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NBA Toronto Raptors Kyle Lowry

Raptors Rise And Fall With The Kyle Lowry Three-Ball

The Toronto Raptors hot start to the season has been showing some cracks lately as, once again, this team’s success rests in the hands of their four-time All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry.

It isn’t hard to see when the Raptors are in trouble. Their three-ball isn’t falling and when the usually reliable Lowry tries to step in and provide some long range help, his shots go astray as well. Lowry is putting up six threes on average, win or lose, but in wins, he hits on 43.2 percent and in losses he only sunk two in 24 tries or 8.3 percent.

“Missed a couple of shots,” Lowry said after the OT loss in Boston. “I got to play better.

“Shooting the ball pretty bad lately. So I got to find a way to get a rhythm.”

Even with a 12-4 record and sitting top 10 in three-point makes and attempts, Toronto isn’t a great three-point shooting team. They hoist an impressive 33.6 three-point attempts per game and make a respectable 11.2 threes, but even in wins they only shoot a pedestrian 36.8 percent and in losses that plummets to a terrible 24.4 percent. There’s a temptation to give the opposition some credit for great perimeter defense, but that would be a mistake. The eye test says, when the Raptors shoot poorly, it’s mostly on themselves.

Watching the Raptors in losses is frustrating. A team that averages 118.7 points in wins puts up nine fewer points in losses and doesn’t look like they could put the ball in the ocean from beyond the arc. If Lowry and company could hit threes at the same lukewarm pace they sink them in wins, they’d put up about 13 more points and most if not all of those Ls would be Ws.

It’s early days in the 2018-19 season and most teams are going thru some kind of struggle to get in shape, find their shooting touch, and/or create or re-create some team chemistry. The hot start Raptors came out the gates with is largely on the shoulders of Lowry and when he’s off his game, it shows.

Outside of Danny Green and the injured Norman Powell, no one on the Raptors is hitting threes at the rate expected over the entire season. Minor injuries and unfortunate distractions have undoubtedly hurt the Raptors rhythm.

However, even as the rest of the crew finds their stroke in the weeks ahead, the guy putting the most pressure on opposing defenses from deep is still going to be their starting point guard. Higher expectations based on a significantly upgraded roster aside, this team still rises and falls with Lowry.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

  

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Masai Ujiri

Is Raptors President Masai Ujiri On The Hot Seat?

By Frank McLean

The expectations for the Toronto Raptors as they start the 2018-2019 NBA season are the highest they ever have been and it had nothing to do with their season starting the same day pot became legal in Canada.

After being eliminated for a third straight year by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, team President Masai Ujiri knew that something had to give.

Changes had to be made and they were.

With James leaving the Eastern Conference and taking his talents to Southern California and the Los Angeles Lakers, the excuse that as long as James was in the east nobody else has a chance to win was gone.

First it was the big trade, a no brainer sending DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl and a 2019 protected first round draft pick to San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.

One of the reasons this team struggled in the playoffs was opponents knew how to stop the Raptors and shutting down DeRozan or his other sidekick at guard Kyle Lowry pretty much did the trick.

Leonard is a superior defender and a major offensive threat BUT… and there is always a BUT. He only played nine games last year for San Antonio because of a quad injury and a shoulder injury. Is he able to stay healthy for an 82-game schedule?

Also he has a year left on his contract and the word around the league is he wants to play in his home of Los Angeles.

The other move was dumping the longest serving head coach in franchise history Dwane Casey.

Seven years, three straight 50-plus win seasons, 320-wins 238-losses all time and coming off a franchise high 59-win regular season and as a reward, the NBA coach of the year award.

BUT… And as we said there is always a BUT, a 21-30 record in the postseason, one appearance in the conference finals and zero appearances in the NBA Finals.

So Ujiri promoted Nick Nurse, who the last five years was one of Casey’s assistants running the offense to his first head coaching gig in the NBA.

Big gambles for a team that thinks they are good enough to win the east and take a shot at a NBA title.

For Ujiri the option of a coaching change is something he has kept in his back pocket since he took over as President. Casey was hired by his predecessor Bryan Colangelo and any new General Manager or President gets a chance to hire their own coach before you can fully review their job of building a winner.

Casey was winning, so there was no need to make a change except for a losing postseason record and the way the Raptors seemed to wave the white flag and surrender against Cleveland every time.

In acquiring Leonard the Raptors have never had a player of his ability before in their 24-year history. A top-10 player, who some may argue is a top five player in the league.

Also if you are Ujiri these moves are not just to make the team better, which he has been obsessed with since he arrived here five years ago. But he has to answer eventually to for the team’s lack of playoff success.

When Ujiri replaced Colangelo five years ago he was hired by former MLSE President Tim Leiweke.

Now Ujiri answers to a different boss running the MLSE board, Michael Frisdhal. With this being his sixth season running the ball club it’s make the conference finals or bust for this team and if they don’t the next move could be Ujiri.

Will know in six months if this all worked.

 

 

DeMar DeRozan & Frank McLeanVeteran journalist Frank McLean has covered the Raptors in Toronto since their inaugural season at the Skydome back in 1995-96. He has seen it all. The good, the bad and the really bad and he is one of the very few journalists in Toronto that has kept coming back for more.

 

 

NBA Spurs DeMar DeRozan vs Raptors Kawhi Leonard

Is The Better Scorer DeMar DeRozan or Kawhi Leonard?

The current title of greatest ambassador and scorer in Raptors history belongs to DeMar DeRozan. His name will be etched into the franchise record books beside games played, minutes played, field goals, free throws and points scored into the foreseeable future. No Raptors player has committed more towards his adopted city and franchise both on and off the court.

However, president Masai Ujiri traded in the face-of-his-franchise for, perhaps, the best two-way player in the game. A two-time defensive player of the year, four-time All-Defensive team selection and an NBA Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard has earned the tag of best defensive player and best perimeter defender in the Association in this year’s annual GM poll  again, but no one who follows the NBA isn’t aware of his offense that elevated his status to back-to-back All-NBA First team in 2016 and 2017.

As great an offensive powerhouse as DeRozan has been in Toronto, there should be some question about how even he stacks up against Leonard’s offense and there is good reason to believe that under head coach Nick Nurse, Leonard is going to be given the freedom to take his scoring to another level.

“I am still trying to keep it a little free,” Nurse responded to Pro Ball Report about Leonard’s offense. “I want him to feel like he can go inside and post if he feels like it, if he feels the matchups there. If he wants to play screen and roll if he feels it. If he wants to bring it up the floor, all those things. He can really do all that stuff so we want to let him do all that stuff.

“We want him to be aggressive. He is a team player. He has to knock off some rust. In that first (preseason) game he was a little not aggressive enough and we talked to him a few days in there let’s be a little more aggressive in your offense and turn him loose a little bit.”

If the Raptors want to entice Leonard into staying in Toronto, in addition to a deep postseason run, there may be no better way to stroke his ego than helping him win an NBA scoring title and a shot an an MVP.

Since Leonard missed most of last season and DeRozan’s best offensive output was two years ago, a head-to-head comparison from 2016-17 may shed some light on which player is the better scorer.

NBA Toronto Raptors DeMar DeRozan vs Kawhi Leonard

 

While DeRozan got opportunities early in his career to dominate the Raptors offense when the team he was on politely sucked, Leonard was developed in a Spurs organization that had higher expectations and he didn’t average double-digit shot attempts until his fourth season. Maybe that’s why he shot so much better than DeRozan from both two and three point range initially, but it’s a trend that continued even after the Raptors evolved into a 50-win team and Leonard had to shoulder a much bigger piece of the Spurs offense.

DeRozan, the two-point assassin, has never shot from midrange as effectively as Leonard and as much as the Raptors tried to develop deep range on DeRozan’s jump shot (that has nothing obviously wrong with it), he’s still an unreliable sub-30 percent three-point threat. Leonard, on the other hand, can’t be left unguarded beyond the arc and is especially deadly from the corner.

None of this is to say DeRozan isn’t an elite scorer. It’s just the numbers suggest Leonard is better and the real test of any scorer comes in the postseason where some players take their game to another level and some can’t.

NBA Toronto Raptors DeMar DeRozan vs Kawhi Leonard playoffs

Contrary to popular opinion, DeRozan hasn’t played badly in the postseason, he just didn’t step up his game. He has averaged over 20 points per game in each of his five postseason runs, but what happened in 2016-17 and his career playoff shooting percentages are a pretty good measure of how he’s done versus the regular season and his fans can only cringe a little.

Leonard on the other hand has been a playoff beast. He has flat out upped his offensive production under pressure and that’s been a key missing ingredient in Toronto over the past five years.

And the early indications in preseason are Leonard is about to take his game to another level.

“He’s definitely more vocal than he’s ever been on and off the court,” Danny Green said after practice. “It looks like he feels comfortable. It looks like he feels at home. He’s talking to guys, he’s leading by example. In the huddles, he’s chiming in, saying what he feels, saying his opinion.

“He’s leading vocally more than ever before.”

An engaged Leonard assuming a leadership role is going to have a huge year.

Who’s the better scorer between All-Stars playing on different teams in different conferences under different coaching styles isn’t an easy thing to measure, but the numbers suggest the Raptors didn’t just get a massive upgrade on defense by trading DeRozan for Leonard, they have picked up the better scorer as well. And if Nurse can set Leonard free on offense and get him to lead, there’s no telling just how far the Raptors newest star can take it.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

  

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Kawhi Leonard

Takeaways From Watching The Rusty Raptors v Blazers

It’s only fair to say, never read too much into any preseason game. The coaches and the players treat them as practice and/or tryout sessions, but there were some takeaways to be gleaned by watching your rusty Raptors beat up on the Trail Blazers 122-104 in Vancouver.

Serge Ibaka as starting center.

Don’t assume the starting center job is Ibaka’s just yet, but it makes sense. What makes even more sense is Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunas and Greg Monroe didn’t play together. Who ends up playing center with which unit will be a question of fit and effectiveness, but we got a solid clue about how head coach Nick Nurse sees these three players in his rotation.

Valanciunas looked like a player fighting for his job and he impressed.

CJ Miles as starting power forward.

Well maybe not, but that was a very veteran starting five Nurse threw out there in his first preseason game as a head coach. Miles could start, but it probably means OG Anunoby, who had the night off for personal reasons, is a good bet to be your starting power forward when the season starts.

Miles shot 2-3 from three and looks ready to go. Nurse will have him slotted into the rotation somewhere.

Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green looked a little rusty.

No surprise the two former Spurs looked a little rusty, but it wasn’t hard to look past the 1-9 three-point shooting they combined for and see a dominant offensive force coming soon to Toronto.

While Green was barely noticeable in the starting unit as he deferred to Kyle Lowry and Leonard, he stood out with the second unit after half without hitting a shot. He brought a strong veteran presence to a younger group.

The second unit is ready to go.

Fred VanVleet (3-4 from three), Pascal Siakam (13 rebounds), Delon Wright (a blocked shot) look ready to pick things up where they left off at the end of last season. The Raptors bench is going to terrorize opponents again this year.

Norman Powell had a good game.

It’s hard to know if there is anything Powell can show in preseason to crack Nurse’s rotation until someone gets hurt, but he looked good in Vancouver hitting 2-3 three-point attempts and playing an overall solid game.

 

Nurse gave his starters and key reserves 15-20 minutes of playing time and they worked up a good sweat. His reserves are ready for the season now and the starters worked off a bit of the rust and showed signs of developing some chemistry. It was a solid start to the preseason and a good night for the fans in Vancouver.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

  

 

 

The Raptors Battle For Minutes Will Be At Center

Raptors president Masai Ujiri has assembled the deepest, most experienced and most talented group of players of his reign in Toronto. Even with new head coach Nick Nurse suggesting he’ll play a deep rotation of 10 or 11 guys, there will be a battle for minutes that extends beyond the preseason and the it’s guys in the center facing the toughest challenge.

“We’re deep man,” Kyle Lowry said after practice in Vancouver. “There’s some competition going on right now.

“We haven’t gotten to the point yet to figure out minutes.”

But perhaps the most ominous thought crossing Lowry’s mind if you’re a center was,

“You can play Pascal (Siakam) at the five.”

Don’t think for a minute the other big guys on the Raptors don’t know the direction the NBA has been headed in for a while now and that a smaller uber-athlete like Siakam can steal minutes at the center spot.

Heading into camp with two former Spurs deservedly slotted into starting lineup and Greg Monroe the logical replacement for Jakob Poeltl at center in the second unit, coach Nurse is going to be forced into some tough decisions.

NBA Toronto Raptors

*  Kawhi Leonard’s minutes are from 2 seasons ago. There is some legitimate debate about whether Ibaka, Siakam or Anunoby should start at power forward.

There’s 240 available minutes and if Nurse would stick with a 10-man rotation, his decisions could become a lot easier, but this isn’t going to be easy.

1. Miles is a prolific three-point shooter in short minutes and there’s almost no chance he isn’t going to be part of the rotation.

2. Last year Dwane Casey found minutes for Norman Powell who has a $40 million contract, but Nurse isn’t going to find that task so easy this year unless the injuries pile up.

3. All of Valanciunas, Monroe and Ibaka are expecting significant minutes at center this season…. oops

Getting past Valanciunas will start at center and Nurse will have trouble cutting his minutes any further than Casey did last year, Monroe expects to be the backup center and Ibaka thinks he’ll be playing more in the post. Add in this team is expected to shoot more threes than ever before and will be more perimeter oriented, something has to give.

“Obviously it’s just coming in with the second group playing backup center,” Monroe explained. “I knew what I was coming into. That’s what I was expecting.”

“I spoke to the coach,” Ibaka said. “He wants me to be in the paint, offensive rebound. He wants me to protect the paint. That’s something I always loved to do.”

It’s worth remembering Monroe was really good in Boston playing with an elite team and Ibaka has almost been begging to be allowed to protect the rim as he did for the Thunder when he was a All Defensive First Team player instead of a three-point shooter.

However, if Nurse decides a small ball lineup with Leonard, Anunoby and Siakam plus a couple of guards gives him his best defense and a run-it-down-your-throat offense, minutes for the more traditional big guys are going to be even harder to find.

Someone(s) may not be very happy and Nurse’s job distributing minutes could be even tougher than it first appears.

It almost feels obvious that Lowry wants to play more minutes than he did last season and if the Raptors want to retain Leonard, he gets as many minutes as he wants too. As a pending free agent Leonard needs to show he’s 100 percent back, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise if the team’s new superstar is playing more minutes than he did in San Antonio.

Anunoby had a solid rookie campaign and has starter or better potential. The team has to want to see more from him this season in a bigger role. Then there’s impressive way Siakam plays. He’s a Nick Nurse-style big man and should be expected to earn the right to be on the court more than last year.

Not forgetting VanVleet got Sixth Man of the Year votes last year because of how well the Raptors offense ran with him on the court. Fresh off signing a new deal, he deserves a bigger role too.

The players on the Raptors very impressive second unit from last season are going to be tough to keep off the court.

Toronto can play almost any style out there. They can play big and slow or very fast. They have guys that can dominate in the paint as much as that happens in today’s game or they can stay on the perimeter and bomb away with threes. But all that versatility and depth comes with it’s own set of problems.

Training camp and preseason are easy, but once the games start to count and coach Nurse starts playing the way everyone believes he is the most comfortable, the real battle for minutes at the center spot is going to show up.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

  

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Kawhi Leonard and Masai Ujiri and Danny Green 2018 media day

Raptors Are Finally Serious About A Championship Run

In the end, winning in the NBA comes down to money. Either a team is willing to spend what it takes to compete for a championship or they aren’t. Period, end of story and Raptors president Masai Ujiri has finally, reluctantly, admitted that this is how things are done.

According to Spotrac, the Raptors head into training camp with the league’s third highest salary commitment and a potential Luxury Tax bill exceeding $50 million.

“I think it’s even more important to say, to give props to our owners,” Ujiri responded to Pro Bball Report at Media Day. “They’ve given us this opportunity and that’s not the easiest thing to do, but I think it shows a commitment to winning.”

And it’s about time. After making Ujiri jump thru hoops to avoid paying Luxury Taxes in previous seasons, ownership has allowed the Raptors to hold onto their depth, add talent and take risks that could significantly add to payroll next year. This is what it takes to compete for a championship and come next July, this is what it will take to convince a superstar player like Kawhi Leonard to re-sign with their team.

“If you go by history and you go by numbers, I think there are very very few teams that have ever done it without this kind of commitment,” Ujiri admitted.

It may not be easy to be heard over the hype coming out of Boston, but the Toronto Raptors are finally, yes finally, serious about going on a championship run this season. With a payroll that rivals the NBA Champion Golden State Warriors, this organization has, for the first time, put their massive financial resources behind their team.

No longer is the goal to merely end the embarrassment of being one of the NBA doormats (2008-2013), making the playoffs, winning 50 games in the regular season or even finishing first in the East.

Money talks and BS walks and the Raptors are finally spending to win this season.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

  

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Greg Monroe

Greg Monroe Signing Shows Raptors Are Serious This Time

As reported by Yahoo Sports Shams Charania, the Toronto Raptors will be signing Greg Monroe to what looks like an NBA veteran’s minimum contract. It’s a solid acquisition for a contending team looking for big man depth and it shows the Raptors are serious this time.

Last year Toronto finished with the second best overall regular season record in the NBA at 59 wins, but no one saw that coming and Raptors president Masai Ujiri should be included in that group. If he had, he’d of given his now former head coach Dwane Casey one or two more veterans to ease the pressure on a very young and inexperienced roster that, unfortunately, completely fell apart in the second round of the playoffs against a veteran Cleveland Cavaliers team.

The overachieving 2017-18 Raptors roster featured just five veterans in Kyle Lowry (11 seasons), DeMar DeRozan (8 seasons), Serge Ibaka (8 seasons), C.J. Miles (12 seasons), and a 25-year-old Jonas Valanciunas (5 seasons).  The rest of the crew started the season with three years or less in the Association including 3 rookies and three players with barely a year under their belts and more G-League experience between them than NBA time. If the very inexperienced OG Anunoby, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and Jakob Poeltl, hadn’t put up surprisingly strong seasons, it’s unlikely there would have been anything noteworthy about last year.

It’s been a summer of change in Toronto, in no small part because the 59 win regular season created expectations that were crushed in the playoffs. Casey was quickly fired, the long time face of the franchise DeRozan was traded and roster changes worthy of making the entire NBA community stand up take notice have happened. This year the Raptors have veteran depth to go with their young talent and that depth has been further bolstered by the addition of Greg Monroe.

The four returning vets from last year, Lowry, Ibaka, Miles and Valanciunas, have another year under their belts and Ujiri has added superstar Kawhi Leonard (7 seasons), Danny Green (9 seasons) and now Greg Monroe (8 seasons). That’s seven proven veterans to go with two fourth year guards in Delon Wright and Norman Powell plus the breakout young  guys Anunoby, Siakam and VanVleet. Depth, including experienced depth, isn’t going to be an issue in October. There’s 12 players who will be looking for minutes in new head coach Nick Nurse’s rotation.

Guards: Lowry, VanVleet, Wright, Powell

Wings: Leonard, GreenAnunoby, Miles

Big men: Ibaka, Valanciunas, Siakam, Monroe

Reserves: Malachi Richardson, Lorenzo Brown*, Chris Boucher*
(*non-guaranteed contracts)

With the Monroe signing, the Raptors are getting very close to being $20 million into the league’s luxury tax and that’s not a place anyone anticipated Ujiri to ever get to, so it would  not come as a surprise if the Raptors president has another move up his sleeve to reduce the burden. But, keeping this group together would send a strong signal that the Raptors are going all-in to land this franchise’s first ever NBA Finals appearance.

However, unless Ujiri makes another move or two, Nurse is going to have some tough decisions coming out of training camp. One or even two of the veterans and/or quality young guys are going to find themselves in the limited role of an injury-replacement player this season.

A 2010 lottery pick, Monroe put up a 15.9 point, 10.2 rebound, 2.1 assist season with the Pistons in 2014-15 that snagged him a three-year $50 million contract from the Bucks that, unfortunately, he never really lived up to.

Historically, one of the issues with Monroe has been a fairly blunt response when his team wasn’t living up to expectations. The big man has given off a fairly strong vibe that he believed he’s better than his teammates in the past. Now maybe at 28-years-old he’s matured. Maybe playing for three different teams last season after getting waived by the terrible Suns has helped him appreciate being in the NBA and just maybe being left hanging in free agency until August after a productive three month stint with the Celtics has put him in the right frame of mind to fill whatever role his coach assigns him to.

There should be no doubt Monroe can help a contending team, whether he’s in the regular rotation or just filling in as an injury-replacement player. This is a solid signing by the Raptors that could keep this team on pace for yet another franchise record for regular season wins and might just bail them out if a big man gets hurt in the postseason.

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

  

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan

What Should The Raptors Do About Kyle Lowry?

So the bromance between Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan in Toronto is over, at least it’s over on the court and if Lowry is upset about how the Raptors treated his best friend, no one should be surprised. It’s a situation that doesn’t appear to be getting enough attention and leads to the obvious question, what’s next?

For the Raptors, the best situation is Lowry embraces his new teammates Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, believes he has the potential to get to an NBA Finals for the first time in his career and accepts what everyone says, (whether they mean it or not) that the NBA is all about winning and it’s a business.

The problem being, Lowry would be nearly impossible to replace, although a few weeks ago the same thing might have been said about DeRozan.

A four-time All-Star point guard who takes over seven three-pointers a game, hits on 40 percent of them and is one of the league leaders in drawing charges every season is a rare player and he’s paid like one. An NBA top 10 salary of over $30 million annually with two years left on his deal, but he’ll be 33 next spring and injuries haven’t been his friend over the last three seasons. The Raptors finally started to manage his minutes down last year and that’s a trend his new head coach Nick Nurse will have to continue if he wants his All-Star to survive another long NBA regular season unscathed.

In the short term the obvious move for president Masai Ujiri is to give Lowry some space to process what’s happened and then try to get a handle on just how much long term damage has been done to their relationship and whether or not Lowry can put this all behind him in time for training camp? Unfortunately with Dwane Casey now coaching in Detroit, Ujiri doesn’t have the obvious best person to smooth things over.

In the near term, don’t expect anything more than avoidance of the issue by Lowry in the media. There is no upside personally or professionally for Lowry to say anything right now.

However, Ujiri can’t just sit idly-by hoping everything works out. Just like he did with DeRozan, he’s obligated to see if he can improve his roster or at least have a viable backup plan just in case he sees an impending disaster coming.

So don’t think Ujiri isn’t getting prepared. No roster needs four point guards heading into training camp and with the signing of the perfectly serviceable Lorenzo Brown, Ujiri has set up a situation where he could trade one if an opportunity presented itself.

The Raptors could go into next season with the roster as currently constructed. Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka could split minutes at center, OG Anunoby and C.J. Miles can soak up minutes at both forward spots and Norman Powell will be fighting for time on the wing. Nurse already has a viable 10-11 man rotation if Ujiri does nothing more this summer.

However, Toronto could use another serviceable big man just in case and if Lowry was traded, Nurse will need a really good three-point shooting guard coming back at the very least.

If Ujiri pulls the trigger on another blockbuster this summer, it would shock the NBA world. They weren’t even supposed to be in the running to get Leonard (more like the team being used to drive the price up). However, there’s always another GM somewhere who believes his roster is just one All-Star away from getting over the hump and will pay dearly for the player they believe is the missing piece.

The type of deal Ujiri might pursue would be a trade of Lowry for the Nuggets shooting guard Gary Harris (4 years $74 million guaranteed) and Mason Plumlee (2 years $27 million remaining). Plumlee as the overpaid but serviceable center as trade ballast. Harris as the undersized young three-point shooting guard with enough of an injury history that Denver might just consider letting him go in order to get the All-Star point guard they’ll need to make the playoffs in the NBA West.

It would be a trade that has all the earmarks of the DeRozan for Leonard swap, just the other way around, but it’s a move that could be sold in both markets and work out for both teams and it’s the type of move Ujiri will have to look for if he decides he can’t bet on his near term future with Lowry in the fold.

For now, there’s no reason for Ujiri to panic. The best scenario is for Lowry to buy in and lead the Raptors again next season. But that doesn’t mean the Raptors aren’t out there quietly pursuing every option and looking at every opportunity just in case they have to do something about Lowry.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

  

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Kawhi Leonard

Good Reasons Why Kawhi Leonard Will Love Toronto

There’s been a lot of speculation about where the Raptors new addition Kawhi Leonard might head to next summer, but none of it is based on anything Leonard has said directly. The former Spur rarely says anything to the media, so after the standard thought that Leonard will sign in L.A. after this season, now the discussion turns to the reasons he might just fall in love with Toronto.

Give Raptors president Masai Ujiri some credit for knowing how to make players want to stay.

DeMar DeRozan was going home to sign with the Lakers a couple of years ago, he didn’t even talk to them and Kyle Lowry was headed home to sign with Philly a year ago, never gave them a chance, but those were the easy ones.

Serge Ibaka re-signed in Toronto after a trade deadline move and one has to believe it was in part because the Raptors let the big man break every convention when dealing with the media. Ibaka is a more media-friendly version of Leonard and he’ll just ignore requests pre-game, post-game and after practice by making the press wait until filing deadlines chase them out of the building. Some of us have waited well over an hour in an empty room postgame just for a chance to talk with Ibaka. It isn’t much of a stretch to believe Leonard would love the same latitude with the media Ibaka’s been enjoying in Toronto.

Then there’s the city itself. DeMarre Carroll made an impression when he first arrived by saying his wife loved it there because she could go shopping downtown with no hassles. We’ll just say professional athletes and their families aren’t “hassled” in “Toronto the good” and by the typically polite Canadian. A reserved Leonard might just appreciate this.

Going to a 59-win team that will be a Conference Finals favorite and at least even-money to make the NBA Finals probably helps, but it’d be nice to hear that from Leonard directly.

In The San Diego Union-Tribune, Mark Zeigler gives his own rationale,

Toronto?

a fan base that is loyal and passionate but will leave you alone in public

a locker room full of versatile, defensive-oriented players who don’t care about scoring averages

a progressive front office that, unlike many franchises, helps players secure local marketing deals

(Danny) Green, one of Leonard’s closest teammates from the Spurs (was traded to Toronto)

Then there’s,

Leonard has called meeting Barack Obama during the Spurs’ visit to the White House following their 2014 championship “one of my greatest experiences.” Ujiri is tight with Obama and spent last week with him in Kenya opening a basketball court by Ujiri’s Giants of Africa charity.

Leonard likes listening to rapper Drake. Toronto is Drake’s hometown. He’s courtside for most games.

Sharon Powell… mother of Norman Powell “(Toronto)’s just a fabulous place.” It’s a message she will share with Kim Robertson, Leonard’s mother whom she has befriended through basketball circles.

(worth noting) the team hosted a news conference. With Ujiri, not Leonard.

It’s interesting that Zeigler picked up on the Raptors slick move of letting Leonard skip the traditional press conference after his physical that even average NBA players have to attend post acquisition, but it’s a move that speaks volumes about just how far Ujiri will go to make Leonard feel comfortable in Toronto.

Really there is no rush and nothing to worry about. Leonard can meet the press in Toronto when he’s good and ready on his own terms and unlike the “eat your young” treatment Toronto Maple Leafs players may have experienced from the media in years gone by, Raptors players tend to get treated with “kid gloves”. Remembering James Johnson in his second stint with the Raptors thanked the local media post scrum for not asking about his recent legal problems at the time.

Throwing up softball questions to Raptors players is the norm in Toronto and it will help next July.

After seven NBA seasons, the 27-year-old Leonard isn’t a kid anymore and everyone should expect he’ll make his own decisions for his own reasons no matter what anyone does or says over the next 11.5 months. In the end it’s a job and Leonard, as an unrestricted free agent, can decide what’d best for him.

The Raptors will be hoping that polite, laid-back Toronto and playing for a very good team in the East is more attractive than being front and center with all the sometimes harsh media attention that should be expected in Los Angeles.

Here’s what someone who knows Leonard as well as anybody told me privately: “He’s going to fall in love with Toronto – it’s going to happen. He’s not going to leave, I’m telling you.”

It could happen.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

  

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors DeMar DeRozan

A Cold Wind Of Change Blows Thru Toronto

A new air mass arrived in Toronto on Tuesday and with the more pleasant temperatures came a cold wind of change for the Raptors. The always ruthless Masai Ujiri has shipped the face of his franchise to San Antonio.

Thanks to ESPN’s WOJ, we now know All-Star DeMar DeRozan, promising young center Jakob Poeltl and a top-20 protected draft pick has been traded for two-time Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard and “3-and-D” veteran wing Danny Green.

Maybe everyone in Toronto should have seen this coming. The face of the franchise had been BENCHED numerous times this past season in the fourth quarter because the soon-to-be Coach of the Year Dwane Casey had much better defensive options in his young second unit and offense was only rarely an issue for this team in their run to first place in the Eastern Conference. It was sold as rest, but that wasn’t always easy to accept.

DeRozan has earned his popularity with the fan base since being drafted ninth overall in 2009 and being thrust into the spotlight with the departure of Chris Bosh the next summer.

 

NBA Spurs DeMar DeRozan

 

DeRozan holds franchise records for regular season games played (675), minutes (22,986), field goals (4716), free throws made (3539), and points (13,296). In the playoffs, where DeRozan often gets flak, the All-Star never averaged less than 20 points and in his 51 career playoff appearances, he averaged 21.9 points.

Loyal to a fault and an excellent franchise ambassador, a frustrated DeRozan wrote on his Instagram page Wednesday morning,

“Be told one thing & the outcome another. Can’t trust em. Ain’t no loyalty in this game. Sell you out quick for a little bit of nothing… Soon you’ll understand… Don’t disturb…”

But as previously noted, Ujiri is ruthless.

On a pure talent basis, Ujiri won this trade by a landslide. A healthy Leonard is arguably the second best player in the NBA with an all-around game that even LeBron James couldn’t claim this early in his career.

Leonard can do it all. From guarding the best player on the other team in today’s game 1-thru-5, to shooting the three (career 38.6 percent), hitting over 53 percent of his two-point shots and hitting a much higher percentage from the mid-range than even the mid-range assassin DeRozan. Leonard can control a game like only the historically elite in the NBA have done.

Of course there’s a downside or the Spurs would never have considered trading Leonard and it’s really hard to “win” a trade with San Antonio, buyer beware.

Aside from the FACT Leonard can opt out of his contract after this season and would rather be in L.A., this petulant 27-year-old sat out most of last season with pain that his team thought he could/should play thru.

Quad (thigh), calf, ankle, shoulder, both hands, right eye, jumper’s knee, a disturbing number of games due to illness and rest have all impacted on Leonard’s availability over his seven seasons in the NBA as he’s missed over 150 games

But the risk is manageable. Green is a very serviceable veteran wing on an expiring contract and if Leonard leaves after a year, Ujiri will have cleared over $30 million off his payroll and escaped the Luxury Tax after just one season. Lowry and Ibaka will then be on expiring deals and the rebuild can begin in earnest. If Leonard is healthy and happy, Ujiri could end up the real NBA Executive of the Year no matter who gets the award. From a GM perspective, it’s a no lose situation.

It was a cold, calculated and ruthless move to trade a popular face-of-the-franchise who wanted to be a Raptor-for-life, but that’s who Ujiri is. If you’re an owner, he’s the executive you want. If you’re a fan of DeRozan, Ujiri just stabbed him in the back and his fans in the heart.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

  Featured image courtesy of Larry Millson

 

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell

Toronto Raptors: All Quiet Up North

Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri isn’t known for letting much leak out of his organization and it’s been all quiet up north heading into the NBA free agency scramble that’s only days away.

However, just like last summer the Raptors appear to be slotted in as a luxury tax team with no chance of competing for an NBA title and if the dumping of the 2018 NBA Coach of the Year Dwane Casey in order to save a few million dollars by promoting his assistant Nick Nurse is any indication, then the historically cheap ownership in Toronto will have Ujiri jumping thru hoops to save money again this summer.

The little bit of actual news emanating out of the North revolves around the obvious desire to re-sign pending restricted free agent Fred VanVleet and the likely salary dump of Norman Powell. The teaser in this scenario being Ujiri will probably still have to find a way to off load a few more million to stay below the luxury tax threshold, so just like last summer, Ujiri will need to make another move to keep his bosses happy.

The good news, if one can call it good news, is the team is deep enough and Ujiri is good enough at making deals that even with a rookie head coach and no obvious upgrade in talent on the horizon, the Raptors should have enough for another 50 win season and get back to the second round of the playoffs. Unfortunately, that scenario will sell seats, fill the owners’ pockets and give the organization little rationale doing what it takes to build a real contender.

While Ujiri isn’t expected to tank for a rebuild as that would cost the organization a lot of money, anyone expecting/hoping for a blockbuster deal involving Kyle Lowry and/or DeMar DeRozan is going to be disappointed. This duo is more than good enough to win regular season games and give Ujiri job security.

It’s going to take something special to pry one of Ujiri’s young assets out of Toronto which makes this unlikely, but anyone interested in center Jonas Valanciunas or power forward/center Serge Ibaka will be listened to. While the trade market for traditional big men is dubious, these two players are Ujiri’s best hope for a trade that brings back less salary and a useful asset accomplishing the organization’s twin goals of respectability on the court and high profits.

More palatable trade scenarios where Toronto takes on salary to try to improve the roster (like going after Otto Porter or Andrew Wiggins) and gives new head coach Nick Nurse a shot at building on last season might be possible as the wild ride that’s about to start as other teams pursue LeBron James, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and others, but those nearly infinite possibilities would all entail crossing that luxury tax threshold with no guarantee of getting out of the Eastern conference. The history of the Raptors firmly suggests that will never happen.

It’s all quiet up North and the reason being, just like last summer, what Ujiri is likely working on isn’t anything that anyone outside of Toronto will even notice.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

Confidently took vacation during the 2018 NBA Draft believing the Raptors weren’t about to do anything.

 

 

 

NBA Wizards Otto Porter and Timberwolves Andrew Wiggins

Two Big Moves The Raptors Should Be Pursuing This Summer

If the Raptors actually want to take another step (questionable), they need to be making a big move this summer that give this franchise a chance to move beyond being just a good regular season team.

It shouldn’t take a lot to elevate a 59 win roster to the next level. A starting caliber forward/wing to pair with promising rookie combo forward OG Anunoby might be it and there are a couple of teams with a case of buyer’s remorse that have players who could fit the bill if president Masai Ujiri and his incredibly cheap corporate owners can be convinced to take on their bloated salaries.

After a run of five seasons averaging 52.6 wins and taking first place in the Eastern Conference for the first time in franchise history last year, the constantly “building” Raptors have yet to even get a sniff at an NBA Finals appearance. It’s likely this had a big influence on Ujiri’s decision to fire long time head coach Dwane Casey, but after promoting from within to fill the void, it’s just as likely the organization was too cheap to give their organization’s most successful head coach the extension and raise his regular season record indicated he’d earned.

It’s the Raptors current (Bell and Rogers) and previous (Teachers Pension Plan) ownership’s propensity to maximize profits over winning that has handcuffed this franchise from spending at the level necessary to be competitive at an elite level. Unfortunately, regular season sellouts and a handful of playoff games probably does make the most money.

To compete with rosters like Cleveland and Golden State, a team has to spend deep into the Luxury Tax and, hopefully, this time, ownership will actually let Ujiri take on the additional salary necessary to give new head coach Nick Nurse a chance to get out of his own Conference.

It won’t be easy. As things sit, the Raptors will be a Tax team even before re-signing restricted free agent Fred VanVleet and last summer Ujiri gave away all of the team’s 2018 draft picks just to be able to dump enough salary to get below the Tax Threshold. The fear in Toronto is he’ll do it again, dumping Norman Powell in Brooklyn with another first round draft pick as compensation and then do nothing to significantly improve the roster.

But in order to to take the big step necessary to compete in an improving Eastern Conference Ujiri will need to spend more. If this team starts dumping salary again, they’ll be taking a step backwards.

Forget free agents. All the Raptors will have is the Taxpayer Mid-Level Exception. Ujiri needs to work his magic in the trade market and he’ll need to take risks to get better.

Fortunately there are a couple of team’s suffering from buyer’s remorse.

The Washington Wizards owe Otto Porter $81.7 million over the next three seasons, are at risk of being a Tax team and their run of on court success took a big step backwards last year.

The Minnesota Timberwolves signed Andrew Wiggins to a max five year million extension that’s about to kick in and can see the Luxury Taxes in their future.

These two teams are motivated to make a deal.

Otto Porter, $26 million in 2018-19

Porter is a 25-year-old 6’8 small forward whose three-point shooting has made significant progress over his five NBA seasons averaging an impressive 44.1 percent last year. He’s considered a good defender and was third in scoring on the Wizards at 14.7 points per game during the regular season.

However, as the highest paid player on his team, he’s taking up way more cap space than a franchise that is no better than first round playoff fodder can afford to tie up and that’s before considering his disappearing act in the playoffs when the minimum salary veteran Mike Scott put up more points in 10 less minutes per game during the team’s first round playoff series loss to Toronto.

The Wizards John Wall’s massive three-year $122 million extension starts in 2019-20 and the combined salaries of Wall, Porter and Bradley Beal will top $92 million that year. Something has to give before then.

Andrew Wiggins, $25.3 million in 2018-19

When the Timberwolves signed the 6’8 small forward Wiggins to a max five year $146 million extension last summer, did everyone just forget head coach Tom Thibodeau isn’t exactly known for being a young players coach? The team loaded up with veterans, broke a 13 year playoff drought, and Wiggins minutes, shots and production pretty much reverted to his rookie season numbers as a 19-year-old.

It seems pretty obvious, Thibs would be happier with a veteran than trying to get this former Rookie of the Year to live up to his potential under his tough love leadership style and they really need to dump his salary before  Jimmy Butler and Karl-Anthony Towns are eligible for their own massive new contracts a year from now.

Wiggins still averaged 17.7 points last season and 15.8 points in his five playoff games, but his three-point shooting hasn’t improved as expected and no one seems all that happy with his effort on defense. However, this still just 23-year-old Canadian has off the charts athleticism and potential and maybe he just needs a change of scenery to become the player he’s been envisioned as.

Like Porter, Wiggins will be the top paid player on his team in October, but considered no better than a third option. Wiggins contract is really just in the way.

Why Toronto?

Toronto has their own disappointing highly paid third option in Serge Ibaka, but he’s owed a lot less money than Porter or Wiggins.

Ibaka can play as a Stretch Four or Five and he’s a mobile defender for a big man, but at 12.6 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and shooting 36 percent from three, the $45 million he’s owed over the next two years is a lot of money. However, it’s only slightly more than half of what’s owed to Porter and it’s a $100 million less than what’s owed to Wiggins.

Both Minnesota and Washington can argue they need a three-point shooting big man that can block shots, but any deal here would really be all about the money. It’s money the Raptors have if Ujiri can pry it out of the clenched fists in corporate. Ujiri could find a young player to toss into a deal if it was necessary, Delon Wright being an obvious choice, but the salary savings alone should be enough.

Pairing up Porter with Anunoby would give the Raptors a young mobile forward pairing who could shoot the three-ball effectively and switch defensively onto just about any opponent. Last year Anunoby showed he has the size and speed to play power forward in today’s somewhat positionless game.

Wiggins is coming off a down year, but his potential is so high he’s worth the risk. Even as he develops his three-point shot, he’d be a strong third option offensively and hopefully a different coaching approach can get him to apply his skills on the defensive end consistently.

The Raptors would only be able to do one of these deals and the hit to payroll could make the Raptors Luxury Tax bill start to resemble Cleveland’s, but unless LeBron James is coming, one of these two players is probably the biggest impact move the Raptors can make this summer and its well past the time the Raptors started spending some of their huge profits.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

NBA Kings Bruno Caboclo and Rockets Clint Capela

Remember When The Raptors Took Bruno Caboclo Over Clint Capela?

Sometimes the risks a team takes in the NBA draft really can come back to bite you years later and in Toronto there may be no better example than when the Raptors took a flyer on Bruno Caboclo instead of the more proven young prospect Clint Capela.

It isn’t easy drafting in the twenties and a team doesn’t expect to get a player as good as Capela has turned out to be for the Houston Rockets who took the 20-year-old center five picks after Raptors president Masai Ujiri selected Caboclo, but the analysis from his own Director of Scouting Dan Tolzman at the time has proven to be beyond accurate.

“(Capela) is a big time vertical spacer which is guys that can catch alley-oops – it is like a different kind of spacing on the floor,” Tolzman said after Capela’s predraft work out in Toronto. “You have the corner three shooters who space it out for the bigs and you got guys like him that kind of drop into the short corner area and because they are so deadly with catching alley-oops it makes the defense worry about them more than worry about penetration. So he is a guy that can really do that and he can really run the floor well for a big. He changes ends really well and I think that his athleticism and length and the fact that he is so young too, it’s pretty intriguing with his potential.

“One of the main things that (Capela) is so good at is defending the pick-and-roll. He uses his quick hands and his length and he gets in a nice defensive stance. He really jumps out and hedges ball handlers. It is one of things that if he has any skill that could get him in a game early in the NBA it will be (his) pick-and-roll defense.”

Capela has proven he has plenty of skill at both ends of the court and will be in for a huge pay day as a restricted free agent this summer. Caboclo, on the other hand, will be lucky to find another NBA team to take a flyer on him for next season.

The Raptors knew Caboclo wasn’t NBA ready when they drafted him and the plan was to develop the 18-year-old prospect from Brazil with almost no competitive experience at any level in the NBA D-League, but things didn’t exactly go as hoped.

“Bruno is a tough one because I think I want to almost blame myself for bringing him too soon to our team,” Ujiri responded to Pro Bball Report when asked about his project player last summer. “We wanted to see his development and it’s the price we pay. The price I pay.

“I wanted to see his development and it’s almost like he’s gone thru college on our team.”

It was a $7 million mistake in terms of tying up cap space over four seasons as Caboclo struggled with his consistency in the D-League and never showed any level of confidence or competency at the NBA level. He may end up owning some Raptors 905 records as he did have seven blocks in a game and he showed flashes of hope as a long lanky “3-and-D” combo forward with above the rim hops, but he could never put it all together for any length of time even in the D-League.

“He’s hearing me over there yelling go at him. (Caboclo) can do everything, it’s not that he can’t do anything, he can do everything so it’s about giving him the confidence to know that we want him to do it,” Raptors 905 head coach Jerry Stackhouse said last summer.

But the confidence never came and Ujiri finally moved on at the trade deadline last February.

“It was difficult for us because I thought it was just time. We tried to, we started the process a little late, which is something we failed at but I think we will learn from,” Ujiri said after trading him to the Kings.

If you remember, the Raptors didn’t want to draft Caboclo at 20, they had their sights set on a young Canadian point guard Tyler Ennis who the Suns scooped up two picks ahead of Toronto leaving Ujiri to debate if he should risk his first round pick on the second round talent he liked in Caboclo. It’s a decision, in hindsight, he’d obviously like back.

It’s a lot easier to like the raw prospect taken in the second round that does their development in Europe instead the one of taking a spot on an NBA roster.

Fortunately Ujiri did learn from that blunder and in subsequent drafts he took Delon Wright at 20 in 2015, Pascal Siakam at 27 in 2016, and OG Anunoby at 23 last year. None of these picks were “flyers.” However, it has to be hard watching Capela, who averaged a double-double (13.9/10.8) with 1.9 blocks for Houston this season and repeated that performance in 17 playoff games thru to the Conference Finals (12.7/11.6 and 2.1 blocks) and realizing he could have been yours.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors DeMar DeRozan

Raptors DeMar DeRozan Bumps Stephen Curry To All-NBA Third Team

Last year the Toronto Raptors All-Star DeMar DeRozan was selected to an All-NBA team for the first time in his career. This year he surpassed the Warriors two-time MVP and four-time All-NBA Team ( 2x First Team, 2x Second Team) Stephen Curry by a single point in the voting to bump Curry down a notch to the All-NBA Third Team. (NBA.com)

Votes for the All-NBA Teams are cast by 100 members of the media with five points going towards a first place vote, three points for a second place vote and one-point for a third place vote.

DeRozan and Curry had the same number of first place votes (2) and second place votes (39), however DeRozan received one more third place vote (38 vs 37) to grab the final spot on the All-NBA Second Team with 165 points.

In last year’s voting, DeRozan (62 points) finished just 12 points ahead of the Timberwolves Karl-Anthony Towns (who just missed the cut) to claim the second last spot on the 2016-17 All-NBA Third Team with four Second Team votes and 50 Third Team votes. That was 40 points behind the next closest vote getter Bulls Jimmy Butler and just eight points ahead of the Clippers DeAndre Jordan. Both Butler (81 points) and Towns (54 points) made the All-NBA Third Team this year. Jordan did not receive a vote this time.

Of note, the Raptors All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry had three points in the All-NBA Team voting this year.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

  Featured image courtesy of Larry Millson

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri

Toronto The CHEAP Can’t Find The Raptors A Head Coach

Being a fan of the Toronto Raptors can be a frustrating experience. The team is located in one of the biggest markets in the NBA with some of the highest ticket prices and their owners, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, make nothing but money off this franchise. But they’re CHEAP and thru a succession of owners they’ve always been cheap and one can’t help but wonder if this is affecting their search for a head coach.

To put things in perspective, in February 2018 Forbes updated their financial information about the franchise. The current owners, media giants Bell Canada and Rogers, have seen the value of the Raptors increase by $1 billion since they purchased it in 2012. The team has annual revenues of $250 million and operating profits over $50 million. This team can afford to spend a lot more money on management, coaches, and players than they do currently.

However, you’d never know it from how the team behaves every single summer.

At the end of every disappointing season and ahead of every hopeful reboot, the Raptors GM will insist that he has the full support of ownership to spend above the NBA’s Luxury Tax threshold and every summer that same GM will go thru amazing gyrations to stay below the Tax line.

Last summer president Masai Ujiri managed to dump the salaries of DeMarre Carroll and Cory Joseph on other teams and let P.J. Tucker and Patrick Patterson walk in free agency to make sure he could stay out of the Tax by filling in the back end of his roster with minimum salary players. While the young guys they kept performed at a high level during the regular season, potential playoff success was sacrificed on the alter of profits (and player development.)

Knowing this team’s history, it’s very hard not to wonder if head coach Dwane Casey was released after setting a franchise record for wins in the regular season using a roster that had eight players with two years or less of NBA experience because he was looking for a reasonable extension to his contract.

One is also left to wonder if Mike Budenholzer, the new head coach in Milwaukee, a team with less than half the Raptors gate receipts, is there instead of Toronto over money?

The Raptors ended the 2017-18 season as a first place team, but they head into the off season in the same position as last summer and the concern in Toronto should be, will Ujiri spend his time looking for ways to dump players’ salary to stay under the Luxury Tax threshold again as Toronto The Cheap or look for moves to retain their position with opponents like the Celtics and 76ers expected to be significantly better next season?

Ujiri’s willingness to spend on coaching could be a big indicator of this team’s direction. Hiring a cheaper rookie head coach may not be the sign Raptors fans want to see.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

Bud Or Bust? The Best Head Coach Prospects For The Raptors

It wouldn’t be hard to argue that the best bench boss currently available on the open market in the NBA is the Raptors former head coach Dwane Casey. He took a laughingstock of a franchise and molded them into one of the top teams in the Association over the past five years. However, for his own reasons, president Masai Ujiri made the decision to avoid the lame-duck coach issue for next next season by firing Casey instead of extending him.

It isn’t going to be easy finding a new head coach with a better record than Casey.

  • A five-time coach of the month and the 2018 NBCA coach of the year.
  • Five straight years in the postseason and an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals.
  • Three straight 50+ win seasons and a record of 320-238 (a 57.3 winning percentage) over his seven seasons in Toronto.
  • And the team’s two All-Stars, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, are strong supporters of his coaching.

The only knocks on Casey might be the facts,

  • He’ll be 62-years-old at the end of his contract next season and maybe Ujiri didn’t want to extend him into his mid-sixties?
  • He got swept out of the second round of the playoffs by LeBron James in each of the past two years?

However, it’s a good time to be looking for an NBA head coach. There is what seems to be an endless pool of assistant coaches deserving a chance at the big chair and three of them are in Toronto right now. Ujiri has a choice of two recently let go head coaches that have been to the Eastern Conference Finals in the last five years. Then there’s the laundry list of guys with jobs in the media that could possibly be talked into going behind the bench if Ujiri wants someone with a higher profile and other former head coaches who’d like another big payday.

Bud or Bust?

However, for the Raptors, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski says they are talking to the recently available former Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer and it’s a two-way battle with the Bucks for his services.

For a coach that has been around the league since 1996, Budenholzer won’t be 49-years-old until August and after 17 seasons in the Spurs organization, he was a top head coaching prospect when the Hawks nabbed him in 2013.

Budenholzer inherited a team that had been to the postseason for six straight years before he arrived in Atlanta, but had only one 50 win season and hadn’t gotten out of the second round.

With the Hawks, he was,

  • A two-time coach of the month and the 2015 coach of the year.
  • Made four straight postseason appearances until this past year’s tank job.
  • One 60 win season.
  • Credited with getting more out his roster than expected.

The Hawks made the decision to part company because,

  • Apparently Budenholzer didn’t want to coach a rebuilding team or isn’t the right guy for a long tour with an NBA Lottery team?
  • He got swept out the playoffs twice by LeBron James? and things weren’t getting any better.

Budenholzer is a respected head coach and he’d be a solid replacement for Casey, even if his record doesn’t quite measure up and he started from a better base.

He’d be a new voice, a coach the players should accept as knowledgeable and the transition should be relatively smooth. Whether Budenholzer can move the needle beyond what Casey was able to do over the past five years, however, is definitely a ‘to be determined.’

Why not Smash-Mouth Frank?

The Indiana Pacers former head coach Frank Vogel was known for coaching a physical style of “smash-mouth” basketball, a style that Raptors president Masai Ujiri has made a point of admiring on more than one occasion and Toronto knows Vogel well from the seven game first round playoff series in 2016 when the seventh place Pacers took the 56 win Raptors to the brink of any early postseason exit.

Vogel was inexplicably released by the Pacers after losing to Toronto in 2016 and was immediately picked up by the incompetent Magic who stuck him with terribly constructed roster. He was released by Orlando at the end of this season.

The 44-year-old Vogel was an assistant with the Celtics, 76ers and Pacers for eight years before being promoted to the head coaching job with the Pacers during the 2010-11 season. He turned that season around, making the playoffs and ending a string of four consecutive trips to the Draft Lottery.

Vogel had a very good run with the Pacers,

  • A four-time coach of the month.
  • Postseason appearances in four of five seasons, only missing the year Paul George was out with a broken leg.
  • Had two consecutive trips to the Eastern Conference Finals (2013 and 2014)
  • In three playoff series against LeBron James, Vogel had a record of 7 wins and 12 loses.

The type of roster Vogel was most successful with is no longer in vogue, but this is a bright, young head coach who’d be well ahead in terms of the nuances of coaching NBA players over just about any rookie head coach. He got his players to play hard for him and he took a no-name roster, aside from Paul George, to a conference finals – twice.

It would be really interesting to see what he could get out of a roster as strong as Toronto’s. He may have the highest upside of anyone available.

Rookie Head Coach Prospects

If you are going to look outside your own organization for a new head coach, it would be hard to argue against stealing someone from the Popovich coaching tree. Becky Hammond and Ettore Messina are getting a lot of mentions as coaching prospects, but if the Raptors are going to go the rookie route, they’d probably be better served by staying in-house with the assistant coaches they know very well.

NBA D-League champion (2017) head coach with the Raptors 905, two-time NBA All-Star Jerry Stackhouse had a long playing career (1995-2013) has only been coaching since 2015, but he’s made an impact and made no secret of the fact he was hoping to get some interviews for NBA head coaching jobs after his G League season ended.

Stackhouse has presence, players like him, and he already has built relationships with virtually every young player on the Raptors roster. It’s a big move from the G league to the NBA and a lot of the things Stackhouse was able to do in Mississauga won’t fly in Toronto. However, spend just a few minutes with him and you’ll believe Stackhouse will be an NBA head coach and a pretty good one at that, so maybe you can just ignore all the things he doesn’t know yet?

NIck Nurse has been with the Raptors for five years and gets a lot of the credit for this past year’s offense. He’s 50-years-old, everyone in the organization and on the roster knows him, it’d be an almost seamless transition and maybe the offense would go up another notch with him running the show?

With over two decades in the NBA, Rex Kalamian has been a highly respected assistant with the Thunder and Raptors over the past nine years. He doesn’t get the same level of attention as Stackhouse or Nurse, but the organization knows him well and he’ll get his chance to make an impression before the team decides what to do.

While the Raptors have well qualified assistant coaches deserving of consideration, this team’s experience with rookie coaches should have them looking for someone with a lot more experience.

Others?

Here’s hoping the Raptors don’t get so desperate as to consider Stan Van Gundy, David Blatt, Monty Williams, Steve Clifford or Mike Brown.

Former coaches and current TV analysts Sam Mitchell, Mark Jackson, Kevin McHale,  and Jeff Van Gundy all have their good points, points that hopefully they’ll keep making from a broadcast studio.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Masai Ujiri

Raptors Masai Ujiri Is Ruthless When It Comes To His Vision

Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri is a “nice guy,” as nice and polite a person as you are going to meet, but he’s proven himself to be ruthless when it comes to his vision for his team. No one survives in his organization solely on merit, you have to fit into his plan or you’re out.

Casey built his reputation by fleecing the Knicks in the Carmelo Anthony trade as the Nuggets GM and as a result came to the Raptors as the Executive of the Year in 2013.

In his first big move with the Raptors, Ujiri fleeced the Knicks in the Andrea Bargnani trade in which he got a future first round draft pick (Jakob Poeltl). During the season, he unloaded (arguably) his team’s best player, Rudy Gay on the Kings. He then tried to unload Lowry on the Knicks, but owner James Dolan stepped in because the burn from the Bargnani deal was still fresh and Ujiri had to backtrack on tanking, but he proved no player is safe if they don’t fit his vision.

It’s easy to forget Greivis Vasquez and Ujiri were friends when Vasquez was shipped out to Milwaukee for a second (Norman Powell) and a future first (OG Anunoby) round draft pick. Even friendship is no protection from being dumped in a good deal.

Then there’s the case of Lou Williams. Third in scoring at 15.5 points per game, Williams won the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award with the Raptors and Ujiri completely ignored him during free agency that summer despite William’s pleas from the wilderness that he’d like to return.

Ujiri traded away Terrence Ross who the Raptors had invested significant and painful “development” minutes in the failed 2014 and 2015 playoffs. The team needed three-point shooting, but Ujiri decided Ross wasn’t going to be the guy.

In a move that hurt locally, Ujiri traded away Cory Joseph from the “6” to create the salary cap space to sign journeyman three-point threat C.J. Miles. It was a good move in terms of pushing a culture change on the Raptors, but that was ruthless.

In many ways firing Casey was the equal in ruthlessness to anything Ujiri has done before and he did it a politely as possible.

“I just want to use this opportunity to thank Casey and his family for a great time that he has given us the last 7 years in the organization, the last 5 years I have worked with him,” said Raptors President Masai Ujiri as he announced his head coach wouldn’t be back for next season.

The winningest coach in Raptors franchise history with 320 wins to 238 loses, a franchise record 21 wins in the postseason, and the team’s only coach to ever win fifty games (56, 51, and 59 wins) in a season, the 2018 N.B.C.A. Coach of the Year was fired only a couple of days after Ujiri said this about him.

“I believe in Dwane Casey,” Ujiri said. “I believe in the work he has done.”

Ujiri should believe in Casey. Casey has always worked with whatever collection of talent Ujiri has given him, played the style of basketball Ujiri wanted and turned the franchise around from one of the NBA’s easiest home courts for visitors to get a win at and into the team with the most wins at home last season.

Where Casey wasn’t necessarily the top on-court tactician among NBA coaches, he got all of his players to believe in his system and buy into the roles assigned to them and it’s the lack of that skill that usually gets coaches fired.

Many put the blame on Casey’s team getting swept out of the playoffs by the Cavaliers in the second round twice and a lack of playoff success was undoubtedly a factor, but when you are dealing with a guy as ruthless for his team as Ujiri, there’s bound to be a better reason than merely losing to LeBron James.

Casey was entering the final year of his contract with the Raptors this summer. A contract that would make him 62-years-old at its conclusion and it’s been suggested his agent was looking for an extension in years and dollars reflective of Casey’s record. This isn’t speculation and you don’t need a source to know this. Casey’s agent would be derelict if he wasn’t doing this and no coach and few teams want to be on an expiring contract during the regular season as it creates a veil of uncertainty that can be very distracting.

Ujiri had a decision to make. Does he commit to a coach that his two All-Stars, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, genuinely like and respect, but would be 66-years-old at the conclusion of a reasonable four year extension or does he dip into what looks like a very promising pool of free agent coaches for the next guy to lead his team for the another long stretch.

It was time to get ruthless once again. Avoid the lame-duck coaching scenario, dodge the possibility of committing to a coach into his mid-sixties and find the next leader for his players.

Ujiri wasn’t about to tip his hand about why Casey was fired or what he’s looking for in his next head coach. The Raptors are careful about their own image and trying to make sure every departure happens on good terms, but rationalizing why the move had to happen now isn’t that challenging. Ujiri is just plain ruthless when it comes to what’s best for his team.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

NBA Raptors DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry and Cavaliers LeBron James

Raptors Look Confused After Game Two Loss To The Cavs

Take last night’s box score from the Cavs at Raptors game and only look at the Toronto half. The Raptors must have won? It’s all good, good enough for a victory and the Raptors looked plenty confused after a Game Two loss that wasn’t even close.

Toronto scored 110 points, shot an impressive 54.3 percent from the field, put up 30 three-balls and hit 40 percent of them. They out-rebounded the Cavs by one, got one more assist and only turned the ball over a very respectable 11 times. Their two All-Starts combined for 45 points on 18-33 shooting and sixth-man Fred VanVleet found his offensive touch with 14 points while hitting on 4-7 three-point attempts. Even rookie OG Anunoby was playing some solid defense on LeBron James, not that you’d know it from the King’s stat line.

“We were searching, just trying to find somebody, something to get faster, get more points on the board,” head coach Dwane Casey said. “We were searching for offense, searching for spacing, searching for a lot of things.”

“It’s not over, we just got to take it one game at a time, (and) go from there” DeMar DeRozan forced out after the game.

“We need more effort, way more effort,” Kyle Lowry said searching for answers. “We got to play harder, somehow, someway.”

Toronto went into the break up two points 63-61, but it all fell apart in the second half when they couldn’t stop James who scored 27 of his 43 points over the final two quarters. The Cavs put up 67 second half points on 67.5 percent shooting from the field to go up 18 points on Raptors by the end.

Second year forward Pascal Siakam and Anunoby were in James’ face on nearly every shot he attempted, but he still made 13-19 after the half, mostly of the improbable variety.

“Tonight all the shots over his right shoulder, the step-backs, the fade-a-ways, the one where he hit the moon-ball over his right shoulder and came back with the next possession and hit one over his left shoulder from the free throw line, that was special,” Kevin Love said about James’ performance. “That was something that you get accustomed to, you kind of get used to, but tonight was in that fashion. I don’t know if, it’s my fourth year here, I’d seen that out of him, so it’s special.

“When he went over his right shoulder and then went over his left shoulder, he said when he got the mismatch he would do that. He actually called his shots this morning. That’s just one of the examples I could use about how locked in he was during the entire shoot-a-round knowing what was at stake for us.”

Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue was almost prophetic during the pre-game media availability when hoped for a big scoring night from his team.

“Each team tries to take away what each team does best, so the team who scores 130 this series, they got hot and played really well,” Lue responded to Pro Bball Report’s query. “I don’t see the 130 point games, but if so, I hope it’s us.”

The Cavs were hot in Game Two with the 128-110 victory and the confused Raptors were at a complete loss as to how to stop the barrage.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Jonas Valanciunas

Raptors Waste A 21/21 Night By Jonas Valanciunas

By Frank McLean

Game One of the third annual Toronto Raptors versus the Cleveland Cavaliers playoff series was a big disappointment as the home team wasted a 21 point 21 rebound night by Jonas Valanciunas. It was like waking up Christmas morning and finding a lump of coal in your stocking.

The Raptors lost this game, which by rights they should have won, 113-112 in overtime only because they couldn’t make one stinking field goal in the last 4:19 of regulation time.

They were leading 102-99 thanks to a Kyle Lowry layup, but then they proceeded to miss their last 11-field goal attempts. With the score tied at 105 with five seconds left they missed three easy tip-ins, two of them by Jonas Valanciunas and the other one by DeMar DeRozan.

Even in overtime Fred VanVleet had a shot to win it at the buzzer with a 28 foot jump shot that missed. The Raptors should have walked out of the Air Canada Centre with a one to nothing lead in the series on this night.

What hurts is that they ruined what I consider the second best single game playoff performance by a Raptors player.

Now the best is still Vince Carter scoring 50 points against Philadelphia in a second round series back in 2001. But what Jonas Valanciunas did Tuesday night scoring 21 points and adding 21 boards was an outstanding playoff performance.

Now I know some will argue that Bismack Byombo’s  26 rebounds against the same Cleveland Cavaliers in Game Three of the conference final two years should be up there and I would put it number three. Why?

20 point-20 rebound games are as rare as no hitters by pitchers in baseball.

Valanciunas is the first Raptor to do this in a playoff game and when you include the regular season, he is only the third Raptor to do it period. Popeye Jones did it first in franchise history and Chris Bosh did it twice.

Four times in 23 years shows how rare this happens.

In his postgame scrum with the media Valanciunas was in the mood to talk about his 20-20 night. He agonized over the four minutes of regulation time where they couldn’t make a shot especially since he two cracks at it in the last five seconds.

“We missed some shots, easy shots ,“ Valanciunas said. “They were aggressive, playing real aggressive defense, but it’s on us. What you take away is you got to make shots, know what you are doing, we could have won this game.”

Valanciunas shot just 7-19 from the field in Game One. Meanwhile head coach Dwane Casey was complementary.

“I thought he played well. He had a wide open tip in at the end that I thought he could have finished but I thought Jonas played really well.”

Valanciunas success was based on the Cavaliers using a small line up which he was able to exploit.

“We made them pay for their small lineup, he has to continue to do that,” Casey added. “He’s got the advantage as far as post-ups, his tip-ins, his driving to the baskets and getting to the free throw line and rebounding. He did a heck of a job at the position.”

And that’s where the Raptors had success against the Cavaliers with Valanciunas controlling the paint all night and it’s something they can keep exploiting as long as the series goes.

The Raptors could have, I mean should have, won this game and have a one to nothing lead in this best of seven series. All they had to do is make one shot and as a result they wasted a franchise playoff record braking performance by Jonas Valanciunas.

 

 

DeMar DeRozan & Frank McLeanVeteran journalist Frank McLean has covered nearly every Raptors game in Toronto since their inaugural season at the Skydome back in 1995-96. He has seen it all. The good, the bad and the really bad and he is one of the very few journalists in Toronto that has kept coming back for more.


 Featured image courtesy of Larry Millson

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors C.J. Miles

Cavs Are Giving Raptors C.J. Miles His Time To Shine

The Toronto Raptors signed the veteran C.J. Miles this past summer to be part of the culture change envisioned by president Masai Ujiri and heading into a second round playoff series against a Cavs team that refuses to defend the three-point line, this is his time to shine.

To make the culture change work, the Raptors needed a player who wasn’t afraid to hoist as many three-point attempts as time allowed and good enough that opposing defenses couldn’t afford to leave him. It must have been music to Miles ears as the veteran reserve fired a career-high 454 threes in the fewest minutes he’s played per game since he was 20, a decade ago.

To put things bluntly, the Cavs don’t defend three-point shooters. They gave up the 29th most three-point attempts in the NBA (31.7) this past season and the 28th most three-point makes (11.7). It’s a free-for-all out there beyond the arc and it almost cost them a first round exit against a fifth-place Pacers team that was 25th in three-pointers made this season. The Pacers took 27.1 (up 2.6 from the regular season), but the fact they could only make 0.7 more threes undoubtedly cost them this very close series.

The Raptors, on the other hand, are the polar opposites to the Pacers when it comes to three-point shooting. Toronto shot the third most threes in the NBA (33) and made the fourth most (11.8), but in three games against the Cavs, those numbers exploded to 14.7 made on 36.7 attempts. Miles hitting on 50 percent of his three-point attempts versus Cleveland. It’s a lot easier to shoot from range when no one is coming out to stop you.

This is redemption time for Miles. A career 36.1 percent three-point shooter on 3,249 regular season attempts, Miles hasn’t performed in the postseason. In prior year’s playoffs, he shot 26.5 percent on 98 three-point attempts and in the past two years with Indiana, he went just 7-36 or 19.4 percent from three. Miles has something to prove and he’s proving it.

Complaining that the Wizards were face-guarding him the entire first round and that it was hard to get open, Miles averaged 5.2 three-point attempts per game and hit on 38.7 percent of them (both represent playoff career bests). He actually shot better than his regular season average of 36.1 percent.

This is Miles time to shine, to run off screens and find no one there to challenge his three-point barrage and the Raptors will need him. Toronto outscored the Wizards by an average 9 points per game from the three-point line in their first round series and to beat the Cavaliers, they’ll need to do it again or better. Buckle up and fire away.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.