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Three Things to Know: Toronto is best team you’re not talking about

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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) DeMar DeRozan drops 45 on Sixers, and the Raptors are the best team you’re not talking about. The Toronto Raptors have won 11-of-12, same as the Warriors and Rockets in that stretch, and they have a better net rating (+13) in those dozen games than either of those much-discussed powerhouses. Toronto has the best defense in the NBA and the third best offense in the league in that stretch. The Raptors have been flat-out destroying teams.

It’s time to talk about just how good the Raptors are this season.

You can ask the Sixers. DeMar DeRozan dropped 45 on them Thursday — while TNT was showing other teams — and Toronto beat Philadelphia 114-109. DeRozan is evident of the changes the Raptors have made on offense, hitting a career-high six threes Thursday night.

DeRozan thrives in the midrange, he has taken 62 percent of his shots there this season (hitting a very good 48 percent of them), but last season he took 71 percent from there — now he’s getting to the rim more and taking more threes, leading to the highest true shooting percentage of his career, 58.7. He’s become more efficient, a microcosm of Toronto as a whole. Last season as a team the Raptors took 41 percent of their shots from the midrange, this year that is down to 30.3 percent, and what is up are shots at the rim some and three pointers a lot. DeRozan is isolating less, getting a few more buckets in transition, and the Raptors are moving the ball more — last season only 22 percent of DeRozan’s buckets were off a teammate’s assist, this season that’s up to 29 percent.

Toronto looked on paper like a team that would step back this season — Patrick Paterson and Cory Joseph were gone hurting their depth, and this team’s lack of ball movement made them defendable. Now, the ball moves, C.J. Miles and rookie OG Anunboy have stepped up with tremendous seasons, the depth is fine, the defense is better, and the Raptors haven’t missed a beat. Record wise, they are right there with Cleveland and Boston at the top of the East, but nobody is talking about them that way. Maybe it’s time to do that.

The Raptors have made this 11-of-12 run against a softer part of the schedule, something that will change as the calendar flips to 2018, but on the season they have the same strength of schedule as the Warriors (middle of the NBA pack). The Raptors are legit, knocking on the door of the top two teams in the East this regular season. Can they break through that door in the postseason is the question, but I wouldn’t count this team out.

2) Michael Beasley goes off for 32 as Knicks beat Celtics. Every team has rough stretches over the grind of an 82-game schedule,  a few games of terrible performances on both sides where any of 29 other NBA teams could beat them. Boston seems to be in one of those. The ballet that was their switchable defense seems off, the offense is inconsistent and relying too much on Kyrie Irving, and the rebounding problems are back. Blame a busy part of the schedule, blame injuries, blame the new Republican tax plan if you want, these things happen to teams.

Thursday night you can blame the Knicks’ Michael Beasley, who dropped 32 on the Celtics and was getting MVP chants at the Garden.

The Knicks got that despite Kristaps Porzingis going 0-of-11 from the field. This is the kind of quality win the Knicks need as they fight to stay ahead of Miami and Philly for one of the final playoff slots in the East. It’s also a reminder that the Knicks are good at home (15-5 this season) but need to find a way to win on the road because those games are coming (2-9 so far away from MSG).

As for the Celtics, they need to snap out of this by Christmas Day, when they will be showcased against the inconsistent Wizards (who you know will bring it that day).

3) Bulls win streak ends at six, but I guess the Cavaliers are pretty good. The Bulls couldn’t keep winning forever. The dream had to die. And like so many dreams of opponents in the last decade, they died in the hands of LeBron James.

Cleveland beat Chicago 115-112 Thursday in a game where the Bulls were competitive most of the night but it ended with the Cav’s 12th straight home win. That ended Chicago’s win streak at six, and for Bulls fans it’s a little bitter to see Dwyane Wade making plays to beat them after he bolted after one season in the windy city. It was Wade and the Cleveland bench outplaying everyone on the Chicago bench not named Nikola Mirotic that got Cleveland the win. For the Bulls, they fought hard on the road on the second night of a back-to-back, but in the end, like every other team in the league, they did not have an answer for LeBron James, who had 34 points and 9 assists.

Some Bulls fans will lament that with this little win streak, the Bulls would now be fourth in the NBA Draft Lottery (Atlanta, Memphis, and Dallas are worse), but you can’t ever blame a team for playing hard and winning. That’s the sign of a good culture being built amid the rubble. If you’re rooting for your team to lose, that’s a hard life as a fan.

Report: NBA opened investigation into free agency tampering

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Summer in the NBA is always the most interesting time in the league. Free agency lets us see where players have not only decided to land, but which have schemed together in order to play with each other.

The term “preagency” has been coined to mark the period in which teams and players work out deals before free agency officially opens, and well before the moratorium ends.

It’s been thought that these rules have been circumvented as part of a gentlemen’s agreement between all teams with equal ability to navigate around the written rules. But according to a new report, several team owners are upset about the way things are going in the player empowerment era.

ESPN’s Zach Lowe and Brian Windhorst reported on the NBA’s Board of Governor’s meeting this week, saying that the league has even opened an investigation into what went on this summer in terms of potential tampering.

Via ESPN:

Within days, the league opened an investigation centered on the timing of some of the earliest reported free-agency deals on June 30, sources familiar with the matter told ESPN.com. The scope of that investigation is developing. It is expected to include interviews with players and possibly agents and team employees, sources say.

The league has the power to punish teams it finds to be guilty of tampering ahead of June 30 at 6 p.m. Eastern Time — the first minute that teams are allowed to speak with representatives of free agents. It also might seek information on the timing of negotiations so that any revised free-agency calendar might better align with what is actually happening.

The investigation followed a tense owners meeting, which multiple sources described to ESPN. Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan, speaking as the head of the labor committee, discussed the possible need to revisit free-agency rules in the next collective bargaining agreement, sources said.

I have two thoughts about this.

First, even if something does come of this, the fine has to be puny. Adam Silver has not strayed on the disciplinarian side the way David Stern did — much to his credit — and any reprimand is unlikely to satisfy upset parties.

Second, there will definitely be sweeping changes in the next CBA. So much has changed since the last lockout, and the money has gotten so big it’s inevitable that people want to make things better for their side. The players got themselves in a hole since 2011. They mishandled the cap jump in 2016, and the max contract rules didn’t create a rising tide that floated all boats. Star players benefited, but low-level guys are even more disproportionately compensated.

This stuff seems like the most boring part of the league, but in reality it’s what makes everything tick.

I won’t be surprised if the NBA levies tampering charges against one or even several teams. I’d be surprised if the league did much about it, though.

Wizards owner says John Wall ‘probably won’t play’ in 2019-20

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It was always likely that Washington Wizards star John Wall would be out for much of next year’s regular NBA season. The team has even filed for a disabled player exception for the 2019-20 season.

Now we have confirmation that the team is expecting Wall to miss significant time.

According to NBC Sports Washington’s Chase Hughes, Wizards owner Ted Leonsis has said that they are going to take things slow with Wall, and that he will miss serious time.

Via Twitter:

Washington is still trying to figure out what to do with Bradley Beal, and with Wall’s contract on the books, they don’t really have much of anywhere to go. The Wizards used their No. 9 overall pick on Rui Hachimura, which raised a few eyebrows.

But the team at least does have a GM in Tommy Sheppard, and they’ve made several hirings in the front office to try and out-think their competition. Washington has made a few moves, including trading for Davis Bertans and signing Isaiah Thomas.

Expect to see the Wizards at the bottom of the East next year. Still, that doesn’t mean they won’t be entertaining.

Is FIBA’s decision to move World Cup to year before Olympics reason for USA drop outs?

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FIBA made a mess of World Cup qualifying moving the games from the summer to during the season for the NBA and all the major European leagues. The USA qualified thanks to a team of G-League players coached by Jeff Van Gundy, but the process was not pretty. For anyone.

Now it could be another FIBA decision that has led to the rash of stars — James Harden, Anthony Davis, Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard, and others — deciding not to play for Team USA this summer.

Traditionally, the FIBA World Cup took place every four years, on the even-numbered year between Summer Olympic cycles. For example, the last World Cup was 2014, the Rio Olympics were 2016 with the Tokyo games in 2020. However, FIBA pushed this World Cup back a year to 2019 (instead of 2018) and that has changed the calculus for players, something Michael Lee of The Athletic speculated about.

For American players, the Olympics are the bigger draw, when more people watch. We grew up with the Dream Team at the Olympics, not the World Championships. That means if players have to choose, despite the allure of the Chinese market, they will choose the Olympics next year.

The other factor: The NBA feels wide open, with as many as eight teams heading into the season believing they can win the title. A lot of those contending teams have new players, which is leading players to prioritize club over country this time around.

This is different from 2004, when the NBA’s top players stayed home from the Athens Olympics because of a combination of terrorist concerns and players not liking coach Larry Brown. Today’s players love Gregg Popovich, but other concerns are weighing on them more.

It has left team USA without the biggest stars of the game — Kemba Walker is the only All-NBA player on the roster — but USA Basketball has such a depth of talent that they are still the World Cup favorites. The margin for error just got a lot smaller, however.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was working on jump shot with Kyle Korver (VIDEO)

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Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s jumper is getting better. Last season after the All-Star break he shot 31.5 percent from three (up from 22.3 before the ASG) and in the playoffs that jumped to 32.7 percent. He struggled on catch-and-shoot threes in those final 19 games after the ASG, shooting just 16.7 percent, but off the bounce he shot 33.8 percent after the break. Also, all of last season he didn’t take many long twos, but when he did he shot 41 percent on them.

What would make his jumper better? Working on his shot with the newest Buck, Kyle Korver.

Which is happening.

Be afraid NBA. Be very afraid.

Antetokounmpo recently said he is only at about 60 percent of his potential. If he can start to consistently hit threes off the bounce when defenses sag back off the pick-and-roll (trying to take away his drives), he might become unstoppable. Or, more unstoppable. If that’s a thing.