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Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker have Raptors looking tougher for playoffs

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Raptors coach Dwane Casey praised plenty of his players after beating the Pistons on Wednesday – Kyle Lowry for hitting the ground running after a wrist injury, Cory Joseph for sparking a 20-point comeback, DeMar DeRozan for nailing a big shot late, Jonas Valanciunas for hitting a clutch free throw.

And then Casey got to Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker.

“They gave us physical toughness,” Casey said, “that we haven’t had.”

Since the start of the 2013-14 season, Toronto has won 201 games – more than any team in the East. But the Raptors have disappointed in the playoffs.

As the No. 3 seed in 2014, they lost to the Nets. Again with home-court advantage in 2015, Toronto got swept by the Wizards. The Raptors finally got off the schneid after winning franchise-record 56 games and securing the number two seed last year, but they still looked unimpressive while scraping by the Pacers and Heat in seven games a piece.

This year could be different.

Toronto (48-31) is once again impressing in the regular season. But Ibaka and Tucker – acquired in February trades before the deadline – have changes this team’s dynamic in a way that bodes well for the postseason.

Ibaka is a shot-blocking big man who’s hitting the defensive glass harder in a contract year. Though just 6-foot-6, Tucker uses his strength and physicality to be a combo forward who can even cover some guards.

With those two on the court, the Raptors have allowed just 100.3 points per 100 possessions – a mark that would lead the league over the full season.

“Of course. It’s not surprising,” Ibaka said. “That’s why we’re here.”

For now.

They’re really in Toronto to help in a potential playoff rematch with the Cavaliers, who beat the Raptors in last year’s Eastern Conference finals. Tucker has even received some buzz as a LeBron James stopper, and though his ability to shut down LeBron is surely overstated, Tucker brings a new element to his new team.

Toronto’s offense has drive the team’s success the last few years.

The Raptors ranked third in offensive rating and 23rd in defensive rating in 2014-15. So, they signed DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph and Bismack Biyombo the following summer to shore up their defense. It improved, but not to a high level. Last season, Toronto’s defense ranked 11th – its fifth-ranked offense still better. That style continued to start this season, the Raptors ranking fourth offensively and 16th defensively at the All-Star break.

Enter Ibaka and Tucker.

Toronto has the NBA’s fourth-best defense since the trade deadline.

Here’s the Raptors’ ranking in offensive (red) and defensive (black) rating each year, with this season split by the trade deadline:

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Year Offensive Defensive
2013-14 9 9
2014-15 3 23
2015-16 5 11
2016-17 (pre) 4 16
2017-17 (post) 13 4

Don’t fret about the offensive drop in the second half. Lowry – Toronto’s best offensive player – has played only game due to a wrist injury. With him back in the fold, the Raptors should score much more efficiently.

Ibaka and Tucker will also help. They’re not defensive specialists who can get schemed off the floor in the playoffs. Their 3-point shooting – Ibaka (39% this season, 37% career), Tucker (36% this season, 35% career) – will space the floor for Lowry and DeRozan drives and provide efficient points.

Ibaka’s and Tucker’s outside shooting become major weapons when they play center and power forward, respectively. Though it’s just in 80 minutes, including only three with Lowry, here’s how Toronto has fared with Ibaka at center and Tucker at power forward, per NBAwowy!:

  • Offensive rating: 126.4
  • Defensive rating: 105.7
  • Net: +20.7

Overall, Toronto has scored 110.8 points per 100 possessions with Ibaka and Tucker on the floor, which would rank fifth among teams over the full season.

But the biggest gains come defensively.

Though he insists he was content coaching to his personnel, Casey long seemed uncomfortable coaching an offensive-oriented team. He never wasted an opportunity in press conferences to turn the focus to defense, even when asked about his excellent offense. And that was apparently the case behind the scenes, too.

“That’s all he cares about,” Lowry said. “He don’t care about nothing else but defense.”

Said DeRozan: “That’s what he’s always on us about, period. Nothing else, just strictly defense. And that’s what it’s always been.”

Now, with Ibaka and Tucker, Casey has a team that better fits his image. Toronto is defending well and playing with toughness.

The Raptors’ roster never befit a finesse team, but they too often slipped into playing like one. Ibaka and Tucker have rallied the team another direction.

“It’s contagious,” DeRozan said. “It’s something that everybody feed into, everybody love. And you have no choice but feed into it when guys bring that intensity every day.”

Ibaka and Tucker have played just 21 games each for Toronto, and Ibaka admitted he’s a little surprised by how quickly he and Tucker have clicked with their new teammates.

“But this group of guys, all they think about is winning,” Ibaka said. “So, when you play on a winning team, this happens.

“We’re ready to make big step in playoffs.”

Nets reportedly to hire former Turner executive David Levy as CEO

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In the coming weeks, Joe Tsai will get the official thumbs up from the Board of Governors and become the owner of the Brooklyn Nets.

His first move will be to bring in David Levy as CEO, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Levy worked closely with the NBA in his capacity overseeing Turner Sports’ television coverage and has a strong relationship with commissioner Adam Silver.

Tsai just paid $2.3 billion for the Nets and he wants his guy overseeing it all. Levy is that guy.

What will this mean for most fans? Very little, at least at first. The Nets basketball operations side — with GM Sean Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson — is already on a solid foundation and there are not going to be changes on that end.

Levy and the Nets face a challenge few sports franchises do — they have an older, more established team playing the same sport in the same city. The Knicks have a large and established fan base that goes back generations, and just better play on the court — and the Nets were better on the court last season — is not going to change that loyalty. (The Clippers may be the only other team in a similar situation.) The Nets need to appeal to a new set of fans, ones not tied to Madison Square Garden and that legacy, and while they may never have the same power of brand in the city, New York is big enough to have a couple of fan bases.

It’s a lot of work from the business side, but Levy knew the job when he took it.

Popularity of NBA in China seems to create endless options

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BEIJING (AP) Kobe Bryant went to China for the first time in 1998, making the trip to Beijing to help operate an instructional basketball clinic for about a dozen kids. The local coaches working with him didn’t know a lot about the game. Barely anyone noticed that an NBA player was in town.

Basketball wasn’t a big deal in China.

And then everything changed very quickly.

The footprint of the NBA has grown at an extremely rapid pace over the last two decades in China, where more than 500 million people watched games last season and where one new streaming deal alone will pump $1.5 billion into the league’s coffers over the next five years.

“When I first came here, I never thought the game in China would get to be this big,” Bryant said. “But it has. And it’s not going to stop.”

The possibilities seem endless.

Could there be an NBA team in China despite the travel that would be involved? Might there be two-way player contracts between the NBA and the Chinese Basketball Association? What about the NBA constructing a team to play in China or the Chinese sending a team for a full season in the U.S.?

Farfetched as all that may sound, keep in mind that 20 years ago no one envisioned the NBA-China relationship to be this big – or that it would keep growing after Yao Ming’s run with the Houston Rockets ended eight years ago. The NBA has academies in China now, and the Chinese national team returned to the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas this year.

“It’s a good question,” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said. “I think the next step will probably come when the next Yao Ming comes. That would take it to a new level, more Chinese players to reach the NBA and make an impact.”

The marriage between the NBA and the world’s most populous country is stronger than ever. NBA officials say more than 300 million Chinese people play the game and 40 million are registered to play the 2K video game. Thousands showed up this summer just to watch the sons of Dwyane Wade and LeBron James play exhibitions with the rest of their high school teammates.

A trade war is happening between the U.S. and China, political tensions are escalating between the countries and it could impact the products of the league’s business partners . But the game itself continues to thrive.

“I think sports transcends politics and I hope the NBA can continue to connect fans globally,” Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said. “I don’t have any reason to think our relationship won’t continue to be positive.”

Nothing seems to be able to derail the NBA’s popularity.

The team that the U.S. sent to the World Cup in China didn’t feature the NBA’s biggest stars, yet drew sellout crowds for each of its first six games. U.S. coach Gregg Popovich was begged for autographs and selfies everywhere he went.

“We’ve known for a long time how big basketball has become in China, of course, but all over the world,” Popovich said. “It’s an international deal now. There are so many great players in so many countries. It’s not a secret.”

Stars like James, Stephen Curry, and James Harden have a trip to China on their annual schedules – and when Wade, the recently retired guard who has a lifetime contract with Chinese shoe company Li-Ning, visited this summer one of his events had to be halted after about 10 minutes because the mall where it was happening was overflowing with people.

Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz has been to China twice this summer, once to promote his brand, the second time for the World Cup with USA Basketball. He sees it becoming an annual stop for him, too – and believes there is no ceiling for the game globally.

“Man, I couldn’t tell you,” Mitchell said. “I think it’s going to be even bigger and it’s not going to be just China. It’s going to be many more countries. The (relationship) between the NBA and China has been huge since I was a kid and it can only take off from there … because the passion and love is so strong.”

It’s not a one-sided relationship; China sees reason to invest in the NBA.

Joe Tsai, the co-founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, agreed this summer to buy the remaining 51% that he didn’t already own of the Brooklyn Nets and Barclays Center from Mikhail Prokhorov in deals worth about $3.4 billion. In 2016, Lizhang Jiang, a businessman from Shanghai, bought 5% of the Minnesota Timberwolves, a stake he sold earlier this year.

China also takes immense pride in players like Klay Thompson wearing Chinese brands on the court. (Thompson has a 10-year deal with Chinese shoe company Anta for a reported $80 million.) And China sent its national team to NBA Summer League this past July primarily to get ready for the World Cup, but also for exposure on the NBA stage.

“I think it’s good for our players and good for the team,” China coach Li Nan said of playing in Las Vegas. “I think it’s good for everyone.”

The NBA has opened three basketball academies in China and has seen very quick success with academies in Asia and Africa. The international influence on the league was more present this past season than ever.

The NBA MVP, Giannis Antetokounmpo, is from Greece. The rookie of the year, Luka Doncic, is from Slovenia. The most improved player, Pascal Siakam, is from Cameroon. The defensive player of the year, Rudy Gobert, is from France. The All-NBA center, Nikola Jokic, is from Serbia.

“This past summer, an NBA Academy prospect from China signed a contract with a National Basketball League team in Australia, becoming the first male NBA Academy prospect from China to sign a contract with a professional team,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. “And on the women’s side, Han Xu from the New York Liberty, who trained at the NBA Academy in Shandong, China, became the first NBA Academy prospect to be drafted into the NBA or WNBA.”

It hasn’t happened overnight.

Former Commissioner David Stern struck a deal with Chinese television to show games on tape-delay three decades ago, and once toyed with the idea of some sort of NBA-sponsored or branded league in China. Teams embrace the chance to play the annual preseason games in China because he exposure is worth the jet lag.

“When I have 76ers gear on and I walk through Shanghai, walk through Shenzhen, if I had a nickel for every time somebody said `Trust the process’ in perfect English I wouldn’t be standing here working,” Philadelphia 76ers CEO Scott O’Neil said, referencing the team’s motto during its rebuilding phase of recent years. “We’re very much a part of the fabric of China.”

None of this seemed possible 20 years ago or so, when Bryant made that first trip. Now fans can’t get enough.

“When you come here, you feel it from the fans, their energy, people at the hotel, people just walking around,” Kerr said in China during the World Cup. “Everybody just seems very excited about basketball.”

Same goes for the game’s future in China.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Michael Jordan takes another shot, enters high-end tequila business with Jeanie Buss, other owners

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Michael Jordan’s drink of choice? Tequila. And not the cheap stuff poured into a weak house margarita at a tacky chain Mexican restaurant, we’re talking the good, sipping tequila. The stuff the rest of us think we can afford about three drinks into the night already.

Now Jordan is getting into the tequila business with several other NBA owners — the Lakers’ Jeanie Buss, the Bucks’ Wes Edens, and the Celtics Wyc Grousbeck plus his then-fiancée-now-wife Emilia Fazzalari — and the brand has just launched.

Chloe Sorvino at Forbes Magazine had a more detailed breakdown about how this idea came together over a dinner they all shared at an owners’ meeting in New York in 2016.

By the time they were seated, this multibillion-dollar table was discussing the specific characteristics they wished they could find on the shelf—a tequila with a smooth, long finish like a fine cognac or whiskey.

“That was when we realized there was an opportunity in the market to create a new tequila, a better tequila,” says Fazzalari, who spent 29 years in financial services, in part developing information platforms for the energy sector, and has been heading up the project as CEO. “We let our hair down and became true friends that night.”

Tequila-fueled gamesmanship aside, the idea for Cincoro came at the right time. The United States consumes more tequila than any other nation–about 18.3 million cases last year, or 56% of global consumption, according to consultancy IWSR Drinks Market Analysis… The ultra-premium side of the American tequila market (where the starting price is $45 a bottle) is also growing fast—a 19% increase each year since 2013.

Having Jordan’s name and brand attached to the product also can help sales, as Nike will happily attest.

Maybe this works, maybe it doesn’t — much like the restaurant business, the liquor business is a fickle one that tends to defy expectations. These people have the money to afford a little loss, but they didn’t get rich taking losses very often.

Just expect if you’re sitting in the high-end seats near the court this season to watch LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo or Kemba Walker, there will be certain, somewhat pricy tequila available on the menu.

NBA lowers 2020-21 salary-cap projection to $116M

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The Knicks, Raptors, Hawks and Grizzlies project to have major cap room next summer.

Just a little less now.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

The salary cap won’t be set until the summer it takes effect. So, there’s plenty of time for the exact number to fluctuate. But this projection was updated after evaluating how teams spent this summer – a key factor.

For perspective, the salary cap is currently $109,140,000. So, going to $116 million next offseason would still be a significant increase – just not as large as previously expected.

Next year’s free agent class is weak. It’s Anthony Davis then… maybe not a single other star. So, small shifts in the cap projection will create only minor ripples.

Everyone has their eyes on the 2021-22 cap. LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Bradley Beal, Rudy Gobert, Victor Oladipo, Jrue Holiday, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan could all be unrestricted free agents that summer. That amount of talent availability requires careful planning.