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.

Paul George says he’s not motivated by opportunity to earn higher max

Eastern Conference forward Paul George of the Indiana Pacers (13) reacts during the second half of the NBA All-Star basketball game in New Orleans, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Max Becherer)
AP Photo/Max Becherer
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NEW ORLEANS — The Pacers have already granted a standing max offer to Paul George.

So, if he wants to stay in Indiana, his potential paths look relatively straightforward:

If he makes an All-NBA team this season, he can sign a designated-veteran-player extension that would kick in in 2018-19 and projects be worth about $209 million over five years (about $42 million annually).

If he doesn’t make an All-NBA team this season, he can wait to sign and try again to make one next season. If he does, he can sign a new contract in 2018 that would be worth the same $209 million or so over the same five-year period.

I think it’s this simple: If he becomes eligible to become a designated veteran player, he’ll sign then. If not, 2018 free agency projects to offer a choice of about $179 million over five years (about $36 million annually) to re-sign or about $133 million over four years (about $33 million annually) to sign elsewhere — a more difficult decision.

George says he’s not thinking about earning the higher max.

“You want to be one of the best,” George said. “And that’s the only motivation. You want to be All-NBA. That’s what you strive for. That’s what you want to play for, to be recognized as one of the league’s best players.”

That’s no small challenge for George, who was one of 12 All-Star forwards this year, joining:

With only six All-NBA forward spots, George faces long odds this season — and no easy path next season.

But at least eligibility for the higher max coincides with one of his goals.

“It’s nice. It’s nice,” George said. “But that’s not the motivation you want to play for”

Report: Chris Paul has already verbally agreed to re-sign with Clippers

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The Clippers are approaching a pivotal offseason with both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin entering unrestricted free agency.

Drama in LA?

Maybe not.

The team already did its part, pledging to spend “whatever it takes” to re-sign those two stars. Now, it appears the players are getting in line.

Griffin reportedly plans to re-sign quickly this summer. And it seems Paul will follow suit.

Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders:

He’ll opt out of his final $24.26 million and ink a new deal with the Clippers for north of $200 million. While Knicks fan often dream of a Carmelo Anthony-Paul tandem, it’s not going to happen. Sources close to the process said that it’s already been verbally agreed to and it’s simply a function of the calendar and the new Collective Bargaining Agreement kicking in.

If Paul demands the biggest deal possible — and why wouldn’t he? — it projects to be worth more than $207 million over five years.

But he can’t sign until July. That leaves the door open for things to sour with the Clippers and other teams to make pitches. Planning to re-sign is one — important — thing. Actually doing it is another.

The Clippers should turn their attention to J.J. Redick, who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. They’ll have his Bird Rights, so they can exceed the cap to re-sign him. However, capped out even if he leaves, they will have no mechanism to adequately replace him.

A team with Paul, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan can’t afford to take that large of a step back. If Paul and Griffin re-sign, that gives Redick tremendous leverage.

What Vlade Divac learned in process of trading DeMarcus Cousins: ‘Not to trust agents’

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Kings general manager Vlade Divac seemingly had what he deemed a “better” offer for DeMarcus Cousins fall apart after Cousins’ camp dissuaded the other team from dealing for star.

That’s why Sacramento settled for the Pelicans’ meager package. The Kings, Divac said, feared the offers would only get worse as the trade deadline approaches.

This whole experience leaves Divac sounding jilted.

 

Sam Amick of USA Today:

The guy who declared publicly just two weeks ago that Cousins wouldn’t be traded is talking about not trusting agents? OK.

Divac reportedly told Cousins’ camp late Sunday afternoon that the center wouldn’t be traded and then reached a deal just a few hours later. There are conflicting accounts of how well Sacramento informed Cousins privately of their true intentions, but Divac public statements are enough to show hypocrisy here. The only question is precisely how hypocritical he’s being.

 

Cousins missed out on a lot of money — a projected $30 million or so — as a result of this trade. His agents were doing their job when they tried to scuttle a deal. Cousins never owed it to Sacramento to facilitate his own exit.

The Kings want to change their culture without Cousins, but they’re so far not setting a tone of trustworthiness.

Steve Kerr will not “just stick to sports,” embraces new era of player political/social activism

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NEW ORLEANS — “Just stick to sports.”

Anytime an athlete speaks out on social issues, or wades into the political arena, Twitter swells with that comment — from people who disagree with the statement. In the wake of a polarizing election and controversial moves from President Donald Trump — such as his executive order on an immigration seven majority Muslim countries — there has been criticism of his moves from Commissioner Adam Silver, coaches such as Gregg Popovich, as well as players.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr has been at the front of that criticism, and he is not going to “just stick to sports.”

“If you stick to that mantra, then everybody should stick to what they’re doing, right? That means nobody’s allowed to have a political opinion,” Kerr said during All-Star weekend, where he was repeatedly asked about political and social issues. “It just so happens we get these microphones stuck in our face and we have a bigger platform. But it’s free speech and, if you look at the history of the world, the biggest problems come when people don’t speak.”

The “just stick to sports” crowd almost always opposes what the players said, but root their comments in the idea sports should be an escape from the political realm or other worldly challenges. Even though at it’s best sports has never been that — not with Jackie Robinson or Muhammad Ali or Olympic protests.

Kerr noted that in our modern world with so many outlets for getting your information, fans can choose to avoid political discussions in sports if they wish — just don’t click the link.

“I think you can follow sports however you want as a fan. If you want to watch the games to get away from everyday life, you can do that,” Kerr said. “You can turn on the games and watch the Warriors play or watch the Spurs play or whoever, and it’s just going to be about basketball. If you don’t want to read about political issues, you don’t have to read it. It’s the same in any field, whether it’s basketball, or entertainment, even politics themselves, you have to choose what you want to read about and follow. 

“We are in a society where a lot of us have microphones in our face every day, and a lot of us feel strongly about our need to speak out on injustice. I think it’s important. But it’s up to the individual fan to take that in or not. They can pick and choose.”

For a long time, there has been less social activism among athletes — not just in the NBA, but across sports. That is changing again, and Kerr said it’s a reaction to the times in which we live.

“I think maybe over the last 20 or 30 years there hasn’t been that same sense of urgency because we’ve generally lived in a pretty peaceful era, but it feels like it’s changing and so the whole country is changing in terms of its activism and social awareness,” Kerr said…

“For a long time, a lot of athletes stayed out of the political forum, out of fear of losing customers, and I think it’s refreshing that we have athletes who are putting their social beliefs ahead of any marking issues. I think that’s powerful.”

Kerr spoke out some on a long weekend where he had a microphone in his face a lot,  opposing President Trump policies such as building a border wall with Mexico for example. However, mostly he praised both the increased social activism of players and the stance of the league to stand up for inclusion — including moving the All-Star Game out of Charlotte because of North Carolina’s “bathroom bill.”

“Free speech is one of the principles our country was founded on, I think there’s some responsibility that goes with that if you see injustice,” Kerr said. “That’s why I think the league has been great in terms of understanding that responsibility and taking action, such as moving the All-Star Game from Charlotte to New Orleans….

“I think what the NBA tries to preach is equality, and inclusion — we don’t just talk about it, we live it. We have this beautiful game where we have people from every race and religion and background, and we like that in our fans, too.”

While the league has turned its words into actions such as moving the All-Star Game — and warning Texas if they pass a similar bill Houston is likely out of the running for the 2020 edition of the game — the question is what the next step will be for the players. Commenting on social injustice is one thing, but how do they turn that into actions?

“That’s not my department,” Kerr said with a shrug. “I have spoken out on issues and will continue to do so, and I think the league has done a really good job of walking the walk. Moving the All-Star Game from Charlotte to here I think was an important statement for the league — we are about inclusion and equality for everybody, regardless of gender, race, religion, background, anything.”

Coaches such as Kerr, as well as NBA players, have a bigger megaphone to get out their views because they are interviewed by the media almost daily. Kerr said that he feels players have a responsibility to step up and be heard on issues, not just “stick to sports.”

“I think if you’re in a certain position, and you feel strongly about something, then I think it’s important and you should (speak out),” Kerr said. “But we all live different lives in different places, we’re from different backgrounds with different journeys, and what’s important to me might not be important to somebody else, and visa vera.

“But we’re all in a position where we can make a difference, and I think players understand that.”