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Masai Ujiri says city, fans, winning give Raptors chance to keep Kawhi Leonard

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The Toronto Raptors are going to try.

It’s not going to be easy — they have a steeper mountain to climb than Oklahoma City did with Paul George — but the Raptors are going to spend this season working to convince Kawhi Leonard to stay in Toronto as a free agent next summer. Leonard says he’s keeping an open mind, but right now few around the league think the Raptors have much of a chance. Toronto is going to try, it already hired one of his good friends into the staff, and the franchise believes it has some things going for it, as team president Masai Ujiri said on ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski’s podcast.

“I think you want to be genuine, you want to be real. You know, this is who we are. We might not be the best ones in weather, but we might be the best ones in many other places: the diversity, the city, the uniqueness of a place like (Toronto), fans, the atmosphere. I think those things are so unique, it’s beginning to show everywhere. And then you have to put the basketball together. Maybe before the basketball wasn’t a part of it, but I know there’s a part of him that I’m sure thinks this team has a chance. With his teammates and seeing how hard these guys are working. We have to show who we are. There is no fake sales job here — this is what it is.”

Ujiri rolled the dice to get Leonard, sending fan favorite DeMar DeRozan, plus Jakob Poeltl and a first-round pick, to the Spurs for Leonard and Danny Green. However, it wasn’t as huge a roll of the dice as some may think — Raptors management had surveyed the Eastern Conference landscape, and even with 59 wins last season and LeBron having headed West, Toronto’s window was small because of Boston/Philly. There were legitimate questions about how far a DeRozan and Kyle Lowry lead team could go. Leonard, if healthy and all the way back to MVP-level form, can change that dynamic, putting the Raptors in the conversation. Then if he leaves, well, the rebuild was coming.

Leonard reportedly has looked good in workouts — with Kobe Bryant and LeBron/Durant — something Ujiri touches on in the podcast. But looking good in a summer pick-up run and structured workouts and being game ready are two different things. We’ll see where Leonard is on that spectrum starting in a month, when the NBA season tips off. Then we start to see what number Ujiri rolled with those dice.

James Harden wants Carmelo Anthony to get another chance in NBA

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The James Harden/Carmelo Anthony marriage in Houston (with Chris Paul as the third wheel) simply did not work out. It lasted 10 games and was more annulment than marriage, Anthony couldn’t/wouldn’t accept the role Houston needed him to fill.

The Rockets traded Anthony to Chicago on Tuesday, and after the Feb. 7 trade deadline the Bulls are expected to waive ‘Melo, making him a free agent.

There are questions around the league about where — and even if — Anthony will sign once he is a free agent. Plenty of fans don’t want their team to take him on, but ‘Melo has a supporter in former teammate Harden. Here is what the reigning MVP told ESPN’s Ian Bagley.

“I just want to see him hoop, see him happy, and I mean, he deserves it, honestly,” Harden said of Anthony on Tuesday. “Like, he’s put so much time and effort into this game that he should be able to hoop and still have fun playing the game of basketball.”

“Yeah, man. Melo is one of the best to ever hoop. He loves the game of basketball,” Harden said. “Some guys just do it just because they’re gifted or they’re athletic or they can shoot the basketball. There’s not that many players that like, love to hoop. … It kind of sucks that it didn’t work out. It is what it is. I just hope he finds somewhere where they can embrace him and he can still hoop. So he [gets to] make that decision that he’s done [playing].”

Probable lottery pick and injured Vanderbilt guard Darius Garland declares for NBA draft

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Vanderbilt freshman Darius Garland suffered a season-ending knee injury in November.

But that will actually accelerate his ascension toward the NBA.

Garland:

Garland still looks like a lottery pick. This draft is top-heavy, and a player as skilled as him likely won’t fall far.

The 6-foot-3 point guard is an excellent shooter. He also has the ball-handling, footwork and quick release to get his shot off against most defenses. He looks like he could become a prototypical lead guard in the modern NBA, a scorer who distributes enough.

Still, his torn meniscus hurts. Not only will teams want to know the status of his knee, he’s missing valuable developmental time during the college season. Garland still needs to refine his court vision, and it’d be nice if he clamped down defensively.

It was clear well before Garland enrolled at Vanderbilt he was on the one-and-done track. His injury allows him to drop the pretense of college basketball being a priority.

Report: Grizzlies will listen to trade offers for Marc Gasol, Mike Conley

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Last summer there was a lot of buzz around the league, the Memphis Grizzlies might finally end the grit ‘n grind era, trade their stars and embark on a needed rebuild. But then owner Robert Pera bought out two minority owners and the word quickly came down — forget a rebuild, this was a team that could win 50+ games and would make the playoffs.

After a fast 15-9 start to the season,  Grizzlies have lost six in a row and 12-of-13, having dropped to 14th in the West. Last week, those stars — Marc Gasol and Mike Conley — met with Pera face-to-face.

Now, Memphis considering trading Gasol and Conley, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

There will be interest from other teams, but getting a deal done in the 18 days before the trade deadline will be difficult. Especially considering both Gasol and Conley have huge salaries, and sources have said the Grizzlies have wanted to attach Chandler Parsons — who is owed $25.1 million next season and is almost unplayable — to any trade.

It’s very possible that these talks, especially around Conley, continue into this summer.

Gasol, who has seen his skills decline this season at age 34 (he has a 17.1 PER that is above average but the lowest since his rookie season, and his defense has not been nearly as good as it once was), is expected to opt out of this contract for next season, so any team that trades for him would want a wink-and-a-nod deal that they could re-sign him next summer. Big men are in demand, but will teams give up much for a potential rental?

Conley is a borderline All-Star point guard and a solid defender. Conley is averaging 19.8 points a game, 6.1 assists, is shooting 35.4 percent from three, and has a PER of 20.

Conley is making $30.5 million this season, has a fully guaranteed $32.5 million next season and an early termination option for 2020-21 at $34.5 million, and he will almost certainly not opt out and stay in the contract for that season. Not many teams can take on that much salary, no matter how good Conley is.

Former Kings executive pleads guilty to defrauding team out of $13.4 million

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A former top Sacramento Kings executive has pleaded guilty to siphoning $13.4 million from the team to buy Southern California beachfront properties, according to court records.

The records show former chief revenue officer Jeffrey David pleaded guilty Tuesday to federal charges of wire fraud and identity theft. He faces a maximum of 10 years in prison when he is sentenced April 15.

David was charged last year with forging the team president’s signature to divert sponsorship payments to a bank account he controlled.

Prosecutors say the scheme was uncovered soon after David left the Kings in June and accepted a similar post with the Miami Heat. The Heat said in September that the team and David parted ways..