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.

Deron Williams and Jerry Sloan finally buried the hatchet

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Deron Williams or Chris Paul? That was the conversation in the NBA just a decade ago, a conversation that now seems practically ridiculous. I never personally thought it was very close between the two, being an adamant Paul supporter. Now, CP3 is with the Houston Rockets and Williams is out of the league, despite Paul being just 200 days younger than the former Utah Jazz star (but having played more games).

Williams was part of a two-man attack, along with Carlos Boozer, that helped fuel the Jazz during the first decade of this century as they churned through the Western Conference. But Williams played just five-and-a-half seasons in Salt Lake City, traded after a blow-up with former Jazz coach Jerry Sloan.

Things were unsteady between the two during the 2010-11 season, and Sloan famously decided to retire after a game in February of 2011 in which the Jazz lost to the Chicago Bulls. During halftime of that game, there was a disagreement between Sloan and Williams that apparently pushed the legendary head coach to his tipping point.

Sloan retired and Williams was traded on February 23rd.

Now, it appears that the two have at least made amends. In a story of appearing on UtahJazz.com, Williams recently went to Sloan’s house to talk about the divide between the two and what happened some seven years ago.

Via UtahJazz.com:

“He doesn’t forget a lot of things, instances where I pissed him off, things I did to upset him,” Williams said. “He definitely told me about that—and rightfully so. He was great about some other things. It was kind of typical Coach Sloan, really. If you know him, he’s never been one to shy away from telling you the truth and how he feels.”

“Eventually, I think Jerry came around,” [Jazz CEO Greg] Miller said. “He never really said, ‘Let’s put it behind us’ or anything, but maybe in Sloan speak he did.”

“Two strong men said what they needed to say, shook hands and are now moving forward,” [Jazz president Steve] Starks said.

Sloan, 76, is living with Parkinson’s and reportedly not in the best of health. It’s good to hear that Williams was remorseful about how he acted, and that the two great sportsmen were able to come together and at least see each other’s point of view as a sort of armistice.

Masai Ujiri on Kawhi Leonard: ‘He is happy. There is no maintenance with him’

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No doubt there are big expectations for the Toronto Raptors this year after trading franchise cornerstone DeMar DeRozan for disgruntled San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard. Ever an enigma (and coming off of one of the worst-managed exits from a team in recent memory) Leonard has fans in Ontario biting their nails about whether he will return healthy this season, and happy for the next.

According to Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, Leonard is giving them every indication that he is ready to go heading into the 2018-19 NBA season. Speaking to the media on Tuesday, Ujiri said that Leonard is happy.

Via Sportsnet:

“He is happy. From what everybody has told me he is healthy. He spends a lot of time with our coaches,” said Ujiri. “He went to L.A. to meet our guys out there. He will be here shortly.”

“He is just quiet … that’s his nature. We can’t all be the same kind of people. But he is as engaging as he would want to be and he’s very interesting. There is no maintenance with him. There’s nothing. It’s remarkable … His (focus) is on basketball which is what you want. He is a basketball junkie … once you just start to talk about basketball his eyes change.”

We have heard rumors that Leonard has purchased a home in Toronto instead of merely renting. We’ve also seen photos of Leonard happy and working out with players like Kobe Bryant, nearly even smiling. And Ujiri is doing his part here, trying to ease any sentiment around Leonard.

The PR machine is in sixth gear in Toronto, but you can’t really blame them. It’s the first good public relations move we’ve seen from Leonard’s enclave in more than a year, and it helps bolster the team if things go south.

Do I believe anything that is reported about Leonard anymore? No. Not after last season. Unfortunately, the issue with Leonard remains the fact that we will have to simply sit to wait and see what he chooses to do next year.

Raptors fans, who are dedicated and passionate, should be hoping that they finally make a Finals run this year. Just in case.

Report: 76ers rookie Zhaire Smith expected to return around Christmas

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76ers first-rounder Zhaire Smith suffered a Jones fracture in his left foot last month, leaving plenty of uncertainty about when he’d return.

Keith Pompey of The Inquirer:

The 76ers expect injured rookie Zhaire Smith to be available to play in a game around Christmas, league sources say.

A rookie on a team with legitimate aspirations of deep-playoff advancement, Smith was already unlikely to crack Philadelphia’s rotation this season. All this lost developmental time makes it even less likely.

But the sooner Smith returns, the better for him and Philadelphia. The No. 16 pick impresses with his athleticism and motor, but he needs time to develop his perimeter skills.

Kevin Love launches “Love Fund” to bring more focus to mental health issues

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The NBA is not shying away from the issue of the mental health of its players.

In the wake of All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love coming forward about their mental health challenges, the league and the players’ union combined to tell players to speak out on the issue and take advantage of the services offered.

Kevin Love is doing more than just that, he has formed the Kevin Love Fund to help change the stigma around mental health issues. The fund has partners such as Headspace, with the focus being on prioritizing mental health awareness. He went on the Today Show on NBC to talk about it.

Love has become a leader and spokesman around the issue. Love came forward near the end of last season to talk about his battles with anxiety and depression. That opened the door for others around the NBA to step forward as well, such as Kelly Oubre and Paul Pierce.