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.

Kemba Walker on his future: ‘I just can’t see myself in a Knicks jersey’

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When Mitch Kupchak came in as GM in Charlotte it led to a lot of speculation — and a lot of other GMs calling in to check — were the Hornets going to blow it up, trade Kemba Walker, and start to rebuild?

No. Walker is still there, Tony Parker is now backing him up, and new coach James Borrego is talking about upping the pace, getting the Hornets on the run. Walker, heading into the last year of his contract, has consistently said he does not want to leave Charlotte.

That has never stopped fans from his native New York from begging him to come home and lead the Knicks. Walker, talking to Don Amore of the Hartford Courant, reiterated he does not want to leave Charlotte.

“I’ve been hearing it for years,” Walker said Thursday, after working with youngsters at the National Basketball Players Association summer camp. “Every time I come home, ‘When are you going to come home and play for the Knicks?’ I know it’s a special place, I was a Knicks fan growing up, always rooted for the home team. But I just can’t see myself in a Knicks jersey, only because I’ve only been in one jersey.”

“I just want to do something special in Charlotte,” Walker said. “I’ve been there eight years now, and we haven’t really been consistent as far as winning. I just want to try to establish that culture at some point. That’s what I want to do, I just want to make it a winning organization.”

This season, the Hornets are going to try to win, be a playoff team and a threat once there. In a smaller market (one that took owner Michael Jordan a long time to rebuild after what the previous owner had done there), rebuilding can be hard on the bottom line, and the competitive MJ does not want to go there. He wants to keep Walker and build a steady playoff team, and Kupchak has said the same thing.

However, if that doesn’t happen this year, the calculations for the organization and Walker could be different next summer. Could.

For now, Walker just does not see himself if blue and orange.

Stephen Curry entertained by Draymond Green, Steve Kerr arguments

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Steve Kerr and Draymond Green have had their come-to-Jesus meeting (or, meetings) and have found their way to a place of mutual respect.

That doesn’t mean they don’t still argue. Plenty.

All this amuses Stephen Curry, who talked about it on The Bill Simmons Podcast when asked about his favorite Draymond story. (Hat tip Bleacher Report.)

“Probably the times him and Coach Kerr get into it,” Curry said. “And you’re inside of practice and you don’t know whose side to take. Just like, “I guess they’re both right, but they’re both wrong….

“They argue about a play call or maybe something Coach Kerr has been thinking about for a couple games. … And [Draymond’s] like, ‘Don’t over-coach. We know what we doing.’ And coach is like, ‘Well, I know you know what you’re doing, but let me just help you as I’m supposed to do. That’s what my job is, to point out things that could be important for us to win a championship.’

“But they have a real—the respect level between those two is at an all-time high, but they have their moments and it’s just amazing entertainment to watch in practice.”

It’s a long grind of a season, you’ve got to take your entertainment where you can find it.

Green’s passion is a challenge for Kerr, but he can’t snuff out that flame because Green would not be the same player without it. It’s about managing it, showing Green the coach has his back, and Green maturing (something he said happened more quickly after his 2016 Finals suspension). It’s worked the past two years and led to two more rings.

Kevin Love on LeBron James: ‘He’s playing chess and everyone else is playing checkers’

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Kevin Love is the man in Cleveland now, with LeBron James having gone to Hollywood.

But it’s not going to be the same, and Love knows it. The best player of his generation is gone, and Love had nothing but praise for LeBron and his willingness to take on a challenge in a sit-down interview with ESPN.

Love is right, LeBron loves a challenge, but the one with the Lakers is unlike anything else in his career. Expectations are through the roof for a team that has undergone a roster upheaval, and while those kinds of teams can take a little bit to come together, if that happens and the Lakers get off to a slow start in the West it will be a lot harder to dig out of it than it was after the Cavs’ annual mid-season slump in the East. LeBron is on a team with young players and a lot of stop-gap one-year contracts set up to help them get another star (at the trade deadline or next summer). That makes they dynamics of this season different for LeBron (although he would never admit to it, saying winning was the goal from the start).

Love has got his own challenges. He may not be able to lead the Cavaliers to the playoffs this season. However, he could be a sneaky good fantasy pickup now that he’s going to get a lot more touches.

 

Rumor: Timberwolves bypassed Stephen Curry in draft because Minnesota is too cold for year-round golf

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Timberwolves general manager David Kahn infamously drafted two point guards – Ricky Rubio No. 5 and Jonny Flynn No. 6 – before the Warriors took Stephen Curry No. 7 in the 2009 draft.

Curry, as transcribed by Drew Shiller of NBC Sports Bay Area:

“My guy David Kahn. I don’t know where he’s at right now,” Curry said on The Bill Simmons Podcast. “I don’t know if that ever came out — there’s a story. Everybody knows how much I love golf — play it in my spare time and what not.

“I think the word on the street was that he didn’t draft me because in Minnesota it’s cold and I wouldn’t be able to play as much golf so I would have been miserable.”

A shocked Simmons asked Curry: “Is that true?”

“I hope it’s true because that’s hilarious (laughter),” Curry said. “That’s hilarious.”

If this is why Minnesota passed on Curry, it was a huge mistake. Better to take the best prospect available and hope for the best. Curry probably would have learned to appreciate Minnesota. There’s plenty of room to golf elsewhere in the offseason. Remember, Golden State was seen as a low-rung destination just a few years ago. Curry helped transform the franchise’s perception.

Mostly, though, I’m with Curry. This would be a hilarious story if true.

But that doesn’t mean we should just assume it’s accurate. Plenty of teams underestimated Curry, who looked like an undersized score-first guard when he entered the NBA. He just beat the odds and made everyone who passed on him look silly.