Written by: Kent Tukeli
Let’s be real for a moment: all the improvements mentioned below must be implemented for the Raps to stand the slightest chance of beating the Cavaliers or the Warriors in the playoffs. Even at their best, Toronto will probably need a small miracle, or a big injury, to unseat the Cavaliers from their eastern conference perch. Going up against the Warriors might represent a greater challenge due to Dubs’ wide-open style of play, aided by the hilariously unfair addition of Kevin Durant during the off-season.
Raptors fans at Canada Sports Betting believe that DeRozan and Lowry have given Toronto the backbone needed to have an outside shot at unseating the NBA giants. The November back-to-back against Golden State and Cleveland showed that the Raps can challenge titans, even without a full roster. Toronto stayed within two possessions against the Cavs and the Dubs, which could be made up by the following modest, and vital, improvements on offence and defense.
Big Two Needs to Become Big Three
Jonas Valanciunas showed tantalizing glimpses of his full potential during the 2016 NBA playoffs, providing Lowry and DeRozan with a pressure release outlet while adequately patrolling the rim. Against the Warriors and the Cavaliers, Jonas Valanciunas couldn’t produce a block or a steal during more than 52 minutes of court time. Tristan Thompson went 7-8 on the first leg of the back-to-back of doom. During the rubber match, Pachulia, West and McGee went 7-11 as the Warriors shot 50.6% for the evening.
Don’t misunderstand – he’s not playing bad ball. To match Cleveland and Golden State at the highest level, he’ll need to become the third member of a Toronto big three, instead of a steady contributor. The Warriors have Green (and Durant) while the Cavaliers have Kevin Love as their big. If Valanciunas starts to extend a consistent mid-range jumper and execute the nuances of NBA defense, the Raptors would be able to roll three all-star contributors for 35 minutes a game.
DeMarre and Patrick As Three-and-D Combo Forwards
In a best-case scenario, Dwayne Casey would be able to lean on DeMarre Carroll and Patrick Patterson as combo forwards, able to switch onto any guard or forward when necessary. This type of defensive configuration can pay dividends against teams like the Warriors and the Cavaliers, who stretch the floor close to the breaking point. Covering all that space requires fast, strong, smart forwards, which describes the defense of DeMarre and Patrick.
However, their contributions can be wiped out on the other side of the floor if they don’t contribute on offence. If DeMarre and Patrick continue to shoot threes well below league average, teams will simply stop guarding them on the perimeter, allowing opposing defenses to cut off driving lanes for DeRozan and Lowry. When Toronto’s all-stars can’t get to the rim, they can’t draw the same number of free throws, which affects efficiency on both sides of the court.
Stopping the offense of Golden State and Cleveland remains an unrealistic goal, but chipping away at the Dubs and Cavs FG% is possible when DeMarre and Patrick are at the top of their game. Hitting their shots and creating free throws makes it easier for the Toronto Raptor defense to get back into position, reducing the number of dangerous transition opportunities.
Siakam Attacks The Bench
Pascal Siakam has transitioned well to the NBA game, using his tall, explosive frame to hustle the floor. His motor overrides any doubt, letting him make strong, decisive defensive plays while showing good percentages – a 54.5 FG% and 75% FT% after eleven games. When Jared Sullinger returns, there’s a good chance that Pascal will receive more playing time.
Since Sullinger will be tasked to play a sharpshooting four and backup center, the Raptors may decide to give Patrick Patterson’s minutes to Jared, instead of redistributing Pascal’s time on the court. There’s no denying that Patterson’s 22.9 3PT% after eleven games represents an issue if he doesn’t manage to regain his form.
Joseph, Ross and Powell represent a solid bench backcourt, but they will need support from Toronto’s big to maximize their potential. Siakam will continue to improve, and the Raptors will be able to surround him with four shooters without giving big bench minutes to Patrick, which might be enough to ward off the deep benches of Golden State and Cleveland.
Basketball Gods Bestow Blessed Health
Masai Ujiri has judiciously poached the free agent market over the past few years to fill holes in the rotation. Unfortunately, the two signings designed to stabilize the Raptors starting five have been dealing with debilitating injuries. DeMarre Carroll will likely require a good portion of the year as he patiently rehabs his knee. Jared Sullinger, after a strong off-season of fitness, currently endures the misfortune of an injured foot, which also requires a conscientious approach.
Jonas periodically works through a variety of old ailments on the path to regaining his peak playoff form. Perhaps Coach Casey looks to limit his minutes somewhat to increase the probability of a completely-healed Valanciunas.
The importance of Kyle Lowry finding peak fitness revolved around his increased durability, a health blessing vital to the Raptors’ pursuit of excellence. Neither the Raps nor the NBA has seen what a completely healthy Toronto roster can accomplish. At full power, the Raptors could be one of the few dark horses capable of racing alongside the Warriors and the Cavs.