With DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas each making an appreciable leap this past season, fans of the Toronto Raptors witnessed both Kyle Lowry and Dwane Casey put together great seasons and help lead the team to its winningest season ever and just the franchise’s second Atlantic Division championship.
The rise of the Raptors was especially amazing to witness considering the thoughts across most media circles of the NBA was that the Raptors were likely going to be tanking in order to give themselves a better opportunity to score a high draft pick and select the Toronto-born Andrew Wiggins.
Clearly, the aforementioned four had different ideas.
It took the Brooklyn Nets all of seven games to bump the Raptors off, and with DeRozan, Valanciunas and Lowry just 24, 21 and 27 years old, respectively, there is reason for optimism in Toronto.
Naturally, that poses the very common question as to how a team on the ascent can get themselves to the next level. Most often, free agency and the draft are most often mentioned as the primary means by which a still progressing team can get to the next level.
Continuity and natural progression are often overlooked.
Fortunately, though, general manager Masai Ujiri has already made an important decision by opting to re-sign Dwane Casey to a three-year deal. Now, it remains to see what the future holds next, but here is what it should…
Re-Sign Kyle Lowry and Greivis Vasquez
This past season, Kyle Lowry put together his finest year as a professional. He kept his weight in check, managed to stay on the floor and progressed as a floor general, even turning in great performances in the playoffs. His pending free agency is something that has been discussed in Toronto all season long and while he lacks the body of work to suggest that he is in the same class as Russell Westbrook and Rajon Rondo, he is expected to come at a more reasonable price in the $11 million range. For the Raptors, retaining him is a must.
Lowry has developed chemistry with his teammates and has recently gone on the record as saying that he is happy in Toronto and wants to return. Ujiri would be wise to make that happen.
As for Greivis Vasquez, now playing on his fourth team, he has struggled to find a home, though there were times this past season when he made big plays for his team. With a qualifying offer of just $3.2 million this summer, Vasquez was originally thought to be insurance in the event of Lowry’s departure.
Instead, he has become a good running mate. Retaining them both makes most sense for the franchise.
Find A Perimeter Defensive Specialist
Down the stretch of their Game 7 loss to the Brooklyn Nets, Joe Johnson had his way with every defender that Casey threw at him. It exposed a hole in the Raptors’ roster.
Defense is not something that can be fully outsourced—the top players on a team set the tone and galvanize teammates with effort. Neither Lowry, DeRozan nor Patrick Patterson are turnstiles, but for this team, which seemed to struggle offensively during stretches, they each need to do the heavy lifting scoring the ball.
Most championship contenders have at least one Bonafide Defensive specialist. Shane Battier, Tony Allen, Kawhi Leonard and Thabo Sefolosha all come to mind.
Landry Fields is not the answer there, and in the playoffs, since games will inevitably slow down and pit halfcourt offense against halfcourt defense, the Raptors would be wise to invest a few dollars into a rangy stopper who can guard both the shooting guard and small forward positions.
Otherwise, the next time they play in a Game 7, they may be undressed by a player of Johnson’s size and skill, once again.
Play Through Jonas Valanciunas More
In a league where truly dominant big men have been few and far between, Jonas Valaciunas has shown some early signs of being a very capable offensive contributor. Operating from the post, he has shown great poise, patience, grace and touch. The next two stages for his offensive progression are developing a consistent and reliable go to move and becoming a more proficient midrange shooter.
After just his rookie season, Valanciunas has shown tremendous growth and everyone around him speaks of how he soaks critiques and directives up like a sponge.
For a big man that seems to have potential, repetitions are most important. Next season, Valanciunas needs more isolation opportunities in the low box and a more prominent place in the Raptors’ offensive pecking order. This becomes infinitely more true in the event of Lowry’s departure, but even if he is retained, Valanciunas’ development operating from the post will open the game up, allow the Raptors to depend less on their perimeter playmaking and overall, become a more off offensively efficient team.
Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither are NBA champions. For the Raptors, this season marked evident progress toward the team’s long-term goal of becoming a contender. Although it ended in the first round, it is important for Ujiri to understand that there are good things happening in Toronto and it all begins with the players who currently make up the team’s roster. A look around the league shows that the teams that tend to find themselves in the conversation of potential champions have a common theme—continuity.
Ujiri seems to understand this, at least at this point. As NBA head coaches have become more and more disposable, there were many who believed that Casey would be ousted by Ujiri, mainly because general managers in the NBA tend to prefer to install their own head coaches.
Having been tapped to be Jay Triano’s successor, it was widely speculated that Ujiri would push Casey out and bring in his own head coach. But after such a positive showing over the course of the season, Ujiri has rewarded Casey with a new contract.
If the same fates await Lowry and Vasquez and if the Raptors continue to develop DeRozan and Valanciunas, with some good fortune, patience and continuity, the Raptors may prove that their rise this past season was no aberration.
Before re-signing any of their free agents to be or exercising any of their team options, the Raptors have $39 million in salary commitments next season. Of that, almost $16 million is being spent on the trio of Landry Fields, Steve Novak and Chuck Hayes.
As deep as the coffers may be for Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, the truth of the matter is that in the NBA’s new economic era, restrictions on team spending on midlevel exception usage mean that each team must manage its books and finances astutely.
With a team on the brink, having $5 million available to throw at a tier two free agent could make all the difference in the world and if those kinds of financial commitments are made to players who ultimately do not merit consistent minutes, it is a wasted opportunity.
As the Raptors get set to begin their offseason, they have a number of questions to answer, though the most important one—the coach—has been answered.
So the long answer is, the Raptors may not need to be fixed as much as they need to congeal. A solid defensive team with capable young players and a fair amount of athleticism just had the most successful season in franchise history.
That is no fluke, and if the Ujiri follows these five suggestions, you can rest assured that you have not heard the last of his Raptors.