Lucas Nogueira

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Cavaliers eliminate Raptors. Again.

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LeBron James has destroyed team after team in the Eastern Conference.

Will the Raptors as we know them be next?

The Cavaliers eliminated Toronto for third straight season with a 128-93 shellacking in Game 4 of their second-round sweep Monday.

LeBron advances to his eighth straight Eastern Conference finals and the 10th of his career. He and the Cavs will face the winner of the Celtics-76ers series, which Boston leads 3-1.

Where the Raptors go from here is anyone’s guess.

Will they fire Dwane Casey? Trade DeMar DeRozan and/or Kyle Lowry? Keep everyone together despite annual playoff flameouts?

Cleveland swept the Raptors last year and beat them in the most lopsided six-game series in NBA history the  year prior. But this season appeared as if it could be different.

Toronto won a franchise-record 59 games and secured the No. 1 seed in the East. The Raptors were better than the Cavs during the regular season in every major facet – offense, defense, starters, bench.

The Cavaliers played awful defense, bickered in the locker room and shuffled the roster at the trade deadline. They needed seven games just to beat the Pacers, the worst first-round showing ever for a LeBron team . By the end of the series, he said he felt “burnt.”

Then, he roasted the Raptors.

LeBron (29 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds) didn’t even appear to expend much energy tonight. He can dominate while coasting – especially when his teammates step up like they did.

Kevin Love (23 points on 13 shots), Kyle Korver (16 points on eight shots), J.R. Smith (15 points on six shots) and George Hill (12 points on eight shots) were all extremely efficient.

Toronto, on the other hand, looked desperate. C.J. Miles and Serge Ibaka started over Fred VanVleet and Jonas Valanciunas to spread the floor, but Cleveland scorched the compromised defense. Lucas Nogueira played his first meaningful minutes in the second quarter, and the Raptors immediately surrendered a 10-0 run with the sub-rotation player in. DeRozan, after getting benched for the fourth quarter of Game 3, got ejected for a flagrant foul in the third quarter:

DeRozan finished with 13 points on 11 shots in 33 minutes. Lowry (five points on 2-of-7 shooting) impacted the game even less as a scorer.

Toronto, especially its stars, aren’t good enough against LeBron. If we didn’t know that already, we sure do now.

What will the Raptors do about it? They’ll have a long offseason to figure it out.

Three questions the Toronto Raptors must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last Season: 51-31, made the playoffs for a franchise-record fourth straight season, got swept in the second round by the Cavaliers

I know what you did last summer: The Raptors re-signed Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka but otherwise lost plenty of productive playersP.J. Tucker, Patrick Patterson, DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph – in an effort to limit payroll. Only C.J. Miles and No. 23 pick O.J. Anunoby solidly counter the exodus of talent.

THREE QUESTIONS THE RAPTORS MUST ANSWER:

1) Does anyone lift Toronto to the next level? The Raptors look like a team that has peaked. Kyle Lowry is 31, and DeMar DeRozan is 28. Toronto pushed in on its supporting cast last season, trading for Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker before the deadline. It didn’t work. The Raptors got swept by the Cavaliers in the second round. Ibaka is now a year older. Tucker is gone. So are the long-term assets used to acquire the veterans. With cost an apparent concern, the supporting cast has been downgraded.

So, was this the end of the ascent?

If so, it wasn’t a bad run. Correction: It isn’t a bad run. The Raptors are still solidly a playoff team in the Eastern Conference, and the four straight postseason appearances – including a trip to the 2016 conference finals – is nothing to sneeze at, especially in Toronto.

But a taste of success only increases the appetite for more. The Raptors would love to break through LeBron James in the Eastern Conference before the Celtics develop chemistry and the 76ers ascend. The Wizards lurk, too.

The mystery: How does it happen? Toronto’s veterans look established. Its young players – Norman Powell, Jakob Poeltl, Delon Wright, Lucas Nogueira and Pascal Siakam – are varying degrees of formidable, but these aren’t high-upside options.

Perhaps, one of those young players defies expectations. Maybe Bruno Caboclo breaks out, though the indicators are negative for the project. O.G. Anunoby could get healthy and become a difference-maker.

The odds appear against it, but with the Raptors already establishing such a high floor, attention turns intently on their search for players to raise their ceiling.

2) Will Dwane Casey oversee a culture reset? If the roster isn’t getting better, Masai Ujiri isn’t giving up. The Raptors president called for a “culture reset.”

But he kept the coach and two players (Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan) most responsible for Toronto’s style, and many doubt major change will occur.

Still, the Raptors’ offense looks modernized in the preseason so far – more 3-pointers, more passing. If Casey and the players stick with it, the adjustment could pay off in the playoffs, where the team’s isolation-heavy style has been repeatedly stifled.

That’s still a major if. Old habits die hard.

If Casey could coach a more efficient scheme, why didn’t he do it before? Likewise, if Lowry and DeRozan could play a more efficient style, why didn’t they do it before?

They’ll get a chance to prove it’s not too late for them to adapt. If this doesn’t work, though, it could cost Casey his job.

3) How will center shake out? The Raptors owe Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka nearly $115 million over the next three years. That’s too much for a couple players whose best position is center – especially when Toronto also has capable backups in Jakob Poeltl and Lucas Nogueira on rookie-scale deals.

Ibaka is more of a modern center who can shoot 3-pointers and protect the rim. The Raptors can build some nice small-ball lineups with him at the position.

Valanciunas, on the other hand, sees his role significantly reduced in the playoffs. The back-to-the-basket post player becomes a liability.

Toronto seems to realize the problem, shopping Valanciunas this summer. But few teams need a center, and he’s highly paid (three years, nearly $50 million remaining). If the 25-year-old plays well, maybe the Raptors can move him and address other positions.

But if he plugs along at his current pace – which is hardly bad! – Toronto will face some difficult decisions about how to use him and Ibaka.

At least the Raptors avoided a catastrophic slide

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I’m 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.

After his team’s fourth straight playoff disappointment – even the team’s run to the 2016 Eastern Conference finals included barely scraping by with home-court advantage in the first two rounds then losing in the most lopsided six-game series ever – Raptors president Masai Ujiri declared a need for a “culture reset.”

How he planned to implement that was another question.

DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas alone were guaranteed more than $160 million. Other players were also owed enough that Toronto would have only limited means to replace its best player, Kyle Lowry, if he walked in unrestricted free agency – which seemed quite possible.

It appeared Ujiri was on the brink of pushing the button on a halfhearted detonation. It could have taken the Raptors years to tear down and maybe even longer to build back up.

And it’s not as if Ujiri had complete control. Lowry could have left and made preservation an unavailable option.

But after the foundation of the Raptors’ best era in franchise history shook and settled, they rebuilt a downsized structure atop it that includes only some of the previous furnishings.

Toronto re-signed Lowry and Serge Ibaka to three-year contracts – Lowry for $93 million and Ibaka for $65 million. The players get fairly high salaries, but at least the Raptors can move onto their next chapter in a few years. It’s a logical compromise.

Those deals came at a major immediate cost, though. Toronto is apparently unwilling to pay the luxury tax for a team that has shown no way to get past the Cavaliers. So, there was a large drain on production around the Raptors’ top players. Outgoing this summer:

Toronto even had to include a lottery-protected first-round pick and a second-round pick and incur a $1 million cap hit each of the next three seasons from Justin Hamilton’s contract for Brooklyn to take Carroll.

The only major contributor going against the tide and toward Toronto is C.J. Miles, a sweet-shooting swingman who can defend well when not outmuscled. He’ll help the Raptors. He won’t come close to replacing all that they lost.

Toronto is counting on all the young talent is has cultivated to step up. Norman Powell and Delon Wright are definitely in line for bigger roles, and Pascal Siakam probably is, too. The Raptors would probably like to cut bait on Jonas Valanciunas to elevate Jacob Poeltl. O.G. Anunoby, Lucas Nogueira and Bruno Caboclo are also in the pipeline as potential rotation players.

Credit Toronto for identifying and developing this deep crop of youngsters, who allowed for the team’s strategy this summer. These players have been preparing, and at some point – ideally while still on cheap contracts – they deserved the opportunity contribute.

But make no mistake: The Raptors downgraded across the board. The supporting cast around Lowry, DeRozan and Ibaka – a trio in or near its prime – is less-equipped to help a team designed at the top to win now.

It feels like this team’s best chance of winning the East has come and gone. LeBron James is still in Cleveland. The Celtics have probably already overtaken Toronto, and the 76ers’ rise appears inevitable.

The Raptors have had a good few years. They might have a few more good ones left.

But it seems their self-imposed budget has resigned them to playing out the string on a plan that has already peaked.

Offseason grade: C-

Raptors, Bulls, Clippers, Thunder big risers when adjusting for playoff rotations

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Kyle Korver played 894 minutes for the Hawks this season. Ed Davis played 789 minutes for the Trail Blazers. Lucas Nogueira played 1,088 minutes for the Raptors.

All three players factor into any season-long evaluation – including won-loss record and net rating – for those teams. But Korver (trade), Davis (season-ending injury) and Nogueira (fell out of rotation) won’t factor into those teams’ first-round series.

So, to account for rotation changes like that on every playoff team, I’ve found how many points per 100 possessions teams score and allow when five players projected to be in the postseason rotation are on the floor together.

This is hardly a perfect measure. Teams rarely announce their playoff rotations, so we’re left with my predictions of which players will receive regular playing time. The minutes distribution among players in the adjusted rating can vary from what it’ll be during the playoffs. This doesn’t take into account opponent quality. Some teams have larger samples than others.

But I find it useful, another data point among the many necessary to evaluate the upcoming playoffs. It shows how the players we project to see on the court for the next few months have played together, without someone else affecting the chemistry.

Here’s each team’s offensive, defensive and net ratings adjust from the regular season to counting only lineups that include five players projected to be in the play rotation (using nbawowy! to calculate):

Eastern Conference

3. Toronto Raptors

  • Offensive rating: 113.1 to 116.8
  • Defensive rating:  108.9 to 106.6
  • Net rating: +4.2 to +10.2

8. Chicago Bulls

  • Offensive rating: 107.8 to 116.0
  • Defensive rating:  107.3 to 109.6
  • Net rating: +0.5 to +6.4

2. Cleveland Cavaliers

  • Offensive rating: 114.4 to 118.0
  • Defensive rating:  111.1 to 112.1
  • Net rating: +3.3 to +5.9

4. Washington Wizards

  • Offensive rating: 111.7 to 116.5
  • Defensive rating:  110.0 to 110.7
  • Net rating: +1.7 to +5.8

1. Boston Celtics

  • Offensive rating: 112.4 to 114.4
  • Defensive rating: 109.8 to 109.2
  • Net rating: +2.6 to +5.2

6. Milwaukee Bucks

  • Offensive rating: 110.1 to 111.2
  • Defensive rating:  110.3 to 107.4
  • Net rating: -0.2 to +3.8

7. Indiana Pacers

  • Offensive rating: 109.3 to 110.3
  • Defensive rating:  109.5 to 108.2
  • Net rating: -0.2 to +2.1

5. Atlanta Hawks

  • Offensive rating: 106.5 to 108.0
  • Defensive rating:  108.2 to 106.3
  • Net rating: -1.7 to +1.7

Western Conference

1. Golden State Warriors

  • Offensive rating: 116.6 to 121.7
  • Defensive rating:  104.9 to 102.9
  • Net rating: +11.7 to +18.8

4. Los Angeles Clippers

  • Offensive rating: 113.5 to 120.7
  • Defensive rating: 108.8 to 107.0
  • Net rating: +4.7 to +13.7

6. Oklahoma City Thunder

  • Offensive rating: 109.4 to 113.8
  • Defensive rating:  108.6 to 104.2
  • Net rating: +0.8 to +9.6

3. Houston Rockets

  • Offensive rating: 115.5 to 118.5
  • Defensive rating: 109.7 to 109.5
  • Net rating: +5.8 to +9.0

2. San Antonio Spurs

  • Offensive rating: 111.7 to 115.4
  • Defensive rating: 104.2 to 106.9
  • Net rating: +7.5 to +8.5

5. Utah Jazz

  • Offensive rating: 110.7 to 112.5
  • Defensive rating:  106.4 to 107.2
  • Net rating: +4.3 to +5.3

7. Memphis Grizzlies

  • Offensive rating: 108.8 to 114.3
  • Defensive rating: 108.1 to 109.3
  • Net rating: +0.7 to +5.0

8. Portland Trail Blazers

  • Offensive rating: 111.2 to 121.0
  • Defensive rating: 111.7 to 116.1
  • Net rating: -0.5 to +4.9

Observations:

  • All 16 teams improve with the adjustment, which is logical. When teams tighten their rotations, they’re left with only better players.
  • The Clippers (nine points per 100 possessions better) make the biggest jump.
  • This model predicts two first-round upsets: Bulls over Celtics and Thunder over Rockets. In fact, Chicago (Wizards or Hawks) and Oklahoma City (Spurs or Grizzlies) also rate ahead of either potential second-round foe.
  • The Warriors were better than everyone else in the regular season, and that advantage is only amplified with the adjustment. And I set their playoff rotation 11 deep, more players than any other team. If they need to pare down, they’d get even more dangerous.
  • I projected 10 players in the Cavaliers’ rotation. If they tighten that, they too could get better.
  • Are the Raptors the top team in the East now? They played very well after the trade deadline with Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker providing toughness – all while Kyle Lowry was out. Now that Lowry is healthy, this could be a complete team, which the adjustment indicates. However, because of the mismatched availability (Lowry in the first of the season, Ibaka and Tucker in the second half), Toronto’s sample size is relatively small.
  • Likewise, I’m not convinced the Bulls’ adjusted rating is reliable. It too stems from a relatively small sample, and because all Taj Gibson lineups are removed, time after the trade deadline weighs heavily. So, that includes Nikola Mirotic‘s hot stretch and Rajon Rondo‘s resurgence – which both came with Dwyane Wade out. Now that Wade is back, can Chicago put everything together the way these numbers suggest?
  • The Wizards would’ve rated better, just ahead of the Bulls for second in the East, if Ian Mahinmi were healthy.
  • I don’t know whether the Bucks will use Michael Beasley, Mirza Teletovic or Spencer Hawes as their backup stretch player. I guessed Beasley, who conveniently produces the middle mark in adjusted net rating among the three.
  • The Clippers would have fared a little worse, though still would’ve ranked second in the West, if I included the injured Austin Rivers. That’s not because Rivers is bad, but because excluding any lineups that include him emphasizes L.A.’s powerful starting lineup.
  • I gave the Thunder a narrow eight-man rotation that includes neither Doug McDermott nor Alex Abrines. If Oklahoma City needs one of those wings – and it might – its adjusted net rating would suffer.
  • Deep teams like the Celtics and Spurs aren’t rewarded here. When gluing lesser players to the bench in a stretch of the season with no back-to-backs, other teams can catch up.

With trade, Raptors place big bet on Serge Ibaka, his athleticism to find old form

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This was the long play by Masai Ujiri, the Toronto Raptors GM. He has long coveted Serge Ibaka as the four his team needs — someone who can protect the rim on one end, knock down threes and space the floor on the other. A modern four that fits the modern game and the rest of the Raptors roster.

Toronto has All-Stars and gold medalists in the backcourt with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, it has a solid center in Jonas Valanciunas, and a “3&D” wing in DeMarre Carroll. With guys like Cory JosephLucas Nogueira, Norman Powell, and when healthy Patrick Patterson, the team has a solid bench.

However, they lacked the four they needed — and the Raptors think they found in trading for Ibaka. The Raptors surrendered a late first-round pick (the worse of theirs or the Clippers, which the Raptors control) plus a solid wing in Terrence Ross (who might be a better fit in Orlando, where they can move Aaron Gordon back to the four where he belongs now).

This looks like a win for the Raptors on the day of the trade. A trade that should both help turn around a recent losing streak, and a move that gets them closer to the Cavaliers.

But it comes with risks.

At the top of the list, Ibaka’s athleticism is not what a lot of fans remember from a few years back. Blame balky knees and the miles on them if you want, but the Ibaka the last year in Oklahoma City and then in Orlando was not the same player. He’s still good — he can defend inside, he hits the three better than he once did hitting 38.8 percent this season — but he simply does not move the same way. And that’s not likely to change.

Which leads to the next question — how much are the Raptors going to pay him this summer? Lowry is a free agent and the Raptors need to max him out to keep him (other teams will if the Raptors will not), but will Toronto go around $100 million over four or five years with Ibaka (they have his Bird rights)? That may be the market for Ibaka this summer, and while there has been interest in Toronto by Ibaka, he’s still going to go where he gets paid. This is a business. The question for Raptors’ ownership is how much tax are they willing to pay for this team?

With what the Raptors did to get him, the Raptors need to pony up and keep him.

In the short term, Ibaka and the energy from the trade should shake the Raptors out of their slump over the past few weeks that has dropped them to a tie for fourth/fifth in the East. They should be back in the mix for being the second best team in the East, but can they climb back up to the two or three seed — and avoid Cleveland in the second round?

And that’s the elephant in the room — even with this move, are the Raptors a real threat to Cleveland? Are the Raptors real contenders?

Part of that depends on how healthy the Cavs are in the playoffs.

But part of it depends on what Ibaka the Raptors get, what numbers come up in this big roll of the dice. It’s a good move by the Raptors, but it may not be the home run some expect.