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Three things to Watch in Philadelphia 76ers vs. Toronto Raptors

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There are other good ones: Boston vs. Milwaukee, Houston vs. Golden State.

But no other second-round series is quite the measuring stick, nor comes loaded with the pressure of what a loss will mean this summer than Philadelphia vs. Toronto does.

Elton Brand, the Sixers GM, ended “the process” and traded for Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris because Philadelphia wanted to win now. The Sixers pushed all their chips into the middle of the table, hoping that chemistry would develop quickly, winning would follow, and Butler and Harris would agree to stay when they become free agents in July. A second-round exit changes that equation.

Toronto also went all-in to win now, trading DeMar DeRozan and more away to get Kawhi Leonard and the chance to woo him for a year, to develop a relationship and bond, then to win and convince him to stay. The Raptors have rested Leonard’s body (he missed 22 games this season, most for “load management”), given Leonard whatever he wanted, yet nobody knows what the quiet is going to decide this July. However, a second-round exit after all of that could have Leonard packing his bags for Southern California.

This is as high-stakes as it gets in the second round, and this series is going to hinge on just a few things — like Philly winning a game in Toronto for the first time since 2012. Here are three things that will help determine the outcome of this series.

1) Watch the Marc Gasol on Joel Embiid matchup. The Raptors traded for Marc Gasol at the deadline just because of this matchup.

The numbers support Toronto’s move. Look at NBA.com’s matchup data and over four games in the past two years Gasol held Embiid to just 10-of-29 shooting (34.5 percent), and just 16.3 points per 100 possessions (about half Embiid’s average production). In two meetings this season when Gasol was with Memphis, Embiid had a dreadful 40.4 true shooting percentage and averaged 14.5 points and 15 rebounds a game (he averaged 27.5 points per game for the season).

Embiid’s knee and how well he moves are also remaining question marks.

Embiid is critical to Philly’s offense, the team was 5.4 points per 100 possessions worse this past season when he was off the floor (they have been better with him off the court in the playoffs, but that speaks more to Brooklyn and matchups than what will happen this series). The Sixers are going to have a hard enough time scoring on the Toronto defense, they need peak Embiid, getting buckets inside, throwing down dunks, dominating the glass, and drawing in defenders to open up shots and lanes for others. If Gasol can continue to keep Embiid in check, Philly is in trouble.

2) Which team can find an offensive advantage in what will be a defensive slugfest? If you’re looking for offense, wait for the Houston/Golden State playoff series. This series will not be that, it is two good defensive teams that have length and lock-down defenders that will cause matchup problems the other way. Scoring will be at a premium.

In two meetings this season (both before the trade deadline), Kawhi Leonard stole Ben Simmons’ lunch and bullied him all over the yard. Leonard remains one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA, and Toronto can switch Leonard onto Jimmy Butler or any Sixers getting hot (outside Embiid). It’s not a one-man show, they also have long and active defenders in Danny Green and Pascal Siakam who can take guys like Tobias Harris or J.J. Redick and make their life difficult. Toronto was the fifth best defensive team in the NBA this season and is the second best so far in the postseason. They will take away driving lanes from a Philly team that already struggles with floor spacing, making good looks at a premium.

The reverse is true as well — Butler will get time on Leonard in what will be an old-school physical battle, making life hard for the guy Toronto turns to in the clutch. Simmons’ length will take things away for Siakam or anyone he is matched up on, Harris and Redick are solid team defenders, and Embiid is one of the best defensive centers in the game anchoring the paint.

Which team can hit contested, difficult jumpers? Which team will turn defense into some (relatively) easy transition buckets?

Which team’s coaching staff will come up with a way to free up their scorers best? Scoring will be at a premium and whichever team can find a way to break through a defensive stalemate will have a massive advantage.

3) Can Toronto’s bench win them the series? This year’s Raptors bench — Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka, and OG Anunoby (if/when he returns from his emergency appendectomy right before the playoffs) — is not as good as the Raptors best-in-the-league bench from a season ago. The Raptors averaged 35.8 points a game from bench players this season, down from 41.2 last season, and the unit’s effective field goal percentage dropped by nearly 10 points.

But it’s still better than Philly’s bench. By a longshot.

Philly’s starting five — Simmons, Redick, Butler, Harris, Embiid — was a ridiculous +62 points per 100 possessions against Brooklyn in the first round. However, they only played 12.3 minute per game as a unit (remember Embiid also missed one game due to his sore knee). When the Brooklyn bench, led by Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert, got on the floor, the tide turned.

Philadephia’s best bench player, Mike Scott, is out for at least Game 1 with a sore heel. That means a lot of T.J. McConnell, James Ennis, and Boban Marjanovic for as long as he can stay on the floor before the Raptors play him off. None of that is good for Philly.

Against Toronto, look for Brown to lean on his starters more, maybe up to 20+ minutes a game (depending on what Embiid can handle with his knee). Brown did a good job with rotations and getting those starters out there at the beginning of the second and fourth quarters — against the Nets second unit — and it had tremendous success. Toronto will be prepared for that.

The Sixers need to dominate when their starters are in and the bench groups (staggered with starters) need to just hold the fort. Whether they can against a Raptors bench that knows its role is another question.

PREDICTION: Toronto in five. Maybe the Sixers can take this series seven games, they have the raw talent. They need Embiid to play at an MVP level to have a shot in this series. However, Philly’s lack of depth limits Brett Brown’s options to adjust when things do not work, while Nick Nurse has much more variety at his disposal. Toronto will make adjustments Philadelphia cannot match, and that will decide the series.

Magic Johnson ready to welcome D’Angelo Russell back to Lakers

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In 2017, then-Lakers president Magic Johnson traded D'Angelo Russell to the Nets and delivered a biting sendoff: “What I needed was a leader.”

Russell wasn’t ready to run a team on the court. His work ethic and maturity off it left plenty to be desired. Most infamously, he alienated his teammates by recording and posting a video of Nick Young discussing sleeping with women other than his fiancé.

But Russell went to Brooklyn and became an All-Star.

So, with rumors swirling about Russell returning to Los Angeles in free agency, Johnson is changing his tune.

Johnson, via Bill Oram of The Athletic:

“Now he’s ready,” Johnson said. “He’s much more mature. I said the only thing, he was immature back then. He could always score, but the guys would never play with him because of what he did (with the Young video). But now all those guys are gone and he’s on another level now.”

This is peak Johnson – talking about players on other teams (no longer tampering), spinning the story to make himself look good and directing the Lakers’ roster without having to take responsibility for it.

There is truth to what Johnson is saying here. Russell is more mature now. It would have been difficult to keep him in a locker room with teammates who didn’t trust him.

But Johnson is also the one who moved Russell rather than betting on his talent. With the right nurturing, Russell could have become a star in Los Angeles in the first place. The Lakers wouldn’t have to use all their cap room to sign him now. They could have already had him.

It’s a little disingenuous for Johnson to present this as him being right all along.

Magic GM John Hammond: ‘We have no idea’ when Markelle Fultz will play

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Markelle Fultz has played just 33 games, the most recent one in November, since the 76ers drafted him No. 1 overall in 2017. Philadelphia traded him to the Magic in February, and he didn’t play at all for Orlando last season.

When will Fultz return?

Magic general manager John Hammond on 96.9 The Game:

He will not play in summer league with us. We didn’t think there was any way that he was going to do that. We didn’t plan on him doing that. So, probably not the place for him right now.

But overall, I can just say that he’s doing well.

He’s working extremely hard. He’s in good shape. His weight is good. His overall body-fat percentage is very good. So, if you look at him, you say, “Wow, he looks great.” So, it’s just a matter of him just continuing to get more comfortable, continuing for him to get himself in a position where he’s ready to step on the floor and help us.

And look, we have no idea when that’s going to be. We’re hoping much, much sooner than later. But once again, we’re trying to do this the best we can, and that’s have that word of patience.

We want to have patience with him and get him ready and put him on the court when he can be most productive.

Patience is probably the right approach, because I don’t know an alternative. But I’m also not sure where patience gets anyone.

Fultz’s issues run so deep. It doesn’t appear time is solving anything. Does Fultz have a long-term injury that’s actually healing? Does he have a mental block that’s actually being addressed? It’d be nice to see some signs of progress.

Unfortunately, that won’t happen in summer league. The next opportunity for Fultz to publicly display his ability will likely be training camp.

But the way this has gone, I have no expectations of Fultz being ready for that, either.

Bradley Beal: Wizards told me they won’t trade me

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The Wizards don’t have a long-term general manager.

They do have a plan for Bradley Beal.

Washington coach Scott Brooks, acting general manager Tommy Sheppard and owner Ted Leonsis have each conveyed it to the star guard.

Ben Golliver of The Washington Post:

Beal said that Leonsis, Sheppard and Coach Scott Brooks have each independently told him in recent weeks that he would not be moved.

“They’ve been very transparent and that’s been great,” Beal said. “They’re not keeping me in the dark about anything, even about the trade rumors. . . . It’s great having that peace of mind.”

Leonsis is the most important deliverer of that news. He’s the only one guaranteed to last into a new front-office regime.

But Leonsis also said last January the Wizards wouldn’t trade Otto Porter. They dealt him to the Bulls a week later.

These declarations are obviously non-binding, and Leonsis doesn’t have a great track record of sticking by his word. The owner might say John Wall aggravating his injury changed Washington’s outlook. But that’s the point. Situations change.

What happens if the Wizards are one of the NBA’s worst teams next season? That’s quite possible given their roster/cap outlook entering free agency. Would they keep Beal through a year of his prime even if playoff-bound teams are making lucrative trade offers?

And what if Beal reaches the final season of his contract? Would Washington keep him and just hope for the best in unrestricted free agency?

How long does this no-trade pledge last?

The Wizards reportedly plan to offer Beal the largest extension possible this summer. That’d be worth $111,786,897 over three years.

That’s also way less than he could get by playing out the final two years of his contract and hitting 2021 free agency. Especially if he makes an All-NBA team in 2020-21, which would make him super-max eligible. Or he could make an All-NBA team next season that would make him eligible for a super-max extension, which would be worth the same as a new super-max contract as a free agent.

Beal’s projected max contracts:

  • Extension in 2019: $111,786,897 over three years ($35,134,668 per year)
  • Super-max extension in 2020: $250 million over five years ($50 million per year)
  • Re-sign regular-max in 2021: $214 million over five years ($43 million per year)
  • Re-sign super-max in 2021: $250 million over five years ($50 million per year)
  • Leave in 2021: $159 million over four years ($40 million per year)

So, Beal will likely reject an extension this summer and wait until he makes an All-NBA team or his contract expires, whichever comes first. That’d at least be the financially prudent path.

In the meantime, he can know the Wizards say they won’t trade him – however far that assurance goes.

Rumor: Kawhi Leonard meeting with Clippers set for July 2

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Kawhi Leonard will tip the balance of power this summer.

Whatever the Finals MVP decides with his free agency — stay with the Raptors, come to the Clippers, something else entirely — will change the landscape of the NBA. Wherever he goes that team will be an instant contender, with the Raptors and Clippers long having been the frontrunners and everyone else trying to get their foot in the door.

His decision likely will not drag out, but it’s not going to be LeBron James last summer “let’s do this so I can go on vacation” instant, either, if we believe this report from Frank Isola of The Athletic.

Of course, this report would be unofficial/off the record because teams cannot yet officially reach out to players or agents, and we know there is no tampering in the NBA. (Read that last sentence again in your best sarcastic voice to get the full impact.)

In Los Angeles, the Clipper hype has led to billboards.

If the Clipper meeting is July 2, in Los Angeles we presume, the question becomes when is the Toronto meeting? June 30/July 1 in Toronto, giving the Clippers the last shot? Or, are the first couple of days meetings with other teams that are longshots — Knicks, Lakers, Mavericks, etc. — just to get them out of the way.

It has long been rumored to be a two-team race for Leonard’s services. On the one hand is the chance to return home and become the leader of a 48-win Clippers team poised to be a threat for years to come if they land a superstar. (The Lakers have never been a serious consideration for Leonard, according to sources, for a variety of reasons. Let’s just say he’s not a superteam kind of guy.)

On the other hand is a Raptors team where he was given room to recover and be himself, and where he just won a ring. A city where he was fully embraced by the fans.

Also remember Leonard is at eight seasons of NBA service, meaning the max of this next contract is for 30 percent of the cap (a starting salary around $33 million next season). After two more seasons, he will have 10 years of service and be eligible for 35 percent of the cap (a starting salary of $38 million right now, and with the cap expected to go up the next couple of years it will be higher than that in reality). Despite the injury history, is Leonard willing to bet on himself and sign a two-year contract to get to the larger max, then re-sign?

The leading theory floating around the league now is Leonard signs a short deal in Toronto, then re-enters the market in a year or two. But it’s just a theory. Nobody really knows because Leonard does not tip his hand. About the only thing we seem to know his he will meet with the Clippers on July 2.