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.”

Not one NBA equipment manager packed light for NBA restart

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Rob Pimental spent a good amount of time thinking about everything the Miami Heat would need for what could be a three-month trip to Walt Disney World.

He is the Heat equipment manager. Every jersey, sock, sneaker, whatever the team needs, it’s his responsibility to have it ready. So, when it came time to figure out what was getting packed for Disney, Pimental came to a realization.

“Pretty much everything,” said Pimental, who confessed to having a few sleepless nights of worrying. “I’m the type of guy who wants everything on hand, so I literally packed up my entire equipment room and brought it with me.”

He’s not alone.

All 22 teams in the NBA restart had to pack more than ever, for a road trip like none other. Every team is assured of spending at least five weeks at Disney, and some could be there for three months. The challenges for players and coaches are obvious, but the challenge for equipment managers — among the unsung heroes of this restart plan — aren’t anywhere near as visible to those watching games from afar.

“This is what equipment managers were built for, honestly,” Orlando Magic equipment manager Jacob Diamond said. “We have some of the smartest guys around the league that do what I do and at the end of the day, for us, it’s really no job too big, no job too small. Our coaches are relying on us, our players, and this is history right here. So, it’s kind of cool to be a part of it — even though it’s extra work.”

For this trip, Diamond has a two-room suite in the hotel that the Magic are calling home.

It’s not a perk. He needed the space.

Luggage is lined up around all four walls, with more bags in the middle of the room, along with a clothes rack, a large trunk and a bunch of bright blue bags with the Magic logo stacked over by the sliding door that leads to the balcony. He knows the contents of each, where every item is, so if Nikola Vucevic needs a certain pair of socks or Aaron Gordon needs a certain type of compression gear, Diamond finds it in a flash.

“I made sure I overpacked for this rather than underpacked,” Diamond said. “It’s not so easy to have things sent here. I’d rather have things here, ready to go, so here we are.”

Toronto Raptors equipment manager Paul Elliott prides himself on typically taking only what he needs. He tends to take 45 bags on a standard road trip; by NBA standards, that is packing light.

Not this time. For this trip, Elliott’s count was 176 bags.

And while most teams only had to move their operation once — from their home facility to Disney — Elliott had to pack the Raptors up twice, first from Toronto to their pre-camp workouts at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, and then again to get the stuff up to Disney.

“I looked at it as what they were going to take for a two-week Western road trip, took what I would usually pack for that, and kind of quadrupled it,” Elliott said. “I just had to make sure I had enough options for these guys to accommodate them when they need. I just want to be prepared.”

More gear is on the way.

By the time games start, the 22 teams will have more than 4,000 jerseys between them. Every team brought three sets of uniforms — typically, two jerseys each for each player. Then the decision was made to give players at Disney the opportunity to wear jerseys with a message raising awareness about social injustice and racial inequality, and those huge shipments are expected to arrive in the next few days.

When Elliott started unloading the Raptors’ 176 bags, several staff members who aren’t usually tasked with helping with equipment ran to his aid. More bags will be going back to Toronto when the season ends; Elliott had his assistant send him empty ones to accommodate the new jerseys.

“We’ve got the greatest staff for that sort of thing,” Elliott said. “Nobody’s above anything. They just want to make sure it’s done properly.”

Washington coach Scott Brooks said the Wizards are using a similar everybody-must-help approach, and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra insisted his team do the same.

“There’s an absolute understanding that this is an all-hands-on-deck situation,” Spoelstra said. “And that means bags, laundry, cleanup, everything — not just for equipment managers, but everybody. … We’re all going to be involved in every aspect of it.”

Days will be long for equipment managers. Each team only sent one; it’s not unusual for two equipment personnel to travel, but that wasn’t possible on this trip because of the restrictions on the amount of people who can be in the NBA bubble.

Extra work will add up as well. After practices or games, equipment managers will have to load up the sweaty gear, take it back to the hotel, then call a shuttle to pick them up and take them to the laundry facility built for the restart — 66 washers and 66 dryers, all lined up inside what once was a batting cage at the Atlanta Braves’ former spring training complex.

There’s also a code among the equipment managers. While the 22 teams will be trying to beat each other, the equipment staffs are working together and helping one another where possible.

“We all understand each other’s daily battles,” Diamond said, “because we share the same ones.”

The real comforts of home are gone for the next several weeks. The trick, Pimental said, is making sure players don’t have to worry about getting what they need.

“It’s something we’ve never done before,” Pimental said. “But we’ll make it work.”

Joakim Noah says focus of Achilles recovery was to make Clippers roster

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Joakim Noahlike Kobe Bryant and so many athletes before them — didn’t want an injury to define how his career would end.

Noah said he injured his Achilles back in September and the focus of his rehab is the chance he has now with the Clippers.

“You know, in September, I had a freak accident and cut my Achilles, and you know, I told myself that that’s just not how I wanted to end my career,” Noah said on a conference call with reporters Saturday.

“So you know, the day after the surgery, I was in the gym working out with the hope of making this team. I knew that if I didn’t keep training and if I got a call from the Clippers and I wasn’t ready, I knew I would have regrets for the rest of my life. So I kept training, and to be in this position right now, I feel very fortunate to be in this position, being with God, great players, being in a position to win a championship, it’s not something that I take for granted.”

Joakim Noah added he was supposed to have a workout with the Clippers before the season, but the injury ended that.

“I was supposed to work out with them in September right before the season started. I was ready. I was really excited for the opportunity, and then, you know, just from up with one minute to the next, I cut my Achilles.

“So to be back in this position and to have the confidence from the organization… It’s just a class organization. I just feel like very, very blessed to be in this position right now.”

Noah provides depth and versatility behind an established Los Angeles frontcourt, something needed with the compacted schedule in the Orlando NBA restart. The Clippers start Ivica Zubac, a more traditional center, then bring potential Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell off the bench. Harrell brings his energy, 18.7 points and 7.1 rebounds a night, great pick-and-roll chemistry with Lou Williams, plus improved defense to the mix.

The Clippers are counting on the Noah from the second half of last season, where he was solid coming off the bench in Memphis playing quality defense plus scoring 7.1 points per game. Noah could even play himself into a Clipper contract for next season (depending on what happens with Harrell in free agency this offseason).

For now, Noah is just happy to be back on the court.

Philadelphia’s Ryan Broekhoff not in Orlando after wife tests positive

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Ryan Broekhoff, who never quite found a spot in the Dallas rotation, got a real opportunity when Philadelphia signed him as a substitute player for the restart in Orlando.

Except Broekhoff hasn’t gotten a chance to take advantage of the opportunity because there are things more important than basketball.

Broekhoff explained in a Tweet that his wife tested positive for the coronavirus and family has been his priority. As it should be.

Philly signed Broekhoff because the team needs shooting, and what he does is take and make threes — 51 of his 59 shot attempts in Dallas this season were from three (for his career 77.8% of his shot attempts are from deed) and he hit 40.3% of them.

Broekhoff was always going to struggle to find minutes with the Sixers. Philly is expected to start Shake Milton and Josh Richardson on the wing in Orlando, and coming off the bench behind them is Furkan Korkmaz, Matisse Thybulle, Glenn Robinson III, and Alec Burks.

Kawhi Leonard arrives in Orlando, Nikola Jokic expected soon

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The Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard has arrived in the NBA’s restart bubble in Orlando. The Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic is not far behind him.

They are two of the biggest name players who were delayed arriving in Orlando, but for them the delays were short.

“Kawhi, he is here, he is going through the protocol,” Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers said Saturday, adding the two-time Finals MVP arrived Friday night and is in the midst of the two-day/two-test quarantine all players and staff went through. If things go smoothly, he should be practicing with the team by Monday. Leonard’s arrival was delayed for “personal reasons” (and Leonard doesn’t open up much about his personal life).

Jokic tested positive for the coronavirus back in his native Serbia, which delayed his arrival stateside (where there were more tests and quarantine time). Nuggets coach Mike Malone said Jokic should arrive soon.

That leaves the two Houston stars — James Harden and Russell Westbrook — as the biggest names not yet in Orlando. Both are expected to arrive in the coming days. The Rockets have resumed practice without him.