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NBA AM: Raptors Have To Stay The Course

The Toronto Raptors have limited options if they do not keep their core intact in free agency.

Steve Kyler

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Raptors Face Same Issues As The Clippers

When the LA Clippers were eliminated from the postseason we chronicled in this space why blowing up the team likely wasn’t in the future for Doc Rivers and his team. For many of the same reasons, the Toronto Raptors are just as unlikely to tear down what they have built. Here is a look at each of the Raptors’ pressing decisions and what’s the likely outcome for each:

No Real Cap Space

Unfortunately for teams like the Raptors, the 2017-18 salary cap does not look to be increasing nearly as much as teams expected last year. According to our own Eric Pincus, the current league projections peg the cap next year to clock in around $101 million; which is down about $2 million from the $103 million expected last year. The drop in the salary cap has more to do with how aggressively teams spent money this year than anything related to revenue.

A lower cap also means a lower Luxury Tax line, which projects to come in around $121 million. That becomes a significant number to the Raptors as they would likely pay a hefty luxury tax bill if they simply paid the top tier salary each of their key free agents could likely command.

As things stand today the Raptors have $76.81 million in salary committed for next season, which is not inclusive of their pending free agents. So even if the Raptors said no thank you to all of their free agents, they would enter the off-season with $24.188 million in cap space. Said differently, that’s not even room for one max free agent.

Each of the Raptors’ free agents will have a cap hold on their books until signed to a new deal or renounced. Forward Serge Ibaka carries the biggest placeholder with $18.4 million. Point guard Kyle Lowry’s hold is $18 million. Patrick Patterson’s hold is $11.5 million with P.J. Tucker coming in with a $10.1 million hold.

All in, the Raptors have $76.81 million in committed salary and $58 million in cap holds for a total of $134.81 million, not including draft related salaries.

Kyle Lowry

As much as people want to speculate about the future landing spot for Lowry, the likely outcome of the situation is he re-signs in Toronto on a whopper of a contract.

A full maximum deal for Lowry would be five-years and $201 million to remain in Toronto. If Lowry leaves for another team, he’d be looking at a max salary of four years and just at $151 million. On the surface that’s seems like a hefty number for a player that’s had key injuries over the last two years, however, the big question isn’t whether Lowry is worth the money, it’s what other choice do the Raptors have?

The Clippers face the same issue with their pending free agent, Chris Paul. They can either pay their own player or try to replace him in free agency with a player far lower on the talent scale than a multi-time All-Star.

It’s true that Lowry will be 31 years old when he inks his new deal. It’s also true that a five-year maximum deal means he’d be 36 and owed north of $45 million in its final year. That’s somewhat scary for any team, but what choice do the Raptors have?

Lowry has been a huge part of the Raptors return to relevance in the East and was a major reason DeMar DeRozan opted to return to the Raptors last summer.

There is room to negotiate for the Raptors, as their maximum offer is $50 million more than any other team if Lowry and the Raptors agree on a partial guarantee in that fifth and final year, it’s not hard to imagine them making a deal. But you should also be prepared for Lowry to want a no-trade clause if he leaves guaranteed money on the table.

Serge Ibaka

The Raptors gave up a lot of value to obtain Serge Ibaka at the trade deadline. As many people will tell you, Raptors president Masai Ujiri had been after Ibaka in trade for some time. Most in NBA circles believe that Ibaka made it clear to the Magic the only team he wanted to land with was Toronto, and it’s likely why other teams in the hunt for him passed on giving big assets.

League sources said that a new deal for Ibaka is basically done and that it will start in the $20 million range. It’s possible someone surfaces on July 1 with a better offer, but given Ibaka’s age and rocky season in Orlando, that seems unlikely.

If the Raptors can get a deal down near $20 million, that might make the decision a lot easier. If Ibaka pushes for more, then things get dicey. Ibaka is 27 years old now, so making a four-year commitment reasonable. The issue for the Raptors is how comfortable they are with the state of Ibaka’s knees over the long-term.

Given how things have played out with DeMarre Carroll, if the Raptors back away, that would be the reason why.

Patrick Patterson

As good as Patrick Patterson has been for the Raptors, he may be priced too high if they can reach deals with Lowry and Ibaka. Sources close to the situation say that both Patterson and the Raptors would like the relationship to continue, but it’s believed Patterson is going to get some serious interest early in free agency as teams try to poach a pretty solid and versatile front court player.

This is Patterson’s time to get a major payday, and as much as he has enjoyed and chronicled his time in Toronto, he may simply become too expensive to retain if the Raptors have to pay top dollar to others.

If, by some chance, the Raptors lose out on Ibaka, returning Patterson would become a higher priority, but it’s likely that the Raptors are losing Patterson to another team unless they find a trade partner for someone like DeMarre Carroll, which seems unlikely.

P.J. Tucker

P.J Tucker has said he’d like to be back with the Raptors and his price tag might be reasonable enough to work even if the Raptors pay out big money to Lowry and Ibaka. Tucker was acquired at the deadline more as a playoff piece, but sources close to the situation say keeping him is a very real option.

Tucker is in line for a hefty raise from his current $5.3 million salary. The question becomes how much more? Tucker has a $10.1 million cap hold, and that seems to be the right range for a utility defender with Tucker’s reputation. Given that the Raptors can exceed the salary cap to retain him, they wouldn’t get a better player than Tucker for an exception, so the question becomes how much luxury tax would the Raptors pay to keep a player they value a great deal?

Again, the situation becomes easier if the Raptors can off-load a bigger contract that no longer fits the plan going forward, and given how many interesting young guys the Raptors have on the roster, can they leverage one of them and a future draft pick to get some breathing room under the tax line?

Like Patterson, if the Raptors miss on Ibaka or Lowry, then retaining Tucker becomes a much easier and likely decision.

Trades

The answer to many of the Raptors’ salary cap problems is moving off a contract or two.

As much as Jonas Valanciunas has meant to the Raptors, moving his $15.46 million salary would solve more problems for the future than he does as a player. The same is true of DeMarre Carroll’s $14.8 million.

There has already been talk in NBA circles that the Raptors would be open to moving one or both to make re-signing their own guys easier. However, moving off money in the NBA never comes cheap and would likely cost the Raptors not only a promising young guy like Norman Powell, Jakob Poeltl or Delon Wright, it likely would cost future draft picks.

The good news for the Raptors is that they don’t necessarily have to make a move in July, as they could also try and lower a possible luxury tax bill closer to the trade deadline next February, but it’s far easier to move money in the summer than in-season.

Assuming the Raptors keep Lowry and Ibaka at the salaries expected and pass on Patterson and Tucker, they would be looking at a starting payroll of $134.94 million. That’s $13.94 million over the tax line and a tax bill of $26.116 million. All in, that’s a $161 million payroll cost if the Raptors can’t offload some cap money.

Moving Valanciunas and or Carroll would get them under the tax line. If the Raptors could find a way to move both, they could keep Tucker and or Patterson and avoid luxury tax, too.

As much as some want to talk about dismantling the Raptors, the truth of the situation is they don’t have the means to replace the players they have, giving them little choice but to go all on re-signing at least Lowry and Ibaka.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @MikeAScotto, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @SusanBible@TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton, @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @CodyTaylorNBA, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_ and @Ben__Nadeau.

Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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NBA Daily: Jaren Jackson Jr. Adapting As He Goes

Memphis Grizzlies rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. has put on a show this summer. Spencer Davies dives into what’s been behind the success and how it bodes well for the future.

Spencer Davies

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Meeting Jaren Jackson Jr. for the first time, you won’t find an ounce of doubt in him.

Instead, you’ll be introduced to a high-spirited man oozing with charisma and an obvious love for the game of basketball, which likely factored into why the Memphis Grizzlies were so keen on taking him with the fourth overall pick in the NBA Draft.

Then there’s the big reason—quite literally—that came into play. Standing at 6-foot-11 with over a 7-foot-5 wingspan and hands that are the size of most people’s heads, Jackson Jr. is the term “matchup problem” personified.

We’re seeing the evidence in front of our very eyes already. In eight summer league games between Utah and Las Vegas, the versatile Jackson Jr. is averaging 12.9 points and seven rebounds. He is shooting 41.3 percent from the field and has knocked down half of his attempts (14-for-28) from beyond the arc.

It didn’t take long for the JJJ bandwagon to get established. In his first taste of NBA action against the Atlanta Hawks in Salt Lake City, he scored 29 points and cashed in on eight triples to kick off July. He hasn’t tried more than four perimeter shots since then, but he’s been plenty busy doing other things just as important on the floor.

“I think I’m surprised by how well I’ve been doing,” a smiling, candid Jackson Jr. said. “You’re surprised at yourself sometimes, especially like the first game.”

You can look at these aforementioned offensive stats and take them with a grain of salt since the level of competition is a step below what the real professional ranks bring to the table. However, seeing the anticipation, reaction time, and natural awareness on the defensive end makes the lengthy forward a true gem of a prospect.

In all but one game thus far, Jackson Jr. has recorded multiple rejections every time he’s stepped foot on the court, including two occasions where he swatted four shots. It’s added up to an average of 3.3 blocks per contest to this point.

So since the outside potential, the athleticism and the rim protection are all there, what else is there to hone in on?

“I think just my aggressiveness,” Jackson Jr. said. “Making sure I play tougher, go harder longer. And my shooting…kind of—make sure I get my form right and all that stuff.”

Adjusting to a new pace at the next level can take some time. It depends on how fast of a learner a player is and how quickly that person can apply that knowledge in a game setting. Jackson Jr. thinks he’s started to pick it up as he’s gone along.

“It’s getting a lot better,” he said. “It’s a lot more spacing so it’s pretty cool. But they’re definitely stronger and faster players, so you have to adapt to that.”

Thanks to contributions from Jackson Jr.—in addition to Jevon Carter and Kobi Simmons—the Grizzlies have had loads of success in Sin City. They are one of the final four teams standing as summer league play wraps up in a day.

Whether the result goes in the favor of Memphis or not, the last couple of weeks in Las Vegas have impacted Jackson Jr. in a positive manner in more ways than one as a student of the game—and he’ll be better off because of it.

“It’s been cool,” Jackson Jr. said. “It’s a lot of stuff going on. It seems like more of an event when you’re here as far as watching it on TV over the years. You get like a new historic player sitting on the sideline every day talking to people. You meet people in your hotel. Bunch of stuff like that. It’s been a good experience just having everybody here before we all leave and go to our own cities.

“I kinda went into it [with a] clear head. I didn’t really didn’t want to put too much into it ‘cause I’m learning everything new. Everything is new. Being a rookie, everything’s gonna be a new thing.”

As the youngest player in his draft class at 18 years old, Jackson Jr. has a ways to go to familiarize himself with the NBA.

But by the looks of things, the NBA had better prepare to familiarize itself with him as well.

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NBA Daily: Antonio Blakeney Hoping For A Big 2nd Year

After an impressive rookie stint, Antonio Blakeney gives us a tale of hope and potential.

David Yapkowitz

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The Chicago Bulls are in the midst of a rebuilding project. This summer, they held on to one of their key young players in Zach LaVine and drafted two guys in Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchinson whom they’re hoping can be part of that rebuild.

But there might be one player on the roster already who could play a big role in the team’s future. A year ago, Antonio Blakeney used a big summer league performance in Las Vegas to earn a two-way contract with the Bulls.

This time around, with his NBA future a little more secure, he’s working on becoming more familiar with the team.

“Just learning and getting better,” Blakeney told Basketball Insiders his goals are. “Obviously being able to play through my mistakes, go out here and learn and get familiar with the coaching staff. Keep building our relationship with the coaches and stuff.”

Blakeney went undrafted last summer after declaring for the draft following two years at LSU. He lit up Las Vegas to the tune of 16.8 points in four games before the Bulls signed him. Under the two-way contract, he split time between Chicago and the Windy City Bulls, their G-League affiliate.

His summer success carried over to the G-League where he exploded on the scene averaging 32 points per game and being named the G-League Rookie of the Year. Being shuffled back and forth between leagues was a bit of an adjustment for Blakeney, but it was an experience he ended up learning a lot from.

“It was an up and down roller coaster from the NBA to the G-League and stuff like that. Starting in summer league, going to the big team, going to camp, preseason games and going to the G-League. It was an up and down experience,” Blakeney said.

“Overall, it was great. I think I learned a lot in the G-League. A lot of rookies play in the G-League now. Going down there it’s kind of tough. For some guys, the travel is different. It’s just staying motivated and working hard.”

It’s no secret that Blakeney can put up points in a hurry, as he was the Tigers third-leading scorer his freshman year behind Ben Simmons and Keith Hornsby with 12.6 points per game. His sophomore year, he led the Tigers in scoring with 17.2 points.

He knows though that he’ll have to be able to do other things if he wants to stick in the NBA. While he’s been lighting up the stat sheet scoring wise this summer in Vegas, he’s been working on other aspects of his game. He’s been charged by the Bulls summer league coaching staff with initiating the offense.

“Obviously I got to be a combo. I got to be able to move over to the one and make plays and stuff like that. So just working on making that simple play,” Blakeney said. “Obviously, I’m a natural scorer so I’m not really a pass-first guy, but I’m more when the simple play presents itself, to make it.”

While his future may be more secure, the majority of the guys in summer league don’t have that luxury. The two-way contract Blakeney signed last summer was for two years and based on his play this summer, it would be shocking to see the Bulls let him go.

For his summer teammates who don’t have that security, he understands what they’re going through. Having been in that situation a year ago, he’s got plenty of advice for them.

“Just go work hard, learn from the veteran guys, but compete,” Blakeney said. “Go at the guys that’s supposed to be the best. If you think you’re that good, go at guys. Just compete, that’s the main thing I did, I just competed.”

And although nothing is ever guaranteed in the NBA, especially regular rotation minutes, Blakeney is confident that he can be a regular contributor. The league is filled with guys who come off the bench and provide instant offense. He knows if, given the opportunity, he can do that too.

“I think next season my goal is to try to crack the rotation and just be a guy who brings energy off the bench,” Blakeney said. “I can get buckets fast, get it going, bring energy and get buckets off the bench, just do my thing. That’s something that in my young career I’m trying to get in to.”

He’s certainly off to a good start.

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Mitchell Robinson May Prove Competence of Scott Perry

Scott Perry is still fairly new on the job, but it’s impossible to argue with the early returns.

Moke Hamilton

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With some eye-popping performances, the neophyte simultaneously caught the attention of the New York Knicks and the observing eyes in Las Vegas.

Sure, merely a few weeks ago, he was largely considered an unknown quantity, but after an impressive stint at the Vegas Summer League, we all know his name.

It’s Mitchell Robinson.

Like his fellow rookie Kevin Knox, in short order, Robinson has caused quite a bit of a stir.

For Scotty Perry, though, he’s more than just another promising prospect; he’s the latest entry on the list of things that the newly hired general manager has gotten right. 

As players like Brook Lopez and Isaiah Thomas accept contracts worth barely enough to buy LeBron James lunch, the predictions of a “nuclear winter” for NBA free agents seem to have mostly come to fruition.

For the past two summers, general managers and team executives have spent their money as if it were on fire, and as a result, we’ve seen many of the league’s teams watch their flexibility go up in smoke.

Since hiring Perry, the Knicks have done the opposite.

Time and time again, the message tossed around internally at Penn Plaza has mirrored what we’ve been told publicly—the Knicks believe they will have a serious shot at signing a marquee free agent in 2019 and have put their emphasis on shedding salary to the best of their abilities.

It took all of one summer league game for us to learn that the club had signed Robinson to a team-friendly four-year contract. According to the New York Post, the deal is only guaranteed for three years and $4.8 million. If Robinson comes anywhere near the productivity he showed in those few performances, though, the value and return on investment will be remarkably high.

If you’re keeping count, let the record fairly reflect that among Perry’s major moves for the Knicks have been trading Carmelo Anthony, hiring David Fizdale, drafting Kevin Knox and Robinson, and strategically managing his cap situation so that he could offer Robinson a contract that was so advantageous to the Knicks that some believe Robinson fired his agent as a result.

With the Knicks, Robinson will have to earn playing time and beat out Enes Kanter and Luke Kornet for minutes, but Kanter isn’t considered to be a core member for the club’s future and Kornet hasn’t exactly appeared to be the next coming of Dwight Howard, so for the rebuilding Knicks, the task doesn’t appear that difficult.

What this all means in the end is that Knox and Robinson will combine to earn just $5.4 million next season. Yet together, they’ll carry the hopes of a billion dollar franchise on their backs.

Still, you don’t need to be able to count to a billion to understand that the ROI on Robinson could be exceptional. And it’s those crafty acquisitions that could help the Knicks maintain the space they’ll need to bring a superstar to Gotham City.

Of course, time will tell, but on the continuum of unknown quantity to certain conclusion, the best you can hope for is a positive sign. Robinson, like Knox, has given us over a dozen.

Truth be told, Perry has, too. And when you realize that the selection that the club used to grab Robinson was a critical piece of the trade that sent Carmelo Anthony to Oklahoma City—a trade executed by Perry—that statement becomes all the more credible.

* * * * * *

It’s been quite some time since the Knicks had two rookies who opened eyes the way Knox and Robinson have. What’s been most pleasing about the two, however, have been the ways in which they complement one another on the basketball court.

In Vegas, Knox has impressed mostly with what he’s done on the ball, while Robinson has for what he’s accomplished off of it. The instincts and timing that Robinson has in conjunction with his athleticism are quite reminiscent of Marcus Camby.

In hindsight, we can fairly proclaim an in-prime Camby to have been ahead of his time. Camby was the prototype to which players like Tyson Chandler and DeAndre Jordan aspired.

As a big man, Camby was one of the few players in the NBA who could capably guard all five positions on the basketball court and wasn’t at the mercy of an opposing point guard when switched out on a pick-and-roll. Nobody closed space from the weakside better than Camby, and few centers in the league were able to run out and contest jumpers like him. His nimbleness and second jump ability were remarkable for a man his size, and it didn’t take long for him to find his niche playing alongside more offensively talented players such as Allan Houston, Latrell Sprewell and Larry Johnson.

We don’t know if Robinson himself will succeed in the NBA, but we do know that his archetype is the kind that does. So much of what gets young players drafted and paid in the NBA is about physics. If a guy can do one or two things better than other players his size, the job of his coaches and front office is to find ways to maximize those advantages and fit them within a team concept to exploit inferior players at his position.

It truly isn’t rocket science. When you think back even over the course of recent history, ask yourself how long it took for the world to recognize and extol the virtues of the likes of LeBron James, Dwight Howard, Anthony Davis and even Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons. While each representing an extreme case, the truly impactful players are able to utilize their gifts to dominate and can usually do so from day one. Certainly, they can’t do it everyday, but the potential is there and it’s evident from jump.

The most you’re gonna get from summer league is a young stud showing you that he has some exploitable advantage over his competitors. For Knox, it’s his combination of ranginess and a better than advertised nose for the ball. For Robinson, it’s the incredible agility that an extended absence from the game doesn’t seem to have blunted.

The concept of exploitable advantage is where the Golden State Warriors have run circles around the rest of the league. And although an extreme example, they are the specimen of what a team full of those types look like.

So no, while you can’t conclude that Robinson is going to end up being anything near the player that Marcus Camby was, what you can conclude is that he has the physical gifts to be effective. Whether he ends up fulfilling that potential will ultimately boil down to what Robinson has inside of him and what David Fizdale is able to do to bring it out.

Rest assured, though, to this point, Scott Perry has certainly done his job. That much is a fact.

* * * * * *

Of all words in the English language, “irony” and its adjective (“ironic”) are among those that are most often misused—irony is often confused with coincidence.

In its simplest term, irony is meant to describe a situation where there’s an occurrence that’s the opposite of what should have been expected.

In other words, back in 2015, just a few weeks after Carmelo Anthony dropped a career-high 62 points on the Charlotte Hornets at Madison Square Garden, a reporter asked him whether it was “ironic” that the Hornets also yielded 61 points to his buddy LeBron James in Miami.

That wasn’t ironic. That was just Charlotte.

On the other hand, irony was more along the lines of the Denver Nuggets seemingly becoming a better and more cohesive team after Anthony’s talents had been traded to New York. He was the team’s best player and has since proven to be a surefire Hall of Famer, yet they improved without him.

One could argue it to be ironic that Kyrie Irving welcomed a trade to the Boston Celtics after spending years battling them, or that fans of the Los Angeles Lakers have actually begun calling LeBron James the King of LA while Kobe Bryant still flies in a helicopter over Orange County.

Most appropriately, though, for a fan of the New York Knicks, irony is knowing that, despite Kristaps Porzingis being on the shelf and the Knicks not signing or trading for any big named player, there’s probably more reason to be optimistic about the club’s future than there has been in recent memory.

Yea. That’s ironic. The Knicks have always been looking for their savior—before Carmelo Anthony, it was Stephon Marbury. Infinite fanfare and declarations of grandeur. All for naught. In it all, who would have thought that the franchise’s savior could end up being Scott Perry?

Like Knox and Robinson, it’s still a bit early to certainly declare that Perry is who will lead the Knicks from the abyss.

But just like Knox and Robinson, to this point, it’d be quite difficult to argue with the early returns.

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