PBT Mailbag: Could Kawhi Leonard just sit out next season for Spurs?

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Submit your questions to the mailbag for next week by e-mailing pbtmailbag@gmail.com.

I haven’t been watching a lot of Summer League lately, but I have been watching all of you watch it via social media. Frankly, I just don’t get it. I went to Las Vegas last year for the event and I was not impressed. It was 100 degrees outside by breakfast, and the quality of play was, somehow, below college basketball level. I would have much preferred to stay home and watch on my couch where I have things like Doritos and a second bag of Doritos.

That’s not to say that I haven’t watched a few games here and there. I saw the Blazers beat the Jazz on Saturday, and most of the time I spent thinking about a very specific question. That is, which do you think would be longer?

  • The average running time of a Summer League Game OR
  • A video of every airball from all the NBA Summer League games combined into one long lowlight reel

Remember, Summer League rules include four 10-minute quarters, so there’s only a total of 40 minutes that we would have to fill with airballs from these games. I figure each airball highlight lasts something like four seconds, because you’d have to include the play leading up to it as well as the announcer reaction to the airball itself for it to be a worthwhile lowlight.

At four seconds apiece you’d have to have clips of 600 airballs sliced back-to-back to meet the 40 minute minimum. They played 67 games at LVSL last year, which means each game would need to average nine airballs. That’s only 4.5 per team, per game. I feel like I’ve seen at least that many this year. Maybe more, and that’s just from Trae Young.

In any case, it would be super close. The real question is, which would you rather be forced to watch: every LVSL game or every airball?

Some basketball writers don’t even get the choice, god bless them.

Let’s get to your questions.

Kate

Can Kawhi Leonard refuse to play/sit out for the Spurs next season? What ramifications could Kawhi Leonard face if he refuses to play for the Spurs next season? Can they enforce the CBA rule regarding the withholding services on him?

Kawhi Leonard has put the NBA in a tizzy, and nobody is sure whether he is trying to control his own destiny or if he’s simply gone crazy. Rumors are now swirling about whether Leonard needed to sit out for the majority of last season, and now we are talking about whether or not he would hold out for yet another if he remains in San Antonio.

The procedural answer here is that if Leonard was able to find a way to sit out and refused to play for the Spurs next season, that San Antonio would trigger the clause you are referencing in the CBA. Specifically, it means that Leonard would not satisfy the conditions of his contract and that he would not be able to become a free agent next season. Teams can also fine players for internal reasons, and no doubt the Spurs would likely move to that if they felt Leonard had drawn first blood.

However, there is very little precedent for this outside of the NBA Draft. Teams have been frustrated with players they have drafted before — Jon Barry refused to play for the Celtics in 1992 and they finally traded him halfway through his rookie season. Guys like Steve Francis have forced their way off of teams. And we all remember how Kobe Bryant was never going to play for the Charlotte Hornets, right? But that was all before those guys had ever seen an NBA court. Kawhi Leonard is a dang ol’ Finals MVP. It’s just … wild.

The real motivating factor to get Leonard on an NBA floor would be the damage he would do around the league to his reputation if he was still controlled by the Spurs and flat out refused to play for them. That kind of open, poisonous relationship with a franchise is not exactly enticing to other teams. That includes ones looking at him in free agency, especially if those same teams have major questions about whether he is actually healthy enough to be worth the big contract he’s shooting for.

Historically, teams have found a way to trade trouble players off of their franchise simply as way to get the miasma of their unhappiness out of their locker rooms. That’s the most likely case in this scenario, and I doubt we will get too far into the season with Leonard still refusing play for the Spurs. Then again, last season was completely insane when it came to Leonard and that whole dynamic, so I can’t rule it out.

Alex

Please, sir, tell me what will happen with my dear, sweet Michael Beasley. (And also what non-Celtics teams should be offering Marcus Smart.)

Look, Alex. We know you love your sweet little B-Easy. But sometimes you can’t always stay with your favorite players. Sometimes you need to let them be free, and send them to a farm upstate. In this case, that farm is located on a team in a lower-division Russian league. Not in the fun, tricycle-riding bear part of Russia, either. More like the waiting in line for black bread before you go back into the iron ore pit part of Russia.

Seriously though, it seems like we talk about Beasley being a reclamation project a lot and perhaps that’s because he’s still just 29 years old. However, not a lot of teams have cash to throw around and Beasley will be a minimum salary player. He’s going to end up on a team that doesn’t matter, or the Lakers.

Smart should get more looks from teams, although he’s not a likely candidate to end up anywhere but Boston and a few select places because of the cap crunch and because taking his qualifying offer isn’t the best choice. There are going to be so many guys on the market in 2019 and there are still some teams that can offer a Smart a deal now. Taking his qualifying offer and becoming a free agent next year is one route, and obviously there will be many suitors for him next summer. However, he’s not likely on the top of the priority list for many teams and more and more guys seem to be angling for 2019. He could end up in a flooded market, getting the same money next summer as he can right now but having played one year at a reduced salary.

The Kings do make a lot of sense but perhaps that’s because of their track record with wing players. Vlade and the boys seem to stockpile a bunch of guys who have one NBA talent they think they can transform into an elite skill. Smart is already an elite basketball player, and adding him to the Kings along with Marvin Bagley Jr. would help solidify them and make them more legit as they build for the future. It’s boring, but that’s the best answer.

Jeremy

Do you think Tony Parker wore puka shells in 2005?

Let’s do some quick back-of-the-napkin math. Parker was born in 1982, which makes him too old to have seen the first wave of puka shell popularity in the 70s. That means he would have had to get into them when they made a comeback in the late 90s and early 2000s.

Adam Sandler was wearing puka shells as Pip in Airheads, which filmed in 1993. Parker would have been 12 at the time Airheads came out in 1994, and he would have been in high school when the necklace hit peak popularity between 1998 and 2002. You also have to realize that Parker grew up in France, with a completely different fashion wave which might not have been tainted by puka shell culture. Looking at my own middle school yearbook, it’s obvious the U.S. was heavily influenced by BIG PUKA, but you have to guess those classy Frenchies probably ducked some of our American trends.

By 2005 Parker would have been 23, and no self-respecting young adult would be caught dead wearing puka shells. Plus, I feel like by 2005 things had really shifted.

The real question is: Did Tony Parker wear a trucker hat in 2005? You tell me, Jeremy. You tell me.

Nick

Does Jake Layman have a nickname? If not, it should definitely be “Jumpin’ Jake”

I honestly don’t understand the obsession about Jake Layman that Portland Trail Blazers fans have. I mean, I understand what it is, I’m just not allowed to type why they like him.

In any case, as nice a guy as Layman might be, I don’t think you can give a nickname to a player who doesn’t have an impact on the floor. The guy averaged exactly one point per game last season for the Blazers.

Yes, because Portland decided not to renew the contract of Pat Connaughton it’s possible that Layman takes up more minutes this year and we see more of what he can do. But in the meantime, I’m just not ready to give him a nickname just yet. At least not a positive one. Guys who come off the end of the bench usually have negative nicknames, which I’m not in the business of giving.

IF Layman actually produces this season for Portland, here are my top picks:

  1. Yung Kitzhaber
  2. Slayman
  3. Dunkin’ Douglas (middle name)
  4. Eric Judy
  5. Thrillard (nobody else has taken this one I think)
  6. King Jake
  7. Dr. Buckets, Esq.
  8. White Hot

John

Is Sean Marks a top 5 executive?

Considering what he had to work with after taking over from Billy King and formed a team foundation using only cap space or late picks, I think the Nets are closer to relevance than people realize. Agree?

Bob Myers, Daryl Morey, Danny Ainge, RC Buford, Dell Demps, Sam Hinkie (legacy).

So, probably not. Also, Marks just got hired in 2016 so he needs a longer body of work to really judge whether or not he’s a top five executive in the league. Brooklyn won eight more games last season than they did season before, which isn’t exactly a huge jump. Yes, the Nets have made a couple of good moves to build for the future. They snagged D'Angelo Russell, got rid of Timofey Mozgov, and bet big on Allen Crabbe (twice).

Next year seems like it will be a big test whether the Nets are headed in the right direction. They should have the added boost of not having LeBron in their conference, so it will be up to Kenny Atkinson to steer this team near the playoff race. Brooklyn has the ability to create a massive amount of cap space in the summer of 2019 if they renounce most of their cap holds, so whether Marks can convince players to head to New York City will be big. Until then, I’m withholding judgement.

Seriously though, go look at the list of current NBA GMs and tell me most of their fanbases don’t want to fire them out of a cannon toward a big parachute.

Alfredo

With Boogie in the Bay, the Warriors have become The Ultimate Warriors (or Team USA Warriors or Monstar Warriors). The growing fear is that the Dubs dynasty has reached Russell-Auerbach levels where they could possibly surpass a 3-peat. The only teams that want to do something about it are the Lakers and Celtics, but I have a problem with this because it paints the narrative of the two legacy teams being the only hope to save competitive basketball. In fact, the Lakers-Celtics rivalry was what gave the NBA its first taste of relevancy in the 1960s (mostly on the Laker side for their connections to Hollywood and entertainment); the rivalry once saved the league from bankruptcy and a bad image problem that would have made itself second fiddle to the NFL. It’s like saying, “If the Lakers and Celtics aren’t ruling the NBA where they’re the main draw in most of the Finals, then the NBA is ruined.” What are your thoughts on this hypocrisy between this current Warriors dynasty and the Lakers-Celtics rivalry dynasty? How do you think Warriors will fare vs. both legacy teams in the playoffs and Finals respectively? Will there never be parity in the NBA – and is that okay?

The idea that parity doesn’t exist in the NBA is just flat out wrong. Teams float to the top and fall into the bottom all the time. Parity isn’t about all 30 teams taking their turns winning the Larry O’Brien. It’s about whether teams have a field level enough to allow them to compete and complete that cycle of rising and falling.

Yes, if you look at the list of past NBA champions over the last 15 years or so, it really comes down to just a few teams. The Lakers, Spurs, Heat, Cavaliers, Warriors, and Mavericks just to name a few. But there have been seven different teams to finish atop the Eastern Conference since the 2010-11 season (four out West).

If you are using the number of teams that win championships as the measure of parity in the NBA, then perhaps you have an issue. But this talking point has only risen recently because of the seeming inevitability of the Warriors winning the championship for the next few years. While adding DeMarcus Cousins certainly seems to have an upside in the playoffs this year for Golden State, he will not be a member of that team next season, so I’m not making that the nail in the coffin for either side.

There’s no doubt that the league would prefer if the Warriors didn’t have a select few players on their roster, Kevin Durant in particular. The real issue Golden State might push into the light is players taking less than their market value to group together on one team. That may benefit some select owners, but several will likely bring up this issue during owners meetings if it continues.

If people feel exasperated because the Warriors are bound to win the championship every season, then they didn’t pay attention when LeBron James beat them just a couple years ago in the Finals. Weird stuff happens. Stars get hurt. Guys punch guys in the crotch. There’s still some variance you can expect.

Part of being a fan is being along for the ride when your team isn’t the best or doesn’t have a chance to win it all. You can learn all about how your young players will mesh together and where the future of the team is headed. Each season, 29 teams fail to win the championship. That will never change, and as long as that’s the way the season ends every year there’s no use giving up watching pro basketball. Get a grip, everybody.

You know what the best way to win a championship in the NBA is? Have someone who’s not a doofus buy your favorite team. Honestly. Knicks fans know what I’m talking about.

Abdoulaye

What about a trade of Moe Harkless and Meyers Leonard for Serge Ibaka? Damian Lillard and CJ Turner need a traditional frontcourt. Al-Farouq Aminu needs to play at the 3. A starting five of Lillard, CJ, Evan Turner, Ibaka, Jusuf Nurkic with a bench of Seth Curry, Wade Baldwin, Gary Trent, Aminu, Caleb Swanigan and Zach Collins looks decent.

Ibaka would also bring the best of Nurkic as he plays better with a traditional PF like he did with Noah Vonleh. Small ball is good if you only have one of Dame and CJ or if you don’t face a talented big.

I’m not sure this trade moves the needle for either team. Toronto is working on developing a young wing in OG Anunoby already, so Harkless would sort of clog that up. Leonard doesn’t seem to have a lot of additional value for the Raptors at this juncture.

Meanwhile Ibaka isn’t necessarily a valuable trade asset. He was a negative box plus-minus for a very good Raptors team last year, which sort of shows on paper what some people saw while watching him on the floor last year in Toronto.

I also think your overall assessment of the Blazers roster is a bit off. First, Portland doesn’t play small ball. Small ball is what the New Orleans Pelicans used to sweep Portland in the first round. If anything, they play too “big” for some of their Western Conference foes as it is.

Aminu is not a bench player, and he is best while playing the four position. That’s been the case for some time, and of course it is much better when the Blazers have a another 3-point shooter next to him like Harkless or Allen Crabbe. It also helps when the Aminu isn’t ice cold from 3-point range, but at this point he will be a constant yo-yo player from that spot on the floor.

I have been saying that the Blazers need to take a big swing in order to prove to Lillard that they are willing to compete in the West, but I’m not sure that Ibaka is that guy. The reality is the Portland Trail Blazers are stuck where they are until something comes available for Neil Olshey.

In the meantime, I’m excited to read 17 more clickbait articles about how the Blazers are going to trade Lillard to the Lakers. Love them clicks, boy.

See y’all next week.

Submit your questions to the mailbag for next week by e-mailing pbtmailbag@gmail.com.

2018 NBA Draft Prospect Profile: Is Jaren Jackson Jr. the future of the center position?

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Jaren Jackson Jr. isn’t going to be the first pick in the draft, and I’m not sure just how many mock drafts are going to have him slotted somewhere in the top two or three picks.

The hype, attention and production that comes with the likes of DeAndre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III and Luka Doncic is hard to ignore, particularly in comparison with Jackson, who averaged just 10.9 points in one year at Michigan State and bowed out of the NCAA tournament after playing just 15 minutes in a second round loss to Syracuse.

Put another way, Jackson never really has moved the needle, which makes sense for a guy that was the fifth-option for his team in college.

But it doesn’t take all that much effort to find NBA decision-makers that think Jackson might end up being the most impactful NBA player to come out of this draft class.

The reason why is fairly straight-forward: He will fit seamlessly into the modern NBA given the combination of skills that he has while the other four players projected to go in the top five this year have more question marks. Ayton’s rim-protection, three-point shooting and questionable work ethic are red flags. Bagley cannot guard the position (five) that he is going to have to play offensively. Doncic’s relative lack of athleticism makes it unclear who he can guard at the next level. Mo Bamba’s offensive repertoire and toughness will be questioned.

Jackson?

He’s 6-foot-11 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan. He shot 39.6 percent from three after shooting 43.8 percent from three on the EYBL circuit in 2016. He averaged 3.0 blocks despite playing just under 22 minutes a night as a freshman. He is as switchable as any big man in this class defensively because of his ability to move his feet. He won’t turn 19 years old until September 15th, making him 16 months younger than Bamba, 15 months younger than Michael Porter Jr., 14 months younger than Ayton and six months younger than Bagley, who reclassified to enroll at Duke a year early.

He’s everything that NBA teams are looking for as a defensive anchor in the era of small-ball fives switching pick-and-rolls.

Put another way, how much do you think Tristan Thompson (or Clint Capela) would be worth to the Cavs (or Rockets) if he could shoot 40 percent from three and 80 percent from the free throw line? What would Kevin Love‘s value be on the open market if he was a rim-protector and a better defender in space?

Jackson has a long was to go to get to that level, but when you imagine his ceiling, that’s the picture you get.

HEIGHT: 6-foot-11.25
WEIGHT: 236
WINGSPAN: 7-foot-5.25
2017-18 STATS: 10.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 3.0 bpg, 1.1 apg, 51.3/39.6/79.7, 38 3PM
DRAFT RANGE: Top four

STRENGTHS

When we talk about 3-and-D, typically what we’re referring to are wings, players like a Trevor Ariza or a Danny Green, but 3-and-D big men do exist. Jackson, who was named the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year as a freshman, projects as the quintessential 3-and-D big, a perfect fit as a small-ball five in the modern NBA.

Let’s start with his ability to shoot the ball. Jackson knocked down 39.6 percent of his attempts from three in his one season at Michigan State, getting up nearly three threes per game. While that isn’t a massive sample size, Jackson shot 44 percent (28-for-64) from beyond the arc on Nike’s EYBL circuit prior to his senior season in high school and knocked down nearly 80 percent of his free throws this past season. His shooting stroke is awkward — he shoots a push shot with a low-release point that has a weird, sideways spin on it — but he has shot a high-percentage at every level he’s played at in his career. It’s not really a stretch to think that will continue onto the next level.

He’s also a capable driver — mostly to his left — when it comes to attacking closeouts, showing flashes of handle and the ability to beat bigger, and smaller, defenders off the bounce.

The defensive end of the floor is where the real intrigue lies with Jackson.

Offensively, he has a chance to be effective, a floor-spacer that can create some mismatches and beat a close-out, but I’d be pretty surprised if he ever ended up averaging more than 15-17 points in the NBA.

Where Jackson can really make his mark is on the defensive end of the floor, and I don’t think it’s crazy to say that winning a Defensive Player of the Year award in the NBA is within his range of outcomes.

Let’s start with the shot-blocking. On the season, Jackson averaged 3.0 blocks per night despite playing just under 22 minutes; he averaged 5.8 blocks per-40 minutes. Jackson’s block-rate is even more impressive, coming in fourth-nationally at 14.3. There hasn’t been a player drafted in the first round to post a better block rate in the year they were drafted since at least 2004; both Hasheem Thabeet and Larry Sanders, who were drafted after their junior seasons, bettered that block rate in limited roles as freshmen while Hassan Whiteside, who was a second-round pick, had the best block-rate of the bunch.

In fact, Jackson’s block-rate is better than just about every dominant big man that has been picked at the top of the lottery in recent years, including Anthony Davis, and that was despite the fact that he spent the majority of his minutes this season playing the four:

There’s more.

Since 2009-10, there have been just eight players — including Jackson — that have posted a block rate higher than 14 and a true-shooting percentage above 64. Jackson made 38 threes this past season. The other seven players on that list attempted one three combined.

I say all that to say this: The ability to block shots at the rate that Jackson blocks shots is a unique skill, one that is not often combined with a player that has the ability to shoot from distance that Jackson has.

Jackson, however, is more than just a shot-blocker on the defensive end. He can move his feet. He can defend guards on the perimeter when he’s forced to switch. He spent this past season covering college basketball’s small-ball fours. He got experience defending on an island and moving his feet against quicker ball-handlers.

Switchable rim-protectors that space the floor offensively don’t come around that often, and he still doesn’t turn 19 for another two months.

WEAKNESSES

Much of what ails Jackson has to do with his age.

He checked in at 236 pounds at the NBA Draft Combine, but he could still stand to add some size and muscle to his frame. His lower body strength needs work as well, as he has something of a high center of gravity. He’ll get bullied early on in his career. Jackson could also stand to improve his explosiveness and lateral quickness. At this point, he’s mobile and he’s long but he’s not an above-average athlete, particularly from an NBA perspective. That should improve as he gets into an NBA weight training program and continues to grow into his body. Remember, he was just 6-foot-2 as a freshman in high school.

Jackson needs to get most confidence in his ability to drive right and his awkward shooting stroke means he’ll probably never be a great pull-up jump-shooter, but that’s not likely to be something that he’ll be asked to do all that often.

Maturity and decision-making may be the biggest issue that he’ll face.

Let’s start with the fouls. He committed a LOT of them. Part of the reason that he only averaged 22 minutes was that he also averaged 3.2 fouls per game, or roughly 6.0 fouls per 40 minutes. Some of that is a result of Jackson still learning how to play and where to be positionally — freshman bigs are always going to be foul prone, especially when they’re being asked to defend on the perimeter more. Part of that is he is a little slow to react when defending on the perimeter. Sometimes that’s because he reads the play late, something that should change as he spends more time playing. Sometimes it’s because he’s too upright defensively, which will be helped as he develops his lower-body. Sometimes it’s because he’s over-aggressive, whether that manifests itself as a reach-in foul or getting whistled for over-the-back on a rebound he never really had a chance to get.

In theory, those are things that can be coached out. What’s a little more concerning is that Jackson is somewhat naïve and tends to have a long memory during games. He can get hung up on a referee blowing a call or him missing a shot.

But again, it’s hard to know whether that’s who he is or simply a result of an 18-year old being 18.

NBA COMPARISON

I’m not sure there really is a perfect comparison for Jackson because I’m not sure how many players have the combination of skills that he has. I think his floor is somewhere between a Serge Ibaka and a Robert Covington, depending on just how good of a shooter he develops into and where his development defensively takes him, which is part of the reason that he is steadily climbing draftboards. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where he doesn’t become a useful rotation player on a team that can play the way you need to play to compete with Golden State.

Jackson’s ceiling will be determined by what he becomes on the offensive end of the floor. Let’s say that his three-point shooting doesn’t take a dip when moving back to the NBA line and that he continues to add to his face-up game, I don’t think it’s out of the question that he could turn into Kristaps Porzingis-lite, but even that is far from perfect and probably an unfair expectation to put on an 18-year old.

The best way to think of Jackson’s ceiling: Clint Capela, except he adds Kevin Love’s perimeter repertoire in a role similar to the one Draymond Green plays — more on that in a second. That is an extremely useful and valuable player to have.

OUTLOOK

I have a very hard time seeing Jackson end up as a bust.

It will take some time for him to get there, but his tools defensively combined with his ability to make shots means that there will be a role for him in the NBA for a long time to come.

At the same time, I think Jackson’s upside offensively is limited to a point. Put another way, I don’t see him being the go-to guy on a team that is making runs in the playoff.

Which leads me to Draymond.

Green and Jackson are very, very different players. One is 6-foot-6 and the other is 6-foot-11. One is a terrific playmaker that ran some point in college and the other finished his college career with 39 assists and 62 turnovers. One is certifiably insane and the other is not.

But what Green does for Golden State is a pretty good template for what I think Jackson will be able to provide for an NBA franchise down the road, operating at the piece that brings everything together defensively while doing enough on the offensive end of the floor to keep defenders honest and help create space for his teammates.

Jackson will do it in a different way than Draymond does, but the effect he’ll have on the way a team can play will be similar.

Report: Raptors explored DeMar DeRozan trade options last summer

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How far are the Toronto Raptors going to go with their shakeup?

They have already fired coach Dwane Casey after a 59-win season, bringing in a new voice to a good lineup. Is a new voice and some new sets enough? Or is it time for a big roster move — trading DeMar DeRozan?

The Raptors considered that a year ago and may well consider it again, according to Marc Stein of the New York Times, in his weekly newsletter.

Word is that the Raptors quietly explored their DeMar DeRozan trade options last summer —  before they had any inkling that a breakout season was looming — and I’d fully expect Toronto to explore those possibilities again. Not just with DeRozan but with anyone and everyone on the roster.

Teams test the market for their best players more than most fans think, not because they want to make a trade but because they want to know the market value of a player. Does the team value its star more than other teams? Undervalue? It’s information a GM wants, even if he has zero intention of pulling the trigger on a trade.

We don’t know how far the Raptors went down that road. We don’t know yet how far they would drive down it now. If the Raptors want to shake up the roster, a DeRozan trade is the most likely way. (Nobody is taking on Serge Ibaka‘s anchor of a contract, and while Jonas Valanciunas provides value on the court, the Raptors would have to throw in the sweetener of a quality young player to get another team to bite.

DeRozan is their most valuable trade asset if they want to go that way, an All-Star wing who can fill up the scoreboard — 23 points and 5.2 assists per game last season. He can get his shot, a lot of teams need that. He’s also owed $55.5 million guaranteed over the next two seasons with a player option at $27.7 million the year after that. Not many teams can or would take that on, and the Raptors are not looking to rebuild so they will want players back who can help them now.

A deal is not impossible with another team frustrated with their standing and roster, looking to shake things up (there are a number of those around the league right now). Maybe they can get in on a blockbuster deal if Kawhi Leonard becomes available (he’s not now, and could the Raptors re-sign him after his contract ends in 2019?), or some other superstar.

More than likely, the Raptors will run it back with mostly the same roster. Masai Ujiri will explore his options, but outside of changing the coach they are limited.

Raptors fire Dwane Casey

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Two days after Raptors president Masai Ujiri declared “I believe in Dwane Casey,” Toronto did what it had been building toward.

Raptors release:

Toronto Raptors President Masai Ujiri announced Friday that Dwane Casey has been relieved of his duties as the team’s head coach.

“After careful consideration, I have decided this is a very difficult but necessary step the franchise must take. As a team, we are constantly trying to grow and improve in order to get to the next level,” Ujiri said. “We celebrate everything Dwane has done for the organization, we thank him, and we wish him nothing but the best in future. He was instrumental in creating the identity and culture of who we are as a team, and we are so proud of that.”

Casey guided the best run in Raptors history. After a couple losing seasons to begin his tenure, Toronto has won at least 48 games and made the playoffs each of the last five years – including a franchise-best 59 wins this season.

But the Raptors underwhelmed in the playoffs annually – including this year, which they tried so hard to make different.

Toronto implemented a “culture reset,” overhauling the offense and empowering the bench. Everything was designed to improve the teams postseason fortunes.

The result: Getting swept by LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the second round, same as last year.

Ujiri said he won’t blow up this team – nor could he easily. Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka have hefty salaries guaranteed for the next couple years. Keeping this core intact guarantees a high floor.

Firing Casey could raise the ceiling.

Casey is a good coach, and I don’t think he was Toronto’s problem. But maybe he was. He did himself no favors this postseason. At this point, it might be worthwhile to try someone else. Changing coaches is far easier than changing players.

This will be Ujiri’s first coaching search. He inherited George Karl with the Nuggets and Casey in Toronto. That Casey made it this long with an executive who didn’t hire him is somewhat surprising, though Casey’s run wasn’t without multiple potential firings previously.

The Raptors have a few strong internal candidates – assistants Nick Nurse and Rex Kalamian and minor-league coach Jerry Stackhouse. Toronto also has a strong veteran roster that could attract top available outside coaches.

Casey was already named Coach of the Year by his peers. He could win the more prestigious Coach of the Year award, as voted by media. He would’ve had my vote if I had one.

The NBA won’t announce the winner until its June 25 award show. By that time, Casey might even be working for another team. Whether he’s employed elsewhere or unemployed, this sets up an awkward moment if he walks across the stage to accept an award for the quality work he did with the Raptors.

Report: Raptors “strongly leaning” toward firing Dwane Casey as coach

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Dwane Casey is going to finish somewhere in the top three in the Coach of the Year voting. (It’s a very crowded field, more than a few guys could win it, but Casey had consistent backing from some voters.)

That may well not be enough to save his job.

After another sweep at the hands of LeBron James and the Cavaliers, changes are coming to Toronto. Changes to the roster are not going to be easy, and it will be hard to get equal value back. Which in the NBA often leads to the coach getting axed. That appears to be coming in Toronto, reports Josh Lewenberg of TSN.

The evaluation period is ongoing but, according to sources, the Raptors are strongly leaning towards making a coaching change.

If he’s let go or, more likely, he and the team mutually agree to part ways, it won’t be an indictment of Casey or what he’s accomplished in his seven seasons at the helm of a franchise he’s helped turn around. After being swept out of the playoffs for the third time in four years – twice as the higher seed – the sense is it’s time for a new direction and a different voice.

Around the league, from sources outside Toronto, the expectation has been the same — Casey is going to be the fall guy.

Is that fair? Probably not. But “fair” and “NBA head coach” are not phrases ever meant for the same sentence.

As for a replacement, look for the Raptors to stay in-house with lead assistant Nick Nurse or G-League coach Jerry Stackhouse, both of whom have drawn interest from other teams and had interviews during this season of the coaching carousel. It’s unlikely the Raptors will look beyond their own house.

Does it matter who coaches the team if the roster doesn’t change? LeBron may well still be in the East, Philadelphia is young and improving, Boston is good and will get Gordon Hayward/Kyrie Irving back, Milwaukee should take a step forward with a new coach and system.

Changing the roster is not that simple. The Raptors would love to get out from under the two years, $45 million Serge Ibaka is still owed but no team is taking that deal on, he’s as close to untradable as a player can be. Jonas Valanciunas is owed a fairly-reasonable $16.5 million next season (with a $17.6 million player option the season after that) and he does provide value on the court, but he’s an old-school style center and that’s not the kind of player teams are looking to take on. To trade JV likely would mean taking a worse contract back or adding a sweetener such as Norman Powell or Delon Wright.

The big question: Is Masai Ujiri ready to try to trade DeMar DeRozan? There would be plenty of teams interested, although getting a fair deal back is not going to be easy.

All of this is going to make it one hot and interesting summer in Toronto.