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NBA Daily: The Toronto Raptors Are A Threat In The East

With the Cavaliers fading, the Toronto Raptors have emerged as the most serious challengers to the Celtics for the Eastern Conference crown.

Buddy Grizzard

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With the Cleveland Cavaliers fading and the Washington Wizards languishing, the Toronto Raptors have emerged as the most serious challengers to the Celtics among the East’s veteran squads. Only a game and a half behind Boston, and five games ahead of Cleveland, the Raptors are somehow not being recognized as the threat they are.

“Maybe it’s because we’re in Canada and we still don’t get the respect that we deserve,” said center Jakob Poeltl after the Raptors beat the Hawks in Atlanta Wednesday. “At the end of the day, for us, we’ve got to focus on ourselves. The big goal is finish first in the East and then win the East, go to the Finals.”

Raptors coach Dwane Casey said he was extremely disappointed that none of Toronto’s young players — including Poeltl, rookie small forward OG Anunoby, second-year power forward Pascal Siakam and second-year point guard Fred VanVleet — were selected to participate in the Rising Stars Challenge at NBA All-Star.

“I’m totally shocked and upset about that,” Casey told Josh Lewenberg of TSN Sports. “It blows my mind that our young guys weren’t selected. The assistants vote on the young guys and I’m shocked that they didn’t have enough respect for our young guys and what they do and what they bring to our team.”

While Casey stood up for his guys, the players themselves were mostly focused on the task at hand of making a run in the East and collecting accolades later.

“I’m looking at, we’re here not for All-Star,” said center Jonas Valanciunas after the win in Atlanta. “It’s good. It pleases everybody and gives extra motivation. But we’re here for [the] bigger picture. We’re here for winning the championship.”

VanVleet went off on the Hawks for 19 points, seven rebounds, five assists, three blocks and two steals after learning that he had been left out.

“Obviously I got a lot of texts,” said VanVleet. “Family and friends were pretty disappointed. I’m not a guy that needs any motivation, but if that was a little bit before the game, so be it. It would have been a nice accomplishment, kind of a nod of respect. But it didn’t happen and we’ve got bigger things to focus on.”

While VanVleet shrugged off the snub of himself, he was more passionate about the fact that his young teammates were left out, especially Anunoby.

“I wasn’t expecting to play in it because I don’t get those types of accolades anyway,” said VanVleet. “But for OG to be a starter on one of the best teams in the NBA, Pascal and Jakob to not be on the World team, and then to look at the list and see some of the guys that are on there, it’s just disappointing that none of our guys got that nod of respect.”

While he was quick to stick up for his teammates, VanVleet echoed Poeltl and Valanciunas in focusing on the task of competing for the top seed in the East.

“We see that we’re close and we know that if we take care of business, we put ourselves in a position to have the number one seed,” said VanVleet. “So that’s what we’ve got to do. We’ll get enough accolades at the end of the day if we reach our ultimate goal.”

The Raptors weren’t totally left out of the All-Star festivities, as Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan were both selected by captain Stephen Curry. Lowry had stated that he didn’t want to play against DeRozan in the All-Star game, and Curry made it happen.

But for the Raptors, the focus remains on seeing how good this team can be by the end of the season. Asked for his projection, Valanciunas said we’ll have to check back.

“We’re going to talk July when I get back from the holidays, and then we’ll talk how good we were,” said Valanciunas.

Buddy Grizzard has written for ESPN.com and BBallBreakdown and served as an editor for ESPN TrueHoop Network.

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NBA Daily: Poeltl Looking Forward To New Beginning With Spurs

Spencer Davies looks at the under-the-radar portion of the DeMar DeRozan-Kawhi Leonard trade and how Jakob Poeltl is already embracing the change.

Spencer Davies

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One month ago, a superstar-swapping trade between the Toronto Raptors and San Antonio Spurs was agreed upon.

The deal—which once again sparked a national debate about player loyalty—sent a reportedly disgruntled Kawhi Leonard to The North in exchange for Masai Ujiri’s franchise cornerstone, DeMar DeRozan.

Longtime Spur and veteran sharpshooter Danny Green was also moved to Toronto, while San Antonio acquired a protected future first-round draft pick and 22-year-old big man Jakob Poeltl.

Remember, Poeltl was an integral piece of a talented Raptor bench that produced a better net rating than their starters, as well as nearly all five-man groups in the league.

While the majority of pundits have gone back and forth about who won the trade, few have mentioned the ninth overall selection in the 2016 NBA Draft. Being involved in the transaction admittedly caught Poeltl “a little bit off guard.”

But entering his third year as a pro, the seven-foot Austrian is embracing the change and a brand new start with one of the most well-respected organizations in sports.

“That’s one of the things I’m most excited about, just the fact that this program has such a big history in developing players,” Poeltl told reporters in his first media appearance since the move. “I’m really excited for the process. Gonna be a lot of work, but I’m looking forward to it.”

From what he has heard from players who have been a part of the Spurs in the past and those who are currently there, it’s an unselfish group of people. They consider it a family environment.

“Everybody is just in it together,” Poeltl said. “From the very top to the very last guy on the bench or in the gym. It’s really like a great atmosphere, at least from what I’ve heard. So I’m looking forward to actually experiencing it myself.”

As soon as Poeltl got to San Antonio, he gazed at the championship banners hanging inside of the gym and quickly realized the expectations he’ll have to fulfill this season are a little higher than where he came from.

“It’s crazy, it’s different,” Poeltl said. “Obviously in Toronto, we didn’t have banners like that. Like we’re on a good way there, but this program here has some tradition to it. Over the last 20 years been a great basketball team. Obviously, you can tell by the championships and all the accomplishments.

“It’s a little bit of pressure, too. Like we’re trying to live up to that. There’s obviously a very high standard here, so we’ve gotta come in and put the work in and really show what we’ve got on the court as a team.”

Poeltl hasn’t wasted any time in immersing himself into the culture. In fact, he’s been working out at their practice facility since he arrived and feels like there’s a “natural chemistry” already with his new teammates.

In the weight room, Poeltl came across the forever face of the Spurs and future Hall-of-Fame forward, Tim Duncan. The conversation between them was short, sweet and casual. Basketball wasn’t brought up, as that will likely be saved for another time when the season approaches.

Duncan still sticks around and helps in practices from time-to-time, but he won’t be there every day. Somebody else who will be, however, is Pau Gasol, a fellow international center that Poeltl looks forward to learning from.

Though those two will be able to give veteran advice and priceless pointers, Poeltl’s most crucial teachings will come from the Spurs lead general—Gregg Popovich. Like with Duncan, on-court discussions were not the focus of their first interaction.

“We went to dinner,” Poeltl said. “We didn’t really talk too much basketball. It was more just like trying to get to know each other, like a first impression. I think there’s more than enough time for us to talk basketball and really learn what the Spurs are all about on the basketball court.

“But it was a really good conversation. Like I really enjoyed it. He’s a very down-to-earth type guy for if you think about what he’s accomplished in his career. He’s really cool.”

Once training camp comes and the dialogue does take a turn towards the hardwood, Poeltl will be all ears. As it stands now, Poeltl’s niche is the hustle guy. He picks up the scraps, corrals offensive rebounds and dives after loose balls, but don’t pigeonhole “role player” to his name. He plans on doing more in San Antonio.

“I take a lot of pride in that,” Poeltl said. “I think I do a lot of the little things out there—set good screens, be in the right places, making good reads off of my teammates and making plays for my teammates at the same time. Obviously like for me, that’s my role right now and I’m really enjoying that.

“I’m working on my game every single day in practice and I’m trying to develop more offensively and defensively so I can take on more responsibilities in the future.”

Moving on from the team that drafted you to another can be difficult. Luckily, Poeltl isn’t coming alone.

“Obviously it helps to have a familiar face like a guy that I’ve played with over the last three years,” Poeltl said of DeRozan. “Like I know how he plays basketball, he knows me. I think we play well together.”

In the two years they have played together, Poeltl has noticed DeRozan fine-tune his game. Although he is first and foremost a pure scorer, his all-around offense is getting better.

DeRozan’s reads on the opposition are crisper, as are the adjustments he makes due to that. He understands when to take games over and has involved his teammates more and more with each season.

It’s no surprise that the four-time All-Star guard is coming to the Spurs with a statement to make. All he’s done since being drafted is improve and devote himself to his second home in Toronto. He hasn’t uttered one favorable comment towards the front office he feels betrayed him.

Witnessing the kind of player DeRozan is when he’s pushed, Poeltl expects we’ll see a whole other side of him unleashed this year.

“It’s a little bit scary, to be honest,” Poeltl said. “Because I know what he can do when he has a chip on his shoulder, when he gets that extra motivation. I think he’s gonna be ready.”

Poeltl doesn’t have quite that big of a score to settle with the Raptors.

He’s just ready to give his all to an organization in a blue-collar town that matches the kind of work ethic he’s had since he started playing the game.

“That’s kinda how I’ve been for my whole basketball career,” Poeltl said. “Just get the work done.”

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NBA Daily: Can an Anthony-D’Antoni Marriage Work for Houston?

Shane Rhodes lays out how the Carmelo Anthony-Mike D’Antoni pairing could work this time around in Houston.

Shane Rhodes

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It’s official: Carmelo Anthony has joined the Houston Rockets after putting pen to paper on a contract. In doing so, Anthony will join a gifted offensive team helmed by former Coach of the Year Mike D’Antoni.

Stop me if you’ve heard that one before.

Back in 2011, when Anthony joined the New York Knicks via a blockbuster trade with the Denver Nuggets, a younger D’Antoni was in the midst of his third year with New York. While he didn’t exactly have a sterling record with the Knicks prior to the acquisition (89-129 before), things improved little upon Anthony’s arrival in the Big Apple (31-38 after). The two butted heads constantly and, after just a year (and an ultimatum forced on the Knicks by Anthony), D’Antoni was out the door; he resigned from his position and pursued work elsewhere.

Now, together once again, questions remain about how their relationship and, ultimately, their offensive styles will mesh in Houston. D’Antoni has already come out and said things will be different this time around, but nothing is so certain in the NBA; what is stopping things from going south as they did for the Knicks, who, despite a bevy of talent, just couldn’t make things work?

It’s important to understand where things went wrong in New York in order to look at where they could go wrong in Houston.

From the jump, the two weren’t exactly the best fit. Anthony wanted to play the way he had his entire career — heavy isolation, high usage basketball — while D’Antoni’s offense was spread out, predicated on ball movement, and closer to what we see in the modern offense.

Those two styles aren’t exactly conducive to the success of one another.

The Knicks finished the season 42-40, going just 13-14 in Anthony’s 27 games with the team. The two continued to be at odds with one another into the next season until, after leading the Knicks to an underwhelming 18-24 start, D’Antoni resigned. While things improved under Mike Woodson in 2012 — Anthony posted the highest usage rate of his career while the Knicks won 52 games — they quickly devolved into disaster and the Knicks, once again, found themselves in a hole that they are still trying to climb out of.

Now, on to Houston. This isn’t the same D’Antoni; he has changed and so has his offense. While ball movement still plays an integral role, D’Antoni has put much more of an emphasis on isolation plays in order to better fit the profile of his current roster.

The Rockets posted historic offensive numbers with James Harden and Chris Paul running the show, but did so unlike D’Antoni teams of the past. Gone are the days of the seven-seconds-or-less offense; the Rockets played at a pace (97.4 possessions per 48 minutes) that was middle of the pack, while their assist total came in at just 26th in the league, third worst among teams that made the postseason last year. Despite that, Houston managed to post the highest offensive rating (114.7) in the league.

While those stylistic changes should aid Anthony as he looks to rebound next season, they alone don’t make this the perfect fit for the Rockets. Anthony will never see the touches that he was once accustomed to in New York or Denver. He isn’t the same player he was five years ago, either; as his athleticism has declined, so too has Anthony’s ability to get past his defenders, leading to tougher, lower percentage shots that could sink the Rockets come the postseason.

The only thing that really holds Anthony back now is his own stubborn ignorance of those facts. He refused to adjust last season with the Oklahoma City Thunder because he still has “so much left in the tank.” Anthony posted some of the worst numbers of his career last season and, while Billy Donovan isn’t the offensive wizard that D’Antoni is, things should only get worse as Harden (36.1 percent usage rate) and Paul (24.5) dominate the ball if Anthony remains unwilling to change.

So, while his words may hold true, Anthony is no longer in a position where he needs to put the team on his back in order for it to be successful. Houston already has a well-established hierarchy, and Anthony is merely a column meant to buttress what is already in place. If he can’t come to accept that, the chance Houston is taking on him could backfire tremendously.

Still, Houston needs someone to eat the minutes vacated by the departure of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute in free agency. While he may not be able to match their defensive exploits, Anthony is still more than capable of filling their shoes, or even providing an upgrade, offensively. That potential upgrade alone could make the move a worthwhile one for the Rockets, who came just minutes from dethroning the Golden State Warriors despite the loss of Chris Paul in the Western Conference Finals.

For things to truly work out, however, Anthony must be willing to accept a change in his role, a diminished one in an offense that isn’t hurting for star power or shot takers, but one that desperately needs role players. If Anthony can adapt, he could be exactly what they need to challenge the Warriors. If not, Anthony’s arrival could blow up in D’Antoni’s face just as it did with the Knicks.

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NBA Daily: The NCAA’s Recent Policy Changes are Problematic

The NCAA made unilateral changes to its rules that may look good on paper but more likely make a difficult situation even more complicated.

James Blancarte

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Going into 1995 NBA Draft, the NBA still allowed high school players to enter straight into the NBA but few had actually done so over the years. That year, Kevin Garnett, an extremely talented high school prospect, went straight into the draft from high school and went on to have a Hall of Fame career. Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, like Garnett, also went straight to the NBA from high school and each have also had Hall of Fame careers. Many other similarly situated players such as Rashard Lewis, Jermaine O’Neal and Tracy McGrady succeeded on the same path. Yet concerns remained that although there were individual success stories, perhaps it would be best overall to have kids mature a bit more before entering the NBA. Eventually, through collective bargaining, new rules were put in place that prohibited high school players from entering the league.

As time has gone on there has been some frustration with the fact that perhaps these young men, legally adults at 18 years of age, have been unfairly prevented from earning at least one year of significant income as an NBA rookie. There is also frustration, mentioned below, at how the NCAA and college programs have policed themselves (or failed to do so) over the years. There is rampant abuse and under the table dealing that has largely benefitted the people around these young athletes and the schools, while often times harming the players or not benefitting them in any tangible way. The FBI has been conducting an investigation into these practices, which has shed new light and more focus onto the situation. Accordingly, now there is widespread discussion and speculation that the NBA again intends to reverse course and allow players to bypass the collegiate game.

With accusations of impropriety, constant attacks against the amateur model and an ongoing federal investigation, the NCAA took drastic action last Wednesday to counter the negativity around the college game — at least in appearance.

First the good part; players will be allowed to enter the draft and should they be not be chosen, the player may return to school under certain circumstances. Back at his collegiate program, a player can return to a place where he can continue to mature as a basketball player and as a college student. This is a nice option for many players and should have been available years ago.

For NBA teams, they now face the prospect of a first wave of high school seniors going straight to the NBA in addition to the other collegiate and international prospects. If it turns out that these high school prospects are collectively more prepared than expected and demonstrate they can contribute at a high level shortly after entering the league, there could be a sizable shift in how teams value first-round draft picks. Teams are already extremely hesitant to trade first-round picks, which means there would be some additional stagnation in the trade market. There are many complexities to this prospective new system that could have consequences that aren’t even foreseeable at this juncture.

Additionally, while this may be an appealing option for some players who are on the fence about going pro, it may not have as much widespread appeal. Some prospects may not realistically expect to be drafted. Once skipped over, a player is likely to seek compensation in the G-League or by playing international basketball. That’s the rub overall, the college game is sticking to the amateur model and the insistence that players not be compensated beyond the education they receive. Even worse, a player may have declared for the draft knowing that he might be leaving behind academic or conduct violations behind. Should that player attempt to go back, he would have to deal with any situation that joining the professional ranks would have avoided. The point here is that while this new rule may look good for the NCAA from a PR perspective, the truth is it may have little benefit to the college players overall.

Now the thornier part. As reported, the NCAA will allow “elite” high school prospects to obtain an agent. Previously this would have been a violation of NCAA rules that prevent amateur students from doing so. Should a player instead decide to go to college, he would have to break off his relationship with the agent. This adds more complications and issues to a system that is already plagued with questionable rules and policies.

In addition, it appears that USA Basketball was not initially thrilled to be put in a position to determine which players are considered “elite,” which could cause some more logistical issues. Also, there has been speculation about whether prospects participating in the USA Basketball system would be the only players selected or, at least, preferred over international prospects. Matt Norlander of CBS Sports spoke to NCAA’s senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt who explained this wasn’t the case.

“It is not going to be just the prospects who are Junior National Team players for USA Basketball. It’s going to be more than that. How that’s going to be determined, and how large a pool, is to be determined. That could be years away,” Gavitt stated.

There is much more to dive into on this issue unfortunately. The NCAA has seemingly taken a strategy to fixing issues that are symptoms of a bigger problem – that is the NCAA’s insistence on treating its players as students who should not be compensated rather than actual athletes. There are no easy solutions to this situation and adding more layers of complexity with unilateral changes such are likely to make matters worse.

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