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

NBA Season Preview: Toronto Raptors


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.

LeBron says he knows teams are adding players because “they want to beat me”

ATLANTA, GA - OCTOBER 10:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers enjoys a laugh during a timeout against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena on October 10, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia.  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 Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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LeBron James is the best player on the planet when he dials it up, and he reminded every one of that leading his Cavaliers to the NBA title last season.

On the other side of the scale, after losing the title, the Golden State Warriors reloaded by adding Kevin Durant to a roster that already won 73 games and went to Game 7 of the NBA Finals last season. Along those same lines, the Spurs added Pau Gasol to replace Tim Duncan, and the Celtics picked up Al Horford to bolster a strong young team.

Joe Varden of The Cleveland Plain Dealer asked LeBron what he thought of all these teams stacking up.

“I know teams switch and pick up new coaches or new players, and their whole goal is kind of they want to beat me,” James told cleveland.com, in a candid discussion about the upcoming year and his place in the sport at age 31, in this his 14th season. “It’s never just about me, but I always hear them saying, ‘We gotta beat LeBron.’ It’s not just me on the court, but I understand that teams get together in this conference and across the league to try to beat me.”

If anyone should be used to having a target on his back, it’s LeBron.

And he’s not wrong.

The Warriors adding Durant was all styming how Cleveland and everyone else can defend the Warriors — particularly the small-ball “death lineup.” Oklahoma City and Cleveland had success putting their best defensive forward (Durant of OKC and LeBron for Clevealnd) on Draymond Green and switiching his pick-and-roll with Curry, then hoping Harrison Barnes didn’t make their big pay in a mismatch. Barnes couldn’t, it worked.

Now take out Barnes and put in Durant. Good luck defending that lineup now.

LeBron is right, the Warriors did target him. He’s the champ. He and the Cavaliers are the bar to clear. Can he and Cleveland rise up o task is the real question.

NBA TV host Kristen Ledlow says she was robbed at gunpoint

NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 14:  TV Personality Kristen Ledlow participates in the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game 2014 at New Orleans Arena on February 14, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images)
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ATLANTA (AP) — NBA TV personality Kristen Ledlow says she was robbed at gunpoint at her home.

The host of “NBA Inside Stuff” said on Twitter and Instagram Sunday that she was held up the day before “by three men who knew who I was, where I lived and were waiting for me when I got home.”

She says in addition to stealing her car, purse and phone, the thieves took her “sense of security.” She says she’ll be taking a break from social media as a result of the incident because she says she “will not become a slave to fear.”

Ledlow didn’t say where the incident took place. NBA TV is based in Atlanta.

Report: Pistons claim Beno Udrih off Miami’s waivers

MIAMI, FL - SEPTEMBER 26: A portrait of Beno Udrih #9 of the Miami Heat on September 26, 2016 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
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Miami felt set at point guard with Goran Dragic starting and the up-and-coming Tyler Johnson as his backup. They decided veteran Beno Udrih wasn’t part of the future and waived him.

Detroit, looking for some help at the one until Reggie Jackson returns, saw a dependable veteran guard on the market. So they snapped him up, reports Shams Charnaria of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

At age 34 we are seeing Udrih’s game start to slip. Still, he has valuable NBA skills as a point guard: he doesn’t turn the ball over, can run an offense, and if you ignore him coming off a pick he will bury the shot.

Jackson is expected to be out at least another six weeks after getting PRP therapy to deal with knee tendonitis (he hopes to be back sooner). That leaves Ish Smith as the starting point guard in the short term; Udrih will help provide solid depth at the position.

The Pistons need to keep their heads above water until Jackson can return.

NBA’s new Collective Bargaining Agreement could run to 2024

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The first 12 years of the NBA’s salary-cap era went without a lockout. The league again avoided a lockout for a dozen straight years between 1999 to 2011.

Now, with a new Collective Bargaining Agreement coming soon, the NBA is setting itself up for another 12 years of labor peace.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

The NBA and National Basketball Players Association are working on a seven-year extension to the Collective Bargaining Agreement, with a mutual opt-out in six years, league sources told The Vertical.

The seven-year deal could potentially deliver the NBA labor peace through the 2023-24 season, unless the opt-outs are exercised in 2022, league sources told The Vertical.

The new CBA will begin with the 2017-18 season.

Expect an opt out after six years. By then, there’s usually something to renegotiate.

Hope for another quick resolution, like we’re getting now.

And if neither the owners nor players opt out, be pleasantly surprised at an unprecedented 13th straight year without a lockout in this era.