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NBA Daily: The Boston Celtics’ Interesting Dilemma

The Boston Celtics may struggle more than most expect in 2018 and beyond, especially if they don’t address impending problems.

Drew Maresca

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The Boston Celtics’ 2017-18 season was a success by all accounts. They fell one win shy of advancing to the NBA Finals and did so without two of their best players – Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward. At first glance, the 2018 iteration of the Celtics is even more intriguing. The Celtics return both aforementioned stars, with two other young pillars – Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown – on the precipice of stardom, too. Additionally, the Eastern Conference championship is almost certainly up for grabs with LeBron James heading west to Los Angeles, concurrently eliminating Cleveland from contention. But think twice before penciling the Celtics into the NBA Finals. There are questions to be answered about the Celtics’ future, as well as concerns about the season at hand.

The most pressing item to be addressed is the team’s chemistry and rotation. Celtics head coach Brad Stevens must delicately manage his roster. He will likely rely heavily on Irving and Hayward considering both are proven All-Stars. And considering both will be working back from a knee procedure and a gruesome leg injury, respectively, there will likely be minutes restrictions in place that allow for the younger Celtics to continue contributing early on this season. However, what effect might lesser roles have on the likes of Terry Rozier, Brown and/or Tatum as the season wears on?

Rozier, Brown and Tatum flourished while averaging 36.6, 32.4, and 35.9 minutes per game, respectively, in the 2018 postseason. Basketball is a rhythm game and few players can find theirs without a requisite amount of playing time. That could hinder their progress, and potentially hinder production. Further, will splitting minutes with the younger Celtic wings prove to be counterproductive to Hayward, who averaged 34.5 minutes per game in the 2016-17 season with Utah – his last complete season prior to the injury? Similarly, will Kyrie’s effectiveness dwindle due to a dip in playing time from his pre-injury 32.2 minutes per game last season?

Less direct implications are also possible. Marcus Smart will likely see a decreased role due to the talent stockpiled on the roster, but Smart’s contributions last season were noteworthy. He is an ultra-versatile defender who can guard four positions. While he is limited offensively, his hustle and grit are contagious. Limiting his minutes might be a necessity, but his energy is difficult to replace.  Having too much talent is rarely a detriment, but all of Brown, Tatum, Hayward, Smart, Rozier, and Irving can’t be maximized. Long-term, this is much more of a problem for general manager Danny Ainge than it is for the team (or even coach Stevens), but it is a problem nonetheless. Maybe Ainge packages two of the above players for Jimmy Butler, or another superstar before the deadline; but barring a similar move, maximizing all of the talent on the roster will be challenging.

And then there are the challenges that await the Boston Celtics outside of their locker room – most notably, the development of Toronto Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers. Both of the Celtics’ divisional rivals stand to improve in 2018. The Raptors took a chance in trading for disgruntled Spurs star Kawhi Leonard. While he very well may leave Toronto after the 2018-19 season, Leonard is a definitively better talent than DeMar DeRozan on both sides of the ball. Canada’s only NBA franchise also took on Danny Green in the DeRozan-Leonard transaction. Green is a career 39.5 percent three-point shooter who can still defend at a high level. Add Leonard and Green to the Raptors’ existing foundation of Kyle Lowry, OG Anunoby, Jonas Valanciunas, Serge Ibaka, and C.J. Miles and you have a contender in the making. What’s more, the arrival of Leonard and Green does more than simply infuse talent; they represent players who came up big in key moments throughout their respective careers (e.g., in the 2014 NBA Finals, Leonard was named the Finals MVP and Green shot 45 percent from three-point range over the course of the five-game series). The addition of the two former Spurs should improve on the Raptors’ poor execution in recent trips to the Playoffs. While the trade represents a major risk on behalf of Raptors’ President Masai Ujiri and the franchise, it could just as easily pay off with one or more NBA Finals appearances.

Comparatively, Philadelphia had a relatively quiet offseason. They traded the twelfth overall pick, Mikal Bridges, to the Phoenix Suns for Zhaire Smith, who, in typical Sixers fashion, injured his foot in summer league and will miss at least the beginning of the 2018 season. The team also re-signed J.J. Redick, and traded for Wilson Chandler. But most of the improvement that Philadelphia stands to undergo will come from standing pat, as their core is relatively young. Currently, Joel Embiid is 24, Ben Simmons is 22, and Markelle Fultz is only 20 – and all reports indicate he has successfully worked through his shoulder injury and subsequent shooting hitch. The infusion of a productive Fultz alone should add a few wins; for comparison’s sake, Lonzo Ball, who was selected immediately after Fultz in the 2017 NBA Draft, posted a win share of two last season. Philadelphia will ask less of Fultz than was asked of Ball by the Lakers, but a similar net effect is reasonable given Ball’s ups and downs in 2017-18. And that doesn’t take into consideration the progress that can be expected from Simmons and Embiid.

The Sixers represent less of an immediate threat to the Celtics than the Raptors, having lost to Boston in the second round of the 2018 Playoffs 4-1; but they pose a very real threat beyond 2018-19. Entering 2019-20, they should have only around $70 million in salary commitments, assuming all team options are picked up. The majority of that money is spread between the core of Embiid, Simmons, Fultz, Robert Covington, Dario Saric and Zhaire Smith – a formidable six-man rotation. The team will have approximately enough money to sign one free agent to a max deal. Philly’s core is young and talented, and they can add a superstar to it to improve even more quickly for next season and beyond – a scary concept to anyone building an NBA franchise.

If all of that doesn’t worry Ainge, Stevens, and the Boston faithful, there are the rumors about Irving’s desire to team up with Jimmy Butler and/or flee to New York. Rumors are anecdotal at best, but this particular rumor is more substantive than most. Irving’s hometown Knicks were on a short list of preferred landing spots, communicated by the point guard to the Cavs last summer. Further, rumblings have permeated the mainstream media about Irving and Butler’s desire to play together next season. Butler was recently quoted by Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times in a recent interview saying he has grown sick of “the nonchalant attitude of his younger teammates, specifically Karl-Anthony Towns.”  While any number of scenarios can play out in Minnesota, it is unlikely that ownership approves of a deal in which Towns is moved. Therefore, odds of a continued working relationship between Butler and Minnesota appear unlikely. And Irving’s unwillingness to sign an extension, while expected given the current salary cap environment, opens the door to suitors next July, which will likely result in the two players looking at signing with the same team a la LeBron James and Dwyane Wade circa 2010.

None of these scenarios by themselves spell disaster for the Celtics, but the sum of the parts certainly causes more anxiety for the Boston front office than each issue would individually. The Boston Celtics’ rebuild, which began immediately after the 2012-13 season via the Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce trade, took hold quickly. The 2017-18 season is the culmination of that rebuild, with steady progress between the two points in time. Traditionally, perennial contenders like the current Golden State Warriors, 2000’s Lakers and 1990’s Bulls enjoy years of success after struggling to build a team and overthrow an antagonist. Nothing is promised in the NBA, but the path to success for the Celtics, which appeared seamless to many, has cracks in its armor. The Celtics could end the 2018-19 season as Eastern Conference champions facing off against whoever wins the West; but they could just as easily be eliminated in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, lose Irving to free agency and have two formidable opponents in their division to contend with for the foreseeable future. Neither scenario is overtly bad, but from the potential chemistry issues to the intra-division competition, to the potential to lose their best player, the Celtics’ future is far less certain than it appears at first glance.

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High-Performance Mindfulness: The Missing Link To DeMarcus Cousins’ Recovery

Jake Rauchbach discusses DeMarcus Cousins and one of the under-explored, but more critical aspects of the injury recovery process.

Jake Rauchbach

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Last week, DeMarcus Cousins sustained another career-threatening injury, tearing his ACL during a pickup game in Las Vegas.

Cousins, who battled back from a ruptured Achilles this past season, is now in jeopardy of missing a big chunk of the upcoming season for his third time in as many years.

He is expected to miss major time for a third straight season due to a lower leg injury. Before tearing his left Achilles on Jan. 26 2018, Cousins’ durability was never really in question. Before the initial injury, the big-man missed over 20 games just once in a season.

Virtually every year, we see stories similar to Cousins. A player who, at one time in his career had little to no history of injury, gradually becomes engulfed in a seemingly chronic and potentially career-ending pattern for injury – Derrick Rose being a prime example of this.

Common thought for chronic injury issues points back to the physical or structural aspect. Some of the most common theories as to why players experience these setbacks are generally due to pre-disposition, overcompensation and an over-ambitious goal for recovery.

With any injury type, there are obvious physical factors at play. However, a vital and under-explored aspect of the recovery process could be blocking these players’ recovery process.

The Mind-Body Factor

The mind and body are inextricably linked. A person cannot entertain a thought or emotion and, without effect, a chain-reaction in the body occurring. The same can be said for athletes that re-experience past traumatic injury by way of memory.

As humans, we tend to push overwhelming memories, such as traumatic injury, to the far reaches of our subconscious mind. This can be a problem, as these unresolved thoughts, emotions, feelings and psycho-somatic pain can get lodged within a player’s muscle memory.

When this happens, severe compensation, fear of injury and guarding patterns can arise in the body, which can have the effect of weakening the point of injury. This consequently causes structural weakness in other parts of the body. Rose and Cousins could be prime examples of this.

Subconscious mental and emotional blocks such as these, if left unaddressed, can create a nasty psycho-somatic injury loop, consequentially making players susceptible to further injury. Leaving imbalances unresolved at the unconscious level can jeopardize the physical health and well-being of an athlete. Finding a way to break this loop is paramount.

Mental And Emotional Blocks

The psycho-somatic memory of rupturing an Achilles or tearing an ACL can easily stay locked up within the deep mind or muscle memory of a player for years until fully processed.

In Rose’s case, his first major injury and psycho-somatic impediment may have occurred when he tore his ACL during the 2012-2013 season. Dr. Michael Casale, speaking about Rose, said:

“His injury must have caused so much mental trauma. The neuroscience part of me comes out and starts to think about, as far as the brain rewiring, it must be so unbelievably impactful to have that one moment change the way you think about yourself and your environment.”

Considering his past injury history – and the fact that some like Dr. Casale within the medical community believe that Rose’s injury may have caused psychological damage – it is not a stretch to think there has been a very real psycho-somatic element at play.

In Cousins’ case, he has sustained two major leg injuries in a relatively short period. It is generally challenging for big men with severe lower leg injuries to return to the court better than when they left it. Cousins could have his work cut out for him.

If Cousins or Rose are still carrying the deep mental and emotional discord from their past injuries, the chronic injury patterns that they have already experienced could likely persist.

Directly addressing unresolved psycho-somatic barriers with leading-edge High-Performance Mindfulness systems could help players like Rose and Cousins break the habitual injury loop that they have experienced.

The Missing Link – Streamlining The Injury Recovery Process

So what might be the next correct step in streamlining recovery?

High-Performance Mindfulness – Energy Psychology Programs that zero in on removing the mental and emotional baggage from past injuries, exactly what Cousins and Rose could require.

High-Performance Mindfulness can now identify which unconscious mental blocks are holding a player back wherein the subconscious mind-body they are being held. Through a systematic approach for removing and neutralize these impediments, players have been shown to physically improve once the emotional discord of the past experiences has been neutralized.

Frequently, the option of last resort, techniques such as these often have the effect of improving range of motion, eliminating fears of re-injury and eliminating those nasty guarding patterns.

Moreover, employing tools that interface directly with the subconscious mind have been shown to restore confidence, trust and rhythm for a player in regards to his or her own body.

For players like Cousins and Rose, there may be nothing more vital at this stage in their careers.

Getting to the root of these chronic injury patterns may be the key for Cousins, Rose and players like them challenged with similar injury patterns for unlocking, healing and preventing future injury.

Addressing the deeply held negatively charged thoughts, images, emotions and somatic feelings could be the way for doing so – and could be a game-changer for players coming back from injury.

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Could Team USA’s Success Create More Future NBA Partnerships?

Past U.S. National Teams have foreshadowed future player movement. What possibilities could come from the 2019 FIBA World Cup roster? Douglas Farmer writes.

Douglas Farmer

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Since 2008’s “Redeem Team,” two themes have applied to every iteration of the U.S. Men’s National Basketball Team.

They are stocked with the current cream of the crop, and they lay a groundwork for future partnerships or rumored partnerships.

Injuries, workload management and personal decisions have invalidated the first of those themes as the U.S. prepares for the FIBA World Cup in two weeks, but the bonds made in China could still influence the NBA in years to come, just as such friendships led to the 2010-14 Miami Heat, the 2016-19 Kevin Durant-included Golden State Warriors and the brand new Brooklyn Nets.

LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh were all a part of that 2008 Gold Medal team. Draymond Green and Klay Thompson first got to know Durant up close and personal while winning gold in Brazil. Kyrie Irving and Durant played together then as well, and that goes without mentioning DeAndre Jordan. Let’s not forget that Irving also played with Jimmy Butler and Anthony Davis in 2016, two others he has been linked with the last few seasons.

So what partnerships could come from the current team? Three possibilities stick out.

The 2022 Restricted Free Agents

Four members of Gregg Popovich’s U.S. roster will reach restricted free agency after the 2022 season. For Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma and San Antonio Spurs guard Derrick White, they may have the option to survey their options and force their current organizations’ respective hands, but Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum and Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell will almost assuredly sign five-year deals where they are now.

That will set up Tatum and Mitchell – and perhaps Kuzma and/or White – to reach unrestricted free agency simultaneously in 2027. Is it absurd to look eight years ahead? Perhaps, but in the current climate of player empowerment, those timelines can become truncated in unexpected ways. For now, using the 2027 offseason simply creates a predictable point of reference.

Tatum will be entering his age-29 season and Mitchell his age-31 season. If either or both has not yet won a title — by 2027 or, as alluded to, when forcing a franchise’s decisions even earlier — the competitive clock will be ticking at a rapid pace.

To put it bluntly, the Tatum-Mitchell duo could fit very well. For that matter, there is no genuine overlap even when considering Kuzma and White.

Though his 2018-19 was a slight step backward in many respects, Tatum remains a solid shooter and one that should only improve. Perhaps he is not quite the 43.4 percent three-point shooter that he was as a rookie, but he is also better than last season’s 37.3 percent. As his body continues to mature, his rebounding rate should continue to rise, already up to 6.0 from 5.0 in just two years.

Mitchell, meanwhile, improved his shooting from deep to 36.2 percent from 34 percent in his first two seasons and raised his assist-to-turnover rate to 1.48 from 1.35. On the surface, those may seem like incremental betterings, but considering Mitchell’s usage rate also jumped to 31.7 from 29.2, their impacts were crucial pieces of Utah finishing fifth in the West.

A pick-and-roll between the two of them would put any defense in a compromising position. Either could drive to the rim, either could crash for a lob, either could pop out for a three. Neither lags off the dribble or in a catch-and-shoot situation. And each comports himself well defensively, a trait that will presumably only strengthen with age.

Tatum and Mitchell would make for a solid combination, a rapport to be looked for when the U.S. faces the Czech Republic on Sept. 1.

Of course, if either appears to be fitting with Kuzma or White better than expected, one or the other could eventually lean on his current franchise to tender a better offer than the Lakers or Spurs are likely to match.

2020 Role Players on the Market

On this U.S. roster, only Nuggets forward Mason Plumlee and Nets guard Joe Harris will be free agents next summer. Neither will command massive contracts, though both would be leaving teams with distinct championship aspirations if they shopped around. There are, however, two contingents of players headed to China with equal title hopes who could begin sales pitches.

Tatum is just one of four Celtics on the roster, making them the loudest group. They could see Plumlee and recognize size not much abundant on their team in Boston. With Kemba Walker, Gordon Hayward and Tatum, they have reasonable shooting, but finding a way to bang with the lengthy 76ers will undoubtedly be on Celtics president Danny Ainge’s to-do list.

Bucks guard Khris Middleton and big man Brook Lopez are the only other pair of NBA teammates representing the U.S., and in Harris they should see the ideal sharpshooter to stash around Giannis Antetokounmpo.

That version of player recruitment may not have the same headline value as the Gold Medal-winning efforts of the last decade, but that is appropriate for a roster devoid of MVP candidates. It could be the key to a title all the same.

Be it Harris to the Bucks, Plumlee to the Celtics or a Tatum-Mitchell partnership years from becoming a reality, such team-building could shape a postseason just as James-Wade-Bosh and Durant to the Warriors did, all spurred by time on a national team roster.

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NBA Daily: Grading The Offseason – Toronto Raptors

Shane Rhodes examines the double-edged sword of the Toronto Raptors’ championship season and the loss of a franchise superstar.

Shane Rhodes

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The NBA is a fickle beast, success a fleeting one.

And, right now, no one may know that better than the Toronto Raptors.

After the first title in their team’s history, the Raptors are left without Kawhi Leonard, the former Spur, Raptor and now Clipper that carried the franchise to its greatest heights. Toronto and Masai Ujiri’s gamble from a year ago was worth it – with Leonard in place of DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors reached the pinnacle of the basketball world – but it has left the franchise ill-equipped to retain their heightened status.

Of course, and although he was a significant part of it, there was more to their team than Leonard. That being said, success could stay in the cards for the Raptors, if not to a lesser extent, next season.

But the shoes Leonard vacated were quite large. Ujiri and Co. did what they could to fill them, but it can be hard, nigh impossible, to replace a superstar. Did they do enough to keep the team at the top of the Eastern Conference or, at the very least, earn a passing grade?

Overview

The Raptors season was an interesting one.

After the DeRozan-Leonard blockbuster rocked the whole of the NBA, Toronto was projected to be one of the best in the Association. It didn’t quite go as planned, but the Raptors indeed found themselves near the top of the NBA ladder, second only to the Milwaukee Bucks (60-22) in terms of their record (58-24).

Toronto was mocked early on for their “load management” approach, but it’s hard to argue with the results: Leonard looked like himself rather than the hobbled doppelganger we saw in his last season with San Antonio.

Once again at the peak of his powers, Leonard elevated the play of everyone around him and made the Raptors true title contenders. When the postseason came around, Toronto – after a brief slip against the Orlando Magic – rolled through the first round.

In the second, they clashed in a back-and-forth seven-game series with the Philadelphia 76ers, which ended with a signature moment from Leonard.

From there, they went toe-to-toe with eventual Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Raptors didn’t flinch.

And, finally, they were face to face with the beast that has stalked the collective nightmares of the NBA over the last five seasons: the Golden State Warriors.

The Raptors were built for this moment: to take on (and topple) a giant. In trading DeRozan, the team had stripped themselves of what their franchise was – its former face. It was cold, but it was also calculated and methodical. Everything had led up to this moment for Toronto, and there was nothing that they were going to let stop them.

And nothing did.

Toronto was a team of destiny. There was an air about them, a sense of magic and an essence that can’t be coached from the whiteboard or broken down in the film room. They took the Warriors to their limit and beat them. And, injuries aside, nothing can take that away from the Raptors franchise, their fans and the city of Toronto.

Offseason

Unfortunately, this is Basketball Insiders’ “Grading the Offseason” series and, while what the Raptors achieved during the regular and postseason is great, it doesn’t factor into what they have done since they brought the Larry O’Brien trophy to Toronto.

The Raptors had hoped a title could lure Leonard back to the frozen North. In the end, not even that was enough to keep Leonard from Los Angeles but, if given the choice, Toronto would almost certainly trade for him again – the proverbial “window” can close so quickly and the team had to seize their opportunity while there still was one.

6-foot-7 superstar forwards don’t grow on trees, however. Leonard’s departure left a superstar-sized hole on the roster and he wouldn’t be easily replaced.

Toronto went into the 2019 NBA Draft with just a second-round pick, its first owed to San Antonio as part of the deal for Leonard. With that, the team took Dewan Hernandez, a forward out of the University of Miami.

They retained Patrick McCaw, a wing, signed Terence Davis, Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Devin Robinson, all forwards.

Sensing a theme?

The Raptors, rather than trying to find one player, opted to replace Leonard with a committee. None of those players inspire much confidence, but bringing in a versatile group like that is at least a start.

From there, Toronto filled out the rest of the roster: with Danny Green, another integral piece, gone to the Los Angeles Lakers, the Raptors added Cameron Payne and Matt Thomas to serve as depth behind Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Norman Powell.

Short of something completely out-of-the-blue, ala the Leonard-DeRozan swap this time last year, there is little else the Raptors could do to improve their next-season outlook. After the flurry that was the start of free agency, there just isn’t much impact talent left out there.

On a lighter note, the Raptors didn’t lose much of anything outside of Leonard and Green that wasn’t addressed in those signings. Jeremy Lin, Jordan Loyd, Jodie Meeks and Eric Moreland were the other Raptors that walked into free agency.

Those players haven’t exactly knocked down the doors anywhere else. The Raptors, at the very least, should get similar production from their new guys.

PLAYERS IN: Terence Davis, Dewan Hernandez, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Stanley Johnson, Cameron Payne, Matt Thomas, Devin Robinson (Exhibit 10), Sagaba Konate (Exhibit 10), Oshae Brissett (Exhibit 10)

PLAYERS OUT: Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Jeremy Lin, Jordan Loyd, Jodie Meeks, Eric Moreland

What’s Next? 

Short of retaining Leonard, it was almost guaranteed to be a “bad” offseason for the Raptors, and their grade has reflected that.

Their roster is talented, but Toronto is built to house a superstar, not compete without one. Hollis-Jefferson, Johnson, Payne and the others could have proven perfect additions to a title contender but, to the Raptors, they serve as no more than mediocre depth, either journeymen or hopeful reclamation projects.

In an extremely top-heavy East, Toronto should have no problem floating somewhere in the middle-of-the-pack (if not near the top of the conference). But that “good-not-great” gray-area isn’t the goal for any squad, certainly not the defending champions.

Now, it is the NBA, and anything can happen in this league. Should another disgruntled opportunity ala Leonard present itself, and should the Raptors jump on it, that could all change.

But right now, the odds of that happening seem slim.

In Leonard’s departure, Toronto was dealt an unwinnable hand. Unfortunately, there is no sympathy in grading.

OFFSEASON GRADE: D

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