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Raptors get validation

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Of course, the Raptors had to wait.

The final second of Game 6 of the NBA Finals took nearly seven minutes. This was never going to be easy for Toronto.

But when the game finally ended – 114-110 with the Raptors as NBA champions – it was oh so satisfying.

Toronto was built boldly then played boldly, upsetting the heavily favored Warriors and gaining validation.

Masai Ujiri upended a successful team in pursuit of something better. Don’t let the payoff totally obscure the risk. Disrupting the best era in franchise history for an injured star was always a real gamble.

Validated.

Kawhi Leonard requested a trade from the Spurs, who are widely viewed as the NBA’s model organization. He couldn’t control where they sent him. He just knew he’d be better off elsewhere. Now, Leonard joins Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Bucks and Lakers) and LeBron James (Heat and Cavaliers) as the only players to win Finals MVP with multiple teams.

Validated.

Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol have thrown everything into becoming the best players and teammates they could be. But they still toiled for years – Lowry in Toronto, Gasol in Memphis –  trying to get over the hump with team success. Now, Lowry (13th season) and Gasol (11th season) join a short list of multi-time All-Stars who waited so long to win their first title but got it while still starting.*

Validated.

*Jason Kidd (2011 Mavericks, 17th season), Dirk Nowitzki (2011 Mavericks, 13th season), Shawn Marion (2011 Mavericks, 12th season), Kevin Garnett (2008 Celtics, 13th season), Ray Allen (2008 Celtics, 12th season), Michael Finley (2007 Spurs, 12th season), Glen Rice (2000 Lakers, 11th season), Clyde Drexler (1995 Rockets, 12th season), Jerry West (1972 Lakers, 12th season), Oscar Robertson (1971 Bucks, 11th season)

Pascal Siakam took to basketball just eight years ago, committing to the sport to honor his late father. He rose from Basketball Without Borders in Africa to New Mexico State to an NBA bench role to likely winning Most Improved Player this season. On the biggest stage, he put his stamp on this series.

Validated.

Serge Ibaka cares about his standing within the league. Don’t get him started on how many times he has been snubbed for a defensive award. But he accepted a reserve role this season and just focused on doing his job well. He still still found multiple times to come up big in the Finals.

Validated.

As an undrafted free agent, Fred VanVleet chose a team with three point guards – Lowry, Cory Joseph and Delon Wright – with guaranteed salaries. Most teams kept only three points guards at that time. VanVleet believed in himself and gradually earned a role in Toronto. He hit so many big shots in this series and scored 22 in the Game 6 clincher.

Validated.

Nick Nurse coached at one basketball outpost after another. He shuffled between Great Britain, Belgium, small college, U.S. minor leagues. It wasn’t always a glamorous life. Eventually, he got his shot coaching the Raptors and pushed so many right buttons in the Finals.

Validated.

Twenty-four years ago, the NBA put two expansion franchises in Canada. The Grizzlies left Vancouver just six years later for Memphis. The Raptors remained in Toronto. They remained through losing seasons. They remained as star after star left. They remained as the team got just good enough to get heartbroken annually in the playoffs.

They remained for this.

Validation.

Short offseason, uncertain financial outlook may mean fewer coaches fired

76ers coach Brett Brown
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Already this season, Kenny Atkinson was out in Brooklyn, the New York Knicks fired coach David Fizdale, and John Beilein was shown the door in Cleveland (with J.B. Bickerstaff hired to replace him). That was just the tip of the iceberg in expected NBA coaching changes this offseason, the buzz around the league was between four and up to 10 more coaches would be fired.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit.

Now those same teams are looking at a shortened offseason, while at the same time the owners have taken a financial hit and aren’t thrilled about the idea of paying two coaches at once, and suddenly it looks like a lot more coaches are safe. Brian Windhorst and Tim Bontemps touched on that in their story about next season at ESPN.

After much chatter before the stoppage of changes in the coaching ranks, several league executives told ESPN that teams might be more likely to hang on to coaching staffs longer than planned to avoid paying out millions to coaches fired in current market conditions.

A lot front office sources around the NBA are speculating about the same thing.

Expect a few changes. Mike D’Antoni’s contract is up in Houston and few around the league expect him to return next season. Jim Boylen is considered the walking dead in Chicago where there is a new front-office regime. New York and Brooklyn still have to hire their guys.

However, other guys considered almost certainly gone — Brett Brown in Philadelphia or Scott Brooks in Washington, for example — may keep their gig another year because of the uncertain waters of the NBA right now. Maybe not, there could be firings, but don’t expect the tidal wave of coaching changes to wash over the NBA that everyone expected back in February.

Teams forced into difficult choices to trim traveling parties for restart

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — The 22 teams participating in the NBA restart were all at the Disney campus together for the first time Friday.

None of them, however, made it to the Orlando, Florida, area with their usual travel party.

Leaving families behind for several weeks — or maybe even three months, depending on how deep a team goes in the playoffs — during a pandemic isn’t the only hardship that teams are dealing with during this restart. Space limitations within the quasi-bubble at Disney also meant that teams had to cut their official traveling parties down to 37, including players, so many people who usually travel with a club aren’t on this trip.

“We’re not able to take everybody — and that stinks, because of the amount of work that they all put in every single day,” Boston coach Brad Stevens said. “We’ve tried to identify how to be the most efficient we can be with people that can be excellent remotely as well. I think that that’s one of the things that we’ve had to identify. In some cases, their excellence remotely probably hurt their chances of going initially.”

It’s expected that as the bubble population shrinks after six teams are eliminated from playoff contention and then eight more are ousted in the first postseason round, teams will be allowed to bring in more staff.

But until then, while teams are playing games on-site at Disney, there will be plenty of work done back in home markets and home arenas as well. Some teams left player development coaches behind, some even left assistant coaches, and all teams traveled with only one media relations staffer and one equipment manager. In normal circumstances, some teams travel with as many as three people to handle media requirements and two for equipment.

“You know, it’s tough,” Orlando President of Basketball Operations Jeff Weltman said. “We kind of shied away from some of the language that was being thrown around — the whole idea of essential (staff) and non-essential (staff). It’s not about that. This is a very narrowly defined circumstance, and it requires certain skill sets to address this circumstance.”

Players counted against the list of 37, and most teams brought the full complement of 17 players. That left 20 spots for coaches, assistant coaches, player development, video, security, strength and conditioning, athletic training, media relations and content creators.

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said the process of figuring out who goes and who doesn’t was brutal.

“We already have had a model of everybody sharing responsibilities,” Spoelstra said. “We already had a meeting about this where there’s an absolute understanding that this is an ‘all hands on deck’ situation. And that means bags, laundry, cleanup, everything … that’s not just for equipment managers, that’s everybody — coaches, trainers, weight room staff, head coach, coaches, we’re all going to be involved in every aspect of it.”

Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan also expressed disappointment that tough decisions had to be made on the staffing end.

He completely understands the NBA perspective. Keeping the number of people in the bubble manageable is a key part of the NBA’s plan for being able to finish the season; the more people in the bubble, the more risk there is of something going wrong.

“Everybody deserves the opportunity, but for the safety of the league and the players we can’t do that,” Donovan said. “So, what we’ve got to do is understand, whether it’s myself or assistant coaches, we may have to be setting up video equipment, we may have to have one of our coaches filming practice in Orlando. There’s things that we’re going to have to do that are going to be outside the box that will normally been taken care of.”

Chris Paul playing cornhole. Luka Doncic trick shots. Welcome to life in the NBA bubble.

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Teams have emerged from quarantine in the Walt Disney World campus in Orlando, getting some run in on the court, and are starting to explore life in the NBA bubble.

Then they are documenting it on social media.

For example, Chris Paul and Darius Bazley played some cornhole.

Dallas’ Luka Doncic was hitting trick shots on the court.

Then Doncic and Boban Marjanovic were doing Disney Channel ads.

Complaints about the food by players have died down, in part because they are out of quarantine and get a choice of restaurants, in part because they saw the backlash and realized the complaints looked elitist. Or maybe it’s just the Mickey pancakes.

Everyone is out and exploring the campus and having fun…

Well, except for Robin Lopez, who sees no reason to leave his room.

Zion Williamson “just went back to square one” with quarantine workouts

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Zion Williamson looks cut — like he spent the entire quarantine doing workouts — and ready to be a force at the NBA restart in Orlando.

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Built for this 💪

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What workouts did Zion Williamson do during the break to get that look? He took everything back down to step one and built it up again working out with his stepfather Lee Anderson, Williamson told reporters on Friday (hat tip Andrew Lopez of ESPN):

“It just felt like I was 5 years old again,” Williamson said Friday. “Just went back to square one, tried to get my body where it needs to be, get my fundamentals back to square one and start from there. So yeah, it was just like starting over at 5 again. It was a great process to learn it all over.”

Williamson did a little more than that. He also had approval from the league to go to the Pelicans practice facility throughout the quarantine and get treatment on his knee, the one that kept him out the first 45 games of the season. So he stayed healthy.

He also worked on other aspects of this game, such as his jump shot. Williamson took 76.7% of his shot attempts at the rim this season, and while getting to the rim is critical to his game, he’s going to have confidence in his shot and knock down jumpers to reach higher levels in the league.

The Pelicans enter the bubble 3.5 games back of Memphis for the eighth seed in the West, and with the softest schedule of any team in Orlando (matching their schedule before the interruption), they have a legitimate chance of forcing a two-game play-in series. It’s not easy, but there is a path to the playoffs for New Orleans (setting up a Zion vs. LeBron James first-round showdown that league broadcast partners are drooling over).

A stronger, improved Zion could help get the Pelicans there.