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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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Pelicans Role Players are Key to Success

The supporting cast in New Orleans is a big part of their playoff surge, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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The New Orleans Pelicans have taken a commanding 3-0 lead in their first-round playoff series again the Portland Trail Blazers. While surprising to some, the Pelicans only finished one game behind the Blazers in the standings. The Pelicans have the best player in the series in Anthony Davis and the defensive duo of Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday have stifled Portland’s backcourt.

The truth is, the Pelicans have been a good team all season long. A lot of attention and recognition has been given to Davis, Rondo and Holiday this season and playoffs, and rightfully so. But New Orleans wouldn’t be where they are without the important contributions of some of their role players.

Take E’Twaun Moore, for example. Moore bounced around the NBA early in his career, with stops in Boston, Orlando and Chicago before finding long-term stability contract wise with the Pelicans. He’s primarily been a bench player with them before this season, his second in New Orleans, his first as a full-time starter.

He’s given the Pelicans a huge boost, especially from the three-point line. He’s put up 12.5 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting from the field, both career-highs. He’s shooting 42.5 percent from three-point range.

“I think it’s just our style of play,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “We play fast and open. Coach [Gentry] gives us a lot of freedom, a lot of confidence. That’s why my game is up, my shooting is up.”

It’s not just offensively though. Moore has always been one of the more underrated defensive guards in the league. Paired up alongside Rondo and Holiday, the trio form a solid wing defensive unit. They’re a big reason for Portland’s offensive struggles.

Moore is the type of role player that every playoff contender needs to succeed. He knows that his role may change from game to game. Some nights he may be asked to score a little more. Other nights his defense is going to be called upon. Whatever it may be, he’s always ready to do what’s asked of him.

“I bring the energy. I bring a spark,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “It’s knocking down shots, playing defense, getting out in transition. Just trying to be a spark.”

The Pelicans bench has also been a huge factor all season long. Their depth took a major hit early in the season with the injury to Solomon Hill. Hill has since returned to the lineup, but his absence paved the way for other players such as Darius Miller to step up.

This is Miller’s second stint with the Pelicans after spending two years overseas. Drafted 46th overall in 2012, he didn’t play much his first three years in the NBA. In 2014, he was cut by the Pelicans only about a month into the season. This year was different, he was thrown into the rotation from the get-go.

“This is a huge opportunity,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I just come in and try to work every day, try to get better every day. My teammates have done a great job of putting me in situations where I can be successful.”

Miller has given the Pelicans a capable stretch four in the second unit who can slide over to small forward if need be. He’s averaging a career-best 7.8 points per game, the most out of any of New Orleans’ reserves. He’s their best three-point shooter off the bench, connecting on 41.1 percent of his long-range attempts.

While he acknowledges that he’s enjoying his best season yet as an NBA player, he’s quick to praise his teammates for allowing him to flourish.

“I just try to bring a spark off the bench. I come in and try to knock some shots down,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “My teammates do a great job of finding me when I’m open, I just try and knock down shots and compete.”

Sometimes time away from the NBA helps players grow and mature. The NBA game is fast paced and it can take awhile to get used to it. While some players have begun to use the G-League as a means of preparing for the league, Miller took an alternate route of heading to Germany.

For him, it’s a big reason why he’s been able to make an easier transition back to the NBA. His contract for next season is non-guaranteed, but he’s probably done enough to warrant the Pelicans keeping him around. He’s a much different and much-improved player. If not, he’s sure to draw interest from other teams.

“It was a lot to learn for me personally,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I had to learn a lot of different things like how to take care of my body, how to manage my time, a whole bunch of stuff like that. The time overseas really helped me to mature and grow up and learn a few things.”

These Pelicans have most certainly turned quite a few heads since the playoffs began. We shouldn’t deal too much with hypotheticals, but it’s interesting to wonder what this team’s ceiling would’ve been had DeMarcus Cousins not been lost for the season due to injury.

This is a confident bunch, however. They’ve beaten both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets during the regular season. They’ve already shattered a lot of expert predictions with their performance in the first-round. The Pelicans feel like they can hang with anyone out West.

“As far as we want to go,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I feel like we’ve competed with all the best teams in the league this whole season. We just got to come out, stay focused and do what we do.”

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Is LeBron Enough For Cavs To Get Through The East?

Cleveland’s offense has struggled through the first two games of the playoffs. Can the four-time MVP consistently bail them out? Spencer Davies writes.

Spencer Davies

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After a less-than-encouraging series opener versus the Indiana Pacers, LeBron James responded emphatically and led the Cleveland Cavaliers to a bounce back 100-97 victory to even things up at one game apiece.

Scoring the first 13 points of the game itself, The King was a one-man wrecking crew out of the gate and carried that momentum throughout all four quarters of Game 2. His 46 points were James’ second-highest scoring mark between the regular season and the playoffs. In addition, he shot above 70 percent from the field for the sixth time this year.

The four-time MVP pulled down 12 rebounds total, and but all but one of those boards were defensive—the most he’s had since Saint Patrick’s Day in Chicago a month ago.

What James did was another classic instance where LeBron reminds us that through all the injuries, drama, and on-court issues, whatever team he’s on always has a chance to go all the way. But having said all of that—can the Cavaliers realistically depend on that kind of spectacular effort for the rest of the postseason? It’s a fair question.

Kevin Love is a solid secondary go-to guy, but he’s struggled to find his rhythm in the first two games. He’s done a solid job defensively between both, but he’s getting banged up and is dealing with knocked knees and a reported torn thumb ligament in the same hand he broke earlier in the season.

Love has admitted that he’d like more post touches instead of strictly hanging out on the perimeter, but it’s on him to demand the ball more and he knows it. But finding that flow can be challenging when James has it going and is in all-out attack mode.

Kyle Korver came to the rescue for Cleveland as the only shooter that consistently converted on open looks. Outside of those three, and maybe J.R. Smith, really, there hasn’t been a tangible threat that’s a part of the offense during this series.

We all pondered whether or not the “new guys” would be able to step up when their respective numbers were called. So far, that hasn’t been the case for the most part.

Jordan Clarkson looks rushed with tunnel vision. Rodney Hood has had good body language out there, but seems reluctant to shoot off dribble hand-offs and is second-guessing what he wants to do. The hustle and effort from Larry Nance Jr. is obvious, but he’s also a good bet to get into foul trouble. Plus, he’s had some struggles on an island against Pacer guards.

As for George Hill, the good news is the impact on the floor just based on his mere presence on both ends (game-high +16 on Wednesday), but he hasn’t really done any scoring and fouled out of Game 2.

Maybe these things change on the road, who knows. But those four, the rest of the rotation, absolutely have to step up in order for the Cavaliers to win this series and fend off this hungry Indiana group, which brings us to another point.

Let’s not forget, the offensive issues aren’t simply because of themselves. After all, the Cavs were a team that had little trouble scoring the basketball in the regular season, so give a ton of credit to the Pacers’ scheme and McMillan’s teachings to play hard-nosed.

Unlike many teams in the league, the strategy for them is to pressure the ball and avoid switches as much as possible on screens. The more they go over the pick and stick on their assignments, the better chance they have of forcing a bad shot or a turnover. That’s what happened in Game 1 and in the majority of the second half of Game 2.

Cleveland has also somewhat surprisingly brought the fight on defense as well. In the first two contests of the series, they’ve allowed under 100 points. Lue’s said multiple times that they’re willing to give up the interior buckets in order to secure the outside, and it’s worked. It doesn’t seem smart when there’s a yellow-colored layup line going on at times, but it certainly paid off by only allowing 34 percent of Indiana’s threes to go down.

Still, looking ahead to what the Cavaliers can do in the playoffs as a whole, it doesn’t bode well. They’re not only locked in a tug-of-war with Indiana, but if they get past them, they could have a Toronto Raptors group chomping at the bit for revenge.

If they’re having this much trouble in the first round, what should make us believe they can barrel through the Eastern Conference as they’ve done in the past?

It’s not quite as obvious or as bad as Cleveland’s 2007 version of James and the rest, but it feels eerily similar for as much as he’s put the team on his back so far. The organization better hope improvement comes fast from his supporting cast, or else it could be a longer summer than they’d hoped for.

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2017-18 NBA Report Card: Third-Year Players

Among the third-year players a few budding superstars have emerged, along with some role players who are helping their teams in the 2017-18 NBA Playoffs.

Mike Yaffe

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The 2015 NBA Draft has provided the league with a limited quantity of talent so far. After Terry Rozier (at 16th), it’s unlikely that anyone remaining has All-Star potential. Despite the lack of depth, the highest draft slot traded was at number 15, when the Atlanta Hawks moved down to enable the Washington Wizards to select Kelly Oubre Jr.

But placing a definitive “boom” or “bust” label on these athletes might be premature as the rookie contract is standardized at four seasons with an option for a fifth. If their employers are given a fourth year to decide whether a draftee is worth keeping, it seems reasonable to earmark the NBA Juniors’ progress for now and see how they’ve fared after next season’s campaign before making their letter grades official.

The Top Dogs

Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves: Given the dearth of premier choices and their glaring need up front, it’s hard to envision the T-Wolves drafting anyone but KAT if they had to do it again. Although his scoring average is down from last season (21.3 vs. 25.1 PPG), that trend could be explained by the addition of Jimmy Butler and the team’s deliberate pace (24th out of 30 teams).

To his credit, Towns had career highs in three-point percentage (42.1 percent) and free throws (85.8 percent), while finishing second overall in offensive rating (126.7). His continued improvement in these areas could explain why the Timberwolves ended their 14-year playoff drought.

Nikola Jokić, Denver Nuggets: Although he was a 2014 draft pick, Jokić’s NBA debut was delayed due to his last year of commitment to the Adriatic League. His productivity as a rookie was limited by both foul trouble and a logjam at the center position, but he still managed 10.0 PPG.

With Joffrey Lauvergne and Jusuf Nurkic off the depth chart, Jokić became the clear-cut starter this season and rewarded Denver’s confidence by averaging 18.5 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. And by chipping in 6.1 APG, he provides rare value as a center with triple-double potential.

Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks: Although he has never played a full season since joining the league, Porzingis has provided enough evidence that he can be a force when healthy. Before his junior campaign was derailed, the Latvian was enjoying career highs of 22.7 PPG and 39.5 percent shooting from behind the arc.

Unfortunately, the Knicks haven’t provided much support at point guard to help with Porzingis’ development. Trey Burke looked impressive down the stretch in Zinger’s absence, but that was in a score-first capacity. Meanwhile, both Frank Ntilikina and Emmanuel Mudiay have underwhelmed. On the plus side, Porzingis’ outside ability paired nicely in the frontcourt with Enes Kanter, who prefers to bully his way underneath.

Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns: Like Porzingis, Booker’s third year in the NBA was cut short by injuries, but that didn’t stop him from achieving career highs in points (24.9 per game), assists (4.7) and three-pointers (38.3 percent) on an otherwise moribund Suns team. Indeed, cracking the 40-point barrier three times in 54 contests was an achievement in and of itself.

While his short-term prospects would’ve been far better on a team like the Philadelphia Sixers (who might have taken him instead of Jahlil Okafor in a re-draft), Booker can still become a franchise cornerstone for the Suns if they are able to build around a young core that also includes T.J. Warren and Josh Jackson.

Solid Potential

Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers: Despite an inconsistent freshman season at Texas, Turner has become a stabilizing influence at center for the Pacers, whose blueprint consists of surrounding a go-to scorer with role players. While he hasn’t shown drastic improvement in any particular area, he has produced double-digit PPG averages all three years as a pro.

Although Turner’s shot-blocking ability fuels his reputation as a defensive maven, the reality is his 104.8 defensive rating (which is just OK) was skewed by his 110.9 d-rating in losses (it was 100.8 in wins). In order to merit consideration for the NBA’s all-defensive team, he will need to bridge the gap in this discrepancy and impact his team’s ability to win more games in the process.

D’Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets: Following their respective trades, Russell has fared better in the Big Apple than his 2015 lottery counterpart Emmanuel Mudiay, as the Los Angeles Lakers were forced to cut bait to draft Lonzo Ball. While Ball has shown promise as a rookie, the Lakers’ perception of Russell may have been premature, as the former Buckeye has stabilized a Nets backcourt that had been characterized more by athleticism than consistency.

Despite missing a significant stretch of mid-season games, Russell provided similar numbers for Brooklyn to that of his sophomore season; but without a pick until number 29 in the upcoming NBA Draft, the Nets will have to bank on improved production from DLo and his raw teammates to contend for the eight-seed in the East.

Terry Rozier, Boston Celtics: Injuries have paved the way for Rozier to showcase his talent, most recently with a 23-point, 8-assist effort in game two against the Milwaukee Bucks. But Rozier was already making headlines as a fill-in for Kyrie Irving whenever he was injured. Now that the starting point guard reins have been handed to the former mid-round pick, he has become one of the more pleasant surprises of the 2017-18 NBA season.

The biggest impediment to Rozier’s success might be the regression to limited playing time once Irving returns. While the Celtics could “sell high” and trade Rozier on the basis of his recent performances, they may opt to retain him as insurance while he is still cap-friendly.

Best of the Rest

Larry Nance Jr., Cleveland Cavaliers: Following the trade deadline, Nance has provided a spark for a Cavs frontcourt that has been bereft of viable options aside from Kevin Love.

Josh Richardson, Miami HEAT: A jack-of-all-trades at the small forward position, Richardson has evolved into a three-and-D player that has meshed well with the HEAT’s shut-down focus.

Willie Cauley-Stein, Sacramento Kings: Thrust into the starting center role after the trade of DeMarcus Cousins, WCS has provided serviceable (albeit unspectacular) play as the next man up.

Delon Wright, Toronto Raptors: A key contributor for the East’s top seed, Wright was instrumental in the Raptors’ game one victory over the Washington Wizards with 18 points off the bench.

Bobby Portis, Chicago Bulls: The former Razorback has flashed double-double potential, but playing time at his true position (power forward) has been limited by the emergence of rookie Lauri Markkanen.

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