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HQ Roundtable: On Kawhi’s return to San Antonio, mid-season awards, and more

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In this week’s edition, the HQ Roundtable crew discuss Thursday’s marquee Raptors vs. Spurs game, hand out some mid-season awards, look into signing Nick Young, and more.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Toronto Raptors Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Hello and Happy New Year! Welcome to the latest HQ Roundtable. I’m Sully Akbari — your host for this weekly series. In case you forgot, this column will be dedicated to news regarding the Toronto Raptors as well as other happenings around the NBA where I, along with two other HQ contributors, will be discussing whatever questions we come up with. Joining me this week are Conor McCreery and Thomas Mooney.

Let us first begin to discuss news related to the Raptors!

On the Raptors:

1) What are your expectations for Kawhi Leonard’s first game back in San Antonio since the trade in terms of fan reaction and Kawhi/team performance?

Sully Akbari: With all that was said and how it went down last year, I expect the San Antonio faithful to jeer Kawhi at every opportunity. From when he runs out from the tunnel to the floor for pre-game warmups, to player introductions, and when he touches the ball, the Spurs fans will make sure to boo him at every chance.

Given who he is as a person and player, I don’t think it will bother Kawhi one bit. He will come up big and will show no emotion to the fans’ actions. Regarding the team’s performance, I think they as in Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and Serge Ibaka will follow and back up Leonard’s play as usual and will be enough to secure the win. Can’t forget about Danny Green either, as he will also make his return and should put together a solid contribution for Toronto.

Conor McCreery: I think we’re going to hear a mixture of cheers and boos. On one hand, this is the man who played LeBron to a virtual standstill and won an NBA Finals MVP. On the other hand, Kawhi decimated the ‘Spurs Way’ (TM) and did what no significant player has done in twenty years — forced his way out of the Alamo. That the people of San Antonio still have no sense of why this happened is going to keep some of them salty.

As for the game — given the Raps recent run of form, the Spurs feeling like the aggrieved party, and DeMar wanting a FOH game — I see San Antonio winning this one with a 121-106 sort of scoreline.

Thomas Mooney: I’m expecting a little bit of everything in this game. First, I expect a heavy rain of boos from the pre-game introductions, to every time Kawhi Leonard touches the ball. Second, I expect a big-time performance from Leonard. The terms on which Leonard and the Spurs left on were bad and well reported, so I think Leonard would like nothing more than to stick it to his old team and Gregg Popovich.

2) The Raptors are thin in the frontcourt. One could argue OG Anunoby, Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright have plateaued. If you could, would you put one of them in the deal instead of Jakob Poeltl?

Sully: At this very moment, it would have been nice to swap out Delon Wright for Jakob Poeltl because of the injury to Jonas Valanciunas. Due to JV’s injury, Greg Monroe has been the second-string centre and Chris Boucher has been called up from the G League to provide depth. What Poeltl provided the Raptors last year is exactly what they need right now. However, my main concern is with Boucher. If the Raptors had Poeltl in place of Wright — Boucher — who hasn’t been playing much with the Raps, would still be with the 905 and be getting valuable playing time to grow his game.

On the other hand, if we’re looking from a long-term standpoint, having Wright, VanVleet, and Anunoby would work out much better for the Raptors’ style of play.

Conor: Whew, this is a tough call. I really do feel like the Raps miss the bouncy energy of Jakob on that second unit more than people realize. He and Pascal also were developing an incredible big-to-big connection with high-low feeds. People forget that Jakob was a legit Top-10 pick and that there is an argument to be made that he’s the most talented of all the Bench Mob.

That said, it’s hard to see how you would want him over the rest of the gang mentioned. Normal Powell? Sure. Anunoby? Even with his struggles, this is a wing orientated league and so a promising wing has more value.

If I was going to make a swap, and I don’t think I am, it would be Fred VanVleet. I love FVV, but I feel like Delon Wright is the better overall fit for where the league is going — especially on the defensive end. (And quietly, by Win Shares, Wright was a hair better than FVV last year.) This move would bolster the Raps frontcourt and also force-feed Wright the minutes I think he needs to blossom.

Thomas: I would not. Poeltl is a talented young big, but his ceiling is the lowest of this group, and he provides the least amount of what makes the team great. Keeping Poeltl and trading one of OG, Fred, or Delon would make the team less versatile at the most important positions, and we probably wouldn’t have seen the resurgence from Serge Ibaka if Poeltl was taking up centre minutes on the roster. I considered it lucky at the time that Poeltl was the only prospect the Raptors gave up, and I wouldn’t make the deal any different if given the opportunity.

3) Should the Raptors sign Nick Young now that he’s been released by the Nuggets?

Sully: I don’t think signing Young helps the Raptors by a large margin, so they shouldn’t really look into it. The only improvement he can provide is replacing C.J. Miles and the team’s overall shooting. Yes, C.J. is struggling and yes Young may provide better shooting than him, but he can’t offer anything else other than that. The 33-year-old journeyman isn’t much of a defender, as his career defensive rating is 113 and has yet to record a positive defensive box plus/minus, averaging a -3.4 score through his 12-year career. Overall, it doesn’t make sense for the cap-swamped Raptors to clear space or to move players in order to sign Young.

Conor: RIP, Swaggy P.

Thomas: One of the Raptors weak points this season has been their streakiness from the three-point line. Signing Nick Young likely signals they’ve lost faith in C.J. Miles, which would be understandable considering his struggles this season and the aspirations of the team as a whole. If it’s as simple as waiving someone like Lorenzo Brown or Malachi Richardson I think they should do it, but that’s the only way.

Around the NBA:

1) Now that John Wall is out for the season, do you think the Wizards should trade Bradley Beal at the deadline?

Sully: I think it’s all-systems-go in not only trading Beal but to begin the rebuilding process as soon as possible. This Wizards team has maxed their potential in what they’re capable of, so I think it makes sense to restart now. Trading Beal for young assets and draft picks by the deadline is the way to go and I believe they can get just that from teams desperate to make a move, in return for the 25-year-old All-Star guard.

Conor: No. I think the Wiz will get better assets in the off-season when a team has more time to properly integrate him. The history of big-name pick-ups at the deadline isn’t great. It’s hard to plug a new player, especially any sort of semi-ball dominant star into an existing structure.

This off-season every team and their sister has been clearing cap-space to be able to make a run at the stacked class of UFA — and most of them are not going to end up with Kawhi, KD, or Klay. That would make Beal a real popular Plan B. Wouldn’t he be perfect for the Lakers? And, are the Lakers going to deal two of their most interesting kids (Kuz, Ball, Ingram and Hart), at the deadline? It doesn’t seem likely.

If I’m the Wiz, I see how “Everyone Eats” works, I try to deal Otto Porter by the deadline (I don’t think anyone’s paying a premium for him anyway), and then I worry about Beal. But man, given Wall’s contract and the direction he’s trending it all seems kinda academic, doesn’t it?

Thomas: I think the Wizards should be out to trade Beal even if Wall never got hurt. Their backcourt, while talented, has clearly hit their ceiling and it’s been past due to break it up. If they put him on the market, there will be a bidding war for him, and his value won’t ever be higher than it is at this deadline. And as we’ve seen in the past, the longer a team waits to trade its star, the less value they get in return. I’ll be interested to see which teams get in the running when the time comes.

2) As we near the halfway point of the season, who are your award winners?

Sully — MVP: James Harden

If it wasn’t for Harden’s surge in December, my pick would have gone to Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Rockets, without Chris Paul, have completely turned their season around with Harden’s play and continue to get back on track in being one of the top teams in the Western Conference. Averaging 33.3 points on 62.3 true shooting percentage, 8.4 assists, 5.8 rebounds, and 2.1 steals per game, Harden’s been the catalyst for the team’s offense and seems to always make big plays and hit big shots.

Conor — MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Best player on the best team, and heading for his first Finals appearance. (As much as I hate to admit it.)

Thomas — MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Giannis has been a force to be reckoned with this season, proving to be one of the most unguardable players in the NBA, leading the Bucks to the league’s best record.

Sully — Rookie of the Year: Luka Doncic

There is no argument here. Doncic is the clear rookie of the year and no matter how bad the Mavericks do this season. He will still win the award because of how well he plays on both ends of the floor. Out of all the awards, this may be the easiest to choose from.

Conor — Rookie of the Year: Luka Doncic

Luuuuuka! And it’s not even close.

Thomas — Rookie of the Year: Luka Doncic

The ROY race isn’t much of one, as Doncic has been the only reason to watch a Mavs game this season, and making teams (the Kings most notably) look foolish for passing on him.

Sully — Defensive Player of the Year: Paul George

George has always been a solid defender but this season has solidified him as the league’s best. His on and off-ball defense makes it tough for teams to not only get the ball to their best player but to excel when George is guarding them. For players averaging more than 30 minutes a game, George’s defensive rating is 99.9, which is tied with his teammate Jerami Grant for second place in the league. His teammates Steven Adams and Russell Westbrook are not far off, as they place fifth and tenth in the league respectively. His team is following his defensive leadership as OKC is first in the league in defensive rating with 101.7. George is also second in the league in steals per game with 2.2 (with Westbrook in first with 2.8).

Conor — Defensive Player of the Year: Rudy Gobert

The Stifle Tower is third in defensive RPM and that’s against the hardest schedule in the league.

Thomas — Defensive Player of the Year: Paul George

So far Paul George is second in the league in steals per game, and like Sully mentioned, is second in defensive rating among players averaging 30+ minutes a game, and has led the Thunder to the league’s best defense.

Sully — Most Improved Player of the Year: Pascal Siakam

From being a solid bench player last season, Siakam’s numbers are up across the board and he has improved all of his skills to become a better ball-handler, play-maker, finisher, shot-maker, and defender. Siakam’s play has the Raptors trusting him to make plays off the bounce in transition and in the post. He’s also much smarter in how to apply his excellent motor on defense. Given how well Siakam has played up until now, this award should be his.

Conor — Most Improved Player of the Year: Montrezl Harrell

He’s been a revelation for the Clippers, playing more minutes obviously helps the career-high across the boards, but you have to be good enough to justify getting those minutes. He’d shown flashes as a rim-running and protecting big before, but Harrell has put it all together. He’s even flashing a three-point shot!

Thomas — Most Improved Player of the Year: Pascal Siakam

Siakam has made a name for himself this year, evolving from a key piece in the Raptors bench mob to being a possible All-Star.

Sully — Sixth Man of the Year: Spencer Dinwiddie

Dinwiddie has been amazing for the Brooklyn Nets, averaging 17.5 points on 60 true shooting percentage, 5.3 assists, and 2.6 rebounds per game in 29 minutes of action. He has been their go-to guy in the clutch, which is rare for a guy who comes off the bench, as he leads the league in most games played in the clutch with 23. He’s also had big games, most recently against the Charlotte Hornets on December 26, recording 37 points and 11 assists. I think he will win it because his case will be built off the efficient numbers he puts up in 20-30 minutes of game time.

Conor — Sixth Man of the Year: Domantas Sabonis

The Pacers big has blossomed. He’s averaging just shy of a double-double, and his 2.8 assists per game rank just outside the Top-10 of all big men. Plus he’s become much better on the defensive end as well. Honourable Mention: Derrick Rose — I never thought he’d matter again in the NBA, but boy has he proven a lot of doubters wrong.

Thomas — Sixth Man of the Year: Domantas Sabonis

Off the bench, Sabonis is averaging close to a double-double, shooting an efficient 63%, and is second among bench players in defensive and net rating, helping the Pacers to the third best record in the league.

Sully — Coach of the Year: Mike Malone

Malone has done an outstanding job leading the Nuggets to first place in the Western Conference as we close in on the halfway mark of the season. He has dealt with many key injured players in Gary Harris, Paul Millsap, and Will Barton, yet his team has played through it. Obviously, I expect them to be even better when the Nuggets return to full strength, which will only solidify Malone’s case to win the Coach of the Year.

Conor — Coach of the Year: Mike Malone

He’s taken a team that has leaked points on one end and made them a top-5 defensive side. He’s dealt with a lot of significant injuries, and he’s got everyone on that roster contributing.

Conor — Coach of the Year: Mike Budenholzer

Since taking over the Bucks, Budenholzer has transformed the offense, opening up space for Giannis to do his thing, and getting the best production of Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez’s careers.

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That wraps up our New Year edition of the HQ Roundtable! If you have any topics we should discuss, let us know in the comments below. Be sure to tune into next week’s edition as the Raptors’ have a few key games coming up against the Bucks, Pacers, and Celtics.