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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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2018 NBA Draft Diary

NBA Daily: The Winners Of The NBA Draft

Simon Hannig breaks down the winners from Thursday’s 2018 NBA Draft.

Simon Hannig

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The 2018 NBA Draft has come and gone, and now it is time to pick the losers of the NBA Draft.

5.) Phoenix Suns

The Suns made a couple of splashes in the draft. They selected Deandre Ayton number one overall. The Suns then drafted Zhaire Smith, but traded his rights to the Sixers for Mikal Bridges. The Suns in the second round selected Elie Okobo from France and then drafted George King from Colorado. The Suns did a great job by getting two players that will be able to contribute right away. Ayton should be the starting center come opening night and Bridges could also start for the team. Ff not, Bridges will be a valuable weapon coming off the bench for a team who is trying to win games and get back into the playoffs.

4.) Orlando Magic

The Magic got a stud in Mo Bamba and also drafted Melvin Frazier from Tulane in the second round. The Magic got a steal here, and I am surprised he fell to Orlando. The Magic got a player who can contribute right away and start as well. He is a great rebounder and a great defensive player. He will be changing the Magic defense just himself. The Magic now have two young core pieces they can build around in Jonathan Isaac and Bamba. This team can be very scary on the defensive end. The offensive end is still a work in progress, but they are in great shape with the defensive end of the floor. I am very excited to see what Bamba can do at the next level and if he can carry this Magic team to the next level that they need to be at.

3.) Atlanta Hawks

Despite the Hawks trading Luka Doncic, the Hawk drafted players that can help and contribute right away, plus Quavo from the Migos got his wish of Trae Young being selected. With their second first round pick, the Hawks took sharpshooter Kevin Huerter from Maryland and they took Omari Spellman from Villanova with their third pick in the first round. The Hawks are starting to build themselves like the Warriors, getting sharpshooters in Young and Huerter. It is no surprise they are doing this as their current general manager, Travis Schlenk, worked with the Golden State Warriors before taking the job with the Hawks. They have the core for their future and I am really excited to see what Young can do in the NBA.

2.) Boston Celtics

The Celtics once again got a steal in Robert Williams from Texas A&M. They get another athletic big man who plays great defense and rebounds the ball very well. I am pretty surprised he fell this far. He is another rim protector the Celtics can use. He averaged 2.5 blocks per game in college. He will also provide second chance opportunities for the team. Williams averaged 3.0 offensive rebounds per game in college. He is just a monster on the defensive end of the floor and on the boards. He would have been a lottery pick in last years draft, but he decided to stay in school another year, and I am sure the Celtics are happy about that.

1.) Dallas Mavericks

The Mavericks have the best young backcourt duo in the NBA now in Dennis Smith Jr. and Luka Doncic. They also drafted Jalen Brunson from Villanova, acquired Ray Spalding from Louisville in a trade with the Sixers and drafted Kostas Antetokounmpo, Giannis’ younger brother, in the second round. I love the Mavs’ backcourt a lot. It is going to be very scary in a couple of years. It will take time and patience to develop them, but it will be worth it. This is going to be a dynamic duo for years to come for the Mavs. The Mavs have set themselves up not only for the future, but also to compete and to try to get into the playoffs. It also depends if they can bring in a max player in free agency, but I love the core the Mavs are building. The Mavs should be a better defensive team next season, and will be a better offensive team next season with the weapons they have added to the team.

The Mavs are the clear cut winners of the 2018 NBA Draft.

 

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2018 NBA Draft Diary

NBA Draft Night Trades

David Yapkowitz breaks down the trades that took place during the 2018 NBA Draft.

David Yapkowitz

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Another NBA Draft has come and gone. With rumors swirling all week about possible pick/player movement, the night remained relatively uneventful. There were a few trades that occurred, however. Here’s a quick breakdown of the movement that happened on draft night.

1. Atlanta Hawks/Dallas Mavericks

The Hawks and Mavericks completed the first trade of the night early on in the draft. Leading up to the draft, there were questions about how high Luka Doncic was going to be drafted. It was widely assumed that he wouldn’t slip past Dallas at No. 5. The Mavericks weren’t going to take that chance as the Hawks drafted Doncic with the intention of trading him to Dallas for Trae Young.

Both teams ultimately get what they need. It’s been reported that the Hawks might move on from Dennis Schroder this summer and they’ll need a point guard to replace him. Young is an explosive scorer who will fit in nicely with Atlanta’s rebuild. He can score from anywhere on the court and he’s a great playmaker as well.

For the Mavericks, they get a guy to add to their own young core with Dennis Smith Jr. and Harrison Barnes. Doncic has the size to play next to Smith in the backcourt. He’s quite possibly the best playmaker in the draft with a solid offensive game as well.

2. Charlotte Hornets/Los Angeles Clippers

The Hornets and Clippers consummated the second move the night by swapping their own draft picks. The Hornets took Shai Gilgeous-Alexander with the 11th pick and then immediately traded him to the Clippers for Miles Bridges, whom Los Angeles selected at No. 12.

For the Hornets, they get a guy who can play both forward positions. Bridges is more of a small forward but in small ball lineups, he can slide over to the four. Offensively he is at his best when he puts the ball on the floor and attacks the rim. He’s a decent shooter too.

The Clippers get a point guard who was rumored to climbing up many draft boards as the night approached. Gilgeous-Alexander is a solid pick for them provided both Patrick Beverly and Milos Teodosic’ injury history. He can also play off the ball if need be. He’s got the physical tools to be a very good defender at the NBA level. It’s not at all far-fetched to imagine him as the future long-term starting point guard for the Clippers.

The Hornets also got two future second-round picks from the Clippers.

3. Philadelphia 76ers/Phoenix Suns

The Sixers and the Suns had the next move of draft night, also swapping their picks. The Sixers selected hometown hero Mikal Bridges with the No. 10 pick and later traded him to the Suns for the No. 16 pick, Zhaire Smith.

Bridges made a lot of sense for the Sixers. Not only is he a local guy, but his mother works for the team as well. He was a talented player who fit their team. He gave a post-draft press conference raving about being a Sixer all the while he had been traded already. But such is life in the NBA. Instead, Phoenix gets a guy that’s ready to contribute in the NBA right away. He’s the prototypical 3&D type guy.

For the Sixers, Zhaire Smith is another guy who was steadily climbing the boards in the days leading up to the draft. He’s a very athletic prospect with good defensive instincts. He probably won’t play much right away, but he does have the potential to end up being one of the better rotation players in this draft.

The Sixers also get a 2021 first-round pick from the Suns via the Miami Heat. It’s highly likely this ends up being a lottery pick and thus giving the Sixers the chance to add a high-end talent to an already potent group.

4. Second-Round moves

There are a few second-round moves that were made as well.

For one, the Hawks selected Devonte Graham with the 34th pick and traded him to the Hornets for two future second-round picks. Graham is another NBA ready guy who can come in and immediately contend for backup point guard minutes behind Kemba Walker.

The Sixers were involved in another deal sending the No. 38 pick Khyri Thomas to the Detroit Pistons for two future second-round picks. Thomas is a player that many projected to go in the first round. For a team that didn’t have a first-round pick coming into the night, the Pistons essentially picked one up. It’s possible he turns out better than Detroit’s most recent first-rounders Henry Ellenson and Luke Kennard.

The Sacramento Kings drafted Gary Trent Jr. with the 37th pick only to trade him to the Portland Trail Blazers for two future second-round picks. Trent was one of the better shooters in the draft and that’s what he projects to the be in the NBA. He’s probably a few years away from earning a spot in the rotation but he was also a possible first-round pick. He’s more NBA ready than Anfernee Simons who the Blazers took in the first-round.

The Orlando Magic and Denver Nuggets swapped second-round picks with the Magic sending the No. 41 pick Jarred Vanderbilt to the Nuggets for the No. 43 pick Justin Jackson and a future second-round pick. Vanderbilt is a project in every sense of the word. He’s extremely raw and probably needed more time in college. But he’s got long-term potential and could pay off in the future. Jackson, on the other hand, was possibly a first-round talent had he entered the draft last year. He’s going to have to make the roster but could be a 3&D guy.

In the final move of the night, the Hornets traded the No. 45 pick Hamidou Diallo to the Oklahoma City Thunder. Diallo is a guy that had he come out last year, probably would’ve been a first-round guy. In any case, he is also very raw and will need seasoning in the G-League. He’s got all the physical tools and skill to be a good rotation NBA player.

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2018 NBA Draft Diary

#28 – Jacob Evans – Golden State Warriors

Jesse Blancarte

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With the 28th overall pick, the Golden State Warriors selected Cincinnati Junior Jacob Evans.

Evans represents a solid pick for nearly any NBA team. Evans fits in the mold of a potential 3-and-D role player. Evans improved in his time at Cincinnati, culminating in his junior year, where he scored 13 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. Evans spent three seasons at Cincinnati and rounded himself into a versatile two-way player who can bring a lot of value at the NBA level.

Evans is a very cognitive player, especially on the defensive end. He has a better grasp of his limitations than most players at this stage of their respective careers and is able to maximize his individual defensive ability within a team concept. Evans generally makes the right rotations, double-teams at the right times and funnels his opponents to where his teammates are when he cannot contain the ball-handler on his own. With the right coaching, he could become a valuable defensive wing in an NBA rotation sooner than some anticipate.

Additionally, Evans is more than just a shooter. He led his team in assists last season and has some skill as a playmaker. Evans will be more of a shooter and finisher in the NBA, but the ability to make the right pass, swing the ball when he isn’t open and take the ball off the dribble when necessary make him an intriguing prospect. This is especially true when you consider how valuable a player like Khris Middleton has become over the years, adding layers to his 3-and-D skill set each season.

The Warriors aren’t in need of an influx of talent but are happy to add Evans regardless.

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