The Toronto Raptors are coming off of back-to-back Atlantic Division titles and have set new franchise records for single-season wins in each of the past two years. Although the current roster lacks the star power that Vince Carter and Chris Bosh brought to the Toronto in the past, one could certainly make the argument that we are currently witnessing the golden age of Canadian basketball, with the Raptors succeeding and plenty of young Canadians establishing themselves in the NBA (including Andrew Wiggins, Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph and Kelly Olynyk among many others).
But while the Raptors have played well, are they a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference? That is what we will find out this campaign, as they look to finally advance past the first round.
Basketball Insiders previews the Toronto Raptors’ 2015-16 season.
I’ve been somewhat critical of the Raptors this summer, stating several times that I didn’t like the contracts they gave to DeMarre Carroll and Cory Joseph and saying that I still don’t view them as a championship contender. But let me make something clear: I do think this is a very good team that will win a lot of games this season and easily take the Atlantic Division crown. They won 49 games last year and I could see them finishing right around the same win total (or improving on it) this season. I just wasn’t crazy about how much money they gave to Carroll and Joseph, and I’m curious to see if they can thrive in a bigger role outside of systems that made them look very good. As I said, I’m not sure Toronto is a title contender, but they will be a talented team that wins a lot of regular season games.
1st Place – Atlantic Division
‘They the North,’ and they also look poised to win their third consecutive Atlantic Division title. However, this year it would be nice if they could actually make it out of the first round of the playoffs. Losing Amir Johnson hurts, but Toronto reloaded reasonably well by adding Luis Scola and Bismack Biyombo at bargain basement prices. And anyway, the real bread and butter for this team is in the backcourt, which features Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross. DeMarre Carroll was a pricy but nice addition, and Jonas Valanciunas has more than paid his dues and looks ready for a breakout campaign. The Raps have a nice team this year, but they’ve had a nice team for almost three years running. What really matters now is doing something after the first 82 games.
1st Place – Atlantic Division
The Raptors scored in free agency by landing former Atlanta Hawks glue guy DeMarre Carroll. The swingman adds instant toughness, grit and hustle. Having journeyed throughout the NBA, he can adapt quickly to a new team. Over the years, the Raptors have moved up the rankings in the East. However, despite their progress, they have fallen short each year once they hit the playoffs. The team has to take that next step in the postseason. They are constructed for regular season success. It is important they use their 82 games to put themselves in a better position to win when it matters.
1st Place – Atlantic Division
The Raptors entered the playoffs the past two seasons as the higher seed in their first-round series. But in both instances, Toronto was sent home packing in embarrassing fashion. On a positive note, future Hall of Fame forward Paul Pierce – the antagonist in both of those playoff eliminations – is now in the Western Conference. Toronto invested $90 million in free agency in DeMarre Carroll and Cory Joseph. The team is undoubtedly banking on the duo’s upside. Ross is up for a contract extension, but his disappearing act in the playoffs most likely led to the addition of Carroll from Atlanta. The Raptors should once again be in the Eastern Conference’s top five, but with the team’s recent playoff flame outs, advancing past the first round in the postseason is no guarantee.
1st Place – Atlantic Division
It’s easy to like the Raptors. They play hard, they play together and they are a team that believes in their head coach. All in all, the Raptors should have a fairly easy time winning the Atlantic Division for the third consecutive season, and I do expect DeMarre Carroll to make them a stronger team. However, I would still consider them to be a tier below both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls. The Raptors continue to have problems advancing in the playoffs, and they have only made it out of the first round once in their franchise’s history (2000-01). Without a legitimate superstar, it is difficult to imagine the Raptors breaking that trend, though it would obviously depend on how the bracket aligns. Regardless, I would pencil them in for another 45-plus win season and the Atlantic Division title. If Jonas Valanciunas fulfills his potential and gives them a consistent presence on the inside, then we can start talking about more. Until then, I’ll keep waiting.
1st Place — Atlantic Division
Top of the List
Top Offensive Player: DeMar DeRozan
DeMar DeRozan is only a 27 percent three-point shooter for his career, but he is still probably the best offensive player on Dwane Casey’s Raptors. Like Kyle Lowry, he takes the gross majority of his shots from mid-range, but shoots a bit better than average from that distance. Where he gets the nod over Lowry is that DeRozan is a more capable finisher both at driving the basketball and finishing in traffic. Hands down, Lowry is the better three-point shooter, but DeRozan is, without question, the better scorer. During the 2013-14 season, DeRozan averaged a career-best 22.7 points per game on 43 percent shooting from the field. Last season, those numbers dipped to 20.1 points per game on 41 percent shooting from the field, but at just 26 years old, expecting a bounce back year is not unreasonable. It’d be nice to see DeRozan do a better job of finding his teammates when they are in position to score, but we can live with his mediocrity in that area, considering he is a shooting guard whose primary responsibility to his club, historically, has been to score.
Top Defensive Player: DeMarre Carroll
Spend time around DeMarre Carroll and you’ll immediately notice the significant amount of time and energy he puts into stretching and doing agility drills prior tip-off of a great many of his games. He has long been regarded as a top-notch defender, and ended up being pursued by the Raptors because of the growth he showed on the other end of the floor. Focusing on the defensive end, though, Carroll’s exquisite timing and nose for the ball also translates to him being an above-average rebounder. The best thing about Carroll, though, is his versatility. His size and length does not diminish his mobility, and he is one of the more valuable players in the league in that he can effectively guard any of four positions on the basketball court. If he has anywhere near the impact on the Raptors this year that he did on the Hawks last year, at the very least, expect him to receive a few more votes for Defensive Player of the Year, as he has that type of game-changing potential.
Top Playmaker: Kyle Lowry
It may have taken him eight years, but Kyle Lowry has finally emerged as a force among NBA point guards. Even better for him, it appears that he has finally found a home in the league after spending time as a member of the Memphis Grizzlies and Houston Rockets before landing in Toronto. Lowry has traditional point guard instincts, even if he is still a bit too shot-happy. Over the last two seasons, his 7.4 and 6.8 assists per game are on-par for a starting point guard, but not necessarily near “top flight” status. Still, on a roster that only features Cory Joseph as its other playmaking point guard, Lowry is easily the top playmaker on the team. Jonas Valanciunas does have a unique presence in the post and does seem to see the floor well for a big man, but he is no Shaquille O’Neal and does not make the game easier for his teammates in the same way that Lowry does. With an additional mouth to feed on the offensive end in Carroll, Lowry will have the challenge of looking for another one of his teammates, but it is a challenge that he will probably welcome.
Top Clutch Player: Push
Over the years, we have seen both Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan make big plays down the stretch of games, even working in tandem to defeat the Boston Celtics last season. Together, Lowry and DeRozan have formed a nice one-two punch in Toronto and have partnered to guide the franchise to what is its most successful era. At the end of a game, if the contest is hanging in the balance, Coach Casey has shown a willingness to let his players play through it and, in tight situations, he trusts either Lowry or DeRozan. That makes the Raptors less predictable, and it is certainly not a bad thing to have two clutch players capable of shouldering the load. So here, we call it a push.
The Unheralded Player: Cory Joseph
The Toronto-born Cory Joseph spent the first four years of his career as a member of the San Antonio Spurs and saw his minutes and productivity increase last season. With a championship ring and a generous multi-year payday that was hard earned, Joseph has the type of character and experience that most NBA head coaches would love to have on their bench. That he is from Toronto and has extensive experience representing Canada in international FIBA tournaments makes the signing even better from a franchise point of view (as Masai Ujiri has stated he wanted to add Canadian-born players). Joseph is, of course, thrilled to be back home. From a basketball standpoint, he is still somewhat raw and trying to find his way, but on a roster with quite a few veterans, Joseph will enter camp as Lowry’s primary backup at the point guard spot. All things considered, he has been prepared to flourish in that role. Luis Scola and Bismack Biyombo will give the Raptors something, as well, but it is Joseph who is the top unheralded player.
Best New Addition: DeMarre Carroll
Aside from Wesley Matthews, DeMarre Carroll is one of the names that would immediately come to mind when one asks which players were overpaid this past summer. In Carroll’s case, a legitimate argument can be made as to why he is worth the $15 million annual price tag. Prior to last season, Carroll was primarily regarded as a versatile, plus-defender who excelled at both keeping players in front of him and making plays on the ball. Last season, he proved to be an above-average offensive player, converting about 40 percent of his three-point shots (and stepping up on offense for Atlanta in the postseason). Although he averaged just 12.6 points per game last season, his thriving in an equal-opportunity offense in Atlanta proves that he can excel in a team setting and one could easily argue that this increases his value even further. So long as Carroll’s success last season was no fluke, it appears as though the Raptors got a real game changer, and he is certainly the top new acquisition on a roster that has a few other fresh faces.
Who We Like
Masai Ujiri: Ujiri is regarded by most in NBA front offices as a nice person and an even better basketball mind. After a productive stint with the Denver Nuggets, Ujiri deserves credit for being in charge of a team that seems to have overachieved. He seems to have made smart decisions in re-signing both Kyle Lowry and Dwane Casey and managed to sign DeMarre Carroll — a two-way player who will make an impact in the win column. Ujiri still has some work to do in Toronto if he wants to transform the franchise into a championship contender, but at just over two years on the job, it is difficult to argue with the early returns.
Jonas Valanciunas: Although there are mixed reviews of Valanciunas, it’s important to remember he’s still improving and just turned 23 years old this summer. Valanciunas is far more agile than many of his peers, yet is not overly dependent on it to score baskets. He has traditional big man skills and sees the floor quite well for a man of his size. His rebounding could certainly improve, but over the course of his first three seasons in the NBA, he has increased his scoring average while raising his field goal percentage to 57 percent. Last season, Coach Casey told me that Valanciunas studies film of Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Arvydas Sabonis. If Valanciunas has it in him to want to be as good as those two, then we have something to look forward to. Consistency and strength may be his biggest challenges, but it’s certainly possible he can overcome them.
Luis Scola: Though clearly over the hill, the 35-year-old Argentinean still has some game left. Scola will give Coach Casey another big man who can play in the post. Even at his advanced age, Scola averaged almost two offensive rebounds per game last season and in Toronto, any extra possessions he can get the trigger-happy guards that he will be playing with will be a net-plus. Scola will provide veteran experience and seems like a good fit in Toronto.
Last season, Toronto had the third-best offense in the NBA, scoring 108.1 points per 100 possessions. They finished only behind the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors (and the gap was relatively small). Offense is clearly the team’s biggest strength. Continuity is an advantage for Toronto as well. One thing that is often overlooked is the extent to which chemistry and continuity contributes to winning in the NBA. Oftentimes, teams that have been together longer thrive. It’s a simple concept that usually holds true. Dwane Casey, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross and Patrick Patterson have been together for a number of years, and although their roster looks underwhelming on paper, their continuity with one another and familiarity with each other’s tendencies may make a major difference in the win column. There are new pieces that need to be blended in, but the core players know how to play for Coach Casey and with one another, and that counts for a lot.
While the team’s offense was great last season, the Raptors ranked 23rd in defense (allowing 104.8 points per 100 possessions). They opted to pursue defensive-minded players this offseason in hopes of improving on that end of the court. Health is another concern for Toronto. Nobody has ever accused Kyle Lowry or DeMar DeRozan of being iron men. Lowry seems to have overcome the injury issues that plagued him earlier in his career, as evidenced by his playing 79 and 70 games over the last two seasons, respectively. DeRozan, however, missed 22 games last season, and he was just one of quite a few Raptors who fell victim to attrition. Any success the Raptors will have this season will begin and end with the ability of these two to stay healthy.
Finally, point guard depth may be an issue too. Lowry is talented and Joseph has potential, but most NBA teams need at least three guards who are capable of orchestrating offensive sets or initiating action for their teammates. Joseph is still a young player developing into his own, meaning that Lowry is really the only proven floor general on the entire roster. Terrence Ross is a versatile wing player who can handle the ball on the perimeter a bit, but all in all, we would have liked to see the Raptors do a better job of filling the void left by Greivis Vasquez’s departure to the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Burning Question
Are the Raptors actually contenders?
The Joe Johnson-led Atlanta Hawks are probably this generation’s best example of a basketball team that was “stuck” in the middle. The Hawks weren’t bad enough to score high draft picks and they weren’t good enough to make deep playoff runs. The Raptors, despite breaking the franchise’s single-season win record in each of the past two years, were eliminated in the first round both seasons. In fact, the franchise has only advanced out of the first round once in its history, and that was all the way back in the 2000-01 season. Heading into the 2013-14 season, there were many that believed that newly installed general manager Masai Ujiri would tank the season, fire holdover head coach Dwane Casey and firmly commit to trying to land Andrew Wiggins. Obviously, that isn’t how things worked out. Ujiri brought back both Lowry and Casey and has now brought in DeMarre Carroll, evidently, in an attempt to continue building around his core and focusing on winning now. To this point, however, the Raptors do not appear to be a conference contender on par with teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Chicago Bulls. Even with Carroll, in today’s NBA, they are still at least two mediocre players (or one great player) away from being able to challenge out East. If Jonas Valanciunas can show consistent flashes of Arvydas-Sabonis-like play, then that would go a long way toward pushing the Raptors to the top of the standings. For now, though, they still very much seem a team in progress, but at least one that is headed in the right direction.
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