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The X-Factors: Toronto

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ X-factors series, assessing what the Toronto Raptors need to break in their favor to make a deep postseason run and defend their title.

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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.

Basketball Insiders contributor residing in the Bronx, New York.

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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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