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.

NBA report: Wizards should have gotten technical for assistant coach being on court vs. Knicks

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The Knicks were down 113-110 with just 13.7 seconds remaining when Carmelo Anthony passed to an open Courtney Lee, who passed up a clean look at a 3-pointer from the corner, instead passing to Brandon Jennings, who turned the ball over, and the Wizards got the win.

After the game, Lee said he didn’t shoot because he felt and heard what he thought was a defender near him, but it turned out to be Wizards assistant coach Sidney Lowe, who came onto the court and barked words implying he was switching out onto Lee.

The NBA’s Last Two Minutes Report sides with Lee, saying the Wizards should have gotten a technical. From the report:

A WAS assistant coach stands on the floor close to Lee (NYK) for several seconds and should have been assessed a technical foul.

This is an area the NBA needs to crack down on, coaches walk out onto the court all the time. Far too often. Frankly, I have an issue with coaches on the bench stomping their feet or yelling at shooters near their sideline, but Lowe took it a step further.

Much like telling a six-year-old to stop licking their shoes this isn’t something NBA officials should have to deal with, it should be common sense, but the league needs to crack down on coaches stepping onto the court. Maybe this will push the league to start enforcing that rule.

 

PBT Extra: Russell Westbrook was snubbed as All-Star starter, but worse snubs coming

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Should Russell Westbrook have been a starter for the All-Star game over Stephen Curry? Sure. Going on stats from the first half of this season — when Westbrook is averaging a triple double — Westbrook deserves the nod. But I have a hard time getting worked up over the fans choosing the two-time MVP to start the All-Star Game.

The real snubs are coming.

When it comes to choosing the All-Star Game reserves, the coaches are facing some tough choices. How many point guards in the East? Does Joel Embiid deserve to go? Kristaps Porzingis? Out West the questions shift to Mike Conley, Damian Lillard and others.

I talk about those tough choices and who I would pick in this latest PBT Extra.

 

Bucks’ Greg Monroe says he’s not thinking of player-option decision

MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 19: Greg Monroe #15 of the Milwaukee Bucks is defended by Hassan Whiteside #21 of the Miami Heat during a game  at American Airlines Arena on January 19, 2016 in Miami, Florida. 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. Mandatory copyright notice:  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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The Bucks reportedly already planned for Greg Monroe to opt in after this season, a reasonable conclusion considering they tried to dump him in a trade all summer and found no takers.

But Monroe has quietly boosted his stock this season. Coming off Milwaukee’s bench, he’s still a skilled interior scorer. But he’s defending and rebounding better, using his quick hands to strip opponents and taking plenty of charges.

Could he even decline his $17,884,176 player option?

Monroe, via Charles F. Gardner of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

“I’m not thinking about anything like the off-season right now. There is a time and place for everything. If and when I have to make a decision, that time is not right now.”

The time might approach more quickly than Monroe expects. If the Bucks shop him again, potential trade partners will want to know Monroe’s intention. Some might prefer the flexibility created by him opting out, and others would like the certainty of having a productive player at a reasonable-enough cost next season. But all would want to know where they stand.

That said, it’s hardly a give Milwaukee moves Monroe. Though he has backed up John Henson and Miles Plumlee, Monroe (21.2 minutes per game) plays more than both. He’s a valuable contributor on a team jockeying for playoff position.

Most importantly, Monroe appears to complement Bucks franchise player Giannis Antetokounmpo well. Antetokounmpo scores more (23.5 to 26.3 points per 36 minutes) and more efficiently (59.0% to 65.7% true shooting percentage) from when he plays without Monroe to when he plays with Monroe, and Milwaukee’s offense improves accordingly (104.3 to 114.6 points per 100 possessions).

Andre Iguodala: Jealous media tries to make players ‘feel less than what we are’

CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 11:  Andre Iguodala #9 of the Golden State Warriors spwaks in overtime the media after Game Four of the 2015 NBA Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena on June 11, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio.  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 Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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Stephen Curry is having a down year relative to his last two seasons.

That shouldn’t qualify as a controversial statement. Curry won MVP the last two years. There wasn’t much room to go anywhere but down. Adjusting to playing Kevin Durant has taken time, and Curry might have been due for regression to the mean, anyway. It isn’t as if Curry is having a bad season. He remains a superstar, and I haven’t seen anyone credible unfairly admonish Curry for his production slip.

Yet, the slightest sniff of Curry criticism prompted teammate Andre Iguodala to unload on the media.

Iguodala, via Chris Haynes of ESPN:

“I be like, ‘What are y’all even talking about.’ Like, why? That’s just the world we live in,” Iguodala told ESPN. “It’s like, whatever. You can be on the best team and winning the most games and they’ll try to find something. It’s almost sad because they look for things to say negative. They just look [for] something, anything.”

He blames the media for reaching for a narrative.

“I think they’re just looking for something,” Iguodala continued. “It’s not just that he set the bar so high. I don’t think it’s that. It’s just the hate. That’s just how they’ve been since the beginning of time. And you’re not going to write that, but that’s just how they are. Since the beginning of time, it’s some things that we can do that they can’t do. And they’ve been trying ever since to either try to do it, which they can’t, and they figure that out, and to make us feel less than what we are.”

There is some truth to that. Most media members at one point dreamed of playing in the NBA, and none of us can do it. Otherwise, we would be doing it.

Nearly all of us learned long ago we’d fall far short of playing in the NBA, so I don’t think there’s such a direct jealousy as Iguodala paints. It’s just not something most of us are dealing with.

That said, some reporters can be overly negative for varying reasons. I caution against speaking as broadly as he does, but Iguodala certainly has a right to express his opinion.

Perhaps, Haynes negating Iguodala’s prediction that his comments won’t be written up shows that we’re not all so bad?