NBA Season Preview: Toronto Raptors

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bargnani.jpgLast season: 40-42, and a late-season meltdown kept them out of the playoffs. (If you need to add that to your Chris Bosh hate fuel in Toronto, so be it.)

Head Coach: Jay Triano, and despite the loss in talent you can be sure his seat is getting a little warm. (So is GM Bryan Colangelo’s seat, this is the last season of his deal and he is feeling the pressure to win now, which is not great for rebuilding.)

Key Departures: I don’t know if you heard, but Chris Bosh left to head to Miami. That might have made the news. But other guys lost include Hedo Turkoglu (Raptors fans were not crying over that one), Marco Belinelli, Antoine Wright, Rasho Nesterovic,

Key Additions: Linas Kleiza, Leandro Barbosa, Julian Wright and Ed Davis.

Best case scenario: Toronto doesn’t embarrass itself, that it puts out a respectable team with some pieces to build on.

For that to happen: The Raptors need what we all have been waiting for — the real Andrea Bargnani. The blossoming of potential and hype into a player who lead a team in scoring, who can be an All-Star level player. We’re not sure that this version of Bargnani actually exists, it’s more of a Yeti — something of legend people only catch glimpses of out of the corner of their eye.

This season the excuses are gone — Chris Bosh and Sam Mitchell are gone. Bargnani has to step up now. Late last season when Bosh was out and defenses turned their attention to Bargnani he wilted. This is his time, for the Raptors sake that can’t happen again.

Linas Kleiza and Leandro Barbosa will need to prove they were more than just the role players they were given a chance to be before. Kleiza looked it during the World Championships, but proving it on an NBA level will be harder.

Also, the youth need to step forward and prove they can ball. DeMar DeRozan looked great during Summer League, and Sonny Weems shows potential as well. Jarret Jack to be steady.

Also, the Raptors need to play some semblance of defense.

More likely the Raptors will: Have nights of utter embarrassment and other nights where they look like they have something. They are going to get crushed in the paint and on the boards this season, and it’s hard to consistently win in this league when that is the case.

This season is about starting the rebuilding process, seeing what you’ve got and what works. Start reshaping the roster as you look for the next star you need. See if Bargnani really is a guy you can trust or not, them move accordingly. See if Kleiza can be a steady scorer, if DeRozan can take the next step or three. Jettison the pieces that don’t work and try new ones.

Hopefully Toronto will use all that youth and speed to get out and run. To get some easy buckets in transition. Their defense will keep them from being good, but they can be entertaining at least.

Prediction: 23 wins. It’s going to be ugly for a couple years, just try to keep focused on the big picture. Then hope that starts to come together.

Giannis Antetokounmpo out a couple of games to manage sore knee

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It’s not discussed much, but Giannis Antetokounmpo has a chronically sore knee that has been an issue since last summer. It’s not debilitating, it doesn’t require surgery, but it’s something Antetokounmpo and the Bucks need to actively manage.

Hence, Antetokounmpo is sitting out the next couple of games. From Matt Velazquez of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Milwaukee Bucks all-star Giannis Antetokounmpo will sit out Saturday night’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers as well as Monday’s home game against the Phoenix Suns as the team actively manages the health of Antetokounmpo’s sore right knee….

Antetokounmpo’s injury, which is not considered to be tendinitis, is regarded as something that is always going to bother him to some extent, according to a league source. There will be days where the discomfort is higher and some when it’s lower, and the team’s goal is to manage that on a daily basis to keep the injury from becoming severe or significant — something it is not considered to be at this point.

Antetokounmpo is going to get eight days of rest this way, which is the smart long-term move for the Bucks.

The challenge is the Bucks may be sixth in the East as you read this, but they are just one game up on the nine seed Pistons. They need to get wins without Antetokounmpo, which is hard because they have been outscored by 10.6 points per 100 possessions. However, they could be without him a lot longer if Antetokounmpo’s knee isn’t managed now.

Kristaps Porzingis: “Players know” he’s All-Star starter

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When picking the East All-Star starters, two of the three frontcourt choices were obvious: LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

For the third slot there were a few players who could make a case. The fans chose Joel Embiid third, Kristaps Porzingis fourth, and Kevin Love fifth. The media also had Embiid third and Porzingis fourth, but Al Horford fifth. That was enough to earn Embiid the starting nod.

The players voted Porzingis third, Embiid fourth, and Andre Drummond fifth. Needless to say, Porzingis thinks the players got it right, as he told Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

“Players know,” he said. “That’s all I’m going to say.”

If one were cynical, one would note the players also voted for Tyler Cavanaugh and Tyler Zeller, so how much do we trust their vote? Fortunately, we’re above such crass things.

Porzingis is a lock to make his first All-Star Game this year as a reserve (picked by the coaches).

What separated the two? Embiid has been a little more efficient this season, he’s stronger on the boards and had been a bigger defensive presence. Also, the Sixers have a better record than the Knicks, who have stumbled of late. Or, maybe the fans just like Embiid’s big personality more — he’s blowing off Rihanna.

Both of these guys should have a lot of All-Star starts in their future. This year it goes to Embiid.

 

Lakers make 14% of their free throws, win

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Jordan Clarkson‘s free throw rattled around the rim before falling out late in the first quarter. The Los Angeles crowd groaned. The Lakers missed their first five free throws, and the visiting Pacers led by seven.

It appeared to be one of those nights.

And it was. The Lakers shot just 2-for-14 (14%) on free throws Friday. But they still won, 99-86.

That’s the worst free-throw percentage with at least eight attempts by any team and the worst free-throw percentage regardless of attempts by a winning team in the Basketball-Reference database, which dates back to 1963-64.

Here’s the “leaderboard,” winners in purple and losers in gold:

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The Lakers are shooting an NBA-worst 69% on free throws, but last night took the cake. The offenders:

Knicks’ Jeff Hornacek brushes off concerns about job security

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We saw this pattern earlier this season with the Lakers. Young team gets off to a better-than-expected start, shows real promise, but as things move toward the middle of the season they take a step back. As happens with young, developing teams, they are up and down. However, major market media and an impatient fan base wants to blame someone, so the coach is suddenly discussed as having “lost the locker room” and that his job was in jeopardy (a coach not hired by the current GM). Even though in Luke Walton’s case, it wasn’t (and isn’t).

Now that same pattern has come to New York and the Knicks with Jeff Hornacek. The Knicks started 17-14 and had fans prematurely thinking playoffs thanks to a home-heavy schedule. Reality has hit them the past month.

Hornacek tried to brush off questions about his job security in New York, speaking to Stefan Bondy of the New York Post.

Hornacek also believes he has the backing of GM Scott Perry and president Steve Mills, despite being inherited by them as Phil Jackson’s hire.

“We were talking about rebuilding and we got off to a good start because we had a lot of home games,” Hornacek said. “Scott and Steve, everybody’s still on the same page of trying to get our young guys opportunities. We’re still trying to win games. We still want to establish an identity where defensively we’re going to get after it all the time and we’re building toward that. It’s great to have their support…

“I think the expectations come from the players where all of a sudden you hear them talking about, ‘Oh we can make the playoffs.’ We never said that,” Hornacek said. “We said we want to get better and we want to grow. Part of our talk was you can’t worry about the results. You just got to go out there and if you do your best and try to improve the results will come. When you start thinking about win or lose all of a sudden your mentality becomes different. We got to get back to that.”

Is Hornacek the long-term answer in New York? I don’t know. However, finally unchained from the pseudo-triangle disaster Phil Jackson imposed, he has done a solid job this season, putting Kristaps Porzingis in better spots to lead this roster. The Knicks are projected to win around 38 games at this point (according to Cleaning the Glass), and they have about a 14 percent chance of making the playoffs still (according to fivethiryeight.com). Heading into the season, that would have been about anyone’s best-case scenario for this team.

Not that it matters when you’re coach of the Knicks — job security speculation comes with every paycheck. It just isn’t deserved in this case.