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At least the Raptors avoided a catastrophic slide

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I’m grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

After his team’s fourth straight playoff disappointment – even the team’s run to the 2016 Eastern Conference finals included barely scraping by with home-court advantage in the first two rounds then losing in the most lopsided six-game series ever – Raptors president Masai Ujiri declared a need for a “culture reset.”

How he planned to implement that was another question.

DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas alone were guaranteed more than $160 million. Other players were also owed enough that Toronto would have only limited means to replace its best player, Kyle Lowry, if he walked in unrestricted free agency – which seemed quite possible.

It appeared Ujiri was on the brink of pushing the button on a halfhearted detonation. It could have taken the Raptors years to tear down and maybe even longer to build back up.

And it’s not as if Ujiri had complete control. Lowry could have left and made preservation an unavailable option.

But after the foundation of the Raptors’ best era in franchise history shook and settled, they rebuilt a downsized structure atop it that includes only some of the previous furnishings.

Toronto re-signed Lowry and Serge Ibaka to three-year contracts – Lowry for $93 million and Ibaka for $65 million. The players get fairly high salaries, but at least the Raptors can move onto their next chapter in a few years. It’s a logical compromise.

Those deals came at a major immediate cost, though. Toronto is apparently unwilling to pay the luxury tax for a team that has shown no way to get past the Cavaliers. So, there was a large drain on production around the Raptors’ top players. Outgoing this summer:

Toronto even had to include a lottery-protected first-round pick and a second-round pick and incur a $1 million cap hit each of the next three seasons from Justin Hamilton’s contract for Brooklyn to take Carroll.

The only major contributor going against the tide and toward Toronto is C.J. Miles, a sweet-shooting swingman who can defend well when not outmuscled. He’ll help the Raptors. He won’t come close to replacing all that they lost.

Toronto is counting on all the young talent is has cultivated to step up. Norman Powell and Delon Wright are definitely in line for bigger roles, and Pascal Siakam probably is, too. The Raptors would probably like to cut bait on Jonas Valanciunas to elevate Jacob Poeltl. O.G. Anunoby, Lucas Nogueira and Bruno Caboclo are also in the pipeline as potential rotation players.

Credit Toronto for identifying and developing this deep crop of youngsters, who allowed for the team’s strategy this summer. These players have been preparing, and at some point – ideally while still on cheap contracts – they deserved the opportunity contribute.

But make no mistake: The Raptors downgraded across the board. The supporting cast around Lowry, DeRozan and Ibaka – a trio in or near its prime – is less-equipped to help a team designed at the top to win now.

It feels like this team’s best chance of winning the East has come and gone. LeBron James is still in Cleveland. The Celtics have probably already overtaken Toronto, and the 76ers’ rise appears inevitable.

The Raptors have had a good few years. They might have a few more good ones left.

But it seems their self-imposed budget has resigned them to playing out the string on a plan that has already peaked.

Offseason grade: C-

Hawks’ Lloyd Pierce replaces Pacers’ Nate McMillan as Team USA assistant coach

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Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is taking over Team USA, and he has assistant coaches for the 2019 World Cup and 2020 Olympics:

  • Warriors coach Steve Kerr
  • Pacers coach Nate McMillan
  • Villanova coach Jay Wright
  • Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce

USA Basketball release:

Atlanta Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce was named to the USA Basketball Men’s National Team coaching staff today. Pierce replaces Indiana Pacers head coach Nate [McMillan] who withdrew because of scheduling conflicts.

This is a pretty big honor for Pierce, who just completed his first season as an NBA head coach. He guided Atlanta to only a 29-53 record.

But the young Hawks, especially Trae Young, improved throughout the season. Atlanta pushed the pace, hoisted 3s and defended aggressively (though not well). An identity is forming.

Though it’s far too early to say much about Pierce’s head-coaching acumen, he acquitted himself well in his first year.

Working with Team USA could even help Pierce ingratiate himself with stars. This could eventually pay off for the Hawks in free agency.

Rumor: Suns prefer drafting Ja Morant over drafting Zion Williamson

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Duke power forward Zion Williamson is overwhelmingly favored to be the No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA draft. Murray State point guard Ja Morant is the leading candidate to be the No. 2 pick.

But what if Phoenix lands the top pick?

Suns general manager James Jones has his own ideas about the draft. The thoroughness of Phoenix’s scouting leaves a lot to be desired. The Suns badly need a point guard.

With all those factors, Phoenix might be the biggest wildcard with the No. 1 pick.

Sam Vecenie of The Athletic:

Sources around the NBA are buzzing that Morant is actually the player the Suns prefer to end up with. Particularly, Jones is thought to be a fan of the dynamic lead guard. It’s not a surprise, given their need at the point guard position. But color me skeptical that the team would actually take him at No. 1.

I see a few possibilities:

  • Phoenix rates Morant ahead of Williamson but would be afraid to pass on Williamson. Not only is Williamson the consensus top pick, he is the biggest star coming out of college basketball in years.
  • The Suns would rather have Morant plus whatever they could get for trading down than Williamson. That might even be reasonable, though we don’t know how potential trade packages would look.
  • People around the league are taking (easy) shots at Phoenix, even if these claims are untrue.

The Suns should draft whichever player they believe will have the brightest future. Period.

Passing on Williamson just because they have Deandre Ayton would be only compounding mistakes. There is not a single player in Phoenix good enough to justify passing on Williamson. Point guards will be available via free agency and trade.

If the Suns truly believe Morant will have a better career than Williamson, they should draft Morant. Making a pick for marketability or fear of backlash is misguided.

Of course, there’s only a 14% chance of Phoenix getting the No. 1 pick and facing this decision. But if it lands that way, it’d cause a ton of intrigue into the selection.

Jared Dudley, Jimmy Butler fined for fight

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When Jared Dudley pushed Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler pushed Dudley right back. After the 76ers’ Game 4 win over the Nets, Butler accompanied his star teammate to the postgame press conference.

“So he don’t do nothing stupid when he’s up here,” Butler said. “We all know he’s a trolling son of a gun. So, I’m just here to protect my big fella.

“If somebody runs up on him, I’m gonna push them again.”

A grateful Embiid said he’d pay Butler’s fine.

Then, later in the press conference, Embiid said: “It feels great to be up 3 to 1. We definitely don’t want to be in a situation like the Warriors.”

Butler got up and left, shouting, “I tried to save you,” on his way out.

Does Embiid’s fine-paying offer still stand? It’s definitely relevant.

NBA release:

Brooklyn Nets forward Jared Dudley and Philadelphia 76ers forward-guard Jimmy Butler have each been fined for their roles in an on-court altercation, it was announced today by Kiki VanDeWeghe, Executive Vice President, Basketball Operations.

Dudley has been fined $25,000 for escalating an on-court incident which spilled into the spectator stands by shoving Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid. Butler has been fined $15,000 for escalating it further by then shoving Dudley.

The incident, for which Dudley and Butler each received technical fouls and were ejected, occurred with 7:42 remaining in the third quarter of Philadelphia’s 112-108 victory over Brooklyn on Saturday, April 20

Dudley is doing all he can. The best part of the skirmish: Nets coach Kenny Atkinson trying to restrain and calm Dudley while yelling, “We need you.” Brooklyn was +12 with Dudley and -16 without him in Game 4.

But Dudley can do only so much against more-talented Philadelphia.

With Embiid, Butler and a 3-1 lead, the 76ers are clearly having more fun.

Kentucky’s Keldon Johnson, Tyler Herro remaining in 2019 NBA draft

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Kentucky forward P.J. Washington declared for the NBA draft.

A couple other Wildcats are following his lead.

Kentucky releases:

Kentucky men’s basketball freshman guard Keldon Johnson will remain in the 2019 NBA Draft pool and will not return to Kentucky, he announced

Kentucky men’s basketball freshman guard Tyler Herro has decided to remain in the 2019 NBA Draft, ending his career at UK.

Washington, Johnson and Herro all look like probable first-round picks. Washington and/or Johnson could sneak into the lottery, but there’s a good chance all three go later in the opening round.

Johnson is a 6-foot-6 shooting guard with a 6-foot-9 wingspan. He brings impressive effort and physicality. If his 3-pointer continues to fall, he’ll have a future in the league as a nice role player. But he hasn’t yet proven himself as a strong NBA-level spot-up shooter. He’s not there off the dribble, as a shooter or playmaker.

Herro can flat out shoot. He races around screens, finds ways to get open and sinks shots on the move and from odd angles. The 6-foot-5 guard might be a defensive liability, but at least he competes on that end. He’s also limited offensively, but the league needs shooters.