ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: Toronto Raptors

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Last season: Raptors’ fans went into the season thinking the playoffs were a possibility, but it didn’t take long for that ship to run aground on the rocks of reality. The team defense struggled, Andrea Bargnani was Andrea Bargnani, Jonas Valanciunas looked like rookie, Kyle Lowry battled injuries, nothing went as planned and everything fell apart.

But near the trade deadline the Raptors made a bold move, trading for Rudy Gay (from Memphis). It breathed life into the team, who went on to have 34 wins and finish ninth in the East. It was a move that provided hope for the fans, even if it couldn’t save GM Bryan Colangelo’s job.

Signature highlight from last season: With an athletic team there were a few to choose from but we’ll take DeMar DeRozan with the game winner vs. Orlando.

Key player changes: The biggest offseason move wasn’t a player, it was getting GM Masai Ujiri out of Denver to take over the organization. Under  Colangelo the Raptors were an organization  without a rudder; with Ujiri they will find a direction. It may take a couple years to build it, but he has a plan. Heck, he already traded Bargnani to the Knicks for actual players, when Raptors fans would have traded him for a rack of shootaround basketballs.

Toronto improved their bench this summer. Gone are Bargnani and Linas Kleiza. In are Tyler Hansbrough, D.J. Augustin, Steve Novak and Austin Daye. Not mindblowing, but better.

Keys to the Raptors’ season:

1) Can they win with Rudy Gay and will he stay? The Raptors took a big risk and they took on a big salary when they traded for Gay, who will make $17.9 million this season. Next summer he can opt out and be a free agent (or he can stay for a final year at $19.3 million). Good chance he opts out (to get the security of a longer deal) so the two questions become: Can the Raptors win and keep Gay happy so he stays? Do they want to keep him?

Make no mistake, Gay is a quality player, a borderline All-Star averaging 19.5 points a game last season with the Raptors. But he is not efficient. He shot 42.5 percent for them and 33.6 percent from three, with a PER of 17.6. That’s good but speaks to a second or third option on a contender — maybe the corrective eye surgery he had this summer will change this, but that’s a roll of the dice. Plus, a lot of Gay’s skillset overlaps with DeMar DeRozan’s. So again, do you want to keep him or the less expensive DeRozan (especially if DeRozan has a breakout year)?

It’s a discussion the Raptors need to have thinking about the long-term. However, in the short-term if Toronto is going to make the playoffs this season, a lot of that falls to Gay.  He is going to have to lead this team by being more efficient (same with DeRozan and Lowry).

2) How big a step forward will Jonas Valanciunas take? The first time I saw Valanciunas at Summer League I did a double take — he had clearly hit the gym and his upper body had filled out considerably. He then used that newfound strength to overpower lesser players on the block. Valanciunas did the same thing at EuroBasket for Lithuania. He averaged 8.9 points and 6 rebounds a game with 1.3 blocked shots a game. Look for all those numbers to go up as he takes a step forward this season — and that step is another key to Toronto making the postseason.

3) Can Dwane Casey fix the defense? Coach Dwane Casey is on the hot seat: New GM, expensive star players. and playoffs expectations is a bad combo for the coach.  Plus Casey is in the last year of his contract. Casey is supposed to be a defensive guy, and two seasons ago the Raptors played solid defense for him. But last season they took a big step back and were 22nd in the NBA in points allowed per possession. That has to change, the Raptors need to be top 12 to make the playoffs. With Gay and Lowry the Raptors will find points, but they need to stop other teams from scoring. Look for Valanciunas to be the shot blocking force at the rim, but will that be enough?

Why you should watch the Raptors: Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan are explosive. Once or twice a game — more against a team that wants to get out and run with them. Toronto has athletes. How well they play together is up for discussion, but this team is going to put up some highlights every night.

Prediction: 39-43. Like the end of last season this team is going to float around close to a playoff spot in the East this season — and if they defend, if Gay is a little more efficient, if Lowry stays healthy they can make it in. But can they really beat out teams like Cleveland and Detroit for a playoff spot. I’m not sold. Possible, but it really is going to be about the defense.

Nets GM Sean Marks gets suspended for going into ref’s locker room after Game 4

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Emotions are high as the playoffs move into the second week. Things got a little testy between the Brooklyn Nets and the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday night as Jared Dudley got in the face of Joel Embiid after the Sixers big man committed a hard foul on Jared Allen.

That caused Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler to respond to Dudley, who overreacted to a good, hard playoff foul by Embiid. The result of the fracas was an ejection for Butler and Dudley, and a flagrant 1 on embiid.

But apparently that’s not the end of the disciplinary process for the NBA.

Nets general manager Sean Marks went into the officials locker room after the game — no doubt to discuss what happened here — which is a big problem in the eyes of the league.

According to a release by the NBA, Marks has been suspended for one game without pay and has been fined $25,000.

Marks will be suspended for Game 5 between these two teams on April 23rd.

The playoffs are high-stakes, but Embiid blocking the crap out of somebody shouldn’t result in someone going crazy like Dudley did.

Philadelphia beat the Nets, 112-108.

Everyone’s hero is dad who pulls son away from Nets/76ers fracas (VIDEO)

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Fathers everywhere can relate to this one.

You set up a bonding experience with your son or daughter, one you hope will leave an impression on them and create a memory that will last a lifetime… for example, you get courtside seats, just behind the basket, for one of the first NBA playoff games in Brooklyn, ever.

Then everything hits the fan.

Joel Embiid commits a flagrant foul on Jarrett Allen, Jared Dudley rushes in and shoves Embiid to stand up for his teammate, Jimmy Butler runs in to shove Dudley on the same premise, and suddenly there is a wave of large professional athletes about to trample you and your son. So, you grab him, move onto the court, and get out of the way.

There were two fathers with the same thought, one on either side of the fracas that spills into the first row.

Well done Dads. Well done, indeed.

Andrew Bogut says he plans to return to Australian league next season

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Unable to find a new NBA contract for this season, Andrew Bogut went home. The Australia native signed to play for the Sydney Kings in Australia’s NBL, where Bogut ended up being the league MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, leading the Kings on a deep playoff run.

When that run ended, the Golden State Warriors came calling, asking him to fill a role — a role that got much larger after DeMarcus Cousins tore his quad. Bogut has played well for the Warriors in the postseason, and there is a good chance Cousins will not be back in Golden State (the Warriors can only offer him a small raise off what he made this season, that likely will not be enough, even after the injury), so the Warriors may try to retain Bogut for next season.

However, Bogut says he is returning to Australia. Speaking to Matt Logue from the Sunday Telegraph in Sydney, Bogut said he gave his word to the Kings he would return.

“The be all and end all is that I gave my word (to the Kings)… That is basically what it comes down to…

“Someone outside of the Warriors could offer me a deal that would be pretty lucrative and a decent one-year deal, but I’m sold and locked in on coming to the Sydney Kings again to try and better what we did last season.”

Saying you’ll walk away from a lot of money and actually doing it are two different things, but Bogut is a man who stands by his word. He probably returns to Sydney for next season.

When that season ends, however, don’t be shocked to see Bogut back somewhere in the NBA helping a team make a playoff run.

Joel Embiid calls Jared Dudley “a nobody” (but NBA Twitter shows Dudley love)

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Jared Dudley has been in the face of the Philadelphia 76ers all series.

He was the guy who said Ben Simmons was “average” in the halfcourt (which echoed every scouting report on Simmons ever), prompting Simmons to respond, “It’s coming from Jared Dudley. C’mon.” The feud between the Sixers and Dudley was brewing.

Then came Sunday, when Dudley was ejected after coming to the defense of teammate Jarrett Allen, who had taken a hard foul from Joel Embiid. Dudley pushed Embiid, then Jimmy Butler pushed Dudley, then everybody got in a shoving match, and when the dust settled Dudley and Butler were ejected.

In his postgame interview after the Philly win, Embiid said Dudley was “a nobody.”

“First of all, he’s a nobody. And when opponents try to do stuff like that, that’s just to get us out of the game. Especially, I’m too valuable for my team. That’s why I didn’t react.”

That may be how the Sixers feel about Dudley at this point, but Nets fans and NBA Twitter loved the way Dudley stood up to Embiid and everyone else. This is just a taste.