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.

Jason Terry: Luke Walton ‘utterly declined’ my offer to provide Lakers veteran leadership

DALLAS, TX - JANUARY 19:  Guard Jason Terry #31 of the Dallas Mavericks takes a shot against Luke Walton #4 of the Los Angeles Lakers at American Airlines Center on January 19, 2011 in Dallas, Texas.  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 Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Before signing with the Bucks, Jason Terry said he reached out to multiple contenders.

He also spoke with the Lakers.

Terry tried to leverage his relationship with Lakers coach Luke Walton, who also played at Arizona (though their time there didn’t overlap).

Terry on SiriusXM NBA Radio.

I called my good friend Luke. I told him if he needed any help, veteran leadership, in that capacity – Lakers – with an ability to coach at the end of my deal, then that was something I would be looking forward to. He utterly declined, and I respect him for that.

Gotta love a guy who announces to the world his pitch of providing veteran leadership was “utterly declined.”

The Lakers should be just fine with Jose Calderon and Luol Deng.

Report: Nuggets trade Joffrey Lauvergne to Thunder for draft picks

DENVER, CO - JANUARY 19:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Oklahoma City Thunder and Joffrey Lauvergne #77 of the Denver Nuggets battle for rebounding position at Pepsi Center on January 19, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. The Thunder defeated the Nuggets 110-104. 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 Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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The Nuggets already had too many quality young big men who won’t easily mesh in Nikola Jokic and Jusuf Nurkic.

Joffrey Lauvergne only complicated the issue.

So, Denver is moving him.

Chris Dempsey of The Denver Post:

Oklahoma City already had 15 players – the regular-season roster limit – with guaranteed salaries plus Semaj Christon (who’s likely headed to the D-League). Lauvergne’s salary is only partially guaranteed, but given his ability and cost, the Thunder surely plan to keep him.

The bigger question is how they use him. They’re already loaded with big men: Steven Adams, Enes Kanter, Ersan Ilyasova, Domantas Sabonis, Nick Collison and Mitch McGary – though perhaps McGary, facing a five-game suspension for drugs, gets waived to make room for Lauvergne.

The 6-foot-11 Lauvergne runs the floor well, and he can score in the pick-and-roll and on post-ups. He’s an impressive passer for his size, and he crashes the glass hard. But he’s not much of a rim-protector defensively. At age 24, he should produce well over the next several years – though he’s headed toward restricted free agency next summer.

Depending on the second-round picks, this might have just been a value play by the Thunder. They can figure out the rest later.

Report: Bucks signing Xavier Henry

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 16:  Xavier Henry #7 of the Los Angeles Lakers shoots against the Golden State Warriors at Staples Center on November 16, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.  The Warriors won 136-115.   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 Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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The Bucks hope Xavier Henry is just another thing Byron Scott is wrong about.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

Henry – the No. 12 pick in the 2010 draft – never found his footing in the NBA with the Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Hornets or Los Angeles Lakers. He made some strides with the Lakers in 2013-14, but he tore his Achilles early the following season. That compounded the knee injuries that made Scott doubt Henry could meet the expectations placed on him coming out of Kansas.

Milwaukee now has 15 players, the regular-season roster limit. If Henry’s deal is unguaranteed, he’s obviously not a lock to stick. But the Bucks could use another wing. I’m guessing they’ll add more players to compete with Henry for that final spot.

Report: Lakers signing Travis Wear

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 19: Travis Wear #6 of the New York Knicks dives for the ball against the Minnesota Timberwolves  during their game at Madison Square Garden on March 19, 2015 in New York City.    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 Al Bello/Getty Images)
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Phil Jackson said he warned the Lakers they’d regret passing on Kristaps Porzingis with the No. 2 pick.

The Lakers are getting another swing at stretch big Jackson liked – though this time with far lower stakes.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

Travis Wear spent 2014-15 with the Knicks and last season in Spain.

He’ll compete with recently signed Zach Auguste for a regular-season-roster opening that doesn’t exist – until the Lakers ditch Nick Young. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Lakers add more players to the mix.

Both Wear and Auguste are eligible to have their D-League rights assigned to the Lakers’ affiliate if they’re waived before the season.

The 6-foot-10 Wear went undrafted out of UCLA in 2014. He has the makings of a stretch four, but he must become more comfortable beyond the arc rather than just in the mid-range.