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.

Sixers’ Ben Simmons has clean scan on foot, “recovery progressing as expected”

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There is no timetable for Ben Simmons to step into the Philadelphia lineup, and the Sixers don’t want to put one on him. He’ll play when he plays, but the Sixers are rightfully going to take it slow and think long term with a guy coming off a Jones fracture in his foot.

That said, we could see him next month after the All-Star break. Maybe it will be March. But he seems to be on course to return this season.

Philly has won seven of their last 10, Joel Embiid looks like a franchise cornerstone, and after his impressive Summer League everyone wants to see what Simmons and Embiid look like together. Including coach Brett Brown. We’re impatient.

The Sixers are not. Nor should they be. We can see how they are handling things with Embiid still being on a minutes restriction and not playing back-to-backs — Philly is thinking about the team it could have in three or four years, not the one it has in March. Philly is not a playoff team this season, no need to push things.

However, with this latest clean bill of health, it looks promising Simmons will play this season.

Dwyane Wade says rest of Bulls season will influence his decision on player option

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When Dwyane Wade left Miami — the only team he had ever played for, the one where he won three titles — to come home to Chicago, he wasn’t thinking of being one-and-done. Already in his mid-thirties (35 as you read this), he was looking to finish his career as a Bull, however long that may be.

But Wade left himself an out, signing a two-year, $47 million deal with a player option for the second year.

With the Bulls 22-23 and barely clinging to the final playoff spot in the East, would Wade consider opting out and testing the free agent waters again? He told Nick Friedell of ESPN that how this season plays out will have a significant impact on his decision.

“I wouldn’t lie to you and say no (this season won’t impact his decision),” Wade said. “Of course. I can’t play this game forever. I just turned 35 and I have a number in my head how long I want to play. At the end of the day you want to be in a situation where it’s a competitor situation, whatever the case may be. It’s tough in this league as well because a lot of that also depends on how much money you’re willing to make. It depends on what city you’re willing to be in. So it’s a lot of variables to that, but no question about it, what happens throughout this year, as I go into my summer, I’ll definitely take a look at it. I take my career seriously and where I am and where I want to be. And I will do the same thing this summer.”

Come this summer, both Wade and the Bulls have decisions to make.

For the Bulls, in the wake of the Rajon Rondo signing that hasn’t panned out, they need to decide what kind of team they are trying to build around Jimmy Butler. Fred Hoiberg was handpicked by management because of his modern offense — spacing, shooting, ball movement — then that same front office goes out and gets Wade and Rondo, two guys opponents will let take jumpers all day. Is Nikola Mirotic part of that future? Bobby Portis? The Bulls need a long-term vision, but if they keep Wade at his current price then it likely is more stop-gap measures. Just hopefully ones that can shoot the three.

For Wade, he has to ask what he wants out of his final few years in the league. Chicago is not a contender and will not be for a few years at least. Does Wade want to stay in his hometown and be part of what is being built around Butler? Or, does he want to take less money to chase another ring with a contender? At this point in his career, what matters most to him.

My guess is Wade is back with the Bulls next season, whether he opts in or signs a new deal. And the Bulls will make more stop-gap moves. That’s what history suggests.

Grizzlies’ getting their own D-League affiliate

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The Memphis Grizzlies will own and run the NBA Development League’s newest team starting with the 2017-18 season.

The Grizzlies and the NBA Development League announced the expansion team Tuesday.

The newest D-League team will play in Southaven, Mississippi, which is just 20 miles south of Memphis. The arena already hosts the Mississippi Riverkings in the Southern Professional Hockey League.

The move makes the Grizzlies the 19th NBA team owning and running a D-League affiliate, which expands the league to 23 teams for the upcoming season.

The Grizzlies have been affiliated with the Iowa Energy, whom were just bought by the Timberwolves. Memphis eneral manager Chris Wallace says the D-League team will practice at the Grizzlies’ facilities at FedExForum and allow Memphis to best develop young players.

Report: Kyle Lowry’s Philadelphia area home was burglarized by jewelry heist ring

Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry reacts after making a 3-point shot against the Los Angeles Lakers during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles, Sunday, Jan. 1, 2017. The Toronto Raptors won 123-114. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)
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Kyle Lowry is a gold medalist from Rio and a Toronto All-Star (and should be again this season), but at heart he is a Philly guy. He was born and raised in Philadelphia, and went to college right there at Villanova. He still has a home in the area.

A home that was burglarized recently, according to a report at CBS Philadelphia, who talked to local police.

A multi-million dollar jewelry burglary ring is cracked in the Delaware Valley as investigators are trying to recover all the jewels stolen from victims, including an NBA star player….

The Main Line home of Toronto Raptors’ Kyle Lowry was hit, police sources said.

Responding to an email from CBS3, a spokesman for the Raptors said Lowry, a former Villanova basketball standout, politely declined comment for this story.

Lowry was far from alone in being targeted, and a couple of people who fell victim to the ring lost more than $500,000, according to the report.

The crew had ties to a shop on “Jewelers’ Row” in the city, which served as a front for the ring tried to move millions of dollars in stolen jewelry, according to the report. Wasim Shazad, the owner of the shop, was arrested but is now out on bail as he moves through the legal process.