The NBA recently announced that players must alert their teams if they intend to opt out of the remainder of the season by June 24, and Kyrie Irving is speaking up about his preference for players to avoid returning at all. It was always going to get more complicated in the run-up to the return of basketball, but it’s gotten even weirder than anticipated. But on a positive note, details have been distributed pertaining to the logistics of the NBA and Disney World’s hosting strategy, complete with entertainment for players, hotel assignments and rules for entering and existing the bubble.
Regardless, we are a mere six weeks from the return of basketball. We at Basketball Insiders have published pieces identifying X-factors for 15 of the 22 teams returning to action — today, we turn our attention to the lone Canadian team to discuss its keys to a deep postseason run.
The defending NBA Champion Toronto Raptors were 46-18 as of play stoppage in March — a 71.9% winning percentage. They’ve played as well on the road as they have in Toronto – posting a 23-9 record at home and on the road. That bodes well for their chances considering no teams will benefit from the comforts that home court advantage affords. They have impressive depth at most positions, and their length on the wing is better than maybe anyone – and who wouldn’t want that kind of defensive depth at the forward position in a league with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, Paul George, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Jayson Tatum?
Speaking of their lengthy wings, one of them is the Raptors’ first X-factor — OG Anunoby. He was already having a breakout season and was playing his best basketball just prior to the stoppage, increasing his scoring average from January (9.8) to February (10) and March (15.2). He also increased his true shooting percentage and offensive rating in four straight months between December (53.3% and 102) to March (71.9% and 136). So clearly, things were trending in Anunoby’s direction.
But despite developing a reputation around the association, Anunoby could still surprise folks. He’s only 22 and has lots of potential into which he can grow. His defensive impact is basically a given at this point, but what if he spent a time over the past three months working on his offensive shortcomings? He already improved his decision making this season when catching the ball in half-court offensive sets, decisively stepping into jump shots or shooting more quickly. But Anunoby was still turning the ball over at a mildly-alarming pace and committed too many offensive fouls. If he improves in either of those areas, he could add additional firepower to the Raptors’ offense. Even if he doesn’t, Anunoby’s improved shooting and defensive prowess make him a staple of Toronto’s lineups. He can’t take a step back if Toronto has hopes of advancing beyond the Eastern Conference semifinals. Considering Anunoby missed the entire 2019 playoffs due to an emergency appendectomy on Apr. 12 — and the fact that he was simply a different player in the postseason prior — he’ll have to acclimate to playing a major role for a contender in the playoffs on the fly. But like the adage goes, pressure either bursts pipes or makes diamonds.
But Anunoby isn’t the only wild card. Marc Gasol is another player from whom the Raptors could receive a boost, and the potential for that is relatively high for two reasons. First, he was banged up prior to play stoppage due to a hamstring injury that kept him out of 38 games so far in 2019-20 – so getting a three-month (and counting) break from basketball activities means that the seven-footer should at least return more structurally sound. And at 35-years-old, Gasol needed the extra rest more than most.
But it doesn’t end there for Gasol. Much like Nikola Jokic’s body transformation, Gasol appears to have dropped a good amount of weight, sporting a new, lean physique. While dropping weight hasn’t always worked out well for NBA players, it’s logical to assume that Gasol will be quicker and nimbler considering his slimmer appearance.
Even Raptors head coach Nick Nurse acknowledged Gasol’s body transformation.“It is good. I mean, I’ve seen Marc myself many times on some Zoom calls and most of all just his face in there,” Nick Nurse said. “So I thought it (Gasol’s weight) probably reduced a little.”
Granted, Gasol hasn’t performed exceptionally well in any month this season; but remember, the Raptors currently own the second-best record in the East, while getting only 27.5 minutes per game from “Big Spain.” And in the 36 games in which he’s appeared, Gasol was posting both a career-low 7.6 points and in 6.3 rebounds per night. Granted, they’ve gotten increased production from Serge Ibaka, but imagine if Gasol comes back fitter and more mobile?
But the team’s most important X-factor lies squarely with where they’re seeded. As the second seed, Toronto is slated to play the currently seventh-seeded Nets — sans Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. The Nets replaced their head coach only four games prior to stoppage, and they just replaced their starting center, too. That’s not an ideal recipe for continuity.
But it’s not as if the Raptors specifically want the Nets; the other teams competing for the seventh seed – Orlando and Washington – are equally ideal competition for a team looking to skip ahead to the conference semifinals. It’s not that they’re flat-out bad – it’s just that all three teams are under .500. And more importantly, the alternative is to play the sixth seed. As is, the sixth seed currently features a tie between the Philadelphia 76ers and Indiana Pacers (while the Miami HEAT are only two games ahead of them both). And both the 76ers and Pacers have won 60% of their games in 2019-20. Which option would you prefer?
It’s worth mentioning that the Raptors are 6.5 games behind the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks and only 3 games ahead of the Boston Celtics, so Toronto could technically finish higher, too — but it’s unlikely. So while the exact schedule hasn’t been determined just yet, the Raptors still have eight games remaining.
The Raptors have the most boom-or-bust potential. This writer’s skepticism pertaining to Toronto’s chances are well-documented since as far back as the preseason. None of my calls for trades and looking to the future have came to fruition. Instead, the Raptors have went about their business…and they’ve won.
While the top of the Eastern Conference looks tough, the Raptors have as good of a chance as any team outside of Wisconsin to advance to the conference finals. And once you’re there, anything can happen.
Bulls’ guard Zach LaVine desires respect for new contract
According to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, Chicago Bulls star Zach LaVine wants the respect he deserves for his contract extension. On Monday morning before Team USA’s practice to prepare for Tuesday’s match against Spain, the 26-year-old guard said to reporters, “I just want my respect, that’s the main thing. I outplayed my contract. I’ve been very loyal to Chicago. I like Chicago. I just want my respect. If that’s now or later, it’s something we’ve got to work out internally.” In the 2020-21 season, in 58 games played, LaVine averaged 27.4 points, five rebounds and 4.9 assists per game. He also shot 50.7 percent from the field and was selected to his first NBA All-Star Game.
Regarding the “outplayed my contract” comment, his argument his fair. Last season, with 200 three-point field goals made, he ranked ninth overall in the league. Despite the Bulls finishing 31-41 (.431) last season, he led the team in points and assists. Per ESPN, they are also reporting that Chicago is trying to work out a four-year, $105 million contract extension for their star guard. Though, this deal is expected to fall below his market value. In terms of signing available free agents this offseason, some Bulls fans are speculating the organization will pursue either Knicks’ shooting guard/small forward Reggie Bullock, Lakers’ power forward/center Markieff Morris or Pelicans’ point guard Lonzo Ball.
Zach LaVine says he "wants his respect" in contract extension & will stay in touch with Bulls in coming days as they face challenging decisions with cap space: https://t.co/36T2RpAtZu
— Brian Windhorst (@WindhorstESPN) August 2, 2021
On July 13, 2018, the 2014 13th pick of the draft signed a four-year, $78 million contract with the Bulls. LaVine earned $19,500,000 last season, and he is set to earn $19,500,000 in the upcoming season. It is not urgent for Chicago to extend LaVine’s contract this offseason. The organization will have the full rights to re-sign him to a new deal for next season in 2022.
However, the guard will also become an unrestricted free agent next year, so the Bulls should work towards fixing their salary cap issues right now. Referencing Spotrac, center Nikola Vucevic has a cap figure of $24 million. Of this amount, his future guaranteed cash is $22 million. One notable 2021-22 cap hold is Lauri Markkanen. His qualifying offer is $9,026,952, and his cap figure is $20,194,524. On March 2, 2020, Markkanen was recalled from the Windy City Bulls of the G League.
Furthermore, on March 25, 2021, center Nikola Vucevic and forward Al-Farouq Aminu were traded by the Orlando Magic to the Bulls in exchange for Otto Porter, Wendell Carter Jr., a 2021 first-round pick and a 2023 first-round pick. This is quite the gamble for the Bulls organization, considering they traded away two future first-round picks. Vucevic is set to earn $24 million for the 2021-22 season. Chicago has $56,679,846 available in cap space. Their current luxury tax space is $29,405746.
Rockets decline Avery Bradley’s $5.9 million team option
First reported by Shams Charania of The Athletic, the Houston Rockets are declining Avery Bradley’s team option for the 2021-22 NBA season. On November 23, 2020, the 30-year-old guard signed as a free agent with the Miami Heat. He signed a two-year, $11.6 million deal. On March 25, 2021, the Heat traded Bradley, Kelly Olynyk and a 2022 first-round pick to the Houston Rockets for two-time NBA All-Star guard Victor Oladipo. The 2022 first-round pick is an option to trade for a potential Heat or Nets pick. Plus, Houston received a trade exception, too.
Moreover, Bradley earned $5,635,000 this previous season; the Rockets declined his 2021-22 team option of $5,916,750 for next season. In other words, both sides have mutually agreed to part ways, so the six-foot-three guard is now an unrestricted free agent. In early February, it was first reported that the Washington native would miss three to four weeks due to a calf strain. Before this injury, he averaged 8.5 points, 1.8 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game for Miami. Furthermore, he also shot a career-high percentage of 42.1 percent from behind the arc last season.
The Rockets are not picking up guard Avery Bradley’s $5.9 million team option for next season, making him an unrestricted free agent, sources tell @TheAthletic @Stadium. Sides mutually agreed to part ways.
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) July 31, 2021
Though, Bradley disappointed both of his teams last season, leading to the Rockets finishing 17-55 (.236), ranking 15th overall in the Western Conference. Last season was the first time since the 1982-83 season that Houston failed to win at least 20 games. Since the 2011-12 season, it was the first time the Rockets had failed to qualify for the playoffs. In only 27 games played, the 11-year NBA veteran averaged 6.4 points, 2.1 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game. He shot 37.4 percent from the field as well.
Likewise, the Miami Heat finished 40-32 (.556) last season, regressing from the team’s 44-29 (.603) record and sixth NBA Finals appearance from the 2019-20 season. Fans across social media are already speculating that the 2010 19th overall pick will end up playing for the Los Angeles Lakers next season. If this happens, he would join the team’s newly established big three: LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook.
After Bradley signed with the Lakers for the 2019-20 season, he joined the list of players in the league’s history who played for both the Celtics and Lakers. The list includes Brian Shaw, Clyde Lovellette, Mel Counts, Rick Fox, Don Nelson, Bob McAdoo, Isaiah Thomas, Charlie Scott, Gary Payton, Shaquille O’Neal and Rajon Rondo. According to Bleacher Report, the Lakers are also interested in signing Carmelo Anthony this offseason.
Mavericks will pick up Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option
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.
Source says Mavs are leaning toward picking up center Willie Cauley-Stein's $4.1 million option for next season. Deadline is Sunday and Mavs are waiting to see if situation unexpectedly materializes to make that cap space worth parting with a big man they like.
— Tim MacMahon (@espn_macmahon) July 31, 2021
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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