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NBA PM: What’s Wrong with the Raptors?

The Toronto Raptors are starting to show signs of concern after losing 6 of their last 10 games.

Cody Taylor

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Toronto Raptors All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry is beginning to worry about his team’s recent struggles. Based on how the Raptors have performed over the course of the past month, his concerns seem valid.

Since winning their fourth game in a row on January 17 against the Brooklyn Nets, the Raptors have posted the league’s fourth-worst record at 4-10. During that time frame, the Raptors have the 23rd-ranked offense and the 16th-ranked defense in the league.

Perhaps even more frustrating for the Raptors is the types of losses they have suffered during this recent slump. They have dropped games to some of the worst teams in the league, including the Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns, Orlando Magic (twice) and the Minnesota Timberwolves.

“I’m starting to get worried, yeah,” Lowry said. “It’s not going the way we’re supposed to be going and things aren’t changing, so yeah, I’m starting to get worried.”

What has caused the recent struggles?

“I have an idea but I’m going to keep my mouth shut,” Lowry said. “[I’m] going to keep it very professional.”

An obvious problem for the Raptors has come on the offensive end of the court. Although they’re still ranked second in the league in offensive efficiency this season, they have struggled on the offensive end since January 18. At one point, the team was on pace to have the best offensive rating in NBA history. Now, that offensive firepower is starting to dissipate.

On December 19, the team was scoring an estimated 118.97 points per 100 possessions. During their current slump, the Raptors are scoring 105 points per 100 possessions. It obviously would have proved difficult to continue scoring at that level but to see their scoring dip by nearly 14 points per 100 possessions has to be concerning for this group.

The breaking point for Lowry and the Raptors came last night at the hands of the Detroit Pistons. Heading into the fourth quarter, the Raptors held a 16-point lead and appeared as though they were on their way to picking up their 33rd win of the season. Instead, the Pistons outscored the Raptors 36-19 in the final period, capped by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s game-winning three-pointer with 13.2 seconds left. 

“We’re going to go in tomorrow and see the mistakes we had and what we could have done better and how we can apply that to the next time we’re in that situation,” DeMar DeRozan said. “We’re going to be in that situation 27 more times or however many games we have left. We got to be ready for it. We got to figure out a way to put 48 minutes together.”

If there is any team in the NBA that is looking forward to the All-Star break, it’s the Raptors. After enduring such a rough stretch over the past month, they’ll surely hope some time off will provide the team with a chance to get back on the right track.

As things stand today, they’re currently fourth in the Eastern Conference, just half of a game ahead of the fifth-placed Atlanta Hawks. While all teams go through slumps during the course of the season, the Raptors are hoping they’ll be able to turn things around rather quickly.

“It’s got to be quick,” DeRozan said. “Twenty-seven games [is] going to fly by. We ain’t got much time when it comes to practice time. We got to be able to take things on the go and run with it.”

With the trade deadline next Thursday, the Raptors have surfaced in trade rumors and appear to have Magic forward Serge Ibaka on their radar. The Raptors appear to be in need of some help at the power forward position and many believe Ibaka would be a good fit.

Ibaka would be able to spread the floor and give the team another three-point scoring option. In 55 games this season for the Magic, Ibaka is averaging 15.1 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game while shooting a career-high 38.5 percent from three-point range.

In addition to the Raptors, the Miami HEAT have also reportedly expressed interest in Ibaka as well. It remains to be seen what the Magic would be seeking in a potential deal but it would likely include a combination of either young players or draft picks. The Raptors appear to have the edge with an extra first-round draft pick in this year’s draft and a number of young players on the roster.

“Help is always beneficial,” DeRozan said. “I’ve never looked at help as a negative thing at all so if help is an option, why not?”

While it may not be time to panic just yet, it’s never a good sign when players begin to question if their team needs additional help.

As teams begin to look ahead to the All-Star break, the Raptors have two games left to try to gain some momentum. They’re faced with several road games following the All-Star break and things could begin to turn south quickly if they can’t get back on the right track.

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: Are The Sixers Building Around The Wrong Franchise Player?

Joel Embiid is the Philadelphia 76ers’ “crown jewel.” But as he and Ben Simmons struggle to coalesce in year three of their partnership, it bears wondering if Philadelphia is building around the wrong franchise player.

Jack Winter

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The latter half of the Philadelphia 76ers’ longest winning streak during the Joel Embiid era came while he watched from the bench.

It began in mid-March 2018 with a win at Madison Square Garden, and ended nearly a month later with a home beatdown of the Milwaukee Bucks that sent the Sixers streaking into the playoffs having won 16 straight games. Embiid fractured his face two weeks into that binge, making it easy to believe his team would tumble to the bottom of the postseason standings.

Philadelphia was tied in the win the column with the eighth-place Miami Heat at the time of Embiid’s injury. Nothing it had previously done suggested the team could keep from falling to the last playoff seed in the East without him. The Sixers were 16.1 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor in 2017-18, a team-high and one of the league’s biggest individual marks.

A soft schedule over the season’s last two weeks definitely helped Philadelphia thrive in spite of Embiid’s absence, and that’s how the streak was portrayed in the media by the time the playoffs started. It lasted one more game before the Miami HEAT beat the Sixers in Game 2 of the first round, after which Embiid returned.

But the breakneck, wide-open style of play his absence prompted from Philadelphia was impossible to forget last week, when Ben Simmons was unleashed again. The Sixers, coming off a dispiriting loss to the Washington Wizards, dropped 141 points on the Cleveland Cavaliers as Embiid nursed a sore hip.

Simmons was dominant in a way he hadn’t been all season, dropping a career-high 34 points and 7 assists on 12-of-14 shooting in just 26 minutes of play. He drained his second three-pointer, again from the corner, leading Brett Brown to later tell reporters that he wants Simmons launching at least one triple per game. Why?

“His world will open up,” Brown said after the game, “And, in many ways, so will ours.”

It’s become increasingly impossible of late to separate Simmons the player from Simmons the shooter. Philadelphia traded space and playmaking this summer to double down on size and defense, making the need for Simmons to develop any workable shooting range more dire than ever. Going on four years after he was drafted and three seasons into his career, it’s not like an expectation of him doing just that was asking too much.

But it just hasn’t happened nearly two months into the season, calling the Sixers’ viability as top-tier championship contenders into question. Simmons is 2-of-4 from three-point range and 4-of-9 on two-point jumpers outside the paint. Philadelphia relies on Embiid post-ups and pick-and-rolls for Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris in crunch time, leaving Simmons playing bystander in the dunker spot or weak corner as his teammates try their damndest to navigate a cramped floor with games on the line.

The Sixers rank barely above average in overall offensive rating, and worse in the clutch. Embiid and Philadelphia architect Elton Brand have received a fair share of criticism for their team’s relative struggles — especially offensively — in the season’s early going, but it’s Simmons who’s drawn the most ire.

The numbers, though, suggest Embiid’s impact is the one waning most. His net offensive rating has been overwhelmingly positive each of the last two seasons, but that hasn’t been the case in 2019-20. The Sixers are scoring at a bottom-five rate with Embiid on the floor, and a top-10 mark when he’s on the bench. Both his on and off-court offensive ratings are easy worsts among starters.

But the critical narrative surrounding Philadelphia’s offensive labors has largely ignored Embiid for Simmons regardless, and it’s not the media’s fault. Brown has made abundantly clear over the years that Embiid is his team’s franchise player, frequently calling him “our crown jewel” while citing his Hall-of-Fame ability on both sides of the ball.

Embiid isn’t tasked with tailoring his game toward Simmons’ nearly as much as the other way around, and understandably so. The former’s sheer size inherently limits both the flexibility and scalability of his offensive influence.

If Embiid isn’t the Sixers’ go-to guy, demanding post-ups and drawing double teams, just how would he function in the team construct? He’s way too talented to serve as a glorified floor-spacer, and his stroke hasn’t developed to the point he’d be well-suited for that role anyway. A similar line of thinking applies to making Embiid a rim-runner and vertical floor-spacer. He’s just too good, and not quite versatile enough, to prosper in a more confined offensive role.

The opposite dynamic applies to Simmons, at least for now. His most enticing attribute dating back to high school has been his adaptability. There are exceedingly few players standing 6-foot-10 capable of making the passes Simmons does, and fewer still who double as a disruptive defender of every position on the floor. He’s a Unicorn without the jumper, and his generational blend of size, athleticism and ball-handling genius portended inevitable skill development to come.

It hasn’t, for the most part, but focusing on that failure might be deflecting from an all-encompassing issue that continues to plague the Sixers. What if they’re building around the wrong franchise player?

The ongoing trajectory of the league lends credence to that notion. Simmons isn’t LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo, but it’s not difficult to imagine an offensive attack molded to his similar strengths reaching heights one conformed to Embiid’s never could.

Philadelphia’s historic romp over Cleveland offered a glimpse into that alternate reality, just like its effectiveness this season with Embiid on the bench. Lineups featuring Simmons without Embiid boast an offensive rating of 114.4, comfortably above its overall mark, subsist on far higher diets of transition and three-point shooting, per Cleaning the Glass. The Sixers shoot better at the rim and from deep in that scenario, too, further evidence of Simmons’ sweeping effect without being forced to walk the ball up and Embiid clogging the paint.

Philadelphia, unsurprisingly, isn’t as stout defensively with those units on the floor. Embiid has been a defensive panacea during the regular season throughout his career. Improved conditioning is the only thing keeping him from winning Defensive Player of the Year, and he might win the award this season anyway.

Still, the same foibles that have long mitigated Rudy Gobert’s defensive influence in the playoffs apply to Embiid. A system built around a preeminent rim-protector with limited perimeter mobility can’t take away everything, and superior postseason competition generally means those low-value shots are more likely to drop. A switch-heavy scheme with a big like Al Horford playing center full-time, though? That’s a defense built for the playoffs, and one that would maximize Simmons’ gifts on that end — both on and off the ball.

This isn’t some cry for Philadelphia to blow it up – whether Simmons or Embiid would be the one on the way out. The Sixers’ ceiling is tallest with both on the roster, and it’s much too early to write them off as title contenders, this season or going forward. Neither Simmons nor Embiid are finished products; their pairing could still end up functioning at a championship level.

But if Philadelphia, quietly 6-1 in its last seven games, again starts underperforming, calls to trade Simmons will undoubtedly resurface.

And while that’s certainly a measure worth considering, it’s unfair to Simmons — and potentially destructive to the Sixers’ long-term title hopes — without at least broaching the same fate for Embiid.

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NBA

Buy Or Sell: Southwest Division

Jordan Hicks continues the Buy or Sell series with a look at the Southwest Division.

Jordan Hicks

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It’s absolutely crazy to think about how deep basketball already is into the regular season. Over 25 percent of the games have already been played, and certain teams are starting to separate themselves from the pack. In an NBA campaign that was supposed to be riddled with parity, there’s definitely a select few teams that are starting to leave the rest behind.

What’s more, on Dec. 15th roughly 90 percent of the NBA becomes tradeable. Yes, it’s that time of the year in which trade talks will start to pick up. Something needs to spice up mundane December and January games, and nothing does a better job quite like rumors.

The Southwest Division has been chock-full of surprises. For one, the Dallas Mavericks seem to be a legitimately solid franchise. The San Antonio Spurs, on the other hand, seem to be struggling for the first time in what seems like 175 years. The Houston Rockets continue to stay playoff eligible despite Russell Westbrook’s shooting woes. The New Orleans Pelicans are just begging for Zion Williamson to return from injury and lead them out of the darkness. And the Memphis Grizzlies – well let’s just say they’re doing about as well as anyone expected.

In continuing with Basketball Insiders’ Buy Or Sell series, let’s take a look at each franchise and discuss whether they are in the position to seek talent, or exchange talent for future assets.

Houston Rockets (15-8) — Buyers

Tilman Fertitta should hang a bright-red neon sign in Daryl Morey’s office with the phrase BUY-BUY-BUY lighting proceedings up. As is, the Rockets are not good enough to win a championship. They may be reputable — and their roster may contain two of the greatest offensive players we’ve ever seen — but this team is not the 2016-17 Houston team that was one Chris Paul hamstring away from an NBA Finals birth.

Russell Westbrook will be a Hall of Famer, but his inability to efficiently shoot the ball just kills this team. Everything he is bad at, Paul excelled in. And everything Russell is amazing at, Paul either had mastered or could at least perform at an above-average level. Currently, when Westbrook is on the court, the Rockets’ net rating is 1.9. When he’s off the court, their net rating is 12.8. That is a monumental swing and currently the largest gap out of any other player on the team.

It’s not hard to imagine Houston pushing their chips in even further come the wintertime — they’re far too committed not to.

Dallas Mavericks (16-7) — Buyers

Dallas has really overshot everyone’s expectations. Most people thought they’d have a decent season, but it’s safe to say very few had them penciled in as playoff hopefuls. The fact that they are more-or-less playoff locks a quarter into the season is mind-boggling. What makes them so good you ask? Some kid named Luka Doncic, maybe you’ve heard his name.

The Mavericks are way ahead of schedule development-wise, so they’d be fine to just stand pat this year, see where they end up and then make moves in the offseason. However, if Mark Cuban wanted to get crazy and try to do something this season, you’d have to consider Dallas as buyers.

They need at least one more scoring threat to make them dangerous to go deep in the playoffs. As is, only two players are averaging over 15 a game and only three average more than 10. To wit, Kristaps Porzingis isn’t shooting well and Tim Hardaway Jr. doesn’t necessarily strike fear into the opposition. Dallas has movable contracts but whether or not they are solid enough to give them a return they’d need is up in the air at this point.

San Antonio Spurs (9-14) — Sellers

The Spurs should be in full sell mode for the first time in a long time. The only problem is, they don’t seem to be operating that way. They guaranteed LaMarcus Aldridge’s contract for the 2020-21 season, which makes very little sense as he’ll be owed $24 million. Now with the extra year, it’s doubtful many buyers will be coming for him.

With Aldridge’s contract making him nearly unsellable, DeMar DeRozan should become San Antonio’s sole focus when it comes to transactions. The former All-Star has a player option worth $27 million next season, but the dude can still ball out. He’s leading the team in scoring shooting 50 percent from the field, averaging 4.8 assists and looking about as healthy as he has in a while.

Sure, it’s concerning he still hasn’t developed a three-ball, but there is no way there wouldn’t be at least five-or-so teams at the deadline willing to give up a first for DeRozan’s assistance — he’d provide instant offense.

New Orleans Pelicans (6-18) — Sellers

Just when it seemed like they started to figure winning out, they fell off a cliff. Back in November, they had won three straight and five of their last seven. Since then, they’ve dropped nine straight games. You could argue that five of those losses aren’t surprising, but that fact that they didn’t even muster a single win in that stretch is alarming.

Things will look up when Williamson comes back, there’s no doubting that, but New Orleans should seriously consider trading JJ Redick. There probably isn’t a postseason-bound team in the league that wouldn’t give up their first round pick next season for his services. He’s only owed $13 million next season and the veteran still very clearly has it. The Pelicans are not making the playoffs this season, so keeping Redick rostered makes little sense. If they can sell him before the break to a needy franchise, then they may just get more than only a single first-rounder.

Memphis Grizzlies (7-16) — Sellers

This writer is thinking it, you’re thinking it — heck the whole world is probably thinking it. Why haven’t the Memphis Grizzlies traded Andre Iguodala yet? Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer reported Tuesday that the Grizzlies are still set on trading Iguodala as opposed to a buyout. So what’s the hold-up?

The key is waiting for a team to become desperate. It will be surprising if Iguodala is still rostered with Memphis past mid-January, but, technically, crazier things have happened. The Grizzlies will be big-time sellers when it comes to Iguodala — and they may even look to move veteran Jae Crowder. But, like New Orleans, they are a young team looking to improve internally for the future.

This division has plenty of diversity. You have two playoff teams, two bottom feeders and one team that isn’t sure what their identity is anymore. Iguodala is almost a sure bet for being moved, but it also wouldn’t be surprising if there wasn’t another transaction in this entire division.

Still, as hopes begin to fade and dreams start to soar, the mid-season trade option remains a route for both buyers and sellers. Will Dallas or Houston fortify their squads? Should New Orleans look toward the horizon already? Needless to say, the Southwest Division has handed onlookers plenty of intriguing drama and storylines moving into the halfway point of the year.

Keep on the lookout for more divisions as we continue the Buy Or Sell series.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Mo Harkless Proving His Value

The LA Clippers have thrived despite their two biggest stars missing a combined 18 games this season. The reason for this may be linked to the problems in Portland. Chad Smith details why Mo Harkless has been a key factor in both.

Chad Smith

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The Los Angeles Clippers are undoubtedly one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. Understandably, much of the credit goes to Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Patrick Beverley. Though he may be overlooked and underappreciated, Maurice Harkless is a significant piece of the tenacious defense that has fueled the Clippers to an 18-7 record.

More affectionately known as Mo Harkless, the versatile wing has delivered when the team needed him most. Between Kawhi’s load management and George missing the first 11 games of the season, Doc Rivers had to rely on the services of one of their other new players. Harkless’ role in LA isn’t much different from his role in Portland, where he spent the last three seasons.

After being drafted 15th overall in the 2012 NBA Draft, Harkless patiently waited for the right opportunity. Oddly enough, that came in the form of a trade during the summer of 2015, when he was dealt to Portland for a 2020 2nd round pick, which is top-55 protected. After three years in Orlando, it all came together in the Pacific Northwest.

Harkless was an afterthought by some in the four-team sign-and-trade deal that sent Jimmy Butler to Miami. Injuries have devastated Portland, but losing a talented role player like him has hurt them just as bad.

In LA’s first seven games this season, Harkless recorded 11 total steals and was top five in the league in deflections. One of the most valuable assets that he possesses is the ability to guard four positions on the floor. This was something that surprised Doc early on, not fully grasping his depth of talent.

Scoring has never been Harkless’ calling card, but he is very capable of averaging double figures. His points are slightly down this year, but that is not why the Clippers put him on the floor. When he does score, he takes high percentage shots at the rim, as his 55 percent effective field goal percentage indicates. He shoots above 50 percent for his career and is connecting on 37 percent of his shots from downtown.

The rebounding numbers won’t blow you away either, but Harkless can hit the glass when needed. He actually led the team with 14 rebounds in their last game in Indiana on Monday. Harkless isn’t going to lead the team in any significant category over the course of a season, but he is able to produce in various ways on any given night. That is a lethal weapon for any coach to have coming off of his bench.

The versatility that Harkless possesses was on display against Toronto when he split time defending Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet. He held Kemba Walker in check and forced him into three consecutive turnovers. He locked down Luka Doncic to the tune of 4-for-11 shooting and even spent time guarding Anthony Davis in the season opener. His lethal combination of length and quickness allows him to become a pest to all different types of players.

The Clippers currently boast a 104.6 defensive rating, which is eighth-best in the league. Kawhi has missed seven games, and George missed the first 11 which makes that rating look even better. With Harkless’ defensive skill set and offensive weapons like Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell coming off the bench, it makes it even tougher for opposing teams to generate enough offense to keep pace.

On top of the games that their two star players have missed, the Clippers have also only had the services of Landry Shamet for 10 games. JaMychal Green has also missed a few games due to injury, which has tested their depth even more. Harkless has played in all 25 games so far for the Clippers. Considering how this team has performed amid all of the injuries, it is scary to imagine what they could become by season’s end if they are healthy and have their chemistry figured out.

Portland experienced a lot of roster turnover from a year ago, and it has crippled them so far this season. At first glance, people may point to the departure of guys like Meyers Leonard and Al-Farouq Aminu, who are now playing for the two teams in Florida. Ed Davis and Evan Turner have both left the west coast, but it may be safe to say their biggest loss was that of Harkless.

He set the tone on defense for them and was the guy that would do whatever the team needed in order to win. He never cared about his statistics or how he was used in the rotation. Sure, having a healthy Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins would be nice, but Portland would sure love having Harkless back in their lineup.

This is a tough stretch for the Clippers, who have begun an 11-game gauntlet that began with a brutal loss in Milwaukee, and ends with a “road” game against their LA rivals on Christmas Day. Only 2 of those 11 games will come on their home floor when they face a surprising Phoenix team and an angry Houston squad. They will be thoroughly tested between now and the holidays, but they are up for the challenge.

Tonight’s matchup in Toronto is obviously all about Kawhi’s return. Two elite teams will square off with All-Star caliber players all over the court. Mo Harkless may not be one of them. He doesn’t rank inside the top 150 players in points, rebounds or assists. His Hall-of-Fame probability is 0.0 percent.

Still, much of LA’s success this season can be attributed to his stellar and unselfish play.

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