Toronto Raptors and NBA championship are typically not two things mentioned in the same breath. However, after a season that consisted of 56 wins, an Eastern Conference finals berth, and two playoff victories against the eventual NBA champions, we have legitimately reached a point where we can call the Raptors title contenders.
What does that mean exactly? Quite literally – this season, the Raptors can actually win a championship. I appreciate the fact that the Golden State Warriors are in another echelon, however the Raptors have a team that certainly can win the Eastern Conference. From there, anything can happen.
How can the Raptors build off last year’s successes? Let’s break down the off-season, roster, and expectations.
The Raptors had a relatively quiet offseason, that ultimately consisted of extending All-Star DeMar DeRozan to a huge 5 year deal. Bismack Biyombo, Luis Scola, James Johnson, and Jason Thompson are among the departed.
Additions include rookies Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam, and Fred VanVleet, and power forward Jared Sullinger. Thus, the rotation will look something like:
- PG: Kyle Lowry (32), Cory Joseph (16)
- SG: DeMar DeRozan (36), Norman Powell (12)
- SF: DeMarre Carroll (22), Terrence Ross (20), Norman Powell (6)
- PF: Jared Sullinger (18), Patrick Patterson (24), Pascal Siakam (6)
- C: Jonas Valanciunas (36), Jakob Poeltl (8), Jared Sullinger (6)
Now, obviously in terms of the minutes highlighted, these are complete ballpark estimates. As we know, Dwane Casey loves getting creative with his line-ups at times, and this is a versatile group that can produce many dynamics.
Kyle Lowry is coming off a career year once again. There are so many stats that back up his standing as an elite player, and the Raptors MVP is poised to lead his squad to big things. One thing I would hope to see is less usage for Lowry this season to ensure his conditioning is maintained deep into the season and playoffs. Dwane, if the Raptors are up 20, there is absolutely no reason to play Kyle.
The depth is certainly there this season at the point guard position. Cory Joseph is one of the league’s best back up point guards. Behind him is the ultra talented Delon Wright, who unfortunately sustained an injury and will be out at least 4 months. Due to this, the Raptors grabbed rookie Fred VanVleet who proved to have poise and control in the preseason. However, long story short – Lowry and Joseph will continue to eat the minutes at the point guard slot, and at times take some minutes from the shooting guard spot as well.
DeMar DeRozan just received one of the richest contracts in NBA history. The expectation is certainly there for the 27 year old, who looks to continue to improve as he has done year over year. The biggest question mark with DeRozan’s game has always been his three point shot. Having him stick his threes will certainly make for an even more deadly Raptors offense – something we saw glimpses of last season.
Behind DeRozan, we have a battle for the top bench wing between Terrence Ross and Norman Powell. As usual, Ross comes into the season as the most maligned Raptor given his high ceiling and inconsistent performance. However, apparently the offseason was filled with work for the Raptors swingman, and he certainly looked good in the preseason. Time will tell, but if Ross can take that next step and become a legit 6th man, it will be huge for this team.
DeMarre Carroll was plagued by a knee injury last season, logging just 26 games. Carroll, who was supposed to be an ideal fit beside DeRozan, never was able to hit full stride. This year, all we can hope for is a healthy Carroll that does what he does best – lock down the opponent’s best players, and hit three point shots.
Given the lingering health problems, it’s safe to assume that Carroll isn’t going to log a lot of minutes during the regular season every night. This means Ross and Powell will likely see a lot of burn here as well. The Raptors have a good mix of swingmen that bring different elements to the table.
This is where it gets a little bit sticky. The Raptors prized offseason possession , Jared Sullinger, is going to be out for months after having surgery on his foot. This is definitely frustrating to see after Carroll’s injury issues last season. While it is fair to question the medical checks the Raptors staff are conducting, there’s no point in crying over spilled milk. At this point, the Raptors need to move on.
As was the case last year, Patrick Patterson will be the key cog at the four slot. His ability to stretch the floor certainly makes him playable in a wide array of lineups, and there is no doubt in my mind that 2Pat will continue to do a solid job. The question mark lies beyond that.
Pascal Siakam figures to be Patterson’s primary back-up. Throwing the rookie into the fire right away isn’t ideal for a contending team, however at this point there isn’t much of a choice. Hopefully Siakam is NBA ready – it will be interesting to see what he can do with his minutes. I would also expect Casey to throw in small ball more often when Siakam is struggling and Patterson needs a break.
Jonas Valanciunas has the ability to take this team to the next level, but I’m sure you already knew that. The Raptors big has shown flashes of elite play, however has lacked the continuity, confidence, and playing time to put it all together. With his primary back-up being Jakob Poeltl, expect JV to get as much burn as he can handle. Poeltl, the 9th overall pick, should provide to be a steady back-up when called upon.
Can DeMarre Carroll return to his Atlanta form?
Health is such a huge determinant in sports. With DeMarre Carroll, the Raptors are essentially adding a new player to the roster to start the season. Even when Carroll was “healthy”, he was nowhere near the player Masai Ujiri signed. If Carroll can stay healthy and play at full strength, it will make this Raptors team that much better than it was last season.
Is Valanciunas really ready for the next step?
While some people mourn over the loss of Bismack Biyombo, I get excited about it. It’s not because I disliked Bis. Rather, it finally gives JV his due as the undoubted starting center on the team. Valanciunas is going to be the guy now, eating up the majority of minutes at center, which includes playing down the stretch. He has a chance to truly take that next step as a player, and a consistently dominant JV would make the Raptors a scary team.
Can the Raptors get the #1 seed?
Getting the top seed in the Eastern Conference might be the Raptors only real chance of making it to the NBA finals. To do this, the Raptors will likely have to up their win total once again, which will by no means be an easy task. It’s going to take a lot, but the Raptors certainly have an outside shot of winning the Eastern conference. This Raptors team might just be better than last season given the aforementioned factors. If the internal growth that management hopes for occurs, the upside for the Toronto Raptors is tremendous.