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Three questions the Toronto Raptors must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last Season: 51-31, made the playoffs for a franchise-record fourth straight season, got swept in the second round by the Cavaliers

I know what you did last summer: The Raptors re-signed Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka but otherwise lost plenty of productive playersP.J. Tucker, Patrick Patterson, DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph – in an effort to limit payroll. Only C.J. Miles and No. 23 pick O.J. Anunoby solidly counter the exodus of talent.

THREE QUESTIONS THE RAPTORS MUST ANSWER:

1) Does anyone lift Toronto to the next level? The Raptors look like a team that has peaked. Kyle Lowry is 31, and DeMar DeRozan is 28. Toronto pushed in on its supporting cast last season, trading for Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker before the deadline. It didn’t work. The Raptors got swept by the Cavaliers in the second round. Ibaka is now a year older. Tucker is gone. So are the long-term assets used to acquire the veterans. With cost an apparent concern, the supporting cast has been downgraded.

So, was this the end of the ascent?

If so, it wasn’t a bad run. Correction: It isn’t a bad run. The Raptors are still solidly a playoff team in the Eastern Conference, and the four straight postseason appearances – including a trip to the 2016 conference finals – is nothing to sneeze at, especially in Toronto.

But a taste of success only increases the appetite for more. The Raptors would love to break through LeBron James in the Eastern Conference before the Celtics develop chemistry and the 76ers ascend. The Wizards lurk, too.

The mystery: How does it happen? Toronto’s veterans look established. Its young players – Norman Powell, Jakob Poeltl, Delon Wright, Lucas Nogueira and Pascal Siakam – are varying degrees of formidable, but these aren’t high-upside options.

Perhaps, one of those young players defies expectations. Maybe Bruno Caboclo breaks out, though the indicators are negative for the project. O.G. Anunoby could get healthy and become a difference-maker.

The odds appear against it, but with the Raptors already establishing such a high floor, attention turns intently on their search for players to raise their ceiling.

2) Will Dwane Casey oversee a culture reset? If the roster isn’t getting better, Masai Ujiri isn’t giving up. The Raptors president called for a “culture reset.”

But he kept the coach and two players (Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan) most responsible for Toronto’s style, and many doubt major change will occur.

Still, the Raptors’ offense looks modernized in the preseason so far – more 3-pointers, more passing. If Casey and the players stick with it, the adjustment could pay off in the playoffs, where the team’s isolation-heavy style has been repeatedly stifled.

That’s still a major if. Old habits die hard.

If Casey could coach a more efficient scheme, why didn’t he do it before? Likewise, if Lowry and DeRozan could play a more efficient style, why didn’t they do it before?

They’ll get a chance to prove it’s not too late for them to adapt. If this doesn’t work, though, it could cost Casey his job.

3) How will center shake out? The Raptors owe Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka nearly $115 million over the next three years. That’s too much for a couple players whose best position is center – especially when Toronto also has capable backups in Jakob Poeltl and Lucas Nogueira on rookie-scale deals.

Ibaka is more of a modern center who can shoot 3-pointers and protect the rim. The Raptors can build some nice small-ball lineups with him at the position.

Valanciunas, on the other hand, sees his role significantly reduced in the playoffs. The back-to-the-basket post player becomes a liability.

Toronto seems to realize the problem, shopping Valanciunas this summer. But few teams need a center, and he’s highly paid (three years, nearly $50 million remaining). If the 25-year-old plays well, maybe the Raptors can move him and address other positions.

But if he plugs along at his current pace – which is hardly bad! – Toronto will face some difficult decisions about how to use him and Ibaka.

After coaching search, Minnesota reportedly settles on owner-favorite Ryan Saunders for job

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“I think he has a good chance [to get the job]… I would just say I really like him as a person. I have known him since he was a young man, and I am really pleased with how he is starting out coaching this team.”

That was Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor on his interim coach, Ryan Saunders, a statement made with about 20 games to go in the season. The Timberwolves reportedly negotiated the outline of a contract with Saunders, but when Gersson Rosas was brought in as team president, he was given the freedom to run a full coaching search.

He has settled on the guy the owner wanted, a story broken by Jon Krawczynski of The Athletic.

Rosas interviewed other candidates and ran a legitimate job search for the position, but it seems the smart political move for the guy new on the job to hire the guy the owner wanted, and the guy the star player bonded with.

That’s not to say Saunders is a poor choice, he earned this chance. Saunders was thrust into the big chair after Jimmy Butler‘s sabotaging of the team’s season led to coach/GM Tom Thibodeau being shown the door. Saunders quickly developed a strong relationship with Karl-Anthony Towns, who played much better under Saunders the second half of the season. There were other signs Saunders was up to the task and would be a good hire, not just a prudent one.

Now it appears Saunders has the job.

The real task for Rosas is to give Saunders a team that can live up to Towns’ potential. It will not be easy with a capped out roster and some anchor contracts (Andrew Wiggins).

Report: Cavaliers hire J.B. Bickerstaff to John Beilein’s staff

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are still trying to figure things out. LeBron James left for the Los Angeles Lakers last summer, and now the team has hired John Beilein to be its head coach. The team doesn’t have a top pick the way it has in years past, and barring any trades they will select 25th overall in the 2019 NBA Draft.

But at least they are figuring out there coaching staff Issues.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Cavaliers have hired former Memphis Grizzlies head coach J.B. Bickerstaff to be its top assistant coach. Bickerstaff was apparently also in talks with the Philadelphia 76ers, Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, and Sacramento Kings.

Via Twitter:

Bickerstaff previously headed the Houston Rockets from 2015 to 2016, and was the top man for the Grizzlies over the last two seasons after the team canned David Fizdale.

This is a solid hire for the Cavs. Bickerstaff has been a respected assistant in the league for the past decade-and-a-half, and he should give some veteran NBA oopmh behind Beilein, who most recently coached at Michigan for 12 years and is headed into his rookie season.

Raptors outlast Bucks in 2OT to take Game 3 of ECF

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Don’t count the Toronto Raptors out yet.

On Sunday, Kawhi Leonard and his bench mob outlasted Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, 118-112, in 2OT.

Finally back at home, Toronto showed up in the biggest way possible, and in exactly the way they had been needing in Games 1 and 2. Pascal Siakam, a non-factor in those contests, scored 25 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, grabbing 11 boards to go with three steals. Norman Powell scored 19 off the bench, including hitting three 3-pointers.

Of course, the Raptors were led by none other than Leonard, who had 36 points and dominated at the free-throw line, going 12-of-13. Toronto’s best player also had nine rebounds and five assists.

As a team, Game 3 was about Toronto finally hitting on all cylinders from the 3-point line. Where before almost no players outside of Leonard were able to get it going from deep, Game 3 was a much different story. Eight Raptors combined to make at least one three each, and Toronto shot 37.8% from the arc.

By the same factor, the Bucks struggled. As the home crowd pushed Toronto forward, Antetokounmpo and his squad just couldn’t get it going. The first half only treated the Raptors right, who scored 58 points. And although Antetokounmpo started to come on a bit better in the third quarter, the game eventually developed into a bit of a rock fight by the fourth.

Toronto looked like it had sealed up the win the end of regulation. Fred Van Vleet came up with a crucial block on Khris Middleton on the final possession, but the Milwaukee guard scooped up the loose ball and put it back in the hoop to push it to extra time.

By the time the second overtime rolled around, Antetokounmpo only had one foul left to give. The Bucks’ superstar then fouled out just 36 seconds into the second overtime while trying to draw a charge on Siakam.

That allowed Leonard score eight of Toronto’s 15 points in the second OT en route to the six-point victory.

It took a wondrous night on defense for the Raptors to force Antetokounmpo to shoot just 5-of-16 from the field. Even still, Milwaukee’s star had 23 rebounds and seven steals, and it took until he fouled out in the second overtime for Toronto to grab a win.

The Raptors should be happy about what they were able to accomplish on Sunday night. Getting wins at home in a crucial playoff games is what championship hopeful teams should do. Still, it took every single ounce of what Toronto had, and even then it was only just barely enough to grab their first win of the series at home.

Nick Nurse will need to build on what he learned from Game 3 and see if they can improve upon it to level the series in Game 4 on Tuesday night.

Report: Grizzlies interviewed Igor Kokoskov for head coach gig

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The Memphis Grizzlies now have the No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. Many believe that Memphis will trade Mike Conley and draft Ja Morant as a means to move the franchise forward.

The only problem? The Grizzlies still don’t have a head coach.

Memphis fired coach J.B. Bickerstaff and demoted general manager Chris Wallace to scout back in April. The Grizzlies are moving forward with some non-traditional front office hirings that include Jason Wexler, Zach Kleiman, Rich Cho, and Glen Grunwald.

According to one report, at least one inquiry has been made about the head coach position: former Phoenix Suns head coach Igor Kokoskov got a shot to interview with Memphis.

Via Twitter:

Memphis is taking its time selecting their coach, and it’s not necessary that the team has someone in place leading into the draft. Whether the next guy will be “the guy” or simply “the guy who helps them rebuild in the future” we aren’t yet sure.

Kokoskov got a raw deal in Phoenix, with many feeling as though the Suns wasted their hiring of the Slovenian national team’s coach by not drafting Luka Doncic with the No. 1 overall pick last year. It would be nice just to see him back on an NBA bench at the start of next season.