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Raptors’ overhaul paying off massively and quickly

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TORONTO – In 2016, the Raptors’ best season to date ended with a loss to the eventual-champion Cavaliers in the conference finals.

“We’re learning,” then-Toronto coach Dwane Casey  said. “We’re not where they are right now. We’re going to be.”

Casey was right. The Raptors assumed the East crown from Cleveland and are one game from winning the NBA Finals.

But to get here, Toronto fired Casey and turned over most of its roster.

The transformation has been difficult and rewarding, necessary but also dangerous. Raptors president Masai Ujiri revamped a team in the midst of the best era in franchise history. He did it primarily by acquiring a superstar who set a one-year clock on his services – a narrow window, especially amid all the surrounding chaos.

And it has worked.

The major move was trading DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard, swapping a loyal fan favorite for a hired gun. But as much attention as that deal has deservedly gotten, it fits into a far greater context of upheaval.

Kyle Lowry (who has become Toronto’s lifeblood in his seventh season here) and Norman Powell (a fourth-year player barely inside the playoff rotation) are the only players remaining from that 2016 team. Everyone else is pretty new.

The Raptors drafted Pascal Siakam and signed Fred VanVleet as an undrafted free agent in 2016. Toronto traded for Serge Ibaka in 2017 and Marc Gasol just before this year’s trade deadline. Danny Green came in the Leonard trade. Nick Nurse got promoted to head coach last summer.

Even several deep reserves – Patrick McCaw, Jeremy Lin, Jody Meeks, Eric Moreland – joined the Raptors after this season began.

To make way, plenty of contributors exited: DeMarre Carroll, Patrick Patterson, Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl, Cory Joseph, Terrence Ross, Bismack Biyombo, P.J. Tucker, Luis Scola.

This Toronto team is nearly as brand new as it gets for a title contender.

The average Raptor, weighted by postseason minutes, has played just 181 regular-season games for the franchise. That’s barely more than two seasons.

It’s the lowest mark for a Finals team since the 2006 Heat (average of 142 games). Miami drafted Dwyane Wade in 2003, traded for Shaquille O’Neal in 2004, bolstered its rotation in the summer of 2005 with Antoine Walker, Jason Williams and James Posey then won the 2006 title.

Here’s every Finals team since NBA-ABA merger, sorted by that same average-games measure (*won championship):


That Leonard – especially Leonard – Gasol and Green can all leave in unrestricted free agency this summer gives this team a mercenary feel. Even Lowry, Ibaka and VanVleet are locked in only one additional season, as Ujiri wanted an exit ramp for this group.

But winning quickly vitalizes fans, who’ve ached through years of playoff disappointment in Toronto – even if the specific players on the court now haven’t. This feels like the right evolution for this team.

It also helps that the rotation youngsters are so likable. Siakam’s meteoric rise and VanVleet’s beat-the-odds story and candor are quite endearing. Three years is plenty of time for players like that to establish a connection with the fan base.

Their limited time together hasn’t always been enough for the players cement their connection to each other, though. The gaps have mostly shown in small pregame moments – Lowry dapping up an imaginary DeRozan, Gasol not knowing what to do during Lowry’s routine, Leonard ignoring Powell’s fist bump.

Yet, the team seems so aligned when it matters most.

How has this group developed such strong on-court chemistry so quickly?

Talking to players, common themes emerge – maturity, professionalism, unselfishness. This isn’t a random collection of players. Ujiri carefully selected each one. These are mostly veterans who can apply their wisdom to a new situation.

The newcomers even have some institutional knowledge. VanVleet, the third-year pro who’s already one of Toronto’s longest-tenured players, has shared stories of the Raptors’ playoff struggles and previous day-to-day operations.

“We tell them how it used to be,” VanVleet said. “But that’s about it. From then on, it’s create a new identity with each team and each roster.”

More details leak on NBA return format in Orlando, here’s a timeline breakdown

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The NBA is back.

Or will be. Soonish. Thursday the NBA owners approved a restart plan featuring 22 teams, with training camps opening in late June and games starting July 31.

What exactly will all that look like? What are the timelines, and how many games a day? Here’s a breakdown of what we know, with the latest details on format, plus some of the things we don’t yet know.

• June 15: International players who returned home called back to team market

• June 21: All players report to their team markets for workouts.

• June 22: Coronavirus testing of players and staff starts. Once teams report to the Walt Disney World facility the league wants to have daily testing. What we don’t yet know is what form of the test the league will use. While many coronavirus tests are very accurate, some studies suggest a person has to have the disease for a few days before it shows up on a test, and there are false negatives. Which is why the league wants daily testing.

• June 30: Training camps begin at team practice facilities.

• July 7: Teams travel to Orlando, continue their team training camps at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex there. The 22 teams invited are the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards from the Eastern Conference; and the Los Angeles Lakers, L.A. Clippers, Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies, Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans, Sacramento Kings, San Antonio Spurs and Phoenix Suns from the Western Conference. It’s the 16 teams in playoff position when play was suspended, plus the six teams within six games of the postseason.

We do not yet know many of the health and safety protocols players will go through both on arrival at the Walt Disney World resort and facilities, save for the fact the league is doing daily testing. We do know players can golf and eat at outdoor restaurants, so long as they follow social distancing guidelines.

• July 31: NBA “seeding games” begin (the league is not calling these regular-season games). Teams will play eight games stretched over 16 days, with 5-6 games a day (played in the style of Summer League, with games starting as early as noon and extending into the evening, alternating between courts). There will be a four-hour gap on each court between games to allow time for sanitization, and then full warmups by teams.

• After the regular season, if the ninth-seeded team is within four games of the eighth-seeded team, they will have a two-game play-in matchup for the final playoff spot. The nine seed has to beat the eight seed in both games to advance (the eight seed team just needs to win one of the two).

• A full, traditional NBA playoffs follows with seven-game series in each round. Games will be played every other day (no back-to-backs in the playoffs). This will not see the long breaks often associated with the first round of the NBA playoffs (and, obviously, no need for travel days).

• October 12: The latest date for the seventh game of the NBA Finals.

• October 15: The 2020 NBA Draft takes place.

• October 18: NBA free agency opens

• November 10: Training camps open.

• December 1: The 2020-21 NBA season tips off.

Those last four dates — everything in the offseason — could be pushed back, with the NBA possibly starting as late as Christmas. Players were reportedly caught off guard by the fast turnaround. The league and players still have a lot of financial negotiations to go through after the coronavirus fallout, and the start dates likely will be part of that.

There are still a lot of health and safety questions to be answered, but Adam Silver has the owners and players on board to try and make this work.


NBA G League cancels remainder of season

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The NBA G League shut down play in mid-March, at the same time the NBA did after the positive coronavirus test of Rudy Gobert. However, without a big television contract or much gate revenue, there wasn’t the motivation to restart the G League season, as the NBA is doing.

Thursday the G League made the expected official, canceling the remainder of its season. It will finish without crowning a champion.

“While canceling the remainder of our season weighs heavily on us, we recognize that it is the most appropriate action to take for our league,” G League President Shareef Abdur-Rahim said in a statement. “I extend my sincere gratitude to NBA G League players and coaches for giving their all to their teams and fans this season.  And to our fans, I thank you and look forward to resuming play for the 2020-21 season.”

The Wisconsin Herd (33-10) and Salt Lake City Stars (30-12) finished the season with the best records.

The G League did take care of its players, which was the right thing to do.

With the NBA starting next season in December, the G-League will follow that schedule, with games through the winter and spring. There is a real possibility of expanded NBA rosters next season due to coronavirus fears, which will impact G League rosters as well, but there are a lot of details still to be determined.

Goodbye NBA regular season, hello NBA ‘seeding games’

Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo
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The NBA regular season is over.

The league’s statement on its plan to resume the season made that abundantly clear.

The 22 continuing teams will play exhibitions, eight “seeding games” (not regular-season games) and maybe play-in games.

NBA release:

Each returning team would play eight seeding games, as selected from its remaining regular-season matchups.  At the conclusion of the seeding games, the seven teams in each conference with the best combined records across regular-season games and seeding games would qualify for the playoffs.

The 14 NBA Lottery teams would be the eight teams that do not participate in the restart and the six teams that participate in the restart but do not qualify for the playoffs.  These teams would be seeded in the lottery and assigned odds based on their records through games of March 11.  The 16 playoff teams would draft in inverse order of their combined records across regular-season games and seeding games.

Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press:

So, the lottery odds are set for the Warriors, Cavaliers, Timberwolves, Hawks, Pistons, Knicks, Bulls and Hornets. The Wizards can’t tank their way past Charlotte and Chicago.

That’s a good setup, which raises a question: Why doesn’t the NBA freeze records for the lottery with a month left in normal seasons? By not doing so, the league creates conditions for an annual tanking wasteland.

Calling these “seeding games” also positions the league to hold award voting soon. The NBA’s major awards – Most Valuable Player, Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Most Improved Player, Sixth Man of the Year, All-NBA, All-Defense, All-Rookie, Coach of the Year – are regular-season awards. If the regular season is over, those can be picked now. That could be a good way to fill time and attract attention before play resumes.

This is probably mostly semantics.* The term “seeding games” allows the NBA to differentiate these games for the lottery and awards.

*It could also allow the league to cancel more regular-season games and expand force majeure. But owners would still have to negotiate with players on how to pay them for these new “seeding games.” So, that’s probably a wash.

The term also makes enough sense. The 22 continuing teams are playing for seeding.

But what happens if two teams clinch certain seeds before their scheduled seeding game? Would that game still be played?

I’m confident the answer would be yes, even if “seeding game” would no longer be accurate.

“Tune-up games to generate more revenue” just isn’t as catchy.

Report: NBA sets dates for draft (Oct. 15), free agency (Oct. 18), next season (Dec. 1)

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NBA owners have decided to finish the season by holding games between July 31 and Oct. 12.

Now, the surrounding key NBA dates for training camps, free agency, NBA draft and the start of next season are filling in.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The NBA’s reported tentative plan to open next season on Christmas? It was apparently pretty tentative.

A Dec. 1 start to next season would mean an incredibly short break for teams that advance deep in the playoffs. But the NBA is already spending a lot of time not playing games and making money. There’s an urgency to getting revenue flowing.

There will also be a massive disparity in time off between the eight done teams and continuing teams for the key NBA Dates. Who knows how that will affect next season? This is an unprecedented situation.

Which is a good reminder: Coronavirus can disrupt the best-laid plans.