Kurt Helin

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51 Questions: Can Toronto repeat its franchise-best season?

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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. For the past few weeks, and through the start of the NBA season, we tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season. Today:

Can Toronto repeat its franchise-best season?

The Toronto Raptors won a franchise record 56 games last season. Then they advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history. After the season had ended, they put two players on the gold medal winning USA team at the Rio Olympics. All that in a year the city also hosted the NBA All-Star Game. Through it all, the Raptors’ large fan base rallied around the team like never before.

Best. Season. Ever. At least in Raptors’ history.

As we head into training camp the question becomes, can they do it again?

On one hand, it’s tempting to say yes, because they are bringing back all the core pieces from a year ago.

Toronto’s goal No. 1 in the summer was keeping DeMar DeRozan — which wasn’t that hard, he didn’t want to leave (sorry Lakers fans, it’s true). When the Raptors came in with the second largest contract in NBA history at five-years, $139 million the deal was sealed. DeRozan’s shortcomings, specifically his willingness to take or ability to make threes, becomes bigger in the playoffs, and that’s a concern. Still, we’re talking about a guy who can get to the rim and score averaging 23.5 points and 4 assists per game last season. He’s an All-Star and an Olympian. He’s a great second option for the Raptors and they needed to keep him at any price.

Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas, and DeMarre Carroll were already all under contract, as were reserves like Patrick Patterson and Cory Joseph. The Raptors off-season losses — Luis Scola and Bismack Biyombo — were ones they could live with. (It would have been nice to keep the shot blocking of Biyombo, but not at the four-year, $72 million price tag Orlando put out there.)

The Raptors needed to upgrade at the power forward position, and they did that with the stopgap measure of Jared Sullinger. Boston fans would be all too happy to discuss their frustrations with Sullinger — the lack of conditioning, his inability or willingness to live up to his potential — but the fact is he’s better than Scola right now. What the Raptors need next to Valanciunas is a stretch four, and Sullinger is a poor man’s version of that. He took 41.5 percent of his shots from 16 feet and beyond last season, he just doesn’t hit them often enough to be a real threat (28.2 percent from three, for example). Still, he can rebound, pass well, defend one-on-one down low, all skills the Raptors can put to use.

The Raptors are also going to lean heavily on rookie Jakob Poeltl to back up Valanciunas at center. Norman Powell will have a larger role off the bench on the wing.

Considering all that, it’s possible the Raptors could win 56 games again.

But I expect a small step back. More like 51-53 wins.

There are a few reasons for this. One, the Raptors had the point differential of a 53-win team a year ago, they just outperformed that number (something the Raptors have done a few years in a row). Second, both Lowry and DeRozan had career-best years, not just in terms of points scored but in terms of efficiency doing so, and it is safe to assume one or both take a small step back. Also, both guards were relatively healthy all season, and that could change as well.

But the biggest reason to expect a small step back is that the East is getting better — it’s going to be harder to win games. The 48-win Celtics added Al Horford to the mix. The Indiana Pacers added Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young, they should take a step forward. Stan Van Gundy’s Pistons are improving. So it goes through large swaths of the East. Even if the Raptors are as good a team as they were a season ago, reaching 56 wins again would be a tall task.

That said, I expect Toronto and Boston to be battling it out for the two seed in the East. (Seed matters, teams want to be the two or three seed in the East, because the four seed will get Cleveland in the second round.)

The Raptors could very well reach the Conference Finals again. It’s impossible to predict in September who will be healthy come May, who will have found the rotations that work best, and how the playoff rounds will shake out in the East. If it were to come down to Boston and Toronto in the second round for the right to advance, on paper it looks like a must-watch series. But teams such as Detroit and Indiana (and maybe Atlanta, if you believe in the rejuvenation of Dwight Howard) could have a say in all of it.

Regardless, Raptor fans are in for another of the best seasons in franchise history, something to get them through the cold winter months and the Maple Leafs’ struggles. This is a very good Raptors team. There’s a reason Masai Ujiri just got a contract extension.

Bojan Bogdanovic thinks Brooklyn Nets can make the playoffs

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Most prognosticators have the Brooklyn Nets being one of the worst teams in the NBA next season.

They should win a few more this season compared to the disaster of a season ago. With a good young player that hopefully stays healthy in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, the addition of Jeremy Lin to run the point, plus they still have Brook Lopez in the middle, this season’s Nets should be more competitive. Without question, they will be more entertaining. But wins are going to be hard to come by; likely they win in the mid-20s.

Don’t tell Bojan Bogdanovic that.

After a summer where he led the Croatian national team deeper in the Olympics than anyone expected, he told the New York post he thinks the Nets can reach the postseason.

“I think we can,’’ Bogdanovic told the Post. “They can write what they want. … But we’re going to work hard to give it our best. When we get in a game, we have a chance to beat anybody. It’s going to be tough, but if we play like we practice, we have a chance.”

I like that Bogdanovic has this attitude — players should always aim for and expect the best.

But if I’m a Nets fan, I wouldn’t bet on this.

Tyronn Lue says Allen Iverson can coach with him

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When we think of Tyronn Lue and Allen Iverson together, we picture only one thing, Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals (unfortunately for Lue):

Iverson and Lue are now friends. During Allen Iverson’s brilliant Hall of Fame speech, Lue told a little story about calling out to Lue the following season, when Lue got a $5 million contract with Washington.

“And I said, ‘The only reason you got that little, $5 million a year is for running around after me.’ And the man looked at me and said what I would have said: ‘Thank you!’ And we’ve been (close) like this ever since.”

Iverson also said that point guards make the best coaches because they have to think the game. So when Lue recently tried to walk through LAX and got ambushed by a TMZ cameraman, he got asked if Iverson could be a coach.

Lue’s response: “He can come coach with me.” (Fast forward to 1:08 in the video)

 

Not sure Iverson has the personality to be a full-time NBA assistant, but he could drop in for a day at Cavaliers camp and it would be a lot of fun.

Bucks make signing of Xavier Henry to training camp deal official

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The Milwaukee Bucks already have 15 players under guaranteed contract, anyone they add to their training camp roster is a long shot to make the team. That said, the Bucks could use a little more depth on the wing.

Enter Xavier Henry. The Bucks made official on Monday what had been reported for weeks, Milwaukee is bringing Henry to training camp.

Henry was the No. 12 pick in the 2010 draft and had a world of athleticism but never really harnessed it into a dangerous weapon on the court. He started to show flashes with Mike D’Antoni’s Lakers, but a couple of knee injuries then a torn Achilles ended up being major setbacks.

Henry went to the Warriors camp last season then played nine games for Santa Clara in the D-League, where he averaged 15.6 points a game with a very efficient PER of 21.4. If he can show in camp that he is close to back to his Lakers form, he may be able to pique the interest of some NBA teams. Including the Bucks.

 

Former NBA player Samuel Dalembert charged with battery

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BOCA RATON, Fla. (AP) Former NBA player Samuel Dalembert is facing battery charges after authorities say he hit his girlfriend and her cousin.

A Boca Raton police report says police responded to Dalembert’s home Sunday evening after a 911 hang-up. The woman and her cousin initially told officers nothing was wrong but eventually said the 7-foot, 270-pound Dalembert became upset after finding out that his girlfriend was leaving for Orlando with their two children.

The cousin told police Dalembert pushed the girlfriend down and then choked the cousin when he tried to intervene. Dalembert was arrested on two counts of battery and released from jail.

Dalembert played with the Philadelphia 76ers, Sacramento Kings, Houston Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks, Dallas Mavericks and New York Knicks during a 13-year NBA career.