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.

Lillard said he expects to be in Portland next season, so everyone starts trade speculation. Again.

Golden State Warriors v Portland Trail Blazers
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Everyone wants Damian Lillard to leave Portland more than Damian Lillard wants to leave Portland. We trash elite players for being mercenaries jumping teams, then the minute one is loyal, everyone questions why he would do such a thing. Welcome to NBA Twitter.

The latest on Lillard is just more of the same.

Lillard appeared on Showtime Sports The Last Stand with Brian Custer and, when asked if he expects to be a Portland Trail Blazer when next season starts, he said, “I do.” This echoes everything he has said all along, he wants to finish his career in Portland (the man just built a new house there). Lillard then reiterated what he also has consistently said — he wants a chance to compete for it all in Portland. If the Trail Blazers organization decides to go in another direction, then the conversations start.

“We got an opportunity, asset-wise, to build a team that can compete. … If we can’t do that, then it’s a separate conversation we would have to have.”

But Brian Custer leaned into the drama (although he did wait nearly 50 minutes into the pod to get to the topic), and so before asking about Lillard staying in Portland, this is how he phrases a trade question to Lillard:

“Everybody keeps saying Damian Lillard is going to be traded to the Knicks, Damian Lillard’s gonna be traded to the Heat, Damian Lillard should be traded to the Celtics, Damian Lillard’s gonna be traded to the Nets. If one of those trades went through, out of those teams, which one would you be like, that’s not too bad?”

Lillard could have, probably should have shot the premise of the question down. Instead, he’s a good guy and played along and said, “Miami obviously” and praised Bam Adebayo and called him “my dog.” He then said the same thing about Mikal Bridges, now with the Nets (Bridges is a guy long rumored to be a Trail Blazers trade target, maybe with the No. 3 pick in this draft).

All of this is nothing new. Lillard hopes to stay with the Trail Blazers and for them to put a team around him that can compete at the highest levels of the conference. They have young players and the No. 3 pick this year to make a deal for a second star (although some reports say the Blazers are not making Shaedon Sharpe available in any trade, it might take that to get the Nets to even consider a Bridges deal, and even then it may not be enough). If Portland’s front office doesn’t do that this offseason, then Lillard and the franchise need to weigh their options.

For now, Lillard wants to be a Trail Blazer and we should celebrate that.

It’s not just Harden, Rockets reportedly eyeing VanVleet, Lopez, Brooks

New York Knicks v Toronto Raptors
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The Houston Rockets are done rebuilding, ownership and management want to shift gears to picking up some wins and making the playoffs. That means using their league-best $60 million in cap space to add difference-making veterans to the young core of Jalen Green, Alperen Şengün, Jabari Smith Jr. and whoever they draft at No. 4 (if they keep the pick).

And it’s not just James Harden they are going after, reports Jake Fischer at Yahoo Sports.

…sharp-shooting center Brook Lopez, is a veteran free agent on Houston’s radar, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

There will be no shortage of players on the market connected to the Rockets between now and the opening of free agency June 30… The Rockets, though, are prioritizing adding a proven table-setting point guard, then looking to acquire upgrades at the wing and center position, sources said. And for that, should Harden ultimately stick with the 76ers, Raptors point guard Fred VanVleet has often been linked to Houston as a secondary option who could perhaps slot into the team’s lead ball-handling role.

On the wing, the Rockets do hold an interest in sharpshooter Cam Johnson, sources said, although Brooklyn personnel has indicated the Nets’ plan to match any realistic offer sheet for the restricted free agent, who was part of the franchise’s return for Kevin Durant. Dillons Brooks, last seen as Memphis’ starting small forward, is another Rockets target, sources told Yahoo Sports, and appears to be a more realistic candidate to join Houston this summer.

There’s a lot to digest there.

Milwaukee is facing some hard decisions as their championship roster is getting old and expensive fast, with the restrictive new CBA’s second tax apron looming. As Fischer notes, the Bucks are expected to extend Khris Middleton, who is owed $40.4 million next season (player option), and Jrue Holiday is extension eligible soon. Lopez will demand a big salary, he finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting and is a floor-spacing big who averaged 15.9 points per game last season. The Bucks would struggle to win without him, but at age 35 how will that contract age?

A lot of teams are eyeing Fred VanVleet and Toronto wants to keep him, he will have options. A lot of teams are watching Cam Johnson as a restricted free agent, but the Nets like him as part of their future and are not expected to let him walk. Dillon Brooks will not be back with the Grizzlies as a free agent, and for all the drama he is an elite on-ball defender and energy player who could help the Rockets.

Houston needs the James Harden domino to fall, then they can see what they have left to spend elsewhere. But one way or another, that will be a very different roster next season.

Three things to watch in Game 3, starting with who wins the fourth quarter


MIAMI — After looking flat in Game 1, the Heat got some rest, acclimated to the altitude, and looked like themselves in Game 2 — particularly in the fourth quarter. Miami had a game reminiscent of the Boston series, and when it was done the NBA Finals were tied 1-1.

Can Denver bounce back in Game 2? The Nuggets are facing adversity they have not seen yet this postseason — they were up 2-0 in every other series — and the question is how will they respond? That and how well will Miami shoot the 3-pointer?

Here are three things worth watching.

1) Who wins the fourth quarter?

While the Heat’s 48.6% 3-point shooting in Game 2 was at the heart of their win, the question shouldn’t be can they repeat it? Of course they can. It’s why they are still playing. They have seven games this postseason shooting 45+% from 3.

However, there is one other key factor in this series: The fourth quarter.

Through two NBA Finals games, the Denver Nuggets are +29 in the first three quarters but are -21 in the fourth.

Nuggets coach Michael Malone is no fan of the trend — and he had the stats to back himself up.

“If you really want to simplify the first two games, in the first three quarters we have dominated both games. The Miami Heat are dominating the fourth quarter,” Malone said, “They’re averaging 33 points a game in the fourth quarter, shooting over 60% from the field in the fourth quarter and over 50% from three.”

Malone was just getting started.

“I’ve got a great stat: I think quarters one through three after two games, we had around 19% of our possessions were [shots] at the end of the shot clock, last seven seconds,” Malone said. “In the fourth quarter of Game 1 and 2, that jumps from 19% to 32%.

“Which means we’re taking the ball out of the net, we’re walking it up, we’re playing against the zone and we’re getting caught playing in really late-clock situations, which is hurting our offense.”

Miami’s late-game dominance goes back to the regular season, when they had the second-best net rating in the clutch of any team in the league. It has continued through the playoffs, starting with against the Bulls in the play-in — when the Heat had to come back in the fourth just to be in the playoffs, — and has been a through line to the NBA Finals.

This is not going to be a series won in blowouts, there will be more games decided in the fourth quarter and the clutch. If Denver can’t figure out the final frame starting in Game 3, they will be in trouble this series.

2) Can Heat keep Nikola Jokić from being an assist machine

The Miami Heat need to make Jokić a scorer.

Erik Spoelstra hates that phrasing and Nikola Jokić says he’s just playing the game, not thinking about it that way. Fine. We’ll put it this way:

The Heat can’t allow Jokić to become an assist machine.

Phrase it any way you wish, but if Jokić is allowed to score and dish the Heat will not be able to keep up with the Nuggets offense. Put simply, if Jokić scores 35+ points but has around five assists, the Heat have a chance to win. But if he scores around 25 points but with 10+ assists, if Denver is raining down scoring from everywhere, Miami will not be able to keep up.

The Heat plan is a lot of Bam Adebayo and to keep giving Jokić different looks.

“He can go through two or three coverages and figure it out in a matter of, up and down, up and down,” Adebayo said, nodding his head up and down. “He’s already read the game, reading the game. So the biggest thing for us is switching up the coverages and having him see different looks.”

3) It’s all about the Heat shooting

It’s simple and reductive, but it’s been true thought the playoffs and continues into the Finals: When the Heat hit their 3-pointers at a 40%+ clip, they win. It was true in Game 2, and it’s how Miami can keep pace with Denver.

Game 2 was not some shooting aberration, the Heat can keep doing this and the Nuggets know it.

“They are shooting against Milwaukee 43%. They are shooting against Boston 40-something percent,” Jokić said. “They have good shooters, and that’s why they are so deadly and dangerous, because you cannot leave them open.
“Yes, the first game Max [Strus] and Caleb [Martin] didn’t shoot well. But we know they’re going to be better. We just need to don’t give them wide-open looks. They are two great shooters that at least they need to see somebody in front of them, not just a basket.”

That was the theme from Denver — get out and contest. Make it tougher. Use the Nuggets’ length and size advantage to challenge them. The problem is the Heat have shot incredibly well on contested 3s on the night their shots are falling, and with the comfort level their role players have at home it may not matter who is in their face.

Lakers question coming in August: Extend Anthony Davis, or wait?

2023 NBA Playoffs - Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Lakers
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Anthony Davis had an incredible playoff run: 22.6 points and 14.1 rebounds a game while looking like the best defender in the league. It was a reminder of why he has a championship ring and what he is capable of when healthy.

Coming off that, should the Lakers offer him a contract extension?

Davis is under contract for $40.6 million next season, with an early termination option (essentially a player option) for the 2024-25 season for $43.2 million. Come August, the Lakers can offer Davis an extension of up to three years, $167 million (approximately, it would depend on the official salary cap numbers).

Should the Lakers? ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported on Get Up that locking Davis up so he can’t test free agency in 2024 will be a priority and they will extend him. However, on Sedano and Kap on ESPNLA, ESPN’s Lakers beat writer Dave McMenamin was more cautious. (Hat tip Real GM.)

“Certainly, the Lakers’ thinking ever since they acquired Anthony Davis is that it’s an Anthony Davis, LeBron James combo deal. With LeBron James only under contract for sure for another year with a player option the following year., and with him openly contemplating retirement at this stage of his career… But you just don’t do it. You play out this year with him. You see where things stand with him and LeBron. Obviously, then you risk the second year he has left, he can opt-out and leave as a free agent…

“You hope Anthony Davis stays healthy and you get the best out of him next year. But I don’t think they’re going to be in a position to be interested in a long-term extension for him this summer.”

At its core, this comes down to LeBron James and his future. If he retires, leaves, or in whatever way is not on the Lakers after the summer of 2024, as great as Davis can be, he is not the No. 1 option the Lakers would want to rebuild around. At that point, the Lakers would want to move on, although trading Davis (or completing a sign-and-trade) would be the Lakers’ preferred option, bringing back pick and young players to help jumpstart whatever comes next.

If LeBron is still a Laker in 2024-25, the Lakers would want Davis on the roster.

It’s not an easy decision for the Lakers, but with an increasingly strict CBA looming, it’s understandable if the Lakers want to wait and see how this season plays out before committing to Davis.