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NBA Daily: Fixing The Toronto Raptors

Chad Smith continues Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series with a breakdown of the troubled Toronto Raptors.

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Basketball Insiders continues its annual Fixing series by taking a look at teams around the league. So far, we have covered the Washington Wizards and Minnesota Timberwolves. Today, we’ll be looking at the Toronto Raptors, who are calling Tampa Bay home this season.

With the first three weeks of the 2020-21 NBA regular season in the books, teams are still trying to get a grasp on how all of their pieces fit together. While many teams have struggled out of the gate, the Raptors appear to be stuck in the mud.

It was less than two years ago that Toronto sat on top of the basketball world, capturing an NBA Finals championship over the Golden State Warriors. Everything seemed to be going their way, from their rookie head coach to Kawhi Leonard’s epic bounce around the rim against the Philadelphia 76ers. But it has all gone south – quite literally – since they entered the “bubble” in Orlando.

So, what have the Raptors done right or wrong this season, and where do they go from here?

What’s Working?

Not much has gone right for the Raptors this season, but they do have a few bright spots to acknowledge – and one of those is the emergence of Chris Boucher. The former Oregon Duck celebrated his 28th birthday on Monday and has played very well this season. He had a monster game against the San Antonio Spurs, scoring 22 points, with 10 rebounds and seven blocks. But those numbers don’t really tell the story of his value to this team.

The only positive lineups per 100 possessions for the Raptors are the ones with Boucher in it. He is an elite rim protector, a versatile defender and can knock down the occasional three-pointer. Boucher shines in the paint as opposing teams shoot 15.1 percent worse around the rim when he is on the floor.

Another aspect that seems to be working for Nick Nurse’s team is the culture and leadership they have displayed. Third quarters have been the Achilles’ heel for this team, but they don’t simply wave the white flag. They always fight and claw their way back late in games, which is a double-edged sword. Great that they have the resolve and effort to come back, but putting themselves in that situation and running out of gas in the final minutes has obviously hurt them.

Elsewhere, Fred VanVleet signed a four-year, $85 million contract this offseason. Often there can be some regression after a player cashes in on a new deal, but Steady Freddy has been shooting the ball very well this season. VanVleet’s scoring is up nearly five points per game while his overall field goal percentage is up about five percent as well. Beyond that, the guard is still shooting 40 percent from deep and finishing better at the rim, but it hasn’t translated to wins.

What Isn’t Working?

The list is long, but it begins with their defense. This has been the staple for Toronto in the last few seasons, however, currently, it is nonexistent. Through their first nine games, the Raptors rank 18th in defensive rating, 18th in offensive rating and are 18th in net rating. Last year, Toronto gave up the lowest three-point shooting percentage to their opponents; so far this campaign, teams are shooting over 40 percent from beyond the arc against them. Even when teams miss shots, they can’t secure the rebound – worse, their leading rebounder in three of the first six games was either Kyle Lowry or VanVleet.

A large part of the rebounding problem eludes to arguably their biggest issue – the frontcourt. The losses of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka have weighed heavy on this team. Their replacements, Aron Baynes and Alex Len, have been of little to no help. Baynes is a -18.3 in team point differential, which is easily the worst among their starters. Even more troubling, he has not been knocking down his open three-point shots, making just three of his 16 attempts.

Sliding Baynes to the second unit might not be the simple fix and, overall, their bench as a whole has been atrocious. Toronto is reluctant to count upon unproven players like Matt Thomas, Malachi Flynn, Stanley Johnson and Terence Davis to play larger roles. Norman Powell has not shown any progression and may still be out of shape. As a unit, they are also fouling too much and only the Wizards and Warriors have committed more fouls this season.

Offensively, the Raptors have struggled to create space in their transition game, a part of the game where they have traditionally thrived. Their half-court offense has been exposed, especially when Lowry is on the bench. Toronto’s points per 100 possessions is around 108 with Lowry on the floor but crumbles to just 81.4 with him off. VanVleet is a decent passer when it comes to finding the open man, but his inability to make pocket passes or lobs in the pick-and-roll has crippled their offense.

One final issue is the biggest elephant in the room: Pascal Siakam simply hasn’t been the same player since the league stoppage last March. After earning the NBA’s Most Improved Player award and emerging as a key piece on a championship-winning team, Siakam has been a shell of himself lately. His shooting percentage dropped six percent in the playoffs and he was scoring six points less per game.

Many teams have put smaller defenders on Siakam to negate his quick speed advantages – but he needs to be more of a playmaker like Gasol was. This is especially true when Lowry is not on the floor. Getting him opportunities in transition, where he has always excelled, will be key for Toronto’s turnaround.

What Needs To Change?

If you listen closely, you can hear the echoes of Raptors fans calling for Nurse to start Boucher. He appears to be the flame that could ignite this team and get them out of their funk. They will need his production on offense and, more importantly, his defensive prowess as they enter a tough stretch in their schedule. Over their next eight games, they’ll face the Dallas Mavericks, Milwaukee Bucks and have two games each against the Charlotte Hornets, Miami HEAT and Indiana Pacers.

Their next five games are at home but that is a relative term considering their temporary home in Florida.

Another lineup change that Nurse could consider is to play more small ball. They are already a poor rebounding team, so playing OG Anunoby at the four and Siakam at the five might resurrect their transition game. Finding the right fit at small forward could be a real task, considering the lack of size they have already with Lowry and VanVleet at the guard positions. Still, if things don’t improve soon, this could be something worth trying.

Focus Area: Trades/Free Agents

It is extremely likely that this roster as currently constructed will not be the same roster by the end of the season, especially if their slide continues. The trade deadline looms on Mar. 25 and there are still some talented free agents looking for a home. If we have learned anything in recent years, it is that Masai Ujiri is not afraid to shake up the roster with a deal.

Would it be worthwhile to bring in a shooter like Kyle Korver to spread the floor? He is a solid veteran that knows his role and would fit in well with the Raptors’ culture. Another name to consider is Shabazz Napier. Of course, Nurse is used to working with smaller guards that excel in the right role. Having been a backup for most of his career, Napier would be a fantastic point guard off the bench with his speed and court vision generating offense.

If Toronto explores trade scenarios, there are a few names that come to mind. Patty Mills could be a low-cost option at backup point guard, should the Spurs be willing to let him go. Myles Turner’s name has been in trade talks for some time, but he’s currently swatting a league-leading four blocks per game. Nate Bjorkgren, the new head coach of the Pacers, used to be an assistant with the Raptors and may be keen on a deal that lands him some of his former players. A deal like that could improve their frontcourt if that is what they want to address.

If they want to infuse some offense and creative playmaking on their bench unit, the Raptors should make a call to the Pistons. Bringing in a guy like Derrick Rose makes almost too much sense, immediately elevating the second unit with scoring and shot creation – plus, Toronto probably wouldn’t have to give up any valuable assets. A deal involving Patrick McCaw, Davis and some second-round draft picks might suffice the rebuilding Pistons, who already have their point guard of the future in rookie Killian Hayes.

The Raptors haven’t missed the playoffs since 2013 – but they currently have a 2-8 record, tied with Detroit for the worst in the league. While it is not time to hit the panic button just yet, Toronto fans should be prepared to break the glass, in case of emergency.

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Mavericks are expected to pick up Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option

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Per ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, the Dallas Mavericks are planning to pick up center Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option for the 2021-22 NBA season. The deadline is tomorrow. Last season, in 53 games played, the seven-foot big man averaged 5.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. The sixth-year player also shot 63.2 percent from the field last season.

On July 8, 2019, Cauley-Stein signed a two-year, $4.46 million contract with the Golden State Warriors. Then, on January 25, 2020, Cauley-Stein was traded to the Mavericks for a 2020 second-round pick. If everything goes smoothly, the 27-year-old center is set to earn $4.1 million next season. The 2015 sixth overall pick’s contract consumes less than three percent of the team’s total salary cap.

This news comes right after Dallas received center Moses Brown from the Boston Celtics. Brown is a seven-foot-two, 2019 undrafted player out of UCLA. In 2021, Brown was named to the All-NBA G League First Team and All-Defensive Team. On March 28, 2021, the 21-year-old center signed a four-year, $6.8 million contract with the Thunder.

However, on June 18, 2021, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded Brown, Al Horford, and a 2023 second-round pick to the Celtics for Kemba Walker, a 2021 first-round pick, and a 2025 second-round pick. With Boston, Brown was set to earn $1,701,593 next season. Of course, the Mavs’ organization is finalizing a trade to send Josh Richardson to the Celtics as well. In other news, today is Mavs’ owner Mark Cuban’s 63rd birthday.

Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 luxury tax totals, the Mavs’ current luxury tax space is $52,326,531. The 2021 NBA salary cap maximum is $112,414,000. Their current cap space is $27,595,632. Cauley-Stein’s contract is recognized as a club option, not a player option or guaranteed money. Richardson’s deadline is also tomorrow, so because he is getting traded to Boston, the team will not collect his $11,615,328 player option.

Plus, Jalen Brunson’s deadline is also August 1st. His guaranteed value is $1,802,057. Leading into the 2021-22 season, Kristaps Porzingis has the highest cap figure on the team, which is an amount worth $31,650,600, consuming 22.73 percent of the team’s total salary cap. At the moment, Porzingis is a popular name in trade rumor articles. Bettors and NBA analysts are predicting a possible trade to the Brooklyn Nets, Sacramento Kings, or Philadelphia 76ers.

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Lakers Need More Than Big Three

The Lakers have their “big three” after trading for Russell Westbrook but is he the right fit in Los Angeles? The former MVP has had an incredible career but he may not be the point guard the Lakers desperately need.

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The Los Angeles Lakers have formed their three-headed monster as they pursue the franchise’s 18th championship next season. Just as the NBA Draft was getting started, the Lakers completed a deal with the Washington Wizards that landed them the 2016-17 league MVP, Russell Westbrook.

The deal sent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and the 21st overall pick in this year’s draft to Washington, paving the way for Westbrook to join fellow superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis. While the Lakers added a dynamic point guard, not everyone is sold on the idea that the Lakers are the team to beat in the loaded Western Conference.

Over the past several weeks, the Lakers were rumored to be seeking perimeter shooting. Some reports had Los Angeles linked to guys like Chris Paul, Buddy Hield and DeMar DeRozan. When the dust settled, it was Washington that made the deal as Westbrook informed the front office that he preferred the Lakers as a destination.

The move is a homecoming of sorts, as Westbrook grew up in the area and spent two seasons playing at UCLA, leading the Bruins to the 2008 Final Four. He had a solid 2020-21 season, averaging 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.7 assists per game for the Wizards, who earned the No. 8 seed in the playoffs.

Oddly enough, this is the third straight offseason in which the 9-time All-Star has been traded. After leaving Oklahoma City, Westbrook was not able to find postseason success in Houston or Washington. Will that now change in Los Angeles?

For all of his accomplishments, Westbrook’s legacy has been defined by his play during the regular season. This past season, the point guard passed Oscar Robertson for the most triple-doubles in the history of the game. Out of his 184 triple-doubles, only 12 have come in the playoffs. By comparison, Magic Johnson has the most playoff career triple-doubles with 30, and James is next with 28. Now all three will have played for the Lakers during their careers.

The thing about triple-doubles (and this is especially the case with Westbrook) is that they don’t always translate to wins. They clearly help the team overall but some would argue that a more balanced attack is tougher to stop. History has shown that having a “big three” is almost a requirement to be considered a legitimate championship contender, but this trio in Los Angeles doesn’t exactly fit together like many of those others.

As talented and valuable as Westbrook has been over the course of his career, he needs to have the ball to be effective. His poor perimeter shooting has been the big hiccup in his game, and that is something that this Lakers team desperately needs. The problem isn’t that any of these three won’t share the ball. In fact, they had already discussed checking their egos even before this trade went down.

Westbrook has never had a problem sharing the ball. He was able to co-exist with Durant in Oklahoma City, Harden in Houston and Beal in Washington. The difference in this scenario is that he will be occupying the same space as James and Davis. The concern is efficiency. Out of 34 players to average at least 20 points per game over the last four seasons, Westbrook ranked 33rd in true shooting percentage.

When James drives to the rim or when Davis is facing a double-team inside, how confident will they be in passing out to Westbrook for a three-pointer? Better yet, how patient will they be if the shot isn’t falling? We have already seen what happened with Danny Green and Caldwell-Pope.

Now that the Lakers have assembled their trio of stars, many fans are hopeful to witness an NBA Finals matchup where James and the Lakers meet Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets. As juicy as that series would be, the Western Conference is a gauntlet. There is no guarantee that the Lakers will make it there.

What helps their path is that the crosstown rival Clippers will likely be without Kawhi Leonard next season. The Denver Nuggets will be without Jamal Murray and the Golden State Warriors might not be the Warriors from four years ago. There is also uncertainty surrounding Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers and some potential roster changeup with the Utah Jazz.

Considering all of the top-tier point guard talent available in free agency this summer, the Lakers may have been better off trying to do a sign-and-trade. Such a scenario would have hard-capped them but after this deal, they are just $12.6 million below the hard cap with just five players on the roster. Putting together a deal for Hield is still possible, but the Lakers will have to get creative. Adding a third team to this trade, in particular, is one way to accomplish that. Again, it is possible but it will be complicated.

In a perfect world, the Lakers could have worked with Toronto on a sign-and-trade for Kyle Lowry. Even though Lowry is older than Westbrook, the current window for Los Angeles to win with this group is closing fast. Lowry would be cheaper and a much better fit overall. His durability, toughness, defense and high basketball IQ would pay dividends for the Lakers. Adding in the fact that he is a much better shooter, one has to wonder why the Lakers wouldn’t pursue this route instead.

Westbrook is still going to help this team. He is a tremendous asset for them in the regular season, especially when James is on the bench or unable to play. Having another floor general on the court to generate offense is something they have not had since James arrived. If Los Angeles can land some above-average shooting to the roster, Westbrook could flourish in this role.

With James sliding to the power forward position and Davis playing more at center, the key for Los Angeles will be to surround these guys with shooters. The Lakers ranked 21st in three-point percentage and 25th in makes last season. Expect the organization to be busy when free agency starts next week. Targets will include guys like Duncan Robinson, JJ Redick, Norman Powell, Evan Fournier, Doug McDermott, Bryn Forbes, Patrick Mills, Reggie Bullock, Kendrick Nunn and Alec Burks.

Obviously, the Lakers are counting on their individual talent and figuring out the rest later. It likely means the end for Dennis Schröder. Can Alex Caruso fit in and where does this leave Talen Horton-Tucker? The rest of the roster is in limbo, but the star players and the front office both feel confident that they will land the other pieces that they need to raise another banner next summer.

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Jazz offering Mike Conley $75 million over next three years

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According to veteran NBA reporter Marc Stein, the Utah Jazz are preparing to offer point guard Mike Conley a three-year, $75 million contract to remain with the team. Of course, the exact amount is a ballpark figure. Stein stated, “Utah has made retaining Mike Conley its top priority, league sources say, and is preparing a three-year offer said to be in the $75 million range.” The 14-year NBA veteran is a significant piece to the Jazz’s championship window, playing alongside superstar teammates, such as center Rudy Gobert and guard Donovan Mitchell. He helped the Jazz finish their regular season with the league’s best record of 52-20 (.722).

Utah went on to defeat the Memphis Grizzlies in five games in the first round of the playoffs. Though, the team lost four games to two in the conference semifinals against the Los Angeles Clippers. In the 2020-21 NBA season, Conley averaged 16.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, and six assists per game in 51 games started. Then, in the postseason, he averaged 15.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 7.7 assists per game. The 33-year-old also shot 44.4 percent from the field in the regular season. Last season, the 2007 fourth overall pick earned his first NBA All-Star selection.

On July 6, 2019, the Grizzlies traded Conley to the Jazz for Grayson Allen, Darius Bazley, Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, and a 2020 first-round pick. Furthermore, the Jazz can still trade Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles this offseason, if they wanted to improve their current salary cap situation. Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 cap holds, Mike Conley’s cap figure is $39,344,900. Cap holds are for pending free agents. Conley earned $34,504,132 last season.

The team’s current luxury tax space is $11,173,027. In addition to the aforementioned cap figures, Mitchell and Gobert have a combined cap figure worth 51.34 percent of the team’s total salary cap. These two players’ contracts alone are consuming a huge chunk of the team’s cap. Plus, on November 23, 2020, Mitchell signed a contract extension with Utah. He is set to earn $28,103,550 next season. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the organization. He will earn $35,344,828 next season and $38,172,414 in the 2022-23 season.

However, if the team were to still trade Bogdanovic and possibly Ingles as well, this would clear up an additional 25.68 percent of the team’s salary cap. Bogdanovic’s future guaranteed cash amount total is $19,343,000. They are contributing role players who play together well with the team’s big three, but re-signing the most valuable players is the team’s main objective this offseason. Jazz general manager Justin Zanik might contemplate trading role players who are not worth their asking price. Competitive teams in both conferences have to trim the fat at some point.

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