Toronto Raptors Season Preview: Navigating the Road to Relevance

Team Capsule

No team last year was more irrelevant than the Raptors.

Even bad teams can be memorable or endearing or relevant. The Warriors spent the entire second half of the season trying to be bad; they hilariously succeeded through starting five rookies down the stretch. The Kings have interesting, if eccentric, young players trying to make names for themselves (as well as sad arena issues). The Timberwolves were a revelation for half the season before falling apart. The Hornets had no owner and little talent, but they tried as hard as anyone from game to game. The Wizards provided a blooper reel no other team in any sport could have matched. The Bobcats were so terrible they could not help but be relevant.

But the Raptors? Totally forgettable – but by design.

The front office designated last year as a waiting year in drafting Jonas Valanciunas despite knowing he wouldn’t come to the NBA for at least a year. They only made one significant move: hiring Dwane Casey, who for my money is one of the ten best coaches in the league. But with a stale roster and no moves, the roster ceiling was low. A shortened season happened, and some players took steps forward (Bargnani when healthy, Amir Johnson) while others took steps backward (DeMar DeRozan and Ed Davis).

But now?  There’s something brewing up there which should be fun to watch. Jonas Valanciunas found his way to Canada, while Kyle Lowry forced his way there (but only after the Raptors tried and failed to reclaim Canada’s greatest gift to the United States: Steve Nash). Toronto drafted a wing in Terrence Ross and signed another in Landry Fields – both should fill major holes the Raptors had last season and put more pressure on DeMar DeRozan to perform well. Andrea Bargnani hopes to be healthy this year. Last year, in an admittedly small number of games, he had a huge offensive impact and played decent defense before injuries robbed him of his quickness. Along with the returning knowns (such as Jose Calderon) and unknowns (DeMar DeRozan and Ed Davis), the Raptors clearly have some semblance of a talented team. They should be relevant for the first time since Chris Bosh took them to the playoffs.

However, with this newfound relevance comes expectations. The Raptors have a chance to make a playoff run if things go well. But many variables remain. As mentioned above, Bargnani needs to remain healthy. So does Lowry. DeRozan and Fields need to improve significantly. Jonas needs to meet lofty expectations. Dwane Casey needs to work his defensive magic even more, despite still not having the talent to create an elite defense.

The future looks brighter now that the Raptors made some changes and that time has passed. But only more time will tell if the Raptors have made progress; for now, relevance should do.

Biggest Strength: Point Guard Play

Lowry and Calderon compose one of the best one-two point guard tandems in the NBA. I’ll discuss more on the arrangement later. Also: teams can do worse than having John Lucas III as their third point, as well, especially teams who struggle to shoot or score.

Biggest Weakness: Shooting

And as the strength ends, the weakness emerges. The Raptors have no great shooters – they have solid ones in Lowry, Bargnani, and Calderon, and maybe Terrence Ross, but that’s it, and Lowry and Calderon can’t play together to take advantage. DeRozan and Fields are non-entities. Ed Davis is a complete floor clogger, and Amir Johnson isn’t much better. Moreover, they can’t play all their shooters together because the defense will fall completely apart. Floor spacing could be a major issue for the Raptors as the season goes along, which might prompt them to move a player for a shooter sometime before the season ends.

Also, isn’t it ironic the team with the league record in consecutive threes made has a shooting problem?

Player to Watch: Kyle Lowry

KLOE fits almost perfectly with the Raptors, which makes the Raptors’ acquisition of him maybe (maybe) as good as obtaining their original target, Steve Nash. While he may not have the best defensive support, Lowry can disrupt the opponent at the point of attack – in today’s NBA by-and-large that’s the point guard position – better than anyone else at his position. Compared to Jose Calderon, a human chicane, this should be a massive upgrade. Since the Raptors defense ended up around average last year with a chicane at the point guard spot, the Raptors could easily finish the top 10 in the league in defense.

The better question, though, comes on the other end of the floor. Lowry gained a reputation as a solid, largely underrated (yes, underrated is a reputation, which is funny because then in theory you’d rate that person properly with this knowledge, but this is all sematics, and I just wasted your time, so I apologize) offensive player over time. Last year, though, he positively exploded. Lowry set career highs in nearly every counting stat and backed it up with solid rate stats, including an above-average 3-point percentage for the second straight season. But he goes from a point-guard based offense in Houston to less of one in Toronto, so it’s fair to ask whether or not he can match his excellent numbers from a year ago (which were much better than they ended up being before illness and benching).

Coach: Dwane Casey (76-112 career)

2011-12 record: 25-41

Key Additions: Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas, Landry Fields, Terrence Ross, John Lucas III

I’ve mentioned all of these players above at some point. Each addition should help in a different way, although only one or two has the potential to be a franchise-changer. But one or two franchise-changers in an offseason is better than what many teams accomplish.

Key Subtractions: Jerryd Bayless, James Johnson

While both played key roles, Bayless and Johnson won’t be missed much with the changes the Raptors made over the summer. Bayless shot a really high percentage from deep but otherwise continued his combo guard tendencies. With Lowry in tow, he became expendable, and they let him go. Johnson, meanwhile, also suffered from broken jumper syndrome, and the Raptors needed to rid themselves of at least one non-shooter. He had grown upset in Toronto, so moving him became a given. Although I don’t understand why the Kings traded for him, as the land of broken jumpers didn’t need another inhabitant.

Team Trajectory: Rising

But with caution: the Raptors aren’t even a playoff team yet. But they have a nice core of young players who all figure to improve at least somewhat, a good coach, and no terrible contracts. They could be relevant for a long while.

Projected Record: 36-46

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