Will Raptors finally get past LeBron James, Cavaliers?

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Before the Cavaliers and Raptors met in the 2016 Eastern Conference finals, Toronto coach Dwane Casey called Cleveland “probably the best team in the league right now.” That proved prescient, as the Cavs beat the Raptors in the most lopsided six-game series in NBA history then went on to win the NBA title.

After losing that series to the Cavaliers, Casey said: “We’re learning. We’re not where (the Cavaliers) are right now. We’re going to be.” Will that also come true? It didn’t last year, when Cleveland swept Toronto in the second round.

Maybe third time’s a charm.

The Cavs and Raptors will meet in the third straight postseason, beginning with Game 1 of their second-round series tonight in Toronto. If the Raptors are ever going to beat LeBron James, this ought to be the time.

Toronto has been better than Cleveland throughout the season. Better offense. Better defense. Better starters. Better bench.

On the other hand: LeBron.

LeBron has ruled the Eastern Conference for years. Count the Raptors among the teams he has tormented, and he doesn’t seem to fear them now.

The Cavaliers showed little urgency down the stretch to secure the No. 3 seed and get on the same side of the bracket as the injury-riddled Celtics. Do the Cavs believe they have Toronto figured out?

If so, it’s hard to doubt LeBron’s assessment. But it also might be just hubris.

The Raptors have revamped their offense and empowered their role players. They look better prepared for the playoffs, when Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and crew have faltered annually.

But Toronto didn’t exactly steamroll the Wizards in a 4-2 first-round series. Sure, Washington is better than the East’s typical No. 8 seed, and bench lynchpin Fred VanVleet was injured. (He’s healthy now.) But the Raptors weren’t exactly encouraging.

To be fair, neither was Cleveland in a 4-3 win over the Pacers. Strapped with his worst supporting cast since his first Cavs tenure, LeBron had to do nearly everything – in the first round. LeBron has had to shoulder such a heavy load before, but not in the first round like that in many years. And the Cavaliers were still outscored by 40 by Indiana, the third-worst point difference ever for a series victor.

That’s why this familiar matchup feels so unfamiliar.

LeBron is such a mainstay in the playoffs. He has been involved every instance of teams meeting in three straight postseasons in the last decade:

  • Cavaliers-Raptors (2016-18)
  • Cavaliers-Warriors (2015-17)
  • Heat-Pacers (2012-14)
  • Heat-Celtics (2010-12)

The big names are the same between Cleveland and Toronto: LeBron, Love, Lue, Lowry, DeRozan, Casey. LeBron’s teams build so clearly around him, not even Kyrie Irving‘s departure changes the Cavaliers’ identity.

Maybe their ability, though.

LeBron says he’s worn down. Perhaps, the deep Raptors can grind him into elimination.

But it often seems LeBron can simply will his team to victory no matter the odds, like he did against Toronto in the regular season. Especially if this series goes deep, LeBron has proven far more trustworthy in the clutch than the Raptors.

Is Toronto good enough to vanquish the Cavs quickly and not face those situations? Home-court advantage could help.

The Raptors have been building toward this moment for years. Trending the opposite direction, so have the Cavaliers.

Their paths cross again. How that goes seems more uncertain than ever.

Wizards reportedly to finally remove interim tag from GM Tommy Sheppard

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Tommy Sheppard has been doing the work as the Wizards GM since April when Wizards owner Ted Leonsis finally ended Ernie Grunfeld’s run as team GM.

Sheppard was the GM through the draft. Through free agency. All the time with the “interim” tag on his job title. In Las Vegas for Summer League, plenty of other executives wondered why that tag was still on Sheppard’s title.

It’s finally coming off, reports Candace Buckner of the Washington Post.

The Washington Wizards removed the interim tag from Tommy Sheppard’s title Friday, promoting him to be the 12th general manager in franchise history, according to a person with knowledge of the situation…

The promotion of Sheppard, who will be entering his 17th season with the Wizards, mirrors the internal hiring decision Leonsis made with his hockey team. In 2014, Leonsis elevated Brian MacLellan as the Washington Capitals senior vice president and general manager after firing George McPhee. Before the promotion, MacLellan had spent the previous seven years under McPhee as an assistant general manager.

This likely will be made official in the next 48-72 hours.

Part of the delay may have been that a couple of prominent names were linked to the Wizards job at different times. There were reportedly talks with Tim Conley, who built Denver into a real threat, but he decided to stay in the Rockies. There were rumors of Masai Ujiri coming to the District, but he has chosen to stay in Toronto after winning a title.

Making Sheppard the full-time GM provides some stability just as the Wizards reach their most important moment of the summer.

On July 26 the Wizards can offer star two guard Bradley Beal a three-year, $111 million extension. The Wizards have been talking to Beal’s people and the offer will be made.

What Beal decides will decide the Wizards future for years. If Beal doesn’t sign that offer, the Wizards have to look at trading him. If he signs it, they need to build more around him.

Beal has spoken numerous times in the past about wanting to stay with the Wizards. However, there was plenty of informed speculation at Summer League that he is frustrated with the franchise and could choose to not sign it and essentially force his way out.

Either way, Beal’s decision will define the next steps for Sheppard for years.

 

Child tries to call out James Harden for step-back travels, he says it’s no travel

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If you tried this move in a high-school game 10 years ago, you would have been called for traveling.

In today’s NBA, as the rules are interpreted, James Harden‘s step back is not a travel.

At an event on Friday, a young fan tried to call Harden out on the travel and he defended himself. Via Kelly Iko of The Athletic.

Harden’s stepback is not a travel (when he executes it properly). Even if it looks like it is.

Here is the play in question.

The official response — meaning from officials:

I know when you played Junior High basketball in 2002 that was a travel, but the NBA hasn’t called it that way in years.

The NBA rule here (Rule 10, Section XIII) simplified is a “gather and two steps.” Meaning one step while Harden is gathering the ball, plus two more. Nobody pushes the boundary of the gather step like Harden, he has mastered the grey area. But when he executes it properly — and he doesn’t every time — it’s not a travel.

No matter what that young boy’s father tells him.

Justin Holiday reportedly reaches deal with Pacers, will join forces with brother

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The Pacers just added the wing depth and some defense at the position they have been looking for.

It’s through someone they have long had their eye on, Justin Holiday, the six-year NBA veteran who split time last season between Chicago and Memphis. He has reached an agreement to join the Pacers — and his brother, Aaron Holiday — for a season in Indiana. Shams Charania of The Athletic broke the news.

The Pacers have been in touch with Holiday for a while, reports J. Michael of the Indy Star.

Holiday averaged 10.5 points a game last season, shot 34.7 percent from three, and played solid wing defense.

Victor Oladipo is the team’s best wing player, once he returns from injury (the Pacers are hoping around Christmas or a little after). Beyond him there is Jeremy Lamb, C.J. Wilcox, T.J. Warren, Doug McDermott, and Brian Bowen. Holiday can find minutes in that group.

This also sparks the dream of an all T.J./Holiday lineup. The Pacers have two Holidays, Justin and Aaron, as well as three un-related players named T.J. — T.J. McConnell, T.J. Warren, and T.J. Leaf. We need to see those five on the court together next season, if only for a few minutes.

Rumor: Clippers offered Marcus Morris three-years, $41 million at start of free agency

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Marcus Morris thought it was his time. Coming off a 13.9 point, 6.1 rebounds a game season where he shot 37.5 percent from three and was one of only a couple of guys who seemed to bring it nightly in Boston, he thought he was going to get PAID this summer. As in the $20 million a year range.

The market for Morris was not quite that hot, and there is a lot of buzz around the league about how that frustrated him. His agent, Rich Paul, ultimately set up a two-year, $20 million contract with the Spurs, which Morris agreed to then backed out of to take a one-year, $15 million contract with the Knicks. That move pissed off the Spurs and led to Morris changing agents.

Rumor is Morris could have gone to the Clippers for three years at an average of $13.7 million at the beginning of free agency but turned it down, according to Frank Isola of The Athletic.

Morris, however, lost out on a much more lucrative contract with the LA Clippers, who were prepared to pay him $41 million over three seasons. A Clippers source said the three-year deal included a provision for Morris to receive 50 percent of his salary on Oct. 1.

Morris was hoping to earn $40 million over two years but the Clippers couldn’t offer that deal if they wanted to sign Kawhi Leonard to a max contract. Once Morris took that stance, the Clippers moved on and acquired Portland’s Maurice Harkless in a four-team trade that included Jimmy Butler signing with the Miami Heat.

One of the biggest challenges for agents is to get the player to understand market realities. For players, their salary is a measuring stick of their worth (even though we know that is flawed reasoning), kind of a capitalistic “you are what the market says you are” approach. Players have egos and often people around them who continuously pump them up. Players often expect the market to be more robust for them than it will end up being, and the agent has to be the voice of reality.

Morris is a good player, but one caught somewhat by circumstance. The market moved very fast this summer — more than 50 deals reached in the first 12 hours — and players who hesitated got lost. The Lakers and Clippers were hung up holding space open for Leonard. This July saw more “you have an hour to take this offer or we have to move on” conversations than in years past. Morris understandably thought he would get a higher payday, but by the time he pivoted the market got thin.

For the Clippers, everything worked out just fine, thank you very much.

For Morris, what kind of season he has and what kind of market there will be for him next July will be something to watch.