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Free Agent Kyle Lowry Seeks Championship

Kyle Lowry opens up about his unrestricted free agency, and makes it clear that he wants to play for a contender.

Alex Kennedy

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At 28 years old, Kyle Lowry wants to compete for a championship. He has only been to the postseason twice in his eight-year NBA career and while he enjoyed both experiences, he is at the point where he wants to contend for a title and simply making the playoffs isn’t good enough.

As Lowry enters unrestricted free agency next week, that’s one of the main factors that he’ll consider as he weighs his options. Lowry wants to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy in the near future, and this summer he could put himself in position to do that.

“I think the right situation is somewhere I’m winning and being happy, and honestly I want to play for a championship,” Lowry told Basketball Insiders. “I’m happy with making the playoffs and doing that, but the end game for all players should be a championship and that’s what I want to play for. I want to play for a championship.”

The Miami HEAT have been mentioned as a potential suitor for Lowry should LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh opt out and free up some cap space in Miami. If contending is truly Lowry’s top priority, the HEAT have to be considered an attractive destination for the point guard. When asked if he has given any thought to joining the HEAT, Lowry would only say that he hasn’t given the rumors much thought at this point.

“I haven’t really thought about too much lately with free agency because it’s still not here,” Lowry said. “Until something’s actually put down on the table, I mean rumors are just rumors. It’s just like the trade deadline – rumors are rumors until something is actually done. For me, I can’t think about what if or what could happen. I’m just focused on what’s realistic and what’s factual and what’s on paper. … I’m not worrying about the things that I can’t control until July 1, 12:01 on Tuesday.”

Lowry will be highly coveted this summer as he’s the top point guard on the market and coming off of a career-year in which he averaged 17.9 points, 7.4 assists, 4.7 rebounds and 1.5 steals. He’s excited to enter free agency and have some say over his future. He has been dealt twice in his NBA career and has constantly been mentioned in trade rumors, so he’s looking forward to controlling the process this time around.

“It’s very nice,” Lowry said. “It’s rewarding for the hard work that you put in. I think every player when they get the chance to go through free agency and pick and choose where they want to go and what they want to do with their career and life, it’s an amazing feeling. Especially when you work as hard as I do, and I think it took me a while to get to this position and this point, so I’m just going to enjoy it and be happy.”

MUST READ: The 2014-15 NBA Free Agent List

While Lowry will certainly meet with teams and weigh all of his options this offseason, a return to the Raptors is still a possibility as well. Toronto is coming off of an incredible 48-win season in which they finished as the third seed in the Eastern Conference.

“It was fun,” Lowry said of Toronto’s successful season. “I think it was one of those things where we expected it internally, but no one on the outside expected it. Internally, though, we expected to do something special and we said it from day one. For it to come true and to go the way it went, yeah it was fantastic and it was a joy to be a part of.”

When Lowry looks at the Raptors’ roster, he gets optimistic and thinks that the best is yet to come. If he were to re-sign with Toronto and the team returned as currently assembled, he believes the future could be bright. When asked how good the Raptors can be, Lowry doesn’t hesitate.

“Honestly, I’ve thought about it and I think the answer is very good,” Lowry said. “We have a lot of very good young pieces. It all starts with DeMar [DeRozan], and I think Jonas [Valanciunas] and Terrence [Ross] could be really good. I think that the team as a whole could be really good. Last year was a great year; we had a bunch of guys who just wanted to go out there and win games. Everyone was very unselfish and knew what was at stake and wanted to be a good team. I think the team is very talented. I think it’s very good upside for the Raptors.”

It’s easy to forget that before the Raptors started stringing together wins and climbing the standings, they were playing awful basketball and looking like a bottom feeder in the East. They got off to a very slow start on the season, sitting at 7-13. Shortly after, Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri started putting his fingerprints on the franchise, trading Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings.

For a moment, it seemed like Toronto might overhaul the roster and rebuild. The team’s other veterans were suddenly questioning their standing with the team, and Lowry admits he thought he was going to be sent packing.

“Honestly, I thought I was going to get traded,” Lowry said. “I thought it was going to be a done deal, to be honest. But Masai was very open and up front with me, and I understood everything that was going on. So it wouldn’t have been a surprise if it would have happened because he was up front. And, of course, I think every player should know that they can be traded at any moment, at any time. It’s a business. All I have to do is be a professional and go out there and do my job.”

Rather than trading Lowry, Ujiri decided to keep the Raptors intact and the team exceeded all expectations to finish the season. In recent months, Lowry and Ujiri have developed a close relationship and they talk often, which is important to the point guard because he wants to be on the same page as the person who is calling the shots in the front office.

“With me and him, our relationship is just an open one and a very honest one,” Lowry said of his bond with Ujiri. “And it starts with him. He’s a very open guy. He’s just very open and an honest guy and I really respect the things that he says to me. I think he always kind of liked my game and knew what I could do, but he heard of off the court issues and that other people had issues with me. He told me from day one he wanted me to be better – to be a better individual. When someone comes in and respects you and just wants to help you, you take pride in that and have respect for them as a man.”

This talk between Ujiri and Lowry really opened the point guard’s eyes. He had developed a reputation around the league for being difficult, having a bad attitude and challenging authority. He and Houston Rockets head coach Kevin McHale had an ugly, public feud and Lowry was viewed by some as a negative locker room presence.

This season, Lowry wanted to change that. He got married last July, which started his maturation process, and then he left his honeymoon early in order to spend more time training at Impact Basketball in Las Vegas. He hired a private chef, understanding that in order to be a great player in the NBA one must take care of their body. When he arrived in Toronto for training camp, he was a different person – helping the young players and emerging as a leader.

“I do for sure [feel that I’ve matured and changed],” Lowry said. “Honestly, I really believe that. I really just grew up and I was just more comfortable in my own skin and understood what was needed from me and what was expected of me.”

Joe Abunassar of Impact Basketball noticed the change in Lowry as soon as he arrived in Las Vegas for his offseason training, and started predicting that the point guard would have a breakout season.

“Kyle’s approach has been exceptional and he has really grown as a person,” Abunassar told me in December. “I think that has really translated to helping his game. He has been focused and he understands what being a top player in the NBA takes. It’s more than just basketball – it’s how he’s carrying himself and working. … I’ve seen huge, huge growth from him, especially these last eight months.”

Lowry was arguably the biggest snub from the Eastern Conference All-Star team this season, with many fans, media and players believing that he should’ve made the team. While he says that missing out on the honor didn’t bother him, he did make it clear that he’d like to be on the All-Star team before his career comes to an end.

“The snub doesn’t bother me at all,” Lowry said. “I don’t worry about things like that because I can’t control who they pick, who the coaches pick. All I can do is go out there and do my job. For me, I’m always motivated. I don’t need more motivation. My goal is always to be the best player I can be, and for me, being an All-Star is one of the best players you can be. So that’s always a goal of mine, as an individual goal, but my main goal is just to win.”

There’s that word again. Lowry is at the stage in his career where he wants to win above all else. Keep that in mind as he meets with suitors and considers his free-agent options in the coming weeks.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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Rest Assured, the 1-16 NBA Playoff Format Is Coming… Kinda

Based on Adam Silver’s comments, it’s safe to assume that the NBA will soon reformat the playoffs.

Moke Hamilton

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If there’s one thing Adam Silver has proven in his four years as the NBA’s Commissioner, it’s that he isn’t afraid to do things his way.

And if Silver has his way, the league will eventually figure out how it can implement a system that results in a more balanced playoff system. On Saturday, though, he revealed that it’s probably closer to a reality than many of us realize.

During his annual All-Star media address, Silver admitted that the league will “continue to look at” how they can reformat the playoffs to both ensure a better competitive balance throughout and pave the way for the league’s two best teams to meet up in the NBA Finals, even if both of those two teams happen to be in the same conference.

“You also would like to have a format where your two best teams are ultimately going to meet in the Finals,” the commissioner said on Saturday night.

“You could have a situation where the top two teams in the league are meeting in the conference finals or somewhere else. So we’re going to continue to look at that. It’s still my hope that we’re going to figure out ways.”

Since Silver took over the league, he’s been consistent in implementing dramatic changes to improve the overall quality of the game. Although Silver didn’t take over as the league’s commissioner until 2014, he was instrumental in getting the interested parties to buy into the notion that the “center” designation on the All-Star ballot was obsolete.

As a result, beginning with the 2013 All-Star Game, the Eastern and Western Conference teams have featured three “frontcourt” players, which essentially lumps centers in with forwards and eliminates the requirement that a center appear in the All-Star game. That wasn’t always the case.

From overhauling the league’s scheduling to reducing back-to-back games to implementing draft lottery reform to, this year, eliminating the traditional All-Star format which featured the Eastern Conference versus the Western Conference, it’s become clear that Silver simply “gets it” and isn’t afraid to make revolutionary changes if he deems them to be in the overall best interest of the league.

At this point, everyone realizes that something needs to be done about the league’s current playoff system.

Last season, for example, the Western Conference first round playoff series featured the Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder squaring off against one another. Only one series—the Los Angeles Clippers versus Utah Jazz—went seven games.

Meanwhile, in the Eastern Conference, the first round series that were contested weren’t exactly compelling.

The Cleveland Cavaliers steamrolled the conference to the tune of a 12-1 run to their third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. It wasn’t the first time that the public questioned the wisdom behind separating the playoff brackets by conference, but the dominance of the Cavs and LeBron James specifically (who is expected to win the Eastern Conference for the eighth consecutive time this season) has caused renewed scrutiny.

The most common solution offered to this point has been to simply take the 16 best teams across the league, irrespective of conference, and conduct the playoffs as normal.

From afar, this solution seems simple enough, but the obvious concerns are twofold.

First, if the Celtics and Clippers, for example, were pitted against one another in a first round series, the travel would be considerable. Private charter flight or not, traveling is taxing, and the prospect of having to make five cross-country trips over the course of a two-week span would certainly leave the winner of such a series at a competitive disadvantage against the opponents they would face in subsequent rounds, especially if the future opponent enjoyed a playoff series that was contested within close proximity.

Atlanta to New Orleans, for example, is less than a one-hour flight.

Aside from the concerns about geographic proximity, the other obvious issue is competitive balancing of the schedule, which seems to be an easier issue to fix.

Using the Pelicans as an example, of the 82 games they play, 30 are played against the other conference—in this case, the Eastern Conference. The other 52 games would all be played within the conference. If playoff seedings were going to be done on a simple 1-16 basis, the scheduling would have to be realigned in a way to essentially pit all teams against one another evenly. It wouldn’t be fair for a team like the Celtics to be judged on the same standard as the Pelicans if the Celtics faced inferior teams more often.

On Saturday night, Silver revealed that the league’s brass has been thinking about this and is trying to find a solution, and in doing so, he may have tipped his hand.

* * * * * *

As a multinational conglomerate, the NBA values the inclusion of as many markets as possible. Wanting to improve the overall quality of the product, though, there are interests that may not align fully.

What’s obvious with this year’s All-Star game is that the NBA has found a way to balance the two.

Rather than eliminating the conference designations altogether and simply choosing the “best” 24 players to be in the All-Star game, the league still chose All-Stars based on their conference, but then distributed them within the pool to allow for better competition.

That’s exactly what Silver revealed the NBA is considering doing with the playoffs. It makes perfect sense, and it’s probably just a matter of time before it’s implemented.

A report from ESPN notes that the idea that the league is kicking around would essentially do exactly what the league did with the All-Star selections with the playoff teams: choose the best from each conference, then disburse them in a way that allows for competitive balance. 

The proposal would have the league’s teams compete as they normally do and would still feature the top eight teams from each conference getting into the playoffs.

Once the teams are qualified, however, they would be re-seeded on a 1-16 basis and crossmatched, on that basis.

It’s not perfect, but compromises never are. The travel issues would still persist, but the league would accomplish two goals: the less dominant conference wouldn’t be underrepresented and discouraged from competing, but the two best teams would still be on opposite ends of the bracket.

An NBA playoffs that featured 11 or 12 teams from the Western Conference would be a ratings nightmare for the league. Eastern Conference cities are less likely to stay up past midnight during the week to watch playoff games, and less competitive markets would frown at the prospect of having to compete against the other conference for a playoff spot. For many small market teams, the millions of dollars generated from a single playoff game often has a significant impact on the team’s operations, so there would naturally be discord.

This system would at least eliminate that contention.

On the positive side, it would allow for the Rockets and Warriors, for example, to meet in the NBA Finals. In both the NFL and MLB, geography hasn’t been a determining factor on which teams battle for the league’s championship.

Why does it have to be in the NBA?

* * * * * *

With the league having begun regular season play earlier this season, at the All-Star break, most teams have played about 57 games. A lot can change over the final 25 games of the season, but if the seeds were frozen today and the league took the top eight teams from each conference and then crossmatched them, the Los Angeles Clippers would be the team that got the short end o the stick.

Although the Clippers have the 16th best record in the league, they would be the ninth-seeded Western Conference team and would thus be eliminated from postseason contention by the Miami HEAT. The HEAT have the 17th best record in the league but are the eighth-best team in the Eastern Conference, so to preserve the conference weight, the HEAT would win out.

This is what the seedings and matchups would look like…

(1) Houston Rockets versus (16) Miami HEAT

(2) Golden State Warriors versus (15) New Orleans Pelicans

(3) Toronto Raptors versus (14) Philadelphia 76ers

(4) Boston Celtics versus (13) Portland Trail Blazers

(5) Cleveland Cavaliers versus (12) Denver Nuggets

(6) San Antonio Spurs versus (11) Oklahoma City Thunder

(7) Minnesota Timberwolves versus (10) Milwaukee Bucks

(8) Washington Wizards versus (9) Indiana Pacers

Here, the Celtics would face the nightmarish scenario of having to travel to and from Portland for their playoff series, while virtually every other series would feature much more friendly travel (especially the Spurs-Thunder and Raptors-Sixers).

The Cavs would have a very tough road to the Finals, having to beat the Nuggets, Celtics and Rockets if the seeds held. The Celtics would have a similarly tough road, as they’d have to get past the Blazers, Cavs and Rockets.

At the end of the day, the Rockets and Warriors would be aligned in such a way as to avoid one another until the championship, but each of the two would face daunting competition. The Rockets would have to go through the HEAT, Wizards and Celtics, while the Warriors would have to face the Pelicans, Timberwolves and Raptors—again, assuming the seeds held.

It would be a benefit to all observers.

One of the unintended consequences of implementing this system would be to make every single game count. If the Celtics were able to move up to the second seed, for example, their road to the Finals, in theory, could become much much easier, comparatively speaking.

The end result would be less resting of players during the course of the season and certainly less instances in which star players take the final week of the regular season off in other to be fresh for the postseason.

Everyone wins.

No, there’s no perfect solution, but just as the league has found a clever way to serve multiple interests as it relates to the All-Star game’s competitiveness, Silver has revealed that the league is at least considering following suit with the playoffs.

Best bet?

It’s only a matter of time before we see it actually see it happen.

It simply makes too much sense, and if there’s one thing the commissioner has already proven, it’s that he isn’t afraid of changing tradition.

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NBA All-Star Saturday Recap

Brian Slingluff recaps All-Star Saturday from Los Angeles.

Basketball Insiders

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Basketball Insiders is here to recap an eventful All-Star Saturday that led to three first-time champs in the various skills contests. Let’s get right to it.

Taco Bell Skills Challenge

In Saturday night’s Taco Bell Skills Challenge, the “Bigs” team, boasting 3 All-Stars, set out to claim a third straight title. The competition kicked off with Joel Embiid coming from behind to best Al Horford, and sharpshooter Lauri Markkanen swishing his first 3 point attempt to eliminate Andre Drummond. On the Guard side, Buddy Hield had an early lead before losing out to Spencer Dinwiddie, and Jamal Murray upset hometown favorite Lou Williams.

In the semifinals, Markkanen was able to dispatch Joel Embiid, who struggled with the pass portion of the competition, and Dinwiddie topped Jamal Murray by making his first 3 pointer for the second consecutive round.

In the Final round, Dinwiddie finally missed a 3 pointer, but it did not matter as he finished with a wire to wire victory over Lauri Markkanen. Dinwiddie, competing in front of his friends and family, was able to end the Bigs’ two year win streak in impressive fashion.

JBL Three Point Contest

The event started off with Tobias Harris scoring a solid 18 points. Wayne Ellington was next, sporting the hot new alternate Miami Vice jersey. Ellington started off cold and heated up on his last three racks, ending up with a score of 17. Devin Booker and former three-point champion Klay Thompson tied for a round-high 19 points. Paul George, Bradley Beal, and Kyle Lowry struggled from the start and never found a rhythm, falling short of making the championship round. Defending champion Eric Gordon never got it going, and would not defend the title, scoring only 12 points.

In the Championship round, Tobias Harris was on fire through the first 3 racks, but quickly got cold, scoring 17 points. Devin Booker was next and could not miss, scoring 28 points, leaving Klay Thompson a high number to match. Thompson fell just 3 points short, and Devin Booker was crowned the 2018 JBL Three Point Champion.

Verizon Slam Dunk Contest

The final and most anticipated event of the night started with Donovan Mitchell bringing out a second hoop, bouncing it off the second backboard and finishing with an impressive windmill dunk, scoring a 48. Victor Oladipo followed with a difficult look-away alley oop dunk attempt that he was unable to complete, totaling 31 points from the judges. Dennis Smith Jr. had a nice reverse double pump that got 39 points and Larry Nance Jr., in a throwback Phoenix jersey, payed homage to his father’s cradle dunk, nailing it almost exactly for a score of 44 points.

Oladipo started the next round of dunks by borrowing Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther mask, and scoring 40 points with a tomahawk windmill dunk. Smith Jr. hit a seemingly impossible reverse 360, through the legs, switching hands dunk for a perfect score of 50. Nance Jr. pulled off a Vince Carter level windmill, nearly missing a perfect score. Mitchell jumped over comedian Kevin Hart to advance to the finals against Larry Nance Jr.

In the Finals, Nance started things off with a windmill alley-oop with some help from Larry Nance Sr., garnering a score of 46. Mitchell completed the difficult one handed alley-oop he had attempted in the previous round, scoring a perfect 50. Nance Jr. answered with an incredible double pass off the backboard dunk, scoring yet another 50 points.  Mitchell ended the contest with a Vince Carter tribute dunk, coming out on top by just two points. It capped off an exciting Saturday night, setting things up for the main event on Sunday, Team LeBron versus Team Stephen.

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David Nwaba and the Road Less Traveled

David Nwaba speaks to Basketball Insiders about his unconventional path to the NBA.

David Yapkowitz

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A player’s path to the NBA usually follows the same formula: A star in high school, a strong college career, and then eventually being selected in the NBA Draft. However, there are times when a player’s path is more unconventional. In the case of David Nwaba, he definitely took the path less traveled.

He attended University High School in West Los Angeles, where he was named All-Western League MVP twice as well as being an all-league selection. He finished his senior year in 2011 putting up 22.0 points per game and 11.5 rebounds per game.

He went to an NCAA Division 2 school, however, Hawaii Pacific University, but never suited up for them as he redshirted his freshman year. He played a year at Santa Monica Community College, where he was the Western State Conference South Division Player of the Year before transferring to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. According to Nwaba, the decision to leave Hawaii Pacific was made with the NBA in mind.

“It was always a dream of mine, it’s also why I left a Division 2 school that I started at,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “I had bigger dreams of playing D1 and potentially the NBA. So that was a dream of mine. I never thought the journey would go like this but it is how it is.”

Behind Nwaba, Cal Poly made their first-ever NCAA appearance in 2014. They won the Big West Tournament as the seventh seed out of eight teams, and then knocked off Dayton for the right to come in as a No. 16 seed against No. 1 seed Wichita State. Cal Poly would go on to lose to Wichita State, but sparking that run to March Madness put Nwaba on the basketball map.

He didn’t get to the NBA right away, though. His first professional experience came with the then Los Angeles D-Fenders, now South Bay Lakers, the Los Angeles Lakers G-League affiliate. He initially began with the Reno Bighorns, the Sacramento Kings affiliate, but his rights were traded to Los Angeles. His strong play in the G-League was what caught the Lakers’ attention, enough to give him a pair of 10-day contracts, and then one for the rest of the season.

“It was a perfect spot to start up my professional career The G-League is a place to develop your game, and I think I developed a lot,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “I learned a lot about the game, and I think it was a good place for me to start just out of college.”

Although he made a strong impression on the Lakers, Nwaba found out that nothing is ever guaranteed in the NBA. Due to a roster crunch when the team signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope over the summer, the Lakers ended up cutting him. He didn’t stay unemployed for long though. Before he had a chance to hit the open market, the Chicago Bulls claimed him off waivers.

He’s since carved out a role as one of the Bulls most dependable players in the second unit. And just like his path to the league, his role is a bit of an unconventional one as a shooting guard. He’s shooting 51.7 percent from the field, but most of his shots come from in the paint. He only shoots 26.3 percent from three-point range. It’s been effective for him though.

“It’s just bringing energy off the bench and just being that defender,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “For the most part, I just try to be aggressive going to the basket, finishing at the rim, making the right plays, just defending and playing hard.”

The Chicago Bulls got off to a slow start this season. They lost 17 of their first 20 games. In December, they started to pick up their play, winning 11 of their 20 games including a seven-game win streak. However, they’ve now dropped eight of their last 11 games. Despite that, Nwaba does see some encouraging signs. And in the Eastern Conference, he’s not quite ready to count out another run.

“We’re developing every game, just building chemistry amongst each other,” Nwaba told Basketball Insiders. “Who knows, all it takes is just a streak of eight to ten games or something and we’re already back in the playoff race. You never know, anything can turn around. It’s still a long season, a lot of games to be played, and a lot of time to develop our game. We’ve still got a lot of time with each other.”

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