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Las Vegas overflowing with Kawhi Leonard speculation, almost no answers

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LAS VEGAS — Everybody is talking about it. Nobody really knows what comes next.

The second topic on everyone’s lips at the NBA Summer League — after complaining about the shocking temperature disparity in the arena vs. the second everyone steps outside into the desert air — is “What is going on with Kawhi Leonard?”

Nobody knows for sure. Ask 10 team executives, you get 10 different answers. Trust me, I’ve tried it.

Everyone involved is waiting for someone else to blink: The Spurs are waiting on the Sixers/Lakers/others to up their offers and throw all (or most of) their best young players in a package; other teams are waiting for the Spurs to stop asking for everything but a bottle of 1992 Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon in the trade; other teams (Raptors?) want to jump into the mix in a serious way; and everyone is waiting for Leonard’s inexperienced management team to have better communication with teams interested in a trade, to get the best medical info out there and get teams to trust their word.

Yes, that was the Raptors mentioned in the last sentence. Here is what Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post wrote about Toronto (a team looking to shake things up) and Leonard.

The Toronto Raptors also generated buzz as a potential destination for Leonard. With LeBron James out of the Eastern Conference, perhaps Raptors President of Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri is willing to swing for the fences and move DeMar DeRozan or Kyle Lowry in such a deal.

DeRozan’s name has bubbled up in trade rumors all summer, but the Raptors are only going to move him in a trade they think makes them better now. If healthy, Leonard would. But that’s where the questions start: Is Leonard fully healthy? Would he consider re-signing with Toronto? Would Leonard’s uncle/management team squash such a move?

That’s where it is with every team, every rumor. There are more questions than answers.

Does Leonard want to be a Laker or does he not want to play with LeBron? Will the Lakers throw Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma into a deal? Does he want to come to L.A. and be a Clipper, and will he sign there next summer (because the Clips don’t have the pieces for a trade)? Will the Sixers throw in Markelle Fultz to get a deal done? That is just the tip of the iceberg of questions.

The Sixers or Lakers are the most likely destinations for a trade, but the Spurs don’t like either team’s current offer, so this drags out. It could drag out until training camp. Maybe longer, although the Spurs leverage is not growing. Free agency in 2019 looms over everything.

That’s not a definitive answer, but only because right now there isn’t one.

New Raptors coach Nick Nurse made lasting impression on GM Masai Ujiri

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TORONTO (AP) — Toronto Raptors President Masai Ujiri hasn’t forgotten the first time he met Nick Nurse.

It was 1995 and Ujiri, now president of the Toronto Raptors, was playing for the Derby Storm of the British Basketball League. Nurse was coach of the rival Birmingham Bullets. Not yet 30, Nurse had already been on the bench for six years, quickly establishing himself as a coach on the rise.

“His teams were tough,” Ujiri said Thursday as the Raptors officially introduced Nurse as their coach. “There was always something about the Birmingham team that was different from the whole league. People talked about them that way.”

More than two decades on from that initial introduction, Ujiri is hoping Nurse has what it takes to turn Toronto into the talk of the NBA.

The ninth head coach in Raptors history, Nurse replaces his former boss, Dwane Casey – under whom he spent the past five seasons as a Toronto assistant. Casey was fired after the Raptors were swept out of the second round of this year’s playoffs by Cleveland, their third straight playoff defeat at the hands of LeBron James and the Cavs.

Ujiri called Nurse “everything you want in a candidate” and said his new coach, the first he has hired as an NBA executive, is someone who “thinks the game differently.”

“He was outstanding,” Ujiri said. “He really came out on top. Trying new stuff, being innovative, is who Nick is. You can tell he’s a tactician who really thinks the game.”

Nurse called it “a long month” of waiting for a decision following Casey’s dismissal but said he understood why Ujiri needed to take his time.

“Even though I’ve been across the gym from him for five years, there’s a lot of detail to go through,” Nurse said.

Nurse also gave credit to Casey, who was hired as Detroit’s head coach this week.

“We shared a lot of winning together,” Nurse said. “He’s a competitive guy, a great professional. I learned a lot from him. You can’t take away the five years we shared.”

Toronto went 59-23 this season, the best record in the Eastern Conference and second-best in the NBA behind Houston. Nurse was in charge of the offense, led by All-Star guards DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. He also engineered a successful overhaul of the game plan before last season as Toronto put increased emphasis on ball movement and 3-point shooting.

For the coming season, Nurse said he wants to inject more defensive creativity “so we can try to be ready for more things in the playoffs.”

Rex Kalamian, a Raptors assistant alongside Nurse last season, is expected to join the Los Angeles Clippers, leaving Nurse multiple spots to fill on his staff. Nurse said Thursday he has a good idea of what he’s looking for.

“I think it’s really important that we get an experienced staff,” he said. “Guys that have been head coaches at some level is important to me. It’s good to know what it’s like to be the decision maker.”

There’s also the possibility of new players, with Ujiri acknowledging Toronto has “work to do” with its roster.

Nurse graduated from Northern Iowa and got his first head coaching position at Grand View College when he was only 23. He spent more than a decade in Europe and was an assistant coach for Britain at the 2012 London Olympics. A past G League coach of the year, he’s the only coach to lead two teams to an NBA G League Championship, winning with Iowa in 2011 and Rio Grande in 2013.

Nurse’s career has seen its share of stops and opponents, but he still recalls facing Ujiri while with Birmingham.

“I remember,” Nurse said, smiling. “He played really hard.”

Raptors playoff problems run much deeper than LeBron James

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LeBron James, according to former Cavaliers general manager David Griffin, corrected a Toronto player on how to run a Raptors play during the fourth quarter of a playoff game.

That’s domination.

It’s the type of domination that can send opposing franchises spinning. Toronto fired Dwane Casey and replaced him with assistant coach Nick Nurse, and many people believe LeBron is responsible for the change.

LeBron’s Cavs swept the Raptors the last two years in the second round. The year prior, Cleveland beat Toronto in the conference finals in the most lopsided six-game series in NBA history.

But if Nurse is going to guide the Raptors to the postseason heights they desire, his challenge is far wider than beating LeBron.

Toronto played nine playoff series in the last five years under Casey. In all nine – even the four wins – the Raptors underachieved based on regular-season performance.

For example, Toronto outscored opponents by 7.9 points per 100 possessions last regular season. The Raptors’ first-round opponent, the Wizards, outscored regular-season opponents by 0.6 points per 100 possessions. So, I give that series an expected net rating of Toronto +7.3. In reality, the Raptors outscored Washington by just 2.1 points per 100 possessions – a difference of -5.2.

In the other example from last year, the Cavaliers outscored regular-season opponents by just 1.0 point per 100 possessions. With Toronto’s +7.9 regular-season net rating, that’d give the Raptors an expected net rating in the series of +6.9. But Cleveland actually outscored Toronto by 15.1 points per 100 possessions – a difference of -22.0.

Here’s how the Raptors fared in every series under Casey:

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Add all the differences, and it comes to -92.3. That is by far the lowest mark for a team that made the playoffs each season in a five-year span since the NBA adopted a 16-team postseason in 1984:

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The Raptors offense has stalled in the playoffs. Kyle Lowry‘s and DeMar DeRozan‘s isolations became too predictable and easy to shut down.

Nurse has played a role in trying to fix those problems, and maybe an extra year and the top job will help him get Toronto over the hump.

The Raptors’ regular-season success is commendable, but it’s no longer enough for them. That’s evident in Casey’s firing and Nurse’s ascension. The focus is already on the playoffs.

Nurse can’t just wait around for LeBron to leave Cleveland. The Raptors’ postseason problems are much more significant than one opponent, even LeBron.

Report: Raptors promoting assistant Nick Nurse to head coach

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Raptors assistant coach Nick Nurse had been favored to ascended to the team’s head coach for a while.

Now, he’s actually getting the job.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Nurse succeeds Dwane Casey, who raised expectations even higher than he could meet and got hired. They won’t fall much, if at all, for Nurse.

The Raptors have an expensive payroll led by Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. They’ve succeeded plenty in the regular season – only to disappoint repeatedly in the playoffs. Nurse will be judged on his ability to guide Toronto deeper into the postseason before its core passes its prime.

Nurse helped revamp the Raptors’ offense, diversifying it with the goal of more playoff success. The results were mixed in the first year, but maybe over a larger sample – with Nurse now in charge – there will be even more improvement.

It’s a little odd for Toronto to fire Casey and replace him with a member of his own staff. But the Pacers recently did that with Frank Vogel and Nate McMillan, and that turned out well.

There’s value in continuity. The Raptors wanted some – just not too much.

What do Pistons look like under Dwane Casey? Expect more Blake Griffin

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Once Blake Griffin was traded to Detroit last February at the deadline, Stan Van Gundy put the ball in his hands a lot — a 29.8 percent usage rate. Griffin was handed the ball in the post a lot (especially the high post) and the Pistons averaged an impressive 105 points per possession from those plays (stats via Synergy Sports). Griffin, as he has tended to in recent years, took too many midrangers and didn’t get to the rim as much as the coaching staff would like, but was efficient in isolation, and also showed promise as a playmaker.

Expect to see more of that with Dwane Casey as coach.

Casey was officially hired by the Pistons Monday as their new head coach — the best the Pistons could have made. Once they made the move for Griffin to pair with Andre Drummond (and eventually a healthy Reggie Jackson) this became a team about winning now and making the postseason. Casey has gotten the most out of a team in that space the past several years in Toronto, he should put the Pistons in better positions to succeed.

How? More Griffin. That’s what Casey said on ESPN Radio’s Stephen A. Smith Show:

“We’re going to empower Griffin to expand his game, a lot like DeMar DeRozan in Toronto. Expand his game out to the 3-point line, have some point-forward responsibilities with the basketball out on the floor bringing it down. Because he’s more than just a back-down, post-up player….

“They have a good team, they have a good roster and a very dynamic owner in Tom Gores, who is doing a lot of things for the city of Detroit.”

More Griffin is a start, some high low game with Drummond, or Griffin working off the ball as Jackson and Drummond run pick-and-rolls. There’s a lot of potential there.

Beyond that, Casey is going to need to get more out of Detroit’s younger players such as Stanley Johnson and Luke Kennard. Player development is going to matter for a capped out team.

Most of all, Casey needs to stop in every church he passes by and pray/light a candle — maybe sacrifice a live rooster if needed — that Jackson and Griffin can stay healthy for most of a season. Same with the rest of the Pistons. Healthy this is a playoff team and a pretty good one in Detroit, but’s a roster loaded with players who have long injury histories.

Casey is expected to meet with most of the team soon in Los Angeles and lay out his plans. He will get the most out of this roster, whatever pieces he has. We’ll see if that’s enough.