Pascal Siakam
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Pascal Siakam not your typical max player

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DETROIT – Pascal Siakam, wearing a camouflage sweatshirt, jokingly hid behind a Raptors staffer to duck his post-game interview. Siakam said he was promised a respite from the sometimes-tedious responsibility. A reporter replied that the hiatus didn’t apply when Siakam scored 30.

Of course, Siakam soon came out and dutifully answered questions.

He has been front and center as Toronto’s go-to star all season.

The Raptors have faced rarely precedented upheaval for a defending champion. Toronto lost players responsible for nearly a third of its 2019 postseason minutes. That’s high, but not unique, for a title team. The 1969 Celtics, 1998 Bulls, 2003 Spurs and 2011 Mavericks lost more. But the Raptors became the first defending champion to lose an unquestioned star to another team.

In 1998, Chicago knew it was rebuilding after Michael Jordan’s retirement. In 2003, San Antonio still had Tim Duncan. In 2011, Dallas still had Dirk Nowitzki.

Kawhi Leonard signing with the Clippers created an identity crisis in Toronto. The Raptors had come to rely heavily on Leonard, but they still wanted to win this season – just without their best player.

Boston in 1969 provided a depressing example. Bill Russell retired after the Celtics’ championship. Even with John Havlicek, Boston went just 34-48 the next season.

But Siakam knew where Toronto would turn without Leonard: Siakam.

“Being a max player,” Siakam said, “you expect that.”

Siakam, who signed a max contract extension last fall, looks the part.

His blistering start to the season put him in the superstar conversation. He’s the engine behind the Raptors’ 40-14 record. Voted an All-Star starter, Siakam even had captains Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James bantering about who’d get to select him while MVP candidates Luka Doncic and James Harden remained on the board during the All-Star draft.

Except Siakam is far from a typical max player.

His contract status, age, entry to the NBA and incredible rise tell a distinctive story. The next chapters will shape Toronto for years to come.

Contract status

Since the NBA adopted the current format with the 1999 rookie class, 32 players have signed max rookie-scale extensions (defined by starting salary). Just eight of those deals were shorter than the longest-allowable length:

  • LeBron James (Cavaliers in 2006)
  • Dwyane Wade (Heat in 2006)
  • Chris Bosh (Raptors in 2006)
  • Chris Paul (New Orleans in 2008)
  • Deron Williams (Jazz in 2008)
  • Kevin Love with (Timberwolves in 2011)
  • DeMarcus Cousins (Kings in 2013)
  • Pascal Siakam (Raptors in 2019)

In every previous case, the shorter extension signaled underlying turbulence:

  • LeBron, Wade and Bosh wanted to hit unrestricted free agency sooner. Though Wade re-signed in Miami as part of the star team-up, the main priority seemed to be joining forces with LeBron and maybe Bosh. It just happened with the Heat rather than Bulls.
  • Following the lead of his friend LeBron, Chris Paul took a shorter extension. Two years later, Paul pressured New Orleans to trade him. A year after that, the team acquiesced, sending Paul to the Clippers.
  • Deron Williams, widely viewed as Paul’s peer, also took the shorter extension. Fearing the disgruntled star bolting, Utah traded Williams to the Nets.
  • The Timberwolves infamously saved their designated-player extension for Ricky Rubio, upsetting Love. The Minnesota-Love relationship never recovered, and he worked a trade to the Cavaliers a few years later.
  • Sacramento was reportedly troubled by Cousins’ behavior and unwilling to commit a fifth season on his rookie-scale extension. On the verge of giving him another extension years later, the Kings got cold feet and instead traded him to the Pelicans.

On the other hand, Siakam looks stable in Toronto. There are no known concerns about his attitude. In fact, it appears exemplary. There has been no chatter about Siakam looking to leave, either.

Most players who can secure a max-salary extension also seek maximum security, especially on their first big payday. Siakam was no exception. His agents originally asked the Raptors for five years.

Toronto offered four, and Siakam accepted. There can be advantages to the shorter deal – namely getting to another, potentially higher-paying, deal sooner.

Where many players would have pushed for the larger guarantee, Siakam was comfortable betting on himself. He and his agents, Jaafar Choufani and Todd Ramasar, just prioritized a max salary rather than the very most years.

“There’s so much that comes with that in terms of respect among your peers, in terms of your placement with the franchise,” Choufani said.

So, why did the Raptors want the shorter extension?

Age

In 2016, the Bucks signed Giannis Antetokounmpo to a four-year extension worth slightly less than the max. A five-year extension would have required paying the full max.

Think Milwaukee would rather have the Most Valuable Player locked up an additional season rather than get the salary savings?

The Raptors could have similar regrets in a few years. Siakam is now headed toward 2024, rather than 2025, unrestricted free agency.

But there’s a key difference between Siakam and Antetokounmpo. In fact, there’s a key difference between Siakam and nearly every other player to sign a max rookie-scale extension.

Siakam is much older.

When his extension kicks in, Siakam will be 26. Only Steve Francis was older to begin a max rookie-scale extension.

By the third season of his extension, Francis looked like a shell of himself. After the fourth season, he agreed to a buyout. He was out of the NBA altogether before the end of what would have been the fifth season of his extension.

Of course, Siakam isn’t Francis. Siakam isn’t like anyone we’ve ever seen.

Entry to NBA and incredible rise

The Raptors drafted Siakam with the No. 27 pick in 2016. Even that low, he was widely viewed as a reach. Siakam looked like just a hustle player, and his age appeared to limit his ceiling.

Only three years later, Siakam became only player selected outside lottery to receive a max rookie-scale extension.

“For those kids out there that want to see how good you can be, go watch him in the summer time,” said former Raptors coach Dwane Casey, who now coaches the Pistons. “Not worried about load management. The kid worked three a times a day, him and Rico Hines out there in L.A.”

Siakam went from barely used to key reserve to Most Improved Player. By the end of Toronto’s title run, he was playing like a star.

Most of Siakam’s all-in-one numbers are down this season. He’s not shooting as efficiently as last season. His defense – still elite when necessary – isn’t quite as imposing.

But Siakam has shouldered a massive offensive burden, which is exactly what the Raptors needed.

“Now, he goes out with the idea that he is the primary guy, right from the jump and not waiting to see how the flow of the game goes or Kawhi has it going or whatever,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said. “He kind of just takes it right from the opening tip and goes with it.”

Even after winning Most Improved Player, Siakam continues to add facets to his game.

Casey described Siakam’s previous approach as, “Shooting was his last resort.” Now, Siakam – who faces far more attention than ever – says, “I feel like I can always get whatever I want.”

This continued development explains why I wouldn’t have picked Siakam for Most Improved Player last season. De'Aaron Fox grew more in a single year, the timeframe for the annual award.

Siakam’s progress spans multiple years – and is therefore also far larger in summation. That deserves its own recognition.

Just 16 players have set a career high in points per game then increase their scoring average by at least 15 within two seasons. Siakam – who has gone from 7.3 to 16.9 to 23.7 points per game, an increase of 16.4 – is on pace to become the 17th.

Here’s everyone to do it:

Pascal Siakam

Siakam’s journey from Cameroon to New Mexico State to the NBA was already an amazing story. Add this newfound level of stardom, and it’s jaw-dropping.

Just not to Siakam.

“I always understood the level I could get to, and I understand the level I can get to,” Siakam said. “I’m not there yet, and I’m going to continue to work to get there.”

What is that level?

“I think the sky’s the limit,” Siakam said before correcting himself. “There’s no limit at all.”

LeBron James: On behalf of basketball community, we won’t miss Donald Trump’s viewership

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NBA players kneeled for the national anthem.

President Donald Trump called the protest – which is meant to call attention to racism, particularly through police brutality – “disgraceful” and said he stopped watching games.

And in yet another predictable turn in this news cycle, Lakers star LeBron James fired back at Trump.

LeBron:

I really don’t think the basketball community are sad about losing his viewership, him viewing the game.

And that’s all I’ve got to say. I don’t want to – I’m not going to get into a – because I already know where this could go, where it could lead to for tomorrow for me. I’m not going to get into it.

But I think our game is in a beautiful position. And we have fans all over the world. And our fans not only love the way we play the game – we try to give it back to them with our commitment to the game – but also respect what else we try to bring to the game and acknowledge what’s right and what’s wrong.

And I hope everyone – no matter the race, no matter the color, no matter their size – will see what leadership that we have at the top in our country and understand that November is right around the corner. And it’s a big moment for us as Americans. If we continue to talk about we want better, want change, we have an opportunity to do that.

But the game will go on without his eyes on it. I can sit here and speak for all of us that love the game of basketball. We could care less.

LeBron has frequently criticized the president. Trump has also criticized LeBron. That’s how it goes.

In this case (and others), LeBron has the moral high ground. Kneeling during the national anthem is a patriotic act designed to make the United States a better place for all its people to live – something far more noble than saluting a piece of cloth during a song.

However, LeBron is wrong to speak for the entire basketball community. A lot of people love basketball. They don’t all hold the same political views. Some care about remaining in the good graces of the president of the United States, whomever that is. Some even care about the approval of Trump specifically.

Is there a limit on how much you love basketball if you’d stop watching because of a peaceful protest before a game? Obviously. But there’s still room to love basketball and also care about other things.

LeBron doesn’t have to personally dignify people who care both about basketball and Trump. But LeBron shouldn’t try to speak on their behalf, either.

LeBron’s rebuke would have been powerful enough (and more fair) on its own.

 

Jazz forward Joe Ingles joins Grizzlies huddle, drapes arms over Memphis players (video)

Jazz forward Joe Ingles vs. Grizzlies
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Jazz forward Joe Ingles has no boundaries with huddles.

Ingles invaded the Grizzlies huddle today, even putting his arms around – and some weight on – Dillon Brooks and Grayson Allen. Gorgui Dieng appeared to notice the intruder just before the video cut away:

Beyond the hijinks, Ingles also scored 25 points – including 12 in the fourth quarter – to lead Utah to a 124-115 win.

NBA owners pledge $300M for empowering Black community

NBA Black Lives Matter
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The NBA put “BLACK LIVES MATTER” on the court and social-justice messages on jerseys. These are visible symbols that can draw attention to the fight for racial justice.

But NBA owners have the power to do more than make symbolic gestures.

NBA owners will do more.

NBA release:

The NBA Board of Governors announced today that it will contribute $300 million in initial funding to establish the first-ever NBA Foundation dedicated to creating greater economic empowerment in the Black community.  The Foundation is being launched in partnership with the National Basketball Players Association.

Over the next 10 years, the 30 NBA team owners will collectively contribute $30 million annually to establish a new, leaguewide charitable foundation.  Through its mission to drive economic empowerment for Black communities through employment and career advancement, the NBA Foundation will seek to increase access and support for high school, college-aged and career-ready Black men and women, and assist national and local organizations that provide skills training, mentorship, coaching and pipeline development in NBA markets and communities across the United States and Canada.  As a public charity, the Foundation will also aim to work strategically with marketing and media partners to develop additional programming and funding sources that deepen the NBA family’s commitment to racial equality and social justice.

The Foundation will focus on three critical employment transition points: obtaining a first job, securing employment following high school or college, and career advancement once employed.  Through contributions, the NBA Foundation will enhance and grow the work of national and local organizations dedicated to education and employment, including through investment in youth employment and internship programs, STEM fields, job shadows and apprenticeships, development pathways outside of traditional higher education, career placement, professional mentorship, networking and specific partnerships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

“On behalf of the NBA Board of Governors, I am thrilled to announce the creation of the NBA Foundation,” said NBA Board of Governors Chairman and Toronto Raptors Governor Larry Tanenbaum.  “All NBA team governors recognize our unique position to effect change and we are committed to supporting and empowering young Black men and women in each of our team markets as well as communities across the U.S. and Canada.”

“The creation of this foundation is an important step in developing more opportunities for the Black community,” said NBPA President Chris Paul.  “I am proud of our league and our players for their commitment to this long-term fight for equality and justice, and I know we will continue to find ways to keep pushing for meaningful institutional change.”

The Foundation will work directly with all 30 teams, their affiliated charitable organizations and the NBPA to support national organizations and their local affiliates as well as local grassroots organizations to facilitate sustainable programming and create change in team markets.

“Given the resources and incredible platform of the NBA, we have the power to ideate, implement and support substantive policies that reflect the core principles of equality and justice we embrace,” said NBPA Executive Director Michele Roberts.  “This Foundation will provide a framework for us to stay committed and accountable to these principles.”

“We are dedicated to using the collective resources of the 30 teams, the players and the league to drive meaningful economic opportunities for Black Americans,” said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.  “We believe that through focused programs in our team markets and nationally, together with clear and specific performance measures, we can advance our shared goals of creating substantial economic mobility within the Black community.”

The 30 NBA teams will be members of the NBA Foundation with its eight Board of Directors comprised of representatives from the NBA Board of Governors (four board seats), players and executives from the NBPA (three board seats) and the league office (one board seat).  The Foundation’s board will oversee all business affairs and provide strategic direction with respect to programming and grantmaking.

This is great.

Trail Blazers reportedly tried recently to get Trevor Ariza to join them in bubble

Trail Blazers forward Trevor Ariza
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Trevor Ariza opted-out of playing for Portland in the NBA’s restart so he could spend time with his son. Due to a custody case, he had a limited window to visit and he chose family over basketball.

However, as his custody window shifted and Portland started to look at a deeper playoff run — and maybe a matchup with the Lakers in the first round — some Trail Blazers players tried to get Ariza to come to the bubble after all. If Zion Williamson and others could leave the bubble for family emergencies, why couldn’t Ariza be let in, the players asked?

That plan didn’t work out, reports Chris Hayes of Yahoo Sports.

But because his visitation period had been amended with a conclusion date now near the start of August, there was some optimism among the players that Ariza might be allowed into the bubble to further strengthen their chances of a deep playoff run. If the Trail Blazers were to snag the final playoff spot, they would face LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round and a pesky Ariza would have been useful guarding James.

The possibility was explored, but sources said the Trail Blazers had to have previously applied for a hardship waiver or a late-arrival form for Ariza to be considered for entry into the bubble. Even if those steps were taken, the league would have likely denied the request because Ariza chose to opt out, wasn’t included on the restart roster, and didn’t arrive with his team on July 9.

The league put together strict rules about who could and couldn’t be inside the bubble — rules agreed to by the players’ union. Those rules are working at keeping the virus out. The league was not going to bend the rules for Portland now.

Ariza chose time with his son and wanted it bad enough to give up between $1.1 million and $1.8 million in salary (depending on how far the Trail Blazers got). Nobody should knock that choice; it was his to make, and picking family is never the wrong option.

Ariza is under contract for $12.8 million with Portland next season, but only $1.8 million of that salary guaranteed next season. If Portland wants to reduce payroll, they can buy Ariza out and make him a free agent at age 35. There would be suitors, Ariza has proven to be a helpful glue guy on good teams.

That glue just can’t help Portland this season.