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.

Andre Drummond gets dunked on in Drew League. Twice. (video)

WESTWOOD, CA - JULY 14:  Professional snowboarder Jamie Anderson (L) and NBA player Andre Drummond participate in a key slime pie eating contest onstage during the Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Sports Awards 2016 at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion on July 14, 2016 in Westwood, California. The Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Sports Awards 2016 show airs on July 17, 2016 at 8pm on Nickelodeon.  (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
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A cool part of the Drew League is mixing NBA players and non-NBA players for the summer exhibitions.

Obviously, the NBA players have targets on their backs.

Andre Drummond learned that the hard way yesterday:

 

Kevin Durant leads USA to second exhibition rout, 106-57 over China

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LOS ANGELES (AP) – Kevin Durant scored 19 points, Klay Thompson added 17 and the U.S. basketball team rolled to a second straight blowout exhibition victory, 106-57 over China on Sunday night.

DeMar DeRozan scored 13 points in his hometown, and DeMarcus Cousins had 12 points and seven rebounds in another impressive performance to open the Americans’ pre-Olympic tour. While they’re still learning their teammates’ tendencies and solidifying player rotations, the newly assembled U.S. team looked remarkably cohesive for long stretches against an overmatched opponent with no current NBA players.

Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan scored 12 points and led a strong defensive effort with three blocks for the Americans, who held the Chinese to 30.9 percent shooting.

After opening their showcase tour by trouncing Argentina in Las Vegas on Friday night, the U.S. team posted another rout at a packed Staples Center.

The Americans haven’t lost a game since the 2006 world championships. They’re 47-1 in exhibitions since NBA stars took over the roster in 1992, going undefeated since 2004.

Anthony was the only holdover in the Americans’ starting lineup from Las Vegas. Krzyzewski put Paul George in with Anthony, Jordan, Kyle Lowry and DeRozan, whose family watched from courtside.

Jordan got the exhibition off to a rousing start with a blocked shot on China’s first possession and an alley-oop dunk on the other end for the Americans’ first points.

Both teams had early shooting struggles, but the Americans took charge with impressive speed late in the first quarter.

Durant, one of the two returning American gold medalists from London, heard boos from the LA crowd during pregame introductions. He quickly found his outside stroke with 14 points and four assists in the first half, and Cousins overpowered the Chinese down low for 12 first-half points on the way to a 55-29 halftime lead.

The Chinese team’s most recognizable name to North Americans is Yi Jianlian, the Milwaukee Bucks’ choice with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2007 draft. He spent five seasons with four NBA teams before heading back to the Guangdong Southern Tigers.

Yi led the Chinese with 18 points. Zhou Qi, the 7-foot-2 center drafted by the Houston Rockets in the second round last month, scored two points on 1-for-6 shooting. Exciting guard Zhao Jiwei scored 14 points.

The teams meet again Tuesday in Oakland, where Durant will play in front of his new home fans for the first time since defecting from Oklahoma City to the Golden State Warriors earlier this month.

They’ll also meet Aug. 6 in the opening game of Olympic competition in Brazil.

No. 39 pick David Michineau not joining Clippers this season

TREVISO, ITALY - JUNE 12:   David Michineau in action during Adidas Eurocamp Day Three at La Ghirada sports center on June 12, 2016 in Treviso, Italy.  (Photo by Roberto Serra/Iguana Press/Getty Images for Adidas)
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Clippers president/coach Doc Rivers said he expected all three of his 2016 draft picks to join the team this season.

The Clippers signed No. 25 pick Brice Johnson and No. 40 pick Diamond Stone.

But No. 39 pick David Michineau will remain in France.

Eurobasket:

Hyeres-Toulon Var Basket (ProA) inked 22-year old point guard David Michineau (191-94). He has played for the last two years at ES Chalon-Sur-Saone in the ProA.

Michineau is a 6-foot-4 point guard with some intriguing physical sills, but he’s not ready to run an NBA offense. Plus, the Clippers already re-signed Austin Rivers and signed Raymond Felton to back up Chris Paul.

The Clippers have one roster spot left. They’re better off using that on a veteran who can help now than Michineau.

DeMarre Carroll: Jae Crowder’s Raptors criticism due to playoff naïveté

TORONTO, ON - MAY 15:  DeMarre Carroll #5 of the Toronto Raptors dribbles the ball in the first half of Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Miami Heat 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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Celtics forward Jae Crowder — between criticizing Kevin Durant signing with the Warriors and Al Horford considering the Wizards — took aim at the Raptors.

“Toronto is not a team we’re worried about,” Crowder said.

Raptors forward DeMarre Carroll, via CSN New England:

“It’s a comment from a person who hasn’t really been in the playoffs that much. That’s how I reacted to that type of comment. When you haven’t been on that level and you don’t understand what it takes to get to that level. Myself going to back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals, I understand what it takes,”Carroll said on SportsNet.ca. “It’s a comment from a guy who hasn’t been on that level, who hasn’t played on that level. It sounds like a young comment.”

“We’ll let Jae Crowder do all the talking,” Carroll said. “We’ll just fly under the radar and do what we’re supposed to do.”

Carroll is right. Crowder has never won a playoff series — though I’m not sure advancing in the postseason will make him any less brash.

Carroll’s credentials here also aren’t impeccable. He helped the Hawks in 2015 and Raptors in 2016 make relatively uninspiring runs to the Eastern Conference finals.

Still, that’s more than Crowder has accomplished. If Carroll wants to use that experience to shoot back at Crowder, more power to him.

For what it’s worth, I’ll take the Celtics over the Raptors next season — though Toronto is close enough that Boston shouldn’t look past its neighbor to the north.