Next game for Raptors: Making final pitch to Kawhi Leonard

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TORONTO (AP) — The title won and the draft over, the Toronto Raptors turn to the next order of business: keeping Kawhi Leonard.

He is expected to opt out of the final year of his contact and become a free agent June 30. The two-time NBA Finals MVP and three-time All-Star is likely the biggest prize on the market.

Toronto can offer Leonard a five-year deal worth about $190 million – one year and some $50 million more than any other suitor.

After a season-long soft sell that ended with the team’s first championship and a massive downtown parade, the Raptors have just more than a week to craft, plan and present their final pitch to the best player in franchise history.

“We obviously want to put a couple of special touches on it,” general manager Bobby Webster said Friday. “But, yeah, we’re comfortable. Throughout the year we’ve been talking about the things that we can offer and what made this season so special. I think we’ll just continue that.”

Now, after two months of hectic, high-pressure playoff games, there’s fine-tuning to be done.

“There’s a ton of thoughts and ideas,” Webster said. “And so collecting those and putting them a little bit more in a presentation, or kind of a little bit more in order will help, even in our brains as we start to think about all the different ways to pitch him.”

Injured for all but nine games in his final season with San Antonio, Leonard played 60 regular-season games for Toronto and 24 more in the postseason, increasing his minutes once April arrived.

Asked about his future at Monday’s parade and rally, Leonard said he wasn’t worried about the tight timeline for his big decision.

“You don’t need too many days to figure it out,” he said. “We’ll see what happens. Once that time comes, then we’ll all lay the pros and cons out.”

After averaging career-bests of 26.6 points and 7.3 rebounds in the regular season, Leonard raised his averages to 30. 5 and 9.1 in the playoffs. With 22 points in the June 13 clincher over the Warriors, he passed Allen Iverson for fourth place and Hakeem Olajuwon for third on the NBA’s single-postseason scoring list.

Center Marc Gasol, acquired from Memphis at the trade deadline, also has a player option for next season, the final year of his deal.

“He’s earned the right to think about this and we’ll respect it,” Webster said. “Obviously, we’d love to have him back but this is his decision and it’s a big one for him.”

Finding time for draft and free agency preparation amid the whirlwind of a long NBA postseason has given Webster a new appreciation for his colleagues in the Warriors’ front office, where such a schedule has become routine.

“We asked Golden State how did they do this five years in a row,” he said.

“Even throughout the playoffs we were meeting and we were discussing stuff,” Webster went on. “You know the season is going to come to an end at some point, so you do want to be prepared. It’s a little bit different of a mindset to really talk about the summer when the season is still going on but we did it, and so we feel comfortable.”

Webster said he and coach Nick Nurse discussed plans while the team was flying back and forth from California to Toronto four times during the finals.

“We had a lot of long flights,” Webster said. “We sit close on the plane so we can have those chats.”

Toronto made its first draft selection since 2017 Thursday, taking Dewan Hernandez from the University of Miami with the 59th pick. The 6-foot-11 Hernandez sat out this season because of his dealings with an agent. Facing additional punishment next season, the junior from Miami turned pro instead.

“To some extent, maybe we got lucky that he didn’t play last year,” Webster said. “He kind of flew under the radar. We all felt like had he had a full season, he wouldn’t have been available at 59. We think we got a really good player.”

Webster said the Raptors had “intense discussions” about acquiring a pick late in the first round or earlier in the second but couldn’t strike a deal they liked.

“We weren’t willing to sacrifice any of our future assets to get it,” he said.

 

Watch Pacers’ Andrew Nembhard drain game-winning 3 to beat Lakers

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LeBron James and Anthony Davis were on the court together (and combined for 46 points and 20 rebounds). Russell Westbrook continued to thrive as a sixth man with 24 points.

But the biggest shot of the night belonged to Pacers’ rookie Andrew Nembhard — a game-winning 3-pointer as time expired.

It was a well-designed play and when Westbrook chased and doubled Bennedict Mathurin in the corner it left the screen setter, Myles Turner, wide open for a clean look at a 3 — but he hit the front of the rim. The long rebound caromed out, Tyrese Haliburton grabbed it and tried to create, but then he saw Nembhard wide open and kicked him the rock.

Ballgame.

The Pacers split their two games in Los Angeles at the start of a seven-game road trip through the West that will test the surprising Pacers.

For the Lakers… they have some hard decisions to make coming up.

Karl-Anthony Towns helped off court after non-contact calf injury

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Hopefully this is not as bad as it looks.

Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony was trying to run back upcourt and went to the ground — without contact — grabbing his knee and calf. He had to be helped off the court.

The Timberwolves officially ruled Towns out for the rest of the night with a calf strain.

A right calf strain would be the best possible outcome, but an MRI will provide more details in the next 24 hours. This had the markings of something much worse, but ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports optimism that Towns avoided something serious.

Towns is averaging 214 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and while his numbers are off this season — just 32.8% on 3-pointers, down from 39.3% for his career — as he tries to adjust to playing next to Rudy Gobert, he’s still one of the game’s elite big men.

The Wizards went on to beat the Timberwolves 142-127 behind 41 from Kristaps Porzingis.

Suns promote GM James Jones to President of Basketball Operations

Phoenix Suns Open Practice
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James Jones put together the roster that took the Suns to the Finals two seasons ago and had the best record in the NBA last season (64 wins). At 13-6, the Suns sit atop the Western Conference this season.

The Suns have rewarded Jones, giving him the title of President of Basketball Operations on top of GM.

“In the nearly 15 years I have known James, he has excelled in every role he performed, from player to NBPA Treasurer to his roles in our front office, most recently as general manager,” Suns interim Governor Sam Garvin said. “James has the unique ability to create and lead high-performing teams in basketball operations and his commitment to collaborating with our business side, including at the C-level with partners like PayPal and Verizon, is second to none. We are fortunate for his contributions across the organization and this promotion recognizes his commitment to excellence.”

Jones moved into the Suns’ front office in 2017 at the end of a 14-year playing career, then became GM in 2019. The move gives Jones a little more stability during the sale of the franchise. Not that the new owner would come in and fire a successful GM.

“I am grateful for the privilege to work with and support the players, staff and employees of the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury,” Jones said in a statement. “The collective efforts of our business and basketball operations have allowed us to provide an amazing atmosphere and best-in-class experience for our fans and community. I remain excited about and dedicated to driving success for our Teams on and off the court.”

Jones has made several moves that set the culture in Phoenix, including hiring Monty Williams as coach then, after an undefeated run in the bubble (that left Phoenix just out of the playoffs), he brought in Chris Paul to take charge at the point.

Report: Leaders in Lakers’ locker room think team ‘only a couple of players away’ from contending

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There’s a sense of optimism around the Lakers: They have won 5-of-6 and are expected to have both Anthony Davis and LeBron James healthy Monday night, plus Russell Westbrook has found a role and comfort level off the bench and other players are settling into roles. They may be 7-11, but it’s early enough there is a sense this could be turned around.

That is echoed by “locker room leaders” who think the team is just a couple of players away from being a contender in the West (where no team has pulled away), reports Dave McMenamin at ESPN.

There is belief shared by leaders in the Lakers’ locker room, sources said, that the team is only a couple of players away from turning this group into a legitimate contender. But acquiring the right players could take multiple trades.

Let’s unpack all of this.

• “Leaders in the Lakers’ locker room” means LeBron and Davis (both repped by Rich Paul). Let’s not pretend it’s anything else.

• If the Lakers don’t make a move to significantly upgrade the roster, how unhappy will those leaders become? How disruptive would that be?

• It is no coincidence that McMenamin’s report comes the day the Lakers face the Pacers, a team they went deep into conversations with this summer on a Myles Turner/Buddy Hield trade, but Los Angeles GM Rob Pelinka ultimately would not put both available Lakers’ first-round picks (2027 and 2029) in the deal and it fell apart. Turner said the Lakers should “take a hard look” at trading for him. The thing is, the Pacers are now 11-8, not tanking for Victor Wembanyama but instead thinking playoffs, so are they going to trade their elite rim protector and sharpshooter away? Not likely. At least not without an overwhelming offer, and the Lakers’ two picks may not get there anymore.

• While Westbrook has found a comfort level coming off the bench (and not sharing the court as much with LeBron), he is still a $47.1 million contract that no team is trading for without sweeteners. To use NBA parlance, he is still a negative value contract, even if it feels less negative than a month ago.

• Are the Lakers really a couple of players away from contending? While they have won 5-of-6, three of those five wins came against the tanking Spurs, the others were against the so-injured-they-might-as-well-be-tanking Pistons, and the Nets before Kyrie Irving returned. The Lakers did what they needed to do and thrived in a soft part of the schedule, but that schedule is about to turn and give the Lakers a reality check on where they really stand. After the Pacers, it’s the Trail Blazers (likely still without Damian Lillard), then an East Coast road trip that includes the Bucks, Cavaliers, Raptors and 76ers. The next couple of weeks will be a better marker for where the Lakers stand, and if they can build off of the past couple of weeks.