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.

Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Anthony Kiedis escorted from courtside seat for screaming at Chris Paul after fight

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Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul got into it. Rondo’s girlfriend and Paul’s wife reportedly got into it.

And if that weren’t enough, Red Hot Chili Peppers singer Anthony Kiedis angrily challenged Paul during Saturday’s Lakers-Rockets fracas.

“California, show your teeth,” indeed.

Timberwolves president Tom Thibodeau on Derrick Rose: ‘As long as he’s healthy, he’ll be one of the best players in the league’

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Timberwolves guard Derrick Rose has already played two games better than he had all of last season. He scored 12 points with eight assists and no turnovers in a win over the Cavaliers on Friday then posted 28-5-5-2 against the Mavericks on Saturday.

But let’s not overreact to such a small –

Jace Frederick of the Pioneer Press:

If Tom Thibodeau is referring to a level of health Rose hasn’t had in several years and will never have again, that’s fine. Rose won MVP while healthy.

But if Thibodeau means just available to play without a limp, wow. His love of former Bulls extends even further than we realized.

Rose could help Minnesota in a limited role. He started to find a groove late last season, and he’s obviously starting strong this year. But this type of praise only prompts mocking.

Bulls sign Shaquille Harrison, waive Omer Asik

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Kris Dunn, the Bulls’ clear top point guard, has yet to play this season due the birth of his child. Even when he returns, Chicago’s other point guards – Cameron Payne, Ryan Arcidiacono, Tyler Ulis – are uninspiring, even as backups.

So, the Bulls added Shaquille Harrison, whom the Suns waived after agreeing to sign Jamal Crawford.

Bulls release:

The Chicago Bulls have signed guard Shaquille Harrison.

In a preceding move, the Bulls waived center Omer Asik.

Harrison is a nice pickup, one of the better free agents available and someone who plays a position of need. The Bulls could use several swings at finding long-term point guards, and the 25-year-old Harrison is a potential fit.

Waiving Asik is an interesting move. Asik was injured, and this could end the 32-year-old’s career. But Chicago loses the ability to trade his contract. Just $3 million of Asik’s $11,977,527 2019-20 salary was guaranteed, which could have been useful in a salary-accepting trade.

Instead, Asik will count $11,286,516 against the cap this season and $3 million after that. The Bulls can either pay the entire $3 million next season or stretch it to $1 million each of the next three seasons. Stretching the money would indicate Chicago still plants to be aggressive in free agency next summer. Paying all it once would suggest a more patient rebuild.

Report: Darius Bazley, who’s sitting out awaiting draft, receives $1 million guaranteed on shoe contract

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Negotiations on lowering the NBA’s age limit have stalled, though there’s plenty of time to negotiate before the targeted allowance of high school players declaring for the draft in 2022.

In the meantime, the NBA’s minor league will soon offer $125,000 salaries to 18-year-olds – up from the standard G League salary of $35,000. Will players sign those Select Contracts rather than playing college basketball, which comes with cartel-limited compensation?

Darius Bazley – who committed to Syracuse, planned to play in the NBA’s minor league then decided to sit out the upcoming season – could provide an illuminating test case. Represented by Rich Paul, Bazley signed an endorsement deal with New Balance.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

According to Paul, Bazley’s multiyear deal will pay him $1 million “no matter what happens” with his N.B.A. career — and can pay up to $14 million if he reaches all performance incentives.

That dwarfs even the increased minor-league salary. Bazley can receive that endorsement money because he no longer cares about preserving college eligibility. The same would apply to Select Contract players.

But the shoe company would become the primary employer. If the shoe company decides playing in the NBA’s minor-league for $125,000 offers the best return on investment, that’s what the player will do. If the shoe company decides the player is better off doing something else, the player will do that.

Bazley ranked just No. 17 in his class, per the 247 composite. He projects as a late first-rounder once draft-eligible next year. The money gets even bigger with more highly touted prospects.

College basketball remains the place that offers them the most exposure, and shoe companies might continue to funnel players there with under-the-table payments. That was no longer an option with Bazley, but this ought to serve as a reminder of who drives the money for elite 18-year-old players. It isn’t the G League.