The Extra Pass: Raptors’ salary dump trade could mean a few more wins, too; plus Sunday recaps

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LOS ANGELES — Make no mistake, this was first and foremost about money. And future flexibility.

Raptors GM Masai Ujiri made a smart trade sending Rudy Gay out of town in a deal that sets his team up for the future by removing up to $12.4 million from the books next season. This summer  Andrea Bargnani’s anchor contract and now Rudy Gay’s oversized one are off the Toronto books. This Gay trade was all about the financial savings.

But it could mean a few more wins in there here and now, too.

Without the duplication of Gay and DeMar DeRozan’s talents the Raptors offense on Sunday night against the Lakers played faster and had better spacing then it has in some time. There was less isolation and more pick-and-roll. The Raptors got 28 percent of their shot opportunities from either the ball handler or roll man in the pick-and-roll against the Lakers (up from 22 percent on the season) while the Raptors got just 7 percent of their shots from isolation plays (down from a 12 percent average on the season).

The result was a 106-94 win spoiling Kobe Bryant’s return.

Part of the good play can be attributed to the Raptors pulling together when shorthanded — something we see all the time in sports for short runs.

“I don’t think anyone was prepared for it happen today,” Kyle Lowry said after he scored 23 Sunday night. “I didn’t. You don’t expect it to happen this fast or this soon. You say you feel something coming but you can’t say anything until it happens and now that it happens you say ‘we knew it.’”

However, the improvement in the Raptors offense — ranked 17th in the NBA in points per possession — may well be more than just a one-night boost.

Without Gay getting his team-high 18.6 shots a game — with one-in-four coming from an isolation play — the Raptors offense looked improved.

“The floor was spaced a lot,” Amir Johnson said after he dropped 32 on the Lakers. “They pay attention to DeMar a lot, especially coming off those curls. So when you have that big (defending Johnson) help, he was able to get that dunk pass and I was able to get those layups. It was working for us tonight.”

Lowry was happy, too.

“I’m really happy how we played, the ball moved out there, swinging, everyone chipped in it was a great effort from everyone.”

Nobody in the Raptors locker room had a negative word to say about Gay — just the opposite, most players seemed upset to have lost a teammate they genuinely liked.

“Rudy is a prince of a guy,” coach Dwane Casey said. “He’s a dynamic, athletic wing player, he gets to the basket at will. He can shoot the ball, handle the ball, we were using him more in drag situations, pick-and-roll situations and he was growing into that role, doing a better job getting a feel for the defense. And that was a different role for him to do that but he was growing into it, getting better with it.”

Still, the offense looked better.

Now on top of that thanks to the trade Toronto adds a playmaking guard in Greivis Vasquez, a solid vet in Chuck Hayes, and a guy who can provide some wing depth in John Salmons. We’ll see how it all fits together — and who gets moved again before the deadline, this is a roster in flux — but all the pieces could fit together a little better than it has up to this point.

Toronto did not make this trade trying to win the sad Atlantic division — for the Raptors this is about saving money and roster flexibility. Gay is not the kind of guy Masai Ujiri wants to build around, especially not if he picks up his $19.3 million option for next season. This trade was about financial flexibility.

But with the Raptors starting five being +19 against the Lakers (who were out of sync with the Kobe’s return) you have to wonder if this might mean a few more wins this season, too.

—Kurt Helin

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Celtics 114, Knicks 73: New York didn’t bother to show up for this one, as the early noon tip-off time at home once again proved to be too much for the Knicks to deal with. The team fell behind by 25 points in the first quarter, didn’t hit a field goal for the game’s first six-plus minutes, and essentially erased any good feelings they created by coming out of their nine-game losing streak with consecutive wins by a margin of more than 30 points each.

Heat 110, Pistons 95: Detroit handed Miami one of its five losses on the season less than a week ago, so you can bet that the Pistons got the Heat’s full attention in the rematch. That meant a near triple-double performance out of LeBron James, who finished with 24 points, seven rebounds and nine assists, and a blistering 32-17 third quarter where the Heat put this one away for good and turned the final 12 minutes into nothing more than extended garbage time.

Thunder 118, Pacers 94: It’s easy to dismiss this loss for the Pacers, considering how dominant they’ve been to start the season along with the fact that a Spurs-Thunder road back-to-back isn’t exactly the fairest of schedules to deal with. But Kevin Durant turned in an above-average performance regardless of what his opponent’s circumstances were, and finished with 36 points and 10 rebounds to lead his team to the win — perhaps because he was tired of hearing about Paul George and his breakout season thus far. George had 32 points and five rebounds of his own in the losing effort.

Rockets 98, Magic 88: This one wasn’t as close as the final score would indicate, mainly because the Rockets held a lead of 22 points in the third quarter and lost focus in the final period by shooting a dismal 5-of-22 from the field over the game’s final 12 minutes. James Harden finished with 27 points and 10 assists, and Dwight Howard added 20 points, 22 rebounds and three blocked shots.

Raptors 106, Lakers 94: Kobe Bryant was back on the court, but as had to be expected he was rusty and his teammates were not used to playing with him. Kobe had 9 points on 2-of-9 shooting, with eight rebounds and eight turnovers. The Lakers five starters combined to shoot 25 percent and none scored in double digits — they were that out of sync. Meanwhile Amir Johnson was back home in Los Angeles and dropped 32 in front of his friends, while DeMar DeRozan (26 points) and Kyle Lowry (23) slashed their way into the lane. The Raptors scored 60 points in the paint on the night. Rudy Gay who?

Report: Cavaliers, Larry Nance Jr. talking contract extension

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When the Cavaliers made the trade deadline deal with the Lakers last February, they got Larry Nance Jr. (the son of a Cavs legend) and Jordan Clarkson (surrendering Channing Frye, Isaiah Thomas and a 2018 1st round draft pick that became Moritz Wagner).

Nance is the one the Cavaliers seem intent on keeping, and they may extend him, reports Tom Withers of the Associated Press.

This seems like a good fit for both sides, if they can find a number that works. The Cavaliers are committed to not bottoming out right now — which is why Kevin Love got a new massive contract — and Nance fits with that.

This is not going to be a max contract, but Nance has made it clear he likes playing in Cleveland and wants to stay. After he came over last season he averaged 8.9 points on 55 percent shooting, 7 rebounds, 1.4 assists, and 1.4 steals a game. Those numbers could go up with LeBron James no longer in the picture.

LeBron James on earning Lakers’ fans loyalty: ‘I signed a four-year deal’

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Living in Los Angeles, with most of my friends Lakers’ fans, I can tell you that the majority of the city is excited and on board with the LeBron James era. They get that he’s right, the Lakers are not yet on the Warriors’ level, but they like the idea of the game’s best player with the Lakers’ young core, and the potential of that with another star player in the next 10 months or so. They are excited.

Most Lakers fans that is. There is a segment, best described as the “Kobe Bryant could walk on water” crowd, who are not sold on LeBron as a Laker. Who see him somehow as a threat to their Kobe worship. They question LeBron as a “real Laker” and his loyalty.

That took all of two days of training camp to come up, and for LeBron to shoot it down. Via Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated.

LeBron nailed this. He has signed on and trusted Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka more than he had anyone since Pat Riley — LeBron never signed long-term deals in Cleveland and trusted Dan Gilbert. He trusts Magic and Jeanie Buss. That is huge.

LeBron’s Laker era is ultimately going to be judged by winning a title, because all Lakers’ eras are judged that way. Kobe would talk about nothing else. LeBron understands that reality. But the era of being able to buy an NBA title is gone — the Lakers have free agency advantages few other franchises do (thanks to the location and the brand) but that is not enough. The biggest question for the Lakers is not can they land another star before next season, but rather can the core of Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and the rest be the guys that stand with LeBron? If at the end of games this season it is LeBron sharing the court with Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, and Michael Beasley, the Lakers have much bigger problems than who is the next star they sign.

LeBron is all in. He can help cement his legacy with a title in Lakers’ Forum Blue and Gold, but he knows he needs help. And he’s willing to wait for them to get it. At age 33, what else can you ask of the man?

Kevin Durant says he is taking free agency ‘year by year’

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Talk to sources around the league about the Warriors and they think Kevin Durant — not Klay Thompson, who is also a free agent next summer, or Draymond Green in the summer of 2020 — will be the first to leave the team. It may not be this summer, especially if they three-peat, but he was last in and will be first out.

Durant, for his part, is not playing the speculation game.

When asked about it, Durant was vague, reports the USA Today’s Erik Garcia Gundersen.

“Just one of those things where you’re confident in your skills and taking it year by year. And keeping my options open was the best thing for me. I could have easily signed a long-term deal but I just wanted to take it season by season and see where it takes me. And I think this year is going to be a fun, exciting year for us all. I’m looking forward to just focusing on that and we’ll see what happens after the year.”

Golden State owner Joseph Lacob admitted he would have given Durant whatever deal he and his agents wanted. They chose the short-term option, keeping a lot of doors open.

The conventional wisdom around the league is that this summer Durant will opt-out this summer then sign a five-year contract. Probably with the Warriors, but the door is open, and there are a lot of teams with max salary slots. Maybe Durant is ready to have his own team again and move on. Maybe he is happy where he is.

Durant doesn’t know the answer to that question, yet. Nobody does. But that has other teams ready to pounce, just in case one of the world’s top two players decides it’s time to move on.

What if the Timberwolves don’t trade Jimmy Butler?

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I expect the Timberwolves to trade Jimmy Butler soon. Most people expect the Timberwolves to trade Jimmy Butler soon.

But they’ve thrown enough uncertainty into the process that nothing should be taken for granted. Tom Thibodeau said he expects Butler to report to training camp if not traded within a week, and as of yesterday, the president-coach was reportedly still trying to convince Butler to stay in Minnesota.

What happens if the Timberwolves don’t trade Butler and he refuses to report?

If he withholds playing services for 30 days after training camp begins, he won’t accrue a year of service and can’t become a free agent next offseason. He couldn’t sign with another professional basketball team unless Minnesota agreed.

That 30-day clock seemingly isn’t ticking, as Butler is excused while recovering from offseason hand surgery. But if the Timberwolves want to get serious about keeping Butler, they could press the issue.

But Butler would have options, too. He could – a la Mo Williams with the Cavaliers – undergo surgery and claim he’s not healthy enough to report. Players, especially ones as damaged as Butler, often have medical issues to clean up. That could mean embellishing the effect of the hand surgery or undergoing a new surgery altogether. An elective surgery could legitimately sideline Butler. Claiming Butler is actually healthy enough to report when he says he isn’t could get quite messy if the team objects.

Again, I don’t expect it to get that far. I doubt the Timberwolves, particularly owner Glen Taylor, desire to hold Butler hostage like that. Even if they do, Butler could just report and play. He can become an unrestricted free agent after the season and leave then.

But these are the extreme options on the table if this situation devolves further.