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#NBA Toronto Raptors Kyle Lowry DeMar DeRozan CJ Miles Serge Ibaka

Are We Underestimating The Toronto Raptors Again?

Coming off back-to-back 50-plus win seasons and in an Eastern Conference that’s bleeding talent West, is everyone underestimating the stand pat Toronto Raptors again?

The Raptors will head into the 2017-18 NBA season with their All-Star core of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan intact, but with no outside huge free agent signings or trades bringing in new big time talent, this team has gotten a collective yawn for what they’ve done in July.

There’s no argument here about the less than exciting off season in Toronto. The big news has been Lowry didn’t bolt for the West with everyone else and Serge Ibaka really did want to come to Toronto as reported at the trade deadline in February.

Their other trade deadline acquisition, P.J. Tucker, we hardly got to know you, opted for Houston early in free agency and president Masai Ujiri didn’t even try to re-sign the defensively talented but offensively frustrating Patrick Patterson. Important role players to be sure, but hardly irreplaceable and the lack of off season excitement continued.

The addition of a real three-point threat in veteran wing/forward C.J. Miles was a solid acquisition, but not a star.

Ujiri’s summer has been all about getting below the Luxury Tax threshold while trying not to take a step backwards and in that narrow context, no one is arguing with the result, but in the disappointment of not trying to make the team dramatically better by spending more, did Ujiri succeed in putting together a roster that is better than last season?

In short, painfully, yes.

Two of Ujiri’s biggest off season moves were salary dumps.

  1. DeMarre Carroll, don’t let the door hit you on the way out, took two draft picks to get the Nets to take him and,
  2. Cory Joseph, who’ll be missed mostly because he’s a nice Canadian kid who everyone liked.

These moves cleared the space below the luxury tax threshold to sign the Pacers very solid three-point shooting veteran free agent Miles and make no mistake, Miles at forward will be light-years ahead of what Carroll gave the team over the past two seasons.

Small forward and backup point guard

Carroll: 72 games, 26.1 minutes, 8.9 points, 3.8 rebounds, 4.4 three-point attempts per game at 34.1 percent and a whole lot of missed or poorly played games due to injury. “3-and-D” was more like iffy D and no 3 as the expensive forward rehabbed as he played.

Miles: 76 games, 23.4 minutes,10.7 points, 3 rebounds, 5.4 three-point attempts per game at 41.3 percent. An overall better journeyman forward at half the price of Carroll. The Raptors finally have a player that’s among the NBA’s best at the corner three-ball.

At backup point guard, it was just time to let the young guys move up a step by sending Joseph to another team,

NBA Toronto Raptors backup PG stats 2016-17

Joseph’s only faults were he made more money than either Delon Wright or Fred VanVleet and while the two guys playing behind him were getting better, Joseph hadn’t really improved since being signed two summers ago.

It’s not for sure, but the Raptors are probably a better team with Wright backing up Lowry.

Power forward

It’s easy to forget Ibaka was only part of the Raptors for 23 regular season games and Lowry was injured for almost all of them. The full impact of having Ibaka on the roster has yet to be seen.

It’s also easy to forget that the Raptors played most of last season without the power forward a 50-win team should have in their starting lineup. Rookie Pascal Siakam undoubtedly got a lot out of starting 38 games for the Raptors, but substituting in Ibaka is like an order of magnitude improvement.

The Raptors went 16-7 in the regular season with Ibaka and Lowry just trying to play himself back into shape over his last three games. The record says a lot about what Ibaka added to his new team. The likelihood of Toronto having a 50-win season without Lowry for a month and a half wasn’t very good.

Center

The move that didn’t happen was the departure of Jonas Valanciunas. In a league moving away from traditional centers, it’s still important to have one just in case you need an answer to a player like the Bucks Greg Monroe.

Valanciunas may or may not ever fully adapt to the changing ways in the NBA, but as he showed in the Milwaukee series, when you need a big traditional center, you had better have one.

Heading into his sixth NBA season, Valanciunas can probably average a double-double in 24 minutes as a starter or a reserve, so while he’s likely still an available trade piece, Ujiri isn’t about to just give him away.

“We believe in JV’s talent. I want everybody to know that,” Ujiri said. “You can say the style of play in the NBA is going in one direction, but we also believe in offensive rebounding and he’s really good at that.

“We are not trying to give JV away.”

The Rest?

Maybe everyone just forgot? But last year the Raptors had seven guys on rookie deals and the veteran Ujiri signed for depth (as a starter), Jared Sullinger, effectively ended his season before it started with a broken foot. Proven depth was almost nonexistent for the 51-win Raptors.

This year Ujiri could have 10 guys on rookie deals, but,

  1. Lucas Nogueira is in his fourth season and played in 57 games last year.
  2. Norman Powell is in his third season and will be fighting for a deserved spot in the starting rotation. He’s not a rookie or just a “young guy” anymore.
  3. Wright looks ready to takeover at backup point guard. In fact, he looked ready last year.
  4. Jakob Poeltl deserves more run, but as long as JV is around, there aren’t many minutes.
  5. It’s possible the NBA G League Finals MVP Pascal Siakam took a big step over the summer. He’s played in 55 NBA games and seems to have the potential to stick around long term.
  6. As is often the case, there is some excitement over new rookie OG Anunoby, but predicting what you’ll get out of any rookie is a crap shoot.

The Raptors are deeper than last year because the young players from last year gained some real experience and are expected to be better.

As Basketball Insiders 

While the Celtics added the top available free agent and the Cavaliers appear to be unraveling at the seams, the ever-reliable Raptors just kept things exactly the same.
All in all, the recapture of Lowry and Ibaka likely won’t lead to an NBA Finals appearance anytime soon, but it’s a strong indication that the franchise’s newfound success will continue until further notice.

Unless the Cavs implode, no other team in the NBA East including the Celtics will be given a shot at making an NBA Finals appearance, so it’s hard to argue with 

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Jonas Valanciunas

Raptors Need To Bring In Jonas Valanciunas Off The Bench

It’s still July, so there’s a long ways to go in the NBA off season, but the market for traditional centers hasn’t been very strong and all efforts to trade Toronto Raptors Jonas Valanciunas have been for naught.

The Raptors are betting on the development of their players still on their rookie deals and there’s an argument that Valanciunas is in the way. President Masai Ujiri wasn’t kidding around when he responded to Pro Bball Report about how may young guys he could have on the Raptors.

“17, I think now with the (new) two-way contracts, we can squeeze in 17,” Ujiri responded to Pro Ball Reports query right before the draft. “It’s where our team is. I think the most important question is how many of these guys are contributing to your team and we feel that even the rookies we had had points in time in the season (where) they contributed. They are getting better, so we can have as many, it doesn’t bother me as long as we are making progress and they are getting better.”

The team has just inked the undrafted free agent big man from their Summer League team Kennedy Meeks as their 15th roster player although it’s likely to a non-guaranteed deal. Undrafted Malcolm Miller on a two-way contract makes 16.

But Ujiri isn’t going to end up with 17 young players, he wants to win and develop at the same time. So his team will be led by All-Stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, plus the three-time NBA All-Defensive First Team big man Serge Ibaka. Add in veteran three-point shooter C.J. Miles and the Raptors will have one of the top tier starting units in the East no matter which player he chooses to round out his top five.

Valanciunas, the only other veteran on the roster, has been the Raptors starting center for five straight seasons, however, it’s not certain that he is the right fit going forward in today’s changing NBA.  If he was, he wouldn’t have been in constant trade rumors going back to before the draft.

However, Valanciunas isn’t just another journeyman center. He’s better than that as a player who has been a top 10 rebounder in each of the past three seasons while he’s on the court. At 12 points and 9.5 rebounds in 25.8 minutes last year, he contributed and Ujiri made sure everyone remembers that.

“We believe in JV’s talent. I want everybody to know that,” Masai said after introducing Miles to the Toronto media. “If we reverse this a year before, everybody was talking about how great JV was. One year ago, when he got injured in that Miami series it was oh, if we had JV, if we had JV against Cleveland. I don’t know how in the hell one player has changed so much.

“You can say the style of play in the NBA is going in one direction, but we also believe in offensive rebounding and he’s really good at that and it’s something we are going to pay attention to this year.”

What Valanciunas does well is many of the things a traditional center does like rebounding, the tough problem is the numbers back up what the eyes have seen. The Raptors starting unit hasn’t been as effective as it should be with two All-Stars on it and the man clogging up the middle at times has been JV.

Blame the early season pairing with Pascal Siakam on playing with a rookie, but that doesn’t hold up with Ibaka. The two big men both played better when the other guy was off the court and if you have to choose a starter, it’s Ibaka in a landslide.

However, the Raptors got a glimpse of Valanciunas as part of the second unit in their first round playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks. Where JV was ineffective in the starting unit going against quicker bigs, he helped stall the offense of Greg Monroe (another former starting center) off the bench and showed off his own offensive effectiveness in that matchup.

Perhaps the biggest tease out of the numbers was just how effective the pairing of Lucas Nogueira and JV was last season. There are question marks about both of them separately, but some how, for some reason, they were very good together. Sometimes chemistry you’d never expect is just there?

It is still a long time until training camp and Casey will be doing a lot of experimenting with this group of players in order to figure what combinations are going to be able to produce for him on the court.

Siakam in his second season is going to be better, but how much better is to be determined. He could be back in G-League if he isn’t ready.

Nogueira had better put on a show as this is his fourth NBA season and if he wants a fifth one, he has to be good enough that someone wants him next year. The big Brazilian shot blocker has a lot of incentive to find that “good game” on a consistent basis this time (hopefully).

Even Valanciunas might not be the same player who was on the court last season. There’s hope he’s found the range that three-point shot he was practicing and is moving a little closer to looking like a modern NBA center.

“He is working more on his shooting range,” Ujiri confirmed. “His shooting touch is something we need to take advantage of if he gets a little bit better at it. Eventually it will come.”

“The days of boom, boom, boom, pound it, pound it, pound it (are over),” Casey acknowledged last season.

The ever patient Ujiri isn’t going to waste an asset like Valanciunas even if he has wait until the trade deadline to get the deal he wants. Assuming JV doesn’t just find a way to make himself indispensable during the season.

“We are very comfortable with JV,” Ujiri emphasized. “We are not trying to give JV away. There were some scenarios where you know what, we are trying to create space and do some other things, … maybe (we would have) made a move, but with this team now, we are very comfortable.”

And just maybe there is still a role for a young veteran center who is developing a jump shot to be paired with an even younger developing big man coming off the bench? The Raptors really don’t have an extra veteran to waste on this roster.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 Featured image courtesy of Larry Millson

 

 

 

NBA Milwaukee Bucks Jason Terry and Greg Monroe

Should The Raptors Take A Look At The Bucks Greg Monroe?

It seems like Greg Monroe has been on the trading block ever since Milwaukee signed him to that three-year $50 million deal in the summer of 2015. So, with just one year remaining on his contract, now could be the time he can be moved and just maybe the Raptors should be taking a look.

“Monroe had the opportunity to opt out of his contract at the start of the month but opted to remain with the Bucks and collect $17.8 million for the remaining year on his contract.”  wrote Gery Woelfel  in Woelfel’s Press Box. “Monroe looks slim and trim and is in perhaps the best shape of his pro career.”

A big body in the post with very good midrange shooting and a solid rebounder, Monroe has been like an overpaid square peg in a round hole with the Bucks. After being a starter for his first six NBA seasons, Monroe came off the bench in all 81 regular season games and the 6 playoff games he played in last year.

However, that doesn’t mean Monroe hasn’t produced. He was the Bucks best offensive rebounder at 10.8 percent of the available boards and best rebounder overall (17 percent) on a team that finished 29th out of 30 NBA teams on the glass. And he was fourth in team scoring (11.7 points) in just 22.5 minutes per game.

His “successful” move to the bench didn’t stop the trade rumors and Monroe knows if the Bucks could move him, they would.

he knows he is still the subject of considerable trade conjecture.

Some NBA officials said Milwaukee is still clearly receptive to moving Monroe.

“I’d like to stay but that’s up to them,’’ said Monroe, referring to the Bucks’ front office.

The Raptors and the Bucks faced off in the first round of the playoffs with Toronto winning the final three games to take the series 4-2. While the move of Norman Powell into the starting lineup got all the headlines, of arguably equal importance was the Raptors sending starting center Jonas Valanciunas to the bench to match up with and neutralize Monroe.

In the first three games of that first round series Monroe averaged a very effective 16 points on 54.8 percent shooting off the bench while the starter Valanciunas struggled scoring 10 points on 37.5 percent shooting. The Raptors went 1-2.

In the final three games Monroe dipped to 10.3 points on 50 percent shooting while Valanciunas was a more effective 8.7 points at 62.5 percent. Monroe was held to just 6 points in the 3-point Game Six loss at home.

The new matchups favored the Raptors and there was little the Bucks could do about it.

Since the draft there have been rumors about the Bucks wanting to shakeup their big man rotation. Sure, they are very excited about the return of Jabari Parker in the new year and seeing what Thon Maker can do in his second season, but neither of these two young promising players showed anything encouraging on the glass.

The Bucks still need to upgrade their rebounding. Staying 29th in the NBA at anything isn’t where a team with high expectations wants to be.

However, the Raptors have also been trying to move Valanciunas since the draft as president Masai Ujiri was trying to manipulate his payroll to get under the tax and, at the same time, change his team’s style of play.

Ujiri solved his tax problem by dumping DeMarre Carroll’s $30 million in Brooklyn and he’s been looking for a decent return on Valanciunas in a market that hasn’t been very friendly to traditional centers.

If the Bucks want rebounding and a big man who can defend the post against other traditional centers, Valanciunas is a good option.

He’s been top ten in rebounding percentage in each of the past three seasons and the Bucks could use his 12 points and 9.5 rebounds in 26 minutes in the worst way. The knock on Valanciunas has been his trouble handling quicker stretch fours and fives, but the Bucks have that issue well covered with their other young big men. They need someone who can board with and slow down a guy like Valanciunas.

There are also signs Valanciunas has stretched his comfortable shooting range out to the free throw line and possibly even to the three-point line given time.

The Raptors are looking for change and Monroe would seem to be the kind of change Ujiri is looking for. Once considered a strictly “me” type player who didn’t seem all that happy in Detroit, Monroe is 27-years-old now and is saying the right things.

“I’m happy,’’ said Monroe, who attended the Bucks-Jazz game Friday night at Cox Pavilion on the UNLV campus. “I had no reason to leave. I want to build on what we started last year.’’

Monroe does the one thing the Raptors have been unsuccessful at getting Valanciunas to do. He moves the ball effectively. Where Valanciunas has only assisted on 4.2 percent of teammate field goals while he’s on the floor over his career with no signs of improvement, Monroe has averaged 13.2 percent and bumped that to 17.3 percent coming off the bench last year. Monroe could be the ball moving big man Ujiri wants to add in his new style of offense.

While Monroe has always been something of a tease in the NBA, a big man with star potential who could never quite put it all together, there’s a good argument to be made that he has never been in the right situation. The 2017-18 Raptors could be that situation.

A straight up trade of Monroe for Valanciunas works and does solve another problem for the Bucks. The $2.4 million difference in salary gets Milwaukee below the luxury tax line and if it’s important to Ujiri, he can stay below the tax as well.

It isn’t always easy trading with potential conference rivals, but sometimes the two teams have what each other needs. Both the Raptors and the Bucks would be better off after making this deal.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_inside

Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

Knicks Carmelo Anthony trade 2017

Can Raptors Be A Third Team In A Carmelo Anthony Trade?

There are still a few options/ long shots out there for Raptors president Masai Ujiri to make a move before the season starts, but perhaps none more exciting than attempting to squeeze into the rumored Carmelo Anthony to the Rockets or Cavs trades as a third or fourth team, assuming the Knicks might be interested in Valanciunas?

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Knicks aren’t all that interested in older players with years left on their contracts and that has stalled out the process as all sides are looking for partners to facilitate a deal.

the Knicks and Rockets are confident that they have a willing third-team trade partner

The fourth team was needed to move a particular player contract that neither the Knicks nor Rockets could or would accept in the deal

The Knicks’ front office has been privately saying that the organization’s marching orders are now focusing on players 25 years old and younger

Three team deals are tough enough, but adding a fourth team dramatically boosts the complexity and likelihood nothing gets done. However, Toronto has a 25-year-old starting center they’ve been rumored to be shopping and an apparent motivation to reduce payroll that should make the Raptors easier to deal with.

(using the ESPN trade machine)

A move like this wouldn’t change the direction Ujiri is taking, but it would help re-balance the roster, cut $8 million off the payroll this year and $16.5 million next season.

It’s pure speculation, but the 32-year-old 6’8 Trevor Ariza could be the perfect veteran to mentor the Raptors young forwards and upgrade the team’s starting unit.

In New York, where nothing ever seems to go their way, landing Eric Gordon and Valanciunas for Carmelo Anthony should be seen as hitting one out of the park. (At least it shouldn’t be viewed as embarrassing.) Assuming Dolan can get over the fact he’s been burned by trading with Ujiri in the past?

In the extremely unlikely event the Cavaliers would entertain a trade including their conference rivals, the Raptors would almost certainly be interested in doing a deal.

There is a lot of motivation on the Knicks, Rockets and even the Cavaliers to find a way to make a very difficult trade happen. They might just have to swallow hard and allow a team like Toronto to squeeze in there to get it done.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

 

NBA San Antonio Spurs LaMarcus Aldridge and Toronto Raptors Jonas Valanciunas

Raptors Should Just Go For It This Season

Already deep in luxury tax territory and unsuccessfully looking to dump contracts even at the expense of potentially getting worse, Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri should be looking to do more than just being a top four team in the Eastern Conference. He should got for it and take his shot at getting to the NBA Finals.

As Basketball Insiders senior writer Joel Brigham reported recently, overall the East has gotten weaker with Jimmy Butler, Paul George and Paul Millsap heading west. The top four in the East aren’t about to change, although maybe things between the top teams could become at least a little more interesting.

Cleveland, Boston, Toronto and Washington look almost certain to keep their top-four status in the conference simply by bringing back the same players they had a year ago. Add Milwaukee to that conversation, too

Chicago, Indiana and Atlanta all made the playoffs last year but each will vie for the conference’s worst record next season after losing their stars

Boston took the first steps towards becoming more competitive with the Cavs by getting Gordon Hayward’s commitment for next season. Although they still have more moves left to create the needed cap space to sign Hayward and they’ll probably want to do something about carrying four small forwards that all need to play next season.

Expect the Wizards to match anything restricted free agent Otto Porter signs on July 6th.

The Raptors will bring back starters Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, but have lost rotation players P.J. Tucker and Patrick Patterson to free agency and are rumored to be looking to dump salary because of luxury tax concerns.

All three of these pretenders will be competitive during the regular season, but unless they have another major move up their sleeve, no one is going to give them more than a puncher’s chance at knocking off a healthy Cavs squad in the playoffs.

The Celtics with Isaiah Thomas, Al Horford and Gordon Hayward still need rebounding and they have the trade pieces to go get a difference maker. Of course the Celtics with Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Brooklyn’s 2018 first round draft pick could choose to tread water as a 50-win team while their young guys develop instead?

Built around John Wall and Bradley Beal, the Wizards will have continuity and if they can find some offense off the bench, it can be argued they don’t need anything else, but they really need that bench to step up.

The Raptors are built around Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Ibaka, but like the Celtics, they need another impact player if they are going to be more than pretenders in the East.

(Players shown in the positions they would like to play)

The Raptors could make do with the players they have, even if it isn’t practical luxury tax wise. Delon Wright has the size to play on the wing. DeMarre Carroll can play both forward spots and Ibaka can play power forward (like he has for most of his career.) But this isn’t the best use of team resources.

The favored move seems to be to find a team to take on Carroll’s salary to solve the luxury tax issue, but this doesn’t help re-balance the roster or help move the needle of the team’s outlook for next season.

No, Ujiri needs to go big if this team is going to be significantly better than last season. He needs to add an impact player, preferably while reducing his luxury tax position.

Once teams can actually start signing free agents on July 6th and reality sets in around the league, trade season can start in earnest and there is one multiple-time All-Star rumored to have shopped around at the draft because he wasn’t happy, the Spurs LaMarcus Aldridge.

The almost 32-year-old five-time All-Star power forward wasn’t named to the All-Star team for first time since 2012 last year. He posted his lowest scoring (17.3 points per game), fewest field goals made (6.9) and worst rebounding numbers (7.3) since his rookie season way back in 2006-07. However, he was still an impact player and as has been a big man trend, he added a three-point shot and hit 41 percent of his 56 attempts last season.

In addition to Aldridge being unhappy, general manager R.C. Burford isn’t going to have star point guard Tony Parker to start the season, if at all. It doesn’t look like free agency is going all that well either besides the return of Patty Mills, so an aging Spurs team could use some young ready-to-go players for next season.

If the Raptors sent Jonas Valanciunas, Cory Joseph and Lucas Nogueira to the Spurs for Aldridge, the Raptors would get another impact player who can shoot plus shave $4.5 million off their payroll, and the Spurs would get to fill some holes with a young starting center, a backup point guard they know well and a young developing big man.

The Raptors tax situation becomes a lot more palatable and the players fall into roles they prefer/fit.

If Aldridge can re-gain his All-Star form of a year ago, which should be a lot easier in the NBA East, Toronto would at least get a second look as a potential competitor for the Cavs come playoff time.

At this point in early July, nothing is set in stone, however, expect the Celtics to make a move to address those rebounding concerns, look for the Wizards bench to improve and the Raptors will do … something.

Ujiri created a three-year window with the contracts of DeRozan, Lowry and Ibaka, so he may as well go for it this year if he can and there may be no better opportunity to snag an impact player than the situation in San Antonio with Aldridge. That is unless Danny Ainge beats him to it.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

   Featured image courtesy of Larry Millson

 

 

 

 

NBA Minnesota Timberwolves Shabazz Muhammad and Miami Heat James Johnson and Toronto Raptors Patrick Patterson

What Is The Next Shoe To Drop For The Toronto Raptors

It feels like things are stalling out in the NBA for trades and free agency as teams wait on Gordon Hayward and the few remaining free agents with profile to decide where they want to go/ who wants them plus what is likely the inevitable return of Otto Porter to the Wizards after he signs an offer sheet with somebody. But until there’s some clarity, the next shoe to drop for teams like the Toronto Raptors is left hanging up in the air.

The Raptors aren’t the only ones looking to dump salary, the Bucks, Celtics? and likely and handful of other teams are also waiting for the big picture to work itself out as well. Toronto, however, after coming to terms with Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka is in a must deal versus might or would like to deal situation.

Toronto Raptors NBA

It likely isn’t as bad as being $17 million over the luxury tax line in Toronto. The first year salaries of Lowry and Ibaka combined could be about $5 million less than the three-year average, VanVleet is not guaranteed and can still be released, and their first round draft pick isn’t signed/could still be traded, but if paying the tax is a big deal for president Masai Ujiri, he still needs to move at least one of Jonas Valanciunas, DeMarre Carroll or (for a partial tax savings) Cory Joseph.

The most obvious shoe to drop is at point guard.

The Raptors have four and nobody needs four healthy point guards on their roster. The easy solution is to waive the non-guaranteed deal of VanVleet, but he’s a cheap option as a third string backup and Ujiri has been noticed trying to shop the $7.6 million expiring contract of Joseph.

A potential deal with Indiana apparently fell though, but solid young backup point guards are a reasonably valuable commodity. Joseph is trade-able.

Ideally Joseph would be packaged with Carroll or Valanciunas so Ujiri could get something of value back and still dip below tax line.

Even if the fan base couldn’t hold the door open fast enough to help Carroll move on, he is still a useful player at a position of need, assuming he can stay healthy. So, Ujiri can’t be too fussy if it’s his traditional slow-footed rebounding center Valanciunas or the disappointing ‘3-and-D’ forward Carroll who he manages to off load to save the tax. Both players are starters and would have a useful role coming off the bench in what is expected to be a higher scoring small ball focused Raptors rotation next season.

However, if Ujiri can find a way to fill the gaps in the rotation caused by their departure, internally, by way of trade or free agency, then both Valanciunas and Carroll could be on their way out for cheaper options.

While what could come back by way of trade is harder to judge, if Ujiri could move both Carroll and Valanciunas, there are still some interesting options in free agency.

The Timberwolves have withdrawn the qualifying offer from small forward Shabazz Muhammad.

Combo forward James Johnson is available and a known quantity in Toronto.

Patrick Patterson becomes a viable option who knows the Raptors systems and has been a very effective, if at times frustrating, glue guy.

Another option could be Clipper free agent Luc Mbah Moute who evolved into a 39 percent three-point shooter last season.

At this point in free agency, the list of second tier options is long. However, the first step is clearing enough space below the luxury tax line to make room.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Cory Joseph and Jonas Valanciunas and DeMarre Carroll

Are The Raptors Still Afraid Of The Luxury Tax?

Just ignore the annual comments from whomever the Raptors GM is this year about being willing and able to spend into the Tax, by all appearances, the Raptors are going cheap… again. Maybe we’re jumping to conclusions, but this team is still afraid of the NBA Luxury Tax.

As the negotiations drag out with Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, almost certainly about dollars and length of contract, the Raptors have already lost P.J. Tucker to the Rockets because of what has become their ongoing fear of spending into the tax.

The rumors about Toronto trying to dump salary in order to “make room” under the luxury tax are coming more frequently and gaining credibility.

This is especially disappointing in light of the overwhelming fan support in Toronto which boasted the third highest attendance in the NBA last season and the very deep pockets of their corporate owners (Rogers and Bell own MLSE) where the profit or loss of the Raptors wouldn’t even make a footnote in their annual statement.

If moving out salaries is the only way Masai Ujiri is allowed to re-sign Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, then MLSE has seriously handcuffed the Raptors president.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Kyle Lowry and P.J. Tucker and Serge Ibaka

Six Things The Raptors Should Do This Summer

The Toronto Raptors have won over 50 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time in franchise history and both times they were easily eliminated in the playoffs by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Everyone is predicting another Cavs – Dubs rematch in the NBA Finals again next year, so, in that light, what are six things the Raptor should be doing this summer?

President Masai Ujiri says the goal is to get past the Cavs and win an NBA championship, but to be blunt, every NBA GM says they want to win a championship and almost none of them have any reasonable expectation of accomplishing it next season or even in the foreseeable future.

By any historical measure, Toronto has nothing to be upset about. This team has succeeded on the court while Ujiri has handicapped his head coach with quite literally half a roster of inexperienced, inexpensive players under development. The building is sold out and the organization is raking in the cash from 16 home playoff dates over the past two postseason runs. But for injury, the Raptors could have easily set a fourth consecutive record for franchise wins in a season last year.

This summer will be different. The team has four key unrestricted free agents that they should have no trouble hanging onto if Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) will open their checkbook, but that would end the days of modest payroll and huge profits. What the Raptors should do for their fans and will do for their corporate masters may not be on the same page.

1. Re-sign Kyle Lowry (31-years-old), unrestricted free agent

Everything this summer for the Raptors revolves around re-signing Lowry. If Ujiri screws this up, the rest of free agency will quickly circle the drain.

The Raptors need to get the best deal possible and hopefully that’s in the order of four years and $120 million, but if if takes five years and $150 million plus to get it done, well, it’s time the Raptors started spending some of that money they’ve made off of their loyal fans.

2. Re-sign Serge Ibaka (28) and P.J. Tucker (32), unrestricted free agents

Ujiri said he traded for these two players at the trade deadline in February in order to get their Bird Rights. Well the only reason you need a player’s Bird Rights in free agency is so you can go over the salary cap to re-sign them, so get it done.

This is no time to cheap out. Ibaka wants to be in Toronto, but he isn’t going to take a below market deal, so offer Ibaka five years and $100 million. Tucker said he was looking for fit in his next contract and Lowry would be a big factor in determining that, but he’s 32-years-old, offer Tucker three years and $25 million and be prepared to go higher.

Failure to re-sign Ibaka and Tucker means Ujiri gave away a young three-point shooter in Terrence Ross, a first round draft pick and two second round draft picks for nothing.

3. See what the market says UFA Patrick Patterson’s (28) value is

Over the past four years the Raptors have played better as a team with Patterson on the court, but he has proven to be an unreliable offensive threat who seems to get hurt at the worst time and his limited offense takes a holiday after returning from injury.

Patterson didn’t do himself any favors in the playoffs over the past two seasons either as this career average 36.8 percent three-point shooter fired 30.2 percent from deep over his last 30 postseason games.

From a Raptors perspective, it would be nice to re-sign Patterson to another cheap three-year deal to continue coming off the bench, but like Bismack Biyombo last summer, expect Patterson to get paid a lot more elsewhere than he’s worth to Toronto.

Get ready to say bye-bye to a great guy in July.

4. Trade DeMarre Carroll

Despite not living up to some very high expectations or his contract, Carroll has done nothing wrong in Toronto and it’s likely his knee will finally be 100 percent and he’ll return to being an effective ‘3-and-D’ combo forward next season.

It’s just, at 31-years-old in July, after two disappointing seasons in Toronto, he’s in the way of younger players and it’s time to move on and potentially help a different (younger?) team that needs what he should still be able to bring to the table.

Ujiri can’t expect much back and he might have to include him in a larger deal just to move him. However, the Luxury tax savings alone should make a trade for nothing back worthwhile from a corporate standpoint. From a team standpoint, he should be able to do a little better.

5. Trade Jonas Valanciunas

Valanciunas can probably improve his jump shooting dramatically and within a couple of years become that trailing three-point threat on the fast break who is left wide open. However, he’ll never be decent runner and his lack of quickness will continue to challenge him when guarding on the perimeter.

Given 30 minutes a night, JV can almost guarantee a double-double average, so he should have solid trade value as one of the top rebounders in the NBA on a percentage basis and a still improving player on offense.

Unfortunately for Valanciunas, if the rookie Jakob Poeltl continues improve over the summer and Ibaka is re-signed, Poeltl should be able to just take JV’s minutes at a much lower cost.

To fit with the direction Ujiri seems to be taking this team, he needs to get back a more mobile big man with a better jump shot or a solid ‘3-and-D’ forward.

6. Reduce The Number Of Prospects On The 15 Man Roster

While there should be no objection to Ujiri drafting the injured small forward OG Anunoby with the 23rd pick in June, there should be huge concerns about heading into the 2017-18 season with eight players still on their rookie deals.

Of those eight players,

As the most sure-fire young player on the Raptors, Norman Powell is ready to take on a much bigger role this season. Depending on what other moves Ujiri makes this summer, Powell could be starting. He’s earned it.

Jacob Poeltl needs a spot in the rotation somewhere as he is far too good to get anything out of being sent back to the Raptors 905.

Ujiri needs to decide if it’s going to be Delon Wright or Fred VanVleet assuming the third string point guard duties next season. Both are promising young players, but he needs that roster spot to improve the team’s depth elsewhere. So, pick one.

Between Bruno Caboclo, Pascal Siakam, Lucas Nogueira and Anunoby, Ujiri needs to start making decisions about who he believes in and who he is just hanging on to out of hope. At least one of these guys should be available in trade to make room for a more NBA ready player or just simply to grease a trade.

The Raptors have two new quasi-roster spots available (total 17) on two-way deals this season that don’t count against the salary cap. Use them and get the prospects on the 15-man roster down to a more manageable number.

Conclusion

The Raptors need to follow the plan Ujiri created when he traded for Ibaka and Tucker at the trade deadline this past season. Everything follows from there.

Whether the roster Ujiri manages to put together will be good enough to get past the Cavs or not, Raptors fans deserve the best team possible, even if that squeezes MLSE’s profits.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Jonas Valanciunas and DeMarre Carroll

Should The Timberwolves Now Go After Carroll And Valanciunas?

Thirteen years as a Lottery Team would weigh on anybody and the Minnesota Timberwolves new president of basketball operations and head coach Tom Thibodeau didn’t sign up to run this team last year with the intention of extending that streak. He proved that in spades at the 2017 NBA Draft by trading potential future stars Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and the number 7 pick Lauri Markkanen for Bulls All-Star Jimmy Butler and the number 16 pick Justin Patton.

The Timberwolves instantly got better, but if Thibs is serious about making an impact in the postseason next April, he still needs some playoff proven veterans help to get his remaining highly talented crop of young players to the next level and Toronto Raptors starters DeMarre Carroll and Jonas Valanciunas could become available because of Luxury Tax concerns.

Star Tribune’s Sid Hartman reported on the desperation for change by owner Glen Taylor at the end of the season,

“(Thibodeau) needs some players that will come off the bench and keep us going and not give up the lead,” he said. “I think he would say if he can get some guys with experience that would be helpful, so he can mix them in with our young guys during those substitution times. I think that will be a priority.

“We could also always use another big guy. If we back up a year and we were hoping that Pek [Nikola Pekovic] would be part of that and be a big, strong guy that would come in and take minutes off, so Karl [-Anthony Towns] didn’t get beat up so much and play so many minutes.”

Pek is officially done and last year’s attempt at veteran stability with players like Cole Aldrich (8.6 mpg), Jordan Hill (6.7 mpg), Omri Casspi (17.1 mpg) and Lance Stephenson (on two 10 days, 11.2 mpg) didn’t work.

However, even after the draft night trade, Thibodeau still has a ton of cap flexibility to sooth that burning desire to win now.

The Wolves will have Pekovic’s contract numbers off the books for next season, and because he did not play this season, his contract is covered by insurance, so that means their current salary cap should be in the $66 million range (prior to the Butler trade).

It wasn’t going to be easy attracting quality free agents to a team with a losing record let alone a mind-blowing 13-year losing streak and there is no pretending Minnesota is anything like New York, L.A. or Miami. So, just like the deal with the Bulls, the best way for Thibs to get what he needs is most likely to be accomplished by way of another trade.

Enter the Toronto scenario. Raptors president Masai Ujiri says he wants to re-sign free agents Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, but to do so would put his team deep into Luxury Tax territory with no guarantee they’d be able to escape the Eastern Conference currently owned by LeBron James. A tax bill of $45 million plus is a steep price to pay if you’re fighting for second best in your conference.

However, Ujiri could almost wipe out that tax bill if he could get one of Valanciunas or Carroll off of his books and a trade involving both players with the right asset back could give him the “culture change” he’s looking for next season as well.

While there is no chance the Timberwolves are going to part with another one of their young stars, Minnesota does have a player the African-born Ujiri would almost certainly be interested in, Senegal’s 27-year-old Gorgui Dieng.

Deng’ offensive production has stalled at about 10 points per game over the past three seasons as has his rebounding at about eight boards, but the power forward/center is known for his defense and has started to show he just might have an effective corner three-ball. It’s not hard to see him fitting into the “culture” Toronto is trying to build.

It shouldn’t be too hard to convince Thibs to trade the guy Dunking  With The Wolves George Rinaldi sees as a sixth man instead of a T-wolves starter in the future.

Dieng is producing decent basketball when needs be, but in all honesty, would perfectly suit a bench player.

What Dieng offers is a solid defensive player, able to knock down mid-range shots on a regular basis, and give a significant number of rebounds per game.

Just the chance to add a couple of starters like Valanciunas and Carroll from a team coming off four consecutive trips to the postseason and back-to-back 50-plus win regular seasons should be enough to get Thibs rushing to try and do a deal. The Twolves would go from being too young to win last season to a team with veteran depth.

The 25-year-old Valanciunas is a legit 7′ traditional center who can start, but actually played his best basketball coming off the bench in this year’s playoff run. He has consistently been in the top 10 for rebounding percentage in the NBA and produced a consistent 12 points and 9-plus rebounds in 26 minutes over the last three years. His contract is similar to Dieng’s four-year deal and has two more seasons plus a player option left.

The Raptors acquired the now 30-year-old Carroll from the 60-win Atlanta Hawks two summers ago and although the “3-and-D” combo forward missed most of his first season in Toronto due to knee problems and he’s taken a lot of flak from the fan base for not living up to early high expectations, he can still space the floor, hit threes and play defense the right way. He played 72 games last season and he would be the poster-boy for the type of veteran that could help stabilize a young team like the T-wolves. He has two years and $30.2 million left on his contract.

While simply moving Carroll’s contract into Minnesota’s cap space would largely solve’s Ujiri’s tax problems this year and give Thibodeau his veteran on a short two year leash, the larger deal could do more for both teams. One team trying to get to where Toronto is now and the other team trying to find a way to take the next step without setting new franchise records for luxury taxes.

There will be a lot of opportunities for these two teams to look at after free agency opens up in July, but signing free agents is tough and it often isn’t easy finding a motivated trade partner you aren’t competing with.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Jonas Valanciunas

What Can The Raptors Get For Jonas Valanciunas?

The fifth overall pick of the 2011 NBA draft Jonas Valanciunas is a traditional 7′ center in a game that is evolving away from the paint. So if the Toronto Raptors want “a change” and face the Luxury Tax challenge of keeping their own free agents this summer, what could they get for for this still developing 25-year-old big man.

Valanciunas is a space-eater, a top-10 rebounder in each of the past three seasons and an imposing force against the undersized big men becoming oh so common in today’s NBA. Unfortunately, those same undersized big men can send him to the bench in the fourth quarter as Valanciunas struggles guarding the perimeter.

He is the type of player a team doesn’t need until they need him, but when your team is getting hammered on the boards, Valanciunas is the kind of guy you’ll need to stop the bleeding and hit back.

On Sportsnet, Dave Zarum quotes the former assistant general manager of the Brooklyn Nets Bobby Marks ahead of the trade deadline as saying,

“I think the league goes in cycles and there’s still a role for centers.

“In certain situations— Cleveland going small— then there’s probably not a role for him, but in the majority of matchups there is.

“I wouldn’t do anything with him if I’m in Toronto. It would have to be something really big. You look at what centers got this (past) summer — Mozgov, Noah, Mahinmi — and Jonas’ contract ($16 million/yr) carries great value.”

The Raptors made their own moves at the trade deadline by bringing in Serge Ibaka, a player they want to keep in free agency this summer who has made no secret of the fact he wants to start at center next year. So unless Raptors president Masai Ujiri is happy paying starter’s money for a center who’s likely to come the bench next season, he needs to find a trade partner for Valanciunas.

Boston Celtics

Like last summer there will be a lot of noise about the Celtics packaging draft picks and players to land another star, but the prices were too high for Danny Aigne last year and they’ll likely be too high again this year. Aigne isn’t about to disrupt what’s he’s building for a rental, potential poor fit or a massive overpay in free agency either.

The Celtics are a good team already, albeit a good team with a glaring weakness. They were one of the worst rebounding teams (-2.5 boards per game) during the regular season. They were the worst rebounding team (-6.6) in the playoffs.

What the Celtics do have is 2012 second round pick Jae Crowder who has evolved into a solid “3-and-D” small forward. While no one is going to call him a “LeBron Stopper,” he is just the kind of small forward the Raptors need for next season. He is also uncomfortably in the way of the Celtics third overall pick of last season Jaylen Brown.

If these two Atlantic Division rivals can put their egos aside, they have the solution to each other’s problem in a player they can afford to trade. Hopefully someone reminds them the goal is to get by Cleveland, if not now, eventually?

Indians Pacers

The Pacers would have been hard pressed to screw up last season any worse and while they probably cling to hope over the summer of a resurgence strong enough to convince Paul George to re-sign, if next season resembles last season, it’ll take a major brain cramp to not start shopping their best player before the trade deadline.

The problem with shopping a “rental” All-Star is teams won’t be giving up much unless they believe he’ll re-sign in his new home. Maybe George really does want to go lose with the Lakers? But it seems more likely he’d rather join a team that gives him a shot at the NBA Finals – say hello to Boston and Toronto.

Last year Aigne wouldn’t give a top draft pick and/or top young prospect(s) for a potential rental of Serge Ibaka and who could blame him? The Celtics don’t need to take those kinds of risks for a real shot at getting to the next level all on their own.

The Raptors are likely easier to convince, in part because they don’t have any former or current top five draft picks to risk other than Valanciunas.

It might seem like a pipe dream for Toronto to land a player like George, but if next season plays out like last season (for Orlando), the Pacers could find themselves looking for the best available offer with a player who has made it very clear where he wants to end up.

Dallas Mavericks

Mark Cuban doesn’t like to lose and he doesn’t like to wait either, so if the Raptors just want to do a salary dump for a first round lottery draft pick, the Mavericks are the team to talk to.

Draft Express has 7′ Arizona freshman stretch four Lauri Markkanen going to Dallas at nine and describe him as,

One of the top jump shooters in this draft regardless of position

Among the top shooting players over 6’10 in NCAA history

Shooters of his caliber at the power forward position don’t come along very often

If the Raptors can bring back both Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, a player like  Markkanen could be the perfect long term fit.

Why not just keep Valanciunas?

The Raptors make a lot of money. They are third in attendance in the NBA and, supposedly, Ujiri can go into the Tax if he so chooses. Bringing Valanciunas in off the bench probably doesn’t affect his minutes all that much and he’d arguably be the best backup center in the NBA.

As anyone who has followed the team for a long time knows, believing a stated willingness to pay Luxury Tax has fallen firmly into the show-me category. Besides, the Raptors have a backup center in Jakob Poeltl who can/should fill that role admirably next season if given a chance for a lot less money.

Valanciunas would probably say all the right things about coming off the bench, but most of us would have a hard time believing him if it lasted into the new year. To be fair, it’s start him or trade him.

As Bobby Marks said, “Jonas’ contract ($16 million/yr) carries great value.” So Ujiri should be able to extract pretty good value for Valanciunas. However, the problem will be other general managers can figure out the Raptors pending Luxury Tax issues with Toronto re-signing their own free agents and will want to exploit that situation for themselves.

What Ujiri can get for Valanciunas will depend as much on how quickly he wants to unload that contract for his own reasons as what he needs to get back. However, assuming Ujiri was sincere in wanting to re-sign free agents Kyle Lowry, Ibaka and Tucker, this is one situation that isn’t going to just go away.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

  Featured image courtesy of Larry Millson

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Jonas Valanciunas

It Took A Lot For Casey To Wake Up Jonas Valanciunas

Through the ups and down of the Toronto Raptors three previous playoff runs under head coach Dwane Casey one thing remained constant, Jonas Valanciunas (“JV”) stepped up and played big, but not now. It took a lot for Casey to get JV to wake up and play up to his potential this year.

In Valanciunas’ first 23 playoff games prior to this year he averaged a double-double 12.4 points and 10.2 rebounds on 57 percent shooting. He was a force and a go-to-guy when DeMar DeRozan and/or Kyle Lowry were struggling.

This year was a different story. JV was sent to the bench shooting 37.5 percent from the field after his team went 1-2 in their first three games against Milwaukee. Casey could use the excuse that the matchup with Bucks backup center Greg Monroe was better, but Milwaukee’s starting center was a rookie, so it would have been reasonable to expect more.

In hindsight it was unfortunate Valanciunas bought the excuse and willingly went to the bench. It would have been better if he’d bristled at the demotion.

After getting past the Bucks with a 3-0 run and JV coming off the bench, Casey put Valanciunas back in the starting lineup in Game One against the Cavs and to put it bluntly, JV stunk.

It wasn’t easy to tell Valanciunas he’d be coming off the bench for Game Two with the undersized Tristan Thompson starting for the Cavs, but Casey had to do something to shake Valanciunas out of his malaise.

“I think the hair is up on the back of his neck a little bit,” Casey said prior to Game Three. “A little teed off that he is coming off (the bench). My hat goes off to him cause he has been starting the entire year and because of matchup situations and trying to win the series he has had to come off the bench.

“He is still one of the top centers in the league and it takes a lot for him to come off the bench. He is trying to show everyone I’m not a backup center in this league. Which he’s not. He’s just doing it for the fact that we needed that matchup in the last series and also we tried to take advantage of that in this series.”

Finally the demotion to backup center in Game Two woke JV up and he led Toronto in scoring with 23 points in just 20.2 minutes.

“He’s a good player on the low post,” Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue said prior to Game Three. “Uses his shot fakes well, gets to the basket, can make a jump shot, but they play thru Kyle and DeMar a lot, so that being said, he’s a third option on his team. What he did in the last game is a little different than what he did in the past. He did make some shots last game.”

He make some shots in his next game as well. Back in the starting unit because he earned it, Valanciunas was second in scoring on the Raptors with 19 badly needed points on 8-10 shooting.

In his first seven games this postseason, Valanciunas averaged 8.9 points on a disappointing 46.8 shooting, but since being woken up by Casey that’s jumped to 21 points on 78.3 percent.

The improved play from Valanciunas hasn’t been enough for the Raptors to steal a win from the favored Cavs, but at least the team has looked better than in Game One and that could matter in what is likely the final home game of the year for Toronto on Sunday.

“We are going to show what we are made of,” Valanciunas said about Game Four. “We are going to come in and give up or we are going to come in and fight. It doesn’t matter if we win or lose, we need to come here and fight and leave everything on the court.”

Welcome to the fight JV. Game Four is all about pride and we’ve seen how well JV and the Raptors can play when their backs are against the wall.

 

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

  Featured image courtesy of Larry Millson

 

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Norman Powell and Jonas Valanciunas

Raptors Must Ignore Matchups And Start Norman Powell

The Raptors went with a big starting lineup in Game One of their second round series against the Cavaliers, but in the ever changing landscape of today’s NBA, head coach Dwane Casey must ignore the traditional matchups and start second year guard Norman Powell over center Jonas Valanciunas if he wants to win.

This isn’t an easy call for Casey. Valanciunas (“JV”) has been his starting center for five successful seasons and the big man has been nothing less than awesome in the postseason, at least he used to be awesome until this year. Telling a 24-year-old that he’s lost his starting job at this point in the season isn’t easy and could have future implications, but if the Raptors want to have a chance at getting by the heavily favored Cavs, that’s a bitter pill Casey is going to have to hand to JV.

JV had already been pushed into taking a back seat to Powell in round one out of necessity. For whatever reason, the high energy dominant center of the past three postseason runs hasn’t shown up yet and in his four starts (including Game One versus the Cavs), JV is a +/- of -11.5 points per game and in this case that +/- stat accurately reflects his impact on the games he’s started.

Powell, on the other hand, was a +14.3 points in his three starts so far this postseason (all against the Bucks) and there is no way to sugarcoat it, the Raptors would have lost that first round series if Casey hadn’t made the change.

The object of using a big starting lineup was to matchup DeMarre Carroll with LeBron James, Serge Ibaka with Kevin Love, and JV with Tristan Thompson. However, JV didn’t dominate Thompson and the lack of three-point shooting and poor perimeter defense quickly put the Raptors into an early hole they didn’t get out of. JV was a -9 points in the first quarter of Game One in Cleveland.

Like the red hot three-point barrage the Bucks buried the Raptors with early in that series, the starting lineup of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan Carroll, Ibaka and JV (-5.8 points per game this postseason), didn’t score and couldn’t stop the Cavs (30 points and 4-7 from three in the first quarter) from scoring either.

The Raptors starting unit was +5.3 points in the three games Powell got the nod over JV.

As bad as a small forward matchup between the 6’4 Powell and the 6’8 reigning King of the NBA James looks and undoubtedly is, this postseason Powell has given the Raptors starting unit the elements they are going to need to survive the offensive onslaught in the opening minutes against the defending champion Cavaliers.

“The league is changing,” admitted Casey after practice on Tuesday. “The league is changing and believe me, you’ve got to change or you get stuck in the mud. It’s more of a scoring league now.

“We’ve got to score points. We’ve got to manufacture points and not get down cause the other team scores.

“We’ve got the players to do it, to put points on the board tit-for-tat.”

As it quickly became obvious against the Bucks, Powell gave the Raptors starters a third ball handler that frustrated Milwaukee’s efforts to  disrupt Toronto’s offense by putting pressure on Lowry and DeRozan. Powell also provided a badly needed three-point shooting relief valve as he went 9-9 on threes as a starter in addition to creating a faster paced offense and another player that could drive and finish in the paint.

What the Raptors give up in size defensively with Powell they should gain in better perimeter defense and a harder to defend offense. They may or may not be able to stop the Cavs from scoring, but at least their own offense should be more effective.

There have also been calls for P.J. Tucker to get the start over Carroll, but the numbers don’t back up that move. The best two man unit for Toronto this postseason has been Carroll and Powell at +9.3 points. Powell and Tucker have been +3.4 points. Conversely, the worst two man unit has been Ibaka and Valanciunas at -6.0 points, so it isn’t that hard to see which two-man unit is the one that needs to be broken up.

Breaking up Ibaka and JV seems to be the Raptors answer to improve defense and offense. Five-man lineups with Lowry, DeRozan, Powell, Valanciunas and either of Carroll or Tucker have been +4 points in the postseason. For the most part, JV has looked good coming off the bench and gives the Raptors a superior backup center.

Three years ago it was all about player development for the Toronto Raptors  when they finally got back to the postseason after a five year absence, but this year is different. Coming off consecutive 50+ win seasons and a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, winning in the postseason matters. It might ruffle some feathers, but coach Casey has to do what is necessary and the numbers say start Powell and bring in JV off the bench.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

NBA Milwaukee Bucks Jason Terry and Greg Monroe

Raptors Looked Lost And Confused In Milwaukee

This was supposed to be a first round series featuring the playoff tested and experienced Toronto Raptors taking on a young Bucks team with two rookies in their starting lineup, but it was the Raptors veterans who looked lost and confused in Milwaukee.

“We just look like we don’t know what the hell we are are doing,” Jonas Valanciunas explained postgame. “We just gave up from the start of the game.”

Toronto shot 4-18 in the first quarter of Game Three to get behind 32-12 and things didn’t improve from there as the Raptors dropped a 104-77 contest they were never in.

“It starts with us, myself self as a coach as far as having them ready to play in a hostile environment” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said trying to deflect blame away from his players. “They ambushed us. There is no aspect of our game that we executed whatsoever.”

However, there is no excuse for not being ready to play in a hostile environment for the Raptors veterans. Except for P.J. Tucker, they’ve all been here before multiple times. They knew or should have known what to expect.

This hasn’t been a good series for the Raptors starting center. Valanciunas (10 points/ 8.7 rebounds) has been unexpectedly taken advantage of by the Bucks rookie “stretch” center Thon Maker (50% 3FG) and the usually favorable matchup with Greg Monroe (16 points/ 8.7 rebounds) hasn’t gone so well either.

An efficient and effective beast in the postseason in his past three trips, this year Valanciunas has been getting rushed into bad shots on offense, shooting 37.5 percent from the field in the series, and schooled at the other end, boasting a plus/minus of -8.3 points in 22 minutes per game. Unfortunately for the Raptors, he hasn’t been alone.

Among the Raptors veterans, only Serge Ibaka (45.9% shooting) and DeMarre Carroll (54.5% shooting) are hitting shots at better than 37.5 percent. Ibaka is making an impact, but Carroll doesn’t play enough or shoot enough mostly because the guy he is guarding, Kris Middleton (16.7 points), is second in Bucks playoff scoring.

It’s looked like a Raptors brickfest out there except from the young guys Delon Wright (50%), Norman Powell (50%), and rookie center Jakob Poeltl (42.9%).  The guys who weren’t supposed to play much are the only players with a plus in the plus/minus stat and it could be argued Wright has noticeably outplayed Cory Joseph, Poeltl has been more effective than Valanciunas, and Powell has been more aggressive offensively than Carroll.

“We’ll make changes,” Casey said. “We made changes going into the second half, but whoever goes in has to go in and make a difference.”

It isn’t easy making changes to a starting lineup when these are the guys who got you here, but the Raptors can’t afford to get run out of the building by the Bucks aggression in Game Four on Saturday. If this lineup, this rotation can’t adjust, Casey has to try something new.

“They just came out really aggressively and took (away) our easy points, took our normal rhythm shots, they took our rhythm away from us,” Valanciunas said. “They were into the ball, into people, not letting (us) screen easy.”

News flash, the playoffs aren’t supposed to be easy. The cliche ‘hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard’ is true and the Raptors know it.

“Whoever plays the hardest is going to win the series,” P.J. Tucker said. “Nobody (should) got to hype you to go out and play hard. This is what we do. If you don’t have the moral (fortitude) to go out and fight in the NBA playoffs, then this ain’t the job for you.”

Ignore DeRozan going 0-8 in Game Three and ignore coach Casey’s promise of, “as a staff we have to do a better job of finding ways of opening and space for us to score.” The Raptors didn’t lose Games One and Three because the Bucks out-schemed them. The Bucks are winning because they are playing harder, pure and simple.

“We got to forget the plays, forget everything and come out with energy,” Valanciunas said. “Come out willing to play basketball, not Xs and Os, hard school basketball.”

“I still believe we can win the series,” Kyle Lowry said. “It ain’t over. It just sucks right now. It’s terrible right now. It’s a terrible feeling the way we just got our asses beat. So we better pick it up or it’s going to be a terrible feeling again.”

If the Raptors players Casey puts on the court don’t play harder and tougher from the start, no amount of game planning is going to prevent another terrible feeling after Game Four.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

     Featured image courtesy of Larry Millson

 

 

Raptors Jonas Valanciunas Is Working On A 3-Point Shot

When the Toronto Raptors drafted Jonas Valanciunas fifth overall in 2011 then assistant general manager Maurizio Gherardini described him as, “Tyson Chandler with good feet.” He may as well painted him as a traditional big man, but in Valanciunas’ phone call to the media in Toronto, he described his game as being like the Raptors recently departed jump shooting power forward Chris Bosh. In addition to being a big young center with potential to thrive inside, Valanciunas could shoot, but his play outside of the paint is something that has often been overlooked early in his NBA career.

However, since his arrival in Toronto, the NBA game has been undergoing what can only be described as dramatic change. Traditional centers that are mired in the paint have been disappearing and replaced by guys who can stretch the floor, make plays for others and/or leap high for an alley-oop and run like a deer.

Plays based on pound, pound, pound and backing down your defender in the paint with sheer power are getting less common. It’s become obvious as this season has moved along that Valanciunas has been hunting down 15 foot jump shots in games and practicing his three-pointers in warm-ups.

“That’s what the game is going to,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said. “The days of boom, boom, boom, pound it, pound it, pound it – you can do it two or three times, but as the game goes on they are going to send bodies, send traps off cutters, traps baseline and it’s clogged up and you’re not going to get anything done, so it’s a great shot for him, elbow free throw line and maybe a step or two higher where he can see everything, make passes, make plays because the floor is open now.

“In his career he is going to move out further and further with that shot and he’s got a good rhythm out there. He’s one of our best free throw shooters.”

NBA Toronto Raptors Jonas Valanciunas

In the New Year, there was Valanciunas before each game standing above the arc and tossing three-pointers and in the new NBA, this hasn’t looked out of place. Yes, it’s one thing to shoot jump shots in a gym by yourself before the crowd shows up and no one is defending you, but the process has to start somewhere.

“That’s the next evolution of centers,” Casey said. “Guys migrate out there. Lucas (Nogueira) is migrating out there and JV is migrating out there and I think that’s going to be the new wave. Ibaka is knocking down shots (from three-point range), so that’s the new thing in the NBA now.”

“We’re practicing,” Valanciunas told Pro Bball Report about his three-point shooting in the pregame warm-up. “Practicing to add this to my game. This is something new. Probably coach Nurse can talk about this more. Just slowly getting that developed, slowly getting that in my game.

“It’s not usual. Most of the time I’m not there to shoot it, my job is to go inside, but I find myself liking that shot, (so) why not?”

While Valanciunas has yet to attempt a three-point shot this season and has only lofted two in 338 regular season games, he is taking more jump shots than ever before. Two years ago, he took 88.5 percent of his shots within 10 feet of the rim. Last year that dipped to 85.5 percent, but this season it’s down to 75.9 percent. The number of shot attempts from the foul line area is actually getting noticeable during games.

“These days all the bigs are doing that,” Valanciunas explained. “The more weapons you have, the more I can do on offense. It’s harder to defend, so trying to add that in my game and have myself shooting those 15-footers.”

The number of attempts aren’t overwhelming yet and on occasion he is still turning down open shots even after making the same shot only moments before, so deliberating adding a jump shot to his regular offense is something that will take time to get comfortable with.

“Slowly getting there, slowly developing myself into that 15 foot shooter,” Valanciunas said. “Still I have a lot of work to go. A lot of practice, a lot of work to put in and that’s probably summertime work to add something new in your game.

“(Fortunately) we still got time in pregame warmups, after the practice. It’s been my work since a couple of months ago.”

Valanciunas is going to keep working on his jump shot and extending his range. As Casey pointed out, “That’s the next evolution of centers” and there are more than a few that have already evolved.

“I am not on the three-point line, not yet, but it is definitely harder to defend a shooting big than a non-shooting big, so I guess all the league is going to the shooting bigs,” Valanciunas said. “I still think that we need power inside and muscle inside, what I am trying to do (currently).”

This is an evolution not a revolution as far as Valanciunas is concerned. He wants to add an effective jump shot and extend his range, but he doesn’t see a day when being effective in the paint isn’t important.

“I hope I am never going to get allergic to the paint,” Valanciunas said. “That’s my bread. That’s where I get my everything. I still believe the game needs the big guys inside to rebound and do good things in the paint, but shooting is something that (adds to) a big man.

“Maybe in the last year of my career you are going to see me take more threes than twos.”
 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Pascal Siakam

Raptors Boast NBA’s Top 5-Man Unit But It’s Not Who You Think

At 22-9, the Toronto Raptors really don’t have much to complain about, not that a really good record has ever slowed down any team’s complaint department. They boast the NBA’s top rated offense (114.1), top rated five-man unit (+30.8) and are second only to the Golden State Warriors with a Net Rating of +9.5 points per 100 possessions.

However, they aren’t in second place overall in the NBA and have lost three times to the Cavaliers and twice to the Warriors. The result has been a fanbase looking for change, an upgrade among the players they don’t believe are pulling their weight.

Those currently being picked on in social media include starter Jonas Valanciunas and sixth man Cory Joseph who just don’t seem to be having the expected impact after the team’s franchise record setting season and rising expectations from last year. Even DeMarre Carroll has seen (if he follows social media?) his name tossed around as the guy the Raptors should move for an upgrade.

However, just maybe, the Raptors problems (such as they are) stem from somewhere else.

The NBA reports there are 45 five-man units playing at least 100 minutes so far this season and Toronto has the top two offensive rated units and the first and third best net rated units in the entire league.

Top five-man unit: Cory Joseph, Kyle Lowry, Terrence Ross, Patrick Patterson, and Lucas Nogueira – 143 minutes

#2 OFF RTG 127.9
#5 DEF RTG 97.1
#1 NET RTG +30.8

Third Best five-man unit: Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll, Patrick Patterson, Jonas Valanciunas – 122 minutes

#1 OFF RTG 129.7
#20 DEF RTG 102.9
#3 NET RTG +26.8

These Raptors five-man units pass the eye-test. When these five-man units are on the court, the Raptors are a dominant team and who the opponent is doesn’t seem to matter all that much. The frequent slagging of Joseph’s impact this year notwithstanding. Maybe some people are watching a different team play by mistake?

Toronto also has the top five-man unit in the NBA playing less than 100 minutes together of Lowry, DeRozan, Norman Powell, Patterson and Nogueira. In 33 minutes over 8 games, this unit has an offensive rating of 145.7 and a defensive rating of 80.1 for net rating of +65.6 points per 100 possessions. Thus answering any queries as to why head coach Dwane Casey keeps making up excuses to get Powell into the rotation despite a strong season from Ross.

The problem, it seems, is once again Toronto has found itself on the player development bandwagon, although this time it wasn’t totally by choice. Rather president Masai Ujiri chose to hold onto his young talent rather than adding veteran depth, so when Jared Sullinger was injured, the next man up was rookie Pascal Siakam.

Siakam doesn’t deserve to be thrown under the bus. He didn’t expect to be starting and playing in the Raptors highest use five-man unit this season. He was supposed to be learning in Mississauga with the Raptors 905 and in that context, he’s having a great season averaging 5.1 points, 3.5 rebounds, 0.5 steals and 0.8 blocks in 17.7 minutes.

Overall Siakam is a neutral +0.2 points per 100 possessions and as should be expected from a rookie, he’s a +2.6 while shooting 59.3 percent at home and a -2.4 shooting 43.4 percent on the road. In wins he’s a +2.4, but in losses that drops to -5.1 and with the majority of those losses coming against the Dubs and Cavs, that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Veteran teams look upon rookies as fresh meat to be tested and then abused.

Unfortunately for the Raptors, Siakam’s development comes at a cost to the starting unit. The unit of Lowry, DeRozan, Carroll, Siakam and Valanciunas has played a team high 296 minutes and it’s losing ground at -2.9 points per 100 possessions or 36th ranked in the NBA.

The -12.4 point swing per 100 possessions from the team average comes almost entirely on defense where the Raptors starting unit ranks 40th among five-man groups that have played at least 100 minutes together

Replacing Siakam with Patterson bumps them to an NBA net rating that’s third best.

In this context, it isn’t hard to see why the Warriors can get off to much better starts. Their five-man unit of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green and Zaza Pachulia has the seventh best offensive rating (122.2), ninth best defensive rating (98.3) and an NBA fourth best net rating of +19.1 points per 100 possessions. This unit has played 321 minutes together.

The Raptors starting unit got hammered in Golden State in the first quarter on December 28 and the numbers back up what happened. The push back from Toronto after Patterson entered the game shouldn’t have surprised anyone either.

When the Dubs go “small” substituting Pachulia with Andre Iguodala which they have for 143 minutes this year, they have the NBA’s second best defensive rating (93.8) and second best net rating of +28.5 points per 100 possessions. It must be nice when your first substitution can move your team from great to outstanding.

However, maybe the numbers justify some of the angst surrounding the Raptors?

It’s obvious when Toronto’s best units are on the court, this team isn’t playing up to the full potential of its roster. The Raptors can and do completely dominate their opponents for stretches, often seemingly on demand and then they don’t, although even the Cavs and Warriors aren’t winning every game by 20 points either. The NBA just doesn’t work that way.

The Raptors will be a better team when (if?) Sullinger gets back to assume a spot in the starting line-up and the “investment” in starting the rookie Siakam should pay off down the road with accelerated development (even if he isn’t expected to start playing like a veteran this year.)

This team is winning because of continuity and players filling a role they know and are comfortable with. Joseph might not be blowing your doors off every night, but he helps anchor the best five-man unit in the NBA by letting Lowry play off the ball and become a scorer no team has really figured out how to stop this year. Valanciunas and Carroll are only two of the guys on the NBA’s top offensive unit, so they must be doing something right as well.

And don’t trample on Siakam. If the Raptors were a middle of the road team or headed to the Lottery, the kid would be getting accolades as a massive steal at the end of the first round in the draft and if Casey had veteran power forward available, the rookie would be tearing up the NBA D-League.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Jonas Valanciunas

Raptors Jonas Valanciunas Takes Up Boxing To Get Quicker

About the only thing Toronto Raptors starting center Jonas Valanciunas has struggled with in the NBA is getting quicker and it seems like every year he is trying something to work on that aspect of his game. This year the team’s white-haired guru Alex McKechnie introduced Valanciunas to boxing to see if this heavy-weight could learn to “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” or maybe just find a way to squeeze out a few more minutes on the court during games.

“Alex brought a boxing guy here to try, just like a warm-up during the preseason, so I tried it, I liked it, so why shouldn’t I continue?” Valanciunas told Pro Bball Report. “Be quick on you feet, be light, be quick, that takes a lot of energy.”

The 24-year-old in his fifth NBA season is effective in the post, usually dominates single coverage and has become an elite rebounder, but the game has been changing for a while. There are fewer physically imposing big men like himself and more bigs that make their living on the perimeter or with jack-rabbit like quickness and hops. Valanciunas, like most young players in the league, has discovered the training and conditioning needed to dominate in the NBA is at a whole other level and boxing gives him that.

“It takes a lot of conditioning to be able to box for 12 rounds three minutes,” Valanciunas continued. “I was trying to do it, not boxing just hitting the coach, for 12 rounds and couldn’t do it. It’s so tough on everywhere.

“Still a long way to go, it’s not easy stuff. It’s not like you go there and you are a boxer. I find this stuff helps me with footwork, being live on my feet and quickness.”

Perhaps the best part is the big man has found himself a training tool that should improve his quickness that he really enjoys doing. That’s a regime that is going to produce results.

“I like it,” Valanciunas said. “It takes some adrenaline. You feel good after punching the bag.

“If you have something going on in your mind, you go to the boxing gym and punch the bag for half an hour and you’re good. Come back home easy, relaxed, nothing going on in the head.”

Boxing for Valanciunas sounds like a winning training program.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 Featured image courtesy of Larry Millson

 

 

 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors Jonas Valanciunas

Raptors Jonas Valanciunas Takes His Game To Another Level

Overshadowed by the offensive dominance of DeMar DeRozan to start the season, the Toronto Raptors Jonas Valanciunas has taken his game to another level against a murderers row of opposing centers.

“You have the two top rebounding teams in the league,” Nuggets head coach Michael Malone said prior to the game against the Raptors on Monday night. “You have a team in Toronto that is averaging 16 offensive rebounds per game and everybody thinks of DeMar (DeRozan) and Kyle (Lowry), while you have to start talking about Jonas (Valanciunas). He’s a load down there.”

Valanciunas opened the season with a 32 point 11 rebound game against the Pistons and last year’s leading rebounder Andre Drummond. Then he scored 10 points and grabbed 17 rebounds against the Cavaliers and last year’s second best offensive rebounder Tristan Thompson. His third game was a 12 point 9 board effort against the NBA’s current best rebounding team and their young center Jusuf Nurkic. On the road in Washington playing against the center who has always given Valanciunas his biggest challenge, Marcin Gortat, he had a better than last year 10 point 7 rebound night in the Raptors first road win of the year.

The challenges facing Valanciunas aren’t about to end either as the Eastern Conference’s top scoring center Hassan Whiteside (19.8 points and 13.8 rebounds thru 4 games) and the HEAT visit Toronto on Friday night.

Valanciunas has always been outgoing and friendly off the court and willing to accept coaching on the court, however, his steadily improving stats has never translated into a bigger role on the Raptors, until now that is. Thru four seasons the young center was averaging about 26 minutes per game and he was still playing 26 minutes per game last year, but this season head coach Dwane Casey is asking more from him as he’s kept his starting center on the court about 32 minutes a night and it’s been worth it. Valanciunas looks more comfortable and more dominant than at any point in his career.

“He’s just comfortable,” DeMarre Carroll told Pro Bball Report. “He’s demanding the ball a little bit more, getting on the offensive glass. I think he took it personal what he did in the Olympics and he wanted to come out and play.

(Valanciunas and Lithuania feel they underperformed in Rio this past summer.)

“He understands that he’s growing and this is a league where you have to grow. I feel like he’s maturing. He understands the basics of how to play the game and it’s slowing down for him.

“He’s starting off the season really hot.”

Really hot may be an understatement. Through four games, Valanciunas is averaging 16 points and 11 boards against four teams he averaged 10.2 points and 8 rebounds last season and the good news, if you follow the Raptors, is last year he owned the higher profile Whiteside he’ll be facing on Friday.

During the 2015-16 regular season Valanciunas averaged 12.8 points and 9.1 rebounds, but against the HEAT that jumped to 15.3 points and 9.3 rebounds. Then in the two head-to-head games in the playoffs against Whiteside, Valanciunas completely dominated with 19.5 points and 13 boards. Unfortunately both players ended up getting hurt in that series.

To be fair, Whiteside averaged 13.7 points and 11.7 rebounds during the 2015-16 regular season against Toronto, just below his season averages and managed 11 points and 14.5 boards in the two playoff games, so the comparisons with Valanciunas boiled down more to expectations than poor play on Whiteside’s part. This should continue to be a battle to watch with expectations that are no longer slanted by the heavier media coverage Miami enjoys over Toronto.

“I feel good, I feel good about this team and I feel good about us as a group,” Valanciunas responded to Pro Bball Report when asked about his personal success this season. “I am just trying to give everything on the court, fight for every ball, try to beat the other team.

“(Going with force,) That’s the next step. Got to bring that every night. Got to go hard, that’s how this league goes about it, going hard. I want to be part of the good group.”

“One of his strengths right now is making sure he’s attacking the offensive boards, dominating the boards,” Casey said. “If we are going to keep a big in there, he’s got to dominate. I think he understands that now.”

The improvement in Valanciunas’ game so far this season suggests he knows what he has to do and he’s doing it. The big Lithuanian is playing at another level this season.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 


 

NBA Detroit Pistons Andre Drummond and Toronto Raptors Jonas Valanciunas

Raptors Home Opener Features Valanciunas Vs Drummond

The Toronto Raptors tip-off their 22nd season in the NBA by hosting the Detroit Pistons at Air Canada Centre on Wednesday night and a league that has in recent years been overlooking traditional big men, this contest features the recurring rematch of the paint-bound seven footers Jonas Valanciunas and Andre Drummond.

Drummond and Valanciunas will always be linked in Toronto as Drummond is the defensive center the Raptors bypassed in the 2012 draft to take three-point specialist Terrence Ross because they had already drafted the young Lithuanian center Valanciunas the summer before and he was set to make his Raptors debut that fall.

Battle lines and future comparisons were set between the two young centers and while the Raptors have enjoyed significantly more team success since the centers rookie seasons, Drummond has easily won the popularity contest and created second thoughts in the Toronto fan base.

The Pistons finally made it back to the postseason last spring with a 44-38 record after six straight trips to the NBA Draft Lottery and were swept out in four straight by the Cavaliers. The 56 win Raptors returned to the postseason for the third straight time and eventually lost to those same Cavs 4-2 in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Drummond has gotten all the publicity in this “relationship” as he has continued to put up ever more gaudy numbers during the regular season. Last year the Pistons center averaged 16.2 points, 14.8 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.4 blocks in 32.9 minutes while Valanciunas appeared to lag with just 12.8 points, 9.1 rebounds and 1.3 blocks in 26 minutes as he split time with Bismack Biyombo.

Since Drummond and Valanciunas entered the league in 2012, the Raptors are 9-5 versus the Pistons and the two bigs are a lot closer in stats head-to-head than their regular season totals would indicate. Valanciunas averaging 14.9 points on 62.3 percent shooting, 8.7 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in 14 games versus Detroit. Drummond averaging 11.9 points on 50 percent shooting, 11.8 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in his 14 games. One of the big differences coming at the free throw line where Drummond’s struggles have been epic, scoring fewer points on nearly twice as many attempts (36.5 percent) as Valanciunas (72 percent). Drummond has actually been getting worse from the charity stripe over the past three seasons.

This seems to be the year Raptors head coach Dwane Casey will finally be forced to “free Valanciunas” as Biyombo was lost to free agency and his replacement Jared Sullinger is going to miss a few months with a broken foot. On opening night, the Raptors backup center will be rookie Jacob Poeltl. For Toronto, there couldn’t be a better and more interesting matchup for opening night than Detroit.

Toronto will open the season missing Sullinger (left foot surgery), center Lucas Nogueira questionable (ankle sprain) and point guard Delon Wright out until December (shoulder surgery).

Detroit will be missing Reggie Jackson (left knee rehab).

Last year Toronto won the season series 2-1 outscoring the Pistons 105-103.3 with the edge coming at the free throw line 20.7-27.3 versus 16.3-26 and pretty much all of that discrepancy can be attributed to Drummond’s inability to connect from the charity stripe. So these two teams should be expected to put on a good show.

The Raptors won this year’s preseason game in Detroit 103-92 with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan combining for 53 points in a blowout not reflected by the final score.

“They ran their stuff with a lot of tempo, a lot of speed and we weren’t able to match that,” (Tobias) Harris said. “The physicality got to us early on and that’s something we have to adjust to and really adapt to when we’re playing against teams that can impose their will. We have to learn and grow from it.”

But that was preseason and everybody is ready to get beyond what happened in those meaningless games.

“We are really looking forward to tomorrow’s game,” Valanciunas said after practice on Tuesday. “Enough of preseason, we need some real games.”

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 


 

 

NBA Toronto Raptors DeMar DeRozan Jonas Valanciunas Kyle Lowry 2016 media day

Coach Casey Says Raptors Are Going To Score This Year

The Toronto Raptors played at the second slowest pace in the NBA last season, but they still managed to put up points in the dead middle of the pack (102.7 points per game) while playing solid defense so they had a league fifth best plus/minus of +4.5 points. Head coach Dwane Casey maintains it’ll be defense first again this season and he isn’t worried about scoring. “We’ll score,” Casey explained after a recent preseason practice and one look at this Raptors roster suggests they’ll score more than last season unless the injury bug bites them hard again this time.

In the Raptors starting unit of 2015-16, center Jonas Valanciunas missed 22 games, small forward DeMarre Carroll missed 56 games and the 35-year-old power forward Luis Scola started 76 games as his team’s best starting option at his position.

The Raptors blew through these issues somewhat seamlessly, but likely impact of injuries to starters and Scola on their scoring isn’t that hard to see.

The stone-fisted Bismack Biyombo was a solid replacement for Valanciunas in the starting line-up, but he he averaged 7.2 points as a starter versus 12.9 points for Valanciunas.

Carroll averaged 11.9 points as a starter, but more importantly spread the floor with 5 three-point attempts as one of the Raptors best three-point shooters. Veteran forward James Johnson stepped in for 32 starts, but he only averaged 5.9 points and 1.5 cringe-worthy three-point attempts per game. Rookie Norman Powell eventually won the job and started 24 times (almost all after the All-Star break) and averaged a solid 10.1 points and 3.2 three-point attempts while shooting 46.1 percent from three. Powell doesn’t have Carroll’s experience or size, but he sure makes that Raptors bench look a lot stronger heading into this season.

As much as everyone would have liked a stronger starting power forward than Scola, the veteran was pretty effective averaging 8.7 points and spreading the court with 2.1 three-point attempts and hitting over 40 percent of them. Still, newcomer Jared Sullinger is bigger, younger and forced his way into the Celtics starting lineup over several bodies put in his way before the season started. In his 73 starts with Boston, Sullinger averaged 10.2 points and 8.5 rebounds. He only shot just over one three-ball per game, but like Scola last season, the potential to become a three-point threat is there.

The other scoring aspects of this year’s roster are:

1) Valanciunas, third on Toronto in scoring last season, is expected to play significantly more minutes this year.

2) Sullinger is also expected to play significant minutes at center where he’ll be a much more effective offensive player than Biyombo could ever hope to be.

3) Lowry, coming off a career year, is heading into a contact year that should/will land him a deal in the $130-150 million range. Look for the Raptors’ leader to have an even bigger year this time around.

For purely fantasy purposes, a quick look at the Raptors projected nine man rotation using last year’s stats illustrates why Casey isn’t worried about scoring.

Starters:
Kyle Lowry 77 games, 21.2 points, 4.7 rebounds
DeMar DeRozan 78 games, 23.5 points, 4.5 rebounds
DeMarre Carroll 26 games, 11 points, 4.7 rebounds
Jared Sullinger 81 games, 10.3 points, 8.3 rebounds
Jonas Valanciunas 60 games, 12.8 points, 9.1 rebounds

Reserves:
Terrence Ross 73 games, 9.9 points, 2.5 rebounds
Norman Powell* 25 games, 9.6 points, 3.4 rebounds
Cory Joseph 80 games, 8.5 points, 2.6 rebounds
Patrick Patterson 79 games, 6.9 points, 4.3 rebounds

Totals: 113.7 points, 44.1 rebounds (last season 102.7, 43.4)

* Powell post All-Star break

The biggest fly in the fantasy numbers will be Casey trying to find minutes to develop players like Lucas Nogueira, Jacob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam and Delon Wright. The reality is there isn’t enough minutes available to give the nine guys in the rotation all the time they should be getting and are expected to earn this season – unless someone gets hurt.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

 

 

 


 

NBA Toronto Raptors Terrence Ross, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll

Raptors Are Fighting To Be The Next Man Up In Toronto Again

Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey has one of those nice problems to have. He has too many deserving players and not enough minutes to go around leaving a group of guys fighting to be the next man up when opportunity finally knocks.

Even with the departure of starter Luis Scola, back up center Bismack Biyombo and heavily used fill-in James Johnson, finding meaningful minutes for players outside of the team’s top nine players will be a challenge unless someone gets hurt.

Plus, if Casey can, he’d like to find more minutes for some of the guys in his top nine, but if all of them were to just average playing the minutes they had last season, he’d have to create about 10 more minutes a game just to do that.

The Raptors will feature a three guard rotation with Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Cory Joseph soaking up virtually all of the minutes at the one and the two spots. These three very durable guards averaged so many minutes last season (98.5 minutes combined out of 96 available) that the only way Casey could keep them on the floor was to play them together. In 74 games Casey ran a lineup of Lowry, Joseph, DeRozan, Patrick Patterson and one of Jonas Valanciunas or Bismack Biyombo for an average of 3.2 minutes per game.

Heading into this season, the developing Joseph could see even more than the 25.6 minutes he averaged in his first go around in Toronto and since the All-Stars DeRozan and Lowry aren’t likely to be cut back, those minutes will have to come from somewhere (someone) else.

The one player Casey has already hinted at trying to “protect” this season so he’s available in good shape for the playoffs is DeMarre Carroll. Carroll averaged 30.2 minutes, but only played in 26 games due to injury and has only recently returned to playing five-on-five basketball in practice. Known as the Junkyard Dog 2.0, Carroll won’t exactly be excited about playing 24-26 minutes a game, but he’s secure in his contract and a team player. Besides, Casey knows he has to create minutes for the very deserving Norman Powell somehow, someway.

With very limited opportunities expected to be available at shooting guard, Casey will be left searching for ways to get Powell and three-point specialist and all around super tease Terrence Ross 24 minutes a game each this season. Casey can create time by playing small ball and the Raptors, like so many other NBA teams these days, have featured very successful lineups of guards and wings with one big man on the court.

Ross led the Raptors bench in three-point attempts last season (4.6), averaging 9.9 points in 23.9 minutes. As much as Ross can frustrate the fans for not doing more, Toronto needs his ability to stretch the floor. Post All-Star break, Powell averaged 9.6 points in 22.8 minutes and hit on 45.5 percent of his 3.1 three-point attempts, plus Casey loves his physical brand of defense.

The squeeze may come with the big men, although it won’t be easy to sit these guys down either.

Jonas Valanciunas was third in Raptors scoring (12.8 points) in just 26 minutes per game last season and he came up huge in the postseason before he was injured. Now entering his fifth NBA season, the pressure will be on to find JV more playing time. It’s easy to project Valanciunas at his 2016 pre-injury playoff numbers of 15 points, 12.1 rebounds, a steal and 1.4 blocks if he gets 28 to 30 minutes a night.

The crunch may come with Jared Sullinger and Patrick Patterson. Sullinger averaged 23.6 minutes a game in Boston putting up 10.3 points and a team best 8.3 rebounds. He replaces Scola (21.5 minutes per game) at starting power forward, plus Sullinger is expected to spend some time at backup center. Patterson played 25.6 minutes a game last year. However, both players are on expiring contracts and will be pushing hard for a bigger role this time around.

Sullinger and Patterson are highly motivated and very talented players, so Casey isn’t likely to find any minutes here to hand out to someone else. If anything, these two guys should be expected to earn more playing time than last season. It just isn’t that easy to see where the additional minutes for them are going to come from.

Then there’s the crew fighting to be the next man up if and when Casey needs someone.

Sitting on the sidelines and hoping to make an impression on coach Casey at training camp are centers Lucas Nogueira, rookie (9th pick) Jacob Poeltl and rookie (27th pick) center/power forward Pascal Siakam (who is eerily similar to Biyombo except this kid can score too). In other circumstances, on a team without so many quality big men or not fighting for a high playoff seed, these guys would play.

Nogueira has natural gifts of length, hops and quicks that are hard to find. He has the ability to be the best screen setter on the team, the potential to be a three-point threat or to feed the post from the outside for dunks and layups, and a is natural shot blocker. He just has to stay healthy and put it all together for longer than a quarter at a time.

Poeltl was described as the least likely player to be a bust in this year’s draft, a back-handed compliment to be sure, but not wrong. He has all the earmarks of a solid traditional NBA center. He might even become better than JV given time to develop.

Siakam is the guy everyone is likely to get excited about. High energy with more skill than he’s been given credit for, this is the guy to watch in preseason – even if he’s the one pegged as most likely to see time in the 905 right away. There’s just a “Norman Powell-like” feel to this kid.

Just maybe Casey makes the effort/sacrifice to create a few minutes for one of these three big men at backup center?

There never really was an issue with Delon Wright or Bruno Caboclo.

Wright won’t be available until December and he might not even get backup minutes at point guard if Lowry or Joseph aren’t available. Powell looked just as good as Wright running the offense with the 905 last season.

Is Bruno still two years away? t.b.d.

Of the six guys in training camp hoping to land the 15th roster spot, 26-year-old 905 Wing E.J. Singler has the three-point stroke and all around game that would make him an ideal replacement for last season’s injury reserve James Johnson. However, nothing is for certain with this group.

Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey has a lot of decisions to make before the regular season starts, but they feel more like tweaks than earth shattering moves. His biggest issue may be trying to keep everybody happy with the number of minutes he has available and to keep guys fighting to get more.

 

 

Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.