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.

Nick Young wears Gilbert Arenas’ old shoes during game (PHOTO)

Nick Young, Devin Harris
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In a disastrous Lakers season, one thing can be counted on (besides Byron Scott saying absurd things about Kobe Bryant): Nick Young will always be able to lighten the mood. He brought some levity to the Lakers’ blowout loss to the Warriors on Tuesday night with a blast from the past: a pair of gold shoes formerly worn by his ex-Wizards teammate Gilbert Arenas.

These shoes, like Swaggy, and like Gilbert before the injuries and the guns, are awesome and should be celebrated.

Blake Griffin hits acrobatic three-pointer to beat the shot clock (VIDEO)

Blake Griffin
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During the third quarter of the Clippers’ Tuesday night win over the Nuggets, Blake Griffin had some SportsCenter-worthy acrobatics that had nothing to do with dunking. He caught a ball in the air behind the three-point line as the shot clock expired and sank this buzzer-beater:

It was just his third made three of the season.

Report: Hornets sign head coach Steve Clifford to three-year extension

Steve Clifford
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With the Hornets fighting for one of the last playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, head coach Steve Clifford’s future with the team has been a mystery hanging over their heads. Clifford, in his third year with the team, was set to become a free agent after this season. Not anymore. Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer reports that the Hornets have signed Clifford to a contract extension that will keep him in town through the 2018-19 season:

The Charlotte Hornets and coach Steve Clifford have come to an agreement on a multi-year extension, the Observer has learned.

The deal includes a three-year guarantee that would keep Clifford in his current role through the 2018-19 season.

In Clifford’s first year with the Hornets (then the Bobcats) in 2013-14, they made the playoffs for just the second time in franchise history. This season, they’re off to an 8-6 start despite losing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to a season-ending shoulder injury during the preseason.
With several teams potentially having openings this summer, it was smart of the Hornets to keep Clifford off the market.

Griffin, Jordan each score 18, Clippers beat Nuggets 111-94

Blake Griffin
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DENVER (AP) Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan each scored 18 points and the Los Angeles Clippers beat the Denver Nuggets 111-94 on Tuesday night to snap a three-game losing streak.

Jordan finished with 11 rebounds and four blocks, while Griffin had 10 rebounds. Chris Paul had 15 points and 10 assists to give the Clippers (7-7) three players with double-doubles.

The Clippers, who hadn’t been under .500 this far into a season under Doc Rivers, made eight 3-pointers after coming into the game at 31.3 percent.

The Clippers hit their first four shots from deep, missed their next seven but found the stroke again when Jamal Crawford hit a halfcourt shot to give them an 83-72 lead at the end of the third.

Danilo Gallinari led Denver with 20 points and had a career-high 18 rebounds.

Crawford scored the Clippers’ first seven points of the fourth quarter to push the lead to 90-76. He finished with 15 points.

Denver started fouling Jordan, and the center was just 7 of 16 from the line in the fourth, but Denver couldn’t hit enough shots to close the gap.

His dunk on a lob from Paul gave the Clippers a 110-93 lead.

Griffin was struggling from the field until he hit a 3-pointer to beat the shot clock midway through the third. He hit two more shots and fed Jordan for a dunk to give the Clippers a 73-62 lead.

Rookie Nikola Jokic had 16 points and Gary Harris scored 14 for the Nuggets, who have lost four straight and fell to 3-5 at home.


Clippers: J.J. Redick had 16 points. … Griffin reached double digits in rebounds for the first time in seven games. He averaged 6.5 boards in his previous six games. … The Clippers were outrebounded for the 12th time in 14 games. They are 5-7 when that happens.

Nuggets: All of Gallinari’s rebounds came on the defensive end. … F Kenneth Faried missed his second straight game with a sprained left ankle. With C Joffrey Lauvergne (low back strain) also out, the Nuggets were down to 11 players. … Mike Miller made a rare first-half appearance and gave the Nuggets a jolt with two 3-pointers in seven minutes off the bench. He finished with nine points.


Clippers: Host Utah on Wednesday night.

Nuggets: Host San Antonio on Friday night.