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NBA Daily: Credit Ujiri And Raptors For Taking The Risk

Perhaps emboldened by OKC’s ability to retain Paul George, the Raptors are taking a gamble of their own.

Lang Greene

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In any given NBA season, at the most, there are only five legitimate title contenders in play. The rest of the league could be considered as either on the rise, middle of the pack or in the hunt for a lottery pick.

There are far too many teams around the league that are content with solely making the playoffs while not seriously contending for a title. This is why the Toronto Raptors organization along with team president Masai Ujiri should be given credit for taking the ultimate gamble in acquiring a top-five player, even one who could amount to a one-year rental.

The Raptors shipped four-time All-Star DeMar DeRozan, center Jakob Poeltl and a protected first-round pick to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for former NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and veteran wing Danny Green.

The move is the ultimate gamble for an organization that has turned itself into a perennial playoff presence with five consecutive postseason appearances and three straight 50-win campaigns. DeRozan, 28, was locked under contract the next three seasons and the organization could have theoretically decided to ride the DeRozan and fellow All-Star guard Kyle Lowry duo until the proverbial wheels fell off.

But instead, Ujiri unexpectedly shipped their star player, who wanted to be in Toronto long-term, to acquire Leonard who reportedly has his eyes dead set on joining one of the Los Angeles franchises once he hits free agency in 2019.

Think about this for a moment.

While Toronto has served as LeBron James’ playoff punching bag as of late, make no mistake, Raptors basketball is undoubtedly experiencing the peak of its golden era.

Sure, the team’s former stars such as Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Chris Bosh will likely go down in history considered better than DeRozan (and Lowry). But none of the aforementioned players led the franchise to a 50-win season while with the organization. None of those guys led the Raptors to a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. DeRozan was a vital cog in breaking new ground while with the team, defiantly re-signing with the Raptors despite overtures from his hometown Los Angeles Lakers in 2016.

Perhaps emboldened by the success the Oklahoma City Thunder recently had in taking a similar risk last summer, the Raptors took the gamble. The Thunder traded for All-Star forward Paul George, who also reportedly also had Los Angeles dreams, last summer, and were able to convince the wing to re-sign earlier this month to a long-term deal.

Toronto has never been a free agency hot spot and the aforementioned stars all forced their way out of town early in their careers. What if Leonard doesn’t buy the soup Ujiri is cooking? There are already some reports stating the forward has no desire to play with the Raptors at all.

Even if this is the case, Ujiri and company still have options. Leonard can still be dealt before next February’s trade deadline. Ujiri could theoretically create a bidding war between the Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers for Leonard’s services with an attractive.

At the bare minimum, the Raptors are all-in this season for a championship run in an Eastern Conference no longer facing the talents of LeBron James. If things don’t work out, DeRozan’s $54 million owed after this season is off the books. Lowry will be owed $33 million in 2020 but could potentially be an attractive expiring contract. All of this to say, the Raptors are simultaneously preparing for a title run and bracing for a rebuild of their current roster.

Far too many teams become content with just making the playoffs and not rocking the boat. Ujiri took his shot to boost the Raptors up the league’s hierarchy. The ultimate risk. Much respect for taking it.

Lang Greene is a senior NBA writer for Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA for the last 10 seasons

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NBA Daily: Buyers Or Sellers – Atlantic Division

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ “Buyers or Sellers” series with a break down of the Atlantic Division.

Drew Maresca

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While teams are technically allowed to trade prior to December 15, NBA trade season really heats up on that day. And with trade season comes lots of goodies like rumors to sort through, player activity on Twitter and other social media sites and – most importantly – the changes to rosters across the league.

December 15 is the line of demarcation because as of then, free agent signees from last offseason are eligible to be traded. This means teams that may have buyer’s remorse can move on from deals they regret and other teams that may have missed on a free agent target get a second chance to land their player.

The Atlantic Division features three teams in a full-on arms race – Boston, Philadelphia and Toronto – and two others preparing their rosters to make a run at free agents this coming offseason.

The Sixers already drew first blood with their trade of Robert Covington and Dario Saric for Jimmy Butler. Meanwhile, the Raptors are sitting pretty with the league’s best record through 30 games and the Celtics, at 7-3 in their last 10 games, seem to have figured out the rotational issues that have plagued them thus far.

We at Basketball Insiders began a new series examining each NBA team by division and identifying which teams should be looking to move or add salary as we quickly approach December 15. Let’s take a closer look at the teams in the Atlantic Division. 

Boston Celtics

The Celtics roster is still in a delicate state. They just recently began playing consistently good basketball. They have a gluttony of talent, but there is probably limited interest in moving any of their core pieces for anyone not named Anthony Davis – as evidenced by their apprehension to involve themselves in dealings with the Pacers for Paul George prior to last year or with the Timberwolves for Jimmy Butler prior to his trade to Philadelphia.

The one player that they should seriously consider moving, however, is Terry Rozier. Rozier is due for a raise. They could issue him the qualifying offer after the season and match the offer sheet he chooses to sign, but it is virtually an inevitability that someone will make him a lucrative offer – and one the Celtics would probably prefer to avoid paying due to luxury tax implications.

If the Celtics truly feel that Kyrie Irving is the long-term solution at point guard and that he will re-sign as he said he will, then they need to cash in Rozier. While his stock isn’t quite as high now as it was coming off of his play in the 2018 NBA Playoffs, he did nothing to hurt the perception of him. The Celtics could still probably pry some assets away from a team desperate for a point guard of the future. And considering the four first-round draft picks they control in 2019 and how onerous onboarding four rookies would be for a veteran team, the prudent move may be to package Rozier and picks for someone that fits better with the roster its timeline.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on December 15: Aron Baynes, Jabari Bird and Brad Wanamaker

Brooklyn Nets

The Nets are in prime position to be sellers as they try to scrape together as much cap space for the free agency gold rush of 2019 as possible. Gone are the days of taking on overpaid role players in exchange for draft picks and other assets – even though they look to be a fringe playoff team and would love to get their young stars some playoff experience.

They must fight that urge. And for now, the Nets will probably stand pat. I’m sure they would like to get out from the Allen Crabbe contract considering is effect on their cap space moving forward, but that’s a tough pill for any team to swallow without sending out additional assets.

Like the Celtics, the Nets have two quality point guards and should considering moving one. The Celtics situation is far more cut and dry, though. The Nets need to first identify who they hope to build around – D’Angelo Russell or Spencer Dinwiddie. Russell will cost more, but Dinwiddie is a bit more of a scoring point guard than a facilitator. Dinwiddie just signed an three-year, $34 million extension Thursday. While they could re-sign Russell and retain both guys, it would be prohibitive to their plans in free agency. And losing Russell for nothing would be a real missed opportunity to return future assets.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on December 15: Ed Davis, Treveon Graham and Shabazz Napier

New York Knicks

The Knicks plan to try their hand at shopping soon, too, but not yet. Now is actually prime time for the Knicks to be sellers. The team would obviously like to sign at least one superstar – if not more – this offseason. While they will likely have enough cap space to do so, part of their pitch will likely be the ability to sign a few contributors.

To make that a reality, the Knicks must trade either Courtney Lee or Tim Hardaway Jr. Hardaway has been more productive this season than ever before, but he is owed more money on a longer deal, so it’s more likely that Lee is the easier of the two to trade.

When healthy, Lee is still a productive and efficient wing who can still defend and who has shot at least .400 from three-point range in each of the last three seasons. He would be a welcome addition to virtually any contender.

Furthermore, the Knicks have at least one too many point guards. Moving on from or including either Trey Burke or Emmanuel Mudiay in a Courtney Lee trade would be ideal. While moving on from Burke or Mudiay doesn’t clear future cap space, they could make taking a gamble on Lee more appealing to a team like the Spurs or 76ers.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on December 15: Mario Hezonja, Luke Kornet and Noah Vonleh

Philadelphia 76ers

The 76ers just added Jimmy Butler to their roster in a blockbuster deal on November 11. They are 19-10 overall and 10-4 since adding Butler. They should be happy with their roster and should fight the urge to infuse it with more, new players.

I seriously doubt that the 76ers will make any other major deals. But don’t be surprised if Markelle Fultz’s name remains in trade rumors right up to the trade deadline. As recently as Thursday, Fultz was mentioned as a target of the Detroit Pistons by the Detroit Free Press. Both Fultz and the 76ers seem ready to move on. A Fultz trade seems likelier now than ever before.

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on December 15: Amir Johnson and J.J. Redick

Toronto Raptors

The Raptors’ major move came over the summer when they dealt DeMar DeRozan and netted Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. The team has played even better this season than they did last year when they were the number one seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. What more do they need? They boast the best record in the league (23-7), they swept the defending champion Golden State Warriors in their season series (including a win Wednesday night sans Leonard) and they own the second-best margin of victory in basketball.

While crazier things have happened, don’t expect Toronto to make any trades. They do need more time together, though. They will continue to improve as they learn each other’s preferences and tendencies. How scary of a thought is that?

Players whose trade restrictions are lifted on December 15: Lorenzo Brown and Greg Monroe

The Atlantic Division is among the most interesting given the depth of top-tier talent. One move can swing the balance of power in the division – and the conference – considerably. It will be interesting to see if any of the division’s juggernauts make any major moves, or if either of the New York-area teams can either nab a star or clear more space.

Make sure to follow along here at Basketball Insiders with the rest of the divisions as well as any trade news and reactions as they happen.

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Noah Vonleh is Making His Mark on New York

Noah Vonleh is having a breakout season for the New York Knicks. Will he be a part of the team’s future or will he land elsewhere?

Drew Maresca

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New York Knicks’ Coach David Fizdale has described Noah Vonleh as the team’s most versatile player numerous times in recent conversations with the media. In fact, Fizdale believes that Vonleh is the key to the Knicks’ success.

“It kills us (when he doesn’t play well). It hurts us big time,” he said following the team’s recent loss to the Charlotte Hornets. “We rely on him for a lot of different aspects of the game. For the most part, he’s been playing well for us this year. And he’s a huge part of our success when we win. And when we struggle, he’s usually not having his best games.”

Vonleh’s potential has been evident for some time. And while he was thought of highly enough to be selected ninth overall in the 2014 NBA Draft, his transition to the NBA has been anything but seamless. But Vonleh is clearly beginning to realize his potential and if he remains on his current trajectory, he could justify his draft status and then some.

Vonleh entered the NBA as an 18-year old after only one season at Indiana. While in college, Vonleh averaged nearly 12 points and nine rebounds per game, shooting a scorching .485 from deep. His hands measured biggest in his draft class and his wingspan was 7’ 4.25”. His potential was noted, as was how unpolished he was.

Entering the draft, Vonleh was cited for his length, rebounding ability, speed on the break and his potential to stretch the floor by NBADraft.net. The only real criticisms of his game were a lack of confidence and inexperience. Bleacher Report was even higher on Vonleh, projecting his ceiling to be between Chris Bosh and Harrison Barnes.

Fast forward to the present and Vonleh has played for four teams in his four and a half seasons in the league, but a good deal of the rationale behind that is simply a lack of opportunity. Vonleh hasn’t played more than 19 minutes per game until this season. Vonleh’s game may have been raw, but he has been on a carousel of border-line playoff teams hoping to add established talent, not projects.

He was drafted by Charlotte; however, he was included in a deal that returned Nic Batum after only one season with the team. He was then dealt from Portland to Chicago in a deal in which the Blazers were attempting to avoid the luxury tax. Unfortunately for Vonleh, he didn’t stick with the Bulls for more than the second-half of the 2017-18 season either. And while his time with those three clubs was mostly unspectacular, he has begun to turn heads in New York.

Vonleh has earned a spot in the Knicks’ starting lineup. He is averaging career highs in points (8.2) and rebounds (8.1) in 25.6 minutes per game. His is also posting a career-best PER (15.5).

But the key to Vonleh’s strong play very well may be his three-point shooting. He is shooting .440 from downtown through 28 games; his next best three-point percentage was .303 last season. And while he’s only attempting 1.8 per game, his shooting prowess presents a threat to opposing defenses, forcing them to extend out to him on the perimeter.

While he’s always been an above average shooter, three-point shooting was a point of emphasis for Vonleh this past offseason.

“I worked on the three-ball a lot this offseason. I work on it each offseason so as to not limit myself as a player and to keep expanding my game,” Vonleh said. “This summer, I put in a lot of work. I did some work in Atlanta and some more time back here in New York and the results are starting to show. In the summer time, I was doing some stuff like that (shooting 1,000 shots a day) after an on-court workout. Get in there, get up a bunch of threes. Now during the season, it’s just staying in rhythm. Playing shooting games with some of the guys on the team: Emmanuel Muddiay, Ron Baker sometimes Luke Kornet.” And while the process seems tedious – Vonleh said it was “Countless hours. Way too many to keep track of” – it appears to now be paying dividends.

And despite all of the progress and the praise from Coach Fizdale, Vonleh is only 23 years old. He could still make improvements to his game, or he could remain the productive player he’s been so far this season – either course of action is a good one for whichever team he ends up with long term. Vonleh signed a one-year deal with the Knicks this past offseason; the Knicks will likely explore re-signing him to a longer-term arrangement in the near future.

Vonleh has been embraced by the Garden faithful and coaching staff alike. And the feeling seems to be mutual.

“New York is a great city. It’s a great opportunity (for me) here,” Vonleh said. “Great coaching staff. Great teammates. Coach Fizz believes in some of the things I can do. He lets me go out there and just play, play through mistake and show what I can do as a player.”

Vonleh represents the future of the NBA: he is a long, athletic big who can stretch the floor, push the ball up the court and switch off on guards in the pick-and-roll –  as evidenced by Coach Fizdale’s initial takeaways of him

“(I told him) If you rebound the ball, you’ve got to push it. I don’t want you outletting the ball.’ And his eyes lit up and I think from there he saw that I was going to have a lot of confidence in him to try some stuff. Now he’s shooting the 3, he’s posting. He does everything. I think I’ve said it before, he’s our most complete player.”

He is far from an All-Star, but Vonleh compliments Kristaps Porzingis on the Knicks’ front line. He gives the Knicks a second big who can shoot and who boasts a wingspan greater than 7’4”. That makes for an excellent rebounding and shot blocking front court. And even if he ends up coming off the bench in favor of Kevin Knox or whomever they sign in free agency this season, versatility is a premium in the NBA, and Vonleh is nothing if not versatile. The only question remaining is if the Knicks gamble to sign him to a one-year deal will pay off beyond this season.

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Furkan Korkmaz Turning NBA Adjustments Into Opportunities

During his stay in the NBA, Furkan Korkmaz has taken the ups with the downs. Jessica Camerato speaks with the Philadelphia 76ers’ Turkish wing about his pro experience.

Jessica Camerato

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Furkan Korkmaz stretched out his legs and eased into a chair just off to the side of the Sixers’ practice court. For the next 20 minutes, he talked about growing up in Turkey, moving to the United States to play in the NBA and even painted a visual of performing as Michael Jackson in high school (more on that later). The 21-year-old was comfortable and easygoing, like he had been settled in the league for years, when actually his career is just getting started.

Korkmaz’s first sport was soccer. At the age of nine, he was approached by a coach to join his school’s basketball team. He considered sticking with soccer, but his older sister encouraged the change. Six years later, Korkmaz went pro. At 18, he was drafted by the 76ers to play in the NBA.

The Sixers chose Korkmaz with the 26th pick in 2016. The 6-7 swingman played the next season in Europe, winning the Turkish Cup with Banvit and being named the Basketball Champions League Best Young Player, before completing a buyout with Anadolu Efes to come to Philadelphia in July of 2017.

Korkmaz hadn’t spent much time in the United States before then, only a handful of days during the pre-draft process. Being alone in a new country had been difficult for him. After those workouts, he returned to his hotel room and talked to himself in Turkish, giving himself a break from speaking in English all day.

This time, Korkmaz wasn’t alone when he moved to Philadelphia. Since his parents are retired, they were able to make the trip with him from Turkey while he got acclimated to his new home. Korkmaz still encountered adjustments, but he had a support system around him.

“The first two months were really hard to get used to the language, culture because you’re not moving from Turkey to Spain or Turkey to Italy or from Italy to Spain,” Korkmaz told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a totally different culture.”

Korkmaz was always curious and interested in gaining knowledge. He learned to speak English by being around his non-Turkish teammates and coaches while playing professionally in Europe. He started off with basic questions, like asking for salt at dinner, and watched English-language movies to expand his vocabulary.

Once Korkmaz moved to Philadelphia, he honed in on specific details. He took mental notes at a restaurant when the server suggested he pronounce “water” with a “d” sound instead of the phonetic interpretation of a hard “t.” He asked questions the first time he heard the word “turkey” used in reference to a Thanksgiving food.

“They explained it,” Korkmaz said, “And then I learned.”

During his rookie season, Korkmaz had to learn about a challenging aspect of the game: injuries. He suffered a Lisfranc injury in his left foot in mid-December while in the G-League. He did not play again for the Sixers until March 22.

“For me the worst situation was I couldn’t walk for two months,” Korkmaz said. “I was not able to go out of the home without help from someone. My parents were here all that time. They were helping me. Even when I tried to go in the shower, they were taking me. It was really bad.”

Korkmaz finished his rookie year averaging 1.6 points over 5.7 minutes in 14 NBA games. He bounced back in the offseason with a standout performance in international competition and by scoring 40 points in summer league. A healthy Korkmaz showed signs of the potential that had been sidetracked by the foot injury.

In the grand scheme of things, though, Korkmaz hadn’t been on the court very much for the Sixers when the late October deadline came up for his contract option. The team declined it. Korkmaz, who was averaging five minutes at the time, spoke out in the media about his role and opportunity. His goal was to be on the court.

“At the time I was telling to people, even like my agent, my parents, my sister, it doesn’t matter who, I was telling them I want to play this year,” Korkmaz said. “It was my goal. It was my second year … I knew that I wasn’t ready last year. I wasn’t ready. I knew that. I just worked hard, even when I got injured.

“But I feel like I improved a lot then, not as basketball, physically, as my body. I was saying to people, ‘I want to play,’ … I never got down mentally. I knew that my time will come, but I didn’t know when.”

How quickly situations can change. Korkmaz saw an increase in minutes when the Sixers traded for Jimmy Butler in November, changed their rotations and shortened the bench in the absence of Markelle Fultz (out with a shoulder inury). If he was going to make the most of this chance, Korkmaz knew he would have to be prepared at a moment’s notice to contribute offensively and continue to improve his defense.

“He works, man, and he stars in his role,” Butler said. “I think that’s really, really important for a young guy to know whenever your time’s called you’re going to have to be ready. I already know what’s going on in his head. I already know how confident [he is] and how he wants to help this team win. He’s doing that to the best of his ability.”

Korkmaz’s preparation is paying off. He has played 15 minutes-plus in 11 of his last 16 games, including more than 20 minutes in six of those contests. Korkmaz got his first career start Wednesday against the Nets in place of an injured Butler (groin). He netted 18 points, six assists, three rebounds and three steals over a career-high 35 minutes in the Sixers loss. The previous game, he scored 18 points (4-7 3PG), including 15 in the second half, and seven rebounds off the bench in a win over the Pistons.

“He’s not intimidated by NBA basketball. He’s not intimidated by the moment,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said. “He’s got a bounce. He has an inner belief. There is a swagger that he has when he is going to make a play. He may miss a lot of shots, he may make a lot of shots, but there really isn’t any sort of trepidation. There is not a back down in Furkan.”

No, Korkmaz does not shy away from the spotlight. His willingness to put on a show translates away from the game, too. Korkmaz garnered attention for competing in a dunk contest dressed up as Darth Vader from Star Wars. He had practice getting into character prior to that.

“When I was in high school before graduation I did a Michael Jackson dance, for real,” Korkmaz said. “It’s like a four-minute dance to ‘Smooth Criminal’ with all the jacket, even white tape here (points to his hand like Jackson’s signature glove), my hat … It was really cool.”

Throughout the season, Sixers players are tasked with putting together presentations on a topic of their choice to share at a team breakfast. Recently, Korkmaz spoke on his native Turkey. Brown described the PowerPoint as “amazingly professional and thoughtful and informative.” The depth and delivery of the content made an impression on coaches and players.

“He’s done an unbelievable job of just putting himself in social situations,” JJ Redick told Basketball Insiders. “The fact he was able to do that in English is just remarkable. A 30-minute presentation, not even his first language, about a month ago. You see him coming out of his shell both on and off the court. He’s a pleasure to have in our program.”

It has been just over a year since Korkmaz made his NBA debut. Since then, he has gone through injuries and uncertainties all while building relationships, having the support of his family (his sister traveled to Philadelphia this season, too) and earning minutes in the Sixers system.

Korkmaz is taking the ups with the downs to stay in the NBA.

“This is the league which is the best league in the world,” Korkmaz said. “I want to show the people, yes I can play in the best basketball league in the world. I feel like still people don’t know what I can do here. That’s why I want to show the people, I can play here.”

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