Raptors have gone 8-2 without Bargnani. Coincidence?

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On December 10, the enigmatic Andrea Bargnani went down with a ligament tear in his left elbow. Two nights later the Raptors lost to the Brooklyn Nets to fall to 4-19 on the season.

But since then the Raptors are 8-1, including a thumping of the Trail Blazers on Wednesday night.

Coincidence?

Yes and no.

We need to say up front that a lot of what has fueled the Raptors win streak is the schedule. The wins over the Blazers and Rockets in this stretch can be considered quality, but most of the wins are of the Hornets, Magic, and Cavaliers variety. Toronto is in the soft part of its schedule.

But so were the Clippers in December — you have to beat the teams in front of you on the schedule and earlier in the season the Raptors were not doing that. Now they are.

Because they are just flat out playing better without Bargnani in the rotation.

Their offense is scoring 8.3 points per 100 possessions better than their season average in the last 10 games, in part because they are just shooting the ball better (their eFG%, which accounts for the bonus of a made three, has jumped from 48.3 percent on the season to 52.7 percent the last 10 games).

Then on the other end of the floor, the Raptors defense is nearly 4 points per 100 possessions better than their season average.

Look at it this way, in games 11-20 of the season the Raptors were a -8.2 points per 100 possessions when you compare their offense and defense. In the last 10 games that is +10.3, which is second best in the NBA in that stretch.

No Bargnani has meant more Ed Davis, and he is showing off an improved jumper — he was spotting up against the Blazers and making LaMarcus Aldridge look a step slow. Davis was 9-of-12 for 19 points against the Blazers and has been strong the last 10 games — when Bargnani comes back Dwane Casey can’t take Davis out of the starting lineup. He has earned the right to stay.

DeMar DeRozan, Jose Calderon and Kyle Lowry are playing well. Landry Fields is back and is contributing on the boards as he tries to figure out where he fits in the rotation. It’s all coming together.

We know the Raptors are going to be busy at the trade deadline. Bargnani will be shopped hard (and while there is a market for him it’s not one that brings back a lot of real talent or value). Either Calderon or Lowry will be moved (maybe in connection with Bargnani to add value).

But what we’ve learned the last 10 games is there are some pieces that can really work on that Raptors roster. They don’t have a star, but they have some pieces that can be part of a very good team. Now, whether Bryan Colangelo can put those pieces together is another question, but we know there are things that can work in Toronto.

And Bargnani is no longer one of them.

Rockets sign Ben McLemore

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The Kings couldn’t figure out what to do with Ben McLemore, the No. 7 pick in the 2013 NBA draft.

Now, the Rockets will try.

Rockets:

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

The link in the Rockets tweet leads to an inaccessible page, which is pretty fitting.

McLemore has talent, athleticism and size. He probably doesn’t have as much talent and athleticism as it seemed when he became a lottery pick. But he still has some. He also plays shooting guard, a common position of need throughout the league. Maybe Houston can find a way for the 26-year-old to become productive for the first time in his career.

It’s a low-risk bet considering the cheap cost, and the upside probably isn’t that high. But it’s still an interesting attempt considering McLemore’s stature when he entered the league.

Report: Clippers tried to trade for James Harden before landing Paul George

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Kawhi Leonard tried to recruit Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Leonard eventually got Paul George to join him on the Clippers.

Two other stars the Clippers tried to land? Bradley Beal and James Harden.

Jovan Buha and Sam Amick of The Athletic:

The Clippers inquired about Washington’s Bradley Beal and Houston’s James Harden, according to league sources, but neither star was available.

Beal fits the most obvious parameter of an available star: He’s on a bad team. But the Wizards aren’t interested in trading him. For most of the summer, they didn’t even have a general manager to negotiate a potential deal.

Harden is the far more interesting target. The Rockets have built around him, but they reached a rough spot with Harden and Chris Paul. Houston could have viewed that as the end of the road. The Clippers parted with an elite package for George – five first-round picks, two pick swaps, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari. That’s the kind of offer that can open many doors. Instead, the Rockets went the other way by acquiring Russell Westbrook.

Still, a Leonard-Harden pairing would’ve been quite interesting. Both work best as offensive focal points, not contributing much off the ball. Harden’s defensive deficiencies would’ve put more pressure on Leonard. But the talent level would’ve been astronomical.

I think the Clippers are just happy with Leonard and George, who fit better together and still carry elite talent.

Report: NBA opens investigation into tampering following ‘tense’ owners meeting

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Kyrie Irving (Nets), Kemba Walker (Celtics) and Derrick Rose (Pistons) appeared to have their next teams lined up before free agency officially began. The Celtics reportedly complained about the 76ers tampering with Al Horford. Several other players agreed to terms so quickly after free agency began 6 p.m. June 30, it’s impossible to believe the deals weren’t pre-arranged.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver said free-agency rules should be revised and enforced.

The league will also investigate.

Zach Lowe and Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

Within days, the league opened an investigation centered on the timing of some of the earliest reported free-agency deals on June 30, sources familiar with the matter told ESPN.com. The scope of that investigation is developing. It is expected to include interviews with players and possibly agents and team employees, sources say.

The investigation followed a tense owners meeting, which multiple sources described to ESPN.

In the midst of it, Rick Buchanan, the NBA’s longtime general counsel, issued an evenhanded but sobering message to the room, multiple sources said.

Buchanan told the governors that as partners they were entitled to expect all teams to abide by a common set of enforceable rules for free agency — and that the league office would come back with a proposal for a revised set of rules that would then be strictly enforced. He asked the group if they were comfortable with the league “seizing servers and cellphones,” a line that stuck with many in attendance, according to sources who recounted the scene later.

It’s unclear whether this investigation will be punitive, exploratory or both.

Teams and players are absolutely violating the written rules. Some teams occasionally get punished. The rules are arbitrarily enforced, which is unfair. This investigation could lead to widespread punishment, though proving which teams did and didn’t tamper would be difficult. If it goes this route, expect uneven enforcement.

I’m with Silver: The rules should be enforced. An easy way to do that is writing the rules to match what currently occurs. As much griping as everyone does, the system mostly works. It’d work even better if everyone were on the same page about what is and isn’t allowed. So, this investigation could uncover details of how free agency actually happens. Then, the rules could be tailored around that.

This is clearly trending toward allowing contact with free agents sooner. That’s already happening, anyway. And billionaire team owners sure don’t want their privacy invaded for strict enforcement of a more-prohibitive system.

Tricky questions remain, though.

How will the NBA handle players tampering with each other? That’s forbidden by the Collective Bargaining Agreement, but Silver has practically said he’ll allow it. And it happens plenty. I’d prefer it becomes officially allowed. Having unenforced rules can lead to selective enforcement.

When will teams and free agents be permitted to contact each other? Seasons end at different times, depending how far teams advance. Even with the starting period moved up, some teams will still seek an edge.

So, there’s no perfect solution.

But there are obvious problems with conditions now. It sounds like the NBA might finally be addressing them.

Report: Damian Lillard out, Julius Randle and Jaylen Brown in for Team USA consideration

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Team USA is losing its best player.

Again.

After Anthony Davis then James Harden withdrew from consideration for the 2019 FIBA World Cup, Damian Lillard is also pulling out.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

This is a major drop in star power for the Americans. Their best player on the World Cup roster could be Kemba Walker? Kyle Lowry? Khris Middleton? This is no Dream Team.

The United States also went from stacked to thin at point guard in a hurry. Walker and Lowry remain – if Lowry is healthy. Donovan Mitchell and Marcus Smart are combo guards. But that’s a big drop from an expected 1-2 punch of Harden and Lillard.

Julius Randle and Jaylen Brown won’t help there.

Brown is a solid addition to the roster pool. He’s a versatile wing who can fit into many lineups and styles. That malleability will be important as Team USA can longer rely on a huge talent disparity.

Randle probably makes less sense. He’s an impressive individual scorer with passing ability. But his ball-stopping tendencies and woeful defense as a big leave major questions about his ability to contribute with other top players. He’s more of a floor-raiser. If the Americans need a floor-raiser, they’re in trouble.

DeMar DeRozan apparently withdrew from the training-camp roster before anyone knew he was even added, which is pretty fitting for this team.