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.

Adam Silver likes NBA teams moving away from term ‘owner,’ prefers ‘governor’

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Warriors star Draymond Green has objected to using the term “owner.” The 76ers use “managing partner,” not “owner,” as Josh Harris’ title.

Does NBA commissioner Adam Silver like teams moving away from the term owner?

Silver, via TMZ:

I do. I don’t want to overreact to the term because, as I’ve said earlier, people end up twisting themselves into knots avoiding the use of the word owner. But, we moved away from that term years ago in the league. We call our team owners governor of the team and alternate governors. So, I think it makes sense. As I’ve said, I don’t want to overreact, and you’ll find the word throughout memos over the past decade in the NBA. But I’m sensitive to it, and I think to the extent teams are moving away from the term, we’ll stick with using governor.

Players have gone both ways. I think a few players have actually spoken out and said the greatest thing that ever happened was when Michael Jordan was able to call himself an owner. But, of course, Draymond Green has been very public about the fact that we should be moving away from the term, and I completely respect that.

The elephant in the room: Slavery. The history of white people owning black people is the subtext to this entire discussion. Slavery looms over a league where most owners are white and most player are black.

However, the term “owner” here doesn’t refer to owning the players, but owning the team. “Ownership” has far wider historically usage than slavery. In most fields, “owning” companies – which NBA teams are – doesn’t generate backlash.

Are we too loose with the term “owner” in sports? Perhaps. It’s common to say something like, “Players should strongly consider their potential owners in free agency” rather than “players should strongly consider their potential team’s owners in free agency.”

But there are power differences between players and owners/managing partners/governors/whatever you want to call them. Unless addressing the actual underlying issues, changing terms will accomplish nothing.

Those power dynamics are why the Warriors referred to Mark Stevens as “Mr. Stevens” and Kyle Lowry as Kyle Lowry after Stevens pushed Lowry during the NBA Finals. Those power dynamics are why Donald Sterling took guests into the Clippers’ locker room to ogle players. Those power dynamics are why LeBron James is remembered as the bad guy from The Decision despite Dan Gilbert’s wild letter.

There will always be differences between players and owners. Owners have more money and staying power. But the NBA can create a better, fairer environment for its players.

It’ll just require deeper consideration than a simple word change.

Report: Knicks will roll over cap space if they don’t sign Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard

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The Knicks are chasing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. New York will reportedly get a meeting with Kawhi Leonard.

But Irving appears headed to the Nets, and Durant might follow. Leonard appears to favor the Raptors in a two-team race with the Clippers.

Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News:

New York still believes it’s in the hunt for Kawhi Leonard, Irving and Durant. But, according to a source, the Knicks will punt their $70 million-plus in cap space if they can’t land one of those Tier A free agents.

This plan would require patience Knicks owner James Dolan has rarely shown. The Knicks have missed the playoffs six straight years. Twice during that span – including last season – they posted their worst record in franchise history (17-65). Dolan publicly proclaimed confidence New York would sign major free agents this summer.

He’d really allow the Knicks to delay winning even further?

New York is positioned to wait until 2020 free agency (though Joakim Noah‘s cap hit will remain on the books after an avoidable error). R.J. Barrett and Kevin Knox will still be on relatively cheap rookie-scale contracts. As a second-round pick, Mitchell Robinson is even lower-paid. If they sign players to only one-year contracts this offseason, the Knicks will once again have massive cap room.

But good players generally want multi-year deals. So, New York would be choosing among a far more limited pool of free agents. Another gloomy season would likely await.

And then the 2020 free-agent class looks weak. Especially with Anthony Davis already on the Lakers, there probably won’t be an attainable superstar for the Knicks. There might not even be an attainable star.

Then what? Sacrifice the 2020-21 season to gear up for 2021 free agency? Maybe Barrett, Knox and Robinson develop and send New York on a different track, but that’s far from assured.

The genius of this plan is it allows Knicks president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry to keep their jobs while the team continues to stink. There would be no expectations of winning anytime soon – as long as Dolan abides.

Report: Kyrie Irving doesn’t like living in Boston

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Has Kyrie Irving been in contact with the Boston Celtics about his free agency? We have reports that say that Irving has “ghosted” the Celtics… and of course we have counter reports that say just the opposite.

It’s hard to believe anything that swirls around Irving, one of the more enigmatic and tiring personalities in the NBA. At the very least, Irving has appeared to send signals that he is looking to sign with the Brooklyn Nets. Chief among them being that Irving recently fired his longtime representation and signed with Roc Nation, which has a close partnership with the Brooklyn front office.

Boston has had a hard time getting free agents to come to play for the franchise, and that’s before they had a standing beef with Klutch Sports. According to ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan, one of our Irving’s problems with the Celtics was that he simply didn’t like living in Boston.

Via ESPN:

“Kyrie Irving didn’t like Boston. I’ve been told this by many people. He didn’t like living in Boston — he just didn’t. By the end he had issues with Brad, by the end he had issues with Danny… by the end he had issues with pretty much all of us.”

We have heard rumors that things started to go wrong in the Celtics locker room when coach Brad Stevens seemed to openly favor injured star Gordon Hayward a bit too heavily (Hayward played for Stevens at Butler in college).

Meanwhile, Danny Ainge has the propensity to rub folks the wrong way. He makes whatever decision he thinks is the best from a basketball perspective, relationships be damned. We learned that with the Isaiah Thomas trade.

At this juncture it seems unlikely that Irving will return to the Celtics. Meanwhile, we will probably continue to get stories like this out of Boston.

Chris Paul: “I never asked for a trade” and says he’s happy to be in Houston

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With Golden State laid low by injuries (and maybe a defection), Houston should be the team stepping to the front of the line saying “it’s our turn” in the West.

Instead, the Rockets two stars — James Harden and Chris Paul — are feuding, ownership is turning coach Mike D’Antoni into a lame duck, and everyone without a fantastic beard hears their name in trade rumors.

The Harden/Paul feud is real, but Paul tried to downplay it at a charity event in Los Angeles over the weekend, denying a trade request and saying he was happy to be in Houston, as reported by Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.

“I never asked for a trade,” Paul said. “I never demanded a trade.”

“I’ll be in Houston,” Paul said. “I’m happy about that. I’m very happy about that. I’m good.”

The report goes on to note Paul was asked if he had to work things out with Harden and he kind of danced around that question but said the issues were around a season-ending loss. Certainly, two straight years of being bounced by the Warriors has the Rockets frustrated. However, there is also a style issue: Harden dominates the ball and likes to work in isolation, Chris Paul can’t be as efficient that way anymore and prefers a more fluid offense (and more pick-and-roll for him). Coach D’Antoni gives a lot of leeway to Harden.

Harden and Paul need to work their issues out because Paul is nearly untradable (unless the Rockets want to throw in a sweetener with a pick or young player). Paul still has value on the court — a master floor general he averaged 15.6 points and 8.2 assists per game last season — but he is 34-years-old, lost a step last season, has an injury history (he played 58 games last season), and is owed $124 million fully guaranteed over the next three seasons. There simply are not teams interested in trading for Paul.

Houston could head into next season the favorites in the West. Part of that depends on how things shake out in free agency (does Kawhi Leonard come West, for example), but a lot of it is just the Rockets getting their act together. I expect Paul and Harden to figure things out, at least well enough to make it work. Mostly because they don’t have a choice. Paul isn’t going anywhere, whether he asked to leave or not.