NBA Playoffs: Celtics still have championship recipe, even if they have to improvise on ingredients

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Garnette_Game.jpgThe Celtics won it all two years ago, you know.

They were hungrier then, and healthier, too. James Posey-er, even. But that team, with a Rajon Rondo that wasn’t quite this impressive and absolutely depressing depth at center. Paul Pierce was more prolific then, Kevin Garnett was more productive then, Ray Allen was more consistent then. But for all the talk of how far this team has fallen since their championship season, would you like to guess how many spots they’ve dropped in defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions)?

Four. The Celtics went from the most intimidating defense in the league to simply being the fifth best, regardless of how their season numbers may be distorted by KG’s injuries.

There’s absolutely, positively no way that this team should be considered the favorite to win the title. In all honesty, their odds shouldn’t even be handicapped. That doesn’t mean that under the right conditions and with a few lucky breaks they couldn’t stumble their way to the top of the Eastern Conference and will themselves to the title.

The Celtics struggles this season are distinctly different from the Lakers, if only because L.A.’s problems seem rather self-imposed. They’re mental mistakes, effort issues, and admittedly a few injuries to go along with them. In Boston, there’s a lot of natural decline, but these guys still care. Paul Pierce still thinks he’s the best in the world, and this is his chance to prove it. Garnett still thinks that every piece of hardwood in the United States belongs to him, and you shouldn’t be able to set foot on it without him working you. Ray Allen is still be a brutally efficient three-point shooter, and can go white-hot for stretches at a time.

Boston’s season doesn’t speak for itself, because when the sample size is reduced (like it is in the playoffs, from 82 to, at most, 28), all kinds of odd results may unfold. All Boston needs to do is have a few productive stretches at the right times, and exploit their match-up advantages as they unfold. Doc Rivers never got enough credit for his coaching with the 2008 Celtics, but if Boston goes on any kind of extended run it will be a testament to not only his motivational ability, but his knowledge of the game’s X’s and O’s as well.

Then there’s Rajon Rondo. Rondo’s PER has jumped from 15.6 to 19.4 since the title run, and last year in the playoffs Rondo proved that regardless of his competition, he’s consistently one of the best players on the floor. He’s a defender capable of stopping a defense at its point of attack, and developed some impressive versatility in his ability to both score and set up his teammates. His drastic improvement since 2008 is something that’s largely overlooked, but making the jump from decent young point guard to legit All-Star is nothing to scoff at. Rondo can make a huge difference in any series on both ends of the court, and if he takes another step up like he did against Chicago in the playoffs last year? That’s fearsome.

Boston’s competition in the East is better than ever, but they’ll waltz into the postseason with zero external expectations. Don’t think for a second that they won’t be using that to their advantage. All Boston needs is to refine their focus, catch a few (insanely) lucky breaks, and show that they’re still capable of playing championship-caliber defense. All any team can ask for is a shot at this thing, and even though the Celtics may be taking a shot in the dark, it’s something.

Report: Spurs wouldn’t trade Kawhi Leonard to 76ers unless they included Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid

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The 76ers reportedly refused to include Markelle Fultz in trade offers for Kawhi Leonard, which seems misguided to me. Leonard carries major questions about his future, but after his rookie year, so does Fultz! At least Leonard has proven he can reach an elite level. That’s not to say Philadelphia should have definitely dealt Fultz for Leonard. The 76ers definitely have a better understanding of Fultz’s behind-the-scenes progress, and they might have more information on Leonard’s health and willingness to stay long-term. I just wouldn’t have made Fultz a deal-breaker in negotiations.

But it seems the Spurs placed a far more unreasonable restriction on Philadelphia, though.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

The Spurs made it clear any deal with Philly would require Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid (likely Simmons), and the Sixers weren’t going anywhere near that, league sources say.

Given their age and contract status – and, in Simmons’ case, health – Simmons and Embiid are each way more valuable than Leonard. There’s no way the 76ers would have dealt either of those two for Leonard.

Which apparently took a still-viable suitor off the table for San Antonio.

Between Fultz, Dario Saric, Robert Covington, Zhaire Smith, the Heat’s 2021 first-rounder and Philadelphia’s own picks, the 76ers could have assembled a better package than the Raptors sent the Spurs for Leonard. Maybe the 76ers wouldn’t have. But it would have been worth at least exploring.

It seems San Antonio placed too much on remaining competitive, which led to a deal revolving around DeMar DeRozan. There’s nothing wrong with that strategy per se, but it gets more difficult to defend when the Spurs got so little. In this Western Conference, they could slip out of the playoffs, even with DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl. A long-term approach should have at least been considered.

To be fair, I’d also caution against taking this report at face value with no skepticism. Today, 28 teams – especially those, like Philadelphia, linked to Leonard – are trying to explain why they didn’t get the star. This could easily be the 76ers’ spin and not an accurate reflection of the Spurs’ stance.

But Lowe is a great reporter, and I tend to trust this – which raises red flags about San Antonio.

NBA players bothered by Raptors trading DeMar DeRozan

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DeMar DeRozan is clearly upset with the Raptors for trading him (for Kawhi Leonard).

Is DeRozan’s frustration justified?

To a certain extent, he’s entitled to feel however he wants. I would never tell him his reaction is “wrong.”

But that’s not the same as endorsing his outlook. Should we rally behind him and hold Toronto accountable for mistreating him? Answering that question relies on so much hearsay, I’m not sure it’s possible to answer fairly.

In what I find a telling illustration of the situation, ESPN has updated its story on the trade multiple times today. In an early version:

Sources close to DeRozan told ESPN’s Chris Haynes that DeRozan met with Toronto brass in Las Vegas during summer league and was told he would not be traded.

That got changed to:

Sources close to DeRozan told ESPN’s Chris Haynes that DeRozan met with Toronto officials in Las Vegas during summer league and believed that he would not be traded.

That’s a subtle, but meaningful, distinction.

Did the Raptors tell DeRozan he wouldn’t be traded? Different people involved in the conversation would probably give different answers.

Did DeRozan take away that Toronto wouldn’t trade him? It seems so, and maybe it’s because team officials told him that directly. But it’s also possible he misinterpreted team officials. Not that he’s willing to grant that possibility.

David Aldridge of NBA.com:

Without being privy to the exact wording, I don’t know where to side.

Unsurprisingly, other players are backing DeRozan – some publicly and quite strongly, others anonymously.

Lou Williams:

Isaiah Thomas:

Damian Lillard:

Anthony Morrow:

Enes Kanter:

Chris Haynes of ESPN:

DeRozan meant a lot to the Raptors, and he deserves a proper sendoff. But some of this strikes me as an overreaction.

The Spurs didn’t thank Leonard in their press release, either. Both teams posted cursory messages of gratitude on social media to their outgoing players. Gregg Popovich held a press conference today and said many kind things about Leonard, though. The main difference appears to be Masai Ujiri just hasn’t happened to hold his press conference yet. I’d be shocked if he doesn’t effusively praise DeRozan in it.

And to Kanter’s claim the Raptors gave away DeRozan for nothing? They got Kawhi freaking Leonard.

For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t rule the possibility of the spotlight-seeking Kanter just saying something outlandish to draw attention.

Even if that were Kanter’s intent, that just feeds into this spiraling into a bigger deal than it probably should be.

If the Raptors told DeRozan they wouldn’t trade him, they shouldn’t have done that. If they told DeRozan they didn’t plan to trade him while they were secretly putting the final touches on this deal, they shouldn’t have done that.

But if they told DeRozan they didn’t plan to trade him and truly didn’t at that moment, I wouldn’t blame them. Plans can change, and it would have done them no good to warn DeRozan of that possibility. If he expected more loyalty, that’s on him.

Ujiri will get a chance to explain himself. So will DeRozan – though his narrative is already gaining significant traction, especially among his peers. Maybe we’ll actually become positioned to make an outside judgment.

Most likely, this will remain a he-said, he-said situation that wanes in significance. DeRozan will probably play hard in San Antonio and grow to enjoy it there. Players – even, I bet, including DeRozan – will forgive the Raptors in time. As much furor as these things evoke in the moment, players rarely hold a grudge to the point of avoiding franchises.

But for now, Toronto is dealing with a perception hit right as it begins its courtship of one of the NBA’s top players, Leonard.

PBT Extra: Breaking down Kawhi Leonard to Raptors trade

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While the rumors of Raptors interest in trading for Kawhi Leonard had been around the league for weeks, the thought they would land him always seemed far fetched — Leonard clearly didn’t want to go there, so would GM Masai Ujiri really put one of his big name players in the mix to get a trade done.

Yes. Yes he would.

Leonard is headed to Toronto in a trade package centered around DeMar DeRozan.

I break down what that means for everyone involved in this latest PBT Extra. For the Spurs, they stay relevant and postpone the rebuild for the final few years of Gregg Popovich’s tenure as coach. For the Raptors, they are contenders for a year — and they can take a longshot attempt to win Leonard over.

Report: After backing out of agreement with Sixers, Nemanja Bjelica talking to Kings

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Nemanja Bjelica had found a comfort level in Minnesota, but when Tom Thibodeau pulled his qualifying offer — to sign Anthony Tolliver — it left the Serbian forward without a deal. Philadelphia raced in with a one-year, $4.4 million offer, and he took it.

Then on Tuesday, he backed out, saying he wanted to return to Europe with his family. What he said he wanted was stability, he told Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic.

“It’s not about coach or the Philly organization,” Bjelica told The Athletic in a phone conversation on Tuesday. “Brett Brown, he’s a great guy and a great coach. The most important thing for me is family and some kind of stability…

“I’m thankful for Philly for the opportunity, but I will always do what is the best for my family,” Bjelica said. “At that point, I was considering European life.”

Or, Sacramento. Which I am fairly confident is not in Europe. From Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

Bjelica wanted stability, something that doesn’t always come easily in the NBA life. Clearly, Vlade Divac is pitching a longer-term deal of some kind to provide that stability for Bjelica and his family.

I get why he’s doing it — this is still a bad look for Bjelica and his agent. He gave his word, then backed out of the deal saying he wanted to play in another league. Now he’s talking to another NBA team, a competitor. I get it, teams are not loyal to players either, they lie to them too — just ask DeMar DeRozan — but it doesn’t make this move right. It’s not a great look for the Kings, either.

On the court, Bjelica is a fit with the Kings in that he can be part of the rotation with Marvin Bagley III, Harry Giles and the rest of a crowded Kings’ frontcourt. Bjelica provides needed floor spacing and shooting — I really like him as a player. I liked him in Minnesota and wish Thibodeau trusted him more, I liked the idea of how he fit in Philly, and I would like him in Sacramento.

But this is just awkward.