Darko Rajakovic

Atlantic Notes: World Cup Effects, Knicks, Schröder, Porzingis

The Knicks and Nets may benefit from having star players involved in the World Cup this summer, writes Ian Begley of SNY.tv. New York’s Jalen Brunson and Josh Hart were both starters for Team USA, while RJ Barrett was an important member of the Canadian squad that captured the bronze medal. Brooklyn’s Mikal Bridges also started for the Americans and Cameron Johnson was on the team, although he didn’t play as much.

Begley cites research from ESPN’s Kevin Pelton (subscription required), who studied the NBA performance of players from 2010 to 2021 after they took part in international competitions. Pelton found they averaged 2.1 points per 100 possessions above the league average.

At last year’s training camp, Begley talked to Evan Fournier, a veteran of international basketball with the French team, about what it’s like to go straight from a tournament to an NBA season with almost no rest in between.

“It really hits you in December; you have the first wave of fatigue,” Fournier said. “It’s not my first time dealing with it, so I know how to manage myself. I know being in the weight room is going to be very important. Sleep is going to be very important, but … I’ll be all right.”

There’s more from the Atlantic Division:

  • The Knicks are optimistic after advancing to the conference semifinals last season, but a lack of height at the wings could be a concern, observes Zach Braziller of The New York Post (subscription required). Apart from Barrett, New York has to rely on undersized options such as Hart, Quentin Grimes and Donte DiVincenzo.
  • Dennis Schröder told “NBA Today” that new head coach Darko Rajakovic played an important role in his decision to sign with the Raptors (Twitter link from ClutchPoints). “I think Darko, the head coach,” Schröder said. “… I met him five years ago in OKC. We became friends. … I definitely said to my agent, ‘I want be there.’ … I think it’s a great fit.”
  • The Celtics‘ trade for Kristaps Porzingis was the best offseason move in the Atlantic Division, David Aldridge of The Athletic contends in a discussion of the division with other Athletic writers. However, Aldridge, Josh Robbins and Jared Weiss all agree that Boston took a risk regarding team culture by parting with Marcus Smart in the deal and not keeping Grant Williams. Robbins and Weiss cite the Sixers‘ coaching change, replacing Doc Rivers with Nick Nurse, as the most impactful move.

Raptors Respond To Lawsuit; Knicks Allege Former Employee Was ‘Mole’

The Raptors and the team’s parent company, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, expressed surprise that the Knicks filed a lawsuit against them regarding alleged proprietary violations and issued a denial that the company was involved, Josh Lewenberg of TSN Sports tweets via a Raptors press release.

The Knicks filed the lawsuit on Monday alleging that former employee Ikechukwu Azotam “illegally took thousands of proprietary files with him to his new position” with the Raptors. Azotam, who was hired away by Toronto this offseason, allegedly shared the proprietary information with “several members” of the team, including head coach Darko Rajakovic and player development coach Noah Lewis.

“MLSE and the Toronto Raptors received a letter from MSG on Thursday of last week bringing this complaint to our attention,” Toronto’s response reads. “MLSE responded promptly, making clear our intention to conduct an internal investigation and to fully cooperate. MLSE has not been advised that a lawsuit was being filed or has been filed following its correspondence with MSG. The company strongly denies any involvement in the matters alleged. MLSE and the Toronto Raptors will reserve further comment until this matter has been resolved to the satisfaction of both parties.”

The Knicks allege that not only did Rajakovic know what was occurring but that he “recruited and used” Azotam to help him build out the operations for his coaching staff, according to The Athletic’s Fred Katz, Mike Vornukov and Eric Koreen.

The lawsuit alleges that the information Azotam forwarded to the Raptors included scouting reports, play frequency reports, a prep book, and a link to third-party licensed software. It also alleges that “Defendant Rajaković and the other Raptor Defendants recruited and used Azotam to serve as a mole within the Knicks organization to convey information that would assist the Raptors Defendants in trying to manage their team.”

The Athletic trio received a written statement from an MSG Sports spokesperson which stated that “we were left no choice but to take this action.”

Knicks File Lawsuit Against Raptors, Former NYK Employee

The Knicks filed a lawsuit on Monday alleging that former employee Ikechukwu Azotam “illegally took thousands of proprietary files with him to his new position” with the Raptors, which he then shared with his new club, reports Ian Begley of SNY.tv (Twitter thread).

Azotam, who was hired away by Toronto this offseason, allegedly shared the proprietary information with “several members” of the team, including head coach Darko Rajakovic and player development coach Noah Lewis, Begley adds.

The lawsuit alleges Azotam signed a confidentiality agreement with the Knicks which required him “to maintain the secrecy of all confidential or proprietary Knicks information.” A source tells Begley the Knicks contacted both the Raptors and the NBA prior to filing the lawsuit in the Southern District of New York.

According to Begley, the lawsuit also alleges that the Raptors “directed Azotam to misuse his access to the Knicks’ subscription to Synergy Sports to create and then transfer to the Raptors Defendants over 3,000 files consisting of film information and data.”

A Madision Square Garden Sports spokesperson released a statement to Begley regarding the lawsuit (Twitter thread).

The New York Knicks have sued the Toronto Raptors and several members of their organization, including a former Knicks employee, after the former employee illegally took thousands of proprietary files with him to his new position with the Toronto Raptors. These files include confidential information such as play frequency reports, a prep book for the 2022-23 season, video scouting files and materials and more.

“Given the clear violation of our employment agreement, criminal and civil law, we were left no choice but to take this action.”

[UPDATE: Raptors Respond To Lawsuit]

In addition to Azotam, Rajakovic, and Lewis, 10 other Raptors employees are also accused of wrongdoing, tweets Steve Popper of Newsday. Those employees are currently unknown — they’re listed as John Does “1” through “10.”

Atlantic Notes: Rajakovic, Randle, R. Williams

In a fascinating profile, Eric Koreen of The Athletic details Darko Rajakovic‘s journey to becoming the Raptors‘ new head coach.

Rajakovic got his NBA start thanks to his relationship with Thunder executive vice president and general manager Sam Presti, first in the then-D-League and later with Oklahoma City. Presti met Rajakovic in Europe as a young executive with the Spurs, and was impressed by his attention to detail, passion and work ethic, Koreen writes.

He’s fought himself all the way to this point,” Presti said. “I think there is a level of toughness that comes with that, to work that path the way that he did, to get to the point where he’s the head coach of an NBA team. I don’t know how you can’t respect that and also be extremely happy for him.”

As Koreen notes, one of Rajakovic’s strengths is his adaptability, which should come in handy with Toronto’s roster in a somewhat precarious position entering 2023/24. It’s an excellent article and I highly recommend it for those who subscribe to The Athletic.

Here’s more from the Atlantic:

  • Left ankle problems plagued Julius Randle to end last season, but the Knicks‘ All-NBA forward believes undergoing arthroscopic surgery a couple months ago may have been a blessing in disguise, as Stefan Bondy of The New York Daily News relays. “Me and my trainer were just talking about this, we were talking about prime years,” Randle said Wednesday as a guest on The Shop Uninterrupted. “And I feel like your prime is when your mental and physical kind of meet. And physically I feel like this is going to be my best year. But mentally I feel like I’ve taken a tremendous step because I’ve had to slow all the way down. I wasn’t allowed to train.” Randle also said he drew inspiration from teammate Jalen Brunson due to the point guard’s diligence and focus, per Bondy.
  • What’s next for Robert Williams following the arrival of Kristaps Porzingis? The Celtics big man needs to become more aggressive offensively, dribble more often, and add a short-range jump shot to keep opposing defenses honest, writes Jared Weiss of The Athletic. Of course, the biggest question mark surrounding Williams might not be his on-court play but rather his health, given that he has appeared in just 209 regular season games over his five NBA seasons, including 35 in ’23/24.
  • In case you missed it, the Knicks, Raptors and Celtics all officially made roster moves on Tuesday.

Atlantic Notes: Mazzulla, Bridges, Thibodeau, Rajaković

Despite moving 2022 Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart and key reserve forward Grant Williams in separate summer trades, Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla intends to employ similar defensive principles in 2023/24, writes Adam Himmelsbach of The Boston Globe.

Himmelsbach adds that newly acquired big man Kristaps Porzingis has always been a solid defender around the rim, and can aid Boston at that end of the floor, too.

“With Marcus gone, we don’t want our defensive identity to go out the door as well, so we have to really emphasize that at the start of training camp,” Mazzulla said. “I think what Kristaps can bring to us defensively, and the additions some of our other guys can bring to us defensively, I want to make sure that’s where we hang our hats this year.”

There’s more out of the Atlantic Division:

  • As the Nets’ No. 1 option, small forward Mikal Bridges is striving to hone his play-making this offseason, according to Brian Lewis of The New York Post (subscriber link). “Yeah, you could do [drills] … but it’s more of a mindset, and having that mindset coming in and watching film,” Bridges said of how he intended to improve. “That’s the biggest thing, to have that mindset of playmaking.”
  • The 2023/24 Knicks roster has been constructed with an eye towards the preferences of head coach Tom Thibodeau, under whom the team has had its most success in years, writes Zach Braziller of The New York Post. Braziller notes that the trade addition of Josh Hart and the signing of Donte DiVincenzo, two defensively versatile wings, plus the subtractions of talented-but-raw forwards Cam Reddish and Obi Toppin, all seem to be in line with Thibodeau’s ethos to team-building.
  • In an interview with Sportski zurnal (as translated by Eurohoops), new Raptors head coach Darko Rajaković explained how he has always had major goals in mind with regard to his coaching career. “Since the beginning of my coaching career, I have always been very ambitious, but at the same time I knew that a coaching career is not a 100-meter race, but a long marathon,” Rajaković said. “I have only just run half a marathon, I still have a long way to go. I am currently in my 27th year of coaching. of work and I hope that I will stay in coaching for as long as possible. I’m enjoying it and it’s nice.”

Raptors Notes: Dick, Boucher, Rajakovic, Anunoby

Raptors first-round pick Gradey Dick has quickly become a fan favorite and he’s enjoying the vibe he’s gotten in Toronto, Doug Smith of the Toronto Star writes.

“I’ve talked about it a lot, this team stuff — and even before the draft. I wanted to be in an organization where I could find that good fit in it, but also be in a winning culture with a fan base that’s not like anybody else, and I think I hit the jackpot … coming here,” Dick said. “Walking down the street and families coming up, the first thing they say is: ‘Welcome to Toronto. We’re glad to have you.’ And I think that’s what we like to hear the most, rather than a quick: ‘Hi, bye.’”

The Kansas product, who was selected with the No. 13 overall pick, is expected to appear in some Summer League contests in Las Vegas.

We have more on the Raptors:

  • Dick adds an element that the team has lacked in recent seasons, according to Eric Koreen of The Athletic. They needed a natural shot-maker and Dick, who’s more versatile than a typical corner shooter, fits that bill. However, he has to prove he’s a capable defender in order to stay on the floor for long stretches.
  • Big man Chris Boucher believes Darko Rajakovic was a perfect choice to replace Nick Nurse, he told Smith, believing he’ll relate to the players very well. Nurse reportedly had strained relationships with some of his players. “He’s definitely a special coach. You can tell he’s probably going to change a lot of stuff, but it seems like it’s something we needed,” Boucher said. “He’s really focusing on the players and making sure that we’re good. The first thing he said — he said it every day that I saw him — (is) it’s not about (him), it’s about you guys. And I think that’s something that will really help us get better.”
  • Forward OG Anunoby is changing representatives, as he’s decided to leave Klutch Sports, according to Marc Stein in his latest Substack post. The Raptors continue to resist trade inquiries for Anunoby.

Atlantic Notes: Milton, Harris, Randle, Bridges, Toppin, Rajakovic

Shake Milton is the least likely of the Sixers’ free agents to re-sign with the club, according to Kyle Neubeck of PhillyVoice.com. Milton is looking for a opportunity to get an expanded role elsewhere, though that could change if the Sixers fail to re-sign James Harden.

There’s also no traction regarding a possible trade involving Tobias Harris and his expiring contract, Neubeck writes. There’s no sense of urgency to deal Harris, as the Sixers believe they’ll have multiple windows beyond this week to potentially move him. They’re not inclined to deal the veteran forward unless it improves their flexibility or top-end ceiling, Neubeck adds.

We have more from the Atlantic Division:

  • Julius Randle believes the Knicks are “not that far off” from being a championship team, he said on Paul George‘s Podcast P show (hat tip to SNY TV’s Ian Begley). “We got a great mixture of talent, bro. We’ve got young dudes, we’ve got guys going in their prime. So we’ve got a great mixture of guys and it’s like, ‘How do we keep getting better?’ So from a team standpoint, I think that’s where we at.”
  • Mikal Bridges believes that when injuries struck the Suns last season, he got a chance to showcase his offensive ability. That set him up to become a primary option after he was traded to the Nets, he told Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated. “I always tell people I got traded at the right time with having pretty much the whole team out and being the guy for about a month and just going through the pains and the gains and growth throughout every day,” he said. “Having bad games and losing a lot to finally starting to get it going and start being efficient and trying to win games. And then once it kind of got to that and then that’s when I got traded. So it was perfect timing. I couldn’t have been traded at a better time.”
  • Obi Toppin’s trade value could be a late first-rounder in this year’s draft, a source told Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News. The Pacers could be a potential suitor for the Knicks’ backup power forward, Bondy suggests, since they were interested in him before last season’s trade deadline and possess two late first-round picks. However, Toppin has supporters within the organization and he would become more valuable to the Knicks if they deal Randle in a blockbuster.
  • Darko Rajakovic presented a straightforward approach during the interviewing process for the Raptors’ head coaching job, he told Serbian media outlet MozzartSport (hat tip to Eurohoops.net).  “When I entered the whole process, I had no intention of pleasing anyone and simply wanted to present myself, who I am and what I am, what my beliefs are, and what my basketball philosophy is,’ he said. “In the end, they liked it the most, so they decided to hire me.”

Coaching Notes: Jack, Pistons, Delany, Mahlalela, Raptors, Suns

Former NBA point guard Jarrett Jack is joining the Pistons‘ coaching staff under new head coach Monty Williams, sources tell Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN (Twitter link).

Jack, who played in the NBA from 2005-18, recently transitioned into coaching and spent the last two years in Phoenix as an assistant on Williams’ staff. According to Wojnarowski, the Pistons’ newest assistant has “established himself as a fast-rising future head coaching candidate” since his playing career ended.

Here are a few more coaching-related notes from around the NBA:

  • Pat Delany and Jama Mahlalela will be the top assistants on Darko Rajakovic‘s new staff with the Raptors, reports Wojnarowski (via Twitter). Delany is an experienced assistant who has worked for Charlotte, Orlando, and – most recently – the Wizards. Mahlalela is returning to Toronto after spending eight seasons with the Raptors from 2013-21 (six as an assistant and two as the Raptors 905 head coach). He was an assistant with the Warriors from 2021-23.
  • Michael Grange and Sportsnet.ca and Eric Koreen of The Athletic shared their key takeaways from Rajakovic’s introductory press conference this week, with Grange noting that the Raptors‘ new head coach made a strong impression in his first interview with the team despite it occurring less than 24 hours after Memphis was eliminated from the postseason. Rajakovic’s belief in forming close relationships with players may have helped win him the job, Koreen writes. “I want to be very invested in them as human beings,” Rajakovic said. “… I really want to connect with those guys on a personal level. When they know how much I love them and care about them, I have a strong belief that we’re gonna come together as a group and be ready to take it to another level.”
  • Jon Pastorek is leaving the Lakers to join Frank Vogel‘s Suns coaching staff, according to Dan Woike of The Los Angeles Times (Twitter link). Pastorek worked for the Lakers from 2017-23, serving under both Luke Walton and Darvin Ham in addition to Vogel.

Raptors Notes: Rajakovic, VanVleet, Draft Pick, Green

Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri felt the organization needed a change, and surprise coaching choice Darko Rajakovic is just what he was looking for, according to Ian Harrison of The Associated Press.

“I know it’s change and sometimes change is hard, but we believe change is good, and change is good for our ball club and our organization now,” Ujiri said during the coach’s introductory press conference.

GM Bobby Webster said Rajakovic wasn’t the favorite going into the process but won over everyone in the organization, Josh Lewenberg of TSN Sports tweets.

“We were really open minded with the approach to who we wanted to look at and every step of the way he really exceeded expectations and impressed us,” Webster said.

We have more on the Raptors:

  • Now that Fred VanVleet has declined his player option, where might he wind up? Cap space teams like the the Rockets, Magic and Lakers could be viable options for the combo guard, Eric Koreen of The Athletic writes. The number of other suitors could pursue a sign-and-trade for VanVleet, including the Bulls, though that could be contingent on whether the Raptors value former lottery pick Patrick Williams.
  • The Raptors hold the No. 13 pick in the draft and Doug Smith of the Toronto Star takes a closer look at which players they might consider at that spot. With Gary Trent Jr. expected to become a free agent, a wing like Cason Wallace, Kobe Bufkin, Keyonte George, Gradey Dick and Bilal Coulibaly could serve as his replacement.
  • Former Raptors guard Danny Green saw head coaching potential from Rajakovic while rehabbing with the Grizzlies from a knee injury, Lewenberg writes. “He operated like a head coach. He’s very good at breaking things down and talking to the group in that manner,” Green said. “Certain people you can look at and say ‘I could never see them as a head coach’, or ‘He doesn’t seem sure of himself’, or not yet anyway. But I could see him being in that role.”
  • The hiring of Rajakovic points to the Raptors building around a younger roster with Scottie Barnes, OG Anunoby and Jakob Poeltl at the core, Toronto Star columnist Bruce Arthur opines.

Raptors Hire Darko Rajakovic As Head Coach

JUNE 13: The Raptors have officially hired Rajakovic, issuing a press release to formally announce their new head coach.

darko rajakovic vertical“We’re entering a new era – one where we are embracing new ideas, a new attitude, and now a new head coach – but our goals remain the same. A championship. Winning,” Ujiri said in a statement. “Darko shares those goals, and our belief in culture, professionalism, and hard work. His commitment to both learning and teaching our game is elite, and we are all very excited to welcome him to the Raptors family.”

JUNE 10: Grizzlies assistant coach Darko Rajakovic is getting a new job.

Sources inform Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN that the Raptors have offered Rajakovic their vacant head coaching position, and are currently in the process of ironing out terms on a deal.

Toronto team president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster fired former head coach Nick Nurse in April after he spent 10 years with the franchise, including five in that role. Nurse led the Raptors to their first-ever title during his debut season as the team’s head coach in 2018/19.

Rajakovic, who originally hails from Serbia and coached in the Spanish EBA League before arriving stateside, got his feet wet in the NBA while working as a scouting consultant and Summer League assistant coach for the Spurs from 2004-11.

He then served as the head coach of the Tulsa 66ers, the then-D League affiliate club of the Thunder. The team has since been rechristened the Oklahoma City Blue, and of course the D League has become the G League in the intervening seasons.

Rajakovic subsequently served as an assistant coach under Scott Brooks and Billy Donovan with the Thunder from 2014-19, then worked with the Suns during the 2019/20 season on the staff of Monty Williams. He joined Taylor Jenkins‘ bench in 2020 with Memphis and soon graduated to become Jenkins’ lead assistant coach.

According to Wojnarowski, Toronto was looking for a head coach that could function either in leading a veteran-laden roster back to the playoffs or in developing a younger core.

Wojnarowski names Warriors assistant coach Kenny Atkinson and Bucks assistant Charles Lee as two other finalists who were given serious consideration.

The Raptors’ opening had been the final available head coaching vacancy on the market this year.