Raptors can keep Kawhi Leonard by pitching him as new LeBron James

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It’s damn near impossible to understand what Toronto Raptors star Kawhi Leonard wants. Leonard, along with his personal management, bungled his exit from the best organization in the NBA this past season. Leonard is now a member of the Raptors, who took a huge gamble by trading for him in order to move up in the Eastern Conference in the absence of LeBron James.

Seemingly, the result of the trade has not been a settling for either team. The Spurs don’t know exactly what they have with DeMar DeRozan, the return for exchanging the former Finals MVP to Ontario. For Toronto, it’s unclear whether Leonard even desires to stay in Canada, no matter the outcome of the season.

The question for Masai Ujiri and the rest of the Raptors organization is this: What can we do to entice Leonard to stay?

Toronto is a world-class city, and even if American sports fans don’t think of it often, the reality is that it is a metro area the size of Chicago. It has an advantage in that there’s plenty to do after an NBA game, between the hours of 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., when players are still awake thanks to their upside down sleeping schedule. (This, if you don’t know, is what separates the Houstons from the Portlands of the world.)

But Toronto also holds some drawbacks for many NBA players, including distance, “poor” weather, and high income taxes. Leonard, a California native, was rumored to have originally disliked Toronto as a destination because of the cold temperatures alone.

Ujiri & Co. also have a roadblock in front of them when it comes to winning. Yes, it is true that the Raptors — especially with Leonard on the roster — should be held as favorites to make the Eastern Conference Finals every season. They certainly will be in 2018-19. The Raptors are a perennial playoff team, and haven’t finished lower than sixth place since 2003.

The only problem with that? Leonard is already used to winning.

Leonard has never personally finished lower than third place, and even then that was only just last season when he didn’t see the floor but for nine games. And that was in the Western Conference, a decidedly better and more difficult place to play than out east.

Seemingly, there are only two factors that could play to Toronto’s advantage in keeping Leonard. The first is flipping his outlook on winning on its head.

Much like LeBron in Cleveland, the pitch for Leonard could be one that centers around the idea of having a team of his own that will always be vying for a spot in the Conference Finals. There is no end to the dominance of the West in sight, and that could be enticing for Leonard as he lives in a big city and cruises to 55-60 wins a season.

Ujiri could pitch Leonard as the new LeBron of the East, building a shining castle in Toronto. The new King in the North, for whom the road to playoff success is smooth and bereft of raiders, where veteran free agents come to try their shot at the NBA Finals. Ujiri could posit that each season would be a race for the others in the Eastern Conference to see who would meet the Raptors in the ECF, just as the Cavaliers had been penciled into that spot for a decade before.

The caveat here, of course, is that the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics have increased their own firepower over the past couple of seasons and, barring any injuries or natural disasters, they will remain in close competition with Toronto. Ujiri could pitch Leonard on being the new Cavaliers, but it wouldn’t make it true.

The other method of persuasion for Ujiri will be a sense of community and a primary focus on Leonard as a face of the franchise moving forward.

As much as Leonard was that in practice in San Antonio, it wasn’t a direct objective given that Gregg Popovich was always going to be the most important person in that building. While rumors of Leonard wanting to return to California have never wavered, neither have his apparent desire to be the solo star on a team (with supporting cast, of course).

As has been pointed out before, it’s possible that Ujiri has done damage to his reputation in the eyes of NBA players when it comes to keeping promises. Shipping DeRozan out of town could have an effect on Leonard, or it could not have. It might be exactly the opposite, signifying to Leonard that Ujiri is ready to do anything and everything to keep him happy, even if it’s drastic.

And yet, we still don’t know how Leonard feels about any of this or what his true motives are, and therein lies the problem.

Nobody outside of the Leonard camp has any concrete idea about what Kawhi wants to do at the end of this season when he can opt out of his current deal. It’s entirely possible that Kawhi doesn’t know. That pushes us back into the conversation about how poorly he has managed is exit from the Spurs, and what that means trying to predict his wishes moving forward.

Much like the Paul George situation with the Indiana Pacers, player wishes that are “set in stone” can gradually change over time. George could have easily made his way to Los Angeles, but instead decided to stay with the Oklahoma City Thunder, who he felt more connected to after a year of excellent lobbying by Sam Presti and the organization (not to mention a perceived slight from the Lakers by Paul).

That roadmap will be the one to follow for Ujiri, who will need to crib from Presti’s game plan for keeping Paul. How to figure out how to apply what Presti did to Leonard will be Ujiri’s biggest test of the season.

In the end, Leonard is an enigma. What he wants is ultimately unknowable, and the nature of free agency in the NBA is too weird to make declarations with any kind of certainty. For now, all the Raptors can do is try to make Leonard feel wanted, healthy, and like a winner.

As we’ve seen with Leonard before, anything outside of that is a toss-up.

Knicks reportedly offered multiple first-round picks for OG Anunoby, got nowhere

Boston Celtics v Toronto Raptors
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What are the Toronto Raptors going to do at the trade deadline?

It’s less than two weeks before the trade deadline and the entire NBA is still asking that question, the Raptors are the one team that could turn this trade deadline from a dud to epic if they decide to pivot toward a rebuild. Are they willing to trade players like OG Anunoby or Pascal Siakam, or will they look to add a more traditional big man such as the Spurs’ Jakob Poeltl, who has been linked to the Raptors in rumors? Everything seems to be on the table.

Anunoby is a player a lot of teams covet, including New York. The Knicks reached out to the Raptors, reports Ian Begley of SNY.TV.

“And Anunoby with Toronto, I mean, that would cost you a lot. That would cost you significant draft compensation. Maybe the Knicks are there, maybe they’re feeling like they could make the playoffs and make a big push if you added in Anunoby. I know that we reported they contacted Toronto on Anunoby and I was told in that conversation they offered multiple firsts. But this was a while back… Toronto has done a lot since then. But I don’t think the league is crystal clear on what [the Raptors] want to do on Anunoby.”

Anunoby is an elite on-ball wing defender who can be a finisher, averaging 17.3 points and 5.6 rebounds a game at age 25 — the asking price will start at two unprotected first-round picks in this market. The Knicks may have thrown some of their protected picks in the conversation, but Toronto’s asking price is reportedly sky-high because they’re not eager to get rid of him.

Anunoby is making $17.4 million this season and is under contract for $18.2 million next season, a fair price for what he brings to the court (he has a player option at $19.9 million in 2024-25). What the Raptors do with him may signal their direction.

At the deadline, most people around the league expect Toronto to trade Gary Trent Jr., but that’s it. Any other big moves are likely this offseason. If ever.

Reprots: Luka Doncic day-to-day with “mild” ankle sprain

Washington Wizards v Dallas Mavericks
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While there are grades of ankle sprains, ask anyone trying to walk around on one if there is a “mild” version.

Yet that’s what Mavericks sources say about Luka Doncic’s ankle sprain suffered against the Suns on Thursday night. He is “day-to-day” with the injury, a story first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN (and since confirmed by others).

Doncic has been playing through ankle soreness in recent weeks and it’s fair to expect the Mavericks to give him a few games off. However, it can’t be too many for a team fighting for a playoff spot, the Mavs are 0-5 in games Doncic has rested this season and have been outscored by 5.3 points per 100 possessions this season when he sits (although they did beat the Suns largely without him Thursday). Doncic is an All-Star starter averaging 33.8 points, 9.1 rebounds and 8.6 assists a game.

Dallas plays next on Saturday against the Jazz. It would be a surprise to see Doncic suit up for that game.


Boban? Crowder? Holmgren? Exploring player votes for All-Star starters

CrawsOver Pro-Am
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Four NBA players — not one as a joke, but four… as a joke — voted for injured Thunder rookie Chet Holmgren to start the NBA All-Star Game.

The NBA All-Star Game starters were announced Thursday, chosen from a weighted vote of fans (50%), media (25%) and current players (25%).

While most NBA players may take their All-Star Game starter votes seriously, some do not — they vote for friends, college teammates, guys with the same agent, or just whoever they feel like.

Which is comedy gold once we comb through the public vote (Note: names are not attached to who cast a vote, but we do see who got votes). This season, that list of players getting at least one vote to be an All-Star starter include:

Bol Bol (Orlando Magic, he got six votes)
Willy Hernangomez (New Orleans Pelicans, he got five votes)
Juancho Hernangomez (Toronto Raptors, he got three votes)
Omer Yurtseven (Miami Heat, he got three votes)
Georges Niang (Philadelphia 76ers, he got five votes)
Ochai Agbaji (Utah Jazz, he got four votes)
Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (Oklahoma City Thunder, he got three votes)
Bismack Biyombo (Phoenix Suns, he got three votes)
Jae Crowder (Phoenix Suns, he got two votes)
Udonis Haslem (Miami Heat, he got two votes)
Blake Griffin (Boston Celtics)
Boban Marjanovic (Houston Rockets)
Kemba Walker (Dallas Mavericks)
Kendrick Nunn (Los Angeles Lakers)
Ish Smith (Denver Nuggets)
Torrey Craig (Phoenix Suns)
Luka Garza (Minnesota Timberwolves)
Chimezie Metu (Sacramento Kings)
Furkan Korkmaz (Philadelphia 76ers)
R.J. Hampton (Orlando Magic)
Johnny Davis (Washington Wizards)
Cedi Osman (Cleveland Cavaliers)
MarJon Beauchamp (Milwaukee Bucks)
Paul Reed (Philadelphia 76ers)

That is just a fraction of the entire list.

Three things to Know: Knicks win another in clutch, beat Celtics in OT


Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Knicks win another in clutch, beat Celtics in OT behind 37 from Randle

It will surprise Knicks fans, but New York has been a good clutch team in the tightest of games this season: In games within three points in the final three minutes, they are 11-9 with a +7.8 net rating.

The Knicks didn’t look like a clutch team — but did what Knicks fans expected — when they blew a 13-point lead by scoring just four points over the final 5:20 of the fourth quarter. Combine that with Jayson Tatum scoring 11 in the frame, and the Celtics came back to tie the game and force OT.

However, in the OT, the Knicks had RJ Barrett knocking down big shots.

And, with the game on the line, they had Jalen Brunson with the block.

With that, the Knicks went into Boston and pulled out the 120-117 OT win over the East-leading Celtics. Julius Randle had 27 points and nine rebounds (and hit the free throws that put the Knicks up for good in OT), Brunson scored 29, and Barrett added 19.

There are promising signs for Knicks fans:

Brunson and Randle just out-dueled Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

The Knicks have now racked up back-to-back wins against the Cavaliers and Celtics.

New York will need more wins like this because they will be battling the Heat, and maybe the Pacers, for that No. 6 seed and avoiding the play-in the rest of the season. But don’t sleep on a couple of quality wins.

2) Luka Doncic leaves game with ankle sprain; Mavericks win anyway

Name the team that could least afford to lose its superstar.

The Mavericks — with their heliocentric offense built around Luka Doncic — have to be at the top of the list.

Dallas could be without Doncic for a few games after he sprained his ankle just minutes into Thursday night’s contest against the Suns. Doncic drove on Cameron Johnson but when he couldn’t get to the rim he stopped, spun, tried to step back, stepped on the foot of Mikal Bridges and rolled his left ankle.

Doncic left the game and he did not return. Dallas can’t afford to be without Doncic for long, it gets outscored by 5.3 points per 100 possessions this season when he sits. He is an All-Star starter and in the MVP mix. He averages 33.8 points, 9.1 rebounds and 8.6 assists a game.

Just to prove that last paragraph wrong, the Jazz went out and beat the Suns 99-95 without Doncic behind a season-high 36 points from Spencer Dinwiddie, plus Dorian Finney-Smith chipped in 18 points and 12 rebounds.

3) LeBron, Antetokounmpo captains as All-Star starters named

Last season, Team LeBron won the All-Star Game partly because LeBron James had Giannis Antetokounmpo on his team.

Not this year. It will be Team LeBron vs. Team Giannis, they received the most fan votes in their conferences and will be the captains for the Feb. 19 All-Star Game in Salt Lake City. This is the sixth time LeBron is a captain, and his teams are 5-0.

In a new twist, James and Antetokounmpo will choose their teams right on the court before the game — true playground style. The captains will draft from a pool of starters announced Thursday — selected by a vote of fans, media, and current players — and then the backups from a list of reserves selected by the coaches (which will be announced next week).

Here are this year’s starters (two backcourt, three frontcourt players from each conference):

Stephen Curry
Luka Doncic
LeBron James
Nikola Jokic
Zion Williamson

Kyrie Irving
Donovan Mitchell
Kevin Durant
Giannis Antetokounmpo
Jayson Tatum

Joel Embiid was the odd man out of a tight race for the final frontcourt spot in the East (because the fans voted him fourth, the media and players each had him third, but the fans count for 50% of the weighted vote). This will be the first start for Williamson (if he’s healthy enough to play) and Mitchell.