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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-

Three Things to Know: LeBron’s big day, first named All-Star captain, then has triple-double

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) LeBron James’ triple-double gives Lakers win in Brooklyn, a sweep of New York. The Lakers have been kicked out of Staples Center for a week allowing rehearsals for the Grammys can take over the building. Meaning old guys in suits sit around for a week and figure out if they can get Lizzo and Kenny Chesney to perform together. Because strange pairings always make good music and television.

So LeBron James and the Lakers just went to New York and made themselves at home.

LeBron racked up a triple-double of 27 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists — his 10th triple-double of the season — and the Lakers finally played some defense down the stretch to get a 128-113 win in Brooklyn on Thursday.

That leaves LeBron just 17 points short of Kobe Bryant for third on the all-time NBA scoring list. LeBron likely passes the Laker legend on Saturday night while Los Angeles is in Philadelphia.

The Laker offense was flowing against the Nets “defense” — Los Angeles made a season-high 19 threes. Anthony Davis had 16 points and 11 rebounds, and Dwight Howard got his first start of the season and responded with 14 points and 12 boards.

The Lakers are 3-1 on their five-game road trip so far, and they swept New York with wins over the Knicks and Nets.

Brooklyn has lost five in a row through a difficult part of the schedule. Even with Kyrie Irving back, that’s not enough to lift this lineup to wins against the league’s best. The Nets now have two games on the road, against the Pistons and Knicks.

2) LeBron — and Giannis Antetokounmpo — again names captains as All-Star Game starters are announced. The fans (50% of the vote), players (25%), and media (25%) got together and put together a pretty representative group of All-Star Game starters. Here’s the list and the guys who will start in Chicago:

WEST
Guard: Luka Doncic (Dallas)
Guard: James Harden (Houston)
Frontcourt: LeBron James (L.A. Lakers)
Frontcourt: Anthony Davis (L.A. Lakers)
Frontcourt: Kawhi Leonard (L.A. Clippers)

EAST
Guard: Trae Young (Atlanta)
Guard: Kemba Walker (Boston)
Frontcourt: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee)
Frontcourt: Pascal Siakam (Toronto)
Frontcourt: Joel Embiid (Philadelphia)

Of course, they won’t play East vs. West. Instead, the two captains — LeBron and Antetokounmpo, the leading vote getters by the fans — will select their teams playground-style live on a TNT special NBA All-Star Draft Show Feb. 6 (a week before the game). First, they will choose from the pool of starters, then from the pool of 14 reserves (seven reserves from each conference, selected by the coaches and announced next week).

Being named a starter, one of the 10 best players in the game, is a powerful affirmation. Check out Trae Young’s reaction to being named.

Team LeBron is 2-0 in this format, and LeBron will be coached by his Laker coach Frank Vogel (as much as there is “coaching” in the All-Star Game). Also, when LeBron steps on the All-Star Game court in Chicago it will be his 16th time as a starter, passing Kobe for most starts ever in the game.

3) Damian Lillard is putting on a clinic (and it’s still not enough to get the Trail Blazers’ wins). Damian Lillard may not be an All-Star Game starter (he was third on the fan, player, and media votes), but he remains one of the best, most entertaining players in the league.

Coming off a game where he had 61 points, Lillard dropped 47 on Dallas on national television on Thursday night — that’s 108 points in two games, a Trail Blazers record.

In what sums up Portland’s season, that was not enough. Portland fell when Lillard dropped 61 on Monday, and the 47 was not enough against Luka Doncic and the Mavericks on Thursday. The Mavericks led by double-digits much of the game and won 133-125.

Portland was without CJ McCollum (sprained ankle) and, of course, Jusuf Nurkic, who has been out all season with a leg injury. Without elite help, it’s Lillard against the world too often, and that’s not enough against good teams. Portland entered the season dreaming of getting back to the Western Conference Finals or even doing better, but this morning they sit as the 10 seed, 2.5 games out of the playoffs. It’s been a rough season in the Pacific Northwest.

Doncic had 27 points and nine assists in the win.

 

Frank Vogel earns spot as coach of Team LeBron in All-Star Game

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LeBron James will have a familiar coach on the sideline with him in Chicago for the All-Star Game.

With the Lakers’ win in Brooklyn Thursday night — thanks to LeBron’s triple-double — the Lakers clinched the best record in the West by the Feb. 2 cutoff date, making Frank Vogel the coach for Team LeBron.

Vogel has done this before. Back in 2014, he was the coach of the Indiana Pacers, a team had the best record at the All-Star break. Vogel’s squad won 163-155 behind 31 points from Kyrie Irving (he was named All-Star MVP).

This will LeBron’s 16th All-Star Game as a starter (an NBA record) be and it is his third year as a team captain (he is 2-0 so far). LeBron and Giannis Antetokounmpo are team captains for the second consecutive year, and in two weeks they will choose their teams playground-style from a list of starters (named Wednesday) and reserves (named next week).

Vogel’s counterpart is not yet known. The Bucks will have the best record in the East but Mike Budenholzer coached the All-Star Game last season and the rule is coaches can’t do it two years in a row (called the “Phil Jackson doesn’t want to be here rule,” unofficially). After him, Erik Spoelstra (Miami), Nick Nurse (Toronto), and Brad Stevens (Boston) are all within a game-and-a-half of each other, any of them could end up coaching Team Giannis.

 

 

Watch LeBron James rack up triple-double, help Lakers pull-away from Nets

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NEW YORK — LeBron James had 27 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in his 10th triple-double of the season and the Los Angeles Lakers made a season-high 19 3-pointers to pull away and beat the Brooklyn Nets 128-113 on Thursday night.

James closed within 17 points of Kobe Bryant for third place on the NBA’s career scoring list with a flurry in the fourth quarter. He can pass Bryant on Saturday at Philadelphia, where the five-time champion with the Lakers was born.

James has 33,626 points. Bryant finished with 33,643.

A back-and-forth game for nearly three quarters turned into a rout after the Lakers broke the Nets’ spirits with four straight 3-pointers spanning the third and fourth quarters, extending a one-point lead to 107-94, and Los Angeles coasted from there.

Anthony Davis had 16 points and 11 rebounds, and Dwight Howard finished with 14 points and 12 boards in his first start of the season.

Kyrie Irving scored 20 points after missing a game with right hamstring tightness, but the Nets lost their fifth straight. Brooklyn has won just two of its last 14 games.

The Nets were without backup centers DeAndre Jordan and Nicolas Claxton, leaving them without many options behind starter Jarrett Allen. But they struggled just as badly guarding the perimeter. Los Angeles was 19 of 38 behind the arc.

The Lakers led 38-35 after one, before both teams made seven 3-pointers in the second. Howard went 4 for 4 for eight points in the period, helping the Lakers take a 75-70 lead to halftime.

Danny Green made three 3s in the first four minutes of the third, pushing the lead to 88-75, but the Nets had it down to 95-94 after a 3-pointer by Irving with 49 seconds remaining. But then Davis and Rajon Rondo hit 3s before Jared Dudley, who played in Brooklyn last season, hit one from near the Nets’ bench to beat the buzzer and make it 104-94.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope made it four straight 3s to open the fourth, extending the lead back to 13. James then scored eight in the period before taking a seat for good.

 

Check out Jordan Brand/Nike designed All-Star Game uniforms

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It’s only fitting that Jordan brand has a significant role with the All-Star Game coming to Chicago.

Jordan Brand designed this year’s ASG uniforms and took its inspiration from the Chicago transit line. Here’s the explanation, straight from the press release (because you don’t want me trying to describe fashion, trust me):

Jordan Brand and Nike designers incorporated the color of each track into the uniforms as a base: blue and red for the NBA All-Star Game; purple and orange for NBA Rising Stars; green and pink for the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game presented by Ruffles; and brown and yellow for the NBA Cares Special Olympics Unified Basketball Game. The Jordan Brand official NBA All-Star game uniforms add the six-pointed star from the Chicago flag as the symbolic refrain while inviting the attitude of the ‘90s-era alternate uniforms worn by the hometown Bulls.

Take a look at them yourself:

The red and blue will be worn by Team LeBron and Team Giannis during the All-Star Game, with other colors for the Rising Star and Celebrity games.

Of course, they are available for sale at NBAStore.com and Nike.com.