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What’s Changed North of the Border?

Has enough changed to get the Raptors over the hump in the Eastern Conference this year?

Ben Dowsett

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Following the Toronto Raptors’ sole blemish on an otherwise perfect month of February, an overtime loss to Milwaukee in their first game after the All-Star break, you could forgive guys in the locker room for lamenting a missed opportunity. A late comeback wasn’t enough to overcome a sluggish opening and middle period to the game; lines like “vacation is over” could be heard.

At the same time, there was a sense that interrupting an almost comically easy stretch might not have been the worst result in the end.

“Nobody wants to lose, we damn sure don’t want to lose,” DeMar DeRozan said following the game. “But a night like today is a great learning lesson for us. There’s a lot of things we can take from this.”

The Raptors are in a unique position where both sides of this coin can be true simultaneously. What was already a well-oiled machine for two consecutive 50-win seasons has added even more polish – in a lot of ways, this year has been something of a cakewalk.

Toronto outscores opponents at over double the per-possession rate of any other team in their conference; they’ve led by over 20 points for more time than the defending champion Warriors this season, second in the league behind only the Rockets. Without an early-season hot streak from Boston that likely inflated the Celtics’ record a bit beyond their actual team quality, the Raptors would be cruising to the East’s first overall seed.

Their bench, long a source of frustration (especially with Kyle Lowry off the floor), has become one of the best in the league. DeRozan has expanded his game in a couple important ways. Casey has leaned on depth more than in the past, both from a usage and minutes standpoint. There’s a pretty easy case to be made that this is the most complete Raptors team in franchise history. And naturally, it’s easy to jump to conclusions from afar.

“Believe me, I go the other way as far as believing the hype,” coach Dwane Casey said. “I know what’s coming around the corner.

“You know you can’t believe the hype. You have some people wishing and hoping it goes that way. They probably have that story already written and ready to put it in. But you can’t believe the hype.”

As Casey said, he’s setting the opposite tone entirely for his group. Zoom out even further than we have so far here, and Toronto is really in the same situation as the last couple years – just with different window dressings. The East’s presumed final boss is still alive and well in Cleveland. Things have changed for the Raptors, but none of it will matter if it ends in another loss to the Cavs in May.

About that bench: It’s been incredible, and Casey deserves a huge amount of credit. The Raptors struggled to break even when Lowry rode the pine in previous seasons, and got destroyed in those minutes in the playoffs. They outscore teams by near-Warriors levels when he sits this year.

That’s a great sign, right? Well, yes…and no. Maybe. It’s another two-sided issue, it turns out.

The positives first, and there are a couple.

For one, this hasn’t just been an increase in minutes. It’s been an increase in responsibility for several guys, and one that could matter come playoff time. Toronto has run into problems in previous postseasons when smart opponents loaded up their defensive game plans against Lowry and DeRozan. With an offense built so heavily around those two and their prodigious creation abilities, the supporting cast often simply seemed at a loss for what to do when some of that burden shifted onto them.

Casey’s reliance on his bench this year might help mitigate that this time around. Lowry and DeRozan are carrying by far their smallest load in years, the former in particular. Meanwhile, guys like Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright are possessing the ball for over twice as long every night as last year, per player tracking data from Second Spectrum.

The Raptors were dead last in percentage of baskets assisted last year, at just 47 percent – they’re up about 10 percentage points this year, clearly more capable of playing a more diplomatic version of offense than past Toronto teams.

Whether this was Casey’s original goal or not, the hope is that reps in this kind of role pay off when the games matter most.

“It’s great when we can do some misdirection type of things, just mix it up,” DeRozan said. “A lot of teams understand and know our plays when it comes to me and Kyle.”

The bench has been so successful that there’s a real case for continuing to play them as a unit in the playoffs, something that’s pretty rare in the league today. Color this writer skeptical, but the fact that it’s even a reasonable conversation is a pretty huge leap from where this group was last year.

There’s a flip side here, though. These great depth minutes haven’t exactly come at playoff intensity, or often anywhere close. The Raptors have spent more time up by double figures in the fourth quarter than they have with the score within five points; they’ve played just 104 “clutch” minutes on the year, with the score within five and under five minutes remaining in a game (only five teams have played under 100 such minutes).

They’ve been bad in those stretches, too – they have the league’s fifth-worst per-possession rating. Calling clutch time a direct approximation of playoff intensity is obviously foolish, but it’s at least a moderately useful proxy. Does the fact that Toronto has struggled so badly in the periods when defenses are keyed in on Lowry and DeRozan foreshadow badly for this group? Or do we trust the larger overall depth sample we’ve seen?

Maybe the toughest area to parse, though? Rest, which is always a popular topic for top teams headed down the stretch.

For one, the bench’s success has had the additional effect of providing plenty of down time for the primary guys. Lowry and DeRozan are playing over six fewer combined minutes per night on the year, with the brunt of that difference allowing Lowry to get to a much more manageable number. It’s to the point where Casey is actually being asked about getting his stars more time on the floor the rest of the year to help keep them in rhythm.

“I’m sure it’s coming, whether it’s on purpose or not,” Casey said. “That’s been talked about.”

We’re entering nebulous territory here – there’s only so much reasonable speculation to be had about player loads and fatigue. But once again, there are two sides to the conversation: Keeping guys in rhythm is one thing, but toeing a very imprecise line between that and tiring them out down the stretch is tough, to say the least.

Casey has given guys like Lowry and DeRozan games off near the end of the year in the past couple seasons, but it sounds like he’s reticent to go that route this time around.

“As far as resting players and giving guys days off and things like that, we’ve got to really examine that,” Casey said. “That hasn’t really helped us a lot [in the past].

“I don’t know if it takes our rhythm away or what it does to us, but I think it’s kind of discombobulated us a bit in the past. I like the rhythm we have now, but there is some thought as far as making sure guys can play bigger minutes [in the playoffs]. We’ll see.”

So will it be enough? Can Toronto’s faithful dare to dream?

In the end, despite all the changes around the margins, the answer could just as easily end up coming back to the lead actors. DeRozan has dedicated himself to improving lacking areas of his game after two straight subpar postseasons; he’s hit another level as a playmaker, and while he’s still not terrifying anyone as a three-point shooter, he’s become respectable enough to keep teams somewhat honest.

Can he keep it up against the kind of playoff attention he’s wilted under in the past? Will Lowry’s big reduction in minutes and load this year allow him to have more success? Can an improved bench and a perhaps-weakened Cleveland squad – plus potential home advantage and the ability to avoid both the Cavs and Celtics until the conference finals – narrow the gap even further?

It’s hard to answer these questions right now, but the fact that they’re reasonable questions at all is meaningful on its own. Let’s see if things are different this year north of the border come April.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA Daily: Georges Niang’s Big Break

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

Ben Nadeau

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shane Rhodes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NBA Daily: Grayson Allen Ready for NBA Challenge

Making it in the NBA alone is quite an impressive feat, which is why Grayson Allen is doing the best he can to prepare for the big stage.

Matt John

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Grayson Allen may not be the most hyped-up prospect to come out of this year’s draft, but he is one of the more experienced rookies coming into the league this season.

Allen spent four years learning under the tutelage of Coach K at Duke University while also playing with the likes of Brandon Ingram, Jayson Tatum, and Marvin Bagley III. He’s been through it all at the collegiate level, but he knows that if he’s going to make it in the pros, he’s going to have to adapt as quickly as possible.

“I have to set the tone for myself where I have to know playing in the NBA as a rookie, guys are going to be physical with you,” Allen said. “They’re going to come at you, they’re going to test you and see what you got. You’re gonna get beat. You’re gonna fail, but you gotta come right back at ‘em the next time.”

Since debuting in the summer league, Allen’s been the perfect storm for the Jazz. His shooting numbers have not been encouraging, but his numbers across the board have shown how impactful a player he can be. These have been his stat lines in both the Salt Lake and Las Vegas summer leagues.

July 2 vs. San Antonio: 11 points on 4/16 shooting including 2/6 from three, eight rebounds, seven assists
July 5 vs. Atlanta: 9 points on 2/13 shooting including 0/2 from three, six rebounds, eight assists
July 7 vs. Portland: 16 points on 6/17 shooting including 2/9 from three, six rebounds, six assists
July 19 vs. Miami: 17 points on 7/17 shooting including ⅕ from three, seven rebounds, three assists

Maybe it’s been the dry climate, or maybe it’s been the high Utah elevation that has caused Allen’s struggles shooting-wise, but the fact that his all-around game has shined despite his shooting woes should excite the Jazz. After his summer league play, Allen says the biggest adjustment he’s had to make offensively is acclimating himself with the pace of the game.

“Offensively, it’s a lot easier when you slow down,” Allen said. “I’m starting to see the space of the floor a lot better and finding the open guys. There’s still a few plays out there where I think I got a little antsy but it’s human nature and I’m trying to fight it right now. As a rookie playing in his first couple of games, I’m trying to fight that and play under control.”

On the other side of the ball, Allen says the biggest adjustment is the increased level of physicality in the pros.

“Defensively, it’s physical,” Allen said. “You gotta fight guys. You gotta get through screens. I mean, the bigs, they really set great screens, so you gotta be able to fight through that… If you’re tired on defense, they’ll find you.”

Allen knows that he needs to commit if he’s going to make it in the NBA, which requires eliminating all bad habits. In order to eliminate any habit that Allen has, which in his case is fatigue at the moment, Allen believes that he needs to be more mindful of himself when he’s physically drained.

“I try to be really self-aware of my habits when I get tired out there,” Allen said. “On defense, I have a habit when I’m tired, I stand up and my feet are flat. On offense, I’m not ready for the shot… I try to be really self-aware of that stuff so that in practice or in August, September, October, leading up to the regular season, I can have good habits when I’m tired because we got a short leash as a rookie. You don’t have many mistakes to make.”

In Utah, Allen will be playing for a team that exceeded all expectation last year and has a much higher bar to reach this season. He believes the summer the league should serve him well as he fights for minutes in the Jazz’ rotation.

“I’m joining a playoff team, so I gotta carve out a role with the guys they already have,” Allen said. “When I’m playing in summer league, I’m trying to play the right way. Don’t take too many tough shots, find the right guy, make the right pass.- Because when you come and play for Quin Snyder, that’s what he’s gonna want. He’s just gonna want you to play the right way.”

When Adam Silver announced that Utah was taking Allen with the 21st overall pick, the general masses laughed due to Utah, a state with a white-bread reputation, took a white player. Given that Allen just played four years of basketball at one of the best college basketball programs in the nation and will be starting his career playing for one of the most well-run organizations in the league, he may be the one laughing when it’s all over.

In other words, Grayson Allen playing in Utah could be quite the trip.

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