51 Questions: Can Toronto repeat its franchise-best season?

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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. For the past few weeks, and through the start of the NBA season, we tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season. Today:

Can Toronto repeat its franchise-best season?

The Toronto Raptors won a franchise record 56 games last season. Then they advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history. After the season had ended, they put two players on the gold medal winning USA team at the Rio Olympics. All that in a year the city also hosted the NBA All-Star Game. Through it all, the Raptors’ large fan base rallied around the team like never before.

Best. Season. Ever. At least in Raptors’ history.

As we head into training camp the question becomes, can they do it again?

On one hand, it’s tempting to say yes, because they are bringing back all the core pieces from a year ago.

Toronto’s goal No. 1 in the summer was keeping DeMar DeRozan — which wasn’t that hard, he didn’t want to leave (sorry Lakers fans, it’s true). When the Raptors came in with the second largest contract in NBA history at five-years, $139 million the deal was sealed. DeRozan’s shortcomings, specifically his willingness to take or ability to make threes, becomes bigger in the playoffs, and that’s a concern. Still, we’re talking about a guy who can get to the rim and score averaging 23.5 points and 4 assists per game last season. He’s an All-Star and an Olympian. He’s a great second option for the Raptors and they needed to keep him at any price.

Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas, and DeMarre Carroll were already all under contract, as were reserves like Patrick Patterson and Cory Joseph. The Raptors off-season losses — Luis Scola and Bismack Biyombo — were ones they could live with. (It would have been nice to keep the shot blocking of Biyombo, but not at the four-year, $72 million price tag Orlando put out there.)

The Raptors needed to upgrade at the power forward position, and they did that with the stopgap measure of Jared Sullinger. Boston fans would be all too happy to discuss their frustrations with Sullinger — the lack of conditioning, his inability or willingness to live up to his potential — but the fact is he’s better than Scola right now. What the Raptors need next to Valanciunas is a stretch four, and Sullinger is a poor man’s version of that. He took 41.5 percent of his shots from 16 feet and beyond last season, he just doesn’t hit them often enough to be a real threat (28.2 percent from three, for example). Still, he can rebound, pass well, defend one-on-one down low, all skills the Raptors can put to use.

The Raptors are also going to lean heavily on rookie Jakob Poeltl to back up Valanciunas at center. Norman Powell will have a larger role off the bench on the wing.

Considering all that, it’s possible the Raptors could win 56 games again.

But I expect a small step back. More like 51-53 wins.

There are a few reasons for this. One, the Raptors had the point differential of a 53-win team a year ago, they just outperformed that number (something the Raptors have done a few years in a row). Second, both Lowry and DeRozan had career-best years, not just in terms of points scored but in terms of efficiency doing so, and it is safe to assume one or both take a small step back. Also, both guards were relatively healthy all season, and that could change as well.

But the biggest reason to expect a small step back is that the East is getting better — it’s going to be harder to win games. The 48-win Celtics added Al Horford to the mix. The Indiana Pacers added Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young, they should take a step forward. Stan Van Gundy’s Pistons are improving. So it goes through large swaths of the East. Even if the Raptors are as good a team as they were a season ago, reaching 56 wins again would be a tall task.

That said, I expect Toronto and Boston to be battling it out for the two seed in the East. (Seed matters, teams want to be the two or three seed in the East, because the four seed will get Cleveland in the second round.)

The Raptors could very well reach the Conference Finals again. It’s impossible to predict in September who will be healthy come May, who will have found the rotations that work best, and how the playoff rounds will shake out in the East. If it were to come down to Boston and Toronto in the second round for the right to advance, on paper it looks like a must-watch series. But teams such as Detroit and Indiana (and maybe Atlanta, if you believe in the rejuvenation of Dwight Howard) could have a say in all of it.

Regardless, Raptor fans are in for another of the best seasons in franchise history, something to get them through the cold winter months and the Maple Leafs’ struggles. This is a very good Raptors team. There’s a reason Masai Ujiri just got a contract extension.

Report: James Harden, Khris Middleton nearing return to court

Indiana Pacers v Philadelphia 76ers
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Two of the East’s top teams are about to get key stars back.

Milwaukee has been without Khris Middleton all season as he recovers from off-season wrist surgery. Philadelphia has been without James Harden for a dozen games with a right foot tendon sprain. Both are nearing a return, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Milwaukee has a 14-5 record and sits as the two seed in the East, but they have done that on the back of the best defense in the league, led by Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez. The Bucks’ offense is 18th in the league overall and bottom 10 in half-court possessions, an area Middleton should help shore up.

Philadelphia has gone 8-4 in the dozen games Harden has missed so far and has the best defense in the NBA over that stretch. The question becomes can the 76ers continue to defend like that when Harden (and, eventually, Tyrese Maxey) returns? Players such as B-Ball Paul Reed, Shake Milton and Tobias Harris have stepped up in recent games, can they continue that with shifting roles?

While there are questions, the Bucks and 76ers are about to get better, which should worry the rest of the league.

Myles Turner says he’s staying focused, tuning out trade rumors

Minnesota Timberwolves v Indiana Pacers
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Myles Turner heard his name come up all summer in trade rumors, particularly to the Lakers in a massive Russell Westbrook swap. It never happened as the Lakers would not throw in two first-round picks to seal the deal. Since the season started, the trade rumors around Turner have not stopped, with the Clippers mentioned as having interest.

Turner is trying to ignore all of it.

That was especially difficult on a recent swing through Los Angeles, and Turner spoke to Law Murray from The Athletic about it.

“Nothing changes,” Turner told The Athletic.”Just go out there and focus on getting wins for this team. That’s just where my focus lies. You can’t pay attention to outside noise … doesn’t change anything, bro. All I can do is go out there and play my game.”

Every player says some version of that, but Turner has lived up to it. Able to play his natural spot at the five without Domantas Sabonis sharing the paint (Sabonis was sent to the Kings in a trade that brought back Tyrese Haliburton to Indiana), Turner is averaging a career-high 18 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, while shooting 39.7% from 3. Plus, Turner remains an elite rim-protector, averaging 2.6 blocks per game (second in the league).

Turner is playing the best basketball of his career, coincidentally as he heads into summer as a free agent.

Whatever team trades for him will have to pay him next summer impacts Turner’s trade market, as does the fact that the Pacers are a surprising 12-8 start — Indiana is reportedly not as eager to trade Turner. If a team wants to trade for him, they are going to have to overwhelm the Pacers.

Turner has hinted he likes the idea of a brighter spotlight than he has seen in recent years, but in the end money will talk. Turner has kept his head down and his play this season has earned him more of it.

Damian Lillard reportedly targeting Sunday for return from calf strain

Portland Trail Blazers v Cleveland Cavaliers
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How much the Portland Trail Blazers miss Damian Lillard was on clear display Tuesday night in maybe their ugliest loss of the season. The Trail Blazers led by 18 in the second half, Anfernee Simons was on his way to putting up 37, and they were facing a Clippers team without Kawhi Leonard or Paul George. Yet Portland came from ahead to lose. Their defense was bested by the unstoppable offensive weapon that is Nicholas Batum (32 points). Portland just let go of the rope in this one.

The Trail Blazers are now 1-4 with Lillard out with a strained calf (the second time this year). The good news for the Blazers is Lillard is targeting Sunday against the Pacers for a return, reports Chris Haynes of TNT.

Haynes is well connected with the Lillard camp, this is a report that can be trusted.

Portland is trying to keep its head above water and is now 11-10 on the season but has struggled this past week, with games at the Lakers and at the Jazz before Lillard’s targeted return.

Lillard is averaging 26.3 points and seven assists a game this season, showing the explosion we were used to seeing before he was slowed by an abdominal injury that required surgery.

Bulls extended coach Billy Donovan before season started

Denver Nuggets v Chicago Bulls
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Bulls’ fans are not thrilled with a 9-11 team sitting 11th in the East, outside the play-in.

Bulls’ management is not either, but they aren’t laying the blame at the feet of coach Billy Donovan — in fact, they extended him just before the season began, a story broken by Shams Charania of The Athletic and since confirmed by Bulls’ media relations staff to K.C. Johnson NBC Sports Chicago.

Why the extension? Because Donovan and head of basketball operations Artūras Karnišovas have a tight relationship, Johnson writes.

Karnišovas’ continued belief in Donovan centers on Donovan’s leadership and communication skills. The two men talk virtually daily and there’s never any misunderstanding in their shared, direct conversation — even when the subject matter becomes difficult.

And not everything has been or continues to be smooth sailing for the Bulls, who have played without Lonzo Ball since January and are off to a 9-11 start in a season with modest outside expectations.

No details about the length of the extension were made public.

This is a decision about stability. Donovan is a solid coach and the front office trusts him. That’s enough to get some extra years on your deal in Chicago.

The Bulls’ issues are not because of Donovan, it’s more a roster that has a “playoff team but not much more” ceiling — a ceiling that is lower this season due to injuries forcing constantly shifting rotations. The Bulls are especially hamstrung without the defense and transition play of Lonzo Ball (still out after another knee surgery). Chicago has defended well this season without Ball (10th in the league), but the offense is bottom 10 and misses the easy buckets Ball helps get with his passing and transition (plus he can knock down some 3s). Donovan has done a respectable job with the players he has.

That is good enough in Chicago to get a few more years.