Dan Feldman

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Three questions the Toronto Raptors must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last Season: 51-31, made the playoffs for a franchise-record fourth straight season, got swept in the second round by the Cavaliers

I know what you did last summer: The Raptors re-signed Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka but otherwise lost plenty of productive playersP.J. Tucker, Patrick Patterson, DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph – in an effort to limit payroll. Only C.J. Miles and No. 23 pick O.J. Anunoby solidly counter the exodus of talent.

THREE QUESTIONS THE RAPTORS MUST ANSWER:

1) Does anyone lift Toronto to the next level? The Raptors look like a team that has peaked. Kyle Lowry is 31, and DeMar DeRozan is 28. Toronto pushed in on its supporting cast last season, trading for Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker before the deadline. It didn’t work. The Raptors got swept by the Cavaliers in the second round. Ibaka is now a year older. Tucker is gone. So are the long-term assets used to acquire the veterans. With cost an apparent concern, the supporting cast has been downgraded.

So, was this the end of the ascent?

If so, it wasn’t a bad run. Correction: It isn’t a bad run. The Raptors are still solidly a playoff team in the Eastern Conference, and the four straight postseason appearances – including a trip to the 2016 conference finals – is nothing to sneeze at, especially in Toronto.

But a taste of success only increases the appetite for more. The Raptors would love to break through LeBron James in the Eastern Conference before the Celtics develop chemistry and the 76ers ascend. The Wizards lurk, too.

The mystery: How does it happen? Toronto’s veterans look established. Its young players – Norman Powell, Jakob Poeltl, Delon Wright, Lucas Nogueira and Pascal Siakam – are varying degrees of formidable, but these aren’t high-upside options.

Perhaps, one of those young players defies expectations. Maybe Bruno Caboclo breaks out, though the indicators are negative for the project. O.G. Anunoby could get healthy and become a difference-maker.

The odds appear against it, but with the Raptors already establishing such a high floor, attention turns intently on their search for players to raise their ceiling.

2) Will Dwane Casey oversee a culture reset? If the roster isn’t getting better, Masai Ujiri isn’t giving up. The Raptors president called for a “culture reset.”

But he kept the coach and two players (Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan) most responsible for Toronto’s style, and many doubt major change will occur.

Still, the Raptors’ offense looks modernized in the preseason so far – more 3-pointers, more passing. If Casey and the players stick with it, the adjustment could pay off in the playoffs, where the team’s isolation-heavy style has been repeatedly stifled.

That’s still a major if. Old habits die hard.

If Casey could coach a more efficient scheme, why didn’t he do it before? Likewise, if Lowry and DeRozan could play a more efficient style, why didn’t they do it before?

They’ll get a chance to prove it’s not too late for them to adapt. If this doesn’t work, though, it could cost Casey his job.

3) How will center shake out? The Raptors owe Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka nearly $115 million over the next three years. That’s too much for a couple players whose best position is center – especially when Toronto also has capable backups in Jakob Poeltl and Lucas Nogueira on rookie-scale deals.

Ibaka is more of a modern center who can shoot 3-pointers and protect the rim. The Raptors can build some nice small-ball lineups with him at the position.

Valanciunas, on the other hand, sees his role significantly reduced in the playoffs. The back-to-the-basket post player becomes a liability.

Toronto seems to realize the problem, shopping Valanciunas this summer. But few teams need a center, and he’s highly paid (three years, nearly $50 million remaining). If the 25-year-old plays well, maybe the Raptors can move him and address other positions.

But if he plugs along at his current pace – which is hardly bad! – Toronto will face some difficult decisions about how to use him and Ibaka.

Former Rockets coach Kevin McHale: James Harden is not a leader

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James Harden is the Rockets’ franchise player. He has finished runner-up for MVP two of the last three years. All five of the Houston teams he has led have reached the playoffs, and one advanced to the Western Conference finals.

But he’s an indifferent defender and sometimes runs too nonchalantly.

That’s where Chris Paul comes in. Paul brings plenty of intensity and leadership to Rockets – just too late for Kevin McHale, whom Houston fired as coach in 2015.

McHale speaking to Charles Barkley on NBATV, as transcribed by Rahul Lal of HoopsHype:

James is not a leader. He tried being a leader last year and doing that stuff, I think Chris Paul is going to help him do that stuff and get back to just hoop and play. On every team you need to have a voice, you have to have somebody that when he says something, everybody listens. Look, if James tells you ‘Chuck, you’ve got to play better [defense]!’ Are you going to listen to him? You’re kidding me! I lived through it, everybody in the locker room [shook their head].

I just think that Chris Paul will be good for James Harden. It will allow him to be what he is which is a phenomenal basketball player – not trying to lead a team, that’s just not his personality.

Harden reportedly pushed for the Rockets to fire McHale. Harden also contributed to a flawed environment for which McHale took the blame.

So, it’s understandable that McHale would call out Harden publicly like this.

The former coach is right to a degree (though probably goes a little too far). By resting on defense, even if it’s understandable given his massive offensive load, Harden undercut his leadership ability. That was compounded by Harden seemingly not realizing it and sometimes acting as if his voice still carried maximum weight in the locker room. That could not have been easy for McHale to work around.

It won’t necessarily be seamless for Paul, either. Ideally, a team’s best leader is its best player. That won’t be the case in Houston. Will Harden cede control to Paul? Even if he does, will Paul’s new teammates immediately rally behind him?

The dynamic has changed, but Harden’s personality still invites awkwardness in the Rockets’ power structure. As much as everyone is watching how the guards mesh on the court, attention should be paid to this aspect, too.

LeBron James to miss 2nd exhibition game with sprained ankle

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CLEVELAND (AP) — LeBron James will sit out Friday’s exhibition game against the Indiana Pacers as he recovers from a sprained left ankle.

James got hurt on Sept. 27 when he stepped on a teammate’s foot in practice. He took part in Cleveland’s workout on Thursday and the club wanted to see how he responded before deciding if he would try to go against the Pacers. He’s going to sit again as a precaution, the team said.

The three-time champion also missed Wednesday’s preseason opener against Atlanta. Cleveland next plays on Tuesday against Chicago.

James and his teammates attended Thursday night’s AL Division Series matchup between the Indians and New York Yankees.

Iman Shumpert will miss Friday’s game with a sprained left foot that is expected to keep him out for a week or more.

The Cavaliers open the regular season on Oct. 17 against the Boston Celtics.

Three questions the Miami Heat must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last Season: 41-41, missed playoffs

I know what you did last summer: The Heat solidified a competitive roster by re-signing James Johnson and Dion Waiters, signing Kelly Olynyk and extending Josh Richardson to long-term deals. Miami also drafted Bam Adebayo.

THREE QUESTIONS THE HEAT MUST ANSWER:

1) Are the Heat more a team that went 41-41 or finished 31-10 last season? Miami started 10-31 last year, better than only the Nets. The Heat then went 31-10 in the second half, behind only the Warriors.

So, which team is it?

Miami returns its eight most-used players, so they’ll have a chance to build on their chemistry, which clearly improved as the season progressed. They bought into Erik Spoelstra’s system and developed confidence in it and themselves.

But the larger sample tends to prove more reliable.

The Heat aren’t suddenly a 62-win team over a full season, but they probably believe a 41-41 baseline inaccurately discounts their progress. For a team with so much stability, it’s tough to tell where Miami stands entering the season.

2) Where does Justise Winslow fit? Winslow missed the Heat’s final 48 games last season, i.e., all of their turnaround. Miami’s late-season game plan was built around Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters taking turns attacking the rim while the other spotted up beyond the arc along with a couple other sweet-shooting forwards.

Winslow, with his suspect jumper, can’t play in that system without completely undermining the spacing and floor balance.

Sure, Winslow adds tenacious defense. He can be active offensively, getting out in transition. But his shooting is not only a problem, it’s a direct threat to the game plan the Heat grew comfortable in.

Maybe Spoelstra can find a rotation that positions Winslow to succeed. He’s not a bad player. But how many minutes will be available for him? And what does Miami do offensively during them?

3) Where does Miami find internal growth? Dion Waiters and James Johnson got into shape, had career seasons in contract years then signed lucrative long-term contracts. Kelly Olynyk is also coming off a contract year that netted a large lengthy contract. Goran Dragic and Johnson are on the wrong side of 30. Hassan Whiteside is already 28.

This doesn’t look like a team with a ton of untapped potential, not ideal for a franchise that has gotten a taste of championship contention but now looks locked into early-round playoff exits.

Still, the Heat’s “program,” as they like to call it, has a remarkable track record of developing players.

Justise Winslow could make a difference with or without a jumper – but especially with a jumper. Josh Richardson, Tyler Johnson and Rodney McGruder have come along nicely – and maybe even have more leaps in them. Bam Adebayo certainly offers enticing upside.

Heck, maybe Waiters, Johnson and Olynyk remain hungry. Dragic could stave off aging another couple years. Whiteside is still inexperienced given his years outside the league, so maybe he has more room to grow than the typical player his age.

The Heat won’t have cap space for the foreseeable future, and they already traded a couple future first-round picks. They’re probably too good to draft a blue-chip prospect anytime soon, anyway. This is their team. It’s at least fine.

Do Miami’s current players have the capacity to turn it into something more?

J.R. Smith demonstrates during national anthem

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David West has stood a few feet behind his teammates during the national anthem for years.

J.R. Smith made a similar demonstration.

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith stood a few feet behind his teammates for the national anthem prior to the team’s scrimmage Monday night at The Q.

The reason, he said, was because “I don’t feel like the flag represents what it’s supposed to at this point.

“We obviously didn’t discuss what we were going to do as a team, and I definitely, I don’t feel, it’s not an easy situation for me with the national anthem,” Smith said Friday, following the Cavs’ morning shootaround. “Especially coming from where I come from, it’s just not. I don’t feel like it’s represented the right way, obviously it’s a tough conversation for everybody, and it still needs to be, I wouldn’t say talked about, because there’s been a lot of conversations about it, it’s time to start doing. What efforts are we going to put towards it?”

I’m not sure this qualifies as a “protest,” a la Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the national anthem. Smith’s positioning doesn’t demand attention (though someone clearly noticed to ask him about it), and he’s not voicing a specific reasoning for his action.

Still, in the aftermath of Kaepernick kneeling, national-anthem protests have focused on minority rights and particularly police treatment of blacks. Smith had to know his demonstration would get grouped into the rest. I suspect he’s referencing similar issues.

Smith can stand wherever he wants during the anthem (though the NBA might punish him if he sits or kneels). He doesn’t need to explain himself further.

But if he wants to advance the conversation or bring attention to issues, he must explain why he’s standing apart. Otherwise, this is merely a small step from the forms of benign demonstration we’ve already seen from NBA players.