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.

Warriors Kevon Looney cleared for on-court basketball work, will return soon

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At least someone on the Warriors is getting healthy.

Big man Kevon Looney, who played opening night and has since been sidelined with a sore hamstring and neuropathy (what the team described as “nerve-related symptoms”), has been cleared to return to on-court basketball activities, the team announced Tuesday. From the official press release:

He will participate in select practice sessions with the Santa Cruz Warriors this week and will re-join the Golden State Warriors over the weekend. We will continue to monitor his progress and will provide another update on his status on Sunday.

Looney has already been officially assigned to Santa Cruz.

This is good news for the Warriors, who have been starting Willie Cauley-Stein but desperately need more shot blocking and depth up front.

Anyone getting healthy is good news for a Warriors team that is 2-12 and has the worst net rating in the NBA (-10.4).

Carmelo Anthony to start first game for Portland, apparently thinks he’s wearing number infinity

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Carmelo Anthony will wear No. 00 with the Trail Blazers.

Why?

Apparently because 00 kind of looks like ∞.

Anthony:

Somewhere, Kyrie Irving is nodding in support.

In terms of numbers that make sense…

Marc J. Spears of ESPN:

That’s a sizable role for a 35-year-old in his first game in more than a year. But Portland needs scoring with Damian Lillard sidelined, and – at last check (though, again, a while ago), Anthony was accustomed to big minutes.

Besides, we all want ample opportunity to see Anthony back on the court after his lengthy absence.

David Fizdale: Knicks owner Jim Dolan gives me ‘vote of confidence’ at every game

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Knicks coach David Fizdale is on thin ice.

New York is 4-10. Knicks president Steve Mills is reportedly laying the groundwork to fire Fizdale. Mills and general manager Scott Perry addressed the media after a recent game and sounded as if they were at least partially blaming Fizdale.

But does Fizdale have a key supporter at the very top of the organization?

Fizdale, via Ian Begley of SNY:

“Every game, every game. Jim Dolan comes in and gives me a vote of confidence, a pat on my back and really has just been incredibly encouraging over the last year and a half or whatever it’s been,” Fizdale said. “All we talk about is just sticking to the process of making these guys better and building for a future of sustainable winning.”

A common synonym for “vote of confidence:” “dreaded vote of confidence.” Just how bad are near-nightly votes of confidence?

This will convince nobody that Fizdale’s job is safe. Someone will likely take the fall if the Knicks’ struggles continue. It might be Fizdale. It might be Mills. But Mills – who preceded and succeeded Phil Jackson in running the front office – knows his way around Madison Square Garden. And even if Mills gets demoted or fired, a new lead executive would likely want his own coach.

Spencer Dinwiddie reportedly still plans to launch investment platform despite NBA prohibiting it

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Nets guard Spencer Dinwiddie was planning to move forward with his innovative investment plan despite the NBA prohibiting it. Then, he decided to meet with the league in search of compromise.

Without a satisfactory resolution, Dinwiddie is apparently back to barreling ahead.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

Dinwiddie still plans to move forward and launch his digital investment platform, according to sources, with the Nets swingman said to believe that the NBA’s lack of approval is baseless.

“At the request of Spencer Dinwiddie and his advisors, we have reviewed a number of variations of their digital token idea,” Dan Rube, the NBA’s Executive Vice President and Deputy General Counsel, told The Athletic. “All of the ideas presented would violate collectively bargained league rules, including rules prohibiting transferring a player’s right to receive NBA salary, gambling on NBA-related matters, and creating financial incentives to miss games.”

Dinwiddie following though would be quite daring. He could face fines, suspension or even a voided contract. With the threat of those consequences looming, who would invest, anyway?

Maybe this ends up in court. A favorable ruling there is about the only way to see this aggressive course working out for Dinwiddie.

Of course, this could be a bluff. Until Dinwiddie actually implements the investment plan, there’s still time for him and the NBA to agree or Dinwiddie to back down.