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VanVleet’s new Raptors deal the latest triumph in his ‘Bet On Yourself’ story –



A good indication of how highly you are regarded by your peers is how happy they are when good fortune finds you.

Who’s not happy for Fred VanVleet right now?

Not that there was ever any question about the relationship between Kyle Lowry and VanVleet – the Raptors veteran took VanVleet under his wing almost from the moment the younger guard was signed by Toronto as an undrafted free agent with nothing but a $50,000 training camp guarantee in the summer of 2016.

This past season, as VanVleet’s game blossomed in his first year as a starter, Lowry became a one-man public relations machine for his protege.

When Lowry was named an Eastern Conference All-Star for the sixth time back in January, he made the story about VanVleet, and how the pending free agent would himself be an All-Star one day.

When the Raptors were eliminated in the Game 7 of their second-round series against the Boston Celtics, Lowry took the opportunity to promote VanVleet as he headed into free agency.

So, on Saturday afternoon when news broke that the 26-year-old VanVleet had been re-signed by Toronto on a four-year deal worth $85 million, it was hard to tell who was happier, VanVleet or his mentor:

The deal is yet another remarkable way station on a professional career only the hardest-hearted person could fail to appreciate, as the undersized guard with short arms and no leaping ability to mention somehow keeps turning expectations upside down.

After a stellar college career at Wichita State, VanVleet held a draft party in his hard-scrabble hometown of Rockford, Illinois, only to be passed over by the entire NBA on his big night.

Every draft since, it seems, the handheld video recording of VanVleet addressing the crowd gets recirculated, often as a reminder to kids who don’t get drafted that their story doesn’t end there — as VanVleet says in the video — but that it’s “just beginning.”

His plan, he said, eventually became his personal slogan: “Bet on yourself.”

Who knows where VanVleet’s story will eventually end, but he closed another triumphant chapter when he reached a deal after meeting with Raptors president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster, who flew in to meet VanVleet in Chicago.

It’s not clear how much of a market developed for VanVleet. Going in it was thought that the Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks were the two teams most likely to try and pry the 26-year-old from the Raptors.

The Pistons took themselves out of the running with a series of moves on Friday night that ate into their cap space while the Knicks didn’t make an offer in the end.

The Raptors didn’t mess around, however.

After a career-best season where VanVleet put up 17.6 points and 6.6 assists while shooting 39 per cent from three on nearly seven attempts a game, all while leading the NBA in deflections per game, finishing fourth in steals and emerging as a team leader in word and deed, Toronto more than doubled VanVleet’s $9-million salary and doubled the term of his previous deal.

And if you don’t think VanVleet isn’t ready to bet on himself one more time, it’s worth noting that he negotiated for a player option in year four of his contract, a suggestion that he believes he’ll be in a strong position three years from now to get himself another lucrative deal.

The Raptors were able to get one concession, as the structure of the deal is such that VanVleet will make $21.25 million this season and then a step back by eight per cent in year two to $19.55 million before ramping back up in year three and potentially year four.

The lower number for the 2021-21 season allows the Raptors a little more wiggle room in their plan to maintain enough salary cap room to add a ‘max’ contract player from the summer of 2021’s beefy free-agent class.

For now the, Raptors need to focus on the roster for 2020-21 as they get ready to open training camp in Tampa Bay in just 10 days.

Their most significant remaining target is incumbent big man Serge Ibaka. After successfully meeting with VanVleet, Ujiri and Webster were back on a plane to meet with the multi-skilled centre and his representation.

Their plan has been to secure Ibaka with a one-year deal rich enough to discourage him from being lured away by a number of teams who might try to get him to sign a deal starting at $9.3 million, and could run for four years at $39 million – the mid-level exception.

That seems doable given that the list of quality teams that need a big man or have the means to sign Ibaka has dwindled overnight.

Having already done right by VanVleet, the Raptors would like nothing better than to bring back Ibaka.

At that point, virtually the entire core of the group that played at a team-record 60-win pace during the pandemic-interrupted regular season — and still firmly believes they should have advanced out of the East were it not for an uncharacteristically flat showing against the Celtics — will return next year.

It would be a bet on their belief in their own ability.

It worked out pretty well for VanVleet.

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Don’t assume Raptors have taken step back despite disappointing free agency –



The Toronto Raptors have traditionally weathered the absence of elite talent quite well.

For example: During the season of Kawhi, those paying attention might have been tweaked to exactly how serious a championship threat the Raptors were by how well they did when Leonard wasn’t playing.

With Leonard nicked up or simply being load-managed for more than a quarter of the season, the rest of the Raptors simply kept rolling, putting up a 17-5 mark — a better winning percentage than they had with Leonard in the lineup — and provided a preview of how good a team that relied on the likes of Pascal Siakam or Fred VanVleet or Norm Powell might be.

Last season, with Leonard gone to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Raptors got better. Even in a year when Marc Gasol missed 28 of 72 games, Serge Ibaka 17 and six of the top seven players in the Raptors’ rotation — excluding OG Anunoby — missed 18 games on average.

It didn’t seem to matter who dressed at times as the Raptors ended up playing at what would have been a 60-win pace in a regular year and finished with the second-best record in the NBA, sans Kawhi and while lurching from game to game with a different lineup due to injury.

Having bought into a ball-sharing, ball-hounding philosophy espoused by head coach Nick Nurse, the plug-n-play Raptors kept chugging along, picking up Ws and belatedly getting credit for it.

That characteristic — the ability to adapt and compete with a revolving door of sometimes unlikely personnel — is best to be kept in mind as the dust settles on what seems like a disappointing weekend of free agency.

The high point — clearly — was retaining VanVleet, the homegrown point guard who proved he was ready for primetime in his first year as a starter a season ago. Inking VanVleet was the Raptors’ stated first priority and they got it done quickly and efficiently and at a number — $85 million for four years — that works for both sides.

But losing the centre tandem of Ibaka — who signed with the Los Angeles Clippers on late Saturday night — and Gasol — who signed with the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday — in a matter of 18 hours was a blow.

It’s hard to spin it any other way. It’s not necessarily a fatal blow to the Raptors’ chances of being a competitive factor in the East, but are they still realistic contenders?

The Raptors may adapt and adjust and find a way to compete and surprise the NBA again, but it seems like a less-than-ideal approach to getting the most out of Kyle Lowry’s final year under contract.

They have now lost four of their top six rotation pieces from their championship team in 18 months.

Eventually, it would seem, something has to give.

Ibaka was a positive locker room presence who put up 20 points and 11 rebounds per 36 minutes while shooting 39 per cent from three on a high volume and contributing meaningfully on defence as well.

Gasol’s boxscore line wasn’t impressive — 7.5 points and 6.3 rebounds to go along with 3.3 assists — and his offence slid further down the cliff after the hiatus. But his positional defence and rapid-fire ball movement meant the Raptors starters were plus-12.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, even when he considered his own scoring an afterthought.

Replacing 23 years of combined experience and a combined 338 playoff games doesn’t happen with a finger snap.

Still, Raptors president Masai Ujiri is the last person to show his cards at moments like this. He’s not prone to puddling when things get difficult.

“We’ll be OK,” he said via text message after Ibaka signed for two years and $19 million, trumping the Raptors’ reported offer of one year for $12 million.

“It’s how these things work,” was his message after Gasol signed a two-year deal for the veteran’s minimum — the Raptors wouldn’t offer a second year — to chase a ring with the defending champion Lakers just after dinner hour Sunday.

By then the market for free-agent centres had dried up considerably.

Still, the Raptors recovered nicely by signing Phoenix Suns centre Aron Baynes to a two-year deal (the second year a team option) for a reported $14.7 million and then giving Chris Boucher a two-year deal (again, with a team option for 2021-22) for $13.5 million, a nice payday for the rail-thin Montrealer whose slog to NBA security has been long and uphill.

So, the Raptors have a centre tandem, but the question is if they’re any better than they were on Friday?

The only proper answer is “we’ll see,” but at the very least that’s a lot of name recognition to replace.

Baynes is a nice pick-up. He’s a bruising but surprisingly quick-footed New Zealander who looks like he’s played his share of rugby in his time. The six-foot-10, 260-pounder will be 34 when the season starts, but has extended his career by adding a three-point shot to his game over the past two seasons. He shot a respectable 35 per cent from deep for the Suns last season on four attempts a game and will be appreciated for his screen setting.

The Raptors were hoping to have Baynes complement Ibaka or Gasol, I’m guessing, but not so much that they were willing to offer a second year of term to either.

Instead, the Raptors will be providing a significant opportunity to Boucher who has shown he can be wildly productive in small samples — he averaged 18 points, 12 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per 36 minutes last season — and will now get the chance to show he can do it over longer stretches.

And if Baynes or Boucher seem to be well-compensated given their profile, chances are they got a premium for being willing to accept deals where they don’t have a second-year guaranteed. As well, if the opportunity for a significant trade arises, the reality is you need some beefy contracts for salary-matching purposes.

And even with the signings (plus the addition of former Atlanta Hawks bench piece DeAndre’ Bembry) the Raptors remain about $5 million under the luxury-tax threshold, so nothing is lost there.

The Raptors’ focus in all of their business has included keeping flexibility for the summer of 2021 — right now it looks like they’ll be able to carve out enough room under the salary cap to either sign or trade for a max salary player — and clearly telegraphs what their priorities were in this off-season.

How that translates into this coming season is the more pressing question.

The temptation is to look at a team that has lost two key pieces of a championship roster and a 60-win team and assume they’ve taken a step back.

They might have. But the Raptors have in the past proven they can find a way to be competitive and to silence doubters.

Who is to say that if Anunoby takes another big step forward, Siakam grows a little more comfortable as a primary option and Powell remains as productive as he was for long stretches when healthy last season, the Raptors don’t continue steaming along?

Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster have earned that level of trust.

But they’ve left themselves plenty of wiggle room too, with short-term deals and escape hatches all around if things don’t quite pan out.

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Mahomes leads late winning drive as Chiefs hold off Raiders – TSN



LAS VEGAS — Even after Jason Witten‘s touchdown put the Las Vegas Raiders ahead with 1:43 to play, the mood on the Kansas City Chiefs’ sideline was calm and cool.

Not much can stop the Super Bowl champs lately. Not when they have the quarterback who makes everything go.

“We’ve got Patrick Mahomes,” running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire said. “I’m not worried about anything.”

Mahomes threw a 22-yard touchdown pass to Travis Kelce with 28 seconds to play, and the Chiefs avenged their only loss in the last 12 months with a 35-31 victory over the Raiders on Sunday night.

Mahomes passed for 348 yards and led two go-ahead scoring drives in the frantic fourth quarter for the Chiefs (9-1), who split their season series with Las Vegas (6-4) in dramatic fashion. Kansas City also took firm control of the race for its fifth straight AFC West title with an assertive comeback in its closest rivals’ home building.

“I’d take him over everybody,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said of Mahomes. “And I’m lucky to have him, as we are as a football team, as we are as a city. When you’re behind, he can make things happen.”

The Chiefs’ supreme confidence in their Super Bowl MVP wasn’t shaken when they lost 40-32 at home to Las Vegas last month, prompting the Raiders to take a celebratory victory lap around Arrowhead Stadium in their buses.

Kansas City also didn’t worry when Mahomes threw only his second interception of the season late in the first half of the rematch.

And when Derek Carr found Witten for the Raiders’ go-ahead score, Mahomes said he knew what would happen next.

“We’re going to score,” Mahomes said. “I just didn’t know if it was going to be overtime, or we were going to win it.”

The Chiefs didn’t need a tying field goal: They only needed 75 seconds to march 75 yards, with Mahomes going 6 of 7 on the drive.

Kelce, who caught eight passes for 127 yards, slipped free of Las Vegas’ safeties for the easy winning catch and then went back to the sideline to give a joking shoulder massage to Reid. The Chiefs can laugh at fourth-quarter tension, thanks to the man behind centre.

“He turns it up when it matters the most, and he was out there showing out tonight,” Kelce said about Mahomes.

Carr passed for 275 yards and three touchdowns, but the Raiders couldn’t match their offensive excellence in Kansas City last month. The Chiefs have won five straight since that defeat, and the Raiders made just enough minor mistakes to prevent them from getting out of reach of Mahomes’ comeback ability.

“It’s as good as you can play,” Raiders coach Jon Gruden said of Carr. “He had four or five balls that were magnificent throws that we could have caught that we didn’t make the play on. He played tremendous tonight. He played almost flawless.”

The Raiders led 24-21 on Darren Waller’s TD catch on the first play of the fourth quarter, but Mahomes led a 91-yard scoring drive midway through the period capped by Le’Veon Bell‘s first TD for Kansas City on a 6-yard pitch.

Carr and the Raiders replied with a crisp drive ending on Witten’s 1-yard catch just inside the goal line for his second TD with the Raiders and the 74th of his career.

“You’re really excited,” Carr said. “(But) they’re a real good offence, too. They go down the field, they score. The wave, the range of emotion — you try your best to stay even-keeled. You try your best not to get frustrated.”

That’s not easy when your counterpart is Mahomes.

Daniel Sorensen picked off a heave to midfield by Carr with 19 seconds left, and the Chiefs kneeled out their 18th win in the last 19 games since Nov. 10, 2019.

Nelson Agholor caught a TD pass and Josh Jacobs rushed for a score for the Raiders, who dropped to 2-3 at Allegiant Stadium in their new hometown.

Tyreek Hill caught an early touchdown pass for the Chiefs, and Edwards-Helaire rushed for 69 yards and two TDs in a fierce rivalry game. These teams’ mutual distaste was obvious, with plenty of confrontations and yapping after whistles. Kelce and Johnathan Abram had particularly active mouths.

“The rivalry between the Raiders and the Chiefs, I think, is a great thing for football,” said Reid, who improved to 19-3 after his bye week. “It’s great to be a part of it. I look forward to more future challenges like the ones they presented against us.”

The teams traded touchdown drives on the opening four possessions. Agholor made an exceptional toe-tap 17-yard TD catch to end the first quarter, but Edwards-Helaire’s first TD evened it at 14.


Mahomes drove the Chiefs deep into Raiders territory right before halftime, but Trayvon Mullen snared a pass intended for Demarcus Robinson at the Raiders 3 to preserve Vegas’ 17-14 lead. Mahomes had matched Drew Brees’ NFL record by throwing 26 touchdown passes this season before his second interception.


Las Vegas’ defence hung in against the high-powered Chiefs despite having nine players on the reserve/COVID-19 list earlier this week, essentially preventing the defence from practicing for its toughest opponent. Six of those players returned for the game, but the Raiders still played without starters Cory Littleton and Clelin Ferrell.


Chiefs: WR Byron Pringle hurt his ankle, but returned to the game.

Raiders: RT Sam Young missed the game with a knee injury, forcing Vegas to use its seventh offensive line combination in 10 games. … DL David Irving injured his knee.


Chiefs: Visit the Tampa Bay Buccaneers next Sunday.

Raiders: Visit the Atlanta Falcons next Sunday.


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Report: F1 champ Hamilton to be knighted – TSN



Recent seven-time Formula 1 Drivers’ Champion Lewis Hamilton will be awarded a knighthood in the United Kingdom, as first reported by The Sun.

Hamilton will receive the knighthood in the New Year’s Honours list.

Aside from Hamilton’s dominance on the race track, the 35-year-old has also notably been a strong supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement.

After his record-tying seventh World Drivers’ Championship, Hamilton was congratulated by the Queen of England via the Royal Family’s Twitter account.

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