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, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant make top 10 of Forbes highest-paid athletes list

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LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and Kevin Durant make more money off the court in endorsements than they do in salary from their teams. Which is not a surprise.

It’s enough money to vault them into the top 10 of FORBES Magazine’s list of highest-paid athletes for the last year.

LeBron is fifth at $88.2 million, of which $37.4 million is salary (although Forbes lists it as much less). Stephen Curry is sixth at $74.4 million, and Durant is seventh at $69.3 million.

Rounding out basketball players in the top 20 are Russell Westbrook at 12th ($56 million), James Harden at 17th $47.8 million, and Giannis Antetokounmpo at $47.6 million. Overall, 34 NBA players are in the top 100, including rookie Zion Williamson at 57th ($27.3 million).

Tennis legend Roger Federer topped the list at $106.3 million, and he was followed by soccer stars Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, and Neymar, before we got to LeBron.

Despite all the work that goes into them, these Forbes estimates have a reputation for being off the mark. That said, it makes for a fun debate and ranking, and we could all use that right now.

Stephen Jackson speaks passionately at a rally in remembrance of his “twin” George Floyd

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Stephen Jackson, the former NBA player and current ESPN analyst, knew George Floyd from when he pair grew up near each other in Texas.

Friday, Jackson spoke about the man he called his “twin” at a rally Minneapolis City Hall Rotunda (an event with Timberwolves players Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie in attendance. (Video via Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic, there is NSFW language involved.)

“I’m here because they’re not gonna demean the character of George Floyd, my twin. A lot of times, when police do things they know that’s wrong, the first thing they try to do is cover it up, and bring up their background, to make it seem like the bulls*** that they did was worthy. When was murder ever worthy? But if it’s a black man, it’s approved.

“You can’t tell me, when that man has his knee on my brother’s neck — taking his life away, with his hand in his pocket — that that smirk on his face didn’t say, ‘I’m protected.’ You can’t tell me that he didn’t feel that it was his duty to murder my brother, and that he knew he was gonna get away with it. You can’t tell me that wasn’t the look on his face.”

There has been a powerful reaction across the NBA world — and across the nation — in the wake of the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery (a 25-year-old black man killed while jogging in a Georgia neighborhood) and Floyd. In a sport with many black players, the murders of these men were reminders of the systemic race issues still part of American culture. LeBron James captured the feelings of many players and others when he took to Instagram.

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STILL!!!! 🤬😢😤

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Derek Chauvin, the man pictured kneeling on Floyd’s neck — which he did for more than eight-and-a-half minutes — was fired from his job in the Minneapolis Police Department and was arrested on Friday and charged with third-degree murder.

Vote on NBA restart format expected next Thursday, here are four plans on the table

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver
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The NBA is almost guaranteed to return to action in July, with the games taking place in Orlando.

What format the return takes is undecided, but the owners are expected to vote on that next Thursday, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

On Friday’s conference call with owners, Adam Silver reportedly laid out four options for them, something Shams Charania of The Athletic reported.

There was no consensus behind any one option, teams are all lobbying for what they want to see. Come next Thursday, Adam Silver is going to have to make a recommendation and get everyone to line up behind it, something the owners and players will do. This is Silver’s call.

Let’s break those options down.

• 16 teams going directly into playoffs. This is the cleanest, most straightforward option, and it has support from a number of owners. This keeps the number of people in the bubble relatively small, making it easier to maintain the safety of players, coaches, staff, and everyone involved. The league likely would keep the conference format rather than go to 1-16 seeding (many owners from the Eastern Conference and coastal cities reportedly are not fans of 1-16 and fear if they do it once, even in this unique season, it would become a regular thing).

One downside is players have asked for some regular season games — or games with meaning — before the playoffs to get their legs under them, this does not provide any (increasing the risk of injury). The other downside is this takes almost half the NBA’s markets and tells them “you’re done, no games from March until Christmas (the expected date for the tip-off of next season, or maybe a week or two earlier). That’s a long time without games and can hurt momentum for those franchises.

• 20 teams, group play for the first round. This is the World Cup soccer idea, with four groups of five teams each and the top two teams in each group advancing to the playoffs. Some fans and teams backed this idea because it provided a bit of randomness to the mix — soccer sees a lot of upsets in this format. On the flip side, the top teams were not fans of this plan for the same reason.

The buzz around the league is this format is basically dead to the owners.

• 22 teams with regular season games to determine seeding, followed by a play-in tournament to the 16-team playoffs. This idea, in a couple of different forms (one with just 20 teams, some with 24) has some momentum. The idea is the 22 teams — all teams within six games off the last playoff spot in each conference, which is the Wizards in the East and the Trail Blazers, Pelicans, Kings, Spurs, and Suns in the West — would play eight regular season games, then standings at the end of those games would set up the play-in tournament for the eighth seed. After that, the playoffs would start. This gets more markets involved, gets some regular season games (helping some regional sports networks), and still has a full playoffs.

There are downsides. It brings more people into the bubble and is that risk worth the reward? There are going to be some meaningless regular season games here, both by teams eliminated and teams locked into their playoff spots (the Lakers and Bucks will treat these games like exhibitions). It also adds a couple of weeks to the season and pushes the end-date back deeper into September and maybe October.

• 30 teams, a regular season to get to 72 games, then a play-in tournament followed by the playoffs. This is the idea to “finish” the regular season. We’re not going to waste time on it because my sources, and those of other reporters, have called this one dead on arrival.

Silver is going to get lobbied all week by different factions backing different plans, but by next Thursday he has to pick a one he can sell to owners and to players. There are no good options, he has to choose the least bad one.

From there, players will get called back to market for workouts and the clock will start.

So long as the league can keep everyone safe.

Bradley Beal: Contract extension gives Wizards opportunity, me flexibility

Wizards guard Bradley Beal
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Bradley Beal, through word and action, has shown an incredibly strong commitment to the Wizards.

But is there an opening to pry him from Washington?

Beal on his contract extension, via “All The Smoke“:

It was definitely tough. I came down to damn near the deadline on my decision, because I kind of play devil’s advocate. The whole year, I’m weighing pros and cons of staying or leaving, signing and not signing. Do I wait and try to sign this summer? Or do I wait and try to get traded? Or do I wait and play my contract out? So, I had a bunch of options.

I secured two more years. I have two more years here. Well, three. And, so for me, it was like that puts me – to me, I don’t think I’m going to hit my prime until I’m – what? – 29, 28, 29, 30? And so I feel like – at the end of this extension, it puts me right there. And it so kind of puts me in the prime time of my basketball. And so it still gives me the flexibility with also giving my respects and loyalty to the organization that drafted me. So, I’m still giving you all an opportunity here to make it with work with John, to make it work with everybody. So, here we go. We’ve got a couple more years. And granted, I think my extension is the length of John’s contract, as well. So, this is the time we’ve got. We’re going to see what we can do, and we’re going to make it work.

Beal on the Nets being interested in trading for him, via Jackie MacMullan of ESPN:

“It’s not the first time I’ve heard this kind of talk,” Beal told ESPN. “It’s interesting. To me, I look at it as a sign of respect, that I’ve been doing good things and guys want to play with me.

“That’s an unbelievable feeling. When you hear that Kyrie [Irving] and KD [Kevin Durant] want you, s—, that’s amazing. At the same time, you don’t know how much there is to it, or how easy it would be to do. And I’ve put down roots in D.C. I’ve dedicated myself to this town, this community. I love it here, and it would feel great to know I could grind out winning here instead of jumping to another team.

“But I’d be naive to say that I don’t think about it when these stories come up.”

Beal, 26, is locked up two more seasons. Both he and John Wall have player options for 2022-23. Beal’s agent, Mark Bartelstein, declared: “There are no Beal Sweepstakes.”

Everything Beal has said and done about staying in Washington is far more concrete than anything he has indicated about leaving.

But…

It’s interesting how close he came to not signing his extension. It’s interesting he publicly admitted to thinking about trade interest from other teams.

To me, Beal sounds like Anthony Davis – after years of stating loyalty to the Pelicans – subtly hinting he was dissatisfied in New Orleans. The key: Davis requested a trade only after the Pelicans kept struggling to build around him.

Beal is giving the Wizards an opportunity. Maybe they can assemble a winner around him. But even if Wall gets healthy, that’s a tough job.

If Washington becomes successful in the next couple years, great. That’s easy. Beal seems to be looking for reasons to stay.

But if the Wizards keep losing the next couple years, other teams will definitely line up to acquire the star shooting guard. Many players in that situation have greased the wheels of their exit by saying they won’t re-sign or even outright requesting a trade.

We’ll see how Washington does. We’ll see what Beal does at that point.

Considering Beal previously said he’d finish his career with the Wizards if he can control it, these recent interviews leave the door cracked slightly – only slightly – more ajar for Beal to depart.