The 2018-19 NBA Champions enter this season with mostly the same roster – sans their best player and NBA Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard. Leonard represents a huge loss for the Raptors, but don’t feel too badly for the Association’s only professional Canadian team.
The Raptors can easily initiate a rebuild during the 2019-20 season if that’s their desired course of action. They should still be highly competitive considering they returned virtually everyone but Leonard. And retooling around Pascal Siakam will be a cinch considering how well he complements other players and positions.
But if the Raptors struggle, they can speed up the rebuilding process by trading away veterans like Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol, for whom there should be a market considering they’re both on expiring contracts and still serviceable starters. Fortunately, the Raptors don’t have to make a decision on whether or not they want to rebuild just yet. They can take their time assessing how well their team performs and pull the trigger on deals closer to the trade deadline – when contenders typically get more desperate and become willing to part with future assets to score key veterans.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
It’s going to be a major turnaround for the Raptors. One minute they were on top of the world having won their first championship in franchise history. The next, Kawhi Leonard was out the door on his way to Los Angeles. It was always a distinct possibility though that no matter what happened, Leonard was going to leave, and Masai Ujiri did a good job of stockpiling the team with assets. Pascal Siakam has emerged as a legit building block. OG Anunoby was looking like one too before his injury. They refused to give up all their draft picks in a potential Paul George trade to keep Leonard. Whatever direction the front office decides to go in, they’re well suited. They still have enough talent on the team to remain competitive in the Eastern Conference. They added a couple of reclamation projects in Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. Ujiri had a strong case for Executive of the Year last season and as long as he’s in charge, the Raptors will be in good hands.
4th Place – Atlantic Division
Congratulations to The Six on its first NBA Finals win. Last season was a magical run and a blast to watch. The Raptors paid a hefty price to win a championship, though. Kawhi Leonard headed home to the west coast and Danny Green will be in the same city of Los Angeles with a different team. So now, Toronto is left with Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka – all on expiring contracts. It will be interesting to see whether this core big four (Pascal Siakam as option No. 1, of course) can navigate a wide-open Eastern Conference. We certainly know that Fred VanVleet is a capable backcourt partner for Lowry, and OG Anunoby’s return will afford him valuable minutes in a crucial season. However, if things aren’t going as planned in this upcoming year, it wouldn’t be surprising in the least to see one or two of those big contracts moved for draft capital or future assets. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was a solid pick up to fill a void at forward. Maybe Nick Nurse’s group gets the best of both worlds by making the postseason and preparing for what’s down the line. Regardless of what happens, 2018-19 was all worth it in the end. We’ll see if momentum can carry The North forward or if this is the start of a new Raptors era.
4th Place – Atlantic Division
– Spencer Davies
How the mighty have fallen. The Raptors, to a degree, leveraged their future on the Kawhi Leonard trade. They bet that they could convince him to stay (they couldn’t); and if not, that it would be prudent to avoid paying $30 million+ to stars who weren’t delivering championships (e.g. DeMar DeRozan). They surprised everyone – probably themselves, too – when they won the 2018-19 NBA championship in their first year with Leonard on the roster. Now, they must deal with the fallout from the gamble.
Fortunately for the Raptors, Pascal Siakam was the breakout star (and MIP) of the year in 2018-19. His presence alone should instill confidence and hope. The Raps also managed to add some versatility to their roster by signing Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. But neither signing moves the needle too much.
The Raptors appear primed for a rebuild, but seem willing to be patient in doing so – maybe waiting to see who becomes available before the trade deadline. Regardless, they have too much talent to finish below the Knicks, but probably not enough to finish higher than fourth in the ultra-competitive Atlantic Division. The playoffs are a possibility, but matching the team’s recent levels of success seems like a long shot.
4th Place – Atlantic Division
It is easy to write the Raptors off after losing Kawhi Leonard in free agency, but the truth is the Raptors are still a very, very formidable team. Sure, there may be some hangover from such a magical title season a year ago, but the pressure is off almost everyone. Typically teams carry the burden of repeating into the season, and that’s frankly not something the Raptors have to worry about; they can simply play. Head coach Nick Nurse isn’t going to be questioned if the team doesn’t win 60 games; he can just coach. The Raptors have some ending-contract guys they may look to move if the season isn’t competitive, but what’s more likely is that the Raptors are competitive because they were when Leonard had “load management” games last year. Winning 58 games likely isn’t in the cards, but it would be surprising if the Raptors fall off. In fact, home court in the playoffs still seems plausible, especially for a team playing with house money on the expectations front.
3rd Place – Atlantic Division
– Steve Kyler
First things first, congratulations to the Toronto Raptors for winning their first championship in franchise history last season. Of course, losing Kawhi Leonard in free agency hurts, but winning the championship last season makes the initial trade for Leonard worth it. The Raptors are now left with a talented, but perhaps not elite roster. Pascal Siakam is on the rise and could turn into one of the best overall forwards in the league in short order. I like the addition of young, athletic forwards like Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis Jefferson. Whether this team can make serious noise in the playoffs this upcoming season is in question but I think the front office will give this team a fair chance to show that it can compete at the highest levels, even after losing Leonard. If the team underperforms, we could see some deals go down. Masai Ujiri is a calculated dealmaker and won’t let sentiment get in the way of making deals he thinks help his team in the short and long term. That means even players like Lowry could be on the move this upcoming season, assuming another team makes a legitimate offer for his services.
4th Place – Atlantic Division
– Jesse Blancarte
FROM THE CAP GUY
Outside of losing Kawhi Leonard in free agency to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Raptors have had a relatively quiet summer. The team added Stanley Johnson via its Bi-Annual Exception ($3.6 million) and used most of its Mid-Level Exception ($9.3 million) on Patrick McCaw, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Dewan Hernandez and Matt Thomas. In doing so, Toronto triggered a hard cap at $138.9 million. That shouldn’t be an issue, given the team will probably head into the season below the NBA’s $132.6 million tax threshold.
Pascal Siakam, arguably now the Raptors’ best player, is eligible for a contract extension before the start of the season. If the team chooses to wait until he’s a restricted free agent next July, he’ll only take up $7.1 million in cap space unsigned. That may be reason enough to wait, given Toronto could have over $80 million in cap space before the 2020-21 season, depending on what the franchise does with Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet and other expiring contracts. Before November, the Raptors also need to decide on OG Anunoby’s rookie-scale option.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Pascal Siakam
Siakam isn’t a traditional offensive workhorse. His three-point shot leaves much to be desired; he was a horrible three-point shooter for his first two seasons, but he improved to a 36.9 percent three-point shooter last year. But old habits die hard and Siakam regressed in the 2019 postseason, shooting just 27.9 percent from three-point range and only 23.8 percent in the Finals.
But that’s not the whole story on Siakam. He is an uber-athletic, 6-foot-9 forward who can be relied on to get to the rim in one-on-one situations. He demonstrated an improved jump shot last season. And taking on the first-option role might not have as dramatic an effect on Siakam as it does on most players; Siakam’s per-36 numbers were better last season when his usage rate was at its highest.
But will he continue to improve? He did turn 25 in April, and that is around the age where players begin to level off regarding making major improvements to their games. Regardless, Siakam is a great piece. He’s eligible for an early extension this season until October 21 though, so the Raptors must decide just how much they like him.
Top Defensive Player: Pascal Siakam
While Siakam appears primed to take on the lead offensive role for the Raptors, he is also their most important and versatile defender. Siakam’s ridiculous 7-foot-3 wingspan allows him to cover much more ground than most 6-foot-9 forwards can. His defensive win share has steadily increased each year and it reached a career-best 3.6 in 2018-19. Siakam also posted the best defensive rating of all Raptors last year.
He is an above-average on and off-the-ball defender, and he anticipates passes and shot attempts brilliantly. Siakam will be leaned on even more heavily this season, as he will be viewed as a leader on both the offense and defense. He’ll have to defend other teams’ best wings and bigs. And he’ll have to be very deliberate in expending energy given the ridiculously large work load he’ll be asked to tackle on both sides of the floor.
Top Playmaker: Kyle Lowry
Lowry took a noticeable step back last season, scoring less than he had per game since his first season in Toronto (2012-13) and posting a worse shooting percentage than he has in the previous five seasons. But he was good enough in The Finals to help secure the Raptors first championship, chipping in 16.2 points and 7.2 assists per game. Lowry willingly took a backseat to Leonard last year; his selflessness is a hugely helpful attribute considering many stars would resist a decreased role. But it was for Leonard and it yielded a championship.
Will his willingness to be Toronto’s second fiddle begin to wane now that Leonard is no longer a Raptor? Either way, his playmaking abilities should help keep the Raptors afloat; and if he must carry more of the load, that’s okay because he’s done so before. But will the Raptors keep him around beyond the February trade deadline?
Top Clutch Player: Norman Powell
With Danny Green heading to the Lakers, Powell appears poised to step into the starting two-guard spot – and with good reason. Powell shot 40 percent on 2.8 three-point field goal attempts per game last season. But 2.8 three-pointers per game was a career-high, and it’s not that many threes for a sharpshooter in the modern NBA. Can he maintain the strong shooting with increased volume? There’s no reason to think he can’t.
Powell shot 37.5 percent from three-point range last season when playing 30 or more minutes, and he shot 36.5 percent in the nine games combined when he shot five or more threes. Further, Powell continued his hot shooting into the 2019 playoffs, posting 38.7 percent from long-range through 23 games. So last season’s numbers suggest that Powell is still more than proficient from distance under duress, and when playing more minutes and shooting more threes. Hopefully for Toronto, that trend continues as the sample size increases.
The Unheralded Player: OG Anunoby
Anunoby is well-positioned for a strong year. He increased his scoring average by about a point per game in 2018-19 to 7 ppg. His usage also jumped from 12.4 to 15.5 and his PER remained mostly unchanged (dropping to 9.8 from 10). Anunoby’s dimensions (6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-2 reach) and age (recently turned 22) are feathers in the young forward’s cap. He is built in the Siakam mold – a versatile player who can affect the game in a number of ways. The Raptors are hoping he will have a similarly successful breakout year similar to Siakam’s 2018-19. And considering Leonard’s departure, there will absolutely be an opportunity for him to prove his worth in the frontcourt.
Best New Addition: Stanley Johnson
Stanley Johnson has not lived up to the high expectations inherited by lottery picks. But he’s moved on from the Detroit Pistons (and New Orleans) and gets a fresh start in Toronto. Johnson is a very athletic forward who can lock down opposing wings. He must work on his three-ball, but he’ll definitely have a role on the Raptors and he’ll help form a capable frontcourt rotation that can switch off on guards in pick-and-rolls, while also defending most power forwards. Johnson needs to focus on his offensive game, as he’s never even averaged 10 points per game. But despite being drafted back in 2015, he’s still only 23-years-old. Johnson still has time to mature and grow into his NBA game. Hopefully, for Johnson and Toronto, that happens with the Raptors.
WHO WE LIKE
1. Rondae Hollis Jefferson
Hollis-Jefferson is a scrappy and versatile defender. He plays the small forward spot and is equally well-suited to be a small-ball power forward. Hollis-Jefferson’s dimensions are similar to that of Anunoby and Siakam, and all three give the Raptors a dangerous group of defenders who can switch all screens and defend multiple positions. He doesn’t shoot the three-ball well, but he doesn’t shoot many threes. He is otherwise pretty efficient offensively and can score when given the right opportunities; and his athleticism aids him well – on both sides of the court.
2. Fred VanVleet
VanVleet proved his worth last season. He enters 2019-20 as one of the best backup point guards in the NBA, and he should only build on his career year. VanVleet averaged 11 points and 4.8 assists per game last season, and he finished third in Sixth Man of the Year voting. VanVleet is a hard-nosed defender and should be far more confident in 2019-20 considering his experience. Unfortunately, VanVleet’s stature prevents playing him alongside Lowry for too long. Otherwise, he might have a case to become a full-time starter.
3. Serge Ibaka
Ibaka had a resurgence of sorts last season. He scored and rebounded the ball better than he has since 2013-14. And while he shot poorly from three-point range, he posted a higher overall shooting percentage than he has since 2013-14, too. His role changed entering last season, as he only started approximately 68 percent of games in which he appeared (compared to all of the games he appeared in in his previous five seasons) – and his new role obviously suited him. The presence of Marc Gasol was also helpful, allowing Ibaka to rotate between backup center and a stretch four. He plays well with Lowry and VanVleet. And while Ibaka blocks fewer shots than he once did, he limited opponents to shooting 52.6 percent at the rim when he was defending – which is on par with Rudy Gobert and Joel Embiid. Ibaka appears to have at least one more good year left in him, and considering he’s still only 30 years old, he might have even more than that.
4. Masai Ujiri
Ujiri is viewed very favorably around the league – in fact, he is seen as one of the very best general managers and/or team presidents in basketball. Ujiri has fleeced his share of opposing teams. He takes chances, but he sees the bigger picture better than most. Most recently, he swooped in and snatched up Leonard from the Spurs shortly after it became obvious that the situation had become irreconcilable; and in doing so, he won the Raptors their first NBA title and freed up their cap situation moving forward. Ujiri is excellent at team building and he instills confidence in his staff, the coaching staff and the roster. He is an executive players and coaches seem to enjoy working for, which will continue to benefit the Raptors for as long as he remains with the team.
Versatility. The Raptors boast a good amount of versatility – especially at the forward and center positions. Their roster boasts a number of ultra-versatile wings/forwards who will enable them to defend opponents at a very high level. Siakam, Anunoby, Hollis-Jefferson and Johnson are all long and capable defenders, and their athleticism makes them all very dangerous in transition. While none of the aforementioned players are overly adept three-point shooters, they are full of potential – and none are older than 25. And they’re able to share the floor with one another and switch most screens really effectively, causing nightmare matchups for opposing wings/forwards.
Their flock of centers also provides interesting versatility. Gasol played less impressively last season than he had in previous years, but he looked better in the FIBA World Cup and was named to the tournament All-Star Five. Gasol morphed into an above-average shooting big a few years back and connected on 36 percent of his three-pointers in 2018-19. And while Gasol might not be quite as strong a defender as he once was, his ability to stretch the floor and pass the ball from the perimeter presents additional options for the Raptors.
And then there’s Ibaka. And while Ibaka’s three-point shooting was down last season, he launched fewer long balls last year than he has since 2013-14. And Ibaka seemed to understand the importance of good possessions and took more shots from the mid-range last year than in the recent past – and he scored more last season (15.0 points per game) than he has in years for that very reason. Ibaka and Gasol’s complimentary skill sets make the Raptors even more dangerous.
No star power. Not that the Raptors necessarily wanted it this season, but their one true, current star just recently left to head back home to Los Angeles. The Raptors would have preferred to run back their 2018-19 roster, but they took a Leonard-or-bust approach when they traded DeRozan for Leonard. The Raptors knew they might not return Leonard and they were OK with the possibility of losing him because, in adding him last season, they also offloaded long-term, high-level salary. But regardless of their team-building preferences, the success of NBA teams in 2019-20 is contingent on star power – and the Raptors really don’t have much.
They might not be down for long – depending very heavily on if Pascal Siakam is able to develop into a superstar this season – but given the competition in the Eastern Conference, the Raptors could be the first team since the 2004-05 Los Angeles Lakers to miss the NBA Playoffs the very next season after winning a championship, and the fourth team to ever do so, joining the 1998-99 Chicago Bulls and the 1969-70 Boston Celtics.
THE BURNING QUESTION
Will the Raptors hold or fold?
They not-too-subtly dealt DeMar DeRozan with a contingency plan of jump starting a rebuild if Leonard didn’t re-sign. Well, Leonard didn’t re-sign. Now it’s time to pay the piper.
The Raptors must decide if they’re going to try to get something back for Lowry, Gasol and others. Otherwise, the majority of the roster expires following 2019-20, so they’re rebuilding by choice or not. The Raptors will probably be patient in the early part of the season. But if it looks like they’re on the bubble regarding the playoffs, they will probably become sellers. The market for point guards (Lowry), centers (Gasol), etc. at the time they decide to deal will dictate how much they get back. The Raptors should – and probably will considering the savviness of Ujiri – be proactive in fielding offers. And if they get one that improves the roster long-term, they would be well-served to take it. However either way, the Raptors appear primed to initiate a rebuild beginning next offseason at the very latest.
NBA Daily: The Stretch Run – Atlantic Division
Ben Nadeau praises the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers, while also gently eulogizing another season gone wrong for both teams in New York.
The Stretch Run.
With 20-odd games remaining on the schedule, it’s officially make-or-break time for the majority of the league — unless your franchise rhymes with Los Shamjealous or Hillmockie, of course. With tantalizing lottery picks for those that bottom out or home-court postseason revenue for teams that push forward, the post-All-Star break jockeying is always fascinating.
As of Feb. 20, however, most of the Eastern Conference — and particularly so, the Atlantic Division — is cut and dried. From hyped-up expectations to the somewhat-disappointing, one of the conference’s perennially-strongest divisions is looking robust once again. Although all of them presumably lag behind the Giannis Antetokounmpo-led Bucks, the bloodbath for the right to face Milwaukee appears to be better than ever.
But before even getting into the Toronto Raptors, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers and Brooklyn Nets’ varying playoff hopes, a rapid-fire eulogy for the New York Knicks must first be had. Fans who once dreamt off trotting out Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Zion Williamson — but ask the Nets and New Orleans Pelicans how life without them went, to be fair — had to settle for trading away Marcus Morris at the trade deadline earlier this month.
At 17-38, there are only a handful of franchises worse off in the standings department — Minnesota, Atlanta, Cleveland and Golden State — and absurdity continues to reign in Manhattan. David Fizdale was unceremoniously ousted in December and was replaced by interim head coach Mike Miller, who was then (accidentally) dissed by Steve Stoute on an ESPN morning show. Even Steve Mills was out as president after tapping Leon Rose, another superagent turned front office executive.
On the roster side, Frank Ntilikina is playing less than ever, the aforementioned Morris led the team in points per game (19.6) and Bobby Portis already shot down any idea of a buyout. Kevin Knox, 20, has seen his minutes and averages nearly halved, while Mitchell Robinson has only played more than 25 minutes on 18 occasions. The Knicks desperately have searched for continuity and clarity only to come up empty-handed time and time again.
Thankfully, RJ Barrett looks like the real deal and, according to Marc Berman of The New York Post, the Knicks have begun to look at the upcoming draft to nail down a scoring point guard as the next franchise cornerstone.
With some real, tangible turnover in New York — and some incredibly solid youngsters to boot — it’s far too early to anoint the franchise as revitalized, but they’ve taken some important first steps toward doing so.
And despite stealing away Durant and Irving during the offseason, their cross-river rivals in Brooklyn haven’t fared much better at all. Irving, when he’s played, has been sensational — unfortunately, he’s reached the floor in just 20 total games thus far and is now out indefinitely (again) after re-aggravating that troublesome right shoulder (again). The 27-year-old point guard missed the All-Star Game for the first time since 2015-16 and his season — plus whatever lingering postseason hopes the Nets had — are quickly setting. Durant, as planned, hasn’t logged a minute yet — and likely won’t — while Rodions Kurucs hasn’t matched last year’s breakout campaign and Joe Harris has seen a considerable drop from three-point range too.
At 25-28, Brooklyn owns the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference, some 2.5 games ahead of the Orlando Magic. It’s hard to imagine the Nets falling out of the postseason entirely — the ninth-seeded Washington Wizards are just 20-33 — but there’s little chance they catch the Indiana Pacers at No. 6, especially following the return of Victor Oladipo. If Irving is shelved for much longer and Durant sits out the entire year, the Nets’ best-case scenario becomes stealing a postseason game from Milwaukee or Toronto before bowing out in the first round.
After arguably winning the offseason, it’s a tough pill to swallow in Brooklyn — but, at the very least, there are undeniable better days ahead.
And then that leaves three: Toronto, Boston and Philadelphia.
Today, at 34-21, the 76ers are the most disappointing of the bunch as they often struggle to play to both Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid’s strengths at once. Simmons, 23, for all his other-worldly playmaking — and previous talk of a summertime-made jumper — has only attempted six three-pointers in 2019-20. The defense is as fearful as ever and rates at 106.1 — good for fourth-best, but sadly behind the Celtics, Raptors and Bucks — so counting the 76ers out of a deep playoff run would be downright shameful.
But in back-to-back-to-back contests before the All-Star break, the 76ers lost to the Celtics, Miami HEAT — the franchise occupying the No. 4 seed ahead of them — and Bucks. The deadline fits of both Glenn Robinson III and Alec Burks need some time, but Philadelphia is one of the few legitimate contenders in the conference that actually tried to improve their roster this month — which speaks to the still-strong internal hopes of the franchise.
Just as the Nets are nearly locked into the No. 7 or 8 seed, the 76ers won’t drop any lower than sixth place either. And although both Boston and Toronto have gained an inch of separation in the conference hierarchy, Philadelphia now finds themselves in the midst of a three-team brawl for home-court advantage in the first round. With Philadelphia’s unbelievable ceiling of potential and inherent inconsistency, it’s too early to predict where exactly they’ve fall come playoff time — but, make no mistake, this is a roster no opposing team will be excited to face.
On the other hand, Boston is peaking at just the right time as head coach Brad Stevens continues to push all the right buttons. Jayson Tatum, fresh off his first-ever All-Star berth, is a force to be reckoned with (22.4 points, 6.9 rebounds) and Kemba Walker has found himself right at home in the Garden. Surely the Celtics would love to avoid the Bucks for as long as possible and to do so, they’ll need to skip Toronto over the season’s final few months — however, even without Kawhi Leonard, that’s easier said than done.
The Celtics boast top-five ratings on both sides of the ball and, in spite of everybody’s doomsday-worthy proclamations, the 1-2 punch of Enes Kanter and Daniel Theis under the rim have more than sufficed. It’ll begin to sound like a repetitive cliche — and just wait for Toronto to fill out this trifecta — but Boston is still Boston: Hard-nosed and even harder-working, they’re an absolute shoo-in for home-court advantage in the first round at the very least.
But the Raptors currently stand as the Atlantic Division crown jewel, ready as ever to defend their conference throne.
You know the details by now: Leonard is dealt to Toronto and he wins the city their first-ever championship ring before signing with Los Angeles last July. Without last weekend’s All-Star MVP in tow, the Raptors were expected to sharply fall down the standings — playoffs, maybe, but this? Certainly not.
This is domination. This is an elite defensive unit. This is a franchise that not only lived on after their superstar left — but then thrived off that departure. Sans Leonard, the Raptors are only 40-15, good for the second-best record in the Eastern Conference. Crazier, right now, the Raptors are on pace to win as many regular-season games as they did with Leonard.
If not for the single-digit loss Bucks, they’d probably be the NBA’s darling story of the season once again. Pascal Siakam, 25, has blossomed into superstardom — 23.5 points, 7.5 rebounds — and is a more-than-worthy mark to pin the franchise’s back-to-back hopes upon. But perhaps even more impressive is Toronto’s ability to shuffle through next-man-up cards with reckless abandon. In fact, post-All-Star break, Terence Davis, an undrafted rookie, is the only player to have featured in all 55 games.
Every major member outside of OG Anunoby has missed a chunk of the season, too: Fred VanVleet, 10; Pascal Siakam, 11; Serge Ibaka, 11; Kyle Lowry, 12; Norman Powell, 17; Marc Gasol, 20.
And yet, they relentlessly compete like bonafide champions.
Toronto is likely destined for a second-round showdown with either Boston and Philadelphia — that much seems ultimately clear. But in the conference’s suddenly-thickening race to the top, for the first time in a long time, it’s still anybody’s best guess as to who will come out on top. Simply put, if you want star power — bank on Simmons, Embiid and the 76ers. If you want pedigreed basketball on both sides of the floor — there’s Walker, Tatum and the Celtics.
But if you want to back a franchise that was left for relative dead mere months after hoisting a championship trophy — well, Siakam, Lowry and the Raptors may just be the heavyweight title contender the conference has been waiting for.
NBA Daily: Collin Sexton’s First All-Star Weekend A Success
Spencer Davies looks back at Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton’s first-time experience at NBA All-Star weekend in Chicago.
It was early Friday afternoon at the Wintrust Arena in Chicago, the stage was set to kick off a laid-back weekend of celebration on NBA All-Star Weekend and commend the hard work of the brightest young talents, both national and international, the league had to offer.
The events of the 72-hour spectacle are meant to be enjoyed, connecting with others and soaking in the experience as a reward rather than being a full-on competition. Added to the U.S. Team roster as a replacement for injured Miami HEAT rookie Tyler Herro, Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton did just that. Between a multitude of media appearances in the bright lights with cameras all around, the 21-year-old upstart took advantage of the opportunities to expose his personality to a national audience.
But amidst the fun, Sexton still went the extra mile as he always does. Phil Handy, a former Cavaliers assistant who worked famously with Kyrie Irving and the man that conducted Sexton’s pre-draft workout with Cleveland, was the head coach of the U.S. Team. So the one they call Young Bull decided to take full advantage with a post-practice workout when the floor cleared.
“[He’s worked with] great guards, yeah. He’s a great guy,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders. “He just told me to continue to get better, continue to work, continue to strive to be great. He talked to me a little bit about Kobe [Bryant] and his time with him, so I just got a good takeaway from him.”
Additional work at a practice to improve his game and prepare for an exhibition contest during a time that was meant for fun? It’s par for the course in his world. Just weeks prior following the Cavaliers’ loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on the road, a team source revealed to Basketball Insiders that Sexton went to Cleveland’s practice facility after landing in Northeast Ohio in the early morning hours to hone his craft.
“Dude’s motor doesn’t stop,” the source said.
“Oh naw, I work hard. When I feel like…if I’m on the court, I’mma do whatever I’ve gotta do. No days off, whatever,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders of his never-ending drive. “If it’s taking care of my body or just stretching or lifting, it’s not always about shooting and stuff like that. You’ve just gotta do the little things and that’s going to help you in the future.”
Though Sexton wasn’t used to the kind of attention he was receiving in the Windy City, he was determined to prove that he belongs. Usually taking a business-like approach to downplay things of this nature, he admitted how amazing it felt to achieve the milestone and be a part of the most popular three-day stretch the NBA has to offer.
“I feel like all my hard work, it paid off. So I’m glad to be here, especially with these group of guys, really good group. It’s an honor,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders that Friday morning.
Among star-studded sophomore names such as Luka Doncic and Trae Young, as well as human-highlight-reel rookies like Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, a motivated Sexton made his mark on the floor.
“I’m a dog too, so I’mma go out there and show everybody I can represent as well.”
— Spencer Davies (@SpinDavies) February 15, 2020
In 20 minutes of action, he poured in 21 points, nabbed five rebounds and dished out three assists. He shot 9-for-14 from the field, including three triples on six tries. And he even had a reverse jam on a bounce pass to himself, though he joked that it was “kinda weak.”
“At first, I was just chillin’ out there, wasn’t playing too hard. Then, you know, I can turn it on pretty quick,” Sexton said.
“Honestly, I just go out there and just play my game. Honestly, no matter who I’m put in the room with, I’mma do what I do,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders. “It’s exciting just because of like all the attention they bring, but me, being myself . . . I’m a dog too, so I’mma go out there and show everybody that I can represent as well.”
Sexton was the 20th Cavalier in franchise history to represent the team in the Rising Stars game since its inception in 1994. With a grin on his face naming those wine-and-golders who came before him, he was thinking ahead about the teammates that could now follow his lead.
Basketball Insiders saw a side of Sexton that hasn’t been seen much in Cleveland. He started a long media tour Thursday with a Yahoo-sponsored pop-a-shot contest followed it up with an NBA TV sitdown interview alongside Dennis Scott. While the next day was entirely centered on Rising Stars, he continued Saturday with an appearance for Metro By T-Mobile during a media-player role reversal contest and finished off at a Mountain Dew barbershop sit down with the legendary Scottie Pippen and other notorious players from the league.
Through all of the losing, through all of the tumultuous nature of his one-and-a-half seasons with the Cavaliers — who are hiring their fourth coach since the 2018 NBA Draft — Sexton is not going to change his approach. He’s not going to change who he is. He’s not going to veer into a different path because of another shift in direction.
“It’s a great experience for me just to take my bumps and bruises, to go out there and pretty much just play hard each and every night, and that’s what I’mma do,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders. “It’s tough losing because no one wants to lose. I feel like we’re moving in the right directions and we’ll get better and start winning.”
Whether people want to believe it or not, what he’s doing is working just fine.
All-Star Weekend proved it.
NBA Daily: The Stretch Run – Central Division
In the next edition of our The Stretch Run series, Basketball Insiders takes a closer look at the Central Division bubble teams as things get back on track following the All-Star break.
The so-called second half of the season is kicking back into gear, but the forthcoming agendas for teams in the Central Division are all very different. Some organizations have their eye on the draft lottery, some on making the playoffs and one or two have set their sights on the NBA Finals. Each team has less than 28 games remaining, which means every one of them will be extremely important.
As part of Basketball Insiders’ latest running series called The Stretch Run, we’re taking a look at every division and analyzing their standing — both in the postseason position or rebuilding efforts.
The Central Division is a mixed bag of teams on various tier levels, naturally. The Milwaukee Bucks find themselves alone at the top, owning the best record in the league — as of publishing — with a 46-8 record. Clearly not a bubble team, Milwaukee’s focus has been on fine-tuning their roster and figuring out their playoff rotation. They recently added another piece in Marvin Williams after his buyout with the Charlotte Hornets.
Behind the Bucks sit the Indiana Pacers with a 32-23 record at the All-Star break. Indiana beat Milwaukee in their final game before the stoppage to end a five-game losing streak. One of the reasons for their recent struggles is likely due to incorporating Victor Oladipo back into the rotation. While the chemistry will take time to build, the talented backcourt Oladipo and Malcolm Brogdon should be one of the best in the league eventually. Their twin towers of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner should keep the Pacers squarely in the playoff picture.
At the opposite end of the spectrum sit the Cleveland Cavaliers. They are 14-40 on the season and have had very few bright spots. Collin Sexton picked up where he left off last season, but he hasn’t been able to elevate his teammates. The Cavaliers decided not to move Kevin Love before the trade deadline, before then acquiring Andre Drummond from a division rival to create a log jam of big men. After taking Sexton and Darius Garland in the draft lottery the past two years, Cleveland will likely have another top pick to use this summer.
The odd five-year contract that Cleveland gave former Michigan head coach John Beilein this past summer has not worked out well. After reports earlier this season that the players had already tuned him out, it appears as though his days in the league have come to an end. Beilein and the organization finalized a contract settlement that’ll stop proceedings just a half-season into the deal.
Again, and swiftly, the franchise has fallen on hard times since LeBron James’ second departure.
The remaining two teams in the Central are right on the bubble and have some work to do. All hope is not lost, but they will need a few breaks to go their way over these final weeks.
With those three out of the way, it’s time to dive deep into the divisional troublemakers.
The Chicago Bulls have had a disappointing season, but they also have dealt with a myriad of injuries. Now that the All-Star festivities have concluded, the city will see if their team can get back into the postseason with a little bit of luck. The Bulls are 19-36 on the season with 27 games remaining. Looking ahead, the numbers are fairly even as 14 of those games will be against teams .500 or better. Additionally, Chicago will also have 14 of those 27 games on their home floor.
Chicago has lost six straight games and is currently tenth in the Eastern Conference standings. worse, they must find a way to leapfrog the Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards. Both teams have a similar strength of schedule over the course of their remaining games. If the Bulls want to get back into the playoffs, they will have to finish tight games. Chicago has a winning percentage of 41.7 in close games this season, which ranks 22nd in the league.
Individually, Zach LaVine has been having an outstanding season. His 25.3 points and 4.8 rebounds per game are career highs — and his late-game execution has been remarkable, considering the defenses knowing exactly where the ball is going. His ability to penetrate, finish, or just pull up has kept Chicago afloat this season. Injuries to virtually every other player on the roster have had this team trying to dig their way out of a hole since early in the year.
Oddly enough, the offense has been the biggest issue in Chicago this season. The Bulls are 26th in offensive rating and rank 25th in the league in scoring. Their defense has actually been much better than most people realize as they rank inside the top half of the league in opponent scoring and defensive rating. Both Thaddeus Young and Kris Dunn have been catalysts on that end of the floor for Jim Boylen’s squad. If they crumble over this final stretch, it could be the end for the outspoken coach.
The Detroit Pistons have a little more work to do and they only have 25 games in which to do it. Detroit currently sits 12th in the conference with a 19-38 record. The most difficult obstacle in this challenge for the Pistons will be jumping over four teams to get there. Of their 25 remaining games, only 11 of them will be played at home in Little Caesars Arena.
A playoff appearance last season increased expectations for the Pistons this year, even with Blake Griffin’s injury in that first-round series. The thought was that he would be ready to go at the start of this season, but that didn’t happen. Unfortunately, he only made it 18 games before he had to have another round of surgery. Quickly, the season outlook changed for Dwane Casey’s team.
Drummond had a fantastic start to the season without Griffin and was put up his typically-monstrous numbers. With their outlook changing, Detroit traded the big man to Cleveland for all of John Henson, Brandon Knight and a second-round draft pick. Stranger, Derrick Rose has been Detroit’s best player by a wide margin. The resurgent point guard leads the team in points and assists — and, further, did not want to be traded. Reggie Jackson returned to the lineup just before the break but just accepted a buyout so that he could join the Los Angeles Clippers.
Christian Wood has played very well and rookie Sekou Doumbouya emerged as a pleasant surprise for the Pistons, thankfully, so it’s not all doom and gloom. Bruce Brown continues to be one of the best young guards that no one talks about. Should Luke Kennard return to health and continue his progression, a return to the playoffs might be possible with a strong finish. Change must come swiftly, however, as Detroit has lost 10 of its last 12 games.
The real question here is if the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference is indeed worth pursuing. Should Chicago or Detroit earn the spot, a first-round exit is almost a certainty. The Bucks are arguably the best team in the league with the likely back-to-back MVP leading them. Obviously these division rivals know Milwaukee well and simply do not have an answer for them. Injuries can always play a factor in how these things turn out, but the owners would prefer to have the playoff revenue.
The other side of this would be getting into the lottery to improve their first-round draft pick. Normally this is weighed heavily by the organizations, but with the rules designed to prevent teams from tanking, that’ll be difficult to do so.
Making the playoffs is still something that most players would like to do, needless to say. Coaches definitely would prefer that route, of course, as their jobs are dependent on it. Looking at the two Central Division teams in the hunt though, both appear to be headed back to the lottery once again.
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