In each of the past three seasons, the Toronto Raptors have set a franchise record for most wins in a season – from 48 victories, to 49 to 56. Led by DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and head coach Dwane Casey, general manager Masai Ujiri has slowly built a contender North of the Border.
Last season, the Raptors took the team that would eventually go on to win the NBA championship—the Cleveland Cavaliers—to six games before succumbing to LeBron James and company. Now, for the Raptors, anything less than returning to that point would probably be considered a disappointment. Coach Casey received a three-year extension while DeRozan, the franchise’s cornerstone, was re-signed on a five-year maximum contract worth $137.5 million.
Without question, we are currently witnessing the Golden Age of Canadian basketball. The only question is whether the Raptors have enough to truly contend with the Cavaliers or if they will be stuck being a bridesmaid yet again.
Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 Toronto Raptors.
FIVE GUYS THINK
With the moves made by the New York Knicks and Al Horford finding his way to the Boston Celtics, the Raptors won’t be able to sleepwalk to the division title this season, but I see no reason to pick against them. I am a big fan of continuity and I have a tremendous amount of respect for Dwane Casey. More than anything else, the Raptors will need DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry to each prove that they are franchise cornerstones and they will have to prove that in the playoffs. Getting to the postseason, though, is a foregone conclusion. I see no reason why the Raptors won’t reign atop the Atlantic once again. My main concerns are around their ability to remain healthy for a full season and with how they will respond to losing the defensive edge that Bismack Biyombo provided. Truth is, I could see the Knicks or Celtics winning the Atlantic this season, but at this point, I’m not willing to bet against the Raptors.
1st Place – Atlantic Division
– Moke Hamilton
The biggest move for the Raptors this offseason was re-signing DeMar DeRozan to a five-year, $137.5 million deal. Keeping DeRozan means the Raptors can continue to work off of their dynamic duo in Kyle Lowry and DeRozan. The Raptors also have pretty good talent at just about every other position, but they’ll need a breakout year from someone like Jonas Valanciunas to have top-end talent on par with the elite teams in the league. Getting a healthy season from DeMarre Carroll could definitely help with that as well. Also, look for Norman Powell to build off of his solid rookie campaign and to be a significant part of the Raptors’ success. After years of having the same general core in place, the Raptors’ greatest strength may be their chemistry. However, it’s still not clear that this team can get past the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference.
2nd Place – Atlantic Division
– Jesse Blancarte
The Raptors had a breakthrough last season by reaching the Eastern Conference Finals after two consecutive disappointing first-round exits where they entered the playoffs as favorites. The talent is there to make another run, but the team’s move this summer didn’t do much to inspire a belief that the team can take the throne away from LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry spent the summer winning a gold medal at the 2016 Olympics and there should be some lift with forward DeMarre Carroll fully healthy. But there are new challengers emerging in the East, namely their division rival Boston Celtics, so the Raptors need to capitalize on their window of opportunity.
1st Place – Atlantic Division
– Lang Greene
It’s probably fair to say that there’s a consensus that Toronto is the preseason No. 2 team in the Eastern Conference, mostly because they lost exactly zero players of import after back-to-back monster seasons that finally saw them make some headway in the 2016 playoffs. Jared Sullinger was a sneaky-good acquisition, but for the most part fans should just expect business as usual for the Northerners this year. They’ll be right in the mix for another deep playoff run.
1st Place – Atlantic Division
– Joel Brigham
I will have to disagree with Joel, and Toronto fans won’t like it. I’m a big believer in the Boston Celtics – as I stated in their 2016-17 season preview – and I have them winning the Atlantic Division. With that said, I do think it’ll be very close and I think both squads are top three teams in the Eastern Conference. The big problem for Boston, Toronto and every other East team is that I still see a very large gap between the Cleveland Cavaliers and everyone else in the conference. I like this Raptors squad and expect them to win a ton of games in the regular season once again. But are they a legitimate contender to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy in the 2016-17 campaign? I don’t see it. I just can’t put them on the same tier as the true contenders around the league like the Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs. With that said, Toronto is beautiful and Drake is my favorite musician! Please go easy on my mentions, Raptors fans!
2nd Place – Atlantic Division
– Alex Kennedy
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: DeMar DeRozan
Since entering the league in 2009, DeMar DeRozan has slowly but surely improved his overall game. However, his most drastic improvements have come on the offensive end. DeRozan is coming off of a season in which he turned in a career-high scoring average of 23.5 points per game. He managed to increase his scoring average from the previous season by 3.4 points and did so while also raising his shooting percentage more than three points. Today, he boasts a very effective midrange game that has been augmented by a respectable three-point touch. Upon entering the league, DeRozan wouldn’t even consider taking three-point shots; now, after connecting on 34 percent of his looks downtown last year, he is able to stretch defenses and keep the opposition honest.
Despite the newly developed shooting prowess, DeRozan remains most effective at finishing around the basket. An explosive and dynamic finisher, he has no shortage of highlight-reel plays and creates the same sort of anticipation that Vince Carter once did when he breaks away for an uncontested finish.
Anyone who knows Dwane Casey knows how important it is to him that his players take care of the basketball, and the coach himself would tell you that this is a very underrated part of being a “good” offensive player. Even for someone who is as demanding as Casey, DeRozan’s 2.2 turnovers per 36 minutes leaves little room for more to be demanded, especially when one considers the amount of offensive repetitions and bailout plays DeRozan receives.
Top Defensive Player: DeMarre Carroll
General manager Masai Ujiri made quite a splash during the 2015 free agency period when he showed up to a meeting with DeMarre Carroll armed with a four-year, $60 million contract. Carroll signed with the Raptors and was thought to be a major piece for them, but injuries limited him to just 26 games in his first season with Toronto. What made Carroll a coveted free agent in July 2015, though, was his rare combination of size, foot speed, strength and agility. Standing at 6’8, Carroll has the height required of a small forward in the league, but his on-ball instincts and ability to read passing lanes make him effective at guarding opposing point guards and shooting guards. In today’s NBA, where pick-and-roll and motion offenses dominate most offensive schemes, having versatile players who can switch and effectively cross-match is a necessity for any contender. So long as Carroll can stay on the court, he will be a net-positive for the Raptors on both ends of the court, but particularly on the defensive end.
Top Playmaker: Kyle Lowry
Since arriving in Toronto in 2012, Kyle Lowry has truly come of age. It took Lowry nine years and four teams to eventually become an All-Star, but he has proven that he is among the league’s top point guards. Lowry was once regarded as a score-first point guard, but since arriving in Toronto, he has managed to change the perception of his game. He is two years removed from averaging a career-high 7.4 assists per game, but Lowry has become a floor general, and last season’s 6.4 assists per game is still respectable. He has greatly improved his ability to read defenses, especially while playing pick-and-roll as the ball handler.
Last season, Casey installed a fair amount of off-ball and backdoor action in his offense and Lowry found his teammates and created opportunities for others. In terms of athleticism, Lowry isn’t the most light-footed point guard. His first step isn’t exceptionally quick and he is more likely to create space for himself on a step-back than his is by blowing past his defender. Still, he is quite effective at orchestrating an offense and has excelled as the lead guard for a team that is a rising and improving contender in the increasingly competitive Eastern Conference.
Top Clutch Player: DeMar DeRozan
Over the years, there have been more than a few instances where DeMar DeRozan has come up big for his teammates. A buzzer-beating that sunk the Orlando Magic a few years ago immediately comes to mind, while last season, the Washington Wizards walked away from the Air Canada Center with a loss thanks to the heroics of DeRozan. There is a dearth of statistical evidence to support the notion that one player happens to be more “clutch” than another, but if and when the game has been on the line, Dwane Casey has been consistent in affording DeRozan the opportunity to determine his team’s fate. For the most part, DeRozan has made the right play and the correct decision.
What makes DeRozan especially valuable in late-game situations is his offensive versatility. He has proven capable of hitting a big midrange shot as well as getting to the basket. Best of all, he is a reliable free-throw shooter, evidenced by his career shooting percentage of 82.5 percent. Best of all, he is a willing passer in late-game situations. He rarely makes poor decisions with the basketball and is certainly the best option that Casey has when the game is hanging in the balance.
The Unheralded Player: Cory Joseph
After seeing Anthony Bennett’s time with the Raptors come and go, solace can be found in the fact that Cory Joseph’s homecoming has been much more productive. After spending four years as a member of the San Antonio Spurs, Joseph had a front row seat to Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan and the gold standard of NBA franchises. He experienced the gut-wrenching defeat the Spurs suffered at the hands of the 2013 Miami HEAT and the bliss of avenging that defeat in 2014. Having only recently celebrated his 25th birthday, the Toronto native has brought great experience with him back home, and it was something that was apparent at different points of last season. Although his numbers aren’t eye-popping, Joseph has slowly but surely become a solid rotation guard in the NBA and should only continue to improve as the years progress. A member of the Canadian national basketball team, the young point guard continues to ply his trade and should continue to serve as an efficient, consistent, careful point guard whose best days are still ahead.
Jonas Valanciunas deserves a mention here as well. Though not widely regarded as one of the more talented big men in the league, Valanciunas’ footwork and ability to see the court from the post are overlooked. If he can remain healthy, he can help the Raptors get to the next level.
Best New Addition: Jakob Poeltl
The Austrian Jakob Poeltl is easily the best addition to the Raptors this season. Despite winning 56 games this past season, the Raptors had the No. 9 pick in this year’s draft. That’s because of the 2013 trade that saw Andrea Bargnani dealt to the New York Knicks. Toronto exercised New York’s pick and selected Poeltl ninth overall.
Poeltl has an impressive collegiate and international basketball resume, and he will likely receive playing time from day one. Like most big men entering the league, Poeltl will need to add some size and strength in order to be able to compete everyday against the bigger and stronger veterans patrolling the interior. Already with solid footwork and good rebounding instincts, Poeltl brings a wealth of basketball experience with him to the NBA, and it’s likely to pay immediate dividends. It’s not every day that a successful team like the Raptors adds a talent like Poeltl, so he is easily their best new addition.
– Moke Hamilton
WHO WE LIKE
- Jonas Valanciunas
I’ve been on the Valanciunas bandwagon for a long time. Although still trying to improve his consistency, Valanciunas has a very smooth, fluid back-to-the-basket game and he can see the floor exceptionally well for a man his size. He is a hard worker, who puts a lot of time and effort into improving his craft. Coach Casey has compared Valanciunas to Zydrunas Ilgauskas. However, Valanciunas’ footwork, athleticism and mobility are far superior, and the 24-year-old’s ceiling remains incredibly high.
- Terrence Ross
Since being selected with the eighth overall pick of the 2012 draft, Terrence Ross has slowly but surely carved out a place for himself in Toronto. A fairly versatile player, Ross connected on a career-high 48 percent of his shots last season, including 39 percent from three-point range. His growth epitomizes two of the things we like best in Toronto: growth and continuity.
- Dwane Casey
My feelings about Dwane Casey and the job he’s done are well documented. After a brief and uneventful tenure as the head coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Casey eventually found his way to the bench of the Dallas Mavericks and was one of the of the ringleaders of the 2011 championship squad. With him on the bench, Casey helped the Mavericks pull off one of the biggest upsets in NBA Finals history and, since then, he has worked tirelessly to deliver similar success in Toronto. Although the Raptors are still a few steps away from being a true championship contender, Casey has been there and done that and is working to deliver even better results to the fans of Toronto.
- Masai Ujiri
Masai Ujiri made a name for himself as the executive vice president of basketball operations for the Denver Nuggets and famously orchestrated the trade of Carmelo Anthony to the New York Knicks. In 2013, Ujiri became the first non-American to win the Executive of the Year Award and, shortly after, agreed to take over in Toronto. Since then, it is impossible to argue with the results. If Ujiri’s track record is any indication, the Raptors will continue to be in good hands.
- The fans of Toronto
We can say with certainty that the game of basketball has become the passion of Ontario. Vince Carter helped to birth an entire generation of great Canadian basketball players and the passion is evident. Good fans are an asset, especially in late-game situations and big moments. Players routinely feed off of the energy given off by their fans, and Toronto basketball fans are among the best.
– Moke Hamilton
SALARY CAP 101
The Raptors are one of the few teams that did not go under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap. Instead, Toronto used their $5.6 million Mid-Level Exception on Jared Sullinger, and re-signed DeMar DeRozan to a five-year, $137.5 million contract via his Bird Rights. The team still has the $2.2 million Bi-Annual Exception, but the roster has 14 guaranteed players with five vying for the one remaining spot (E.J. Singler, Fred VanVleet, Jarrod Uthoff, Yanick Moreira and Drew Crawford).
Next summer, the Raptors may have up to $13 million in spending power under a projected $102 million salary cap. That assumes the team picks up the rookie-scale options on Lucas Nogueira, Bruno Caboclo and Delon Wright before November. It also presumes that Kyle Lowry opts out of his final year at $12 million. The Raptors are also likely to get the Los Angeles Clippers’ 2017 first-round pick, provided L.A. makes the playoffs.
– Eric Pincus
Continuity and Chemistry: The Golden State Warriors will be an interesting team to watch this coming season. Kevin Durant has effectively replaced Harrison Barnes in the team’s rotation, and that disruption—and how Durant, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson adjust—will be interesting to observe. Indeed, chemistry and continuity are among the most important things an NBA team can have on its side, and the Raptors certainly do have that. DeMar DeRozan is entering his eighth season and has spent the duration of his career in Toronto, while Dwane Casey is entering his fifth season on the job. Long ago, Casey was thought to be a lame duck coach after he was inherited by Masai Ujiri in 2013, but since then, Casey has become the franchise’s sideline general. Casey has earned a reputation as being a defensive taskmaster who impresses his players with an encouraging but firm demeanor. Those who have played under Casey in the past have praised his remarkable people skills and his “open door, open question” policy as it relates to his players. Since taking over in Toronto, Casey has been instrumental in helping the franchise find consistency and strength and it has been reflected in the team’s success over recent years.
Jonas Valanciunas, Terrance Ross and, of course, Kyle Lowry have also found consistent productivity in Toronto. If Casey and Lowry can succeed in incorporating some of the newer faces into the culture and playing style that has become synonymous with Toronto basketball over the past few years, then the forecast in Toronto will continue to be bright.
– Moke Hamilton
Depth and Toughness: The 2004 Detroit Pistons will likely be the gold standard for teams that depart from the typical construction of being built around one or two superstar players. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry have each experienced their fair share of playoff disappointments, and despite achieving success last season, each has been outplayed by the likes of other players who are clearly a tier above them. Dwyane Wade and Paul George each immediately come to mind.
For the Raptors, true success will be judged by how they perform in the playoffs, and as it currently stands, the team appears to be built around too many “what if” performers. Lowry performed miserably in the playoffs last season and both DeMarre Carroll and Jonas Valanciunas need to prove that they can remain healthy enough to make a difference when the games truly matter. In that regard, the team appears to lack depth, especially if and when an opposing coach successfully implements a strategy to take either DeRozan or Lowry out of the game. Can Cory Joseph, Terrence Ross or Patrick Patterson deliver when it counts most? Perhaps they could, but that’s not something that a wise bettor would gamble on.
In the final two minutes of an important playoff game, Casey and the fans of the Raptors need big-time players that can be depended on to lead the troops to victory. Based on each of their performances last season, and especially in the case of Lowry, there is room for concern.
Overall, the favorites in the Atlantic Division have a solid team capable of performing well, but if there is one concern in Toronto, it would be their lack of depth, especially considering the departure of Bismack Biyombo.
– Moke Hamilton
THE BURNING QUESTION
What are the Raptors missing?
Call it the curse of success. The Raptors are coming off of a 56-win season in which they advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals and took the eventual NBA champion to six games. From this point forth, accomplishing anything less would be viewed as regression, so the most pertinent question in Toronto now seems to revolve around what it will take to truly put the team in the class of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The short answer there would appear to be a dominant frontcourt player. It was hoped that Valanciunas could have become that type of player, and though he still may, it is not often that we see players take monumental leaps in their productivity after their fourth season. If the Raptors managed to walk away from this summer with a marquee post addition like Al Horford, Paul Millsap or Kevin Love, they would’ve had a legitimate shot at knocking LeBron James off of the top of the conference. Until then, they are still probably a step below.
Of course, it would help if DeRozan or Lowry were able to contribute at a consistently high level during the playoffs, but unless a team has superstar production from other positions – like Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in Golden State, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook previously in Oklahoma City or LeBron James and Dwyane Wade previously in Miami – being successful at the highest level requires dominant and efficient frontcourt play. The Raptors still seem to have a void in that regard.
– Moke Hamilton
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