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Fixing the Toronto Raptors

The Toronto Raptors exceeded all expectations this season, but what’s it going to take for them to improve from here? Moke Hamilton makes some important suggestions.

Moke Hamilton

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With DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas each making an appreciable leap this past season, fans of the Toronto Raptors witnessed both Kyle Lowry and Dwane Casey put together great seasons and help lead the team to its winningest season ever and just the franchise’s second Atlantic Division championship.

The rise of the Raptors was especially amazing to witness considering the thoughts across most media circles of the NBA was that the Raptors were likely going to be tanking in order to give themselves a better opportunity to score a high draft pick and select the Toronto-born Andrew Wiggins.

Clearly, the aforementioned four had different ideas.

It took the Brooklyn Nets all of seven games to bump the Raptors off, and with DeRozan, Valanciunas and Lowry just 24, 21 and 27 years old, respectively, there is reason for optimism in Toronto.

Naturally, that poses the very common question as to how a team on the ascent can get themselves to the next level. Most often, free agency and the draft are most often mentioned as the primary means by which a still progressing team can get to the next level.

Continuity and natural progression are often overlooked.

Fortunately, though, general manager Masai Ujiri has already made an important decision by opting to re-sign Dwane Casey to a three-year deal. Now, it remains to see what the future holds next, but here is what it should…

Re-Sign Kyle Lowry and Greivis Vasquez

This past season, Kyle Lowry put together his finest year as a professional. He kept his weight in check, managed to stay on the floor and progressed as a floor general, even turning in great performances in the playoffs. His pending free agency is something that has been discussed in Toronto all season long and while he lacks the body of work to suggest that he is in the same class as Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo, he is expected to come at a more reasonable price in the $11 million range. For the Raptors, retaining him is a must.

Lowry has developed chemistry with his teammates and has recently gone on the record as saying that he is happy in Toronto and wants to return. Ujiri would be wise to make that happen.

As for Greivis Vasquez, now playing on his fourth team, he has struggled to find a home, though there were times this past season when he made big plays for his team. With a qualifying offer of just $3.2 million this summer, Vasquez was originally thought to be insurance in the event of Lowry’s departure.

Instead, he has become a good running mate. Retaining them both makes most sense for the franchise.

Find A Perimeter Defensive Specialist

Down the stretch of their Game 7 loss to the Brooklyn Nets, Joe Johnson had his way with every defender that Casey threw at him. It exposed a hole in the Raptors’ roster.

Defense is not something that can be fully outsourced—the top players on a team set the tone and galvanize teammates with effort. Neither Lowry, DeRozan nor Patrick Patterson are turnstiles, but for this team, which seemed to struggle offensively during stretches, they each need to do the heavy lifting scoring the ball.

Most championship contenders have at least one Bonafide Defensive specialist. Shane Battier, Tony Allen, Kawhi Leonard and Thabo Sefolosha all come to mind.

Landry Fields is not the answer there, and in the playoffs, since games will inevitably slow down and pit halfcourt offense against halfcourt defense, the Raptors would be wise to invest a few dollars into a rangy stopper who can guard both the shooting guard and small forward positions.

Otherwise, the next time they play in a Game 7, they may be undressed by a player of Johnson’s size and skill, once again.

Play Through Jonas Valanciunas More

In a league where truly dominant big men have been few and far between, Jonas Valaciunas has shown some early signs of being a very capable offensive contributor. Operating from the post, he has shown great poise, patience, grace and touch. The next two stages for his offensive progression are developing a consistent and reliable go to move and becoming a more proficient midrange shooter.

After just his rookie season, Valanciunas has shown tremendous growth and everyone around him speaks of how he soaks critiques and directives up like a sponge.

For a big man that seems to have potential, repetitions are most important. Next season, Valanciunas needs more isolation opportunities in the low box and a more prominent place in the Raptors’ offensive pecking order. This becomes infinitely more true in the event of Lowry’s departure, but even if he is retained, Valanciunas’ development operating from the post will open the game up, allow the Raptors to depend less on their perimeter playmaking and overall, become a more off offensively efficient team.

Be Patient

Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither are NBA champions. For the Raptors, this season marked evident progress toward the team’s long-term goal of becoming a contender. Although it ended in the first round, it is important for Ujiri to understand that there are good things happening in Toronto and it all begins with the players who currently make up the team’s roster. A look around the league shows that the teams that tend to find themselves in the conversation of potential champions have a common theme—continuity.

Ujiri seems to understand this, at least at this point. As NBA head coaches have become more and more disposable, there were many who believed that Casey would be ousted by Ujiri, mainly because general managers in the NBA tend to prefer to install their own head coaches.

Having been tapped to be Jay Triano’s successor, it was widely speculated that Ujiri would push Casey out and bring in his own head coach. But after such a positive showing over the course of the season, Ujiri has rewarded Casey with a new contract.

If the same fates await Lowry and Vasquez and if the Raptors continue to develop DeRozan and Valanciunas, with some good fortune, patience and continuity, the Raptors may prove that their rise this past season was no aberration.

Spend Prudently

Before re-signing any of their free agents to be or exercising any of their team options, the Raptors have $39 million in salary commitments next season. Of that, almost $16 million is being spent on the trio of Landry Fields, Steve Novak and Chuck Hayes.

As deep as the coffers may be for Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, the truth of the matter is that in the NBA’s new economic era, restrictions on team spending on midlevel exception usage mean that each team must manage its books and finances astutely.

With a team on the brink, having $5 million available to throw at a tier two free agent could make all the difference in the world and if those kinds of financial commitments are made to players who ultimately do not merit consistent minutes, it is a wasted opportunity.

As the Raptors get set to begin their offseason, they have a number of questions to answer, though the most important one—the coach—has been answered.

So the long answer is, the Raptors may not need to be fixed as much as they need to congeal. A solid defensive team with capable young players and a fair amount of athleticism just had the most successful season in franchise history.

That is no fluke, and if the Ujiri follows these five suggestions, you can rest assured that you have not heard the last of his Raptors.

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NBA Daily: Trail Blazers Come Up Short and Now Search For Answers

The Portland Trail Blazers were swept in the first round of the Playoffs and now face tough questions, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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The playoffs have been a wild ride so far. On Sunday, all three Eastern Conference playoff games were exciting matches that featured star players stepping up in the clutch. As a result, each series is tied up, two games each. The other game of the day featured the San Antonio Spurs, who stayed in control and never once allowed the Golden State Warriors to take the lead. The Spurs managed to get a win against the defending champs despite missing their best player and now their head coach indefinitely.

For the Portland Trail Blazers, there was no such Game 4 turnaround. In fact, with the Spurs win, the Trail Blazers have the lamentable distinction of being the only team to be swept in the first round of the playoffs. This is just one way to describe how disappointing and surprising this playoff series loss to the New Orleans Pelicans was for Portland. Many NBA observers and Pelicans fans were quick to point out that every ESPN NBA personality chose the Trail Blazers to win the series, as did select writers of the Basketball Insiders team.

The Trail Blazers’ players and front office also made it clear how surprised they were at the result. Forward Evan Turner shared his surprise.

“Obviously finishing so quickly wasn’t definitely the plan and to a certain extent it was shocking,” Turner said.

General Manager Neil Olshey chimed in as well.

“Nobody expected [the playoff sweep] to happen. It did. We had our chances in Game 1, we had our chances in Game 2. Clearly Game 3 was a setback,” Olshey stated when describing his surprise at how the series ended. “Stunned, I think disappointed.”

Credit should be given to the Pelicans and their ability to fully harness their talent and impose their will in the series. Turner was effusive in praising the talent and ability of the Pelicans.

“Unlocked Jrue is pretty dangerous and we all see how Rondo plays. He’s a homerun hitter but he is always solid. He can mess around. He’ll get two or three triple doubles. Anthony Davis is a problem,” Turner said.

When asked how he felt about the playoff exit, starting center Jusuf Nurkic stated that he is beyond disappointed.

“I mean, the way I finish the season, I feel shame. The way we have a season, like a team and group, and being in position to be third in the West, and finish like this, is not good,” Nurkic stated. “It’s not something you should be proud of, because all you do through the year, fight for playoff and to be in position to have a good postseason.”

Despite the early exit, many within the organization were quick to highlight that they continue to see the regular season in a positive light, including Head Coach Terry Stotts.

“I thought we had a very good regular season, I thought we had a very disappointing end of the season,” Stotts stated.

Damian Lillard shared a similar sentiment when reflecting on the season as a whole.

“I think I’ll always remember the way [the season] ended. But I won’t forget the kind of season we had. You can’t ignore the fact we won a division title in a division where there was some great teams,” Lillard stated. “We came out on top.”

Still, the success of the regular season makes the playoff result that much harder to grasp and deal with for some. Nurkic again didn’t hold back when comparing the success of the regular season with the team’s playoff failure.

“Very surprised,” Nurkic stated. “You definitely didn’t see the team who we are in the playoffs.”

Explaining why the Trail Blazers came up short against the Pelicans is no easy task. Clearly Portland’s attempt to feature its two premiere guards failed as the Pelicans were able to clamp down on Lillard and McCollum effectively in each game. Complicating matters further was the inability of the Trail Blazers to effectively utilize Nurkic on both ends of the court. However, there was at least some praise to be heaped on the backup bigs, Zach Collins and Ed Davis.

“I think Zach played really well for us,” Olshey stated. “He had an impact defensively.”

Also, Al-Farouq Aminu was able to do his part as an acceptable defensive option against Davis while spreading the floor with his outside shooting

Regardless, Turner shared his assessment that the team failed to have an adequate game plan for a scenario where their two best players are neutralized.

“One thing that may help, it’s no jabs or anything, but building the identity outside of our two strong scorers,” Turned stated. “[W]e sometimes go downhill when a team fully focuses on a lot of attention on our stars […] But I think we might need certain plays, certain structures that kind of prepare just in case that occurs.”

With their postseason concluded, the Trail Blazers are suddenly left trying to answer questions with no easy answers. Who, if anyone, is to blame for what happened? So far, many head coaches have been let go and unsurprisingly some speculation has turned toward Coach Stotts. Stotts, when asked, focused on the team and deflected any analysis of his performance.

“I’m not going to evaluate the job I did,” Stotts said.

Lillard, on the other hand, was effusive in his praise of his coach.

“Coach Stotts has done a great job from day one. We’ve been in the playoffs five years straight,” Lillard said.

For now, there does not appear to be strong rumblings about Stotts. With the offseason just beginning for the team there is still time to reflect and assess what went wrong. Additionally, the team has to resolve what to do regarding its own free agents. No name looms larger than Nurkic, who despite his poor showing, represents one of the team’s top talents and expressed his guarded optimism regarding a return.

“I want to be here, it’s no secret,” Nurkic stated when asked if he wants an extension in Portland. “Yes, definitely.”

Nurkic ended the thought by stating, a bit ominously, that he did his part and a deal may or may not get worked out.

“My agent and people here are going to figure out the rest, or not,” Nurkic said.

Complicating the desire to retain Nurkic is the team’s financial situation as the team is currently over the cap and under obligation to center Meyers Leonard, who has struggled to stay in the rotation and is earning roughly $21.8 million over the next two years.

“It’s our job to be measured and not to overreact. [Because] when you overreact is when you make mistakes,” Olshey stated.

Lillard was quick to emphatically shut down the notion of splitting up him and McCollum when asked if that would be a good idea.

“I mean, I don’t agree with it. I think it’s that simple,” Lillard declared.

When asked what the team plans to do going forward, Olshey expressed optimism but tried again to pay credit to the season’s effort overall.

“We’re going to do everything we can to upgrade the roster as we always do but we also aren’t going to lose sight of the success throughout the course of the season,” Olshey said.

“I don’t have all the answers for you today,” Olshey surmised. “A lot of times you don’t know where your help is coming from.”

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The Problem With ‘Championship Or Bust’

Should an NBA Title be the only measuring stick when we’re talking about a team’s success?

Spencer Davies

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In this day and age, there’s a constant need for instant gratification. It goes for everything, really, but especially for sports.

Before the 2017-18 NBA season kicked off, the general outlook on the league was that the regular season would be a waste of time. People dubbed the Golden State Warriors as clear-cut repeat champions. Other then that franchise, there were maybe one or two others that could put up a fight with such a juggernaut.

While that story has yet to play out, others are developing quickly.

The all-of-a-sudden dangerous New Orleans Pelicans are the only ball club to have advanced to the second round of the playoffs as the sixth seed in the Western Conference. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are deadlocked in a tied series with an Indiana Pacers team that everybody seemed to believe was lottery-bound before the year began.

After falling nine games under .500 in late January, the Utah Jazz have caught fire and are up two games to one against the league’s reigning league MVP and a re-constructed Oklahoma City Thunder roster. We’d be remiss to leave out the sensational play of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid as the Philadelphia 76ers continue to show how dominant they’ve been in a hard-hitting affair with a gritty Miami Heat bunch.

The start to this postseason trumps last season’s already. There is a competitive fire within the majority of these encounters. It’s all on the line to prove who will be the best of the best.

And having said that, there can only be one that takes home the Larry O’Brien trophy.

One. That’s it. In the last 18 years, there have been a total of eight different organizations that have earned the right to call themselves champions. All things considered, it’s not that many.

But there’s a giant misconception about parity in the NBA that needs to be thwarted.

This league is filled with talent, top to bottom. Just like in any sport, you have the basement dwellers still trying to right the ship. Whether it be coaching, injuries, or inexperience—they’re attempting to find their way. That’s why those players are sitting at home in late April.

Then there are those who are not merely spectators, but are involved in the remaining field of 15 teams (sorry, Portland Trail Blazers). Of course, in their minds, there is a common goal of winning a title, as it should be.

However, is it fair to quantify the success of every one of these franchises simply based on whether they accomplish that goal or not? Heck no.

Are we supposed to just forget about the progress made from end-to-end? What if — hear this out — both teams have talent and one just beat the other?

Building championship basketball takes patience. There has to be some semblance of playoff experience involved. Continuity is a must have. You might not want to hear it, but the postseason is where the seeds are planted, where the understanding of the stage really starts.

There can be a collection of young players who have been teammates for years, but have never taken part in the playoffs before. Sometimes there can be a team that’s full of veterans that have been there, but they may not have played together as a collective unit. Each one of them has a different background in a different setting.

It’s a whole different beast at this point. Some are so naive to see how elevated and intense the environment really is, so they assume a team that loses a few games isn’t championship material. Newsflash: Not one team in the history of the NBA has gone 16-0 in the playoffs.

And then, the ones who fall—whether it be in The Finals, conference finals, or in first two rounds—those organizations didn’t accomplish anything. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

So in this basketball world we live in where everything has to be a 20-point victory with zero losses and it’s “championship or bust” as the measuring stick, take a step back and appreciate the work it took to even get to the postseason.

Win or lose, many of these teams are building towards bigger things in the future. These experiences will make that clear in the years to come.

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NBA DAILY: Who’s the Next Donovan Mitchell?

Donovan Mitchell provided elite value at the back end of the lottery. Who might that player be this summer?

Joel Brigham

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The entire reason that so many non-playoff teams worked so diligently to blow their seasons was to get the best odds possible for the first overall selection in the 2018 NBA Draft. Watching LeBron James (a former first overall draft pick) do what he’s done to the league for the last 15 years, the desire to land a top pick is understandable. Ben Simmons, the heir apparent and likely Rookie of the Year, also was a first overall draft pick a couple of seasons ago.

In fact, of the 38 former first overall picks dating back to 1980, 28 of them would evolve into All-Stars, and it seems like only a matter of time before Simmons is added to that list, too. A higher percentage of top picks have been named All-Stars than any other slot in the draft. Numbers don’t lie. There is no pick more valuable than the very first one.

But…

Donovan Mitchell is good, too. Like, really good. He’s so good that there’s just as strong an argument for him as this season’s Rookie of the Year as there is for Simmons. Mitchell, though, was not a first overall pick. He was picked 13th, at the back end of the lottery.

He isn’t alone in landing elite value for teams picking outside of the lottery’s top half. Devin Booker was picked 13th in 2015. Giannis Antetokounmpo was the 15th selection in 2013. In 2011, Klay Thompson was picked 11th, while Kawhi Leonard was chosen with the 15th pick that same year. Paul George went 10th overall in 2010.

In other words, there are plenty of really good prospects every summer to give late-lottery teams hope. They might not generate the same hype as the guys vying for that top overall selection, but they’re also clearly a lot better than the tiers of players that start coming off the board in the 20s and 30s. All-Stars lurk in the 10-to-15 range of the draft, especially in a loaded class like the one we’re looking at this summer.

That begs the question: who is this year’s Donovan Mitchell?

Here are three possibilities:

Collin Sexton

Back in November, a series of unfortunate circumstances in a game against Minnesota led to a mass ejection of Alabama players that resulted in just three players being allowed to play the final ten minutes. Sexton was one of those three players and led a Crimson Tide rally despite the lopsided Minnesota power play. ‘Bama outscored the Gophers 30-22 in those final 10 minutes despite being down two players, and Sexton finished the game with 40 points. That’s how good he is.

Of course, he could slip in this draft if only because there are so many flashier names ahead of him. It appears as though seven players (DeAndre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson, Marin Bagley, Michael Porter, Mo Bamba and Trae Young) likely will be drafted before him, which puts him in a category with guys like Mikal Bridges, Wendell Carter, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Miles Bridges, and Kevin Knox. Sexton probably will fall somewhere in that range, which means he would fall somewhere between the eighth and 13th pick.

He is competitive, charismatic and incredibly driven, so there’s a really good chance he does well in interviews and workouts and shows how elite he is. On the other hand, if he falls to the Sixers or Hornets or Clippers, some non-tanking team could end up with one of the biggest stars of the draft.

Miles Bridges

Coming into his sophomore season, Bridges was considered one of the top NBA prospects in college basketball, and while that is still true to a certain extent, his stock dropped a bit this past season while several players—including his teammate Jaren Jackson, Jr.—saw their own stocks rise.

Despite a minor loss in momentum, Bridges is one of the most NBA-ready players projected to be selected in the lottery. He’s still young enough to have a high ceiling, but he’s older and more physically mature than a lot of the other players vying to be drafted in his neck of the pecking order. He does nearly everything well, from ball handling to rebounding to shooting, and he can play both ends of the floor. His athleticism is his calling card, and that added to everything else he does well makes him a lock for some measure of NBA success.

He has his flaws, but he’s probably an All-Rookie First Teamer that will be selected after ten players that aren’t. That makes him a potential steal on the back-end of the lottery.

Jontay Porter

This time last year, Porter was a 17-year-old kid deciding whether or not to reclassify and play at the University of Missouri with his older brother Michael Porter, Jr. and under his father Michael Porter, Sr., who is a member of the coaching staff there. Obviously big bro is a high lottery pick, but the younger sibling was the 11th rated prospect in his high school class (the one with Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett) before reclassifying.

He has declared for this summer’s draft but hasn’t yet hired an agent. If he stays in, he’ll be the youngest player in the draft, and mid-first round is where teams start gambling on the uber-young players with mountains of potential rather than older, more proven college players.

In Porter’s case, that could mean a mid-to-late first-round team ends up with a tremendous bargain, even if it takes him a few years to grow into himself. He’s 6-foot-11 but is incredibly smart and well-rounded on offense. He shoots threes (he hit 110 of them as a freshman at Mizzou), but he’s know for his vision and passing more than anything. That’s a modern-day stretch-four or stretch-five if ever there was one, and getting him a year before his time could be a way for a team to steal a deal in the middle of the first round.

With the playoffs in full swing, most observers are focused in on the battles for conference supremacy. For many of the NBA’s other teams, though, the draft preparation process has begun.

In short order, we’ll see which teams end up snagging the next Donovan Mitchell.

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