NBA Season Preview: Toronto Raptors

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We wrap up PBT’s Atlantic Division previews this week by going north of the border. Next week we head to the Midwest and the Central Division.

Last season: Sure, a 23-43 record isn’t good. But it really wasn’t that bad. Seriously. Sure, the Toronto offense was dreadful and would have been the worst in the league had it not been for the Bobcats setting historic records for futility. It was frustrating for Raptors fans because Toronto has talent — Andrea Bargnani and DeMar DeRozan can score — but it didn’t show up much on that end of the floor (in part because Bargnani missed half the season with injuries).

But here is why there is hope — new coach Dwane Casey got Toronto to play defense. Pretty good defense. They went from the worst defense in the league two years ago to a respectable 12th in the league last season (101.5 points per 100 possessions). And the Raptors played hard, the effort was there every night. They didn’t have much talent but you could see the framework of a solid foundation being built.

Key Departures: Not many. Leandro Barbosa is gone, but they don’t need him anymore. After that the guys going away are people like Rasual Butler. No key players departed this year.

Key Additions: This is why there is hope — Toronto had a good offseason. It’s like they add two lottery picks to go with some nice free agents. After another year in Europe, 2011 No. 5 pick Jonas Valanciunas is coming to Toronto — and Raptor fans are pumped about this one. Last season they lacked a good defensive presence in the paint and Valanciunas is expected to provide that. And a few points would be nice, too. Toronto also has this year’s No. 8 pick, Terrence Ross, plus Quincy Acy coming aboard.

However, the biggest acquisition will be Kyle Lowry, the point guard who played at an All-Star level in Houston last year. Lowry can drive, score, set guys up, do just about everything pretty well. Plus, he’s in a contract year with something to prove. Toronto also added Landry Fields (remember Bryan Collangelo’s attempt to screw up the Knicks with a poison-pill deal — so they couldn’t sign Jeremy Lin — but it backfired and now the Raptors have Fields).  The Raptors also signed John Lucas III.

Three keys to the Raptors season:

1) Just how good is Jonas Valanciunas going to be? Toronto fans are pumped about the young Lithuanian big man — more than one fan in Cleveland screamed “noooo” when they drafted Tristan Thompson in front of Valanciunas. Because Valanciunas has the upside, the potential to be special — he was a defensive force at times in Europe and has dominated age-restricted international tournaments

But I watched him a fair amount during the Olympics and I’m not sold he makes a big impact out of the gate in Toronto. He can play some defense, but he needs to get stronger. His offense was a mess. His coach described his play as the game looking like it was moving too fast for him, and that’s what it looked like. He looked hurried, rushed. He can get over that with time, he can still be very good, but he looked like a project and this season may be a lot of work without a lot of fruit from the garden.

2) Just how much better is the Toronto offense going to be? The Raptors are not going to finish 29th in offensive efficiency this season, not with Kyle Lowry running the show at the point (and Jose Calderon behind him, who played very well last year). With Lowry driving the lane, with DeRozan slashing from the wing and with a healthy Bargnani shooting away from deep the Raptors are going to be better on offense.

The question really is how much better and how can Casey fit all the pieces together? While the Raptors are certainly a deeper squad they are building for the future and that means giving quality minutes to young players — rookies Valanciunas and Ross will both be in the heart of the rotation, Ed Davis is entering his third season, and while DeRozan has been around longer it is just his fourth season and he still plays young at times. Developing chemistry is going to take some time but the Raptors need to find a rotation that both can win and grow a young team.

3) Cut down on the turnovers. While Calderon played well for Toronto last season they had the fifth highest turnover percentage in the league — 14.8 percent of their trips down the court ended in an empty possession, a turnover. Theoretically you can win that way (the Thunder had the highest turnover rate in the league) but you make it a lot harder on yourselves. And while they bring in Kyle Lowry he’s not a guy known for taking care of the ball.

Last season the Raptors were third worst in the league in turnover differential. Their margin for error is not so big that they can keep it that high for another season. They need to take care of the rock.

What one thing should scare Raptors fans? Have you seen the Atlantic division? They play in a division with the Celtics, Knicks, Nets and Sixers — four playoff locks. It’s going to be hard to overcome that group for the next couple years unless the Raptors make some big leaps forward.

How it likely works out: Toronto fans are thinking playoffs. And that’s not out of the question — but everything has to go just right. Valanciunas has to give them a defensive presence they need in the paint from day one. Bargnani needs to play like he did at the start of last season and stay healthy. Lowry needs to play like he did last season. Terrence Ross needs to adjust to the NBA quickly. And so on down the line.

The Raptors likely are in the mix for the eight seed for much of the year, with teams like the Bucks and Cavaliers. They will give Raptors fans hope. But things never go as smoothly as one would hope and most likely the Raptors just miss out on a playoff spot this season and will look at this as a building year.

Prediction: 38-44, finishing like the ninth or 10th seed in the East. The Raptors are building something good but it’s going to take a couple more years to get all the way there.

Report: Kings, Hawks could pass on Luka Doncic if Suns don’t take him No. 1

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Luka Doncic or Deandre Ayton?

That’s the question many NBA fans are asking themselves, but according to one report it’s not the only thing several teams in the Top 3 of the 2018 NBA Draft are thinking about.

ESPN’s Jonathan Givony says that while the Phoenix Suns may still be considering taking Doncic with their No. 1 overall pick, the Sacramento Kings (2) and Atlanta Hawks (3) are not.

The Kings and Hawks are reportedly leaning toward taking an American frontcourt player, which would point us toward guys like Ayton, Marvin Bagley, Jaren Jackson, and Mo Bamba.

Via ESPN:

The growing consensus among NBA decision-makers in attendance at Stark Arena in Belgrade is that the teams drafting behind the Phoenix Suns at No. 1, the Sacramento Kings and Atlanta Hawks are likely to pass on European prodigy in favor of American frontcourt players. The question remains whether a team will trade up into the top three to snag Doncic, or if he will fall to the No. 4 (Memphis) or even the No. 5 pick (Dallas) after being heavily scouted in the Euroleague playoffs against Panathinaikos and mostly struggling.

The information we’re missing is whether the Kings and Hawks are turned off by Doncic specifically. Is it because they haven’t scouted him as much as the other guys? Is it because of perceived team need? Do they think Doncic has peaked already? Are they worried about less information being available from a Euro prospect? All are possible.

With all the hype around Doncic, it would be shocking to see him fall out of the Top 3. It’s happened before, but both Ayton and Doncic are the guys atop this draft that people are licking their chops to get.

Could we see a team trade up to get Doncic from the Hawks or Kings if Phoenix goes elsewhere? Is this just false information funneled to the media as a means of depressing the market for Doncic or for ferreting out a big trade offer?

The conference finals aren’t even over yet and here we are talking about the incessant drama of the NBA offseason. I love this league.

Larry Brown once told Trevor Ariza to never shoot

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Larry Brown is a legendary basketball coach, but he’s also been known to ascribe to a certain style. Brown’s regimen has sometimes rubbed players the wrong way, and likewise Brown has been overly attached to players which he likes.

For Houston Rockets wing Trevor Ariza, Brown’s staunch attitude almost ruined his career.

Ariza was a second-year player with the New York Knicks during the lone season Brown coached in the Big Apple in 2005-06. The UCLA product didn’t shoot well from the 3-point line in college or during his rookie season, so when Brown came to town he told Ariza to stop shooting from beyond the arc entirely.

Seriously.

Via Dan Woike and the LA Times:

More than a decade ago when Ariza was a second-year player, his coach with the New York Knicks, Hall of Famer Larry Brown, thought Ariza shouldn’t shoot from the perimeter. Like ever.

“He told me not to even look at the basket or shoot the ball,” said Ariza, 32. “I was definitely afraid to shoot. I just wouldn’t. I would not shoot.”

Woike’s story is pretty incredible, and goes on to detail how Ariza’s trade to the Los Angeles Lakers reignited his career and his confidence to shoot the ball. That’s obviously crucial for the Houston Rockets who need Ariza docked in the corner as Chris Paul and James Harden run pick-and-rolls and isolate.

Stories like this always sound wild, if only because they’re contextually being compared to completely different eras. Ariza was drafted in 2004, and has seen three different eras of NBA basketball (Iverson era, point guard PNR era, 3-point era) pass by during his time.

Larry Brown’s in the Hall of Fame but he whiffed on this one.

Stephen Curry goes berserk, Warriors beat Rockets by 41 in Game 3

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Stephen Curry had yet another big third quarter. Who could have seen that coming?

On the heels of the Houston Rockets’ 22-point win in Game 2, the Golden State Warriors decided to turn up the intensity as they returned home to Oakland on Sunday. The Warriors leapt out of the gate, scoring 31 points in the first quarter and playing monumental defense at the rim. Houston suffered from blown attempts in the paint for the entire first half, but it was their 3-point defense that stabilized their offense. The Rockets shot just 27 percent from beyond the arc in the first two quarters.

Then, perhaps expectedly, came the third quarter. The realm of 2-time NBA MVP Curry.

Golden State’s golden point guard failed to miss a single field goal in the quarter, helping the Warriors rally to start the half as well as fend off a Houston charge midway through the period. Curry completely took over with around six minutes left, dropping five of the Warriors’ next six made baskets.

It was enchanting, and everything we’ve come to expect from Curry when he’s at his best. After a made bucket, there was a shimmy. After a follow-up layup, a defiant stance on the baseline as he yelled to the crowd about Oracle Arena being his house.

Indeed, it was.

Curry and the Warriors did not let off the gas in the fourth quarter, finally burying the Rockets that both sides called a truce with 5:11 left, subbing out their big stars.

Houston was led by James Harden, who scored 20 points with nine assists and five rebounds, although he turned the ball over four times. Chris Paul had 13 points, 10 rebounds, and four assists. Eric Gordon helped with 11 points off the bench. The Rockets turned the ball over 20 times, allowing 28 points off turnovers to the Warriors.

For Golden State it was Curry’s 35 points and six rebounds as the big story. Kevin Durant added 25 points, six rebounds, and six assists. The Warriors shot 41 percent from 3-point range as every starter scored in double-digits. Golden State was also able to limit its turnovers to just eight.

Game 3 exemplified the stratification between the two teams. Houston was arguably the best team of the regular season, with the caveat being that Curry was out for huge swaths of time due to injury. With Curry back on the floor and playing at full tilt, Golden State again looks unbeatable.

Steve Kerr was able to counter the Game 2 strategy from Mike D’Antoni, who ran everything during Houston’s win directly at Curry on defense to tire out the recently-returned star. Kerr’s tweaks resulted in a complete eruption from Curry, one Houston was powerless to stop. Coupled with the continuous pounding from Durant and the incessant, extra pass 3-pointers, the Rockets didn’t have a counterstrike option.

Game 4 is in Oakland on Tuesday at 6:00 PM PST. We’ll see if D’Antoni can work his magic and come up with another new strategy to try and slow the Warriors.

Marcus Morris: II did a s–t job defensively against LeBron’

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The Cleveland Cavaliers aren’t dead. Not yet, at least.

LeBron James helped lead his team to a victory over the Boston Celtics on Saturday, 116-86, to set the series at 2-1 with the Cavaliers trailing.

James was efficient, scoring 27 points on 8-of-12 shooting while adding 12 assists, five rebounds, two blocks, and two steals. As a team Cleveland shot an impressive 50 percent from 3-point range, dwarfing their marks from Games 1 and 2 in the series.

Meanwhile, the team-first strategy implemented by the Celtics finally got its first big test of the Eastern Conference Finals. A top defensive team, Boston was embarrassed by how it played in Game 3 and they weren’t afraid to admit it. Four of its five starters were double-digit minuses in the box score, including Marcus Morris, who many were touting as a LeBron stopper (or LeBron slower).

Speaking to reporters on Sunday, Morris gave his honest opinion of how he played vs. LeBron. Meanwhile, Jaylen Brown said he was embarrassed.

Via Twitter:

Sounds about right.

Because you play the same team over and over again, by the time you get to the conference finals it’s all about finding counters to your opponent’s counters. The game-by-game strategy changes so much, and out of necessity.

The Cavaliers finally found their sweet spot, not only from beyond the 3-point line but in limiting the offensive contributions of both Morris and guys like Al Horford.

How Brad Stevens counters Ty Lue’s Game 3 strategy should be fun to watch, and reciprocal changes in the coming games will be the story of the series. Boston still has the edge, but the Cavaliers aren’t letting someone take The King’s crown without a fight.