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Three things we learned Sunday: As losses, worries pile up in Toronto big trade may follow

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It was a slow day on the court in the NBA, but we had a trade, and with the trade deadline looming everything gets viewed through that prism. Here are our takeaways from the day.

1) Raptors blow 16-point lead to lose again, Kyle Lowry is among the worried. Is it time for a desperate move in Toronto? A couple of months ago, Toronto was the clear-cut No. 2 team in the East. They couldn’t get by Cleveland, but Boston and everyone else was well back in the rear-view mirror. The Raptors were on pace for more than 50 wins, a trip back to the conference finals, and then who knows?

Then the calendar flipped to 2017. The Raptors are 9-13 in 2017, have fallen to fourth in the East behind Boston and Washington, and have lost five-of-seven after blowing a 16-point lead in the fourth quarter to fall to the Pistons 102-101 Sunday. It was Detroit’s Kentavious Caldwell-Pope who had the final five points including the game winner.

This game was a microcosm of all that has gone wrong in Toronto. Their once-stout defense (fourth in the NBA in December) was shredded by sh Smith, Tobias Harris, and Caldwell-Pope. The Raptors offense down the stretch was very heavy on DeMar DeRozan isolations, which the Pistons knew how to defend. After the game, Kyle Lowry was frustrated and cryptic and wants to see a move.

That something could well be a trade, ideally one for a power forward. After Atlanta has pulled back on moving Paul Millsap — which may not be the smartest move, as Sean Deveney and I discussed in the latest PBT Podcast — a Serge Ibaka trade with Orlando has moved to the front burner (there are other possible moves, such as Denver’s Danilo Gallinari). On paper, Ibaka is an upgrade and what the Raptors need because he can defend the rim on defense and both score inside or space the floor on offense. He’s not what he was in Oklahoma City, and teams are worried about paying him long-term as his body ages (his knees are a concern), but as a rental he works. The problem is the cost. Remember Orlando gave up Victor Oladipo and the first-round pick that became Domantas Sabonis to Oklahoma City for Ibaka, now they want to recoup their losses since it’s unlikely Ibaka re-signs with them this summer as a free agent. Nobody, including the Raptors, want to overpay for a rental. The price has to come down, and it should because Orlando has no choice.

Will that trade or another solve the Raptors’ problems? Not by itself, but it could be the shakeup the team needs. However, Masai Ujiri is not under pressure from Raptors ownership to make a move — the ownership group sees this as a golden age of Raptors basketball, last season was the best record and deepest playoff run in franchise history, and they are making money. Yes, they’d like a title, but there is not a “win at all costs” pressure to make a move. Ujiri can be patient. He doesn’t need to be desperate.

But the Raptors need something to turn the ship around this season.

2) Portland kind of wins trade of big men with Nuggets.
We did have a trade of big men Sunday: Portland sent center Mason Plumlee and a 2018 second round pick to the Denver Nuggets in exchange for Jusuf Nurkic and a 2017 first round pick, according to reports. The trade will be finalized Monday.

Who won? I don’t love this deal for either side, but I think Portland came out on the better end.

In Plumlee, Denver gets another big to pair with rising star Nikola Jokic — Nurkic was not that guy (coach Mike Malone tried early in the season but it was a disaster at both ends with Denver being outscored by 15.6 points per 100 possessions). Plumlee is a good playmaker who could play a little four with Jokic if they want to go big, although I have serious questions about how that combo would defend. Plumlee’s best role might be as a backup big who plays when Jokic sits — Plumlee could help Denver’s second unit make significant strides. Either way, this was a move designed to win more games now and help Denver hold on to the eighth seed and a playoff slot in the West. The challenge is Plumlee is a free agent this summer, and how much is Denver willing to pay a backup center? More than other teams that covet Plumlee’s passing?

Portland is going to miss Plumlee’s playmaking short term, but they were not going to be able to pay him this summer what the market will bear, so rather than let him go for nothing they got quality back. It may not help them in the short-term chasing Denver in the eight seed this season, but it’s a good long-term play. Nurkic could be a good center, although his post-up heavy style could be an odd fit in the quick, guard-dominated Blazer offense. He’s still on his rookie deal for another year, the Blazers have time to figure it out. They also got a first-round pick — that’s three Portland has this June in a deep draft. Portland could keep them although the more likely move by GM Neil Olshey is to flip them, either at the deadline or on draft night, into something else he wants. Portland isn’t done dealing. The bottom line is the Blazers got a couple of quality assets for a guy they were going to have to let walk this summer anyway.

3) Upset of the day, the Knicks beat the Spurs. Off the court, there was no subtlety to what the Knicks were doing, even Sean Spicer would think this is a little obvious and on the nose. After owner James Dolan got destroyed in the public relations battle with Charles Oakley following the latter’s ejection and arrest last week, surprise but Latrell Sprewell, Larry Johnson, Bernard King, and Bill Bradley were all on hand at Madison Square Garden Sunday and all got video tributes. Dolan looked 2 a.m. at the bar by yourself desperate with all this.

But that wasn’t a surprise — the Knicks beating the Spurs? That was a surprise. On the fourth game of their long, annual rodeo road trip the Spurs played like a team that really enjoyed Friday night out on the town in New York. They were listless. Well, except for the one-man show and MVP candidate that is Kawhi Leonard, who had 36 points. Right now, he’d be third on my MVP ballot for the season, he has been nothing short of brilliant.

However, the Knicks had balance. Derrick Rose and Kristaps Porzingis played well (KP seemed to have some of his missing confidence back), as did new starter Willy Hernangomez with 12 points and a few key defensive plays. But this was a game Carmelo Anthony clearly wanted on his way to 25 points and seven rebounds. He keyed the Knicks win.

Clippers reportedly plan on playing Kawhi Leonard more than Raptors did last season

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Kawhi Leonard was the poster child for load management last season.

The Raptors essentially let him set his own schedule in a return from the quadricep tendon issue that cost him the previous season (and, ultimately, helped ruin his relationship with the Spurs). Leonard played in just 60 regular season game — and it worked. He was a force in the playoffs, leading Toronto to its first-ever title and winning Finals MVP again.

So the Clippers are going to follow that same script, right? Nope. Expect to see more Leonard, according to Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times.

There are likely a couple of reasons for this. One is that Leonard may be feeling a little healthier and that he can take on more now. With a deep Clippers roster (especially once Paul George returns from his shoulder surgeries) it’s also possible the Clippers can limit Leonard’s in-game minutes, he averaged 34 a game when he played, which was top 20 in the league.

The bigger factor is the West is so deep with good teams the Clippers simply can’t have him sit as much and still get a good seed. Toronto could let Leonard rest and still won 58 games and had the two seed. That’s not how the West — with the Lakers, Rockets, Jazz, Nuggets, Trail Blazers, and Warriors — is going to go. The Clippers are going to need Leonard to win games most nights, and they certainly want to get a top-four seed and be home to start the postseason.

Leonard may play more early in the season and get more rest on the back half, once George returns to form and takes over some of the load on the wing. But he’s going to play.

The Clippers simply need him.

Did Hornets GM tell Kobe Bryant on draft night, ‘We couldn’t have used you anyway,’ as Bryant claims?

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Kobe Bryant spent 16 days as a Charlotte Hornet.

Long enough to develop resentment for the Hornets.

Charlotte drafted Bryant No. 13 in 1996 to trade him to the Lakers for Vlade Divac. Divac threatened to retire, but eventually relented on joining the Hornets. After the moratorium, Bryant went to Los Angeles, where he had a Hall of Fame career.

He hasn’t let go of draft night, though.

Bryant on the Knuckleheads podcast:

You get drafted, you get on the phone with the GM of the team that drafted you and all this stuff. So, I get on the phone with the Charlotte GM. He just tells me, “Hey, you know what’s going on.” Like, “Yeah. Yeah, yeah.” And you’ve got media in front of you and all that. And he goes, “Well, it’s a good thing we’re trading you, because we couldn’t have used you anyway.” You motherf. OK. OK. Alright. So, that’s what happened on draft night. So, I was already triggered. I was triggered. I was ready to go to the gym. Like f— the media. I don’t want to do any more interviews. I’m trying to – what are you telling me that for? I’m 17. What are you telling? OK. Alright.

The Hornets’ general manager was Bob Bass. He died last year, so he can’t tell his side of this story.

However, in previous tellings, Bryant said Charlotte coach Dave Cowens delivered that message. Cowens denied it.

Did Bryant forget whether he talked to the general manager or coach? Forget which position Cowens held? That’d be perfectly understandable decades later.

Or maybe both Bass and Cowens were on the call. Perhaps, Bryant initially thought Cowens said it and more recently learned it was Bass. That could explain Cowens’ denial.

But…

Stephen A. Smith of The Inquirer at the time:

On Wednesday, the Hornets took Bryant with the 13th pick of the NBA draft. Within minutes, there was talk of Bryant’s going to L.A. Dave Cowens, the Hornets’ new coach, was among those who raised the possibility, dismissing Bryant as “a kid” who would have a hard time playing for Charlotte.

That was a reasonable expectation. Bryant was just a teenager. Charlotte had veteran wings like Glen Rice and Dell Curry.

But Bryant was that special. He quickly became a contributor with the Lakers then developed into an all-time great.

In part because he fanned his competitive fire with perceived slights like this one.

Bryant is right: Who would say that to a 17-year-old? It just sounds cruel. Of course, Bryant would want to avenge being treated that way.

Here’s my guess: Someone from Charlotte – either Cowens or Bass – tried to comfort Bryant in a chaotic situation by saying the trade would work out for the best because the Hornets wouldn’t have played him much. It was supposed to be nice. Bryant took it as an insult.

But that’s just a guess. It was a private conversation many years ago. We’ll probably never know exactly what was said, let alone what was intended.

Report: Rockets signing Thabo Sefolosha

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The Rockets’ minicamp has produced a signing – Thabo Sefolosha.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

This is surely for the minimum. It’s unclear how much is guaranteed.

Houston has just 10 players with guaranteed salaries, including Nene’s dud of a deal. So, there’s room for Sefolosha to make the regular-season roster.

Sefolosha should fit well in Houston. He’s a smart, versatile defender and can knock down corner 3s. James Harden and Russell Westbrook will allow Sefolosha to concentrate on his strengths in a limited role. The biggest question is how much the 35-year-old Sefolosha has left in the tank.

NBA to better define traveling rule, increase enforcement, explain rule to players, fans

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Gather and two steps.

That is how the NBA has defined the traveling rule for many years now. A player can take a step if he is in the process of “gathering” a dribble or pass, then has two steps. Players such as James Harden have stretched that to the limit, frustrating opponents and non-Rockets fans, but it’s legal.

Now the NBA is looking to better define that “gather” step, then crackdown on enforcement of the rule. With that will come an education program for everyone from players to fans. All of this was approved at the NBA’s Board of Governors’ meeting in New York on Friday.

“One of the most misunderstood rules in our game is how traveling is interpreted and appropriately called,” Byron Spruell, NBA President, League Operations, said in a statement. “Revising the language of certain areas of the rule is part of our three-pronged approach to address the uncertainty around traveling.  This approach also includes an enforcement plan to make traveling a point of emphasis for our officiating staff, along with an aggressive education plan to increase understanding of the rule by players, coaches, media and fans.”

That “aggressive education plan” should be interesting.

At the meeting, the owners also made gamblers everywhere happy by saying that starting lineups now need to be submitted by coaches 30 minutes prior to the start of the game. In past years that had been only 10 minutes (and road teams complained that was not evenly enforced between home and road teams all the time).

This is a good bit of transparency by the league, as have been some of the recent changes in requirements of announcing injuries. But make no mistake, this rule change is all about gambling.