ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 Preview: Toronto Raptors

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Last season: The Raptors had one of the most satisfying regular seasons in the league. Their 48-34 record was a franchise best, and fans really embraced the team after it traded Rudy Gay. The deal with the Kings cleared the way for the Raptors to elevate young and likable players, assembling a starting lineup of Kyle Lowry, Terrence Ross, DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas.

DeRozan became an All-Star. Lowry was even better. Valanciunas grew into a larger role, and Ross is following right behind him. Johnson was the glue that held everything together.

It really worked.

But Toronto ran into the experienced Nets in the first round of the playoffs, and Brooklyn upset the third-seeded Raptors in seven games.

Signature highlight from last season: The Raptors established an identity after the Gay trade – feisty and confident. Toronto general manager Masai Ujiri showcased that when he addressed fans before Game 1 against the Nets, shouting “F— Brooklyn:”

If you want something on the court, Lowry made an awesome buzzer-beating 3-pointer in the Raptors’ Game 5 win over the Nets. That series really was something.

Key player changes:

Keys to the Raptors season:

Kyle Lowry (and everyone) staying hungry: Lowry got into better shape last season. He stopped frequently fighting with coaches, and he became a better teammate. That led to the best season of his career.

Oh, by the way, he was in a contract year.

Has Lowry really turned a corner, or did the prospect of a big paycheck just temporarily convince Lowry to change his act?

The answer to that question will determine the Raptors’ fate, not only this season but in coming years. They gave Lowry a four-year, $48 million contract this offseason.

Based on last year’s team success, they also generously re-signed Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez for north of $6 million per season each.

Will everyone remain as motivated as they were last year? Lowry will set the tone.

The value of continuity: On the flip side of the motivational question, the Raptors return their six most-used players from a season ago – DeRozan, Lowry, Valanciunas, Johnson, Ross and Vasquez. They can really settle into Dwane Casey’s system.

Really, the Raptors were two different teams last season – the one before the Gay trade and the one after. That second team had a limited amount of time to grow together, making up for it with a noticeable excitement for playing together. A little more seasoning could really pay dividends, especially in the postseason.

An improved bench: Lou Williams adds scoring punch, and James Johnson brings quality defense with some all-around offensive skills. Plus, Patterson returns to stretch the floor, and Vasquez is back to play behind and with Lowry.

Toronto’s bench is deeper and more complete, giving Casey potential to find some intriguing lineups and rest his starters.

Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross continuing to develop: Valanciunas looked like a future All-Star, and Ross had a 51-point game. Toronto couldn’t have asked for much more from those players in their second years.

But as Valanciunas and Ross step into their third seasons, expectations get higher. Both players must show the skills they flashed last season in more consistent doses.

Lowry and DeRozan are closer to their peaks, so the for the Raptors to reach the next level, the onus is on Valanciunas and Ross.

Why you should watch: If the Raptors merely copy what they do last season, they’re a lot of fun. They play physically and energetically, really forcing opponents to play their best. This is a team on the rise.

Prediction: 48-34, No. 3 seed in the East and a playoff-series victory. Matching their record and seed from last season might seem like a failure for the Raptors, but the East is deeper. A repeat would be a success – as long as the playoff outcome changes. Toronto is more experienced and more talented this season, and I think that gets them over the hump. The Raptors might not be in the same class as the Cavaliers and Bulls, but they’re my pick – over the Wizards, Bobcats, Heat, Nets, Hawks and whomever else – to rise to the top of that crowded next tier.

Patrick Beverley reportedly gloated to LeBron James about Kawhi Leonard signing

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The NBA has decided to change how they regulate tampering. Whether those harsher rules will lead to real change or simply to different circumvention is still yet to be seen.

Meanwhile, we have heard all the stories about how the Los Angeles Clippers landed both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Leonard was of course a major Los Angeles Lakers target, and it was disappointing for those in Lakerland that they didn’t land him.

Of course, Clippers guard Patrick Beverley was probably pretty happy about how things went, and now we have a story to back that up.

Speaking on Adrian Wojnarowski’s podcast this week, Brian Windhorst relate a story that he heard about Beverly celebrating around LeBron James after his team snagged Leonard.

As Windhorst tells the story, there were several groups of NBA players in private dining rooms at a restaurant in Las Vegas during summer league. Paul George was in one room, and James was in another. After hearing the news that the Clippers landed Leonard, Beverley walked into several rooms containing NBA players to gloat.

Via Woj Pod:

And so the deal actually gets done. [Adrian Wojnarowski reports] that Kawhi has not only agreed to sign with the Clippers, but the Clippers are trading half their future for Paul George, it’s a stunning development. And it all goes down while those players are at the same restaurant in various private rooms.

The story that I heard was that Patrick was making a beeline down the hallway of private rooms — sticking his head into all the rooms gloating about the Clippers’ giant haul — including into LeBron’s room.

This feels like it’s right on brand for Beverley.

Now the Clippers will need to prove they’re better than the Lakers on the court (and not just on paper).

Collin Sexton says he’s going to wear fan-designed shoes this season

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Cleveland Cavaliers second-year point guard Collin Sexton is already a fan-favorite in northeastern Ohio. This year, it appears that Sexton is trying to deepen that connection.

In a message posted to Twitter on Sunday, Sexton reached out to his followers to design a new set of shoes for him this year. The Cavaliers sophomore said that he will take the top five designs that fans submit and then wear them throughout the course of the upcoming 2019-20 NBA season.

Via Twitter:

This is a pretty cool idea, and a great way to have a direct link between fans and players. Social media is in an era of extreme personal branding, and even if this is a thinly-veiled Nike marketing thing, it at least has a twinge of genuineness to it.

The only thing left now is to see what designs people submit, and whether Sexton’s taste is any good.

James Harden plays in Rico Hines games at UCLA and destroys people

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Elite NBA defenders, with a team and a game plan behind them, can’t slow down James Harden.

So imagine what happens when he shows up for an open run.

One spot a lot of NBA players head in the summer to get some games in is Rico Hines’ games at UCLA. Harden showed up and, well, you know what comes next. Via Ball is Life.

The man is so smooth, so under control, and just able to get buckets however he wants. It’s just fun to watch. Unless you’re an opposing coach.

Could Kevin Durant return from torn Achilles, play for Nets this season? Maybe…

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Every case is different, but many players return from a torn Achilles in about nine to 10 months. Kobe Bryant pushed and did it in eight. Other players will take a full year.

If Kevin Durant returned in nine months it would be March, enough time to get in game shape and be ready for the Nets’ playoff run.

There’s a growing sense from teams we could see just that scenario, and Spencer Dinwiddie talked about it with Brian Lewis of the New York Post.

Though Nets GM Sean Marks refused to rule Durant out for the season, the feeling within the league is trending toward him potentially playing this season.

“I know KD is taking the rehab process ultra-serious. He wants to come back as soon as it’s appropriate, and healthy and the right decision for him, and then also subsequently that would also be the right decision for,” said Dinwiddie, who points out that even a slightly-diminished Durant could still be a superstar.

“The beautiful part about this is, the man is 7-foot and one of the best shooters of all time. At worst you get Dirk [Nowitzki], and Dirk was a monster. So we’re ready for him to come back whenever he wants to and whenever he’s ready to do so, and we know that he’s going to be a phenomenal major piece of our roster.”

Durant is an intense competitor who wants to get back on the court. He pushed to get back from a calf injury and play in the NBA Finals only to suffer the Achilles tear. He’s smart enough to be sure he’s all the way back before he steps on the court, if that means he sits out a full season so be it. However, he absolutely could return this season.

If he’s back, the Nets go from interesting team to potential threat to the Bucks and Sixers at the top of the conference. Durant was the best player in the world the past couple of years and he could return to that status quickly, and lift Brooklyn up with him.