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NBA PM: A Season Of Career-Years

James Blancarte takes a look at the career-years of players that aren’t leading candidates for the regular season awards.

James Blancarte

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As the regular season winds down, the debate over regular season awards heats up. These discussions draw together members of the media, casual and hardcore NBA fans and even the players themselves. In some years, certain players will be viewed as the consensus choice for a specific award and there won’t be much discussion or debate. This season, there is no clear favorite for several awards, including Most Valuable Player, potentially Most Improved Player and Defensive Player of the Year.

This year, several players are having a career-year based on statistics and overall impact. While many candidates for the major awards are earning praise and attention as part of the collective debate, there are many more players having career years that are not getting enough attention. Here, we will look beyond the lead candidates for these awards to recognize a few other players who are having impressive seasons, which may go unrecognized when the regular season awards are handed out.

Gordon Hayward – Utah Jazz

In a number of ways, this has been a spectacular year for the Utah Jazz. The team has not made it to the postseason since 2011-12 and is now settled into a first-round matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers. If not for a recent loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, the Jazz would still be in possession of the fourth seed and home court advantage. Home court or not, Utah is thrilled to return to the postseason despite being plagued by injuries all season. Starting power forward Derrick Favors and starting point guard George Hill have missed significant time this season (31 and 33 games respectively) due to various injuries.

In their periodic absence, forward Gordon Hayward has stepped up and is having a career-year. Hayward was rewarded earlier this season by being named as a first-time All-Star. Hayward has maintained his excellent play since All-Star Weekend and has been a key contributor for Utah.

In 72 games, per Basketball-Reference, Hayward is averaging career highs in points (22), rebounds (5.4), free throw percentage (84.4) and is posting overall strong shooting numbers, including a career-high true shooting percentage (57.8). Hayward has been able to reach many of these career highs (and more) by being the featured player on offense with a career-high usage rate (27.7 percent) and a career-low turnover percentage (9.4). Simply put, Utah’s offense revolves around Hayward more so than in past seasons, which plays a major role in Utah’s excellent play this season.

In addition, Hayward is setting new personal bests in advanced statistics such as value over replacement player (VORP), box plus-minus (BPM), win shares (WS) and player efficiency rating (PER). Of course, these advanced statistics can’t be solely relied on to show how effective Hayward has been this season, but they in effect confirm what is apparent to anyone who has watched Hayward play this season.

One area where Hayward has thrived is in the pick-and-roll (P&R). As the P&R ballhandler, amongst qualifying players, Hayward is scoring .98 points per possession (11th in the league), which places him ahead of P&R maestros like Clippers point guard Chris Paul and Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving. In addition, Hayward has maintained a 49.1 effective shooting percentage in P&R play (top 25 in the league).

Hayward is having a career-year for Utah at the right time. The roster has grown and developed together for a few seasons, several players are in or just hitting their respective prime years and the team now has some veterans to stabilize the team in high-pressure situations. Hayward has been great all season for Utah and now has a chance to show off his play in the postseason against the Clippers.

John Wall – Washington Wizards

John Wall and guard Bradley Beal (discussed below) are at the forefront of the Washington Wizards’ success this season. The team is in position to potentially make a run in the playoffs as they are the fourth seed and are set to play at home against the erratic Atlanta Hawks in the first-round.

Wall, currently in his seventh NBA season, is having a career-year and has been at the center of Washington’s success this season. Wall is averaging a career-high in points (23.1), steals (2.1), assists (10.7), free throws and free throws attempted, field goal percentage and PER (23.2).

In addition, Wall’s usage percentage (30.6) and his assist percentage (46.9) are career-highs while his turnover percentage (16.2) is the second-lowest of his career. Essentially, Washington’s offense runs through him more now than in past seasons and he accounts for nearly half of all assists to his teammates while he is on the floor (while limiting his turnovers). Quite an accomplishment.

Digging deeper, Wall is experiencing career-highs in VORP, BPM and WS. Simply put, Wall has been better than ever this season.

Wall credits head coach Scott Brooks with helping him improve this season.

“[Brooks is] like, ‘With your speed you settle for too many jump shots – you can get past people, you need to attack a little bit more,’” Wall explained.

This season, Wall has thrived by attacking the rim and passing on mid-range jump shots. With speed, athleticism and great body control, Wall is utilizing his best assets while passing on less efficient shots, which is paying off in a big way for Washington.

Wall has always been one of the fastest players in the league and is now exploiting that more often and more effectively than in past seasons. Amongst qualified players, Wall is ranked ninth in transition frequency (22.4 percent) while maintaining a 60.3 effective field goal percentage. Wall is a one-man fastbreak and is consistently generating easy scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates.

Wall isn’t a candidate for any major award this season, but he deserves recognition for having a career-year and more importantly leading Washington to the playoffs.

Bradley Beal – Washington Wizards

Like Wall, Bradley Beal is having a career-year and has been crucial to Washington’s success. Coming into this season, Beal had yet to sufficiently answer two crucial questions that have plagued him for years. After averaging 62 games a year due to injuries, could he stay healthy? Earlier this season, Beal acknowledged that issue had bothered him.

“You want to be that guy that shows up each and every night, regardless of what ailments you may have,” Beal stated.

Also, after rumors of discord between the pair, could Beal and Wall co-exist successfully? In his fifth year, Beal has been able to answer the above questions with a resounding yes.

Wall set the record straight earlier this season and recently addressed the on-court relationship with Beal.

“I normally have the ball. I’m going to get my shot whenever I want to. But my job is to get him going. That’s where we are a better team,” Wall said.

In a career-high 76 games this season, Beal is averaging a career-high in scoring (23), assists (3.5), free throw shooting (82.2 percent), effective (56.4) and true shooting (60.2) percentage, three-point shooting, as well as minutes per game (34.9). Like Wall, Beal’s usage percentage (26.4) is at a career-high, as well as his assist percentage (16.1), PER (19.9) and he is maintaining a near career-low turnover percentage (9.7).

Simply put, Beal is playing more games, more minutes per game and has still been more efficient. In addition, he has career-highs in VORP, BPM and WS (8.2, doubling his previous high of 4). Basic and advanced statistics indicate this is his finest campaign yet.

One of the biggest improvements for Beal has come from his shot selection. Wizards fans will recall that Beal would often pass up open three-point shots inexplicably. Not anymore. This season, 41.9 percent of Beal’s shots are coming from three-point range (by far a career-high) and his three-point percentage (40.6) is essentially tied with his prior best marks. Cut out the low-percentage mid-range floaters and replace them with high-percentage three-pointers and this is what can happen for a player like Beal.

Like Wall, Beal does a lot of his damage on the fast break. However, unlike Wall, Beal doesn’t thrive on volume but is instead much more efficient in fewer opportunities. With a lower transition frequency (17.5 percent, compared to 22.1 percent for Wall), Beal scores 1.33 points per possession in transition, good for fifth in the league amongst qualifying players, and shoots a higher effective field goal percentage (68.7 to Wall’s 60.3). With both guards attacking in transition, Washington features a dangerous transition game that can be difficult for any opponent to deal with.

This has been a breakout season for Beal. Injuries haven’t been an issue and he has tailored his game in such a way that makes him even more effective for Washington than he has been in previous seasons.

Isaiah Thomas – Boston Celtics

Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas is the unquestioned leader and best overall player for Boston. Until a few months ago, his name had even been in the discussion of potential MVP candidates. Although arguably no longer the case, we should recognize how tremendous Thomas has been this season.

Celtics general manager Danny Ainge, who is seemingly always stockpiling assets, has long sought to acquire a superstar to lead Boston. Although the search goes on, Thomas has emerged as a homegrown superstar for the Celtics this season.

Thomas has achieved a dramatic increase in scoring (a career-high 29.2, up from 22.2 last season). He is also posting career-highs in free throw shooting (90.9 percent), effective (54.8) and true shooting percentages (62.7) and a near career-high in assists. Thomas is sporting an incredibly high 34 percent usage rate while maintaining nearly a career-high in assist percentage (32.5) and a career low in turnover percentage (10.6). Finally, Thomas has hit career benchmarks in VORP, BPM and WS.

Thomas has been very good individually and is a principal reason that the Celtics hold second-place in the Eastern Conference. Thomas has been able to achieve many of the above results by playing as efficiently as possible by attacking the rim and hitting three-point shots.

What has also set Thomas apart has been his incredible play in fourth quarters. Earlier this season, his clutch scoring earned him the Game of Thrones inspired nickname, “The King in the Fourth.”  As of April 10, Thomas is averaging 9.8 points in fourth quarters, second only to Oklahoma City Thunder guard and MVP candidate Russell Westbrook.

Thomas has been able to hit this level of success despite his diminutive size (5-foot-9) and despite opposing defenses focusing their attention on him (without much success).

Jimmy Butler – Chicago Bulls

The Chicago Bulls are teetering on the edge of playoff success or doom. After a loss on April 9 to the New Jersey Nets, the Bulls are tied for the eighth and final seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

Bulls’ management has been criticized for failing to properly surround Jimmy Butler with players that compliment his skill set. Specifically, the Bulls added ball-dominant veteran guards Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade, as well as recently trading away three-point threat Doug McDermott. With little spacing and erratic play from several players throughout the season, Chicago has failed to maximize Butler’s considerable talent.

Despite the mismanagement, Butler is averaging a career-high in points (24), assists (5.5), rebounds (6.2), free throw shooting (including a career-high 86.4 percent) while maintaining a near career-high shooting percentage from the field and a career-high true shooting percentage (56.6). Butler has done this with career highs in usage percentage (26.6), assist percentage (25.1) and his third lowest turnover percentage (9.4). Additionally, Butler is posting career-best marks in VORP, BPM, WS and PER.

Butler is dominating the ball while scoring efficiently, making plays for others and keeping his turnovers down. In a season where he has been surrounded by overlapping talent, been involved in locker room drama and been the subject of significant trade rumors, Butler has managed to carry his team and post career-high marks in several statistical categories.

C.J. McCollum – Portland Trail Blazers

Portland Trail Blazers shooting guard C.J. McCollum forms the second half of another brilliant backcourt pairing. Like Wall and Beal, Damian Lillard and McCollum are the collective engine that makes their respective team run. Behind Lillard, and the career-year of McCollum, the Trail Blazers recently clinched the final playoff spot in the West and are set for a rematch against the Golden State Warriors as the eighth seed. The spotlight tends to shine brightest on Lillard, who has posted several great seasons. With this in mind, let’s focus on McCollum’s career-year.

McCollum’s most successful campaign is marked by career-highs in points (23), blocks, rebounds, free throw shooting, both effective (54.4) and true shooting (58.5) percentage, three-point shooting (42 percent), as well as minutes per game (35). Like the players above, McCollum is posting a career-high in usage (27.5 percent) while achieving his lowest turnover percentage to date (9.9). He is both scoring and serving as a secondary ball-handler, which is a nice luxury for Portland. Finally, his PER (19.9), VORP, BPM and WS ratings are all at career-highs.

Overlooked in this career-year is how effective McCollum’s scoring has been in the fourth quarter. In fourth quarters, McCollum is shooting 41.7 percent from three-point range and has a 54 percent effective field goal rate, both of which outpaces Lillard comparatively. Again, Lillard is the face of the Trail Blazers, but McCollum is arguably just as important to the team’s overall success – especially this season.

*****

Honorable Mentions include Lillard, Miami HEAT center Hassan Whiteside, Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan and Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol.

Players purposely omitted since they are leading candidates for the major regular season awards include: James Harden, Westbrook, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, Rudy Gobert and Draymond Green.

 

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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.

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NBA Daily: Quality Free Agents Still Available

Many quality free agents are still available nearly three weeks into free agency, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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With the NBA Summer League over and training camps a few months away, the NBA would normally be quiet this time of year. Apparently the San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors didn’t get the memo as they agreed to a trade centered around Kawhi Leonard and DeMar DeRozan. Additionally, Carmelo Anthony has finally been traded to relieve the Oklahoma City Thunder from a tremendous tax burden.

As the dust settles from these trades, many free agents continue to wait in the wings. The list includes many talented players who will eventually make their way back onto an NBA team’s roster. Some will return to the team they played for last year, which is especially likely for restricted free agents (e.g., Marcus Smart). Some may, for a variety of reasons, not return to an NBA roster. Last year Rodney Stuckey sat the year out and used the time to improve his health in order to make a comeback this year. Former All-Star center Roy Hibbert just announced his retirement at age 31 after not being active last season.

The list of available restricted free agents has seriously dwindled now nearly three weeks into the free agency period. RFAs such as Marcus Smart (back to the Boston Celtics) and Jabari Parker (to the Chicago Bulls) have recently signed new contracts. These signings, among others, leaves Houston Rockets RFA center Clint Capela and Los Angeles Clippers RFA center Montrezl Harrell as two of the bigger names left on the board.

Available Restricted Free Agents:

Clint Capela

Clint Capela is coming off of his best and most efficient season averaging 13.9 points, 10.8 rebounds, 1.9 blocks in 27.5 minutes a game (all career highs) and he is only 24 years old. Capela also spearheaded a defense that, when combined with James Harden’s offensive mastery, pushed the Golden State Warriors to the brink in the Western Conference Finals. Reports are that Capela has turned down an initial offer to re-sign for well below his max. While the clock ticks on the Rockets and Capela, Capela finds himself in what remains a punitive free agent market. The Sacramento Kings is the only other team capable of immediately signing Capela to a competitive contract to lure him away from the Rockets. To make matters worse, the Kings have been committed to stocking their roster with as many big men as possible making them a less-than-ideal suitor for Capela’s services.

Montrezl Harrell

Montrezl Harrell won’t generate as many headlines as the other RFAs that have been in the news lately but don’t sleep on him. In a season that never went according to plan for the Clippers, Harrell was one of the bright spots for the team. Harrell, acquired by the Clippers in the Chris Paul trade, showed tenacity on offense as he served as a strong offensive rebounder, floor runner and helped the Clippers weather a five-game stretch where center DeAndre Jordan was unavailable. Harrell played especially well in place of Jordan. However, working against Harrell is the Clipper’s roster crunch. The team has 18 players on the roster, not counting Harrell. If the Clippers do ultimately decide to bring back Harrell, the Clippers will have to make several moves to clear roster spots.

Rodney Hood

Cleveland Cavaliers RFA wing Rodney Hood also remains available. Utah Jazz fans can relate to the ups and downs of cheering for Hood who has flashes of brilliant play but remains inconsistent. Hood was acquired during last season to help bolster the Cavaliers’ championship run. However, Hood’s scoring, three-point shooting, overall statistics and minutes went down significantly due to his uneven play. While Hood is still a capable player, his time with the Cavaliers did not end well, which has impacted his stock around the league. It didn’t help Hood’s cause when he was benched in the postseason and he subsequently refused to enter the game when instructed to. The Kings, in need of help on the wing, could be a suitor for Hood’s services. However, Cleveland could match any such offer as the franchise continues to build a new team after the loss of LeBron James.

Available Unrestricted Free Agents:

Dwyane Wade

The group of remaining unrestricted free agents is a mixed bag. As mentioned above, there is at least a chance that one of these players may not even make a roster when the dust settles this offseason. Dwyane Wade has bounced around the league the last few years with stints with the Bulls, Cavaliers and a most recent return to the Miami HEAT under his belt. Wade remains capable of spurts of offense and is a fan favorite in Miami. The most obvious result here is a return to Miami. However, Wade himself commented regarding a potential return or possibly retirement.

“When I get back from China, I’ll focus on that [decision],” Wade said while in China. “The basketball will take care of itself. I’ll sit down and figure that out once I get back from this tour at some point.”

Michael Beasley

Michael Beasley remains unsigned despite a strong outing last season for the New York Knicks. Beasley started 30 of 74 games played. His numbers don’t jump off the boxscore: 13.2 points, 5.6 rebounds, 1.7 assists in 22.3 minutes. However, these are some of the best numbers he’s put up in years and the most consistent he has played since 2012-13. The Knicks may likely move on from Beasley but he remains a viable scorer who could come off the bench and start in a pinch for many teams if the price is right.

Jamal Crawford and Nick Young

Jamal Crawford and Nick Young remain unsigned veterans who offer potential teams a scoring punch off the bench. Young has the benefit of showing that he contributed in spurts to the Warrior’s championship season while not becoming a distraction. Both are known for knocking down difficult outside shots but can be inefficient scorers and potential liabilities on defense.

Honorable Mentions

A few notable big men remain available as well. Phoenix Center Alex Len never became the elite big man the Suns had hoped for when they used the fifth pick in the 2013 draft to acquire him. However he remains a serviceable player. For his career, Len averages 7.2 points and 6.2 rebounds in 19.9 minutes. He is somewhat mobile and could be a strong option for a team looking for a backup center. Centers Al Jefferson and Jahill Okafor can both score the basketball but have to directly combat the notion that they have become antiquated. The modern game calls for mobile centers that shoot reliably from the outside to stretch the floor, are efficient on offense, can guard the rim as well as being at least somewhat capale of covering ball handlers on switches. Okafar and Jefferson don’t fit that profile and will have to convince potential suitors that despite their meager contributions over the last few seasons that they can sufficiently adapt to the modern game and make a positive impact.

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NBA: Kawhi Leonard for DeMar DeRozan Makes Sense

In an unexpected move, DeMar DeRozan and Kawhi Leonard swapped teams, and it makes complete sense.

Dennis Chambers

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The Kawhi Leonard saga in San Antonio is finally over.

In the wee hours of the morning on Wednesday, news broke via Twitter that Leonard was about to be shipped across the Canadian border to the Toronto Raptors for — get this — DeMar DeRozan.

Leonard, and his deteriorated relationship with the San Antonio Spurs, dominated the offseason headlines, and while reports constantly whizzed around about where the All-Star small forward would wind up — maybe Los Angeles, maybe Philadelphia, maybe Boston — his final destination is one that came completely out of left field (despite the current odds).

While many people viewed the situation with Leonard as a chance for San Antonio to start fresh and plan for the future, the Spurs appeared to have no interest in that avenue. The entirety of the deal, Leonard and Danny Green for DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a top-20 protected 2019 first-round pick displays a win-now outcome for each party.

After winning 59 games and obtaining the top overall seed in the Eastern Conference, the Raptors eventually were bounced by the Cleveland Cavaliers in a sweeping fashion. Dwane Casey, the 2017-18 Coach of the Year, was fired after not being able to extend the franchises’ best season to an NBA Finals appearance. It appeared, with LeBron moving West, that the Raptors were going to run it back one more time to see if they could finally break through to the game’s biggest stage.

On the other side, the Spurs were coming off of a season in which they won 47 games and were two games out of the Western Conference’s third seed — all of which they achieved without Leonard. In the waning years of Gregg Popovich’s career, it appeared his team was still talented enough, and system still effective enough, to make relevant noise in the playoffs without a superstar player.

At its core, this deal comes down to each team swapping their best player for the other’s. Leonard gets out of San Antonio, to a team whose core won 59 games in the East. DeRozan gets the benefit of fitting into a system with the best head coach in the league, on a very competitive roster.

Now, it remains to be seen how happy each player will be in their situations. Reports surfaced early Wednesday morning that both players were dissatisfied with the trade outcome. But, as we all know, winning cures everything.

On the Spurs’ front, it’s interesting how little they considered trade packages for future picks and quality role players. ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported San Antonio rebuffed offers from the Sixers and Celtics that were centered around future assets, in turn focusing their trade efforts on the likes of Ben Simmons, and the Celtics’ young core. Instead of landing a handful of assets or players that may not materialize until Popovich is gone, the Spurs reeled in a player who is a year removed from averaging 27 points per game. Oh, by the way, he’s also under contract for the next three seasons.

DeRozan keeps the Spurs relevant. Maybe he doesn’t help them beat the Golden State Warriors (in fact, he most certainly doesn’t), but he allows his new team the chance to win meaningful games in the postseason over the next three years.

From everything that’s been reported, there was no way Popovich was going to commit the final few years of his NBA life to a rebuild. With a man like that at the helm, and a star player like DeRozan under contract, who knows what other tricks San Antonio might have up its sleeve.

Up in Toronto, if the Raptors can convince Leonard to play this season, their core plus an upgrade on the wing might finally be enough to break through to the Finals. New head coach Nick Nurse suddenly has a player widely regarded as a top-five talent in the league on his roster to accompany a deep and talented core. Although, just like in San Antonio, Leonard might not add enough to the Raptors to dethrone the Warriors. However, he suddenly has a better supporting cast to try and give Golden State a run for its money.

Plus, given Toronto’s inability to get out of the East, a Finals appearance in its own right would be considered a success next season.

All around, maybe this wasn’t the deal we expected to get Leonard out of San Antonio, but digesting the move from all angles, it appears to be the most sensible.

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