Raptors stumble in first step without DeMar DeRozan

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LOS ANGELES — The Toronto Raptors entered Sunday night with the best record in the East, a fast 13-3 start in part built in large part on continuity and balance — it’s hard to defend a team where on any given night Kyle Lowry or DeMar DeRozan or Terrence Ross or Lou Williams off the bench can light you up, where five guys averaged double digits and a sixth is at 9.5 a game, where that unit plays defense on a string.

But pull one piece out of the Jenga tower and that balance becomes less stable, it teeters and can fall easily.

We saw that Sunday night in Los Angeles. To a man the Raptors recognized that and said they needed to find their stability again over the coming weeks.

DeRozan is out for an extended period with a torn tendon in his groin — history of the injury suggests at least six weeks, DeRozan hopes to be back in a month — and Sunday without him the Raptors struggled. An offense that usually shared the ball became isolation heavy. And their Top 10 defense crumbled for the night. The result was a Los Angeles Lakers win, 129-122 in overtime, behind a triple-double from Kobe Bryant, who seems to save up his best games for Toronto.

Without DeRozan the Raptors have a much smaller margin for error on both sides of the ball. Sunday night they didn’t adapt well on either end.

What was the bigger issue for Toronto, the offense or defense? Depends on who you ask.

“Offensively, I thought that we were a little out of rhythm…” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said afterwards, particularly referring to the team’s first half. “This is who we are and who we’re going to be, so we have to get it together. Everyone is happy during good times, We lost a couple games and now we’ll see what we are made of…

“A lot of our offense is built around, or for, DeMar. Getting into a rhythm that way, plus new stuff, and new positions, I would say (players roles are changing) a little bit. But we’ve been doing that for two years so it’s no excuse.”

“We’re not making any excuses, we just didn’t play defense,” said guard Greivis Vasquez, the guy thrust into the starting lineup with DeRozan out. “We scored enough points to win, we just have to play defense.”

To a man, the Raptors used the no excuses line. It’s something every pro sports team says when a key player goes down, and it’s been a common refrain around the NBA this early season when a raft of top stars — Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard and so on — have gone down for extended periods. Some teams have adapted better than others, the book is out still on Toronto.

For a Raptors team built on continuity they believe they should be able to adapt, adjust and step up better than we saw Sunday.

“Next man up,” Casey said spouting the pro sports cliché pregame. “It’s so true. I know it’s corny but that’s why you have a big roster. Injuries are a big part of the NBA….

“The year we won the championship in Dallas (Casey was an assistant coach) we lost Dirk (Nowitzki) and everyone thought the world was going to hell. But it didn’t, we stuck together and bonded, developed some confidence in the guys who had an opportunity to play, and you’ve got to look at it from that positive standpoint.”

The Raptors players talked about that too, being a better team when DeRozan returns, about finding a level of stability for the next six weeks.

In Sunday night’s loss Vasquez was right, it was the defense — the Raptors offensive production on the night was very close to their season average (using points per possession), but it was on the defensive end where the Raptors could have used DeRozan’s length and athleticism. Not that it would have mattered in the first half, when the Lakers just got hot and hit contested or just poor shots to the tune of better than 60 percent from the floor until deep in the second quarter. Everything fell for them. Plus Kobe was doubled early and with that started dishing the ball to open teammates — the Lakers are more dangerous when he facilitates (and other guys hit those shots).

Toronto players also saw defense as a more easily correctable issue. While DeRozan is an athletic and long defender it is Ross who often gets the toughest defensive assignment of the night and James Johnson comes off the bench to help get stops. It was the offensive side where the roles really changed Sunday.

“I think Kyle and I can play together…” Vasquez said after the game, and the pair combined for 48 points but on an inefficient 44 shots. “The offense wasn’t really the problem, it was our defense. There’s no excuse, we have to play defense as a team….

“Defensively as a team we do a great job collectively, it was more of a focus thing.”

DeRozan gave Toronto better than 19 points a game and a player defenses have to watch at all times. That’s not easy to just replace.

“He’s a franchise player, no question about it,” Casey said.

But this is life in the NBA. Always has been. Guys go down and the best teams adjust — the model everyone strives for is the Spurs, who never seem to miss a step even when Tim Duncan or Tony Parker are out for a night.

Toronto has work to do to get near that level, but they can be a much more dangerous team come the playoffs if they can become a little more Spurs like in the next stretch while DeRozan recovers. For Casey that starts with a better effort.

“(DeRozan’s absence) had nothing to do with the loose balls in the first half, the no box outs in the first half and, I thought, the soft play defensively in the first half…” Casey said. “Defensively I thought we had good stops but we didn’t come up with the loose balls and second shots. That has nothing to do with rhythm and more with wanting to get on the floor and get those.”

The Raptors don’t have the margin for error to let those little plays go anymore.

Report: Anthony Davis traded to Lakers for Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, picks

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LeBron James has his second star next to him. Anthony Davis has landed where he wanted to go.

Things had been building toward this for more than a week. Boston was holding back — meaning they would not put Jayson Tatum in an offer. The Clippers and Nets couldn’t get any traction. And there were the Lakers with a quality package that was as good as it was likely going to get.

In the end, that deal — one the Pelicans did not take at the trade deadline — got it done.

Anthony Davis is on his way to the Lakers for Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, and three first-round picks including this year’s No. 4, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Pelicans’ new president David Griffin came in with an open mind and clean slate. At the trade deadline there was a “we’re not going to send Davis where he wants” mentality from New Orleans. Pelicans management felt put on the spot by the timing and public nature of the trade request by Davis’ agent, Rich Paul, and they didn’t want to feel rushed into a trade they didn’t want.

Griffin, however, saw the big picture — take the best offer, wherever that lands Davis isn’t New Orleans’ concern anymore. That could have been Boston, but with Kyrie Irving having one foot out the door and not re-signing with the team, the Celtics couldn’t go all-in on an offer the Pelicans thought would be the best. They wanted Tatum.

No Tatum offer meant Lakers GM Rob Pelinka had leverage, so he was able to keep Kyle Kuzma out of any offer, something that mattered to Los Angeles.

While how the Lakers round out their roster will matter — they may want to add some shooting this time — this trade vaults them into contender status, especially in a West with an injury-riddled Golden State squad.

This may have been the Lakers only viable path to a star this summer, the star free agent market was not — and is not — looking kind to them. Even with this trade. Which is why this is a move the Lakers had to pull off. And they did. It’s a huge win for them.

The Pelicans got a haul here that jumpstarts a rebuild: Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram as the forwards, whoever they take with the No. 4 pick, Lonzo Ball will back up Jrue Holiday (and Ball should thrive in Alvin Gentry’s up-tempo system, it plays to his strengths), Josh Hart is a solid role player. That is a team that could hang around and compete for a playoff spot in the West if things break right for them.

Beyond that, if Williamson develops into who many think he can be — a top-five kind of player in the league — the Pelicans may be a force in about 2023, right as the LeBron era in Los Angeles winds down.

 

Adam Silver hopes lottery changes, recent results will slow down tanking

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The NBA league office HATES tanking.

The league hates that teams see it as a strategy, and they hate the idea that there are fan bases actively rooting for their team to lose. The league sees that as a destructive force. What the fans see is a shot at Zion Williamson (or, the next great player). So the league changed around the lottery odds this season, and the Pelicans (with just a six percent chance at it) jumped up to the No. 1 spot, while the teams with the three worst records will pick third, fifth, and sixth.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told Rachel Nichols of ESPN he hopes the lottery changes, and the most recent results, end the worst of tanking (via Royce Young at ESPN).

“Where I think it’s the greatest success is, hopefully it’ll stop fans in those markets from rooting for their teams to perform poorly,” Silver said prior to Game 6 of the NBA Finals at Oracle Arena. “Because that race to the bottom is just destructive, I think, for everyone. Corrosive for players and franchises, and I think, in some cases, even some executives who knew better felt they couldn’t withstand the pressure from the communities, from the media in some cases, saying, ‘Why are you operating at this level when you should either get much better or much worse?’…

“I think in this case now with the change in the lottery, people are going to realize that there’s only one way to build a franchise,” Silver said. “Of course, you need to get great players, but at the same time you need to build culture, you need strong management, you need strong coaching. And players incrementally get better year after year. I mean, look at these two great franchises. It’s wonderful from a league standpoint to see the Warriors and the Raptors, two incredibly well-run franchises from top to bottom, here representing the league.”

The Warriors and Raptors are certainly well run, but lottery luck is still going to shape franchises as long as there is an NBA Draft. It’s the nature of a sport where you need at least one and probably two of the top 15-20 players in the world to win a title, for a lot of cities getting that player will only happen via the Draft.

What the change in lottery rules does is just move the inflection point. There may be reduced value in having the very worst record, but for a team that looks like it is on the playoff bubble at Christmas, the calculus changes: Tank the rest of the way, get maybe a six percent chance a the No. 1 pick and look what can happen. Some teams will still chase the playoff berth (and the gate revenue that comes with it), but not all. Teams will make different choices in the middle of the pack now because their lottery odds are better with this system.

It will be a few years before we fully see and understand the impact of the new lottery odds, but tanking on some level will be part of the NBA so long as there is a draft. And some fans will want their team to do it.

Report: If Brooklyn signs Kyrie Irving then D’Angelo Russell will leave

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Rumors have been flying around for weeks that Kyrie Irving is leaning towards signing in Brooklyn as a free agent. Things can still change, the Irving/Kevin Durant pairing with the Knicks is not off the table (or with the Nets), but there is, at the very least, strong mutual interest between Irving and the Nets.

Last season, Brooklyn extended Spencer Dinwiddie, giving them a quality reserve point guard at a reasonable price.

Where does that leave All-Star D'Angelo Russell? Out the door if Irving signs, reports Ian Bagley at SNY.com.

If Irving signs with the Nets, SNY sources familiar with the matter say it is highly unlikely that Russell remains with the Nets. Members of the Nets organization have communicated that idea in recent days, per sources.

Russell will have no shortage of suitors, including good teams looking for another shot creator in Indiana and Utah.

Russell is a restricted free agent and if Irving does not sign the Nets likely want Russell back. One interesting thing to watch, if the Nets rescind their rights to Russell, it would mean they are about to sign two max guys (they would need to get Russell’s cap hold off the books to get that done).

Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7 assists a game last season, shooting 36.9 percent from three. His shots started falling at a higher rate, he improved as a floor general, and his game took a leap forward to All-Star level last season.

How much did five Finals runs, fatigue factor into Durant, Thompson injuries?

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Klay Thompson ran more than 60 miles on the court during these NBA playoffs, that coming off a season where he ran nearly 198 miles during games.

Kevin Durant, even after missing a month with a calf injury, ran 29.5 playoff miles during these playoffs.

And that was just this season. In the past five seasons, the Golden State Warriors have played 105 playoff games. That means they essentially packed six seasons — including a playoff run — into five seasons of time.

The sports science on this is clear: Catastrophic injuries — such as a ruptured Achilles or ACL tear — are far more likely to happen when the player is fatigued.

With many trying to assign blame for the Warriors two devastating injuries in their final two games, part of that needs to fall on the Warriors’ own success. “Blame” may be the wrong word here because it’s not like the Warriors would give back a title, but becoming the first team since the Bill Russell Celtics to make it to five straight finals added to the fatigue for the team and likely played a role in what happened.

“I don’t know if it’s related to five straight seasons of playing a hundred plus games and just all the wear and tear, but it’s devastating,” an emotional Steve Kerr said after Game 6 discussing Durant’s ruptured Achilles and Thompson’s torn ACL.

Kerr is not alone. Twitter doctors and Charles Barkley aside, nobody knows how significant a role the extra games played in the injuries because there is seldom a straight line to draw between cause and effect on major injuries. Human nature is to want simple, clean answers, but life rarely presents those. It’s a complex stew of factors. LeBron James can go to eight straight Finals and not have this issue (although he is a physical outlier in the NBA in many ways).

Fatigue, however, appears to play a role.

In Durant’s case, his exertion may correlate with his injuries. His initial calf strain — and the Warriors insist that is all it ever was — happened against the Rockets, a series where Durant saw a jump in playing time of about five minutes a night because Kerr leaned heavily on his core in a series where the Warriors realized the threat. Studies have shown that injuries are more likely to occur when a player sees a sudden jump in minutes played and load carried, in part because that players’ body becomes more fatigued.

When Durant returned to the court for Game 5 of the NBA Finals, the plan was to play him in “short bursts,” meaning four- or five-minute stints. After the first five minute stint (there was a timeout at 7:11 in the first quarter), Durant said he felt good and asked to stay in, so he remained on the court until 5:50. He rested for about two and a half minutes, then was back on the court — and playing well. Durant had 11 points and the Warriors offense flowed far more smoothly again. Kerr left Durant in to start the second quarter, and at the 9:46 mark we all know what happened.

After missing 32 days of basketball, Durant played 12 of the first 14 minutes in Game 5. How much did that play a role in his torn Achilles?

Thompson missed Game 3 of the NBA Finals with a strained hamstring and was not 100 percent the remainder of the way. If that hamstring was healthier would he have landed differently or been able to withstand it better, not tearing his ACL after being fouled on a dunk attempt? We will never know, but it’s possible.

Meanwhile, across the way, the Toronto Raptors took heat in some quarters for the “load management” of Kawhi Leonard, having him miss 22 regular season games to rest his body and keep his quad tendon healthy. Leonard played through a sore right knee — suffered compensating for that left quad tendon — but was out there for every game and was Finals MVP.

Players, agents, and teams all took note of that. The next time a player is coming back from injury, Durant in particular (but also Thompson) will be seen as a cautionary tale. Expect guys to make sure they are 100 percent (or close to it) before getting back on the court, not wanting to risk a greater injury. Most guys are not still going to get the same contract offers after a catastrophic injury. Also, “load management” will become even more of a thing.

The NBA is a recovery league where fatigue is a constant issue. Maybe this is all another baby step toward shortening the NBA regular season schedule, but we all know the financial complexities of that make it a long way off. At best.

But for those that need to assign blame for the injuries to Durant and Thompson, starting with the Warriors own success is a good idea.