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NBA AM: How Kyle Lowry Emerged as a Star

It took nine years and three teams, but Kyle Lowry is finally an All-Star and leading a contender.

Alex Kennedy

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How Kyle Lowry Emerged as a Star in Toronto

Kyle Lowry has never lacked confidence. For the first eight seasons of his NBA career, he wasn’t named to the All-Star team and often flew under the radar. This frustrated the point guard, as he felt he was on the same level as the players who were being selected to the midseason classic each year.

“Of course I thought I was as good as those guys,” Lowry said with a grin.

Instead of getting upset about the lack of recognition he was receiving, Lowry used the slight as extra motivation and pushed himself so that one day he’d be recognized as an All-Star-caliber player (by someone other than himself).

“Every year I tried to get better and I tried to continue to grow as a player,” Lowry said. “[I] wanted to get better and continue to grow to be as good as those [All-Star] players.”

In his ninth year and on his third team, Lowry finally did it. Not only did he make his first All-Star appearance this season, he was a starter for the Eastern Conference team. That’s a testament to how far he has come as a player and how popular he is among NBA fans. Lowry received 805,290 votes to start in the East’s backcourt, beating out big-name guards like Miami’s Dwyane Wade (789,839) and Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving (535,873).

“It’s my first time being here and it’s as a starter,” Lowry said in disbelief. “I don’t think you can draw this script up much better.”

While that script has a happy ending, the early pages would detail how Lowry’s journey to stardom wasn’t exactly easy. Remember, it wasn’t long ago that Lowry was known as a stubborn point guard who had a reputation for butting heads with coaches. He had gotten into it with Kevin McHale when the two were together on the Houston Rockets and he even had issues with Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey in their first season together. Lowry was talented, but there’s a reason he bounced around the league and was sometimes benched for other point guards.

He was traded twice before landing in Toronto, and they weren’t blockbuster deals. The Memphis Grizzlies named Mike Conley their starting point guard one year after drafting Lowry, making the latter expendable. He was traded in a three-team deal with the Grizzlies and Orlando Magic, in which Houston sent out only Rafer Alston and received Lowry and Brian Cook while Memphis landed Adonal Foyle, Mike Wilks and a future first-round pick. When Houston traded him to Toronto, the Rockets received just Gary Forbes and a future first-round pick.

Lowry was almost traded for a third time just last year, when the Raptors considered moving him prior to the deadline. Toronto general manager Masai Ujiri had just dealt veteran Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings and thought about parting ways with Lowry too in order to start rebuilding around the team’s young players. Lowry’s name kept surfacing in trade rumors and, according to reports, he was nearly sent to the New York Knicks in exchange for Raymond Felton, Metta World Peace and either Iman Shumpert, Tim Hardaway Jr. or a 2018 first-round pick. However, Knicks owner James Dolan reportedly vetoed the deal.

Toronto is lucky that the trade with the Knicks didn’t go through, as Lowry soon emerged as one of the best two-way point guards in the league and led the Raptors into the playoffs with a 48-34 record despite their ugly 6-12 start to the season. The veteran floor general and his teammates were outstanding in the second half of last year’s campaign, climbing the standings and ultimately earning the third seed in the Eastern Conference. Ujiri and Lowry went on to develop a strong bond and now it’s clear the point guard is the face of the franchise as well as the heart and soul of the Raptors.

More importantly, the baggage that Lowry carried around for much of his career has suddenly vanished and he seems like a completely different person these days.

Lowry’s transformation began prior to the start of last season, when he got married and had a son, which clearly helped him mature and changed his priorities. He also became very serious about taking his game to another level, even cutting his honeymoon short so that he could start his offseason training earlier at Impact Basketball in Las Vegas. Lowry started taking better care of his body, hiring a private chef and adjusting his diet. The veteran point guard knew that these were the kind of changes that players make when they want to go from being good to being great, and he was looking for any little edge he could get so that he could make the leap to stardom.

Perhaps the biggest change for Lowry was his attitude. Rather than being closed off, he was happier and much more approachable. Rather than focusing on himself and his individual goals, he put the team first and wanted to be the Raptors’ leader. He started taking some young players under his wing and has even opened his home to them.

When Lowry was a rookie in Memphis, the team’s veterans really took care of him. Mike Miller gave him the pass code to his house and told him he was free to come over anytime. Damon Stoudamire gave him suits and clothes to wear since he was ballin’ on a budget. Now that Lowry is the veteran leader in Toronto, he wants to give back and do the same things for his young teammates. It’s clear that Lowry at 28 years old is very different from the young man who entered the league back in 2006.

“It was just me growing up and understanding that at some point I would have to take on more responsibility and [start] looking in the mirror,” Lowry said. “It was [me] becoming more mature. I was just working and not settling for anything – never being satisfied and just going out there and doing my job.”

Lowry’s changes have really paid off and he’s seeing excellent results on and off the court. His leadership has been huge for the Raptors, keeping them in contention despite dealing with injuries to key players, such as DeMar DeRozan. Individually, this has also been the best season of Lowry’s nine-year NBA career, as he’s averaging 18.6 points, 7.2 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.6 steals.

The advanced numbers also show how productive Lowry has been throughout this season. His efficiency rating (20.4) is the highest of his career and ranks 14th in the league, and he’s seventh in offensive plus-minus (4.8), ninth in value over replacement player (3.1) and 13th in offensive win shares (4.6).

While Lowry’s lifestyle changes significantly helped his career, he believes that his increased role with Toronto also played a significant part in his success. On other teams, his role was very different and he wasn’t sure if he’d ever have the freedom and increased responsibilities he has now. He’s grateful that Coach Casey and the Raptors have given him this opportunity and put him in a position to be successful and earn this All-Star honor.

“I think once the opportunity came, I took advantage of it,” Lowry said. “Until then, before the opportunity came, I was just trying to figure out when the opportunity was going to come. Yeah, there were ups and downs that were definitely in the way, but at the same time I just knew if I kept working as hard as I know I can work, I’d get here.

“I think that they just gave me the keys to drive the car and they believed and trusted in me and that’s why I think we have a great working relationship right now. I think we have a great team and a great organization along with a great group of guys and coaching staff. Everything seemed to have just worked out perfectly right now.”

Lowry admits that initially, he didn’t think Toronto was going to be the place where everything came together for him. He had doubts and wasn’t sure if things were going to work out on the Raptors.

“Well no, honestly I didn’t think [this is where everything would work out],” Lowry said of Toronto. “But with all the hard work I put in and the commitment they made to me, everything just kind of came into fruition and it worked out.”

Now, Lowry couldn’t be happier in Toronto, which is why he just signed a four-year, $48 million contract with the Raptors last summer to remain with the franchise for the foreseeable future. The love and support he has received from everyone in and around the organization has meant a lot to him.

“Our fan base in Toronto is crazy; every single night we sell out,” Lowry said. “The fans come out and support us and they do a great job of just coming out, cheering loud, showing their passion and electrifying the building. … The advantage of playing in Toronto is you’re not just playing for one city, you’re playing for a country. We know that and we appreciate it. You’re not just playing for one city in Toronto, we’re playing for Vancouver, Montreal, Edmonton. You’re playing for a whole country.”

Even when the Raptors have gone on the road this season, Lowry and his teammates have noticed that there are large sections of Toronto fans throughout their opponent’s arena.

“Honestly, Canadians are all over the world and when they get a chance to support their team and show up, they do it,” Lowry said. “They’ve been doing it and we appreciate it. It’s fun when our fans are in other peoples’ buildings chanting our names.”

Just as Toronto has fallen in love with Lowry, he has fallen in love with the city.

“Right now, it’s home,” Lowry said. “Toronto is the place that supports me and the entire country of Canada is a place I call home right now. It’s the place I live and play majority of the year in so right now it’s my home.”

In the past, there was the belief that the Raptors would have trouble attracting free agents to sign there since they play in Canada and it’s different from what some players are accustomed to in the U.S. However, Lowry doesn’t believe that free agents are opposed to signing with Toronto. He thinks that the team’s winning culture will make them an attractive destination for available players.

“I think winning changes your culture and your image so if you win and you keep on winning, players are going to want to come and play,” Lowry said. “If you’re winning, they’re going to want to come and join that.”

Toronto is certainly winning, and it seems like they have as good a shot as any team to come out of the Eastern Conference this year. Lowry believes they have what it takes.

“I think we have the opportunity and the potential to go really far, but we still have to go out and do it,” Lowry said. “I can say it all I want until my face turns blue, but at the end of the day we have to go out there and tie our shoes and go do it on the hardwood.”

While other teams may be better on paper, Toronto’s chemistry and balanced attack make them very hard to beat. The Raptors currently have the league’s fourth-best offense, averaging 108.9 points per 100 possessions, which is even more impressive when you consider that they don’t have a single player averaging 20 points per game. Lowry is their leading scorer at 18.6 points.

The fact that they don’t rely on one player to lead them every night is actually a strength since their balance is hard to slow down and a new player can step up to defeat their opponent on any given night. Toronto currently has five players averaging in double figures (as well as four more players averaging between 8.0 and 9.9 points). The Raptors are one of the deepest teams in the league, as their bench scores 39.9 points per game (which ranks fifth in the NBA).

“We’ve got a good team,” Lowry said. “We got a full group. One man went down and the next guy kind of stepped up and that’s how we roll on our team. If one guy goes down, we’re not out of it. The next guy steps up and that’s what makes a good team.

“Oh and [our chemistry is very important]. We’re very strong as a unit – one through 15 – so everyone has their own voice and their own say. I think that’s one of the biggest reasons why our team is such a good team. No one is above one another. “

Coach Casey deserves a lot of credit for the team’s success, as Toronto has gotten better each year he has been on the sidelines. He played a crucial role as an assistant coach for the Dallas Mavericks during their 2011 championship run, which allowed him to land the Raptors’ head coaching job. As previously mentioned, he and Lowry didn’t get along at first, but their issues are behind them. Now, Lowry has developed strong relationships with Casey and Ujiri.

“He’s all about defense,” Lowry said of Casey. “He really wants us to always focus on defense and hang our hats on defense because, at the end of the day, that’s how you win games and that’s where he comes from. He’s just a defensive-minded guy.”

Perhaps the scariest thing about this Raptors squad is that their best basketball is likely still ahead of them. After all, center Jonas Valanciunas is just 22 years old, DeRozan is 25, Terrence Ross is 24, Patrick Patterson is 25 and Bruno Caboclo (the team’s 2014 first-round pick) is 19. Toronto still has plenty of room for growth as their young players develop, or they could use these talented young players in a trade if they want to try to land another star to put alongside Lowry.

Even if the team stands pat and doesn’t make any moves (although rumor has it that they’re looking for a big man to bolster their frontcourt), Lowry believes Valanciuas has what it takes to be a special player and perhaps even an All-Star someday.

“He is going to continue to get better,” Lowry said of Valanciunas. “He’s been very instrumental to our team. He’s been a great rim protector and he’s had more double-doubles this year than I believe any other year so far. I think he’s just going to keep developing. He’s only 22 years old, so I think he’s just going to continue to get better, figure out his game and have fun with it. Once he learns to just have fun with it, he’ll be really good… I think he has an opportunity to be an All-Star because he can be a dominant big.”

The biggest question mark on the roster is Caboclo, who is extremely raw and seems to be a few years away from contributing. He was drafted as a project so he’s going to take some time to develop, but he has a ton of potential and Lowry has been impressed with the teenager’s work ethic thus far.

“I think Bruno is going to keep getting better,” Lowry said. “He’s still so young, he’s so raw and you can’t really pinpoint what he’s going to be. That work ethic has been unbelievable though; he’s in the gym every night, two times a day and I think he has the work ethic that he needs to be a good pro.”

Lowry has accomplished his goal of being an All-Star, but he’s not satisfied just yet. Throughout the rest of the season, he wants to continue playing at an All-Star caliber level to prove that he deserved to be in the game and that this was no fluke selection.

“[I want to show] that I belong and that there is a reason that I was voted in as a starter,” Lowry said. “That’s one of the things that’s going to keep me motivated [throughout the year]. I’m always going to be motivated.”

Lowry has nothing left to prove, as he has shown over the last two years that he belongs among the NBA’s elite. Now, he’ll focus on his biggest goal: bringing a championship back to Toronto. He’s determined to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy and pop bottles with his Raptors teammates, and he’s doing whatever it takes to achieve that – even if it means transforming who he is to better himself on and off the court.

Did You Miss the All-Star Events?

We understand that this was a busy weekend for a variety of reasons. You had Valentine’s Day, so you may not have been able to sneak away from your significant other and enjoy the 2015 NBA All-Star Weekend.

We know our readers have a lot going on in their lives, and that not everyone can sit in front of their television and take in all of the All-Star festivities from New York throughout the weekend.

Fortunately, we here at Basketball Insiders have you covered. Our experts Steve Kyler, Jessica Camerato, Moke Hamilton and Tommy Beer were running around New York throughout the weekend and freezing their butts off to compile the best All-Star coverage possible.

To see all of our interviews and articles with this year’s All-Stars, Rising Stars, Dunk Contest participants and Three-Point Contest shooters, be sure to click here.

A number of the players talked about their upcoming free agency, where their team stands at the unofficial halfway point in the season, their growth as a player and much more.

We also posted recaps of every night, so you know can find out what happened in each event.

Did you miss the Rising Stars Challenge that featured young U.S.-born players facing off against young international players? Here’s our Friday night recap.

Did you miss the Skills Challenge, Three-Point Contest and Dunk Contest? Here’s our Saturday night recap.

And if you missed the main event, the 2015 NBA All-Star game, here’s our Sunday night recap so you know who played well and what happened during the event.

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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NBA Daily: The Importance of the Right Situation

D’Angelo Russell’s breakthrough this season has made some question the Lakers’ choice to trade him. Matt John explains why it was necessary for both sides.

Matt John

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In what could be the ultimate textbook example of poetic justice, D’Angelo Russell and the Brooklyn Nets eliminated the Los Angeles Lakers from playoff contention last Friday.

Russell’s 22 points and 13 assists played a vital role in Brooklyn’s victory over Los Angeles and made for yet another great output in a long line of impressive stat lines by Russell’s name. The former second overall pick is making a strong case for Most Improved Player this season, which should be fetching him plenty of money when he hits the market this summer.

His most recent performance in LA has brought up a question that’s been asked pretty much since his rise to stardom this season: Did the Lakers make a mistake when they traded Russell to the Nets?

The way he’s been playing, it sure looks like it. Russell deservedly made his first All-Star team this season, and at only 23 years old, there’s no telling how many more he’ll make. The strides he’s made as a player also could have really come in handy for what’s been a trainwreck of a season for the Lakers.

Looking at what he’s been able to do, trading Russell to Brooklyn looks to have been ill-advised on both Magic Johnson’s and Rob Pelinka’s part. However, people need to look past the hindsight bias with this trade.

Nobody has ever denied D’Angelo’s talent since he entered the NBA. What has always remained up in the air was whether he had the maturity to reach his ceiling. We’ve seen plenty of players over the years who had the talent to be something special that never put it together because their own hubris got in the way.

Names like Michael Beasley, Andrew Bynum and Eddy Curry come to mind. Early on in his career, Russell showed some red flags that he would become the NBA’s latest waste of talent.

First, there was that little cell phone incident with Nick Young. Then, his first coach Byron Scott outright questioned his work ethic as a player after Russell’s rookie season. Finally, when Magic Johnson and co. traded him to Brooklyn, Johnson praised D’Angelo’s skills but insinuated that he wasn’t a leader.

If Russell was going to reach his potential in the NBA, it seemed abundantly clear that wasn’t going to happen in Los Angeles. Plus, no matter what you think of how this season went for the Lakers, it’s not like Kyle Kuzma and opening up a ton of cap room to sign LeBron was exactly a bad return for him.

Of course things are different now.

After an injury-plagued first season in Brooklyn, Russell is averaging career highs in virtually every single category. He hasn’t just been good. He has at times looked completely unguardable.

It seems he’s a new man. This new D’Angelo Russell appears to not have gotten to where he is this season without a little help. Just a few days ago on Twitter, Russell thanked the veterans on the Nets for all that they’ve done for him this season.

This indicates that a fair share of Russell’s success came from being around the right people. Also, there’s nothing that motivates a young player than to prove the doubters wrong. When the team that drafted you second overall decides you’re not good enough for them because they think you’re not leadership material, that’s enough motivation to push a player to new heights.

It’s clear that Brooklyn’s environment was more suitable for D’Angelo Russell than Los Angeles. That’s not to say that Brooklyn is better than Los Angeles. It was just better in Russell’s case.

What’s funny about D’Angelo’s story is that it is almost completely identical to Victor Oladipo’s last season.

Much like Russell, Oladipo was selected second overall in his draft, his original team gave up on him, was extremely motivated by doubters and eventually found his stride in his fifth season to become an unlikely star.

Finally, because of his unexpected rise to the top, many question why Orlando – keep in mind, not Oklahoma City – gave up on him so early. It was simple. Even though he had demonstrated immense talent, ‘Dipo did not live up to the expectations that they had set for him.

More importantly, Victor needed the necessary stimuli to get to where he is. Remember how many people said that his trade to Indiana for Paul George would go down as one of the worst deals in NBA history? Thanks to his one year of learning under Russell Westbrook’s tutelage, Oladipo did everything in his power to prove them all wrong. There’s no guarantee that the same would have happened had he stayed with the Magic, much like there’s no guarantee that Russell would have achieved the same success had he stayed with the Lakers.

In the end, neither Orlando or Los Angeles was necessarily wrong to trade their former high lottery picks because neither was the right fit. Both Oladipo and Russell are as good as they are today because they found the best situations for them to thrive.

Now, where both Orlando and Los Angeles went wrong is not that they traded those guys, but what they traded them for. The Magic received Serge Ibaka, who was an odd acquisition and was then traded mid-season, and the Lakers basically used Russell to rid themselves of the egregious error that was Timofey Mozgov’s contract.

There is some caution to D’Angelo’s story. Just because it appears that Russell has gotten past his internal issues this season does not mean that they are permanently gone. The fact that he’s played his best basketball just as he enters free agency may be more than just coincidental.

This writer hopes that Russell’s not doing all of this just for long-term financial security and nothing else, but cases like those have happened plenty of times that it should be brought up as a possibility. If it turns out he’s playing for his legacy more than anything else, then that’s great for both him and the Nets.

It wasn’t too long ago that both Oladipo and Russell were regarded as disappointments given where they were taken in their respective drafts. Because both of their careers took turns that proved to be beneficial, they’re now living up to their hype. It’s not the traditional path to stardom, but it’s still a path nonetheless.

So, after both Oladipo’s and Russell’s success stories, it makes you wonder who will be the next player to follow in their footsteps.

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NBA Daily: Finding Julius Randle A Permanent Home

Julius Randle will be highly sought-after this offseason following his career-year in New Orleans — but where might the talented power forward end up?

Ben Nadeau

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There will be no buried lede this time: Julius Randle is about to make some serious bank this summer.

And without hesitation, he certainly deserves it.

Randle’s road to this advantageous position has been anything but a straight line, first losing his entire rookie season to a broken leg before falling in-and-out of the Los Angeles Lakers’ rotation for the following three seasons. After the acquisition of LeBron James brought the signings of JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley, the hulking forward had no choice but to bet on himself. Randle, 24, asked the Lakers to renounce his rights, wherein he signed a two-year deal worth $18 million with the New Orleans Pelicans.

At the time, it was reported that Randle turned down more lucrative offers to take New Orleans’ — now, he’s set to cash in on his slow burn approach.

See, that second year, wisely, came loaded with a player option. To Randle, he was willing to forgo the long-term security and pay for a re-do at free agency in 2019, should his on-court growth warrant such a decision. Evidently, that threshold has been met and more. In the power forward’s latest career-year rendition, he’s averaged 21 points, 8.7 rebounds, 3.1 assists on 52.3 percent from three-point range. All in all, Randle has improved in every successive season so far — but 2018-19 has quickly become his magnum opus.

Almost assuredly, Randle will opt out this offseason and sign the newer, bigger and better contract he’s rightfully earned.

While the Lakers certainly deserve scrutiny for their decision to focus on elsewhere — although the Nets’ D’Angelo Russell would like a word on that front too — this is not that piece. Instead, one of the other 29 teams is set to sign their forward of the future, benefiting immensely from Los Angeles’ ultimate impatience. Heading into July, the world may as well be Randle’s oyster — but where might his best fit be?

This, of course, is a messy exercise. There are a handful of franchises that either will be mostly capped out — Boston, Washington, Miami, Oklahoma City, etc — or don’t have a pressing need to add another power forward to the roster — Sacramento, Indiana, Chicago, Dallas, etc. In return, that leaves just about four perfect landing spots for Randle this summer.

Los Angeles Clippers

With the Clippers, their inclusion comes with the obvious whopping caveat: Should they strikeout during their foray into star-chasing free agency, adding Randle would be a more-than-acceptable pivot. As of late, Los Angeles has done a remarkable job of competing without a top-tier star in the crowded Western Conference, particularly so after Tobias Harris’ departure at the trade deadline. If Leonard, the Clippers’ reported main target in free agency, stays put in Toronto or is lured to the opposite locker room within the Staples Center, Randle is a budding option with All-Star potential. Randle would make the Clippers actively better without signing up for another season of wistfully dreaming of a big-time free agent.

In 2018-19, Los Angeles has scored 50.9 points in the paint per game, seventh-most in the NBA. One of the few teams ahead of them? Naturally, the Pelicans at 58.4 are the top dog in that realm and although Anthony Davis certainly boosts their average, Randle’s consistency has been a steady presence under the rim.

Most importantly, Randle would fill a long-term need on the roster. Future restricted free agent Ivica Zubac has remained promising since his arrival from the Lakers in February, but his sample size is still small, all things considered. While Patrick Beverley and Danilo Gallinari have performed dutifully, they’ll both be free agents and on the wrong side of 30 in 2020. Of note, Los Angeles’ most coveted assets — other than that unprotected 2021 HEAT pick — are all guards: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jerome Robinson and Landry Shamet.

Tossing Randle into that mix, especially next to the defensive-minded Harrell, would make for a mobile yin-and-yang pairing down low. Then flanked by those aforementioned young sharpshooters and you’ve got a future worth getting excited about, even without a superstar signing.

Utah Jazz

Heading into April, Utah appears to be flying under the radar once again — and that’s for a few reasons. The Jazz will reach the postseason for a third consecutive season, they’ve found their prodigal centerpiece in Donovan Mitchell and, top to bottom, the roster is well-built already. Elsewhere, Rudy Gobert is in the midst of another potential Defensive Player of the Year campaign, Joe Ingles is a two-way standout and the roster has blossomed with head coach Quin Snyder at the helm — Randle, however, might just be the lottery ticket worth buying. Should the Jazz let Ricky Rubio walk and then waive the non-guaranteed $16.9 million left on Derrick Favors’ deal, the franchise would suddenly have top-tier money to spend.

Similarly to the Clippers, Utah is not often considered a marquee free agent destination — but those times, they are a-changin’. Still, not landing Klay Thompson or Kevin Durant wouldn’t a nightmare scenario as it would clear the runway for Randle. Although the Jazz remain one of the league’s premier defensive units, their scoring efforts are often middling and an offensive rating of 109.4 (15th) reflects that. If anything, Randle is a certified bucket-getter and Utah can lean rather heavily on Mitchell to make things happen. The 6-foot-9 big man has already thrived next to one elite rim-protecting center, but teaming him up with two other up-and-coming superstars is a tantalizing thought exercise.

Brooklyn Nets

The Nets themselves are said to be chasing a white whale the offseason — the likes of Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard continue to pop up — but those free agent fever-dreams still seem at least an offseason away. In recent years, the Nets have become an incredibly successful island of misfits — so signing Randle would be the blissful cherry on top of it all. Understandably, Randle and Russell are buddies from their Lakers days and Brooklyn has an absolutely glaring need at power forward. Ideally, Randle would be a stretch option already — 0.9 made three-pointers per game on 33.3 percent, a career-best mark — but the Nets have created a strong portfolio of development since bringing head coach Kenny Atkinson on in 2016. In fact, Brook Lopez — another one of Randle’s forgotten teammates last season — turned into a three-point maestro almost overnight, after seemingly ignoring the line for the first eight years of his career.

If they can transform Joe Harris from a scrap heap shooter to a three-point champion in two years, the Nets can certainly get Randle to hit at least the league average from deep.

Regardless, the Nets have hit home runs with nearly every signing in the Sean Marks era — but it’s time to get serious. Now all they need is a bullish, reliable power forward to wrap their painful three-year rebuild together with a neat bow. Currently, veteran extraordinaire DeMarre Carroll is out of a contract this summer, while Rondae Hollis-Jefferson will hit restricted free agency. Rodions Kurucs, energetic as he may be, has not proven to be the long-term answer in the frontcourt and the speedy rookie seems better suited to riveting one-man fastbreaks. With Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, Caris LeVert and Russell holding down the guard spots and Jarrett Allen coming into his own at center, the Nets shouldn’t be afraid to chase Randle’s looming athletic stature (and his even brighter potential) come July.

New Orleans Pelicans

Last but not least, we’d be remiss not to mention the Pelicans.

This is an issue most certainly complicated by the status of Anthony Davis — but if you’re hitting the reset button on a perennially disappointing franchise, Randle’s not a bad place to start from scratch.

Davis’ midseason trade request managed to torpedo both New Orleans and Los Angeles’ playoff hopes rather remarkably — but Randle, to his credit, has just kept on trucking. Last week, Randle exploded in a loss to Portland, dropping a career-high 45 points, plus 11 rebounds and six assists. Long before this drama even started, Randle even managed to notch his first-ever triple-double during a November victory over San Antonio. At just 24 years old, that’s undoubtedly something worth betting on.

With Davis’ presumed exit already on the cards — and Nikola Mirotic’s swift departure at the trade deadline — Randle is suddenly the Pelicans’ most talented frontcourt asset, bar none. Even if they don’t recoup complete value for Davis, they’ll have the money to spend big in free agency this summertime. Growing by the game, Randle’s self-gamble has paid off in a remarkable way as he’s gone from castaway to a legitimate near-max contract contender in the span of a year.

And he did all that in New Orleans.

Needless to say, Randle should be a priority for the rebuilding Pelicans the moment he (presumably) opts out. This time, however, the power forward won’t come so cheaply. After some career-scarring bumps and bruises along the way, Randle has made good on his effortless potential — finally, he’ll get to reap what he’s sown. In October, Randle will head into his sixth NBA season and at long last, wherever he may be, he’ll finally have a place to call home.

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NBA Daily: Fixing the Chicago Bulls

Shane Rhodes continues Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series with a breakdown of the Chicago Bulls.

Shane Rhodes

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With some 10-odd games left in the 2018-19 NBA regular season, Basketball Insiders has begun its annual “Fixing” series. So far, we have covered the Cleveland Cavaliers and New York Knicks. Today, we’ll be looking at the Chicago Bulls.

It’s been nearly two years since Chicago kicked off their rebuild with the draft-night trade of Jimmy Butler. In the almost two seasons since, the Bulls have managed an awful — or awesome, depending on who you ask — 48-107 record. Yet, there have been some promising developments, acquisitions and draft selections in Chicago, and the team may be closer to relevancy than most would think.

That being said, there are still some issues that need to be sorted out in order for them to get there. As with any team, the upcoming draft and free agency period could prove crucial to them; the difference between a leap forward or regression.

So, what have the Bulls gotten right or wrong this season, and where do they go from here?

What is Working

Despite an injury that kept him out for an early portion of the season, Lauri Markkanen has continued to show that he can be an impact player on the court and is a major building block for the Bulls.

The Finnish power forward has posted an impressive 18.9 points and nine rebounds per game this season — both increased from his rookie season — while shooting 43.7 percent from the floor and 36.5 percent from three-point range. Markkanen has continued to improve throughout the season and, recently, has flashed a superstar potential. February saw the best stretch of Markkanen’s career; he averaged 26 points, 12.2 rebounds and shot 48.6 percent from the floor.

He has still struggled at times, specifically on the defensive end, but if Markkanen can reach that level of dominance on a more consistent basis, he could find himself in elite company going forward.

Another positive has been Zach LaVine who, like Markkanen, has had a career year in the first of the four-year, near $80 million deal he signed last offseason. LaVine has established himself as the Bulls’ leader on the floor and, in doing so, has set a new career high in points (23.7), rebounds (4.7), assists (4.5) and field goal percentage (46.7 percent). If LaVine and Markkanen can continue to improve in tandem, the two could prove quite the offensive powerhouse in future seasons.

There have been other bright spots from an otherwise dreary season in Chicago; Jim Boylen, after a rough start, has turned things around as of late; while he may not play again this season after thumb surgery in February, Wendell Carter Jr. flashed the ability that made him the seventh overall selection in the draft a season ago; deadline-acquisition Otto Porter has provided another young, scoring wing that the Bulls desperately needed and could make use of going forward; Ryan Arcidiacano, a two-way player for the Bulls last season, earned a standard contract with the team and has provided some big-time energy off the bench ala T.J. McConnel.

More could be said about the Bulls but, to keep it simple: the future is starting to look bright in Chicago.

What Needs to Change

The future may be bright, but the Bulls are still a ways away from it. They are on the up, certainly, but there are still some issues that need to be sorted out, both at a basketball level and with their personnel.

Perhaps the Bulls’ most pressing issue is their defensive inability. According to NBA Stats, Chicago has thus far posted the sixth worst defensive rating (112.4) in the NBA this season. They sit above only the Atlanta Hawks (112.5), Washington Wizards (112.6), New York Knicks (113), Phoenix Suns (113.4) and Cleveland Cavaliers (116), teams that most would consider far worse off than the Bulls.

Part of the problem has been a lack of lineup consistency; Markkanen, LaVine, Carter and others have all missed time at one point or another due to injury. But, on some nights, there is an apparent lack of effort from the Bulls, and that will have to change if they ever want to pull themselves out of the NBA basement.

The future of Kris Dunn is another concern. Another piece involved in the Jimmy Butler trade, Dunn impressed in his first season in Chicago, but has taken a step back in year two with the team. There have been stretches where the former Providence product has seemed too reserved, rather than the aggressor that enabled his success a season ago. That regression isn’t all on him — Dunn’s role with the team, and in head coach Jim Boylen’s offensive system has continued to evolve throughout the season — but Dunn must improve if the team is to.

And, with a guard-loaded draft on the horizon, the Bulls will have to make a decision on Dunn as well; whether or not Dunn has secured a spot in their vision of the future for Chicago could have a drastic effect on the Bulls’ draft strategy come June.

Focus Area: The Draft

As of right now, the Bulls hold the fourth worst record in the NBA and would have just a 12.5 percent chance of landing the top pick.

Chicago could go a number of different ways depending on whether they end up there, stick at four, or fall somewhere in between (or out of the top four altogether). But, obviously, if the Bulls have the opportunity the grab Zion Williamson, they take him. The future prospects are so high and the upside so great that you just can’t not take him (barring injury, anyway), regardless of how he would fit within the current roster construction. Williamson has the potential to ascend to that upper echelon level of NBA elite that few players — the LeBron James’, Kevin Durant’s and Giannis Antetonkoumpo’s of the world — reach and so, if you can, you make the roster fit around him, not the other way around.

Assuming they don’t luck out, however, a large part of their strategy should revolve around the future of Porter and Dunn and how they believe their futures align with the future of the team. In a draft loaded with high-upside wings and point-guard type players, the Bulls must leave no stone unturned in order to get the best player to help expedite their rebuild.

Porter, currently out due to injury, had performed well in his brief, post-trade deadline stint with the team — in 15 games, Porter averaged 17.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.7 assists and shot 48.8 percent from three-point range on over five shots per game — but is still potentially due more than $55 million over the next two seasons. Should they choose to move him in the offseason, an abundance of minutes would be made available on the wing, minutes that could almost certainly be eaten up by a number of different prospects: R.J. Barrett, Jarrett Culver, Cam Reddish, DeAndre Hunter, etc.

Dunn, meanwhile, has flashed his ability but, ultimately, has taken a step back this season. Should Chicago believe him incapable of running their offense in the future, a number of different point guard prospects sit near the top of this class, including Barrett, Ja Morant, Darius Garland and others.

Focus Area: Free Agency

While they may try, the Bulls probably won’t have much luck in free agency. As for their own free agents, Robin Lopez is on an expiring contract and may not return next season, while Arcidiacano and guard Wayne Seldon will enter restricted free agency come the end of the regular season. Other than that, the entire roster is under contract through at least next season.

Replacing Lopez (or re-signing him, unlikely as that would seem) is likely somewhere near the top of general manager Gar Forman’s to-do list. Not only did Lopez provide a stable, veteran presence in the locker room, but he provided valuable minutes behind Markkanen and Carter in the front-court. Likewise, Forman could look to add another forward to play behind Porter or, should they look to trade him, to split time with rookie Chandler Hutchison.

Whether they draft a point guard for the future or retain Dunn, a veteran backup guard would also seem a likely option for the Bulls in free agency. A steady hand at such a crucial position could prove invaluable and calming for Dunn or whatever young players the Bulls acquire in the coming months.

The Bulls have been bad the last two seasons, there is no other way to put it. But, for the organization and the fans, there is light at the end of the tunnel. It may not be next season, but the Bulls are certainly on the up. They still have some things to sort out but, if they continue to play their cards right, they could find themselves back in the thick of Eastern Conference contention soon enough

Also, make sure to keep on the lookout for the rest of Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series.

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