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NBA PM: LeBron James’ Quest for Cleveland’s First Title

A look at LeBron James’ quest to bring Cleveland their first major sports title in 52 years.

Cody Taylor

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LeBron James warned all of us two summers ago. Upon returning home to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers, James cautioned fans in his letter to Sports Illustrated that he wasn’t promising a championship. He remained realistic in his approach, and knew just how hard it would be to deliver the Cavaliers’ first championship.

James’ quest to deliver that elusive title looked at times to be extremely difficult. During the two years since James penned that infamous letter, the Golden State Warriors cemented themselves as the team to beat in the NBA. Stephen Curry transformed into arguably the best offensive player in the game. Klay Thompson took on the role as Curry’s sidekick to form one of the best backcourts in the league, and Draymond Green emerged as one of game’s most versatile players.

Cleveland’s hopes of returning to greatness with James coming back home were at an all-time high heading into the 2014-15 season. Shortly after James officially signed with the Cavaliers, the team pulled off the blockbuster trade to acquire Kevin Love from the Minnesota Timberwolves. Parting ways with the No. 1 overall pick in Andrew Wiggins seemed like a lot to give up, but if it meant Love would help bring a title to Cleveland, it would be worth it.

But when the Cavaliers began James’ first season back with a 19-20 start, it seemed a bit premature to believe Cleveland could win any sort of title soon. Questions were beginning to be raised about the team. When the best player on the planet states his desire to bring his hometown a championship – and things don’t go his way – we pay attention.

It almost seemed as though James and the Cavaliers were cursed. After all, the city had seen its fair share of bad luck. As James noted himself last night, “You could look back to the Earnest Byner fumble, [John] Elway going 99 yards, to Jose Mesa not being able to close out in the bottom of the ninth to the Cavs went to The Finals – I was on that team – in 2007, us getting swept, and then last year us losing 4-2.”

*****

In the midst of the Cavaliers’ rough start to the 2014-15 season, the team executed a trade to acquire J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert from the New York Knicks, and in a separate trade also picked up Timofey Mozgov. James revealed last night in his post-game press conference that Smith was a “throw-in” player in the deal.

The Cavaliers picked up a shooting threat in Smith, a great defender in Shumpert and a big man in Mozgov. In Smith’s second game with the Cavaliers, he led the team in scoring after dropping 27 points on those same Warriors that the Cavaliers would eventually battle in the Finals. While Smith might have been a throw-in player by the Knicks, he became arguably the most important player the team acquired in those two trades.

“It goes without saying,” James said last season of Smith’s impact to the team. “Sometimes what’s known doesn’t need to be said. He comes in with a defensive mindset for one. He plays all of the two-guards in our league. Then he just makes the right plays offensively. If he’s got a shot, he takes it; if not, he swings it. He continues to get everyone involved, but obviously his shooting ability definitely helps our team as far as space and it’s a very key component for us.”

Shortly after acquiring those three players, the Cavaliers went on to finish the rest of the regular season by compiling a 34-9 record. The team looked to be well on their way to the NBA Finals – James’ fifth-straight Finals appearance, and the franchise’s first since 2007. Of course, we know how that story ended: with the Warriors eliminating the Cavaliers in six games.

*****

The Cavaliers seemed destined to return to the Finals again this season. They were the top-ranked team in the Eastern Conference virtually for the entire season and were the clear-cut favorites to advance out of the East. Their path through the playoffs offered little resistance as they suffered just two losses prior to the Finals (against the Toronto Raptors).

This was after the team opted to fire head coach David Blatt. It’s not often that a team in first place in its conference makes a coaching change during the middle of the season. But the reported turmoil between Blatt and James proved to be too much for the organization and Tyronn Lue was promoted to take over and quickly learned to be a head coach.

While the Cavaliers were adjusting to a new head coach, the Warriors were full-steam ahead to the best record in regular-season history. The Warriors had virtually no distractions during their historic run. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers were mired in drama and were answering questions if their first-time head coach would be able to lead the team to a championship.

Players were sending cryptic tweets. James removed “The Land” from his Twitter bio and unfollowed the Cavs at one point. Kevin Love was involved in several trade rumors and was cropped out of a team photo. There were reports of players clashing in the locker room. Despite everything, James warned us in his letter that his patience would get tested and, by all indications, it was certainly tested and then some.

*****

There were no excuses for the Cavaliers this year. They were at full strength, unlike last year when they were missing two of their top players in Love and Kyrie Irving in the Finals. They played nearly the minimum amount of games through the Eastern Conference and were about as healthy as a team can be heading into June.

All indications pointed to a more competitive series this year between the Warriors and Cavaliers. With Love and Irving in the mix, the Cavaliers were going to seriously challenge the Warriors this year. James proved last season that one player can only take a team so far in a playoff series. He would need other players to step up and help him.

Through the first four games of the series, it was anything but competitive. The Warriors had stormed out to a 3-1 series lead after taking Game 4 in Cleveland. But, something happened that would alter the series in favor of the Cavaliers. James and Draymond Green were involved in an altercation late in Game 4 that saw Green take a swipe at James near his groin. The NBA reacted and assessed Green a flagrant foul, which in turn suspended him for Game 5.

It seems as though something was said that fired up James to a level that we hadn’t seen yet this postseason. During the scuffle, James said that he took offense to some of the things that Green said. The motivation that fired up James was likely comments made by Klay Thompson regarding the incident between James and Green.

“I saw them barking at each other, but it’s nothing — I mean, guys talk trash in this league all the time,” Thompson told reporters. “I’m just kind of shocked some guys take it so personal (laughing). It’s like, I mean, you know, it’s a man’s league and I’ve heard a lot of bad things on that court, but at the end of the day it stays on the court. We’re all competitive people. I mean, trash talk is a part of the game in basketball. It’s a part of any sport, especially this competitive.

“I don’t know how [James] feels. But obviously people have feelings and people’s feelings get hurt even if they’re called a bad word. I guess his feelings just got hurt. I mean, we’ve all been called plenty of bad words on the basketball court before. Some guys just react to it differently. All I can say for myself individually, I just try to ignore it or just let it fuel the fire, but I don’t carry it with me when the job is done.”

This was followed by Marreese Speights tweeting out a baby bottle emoji. Following those comments, James came out and dropped two of the best Finals performances that we’ve ever seen. In Games 5 and 6, James combined for 82 points, 24 rebounds, 18 assists, seven steals and six blocks, while shooting 56 percent from the field. James, a 31 percent three-point shooter during the regular season, knocked down 7-of-14 shots from three-point range during those two games.

Of course, that set the scene for James and an encore performance in Game 7. While he didn’t score at least 40 points for the third-straight game, he did record 27 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists, three blocks and two steals to become just the third player in history to have a triple-double in a Finals Game 7. He is now tied for second place all-time for most Finals MVP awards, and won this season’s trophy unanimously.

*****

When LeBron James is done playing basketball and settled into retirement, this Finals performance will be what’s remembered most. His first championship with the Miami HEAT will be talked about to some degree since it was his first ring, but what he was able to accomplish this season will go down as one of the best Finals performances in history.

James will be remembered most for bringing the Cleveland Cavaliers their first championship in franchise history. He’ll be remembered for ending a 52-year major sports championship drought. He’ll be remembered for staging the biggest comeback in Finals history after trailing 3-1, and he’ll also be remembered for ending the Warriors’ chance at clinching the best season in NBA history.

James will eventually have a statue in front of Quicken Loans Arena and will go down as one of the best players to ever lace ’em up. In the meantime, we remember James for delivering on one of the greatest vows in NBA history.

“I came back for a reason,” James said. “I came back to bring a championship to our city. I knew what I was capable of doing. I knew what I learned in the last couple years that I was gone, and I knew if I had to — when I came back, I knew I had the right ingredients and the right blueprint to help this franchise get back to a place that we’ve never been. That’s what it was all about.”

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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NBA Daily: Kevin Knox and Kristaps Porzingis Already Have One Thing In Common

Kevin Knox’s experience on draft night was eerily similar to that of Kristaps Porzingis. Let’s see what else they have in common.

Moke Hamilton

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Michael Porter, Jr. might be the next Kevin Durant, but he could just as easily be the next Greg Oden.

And if you’re searching for comfort in the wake of the decision of the Knicks to pass on the opportunity to draft the young man who was widely regarded as being the top prospect in the class of 2018, it is pretty easy to find in the fact that of all people, Jerry West decided that Porter wasn’t worth the risk, either.

While Porter might end up being a Hall of Famer, when it comes to drafting prospects, we might as well be shooting in the dark. We all knew that Markelle Fultz was the best option for the Sixers in last year’s draft, and 12 other teams clearly had no idea what Donovan Mitchell had in store for the league.

Heck, four years ago, as I was recently reminded by someone on Twitter, I predicted that the Knicks would select Emmanuel Mudiay with their fourth pick. Instead, they walked away with Kristaps Porzingis.

If I were the man making the call back then, with the information I had, I certainly would have drafted Mudiay. And you know what? That decision probably would have gotten me fired, and rightfully so.

The true moral of the story is that we simply can’t see into the future and all the analytics in the world won’t able to measure things like guts and heart. So as the Knicks pin their hopes on Kevin Knox, it truly will be interesting to see how the career arcs of he and Porter compare.

As for why we would single out the Knicks and make the franchise’s decision to draft Knox over him a personal one, quite a few people in the know relayed the same information on the Knicks and Porter going back to their date at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago in May—they loved each other.

Thereafter, there were reports that the Knicks were looking to move up in the draft, and Porter was on their minds. On Thursday night in Barclays Center, with the Knicks on the clock, their fans in attendance cheered for Porter, as they were hopeful that he would be selected to be the franchise’s next stud.

They were disappointed, and now, they’ll hope that Scott Perry’s decision to go with Knox ends up being the right one. It might be, just like Porzingis was the right pick over Mudiay, and it might not be, just like selecting Frank Ntilikina over Mitchell wasn’t.

Like it or not, though, the two young men will forever be linked, both in my mind and in the minds of plenty of other Knicks fans.

“That’s just motivation,” Knox said of the Knicks fans in attendance chanting Porter’s name.

“A lot of people want him to get to the Knicks, but I mean, it’s all good with me. I’m ready to get to work. I’m ready to get to work and ready to prove people in Summer League and prove people in the NBA.”

Knox’s experience on draft night was remarkably similar to that of Porzingis, and now, if you even so much as suggest trading the Latvian unicorn for a player such as Kyrie Irving, Knicks fans just might call for your head.

It’s strange how quickly things can change for you in New York City. At the end of the day, it comes down to working hard and earning the adoration of the faithful in Gotham City. Porzingis succeeded there, and there’s every reason to believe that Knox will, as well.

“They booed Porzingis (on draft night) and look where he is now,” the rookie remarked.

“They can chant Michael Porter all they want, but they got Kevin Knox, and I’m willing to work and I’m willing to get better.”

When asked, Knox would tell you that he and Jayson Tatum happen to have something in common. According to him, neither of the two really got an opportunity to show what they could do at the collegiate level.

With more opportunities and more repetitions, the sky truly is the limit for the 18-year-old.

“I think I can pretty much play all around the floor,” Knox said.

“I can handle the ball, pick-and-roll situations, make plays, make passes. I can stretch the floor, shoot the ball, get rebounds, push it coast to coast. So I think that versatility in the league is something that a lot of teams really need, and I think that’s something I can bring to the Knicks right now.”

Privately, to members of the Knicks organization, Knox has spoken highly of the spotlight that he’s bound to face in New York and believes that playing at Kentucky helped to prepare him for the type of demanding environment that he’ll be introduced to once the season gets underway in New York. And even without a bad back, the crushing expectations and heavy burden could cause a weaker minded player to crumble.

A FaceTime call with Porzingis on draft night went a long way toward giving the rookie the confidence that he’ll need to thrive in New York.

That the franchise’s pride and joy immediately reached out to his new running mate to congratulate him, welcome him to the team and give him some insight is a good sign. At the very least, it shows that Porzingis takes his responsibility as being the team’s lead man seriously.

At most, it could signal K.P.’s being pleased with the selection.

We’re about to embark upon the story of Kevin Knox. We’ve only seen the preamble.

You can’t judge a book by its cover, and you certainly can’t know how the final chapter will end based on what you’ve read in the first chapter. So no, the Knicks fans that wanted Michael Porter on their squad didn’t get their wish, but in the long run, they may end up being better for it.

Just like Kristaps Porzingis, Knox wasn’t received warmly by Knicks fans on draft night.

Hopefully, for the rookie, it’s not the last thing he and the beloved Porzingis will have in common.

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NBA Daily: Lessons From The 2018 NBA Draft

After a wild 2018 NBA Draft, here are four lessons and storylines worth watching over the next few years.

Ben Nadeau

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Now that the dust has settled on an unpredictable NBA Draft — what exactly have we learned? In amongst the unrelenting rumors, refused workouts and surprise reaches, there are a few key takeaways from Brooklyn. Of course, some of these are one-off instances, but others are definitely part of modern-day draft patterns. While draft night may sometimes seem like complete chaos or chance, each scenario on this rundown has been boiling over for weeks. Between passing on a talented prospect to letting an injured one slide, here are four important lessons from the 2018 NBA Draft.

Luka Dončić… Not The No. 1?

For months and months, it appeared as if Luka Dončić was poised to become the No. 1 overall pick in this draft. Even today, it’s hard to believe that somebody with Dončić’s age and resume wasn’t the top selection. In 2017-18 alone, the Slovenian took home EuroLeague MVP and Finals MVP plus ACB MVP, with championships in both leagues to boot — but here we are. Dončić averaged 14.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.1 steals over just 25 minutes per game, quickly transforming into the most well-rounded overseas prospect of all-time. But as impressive as Dončić was throughout the spring, the potential ceilings of both DeAndre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III eventually won out.

At 7-foot-1, Ayton’s 20.1 points, 11.6 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game were undeniably worthy of a top selection too, pairing well alongside Devin Booker and Josh Jackson for the foreseeable future. While the jury is still out on Bagley III — his defense needs some major fine-tuning — he won’t take key touches away from De’Aaron Fox either. More or less, nobody wants to be the organization to miss on such a franchise-altering pick. The Suns, Kings and even the Hawks may eventually regret passing on Dončić, but when general managers’ entire careers can depend on making the right choice at the right time, it’s not difficult to understand why the top of the draft unfolded as it did.

Playing Hard To Get Doesn’t Always Work Out…

As draft boards began to take shape, there was one particularly interesting situation sitting at No. 4 overall. Jaren Jackson Jr., solidly leading the second tier of prospects, was looking like a lock at the Memphis Grizzlies’ pick — but with one major caveat: Jackson Jr. reportedly didn’t work out or give his medical information to the franchise. After he was drafted, Jackson Jr. called those rumors “a tad out of context” — but, obviously, those are some massive red flags. Either way, Memphis went with their gut and selected the talented forward anyway.

But beyond all that, Memphis absolutely made the right move by sticking to their guns. Putting a modern three-point shooting, defensive-minded athlete next to Marc Gasol should prove to be an absolute nightmare for years to come. Naturally, Jackson Jr. will get plenty of easy looks from the stellar Mike Conley Jr. too — so if the draftee was once apprehensive, surely that will pass soon. Still, it reflects on a larger NBA pattern, wherein which prospective athletes sensibly look to mold their own path out of college. With players trying to control their draft narratives more than ever, it’s reassuring to see that some franchises will take their target first and then figure out the rest.

We may never know Jackson Jr.’s full thought process behind not working out for the Grizzlies, but there’s a great chance that the former Spartan was made for Memphis’ tough brand of basketball — and we should all be glad we’ll get to see it.

…But Injuries Will Lead To A Slide

Michael Porter Jr. — what a year for him, huh?

After missing out on much of his only collegiate season due to back surgery, Porter Jr. promised that he was feeling better than ever. But over the last month, scouts and front offices were treated to canceled workouts and hazy uncertainty. And, at the end of the day, it probably scared a handful of franchises away from the talented scorer. Just this week, the Kings heavily considered Porter Jr. at No. 2 overall — but even with that sudden unlikelihood passing by, few thought he’d drop out of the top ten altogether. Outside of the guaranteed money that Porter Jr. will miss out on, redshirting his rookie year may also be on the table as well.

The inherent upside with Porter Jr. is obvious, but — similarly to the Dončić issue — it’s tough to ask franchise officials to stake their livelihood on the prospect’s health. If Porter Jr.’s lingering issues stay with him and he never reaches his mountain of potential, that’s a tough pill to swallow. The 19-year-old would fall all the way down to No. 14, where the Denver Nuggets gladly scooped him up. During the combine in May, Porter Jr. called himself the best player in the draft — but it’s now up to him to prove them all wrong.

The Mysterious Men Nearly Miss Out

Let’s rewind to early April. Villanova had been just crowned NCAA champions for the second time in three years, the NBA playoffs were soundly on the horizon and mock drafts had begun to consistently pour out. Early on, there were two athletic big men that looked like shoo-ins as first-rounders: Robert Williams and Mitchell Robinson. Despite their undercooked skill-sets, both players pulled out of the combine and then waited for the hype to build — except, well, it didn’t. Williams, who was typically projected in the early teens, slipped out of the lottery entirely, only to be rescued by the Boston Celtics at No. 27. Williams is a booming, powerful prospect, but he could’ve really benefited from competing against the other top prospects in May.

Although he’s now landed in an ideal situation with Brad Stevens, Al Horford and a process-driven Celtics squad, Williams likely cost himself a whole load of money over the last 30-plus days as well.

In Robinson’s case, many believed his floor was the Los Angeles Lakers at No. 25 — rumors swirling that the 7-foot-1 center even received a promise from the illustrious franchise. Instead, Robinson dropped to the New York Knicks at No. 36 overall. Robinson had originally committed to Western Kentucky in July of 2017 before dropping out to prepare for the draft. After skipping the combine last month, Robinson indeed exhibited the potential to be both a steady shot-blocker and three-point maker during his individual evaluations. But with little to go off of but high school highlight reels and small session workout tapes, he understandably fell.

Sometimes the hype is impossible to ignore, but not participating in the combine and staying as mysterious as possible hurt these ultra-talented prospects.

While the 2018 NBA Draft wasn’t quite the trade-heavy, drama-laden extravaganza much of the world expected, there are plenty of narratives to reflect upon. At the end of the day, the ink is barely dry on this year’s festivities and it’ll be some time before there’s any indication of these successes or failures. Still, there are lessons to be learned from every draft, workout or injury process and these are four conversations worth considering as the NBA quickly rolls into the summer league season.

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2018 NBA Draft Diary

NBA Daily: The Losers of the NBA Draft

Shane Rhodes breaks down the losers of the 2018 NBA Draft.

Shane Rhodes

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The 2018 NBA Draft season has come to a close. And, while the actual draft wasn’t the fireworks show that it could have been, there was still plenty of surprises, both good and bad.

While Basketball Insiders’ Simon Hannig discussed the winners of the draft, not everyone was so fortunate. And, while the draft can come down to chance, some teams were worse off than others.

Let’s take a look at some of the bigger losers from draft night

Mikal Bridges

Talk about heartbreak.

Mikal Bridges was going home. The Philadelphia 76ers selected the Villanova standout with the No. 10 pick. Bridges did an entire press conference, talking about what it was like to be staying in Philadelphia. His mother, Tyneeha Rivers, is even the Global VP of Human Resources for Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, the company that owns the team. It was perfect.

And then it wasn’t.

It’s hard to not feel bad for Bridges, who was dropped into a dream scenario and then had it all ripped away. Going to the Phoenix Suns, an organization heading in a new direction, to play alongside plenty of young, high upside talent, including No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton as well as former lottery picks Josh Jackson and Devin Booker, isn’t the worst thing in the world for the rookie forward. Bridges could even flourish in Phoenix.

But it certainly won’t compare to playing under the bright lights in Philadelphia alongside Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid come next April and for years to come.

Michael Porter Jr.

One year ago, Michael Porter Jr. was a top three draft prospect projected to go as high as No. 1 overall. However, with rumors of questionable medicals swirling throughout the draft process, he dropped all the way to the Denver Nuggets at No. 14 overall.

While Porter will certainly welcome the chip on his shoulder, the lost earnings will definitely hurt him and his pocket. Porter is missing out on millions on his first NBA contract. Plus, the sheer amount of teams that balked at his medicals doesn’t bode well for his long-term future in the NBA.

It isn’t all bad for Porter; Denver has a young, talented roster and was one win away from a postseason birth last year. They can afford to be patient with Porter’s back, should he need to miss some time, as well. Standing 6-foot-11, 211 pounds and with a smooth jumper, Porter still has a great chance to be a star in this league.

Still, it was an inauspicious beginning to what, hopefully, is a long NBA career.

Sacramento Kings

This could apply to the Sacramento Kings roster as well as their fanbase.

The Kings got “their guy” in No. 2 overall pick Marvin Bagley III. And, while Bagley is still an amazing talent, the pick just seems like more of the same for the Kings, who have a glut of bigs — Willie-Cauley Stein, Harry Giles III, Skal Labissiere, Kostas Koufos — on the roster and a distinct lack of high-quality guard or wing depth.

In steps Luka Dončić, the 19-year-old Slovenian phenom. With the Suns taking Ayton with the top pick, the Kings had their chance to shore up their backcourt for the foreseeable future alongside De’Aaron Fox and move another step closer to relevancy.

And they whiffed.

Dončić could very well end up as the best player in the class. While he isn’t the most athletic, Dončić is exactly where the NBA is going; he is a multipositional defender and playmaker that can shoot the three. Meanwhile, Bagley, who is a questionable fit in the modern game, will be hardpressed to find playing time early on in his Kings tenure. Even worse, with their hearts set on Bagley, the Kings likely could have traded down a la the Atlanta Hawks and picked up another asset for their troubles.

While it’s much too early to call it either way, this is a pick that could come back to haunt Sacramento down the line.

Cleveland Cavaliers

It was not a great night for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Cavaliers missed out on one point-guard prospect, Trae Young, and another, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, flat out said he didn’t want to play for the franchise. And, even though they got a guard they liked in Alabama’s Collin Sexton, the Cavaliers are still in the unenviable position of dealing with LeBron James’ third iteration of The Decision.

Sexton’s selection doesn’t exactly help them retain James’ services either.

Since acquiring the pick from the Boston Celtics in the Kyrie Irving trade last summer, it had been speculated as to whether Cleveland would use the pick or trade it to get James help. With the team opting for the former, it’s difficult to imagine the Cavaliers getting any significant help for James, in free agency or otherwise, which could push him closer to leaving than he already may be. Meanwhile, Sexton, who dominated the ball during his time at Alabama, isn’t exactly the best fit alongside James in the event that he stays.

Either way, there appears to be a bumpy road ahead for the Cavaliers.

Washington Wizards

Troy Brown Jr. is a great pickup for the Washington Wizards. That still doesn’t mean he wasn’t a reach.

Brown is a twitchy wing that can defend multiple positions. But there were multiple wings that Washington could have taken ahead of Brown (e.g., Lonnie Walker II) that would have made this a better pick. Brown struggled as a shooter during his lone season at Oregon — he shot just 29.1 percent from three and has some iffy mechanics — and is a strange fit on the Wizards roster that already has a surplus of wing depth in John Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter Jr. and Kelly Oubre.

With the team looking to move Marcin Gortat, a big would have been a better fit for Washington at 15. Or, if management was deadset on Brown, dropping back a few spots would have made more sense.

Brown certainly has the talent to make an impact, but it’s hard to like a pick that may not crack the rotation in year one, according to the Wizards own General Manager.

Toronto Raptors

The Toronto Raptors took a big step earlier this offseason, moving on from Dwane Casey and placing Nick Nurse at the helm in early June.

But, with zero picks in a loaded draft, the Raptors have to be considered losers.

There were plenty of difference makers available up-and-down the draft board, but the Raptors didn’t end up with any of them. While management could improve the team via trade or free agency come July, they still feature the same roster that got manhandled in the Eastern Conference Semifinals by James and the Cavaliers and that isn’t good.

Not everyone can come out a winner in a crapshoot like the NBA Draft. Still, some teams found themselves worse off than others when all was said and done. Luckily, those teams still have a chance to improve themselves with free agency right around the corner.

 

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