Toronto Raptors

Kawhi Leonard joins Raptors in the East; it could be good news for the Bulls

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USA TODAY

Kawhi Leonard joins Raptors in the East; it could be good news for the Bulls

The best player in basketball left the Eastern Conference two weeks ago when LeBron James signed with the Lakers. Now another top-10 player in the league is on the move, as the Spurs dealt All-Pro Kawhi Leonard to the Raptors in exchange for DeMar DeRozan.

The Raptors, in essence, are going for it. General manager Masai Ujiri made a calculated decision that his current core - or more accurately, his top combination of Kyle Lowry and DeRozan - couldn't get over the hump. They've bowed out to LeBron James and the Cavs each of the last three years (including two sweeps) and, despite James moving to the West, now face legitimate tests in Boston and Philadelphia.

That's why Ujiri was willing to move DeRozan, the face of the franchise who had been with the team since he was drafted there in 2009, for a shot to get over the hump in the East. As talented as the four-time All-Star DeRozan is, he can't match what Leonard brings to the table on both sides of the ball. They also added wing Danny Green in the trade, making them a better team in the short-term.

That's where the Bulls come in.

Both Leonard and Green have one year remaining on their contracts. It's been well-documented that Leonard wants to play in his hometown of Los Angeles, meaning there's a better-than-not chance he plays just one season with the Raptors. Of course we saw what happened with Paul George and the Thunder, so never say never. It just appears likely at this point. Also, Green was more a function of making the dollars and cents work out in the deal; the 31-year-old probably isn't part of Toronto's long-term plans.

In other words, this could be Toronto's last shot. DeRozan had three years left on his contract, and Jakob Poeltl (also part of the deal) is entering the third year of his rookie contract. If the Raptors don't win in 2018 and Leonard bolts for the Lakers or Clippers, Toronto is looking at tearing it all down and entering, more or less, a rebuild phase. Both Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka will be on the final years of their contracts, and the team might be willing to build around young role players in Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Delon Wright and Norman Powell.

That's certainly a team the Bulls could move past in the following two seasons. With a young core that includes Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., Kris Dunn and Jabari Parker - plus next year's first-round pick - the Bulls will be trending upward as the Raptors attempt to pick up the pieces on a potentially failed dice roll on Leonard. Had the Raptors run it back with DeRozan they'd at least have their core in tact through 2020 (and DeRozan has a player option for 2021).

So while the Raptors were going to be ahead of the Bulls in the standings regardless this year, their window to compete in the long-term closed by swapping DeRozan for Leonard. That's good news for the Bulls in the coming years.

Former Bulls in the playoffs: Kyle Korver gets hot as LeBron, Cavs top Raptors

Former Bulls in the playoffs: Kyle Korver gets hot as LeBron, Cavs top Raptors

Just about the only difference between the Kyle Korver who Bulls fans remember and the one playing in Toronto last night was that he didn't come off the bench.

Korver, a member of the original Bench Mob in Chicago in 2011, was one of the supporting cast members who picked up LeBron James and Kevin Love in Tuesday's Game 1 win over the Raptors in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

The 37-year-old finished with 19 points, including five 3-pointers, and was a key cog in the third quarter as the Cavaliers tried to keep things close against the top-seeded Raptors.

Korver hit a pair of long jumpers with his foot on the 3-point line to get it going, and later in the period hit back-to-back 3-pointers to keep the Cavaliers afloat after Toronto had pushed its lead to 10 points.

Korver didn't score in the fourth quarter but was clutch in overtime, hitting a 3-pointer to get the extra period started that gave the Cavs the lead for good.

The 19 points were necessary on a night when James and Kevin Love combined to go 15 of 43. Korver has one distinct role on the Cavaliers: be shot-ready as soon as a James drive-and-kick finds him. In Game 1 he was 7 of 17 from the field with five 3-pointers, and both 2-pointers were jumpers.

He's been streaky in the postseason but did come up clutch in Round 1 against the Pacers. He scored 18 points in Game 4 to help the Cavs even up the series, and then the Cavs took a 3-2 series lead in Game 5 behind, in part, Korver's 19 points. He was held scoreless in Game 1 and 3 losses and had 6 and 3 points in Games 6 and 7 against the Pacers, so Ty Lue and the Cavs will have to hope his streaky shooting stays hot if they intend to knock off Raptors and advance to the conference finals.

Rajon Rondo: The Pelicans now trail the Warriors 2-0 in their best of seven series, but not because of Rondo. #PlayoffRondo was at it again with 22 points, seven rebounds, 12 assists and five steals in Game 2. He did commit seven turnovers but was otherwise great, even connecting on three 3-pointers and making all three of his free throws. Stopping the Warriors offense is another discussion, but Rondo is still putting up massive lines for the Pellies. Rondo was actually a +2 in the five-point loss.

Nikola Mirotic: A bounce-back performance for Threekola, who finished with 18 points and nine rebounds in the Game 2 loss.

Observations: Dunn-LaVine chemistry, bad Bulls, good Raps

Observations: Dunn-LaVine chemistry, bad Bulls, good Raps

Mismatched pieces: Kris Dunn made his return after a near-month absence from a concussion he suffered against Golden State, and immediately you could see the small dividends.

On the first possession, he pulled up for a midrange jumper, showing no ill effects from the injury. He also drove to the basket and played relatively aggressive, which is a hallmark to his effectiveness.

He didn’t stand out statistically but the Bulls’ pace was evident in his 20 minutes, as he totaled eight points and three assists.

What will be critical over the final 25 games after the All-Star break is the on-floor chemistry between Dunn and Zach LaVine.

LaVine was coming off one of his best stretches as a pro, averaging 25.3 points and six rebounds over his last four games. The production regressed a bit, as the Raptors showed why they’re one of the top 10 teams on both ends of the floor—particularly defensively as the driving lanes weren’t plentiful aside from a couple athletic takes to the rim.

He only finished with seven points in 27 minutes, but 14 games into his season, anomalies are expected.

If this game were closer, one of the questions would be around how the Bulls would navigate late-game execution between Dunn and LaVine. LaVine was aggressive late in the wins against the Timberwolves and Magic, while Fred Hoiberg termed Dunn the Bulls’ “closer” when they went on their remarkable run after starting 3-20.

Hoiiberg didn’t want to truly entertain the “who’s the man” question before the game because…well, these two have only played four games together this season.

Last year there wasn’t much time to play together because Dunn didn’t play much and LaVine was hurt by midseason.

“You definitely have to find the chemistry out there,” Dunn said. “When you find the chemistry and the right groove and everybody knows each other, things are a lot easier. It’s only been four games. It’ll take time. Hopefully we get it right away in the second half.”

If there’s an issue of actual substance for the last third of the season, it’s probably not figuring out the Cam Payne conundrum that will get people’s juices going headed into 2018-19, it’ll be figuring out how the backcourt of the future performs together.

“Kris has been good. I have chemistry with him from our days in Minnesota,” LaVine said. “For all of us getting to know each other, still. Me, him, Lauri, getting to know each other and meshing. We weren’t as competitive as we should’ve been, and aggressive. We gotta get better with that.”

Speaking of backcourts: The backcourt of the present, Toronto’s All-Star duo of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, didn’t have to play like their All-Star selves for the Raptors to cruise to an easy win.

Lowry has continued his all-around play with 20 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds, taking just 10 shots in his 27 minutes while hitting four triples. DeRozan, who had a field day against the Bulls in his earlier visit to the United Center with 35 points, only went 3-for-11 in 28 minutes for seven points and eight assists.

But that’s the beauty of these Raptors, who’ve continued to build around their backcourt and evolved into one of the league’s most versatile and deepest teams as they have the Eastern Conference’s best record at 41-16.

Their bench combined for 56 points and hammered the Bulls in the paint for 60 points, shooting 52 percent from the field and taking a 26-point lead. They have length and athleticism along with youth and energy—in most other years, they could be a real threat to qualify for the NBA Finals.

Too bad the Cleveland Cavaliers exist and more specifically, LeBron James. The Cavs beefed up at the deadline and now look like the favorites to get back to the Finals—and they’ll likely have to get through the Raptors to get there.

“Dwane Casey has done an unbelievable job with that team,” Hoiberg said. “Absolutely phenomenal. And that team is playing with so much confidence and swagger.”

Effort: It’s been awhile since the Bulls’ effort could truly come into question. Their execution, talent level and decision-making has been what held them back in most of their losses in the last month or so.

With 48 minutes between them and a much-needed All-Star break, the Bulls slept through their alarm clock and kept hitting the snooze button.

After taking a six-point lead in the first quarter, they were outscored by 30 in the last three.

“It reminded me of an earlier stretch in the season when adversity hit us and we shut down, and that can’t happen,” Hoiberg said. “We’ve got to keep playing, we’ve got to keep battling, which we’ve done a very good job of for the most part this season.”

Hoiberg even picked up his second technical of the season, being so frustrated with the officiating and his team’s energy level. Shooting just four of 24 from three tends to gray Hoiberg’s hair a little quicker than most nights.

LaVine said, “we sucked”, which put Hoiberg’s sentiments much more succinctly.

“I think it got the best of us,” Dunn said. “Shots just weren’t falling and when it doesn’t fall then adversity hits and when it does, we just got to be able to fight through it. They were comfortable the whole game.

Leading: Dunn’s words sounded just like Hoiberg’s, and if you take the position that the leader of the team and coach need to be on the same accord, it shouldn’t be surprising Dunn plans to take a more vocal role for the final 25 games.

He purposely didn’t want to assert himself so strongly to start the year, he said. It could’ve been in part because his early play wouldn’t have garnered the currency to be a leader (remember the late behind-the-back pass in Phoenix), but since early December, he’s been the catalyst.

“I stepped back because we had so many veterans and other players to be the leaders. I just went out there to do it with action,” Dunn said.

In these 11 games he’s been out, Dunn’s presence and qualities haven’t been duplicated. They’ve played hard but have missed his passion and confidence that borders on arrogance (remember the yelling to the crowd as he closed a win against the Utah Jazz in December), but it’s been necessary.

Averaging 15 points, eight assists, 4.5 rebounds and 2.2 steals in his last 21 games gives him the type of currency in the locker room to lead. He deferred to Robin Lopez, Justin Holiday and Quincy Pondexter.

Clearly it’s been part of a master plan, a plan one can say he executed to near-perfection.

“Now I want to start trying to be a vocal leader, carrying to the second half and the summer and next season, starting the year quicker.”

Already looking to next year is probably music to most fans’ ears.

But there’s 100 quarters left to play.

The countdown is on.