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The Raptors May Have Perfected the Modern Art of Team Building

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Despite having a rookie head coach and a brand-new franchise player who has barely played in the past 18 months, the Raptors haven’t had to deal with an adjustment period. They have the best record in the NBA (11-1) and are fourth in net rating (plus-8.6). Toronto has been one of the best-run organizations in the league under GM Masai Ujiri, and he stayed in house when hiring new coach Nick Nurse, the assistant who helped oversee their stylistic changes last season. The only thing they were missing was a superstar. The Raptors are already taking on Kawhi Leonard’s identity. They have put together the most complete team in the NBA to support one of the league’s most complete stars.

Kawhi has been dominant (26.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 1.8 steals per game) even without being completely healthy. He is not playing in back-to-backs, and has already missed four games. He’s still getting his burst back. Instead of using quickness to create separation, he’s carving out space for himself with his broad shoulders and burly frame. And he’s such a good shooter that he needs only an inch to get his shot off. Kawhi is within a few percentage points of a 50-40-90 season: 49.3 percent from the field, 44.1 percent from 3, and 90 percent from the free throw line. He’s a fundamentally sound player without any holes in his game on either end of the floor.

Kawhi never played in this much space in San Antonio, where the team rarely took 3s. Toronto is no. 10 in the NBA in 3-point attempts per game (33.7), but doesn’t have anyone in the top 20 among individual players. Almost everyone on the roster shoots 3s. The Raptors have 11 players who have appeared in at least seven games and are taking at least 3.0 attempts per 36 minutes of playing time. Jonas Valanciunas and Pascal Siakam are the only ones who don’t. All that shooting means Toronto can match up with anyone. Nurse never has to worry about floor spacing, no matter which lineup he uses.

The Kawhi trade was about more than just Kawhi. The Raptors also unloaded two of their only nonshooters (DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl) for two elite 3-and-D players in Kawhi and Danny Green. The result was a domino effect within the rotation that pushed players into more natural roles. The Raptors went from starting two traditional big men (Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka) and a reluctant outside shooter (DeRozan) to surrounding one big with four shooters at all times. Playing in that much space is like hitting in Coors Field. All five starters are averaging career highs: Kawhi, Ibaka, and Siakam in points, Lowry in assists, and Green in 3-point percentage.

Lowry’s passing has gone to another level. He was the king of the tough shot in an isolation-heavy attack over the past few seasons. The Raptors tried to run a more free-flowing offense, but there was only so much they could do given the limitations of their personnel. Those limitations are gone. Lowry has almost doubled his assist average, from 6.9 to 11.3, while his 2-point field goal percentage has skyrocketed, from 47.4 percent on 4.5 attempts per game to 61.1 percent on 6.0 attempts. Lowry and DeRozan are great friends, but Lowry fits better with Kawhi. There’s no awkward 1A and 1B arrangement. Kawhi is the primary scorer. Lowry is the primary playmaker.

It’s not just the stars who have thrived. Everyone in Toronto looks better in their new roles. Moving to center has transformed Ibaka. He had been playing out of position at power forward even going back to his last few years in Oklahoma City. He could barely stay on the floor in the playoffs last season. Playing him next to another center limited the number of playmakers on offense and forced him to chase smaller players around the perimeter; that’s no longer a concern. Ibaka is having the best offensive season of his career now that he’s a full-time 5, averaging 17.7 points on 59.3 percent shooting. Ibaka and Valanciunas haven’t played a single minute together after partnering up for 1,476 minutes last season. Ibaka’s spacing ability as a 5 can have a multiplier effect with the right players around him. Using Ibaka to create space for Valanciunas post-ups wasn’t a good use of his skill set.

Pascal Siakam, a third-year forward from New Mexico State, has broken out next to Ibaka. At 6-foot-9 and 230 pounds with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, he’s an electric athlete who can get to the rim and finish over the top of anyone, including Rudy Gobert. Siakam is like Ben Simmons in that defenders can’t keep him out of the lane even when they play off him. He’s a good passer in his own right, too. The only hole in his game is outside shooting, which isn’t an issue with so many shooters around him. A team can afford to play only one nonshooter at a time, and Siakam, also an elite defender, is more valuable in the nonshooter role than almost any center. He’s averaging 12.5 points on 61.9 percent shooting, 7.0 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 1.3 steals a game.

What separates the Raptors from most great 3-point-shooting teams is that their perimeter threats play defense, too. They are built like last season’s Cavs, who surrounded LeBron James with shooters, except they have the no. 9 defense in the NBA, instead of no. 29. There’s no weak link to attack. Lowry, Green, Kawhi, Siakam, and Ibaka are all plus defenders for their positions. It doesn’t change when they go to their second unit. They have waves of long and athletic players coming off their bench, and they can all shoot 3s, too.

Toronto is one of the deepest teams in the NBA. OG Anunoby started last season as a rookie, and Fred VanVleet could start for a lot of teams at point guard. Anunoby is the ultimate role player at this stage in his career: He’s a good shooter who moves the ball and has the size (6-foot-8 and 232 pounds with a 7-foot-2 wingspan) and athleticism to match up with almost any player. Delon Wright, Norman Powell (who is out for six weeks with a shoulder injury), and C.J. Miles could all handle bigger roles. No injury will derail them in the regular season. They have capable players who can step in at every position. They are the answer to the basketball version of the question, “If the black box on an airplane is indestructible, why not build the whole plane out of that material?”


Delon Wright and OG Anunoby
Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Toronto has drafted and developed really well over the past few years. Siakam, Anunoby, and Wright were all taken in the 20s. Powell was a second-round pick. VanVleet was an undrafted free agent. The Raptors have built one of the most promising young teams in the NBA without going through a rebuilding process. They have more talent in their organization than they can even use. Alfonzo McKinnie played in 14 games for Toronto last season coming straight from the G League. He is now occasionally closing games for Golden State as a key rotation piece.

There’s a compounding effect to being on a roster with so many 3-and-D players. Everyone in Toronto looks like the best version of themselves because they are in lineups with four shooters and four defenders around them. They are the only team in the NBA that can play like that for all 48 minutes of a game. The Raptors can stretch out the defense and find the weakest defender on the opposing team, and they don’t offer any corresponding weak spots to the other team.

Their Achilles’ heel is at center, where Ibaka and Valanciunas can struggle to defend the perimeter against elite small-ball teams. That could be an issue against Boston (Al Horford) and Milwaukee (Giannis Antetokounmpo) in the Eastern Conference playoffs. One possible solution, which Nurse has yet to use, is a three-man frontcourt of Kawhi, Siakam, and Anunoby, a lineup that could be almost impossible to score on. Nurse will have to do a better job of making in-series adjustments than Dwane Casey, the issue that cost the reigning Coach of the Year his job. The margin for error for a team as deep as Toronto is huge in the regular season. It goes away in the playoffs, when everyone shrinks their rotation.

But an MVP candidate like Kawhi changes their outlook in the postseason. They finally have a player who can take over a series against an elite team. Kawhi is significantly better than anyone in Boston, and he’s more polished than either Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the star in the East who matches up the best with Kawhi, but his team isn’t as deep or well rounded. While there’s no way to know what Kawhi, one of the most reclusive stars in the league, will decide to do in free agency this summer, the Raptors are making a compelling case for him to stay. They could be great for a long time.

Toronto has a roster full of young 3-and-D players who should only get better. Wright is 26. Siakam and VanVleet are 24. Anunoby is 21. They are all in a great situation to keep growing. Their jobs are easier than they would be on any other team. Nurse’s approach to building lineups is like rocket fuel for any player. A team that spaces the floor and defends as well as the Raptors can make its own stars. Siakam looks like a star because he’s getting the minutes of a starter. The same could happen for Anunoby and VanVleet in time. Ujiri has found a formula that works. It’s hard to imagine him adding anyone to this roster who isn’t a 3-and-D player.

Kawhi wound up in an even better situation than he was in San Antonio. The Spurs are an incredibly well-respected organization, but they are no longer on the cutting edge of where the league is going. Toronto is the only team that doesn’t need more 3-and-D players because that archetype already makes up more than 80 percent of its rotation. In that sense, the Raptors have built a model for what teams in the 2020s could look like. There are a lot of great young squads in the East, but they all have to catch up to Toronto.

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Durant: Not giving 'headlines' on Green

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OAKLAND, Calif. — The Golden State Warriors don’t expect Draymond Green’s latest dustup with Kevin Durant to become a long-term issue for the two-time defending NBA champions.

Nor do they expect the emotional Green to change after his one-game suspension by the team Tuesday.

Durant said he expects to work things out with Green, saying, “I’m sure it will, we’ve got a long season ahead.”

“His presence has been a part of this team for a while, even before I got here he’d been a huge staple in this organization,” Durant said. “Obviously it’s definitely weird not having him around and everything that went down. But that’s what happens, (stuff) happens in the NBA.”

Green was suspended one game without pay for conduct detrimental to the team following an altercation a night earlier with Durant, though general manager Bob Myers declined to offer specifics on the All-Star forward’s behaviour that was considered going too far. Myers and Steve Kerr collaborated on the decision.

“We just felt like this rose to the level of acting the way we did,” Myers said, noting of Green: “He was professional. He loves to play basketball, which is all you can ask of him.”

The Warriors made the announcement about four hours before they were set to host Atlanta, and the 28-year-old Green was serving the suspension as his teammates beat the Hawks 110-103. He wasn’t at Oracle Arena and didn’t immediately respond to a text message seeking comment.

“I think we’ll be fine,” Kerr said. “We’re a team that goes through stuff, just like everybody else. And things happen, bumps in the road. You’ve got to move forward. It’s all part of coaching a team, it’s all part of being on a team. You have to get through the adversity and there are some difficult times and you just get through them.”

In the closing seconds of regulation during Monday’s 121-116 overtime loss on the road to the Clippers, Green secured a rebound and, with Durant calling for the ball, instead dribbled the length of the court into traffic and lost control as the Warriors failed to get a shot off. Durant was shown on camera visibly upset immediately afterward.

Then, back on the bench waiting for the extra period to begin, the two traded words and gestured with Klay Thompson seated between them and Andre Iguodala, DeMarcus Cousins and others trying to calm the situation.

Durant wouldn’t get into the specifics of what was said.

“I’m going to keep that in house, that’s what we do here. I’m not trying to give nobody no headlines,” Durant said. “What happened, happened. We’re trying to move on, we’re just trying to play basketball.”

For everyone who figures this franchise is perfect, Myers quickly cleared up that notion.

“It’s hard to win a championship. You can’t allow anything else in your locker room, in the narrative. This team has done a good job of that,” Myers said. “I know it may appear as if it’s looked easy over the last however many years. It’s not. If you’re in our locker room, if you’re in our organization, it’s hard.

“And so they’ll get through it, and we’ll keep moving. Hopefully we get to the finals and win a championship. That’s all anybody’s thinking about, because I think that’s all you can think about. That’s something that we’re going to keep doing. This team has proven that they will do that and continue to do that and have done that.”

Myers and Kerr have long supported Green’s fiery nature that leads to technical fouls. Myers even sat with Green next door to Oracle Arena at the Oakland Coliseum when Green was suspended for a crucial Game 5 loss to LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the 2016 NBA Finals. The Warriors wound up losing in seven.

Green apologized after yelling at Kerr during halftime of a game at Oklahoma City in February 2016.

“My feeling on Draymond and his impact on our team doesn’t change. These things happen sometimes over the course of an NBA season,” Kerr said. “We deal with it — again, internally — so any conversations that are happening or have happened it’s our business.”

This wasn’t the first verbal altercation between Durant, the two-time reigning NBA Finals MVP, and Green. In another overtime loss, 109-106 at Sacramento on Feb. 4, 2017, they shouted at each other and argued near the bench.

“How you handle things after they happen is the most important thing,” Myers said.

Kerr said he spoke to Green, who was part of the recruiting group that worked to sway Durant to the Bay Area from Oklahoma City before the 2016-17 season.

“They’ve won championships together, they’ve been teammates, now this is the third season, they were teammates on the Olympic team,” Kerr said. “Draw your own conclusions.”

Green has been off to a strong start this season for the two-time defending NBA champions, averaging 7.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 7.4 assists. Kerr has credited him for taking great care of the ball and establishing a tempo on both ends of the floor.

The game at Los Angeles marked Green’s return from a two-game absence with a sprained right foot and toe.

“Draymond is always going to be who he is. He’s a powerful force,” Kerr said. “He’s a huge reason why we’ve had so much success here.”

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More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Durant leads Warriors to win as Green sits out

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OAKLAND, Calif. — Kevin Durant never found his typical offensive flow and found it a little strange playing without fiery Draymond Green, even if they have yet to make up from all that went down a night earlier in Los Angeles.

Durant isn’t sharing any details.

“I’m going to keep that in house, that’s what we do here,” Durant said. “I’m not trying to give nobody no headlines. What happened, happened. We’re trying to move on, we’re just trying to play basketball.”

Durant scored 29 points with a key jumper in the final minute, a day after a shouting episode on the bench with Green at least in part led to his teammate’s suspension Tuesday, and the undermanned Golden State Warriors held off the Atlanta Hawks 110-103.

Klay Thompson added 24 points as Splash Brother Stephen Curry missed his third straight game with a strained left groin. The two-time MVP shuffled and danced as he celebrated big plays from the bench.

Taurean Prince scored 22 points, making four 3-pointers and finishing 8 for 14 from the floor in the Hawks’ fifth straight loss and ninth in 10.

Durant led the way despite shooting 9 of 23 hours after the Warriors suspended All-Star Green for one game without pay for conduct detrimental to the team. He got into it with Durant on the bench at the end of regulation in a 121-116 overtime road loss to the Clippers and Green wasn’t even at the arena Tuesday.

Jonas Jerebko started in place of Green and had season bests of 14 points and 14 rebounds — “He was our MVP tonight,” coach Steve Kerr said — as the Warriors stayed unbeaten in the second game of a back-to-back this season.

Quinn Cook dished out six of Golden State’s 28 assists playing in Curry’s spot.

“I think we’re all professional. We all love each other. We’re with each other every day for nine months. Brothers are going to fight and brothers are going to get into it,” Cook said. “I think the biggest thing, we know the common goal, we know what’s at stake. These guys have been great for a while. I think we’re all going to get past this and come together. It’s going to make us stronger.”

Does Durant agree?

“Who knows, we’ll see,” he said.

Dazzling Atlanta rookie Trae Young was held to four points on 2-for-12 shooting and missed all five of his attempts from beyond the arc. The Hawks dropped their eighth straight to the Warriors and seventh in a row at Oracle Arena.

Golden State shot 6 for 21 in the opening quarter, missing 7 of 9 3-point tries.

“Not an easy game back-to-back, just coming in a little fatigued, a little emotionally spent and we had to grind it out,” Kerr said. “I’m proud of the guys. It wasn’t our best game but it was a good effort. We stayed solid.”

TIP-INS

Hawks: Atlanta hasn’t won on Golden State’s home floor since a 95-79 victory on Feb. 25, 2011, and not in the series since Feb. 6, 2015. … The Hawks are 1-7 on the road, 0-3 vs. the Western Conference. .. Prince has hit at least one 3 in his first 13 games. “Just to see him in rhythm, in our offence with the ball and body movement that we like to play with, really helped everybody out,” Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce said.

Warriors: Durant made all 11 of his free throws and grabbed six rebounds. … Jerebko posted his 11th career double-double. … Golden State is 40-60 all-time without Curry, 23-19 since 2014-15. … The Warriors are 3-0 in the second game playing consecutive nights. … Golden State sold out for the 300th consecutive game, the fourth-longest active streak in the NBA.

SMALL RING CEREMONY

Behind the scenes, a few more Warriors championship rings were delivered.

Former athletic trainer Chelsea Lane returned to Oracle with Atlanta and so did ex-Warriors performance coach and therapist Michael Irr and former assistant athletic trainer John Dusel.

Lane, who was key to getting Curry back on the court for the playoffs, left the organization after the latest championship run to become Atlanta’s executive director of athletic performance and sports medicine.

Warriors general manager and assistant GM Kirk Lacob presented the rings outside Atlanta’s locker room during pregame warmups.

Lane joked about texting a photo of her ring to departed centre Zaza Pachulia, who won’t return to Oracle until late March with his new Pistons team to get his sparkling jewelry.

UP NEXT

Hawks: At Denver on Thursday night.

Warriors: At Houston on Thursday to begin a three-game road trip all in Texas.

___

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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NHL Rumors: McKenzie Updates On William Nylander And Potential Teams Interested

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Bob McKenzie: “The seemingly quirky CBA math potentially works well for TOR, which would like the higher (than the AAV) cap hit in Year 1 and lower (than the AAV) cap hit in subsequent years. Not so much though for some teams (who don’t have cap room) talking trade with TOR.”

Bob McKenzie:  “And if Nylander wanted a heavy signing bonus and lower salary in Year 1 to make himself “whole” for time missed, it would significantly negate the club’s high Year 1 cap hit and lower cap hit in subsequent years. *they said there would be no math”

Chris Nichols of Nichols on Hockey: Bob McKenzie was on TSN last night and stated once again that the Toronto Maple Leafs priority is to re-sign William Nylander. McKenzie adds that with the December 1st deadline fast approaching and they’d be crazy to not see what other teams would offer up in a trade.

“So that is what’s happening right now. There is some talk going back and forth, but I think it’s still in the early stages in terms of what you would call horse trading involving William Nylander.

“It gets complicated, and here’s why. We said all along that a team like the Carolina Hurricanes were interested, and they are – but for the right price. So our sense of it is that Brett Pesce would be available to the Toronto Maple Leafs, but Jaccob Slavin wouldn’t be. And I do expect that the Carolina Hurricanes and the Toronto Maple Leafs will continue to have dialogue over the course of the week.”

McKenzie continues that the Los Angeles Kings would love someone like Nylander, but they may not have the pieces the Maple Leafs would covet and the Kings may not be able to fit the money in that Nylander wants.

The Anaheim Ducks have defensemen that the Maple Leafs would be interested in, but like the Kings, the money may not work.

The Minnesota Wild are another team that has spoken with the Maple Leafs in the past couple weeks, but they have their own salary cap issues and may not want to give up the defensemen the Maple Leafs may want.

The New York Rangers doesn’t have any salary cap concerns, but they don’t seem to be a fit.

“So you can see where this is going. Some of the teams want the player but don’t have the right fit. Some of the teams want the player, but don’t have the cap space or the ability to do any better than what the Toronto Maple Leafs would offer on a contract.”

TSN: Bob McKenzie on Insider Trading adds that the Florida Panthers could be a team that looks at Nylander.

“Florida is a team that will probably kick tires to see if there is any interest, but there’s going to be a lot of talk going on both the negotiation track and trade track.”

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