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.

NBA 2K20 ratings released, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard earn 97s to lead way

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How do NBA players measure respect? There are a few ways, with the size of the paycheck being at the top of the list. Awards and accolades fit in there.

However, few things rile guys up like their NBA 2K rankings. Most play the game, and their ranking (out of 100) is seen as a measure of status among fellow players and fans.

2K Sports unveiled the top rankings for NBA 2K20 in a live-streamed show on Monday night, and LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard got the top honors. Here’s the top 20:

1. LeBron James 97
2. Kawhi Leonard 97
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo 96
4. Kevin Durant 96
5. James Harden 96
6. Stephen Curry 96
7. Anthony Davis 94
8. Paul George 93
9. Damian Lillard 92
10. Joel Embiid 91
11. Kyrie Irving 91
12. Nikola Jokic 90
13. Russell Westbrook 90
14. Klay Thompson 89
15. Karl-Anthony Towns 89
16. Jimmy Butler 88
17. Kemba Walker 88
18. Donovan Mitchell 88
19. Rudy Gobert 88
20. Blake Griffin 88

The highest-rated rookie: Of course it was Zion Williamson (81).

Anthony Davis is on the cover of NBA 2K20, which will be released on Sept. 6. Sorry, you’ve got to wait until then to play it, but here is an early teaser video.

Report: Chris Paul trade to Miami hung up on picks moving with him

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Chris Paul is making a stopover in Oklahoma City. The Rockets sent him there for Paul George, but the competitive 34-year-old point guard doesn’t want to be part of a long rebuilding project. He wants to be traded again before the season starts.

His preference? Miami, according to Brian Windhorst of ESPN. There, CP3 would team up with Jimmy Butler. Miami is open to the idea, but what has hung the entire thing up is the discussion of picks, Windhorst said on ESPN’s SportsCenter on Monday night (hat tip NESN).

“When you talk about him potentially going to the Miami Heat, which is his preference, one thing I’ve been told in the talks; the fact that the Thunder hold the two of the Heat’s first-round picks in the future — unprotected 2021, protected 2023 — makes this a difficult conversation because the Heat want those picks back,” Windhorst said. “The Thunder have expressed an interest in giving one of those picks back but they would want another pick farther off into the future. So I do think that these teams have a lot to talk about.”

Oklahoma City is rebuilding and the mountain of picks they have compiled through trading George and Westbrook — 16 potential first rounders through 2026, including their own, enough to make Danny Ainge think they have too many picks — is at the heart of that plan. While the Thunder can afford to give one or two up, they don’t want to.

Miami is saying that to take on Paul’s remaining three-years, $124 million, they want a sweetener. Which is what every team would ask for.

Which brings us to another problem for the Thunder: There is not much of a market for Paul. Miami is the only name really mentioned in negotiations. There is speculation about other potential landing spots, and no doubt some feeler calls have come into Sam Presti in OKC, but the Heat seem to be the only team going down the road of serious talks.

There are other challenges to getting this trade done. For example, the Thunder would love to shed salary (they are still $3.7 million into the tax) but the Heat are hard-capped after the Jimmy Butler sign-and-trade and cannot absorb any more salary.

The Heat may be the place Paul ultimately lands but finding a deal that works could take some time to bring together.

Brandon Clarke named Summer League MVP, leads Grizzlies to Vegas title

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Brandon Clarke made his mark in Las Vegas.

The No. 21 pick in June out of Gonzaga, he averaged 14.6 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 1.6 blocks per game in leading the Grizzlies to the championship game, and for that he was named the Las Vegas Summer League MVP.

(That award has been won by Damian Lillard, Blake Griffin and John Wall, but also Josh Shelby and Glen Rice Jr. Most winners of the award had good careers as role players — Randy Foye, Jerryd Bayless, whatever Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart become — but it’s a mistake to think it’s a precursor of NBA dominance.)

Clarke wasn’t done, he had 15 points and 16 rebounds in the championship game, leading the Grizzlies past the Timberwolves 95-92. Memphis is your 2019 NBA Summer League Champions.

Memphis raced out to a 15-point lead early in the title game.

In the end, it was a balanced attack that won Memphis the game. Grayson Allen led the way 17 points, but Clarke, Bruno Caboclo, and Dusty Hannah’s all had 15 points, while Tyler Harvey added a dozen.

Minnesota was led by Kelan Martin with 19 points.

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban fined $50,000; Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta $25,000

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The first rule of NBA ownership: Don’t talk about NBA ownership.

Or the business you do as an owner until it becomes official, even if by then everyone else has known for days and already moved on from the topic.

Monday was an expensive day for two of the NBA’s owners of teams in Texas. Mark Cuban was fined $50,000 for leaking information from the league’s Board of Governor’s meeting about the new coach’s challenge  — even though everybody knew what was going to happen — before the meeting officially ended. Tim MacMahon of ESPN reported this story and had maybe the best quote of the summer to go with it.

The NBA office fined Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban $50,000 after he admitted to leaking information from last week’s Board of Governors meeting to a reporter, sources told ESPN…

“I appreciate the irony of your reporting on a fine that someone should, but won’t, get fined for leaking to you,” Cuban told ESPN.

Sources said Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive expressed concern that information about the vote to allow coaches’ challenges was being reported while the meeting was still in session. Cuban immediately admitted that he had leaked the information, sources said.

Well played, Cuban.

This is a letter of the law fine, but was it a big deal that this got out? The vote was all but assured, a formality, but Cuban gets fined for telling people? Thanks, Vivek.

From the same “is this really a big deal” file we have the fine Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta got on Monday, $25,000 for talking about the Russell Westbrook trade before it was official. Even though everybody was talking about it. From Mark Stein of the New York Times.

Here is the oh-so-damaging quote:

Again, I get Fertitta crossed the official line because the trade had not gone through yet, but does that line really need to exist in these cases? It feels like the silly hat thing at the NBA Draft.

Damaging or even interesting information was not divulged in either case. The fines were not steep because of it, but the NBA’s process of what is and is not allowed around trades and free agency — and the odd Board of Governors meeting — seems behind the times.