Four-Point Play

Kawhi Makes His Points—For Himself And For Others
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Little-known fact I finally reveal tonight.

I am the genius behind Gregg Popovich’s best lines.

Now before you think I am trying to steal two-time Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard’s thunder on the 2019 NBA champion Toronto Raptors special night, hear me out for a minute and I’ll bring this discussion full circle in a bit.

Once upon a time, on November 13, 2014, HOOP sent me to Los Angeles to do a feature on recently-crowned Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard.

While interviewing the San Antonio Spurs head coach after practice in the Men’s Gym at UCLA—alongside my esteemed journalist colleague J.A. Adande of ESPN (at the time)—I asked Pop, “Is it just me, or does Kawhi play differently when you call his number, like he is looking to create points for the Spurs to score, rather than just looking for points for himself to score?”

Pop gave me the look that caused former ESPN courtside reporter Adande to tell me afterward, “You got Popped,” before the coach finally replied, “No. That’s just you. When we call Kawhi’s number, which we’re doing more this year than we have in the past—he is there to score. But he has to understand he is playing with his teammates and if the defense plays such that it’s a wiser move to kick it, find somebody, he does that. But I want him to be aggressive and think score.”Fast forward to the next time the Spurs played on TNT when Charles Barkley interviews Pop and asks, “When did Kawhi become a great player?” and I promise you Pop replied, “Kawhi became a great player when he realized that when I called his play, it was for the Spurs to score, not just for him to score.”

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My jaw dropped to the floor when I heard that.

He just stole my line.

Since that time, Barkley has gone on to repeat that story on dozens of occasions, saying it was the smartest thing he ever heard a coach say.

AND IT’S MY FRIGGIN’ LINE!

Fast forward to 2019 NBA Finals Game 6 in the last game in Oakland’s Oracle Arena where Leonard is now on a new team and his Raptors are trying to close out the defending 2018, 2017 and 2015 NBA champion Golden State Warriors.

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All night long—all series long, for that matter— head coach Steve Kerr is doing whatever he can to get the ball out of Kawhi’s hand, sending his trio of top defenders Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala and Draymond Green to take turns at the 6-7, 230-pound small forward while Warriors teammates take every opportunity to double- and triple-team the man.

This is where the story comes full circle. No contest in the postseason better illustrated Pop’s vision for Kawhi than Game 6 Thursday when Kawhi shut down the scorer inside who had been averaging 30 points per game on .612 true shooting percentage in the first five Finals contests, and became the set-up man who would give up the ball at the perimeter to create matchups that allowed his Raptors teammates to score just as efficiently as he had been doing.

Kawhi finished with only 22 points and took only 16 shots in Game 6, but he made his teammates the championship-clinching heroes on this special night.

There was the NBA’s likely Most Improved Player Pascal Siakam garnering 26 points and 10 rebounds by towering over all Golden State foes in the paint while Kawhi occupied the double-teams elsewhere.

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There was long-time Raptor and five-time All-Star Kyle Lowry igniting the offense early-on, scoring all 11 of the Raptors first 11 points in a two-minute, 12-second stretch that saw Toronto get out to a 11-2 game-opening lead. Lowry would finish with 26 points, 7 rebounds, 10 assists and 3 steals.

There was Fred VanVleet assisting Kawhi when the Raptors offense bogged down, hitting timely three after three, many times when the shot clock was winding down. VanVleet finished with 22 points, making five of 11 of his three-point attempts.

There was Serge Ibaka, towering in the paint in a manner similar to Siakam, enjoying that one-on-one coverage once Kawhi let his teammates play 4-on-3. Ibaka finished with 15 points on 7-of-12 shooting.

Add it all up and Toronto’s five guys scored 111 of the Raptors’ 114 points in this 4-2 series-clinching win, 114-110.

All the while, I kept remembering that conversation with Pop as I watched Kawhi en route to his second Finals MVP trophy in the past five years.

Only now the words I hear are: “Kawhi realized that when the Raptors called his play, it was for the Raptors to score Thursday night, not just for Kawhi to score.”

That is why Toronto posted a .602 team true shooting percentage in Game 6, nearly mirroring Kawhi’s .606 true shooting percentage in these NBA Finals.

You see what Kawhi did there?

Kawhi made his Raptors teammates as good as him for a night.

That, my friend, is greatness.


The Kevin Durant/Klay Thompson Aftermath

Only time will tell if 30-year-old Kevin Durant is able to return to nine-time All-NBA form after undergoing Achilles surgery Wednesday.

Same is true of 29-year-old Klay Thompson after the five-time NBA All-Star tore his ACL in Game 6.

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For Durant, history shows us if KD rushes the return, much like Kobe Bryant in 2013, and tries to play in seven months, that does not necessarily bode well for his long-term comeback.

However, if KD exercises patience and schedules his return in a year, as is the case with most successful recoveries, then his comeback chances are greater.

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Back in the day, Achilles surgery—especially late in your career—normally meant your NBA career was coming to an abrupt end—just as aging greats Elgin Baylor, Isiah Thomas and Patrick Ewing discovered for themselves.

Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins was the lone exception. The Human Highlight Film returned from Achilles surgery in 1992-93 and 1993-94 to post his sixth and seventh All-NBA campaigns as a 33- and 34-year-old Hawk and Clipper, respectively.

Since then, we have seen several top NBA players return from Achilles surgeries and play quality minutes in the League. Unfortunately, all never got back to the same level as before.

Elton Brand (28 years old when he tore his Achilles in 2007), Wesley Matthews (29 in March 2015) and Rudy Gay (30 in January 2017) were young enough to return at 70-80 percent of their former selves, if you used minutes played and Player Efficiency Ratings as barometers. They all played—or are playing—into their mid-30s.

However, the older players, like Chauncey Billups (35 in February 2012) and Kobe Bryant (34 in April 2013), played 41 and 107 more games in their careers before hanging it up. It could be due to an inevitable decline with age, but both players returned as shells of their former All-NBA selves.

Now, perennial All-Stars Durant and DeMarcus Cousins, who was 27 when he tore his Achilles in January 2018 as a New Orleans Pelican, are the latest examples of current players trying to come back from Achilles surgeries.

How these All-NBA players return from Achilles injuries could form the narrative how Achilles/calf injuries are treated by NBA medical staffs from this point on.

It is just too bad it came to all this.

Durant should never have played that game.

At least, that was the way I always felt because I always trusted Dr. David J. Chao’s assesment of the original injury. Chao’s track record for assessing injuries is legendary, so we never expected Kevin Durant—as of May 8to play in the remaining games of the West semi-finals, West Finals or 2019 NBA Finals.

With all the aforementioned linked evidence, we all could tell Durant was dealing with a serious Achilles injury, even if it was reported as a “calf strain” and the Warriors were giving weekly reports how KD would be back any day now.

We knew better, thanks to Dr. Chao’s May 8 assessment.

So one month later, yes, I was surprised to see Bob Myers (Golden State president of basketball operations), Dr. Rick Celebrini (Golden State director of sports medicine and performance) and Durant’s own management team (headed by KD himself, as well as agent Rich Kleiman)—after a pseudo-practice—all give Durant the go-ahead Monday to play in NBA Finals Game 5 on what still appeared to be a bad Achilles that needed more time to heal.

One has to wonder if the Warriors new training staff—remember the Atlanta Hawks raided the old crew when Golden State ownership would not pay Chelsea Lane what she wanted—was overloaded by the growing list of walking wounded in literal Warriors Cousins, Kevon Looney, Thompson and Andre Iguodala, who all missed playoff games with various injuries.

Surely it did not help matters that Kerr played KD 12 of 14 minutes in this ill-advised comeback attempt, putting Durant on pace for yet another 40-plus minute game so soon (when KD last left us, he was averaging 45 minutes per game on heavy usage rates in the West semis before he was felled May 8).

But the worst happened in the second quarter of Game 5 Monday night when it was later discovered that Kevin’s Achilles indeed ruptured.

Monday was a sad day. Sickening to the stomach.

On Wednesday, Durant had Achilles surgery.

Life will move on.

So too will KD from all this.

It may take a year to heal, but we pray for the best.

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What’s good everybody I wanted to update you all: I did rupture my Achilles. Surgery was today and it was a success, EASY MONEY My road back starts now! I got my family and my loved ones by my side and we truly appreciate all the messages and support people have sent our way. Like I said Monday, I'm hurting deeply, but I'm OK. Basketball is my biggest love and I wanted to be out there that night because that’s what I do. I wanted to help my teammates on our quest for the three peat. Its just the way things go in this game and I'm proud that I gave it all I physically could, and I'm proud my brothers got the W. It's going to be a journey but I'm built for this. I’m a hooper I know my brothers can get this Game 6, and I will be cheering  with dub nation while they do it.

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As for Thompson, it is a darn shame that he has to go out the same way, the same week as Durant.

God only knows when Thompson will be back, and Golden State CEO Joe Lacob only knows how Warriors ownership will pursue the 2019 free agent who was originally seeking a middle-max contract before the injury.

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Using top prospects and torn-ACL victims Kristaps Porzingis (22 years old when he tore his ACL February 2018), Jabari Parker (21 in March 2017) and Zach LaVine (21 in February 2017) as recent examples, the injury typically takes a year to a year-and-a-half to heal, with Porzingis hoping to return this preseason, Parker returning to health 12 months in February 2018 and LaVine returning to health 11 months later in January 2018.

How the Warriors compensate Thompson for playing through his injuries in the 2019 playoffs is another matter.

It is doubtful they will still give Thompson the five-year, $190 million middle-max he was seeking, though they might be apt to pay him the initial $32.7 middle-max salary, while doling out fewer than five years and less than initial 8-percent raises on the deal.

After all, the Mavericks are willing to sign Porzingis post-ACL surgery to a junior-max five-year, $158 million. If Thompson wants to sign that type of deal, I bet the Warriors would do likewise at minimal risk for someone much more accomplished at this stage.

By further comparison, LaVine returned from his ACL surgery and had a career year in Chicago last season, after signing a four-year, $78 million deal with the Bulls last summer.

As for Parker, he returned in 2018-19 playing pretty much the same before he tore his ACL, only now playing with the Washington Wizards following a midseason trade with Chicago, whom he signed a one-year, $20 million deal with last summer.

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All considering, I’d expect Thompson to sign a Porzingis-like package to re-up with the Warriors this summer. It is $32 million less than he was originally seeking, but it is still more than he likely gets from anybody else, with other suitors limited to four-year, $140.6 million offers and not guaranteed to pay it.

As for Durant, his days as a Warrior are likely over, mainly for fiscal reasons, in addition to suffering an injury that is more unpredictable than Thompson’s torn ACL.

Let’s say the Warriors give Durant the super-max and Thompson the middle-max they originally were seeking.

By re-upping Looney at $10 million annually and releasing Cousins and Shaun Livingston while returning the rest of the team, Golden State ownership then would have a payroll of $172 million, which has $40 million overage, resulting in a repeater luxury-tax penalty of $175 million.

That is too rich for even Golden State’s blood.

Now let’s say the Dubs let Durant walk if he threatens to sign with another team, then Golden State’s payroll would only be $133.8 million, which is $1.8 million overage, resulting in a $4.5 million luxury-tax penalty.

Talk about big savings.

And by letting Durant walk should he want to sign with the Knicks or someone else, then the Warriors would be able to retain Thompson at a middle-max, in addition to Looney, Cousins, Livingston and the rest of the 2019 playoff Warriors sans Durant at minimal penalty.

Another scenario-—and perhaps the most likely—is that Durant is unable to secure a supermax deal anywhere, forcing KD to take the Warriors’ $31.5 million player option and return to Golden State for the 2019-20 season, which he is probably missing in its entirety.

Warriors ownership, however, could counter by releasing Durant if KD opts in, perhaps later stretching his $31.5 million payments over three seasons at $10.5 million each year. This could add up to a $157.6 million payroll, which becomes $25.6 million overage, resulting in $91.9 million in luxury-tax penalties.

When all is said and done, who knows what the post-surgery Durant-and-Thompson fallout will be from the organizational, medical and individual aspect of things?

Though it may sound cold, Warriors ownership can no longer offer the same max deals it may have been planned only months ago.

That said, I still will expect Golden State to meet some type of happy compromise that pleases KD and KT, while not necessarily compromising the Warriors’ future moving forward.


How Much Are Stellar Free Agents Worth?

I ran my three-year regular season and postseason Efficient Plus-Minus numbers on all the top 2019-20 free agents to give you an idea how much my metrics estimate their recent value to their teams. Upon further review, 14 NBA players proved to be worth near 20 percent of last year’s salary cap.

Are all 14 of these free agents worth the various max contracts being bandied about? Read on and see.

Top Free Agents Cap Values

 Free Agent  Age/Status 2018-19 EPM, Minutes, Cap% 2017-18 EPM, Minutes, Cap% 2016-17 EPM, Minutes, Cap%
 Kevin Durant  30yo UFAp +7.13, 2702, 40% RS; +7.51, 442, 9% P +6.44, 2325, 32% RS; +7.26, 807, 12% +8.76, 2070, 35% RS; +8.56, 533, 9% P
 Kawhi Leonard  27yo UFAp +6.81, 2040, 29% RS; +8.94, 898, 16% P +6.03, 210, 3% RS +7.46, 2474, 38% RS; +11.03, 429, 9% P
 Nikola Vucevic 28yo UFA +6.34, 2510, 34% RS; -6.40, 147, -1% P +2.51, 1683, 14% RS +1.91, 2163, 16% RS
 Kyrie Irving 27yo UFAp +5.56, 2214, 28% RS; -0.48, 330, 1% P +5.84, 1931, 25% RS +5.19, 2525, 31% RS; +4.33, 653, 7% P
 Kemba Walker 29yo UFA +3.82, 2863, 29% RS +3.93, 2736, 28% RS +4.22, 2739, 29% RS
 Jimmy Butler 29yo UFA +3.34, 2185, 21% RS; +6.30, 421, 6% P +6.24, 2164, 29% RS; +1.91, 170. 1% P +6.16, 2809, 38% RS; +0.59, 239, 1% P
 Khris Middleton 27yo UFAp +2.17, 2393, 19% RS; +1.34, 515, 3% P +1.68, 2982, 22% RS; +4.71, 275, 3% P +1.14, 889, 6% RS; +0.19, 231, 1% P
 Tobias Harris 26yo UFA +1.03, 2847, 18% RS; +1.71, 443, 3% P +0.52, 2668, 15% RS +1.03, 2567, 16% RS
 Al Horford 33yo UFAp +3.49, 1973, 19% RS; +1.19, 310, 2% P +2.68, 2277, 20% RS; +3.83, 679, 7% P +2.14, 2193, 17% RS; +0.94, 610, 4% P
 Julius Randle 24yo UFAp +3.12, 2232, 21% RS +2.30 2190, 18% RS -1.14, 2132, 7% RS
 Paul Millsap 34yo UFAt +3.01, 1895, 17% RS; +1.47, 469, 3% P +1.81, 1143, 8% RS +2.18, 2343, 19% RS; +2.14, 219, 2% P
 Klay Thompson 29yo UFA +2.04, 2203, 17% RS; -1.33, 786, 2% P +1.99, 2652, 20% RS; +0.13, 794, 4% P +3.49, 2649, 26% RS; -0.59, 596, -1% P
 Marc Gasol 34yo UFAp +1.36, 2436, 16% RS; -0.02, 708, 3% P +0.05, 2408, 13% RS; +3.03, 2531, 23% RS; +0.80, 240 1% P
 D’Angelo Russell 23yo RFA +2.26, 2448, 20% RS; -7.78, 448, -1% P -1.08, 1234, 4% RS -1.35, 1811, 5% RS
Age as of June 13, 2019; Age yo years old; Status free-agent status; UFA unrestricted free agent; RFA restricted free agent; t team option; p player option; EPM efficient plus-minus; Cap% value per salary-cap percentage; RS regular season; P playoffs.

 

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0. Kevin Durant: We ranked KD in the “zero” spot because we do not expect him to enter free agency until the 2020-21 season, choosing instead to take the Warriors $31.5 million player option as he rehabs from Achilles surgery. Even if he does sign elsewhere, he’ll likely be taking a DNP for the season. During his three years with the Warriors, his metrics show he was worth between 44 and 49 percent of the salary cap in all three seasons, clearly making him a super-max player (35 percent of cap) when healthy.

1. Kawhi Leonard; The two-time NBA Finals MVP is the one free agent worthy of a super-max contract this season, based on his 2018-19 regular season (29 percent cap value) and postseason (16 percent cap value). Every team with cap space will surely make Kawhi their No. 1 target, with the Raptors, Clippers and Nets being the favorites to land him.

2. Nikola Vucevic: Vooch is somewhat of a gamble on any team that signs him. In 2018-19, he was All-NBA worthy, valued as high as 34 percent of the cap according to my Efficient Plus-Minus metrics. However,the previous two years he was more of a 15 percent cap player, making last season perhaps more of an aberration than a guaranteed breakthrough. I believe Coach Steve Clifford has taken Vucevic’s defense to new levels, so perhaps the best situation would be for the Magic center to re-sign for his middle-max (30 percent of the cap) in Orlando with the coach that made him great. Perhaps Vooch would give Orlando a discount, if not in $32.7 million start pay in 2019-20, then perhaps in cap raises or fewer seasons.

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3. Kyrie Irving: Uncle Drew has been consistently worth middle-max money the past few seasons, and shows genuine upside for teams hoping to catch the point guard in his prime. Brooklyn appears most willing and able to meet Irving’s tastes and demands.

4. Kemba Walker: The longtime Hornets point guard may not have the upside of Kyrie, but he has even more consistency, worthy of 28-29 percent cap space in each of the last three seasons. If Kyrie goes Brooklyn, perhaps Kemba goes New York.

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5. Jimmy Butler: As he enters his 30s, Butler is looking for a middle-max contract that the Timberwolves would not give (hence, the trade to Philly). For the most part, Butler has been worth the mid-max in recent years, posting 27, 30 and 39 percent cap values in each of the last three seasons. It is always a gamble to pay an aging vet, but that’s the price you pay if you want Butler.

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6. Khris Middleton: Now we are starting to see the line of separation between players seeking middle-max contracts who may not be worth middle-max contracts. Middleton may still get paid 30 percent of the cap by the Bucks, since they need to land this forward if they want to retain that other free-agent forward next season (Giannis Antetokounmpo). That said, my metrics had Middleton valued at 22 and 25 percent of the cap the past two seasons. Not exactly 30 percent value.

7. Klay Thompson: Everything changed when the Splash Brother tore his ACL in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, though I expect the Warriors still might meet Thompson near middle-max values, if not for five years, perhaps for a two- or three-year deal. On the downside, Klay’s consistency has been in decline the past few seasons, ranging anywhere from 19 to 25 percent cap value, after slow starts in October-through-December. That said, the Splash Brother knows how to heat up at playoff time and has become so vital to the Warriors’ postseason runs that it was just a shame that he went down on the last day of the postseason, less than a month away from his big payday. He still will make good money, but like Middleton, he probably won’t earn the full fiver-year, middle-max, Bird-rights contract.

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8. Tobias Harris: Philly GM Elton Brand gave up a lot to get Harris (two key future first rounders and All-Rookie Landry Shamet, among other assets). And now, Brand may be forced to let Harris walk, rather than pay the ex-Clipper the middle-max contract he is seeking. Yes, Harris did escalate his cap value from 15-16 percent the previous two years to 21 percent last season. Still, that is a long ways away from the 30-percent middle-max contract he seeks. Sometimes it is best to cut your losses rather than double down on an escalating contract.

9. Al Horford: At age 33, Horford has proven he is still good for at least 21 percent of the cap on an annual basis. But seeing how he is set to earn $30 million in 2019-20, I do not expect the Celtics center to exercise his player option to free agency this summer.

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10. Julius Randle: Randle gambled on himself last year when he signed a one-year deal with New Orleans once the free-agent money dried up on the market. Now, the 24-year-old power forward seeks a junior-max contract (25 percent of the cap) that he may be able to hit, especially when you consider he was valued at 21 percent of the cap last season.

11. Paul Millsap: Look for Denver to let Millsap out of his $30 million deal this summer, but don’t be surprised if they lock the 34-year-old up for, say, a two-year, $40 million deal to maintain payroll integrity. The Nuggets power forward was still worth 21 percent of the cap last season.

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12. Marc Gasol: If the Raptors get wind that Kawhi Leonard is re-signing in Toronto, they may be able to talk Gasol into opting out of his $25 million player option, in exchange for less money and more years on an extension. Any savings GM Masai Ujiri can manage will be huge, considering the Raptors face high luxury-tax penalties if Kawhi signs the super-max deal everybody in Canada hopes he signs.

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13. D’Angelo Russell: The 23-year-old restricted free agent may not be worth the 25-percent junior-max contract yet, but all trends are pointing to the fact that he will be worth it in the years to come. His 2018-19 regular season cap value was 20 percent, which makes him more proven than other top restricted free agent prospects like injured Kristaps Porzingis, Malcolm Brogdon, along with rising tall talents Kevon Looney, Thomas Bryant and Ivica Zubac.


The 6-Foot-And-Under League

Fred VanVleet came a long way in the 2019 NBA Finals and East Finals in establishing himself as the second-best small guard in the NBA’s 6-feet-and-under community.

It is an exclusive society made up of only 14 NBA players in 2018-19, headed once again by the 6-footer Chris Paul, who is the GOAT of the 6-and-under community, which hails such Hall of Famers as Allen Iverson, Calvin Murphy, Dick McGuire, Slater Martin and Bobby Wanzer.

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In today’s small-guard cinematic universe, the 25-year-old VanVleet, however, may have worked his way up the contemporary list to second, ranking higher than active peers Darren Collison, D.J. Augustin, Patty Mills, J.J. Barea and Ish Smith, among others.

What made the 6-0, 195-pound Toronto Raptor’s playoff run so special was that he often did so in relief of point guard Kyle Lowry, while at other times, he was playing alongside the 6-1 Lowry, who is not such a tall guard himself.

All along, VanVleet has made whoever he was playing with better.

His 2018-19 On-court net rating was +8.1 per 100 possessions, while his On-Off net rating was +3.9, with his career three-year metrics measuring likewise at +10.3 and +5.6.

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But VanVleet’s postseason play became so valuable that head coach Nick Nurse found it necessary at times to go to three-guard lineups, using his two littles Lowry and VanVleet alongside shooting guard Danny Green, while resting one of his forwards—Kawhi Leonard or Pascal Siakam—in such matchups.

Much was made about VanVleet’s hot streak during the East Finals when VanVleet celebrated the playoff birth of his son Fred Jr. May 20 by closing out Milwaukee in Games 4 through 6 with a 14-of-17 three-point shooting streak.

What might not be known is how FVV Senior’s plus-minus numbers have gone through the Raptors roof in those past nine games, with the supersub posting +73 plus-minus score in 290 minutes since May 20, where the guard has averaged 15 points on a .701 true shooting percentage in 32 minutes per game.

Fred Senior’s 3-point hot streak since Fred Junior’s birth now clocks in at 30-for-57 for a 52.6 trey percentage.

Is it any wonder that the four best Toronto lineup combinations since Junior’s birthday all feature VanVleet in them?

That is no fleeting feat.