51 Questions: Can Toronto transition to a defensive-minded team?

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51 Questions in 51 Days. PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:

CAN THE TORONTO RAPTORS TRANSITION TO A DEFENSE-FIRST TEAM AND ADVANCE PAST FIRST ROUND OF THE PLAYOFFS?

For two straight seasons, the Toronto Raptors have finished atop the Atlantic Division. Last season, they won 49 games, the year before 48 — the two highest win totals in franchise history. That is something to celebrate.

Then, for two straight seasons, they have been bounced in the first round of the playoffs. Last season, they were unceremoniously swept out of the postseason by the Washington Wizards — the porous Raptors defense was destroyed in the pick-and-roll by a John Wall and Bradley Beal led Wizard’s attack that averaged 110.3 points a game. It wasn’t pretty, and it prompted changes.

This past summer, Raptors’ GM Masai Ujiri made only a handful of moves, but they had a very specific goal — return Toronto to being a good defensive team. Yes return, two seasons ago they finished ninth in defensive rating. Last season, the Raptors took huge steps backward and finished 23rd. Their perimeter defenders recognized and reacted to plays about as well as traffic cones, and Jonas Valanciunas was hanging back to protect the rim and not doing it well. The team seemed to take on Lou Williams‘ offense first (and second, and third) style, and that needed to change.

Three specific moves show what Ujiri was thinking:

• Signing DeMarre Carroll. This was a direct move to address the Raptors perimeter defense, Carroll is one of the better “3&D” guys in the league. Carroll was central to the Hawks surge to 60 wins last season, and this was a great signing for Toronto. He is going to be asked to step into Terrence Ross‘ lineup spot but actually get some stops (Ross will slide into the Lou Williams “gunner off the bench” role).

• Signing Bismack Biyombo. This is about having some rim protection at the center spot — if Valanciunas isn’t going to provide it, they are going to get it somewhere else. Biyombo will come off the bench as a defensive big.

• Signing Cory Joseph. He brings one thing to the table, and it’s not playmaking. Joseph is a good defensive point guard and the Raptors needed to add that.

The hope is that Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Valanciunas (a gifted offensive big man) can keep the Raptors racking up enough points while everyone else helps play some defense. The belief is if they defend well enough they can be a threat to the Wizards, Bulls, Hawks, and Heat in the second tier of the Eastern Conference — and they can make the second round of the playoffs (at least).

If you believe Toronto is going to take that step forward, you must have faith in two things.

First is coach Dwane Casey. Ujiri inherited him and since the day the new GM took over there has been speculation about the coach, but there has been no change (in fact he got an extension). Casey is well respected around the league and seen as a defensive coach — he has got to get a system in place that this team can execute.

After watching a chunk of Raptors defensive film from last season, Toronto seemed to play a system looking to have their big man hedge out on pick-and-rolls to cut off the drive (not “ICE” it as is the NBA trend). However, that system counts on a big man who has the foot speed to step out and recover, and wing players who instantly recognize what going on and rotate quickly to cover ball movement. The Raptors had neither. Valanciunas prefers to sit back, he didn’t hedge much meaning opposing guards/wings got to play downhill and drive right into the lane (the Raptors were bottom 10 in shots allowed within five feet). From there things fell apart. The recognition by the other wing defenders to help — or help the helper — was often slow (especially when DeMar DeRozan sat or was injured). Guys like Ross, Valanciunas, and Patrick Patterson got killed on defending spot ups because they did not get their quick enough to contest. Teams got a lot of good look floaters inside or open threes.

The second is Valanciunas — the guy who just signed a $64 million extension is the hinge to the entire Raptors season.

The Raptors need him on the court, he is too valuable offensively to sit for extended periods. This is guy who had a 62.3 true shooting percentage last season, is strong around the rim plus you have to respect him from the midrange, a guy who averaged 12 points a game last season with a usage rate of just 19 percent. They need to get him the rock more. But that is not the end of the floor that is in question.

The perimeter defense from Toronto is going to be better, but in a league where you can’t go Gary Payton and hand check/body up guys on the perimeter point guards (and others) are going to drive the lane. Valanciunas has to improve defensively — he has to handle pick-and-roll defense better (whatever the system); more importantly he needs to be more aggressive and just better at being a paint and rim protector. He’s not going to suddenly become Dikembe Mutombo, but he has to be respectable on that end and force some misses. Last season, he played so far back guys had a full head of steam coming off the pick and had him backpedaling and being ineffective.

The Raptors are going to win the Atlantic Division again this season (which says as much about the rest of the sad Atlantic Division as it does Toronto). They are going to be better defensively.

But if the Raptors are going to be good enough on that end to make it to the second round for only the second time ever in franchise history, it’s going to be a little about Carroll and a lot about Valanciunas.

My prediction: They are better on defense, win about 49 games, and get bounced in the first round again. But with an improved defense, they have a chance to advance.

Joseph Tsai to buy rest of Nets, Barclays Arena for $3.4 billion

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NEW YORK — Joe Tsai has agreed to buy the remaining 51 percent of the Brooklyn Nets and Barclays Center from Mikhail Prokhorov in deals that two people with knowledge of the details say are worth about $3.4 billion.

Terms were not disclosed Friday, but the people told The Associated Press that Tsai is paying about $2.35 billion for the Nets – a record for a U.S. pro sports franchise – and nearly $1 billion in a separate transaction for the arena. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the transactions have not yet been completed.

Tsai is the co-founder and executive vice president of the Alibaba Group, the Chinese e-commerce giant. He already had purchased a 49 percent stake in the team from Prokhorov in 2018, with the option to become controlling owner in four years.

Instead, he pushed up that timeline for full ownership of a team on the rise after signing superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in July.

Prokhorov, a Russian billionaire, became the NBA’s first non-North American owner in 2010 and oversaw the Nets’ move from New Jersey to Brooklyn two years later. He spent big in the first couple years after the move in a quest to chase a championship, but the team soon became one of the worst in the NBA before rallying to return to the playoffs last season.

“It has been an honor and a joy to open Barclays Center, bring the Nets to Brooklyn, and watch them grow strong roots in the community while cultivating global appeal,” Prokhorov said in a statement. “The team is in a better place today than ever before and I know that Joe will build on that success, while continuing to deliver the guest experience at Barclays Center that our fans, employees, and colleagues in the industry enjoy.”

The deal is expected to be completed by the end of September and is subject to approval by the NBA’s Board of Governors.

That would put Tsai, a native of Taiwan, in full control of the team by the time the Nets head to China to play two exhibition games against the Los Angeles Lakers in October. That comes at the start of a season of renewed excitement for the Nets, who just three seasons ago won an NBA-worst 20 games but are set to make a big move up the standings after landing two of the best players on the market when free agency opened.

“I’ve had the opportunity to witness up close the Brooklyn Nets rebuild that Mikhail started a few years ago. He hired a front office and coaching staff focused on player development, he supported the organization with all his resources, and he refused to tank,” Tsai said. “I will be the beneficiary of Mikhail’s vision, which put the Nets in a great position to compete, and for which I am incredibly grateful.”

Brett Yormark, the CEO of BSE Global, which manages the team and the arena, will oversee the transition before leaving for a new role.

Jazz coach Quin Snyder tells Donovan Mitchell to ‘be a sponge’ around Gregg Popovich

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While other players continue to pull out of the USA Basketball roster — De'Aaron Fox was the latest, and P.J. Tucker before him — Utah’s Donovan Mitchell has been outspoken in his commitment to the team.

“Me, I’m 22, some guys are older and got to rest their bodies and I understand that…” Mitchell said Friday night after Team USA’s exhibition game win over Spain. “For me, I’ve never been part of USA Basketball and I’m honored to be here, I’m honored to have this privilege to go out and compete.”

A lot of players have left — or just not put their names in the hat in the first place — saying they wanted to focus on preparing for the regular season, especially players in the Western Conference, which is deep with outstanding teams. The Utah Jazz, now with Mike Conley at the point, are one of those teams with high expectations.

Mitchell, however, has the full backing of his coach Quin Snyder to stay with Team USA and learn from Gregg Popovich, as Snyder told Marc Stein of the New York Times.

“Both Donovan and I have been excited for this opportunity, not just the chance to compete for his country but to play for Pop. I think he has an appreciation for the fact that he’s playing for the greatest coach that’s ever coached…

“Just try to throw yourself completely into it,” Snyder said he told Mitchell. “And try to communicate with Coach as much as you can. Be a sponge.”

Popovich has had an impact on the young players on the roster. For example, there’s more maturity to Kyle Kuzma‘s game, and Popovich recognized him on the court Friday night when Kuzma made a couple of smart plays against Spain.

Just having different coaching voices — not just Popovich but his assistants Steve Kerr, Lloyd Pierce, and Villanova’s Jay Wright — can help a young player. The message may be consistent, but said in a different way, one that better gets through to the player. Styles matter.

Mitchell led Team USA in scoring against Spain with 13, but Snyder and Jazz fans are hoping for more. Not just gold at the World Cup in China starting Sept. 1, but that Mitchell comes back energized and with a broadened game after having been a sponge next to Popovich.

Marcus Smart reportedly cleared to play for Team USA

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Through two weeks of training camp, first in Las Vegas then in Los Angeles, through one intrasquad scrimmage and one exhibition game, Marcus Smart has sat in street clothes.

The Celtics guard has a calf injury that has sidelined him. On Thursday in Los Angeles he took part in the shooting parts of practice during training camp, but not the full-contact scrimmages against the select team. All he could really do was this.

Friday night he never got out of his warmups and did not play against Spain, but he did say on the broadcast he would be back.

Turns out, he was cleared to be back the next day according to Mark Stein of the New York Times.

This takes away a little of the sting of De'Aaron Fox deciding to withdraw from the team just before it left on Saturday for Australia.

It also means four Celtics are on the USA roster: Smart, Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, and Jaylen Brown. USA assistant coach Steve Kerr jokingly said to me last week he asked Brad Stevens for a thank you gift for running Celtics mini-camp.

Smart is one of the 13 players headed down under for a series of tune-up games before the World Cup (against Australia and Canada). If he’s fully healthy enough to go, Smart is a lock to make the roster because of his physical perimeter defense and ability to shoot the three (36 percent last season in the NBA, and the international line is a little closer in). He likely would come off the bench at the two behind Donovan Mitchell.

Bill Walton broadcast White Sox vs. Angels game and was nothing short of brilliant

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Bill Walton is brilliant.

The Hall of Fame hippie and big man was in the broadcast booth Friday night — not for basketball, but for the White Sox vs. Angels MLB game. Walton loves baseball even if his understanding of the sport is… unconventional.

I want Bill Walton to narrate my life.

The world missed him while he battled serious back issues, it’s so good to have him out and around and being himself again.