Kurt Helin

Washington Wizards v Toronto Raptors- Game Two

51 Questions: Can Toronto transition to a defensive-minded team?

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51 Questions in 51 Days. PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:

CAN THE TORONTO RAPTORS TRANSITION TO A DEFENSE-FIRST TEAM AND ADVANCE PAST FIRST ROUND OF THE PLAYOFFS?

For two straight seasons, the Toronto Raptors have finished atop the Atlantic Division. Last season, they won 49 games, the year before 48 — the two highest win totals in franchise history. That is something to celebrate.

Then, for two straight seasons, they have been bounced in the first round of the playoffs. Last season, they were unceremoniously swept out of the postseason by the Washington Wizards — the porous Raptors defense was destroyed in the pick-and-roll by a John Wall and Bradley Beal led Wizard’s attack that averaged 110.3 points a game. It wasn’t pretty, and it prompted changes.

This past summer, Raptors’ GM Masai Ujiri made only a handful of moves, but they had a very specific goal — return Toronto to being a good defensive team. Yes return, two seasons ago they finished ninth in defensive rating. Last season, the Raptors took huge steps backward and finished 23rd. Their perimeter defenders recognized and reacted to plays about as well as traffic cones, and Jonas Valanciunas was hanging back to protect the rim and not doing it well. The team seemed to take on Lou Williams‘ offense first (and second, and third) style, and that needed to change.

Three specific moves show what Ujiri was thinking:

• Signing DeMarre Carroll. This was a direct move to address the Raptors perimeter defense, Carroll is one of the better “3&D” guys in the league. Carroll was central to the Hawks surge to 60 wins last season, and this was a great signing for Toronto. He is going to be asked to step into Terrence Ross‘ lineup spot but actually get some stops (Ross will slide into the Lou Williams “gunner off the bench” role).

• Signing Bismack Biyombo. This is about having some rim protection at the center spot — if Valanciunas isn’t going to provide it, they are going to get it somewhere else. Biyombo will come off the bench as a defensive big.

• Signing Cory Joseph. He brings one thing to the table, and it’s not playmaking. Joseph is a good defensive point guard and the Raptors needed to add that.

The hope is that Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Valanciunas (a gifted offensive big man) can keep the Raptors racking up enough points while everyone else helps play some defense. The belief is if they defend well enough they can be a threat to the Wizards, Bulls, Hawks, and Heat in the second tier of the Eastern Conference — and they can make the second round of the playoffs (at least).

If you believe Toronto is going to take that step forward, you must have faith in two things.

First is coach Dwane Casey. Ujiri inherited him and since the day the new GM took over there has been speculation about the coach, but there has been no change (in fact he got an extension). Casey is well respected around the league and seen as a defensive coach — he has got to get a system in place that this team can execute.

After watching a chunk of Raptors defensive film from last season, Toronto seemed to play a system looking to have their big man hedge out on pick-and-rolls to cut off the drive (not “ICE” it as is the NBA trend). However, that system counts on a big man who has the foot speed to step out and recover, and wing players who instantly recognize what going on and rotate quickly to cover ball movement. The Raptors had neither. Valanciunas prefers to sit back, he didn’t hedge much meaning opposing guards/wings got to play downhill and drive right into the lane (the Raptors were bottom 10 in shots allowed within five feet). From there things fell apart. The recognition by the other wing defenders to help — or help the helper — was often slow (especially when DeMar DeRozan sat or was injured). Guys like Ross, Valanciunas, and Patrick Patterson got killed on defending spot ups because they did not get their quick enough to contest. Teams got a lot of good look floaters inside or open threes.

The second is Valanciunas — the guy who just signed a $64 million extension is the hinge to the entire Raptors season.

The Raptors need him on the court, he is too valuable offensively to sit for extended periods. This is guy who had a 62.3 true shooting percentage last season, is strong around the rim plus you have to respect him from the midrange, a guy who averaged 12 points a game last season with a usage rate of just 19 percent. They need to get him the rock more. But that is not the end of the floor that is in question.

The perimeter defense from Toronto is going to be better, but in a league where you can’t go Gary Payton and hand check/body up guys on the perimeter point guards (and others) are going to drive the lane. Valanciunas has to improve defensively — he has to handle pick-and-roll defense better (whatever the system); more importantly he needs to be more aggressive and just better at being a paint and rim protector. He’s not going to suddenly become Dikembe Mutombo, but he has to be respectable on that end and force some misses. Last season, he played so far back guys had a full head of steam coming off the pick and had him backpedaling and being ineffective.

The Raptors are going to win the Atlantic Division again this season (which says as much about the rest of the sad Atlantic Division as it does Toronto). They are going to be better defensively.

But if the Raptors are going to be good enough on that end to make it to the second round for only the second time ever in franchise history, it’s going to be a little about Carroll and a lot about Valanciunas.

My prediction: They are better on defense, win about 49 games, and get bounced in the first round again. But with an improved defense, they have a chance to advance.

Top 10 blocks of soon-to-be Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo’s career

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This weekend, Dikembe Mutombo enters the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

He was a better offensive player than people remember, and he was strong on the boards. But none of that is why he is going into the Hall.  The four-time Defensive Player of the Year is going in because of his ability to get stops. And block shots.

We can argue if there have been better shot blockers in the league, but none have been as much fun as Mutombo. So savor this Top 10.

Rudy Gobert rejects Marcin Gortat during key French win over Poland at EuroBasket

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It may not have been the most dramatic, but the showdown between unbeaten France and Poland at EuroBasket Monday was the key game of the day in Group A — two undefeated team and the winner is in the drivers’ seat to win the group.

It started with history — Tony Parker became the all-time leading scorer in EuroBasket history with France’s first bucket of the game.

Once again Jazz big man Rudy Gobert was making some plays — he had eight points, seven rebounds and three blocked shots. One of those you can see above — it’s not easy to reject Poland/Wizards big man Marcin Gortat.

France held a small but relatively steady lead most of the second half, but they were never comfortable, and Poland made a push. It wasn’t enough, Les Blues were able to make enough plays to get the 69-66 win. One of the guys making those plays? Gobert.

Just how dysfunctional are Clippers? Does it even matter?

Los Angeles Clippers Fan Festival
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It is possible to turn a dysfunctional franchise around. It’s never a smooth road, and there is a learning curve for all owners — remember when Warriors’ fans booed Joe Lacob at a game? — but it can be done. Golden State is living proof.

That was the expected narrative when Donald Sterling was pushed aside and Steve Ballmer swooped in and overpaid for the Clippers. This team already had a great core of players, now the franchise would turn things around on and off the court and take a step forward. Some things instantly got better — for example, equipment the training staff long wanted was approved and purchased. But it hasn’t been a smooth ride and Bill Simmons said publicly what others around the league had whispered: Things may better with the Clippers, but they were not good.

Maybe it is new owner learning curve — every owner has one, some are steeper than others — but this franchise has made some silly mistakes in the past year:

• They hard-capped themselves with the Spencer Hawes signing, then had to surrender a first round pick to get out of that mess.

• They got caught this summer illegally offering a bonus (a Lexus sponsorship contract) to DeAndre Jordan as part of their formal pitch to the free agent, which got the team fined.

Austin Rivers? The coach’s son? Really?

And the list goes on and on — have you read Jamal Crawford‘s tweets? — but in spite of it all Doc Rivers the GM had a good summer and the team looks poised to contend. It would be so easy to look past it.

However, TMZ kept digging and Monday wrote a story saying there is an internal struggle between the business side.

TMZ Sports spoke with multiple sources within the organization — including players — who tell us the drama all centers around Gillian Zucker, the team’s president of business operations.

Long story short … several players and key staffers feel she’s not just stepping on Doc Rivers’ toes, but she’s creating a divide … leaving many wondering who’s really calling the shots in Clipperland….

But we’re told Zucker has been increasingly more involved on the basketball side … inserting herself into things like player development and playing time decisions … and it’s leaving many people confused, since she’s often not on the same page as Doc.

Things that don’t happen with the Spurs include…

First rule of anonymous sources: They are telling you something for a reason. They have an agenda; they are spinning things to their advantage. Just keep that in mind as you read about someone saying Zucker is overstepping her bounds. She may be, she may not, but someone has an agenda.

Simmons, however, semi-confirmed this:

Whatever is going on falls to Ballmer to clear up. There should be a wall between basketball operations and business operations in an NBA organization. Of course, there should be a little cooperative bleed over — the two sides are still on the same team working toward the same goals — but basketball people should make the basketball decisions and the marketing people the marketing decisions and on down the line. Stay in your lane. If someone is getting out of their lane, that’s on the owner to fix.

Here’s my bigger question:

Does it even matter?

From Billy Martin managing the Yankees though the current San Francisco 49ers, throughout sports there have been dysfunctional organizations with ownership allowing odd choices that continue to win.

In the NBA, think of the Michael Jordan era Bulls — GM Jerry Krause and Phil Jackson were in a power struggle, Toni Kukoc and Jordan were in the thick of it all, the owner was oblivious and just counting the dollars, and that team won six rings.

The level of dysfunction within the Clippers and who or what is causing it is up for debate, but this organization has and continues to make some odd decisions. And it may not matter. The core of the team is together, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan apparently worked out whatever it was they needed to work out, and so long as CP3 and Blake Griffin stay healthy this team is a serious threat to win it all.

Whether Ballmer has built Spurs West or not.

Tony Parker becomes top scorer in Eurobasket history

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BERLIN (AP)Tony Parker became the all-time leading scorer in European championship history when he made France’s first basket in the game against Poland on Monday.

Parker hit a jumper with 6:34 remaining in the first quarter to make it 2-2 in Montpellier.

That gave the San Antonio Spurs guard a total of 1,032 points, two more than former Greece star Nikos Galis. Parker tied the total in France’s 81-54 win over Bosnia-Herzegovina on Sunday.

Parker has previously played 61 games in eight separate European championships and averaged 17 points in his opening two games in this tournament. Parker led France to its first title two years ago.

Galis was on the Greek side that won the European title in 1987 and played in 33 European Championship games during his career.