NBA Season Preview: Toronto Raptors

11 Comments

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.

Atlanta Hawks reportedly trade two second round picks for cash

Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Atlanta Hawks came into this year’s NBA Draft with six picks: No. 8 and No. 10 in the lottery, No. 17 (acquired recently as part of the Allen Crabbe/Taurean Prince trade), plus three second rounders (35, 41, 44). While the Hawks are a young team looking for players to develop on the Trae Young and John Collins timeline, they were never going to use all six of those picks for players they wanted.

So they have sold off two of those picks for cash.

First, the No. 44 pick to the Miami Heat, as reported by Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Now the No. 41 has been traded to Golden State, as reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Players picked in the 41-44 range in recent drafts include Pat Connaughton, Tyler Dorsey, Damyean Dotson, and Bruce Brown. Some guys there never stick or make a roster, but sometimes teams can hit on a role player in that range.

Atlanta has been active trying to package a couple of their first-round picks to move up in the draft, something that could come together on a very active draft night. This is shaping up to be one of the most trade-heavy, chaotic drafts in years and Atlanta could be right in the middle of it.

Report: Boston trying to trade Aron Baynes, something good for both sides

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Just a little over a week ago, Aron Baynes opted into the final year of his contract with the Celtics, worth $5.4 million. He did so in part because he believed himself and Al Horford would split time at the five on a team contending in the East.

Horford is all but gone, likely following Kyrie Irving out the door in Boston. Anthony Davis isn’t coming (obviously). Title contention next season appears off the table for the Celtics.

The Celtics are now reportedly looking for potential trades for the Baynes, the defensive-minded big man, something Adrian Wojnarowski reported. Baynes is reportedly good with the move.

If you want to take that a step further, if Boston trades Baynes into cap space — meaning the Celtics don’t take a player and salary back, just a pick — then renounces all its free agents, they could have enough money to sign a 7-9 year max player, such as Kawhi Leonard or Jimmy Butler, something noted by Keith Smith of Yahoo Sports. Not the Celtics will go that route, they probably can’t land one of those guys at this point, but it’s an option.

With Danny Ainge’s best-laid plans in tatters (pairing Irving and Davis), the Celtics are looking to regroup. They still have a good team with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward (who is probably better next season, two years removed from his injury), Marcus Smart, and others. With player development and shrewd moves to get an elite player or two, they can return to contention in a couple of years. How exactly that comes together remains to be seen, but it is possible. It just requires patience.

Aron Baynes isn’t going to be sticking around to see that.

Report: Lakers reportedly never asked Anthony Davis about waiving trade kicker

Harry How/Getty Images
2 Comments

The Lakers reportedly didn’t address the trade date with the Pelicans before agreeing to deal for Anthony Davis. That oversight cost the Lakers leverage in negotiating parameters that’d open max cap space.

So, the Lakers are scrambling now.

Different proposals for revising the deal include Davis waiving his $4,063,953 trade bonus. At last check, he intended to receive the full the amount, though maybe he’s willing to leave money on the table to help his new team.

But the Lakers apparently haven’t even asked him yet.

Howard Beck of Bleacher Report:

The Lakers could have asked Davis to waive the kicker as part of the deal. Per league sources, they never broached it.

To give the Lakers (far too much) benefit of the doubt, maybe they’re waiting to see which free agents they can attract before asking Davis about the trade bonus. The Lakers might think they have a better chance of getting Davis to waive the bonus if they can present a compelling plan of how the extra money would be used.

More likely, it seems Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka just isn’t covering all the bases he should.

There are still ways for the Lakers open max cap space and get Davis more, if not all, of his bonus. Essentially, the Lakers must send out more money in the trade so they can take in more money, including Davis’ trade bonus. They could guarantee more of Jemerrio Jones‘ salary and/or sign-and-trade Alex Caruso in a revised version of the deal.

But Jones and Caruso would have negative value in those scenarios. So, the Lakers would have to attach sweeteners to whichever team took them.

That might be a justifiable cost of forming a team with LeBron James, Davis and a third star. It’s also a cost that should have been more thoughtfully considered before agreeing to terms with New Orleans.

To get under luxury tax, Thunder reportedly would trade Steven Adams, Andre Roberson, No. 21 pick

Getty Images
1 Comment

As you read this, without their roster completely filled up yet, the Oklahoma City Thunder are more than $6 million over next season’s luxury tax line of $132 million. That’s just the guaranteed money. By the time you factor in non-guarantees and the cost of the No. 21 pick, the team will be more than $19 million into the luxury tax.

That price may be a little steep for Thunder ownership, according to Jake Fischer of Sports Illustrated.

It would be impossible for the Thunder to avoid the luxury tax without doing serious damage to their chances to chase a ring next season — and in a Western Conference that doesn’t have a dominant Golden State team on top, the Thunder believe they have a shot. This is likely more about reducing the tax hit than avoiding it.

The Thunder will pay $38.5 million next season to Russell Westbrook and $33 million to Paul George, and obviously those two are untouchable.

Adams will make $25.8 million next season and $27.5 million the one after that, however, trading him would do serious damage to OKC’s fourth-ranked defense last season. Adams is an integral part of the Thunder identity on and off the court, and trading him is highly unlikely. Dennis Schroeder will make $15.5 million each of the next two seasons, and he provided a lot of value for the Thunder off the bench.

Andre Roberson seems a more likely candidate. He missed all of last season due to a ruptured left patellar tendon (although they did miss him(. He’s set to make $10.7 million and if a team can be convinced the defensive specialist is back and healthy there would be teams interested. The challenge for the Thunder is constructing a trade that does not bring back salary.

Nothing may happen around the draft, but keep an eye on Thunder this summer as they try to save a little cash without damaging their playoff dreams.