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NBA Power Rankings: Can Rockets, Raptors carry impressive seasons into playoffs?

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The final power rankings come out on the final day of the season. There are no real surprises at the top, and the comments on these rankings are as much a look forward for teams as a look back at the season that was.

Rockets small icon 1. Rockets (65-16, Last Week No. 1). This season went as well as could have been imagined for Houston: James Harden is going to win MVP, he and Chris Paul meshed well from Day 1, and their switching defense proved to be top 10 in the league. The Rockets proved to be legitimate title contenders. They went 41-3 in games Harden, Paul and Clint Caplela all played. Their big test comes in about a month when the Western Conference Finals start — they had better be in it, and then we’ll see how they match up with Golden State.

Raptors small icon 2. Raptors (59-22, LW 2). Like Houston, this was as good a regular season as Toronto could have hoped for: Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan stayed healthy all season and led a more egalitarian offense that moved the ball well, plus they finished the season with a top 5 offense and defense. Toronto is the No. 1 seed in the East for the first time in its history. None of that has fully eased the playoff doubts — the Raptors have never won their first playoff game (0-9) and will face a tough test (probably from Washington, although Miami or Milwaukee could still be the 8 seed).

Warriors small icon 3. Warriors (58-24 LW 3). Time to flip the switch. Due to injuries and a knowledge that they both know where the switch is and can turn it on, the Warriors have coasted through the end of the season. When the Warriors four stars are all on the court the team is 31-10 during the season and remain the title favorites, but they will need to get through the first round without Stephen Curry. More importantly, they need to start defending like a champion again, that end has seen the big drop in recent weeks.

Sixers small icon 4. 76ers (51-30, LW 5). Winners of 15 in a row and with a win Wednesday night against the Bucks they keep the three seed and the easiest path through the playoffs. Keep that three seed and the path to the Eastern Conference Finals is pretty clear — if they can get Joel Embiid back soon, mask and all. They need him. Still, for a team that won 28 games games a season ago the ride this season has been nearly unprecedented.

Cavaliers small icon 5. Cavaliers (50-31 LW 7). This has seemed like four seasons in one for Cleveland, with enough drama and changes to be their own reality show. Yet at the end of it all, this is a 50-win team with the best player in the game and the Cavaliers are the team to beat in the East again. The one thing that can keep them out of another Finals trip is their defense — can LeBron James turn it on and lift this team’s D up to even league average? That will probably be good enough to make the Finals, but the Cavaliers enter the playoffs weighed down by bad defensive habits.

Jazz small icon 6. Jazz (48-33, LW 8). Back on Jan. 15, the Utah Jazz were 17-26, nine games under .500, five games out of the playoffs, and without Rudy Gobert. Since then they are 31-7 with a frightening defense (Rudy Gobert will win Defensive Player of the Year) and this is the team other top teams in the West wanted to avoid in the first round. With a win in Portland Wednesday night the Jazz will get the three seed, but even if they fall short of that the turnaround of this team — and the play of rookie Donovan Mitchell — has been amazing to watch.

Celtics small icon 7. Celtics (54-27, LW 4). Wait until next year! Brad Stevens has got my Coach of the Year vote for the job he has done leaning on Al Horford and young players (who traditionally don’t defend well) to have the top-ranked defense in the NBA for the season. Boston earned its two seed, and it’s not impossible they could win a first-round series with a little luck and a hot hand. But next season? With Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving back, this team may be the favorites in the East.

Pacers small icon 8. Pacers (48-34, LW 10). Indiana is locked in as the five seed and will face either Cleveland or Philly in the first round — the Pacers went 3-1 against the Cavs this season and 2-1 against the Sixers, so they should have some confidence. The Pacers may be the most surprising team in the league, most of us “experts” had them pegged for 30ish wins and the ability to set tee times for mid-April, instead Victor Oladipo (the lock Most Improved Player) has lifted this team to the postseason and made them a threat there.

Spurs small icon 9. Spurs (47-34, LW 11). That this team won 47 games with Kawhi Leonard essentially being absent all season is a testament to Gregg Popovich and “the Spurs way.” And also LaMarcus Aldridge, who has earned an All-NBA roster spot this season (at either forward or center). That said, without Leonard this is not a team that strikes great fear in the hearts of the teams at the top of the West, the Spurs will defend but their lack of athleticism will catch up with them.

Thunder small icon 10. Thunder (47-34 LW 9).. We’re 81 games into the season and still asking “exactly who are the Thunder?” Down the stretch of the season the Thunder have been wildly inconsistent, both game-to-game and even within games (the win in Miami Monday was a great example, OKC toyed with Miami for much of the game, before decided to get serious and take advantage of their superior athleticism). Still, because of the elite talent on this roster, it’s a team nobody wants to face in the postseason.

Blazers small icon 11. Trail Blazers (48-33, LW 6). It looked like they had the three seed locked up a couple weeks ago, but they have stumbled to the finish line and now have to play the Jazz Wednesday night with the three seed on the line. Of late Portland’s offense has relied too heavily on Damian Lillard (who has been brilliant), on Wednesday night and into the playoffs C.J. McCollum and the rest of the Blazers need to pitch in more on that end.

Pelicans small icon 12. Pelicans (47-34, LW 12). When DeMarcus Cousins went down with his torn Achilles we all pretty much wrote off the Pelicans — what Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday did to get this team into the postseason is one of the great stories of the season. Davis isn’t going to win MVP (he will finish top 5 in the voting) but he has played like one the second half of the season. Reaching the postseason means GM Dell Demps and coach Alvin Gentry are likely back next season, and the Pelicans will re-sign Cousins. However, this roster still needs work to take the next step. A lot of it.

Nuggets small icon 13. Nuggets (46-35, LW 17).. With their backs against the wall, the Nuggets have won six in a row to force Wednesday night’s “win and you’re in” showdown with the Timberwolves. If Denver doesn’t make it, they shouldn’t look back on the final game as much as things like the March 17 loss to Memphis or the March 13 loss to the Lakers, those were the games they needed to win and didn’t take seriously enough. The sense around the league is Mike Malone’s job is not safe after a season with the league’s 27th ranked defense.

14. Timberwolves (46-35, LW 13). One game to determine if Minnesota can end the longest playoff drought in the NBA (13 seasons). No pressure guys. To win the game the Timberwolves will need what they haven’t gotten consistently all season — good defense out of Karl-Anthony Towns (matched up on Nikola Jokic) and a focused game from Andrew Wiggins. Jimmy Butler was a great pickup by GM Tom Thibodeau, Jimmy Buckets has had an All-NBA level season.

Bucks small icon 15. Bucks (44-37 LW 18). Milwaukee has stumbled in the fourth quarter of games recently, not a good sign heading into the postseason. However, with a loss to the Sixers on Wednesday night the Bucks will be the coveted seven seed in the East and face off in the first round against the banged-up Celtics — with Giannis Antetokounmpo Milwaukee will have the best player on the court in that series and a legit shot to win it. Would that be enough to get Joe Prunty the head coaching job full time? With this ownership, hard to say.

Heat small icon 16. Heat (43-38, LW 16). Miami is an interesting team to watch come the playoffs because of their style of play: This is not a “get the ball to our superstar and get out of the way” offense. Rather, they wear teams down with multiple pick-and-roll actions on each trip down the court, they rely on five versatile players, and once the defense slips up Miami makes them pay. But what happens when it’s the postseason and the defense is dialed in and not making those mistakes (or at least not as often)? The Heat have the defense to hang in a series, but do they have the offense to win one?

Wizards small icon 17. Wizards (43-38, LW 15). On paper, this team should scare Toronto or whoever they face in the first round. In reality, the Wizards dropped four in a row before beating a Celtics team Tuesday comprised of guys Brad Stevens had to pluck out of the front row due to injuries sidelining everyone else. Washington is 3-8 in its last 11, with a bottom 10 offense and defense over that stretch. John Wall is back, Bradley Beal can knock down shots, I love Otto Porter’s game, but the whole is less than the sum of its parts right now in Washington. Do you want to bet this team can flip the switch?

Clippers small icon 18. Clippers (42-39 LW 14). It’s going to be an interesting off-season in Los Angeles. Will DeAndre Jordan opt out of his $24.1 million contract to test a tight free agent market (and get out of L.A.) or does he take the cash and wait a year to try his luck? If he does opt out, will the Clippers try to re-sign him or let him go and start a rebuild? Is Doc Rivers back next season (the buzz around the league is no)? If the Clippers do decide to rebuild, what can they get for Lou Williams? L.A. would love to move Danilo Gallinari’s contract, but they will balk at the sweeteners other teams will want to take him on. This ship could sail a lot of different directions this offseason.

Pistons small icon 19. Pistons (38-43, LW 19). The sense from sources around the league is that Stan Van Gundy is going to lose is GM powers — with former agent Arn Tellem stepping in as head of basketball operations — but will he be back as coach? Whoever is sitting in the big chair, if the Pistons can keep Blake Griffin, the much improved Andre Drummond, and Reggie Jackson healthy for a majority of the season they should be a playoff team. But that feels like a very big “if.”

Hornets small icon 20. Hornets (36-46, LW 20). Mitch Kupchak is in as the new GM in Charlotte, and at his introductory press conference he kept his cards close to his chest (note to Charlotte media, get used to that). Kupchak and Michael Jordan need to decide the big picture question here: Can they put together a consistent playoff team around Kemba Walker, or is it time to trade him and start a rebuild? Either way, is Steve Clifford a part of that future? (Clifford got a relationship with Kupchak, but if the new GM wants to shake things up that will not be enough.) On the bright side, Dwight Howard had a solid season for the Hornets and looked rejuvenated.

Lakers small icon 21. Lakers (34-47 LW 21). Going into the season, a reasonable goal for this team was the mid-30s in wins, with their young core — Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Julius Randle — showing real signs of development. By that measure, this was a good Lakers’ season. This team defended better than expected, and the offense showed flashes. It’s something to build on, no matter who they land or don’t land in free agency this summer.

Nets small icon 22. Nets (28-53, LW 25). It’s going to be a long, slow rebuilding process in Brooklyn, but as they start to dig out from the ruins of the “we have to build a contender right now” trades of the past, they are finding some keepers. Rookie center Jarrett Allen showed real promise the second half of the season. Spencer Dinwiddie is a rotation NBA point guard who can be part of the future. Coach Kenny Atkinson is building a strong culture there. The big off-season question in Brooklyn: What to do about D’Angelo Russell.

Knicks small icon 23. Knicks (28-53, LW 22). Nobody around the league expects Jeff Hornacek to keep his job as coach, the only question is do they fire him before the weekend? Oh, and who replaces him? The Knicks are a big market, but a team with big expectations, not the most consistent owner, and star Kristaps Porzingis is expected to miss about half of next season returning from a torn ACL. This coaching job has its challenges. On the bright side this season, Tim Hardaway Jr. played well, and rookie Frank Ntilikina showed flashes to build upon.

Mavericks small icon 24. Mavericks (24-58 LW 23). Dirk Nowitzki will be back for one more tour of duty, and the celebration of the greatest Maverick ever (and the greatest European player in NBA history) will provide some cover as Dallas continues its rebuild. Dennis Smith Jr. showed off all that athleticism but also looked like a rookie and needs to get far more efficient with his shot and decision making. Dallas will have another top 10 pick to put next to him and Harrison Barnes.

Kings small icon 25. Kings (26-55, LW 24). Sacramento played their youth a lot and quietly, De’Aaron Fox showed real promise as the season went on, and the combination of Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic provides some good shooting on the perimeter to open up space. That said, the Kings don’t take good advantage of all that — they play too slow and take too few threes. Next season they need to open the offense up and let their young athletes — plus whoever they draft — shine.

Bulls small icon 26. Bulls (27-54 LW 27).. The Bulls finally went all in on the rebuild and they found real quality in big man Lauri Markkanen, he can be a key part of the future in Chicago. I’m still not as high on Kris Dunn as Bulls fans, but he looks like a rotation player who can bring some defense. The big off-season question is Zach LaVine, who is coming off an injury and is a restricted free agent. In a tight market, is some team going to come in big and try to steal him? How much would the Bulls pay to match and keep him? It’s going to be an interesting game of poker in the Windy City.

Hawks small icon 27. Hawks (24-58, LW 28). John Collins was the most efficient rookie out there (Ben Simmons could make a good case, too) and whatever is rebuilt in Atlanta he will be a part of it. Taurean Prince is now a legit “3&D” guy on the wing, those are hard to come by. There is still a lot of rebuilding to do in Atlanta, but they have a couple of quality young players now and can add to that in this draft.

Magic small icon 28. Magic (24-57, LW 26). Frank Vogel is going to be let go as coach (he should land on his feet somewhere) and the Magic’s new front office has to bring in someone who knows how to develop talent such as Jonathan Isaac and build up a young roster. Then that front office needs to go get a lot more young talent. The problem is they are locked into paying Bismarck Biyombo $17 million next season, hurting their cap space. Expect a lot of Nikola Vucevic trade rumors this summer (solid center on an expiring contract). The Mario HJezonja era in Orlando is going to end this summer.

Grizzlies small icon 29. Grizzlies (22-59, LW 29). Injuries were a big part of it, but there was no more disappointing team in the NBA than Memphis this season. With the ownership situation settled, expect the status quo next season (including coach J.B. Bickerstaff being back) — and with Mike Conley and Marc Gasol back, plus a high draft pick next to them Memphis should be back at least fighting for a playoff slot next season. (The Grizzlies might be the best fit for Luka Doncic, but do they want him? Depends in part on how the lottery gods treat them.)

Suns small icon 30. Suns (21-61, LW 30). The Suns tanking worked, they will head into the lottery with the best shot at the No. 1 pick. The first big question of the offseason is who will be the next coach of this team? (Expect them to reach out to Villanova’s Jay Wright, expect him to say no.) That coach has to develop talent well — rookie Josh Jackson showed improvement but has a long ways to go. The Elfrid Payton experiment did not work, and both Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender were disappointments. The front office has work to do to put better talent around Devin Booker.

Report: After backing out of agreement with Sixers, Nemanja Bjelica talking to Kings

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Nemanja Bjelica had found a comfort level in Minnesota, but when Tom Thibodeau pulled his qualifying offer — to sign Anthony Tolliver — it left the Serbian forward without a deal. Philadelphia raced in with a one-year, $4.4 million offer, and he took it.

Then on Tuesday, he backed out, saying he wanted to return to Europe with his family. What he said he wanted was stability, he told Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic.

“It’s not about coach or the Philly organization,” Bjelica told The Athletic in a phone conversation on Tuesday. “Brett Brown, he’s a great guy and a great coach. The most important thing for me is family and some kind of stability…

“I’m thankful for Philly for the opportunity, but I will always do what is the best for my family,” Bjelica said. “At that point, I was considering European life.”

Or, Sacramento. Which I am fairly confident is not in Europe. From Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

Bjelica wanted stability, something that doesn’t always come easily in the NBA life. Clearly, Vlade Divac is pitching a longer-term deal of some kind to provide that stability for Bjelica and his family.

I get why he’s doing it — this is still a bad look for Bjelica and his agent. He gave his word, then backed out of the deal saying he wanted to play in another league. Now he’s talking to another NBA team, a competitor. I get it, teams are not loyal to players either, they lie to them too — just ask DeMar DeRozan — but it doesn’t make this move right. It’s not a great look for the Kings, either.

On the court, Bjelica is a fit with the Kings in that he can be part of the rotation with Marvin Bagley III, Harry Giles and the rest of a crowded Kings’ frontcourt. Bjelica provides needed floor spacing and shooting — I really like him as a player. I liked him in Minnesota and wish Thibodeau trusted him more, I liked the idea of how he fit in Philly, and I would like him in Sacramento. But this is just awkward.

DeMarcus Cousins on Warriors: “This was my nuclear bomb. My last resort.”

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A year before, DeMarcus Cousins was a lock max player, a guy the New Orleans Pelicans could not let get away. A guy with options. A guy about to make not just life-changing money but family generational changing money. DeMarcus Cousins was at his peak.

But on Jan. 30, everything changed. Cousins tore his Achilles tendon.

Come July 1, 2018, the phone was not ringing, team executives were not lined up at 12:01 to meet with Cousins and his agent. Crickets. There was nothing. The teams Cousins called were not making offers and were not interested — including the Pelicans.

So Cousins got in touch with Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry. The rest is history.

All through free agency and his recovery, SHOWTIME Sports has been making a documentary — titled “THE RESURGENCE: DeMarcus Cousins” — that will air on the cable network at a date and time yet to be announced. They just released the video above (WARNING: NSFW language) and if the access and honesty they got in this clip is any indication, it is going to be must watch.

Check out the fantastic video above, courtesy Showtime. And be ready for when this hits the airwaves (or streaming, for most of us).

Five big takeaways from Kawhi Leonard trade to Toronto

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Everyone woke up Wednesday morning to an NBA bombshell — Kawhi Leonard being traded to the Toronto Raptors in a deal centered around DeMar DeRozan. That’s a lot to absorb before the first cup of coffee.

This was far from perfect but as good a deal as San Antonio was going to get. It’s not equal value, the Spurs wing defense just got a lot worse, but with other teams keeping their best assets out of trades the Spurs got a player who was an All-Star and All-NBA (second team) last season, one who keeps them relevant for a few years (until Gregg Popovich likely retires). This delays the impending rebuild a couple of years. And, they sent Leonard out of the West.

Here are my five big takeaways from the blockbuster trade:

1) The Toronto Raptors won this trade. This was a bold and smart move by the Raptors on multiple levels. While the Lakers, 76ers, Celtics and everyone else slow-played this trade — or only offered picks and young players for a rebuild the Spurs did not want to start yet — Raptors GM Masai Ujiri jumped in with both feet and gave the Spurs something they wanted in DeRozan, an All-Star player who keeps them in the playoffs and dangerous right now. That was enough.

There are two key reasons this trade works for the Raptors (it’s a solid double, if not a home run). First, they didn’t give up much outside DeRozan — just Jakob Poeltl (who did show promise in his two years in Toronto) and a top-20 protected pick in the down 2019 draft. Toronto got to keep OG Anunoby, Fred VanVleet, and Pascal Siakam, the young group of players they are high on. If Leonard is healthy — something we do not know for sure, he could be slowed slightly and be merely good rather than transcendent — Leonard is an upgrade over DeRozan and the4 Raptors are a threat to the Celtics at the top of the East.

Second, now the Raptors have a season to try to both win a ring and win Leonard over. The ring may be a lot to ask, but if Leonard is playing like an MVP again a trip to the Finals is certainly not out of the question. And once there, anything can happen.

The attempts to win Leonard over long-term probably will fail, but the Raptors get to take their shot. Toronto is a city a lot of players love to visit, the Raptors have a large and passionate fan base (all across Canada, they are a national team), and the Raptors are going to win a lot of games. Toronto also has more money: The Raptors can offer Leonard a five-year, $189.6 million contract next summer, the most any other team can put on the table is a four-year, $140.6 million. ($140 million is a lot less than the $221 million the Spurs could have guaranteed.) The model is Paul George in Oklahoma City, but the difference is George was open to the idea of staying from the moment he stepped off the plane (where Thunder GM Sam Presti made sure there were a lot of Thunder fans to cheer and greet him). Leonard likely is not so open minded.

If Leonard bolts next summer, then the Raptors took their big swing and start a rebuild (that they have discussed internally in the past year). It’s not a massive setback.

2) Kawhi Leonard — and his uncle/management — did not get what they expected or wanted. Around the league, there is a lot of talk about Leonard’s Uncle Dennis/advisors wanting to build a marketing empire around the 27-year-old entering his prime. To get an idea of their plans, think about what LeBron James or Russell Westbrook have with their brands. The sense was Leonard’s team felt the small market of San Antonio and the team-first style of the Spurs were holding them back. (Leonard’s stoic personality is a bigger part of that problem, but we’ll table that discussion for now.) Plenty around the league think those close to Leonard fanned the flames of discontent surrounding the injury and treatment until it was a full-blown fire and Leonard decided he wanted out of town.

Leonard (and his camp) reportedly are not happy campers right now.

The Spurs will have no response but a sly smile (they took the best deal on the table for them). Offers were not going to improve, and the Spurs did now want the zoo of bringing Leonard into training camp.

Leonard is a free agent next summer and can go to the Lakers or Clippers (or Knicks or Sixers or any other team he wants). However, to get the max contract he wants Leonard will have to prove he’s healthy and back to his MVP-level ways — and that means suiting up and playing for the Raptors. Sit out another year — via hold out or with the quad injury — and no team is going to jump in with a max.

3) DeMar DeRozan may be pissed now, but he will come around. Leonard wasn’t the only player unhappy with the trade — DeRozan had been loyal to Toronto, didn’t even meet with other teams in 2016, was active in the community, and was told at Summer League he would not be traded. Then, wham.

DeRozan has every right to be angry. Then he will get over it — the Spurs are maybe the most welcoming organization in the league. The city of San Antonio will embrace him. Most importantly, Gregg Popovich will understand DeRozan and put him in spots he likes on the court, places he can do damage. DeRozan will get to the line, make passes (he’s become a quality playmaker) and — at least during the regular season — make the Spurs a challenge every night.

San Antonio — with DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge — will be the kings of the midrange jumper, although both are pretty efficient at it. The Spurs wing defense will be unimpressive, something a little disturbing in a conference with Kevin Durant, James Harden, and now LeBron James. San Antonio will be no threat to Golden State or Houston, but they will be relevant. DeRozan will come to enjoy it.

4) The Lakers will just wait this out… and be a little nervous. Clippers, too. On the one hand, we saw this movie last summer: The Lakers choose not to put their best young players into a trade to secure an elite player because they believed said star will come to them in free agency. Only he didn’t, the next summer decides to stay put in the Midwest — without even meeting with the Lakers — and the Los Angeles misses out.

On the other hand, Leonard to the Raptors feels different from Paul George to the Thunder — George was open to the idea of playing with Russell Westbrook and seeing what the experience was like. As noted above Leonard is not happy being sent north of the border. It’s early, but good luck finding anyone around the league who thinks he stays long term. Next summer Leonard likely will bolt, and while the list of options could expand beyond the two teams in Los Angeles, that pair remains at the forefront. (As noted before, while the Lakers are the consensus favorites to land him, I heard from sources around the league that is no lock. The Clippers are in play.)

For the Lakers, even if they miss out on Leonard next summer, things still line up well: They have cap space, LeBron, and the market most players be in. They will land someone.

Still, the Lakers have to be a little nervous that things change with Leonard over the course of next season. Maybe it’s the Raptors, or maybe he likes the East and the idea of playing with Kristaps Porzingis, or maybe a million things. It should make them a little nervous, because in the NBA crazy things happen.

5) Just a reminder, loyalty in the NBA is dead. Next time you want to complain about how players are not loyal to teams/cities anymore, remember this move. Just a week ago in Las Vegas, Raptors officials told DeRozan to ignore the rumors, he was not getting traded. This is a player who — where Vince Carter and others tanked/pushed their way out of the city — embraced all things Toronto. He was active in the community. He spoke openly of wanting to be a Raptor for life and the greatest Raptor of all time. He was the willing face of their franchise.

They traded him anyway.

It’s a cold, cold business. Teams treat players like assets, and more and more players are treating teams the same way. Loyalty is nearly forgotten, and rarely rewarded,

It’s just fans that pay.

Report: Boston nearing agreement to retain Marcus Smart

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When free agency began, a lot of us said that the restricted free agent market was going to be tough — not a lot of teams had cap space to start with, and those that did were not targeting players where the offer could be matched. Zach LaVine got a deal, but other name RFA were waiting, Clint Capela and Marcus Smart being the biggest names on the board.

We may be able to cross Smart off that list soon, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

That is in the range of what the Celtics had wanted to pay him from the start, around $12 million a season.

Smart expected more — north of $17 million a season — and was frustrated that no offers sheets came in that would force the Celtics to match. He reportedly was “hurt and disgusted” that the Celtics didn’t come in and recruit him or make a larger offer. Welcome to a tight market, the Celtics had leverage.

Smart is one of the top defensive two guards in the league, a switchable defender who can guard any perimeter position, all of which fits with Brad Stevens’ defensive system. He also brings a high motor — he generates steals and gets to loose balls. Offensively he’s a liability — teams can help off him, daring him to shoot — but when healthy the Celtics have the players to cover that up.

This looks like it will get done and be a fair deal for both sides.