V stiviano for clippers head coach
— William Lou (@william_lou) September 28, 2020
“We had a meeting with Kawhi at my house in Malibu and we felt we had the inside position,” Rivers said. “The Lakers had a meeting with Kawhi and they built this whole thing up for him to come to their new practice facility and he said, ‘No, you can come to my hotel room.’ But with us he said, ‘Yes, I’ll come to your house.’ When we heard that it felt like he was telling us he wants to come here.”
As much as Rivers coveted Leonard — the coach was fined $50,000 for saying on ESPN, “Kawhi is the most like Jordan we’ve seen” — he didn’t know much about him. That first meeting at Rivers’ home was their first conversation.
“I actually tried to speak to him last season a couple times as he was walking by and you get nothing out of him. Nothing,” Rivers said. “He comes into this meeting and he shakes our hands and he’s talking. We were prepared for a meeting where we would have to drag things out of him. Instead, he’s the one talking and finally he tells us exactly what the deal is.
“He said, ‘I want to play for you,’ and he pointed at me. He said, ‘Mr. Ballmer, I love the things you do and what you stand for, but your team is not good enough and if you don’t change your team, I’m not coming.’ ”
It was a franchise-altering case of good news and bad news: Leonard wanted to be a Clipper but wouldn’t make the jump unless the team was able to get him a running mate to make them championship contenders.
“We actually had a list of guys, which was a mistake, but we got lucky,” Rivers said. “We shouldn’t have had a list, because then he got to choose who he wanted to play with and the assumption was that we could get them. We didn’t know if we could get anybody. We just showed him guys that we thought would match him and when he saw Paul George’s name he said, ‘I want to play with him.’
To put it simply, Pascal Siakam blossomed into a bonafide star this season for the Raptors. It’s tough to surpass a championship-winning season where you made the jump from bench player to regular starter and won Most Improved Player, but somehow, Siakam defied the odds once again and took another huge step in the right direction.
It’s not an easy task to be given, “replacing” a top-five superstar in Leonard as the number-one option, and it’s an especially tall task for a player in his fourth season. But Siakam was up for it and he delivered.
There’s many different ways we can break down Siakam’s season. We can look at the innumerable memorable games he had, where he really stepped up to lead this written-off Raptors team. Like opening night (Ring Night), when he scored 34 points, grabbed 15 rebounds and dished five assists to quiet the haters who questioned both his and the Raptors’ legitimacy this season. Or when he matched his career-high 44 points against the New Orleans Pelicans back in November (with both Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka out).
We can also look at his improvement from a statistical angle. This year, the Raptors gave Siakam the keys, and he took the extra minutes and increased usage and rolled with it. He went from averaging about 17 points a game last season to nearly 23 this season. His field goal percentage may have taken a dip, but it’s expected since he was taking on average nearly six more shots a game. Offensively, he put up elite numbers.
On the defensive end, Siakam was already a lockdown defender and one of Toronto’s most important defensive options, and he breathed new life into that role this season. His ability to guard all five positions with such versatility, using his size, speed and agility, is something you don’t see often. If anything, we can see how much his basketball IQ has improved, making him a bigger threat to some of the NBA’s top offensive cores. It’s almost shocking that he wasn’t voted to an All-Defense team (or the fact that no Raptors were voted in), but he definitely made a statement on that front.
I think it’s important to note just how effective Siakam was in the first half of the season. If we break down his play right up until the All-Star break, we see the makings of a top 10 player.
There is ample evidence in Gasol’s game that the Bubble season might very well have been his final run in the NBA. Gasol averaged a career low in field goal percentage, field goals and free throws attempted as well as points and rebounds per game. He had his second worst statistical season in a host of other stats including assists, steals and blocks per game while also finishing with a career worst offensive box plus/minus and PER by a country mile.
The Raptors needed oh-so-little out of him on the offensive end in order to keep their opponents’ defense honest and time and time again, Gasol fell short — missing bunnies, awkward runners and line-drive three pointers that Toronto had come to rely on. A lot of this can be chalked up to age, sure, but Gasol also only managed to play 44 games out of a possible 71 in a season that was mired with Raptors’ injuries. While age certainly contributes to injury and injury susceptibility, it is not a definitive factor and should be viewed through a skeptical lense. Besides which, Gasol returned after the long pandemic break having lost weight and looking fully healthy, and still couldn’t find a rhythm.
If this is the end of the road for Marc Gasol, let us remember his illustrious, Hall of Fame career for what it was, rather than what it wasn’t. Gasol was a tandem fulcrum along with Kyle Lowry in how the Raptors operated on the defensive end. An extremely high basketball IQ has buoyed Gasol’s career since it began, but as age progressed, it has allowed him to operate at an extremely high level despite his relative physical shortcomings among centres in the NBA. Gasol posted his second highest defensive box/plus minus and a better than career average defensive rating all while averaging a higher defensive win-shares and total win-shares count than in his championship year with the Raptors.
Since leaving Maryland and signing with an agent this offseason, Smith has continued working on his range. He said he spends three or four days a week in the gym, trying to get stronger and improve his shooting while refining his game.
“I’ve been shooting a lot more consistently and just being able to get it up a lot quicker,” he said.
That 3-point shooting is a skill much desired around the NBA these days, especially from a big like Smith. But there are concerns with Smith’s game that might cause him to fall to the back half of the upcoming November 18, 2020 NBA Draft.
“He’s a good stretch center that needs to work on his post moves at the next level, but adding strength should translate to a stronger all-around game,” said Sports Illustrated’s Maryland reporter Ahmed Ghafir.
Jeremy Woo, Sports Illustrated’s NBA draft expert, ranks Smith as the 31st prospects on his NBA Draft big board and someone who will need to be selected by the right team to succeed.
“Optimistically, he fits a useful archetype as a center who can shoot threes and block shots,” Woo wrote. “But his limited mobility and balance may be problematic and hamper his ability to play in traffic. Maryland played a slower pace that insulated Smith in the half-court defensively, but he’ll be asked to defend more in space moving forward, and he doesn’t read and recover all that well when pulled away from the basket. Given his lack of lift in tight spaces and rudimentary finishing skills, Smith will have to improve his shooting enough to make it work as a pick-and-pop five. If it clicks, he has a pathway to utility as a rotational big.”
“A physical rebounder who was effective as a freshman relying primarily on his soft touch and opportunistic scoring in the paint, Nnaji brings energy and a little upside, but his physical stiffness, lack of length and limited ball skills are somewhat concerning,” Woo wrote. “He’s a decent shooter who may be able to stretch the floor, but he doesn’t offer much else in terms of offensive growth potential right now, and he may not be able to live off putbacks in the same fashion. Nnaji also struggles to protect the rim and is a bit behind defensively, which may limit his ability to center competent lineups.”
The Raptors had a “great interview” with Nnaji, he said, and have spoken to his agent multiple times.
With such a late first round pick, it makes some sense for the Raptors to go with an upside player like Nnaji who could get some work in with the Raptors 905.
Nnaji, who projects as a versatile, forward, will certainly need to gain some weight and improve his shooting at the next level after shooting just 29.4% from 3-point range at Arizona. That’s something he knows and has spent much of the offseason working on, he said.
“I’ve been lifting a lot, getting stronger, doing a lot in the weight room, I feel stronger, feel quicker, in terms of lateral quickness, I feel quicker laterally than ever,” he said. “I think the biggest thing I’ve been working on is my shooting, I’m shooting the ball extremely well from 3, from mid-range, from everywhere on the court, I think I’m shooting the ball extremely well. I think teams are going to be shocked when they’re able to see me shoot the ball.”