Pascal Siakam

Serge Ibaka Raptors
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Serge Ibaka says Raptors are ‘locked in’ for restart in Orlando

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Don’t sleep on the defending champions. Yes, Kawhi Leonard went home (and Danny Green went West, too), but Toronto proved to be no one-man show.  The Raptors are the two seed in the East with a 46-18 record, a +6.4 net rating that is fourth-best in the NBA, they have the second-best defense in the league, they have an emergent superstar in Pascal Siakam who is surrounded by other stars such as Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, and Fred VanVleet. Toronto is playoff tested.

And the Raptors are “locked in” for the NBA restart, according to Serge Ibaka.

Here is what the veteran said in a conference call with reporters on Saturday, via Steven Loung of Sportsnet Canada.

“Mentally, I think we’re ready,” Ibaka said. “Mentally as a team, I can see from everybody, I think mentally we’re ready. We know what is waiting for us out there, now it’s time to get a little bit (of) game condition and then we’ll be good to go…

“I saw just how everyone is in great shape. They came here in great shape and as soon as we got here everyone was starting to put in work,” Ibaka said. “I’ve been in the league for 11 years. You can see when people are locked in and they’re ready mentally, and when they’re not. So I can tell you right now mentally everybody is ready. Everybody is ready.”

Any run to the Finals out of the East goes through Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, but the Raptors have the confidence of having beat them last season. It’s no secret the Raptors want to make a run at  Antetokounmpo in 2021 and a good showing by their young core in this postseason helps the “come join us” pitch (even if it is a longshot). Boston and its emerging young stars — and another elite defense — also are lurking as a threat.

Toronto, however, cannot be overlooked. VanVleet and Gasol are back healthy, Norman Powell has stepped up this season giving the team more depth, and Nick Nurse has been a master of putting players in the right positions to succeed.

Toronto is healthy and, to hear Ibaka tell it, in shape. This is a strong, deep roster that understands what it takes to win in the playoffs. The Raptors have not earned the rights to be favorites in the East heading to Orlando, but sleep on this team at your own risk.

Seven must-watch games from NBA Orlando restart

AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu
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The NBA is back… almost.

The plans are agreed to, the schedule is out, there’s a decision to focus on social justice, and now tip-off of the restarted season is a little more than a month away. Concerns are rising along with the coronavirus cases in Florida, but Friday Adam Silver said it would take a “significant spread” of the virus inside the NBA’s Orlando bubble to shut down the league again.

Which means we can start to focus on the must-watch games on the NBA schedule.

And that new schedule is stacked. Remove the eight worst teams from the mix, throw in the race for the eighth and some important seeding games, and every night there is a matchup worth watching. There are a lot of games with weight and meaning.

Here are our seven must-watch NBA games of the restart.

1) July 30: Los Angeles Clippers vs. Los Angeles Lakers 9 p.m. (TNT)

Opening night we get the Hallway Series — just played 2,500 miles from the Staples Center hallways. It’s a matchup of (arguably) the two best playoff performers in the NBA right now — LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard — it’s the top teams in the West, two teams sharing a city, and a budding rivalry. That said, this could look a lot like two NFL teams meeting in week 16 knowing a playoff matchup looms — nobody wants to tip their hand. If there’s a matchup Doc Rivers loves, he’s not going to wear it out in this first game of the restart. Same with Frank Vogel. Expect some lineup experimentation and not too many minutes for the stars.

That said, it’s still opening night and both teams want to get off on the right foot. The Lakers need to find rotations that work without Avery Bradley and have some work to do. These are the best teams in the West, and fans or no fans the competitive juices will be flowing.

2) July 31: Boston Celtics vs. Milwaukee Bucks 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Milwaukee with Giannis Antetokounmpo has been clear-and-away the best team in the East this season, led by the best defense in the NBA. Boston has been the team on the rise this season, another top-five defense and with an emerging star in Jayson Tatum the Celtics look like the biggest threat to the Bucks Finals run. Milwaukee doesn’t have to worry about losing its seed, but it would love to make a statement — as would the Celtics.

3) Aug. 2: Milwaukee Bucks vs. Houston Rockets, 8 p.m. (ABC)

This will be pure fun. Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. a skinny James Harden. The small-ball, bomb-from-three Rockets against the best defense in the NBA — a Bucks defense predicated on taking away the paint and forcing teams to beat them from three. Every game will matter for a Rockets team in the middle of a seeding fight in the West, but mostly this game just should be as entertaining as basketball gets.

4) Aug. 3: Memphis Grizzlies vs. New Orleans Pelicans, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)

An easy addition to the NBA’s must-watch games list. It’s more than just Zion Williamson vs. Ja Morant… although it is that too. Zion was making a push in the Rookie of the Year race despite playing just 19 games — 40 fewer than Morant — and his only hope of catching the Grizzlies point guard is to completely outplay him in the restart and get the Pelicans into the playoffs. (Even that may not be enough.)

New Orleans had the easiest schedule remaining in the NBA when the league was forced to shut down. The league replicated that as best it could heading to Orlando — New Orleans is the only team where the cumulative records of their opponents are below .500. Throw in a healthy Zion ready to shock the world and the Pelicans are the biggest threat to get into a play-in tournament with the Grizzlies. Picking up a head-to-head win would be a huge plus for the Pelicans in that chase.

5) Aug. 7: Boston Celtics vs. Toronto Raptors, 9 p.m. (TNT)

These two teams are the second and third best teams in the East — but in what order? Toronto has been an elite defensive team this season, Pascal Siakam has taken a step forward, Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol are still making veteran plays, coach Nick Nurse has been nothing short of brilliant, and the Raptors look every bit the dangerous defending champions. But do they have an answer for the emerging Tatum and an interesting, switchable Boston team on the rise? Bet the under in this game, both defenses are far better than the offenses.

6) Aug. 10: Denver Nuggets vs. Los Angeles Lakers, 9 p.m. (TNT)

Skinny Nikola Jokic is for real — but are the Nuggets for real? Denver will likely finish as the third seed in the West, but in NBA circles there is a sense this team is headed for another early playoff exit in a tight West. Denver’s defense looked good on paper early in the season, but a lot of that was just teams missing shots they usually hit (looking at the NBA’s Second Spectrum tracking data). The Nuggets have to find that defense and answer other questions, such as can Jamal Murray step up and be a No. 2 option on a dangerous playoff team? There would be no better time for Denver to make a statement before the playoffs than beating LeBron James and the top team in the West.

7) Aug. 12: Toronto Raptors vs. Philadelphia 76ers, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Philadelphia is the dangerous darkhorse in the East. They are long, they can defend (sixth-best in the NBA this season), they have an elite big man in Joel Embiid who can carry the team for a stretch, they get a healthy Ben Simmons back, and they got one of the softer schedules in Orlando. If the Sixers can just find enough shooting to both score and space the floor, watch out. This will be a good test for them, going against the defending champs and a team with both talent and a real identity.

Toronto knows who it is, does Philadelphia.

2020 PBT Awards: All-NBA

LeBron James and James Harden
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The NBA regular season might be finished. Heck, the entire NBA season might be finished. Even if play resumes with regular-season games, there’d likely be an abridged finish before the playoffs (which will also likely be shortened).

So, we’re making our 2019-20 award picks now. If the regular season somehow lasts long enough to reconsider our choices, we’ll do that. But here are our selections on the assumption the regular season is over.

Kurt Helin

First team

G: Luka Doncic, Mavericks

G: James Harden, Rockets

F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

F: LeBron James, Lakers

C: Joel Embiid, 76ers

Second team

G: Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers

G: Chris Paul, Thunder

F: Anthony Davis, Lakers

F: Kawhi Leonard, Clippers

C: Nikola Jokic, Nuggets

Third team

G: Donovan Mitchell, Jazz

G: Kemba Walker, Celtics

F: Jayson Tatum, Celtics

F: Jimmy Butler, Heat

C: Rudy Gobert, Jazz

All-NBA — particularly third-team — decisions are always the toughest of the award process. In this case, I felt very comfortable with the first two teams (I don’t think Anthony Davis played enough center to slide into that position, so he gets bumped to the second team). However, with third-team guard, leaving off Bradley Beal, Trae Young, and Ben Simmons was difficult (team success and leaning on Mitchell and Walker factored into my choices). Same at the forward spot, where Khris Middleton and Brandon Ingram deserved serious consideration.

Dan Feldman

First team

G: LeBron James, Lakers

G: James Harden, Rockets

F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

F: Kawhi Leonard, Clippers

C: Anthony Davis, Lakers

Second team

G: Luka Doncic, Mavericks

G: Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers

F: Khris Middleton, Bucks

F: Jayson Tatum, Celtics

C: Nikola Jokic, Nuggets

Third team

G: Chris Paul, Thunder

G: Trae Young, Hawks

F: Pascal Siakam, Raptors

F: Jimmy Butler, Heat

C: Rudy Gobert, Jazz

My biggest questions weren’t rating performance. They were determining position. Can I legitimately place Anthony Davis at center? What about LeBron James at guard? Ultimately, I decided yes on both – allowing me to place my entire MVP ballot on the first team, though causing significant disruption on the second and third teams.

Davis made a big deal about not playing center, and the Lakers built their team accordingly. But Davis still played 38% of his minutes at power forward. In the fourth quarter and overtime, it was 55%. That qualified him as bi-positional to me.

LeBron has always dominated the ball while being considered a forward. But the Lakers considered him their point guard, gave him particularly large passing responsibilities and started four other players who couldn’t credibly run point. Though Avery Bradley or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope often defended the opposing point guards, point guard is primarily defined offensively. Plus, LeBron – a versatile defender – often covered guards.

Centers Nikola Jokic (first team to second team), Rudy Gobert (second team to third team) and Joel Embiid (third team to unlisted) all got bumped with Davis at the position. Embiid was better than Gobert when healthy and motivated. But that didn’t happen nearly often to outpace Gobert, and excellent defender and underrated offensive player.

Guards also got pressed, including Luka Doncic (first team to second team) and Chris Paul (second team to third team). That final spot was an especially difficult squeeze with Trae Young narrowly outpacing Devin Booker, Kyle Lowry, Ben Simmons and Bradley Beal. Young just did so much offensively as a scorer and passer.

On the other hand, removing LeBron and Davis from forward meant other-wise marginal forwards – Jayson Tatum, Pascal Siakam and Jimmy Butler – safely made it. Bam Adebayo wasn’t far behind.

Keith Smith

First team

G: James Harden, Rockets

G: Luka Doncic, Mavericks

F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

F: LeBron James, Lakers

C: Joel Embiid, 76ers

Second team

G: Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers

G: Ben Simmons, 76ers

F: Kawhi Leonard, Clippers

F: Anthony Davis, Lakers

C: Nikola Jokic, Nuggets

Third team

G: Russell Westbrook, Rockets

G: Donovan Mitchell, Jazz

F: Pascal Siakam, Raptors

F: Jayson Tatum, Celtics

C: Bam Adebayo, Heat

The forward slots on the first and second teams were easy. Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis were 1-4 on my MVP ballot. They all just overlap in position, which pushed Leonard and Davis to the second team. There were still several very good candidates for the third team, but Pascal Siakam and Jayson Tatum were just enough better than the rest that they get those two slots. Jimmy Butler was closest to making that third- team.

The guard line was pretty easy for the first team. James Harden was fifth on my MVP ballot and Luka Doncic would have been sixth. After them it gets tricky. Damian Lillard was a monster this year and really kept an otherwise pretty bad Portland team in the playoff race. Ben Simmons was very good on both ends of the floor, so he gets the other guard spot on the second team. That left a bunch of great candidates for third. Once he stopped taking so many jumpers, Russell Westbrook really took off this season. He gets one slot. Donovan Mitchell gets the other spot because he was also good and so were the Jazz. Chris Paul was easily the toughest omission here.

The center group was a little harder. I think Joel Embiid had the best overall season. He was first on my All-Defense team and in the mix for Defensive Player of the Year. He also turned in another good offensive season. Nikola Jokic rebounded from a slow start to have another dominant offensive year. For the third-team, Bam Adebayo edged out Rudy Gobert. It was Adebayo’s all-around brilliance that got him the nod. Take a look at his numbers. He’s really stuffing the stat-sheet every night for a good Heat team.

2020 PBT Awards: Most Improved Player

Mavericks star Luka Doncic and Hornets guard Devonte' Graham
Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
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The NBA regular season might be finished. Heck, the entire NBA season might be finished. Even if play resumes with regular-season games, there’d likely be an abridged finish before the playoffs (which will also likely be shortened).

So, we’re making our 2019-20 award picks now. If the regular season somehow lasts long enough to reconsider our choices, we’ll do that. But here are our selections on the assumption the regular season is over.

Kurt Helin

1. Luka Doncic, Mavericks

2. Brandon Ingram, Pelicans

3. Devonte' Graham, Hornets

I was slow to come around to the idea of Luka Doncic going from Rookie of the Year to MIP. For this award, I tend to lean towards guys who have not reached their potential then make a leap to All-Star status (Brandon Ingram) or guys who come out of nowhere to play a big role (Devonte’ Graham). However, when you break this down, not only did Doncic make just a big a leap as them statistically, he made the hardest leap in the league, from good to franchise-cornerstone, elite player. It was very difficult to leave Bam Adebayo and Pascal Siakam off this list, this was a deep and deserving MIP class.

Dan Feldman

1. Luka Doncic, Mavericks

2. Devonte’ Graham, Hornets

3. Brandon Ingram, Pelicans

I don’t care he’s in his second year. I don’t care he was drafted highly. I don’t care some believe this was “supposed to” happen. Luka Doncic went from good for a rookie to great for anyone – an amazing jump duplicated by only LeBron James.

That narrowly outpaced Devonte’ Graham, who came out of nowhere for the Hornets. He was out of the rotation last season. This season, he was on the outskirts of the All-Star discussion.

Brandon Ingram made huge strides as a shooter and in his all-around game – just in time to get paid.

This was an absurdly deep year for Most Improved Player. Trae Young followed Doncic’s arc, though hitting lower levels last season and this season with the Hawks. Duncan Robinson spent last of most season in the minor league then became a helpful starter on a good Heat team. Donte DiVincenzo went from bad to good, giving the Bucks a much-needed boost at shooting guard. A Young-Robinson-DiVincenzo ballot would be completely reasonable in many seasons.

Special shoutout to Raptors forward Pascal Siakam, who doesn’t deserve this annual award but keeps making year-over-year improvements that – in aggregate – are incredible.

I haven’t even gotten to Heat big Bam Adebayo, who didn’t make Rising Stars his first two seasons then became an All-Star his third season. He suffers from being solid the previous two years, even though he became more impactful as a versatile defender and broke out as a passing weapon.

Again, the depth of this field is preposterous.

Keith Smith

1. Devonte’ Graham, Hornets

2. Brandon Ingram, Pelicans

3. Bam Adebayo, Heat

It’s usually considered bad form to give Most Improved Player to a second-year player. NBA players are expected to make a major jump from their first to second years. However, Devonte’ Graham came out of nowhere. As a part-time rotation player as a rookie, Graham averaged 4.7 points on 28.1 percent 3-point shooting and 2.6 assists per game. As a surprising starter in his sophomore campaign, Graham shot 37.3 percent from behind the arc and averaged 18.2 points and 7.5 assists per game. The Hornets weren’t good, but they were better than most thought, as they were on a 29-win pace. Graham was a big part of that.

Brandon Ingram was the centerpiece of the Anthony Davis’ trade for the Pelicans and he showed why. Ingram made the All-Star team for the first time and upped his scoring output to 24.3 points per game. He hit 38.7 percent from downtown on a career-high 6.3 three-point attempts per game. Ingram also improved his rebounding up to 6.3 boards per night, while also dishing out a career-best 4.3 assists per game.

Bam Adebayo was a first-time All-Star in 2020, as he flashed an improved all-around game. Adebayo was mostly a defender and rebounder in his first two NBA seasons. As a third-year player, he became a full-time starter and showed his box score stuffing chops. Adebayo averaged career-highs across the board with 16.2 points, 10.5 rebound, 5.1 assists, 1.3 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. He also shot 56.7 percent from the field and played in all 65 of Miami’s games.

Mock NBA expansion draft: Celtics, Nets, Knicks, 76ers, Raptors

Mock NBA expansion draft
(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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The NBA season is on hiatus. NBC Sports is not – even if we have to venture into fantasy.

We’re holding a mock NBA expansion draft. Keith Smith is setting protected lists for existing teams. Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman will run two new teams as this project culminates in an expansion draft.

Current teams can protect up to eight players. Each team must make at least one player available. If selected, restricted free agents become unrestricted free agents. Pending options can be decided before or after the expansion draft at the discretion of the option-holder. Anyone selected in the expansion draft can’t return to his prior team for one year. Players entering unrestricted free agency and players on two-way contracts are essentially ignored.

We’re unveiling protected/unprotected lists by division. Players are listed with their 2020-21 salary. Up now, the Atlantic:

Boston Celtics

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 7

Ineligible – 0

Analysis: Boston’s decisions are fairly cut and dry. Jayson Tatum, Romeo Langford, Grant Williams and Robert Williams are all on their rookie-scale contracts. Jaylen Brown will be starting a four-year contract extension. Kemba Walker was just signed to a max contract. Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis are good values and key rotation players.

The toughest decision was on Gordon Hayward. Carrying a salary over $34 million, the Celtics are betting he’ll go undrafted and will return to the team. Everyone else was a fairly easy decision to leave unprotected.

Brooklyn Nets

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 5

Ineligible – 2

Analysis: The Nets are keeping their big four in Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert. Jarrett Allen is still on his rookie-scale contract, so that’s an easy decision. With over $101 million on the books for just Durant, Irving, Dinwiddie and LeVert, Nicolas Claxton and Rodions Kurucs help bring some low-cost upside to the back-end of the roster.

DeAndre Jordan will likely go unselected, given his age and $30 million-plus owed through 2022-23. If Jordan is selected, Brooklyn can bank some potential luxury tax savings down the line. Taurean Prince was on the fence, but given his disappointing play this season, and lack of fit in a lineup featuring Durant, the Nets will take their chances he’ll be selected.

New York Knicks

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 6

Ineligible – 1

  • Maurice Harkless

Analysis: The Knicks are clearing the decks for a run at free agency this summer. The expansion draft could only help along that way. New York is protecting their young players with upside, as well as Julius Randle, last year’s big free agent addition. The Knicks are also protecting Damyean Dotson and Allonzo Trier. Not out of fear of losing them, but in hopes that either of the expansion teams will select a bigger salary and take it off the New York cap sheet.

Dennis Smith Jr. was the only questionable player to leave unprotected, but $5.7 million is simply too much for a player out of the rotation. The other five players aren’t part of the future in New York, so that decision was easy.

Philadelphia 76ers

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 3

Ineligible – 4

Analysis: Philadelphia’s decisions make themselves. The highly paid players are key rotation players. Furkan Korkmaz and Shake Milton are steals on minimum contracts. Matisse Thybulle is only entering year two of his rookie scale deal. Zhaire Smith was on the bubble, but he’s young enough, and under team control, that he’s worth protecting.

Al Horford is very unprotected. His signing simply hasn’t worked out for the Sixers. He’s a player Philadelphia is open to talking about a trade with either of the expansion teams. With an extra first-round pick, the 76ers hope to dangle it to entice a team to select Horford.

Toronto Raptors

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 3

Ineligible – 4

Analysis: The Raptors don’t have to expose any of their core rotation players in the expansion draft. Up front, Pascal Siakam just inked his contract extension, and OG Anunoby is still on his rookie scale deal. Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson are all free agents. In the backcourt, Toronto can protect Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell, along with undrafted find Terence Davis. And Fred VanVleet is a free agent.

The leaves just a handful of players who don’t have a role for the Raptors. Toronto could even entertain offering a second-round pick to entice either expansion team to select Stanley Johnson and take his $3.8 million off the cap/tax.