Raptors Gay prepares to throw the ball into play from the end court in the first half of their NBA game against the Celtics in Toronto

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.

Reports: Raptors looking hard for power forward upgrade at trade deadline

Al Horford Thaddeus Young
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There are precious few windows in the NBA when everything comes together for a franchise and it can make a deep playoff run (well, unless you’re the Spurs). When those opportunities arise, teams have to grab them. Carpe Diem.

The Toronto Raptors are the clear second-best team in the Eastern Conference, and the top seed Cavaliers do not look invincible. But the Raptors have a glaring hole in their lineup at the power forward spot. The Raptors start veteran Luis Scola, but they are 10 points per 100 possessions better when he is off the court than on it — not one Raptors lineup with Scola and center Jonas Valanciunas has a positive plus-minus this season. They have Patrick Patterson off the bench, but he has a limited offensive game that would cause matchup issues in the postseason.

The Raptors want to seize their moment — expect them to be active at the trade deadline trying to upgrade at the four.

Ryan Wolstat of the Toronto Sun said that in a recent ProBasketballTalk podcast. He said their ideal player would be Al Horford of the Atlanta Hawks. However, if the Hawks decide to keep him or the price is too high, the Raptors are looking at other options as well, something Brian Windhorst discussed in a recent radio conversation in Toronto, as transcribed by The Brooklyn Game.

“I think they’re gonna go for it. I think from what I understand, from what I’m hearing, they’re pretty aggressive in the trade market. They’re looking for power forwards. I’ve heard them attached to Thaddeus Young. I’ve heard them attached to (Nuggets forward) Kenneth Faried. I’ve heard them attached to (Suns forward) Markieff Morris. They have extra draft picks. I wouldn’t trade that New York Knicks pick unless it was for a blockbuster acquisition, because you can’t protect it, you can’t protect another team’s pick. I would do it if I could put, like, a top-five protection on it. But you can’t do that. You can’t say, allright, we’ll give you two of our picks if it falls in the top five. But they have assets to do it. They have some young players.”.

The Nuggets have tested the market for Faried, and he is available, his energy/glue-guy game would pair well with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Although, if I were Rockets GM Masai Ujiri and I was talking to Denver, the name Danilo Gallinari would come up a lot, more often than Faried. His shooting and pick-and-pop skills would fit with the Raptors guards well.

Young would be a good fit and an upgrade. Morris could be an improvement on the court, and he’s on a reasonable contract, but there are concerns about time he could miss (suspension and maybe jail) for a pending felony assault case with his brother Marcus.  The Raptors also need to ask themselves if they have the right internal structure and locker room leadership to provide the support/guidance teams need if they bring Morris on — something incidents Wednesday night emphasized. But Morris is better than anyone on the Raptors’ roster.

The Raptors have multiple first-round picks coming up they can move, the New York park would have to be included in a Horford deal but not necessarily the others. There are also young players that the team is high on, such as Lucas Nogueira, that could be moved in the right deal.

Raptors fans were angry last season at the deadline when Ujiri didn’t pull the trigger on any deals, but that seemed the right move at the time. The Raptors were a few steps away from the top rung of the East, and the reported deals would not have changed that picture.

This season feels different. Expect a bold move out of Toronto during or after All-Star weekend. Carpe Diem.

Jared Sullinger tries to invade Clippers huddle (video)

BOSTON, MA - JANUARY 22:  Jared Sullinger #7 of the Boston Celtics reacts during the fourth quarter against the Chicago Bulls at TD Garden on January 22, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts. The Celtics defeat the Bulls 110-101. 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 Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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Nice box out, Cole Aldrich.

Lamar Odom makes appearance at Kanye West fashion show

Workers set up the area where Kanye West will show his Yeezy collection at Madison Square Garden during Fashion Week, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, in New York. West will also perform songs from his latest album, "The Life of Pablo," out on Friday. (AP Photo/Leanne Italie)
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NEW YORK (AP) — Lamar Odom made his public return at brother-in-law Kanye West’s New York Fashion Week show on Thursday.

Odom’s appearance marked the first time he’d attended a public event since he was hospitalized in critical condition in Las Vegas in October 2015 after he was found unconscious at a Nevada brothel with cocaine in his system. Odom, who is estranged from Khloe Kardashian, had been moved from a Los Angeles hospital to a private facility in January.

As West walked Odom to his seat with the Kardashian and Jenner families, the crowd at Madison Square Garden for West’s Yeezy runway show cheered and shouted Odom’s name.

J.B. Bickerstaff calls Rockets ‘broken team,’ ‘fragmented bunch’

Houston Rockets interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff rubs his head in the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Washington Wizards, Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016, in Houston. The Wizards won 123-122. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
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Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff has been unafraid to sharply assess his team.

But after last night’s loss to the Trail Blazers – Houston’s third straight defeat and sixth in eight games – Bickerstaff kicked up the rhetoric even further.

Bickerstaff, via Calvin Watkins of ESPN:

“We’re broken,” Bickerstaff said. “It’s that simple. We’re a broken team, and we all need to use this break to figure out how we’re going to impact change. If we don’t want to impact change, then we need to be made aware of that, too, and we’ll go in a different direction.

“We can’t continue to go out and play this way. It’s easy to see it’s a fragmented bunch. You can’t win that way.”

This is why Dwight Howard is on the trade block. The Rockets are so incohesive, there’s no simple solution in sight. This increasingly looks like a lost season for Houston, which should emphasize future planning – like dealing Howard, who can become an unrestricted free agent at age 30 this summer.

Yet, the Rockets are just a half game from playoff position. They obviously dreamed much bigger when the season began, but at this point, merely making the postseason should qualify as a success.

It’s Bickerstaff’s job to get them there, no matter how unlikely. He has certainly shown little fear in trying, whether it’s giving these quotes or pulling all five starters simultaneously shortly into a game. He’s trying to put his mark on this team.

The players just aren’t responding, not more than periodically, at least. From James Harden down, nobody plays with the requisite focus and energy.

Nothing in Bickerstaff’s assessment is surprising. It’s just surprising he said it so bluntly publicly.

Then again, that’s nothing compared to what veteran Houston guard Jason Terry said. Eric Ringering of 750 The Game:

https://twitter.com/ringering45/status/697664478993756164