Posts Tagged ‘Kyle Lowry’

One Stat, One Play: The Draw of DeRozan


VIDEO: One Stat, One Play: The Draw of DeRozan

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – In general, the more you get to the basket, the more you get to the free-throw line. The Toronto Raptors are the exception to the rule.

Last season, the Raptors ranked dead last in shots (both made and attempted) in the restricted area. But they also ranked sixth in free throw rate (FTA/FGA), getting to the line 31 times for every 100 shots from the field. That (and shooting those free throws at the league’s fifth highest percentage) helped them rank ninth in offensive efficiency.

“There’s a knack by our guys to get in the mid-range area and get fouled,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said in the preseason.

Indeed. According to SportVU, DeMar DeRozan led the league in shooting fouls drawn from 10 or more feet from the basket.

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Right below Stephen Curry on the above list was DeRozan’s backcourt-mate Kyle Lowry, who drew 46 fouls from 10 or more feet from the basket.

And guess what? The Raptors are at it again. They’re getting to the basket more than they did last season, but they’re still getting to the line at a disproportionate amount. They rank second in free throw rate, now getting to the line 41 times for every 100 field goal attempts, in part because they’ve added a third guy with that knack for drawing fouls away from the basket.

According to SportVU, DeRozan, Lowry and Lou Williams are all in the top 10 in shooting fouls draw 10 or more from the basket through Wednesday’s games.

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The video above is our third installment “One Stat, One Play,” a look at how the Raps put DeRozan in position to draw fouls on helpless defenders outside the paint. It will be something to keep an eye on as Toronto’s No. 3 offense faces the Chicago Bulls in the first game of TNT’s double-header (8 p.m. ET) on Thursday.

Blogtable: Didn’t see that coming

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Clippers soft | Forsooth, this fortnight | LeBron’s move


> We’re two weeks into the new season. What didn’t you foresee in this opening fortnight that you maybe should have?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: I didn’t foresee the Raptors’ fast start but should have, given their early schedule; two victories over ORL, plus PHI, BOS and banged-up OKC means they’re 2-1 in their own weight class. Their next four are at home, too, though visits from Chicago and Memphis might give us a better sense of Toronto’s legitimacy. The roster is deep, Kyle Lowry is playing as if he wants another contract on top of the one he just signed and Dwane Casey is in control of that group, having raised them from li’l lizard hatchlings.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: You mean besides getting a question that includes the word “fortnight?” Well, old chap, I’ll cop to taking a nap on the LeBron-less Heat.  Chris Bosh has played like a member of the royal family and tossed his hat into the early MVP conversation.  Lord Dwyane Wade is healthy and productive. Prince Luol Deng has been a good arranged marriage into the lineup.  Sir Erik Spoelstra continues to prove that he wasn’t just a guy with a good seat on the Miami bench through those four straight trips to The Finals.  He’s had the S.S. Heat thriving and steaming ahead with an efficient offense in spite of what could have been a gaping hole in the hull.  So far, it’s tea and crumpets.

Greivis Vasquez and Kyle Lowry of the Toronto Raptors (Ron Turenne/NBAE)

Greivis Vasquez and Kyle Lowry of the Raptors
(Ron Turenne/NBAE)

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: I won’t say the Kings, a big surprise, because anybody who claims 5-3 was realistic at the start of the season is a liar. So I should not have seen that coming. Maybe I should have seen Rajon Rondo from a distance, but did not. Eleven assists and eight rebounds a game is very nice work, whether he’s a Celtic for the long term or raising his trade value.

Shaun Powell, NBA.com: Well, I certainly didn’t expect OKC to lose Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and for Derrick Rose to pull up lame in the second week. But given the carnage of the last two years, when the league lost a number of stars for long stretches and even entire seasons, I should knock myself upside the head for not seeing this coming (and risk a possible concussion and long recovery, of course).

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: I certainly didn’t see the Bucks ranking as the No. 2 defense in the league. Seven of their eight opponents have been below-average offensive teams (and four rank in the bottom six), but the Bucks are supposed to be an opponent that those teams boost their numbers against, not continue to struggle against. I don’t know if anybody could have foreseen this, but Jason Kidd‘s Nets turned their season around with a strong defense last season, and his new team has similar length and versatility on defense. They’re not going to stay in the top five (or even the top 10), but this 4-4 start (and Saturday’s win over the Grizzlies) tells me that they’re going to be a better team than I thought they were. They already have a longer winning streak (two games) than they did all of last season.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: The Memphis Grizzlies should have been on my mind heading into this season with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph healthy and ready to go and all of their offseason front office drama in the rearview. When your team is built on the bedrock of rugged defense and an adherence to playing the game the gritty and grimy way the Grizzlies play every night, a solid start should be expected, particularly in a Western Conference shaken up by significant injuries (OKC) among the elite. The Grizzlies play in what is easily the toughest division in the league, so their hot start should be kept in context. It’s early. But I should have had them on my mind.

Ian Thomsen, NBA.com: I should have known that Miami would be off to a better start than Cleveland. The Heat have been able to survive LeBron’s absence because they have everything else going for them: They know who they are and how they’re going to play. The Cavs have yet to figure out any of that. The Cavs are going to have the last laugh, I’m sure of it, but it may not be so easy to get there.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: Look, I publicly ate crow about this last week on the Hang Time Podcast, so we might as well warm it up again so I can chow some more. I didn’t expect that Klay Thompson would be this good this season. While I dismissed him as player who was a terrific shooter but subpar in other areas, he’s become one of the most well-rounded guards in the League. Not only can he stroke it from the perimeter, but he’s getting to the basket and getting to the free-throw line (averaging a career-high 6.6 FTA per game, almost triple his previous high). He’s also a strong defender who obviously puts in work on the defensive end. And his development might be enough to carry Golden State into parts unknown in the postseason.

Marcelo Nogueira, NBA.com/Argentina: I just wish there were fewer injuries. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or if it’s something that’s related to each team’s preseason system, but the disappearance of stars is opening up the road to teams we thought would be struggling to reach high places.

Simon Legg, NBA.com/Australia: I don’t think I expected the Raptors to be this good. They were great post the Rudy Gay trade and I had expectations that they would make the playoffs again. But their start to the season has exceeded expectations. I think we knew the capabilities of their starting group and that Terrence Ross would improve even more this season, but it’s been their new additions to the second unit that have surprised me. James Johnson has given them an edge defensively and Lou Williams has given them a nice offensive blend and he has the ability to heat up. I expected they would hover around the 4-5 range in the East, they’re a legitimate chance to finish top 2 now.

Orr Ziv, NBA.com/Israel: How well the Kings have played. It’s easy to dismiss Sacramento after years of futility, but Mike Malone has done a great job so far in making those guys believe that they can compete. And Boogie Cousins is in my mind the front-runner for Most Improved Player of the year.

Stefanos Triantafyllos, NBA.com/Greece: OK, we expected the Lakers to have a tough beginning, but not this tough. Kobe and Co. are in deep trouble the way they playing right now. They lost Julius Randle, but that’s not their only problem.

Ole Frerks, NBA.com/Germany: Generally speaking, I didn’t anticipate the Team USA guys making that big of a leap this season. Davis, Cousins, Thompson, DeRozan, Curry and Harden all rank among the best players of the young season so far. Guys like Davis, Curry and Harden could also be thrown into the early MVP conversation. And speaking of Cousins: I’m surprised by the nice start the Kings have enjoyed. I anticipated him to provide his usual monster stats, but so far they’ve been competitive in every single game and could even make the playoffs. If they make it, that would be a lot earlier than I would have expected.

Karan Madhok, NBA.com/India: I knew that the Warriors would be better this season than the last, but I honestly didn’t foresee them to be the last undefeated team in the league and sit atop most NBA Power Rankings by the end of the second week. In hindsight, their improvement makes sense: They have already been blessed with the league’s most volatile offensive backcourt between Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, but the real difference-maker has been Andrew Bogut, whose healthy return has helped this squad secure the best defensive rating in the early season. If you’re doing everything right on both ends of the floor, you deserve to be on top.

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Morning shootaround — Nov. 11


VIDEO: Highlights from games played Nov. 10

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Leonard confident he’ll remain a Spur | Lowry driving Raptors’ early season success | Reports: Lakers granted disabled player exception

No. 1: Leonard doesn’t plan on going anywhere come free agency – From Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving (No. 1 overall pick in 2011 Draft) to Denver’s Kenneth Faried (No. 22) and other names in between, several players taken in the first round of the 2011 Draft were locked into contract extensions before the Oct. 31 deadline. One such player who was not inked to a deal was San Antonio Spurs forward (and reigning Finals MVP) Kawhi Leonard. As such, he’ll enter restricted free agency this summer, which is creating a little bit of angst among Spurs nation. However, as Leonard tells Sam Amick of USA Today, there’s little reason to fret he’ll leave San Antonio:

Gregg Popovich‘s wry humor sparked laughter among the media, but he’s as aware as anyone that Leonard’s situation is a somewhat-serious matter. Leonard is the sort of young talent who needs to feel loved, to know that all the talk about how his role is so vital will be backed up on the floor. In that regard, this night was huge.

Leonard, known for his reserved and quiet nature, was more candid than ever afterward. He boldly discussed the difference between talk and action, saying of Popovich’s comment, “It’s better to really walk it instead of just hearing them talk about it.” And in a discussion with USA TODAY Sports, Leonard, who will be a restricted free agent next summer, said he knows his days of playing fourth fiddle to Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and point guard Tony Parker eventually will come to an end.

The Spurs have big plans for this summer, among them the idea of replacing Duncan with a free agent such as Marc Gasol if “The Big Fundamental” retires as expected. And with Leonard’s salary cap hold proving so prohibitive had he received the extension he so desired, he’s confident their vision will be realized.

“I was never upset about (the extension),” Leonard said. “I mean they explained to me what their deal is and why they didn’t do it yet. That’ll play out. I’m just here to play basketball and have fun and try to win another championship. If I think about that, then I’m not going to be the same player that I am and will be just out of it.

“I can’t be impatient. It would show on the floor, and I won’t compete if I’m thinking about getting the ball. I’m just going out there to do my role, the same role — defense first and then see how the ball turns out on the offensive end.”

So even with this game taking place in Los Angeles, not far from his Moreno Valley, Calif., hometown and with about 10 family members and friends on hand, Leonard swore his mind didn’t wander to a day where he doesn’t wear the silver and black. He’s all in when it comes to San Antonio, especially if most nights are going to be like this.

“I don’t think I’m going anywhere,” Leonard said. “I mean they love me here. I like the organization, and if it was up to me, I want to finish out with one team like a lot of great players have done, to stay with one organization their whole career and just be loyal to that. You never know. We’ll see what happens next summer, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be in a Spurs jersey for my whole life.”


VIDEO: Kawhi Leonard stars in the Spurs’ win against the Clippers

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Talking numbers with Raptors’ Casey


VIDEO: 2014-15 Raptors Team Preview

NEW YORK – To be a true title contender, a team must be among the league’s best on both ends of the floor.

There were four teams who ranked in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency last season. Three of them should be no surprise. But four months later, it’s still strange seeing the Toronto Raptors as the Eastern Conference’s only representative on the list.

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The Raptors were a surprise in the standings too. After five years outside the playoffs and a 6-12 start, the Raps went 42-22 over the final four months and finished third in the East.

But the Raps still finished one possession short of the conference semifinals. So they have to find ways to keep getting better after making jumps on both ends of the floor last season. (more…)

Bledsoe’s gamble bigger than Monroe’s

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In his first season as a full-time starter, the 24-year-old Eric Bledsoe averaged 17.7 points, 5.5 assists and 4.7 rebounds. (NBAE via Getty Images)

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Greg Monroe and the Detroit Pistons made it official on Monday: Monroe will play this season for $5.5 million, the amount of the one-year qualifying offer. He could have pocketed more than $12 million next season and reportedly more than $60 million over the next five seasons had he agreed to the Pistons’ offer.

Few players shun their first opportunity to ink a big-money extension. But that’s how disillusioned the 24-year-old power forward has become after four seasons of totaling 86 games under .500 in the Motor City, even as Stan Van Gundy offers stability and, potentially, a new direction as coach and team president.

The 6-foot-11 Monroe is gambling millions that he’ll remain a picture of good health (he’s played in 309 of 312 games in his career) and will keep improving (he averaged 15.2 points and 9.3 rebounds last season), allowing him to control his free agency and cash in with a team of his choosing next summer when he becomes an unrestricted free agent.

Monroe was a restricted free agent this summer. The Pistons offered to make him their highest-paid player, but reportedly never put a max contract on the table. Sign-and-trade scenarios couldn’t be worked out, setting up the stalemate that lasted into September.

Former Detroit general manager Joe Dumars forced this situation by overreaching for power forward Josh Smith last summer and squeezing him in as a small forward. The Redwood-like frontline of Smith, who loves to shoot the 3, but isn’t good at it, plus Monroe and up-and-coming center Andre Drummond didn’t work. Monroe decided he wasn’t going to hitch himself to the franchise long-term without a better idea of how the team will look beyond this season.

While it certainly would appear that Monroe will be playing one last season in Detroit, Van Gundy can attempt to change that by catering to Monroe and working to somehow unload Smith’s contract which has three years and $40.5 million remaining. Still, with the large number of teams that will have cap space and shopping for a quality, young big next summer, Detroit stands to lose Monroe no matter what magic Van Gundy can pull.

“I have said from Day 1 that we have great respect for Greg as a person and like what he brings to this team as a player,” Van Gundy said in a statement. “We have had good dialogue with Greg throughout the off-season, with the understanding that there were multiple options for both parties involved, and we respect his decision. We look forward to a great year from Greg as we continue to build our team moving forward.”

To his credit, Monroe issued a statement in which he said he was looking forward to playing for Van Gundy. So at least it appears relations between the two sides haven’t grown completely sour, which can’t be said for the last remaining high-profile free agent, point guard Eric Bledsoe, and the Phoenix Suns.

Bledsoe, 24, long ago rejected the Suns’ reported four-year, $48-million offer, a deal that would have paid the restricted free agent the same as Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry and put him on par with many of his peers despite having only started 78 games in his four seasons and missing half of last season with a knee injury.

He has yet to sign the qualifying offer that would pay him $3.7 million and make him an unrestricted free agent next summer.

With $48 million on the table, Bledsoe is taking a significant risk, an even bigger risk than Monroe. He doesn’t have the track record of good health like Monroe, and big men always — eventually — get paid because good ones are so hard to find. Monroe is confident max money will be waiting for him.

Bledsoe can’t confidently claim the same even if he produces an All-Star-worthy season.

What Bledsoe has that Monroe doesn’t, and what should not be discounted by the young talent, is his is a team on the rise with a coach, Jeff Hornacek, who implemented an up-tempo system well-suited for Bledsoe’s game.

In his first season as a full-time starter (remember he was behind Chris Paul with the Clippers for three seasons before being traded to Phoenix), Bledsoe averaged 17.7 points, 5.5 assists and 4.7 rebounds in 32.9 minutes. He shot 47.7 percent overall and 35.7 percent from beyond the arc.

When Bledsoe was healthy, he and Goran Dragic were dynamite as the Suns’ starting backcourt. If Bledsoe had not missed half the season, the 48-win Suns might not have missed the playoffs.

If sharing the stage is a problem for Bledsoe, he should be looking ahead to 2015-16 when Dragic could well be playing elsewhere. Dragic will almost certainly exercise his opt-out clause next summer (he’s scheduled to make $7.5 million in each of the next two seasons) and seek a much bigger payday. If Bledsoe is already on the books for $12 million for three more years –and with Isaiah Thomas recently added at $27 million over the next four seasons — the Suns might be reluctant to pay Dragic the kind of money other teams will offer him on the open market.

But Bledsoe hasn’t agreed to the long-term offer and it doesn’t appear he will. If he’s dead-set on shooting for the moon financially, the Suns would be wise to be content to bid him farewell next summer, pay Dragic, an All-Star candidate last season, and spend their cap money to fill a different position, like maybe power forward for somebody like, oh, Greg Monroe.

Plenty of time for Bledsoe to earn max

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Eric Bledsoe talks with the Phoenix media during last season’s exit interviews

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Electric point guard Eric Bledsoe one day might command an NBA max deal. It just doesn’t appear that day is today.

The Phoenix Suns want to pay Bledsoe, a restricted free agent, the same as what the Toronto Raptors paid Kyle Lowry earlier this month ($48 million over four years). It’s a pretty fair deal for a player like Bledsoe, who is entering his fifth season and spent three seasons as Chris Paul‘s backup. Plus, he missed half of last season, his first in Phoenix, with a knee injury.

The fearless, 6-foot-1 Bledsoe — when healthy — formed a dynamic backcourt with Goran Dragic and is seeing much bigger dollar figures for himself: max dollars over five years (reportedly $80 million).

He’s seen fellow point guards Kyrie Irving and John Wall break the bank when eligible for extensions (Bright Side of the Sun does a good job here of comparing Bledsoe to his contemporaries). This summer fellow restricted free agents Chandler Parsons and Gordon Hayward rode the market to max deals. Of course, they received the necessary help from other teams — the Dallas Mavericks and the Charlotte Hornets, respectively — making aggressive plays for their services (Parsons landed in Dallas for $46 million over three years when Houston declined to match; Hayward stayed with Utah when the Jazz matched the Hornets’ four-year, $63-million offer).

Sometimes the market embraces you. Sometimes it betrays you.

Bledsoe was counting on another team making him that max offer. In that case, the Suns were thought to be prepared to match. And if they decided otherwise, well, Bledsoe would happily cash his checks in another state.

But as is the case with Detroit big man Greg Monroe, a fellow restricted free agent, an offer sheet has not materialized. And at this late stage where most teams have shopped to their limit, it appears an offer sheet won’t walk through that door.

Bledsoe, 24, has been quiet throughout his free agency, but he did give a brief interview the other day to WVTM during a street-ball hoops event in his hometown of Birmingham, Ala.

“First off, I’m going to let my agent handle it,” Bledsoe said. “I can understand the Phoenix Suns are using restricted free agency against me. But I understand that.”

The Suns aren’t using restricted free agency against Bledsoe. They’re playing by the rules of the collective bargaining agreement. They’ve made a good offer for a player who has started 78 games in his career, and are now sitting back and letting the market work. So far, no team has forced the Suns to increase their offer.

If no offer sheet comes, Bledsoe’s most likely path is to accept the Suns’ $48 million offer, grow with a team on the rise, play at an All-Star worthy level (as Dragic did last season) and and shoot for a max deal in four years.

Or he can take a riskier approach and accept the one-year, $3.7 million qualifying offer the Suns extended him at the start of free agency (making him restricted), and go for that max deal next summer as an unrestricted free agent.

Suns general manager Ryan McDonough is playing this just as he should. He has to be mindful of his club’s salary cap situation this year and beyond.

Dragic, a bargain at $7.5 million this season, will surely decline his player option next summer for 2015-16. With another big year like he had last season, Dragic could double his annual salary. McDonough also traded for Sacramento Kings point guard Isaiah Thomas this summer and will pay him $27 million over the next four seasons.

This obviously isn’t the way Bledsoe envisioned the summer unfolding.

Eventually he will have to make a decision, and it should be an easy one. He should happily accept the Suns’ $48-million offer. From there he can create his own value by evolving into a team leader and helping the Suns become bona fide Western Conference contenders over the next four seasons.

If he does that, then come four years from now, Bledsoe will have the max offer of his choosing.

Blogtable: Summer’s most intriguing team

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: The price of Love | New most intriguing team | Sleeper rookie



VIDEO: Glen Rice Jr. impressed for the Wizards at Summer League

> You’ve seen the Draft. You’ve seen some Summer League. Outside of the Cavs, what team most intrigues you now? Why’s that?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comI’m intrigued by Charlotte, with its addition of Lance Stephenson, along with pick-up Marvin Williams. There’s talent there, especially if Cody Zeller and Noah Vonleh can rev up their frontline contributions, and it’s possible the Hornets push for a top-4 spot in the East playoffs. Steve Clifford should be able to prevent them from becoming The Lance Show (in the event Stephenson decides to start playing for his next contract right away). And let’s face it, if an NBA team can’t find a way to move on from the loss of Josh McRoberts, well, then Charlotte becomes watchable in an odd, case-study sort of way.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: In the East, and thank the basketball gods for this, there’s actually several teams of intrigue. Toronto kept its momentum going by re-signing so many of its own starting with Kyle Lowry. Washington is on the come and adding a big-brother figure in Paul Pierce should be great for John Wall and Bradley Beal. And, of course, Chicago with Pau Gasol in the mix and Derrick Rose coming back should be great fun to watch (yes, and post-LeBron Miami). In the West, the Oklahoma City Thunder are my choice. They missed out on Gasol, who would have been an absolute game-changer for that squad, and instead only came away with Sebastian Telfair, an end-of-bench addition, and Anthony Morrow, a 3-point specialist who could fit in quite well. I’m really curious to see how Russell Westbrook‘s game continues to evolve after his powerful postseason, how Kevin Durant comes off his first MVP season (but a bit of an individually disappointing postseason) and if Scott Brooks can add some new wrinkles to one of the most efficient (yet also most criticized) offenses over the last several years. If healthy the last two postseasons, this conversation could be totally different.

Sekou Smith, NBA.comThe Washington Wizards, mostly because they have put together a quality offseason and have a clear path up the Eastern Conference food chain now that the entire field has been thinned out by LeBron’s departure for Cleveland. The Wizards will have an ideal blend of youthful energy and athleticism to go along with a seasoned supporting cast capable of pushing this team over the top a year after making that surprise run to the Eastern Conference semifinals. For whatever was lost in free agency (Trevor Ariza and Trevor Booker), the Wizards more than made up for it by keeping Marcin Gortat and adding Paul Pierce, Kris Humphries and DeJaun Blair. Toss in a ready-to-go Otto Porter Jr. and the Samsung Summer League MVP Glen Rice Jr., and the Wizards have every reason to believe that John Wall and Bradley Beal have a legitimate shot to lead this crew to the top of the Southeast Division and perhaps beyond.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: The Wizards have a chance to be one of the top two or three teams in the East. John Wall and Bradley Beal are getting better every season and could be the clear No. 1 backcourt in the conference by the start of 2015. Marcin Gortat has great pick-and-roll chemistry with Wall, Paul Pierce brings another element to the offense, and they have a ton of depth on their frontline. The only question is if they can maintain a top-10 defense with Pierce (who’s a better defender at the four than the three) replacing Trevor Ariza.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: Washington. They kept Gortat, they did not overpay for Ariza, and then they managed to add Paul Pierce to that mix. Plus, after watching them in Summer League, it seemed clear that Otto Porter and Glen Rice Jr (who was terrific in Vegas) are ready to add perimeter depth off the bench and give them the athleticism that Pierce lacks. Is Randy Wittman the right guy to take them to the next level? To me that’s the bigger question. But after a second-round run last season, all the pieces are in place for the Wiz to continue to grow what they’ve already started.

Casey, Raptors want to ride continuity

 

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Dwane Casey will be looking to build on last season’s 48-win campaign. (NBAE via Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS – Back in December it hardly seemed possible that Dwane Casey would be standing here at Summer League with a smile on his face and his lightweight button-down shirt casually untucked, and most of all still as the coach of the Toronto Raptors.

This misbegotten big-market franchise with the redundant roster was floundering again, off to a 7-12 start, and the well-liked, but lame-duck Casey looked to be running out the clock on his three-year contract.

Then, on Dec. 8, new general manager Masai Ujiri, having built a reputation as a next-generation whiz, made the deal to send Rudy Gay and his massive contract to Sacramento for depth help in point guard Greivis Vasquez and forwards John Salmons, Patrick Patterson and Chuck Hayes. Around the same time, Knicks president James Dolan vetoed a trade that would have landed Raptors starting point guard Kyle Lowry in New York.

Suddenly, a feeling of stability overtook the team. They looked around, looked at themselves and liked what they saw. And everything changed.

“After the trade happened, I thought it brought our team together — camaraderie,” said Casey, who signed a three-year contract extension in May. “They made the decision that we were not going to be a lottery team — I think that’s what everybody expected — and we kept teaching them the principles of what we wanted to be doing and it just came together.

This wasn’t a referendum on Gay, who went to have a surprisingly efficient offensive season with the Kings. Gay and DeRozan are friends off the court, but ill-fitting parts on it, and as the parts fit better and the floor opened up, the Raptors’ offense, also buoyed by Lowry’s uprising, took off.

“It was a fit,” Casey said. “A lot of times you have talent and it doesn’t fit. DeMar and Rudy were similar and Terrence Ross is sitting there, he’s similar, so once you took all the pieces out it opened up things and we went from 29th, I think, in the league in assists to 16th or 17th. That really changed things for us. It helped us tremendously.”

On Dec. 8, the Raptors ranked 30th in assists and 28th in offensive efficiency (101.4 points per 100 possessions). From Dec. 9 to the end of the season, they ranked 13th in assists and ninth in offensive efficiency (107.2). They went 41-22 after the Gay trade and played a rousing seven-game series in front of madhouse crowds, plus gatherings of 10,000 fans in Maple Leaf Square. It was truly one of the great scenes of the postseason.

And it was enough to convince Lowry to stay put, making him the rare Raptor to re-up when he had a chance to leave. He signed a four-year deal worth $48 million. Free agents Patterson and Vasquez also re-signed. Amir Johnson, Landry Fields, Jonas Valanciunas, Ross, Hayes and Tyler Hansbrough are all back, giving the Raptors a real sense of continuity in roster and process.

Toronto also traded Salmons to Atlanta for guard Lou Williams and intriguing developmental center Lucas Nogueria, and signed long, athletic wing James Johnson, who is coming off something of a breakout season with Memphis.

“I don’t know if [Lowry] is the first player to be a free agent to re-sign that had an opportunity to leave, so that says something about what we’re trying to do, where we are, trying to build,” Casey said. “For the first time in his career he was able to say, ‘this is a team that I’m one of the leaders of,’ and for him to come back, it does make a statement of where we are in our growth process and the kind of program we have, and kind of opened some eyes to what kind of city Toronto is.

“The continuity is huge,” Casey said. “You can just see it turning, guys are getting comfortable with the defensive system, the offensive system. We can be top 10 in both offense and defense. Now we just have to continue to do that.”

The Raptors could get some votes as the team to beat in the Eastern Conference when the preseason predictions start to hit the newsstands. LeBron James’ return to Cleveland has shaken up a conference that might boast a favorite in Chicago, but mostly has a handful of what should be entertaining squads, including Toronto, Cleveland, Washington, Indiana and perhaps Brooklyn and still Miami.

“There’s opportunity for somebody to step up, it’s so balanced right now from top to bottom,” Casey said of the conference. “It gives us an opportunity to move up and take another step.”

Back in December, that hardly seemed possible.

Middle class getting rich in free agency

The Lakers brought back Jordan Hill (left) and Nick Young for a combined

The Lakers brought back Jordan Hill (left) and Nick Young (right) for a combined $39.5 million

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Early into this free-agency period there was hand-wringing over the alleged travesty that superstars commanding the highest salaries were being prodded to take less money for the good of the team.

And certainly under the current salary-cap structure of the collective bargaining agreement, if highly paid players want to band together, but also expect to have funds available to sign quality role players, the price (as dictated by the current salary-cap structure) is settling for less than market value.

James Harden didn’t want to settle so Oklahoma City traded him to Houston. In Miami over the last two weeks, we saw how steep of a cut each of the Big Three (and really Chris Bosh and Dywane Wade) were in for if the group was to stay together and have a legitimate shot at signing a difference-making-type player such as Kyle Lowry or Marcin Gortat.

If superstars opt not to form super powers and the top-tier talent spreads to more teams (the goal of ownership in this CBA) than they can all collect their max money. LeBron James is expected to get his max deal, roughly $21 million next season by leaving Miami for Cleveland. Bosh’s loyalty to the Heat (aided by not having to pay James) was rewarded with a maximum $118 million over five years and Carmelo Anthony will accept a deal close to the max, reportedly about $120 million over five years, from the New York Knicks.

The next tier of talent has also done quite well this summer. Lowry re-upped with Toronto for $48 million over four years, almost doubling last season’s take. Gortat re-signed with Washington for $60 million over five years. He made $7.7 million last season and is 30 years old. Not bad if you can get it.

The Utah Jazz on Saturday matched Charlotte’s aggressive offer sheet of four-years and $63 million for 24-year-old small forward Gordon Hayward. He’ll earn more next season, about $14.7 million, than he did in his previous three seasons combined ($11 million). The Dallas Mavericks have made Chandler Parsons, 25, a rich man with their three-year, $45 million offer sheet that Houston has until Sunday night to match or pass. Neither player has ever been an All-Star, yet both will get paid like one.

It’s theme of the summer. Players at every level of the talent hierarchy are cashing in big. Why? It’s simple: The big fish, as long as they swim their separate ways, are going to get paid, while this league-wide run for cap space has greatly inflated salaries for a widening middle class. It’s produced eye-opening contracts such as these: Jodie Meeks (Detroit), three years and $19 million; Jordan Hill (L.A. Lakers), two years and $18 million; Darren Collison (Sacramento), three years and $16 million; Nick Young (L.A. Lakers), four years and $21.5 million; Chris Kaman (Portland), two years and $9.8 million; C.J. Miles (Indiana), four years and $18 million; Ben Gordon (Orlando), two years and $9.8 million.

The CBA hammered out during the lockout of 2011 placed a premium on cap space. Harsher luxury tax penalties and tighter controls designed to restrict roster flexibility for tax teams has created a much larger pool of teams than ever before that strategically plan to create maximum cap space each summer to dive into free agency and chase max-level free agents.

Only there aren’t that many big fish, far fewer than there are now teams ready to pay team. It leaves an overload of cap space around the league that must be spent and this summer role players — the league’s middle class — are reaping the benefits.

Any player it seems who has been in the league a handful of years can turn his nose at any offer starting at less than $4 million. Thirty-seven-year-old Vince Carter wanted to return to Dallas, which was offering $2.73 million for next season. So he took the $4 million ($12.2 million over three seasons) Memphis showed him.

And then there’s free-agent shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha coming off an awful year shooting and who twice fell out of the Thunder’s rotation during the playoffs. He secured a raise from Atlanta — three years and $12 million.

Uncertainty reigns for ‘Melo, LeBron


VIDEO: ‘Melo has to choose between the Knicks and Lakers

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Smoke, mirrors, rumor, innuendo and uncertainty have ruled the day since free agency began for the biggest names on the market.

With Carmelo Anthony mulling over max offers from at least two teams (the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks) and LeBron James sorting through possible face-to-face presentations from hand-picked finalists, all we know for sure one week into this process is that no one knows for certain if the incumbent teams will hold on to their prized superstars.

The Lakers have given Anthony something to think about and have positioned themselves as the main threat to the Knicks. Rumblings that James is seriously considering a return to his Cleveland roots with the Cavaliers is a narrative that is simply too juicy to ignore, no matter if those rumblings are legitimate or not.

Complicating matters for guys like Heat boss Pat Riley and his Knicks counterpart Phil Jackson is the lack of activity on the part of these superstars one way or another.

Riley cannot move on anything without knowing for sure what LeBron, the linchpin of the Heat’s revitalization blueprint, plans to do. And that leaves Chris Bosh vulnerable to the sales pitch of a team like the Houston Rockets, who have reportedly put themselves in a position to play the role of spoiler with their Plan B options if they miss out on Carmelo (who visited the Rockets on his national recruiting tour last week) and LeBron.

With Omer Asik traded and Dwight Howard in need of an elite power forward to play alongside him, the Rockets have turned their attention to trying to pry Bosh away from the Heat while there is continued uncertainty about what LeBron will do. It makes perfect sense for the Rockets — divide and conquer while strengthening their own ranks with yet another All-Star piece .

The dots connect ultimately back to both Carmelo and LeBron in almost every theoretical scenario.

What if the Heat’s Big Three of LeBron, Bosh and Dwyane Wade went into the process thinking they’d work in concert and allow Riley and the Heat the time needed to work out the details, only to have things change dramatically when it became clear that their individual salary demands and future plans don’t coincide with what the Heat had in mind?

What if the Knicks’ ace in the hole with ‘Melo — that max offer of $129 million that they could offer that no one else could — isn’t enough to keep the face of that franchise in the fold?

That proposed Big Four pipe dream Riley spoke of the week before free agency began appears to be just that for Heat fans, an absolute pipe dream. If the machinations of the past few days aren’t just the hype that comes along with the process for superstars in free agency, keeping the Big Three together could wind up being the real pipe dream.

The fact is, as much as these decisions are about the superstar conglomerates necessary to compete for championships, these superstars are making individual financial decisions that could alter the landscape of the league.

If Carmelo decides to join Kobe Bryant in L.A., and the Lakers put any semblance of a decent supporting cast around them, the Lakers suddenly become a factor again in the rugged Western Conference. And keep in mind, the Lakers and Knicks are the only teams capable of offering Carmelo max money (four years and $97 million in L.A. and five years, $129 million from the Knicks) without making any other roster moves.

If LeBron decides to bolt from Miami and take his talents back to say Cleveland, then he lends instant powerhouse credibility to the mismatching parts (starting with All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving and the No. 1 overall pick in last month’s NBA Draft, Andrew Wiggins) assembled in the wake of his departure via free agency four years ago.

This growing notion that Anthony is choosing between the Lakers and Knicks means that the Chicago Bulls, Dallas Mavericks, Rockets, Phoenix Suns and anyone else positioning themselves as a suitor for the biggest name(s) on the free-agent market would be wise to move on to their alternate plans.

Finding elite role players willing to sacrifice their monster paydays for the greater good in Miami proved more difficult than probably even Riley imagined, given the uncertainty surrounding James, whose commitment might have sped up the process for Riley and the Heat in regards to their pursuit of guys like Kyle Lowry and Marcin Gortat.

They have both agreed to terms on lucrative deals to remain with their respective teams, the Toronto Raptors for Lowry and Washington Wizards for Gortat.

And therein lies the true consequence of kissing and then rolling the free agent dice in today’s NBA.

You can wait for the smoke to clear from the first crazy week of the process and then see where you stand with the impact players, a reasonably sound plan for those operating from a position of power. Then again, as we’ve learned from the smoke, mirrors and innuendo of this weekend alone, it only produces uncertainty until either Carmelo or LeBron makes a decision … or at least gives us a hint as to what they plan to do.