DeMar DeRozan

AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

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-

Looking ahead: Who will make Eastern All-Star Team?

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This summer saw an almost unprecedented shift of All-Star level player talent in the NBA — and a lot of it went from the East to the West. Three All-Stars from a year ago — Paul George, Paul Millsap, and Jimmy Butler — all moved from the Eastern Conference to a now stacked Western Conference.

It led to the question: What will the All-Star teams look like?

Here is my best guess, starting with the Eastern Conference (we will get to the West tomorrow).

ALL-STAR STARTERS (two guards, three frontcourt players):

Isaiah Thomas (Boston Celtics)
Kyrie Irving (Cleveland Cavaliers)
LeBron James (Cleveland Cavaliers)
Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks)
Gordon Hayward (Boston Celtics)

Comment: These are voted on by a combination of fan, media, and player votes. Irving may not be in the East come the time for All-Star voting as he has asked for a trade, however, as of this writing, he is still a Cavalier, so he will be treated as a member of the East. Three of these starters are the same as a year ago, with Hayward replacing Butler, and I have Thomas beating out one of the Raptors guards to start thanks to a push from Boston fans.

ALL-STAR RESERVES (two guards, three frontcourt players, two wild cards):

John Wall (Washington Wizards)
DeMar DeRozan (Toronto Raptors)
Kristaps Porzingis (New York Knicks)
Kevin Love (Cleveland Cavaliers)
Andre Drummond (Detroit Pistons)
Bradley Beal (Washington Wizards)
Joel Embiid (Philadelphia 76ers)

Comment: These are selected by a vote of the coaches, and this is where players who have strong first halves will be rewarded. Wall and DeRozan could be starters, they will be close with votes, something also true for the Knicks’ Porzingis. I do not have Carmelo Anthony on this list not because he could be traded to the West, but because as his game fades with age other players will pass him. Putting Embiid on the team implies he’s healthy enough to play at least 40 of the 50ish games played up to that point, which may be more wish than hope from me (and Sixers fans), but I’ll bet it happens. I think we’ll see Drummond take a step forward this season, so I have him making it. There are a host of other guards who could bump Beal or others off this list with strong first halves — Kemba Walker, Kyle Lowry, to name a couple — last year’s East lineup was guard heavy for that reason.

Head Coach: Tyronn Lue (Cleveland Cavaliers). Remember, Boston’s Brad Stevens coached in 2017, so he is ineligible this time around, and even if Irving is traded I’m not sure any team is higher in the standings than the Cavaliers. It is possible Scott Brooks in Washington could slide in here if his team comes together and Cleveland stumbles, same with Dwane Casey in Toronto, but the bet here is Lue gets the call again.

Why a trade probably won’t alone cost Kyrie Irving a super-max extension

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Kyrie Irving getting his wish of being traded from the Cavaliers would immediately render him ineligible to receive a super-max contract – reducing his projected max on his next deal by $24 million over five years.

It probably won’t matter.

The new Collective Bargaining Agreement allows for designated-veteran-player contracts only to players with their original team or who changed teams only via trade in their first four seasons. So, Irving, entering his seventh season, could no longer qualify if dealt.

But to receive a designated-veteran-player extension next summer, Irving would also have to make an All-NBA team or win Defensive Player of the Year or MVP this season. To receive a designated-veteran-player contract in 2019 free agency, Irving would have to make All-NBA or win Defensive Player of the Year in 2018-19 or win MVP in either 2017-18 or 2018-19.

That’s unlikely.

For all his accomplishments – Rookie of the Year, four All-Star appearances, the game-winning shot in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals – Irving has made only one All-NBA team, the third team in 2015.

Five other players have made precisely one All-NBA team in their first six seasons since the league added an All-NBA third team in 1989: Marc Gasol, Derrick Rose, Chris Bosh, Latrell Sprewell and Larry Johnson. Only one – Gasol – reached another All-NBA team. That’s a small sample, but indicative of how Irving’s lone All-NBA selection doesn’t make repeated All-NBA inclusion inevitable.

The league’s current crop of guards doesn’t help, either. At least 11 players on this list must fall short for Irving to make All-NBA:

The competition could be even stronger if Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler and/or Gordon Hayward qualify as guards.

It’s obviously far from impossible for Irving to make All-NBA if he remains in Cleveland. Irving is a star whose biggest strength – scoring – earns the most accolades.

His All-NBA chances are obviously worth discussing. Nobody mentioned Ricky Rubio losing his chance at a designated-veteran-player deal when the Timberwolves traded him to the Jazz.

But it’s also worth noting that the odds are against Irving making an All-NBA team the next two years if he remains in Cleveland. That calculus surely factors into his trade request.

DeMar DeRozan: Talk of Raptors’ changes overblown

AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo
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Raptors president Masai Ujiri called for a “culture reset,” alluding to an offense less reliant on Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan isolations.

DeMarre Carroll, traded from Toronto to the Nets, doubts the Raptors will change much.

Know who agrees with him? DeRozan.

DeRozan, via Mike Ganter of the Toronto Sun:

“I think the media kind of blow it out of proportion like it’s going to be something dramatic, like a complete dramatic 180-degree change,” DeRozan said, who was back in Toronto helping out with the Raptors’ Basketball Academy at Humber College on Monday. “It’s not that at all. It’s just moreso locking in and understanding what it takes to win from every single position. Everyone just know from our failures, guys stepping up and being better leaders, not just me and Kyle but everybody. I think once we lock in and everyone holds themselves accountable, everything else will come around perfect. That’s all it is.”

DeRozan didn’t disagree when it was suggested more ball movement might be demanded this season, but he did say the anticipated level of change by many outside the team is completely out of whack with the reality. The offence is still going to run through himself and Kyle Lowry.

This is shaping up to be a problem. Ujiri made this grand proclamation then brought back the same core – Lowry, DeRozan and coach Dwane Casey. This was the danger, that they were too comfortable with the status quo.

We’ll see how it actually plays out. DeRozan has a strong track record of improvement, and the Raptors might be forcing him to see the game differently by playing him at point guard.

But there at least appears to be a disconnect somewhere between the front office and players.

DeMar DeRozan ends Drew League game by chucking ball at ref (videos)

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There’s a quiet aggressiveness to DeMar DeRozan.

It boiled over in a Drew League game.

The above video shows the final incident, the Raptors star throwing the ball at a referee just before the final buzzer. The video below shows more context: