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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-

Jaylen Brown drove 15 hours from Boston to Atlanta to lead peaceful protest

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While many NBA players have spoken out on social media and attended rallies in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis Police, maybe none has been as vocal and active as the Celtics’ Jaylen Brown.

Saturday, he drove 15 hours from Boston to Atlanta to lead a peaceful protest at the Martin Luther King National Historic Park.

Brown was joined by the Pacers’ Malcolm Brogdon.

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Brown’s protest still had a run-in with Atlanta police.

This protest is one of many nationwide happening for a fifth straight night in the wake of the death of Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. That death happened not long after the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man killed while jogging in a Georgia neighborhood.

Derek Chauvin, the man pictured kneeling on Floyd’s neck — which he did for more than eight-and-a-half minutes — was fired from his job in the Minneapolis Police Department and was arrested on Friday and charged with third-degree murder.

Brown, like many nationwide, hope these protests and this frustration can be channeled into real change. Something this nation needs.

Pistons’ Dwane Casey’s says “we all have to be and do better” in wake of George Floyd’s death

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A lot of NBA players have spoken out about the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis Police officer. Stephen Jackson, a friend of Floyd’s, has been the most vocal. Recently players have spoken out about the racism they felt at other times in their lives.

Few have had the experience of Pistons’ coach Dwane Casey. He grew up in Kentucky during desegregation and was in the midst of some of the uglier days of our nation.

Casey released this statement in the wake of Floyd’s death.

“Fifty-four years ago I was an eight-year-old boy living in rural Kentucky when the schools were desegregated.  I walked into a white school where I was not wanted nor welcomed.  At that time there were no cell phones to record my treatment, no cable news stations with 24/7 coverage, no social media to record the reality of the situation or offer support nor condemnation.  But I can remember exactly how I felt as an eight-year-old child.  I felt helpless.  I felt as if I was neither seen, nor heard, nor understood.  As I have watched the events unfold in the days following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, a city where I coached and once called home, I see how many people continue to feel those same feelings – helpless, frustrated, invisible, angry.

“I understand the outrage because it seems the list continues to grow: Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd.  The injustices continue to mount and nothing seems to be changing.

“Fifty-four years later, my son is now eight years old and I look at the world he is growing up in and wonder, how much has really changed? How often is he judged on sight?  Is he growing up in a world where he is seen, and heard, and understood?  Does he feel helpless?  Will he be treated like George Floyd or Ahmaud Abrey?  What have we really done in the last 54 years to make his eight-year-old world better than mine was?  We all have to be and do better.

“We have to change the way we see and hear each other.  We have to work together to find solutions to make the justice system just.  Black, white and brown people have to work together to find new answers.   The only way we can stop the systemic problems that people of color have faced all our lives is through honesty and transparency.  We have to understand why people are at their limit at this moment.  It takes empathy, in its truest form.  It takes a culture shift, it takes action.  Let’s stop the injustice now.  Let’s not allow another generation to continue to live in a world where they are treated as unequal.  Now is the time for real change.”

Now is the time for change, but we need to act to make it happen, not just hope.

Jerry West: Lakers vs. Clippers NBA Finals “would be the ultimate competition”

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Jerry West is a Lakers’ legend, a Hall of Fame player who led the franchise to its first championship, later helped put together the Showtime Lakers as the GM. He has a statue outside Staples Center and has a case for greatest Laker ever.

Right now, West is a consultant to Steve Ballmer and the Clippers.

If the NBA goes with a 1-16 seeding in its return, it sets up a potential Lakers vs. Clippers NBA Finals — and West wants to see it, he said on the Dan Patrick Show.

“For me, Dan, that would be the ultimate competition. I think in Los Angeles, they have so many Laker fans, my goodness. The enormous success that the Lakers have had over the years, they are a really good team now, two of the best players we’ve seen in a long time on one team. I think it would be incredible for the people in the west. I’m not sure how that would go over for the teams back east who want to see their respective teams get an opportunity to play.

“That would be a situation where I think it would be unbelievably competitive. It would be compelling. I don’t know how many teams in the same city have competed for a championship in any sport, much less the NBA. It would make a compelling story, but, in all likelihood, I think you’re going to see things that will be a little bit more normal.”

Some teams are pushing back again the 1-16 seeding, not because of this season when all the teams are in Orlando but because if it happens it would open the door to that seeding every playoffs (a lot of teams oppose it in a traditional season).

That hallway series between the Lakers and Clippers would lose some luster being played in a fanless building on the other end of the country (the Lakers would basically have seven home games, their fans have at least a 50/50 split at Clippers’ home games). However, in a league driven by star power, LeBron James and Anthony Davis vs. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George — with Patrick Beverley talking a lot of smack — would draw ratings.

One way or another, we need to see this series these playoffs.

 

GMs want more players, roster flexibility when NBA restarts games

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If the NBA had polled general managers last summer — long before the coronavirus had upended our lives and the league — GMs would have wanted more roster flexibility and players. They want more options. It’s the default position for any GM.

However, throw in the coronavirus and the restart of the NBA coming in July, and those GMs see that flexibility as a must. That’s what they said in the GM survey given recently by the league, as reported by Tim Bontemps at ESPN.

One thing that achieved widespread consensus was the need for teams to have more flexibility with their rosters no matter how the league chooses to resume play. When asked if the playoffs should have expanded rosters or teams should have more of an ability to replace players sidelined by injury or illness, only two teams voted for neither option. Twelve voted for expanded rosters, and 16 voted for an increased ability to replace players who are injured or sick…

There also was a strong preference to add two-way players to playoff rosters — something that previously wasn’t the case. Only three teams said they would vote against adding two-way players to playoff rosters, while 19 said they would support it if rosters remain the same size. The eight other teams said they would support adding two-way players even if rosters expanded beyond 15.

In addition, 16 teams said they preferred that the league add two roster spots for the playoffs, while nine voted for one extra spot and five voted for three.

Making two-way players — guys already in the team’s system — available for the playoffs feels like a no-brainer for the league. Adding a roster spot so playoff teams could add a veteran at a position of weakness makes sense as well.

The reason the GMs want the flexibility is obvious — this is an unprecedented situation, the schedule will be condensed (with teams playing every other day), and it’s possible a player or players could be sidelined by the virus for a couple of weeks. Depth is going to matter to teams.

Expect the league to allow some modifications to rosters, and some of those may well carry over into next season.