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Toronto Raptors’ Success Hinges on Internal Development

David Yapkowitz speaks with members of the Raptors, who believe internal development will determine their success next season.

David Yapkowitz

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The Toronto Raptors had a few important decisions to make this summer. All-Star Kyle Lowry and starting power forward Serge Ibaka were both free agents. Key role players such as Patrick Patterson and P.J. Tucker were as well. They already had big money tied up in DeMar DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll, Jonas Valanciunas and Cory Joseph.

For a team that was swept in the Eastern Conference Semifinals by the Cleveland Cavaliers, they had little room to operate in order to improve a roster that clearly needed some tinkering. They had made re-signing Lowry and Ibaka a priority, but bringing both players back all but ensured that the Raptors would have minimal cap space to work with.

As it turned out, they lost Patterson to the Oklahoma City Thunder and Tucker to the Houston Rockets. They also traded Carroll to the Brooklyn Nets in a salary dump that cost them two draft picks, and they traded Joseph to the Indiana Pacers, receiving C.J. Miles in exchange. Each of the departing players were, at times, key rotation pieces complementing the Raptors’ “Big 3” of Lowry, DeRozan and Ibaka.

With their main free agents back in the fold, the Raptors were not only over the cap, but hard capped as well. Miles was their only major new addition. Thus, the key to keeping pace in the East, and trying to field a team capable of challenging Cleveland, is simple for Raptors head coach Dwane Casey. It’s going to have come from within, from the multiple young players on the team.

“It’s really important, I think where our franchise is right now, we’re in a situation where we’re building,” Casey told Basketball Insiders. “Just to have those core guys come back, we have DeMar, Kyle, Serge, Valanciunas, what we have to do now is get some of our young players to step up and improve.”

In contrast to when he first took over as coach in 2011, Casey has been giving some of the younger players regular minutes where he sees fit. One player who worked his way into the rotation his rookie year was Norman Powell. In the 2015-16 season, Powell entered the rotation when injuries hit the Raptors backcourt.

Powell quickly became a mainstay with his defensive prowess and overall aggressiveness. His defense on Paul George during the Raptors’ first round series that year against the Pacers was a big reason why they advanced. Powell knows that he and the other young players will be counted on to keep the team competitive.

“I think we bring energy. We bring commitment, hustle, we buy in to doing whatever the vets need. DeMar, Kyle, Serge, whatever they need to help them with their play, making it easier on them,” Powell told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s gonna be good for them cause we’re able to develop and we have some room to grow.”

Powell took another step further in his development this past season. Needing a spark after going down 2-1 against the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs, Casey inserted Powell into the starting lineup. He responded by holding Khris Middleton to 12.3 points per game on 38.2 percent shooting. He also shot 10-11 from the three-point line throughout the series.

“I think it’s gonna help with my development, help with my maturity, being able to go in there and play minutes, and play big for the team and help them get wins,” Powell told Basketball Insiders. “I’m just looking forward to improving and taking a big step this summer to be ready for my third year with them.”

In addition to Powell, the Raptors have a couple of other players looking to make their mark on the team. Delon Wright was drafted by the team the same year as Powell, but his playing time has been a bit more sporadic. He finally got a chance at extended minutes this past season when Lowry went down with an injury following the All-Star break.

In the playoffs, Wright’s numbers didn’t fill up the stat sheet, but his presence was clearly felt. He did a better job at times than Joseph at keeping the ball moving offensively and staying aggressive. His length bothered the Bucks’ second unit defensively. Now with Joseph gone, he knows his time has arrived.

“It’s a good opportunity for me because they’re kind of expecting me to step up now with it being my third year. They’re looking for me to step up and I think I’m ready,” Wright told Basketball Insiders. “They expect the young guys to bring energy and play hard, and just kind of do little things that the veterans aren’t doing right now. Get loose balls and play defensively.”

One player who fits that description perfectly in terms of bringing energy and playing hard defensively is Pascal Siakam. Siakam was a rookie this past year and was thrown into the fire from the get-go. The Raptors had signed Jared Sullinger last summer in hopes that he could ultimately emerge as their starting power forward. Unfortunately for them, Sullinger needed surgery on his foot prior to the beginning of the season.

Instead of turning to his veterans, Casey opted to start Siakam. He started the Raptors’ first 34 games and showed a knack for rebounding and tough defense while being able to finish around the rim. He had four games where he scored in double figures during that stretch, including a season-high 14 points on 58.3 percent shooting in a 44-point win over the Atlanta Hawks on December 3.

“It was good to be able to learn. A lot of rookies sit on the bench and not play,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “I had the opportunity to play and it was the best thing I could ask for.”

Siakam eventually hit the rookie wall and as the season progressed, his playing time began to decrease. Once the Ibaka trade happened, he began to rack up DNP’s and was put on the inactive list. But with Patterson gone, he will again get his chance to become a regular in the rotation.

“Just step up, that’s all we have to do,” Siakam told Basketball Insiders. “As far as the young guys, we got to come in and just play. We’re gonna have opportunities and we have to take advantage of what we’re given.”

This summer, Powell, Wright and Siakam have been making the rounds of the offseason Pro-Am leagues. They’ve played in the famed Drew League in Los Angeles as well as the newer Crown League in Toronto. Although there’s always chatter about NBA guys playing in some of these leagues, Casey is in full support of his guys getting in summer run.

“I think it’s great. I think the whole summer league situation is great for our young players to go through and experience,” Casey told Basketball Insiders. “I think it’s great for a young player to do this, just getting some good work in. It’s great competition so it’s a great experience for them.”

They all know that much of the Raptors’ season will depend on how quickly the younger players are able to contribute. They’re still learning and still developing. But even so, they have some high expectations.

“As a team, try to get to the Eastern Conference Finals and go from there,” Wright told Basketball Insiders.

It was only a year ago that they did just that. Although they eventually lost in six games to the Cavaliers, they were the only team in the East to win games against Cleveland in the playoffs. The series was even tied at 2-2 before Cleveland put it away.

Other teams have improved since then, however. The Boston Celtics added Gordon Hayward to a team that finished first in the East and got to the conference finals. The Washington Wizards also have a young core that’s still developing, and they added some much-needed bench depth with Jodie Meeks, Mike Scott and Tim Frazier. The Raptors believe they’re up for the challenge.

“We just got to go in with the mindset that we got to work to get back to where we were last year. Nobody’s gonna give it to us, nothing is given,” Casey told Basketball Insiders. “We got to go back with our work boots on, our hard hat mentality to get back where we were last year. Nobody is gonna hand it to us.”

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NBA AM: Was Watson Setup To Fail or Just Ill Equipped?

Was Phoenix’s Earl Watson setup to fail or did he just not have the tools and experience to overcome the tenuous job of a rebuild?

Steve Kyler

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Set Up To Fail? Maybe

The Phoenix Suns have parted ways with head coach Earl Watson just three games into the 2017-18 season. Associate head coach Jay Triano is expected to be his replacement as interim head coach.

Some have suggested that Watson was set up to fail, but let’s be honest for a minute. Was Watson really the best option the Suns had after parting ways with Jeff Hornacek during the 2015-16 season? Watson was well liked and that an easy and intoxicating concept, but even as an interim coach Watson won just nine games in 33 tries.

It’s not as if Watson took the team in a totally new direction; the Suns were a bad team when they took the gamble on Watson. Moving the needle wasn’t exactly likely when the massive inexperienced Watson took over the team. Is anyone really surprised he couldn’t make it work?

Sure, the roster and the priorities of the franchise were an uphill climb, but let’s be real for a minute: The Suns couldn’t have expected Watson to have the tools to bring it all together. Rebuilding is hard all by itself, and doing so with a head coach that has never coached isn’t exactly smart. In fact, it rarely works out.

It’s easy to say Watson was set up to fail, but equally easy to say he never had the experience to believe he’d be successful. It was a gamble on the Suns’ part, a gamble that ran its course.

So What Next?

The Suns are not very good, as three straight blow out losses have proven. It’s possible that Triano can make enough changes to at least get the Suns to compete, but the word in NBA circles was the Suns locker room had basically quit after three games, so Triano’s task may be tough for even a coach that been around the block a few times.

Like Watson, Triano is incredibly likable and approachable, but unlike Watson, Triano has experience. Triano has experience not only as a head coach, having coached the Toronto Raptors for three years, but he is the head coach of the Canadian National Team and has been on the Team USA and Portland Trail Blazers staff as an assistant. While Triano’s stint in Toronto looked a lot like Watson’s stint in Phoenix, the big difference is Triano has been around a lot more situations and may be better equipped to put a system and structure in place that could yield improvement, or at least that’s the newest bet the Suns are making.

With Triano at the helm, it’s also likely that the front office will have a better relationship than what’s emerged in Watson’s time in Phoenix. General Manager Ryan McDonough and Watson haven’t exactly been on the same page, and Watson had grown emboldened enough to make it clear in the media somethings were not in his control, often taken subtle shots at decisions made by the front office.

It is rare for inexperience and dysfunction to yield success. The hope is Triano will smooth some of that over.

“I Dont wanna be here.”

As news of Watson’s firing began to leak Suns guard Eric Bledsoe, who had a very good relationship with Watson, took to Twitter to announce “I Dont wanna be here.”

Bledsoe has been a constant name in NBA trade circles for the last few years, and with Watson out of the picture, Bledsoe seems to be looking for the door too.

The 27-year-old Bledsoe has two more seasons remaining on his deal, $14.5 million this season and $15 million owed for next season. The Suns have listened to offers on Bledsoe off and on for some time, with many in NBA circles believing this would be the season the Suns would finally trade him.

With Watson, a long-time champion of Bledsoe, out of the picture, there is a belief that Bledsoe’s role is going to decrease, which is likely why Bledsoe took to Twitter.

Pulling off a trade three games into the season seems highly unlikely, especially given that Bledsoe has likely killed his own trade value. There have been several teams over the last two seasons with interest in Bledsoe; the question is, will the Suns close this chapter or try and see if Bledsoe can help them right the ship under Triano and rebuild some trade value when the trade market opens up in December?

$41.11 Million

Of the Phoenix Suns’ $85.448 million in guaranteed contracts, $41.11 million belongs to Bledsoe, injured guard Brandon Knight and center Tyson Chandler. You can toss $10 million more for injured forward Jared Dudley. While Bledsoe and Chandler have played in all three regular-season games, both are not part of the long-term future of the team.

The question becomes, what role will they play under Triano?

The Suns are truly a tale of two teams. There is the old veteran squad that is clogging up the top of the Suns salary cap chart, and there are rookie scale players that are the future, and not coincidentally the players performing at their worst so far this season.

Will the Suns just let the $41.11 million owed at the top just sit, or will the Suns try and fire-sale some of those veterans? The belief is they would like to do the latter.

As much as people may want to say Watson was set up to fail, the evidence in the situation is he was never proven enough to succeed.

The Suns are in a dreadful no-man’s land of bad contracts and underperforming players. Maybe a more proven established coach could have set this situation in a better direction, but the reality is Watson was never experienced enough to handle a rebuild like this because getting the most out of players while losing is a very tough job even for the most experienced of coaches.

Watson, like many before him, will find another job in the NBA. Maybe like Triano who is replacing him, he can take the lessons learned in Phoenix and become a better coach somewhere down the road and get a shot with a team that wouldn’t require as much as the Suns desperately need.

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NBA Sunday: Kristaps Porzingis Sure Looks Ready To Be The Franchise

The Knicks hope Kristaps Porzingis can become their franchise. Thus far, he seems up to the challenge.

Moke Hamilton

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He stood in front of his mentor, isolated, just like they used to do in practice.

He’d seen the jab steps before and the head fakes—they were nothing new. And when Carmelo Anthony mustered the acceleration he still has in his 33-year-old legs to drive around Kristaps Porzingis, Anthony knew he had the 7-foot-3 Latvian big man beat.

Anthony triumphantly rose to the basket and delicately attempted his right-handed layup. Before he knew what hit him, though, Anthony’s shot had been sent to the free throw line.

The message was clear—Kristaps had taken the torch.

“It was fun,” Porzingis said about his confrontation with Anthony. “We went at it in practices a lot and one-on-one after practices.

“It was a lot of fun knowing what he was going to do and try to stop him.”

The Oklahoma City Thunder were much closer to the NBA Finals than the Knicks were last season, and removing Anthony from the Knicks and pairing him with Russell Westbrook and Paul George gives the Thunder a triumvirate that can at least conceivably challenge the Golden State Warriors. They are perhaps the only team in the entire league with enough firepower and defensive pieces.

So no, the Knicks may not be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy anytime soon, but at the very least, the franchise seems to be in good hands—the big, soft hands of Porzingis.

As young NBA players come into their own and attempt to fulfill the lofty expectations that everyone has of them, the third year is the charm, almost invariably. And in that that year, a young player can’t control the other pieces that are around him—that’s why they shouldn’t be judged by their team’s wins and losses.

In that third year, a young player also can’t really control the frequency of his injuries. The simple truth is that many 21 or 22-year-old players simply lack the hardened bones of a fully grown adult that most men become after the age of 25.

But what the young player can prove is that he is prepared to shoulder the burden and take the fight to anyone who stands before him. Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks epitomizes this ideal better than any other young player in the league. He is absolutely fearless and it’s a pleasure to watch.

So is Porzingis.

Since the influx of European-born players began about 20 years ago, we have seen our fair share of “soft” European players. His talent aside (which is considerable), Porzingis has proven to be anything but, and that by itself can help players go a very long way.

In what must have felt like the longest summer ever, Porzingis saw the franchise that drafted him undergo an overhaul that resulted in a light beaming so brightly on him, you would have thought the third-year forward was starring in a Broadway musical.

Say what you want about Porzingis, but he has already done all that he can to notify everyone that have anything to do with the Knicks that his bony shoulders aren’t indicative of the weight he’s capable of carrying.

And in Oklahoma City, against his mentor, Porzingis did the heavy lifting.

“I saw energy,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said after his team’s opening night loss.

“He was great moving. He played 38 minutes, and maybe last year that would be a struggle. He would maybe get tired, and get some silly fouls, but even toward the end on that 37th or 38th minute, he was still up hollering, moving, blocking shots and getting rebounds, so he had a great game and we expect a lot more of that from him.”

Being a Knicks fan is something that nobody should wish on their worst enemy. The franchise has made scores of maneuvers that lacked wisdom and seemingly gone out of its way to alienate people beloved by the franchise. On top of it all, Knicks tickets are among the highest in the entire league.

Fans as passionate and dedicated as Knicks fans deserve a team they can be proud of and a front office that dedicates itself to putting winning ahead of petty feuds and politics.

The hiring of Scott Perry may signify just that.

So when the Knicks traded Carmelo Anthony and ended up getting back 10 cents on the dollar for his value, everyone should have prepared for a long season in New York City.

Coming in, Knicks fans once again found themselves in the unenviable predicament of having to talk themselves into believing that Ramon Session, Michael Beasley and Tim Hardaway were capable of giving this team feel good moments. And while they certainly are, they will surely pale in comparison to the amount of losses that the club accrues along the way.

If there’s one thing the Philadelphia 76ers have taught everyone, however, it’s that the losses don’t necessarily need to be in vain.

So heading into this season, what Knicks fans should have been looking forward to and hoping for is nothing more than the installation of a culture that’s marked by effort, communication and selfless basketball—the hallmarks of the Golden State Warriors.

Aside from that, yes, they should have also come in with the hope that Kristaps Porzingis would take an appreciable step forward and prove himself to truly be a capable franchise cornerstone.

To this point, from the way he holds his head highly, despite a win or a loss, and the way he competes to the best of his abilities, despite his limitations. For now, it’s really all that could reasonably be asked of him.

When it was all said and done—when Porzingis looked the Knicks’ past in the eyes after the Thunder had soundly defeated his New York Knicks—Carmelo Anthony probably told him that he was proud of him and that he wished him all the luck in the world.

He probably told him to continue to work on his game and hone his craft and to block out the background noise.

And above all else, Carmelo probably told Kristaps that he believes he is capable of being his successor.

With his nodding head and serious demeanor, Porzingis, in all his glory, listened intently. Even more so, he believed every word. 

It doesn’t take all day to figure out whether the sun is shining—it’s an adage that remains as true in basketball as it does on a May Day in New York.

For Porzinigis, the bright sky and the beaming sunlight—he’s basking in it all. Not only has he becomes the Knicks’ franchise by default, he believes he’s capable of shouldering the burden.

In this town, that’s more than half the battle.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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