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NBA PM: The Toronto Raptors Are Struggling For Consistency

Raptors coach Dwane Casey and point guard Kyle Lowry give insights on the team’s struggle for consistency.

Buddy Grizzard

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With DeMar DeRozan coming off player of the week honors and the Raptors rising as high as second in the Eastern Conference, a two-game skid with losses to the Knicks and Pacers presented a bump in the road. After Saturday’s win in Atlanta got Toronto back on track for the moment, point guard Kyle Lowry talked about how consistency, especially to start third quarters, remains an obstacle for his team.

“That is the one thing coach challenged — he specifically said me and DeMar — challenged us to come out with a little bit more assertiveness and not have the third quarter we’ve had the last couple of games,” said Lowry.

But Raptors coach Dwane Casey says that consistent pace and effort has been a recurring issue for the team over multiple seasons.

“It’s something that’s been going on for the last couple of years, three years … that we’re trying to break,” said Casey after Monday’s practice. “We’ve got to continue to work on it, focus on it, talk about it.

“I don’t know what the reason is. Some of it’s the schedule. Most of it is us. There’s no excuse as far as us being up and down. Some of it is a newness, some of it is youth. You can point at all of it but at the end of the day, the schedule is what it is. We’ve got to come out and perform and do our job.”

Casey said the organization is looking at every angle to try to get more consistency out of the team.

“We’ve tried to change the lineup,” said Casey. “That wasn’t totally the answer. We’ve got to come out with more pace in the first quarter and also in the third quarter to break that trend. We’re looking at all aspects of it from an analytical standpoint and from a personnel standpoint.”

Asked about specific players, Casey declined to single anyone out.

“It’s not one guy that’s the issue,” said Casey. “It’s all of us. It’s coaches, it’s players, it’s all of us making sure we come out with the proper energy, proper focus to start the game and start the third quarter. Everything’s on the table.”

Meanwhile, on the positive side of the ledger, Lowry said the Raptors are looking forward to a forthcoming stretch of home games after a tough stretch of six-of-eight games on the road. Lowry said that although a stretch of games against teams lower in the standings is upcoming, the Raptors don’t plan to relax.

“Honestly, the records don’t mean nothing so early,” said Lowry. “It’s a good stretch to be home. We’ve got three games at home. Let’s take advantage of that. No matter what happens, we’ve got to go out there and do our jobs, follow the game plan and make sure we execute what we need to execute.”

Another positive has been improved depth, which has allowed Lowry to play fewer minutes this season. Backup point guard Delon Wright has averaged almost 21 minutes per game while Fred VanVleed is averaging 15.7 and Lowry now enjoys a lighter-than-normal 32.3 minutes per game.

“We’ve talked about it the last three years but finally we’re doing it this year,” said Lowry of reducing his minutes. “We’re deeper. Our depth in our back court is really good. For me, I’m kind of finding a rhythm now and starting to play a lot better.

“I haven’t looked at how many minutes I’m averaging but I definitely can tell the difference of getting more rest and feeling fresh and feeling good. But at the same time, when I’m playing a lot of minutes I get in a little bit more of a rhythm.”

Casey added that, although not necessarily a part of the game plan, Lowry has done a great job of boxing out and rebounding when he gets switched onto bigger players.

“It happens, unfortunately, a lot of times off of switches,” said Casey. “If Kyle’s down there on a switch — which we don’t want him to be — but if he does get down there, it puts him in that position to rebound. We want to avoid that as much as possible, but it does happen. And that’s where he does a good job of anticipating the shot, getting into his man and coming up with the rebound.”

Casey added that, although he doesn’t like to see him mix it up under the glass against larger players on a regular basis, Lowry’s nose for the ball makes him a safe bet to come out with it.

“He’s a tough kid,” said Casey. “It’s one of those things where the other guy is probably going to get hurt. I put my money on Kyle. It’s just something about those guys that have a nose and a knack for the 50-50 balls. That’s a huge skill to have. And Kyle’s toughness, his competitiveness, his anticipation, all those things help him in those situations. I love it because it means we’re probably going to come out with the ball.”

For Lowry, he said he likes going inside because it gives him an opportunity to ignite the fast break, where mere seconds make a huge difference.

“I’ve got a chance to have the ball in my hand, not have to wait for it,” said Lowry. “That’s an extra two seconds with the ball in my hands. [It gives] that chance to go and make the play and outlet and not have to wait for it and turn my back. It’s catch, go and see what’s happening.”

Another aspect of the team’s up-and-down season has been the recent slump of DeRozan, who has scored 18, 13 and two points over the last three games after nine consecutive games scoring over 20. DeRozan was held out of practice due to knee soreness and that will be a situation to keep an eye on.

“We’re going to need DeMar,” said Casey after his off game against the Hawks. “We’ve got to get him going some kind of way, offensively and defensively. He’s kind of in a tough spot right now. But he’s got a great attitude. He’s pulling for his teammates, he’s talking to his teammates, he’s coaching his teammates, which is a signal of growth for him.”

Lowry added that the struggle for consistency continues, but he hopes the Raptors will eventually turn the corner on their third-quarter woes.

“As a team, we’ve had great streaks, we’ve lost a couple in a row,” said Lowry. “But that’s just the NBA season. We’ve just got to find ways to concentrate and be more locked in and not give up runs. The last game, the third quarter was a great start to try to do something different for us in the third quarters. I think we had this problem two years ago. Our third quarters were bad. But we figured it out last year and now we have to figure it out this year.”

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

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NBA Daily: Daniel Hamilton Hopes to Stick in OKC

Oklahoma City’s Daniel Hamilton speaks to Basketball Insiders about his time at summer league and sticking in the NBA.

David Yapkowitz

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There are usually two main categories of guys who participate in the NBA’s summer league.

The players who are armed with guaranteed contracts are usually looking to expand on their game and test out new skills. Then there are the players who don’t have that kind of security, the ones who are looking for an opportunity to earn an invite to training camp in hopes of securing a coveted roster spot in the NBA.

For Daniel Hamilton, he kind of falls into both of those categories.

Hamilton just completed his rookie season with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He was signed last summer to a two-way contract and he split time between the Thunder and their G-League affiliate, the Oklahoma City Blue. He joined the Thunder’s summer league team in Las Vegas, his third consecutive summer with them.

“I’m working on getting stronger, lowering my turnovers, and continue getting reps up in the gym,” Hamilton told Basketball Insiders. “I’m getting shots up and different things like that.”

Hamilton was drafted by the Denver Nuggets with the 56th overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft but was immediately traded to the Thunder. He didn’t play with the Thunder right away though. He spent the entire 2016-2017 season with the Blue.

This past year was his second in the G-League. He finished the season as the Blue’s second-leading scorer with 16.9 points per game, behind Dakari Johnson’s 23.3. While he was on a two-way contract, he only saw action in six games with the Thunder. Most of his time was spent with the Blue.

“It was good, my first year doing the two-way deal. I had a lot of good times playing up with the pros and going down to the G-League,” Hamilton told Basketball Insiders. “The G-League was real good, being able to just go out and play and work on your game, and get wins as a team. We had a great team this past year, we finished top in our division. It was just a fun experience overall.”

This season was a bit different for Hamilton, however. It was also his first year playing a different position. Up to that point, he’d been a shooting guard. He played shooting guard as a standout at St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower, CA. He was a shooting guard during his two years at UConn.

But the Thunder asked him to do something a bit different when he joined the team. They asked him to play point guard. He used his second season with the Blue to test out playing a new position. He averaged 7.8 assists with the Blue, but also 4.9 turnovers as he got used to being a playmaker. He used the Las Vegas Summer League to continue that adjustment.

“It’s been pretty good. My first year of playing point guard was this past year. It’s just something that I’m trying to get used to. Just trying to stay focused on whatever happens next,” Hamilton told Basketball Insiders. “I think it helped me expand my game, being able to do more than just one thing, to be versatile.”

In Las Vegas, Hamilton came close to averaging a near triple-double. Over the course of five games, he put up 7.8 points per game, 8.0 rebounds, and 6.6 assists. He’s got the skill and physical tools to be a playmaking guard at the NBA level. He’s been impressive both in the G-League and Summer League.

However, it remains to be seen what happens with him come the end of the summer. With the Thunder’s recent acquisition of both Dennis Schroder and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, it brings their roster to 15 guaranteed contracts. They’re allowed two two-way contracts, but have already used one on Deonte Burton.

They’ve got decisions to make regarding P.J Dozier, who was on a two-way last season, and rookies Hamidou Diallo and Devon Hall. Unless the Thunder can clear up a roster spot or two, it appears Hamilton will be fighting for that last two-way spot. He hopes he’s done enough to warrant strong consideration.

“The main thing is just continuing to get better and continue growing,” Hamilton told Basketball Insiders. “That’s just the number one thing to being here at summer league.”

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NBA Daily: Georges Niang’s Big Break

After dominating the G-League for a year, Georges Niang has more than earned this big opportunity with the Utah Jazz, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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For Georges Niang, reaching professional stability was always going to be a tall order.

Even after four dominant seasons at Iowa State, the tweener forward was viewed as a draft risk. At 6-foot-8, the versatile playmaker has always scored in bunches but also struggled to find his place in the modern NBA. Despite excelling as a knockdown three-point shooter, the fundamentally sound Niang has bounced around the country looking for a long-term opportunity.

In the two seasons since he was drafted, Niang has played in 50 G-League games for three separate franchises and had his non-guaranteed contract waived twice.

As a summer league standout for the second straight offseason, Niang’s determined efforts officially paid off last week after he signed a three-year deal with the Utah Jazz worth about $5 million. Now with a fully-guaranteed contract under his belt for 2018-19, Niang has been eager to prove his worth both on and off the court — a newfound skill-set he happily attributes to Utah’s excellent system.

“In the Jazz organization, from top to bottom, they do a good job of nurturing guys and forming them into good leaders and things like that,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, it was really easy to transition to summer league, [I’m] really just trying to lead by example, not with just my words.

“And I think playing hard, being a good teammate and doing the right thing –I think those are three things that the Jazz really stand for.”

But his meandering path toward year-long job security wasn’t destined to end up this way — no, not at all.

Selected by the Indiana Pacers in the 2016 NBA Draft with the No. 50 overall pick, Niang was correctly projected as a hard-working, high-IQ contributor that could put up points on almost anybody. Unfortunately, following a low-impact rookie year with the Pacers — and some short stints with their G-League affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, as well — Niang was waived the ensuing summer. Shortly thereafter, Niang latched on with the Golden State Warriors, where he participated in training camp and four preseason games — but, again, he was waived before the season began.

With the Santa Cruz Warriors, Niang flat-out dominated the competition for months, up until he grabbed a two-way contract from Utah in January. In total, Niang played in 41 games between Santa Cruz and the Salt Lake City Stars in 2017-18, averaging 19.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.1 steals on 45.7 percent from deep over 33.9 minutes per game.

Once attached to Utah’s affiliate franchise, Niang averaged a team-high 22 points per game and finished the campaign as the 13th-best scorer in the G-League. On top of all that, Niang was both an All-Star and honored with a spot on the All-NBA G-League First Team at season’s end.

Although he would ultimately play in just nine games for the deep Western Conference roster, Niang was simply laying important groundwork for the days ahead.

This summer, Niang averaged 16.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists in three contests during Utah Summer League. Given the golden opening to impress his future would-be-employers, Niang kept things rolling in Sin City and posted similar numbers over five games. On the back of a 20-point, eight-rebound performance early on in Las Vegas, Niang embraced the chance to fight and compete for his team — five full days before the Jazz signed him to a guaranteed deal.

“It was a real physical game, but those are the games you want to play in during summer league,” Niang said. “You want to play in those types of environments, where every possession matters and you gotta make plays down the stretch — and I think we did a really good job doing that.”

Those scrappy aspirations have been a staple of Niang’s since his collegiate days at Iowa State, too. During an ultra-impressive senior year, Niang tallied 20.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game for the Cyclones, leading their roster to 23 wins and an eventual trip to the Sweet Sixteen. That season, Niang took home the 2016 Karl Malone Award as Division-I’s top power forward and finished with 2,228 points, the second-best mark in school history.

Any way you slice it, whether at college or in the G-League, Niang can play, the moment just needs to reveal itself — and maybe it finally has.

Of course, this new contract — one that’s only fully guaranteed in 2018-19 — doesn’t ensure Niang any playing time and he’ll have some stiff competition. Just to get on the court, he’ll need to squeeze minutes from Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder and Joe Ingles — a tough task in head coach Quin Snyder’s defense-first rotation. No matter what his role or obligations end up amounting to, Niang is ready to meet that challenge head-on.

“In the NBA, everyone has a role,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, obviously, things are gonna be peeled back and you’ll have a defined role. My role is just when I get the ball, and if I do, play-make for others or get guys open, defend multiple positions, play multiple positions on offense and knock down open shots.”

Although his past resume certainly speaks for itself, it’ll be up to Niang take his big break even further. But given his efficiency and execution at every other level, there’s little reason to doubt the forward now. Days before they signed Niang, he was asked if Utah was somewhere he could see himself for the foreseeable future — his response was precise and foreboding.

“I’d love to be here — what [the Jazz] stand for is what I’m all about. I’ve had a blast with all these guys and I’d love to keep it going.”

And now, he’ll get at least 82 more games to make his case.

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NBA Daily: The Carmelo Anthony Trade is a Rare Win-Win for All Involved

It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation.

Shane Rhodes

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The Big Three Era in Oklahoma City came and went rather quickly.

On Thursday, the Thunder reached an agreement to trade Carmelo Anthony and a protected 2022 first-round draft pick to the Atlanta Hawks for guard Dennis Schröder, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. As part of a three-team deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Thunder will also walk away with Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot while the Hawks and 76ers swap Mike Muscala and Justin Anderson.

It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation. Just as well, the trade is perhaps even more beneficial for the players involved.

While Anthony may have wanted to stay with Russell Westbrook and Paul George, the trade is more than beneficial for him. After the trade goes through, the Hawks plan to buyout Anthony’s contract and he will reportedly receive the entire $27.9 million he is owed next season. Even better still, Anthony is free to join any team he wants, whether it be the Houston Rockets and friend Chris Paul, the Los Angeles Lakers and friend LeBron James, or elsewhere.

With his money already in hand, Anthony could sign on the cheap as well, making negotiations with any franchise that much easier.

For the Thunder, clearing Anthony’s massive salary from their books was of paramount importance. Staring down a $150 million luxury tax bill, Sam Presti managed to move Anthony and improve the team or, at the very least, make a lateral move depending on how you look at Schröder. Even as they take back the remaining $46.5 million owed to Schröder, the Thunder will save more than $60 million next season alone. That makes the trade worth it for Oklahoma City all by itself.

Still, the move allowed them to fill a need, perhaps more important than the cash savings as they look ahead to next season. Schröder not only fortifies the Thunder bench but the point guard position behind starter Russell Westbrook as well; he is another athletic playmaker that Oklahoma City can play on the wing with confidence. And, after averaging a career-high 19.4 points per game to go along with 6.2 assists last season, Schröder provides the Thunder offense with more firepower to compete against the other top teams in the Western Conference, a necessity if they hope to make a long playoff run.

For Schröder, the move to Oklahoma City is just as beneficial for him as it is for the team. Schröder is no longer the starter (he was unlikely to be the starter in Atlanta with Trae Young in the fold), but he can still make an impact and now he can do so for a contender.

The Hawks, as they should be, are playing the long game here. They acquired Jeremy Lin, an expiring contract, from the Brooklyn Nets earlier this offseason. After drafting Young, their guard surplus afforded them the chance to move Schröder’s deal off their books, netting them a first-round pick in the process and opening up playing time for the Young right away.

While the pick is top-14 protected (the pick becomes two second rounders if it doesn’t convey in 2022, every asset counts as the Hawks will look to add talent through the draft for years to come. With the addition of the Thunder pick, the Hawks now are owed an extra three first-round picks between the 2019 and 2022 drafts, a benefit for the Hawks whether they use those picks or trade them for already established talent. Meanwhile, Anderson, 24, presents another intriguing, and more importantly, young, option alongside the core of Young, Kevin Huerter, John Collins and Taurean Prince.

Anderson will almost certainly receive more playing time in Atlanta as they figure out who and who can’t help the team. His time in Philadelphia was mired by injury and he never had the opportunity to show what he could do. So, whether they use him as an asset in a future trade or plan to keep him on the roster, Anderson, at the very least, will have the opportunity to show what he can do.

For the 76ers, Muscala is essentially insurance for the reneged deal with Nemanja Bjelica. Bjelica agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the team but the stretch-four never signed his contract and backed out of the deal. With him out of the picture along with losing Ersan Ilyasova, Muscala was one of the few remaining options for the 76ers in that specific, stretch-big role.

Muscala doesn’t have the same shooting chops that Bjelica has, but he is younger and might have more upside alongside Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and co. Last season, Muscala, in addition to career highs in points and rebounds, averaged a career-high 3.2 three-pointers per game and hit 37.1 percent of them. While he likely won’t see the playing time he saw in Atlanta, Muscala should easily slide into a role off the bench for the 76ers. Moving Anderson and Luwawu-Cabarrot clears a logjam on the wing as well and will afford more minutes to Markelle Fultz (when he is ready), T.J. McConnell and rookies Zhaire Smith and Furkan Korkmaz.

As it stands, this trade made sense for all parties involved, and that alone is reason enough to consider it a win all around. While things could certainly change and hindsight is 20/20, this deal is beneficial for all three teams right now and could positively impact all three squads both next season and beyond.

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