Raptors continue to move on from 2019

Former Raptors Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka
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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Raptors felt like a mercenary team while winning the 2019 NBA championship.

That label fits even better now – with one big, undersized exception.

As they carefully craft a bridge between eras, the Raptors watched Serge Ibaka (Clippers) and Marc Gasol (Lakers) follow Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to Los Angeles… and re-signed Fred VanVleet to lucrative new contract.

Toronto is preserving cap space to make a run at Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2021 free agency. That’s clearly a central goal, one that might have cost the Raptors Ibaka and Gasol.

But VanVleet – a 6-foot-1 undrafted guard – has made himself into such a cornerstone, Toronto rewarded him with a well-deserved four-year, $85 million contract, anyway. VanVleet is tough and fearless, and the 26-year-old is so important to this team’s future.

Ibaka (31) and Gasol (35)? Not so much.

Though Toronto wanted to keep both veterans bigs, there was a clear spending limit. The Raptors seemingly wouldn’t go multiple years, and cramming compensation into a single season brought luxury-tax concerns. Ownership could have paid the tax, though, and this grade suffers accordingly.

Still, it’s understandable. Even if Ibaka and Gasol would have been better options for next season, they’re at an age where they can’t be counted on for much longer. Toronto isn’t getting caught up in sentimentality.

The Raptors are willing to distance themselves from the 2019 championship roster and take a step back in an attempt to build something greater.

Toronto’s 2019 squad already came together quickly. So, players leaving in short order creates a rare dynamic.

The average player on the 2019 Raptors (weighted for playing time that postseason) has played just 220 career games for the Raptors. Though that number will increase, it could easily wind up the lowest among NBA champions.

Here are the NBA champions whose players (weighted for playing time in the championship postseason) averaged the fewest career games for the franchise:

Obviously, this measure disfavors recent champions. Members of the 2020 Lakers have had no future seasons to add to their games played with the franchise. Members of the 2019 Raptors have had only one future season. Etc.

But Toronto is already down to just two starters (Lowry and Siakam), two rotation backups (VanVleet and Powell) and two deep reserves (Patrick McCaw and Patrick Boucher) from the 2019 postseason active roster. Even if all six play every game for the Raptors the next four seasons, the Raptors would still rank third-lowest by this measure.

Needless to say, all six won’t play every game for Toronto the next four seasons.

Lowry will be an unrestricted free agent next offseason. Though he’s the greatest Raptor in franchise history, he isn’t shy about looking beyond Toronto. Last year, he reportedly planned to demand a trade if the Raptors didn’t extend his contract. They did, for one year, which brings the 34-year-old into this anything-could-happen contract year.

Unloading Powell ($11,615,328player option for 2021-22) is Toronto’s most obvious path to max cap space in 2021.

Siakam and VanVleet are long-term core players, though. So is OG Anunoby (who missed the 2019 postseason due to injury). The Raptors hope to add to that foundation with their 2021 cap space.

In the meantime, they want to remain competitive.

So, Toronto signed Aron Baynes ($7 million salary next season with an unguaranteed salary the following year) and Alex Len (one year, about $2,258,000) and re-signed Chris Boucher (about $6.5 million salary next season with an unguaranteed salary the following year). That big-man trio offers flexibility both with the salary cap and on the floor. Baynes is beefier, Boucher lankier and Len between. Raptors coach Nick Nurse can remain versatile and play to matchups, sometimes even use small lineups without one of those centers.

But this is a step back, as evidenced by the Toronto’s desire to re-sign Gasol and Ibaka. The Raptors lose basketball intelligence/chemistry, which was so important to their highly connected team defense. Baynes will look like a great fallback at times, but durability is a concern. He has never played even 1,500 minutes in a season (which would translate to 21 minutes per game over 72 games).

No. 29 pick Malachi Flynn is the other big addition. I like the pick. He appears underrated for similar reasons to why teams missed on VanVleet. But a late first-rounder can’t be expected to dictate Toronto’s future.

Kawhi Leonard did that when he became the first star to leave a title team for another team. The Raptors never had the option of maintaining their championship group.

So, Toronto continues to straddle the line between competing and tearing down.

This offseason represents another small step back in pursuit of something greater. That could easily pay off in 2021 free agency.

But even if it doesn’t, the Raptors can continue to take solace in this: They’re falling so much only because they first reached the greatest height.

Offseason grade: C-

Watch Embiid score 47, lift 76ers past Jokic, Nuggets 126-119

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Joel Embiid won the battle of MVP candidates with 47 points and 18 rebounds as the Philadelphia 76ers extended their winning streak to seven games with a 126-119 win over Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets on Saturday.

Jokic and Embiid have finished first and second in voting for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award over the last two seasons. Both are among the top candidates for MVP as this season hits the halfway mark, although Embiid was not named among the All-Star starters from the Eastern Conference.

“I’m used to it and it’s not the first time,” Embiid said. “I think it’s more of a motivation to go out there and try to win the whole thing. That’s the only way that I’ll get that respect.”

Jokic gave Embiid a nod for his play.

“He’s really talented,” Jokic told the Denver Post of Embiid. “Really shifty.”

James Harden had 17 points and 13 assists, and Tobias Harris scored all 14 of his points in the second half after being shut down by Denver’s defense in the first half.

“We were able to figure some things out and get some stops,” Harris said. “Guys stepping up and making shots was huge for us to cut the deficit in the fourth quarter to try and make something happen.”

Jokic had 24 points, eight rebounds and nine assists for Denver, which has lost three of its last four games. Jamal Murray chipped in 22 points and Michael Porter added 20.

“We turned it over and they just turned up the pressure on us,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “They got to the basket way too easy with their attack mentality. And we just got way too careless with the basketball.”

Embiid has scored 40 or more points nine times this season and 35 times in his career. In addition to the All-Star snub, Embiid was also given a $25,000 fine by the NBA on Friday for an on-court demonstration after-basket celebration during Wednesday night’s win over Brooklyn.

“Let’s keep offending Joel by fining him and not putting him among the All-Star starters,” Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers said sarcastically.

The Nuggets began the day with the second-best team field goal percentage at 50.7% and tops in 3-point percentage at 39.5%. In the first half, they overwhelmed Philadelphia’s perimeter defense, shooting 65.9% (29 for 44) from the floor and 10 of 17 (58.8%) from beyond the 3-point line. The hot shooting helped the Nuggets to a 73-58 lead at halftime.

Embiid started to take over toward the end of the third quarter, putting together a 16-point quarter on 5-of-6 shooting that keyed a 14-0 run that allowed the Sixers to close within 99-98 early in the fourth.

In the final quarter, Philadelphia wore down a Nuggets team playing the final game of a three-game, week-long trip. P.J. Tucker– who had switched defenively to Jokic and slowed him down in the second half- followed a Harden missed 3-pointer with a tip-in with over a minute left to stretch the lead to five. Embiid then hit a 3-pointer to restore an eight-point lead.

“I’ve always like to think I am a closer and I am,” Embiid said. “Taking the last shot or taking a last second shot with the clock ticking is fun for me. I love getting into those types of possession where you have to make the plays. That’s where you find out who is who and who is made up for those kinds of moments.”

Report: Myles Turner agrees to two-year, $60 million extension with Pacers

Indiana Pacers v Milwaukee Bucks
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Take Myles Turner off the trade market.

After months of negotiations, the Pacers and Turner have agreed to a contract extension, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

This has since been confirmed by other sources.

Turner — back playing his natural center spot this season with Domantas Sabonis in Sacramento — is having the best season of his career, averaging 17.5 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.4 blocks a game. He has been one of the keys to a surprisingly good Pacers team this season.

That $60 million contract extension number can be a little misleading. Turner was already making $18 million this season, but because the Pacers are $24.4 million under the salary cap, they can do a re-negotiation and extension with the big man, giving him a $17.1 million bump right now (to a total of $35.1 million for this season) and extend off of that for two years, the first at $20.2 million and the second at $19.9 million, according to Shams Charania.

There had been a lot of trade interest in Turner, going back to last summer, most prominently with the Los Angeles Lakers in a swap that would have sent Buddy Hield and Turner to the West Coast for Russell Westbrook and two first-round picks. That draft pick compensation kept the deal from getting done (the Pacers wanted two unprotected first-rounders).

NBA refutes viral Reddit post claiming conspiracy to pad Jaren Jackson Jr.’s stats

Memphis Grizzlies v Golden State Warriors
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Jaren Jackson Jr. has been a defensive monster since coming back from foot surgery, something obvious by the eye test but backed up by impressive stats: 3.1 blocks and a steal a game, opposing players are shooting 44% on shots he contests and when he is on the court the Grizzlies have. 106.8 defensive rating (which would be best in the league by more than three points). He is the frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year right now.

That led to a conspiracy theory post on Reddit about how the Memphis scorekeeper is padding Jackson’s stats, calling his numbers fraudulent. The post went viral — we all love to think we’re in on something nobody else knows — and has gotten to the point some Las Vegas sportsbooks have taken down Defensive Player of the Year betting.

The conspiracy theory does not hold water. At all.

The NBA pushed back on that theory by reminding people that all NBA stats are audited in real-time by someone watching the video in Secaucus (rebound or blocked shots being changed during a game is not uncommon because of this).

“In order to ensure the integrity of our game statistics, auditors, independent of the statisticians on-site, review all plays and stats decisions in real-time during NBA games,” NBA spokesman Tim Frank told NBC Sports. “If changes are necessary, they are made at that time or following a postgame review. All of the plays questioned in the post on Memphis games were scored consistently within the rules set forth by the NBA statisticians manual.”

Reddit has now labeled the post “Misleading.”

Another Reddit user compiled videos of the alleged stat padding incidents called out in the post, but watching them proves the NBA’s point that these were correctly assigned. For example, Jackson gets credit for steals on tipped balls, which is how steals are calculated. The video showed that many fans don’t understand the rules and definitions of what constitutes a steal or a block.

On a more fundamental level than that, the NBA now has gambling and fantasy sports partners — if there was stat padding, those entities would be on it and the first to call out the league. The league’s statistics are big business — you can bet on the number of blocks or rebounds that Jackson or other players will get — and those gambling and fantasy entities also watch the games closely.

But we’ll be talking about this conspiracy theory again when NBA awards season pops up, because people want to believe, even in the face of evidence proving they are wrong. Not that we needed basketball to teach us that lesson.

 

Report: Nuggets might consider Bones Hyland trade for defensive help

Denver Nuggets v Milwaukee Bucks
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A year ago, it felt like the Nuggets had found their long-term backup point guard in rookie Bones Hyland, a guy who could be part of the rotation when Jamal Murray returned. Except, in his second season, Hyland hasn’t taken a step forward — although his play has been better and more aggressive in recent weeks — and free agent Bruce Brown has shown he can play some backup one (even if he is more of a combo guard).

That has the Nuggets considering trading Hyland if they can get defensive help, reports Jake Fischer at Yahoo Sports.

After his name was discussed in trade conversations around last June’s NBA Draft, Denver begun gauging the trade value of second-year guard Bones Hyland, sources said…. While Hyland has two years remaining on his rookie deal, in anticipation of Brown’s next payday [Note: He is expected to opt out and test the market], plus Hyland’s upcoming second contract, has the tax-conscious Nuggets considering their options in the backcourt. Occasional clashes between Hyland and head coach Michael Malone’s old-school mentality have also been a factor in Denver’s trade dialogue, sources said.

In exchange for Hyland, the Nuggets have expressed an interest in defensive-minded frontcourt players, sources said, and will search for a player plus a first-round pick.

Brown has played his way to a bigger contract than the $6.8 million player option he has for next season, but the Nuggets are already big spenders and not looking to go deep into the tax (Nikola Jokic’s extension kicks in next season at about $46.9 million a year to start, and both Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. will make north of $33 million next season). It is possible the Nuggets let Brown walk and keep Hyland, still on his rookie contract and set to make $2.3 million next season, partly for financial reasons. Hyland is averaging 12.4 points per game and shooting 38.5% from 3, but he struggles defensively (which is where the clashes with Malone come in).

Denver has a chance to win the West this season and defense is what will decide if that happens — if the Nuggets can land another wing/forward defender, they may jump at it and worry about the backup one spot next summer. However, finding that player in a high-priced seller’s market may prove the biggest challenge — several teams are looking for that same kind of defensive help.