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.

Damian Lillard reportedly to take part in 3-point contest All-Star weekend

Atlanta Hawks v Portland Trail Blazers
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images
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The All-Star Saturday night 3-point contest has passed the Dunk Contest in watchability because the stars still do it. Look at this year’s Dunk Contest, there are some interesting athletes involved, and maybe it becomes a memorable event. Still, there will be no Ja Morant, Zion Williamson, or Anthony Edwards (the way that Jordan, Kobe, and other greats took part in the contest back in the day).

However, the stars turn out for the 3-point contest. This year, that starts with Damian Lillard, according to Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report and TNT.

The coaches selected Lillard as one of the All-Star Game reserves, he was already headed to Salt Lake City. This is Lillard’s third time in the 3-point Shootout.

Over the coming week, expect a lot more big names to jump into the 3-point contest — the best shooters in the game want to do this event (Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have each done it multiple times, although whether they will this year is unknown).

All-Star Saturday night: Come for the 3-point Shootout, hang around for the Dunk Contest.

Lakers reportedly exploring Westbrook trade in talks with Jazz

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This feels like a “let’s leak this so our fan base thinks we’re trying” report rather than something that will come close to happening.

The Lakers have re-engaged the Jazz in Russell Westbrook trade talks, reports Chris Haynes at Bleacher Report.

The Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz have had exploratory conversations centered around star guard Russell Westbrook, league sources tell Bleacher Report. However, the Lakers are said to be in communication with most teams to sift through the most reasonable and logical options available.

If the Lakers couldn’t pull off a trade like this over the summer, what has changed now?

The Lakers would be more than happy to move on from Westbrook and bring in more shooting and depth, but this is Danny Ainge they’re dealing with — the price would be both the 2027 and 2029 first-round picks, likely unprotected. The Jazz would send back some combination of Mike Conley, Malik Beasley, Collin Sexton, Jordan Clarkson and Kelly Olynyk — do any three of those players make the Lakers title contenders this season? Are the Lakers willing to give up those two picks to be a team that could make the second round of the playoffs?

Now, if the Raptors get in the trade game, would the combination of Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. get the Lakers to surrender Westbrook and both picks? John Hollinger at The Athletic says that scenario is floating around, although everyone continues to wait to see if the Raptors are going to jump into the trade market with both feet.

The smart money is on the Lakers making a smaller move close to the trade deadline, likely involving Patrick Beverley and some second-round picks. Something similar in size to the Rui Hachimura trade, although the Lakers want — or at least are going to project they want — to hunt bigger game.

The Lakers continue surveying the market for premium shooting. Detroit Pistons sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanović remains a principal target, but there is league-wide skepticism on whether the Pistons are really willing to unload the nine-year veteran. It’s been reported that it would take at least an unprotected first-round pick to get the Pistons’ attention.

The belief within the Lakers’ organization is that they need to make at least one more move by the Feb. 9 trade deadline to give themselves a legitimate shot at competing for a championship, sources say.

Road wins over the Knicks and Pacers have the Lakers thinking they are a player away from contending? Los Angeles is unquestionably better with Davis back, and there is reason for some level of optimism in a flat Western Conference. But we’re talking “we can make the playoffs” optimism, there is still a chasm between these Lakers and contending — the gap between their second and third-best players (and the rest of the roster) is just too great.

Still, look for some kind of Lakers trade at the deadline. They are one of the more active teams out there. Just don’t expect it to be Westbrook.

Dončić leaves game with heel contusion, could miss games

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Luka Dončić was in control — he scored 21 points in the first quarter — and the Mavericks were cruising to a win.

Then Dončić went for a dunk, Brandon Ingram slid in for the block from behind, and Dončić hit the ground. Hard.

Dončić tried to stay in, but after one more play went back to the locker room and did not return due to what the team called a heel contusion. He could miss a game or two of the upcoming Mavericks’ five-game road trip — which starts with a nationally televised game Saturday in Golden State — according to Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes.

There likely will be more information from the team over the next 24 hours.

How much the Mavericks need Dončić was on display the rest of this game. The Pelicans stormed back and might have had a chance to tie the game with 3.4 seconds left when a blown call by the referees — Ingram blocked an inbounds pass but was ruled out of bounds in doing so, when he wasn’t — robbed them of that opportunity. Larry Nance Jr. took his shot at the officials for that.

With this win, the Mavericks moved into fourth place in the West (ahead of the Clippers, who fell to the Bucks Thursday).

Three things to Know: Who were biggest All-Star Game snubs?

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Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Who were biggest All-Star Game snubs? Siakam, Harden and…

The All-Star Game rosters need to be expanded — teams carry 15 players into a regular season game, but there are just 12 roster spots for the All-Star Game. J.J. Redick does a brilliant breakdown of this worth watching.

Don’t bet on it happening. The league knows the small roster leads to big-name snubs, it generates controversy and gets everyone talking — which the league loves. This system works just fine for them.

The All-Star Game reserves were announced Thursday, as selected by the league’s head coaches (or the assistant it got passed down to in more than a few cases), and there were snubs. Here are the five biggest.

James Harden. He’s averaging 21.4 points and 11 assists a game (which will lead the league, once he qualifies by playing enough games and minutes). While he has missed a few games, he’s still played in 34, and is the primary ball handler and second-leading scorer on the team with the fourth-best record in the league. The Beard deserved to be in Salt Lake City. He knows it and wasn’t subtle about his frustration, and Joel Embiid had his back.

Pascal Siakam. I don’t see how the coaches could leave him off the list. It likely goes back to the struggles of the Raptors team, but that is not on Siakam has played in 43 games and averaged 24.9 points, 8 rebounds and 6.2 assists a night, plus he’s a quality defender. He has played at an All-NBA level, not just All-Star.

Anthony Davis. You can see why coaches left the Lakers’ big off the list, he’s only played in 29 games this season. Still, that’s just six fewer than Jackson Jr. and Davis has been much better when he has played — 26.9 points and 12 rebounds a game, plus elite defense. When healthy, Davis’ name got thrown into the MVP conversation, and Thursday night he showed why with the game-winning bucket and then game-saving block for the Lakers against the Pacers.

Devin Booker. This is the same case as Davis, a guy who is clearly an All-NBA player when healthy — 27.1 points and 5.6 assists a game — but misses the cut because he’s missed time and played in just 29 games. Isn’t the All-Star Game supposed to be filled with the best players in the league? It’s not MVP or some award where games played should matter that much, if you’re in half your team’s games that’s enough to play in this exhibition.

Jalen Brunson and Jimmy Butler. We’re combining them because it is the exact same issue: Both are deserving, but the coaches only wanted to give their team one spot so it went to the big on their rosters (Julius Randle and Bam Adebayo), not them. They got squeezed, which goes back to the need to expand the All-Star Game rosters.

2) Antetokounmpo’s 54 sparks Bucks comeback as Clippers collapse

Giannis Antetokounmpo has been making his MVP case the past couple of weeks — and it is strong.

The Clippers seemed to be in control of this game — up by 21 in the second half and specifically up 19 with 2:30 left in the third quarter — and Ivica Zubac was giving Antetokounmpo as much trouble as any human could.

Then Antetokounmpo took over. From that 2:30 mark on, the Greek Freak scored 23 points, the Bucks outscored the Clippers 41-21 — Antetokounmpo himself outscored the Clippers — and Milwaukee stormed back to get a 106-105 win.

Antetokounmpo finished with 54 points, his third 50+ game in the last month. So about that MVP case…

The flip side of this game shows why I am off the Clippers bandwagon. You could see it in the recent loss to the Celtics and this game. There are moments (like the first 36 minutes in Milwaukee) where if you squint and look at Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, you can see the outline of a contender. But when the pressure of a real contender ramps up the holes in their defense, their roster, and their style get exposed. Part of it is this team hasn’t played enough games together with a healthy roster to develop the good habits — sharp defensive rotations, good ball movement on the offensive end under pressure — but is there really time left to do it considering Leonard and George are going to miss time on back-to-backs and other spots.

The Clippers closed this game shooting 0-of-9, with a to of isolation ball from Leonard and no passing out of it. That doesn’t work against elite defenses, the kind the Clippers will see come the playoffs. Adding a point guard isn’t going to solve all these issues, but in a West where nobody is running away with anything the Clippers’ dreams are alive.

3) Donovan Mitchell calls out Dillon Brooks as dirty after both are ejected

How many games suspension should the Grizzlies’ Dillon Brooks get for what looked like an intentional shot to Donovan Mitchell’s, um, “groin area?”

The incident came with just under six minutes left in the third quarter, Brooks drove the lane and right into the body of Michell, knocking him back (a physical but not unreasonable play). The Cavaliers’ Evan Mobley rotated over and blocked the shot, knocking Brooks to the ground. That’s when Brooks swung his arm and — it looked like intentionally — hit Mitchel in the, shall we say, family jewels. Mitchell fell to the ground, threw the ball at Brooks, and the two had to be separated.

Both Brooks and Mitchell were given Flagrant 2 fouls and ejected.

Mitchell said he would appeal the flagrant and any fine, saying he should be able to defend himself, and calling out Brooks.

This incident sparked the Cavaliers, who pulled away for a 128-113 win behind 32 from Darius Garland. The Grizzlies are reeling right now, having lost 7-of-8.