NBA Season Preview: Toronto Raptors

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We wrap up PBT’s Atlantic Division previews this week by going north of the border. Next week we head to the Midwest and the Central Division.

Last season: Sure, a 23-43 record isn’t good. But it really wasn’t that bad. Seriously. Sure, the Toronto offense was dreadful and would have been the worst in the league had it not been for the Bobcats setting historic records for futility. It was frustrating for Raptors fans because Toronto has talent — Andrea Bargnani and DeMar DeRozan can score — but it didn’t show up much on that end of the floor (in part because Bargnani missed half the season with injuries).

But here is why there is hope — new coach Dwane Casey got Toronto to play defense. Pretty good defense. They went from the worst defense in the league two years ago to a respectable 12th in the league last season (101.5 points per 100 possessions). And the Raptors played hard, the effort was there every night. They didn’t have much talent but you could see the framework of a solid foundation being built.

Key Departures: Not many. Leandro Barbosa is gone, but they don’t need him anymore. After that the guys going away are people like Rasual Butler. No key players departed this year.

Key Additions: This is why there is hope — Toronto had a good offseason. It’s like they add two lottery picks to go with some nice free agents. After another year in Europe, 2011 No. 5 pick Jonas Valanciunas is coming to Toronto — and Raptor fans are pumped about this one. Last season they lacked a good defensive presence in the paint and Valanciunas is expected to provide that. And a few points would be nice, too. Toronto also has this year’s No. 8 pick, Terrence Ross, plus Quincy Acy coming aboard.

However, the biggest acquisition will be Kyle Lowry, the point guard who played at an All-Star level in Houston last year. Lowry can drive, score, set guys up, do just about everything pretty well. Plus, he’s in a contract year with something to prove. Toronto also added Landry Fields (remember Bryan Collangelo’s attempt to screw up the Knicks with a poison-pill deal — so they couldn’t sign Jeremy Lin — but it backfired and now the Raptors have Fields).  The Raptors also signed John Lucas III.

Three keys to the Raptors season:

1) Just how good is Jonas Valanciunas going to be? Toronto fans are pumped about the young Lithuanian big man — more than one fan in Cleveland screamed “noooo” when they drafted Tristan Thompson in front of Valanciunas. Because Valanciunas has the upside, the potential to be special — he was a defensive force at times in Europe and has dominated age-restricted international tournaments

But I watched him a fair amount during the Olympics and I’m not sold he makes a big impact out of the gate in Toronto. He can play some defense, but he needs to get stronger. His offense was a mess. His coach described his play as the game looking like it was moving too fast for him, and that’s what it looked like. He looked hurried, rushed. He can get over that with time, he can still be very good, but he looked like a project and this season may be a lot of work without a lot of fruit from the garden.

2) Just how much better is the Toronto offense going to be? The Raptors are not going to finish 29th in offensive efficiency this season, not with Kyle Lowry running the show at the point (and Jose Calderon behind him, who played very well last year). With Lowry driving the lane, with DeRozan slashing from the wing and with a healthy Bargnani shooting away from deep the Raptors are going to be better on offense.

The question really is how much better and how can Casey fit all the pieces together? While the Raptors are certainly a deeper squad they are building for the future and that means giving quality minutes to young players — rookies Valanciunas and Ross will both be in the heart of the rotation, Ed Davis is entering his third season, and while DeRozan has been around longer it is just his fourth season and he still plays young at times. Developing chemistry is going to take some time but the Raptors need to find a rotation that both can win and grow a young team.

3) Cut down on the turnovers. While Calderon played well for Toronto last season they had the fifth highest turnover percentage in the league — 14.8 percent of their trips down the court ended in an empty possession, a turnover. Theoretically you can win that way (the Thunder had the highest turnover rate in the league) but you make it a lot harder on yourselves. And while they bring in Kyle Lowry he’s not a guy known for taking care of the ball.

Last season the Raptors were third worst in the league in turnover differential. Their margin for error is not so big that they can keep it that high for another season. They need to take care of the rock.

What one thing should scare Raptors fans? Have you seen the Atlantic division? They play in a division with the Celtics, Knicks, Nets and Sixers — four playoff locks. It’s going to be hard to overcome that group for the next couple years unless the Raptors make some big leaps forward.

How it likely works out: Toronto fans are thinking playoffs. And that’s not out of the question — but everything has to go just right. Valanciunas has to give them a defensive presence they need in the paint from day one. Bargnani needs to play like he did at the start of last season and stay healthy. Lowry needs to play like he did last season. Terrence Ross needs to adjust to the NBA quickly. And so on down the line.

The Raptors likely are in the mix for the eight seed for much of the year, with teams like the Bucks and Cavaliers. They will give Raptors fans hope. But things never go as smoothly as one would hope and most likely the Raptors just miss out on a playoff spot this season and will look at this as a building year.

Prediction: 38-44, finishing like the ninth or 10th seed in the East. The Raptors are building something good but it’s going to take a couple more years to get all the way there.

Andrew Wiggins fires agent shortly after negotiating $148 million max deal

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Is Andrew Wiggins still going to sign a $148 million max contract extension? Probably!

The big question now will be whether in his previous agent, Bill Duffy, will receive a commission for negotiating that contract.

According to a report from ESPN, Wiggins filed paperwork with the NBA to separate his association with Duffy and representing firm BDA Sports.

The move comes as a shock to many in the NBA sphere, as it certainly is an oddity to release one’s agent directly after negotiating such a large new contract offer.

Meanwhile, it appears that Duffy has already contacted the players association to discuss his rights in a potential tampering case.

How juicy.

Via ESPN:

Duffy, the chairman of BDA Sports and one of the league’s most prominent player agents, told ESPN on Tuesday that he had recently been made aware of rival agencies and potential start-up enterprises who were recruiting Wiggins with inducements that included no commission fees on contracts.

“We are disappointed that Andrew made this decision, especially after a three-year partnership where we worked closely with Andrew and his entire family,” Duffy told ESPN. “Unfortunately, tampering is a common problem in our industry, and that’s part of the reason why I’ve already been in contact with the NBPA to discuss my rights in this matter. Obviously, whenever Andrew signs the max extension that we negotiated with Minnesota, we will work with the NBPA to make sure that our interests are protected.”

Wiggins and the team still have yet to formally agree to the extension, so it’s not really clear what will happen for any of the parties involved.

But if the recent Paul George tampering case and the Kyrie Irving/Isaiah Thomas trade isn’t enough to make you think the NBA offseason is completely wild, this one ought to do.

How NBA players reacted to the Kyrie Irving and Isaiah Thomas trade

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The NBA is easily the best professional sports league in the United States. Was that ever up for debate?

After this offseason, it certainly is not. That also appears to be the opinion of several NBA players after Tuesday’s trade between the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers saw Kyrie Irving head east and Isaiah Thomas pair up with LeBron James.

It is crazy to think that the two best teams in the Eastern Conference decided to swap star point guards with each other, and that is just the latest in a series of wild events here in the summer of 2017.

We’ve had players sign big new contracts with new teams, tampering charges being filed, and players dunking on local streetballers from speedboats.

What more could you ask for?

Here’s how the NBA responded to the news of the trade between the Celtics and the Cavaliers on social media.

NBA trade market proves stranger than fiction yet again as Thomas, Irving swap teams

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The two best teams in the Eastern Conference have swapped point guards. With Isaiah Thomas now member of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Kyrie Irving the starting point guard for the Boston Celtics, the fight for supremacy in the East now much more interesting and more complicated, not only for next season but in the years to come.

Here’s how the trade looks on paper: The Cavaliers received Thomas, Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, and Brooklyn’s 2018 first round draft pick. The Celtics received Irving.

At first glance, it appears that the Cavaliers came out on top. Yes, there is a question about whether Thomas’ hip will have healed in time next season, but the ability to grab not only Crowder but future first round pick compensation is huge.

If Thomas returns to his Top 5 MVP voting form, you have a deadly combination with the roster already in place for the Cavaliers. Set aside LeBron James for a minute — the ability of the team to mix Thomas with J.R. Smith, Kevin Love, and Tristan Thompson puts them in a prime position to continue do what they have done for years: dominate.

Meanwhile, adding Crowder to the wing not only gives the Cavaliers a bump in experience when it comes to their depth, but perhaps flexibility this season as well. Rumors have swirled around the team making a move and readjusting their front court, specifically around Love, and Crowder could be the key to that in the future.

From a long-term perspective, that depth gives Cleveland both wing experience and star power to cushion the blow if Lebron does decide to leave in the summer of 2018. The first round pick comes in heavy here, as it would help the Cavaliers rebuild if James is no longer in Ohio.

Did the Celtics give up too much? Perhaps. But not all has tipped in the scales for Cleveland.

Boston was already going to be less reliant on Thomas next season when it came to the offense. Signing Utah Jazz free agent Gordon Hayward was always going to make sure of that. Irving represents a superstar talent that many in the NBA regard as Thomas’ equal, if not his superior. There is no doubt a bit of heightism attached to that, but we will leave that as it is. Neither are particularly reliable on defense, so I have a hard time taking size into account.

There has been some rumors of trepidation on the part of the Celtics organization to pay Thomas’ next big contract due next summer. That seems like it could have played a role here, especially as Irving is signed through 2019, with a player option in the year after that.

Reports have been that Cleveland was previously insistent on getting rookie Jayson Tatum in this deal as well, which the Celtics smartly managed to avoid. With both Avery Bradley and Crowder no longer in Boston, Tatum will now be the backup plan along side Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown.

That is perhaps the biggest sticking point here. Yes, Bradley was also due a big contract next year, so shipping him off to Detroit did make some sense, even if the return was underwhelming. However, that trade was made at a time in which it was clear that Boston was going to keep Crowder. The Celtics didn’t get back a defender in this trade, so they will be relying on their young players to try to bolster that wing defense in his absence. That will proved to be tricky.

Still, this means the Celtics are both younger than they were a year ago while still having some of their star players signed to long-term deals. That could give them the edge over the Cavaliers in the coming seasons, even if LeBron decides to stay in Cleveland. At some point, Danny Ainge needed to bet on his developing players, and he’s all in now.

In a short lens it appears the Cavaliers have been able to move from place of no leverage with Irving’s public trade request to a position of strength. Grabbing wing depth and in All-NBA caliber player is great news, especially if you are taking him from one of your main conference rivals.

But Boston will certainly be a good team for years to come, especially now as they don’t have to consider the ramifications of giving Thomas a big new contract. Adding Hayward to the mix was crucial, but the development of their young players — Smart, Brown, and Tatum — will be a key storyline next season, especially when we reach the playoffs.

The Celtics aren’t complete losers here. They did gain a great player in Irving, and they do have some flexibility. Both Horford and Irving can opt out of their contracts at the end of 2019. If the core is not working as planned, the Celtics will be free to go in a different direction with something like $51.6 million coming off their cap. They still have the Lakers pick for 2018, so giving up the Nets pick to Cleveland doesn’t damage the team in context quite as much.

Above all else, it seems odd that a trade of this magnitude happened between the two best teams in East. This NBA offseason has been a weird one, and if this exact trade was proposed on your Twitter timeline you might have scoffed it off as unrealistic. Yet here we are, with Irving as a Boston Celtic and Thomas potentially set to get a big payday either from the Cavaliers or from another team in a year’s time.

Report: Cavaliers trade Kyrie Irving to Celtics for Thomas, Crowder, Brooklyn pick

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Opening night Oct. 17, when the Boston Celtics visit the Cleveland Cavaliers, just got a more interesting.

The Cleveland Cavaliers have found a taker for Kyrie Irving — the Boston Celtics. The deal is done, according to Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

Amazingly, the Cavaliers and Celtics just traded the No. 1 and No. 60 (dead last) picks in the 2011 NBA draft.

The sides had discussed this trade in the past but Cleveland demanded Jayson Tatum in the deal, and that was the end of it. Things moved fast now because the Cavaliers came off that demand.

This is an emotional blow to a lot of Boston fans — they embraced the underdog, undersized Thomas as one of their own. They got back a younger player on a better contract who will age better, but Thomas is still a fan favorite. With good reason. He will be loved in Cleveland. But Celtics fans will come around.

Cleveland did as well as they could have realistically hoped for in an Irving trade — which is why this is a win for them. They get an All-NBA point guard in Isaiah Thomas with numbers similar last season to Irving to put next to LeBron James, and they add a quality wing defender in Jae Crowder who can help them against Boston and Golden State (plus Crowder is on a great contract). Cleveland remains the team to beat in the East and can make another run at the Warriors and a ring, then if LeBron leaves after the season as a free agent the Cavaliers can decide whether to tear it down and rebuild or bring Thomas back (on less than max deal).

Here’s another reason Dan Gilbert wins.

Boston may like this deal, but Cleveland remains the team to beat in the East today — and they will have a very high pick in the upcoming draft (which is deep with quality bigs).

Boston’s starting five is very good but more focused on the future — Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Marcus Morris, and Al Horford, with Marcus Smart and Jayson Tatum coming off the bench. And they still have the Lakers’ first round pick next year (protected).  That is not enough to beat a healthy Cavaliers team next season, but if LeBron leaves in 2018 Boston is the team poised to take charge in the East. Danny Ainge and the Celtics have been playing the long game and this fits with that.

Boston can argue they won the trade because they got the best player in Irving — and he is going to look even better in Brad Steven’s system. After next season this can work for Boston. For next season, Boston got a player in Irving who put up marginally better numbers than Thomas, is a marginally better defender, and they gave up a lot of assets to do it. Short term this is a win for Cleveland, and maybe long term depending on the Brooklyn pick. But Boston has to like where they are sitting — especially if they can re-sign Irving in 2019.