Raptors Bargnani reacts to a missed basket against the Nets during their NBA basketball game in Toronto

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.

Every 8-24 will be Kobe Bryant Day

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 13:  Kobe Bryant #24 of the Los Angeles Lakers waves to the crowd as he is taken out of the game after scoring 60 points against the Utah Jazz at Staples Center on April 13, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
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Los Angeles announced today, August 24, 2016 would be Kobe Bryant Day – presumably because he wore Nos. 8 and 24 with the Lakers, not because 8-24 feels like a common shooting night for him.

But that press release understated the honor.

Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

Kobe had a great career, and he’s beloved in Los Angeles. Honoring him with a day is a nice gesture.

But as the luster of his retirement tour dims, this will seem overreaching if it’s not just forgotten. The latter is far more likely, but when it’s remembered, Kobe Bryant Day will mostly lead to questions: Why not an annual Magic Johnson Day? Why not an annual Sandy Koufax Day? Why not an annual…

Report: Raptors signing E.J. Singler

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 29:  E.J. Singler #25 of the Oregon Ducks drives in the second half against Chane Behanan #21 of the Louisville Cardinals during the Midwest Region Semifinal round of the 2013 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium on March 29, 2013 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Ready for another Singler in the NBA?

Thunder forward Kyle Singler‘s brother, E.J. Singler, is headed to the Raptors.

Blake Murphy of Raptors Republic:

Toronto as 14 players – one shy of the regular-season roster limit – with guaranteed salaries. Singler will join Fred VanVleet, Jarrod Uthoff, Yanick Moreira and Drew Crawford in a crowded race for the 15th spot.

VanVleet has a leg up, because third-string point guard Delon Wright will miss the start of the season. I also like Uthoff more as a long-term prospect in a vacuum than the other players.

Singler’s advantage? His experience. He’s older than his four competitors, including VanVleet and and Uthoff, who went undrafted out of Wichita State and Iowa this year.

Singler went undrafted out of Oregon in 2013. He has since played overseas and in the D-League, including with the Raptors’ affiliate last season. The 6-foot-6 forward has a nice shooting stroke, but his subpar athleticism limits him all around.

I expect Singler to get a partial guarantee designed to entice to stay in the D-League, where the Raptors 905 still hold his rights, rather than go overseas if he doesn’t make Toronto’s regular-season roster. But first, he’ll have a chance to earn an NBA roster spot in what appears to be a fairly open race.

Brandon Armstrong impersonates Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson (video)

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It’s been a while since we featured a Brandon Armstrong video, but they’re always fun – this ode to Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson no exception.

Jamal Crawford reportedly faced death threats over losses while gambling with Michael Jordan

1 Feb 2001:  Jamal Crawford #1 of the Chicago Bulls watches the action during the game against the Seattle SuperSonics at Key Arena in Seattle, Washington. The Sonics defeated the Bulls 97-91.  NOTE TO USER: It is expressly understood that the only rights Allsport are offering to license in this Photograph are one-time, non-exclusive editorial rights. No advertising or commercial uses of any kind may be made of Allsport photos. User acknowledges that it is aware that Allsport is an editorial sports agency and that NO RELEASES OF ANY TYPE ARE OBTAINED from the subjects contained in the photographs.Mandatory Credit: Otto Greule Jr.  /Allsport
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Michael Jordan helped propel Jamal Crawford‘s NBA career – one that has already lasted 16 seasons and resulted in more than $120 million in earnings and three Sixth Man of the Year awards.

Jordan also fostered an environment where Crawford could’ve derailed it.

Crawford was drafted for the Bulls in 2000, when Jordan was contemplating a comeback he’d eventually make with the Wizards. In preparation, Jordan frequently invited Crawford to play pickup basketball with him.

Mike Wise of The Undefeated:

In between Crawford’s first and second year in the league, after the pickup games at Hoops the Gym, many of Jordan’s friends and associates would go next door to his contemporary American restaurant, One Sixtyblue. After hours, games of chance were set up – Vegas-style card tables, a separate corner for shooting dice.

Two participants, on condition of anonymity, recounted one particular night when Jordan and Antoine Walker were among the card players and Crawford and Ray Allen were among the players shooting dice.

Over what is believed to be a two-day span, he said, he lost in the neighborhood of $100,000. A person with intimate knowledge of the game claims Crawford lost several hundred thousand and Allen lost even more. And that, days after the dice game, a call was placed to Goodwin, Crawford’s agent, to inform him that Crawford had not yet squared his debt with one professional gambler.

“OK,” Goodwin said, according to the person with intimate knowledge of the game. “What does he owe? Jamal is good for it.”

“No, you don’t understand,” the go-between said. “If he doesn’t pay now, these guys will kill Jamal.”

“Kill Jamal?!! He’s an NBA player. He gets paid as soon as the season starts. Give me the dude’s number.”

The person with knowledge of the game said Goodwin called the man Crawford owed money, set up a payment plan and resolved the issue without incident.

Crawford swore he didn’t lose that kind of money, and said he never heard the story about his life being threatened. But he doesn’t deny he got in way over his head, which led to a particularly humiliating moment.

The life of an NBA player remains more wild than we’ll ever know.