Raptors Rumors

Atlantic Notes: Hollis-Jefferson, Celtics, Smart, Sixers

Raptors forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is finally making the most of his time during his first season with the organization, Josh Lewenberg of TSN Sports writes.

Hollis-Jefferson, who signed a one-year deal with Toronto this past summer in free agency, had a slow start to the 2019/20 campaign. His poor play in training camp caused some within the franchise to worry, but the 24-year-old has given strong performances over the last week — including a 16-point, 11-rebound outing in a win against Portland on Wednesday.

“It was tough,” Hollis-Jefferson said of his slow start, as relayed by Lewenberg. “I’m human, I have feelings and I’m a competitor. I’m emotional, I wear my heart on my sleeve, so it was definitely tough. People will tell you that. I’m not one to shy away from it but for the most part I always thought about my (1-year-old) son (Rylen). Just what he would think and how he would feel if he were older. So that kind of helped me get over it. And then just talking to guys. There are some great guys in here who understand the grind and the situation. When you have good people around it makes life a little bit easier.”

Hollis-Jefferson, a proven physical defender at 6’6″, 217 pounds, is expected to be a key cog in the team’s rotation going forward. For his career, he averages 9.9 points, 5.9 rebounds and 23.6 minutes per game.

Here are some other notes from the Atlantic Division tonight:

  • Patrick Dunne of NBC Sports Boston examines the historical significance of the Celtics’ 10-game win streak, which was ended by Sacramento on Sunday night. Boston has lost just two games this season, dominating teams on both ends of the floor despite dealing with various injuries. This was the team’s 29th time achieving a win streak greater than 10 games.
  • It’s time to stop acting surprised about the improved three-point shooting from Celtics guard Marcus Smart, Chris Forsberg of NBC Sports Boston opines. Smart posted a career-high in three-point percentage last season (36.4%), with his average gradually improving since his sophomore season in 2015-16. He’s connected on 31 of 76 attempts from behind-the-arc in 11 games this year (41%).
  • The early struggles for the Sixers are baffling for fans and team staffers alike, Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer writes. “If you’re sick and you don’t know why, then that’s a problem,” coach Brett Brown said after the team lost in Oklahoma City on Friday. “We’re in a tough spot right now. But it’s a long year. I think it doesn’t take much for me to understand where we have to get better, and it’s really that simple.” On the plus side for Philadelphia, the Sixers dominated the Cavs 114-95 on Sunday to extend their record to 8-5.

Community Shootaround: Could Siakam Repeat As Most Improved Player?

Raptors forward Pascal Siakam was the runaway winner of the NBA’s 2018/19 Most Improved Player award, capturing 86 of 100 possible first-place votes, and he was certainly deserving of the honor. Siakam was one of the key contributors for the eventual NBA champions, guarding all five positions and increasing his numbers across the board – including a PPG bump from 7.3 to 16.9 – while scoring even more efficiently than he had before.

So far this season though, Siakam may have taken an even more significant step forward, as John Hollinger of The Athletic writes. After increasing his scoring output by 9.6 points per game a year ago, Siakam has tacked on 10.3 more PPG this season, boosting that number to 27.2 PPG overall. His usage rate has jumped from 20.8 to 30.5, and while his overall field goal percentage has dipped a little, he’s become a more dangerous threat from outside, knocking down 2.3 threes per game at a 37.3% rate (up from 1.0 and 36.9%).

As Hollinger outlines, Siakam has made his latest strides by finding creative new ways to score. He’s a threat in the post, off the dribble, in the pick-and-roll, and from beyond the arc.

Last season, one of Siakam’s Achilles heels was his inability to make above-the-break threes. As ESPN’s Zach Lowe observes (via Twitter), the 25-year-old only attempted 29% of his three-pointers from above the break in 2018/19, making just 27% on those attempts. This year, 75% of his threes are coming from that area, and he has converted 42% of them.

Siakam isn’t Kawhi Leonard – even if his early-season numbers are remarkably similar to Kawhi’s full-season 2018/19 averages – but he has quickly become the Raptors’ new go-to offensive play-maker in Leonard’s absence this season. While his numbers through 11 games may not be sustainable, he looks like an All-Star lock, and if he can maintain anything close to this pace, he figures to be in the All-NBA conversation too. However, the most intriguing Siakam subplot this season may be whether he can win his second consecutive Most Improved Player award.

As Hollinger writes, no one has come close to being named MIP for two straight seasons. Of the last 10 winners, more than half have regressed a year after winning the award, and even the ones that have continued to improve have only taken modest steps forward. But the early returns on Siakam this season suggest he’ll have a case.

There were certainly be other good MIP candidates this season. Brandon Ingram, Luke Kennard, Luka Doncic, Trae Young, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are a few of the early contenders, though some voters shy away from second-year players, which could hurt Doncic, Young, and SGA. For that matter, some voters are reluctant to pick repeat award winners in general, but the novelty of doing so for an award like MIP that never has repeat winners might actually work in Siakam’s favor.

What do you think? Is it realistic to expect Siakam to be in the Most Improved Player conversation for a second consecutive year? Could he actually win the award again? If you’re not bullish on his chances, which candidate(s) do you like so far?

Head to the comment section below to weigh in with your thoughts!

Atlantic Notes: VanVleet, Shumpert, DSJ, Knicks

Fred VanVleet became a household name among NBA fans during the Raptors‘ championship run last spring, and particularly during Game 6 of the Finals, when he knocked down five three-pointers. That success has now carried over to the 2019/20 season. As Eric Koreen of The Athletic writes, VanVleet is proving to the Raptors and to the rest of the league that he’s capable of being a starting point guard.

VanVleet has started all 11 of the Raptors’ games so far, first alongside Kyle Lowry and now in Lowry’s place at point guard as the veteran recovers from a thumb injury. VanVleet has made 40.6% of his three-pointers in those 11 games, and his 17.1 PPG, 7.6 APG, and league-leading 38.5 MPG would all easily be career bests.

With 2020’s free agent class expected to be quite weak, VanVleet – who is in the final season of a two-year, $18MM deal – projects to be one of the top point guards available. He won’t be eligible for an extension before reaching the open market, so the Raptors will almost certainly have to ward off rival suitors next summer if they intend to lock up VanVleet beyond this season.

Here’s more from around the Atlantic:

  • After the Nets signed Iman Shumpert to a contract on Wednesday, Chris Milholen of NetsDaily explores what the veteran swingman is capable of bringing to Brooklyn and why he’s a “safe” addition for the club.
  • The Knicks considered sending Dennis Smith Jr. to their G League affiliate in Westchester for some low-pressure minutes after he spent two weeks away from New York, but ultimately opted not to do so, per head coach David Fizdale. “We thought about it, but we just felt like it wasn’t an injury that took him out,” Fizdale said Wednesday, per Greg Joyce of The New York Post. “It was more from a conditioning standpoint. So what we’re gonna do is we’re gonna play him, try to play him in smaller doses to get him back in shape.”
  • How did the Knicks end up in their current dilemma, with Fizdale on the hot seat and top front office executives facing similar pressure? ESPN’s Brian Windhorst revisits the franchise’s last year and a half, starting with Fizdale’s introductory press conference back in May 2018, providing a blow-by-blow account of the turning points during that time.

Knicks Eyeing Masai Ujiri, Sam Presti For Potential Front Office Opening?

Knicks management has reportedly been put on notice with owner James Dolan expecting the front office to make “progress” in order for several members of the front office to keep their jobs. Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News hears that if New York finds itself hiring a new head of basketball operations, the team’s wish list begins with Raptors team president Masai Ujiri and Thunder GM Sam Presti.

Dolan has long been a fan of Ujiri’s. The Wizards took a stab at prying the executive from Toronto this past offseason with no success. Perhaps Dolan believes the Knicks will have better luck.

Presti has been with Oklahoma City for 12 seasons and he has arguably the most unique resume of any GM in the league. He drafted Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden to build a true contender and after each player left has molded a different team, ranging from contender to mid-tier playoff team to one in a rebuild again.

Bondy also mentions Trajan Langdon – who helped the Nets turn their franchise around before moving onto the Pelicans – and Kiki Vandeweghe – who currently works in the league office – as potential targets. Bondy hears that Vandeweghe would have interest in the job.

Atlantic Notes: Siakam, OG, Burke, Sixers

With the Raptors facing a bevy of injuries, Pascal Siakam will get an opportunity to showcase his point guard skills, as Doug Smith of The Toronto Star relays.

“Depending on what the matchup is, you can do it,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. “We’ve got to be careful on it and stuff like that, but it’s good to get a lot of reps of it and see what kind of offense we can run from it. I think we found a few things he can run up there at the point.”

Here’s more from the Atlantic Division:

  • OG Anunoby saw an eye specialist today and has been diagnosed with an eye contusion, the Raptors announced (Twitter link). The forward will miss at least Toronto’s next game on Wednesday in Portland.
  • Trey Burke is capitalizing on the opportunity he’s receiving with Ben Simmons sidelined, Lauren Rosen of NBA.com writes. Burke, who joined the Sixers on a one-year deal this offseason, credits his preparedness for his ability to step into a larger role with the club.“This is a new situation for me – a championship-type organization,” Burke said. “I know I was going to have to be patient.”
  • Quinn Davis of Basketball Insiders breaks down the Sixers‘ point guard situation behind Simmons. In addition to Burke, the team has Raul Neto, and Josh Richardson has been running some point recently.

Lewenberg: Doubtful Ujiri Would Work For Dolan

  • In response to a report that the Knicks may pursue Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri again next year, Josh Lewenberg of TSN.ca tweets that he doesn’t believe Ujiri would ever want to work for Knicks owner James Dolan under any circumstance.

Knicks Execs Express Disappointment In Slow Start

Following a blowout 108-87 loss to the Cavaliers on Sunday, Knicks president of basketball operations Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry held an unscheduled press conference to address the team’s early-season struggles. New York is off to a 2-8 start in 2019/20 despite making a series of veteran free agent additions aimed at helping the club compete for a playoff spot.

“Given that this is our 10th game, we felt like we had an obligation to come and speak to you guys,” Mills told reporters, including Ian Begley of SNY.tv. “Obviously, Scott and I are not happy with where we are right now. We think the team’s not performing to the level that we anticipated or we expected to perform at and that’s something that we think we have to collectively do a better job of delivering the product on the floor that we said we would do at the start of this season.”

Mills added that he and Perry still believe in the Knicks’ plan, their roster, and the coaching staff, but reiterated that the results so far have been disappointing. According to Mills, the Knicks’ top execs felt as if it was important to communicate that dissatisfaction to fans, stressing that they’re “committed to making this better.”

As Stefan Bondy of The New York Daily News observes, the timing of the impromptu press conference appeared to be related to a halftime meeting involving Mills, Perry, and team owner James Dolan. A source tells Bondy that Dolan expressed his disappointment during that meeting, while Frank Isola of The Athletic hears Mills and Perry were ordered by Dolan to address the media after the game.

Jim still believes in the plan that we put together, but he’s passionate as we are about this,” Mills said after the game, per Begley. “So he would want us to have better results on the floor as well, but I think Jim is a fan and believes in what we’re doing. But he has the same expectations that we have and this is really about how we feel about what we should be doing, what we should be delivering as a group. We all take responsibility for that.”

Based on Sunday’s presser, it’s fair to wonder just how hot head coach David Fizdale‘s seat is getting. Multiple sources told Begley that there’s no indication that any head coaching change – or management change – is imminent, but those same sources said nothing has been ruled out with regard to in-season changes.

For his part, Fizdale claimed responsibility for the Knicks’ struggles so far and admitted he’s beginning to feel some urgency to start winning games, as Bondy relays. However, he also pointed out that there’s plenty of time for New York to turn things around.

“A good friend of mine told me to never overreact to overreactors,” Fizdale said, according to Steve Popper of Newsday. “We’re two games from the eighth seed. The team that’s in the eighth seed right now has four wins. So it’s not that like, oh my God, everybody’s acting like the world is coming to an end. It’s not. We just have to find our consistency in our games so we can start playing better basketball.”

Sean Deveney of Heavy.com writes that Fizdale has the support of several Knicks players, including RJ Barrett, which is one factor working in his favor. Marcus Morris and Bobby Portis were among those to publicly back their head coach on Sunday, according to Bondy.

“Fiz is a great guy, great coach. He’s a frontline dude,” Morris said. “He’s always going to speak on it first but he’s not coming out and giving up 20-point leads. At the end of the day, f–k the X’s and O’s. We have to come out and we have to be better.”

Although a head coaching change is typically the first move made by a struggling team looking to shake things up, Mills and Perry shouldn’t necessarily be considered safe either, Isola writes. As of last week, the plan was to give the Knicks’ top executives at least the rest of the season to figure things out, but that’s not set in stone, per Isola.

Several people familiar with the Knicks’ thinking believe Dolan intends to take another run at Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri next year, according to Isola. It’s safe to assume the Knicks would be willing to make it worth Ujiri’s while financially if they pursue him, but the Wizards reportedly attempted a similar push in June and had no luck (they later denied having interest). There’s also no guarantee that Ujiri would view working for Dolan as an upgrade on his current job.

Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.

Tyler Ennis Discusses Return From Brutal Leg Injury

  • Veteran point guard Tyler Ennis made his triumphant return to a basketball game for the Raptors‘ G League affiliate, Raptors 905, 13 months after suffering a gruesome leg injury for Turkish team Fenerbahce. Doug Smith of The Toronto Star has the story and the details on Ennis, who feels that the time off had some unexpected developmental benefits. “I had six, seven, eight months of nothing, so I was able to think, ‘When I get back this is what I want to work on,’ ” Ennis said. “I want to be able to shoot better off the dribble and that’s how we kind of did it, in stages.” Though Smith observes that the parent Raptors could use a third point guard and liked Ennis as far back as the 2014 draft, Ennis is nursing a zen calm about the prospect of a callup: “I kind of just want to let it manifest.”  

Raptors Lose Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka To Injuries

The Raptors have ruled out Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka for the foreseeable future due to their respective injuries, announcing the news in a press release on Saturday afternoon.

Lowry will miss at least two weeks after fracturing the distal phalanx of his left thumb, an injury which occurred during the team’s victory over New Orleans on Friday. He’s set to be re-evaluated after the two-week period.

Ibaka suffered a sprained right ankle and is set to undergo additional imaging in Los Angeles. The team is listing him as out indefinitely.

For Lowry, this is the same thumb he had surgery on during the summer to address torn ligaments. However, the fracture is a different tissue. He continued playing through the injury Friday for some time before choosing to exit for good.

“It felt weird from the rip,” Lowry said, according to ESPN’s Andrew Lopez. “I kept playing through it and kept playing through it. Originally we thought it was something in the nailbed because the nailbed turned black and blue. We got some X-rays and we sent the X-rays off to the doctors and there was a small fracture in the thumb.”

Raptors coach Nick Nurse acknowledged that Ibaka’s sprained ankle was “pretty bad” after the game, according to Lopez. Both Lowry and Ibaka are key players in Toronto’s rotation and played integral roles in helping the franchise win its first championship last June.

Toronto currently holds the second-best record in the Eastern Conference at 6-2, with upcoming road games scheduled against the Lakers, Clippers, Blazers and Mavericks.