Associated Press

Three Things to Know: New look Bucks remind Raptors East full of threats

Leave a comment

Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Bucks rain threes, throw down dunks, remind Raptors the top of the East is a Battle Royale. Here’s my primary takeaway from Milwaukee’s 104-99 win in Toronto Sunday:

I can’t wait for the second round and beyond of the Eastern Conference playoffs next May.

Any combination of the big four teams — Toronto, Milwaukee, Boston, and Philadelphia — is going to be a compelling combination of slugfest and chess match. All those teams are deep with talent, have versatility, can knock down threes, can defend, and any one of them can win the East’s King of the Mountain battle next May (although the Sixers have a little work to do).

The Bucks reminded the Raptors on Sunday not to count them out.

Giannis Antetokounmpo was the focus of the army of long, athletic wing defenders the Raptors can roll out — Pascal Siakam, Kawhi Leonard, OG Anunoby, Danny Green — and, thanks to smart help (at different times and angles) they did as much as anyone can do to make Antetokounmpo look human, he finished with “just” 19 points on 15 shots. Of course, he also had 19 rebounds, 6 assists, but he didn’t take over the game. Toronto had clearly focused on making it difficult for the Greek Freak to beat them, although he still was doing this (even if it didn’t count).

What the Bucks had was other guys to step up. Brook Lopez was every bit of Splash Mountain scoring 19 points and going 5-of-8 from three, including a beautiful step back at one point. Then, with the game on the line, Malcolm Brogdon was doing this.

These are not the Jason Kidd Bucks anymore, this is a modern NBA team now — they took 39 threes and only 12 of their 87 shots came between 8 feet of the rim and the three-point arc (13.8 percent of their shots from that midrange). Credit the Raptors defense, that’s more midrangers than the Bucks usually take. However, under Mike Budenholzer these Bucks are committed to their style of play.

So is Toronto under Nick Nurse, and they took 44 threes, hitting 15 (34.1 percent). The Raptors just were not as efficient: Serge Ibaka had 22 points but needed 21 shots, Leonard had 20 points on 18 shots.

That is where Toronto needs Kyle Lowry to step up, but he is in the middle of a terrible shooting slump and was scoreless in this one (he did have seven assists, he’s more of a playmaker now, but he still needs to be a threat to score for it all to come together). Lowry was 0-of-5 Sunday, making him 5-of-32 in his last five games.

This was a highly entertaining, up-and-down game that for a few minutes became the Brogdon vs. Fred VanVleet shootout we all expected (VanVleet had 19 off the bench). Actually, it speaks to the depth of these rosters that this game could become that and never lose its energy.

Milwaukee got the win Sunday, but next May if these teams meet in the playoffs we’re all going to win.

2) In the wake of a 56-point blowout loss, Bulls players call for meetings, everybody vents. When Fred Hoiberg was fired, Bulls management didn’t give Jim Boylen the interim tag as the new coach, they gave him the job for the rest of this season and noted he’s under contract for next season and they want to bring him back.

The reason for this was to give him leverage to come in hard and shake things up — Boylen has called it “shock and awe” to borrow the military term. He said the team was out of shape, he’s running long, hard practices and benching starters when they struggle. He did that for the final 21 minutes Saturday 56-point blowout loss to the Celtics.

Sunday, players pushed back against the tactics. It almost led to a player mutiny where they didn’t show up to practice, but then Lauri Markkanen and Robin Lopez talked everyone into showing up and meeting — first a players’ only meeting, followed by one with coaches and the front office. There was a lot of venting to do.

Boylen has come in trying to change the culture of a Bulls team that needs it. Remember, he comes out of the Spurs organization, where Tim Duncan was open to Gregg Popovich coaching him hard and calling him out in front of the team as an example. Thing is, there is no Duncan on this Bulls team (on or off the court). When Hoiberg was the head coach Boylen could be the bad cop, hold guys accountable, and there was a balance, even if it didn’t work all that well. However, as the head coach, you can’t just be the bad cop or you lose guys. There has to be positives, there has to be rest for guys. More importantly, there must be explanations of why things are happening, trust needs to be built up. Do that and this generation of players will still run through walls for a coach — but if the coach just says “run through that wall” it doesn’t work anymore.

Everyone is adjusting to the new realities in Chicago. With Markkanen back and the team getting healthy, they should be good enough to move out of the East cellar. However, that’s going to take some work, from the players and coaches. And some open communication. That, at least, seems to be happening.

3) Julius Randle is beasting as a starter. When Nikola Mirotic went out with an injury, Julius Randle slid into the starting lineup and has played in a way that is going to make it very difficult to take him out of it. Randle has dropped at least 26 points in his last four games — all starts — and that includes 28 points, six rebounds, and five assists Sunday as the Pelicans knocked off the Pistons 116-108.

In his last four games as a starter, Randle is averaging 29.5 points and 11.3 rebounds. It might be time for coach Alvin Gentry to take Randle out of the Sixth Man of the Year running — a race he has been in the conversation for early this season — because he will start to many games. It’s hard to argue with production.

Three Things to Know: Russell Westbrook makes history, Paul George has 47 in comeback win

Getty Images
1 Comment

Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Russell Westbrook makes history, Paul George scores 47 in Thunder’s dramatic comeback win. There was a point, right when Oklahoma City’s Terrance Ferguson missed a three with 7:16 left in the game keeping Brooklyn ahead by 16, that the Thunder’s win probability was down to 1.4 percent — there was a 98.6 percent chance the Nets would pull the upset.

But this was to be OKC’s big night.

It was that night because Russell Westbrook would finish with 21 points, 15 rebounds, and 17 assists — his 108th career triple-double, moving him past Jason Kidd into third on the all-time list.

It was OKC’s night because Paul George — having arguably the best season of his career so far — dropped 47 points, including hitting the game winner. (As a side note: How do both Spencer Dinwiddie and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson go with Westbrook and nobody slides over with George when George slips the pick> He was wide open because of it.)

The Thunder are one of the NBA’s hottest teams, having won four in a row and 9-of-11, with the NBA’s best defense as the cornerstone of what they do. Built on that defensive foundation, and between their two superstars, the Thunder find a way to get enough offense to rack up the victories. This was the Thunder team management there pictured a season ago, and this year they still get Andre Roberson back at some point.

The Thunder are one of the best teams in the West and look to be a threat next April and May when the playoffs roll around.

2) Toronto’s win shows they are the current class of the East, while Philadelphia has work to do. In the latest PBT Podcast we did a deep dive on the Sixers with NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Serena Winters — the team’s sideline reporter if you are watching on League Pass — and I asked her if the Sixers believed that they were right there with the East’s best. She said the team felt like right now it was half a step behind the elite, but that they could get there before the season ended.

Wednesday night that played out.

Toronto was clearly the better team in a 113-102 victory. It was a lot of things adding up.

• Philadelphia turned the ball over 21 times — 20.4 percent of their possessions or one in five trips down the court — as Toronto’s length and athleticism on defense threw the Sixers off their game.

Kawhi Leonard had his best game as a Raptor, looking like an MVP-level player again, scoring 36 points on 24 shots, hitting 5-of-6 from three, and on the other end disrupting Ben Simmons on offense and making five steals. Leonard was the best player on the floor.

• The Raptors have three big men they can throw at Joel Embiid, giving the Sixers cornerstone both different looks and keeping a fresh body on him at all times, plus really make Embiid work on both ends of the court. Embiid finished the night with 10 points on 5-of-17 shooting. In contrast, Jonas Valanciunas had 26 points in 17 minutes of play.

• The Toronto guards — Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, and in spots Fred VanVleet — also did a great job of digging down and helping on Embiid in the post and still getting back out to challenge J.J. Redick and other Sixers shooters.

• Toronto’s bench was back to its dominant ways for a night, outscoring the Philadelphia bench 41-18, led by OG Anunoby, Delon Wright and VanVleet.

There were bright spots for the Sixers — Jimmy Butler had 38 points and impressed.

As Winters’ said, the Sixers can get to the level of the elite by the end of the season, maybe with more time for their core to gel, maybe with some trade/waiver wire pickups just to bolster the depth. Philadelphia is good and they are close.

But right now, Toronto is the class of the East.

3) LeBron James takes over the fourth quarter for Lakers, but is that part of the problem in L.A.? Magic Johnson may want a more egalitarian offense for the Lakers, with multiple playmakers and scorers, but that ignores one fact:

Nobody takes over a game like LeBron James.

LeBron had 20 points in a dominant fourth quarter, leading the Lakers past the struggling Spurs 121-113. The Lakers have won four in a row and are 15-9 now on the season because LeBron is playing at a level that puts him in the MVP conversation.

The question Thursday became: If LeBron is that dominant, does it make it harder for the Lakers to attract a second superstar?

Kevin Durant said yes it can, for some players. It wasn’t a dig at LeBron, it was an honest statement — not every superstar in the NBA is at a place in their careers where teaming up with LeBron in Los Angeles is what’s best for them. It wasn’t for Paul George, who last summer decided he wanted to stay in Oklahoma City, when one summer before his people were saying he was destined to be a Laker.

More importantly, the Lakers may not be a fit for free agents coming up this summer. Look at Durant, for example. He struggled to find a balance of alpha status in OKC with Westbrook, in Golden State he may well be their best player (he has been in the last two NBA Finals) but that is Stephen Curry‘s culture and team. If KD wants to carve out his own legacy now is playing next to LeBron how to best do that? Durant notes playing with the greatness of LeBron forces even elite players (Dwyane Wade, Kevin Love, Chris Bosh, etc.) to change their games to fit around him. Plus, the combination of LeBron in the celebrity culture of Los Angeles creates an off-court environment that is not for everyone (Durant called it “toxic”).

The Lakers will get their next superstar to pair with LeBron. Maybe next summer, maybe in 19 months, but it will happen. Just don’t assume that every superstar wants to rush to play with LeBron on the Lakers — it’s just not a fit for everyone.

No matter how amazing it is to watch LeBron take over games in the fourth quarter.

Maintenance rest starts early: Kawhi Leonard, Gordon Hayward, Jimmy Butler all out Saturday

Getty Images
1 Comment

Last season the NBA leaned in on teams resting players, particularly in high-profile, televised games. The NBA built in rest before those games to help, and teams mostly played along, but players who teams wanted to be cautious with still got their rest. That is not changing now, NBA teams have science to back it up.

The rest is starting early this season — Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard, Boston’s Gordon Hayward, and Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler are all out Saturday night on the second night of back-to-backs.

Neither of these should be a surprise. Both Hayward and Leonard are coming off injuries that cost them a season and both are clearly feeling their way back into this season (Leonard seems ahead of Hayward on that front so far). Both Toronto and Boston have their eyes on May and June, there is no reason to push a player and risk injury in October that could be a much more significant setback.

In Toronto, OG Anunoby will start on the wing for Leonard. In Boston, Aron Baynes will start as Brad Stevens goes big.

In Minnesota…

It will be interesting to see how the Timberwolves come out against Dallas without Butler, who is their spark plug. Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns should step up and have big nights to lead the team, this is a game Minnesota should still will, but how will they respond on a back-to-back? Something to watch.

Five big takeaways from Kawhi Leonard trade to Toronto

10 Comments

Everyone woke up Wednesday morning to an NBA bombshell — Kawhi Leonard being traded to the Toronto Raptors in a deal centered around DeMar DeRozan. That’s a lot to absorb before the first cup of coffee.

This was far from perfect but as good a deal as San Antonio was going to get. It’s not equal value, the Spurs wing defense just got a lot worse, but with other teams keeping their best assets out of trades the Spurs got a player who was an All-Star and All-NBA (second team) last season, one who keeps them relevant for a few years (until Gregg Popovich likely retires). This delays the impending rebuild a couple of years. And, they sent Leonard out of the West.

Here are my five big takeaways from the blockbuster trade:

1) The Toronto Raptors won this trade. This was a bold and smart move by the Raptors on multiple levels. While the Lakers, 76ers, Celtics and everyone else slow-played this trade — or only offered picks and young players for a rebuild the Spurs did not want to start yet — Raptors GM Masai Ujiri jumped in with both feet and gave the Spurs something they wanted in DeRozan, an All-Star player who keeps them in the playoffs and dangerous right now. That was enough.

There are two key reasons this trade works for the Raptors (it’s a solid double, if not a home run). First, they didn’t give up much outside DeRozan — just Jakob Poeltl (who did show promise in his two years in Toronto) and a top-20 protected pick in the down 2019 draft. Toronto got to keep OG Anunoby, Fred VanVleet, and Pascal Siakam, the young group of players they are high on. If Leonard is healthy — something we do not know for sure, he could be slowed slightly and be merely good rather than transcendent — Leonard is an upgrade over DeRozan and the4 Raptors are a threat to the Celtics at the top of the East.

Second, now the Raptors have a season to try to both win a ring and win Leonard over. The ring may be a lot to ask, but if Leonard is playing like an MVP again a trip to the Finals is certainly not out of the question. And once there, anything can happen.

The attempts to win Leonard over long-term probably will fail, but the Raptors get to take their shot. Toronto is a city a lot of players love to visit, the Raptors have a large and passionate fan base (all across Canada, they are a national team), and the Raptors are going to win a lot of games. Toronto also has more money: The Raptors can offer Leonard a five-year, $189.6 million contract next summer, the most any other team can put on the table is a four-year, $140.6 million. ($140 million is a lot less than the $221 million the Spurs could have guaranteed.) The model is Paul George in Oklahoma City, but the difference is George was open to the idea of staying from the moment he stepped off the plane (where Thunder GM Sam Presti made sure there were a lot of Thunder fans to cheer and greet him). Leonard likely is not so open minded.

If Leonard bolts next summer, then the Raptors took their big swing and start a rebuild (that they have discussed internally in the past year). It’s not a massive setback.

2) Kawhi Leonard — and his uncle/management — did not get what they expected or wanted. Around the league, there is a lot of talk about Leonard’s Uncle Dennis/advisors wanting to build a marketing empire around the 27-year-old entering his prime. To get an idea of their plans, think about what LeBron James or Russell Westbrook have with their brands. The sense was Leonard’s team felt the small market of San Antonio and the team-first style of the Spurs were holding them back. (Leonard’s stoic personality is a bigger part of that problem, but we’ll table that discussion for now.) Plenty around the league think those close to Leonard fanned the flames of discontent surrounding the injury and treatment until it was a full-blown fire and Leonard decided he wanted out of town.

Leonard (and his camp) reportedly are not happy campers right now.

The Spurs will have no response but a sly smile (they took the best deal on the table for them). Offers were not going to improve, and the Spurs did now want the zoo of bringing Leonard into training camp.

Leonard is a free agent next summer and can go to the Lakers or Clippers (or Knicks or Sixers or any other team he wants). However, to get the max contract he wants Leonard will have to prove he’s healthy and back to his MVP-level ways — and that means suiting up and playing for the Raptors. Sit out another year — via hold out or with the quad injury — and no team is going to jump in with a max.

3) DeMar DeRozan may be pissed now, but he will come around. Leonard wasn’t the only player unhappy with the trade — DeRozan had been loyal to Toronto, didn’t even meet with other teams in 2016, was active in the community, and was told at Summer League he would not be traded. Then, wham.

DeRozan has every right to be angry. Then he will get over it — the Spurs are maybe the most welcoming organization in the league. The city of San Antonio will embrace him. Most importantly, Gregg Popovich will understand DeRozan and put him in spots he likes on the court, places he can do damage. DeRozan will get to the line, make passes (he’s become a quality playmaker) and — at least during the regular season — make the Spurs a challenge every night.

San Antonio — with DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge — will be the kings of the midrange jumper, although both are pretty efficient at it. The Spurs wing defense will be unimpressive, something a little disturbing in a conference with Kevin Durant, James Harden, and now LeBron James. San Antonio will be no threat to Golden State or Houston, but they will be relevant. DeRozan will come to enjoy it.

4) The Lakers will just wait this out… and be a little nervous. Clippers, too. On the one hand, we saw this movie last summer: The Lakers choose not to put their best young players into a trade to secure an elite player because they believed said star will come to them in free agency. Only he didn’t, the next summer decides to stay put in the Midwest — without even meeting with the Lakers — and the Los Angeles misses out.

On the other hand, Leonard to the Raptors feels different from Paul George to the Thunder — George was open to the idea of playing with Russell Westbrook and seeing what the experience was like. As noted above Leonard is not happy being sent north of the border. It’s early, but good luck finding anyone around the league who thinks he stays long term. Next summer Leonard likely will bolt, and while the list of options could expand beyond the two teams in Los Angeles, that pair remains at the forefront. (As noted before, while the Lakers are the consensus favorites to land him, I heard from sources around the league that is no lock. The Clippers are in play.)

For the Lakers, even if they miss out on Leonard next summer, things still line up well: They have cap space, LeBron, and the market most players be in. They will land someone.

Still, the Lakers have to be a little nervous that things change with Leonard over the course of next season. Maybe it’s the Raptors, or maybe he likes the East and the idea of playing with Kristaps Porzingis, or maybe a million things. It should make them a little nervous, because in the NBA crazy things happen.

5) Just a reminder, loyalty in the NBA is dead. Next time you want to complain about how players are not loyal to teams/cities anymore, remember this move. Just a week ago in Las Vegas, Raptors officials told DeRozan to ignore the rumors, he was not getting traded. This is a player who — where Vince Carter and others tanked/pushed their way out of the city — embraced all things Toronto. He was active in the community. He spoke openly of wanting to be a Raptor for life and the greatest Raptor of all time. He was the willing face of their franchise.

They traded him anyway.

It’s a cold, cold business. Teams treat players like assets, and more and more players are treating teams the same way. Loyalty is nearly forgotten, and rarely rewarded,

It’s just fans that pay.

Raptors acquire Kawhi Leonard from Spurs for DeMar DeRozan

22 Comments

UPDATE: It’s official, Kawhi Leonard may want to go purchase a couple really heavy winter coats, because he is headed to Toronto. The deal has been approved by the league and announced by the teams.

After another rough playoff exit at the hands of LeBron James, Raptors’ GM Masai Ujiri wanted to shake things up in Toronto this offseason. To change the culture. To make a push for a ring since the LeBron wall went West. The status quo was no longer good enough for the Toronto decision maker.

He did that in the most dramatic way possible.

In maybe the biggest move of the summer, the Raptors have acquired Kawhi Leonard from the San Antonio Spurs.

Adrian Wojnarowski and Chris Haynes of ESPN broke the story:

The Toronto Raptors are finalizing a deal to acquire San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard in a trade package that includes All-Star DeMar DeRozan, league sources told ESPN….

Leonard and DeRozan are both aware that an agreement could be imminent, and neither is expressing enthusiasm for the deal, league sources said.

DeRozan basically confirmed the trade before it became official — and his displeasure with it. DeRozan had been loyal to Toronto wanted to go down as the greatest Raptor ever. He embraced that city when others stars had bolted it, In an Instagram story, he vented (the Raptors reportedly told DeRozan during Summer League he would not be traded, despite rumors).

Leonard and DeRozan could not be traded for each other straight up (DeRozan makes $4 million more than Leonard, once Leonard’s trade kicker of $3 million is counted in), in the end the deal looked like this:

On paper, the trade makes sense for both sides. The Raptors take a shot at a ring and winning Leonard over to their team, if that fails and he bolts they start a rebuild (they also didn’t give up young players they really like such as OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam). This is a win for the Raptors.

The Spurs remain competitive for the next two or three years, likely as long as Gregg Popovich will coach, then they will rebuild.

The Spurs did not want to send Leonard to the West and the Lakers, and they wanted a star player who would keep them relevant and in the playoffs as part of the deal. DeRozan does that (while the Lakers and Sixers would not throw in key pieces such as Brandon Ingram or Markelle Fultz). Paired with LaMarcus Aldridge, Dejounte Murray, and the always solid role-playing core with the Spurs, they are in the playoff mix in the middle of a brutal West. DeRozan has two seasons guaranteed at $27.7 million, with a player option for a third season after that.

Leonard is a free agent in the summer of 2019 and can then sign anywhere he wants. That has reportedly been Los Angeles, although in Las Vegas I heard rumors from sources that both the Lakers and Clippers are in play to land him.

The Raptors will have this season to win Leonard over and get him to re-sign — just as Oklahoma City did with Paul George. Toronto is a fantastic city, it has a passionate fan base, and the team is poised to win a lot. Toronto also has more money: with the trade Toronto can offer Leonard a five-year, $189.6 million contract next summer, the most any other team can put on the table is a four-year, $140.6 million offer. Leonard, it should be noted, walked away from a $221 million offer should he have worked things out with the Spurs. George was open to the Oklahoma City experience, will Leonard be in Toronto? (Also, the Raptors can trade him again at the deadline.)

If Leonard is fully healthy — something nobody really knows for sure — the Raptors would be contenders in the East, they have arguably the best player in the conference now (him or Giannis Antetokounmpo). This team is a threat to favorite Boston as well as Philadelphia.