Trail Blazers, Knicks top list of upset specials

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There are things we know about this year’s NBA playoffs. The beer in Madison Square Garden will be too expensive. Lakers fans will blame any loss of their team on the referees. Derrick Rose will dominate Indiana and some will claim that as further proof of his deserving the MVP.

And some higher seed is going to get upset in the first round.

The NBA does not (nor will it ever) have NFL-style parity, but there are just too many good teams on the bottom half of the standings this season for one not to rise up and smack down a higher seed. It’s going to happen.

So who is it going to be?

The usual bet is the four-five seed matchup, but not this year. Atlanta is going to put up a better fight than they did last year against Orlando, but to believe in that upset is to believe Jason Collins can best Dwight Howard for four out of seven games. I’m not on board there. As for Denver, they have been special and fun since the trade, out working everybody and sharing the ball on offense. Problem is, the Thunder have similar strengths and better players. Denver will make them work, but OKC will pull away like they did in the last two meetings between these two teams.

No, the potential upsets are the three/six seed matchups. The Knicks and the Trail Blazers have a real shot to advance.

The Knicks have a puncher’s chance in this series. They are not the better team, they are not deeper, they are not anywhere near as committed to their system as the Celtics. Shaq or no Shaq, Boston is superior.

But the Knicks have two guys who can simply take over games and win them single handedly — and they are in a system that gives them the freedom to do that. Boston players will have a hand in the face of Carmelo Anthony all series, but there is no better shooter of contested shots in the league (well, maybe Dirk Nowitzki, but it’s close). Anthony is fully capable of putting up 40+ with that hand in his face and winning a game. At some point in the series Amar’e Stoudemire may shake free of Kevin Garnett and take over a game himself.

Then there is the Knicks secret weapon in Chauncey Billups — his steady hand has long proven to be a big playoff asset. He does not get rattled, he’s seen it all before.

What the Knicks also have with Billups and Anthony is two of the best guys at game winning shots around. If the Knicks can keep it close, so it comes down to a one-possession game, they have serious closers. They’d have a real puncher’s chance because they have the guys that can land the haymaker.

It’s not going to be easy — but it is going to be entertaining. But maybe, just maybe if the Celtics late regular season struggles carry over to the playoffs, the Knicks can shock the world. And give Spike Lee the idea for a new documentary.

The sexy upset pick — and we picked it as well — is Portland to beat Dallas.

There are a couple of reasons why. The trade deadline acquisition by Portland of Gerald Wallace is a key one — a lot of fans don’t realize just how good this guy is. Dirk Nowitzki does, and he knows Wallace will be draped on him all series. And make him work on the defensive end. Wallace is not flashy but the guy is good at everything and works harder than everyone. He’s a monster.

Another reason is LaMarcus Aldridge — he averaged 27.8 points on 51% shooting against Dallas this season. He will occupy Tyson Chandler’s time and may lead to Chandler in foul trouble. Also, Portland brings Brandon Roy off the bench now and he can win a game (as can Rudy Fernandez from three on the right night). Dallas has depth, they have Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion.

Dallas was the better team over the course of the season, but the playoffs are about matchups. And Portland has some advantages there. Enough that they could pull off an upset.

And teach the lesson to Dallas one more, hard time that building for the regular season and playoffs are different.

Kawhi Leonard may not want to play in Toronto, but he will. For now.

Associated Press
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The moment it was reported that Kawhi Leonard was being traded to Toronto for a package based around DeMar DeRozan,  a second theme followed:

Leonard did not like this.

Leonard and his uncle/management team had tried to force their way to Los Angeles — in Las Vegas for Summer League I heard rumors about him wanting to be with either the Lakers or Clippers, depending on the source. (As with everything around Kawhi’s inexperienced management, there was no clear voice or vision, so there were a lot of conflicting rumors.) L.A. never happened because the Lakers think he will sign with them next summer, so they did not throw their best players into a trade — Brandon Ingram, in particular — while the Clippers didn’t have the assets to get a deal done. The Raptors jumped into that breach.

This has led to online speculation that Leonard will sit out in Toronto, saying he is injured, and try to force another trade.

Don’t bet on it.

Why? Because if he doesn’t play next season, even the Lakers would be very hesitant to jump in with a max contract offer next summer.

Leonard played in just nine games last season due to a quadriceps tendon issue, something that dates back to the season before that (he just played through it then). There was disagreement between doctors (and the sides) about whether this was a muscle or tendon issue, but the injury was real.

Right now, teams do not know how well he has responded to treatment, outside of second-hand reports. The physical Leonard has to undergo to complete this trade will be interesting.

If Leonard sits out all or even much of another season with the same injury, how healthy he would ever be must come into question. Even the Lakers and other teams that want him would have to be cautious about a four-year, $140.6 million contract (the max they can offer) to a guy who had missed a lot of the last two seasons.

To get where he wants to go and get paid, Leonard has to get on the court and play well. He has to look like Kawhi Leonard again, or something close to it.

He knows that, so he will be on the court in a Raptors uniform. If only for a year.

 

Lonzo Ball had arthroscopic surgery on knee Tuesday, should be ready for training camp

Associated Press
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It’s done.

As expected, Lonzo Ball has had left knee surgery on Tuesday and is currently in recovery. He reportedly will be good to go by training camp in September.

Ball averaged 10.2 points and 7.2 assists per game last season and made the NBA All-Rookie second team. This summer he had been working hard on his conditioning and jumper before the injury.

Ball will be asked to push the pace (as he did last season) and be a secondary ball handler who can create shots when LeBron does not have the ball in his hands. They fit together better on the court than some people think (Lonzo did play off the ball some at UCLA), but the challenge for L.A.of teams helping off Lonzo to double/trap LeBron on the perimeter is real.

The Lakers also took a couple of shots across the bow of Ball — and his father LaVar — this summer. First there was the signing of Rajon Rondo, then Magic Johnson said this about Josh Hart at Summer League:

The message is clear, the days of soft-pedaling and catering to Ball are over. He must earn his starting job, and there are legit challengers for his minutes. At some point, if the balance of off-court distractions and on-court production gets out of alignment, Ball’s job and standing with the Lakers are not safe.

But for now, he just needs to get right before the season.

DeMar DeRozan expresses anger at trade to Spurs on Instagram

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DeMar DeRozan has been loyal to Toronto.

He embraced the city when former stars abandoned it and pushed their way out of town. In 2016, as a free agent, he didn’t even meet with another team, he had no intention of leaving. He said he wanted to go down as the greatest Raptor ever. A Los Angeles kid himself — born and raised in Compton — he never pushed to go home, instead becoming incredibly active in the community off the court as well as being a four-time All-Star, two-time All-NBA player on it. He has led the greatest run of Raptors basketball in franchise history.

The Raptors were not loyal to DeRozan — they are shipping him to Texas in a trade for Kawhi Leonard that is being finalized.

DeRozan reportedly hates the move and put this up as an Instagram story.

“Be told one thing & the outcome another. Can’t trust em. Ain’t no loyalty in this game. Sell you out quick for a little bit of nothing… Soon you’ll understand… Don’t disturb…”

It’s not the destination that has DeRozan unhappy, he did not want to be traded, period.

Leonard reportedly also is unhappy with the trade — he wanted to go home to Los Angeles. However, Lakers would not the players the Spurs wanted into a trade (Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and more), and the Clippers do not have the assets to interest the Spurs in a trade. San Antonio was holding out for other bidders, biding their time, and in came Raptors’ GM Masai Ujiri with an aggressive move.

Leonard’s inexperienced management team, which did not handle this situation well, wanted him in a major market that would boost Leonard’s marketing opportunities. While Toronto is a big market — sixth largest in the NBA, bigger than Philadelphia — and is the team of a nation with fans across Canada, this is not what Leonard’s people wanted. He is a free agent next summer in 2019.

DeRozan has every right to feel betrayed — next time you think of complaining about how players are not loyal to cities/teams/fans, remember this. Loyalty is a luxury in the NBA and one rarely rewarded.

DeRozan also will come around and embrace San Antonio, the Spurs culture, and Gregg Popovich. He will help them win a lot.

Whether the Raptors can win over Leonard becomes one of the NBA’s biggest storylines of 2018-19.

Raptors reportedly agree to trade to acquire Kawhi Leonard from Spurs

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Raptors’ GM Masai Ujiri wanted to shake things up in Toronto this offseason, to change the culture, to make a push for a ring with LeBron James having gone West. The status quo was no longer good enough.

He has done that in the most dramatic way possible.

In maybe the biggest move of the summer, the Raptors are about to acquire Kawhi Leonard from the San Antonio Spurs. From Adrian Wojnarowski and Chris Haynes of ESPN:

The Toronto Raptors are finalizing a deal to acquire San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard in a trade package that includes All-Star DeMar DeRozan, league sources told ESPN.

An agreement in principle could be reached as soon as Wednesday, league sources said.

Leonard and DeRozan are both aware that an agreement could be imminent, and neither is expressing enthusiasm for the deal, league sources said.

DeRozan seems to confirm the trade — and his displeasure with it, he wanted to go down as the greatest Raptor ever and embraced that city when others stars had bolted it — in an Instagram story. The Raptors reportedly told DeRozan during Summer League he would not be traded, despite rumors.

Leonard and DeRozan cannot be traded for each other straight up (DeRozan makes $4 million more than Leonard, once Leonard’s trade kicker of $3 million is counted in), in the end the deal looked like this:

On paper, the trade makes sense for both sides. The Raptors take a shot at a ring and winning Leonard over to their team, if that fails and he bolts they start a rebuild (they also didn’t give up young players they really like such as OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam). This is a win for the Raptors.

The Spurs remain competitive for the next two or three years, likely as long as Gregg Popovich will coach, then they will rebuild.

The Spurs did not want to send Leonard to the West and the Lakers, and they wanted a star player who would keep them relevant and in the playoffs as part of the deal. DeRozan does that (while the Lakers and Sixers would not throw in key pieces such as Brandon Ingram or Markelle Fultz). Paired with LaMarcus Aldridge, Dejounte Murray, and whoever else doesn’t get put in this trade, they are in the playoff mix in the middle of a brutal West. DeRozan has two seasons guaranteed at $27.7 million, with a player option for a third season after that.

Leonard is a free agent in the summer of 2019 and can then sign anywhere he wants. That has reportedly been Los Angeles, although in Las Vegas I heard rumors from sources that both the Lakers and Clippers are in play to get him.

The Raptors will have this season to win him over and get him to re-sign — just as Oklahoma City did with Paul George. Toronto is a fantastic city, it has a passionate fan base, and the team is poised to win a lot. Toronto also has more money: with the trade Toronto can offer Leonard a five-year, $189.6 million contract next summer, the most any other team can put on the table is a four-year, $140.6 million offer. Leonard, it should be noted, walked away from a $221 million offer should he have worked things out with the Spurs. George was open to the Oklahoma City experience, will Leonard be in Toronto? (Also, the Raptors can trade him again at the deadline.)

If Leonard is fully healthy — something nobody really knows for sure — the Raptors would be contenders in the East, they have arguably the best player in the conference now (him or Giannis Antetokounmpo). This team is a threat to favorite Boston as well as Philadelphia.