When first we checked in with the Raptors during their hot start to this season, Fred VanVleet refused to accept an underdog tag, even if the defending champions lost their Finals MVP to free agency. He and Pascal Siakam suggested the leaps they took on the title run and over the offseason would fill the gaps left by Kawhi Leonard. It sounded wildly optimistic. It wasn’t.” data-reactid=”42″>When first we checked in with the Raptors during their hot start to this season, Fred VanVleet refused to accept an underdog tag, even if the defending champions lost their Finals MVP to free agency. He and Pascal Siakam suggested the leaps they took on the title run and over the offseason would fill the gaps left by Kawhi Leonard. It sounded wildly optimistic. It wasn’t.

At least not during the regular season. Can Toronto sustain this title defense in the playoffs?

Siakam has made the leap to a level worthy of All-NBA consideration, replacing 95 percent of Leonard’s 2018-19 production. VanVleet is practically on par with All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry, giving Toronto a pair of brutish guards capable of erupting on offense and disrupting on defense. The wing group of OG Anunoby, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Terence Davis and Chris Boucher has combined to do a decent job of sliding into Siakam’s old role. Serge Ibaka has been spectacular this season, making up for Gasol’s gearing down after his long NBA and World Cup title runs.

More important, though, the Raptors have what few other teams do: An identity. They play hard, they play smart, and they play together. They are out to prove Leonard was no one-man show last season, and they are succeeding, currently on pace to eclipse last year’s 58-win regular season.

The problem is that the Raptors were a one-man show at times during last year’s playoffs, as any championship team needs to be when crunch time comes down to do-or-die isolation possessions. Leonard assumed the role to a historic degree, operating like a Michael Jordan impressionist in his ability to go get a bucket. His playoff production in isolation (0.95 points per possession on 116 chances) and the clutch (58 points on 42/29/83 splits in 58 minutes) does not even do him justice. Look to his bouncing series-winner against the Philadelphia 76ers for proof of his good fortune.

The question for Toronto will be whether Siakam can also fill that role. We saw how well the Raptors performed in big moments when the focus was on Leonard, but things change when someone has to assume the reins. During the regular season, Siakam has only had slightly less success in isolation (0.90 points per possession on 198 chances) and the clutch (50 points on 46/20/79 splits in 58 minutes), but defenses get dialed up in the playoffs. How his luck changes in the playoffs will go a long way in determining just how close the Raptors actually come to a repeat this postseason.

The Mavericks have been bumped and bruised throughout the season, but they should have their full contingency of talent entering the playoffs, save for Dwight Powell’s underrated value as a screener and smart defender. Powell tore his right Achilles tendon in late January. If Dallas ever was a true contender, could an injury to a role player like Powell really derail their potential to surprise?

At the time of Powell’s injury, the Mavericks were 27-15, fifth in the Western Conference and owners of the league’s third-best net rating behind only the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers. They were posting the NBA’s best offense by almost three points per 100 possessions — a historic mark. These are signs of a contender, conceding these Mavs have little NBA playoff experience.

Since Powell’s injury, the offense has actually been better while the defense has slipped, resulting in a net rating that ranks closer to the middle of the pack. Their record in that stretch is 8-8, dropping Dallas to the seventh seed. There is little risk of fall further, but they are in danger of a brutal draw.

Consider this, though: Wunderkind Luka Doncic missed half of those games, including five losses. Meanwhile, All-Star big man Kristaps Porzingis continues to make giant strides in his first season back from an ACL injury, culminating in averages of 25 points (on 48/38/90 splits), 10 rebounds and 2.6 assists in 30.6 minutes per game this month. If both stars are playing at peak levels come the playoffs, no first-round matchup short of the Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers should scare them.

With Powell playing alongside Doncic, Porzingis, Dorian Finney-Smith and Tim Hardaway Jr., the Mavericks’ preferred starting lineup was outscoring opponents by 11 points per 100 possessions — a top-10 outfit among five-man units with at least 200 minutes together. Subbing Maxi Kleber in for Powell has produced negative results. Dallas coach Rick Carlisle has found some success slotting Seth Curry in smaller lineups, but the ankle injuries to Doncic have prevented him from tinkering too much since losing Powell. Carlisle will be searching for the right rotation over the next seven weeks.

The gift Zion Williamson ‘blessed’ his Pelicans teammates with]” data-reactid=”91″>• [The gift Zion Williamson ‘blessed’ his Pelicans teammates with]

Kyrie Irving’s season-ending surgery is a reminder of Brooklyn’s brief championship window. (Paul Bereswill/Getty Images)

season-ending shoulder surgery put a damper on an already disappointing season. Not that they expected to contend this season anyway, but they certainly wanted to build on last year’s success of 42 wins and a six seed.” data-reactid=”116″>Windows to contend in the NBA are becoming increasingly short, and no team has been reminded of that this season more than the Nets. The announcement of Kyrie Irving’s season-ending shoulder surgery put a damper on an already disappointing season. Not that they expected to contend this season anyway, but they certainly wanted to build on last year’s success of 42 wins and a six seed.

chemistry and leadership concerns followed Irving from Cleveland and Boston to Brooklyn, as did the concerning trend that his teammates have performed better without him. The Nets are on a similar trajectory to last season’s team in the 36 games Irving has missed, and they were 8-12 with him in the lineup. It is a small sample size, and they will presumably be better when Kevin Durant returns alongside Irving, but the momentum of Brooklyn’s big summer has crawled to a halt.” data-reactid=”117″>Instead, chemistry and leadership concerns followed Irving from Cleveland and Boston to Brooklyn, as did the concerning trend that his teammates have performed better without him. The Nets are on a similar trajectory to last season’s team in the 36 games Irving has missed, and they were 8-12 with him in the lineup. It is a small sample size, and they will presumably be better when Kevin Durant returns alongside Irving, but the momentum of Brooklyn’s big summer has crawled to a halt.

So, the Nets will begin anew next season, with two rehabbing All-NBA talents trying to get their legs back en route to contention. They first must stay healthy, and then solve the inevitable issues that will arise when a pair of socially awkward superstars assert themselves over a group of players who built Brooklyn into an attractive destination. If not next season, then the Nets will have just one more campaign to get it right before both Irving and Durant can become free agents again in 2022.

his desire to re-sign, and new Nets owner Joseph Tsai has the deep pockets it will take to keep a talented core together, but you never know until the contracts are signed. Spencer Dinwiddie can become an unrestricted free agent in 2021, when he may be looking for an expanded role beyond Irving’s backup. And Jarrett Allen hits restricted free agency that same summer.” data-reactid=”119″>In the meantime, Nets general manager Sean Marks will have his hands full trying to keep the rest of the roster around his two big-name additions. Joe Harris is a free agent this summer. He has been open about his desire to re-sign, and new Nets owner Joseph Tsai has the deep pockets it will take to keep a talented core together, but you never know until the contracts are signed. Spencer Dinwiddie can become an unrestricted free agent in 2021, when he may be looking for an expanded role beyond Irving’s backup. And Jarrett Allen hits restricted free agency that same summer.

The window will close awfully quickly unless everything starts falling into place. The clock is ticking.

the extremely strange and publicly contentious hiring of Larry Drew in the interim — has raised a lot of questions about Cavaliers general manager Koby Altman’s tenure since taking over for David Griffin in July 2017.” data-reactid=”133″>The hiring and firing of John Beilein — within a year of firing Tyronn Lue and the extremely strange and publicly contentious hiring of Larry Drew in the interim — has raised a lot of questions about Cavaliers general manager Koby Altman’s tenure since taking over for David Griffin in July 2017.

Let’s try to measure his success or lack thereof.

any number of suitors, even if Irving had made a list of preferred destinations. There were two years left on Irving’s contract, and the team that ended up trading for him — the Boston Celtics — did so without assurances beyond that deal.” data-reactid=”135″>Atman’s first order of business, outside of a few fringe free-agent signings, was cleaning up the mess of Kyrie Irving’s trade request. He surely had any number of suitors, even if Irving had made a list of preferred destinations. There were two years left on Irving’s contract, and the team that ended up trading for him — the Boston Celtics — did so without assurances beyond that deal.

Altman pulled the trigger on the Irving deal with Boston that sent an injured Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, the Brooklyn Nets’ first-round pick in 2018 and the Miami Heat’s 2020 second-round pick. Only Zizic and the Nets pick, which landed Collin Sexton at No. 8, remain in Cleveland.

There have been a bunch of other moving parts — a first-round pick and four second-rounders coming and going along with more players — but Altman has essentially turned the rest of that package into Dylan Windler, Kevin Porter Jr., Dante Exum, Larry Nance, Matthew Dellavedova and two months of Andre Drummond. This is the current foundation of one of the NBA’s worst teams.

Because Irving left Boston two years after the trade and Sexton is currently averaging 20 points on 46/37/85 shooting splits, Altman could make an argument that he actually won the trade, especially since his Cavaliers actually defeated the Irving-less Celtics in the 2018 Eastern Conference finals.

This would ignore the fact that other teams have gotten significantly better returns for All-NBA talents in recent years. For example, both the Indiana Pacers and Oklahoma City Thunder received a bounty for trading Paul George — who the Cavaliers probably could have gotten for Irving.

The rest of Altman’s moves have been no better. Jeff Green is probably his best free-agent signing, if only because he helped win Game 7 against Boston in his lone season with the team, but every other move he has made on the open market has been an abject failure, including the high-profile signings of Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade — neither of whom lasted more than half a season.

As for evaluating his own roster, Altman handed Kevin Love a four-year, $120 million extension at least a year before he had to, if not two. Love has since berated Altman for his culture-building failures in front of the team, and the Cavs have struggled to find anyone who will trade for him. The only good part of that decision was that it made Nance’s four-year, $45 million deal look like value.

With Altman’s two big swings at the top of the draft, he chose Sexton as his point guard of the future over Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who is already playing like a future perennial All-Star, and drafted another point guard — the injured and risky Darius Garland — the following season.

All in all, not good, but worst of all has been the coaching carousel. Lue, Drew and now Beilein have all left with sour tastes in their mouths after months with Altman, and word gets around the NBA.

Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach” data-reactid=”149″>Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach





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