NBA updates: Toronto’s neat finds, Cleveland persisting struggles and more

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With the trade deadline and All-Star break on the horizon, the NBA regular season is more than halfway through. What have we seen so far?

Young gems in Toronto

Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri is one of the most respected figures in basketball, and for good reason. Despite consistently low first-round draft slots, he has been able to find talent.

The Raptors are second in the Eastern Conference, in large part because of the surprising production that head coach Dwane Casey has been able to extract from a young and inexperienced bench.

OG Anunoby, Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam are all playing a healthy 18 to 22 minutes per game — an integral part of the rotation’s first nine. Siakam, Wright and Anunoby were all late first-round selections, while VanVleet was signed as an undrafted free agent.

They all have excelled in their roles this season. Anunoby has answered most questions about both his shooting and his athleticism after an ACL tear a year ago, converting threes at a 36 percent rate with a smooth, silky shot. At the very least, he is a quality 3-and-D starter that any team would celebrate taking with the 23rd pick.

Wright and VanVleet have combined to be the solid, steady bench backcourt that have eluded teams such as Washington and Oklahoma City, who have instead opted to play unremarkable point guards. Wright has shown nice explosiveness at the rim and an ability to make plays in the pick and roll, while VanVleet is a capable ball handler who can hit timely threes.

The Cameroonian Siakam has provided an über-athletic spark off the bench, sometimes getting to the basket in one dribble from the three-point line. His potential as a switch defender is almost unrivaled — watch him blanket Bradley Beal, help on Otto Porter Jr. after his teammate bites on the shot fake and recover fast enough to run Beal off the three-point line.

With these improvements, the trio of Casey, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry has the best chance it’s had in recent memory to scale their Everest with a playoff victory over LeBron James.

Cleveland, we have a problem

Speaking of LeBron, the Cavaliers’ pre-playoff struggles and the surrounding anxious discussion has become routine in many sports talk circles, but this season just feels different. Their defensive issues, highlighted most recently Saturday in an embarrassing home loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on national television, have even led to questions about coach Tyronn Lue’s job security.

The Thunder scored 148 points on 58 percent shooting from the field, leading many fans to boo throughout the second half as Oklahoma City continued to put up video-game-like numbers.

LeBron’s refusal to commit to either staying or leaving has suspended the Cavs in limbo — do they trade the Brooklyn pick (their best asset) for a win-now piece? Would that piece even help them against the Warriors? Or do they save the selection for what would be a bleak, depressing post-LeBron era?

New Orleans Pelicans All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins would give them the best chance of at least giving the Golden State Warriors a competitive series, and even that may be a stretch. They would almost certainly need to part with the Brooklyn pick and more in any trade for Cousins, however, and per ESPN’s Dave McMenamin, the Cavs would rather hold onto it as insurance for a LeBron departure.

Not only are the Cavs asset-poor, but their talent has struggled. J.R. Smith sometimes plays like he is invisible, and Isaiah Thomas looks as slow as ever following his hip injury last year. Even on his scoring plays, it’s evident that last season’s explosiveness is just not there.

So much of past public confidence in the Cavs stemmed from their ability to make big plays in big moments and “flip the switch.” These were hallmarks of former point guard Kyrie Irving’s game. It is common knowledge that Irving has another gear to activate in the playoffs as a brilliant one-on-one scorer. This, combined with LeBron seemingly having one foot out of the door, gives me a queasy feeling about this year’s Cavs.

There has been talk of acquiring Clippers’ stars DeAndre Jordan or Lou Williams, but neither of them move the needle against the Warriors. Previously, Cleveland’s duo of Irving and James could go toe to toe and sometimes outperform Golden State’s Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, but further down the rotation is where the trouble lies. No matter how well LeBron plays, Cleveland’s roster is simply no match for Golden State’s.

A surprisingly feisty Bulls team

At the beginning of the season, the Bulls would have been competing with the Magic for the last spot in the list of teams I was interested in watching. I should have known that any season that begins in a fistfight between two players at the same position (Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotić) would be exciting.

Many were disappointed with Chicago’s selection of Arizona big man Lauri Markkanen with the seventh overall pick, but he has outperformed expectations so far in his rookie season. His impressive ball-handling skills and finishing ability complement an accurate three-ball.

The defense with Markkanen is still a question, as he needs to improve his mobility and awareness. Here, you can seem him point to teammate Robin Lopez to pick up his own man, James Johnson, in the corner and then stays put on the block, uncertain of who to guard. He completely misses his responsibility, Hassan Whiteside, barrelling down the floor for an and-one.

Lanky point guard Kris Dunn, drafted fifth overall by Minnesota in 2016 and part of the Jimmy Butler trade, has shown some real improvement so far in Chicago.

Check out this sequence. First, he displays the vision to recognize that Detroit Pistons guard Luke Kennard is overhelping in the paint, even though he isn’t able to get the pass completely over Tobias Harris (which he will learn).

In this possession, he stays in front of Dwight Buycks and makes his shot more difficult. Dunn clearly has the skills to be at least a quality starting point guard in this league, which is surprising to many around the NBA that had given up on his potential after a disappointing rookie year.

Of course, no discussion of these Bulls is complete without mention of Mirotić, who has played so spectacularly since being clobbered by Portis that it has fueled trade rumors for a Bulls team that does not really need his good play. He owns a scorching 63.1 True Shooting percentage, the same total as James and a tick ahead of Durant.

In their last 24 games, the Bulls are 15-9 with impressive wins against Boston, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Indiana, Detroit and Miami. Bouncy dunk champion Zach LaVine recently made his Bulls debut Jan. 13, and former Los Angeles Laker David Nwaba is a pogo stick masquerading as a human professional basketball player. Just like that, the Bulls are suddenly a team that plays fun basketball.

The Kawhi Leonard mystery

The Kawhi Leonard injury saga continues. After making his season debut Dec. 12, Leonard played about every other game for nine games until San Antonio shut him down again. The recurring right quad injury that kept him out for the first 27 games now has him out indefinitely. For the Spurs, it’s just a bit worrisome when January is almost over and your best player (a top-five player when healthy) has barely seen the court.

Yet Gregg Popovich and the Spurs’ machine continues to hum, as LaMarcus Aldridge has excelled in Leonard’s stead as the No. 1 option. They love using this double drag screen in the secondary break to give Aldridge space to operate at the top of the key.

Here, he can shoot, drive against the slower big, or motion into either a dribble hand-off or pick-and-roll with a Spurs wing. Aldridge’s gravity on the pick and roll gives Danny Green enough cushion to knock the jumper down, but even if Green misses, Aldridge is in great position for the offensive rebound over the smaller guard.

San Antonio’s goals this year should be to defeat the Houston Rockets, currently No. 2 in the West, in a playoff series and push the Warriors to six or seven in the conference finals. The playoffs are where the superstars shine, and the Spurs will need Leonard to shine his brightest. If he doesn’t look right by March, it would be tough to predict their victory over a stronger Houston team.

Dev Navani covers women’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].