ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: Toronto Raptors

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Last season: Raptors’ fans went into the season thinking the playoffs were a possibility, but it didn’t take long for that ship to run aground on the rocks of reality. The team defense struggled, Andrea Bargnani was Andrea Bargnani, Jonas Valanciunas looked like rookie, Kyle Lowry battled injuries, nothing went as planned and everything fell apart.

But near the trade deadline the Raptors made a bold move, trading for Rudy Gay (from Memphis). It breathed life into the team, who went on to have 34 wins and finish ninth in the East. It was a move that provided hope for the fans, even if it couldn’t save GM Bryan Colangelo’s job.

Signature highlight from last season: With an athletic team there were a few to choose from but we’ll take DeMar DeRozan with the game winner vs. Orlando.

Key player changes: The biggest offseason move wasn’t a player, it was getting GM Masai Ujiri out of Denver to take over the organization. Under  Colangelo the Raptors were an organization  without a rudder; with Ujiri they will find a direction. It may take a couple years to build it, but he has a plan. Heck, he already traded Bargnani to the Knicks for actual players, when Raptors fans would have traded him for a rack of shootaround basketballs.

Toronto improved their bench this summer. Gone are Bargnani and Linas Kleiza. In are Tyler Hansbrough, D.J. Augustin, Steve Novak and Austin Daye. Not mindblowing, but better.

Keys to the Raptors’ season:

1) Can they win with Rudy Gay and will he stay? The Raptors took a big risk and they took on a big salary when they traded for Gay, who will make $17.9 million this season. Next summer he can opt out and be a free agent (or he can stay for a final year at $19.3 million). Good chance he opts out (to get the security of a longer deal) so the two questions become: Can the Raptors win and keep Gay happy so he stays? Do they want to keep him?

Make no mistake, Gay is a quality player, a borderline All-Star averaging 19.5 points a game last season with the Raptors. But he is not efficient. He shot 42.5 percent for them and 33.6 percent from three, with a PER of 17.6. That’s good but speaks to a second or third option on a contender — maybe the corrective eye surgery he had this summer will change this, but that’s a roll of the dice. Plus, a lot of Gay’s skillset overlaps with DeMar DeRozan’s. So again, do you want to keep him or the less expensive DeRozan (especially if DeRozan has a breakout year)?

It’s a discussion the Raptors need to have thinking about the long-term. However, in the short-term if Toronto is going to make the playoffs this season, a lot of that falls to Gay.  He is going to have to lead this team by being more efficient (same with DeRozan and Lowry).

2) How big a step forward will Jonas Valanciunas take? The first time I saw Valanciunas at Summer League I did a double take — he had clearly hit the gym and his upper body had filled out considerably. He then used that newfound strength to overpower lesser players on the block. Valanciunas did the same thing at EuroBasket for Lithuania. He averaged 8.9 points and 6 rebounds a game with 1.3 blocked shots a game. Look for all those numbers to go up as he takes a step forward this season — and that step is another key to Toronto making the postseason.

3) Can Dwane Casey fix the defense? Coach Dwane Casey is on the hot seat: New GM, expensive star players. and playoffs expectations is a bad combo for the coach.  Plus Casey is in the last year of his contract. Casey is supposed to be a defensive guy, and two seasons ago the Raptors played solid defense for him. But last season they took a big step back and were 22nd in the NBA in points allowed per possession. That has to change, the Raptors need to be top 12 to make the playoffs. With Gay and Lowry the Raptors will find points, but they need to stop other teams from scoring. Look for Valanciunas to be the shot blocking force at the rim, but will that be enough?

Why you should watch the Raptors: Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan are explosive. Once or twice a game — more against a team that wants to get out and run with them. Toronto has athletes. How well they play together is up for discussion, but this team is going to put up some highlights every night.

Prediction: 39-43. Like the end of last season this team is going to float around close to a playoff spot in the East this season — and if they defend, if Gay is a little more efficient, if Lowry stays healthy they can make it in. But can they really beat out teams like Cleveland and Detroit for a playoff spot. I’m not sold. Possible, but it really is going to be about the defense.

Watch Kawhi Leonard chop boards ‘karate styyyle’ (video)

AP Photo/Eric Gay
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Kawhi Leonard, enabled by the Spurs’ no-nonsense culture, is probably the NBA’s most boring superstar.

He’s widely recognized as the league’s best defender, and he has worked himself into an elite offensive threat. He has already won a Finals MVP, and regular-season MVP could eventually be in the cards.

But Leonard is notoriously reserved. For someone who has been on this stage for so long, we know little about him.

Except we now know he apparently likes karate.

Leonard:

Gonna chop y’all up. Look at all of us. Karate styyyle.

If “karate styyyle” doesn’t become Leonard’s catchphrase, I don’t even know what we’re doing.

Leonard will finally have the chance to chop up an NBA opponent tonight, when he makes his return from injury.

Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

Kevin Durant brings fan to tears with autographed shoes (video)

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Kevin Durant has become a villain to many.

Clearly not to this Warriors fan, though.

Carmelo Anthony leaves without speaking to media, will probably get fined

Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
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Lately, Carmelo Anthony has parsed whether the Thunder are frustrated or angry and said he’s going through the roughest stretch of his career.

It didn’t get any better last night.

Anthony scored 11 points on 12 shots with three turnovers, and Oklahoma City got outscored by 21 points with him on the floor in a home loss to the Hornets. The Thunder have now lost two of three, falling to the lowly Nets and Hornets and needing overtime to beat the freefalling Grizzlies.

Royce Young of ESPN:

Anthony today:

I’m sorry. My bad. I had a FaceTime session with my son, so I skipped out on you guys yesterday. I apologize. It’s true, though. That’s true. It’s true. He had a school night.

The NBA’s media-access rules state: “All players must be available to the media for a minimum of five to 10 minutes during the postgame media access period.” It’s been a while since someone got punished for violating the policy, but Kevin Garnett was fined $25,000 for not speaking to the media after Game 7 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals.

I’m sympathetic to Anthony wanting to speak to his son, who’s still in New York. But the league tends not to take these personal concerns into consideration, which is probably for the best. There’s a rule. Anthony violated it. Assessing which personal calls should supersede the rule is a can of worms not worth opening. Besides, Anthony probably could have returned to the locker room for an interview after concluding the call.

Anthony earns a lot of money. If he wanted to risk a $25,000 fine to speak with his son, I have absolutely no problem with that. But that’s probably the choice he made.

In my experience, Anthony has been forthright with the media. He spent years as the face of the Knicks, dutifully answering for problems created by James Dolan and Phil Jackson. Because he was available nearly daily while his superiors avoided interviews, Anthony was the grilled by the New York media.

I bet he expected a reprieve in Oklahoma City. Instead, the spotlight has shined on him as a problem with the underwhelming Thunder.

It’s understandable he’d rather talk to his son than reporters. But it’s also understandable the NBA wants to promote its business through the media, and the league has power to enforce its rules.

Grizzlies fan absolutely owns kids halftime scrimmage (video)

AP Photo/Brandon Dill
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The Grizzlies lost for the 15th time in their last 16 games, a 25-point drubbing at home against the Heat, last night.

But it wasn’t all doom and gloom in Memphis.

This young fan – while playing in the halftime scrimmage – stopped his dribble, stepped on the ball, whipped off his youth jersey to reveal a Marc Gasol jersey, flexed, re-started his dribbled then drove for a basket.

Matt Ellentuck of SB Nation:

The Grizzlies don’t deserve this hero.