million cap hit each of the next three seasons from Justin Hamilton’s contract for Brooklyn to take Carroll.

The only major contributor going against the tide and toward Toronto is C.J. Miles, a sweet-shooting swingman who can defend well when not outmuscled. He’ll help the Raptors. He won’t come close to replacing all that they lost.

Toronto is counting on all the young talent is has cultivated to step up. Norman Powell and Delon Wright are definitely in line for bigger roles, and Pascal Siakam probably is, too. The Raptors would probably like to cut bait on Jonas Valanciunas to elevate Jacob Poeltl. O.G. Anunoby, Lucas Nogueira and Bruno Caboclo are also in the pipeline as potential rotation players.

Credit Toronto for identifying and developing this deep crop of youngsters, who allowed for the team’s strategy this summer. These players have been preparing, and at some point – ideally while still on cheap contracts – they deserved the opportunity contribute.

But make no mistake: The Raptors downgraded across the board. The supporting cast around Lowry, DeRozan and Ibaka – a trio in or near its prime – is less-equipped to help a team designed at the top to win now.

It feels like this team’s best chance of winning the East has come and gone. LeBron James is still in Cleveland. The Celtics have probably already overtaken Toronto, and the 76ers’ rise appears inevitable.

The Raptors have had a good few years. They might have a few more good ones left.

But it seems their self-imposed budget has resigned them to playing out the string on a plan that has already peaked.

Offseason grade: C-

Paul George on trade to Thunder: “I took it as it was a kick in the behind”

Associated Press
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Paul George and Russell Westbrook — now with Carmelo Anthony — form one of the more interesting teams in the NBA in Oklahoma City. Deep with quality role players and a defense that should be top 10 (if not top 5) in the league, if the three big names can learn to sacrifice and mesh, the Thunder will be dangerous.

Paul George sounds motivated to take it all on… which he should be the first day of training camp. Still, it’s a good sign for Thunder fans.

George opened up to Sam Amick of the USA Today in a lengthy interview at the start of camp, and among the topics he discussed was the trade to OKC (after George’s camp told Indiana he would test free agency next summer). Did getting sent to the Thunder motivate him?

“I took it as it was a kick in the behind, like, ‘Go ahead and go try to beat the Warriors. Go play alongside Russ and get your butt kicked against the Warriors.’ That’s how I looked at how that trade went down, because honestly we had no idea OKC was even interested or was in the trade until the trade actually happened. But again, I’m not here to trash Indiana. They have some of the best people I’ve ever met in their front office and in that organization. I grew up there. I could go on and on (with) the positives in Indiana, but that’s where my thought process and my – that’s where I, I guess, my opportunity to leave had opened up.”

There was some “go ahead and beat the Warriors” in that trade — it looks, from the outside, like the Pacers did not want George to land anywhere he wanted to go.

Thing is, as human beings, we by our nature try to make the best of situations. Even people who suffer genuine personal tragedies often come out the other side saying that it changed who they were for the better and they are happy with their new life. This is just basketball. George will adapt — and he’s on a very good team. If the bar is “can they beat a healthy Warriors team in a series” then the Thunder will fall short, as will every other team. But the Thunder are on that next tier in the NBA and could be a threat.

Plus, competitors like George always look at a trade as a challenge.

It’s going to be a fascinating season for the Thunder. We’ll see if all that talent is willing to make the sacrifices needed to win at the highest levels of the NBA.

When will Zach LaVine return to court for Bulls? Think Thanksgiving.

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When the Chicago Bulls traded Jimmy Butler — finally making a decision on the franchise’s direction — one of the centerpieces they got back from Minnesota was Zach LaVine. The wildly athletic two-guard had evolved into more than just a dunker, averaging 18.9 points per game and shooting 38 percent from three — he had become a legitimate scoring threat against any defense.

Then he blew out his ACL.

How that injury impacts his game remains to be seen… so when will the Bulls see him on the court? Coach Fred Hoiberg addressed that as Chicago started training camp, as reported by Vincent Goodwill of CSNChicago.

That’s just taking contact in practice. The Bulls will be cautious bringing back a guy they see as part of their future, so expect this to be closer to Thanksgiving or the end of the month before he plays. Which is the smart move to make.

Even then, ACL injuries take a long time to overcome, even for young players putting in the recovery work. It may be next season before we know if LaVine will continue on the trajectory he was on in Minnesota.

Magic Johnson shrugs off concern about Lonzo Ball realty series

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Lonzo Ball has yet to play in one NBA game, yet he has his own signature shoe line, and he — along with his father LaVar Ball and the rest of his family — have their own reality show on FaceBook. Lonzo told me he doesn’t foresee this show, nor his bombastic father, being a problem with his teammates or on the court.

Magic Johnson agrees with that. At least for now.

The head of Lakers’ basketball operations said as training camp opened that he’s not worried about the show Ball in the Family being a distraction. If it is, he’ll step in, he told Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN.

“Only time I am going to concern myself with what [Lonzo] does off the court is if it is affecting his play on the court,” Johnson said at the Lakers’ media day when asked about Ball’s reality Facebook series, “Ball in the Family.”

“Right now, I think it is awesome,” Johnson said. “His family is great. They came out Saturday, we had a big Laker picnic. … His dad is wonderful with me, and I am cool with him. … I think [Lonzo] is tired of all this [hype]. He is just like me; I just want to play and I think he wants to play, and then Saturday night [for the Lakers’ preseason opener], sold out, in Anaheim, wow!”

It’s Magic’s job to put a positive spin on things.

That said, he’s right. The Lakers (and every NBA team) have dealt with overinvolved parents before and know how to create some space for the player to focus on the game. Locker rooms have a way of sorting themselves out in these kinds of situations. Plus, the Lakers have been down the reality show road before (when Lamar Odom married Khloe Kardashian), and while that had an ugly ending, it wasn’t for lack of Lakers’ players and others in the organization trying to step in and help. (Odom just wasn’t yet in a place to accept help.)

Soon LaVar will be focused on his other sons and Lonzo, who appears practiced at tuning his father out and focusing on what is in front of him, will have the grind of the NBA schedule to worry about.

Former NBA player Chuck Person named in college basketball bribery scandal

Associated Press
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The recruitment of major college athletes — and then the steering of the handful that get to go pro to shoe companies and agents — is a sleazy business. It makes HBO’s “The Duece” look like Disneyland. It’s something sports fans know but largely turn a blind eye to until it forces its way into the headlines.

It turned up in the headlines Tuesday when four college assistant coaches from major universities were charged by federal prosecutors in a bribery scandal along with a representative of Adidas and others to steer players to specific agents or a financial handler.

Former NBA Rookie of the Year Chuck Person, now an assistant coach at Auburn, was among those named in the scandal.

Person is making headlines because he’s the biggest name in the scandal. He is charged with accepting approximately $91,500 from a business manager, who has flipped and is working with prosecutors. This “business manager, offered bribes to Person to steer players toward his services, as well as another person charged in the scandal.

Person told prosecutors he gave $18,500 of the money he took to two players’ families, according to the filings.

Person was the No. 4 pick in the 1986 NBA draft and went on to win Rookie of the Year, followed by a 13-year NBA career. He made $22.9 million over the course of his career.