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.

Hornets sign undrafted Virginia center Mike Tobey

CHICAGO, IL - MARCH 27:  Mike Tobey #10 of the Virginia Cavaliers celebrates in the second half against the Syracuse Orange during the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament Midwest Regional Final at United Center on March 27, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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The Hornets are plenty deep at center with Cody Zeller, Roy Hibbert, Spencer Hawes and Frank Kaminsky.

Just in case…

Hornets release:

Charlotte Hornets General Manager Rich Cho announced today that the team has signed center Mike Tobey.

Tobey went undrafted after four seasons at Virginia then played well for the Hornets’ summer-league team. He’s a good offensive rebounder, and he has some touch with the ball. But his lack of length and athleticism really limit him.

There’s an outside chance Tobey competes with Aaron Harrison, whose salary is unguaranteed, for Charlotte’s final regular-season roster spot. Tobey’s standing and the Hornets’ center depth will work against him.

Most likely, this is just a way for Charlotte to stock its new D-League affiliate, the Greensboro Swarm. The Hornets can waive Tobey after training camp and assign his D-League rights to the Swarm. A partial guarantee on his NBA contract would probably entice him to join the D-League rather than play overseas.

Ex-Wizard Glen Rice Jr. charged with felony robbery, aggravated battery and possession of marijuana

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 02: Glen Rice Jr. #14 of the Washington Wizards looks to pass while being guarded by Solomon Jones #22 and E'Twaun Moore #55 of the Orlando Magic during the second half at Verizon Center on December 2, 2013 in Washington, DC. 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 Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Glen Rice Jr. — the No. 35 pick in the 2013 NBA draft — continues his fall.

He spent a couple years with the Wizards, got waived and then was shot and arrested in a single incident.

Now, he faces more charges.

TMZ:

the 25-year-old was arrested for robbery Monday morning in Georgia … less than a year after he was shot in a bizarre gunfight at T.I.’s restaurant.

Here’s what we know … Rice was booked at 6:37 AM this morning for felony robbery, aggravated battery and possession of marijuana. He has since been released from custody.

Tyler Johnson on $50 million contract: ‘I threw up a couple times when I heard the number’

TORONTO, ON - MAY 15:  Tyler Johnson #8 of the Miami Heat looks on in the second half of Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Toronto Raptors during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 15, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  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 Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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You thought it was crazy two teams — the Nets with an offer sheet and the Heat matching it — valued Tyler Johnson at $50 million over the next four years?

Check out his reaction.

Manny Navarro of the Miami Herald:

That’s a lot of money for anyone, especially someone who went undrafted just two years ago. But Johnson worked his way up from the D-League and impressed with his athleticism, feel for the game and outside shot.

There’s a school of thought that sometimes players are better off as restricted, rather than unrestricted, free agents. That was probably true for Johnson, whose status led to Brooklyn going over the top on an offer. Add a skyrocketing salary cap, Johnson was in the right place at the right time.

Ex-Cavalier Sasha Kaun retires

CLEVELAND, OHIO - APRIL 13: Sasha Kaun #14 of the Cleveland Cavaliers works against Joel Anthony #50 of the Detroit Pistons at Quicken Loans Arena on April 13, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Pistons defeated Cleveland 112-110 in overtime.  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 David Maxwell/Getty Images)
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Accompanying their signing of Chris Andersen, the Cavaliers paid Philadelphia to take Sasha Kaun. Cleveland, facing a steep luxury tax, didn’t want to pay both big men. It was cheaper to send the 76ers cash and have them waive Kaun rather than the Cavs doing it themselves.

But perhaps the Cavaliers could’ve just waited out Kaun.

Gary Bedore of the Lawrence Journal-World:

Sasha Kaun, one of only two Kansas University basketball players, along with Hall of Famer Clyde Lovellette, to win an NCAA title (2008), NBA title (2016) and medal in the Olympic Games (2012 bronze), has decided to retire from pro ball at the age of 31.

“I was very blessed and fortunate to play as long as I have. I had a great experience for the (Russian) national team and professionally. Overall, it’s been phenomenal,” Kaun said Saturday in a phone conversation

Kaun said he started thinking seriously about retirement “toward the end of the season. I kind of feel my ankle has been bothering me awhile. With the amount of pain I was going through, I just wanted to be done. It’s something I’ve had all my career,” he added of right ankle problems. “It was definitely getting worse and worse, year by year. Especially coming here (one year in NBA after seven seasons in Moscow) … the intensity of the game I just kind of realized I don’t think I can go and do it any more.

“I said, ‘You know what? I’m not going to be happy playing. I’m not going to be happy not playing. I think it’s a good time to call it quits.’’’

Kaun joined the NBA at age 30 last year — eight years after being the No. 56 pick in the 2008 draft. He played just 95 minutes in 25 games for Cleveland in his rookie and only season.

Perhaps Kaun wouldn’t have retired if he had a roster spot on the defending NBA champions. At minimum, being a free agent made it an easier call.

Kaun was best known professionally for playing for David Blatt both with the Russian national team and the Cavs and not being Kendrick Perkins.