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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.”

Report: Brad Stevens’ dedication to Gordon Hayward caused chemistry issues with Celtics

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Things are not all well in Boston. The Celtics are already in a free fall when it comes to free agency, and it’s not yet July. Kyrie Irving and Al Horford are reportedly poised not to return to TD Garden next year. Now, a team that was aiming for the NBA Finals next year could be in serious trouble.

Things have quickly fallen apart for Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens, who are left with a team that also has an apparent enemy in one of the biggest agencies in Klutch Sports. Boston reportedly backed out of serious offers in trade negotiations with the New Orleans Pelicans in part because they felt as though Klutch client Anthony Davis would not re-sign after one year.

Basketball is a game of chemistry, and the Celtics seemed to lose theirs over the course of the year. At least externally, it appeared Boston was disintegrating. Now, according to a report from Jackie MacMullan, we have some confirmation of this rift.

Via NBC Sports Boston:

“You hate to pick on Gordon Hayward because he was coming back from injury and he was doing the best he could, but I really think that’s where it started,” she said. “They were force feeding him on his teammates, Brad [Stevens] knew Gordon well, he wanted to get his confidence back.

“I would contend that Brad Stevens would have done that for any player on that roster that had a catastrophic injury, he would want to fill him with that same confidence, but that’s not what happened,” MacMullan continued. “He gave the benefit of the doubt over and over to a player that wasn’t ready, to a guy who had history with him, and it rankled that locker room, and it bothered that locker room.”

The Celtics have a roster on paper that should have been good enough to get them deep into the playoffs. But Hayward returned and never really looked like himself, and Stevens devoting his faith to his former Butler Bulldog was obviously misplaced.

Chemistry issues for Boston we’re not all to blame on Stevens and Hayward. Irving is perennially mercurial. Given a situation where he got his own team (whatever that means) he didn’t lead the way folks were expecting.

Unless something drastic can be done — and don’t put it past Danny Ainge to get wild — Boston could be taking a step back next season.

Their saving grace, ironically, could be a fully healthy Hayward who has more reign to do what he wants and an unrestricted role on offense. We’ll see how that goes.

Report: Kawhi Leonard focusing on Clippers in free agency

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Kawhi Leonard might not be with the Toronto Raptors next season. That much has been apparent ever since the Raptors traded for Leonard last year, but the team did just win the 2019 NBA Finals. You know what they say: winning fixes everything.

But we are now into the thick of the NBA offseason, and that means crazy rumors and a wild game of Free agency musical chairs. Leonard could end up in many places, including Toronto. But the talk all along has been how Leonard prefers to land in Los Angeles.

The only problem for fans in L.A. county? His landing spot is unlikely to be the Los Angeles Lakers.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Leonard’s focused on Los Angeles but only with the Clippers. In Wojnarowski’s opinion, Leonard is not interested in joining LeBron James and Anthony Davis as a third wheel on a superstar, big three type of Team. Instead, Leonard wants to have his own team match the way he does in Toronto. That could easily be the case with the Clippers.


The Lakers are trying to open up enough cap space for a third max-level player, which Leonard obviously is. But if things stand how they are now, Rob Pelinka and the Lakers will need to go elsewhere to find a third star to play alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

Obviously the Lakers would be better suited by using their cap space to fill out their roster around their two superstars, but they probably won’t do that. In the end, Leonard focusing on the Clippers seems like the right choice.

Report: Lakers trying to open max salary slot with Anthony Davis trade


The Los Angeles Lakers have Anthony Davis, but they aren’t done tweaking the details of the deal yet. Depending on when Davis’ trade gets completed, Los Angeles will open up myriad financial options for their free agency extravaganza this summer. Now it appears the Lakers might be trying to get a third team involved to help them grab max cap space.

We’ve explained the cap ramifications as the deal stood with the New Orleans Pelicans already. On one end, Los Angeles could wait until July 30. After renouncing some free agents, this would leave L.A. with $32 million in cap space. If they complete the deal on July 6, and if Davis waives his $4 million trade kicker, they end up with somewhere between $24 — $28 million.

Now it appears the Lakers will go for the full max slot space.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Lakers are looking to ship out some of its younger players — turning the Davis trade with New Orleans into a 3-team deal — to satisfy some CBA rules that allow them to get to that mark. The Lakers have made Mo Wagner, Jemerrio Jones, and Isaac Bonga available.

Via Twitter:

Los Angeles is also reportedly looking to grab some second round picks, which allow for cheap contracts that they can use to fill out its roster while going over the salary cap.

This is a bold endeavor.

No doubt the front office in L.A. looked at the trade the Toronto Raptors made for Kawhi Leonard this past season feel as though adding more stars to its roster cannot possibly hurt. The only problem is that the Raptors already had a team good team unit in place when they traded for Leonard. Los Angeles won’t have any players of note when they head into this season, even if they are able to sign a third star to go with LeBron James and Davis.

It’s really going to be difficult to see how Davis, James, and a third star will carry this team if there is a steep drop-off between the bench rotation. Even considering veteran minimum signings — which always happen for championship-contending teams — this team needs more role players.

This is an extremely Los Angeles thing to do, and this thing just keeps getting more complicated the farther we get into the NBA offseason. It’s not even July yet, and it’s already wild in the Association.

Report: Al Horford not returning to Boston, will sign elsewhere this summer

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Boston’s disastrous season — and off-season — just keeps getting worse. Anthony Davis is a Laker, Kyrie Irving is out the door and now this.

Al Horford opted out of the $30.1 million the Celtics owed him this summer, but that was expected. A lot of people around the league also assumed he would begin negotiating with Boston to return for a longer contract, worth more money overall but a little less per year, that would give him some security.

He is going to get that security elsewhere, reports Steve Bulpett of the Boston Herald.

The buzz from around the league is this is more about Boston not wanting to pay him and do a retooling of their roster around Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown than it is Horford wanting out. Either way, it puts an outstanding player on the market.

Horford is 33 years old and teams may be concerned about the final year of a four-year contract, but he is kind of glue big man who can do everything well that could fit a lot of places and lift teams up to the next level. Horford can play in the post, shot 36 percent from three, sets good screens, is a good defender and role player, and just seems to have no holes in his game. That versatility makes him incredibly valuable.

Horford is going to get paid this summer — not max money, but close enough to it to make him happy — and some team is going to get a lot better when they do it.