The Toronto Raptors‘ season is officially over. Usually that sentiment is joined with frustration, anger, and a painful sense of despair. But this time is different: The Raptors weren’t beaten in a heartbreaking game 7 loss, or embarrassed in a 4 game sweep by a lower seed. The end of this season is a stark contrast to last season.
This year, the Raps won a franchise record 56 games. This year, the Raps fought through 2 grueling series. And this year, the Raps took it to a dominant NBA championship contender. This year, the Toronto Raptors, put the NBA on notice.
This team set a record for wins, and went to unchartered territory in the playoffs. What a special season that was headlined by tons of exciting victories, and playoff basketball that lasted into late May. 1 game away from the 1st seed in the East, and 2 games away from the NBA finals. Just let that marinate.
This year, Toronto hosted it’s first ever All-Star weekend, and it was certainly a success. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry both represented our Raptors. Both had the best seasons of their careers, with Lowry making the All-Third NBA team and playing like a superstar for the vast majority of the year.
Dwane Casey has to be one of the most hated winningest coaches in the NBA. At worst Raptors fans wanted him shipped out two seasons ago. At best, fans are lukewarm on him. Granted, he has had his difficulties, however he has grown every year. In his first year he was a 23 win coach (38% winning percentage) and has steadily increased until smashing the franchise record of 49 with 56 wins, a 68% winning percentage. It is also worth noting that in the past decade there is an average of 4 to 5 teams that win 56+ games in a season. In 2015-2015 the Raptors entered elite company. This year we saw him learn on the job. In game 4 against the Miami Heat , Casey was criticized for adjusting to Miami’s small ball line-up by benching Bismack Biyombo and going small. The smaller Raptors couldn’t defend in the paint and handed the Heat a playoff win in overtime. However, when Miami tried this again late in game 5 Casey adapted. He left Bismack as the one big on the floor and he dominated on the defensive end. It takes guts for a coach to admit he is wrong, and it takes brains for a coach to fix his mistakes. The adjustments in these two games shows Casey has both. In general he made decent adjustments and coached the squad he had to fun team basketball. He also accomplished this with a team that played less than 20 games together during the regular season as both Jonas Valancunias and DeMarre Caroll missed significant playing time with injuries. Also when the Raptors needed a sixth man, he was there for them. Low stance, arms up, great defensive form.
All jokes aside Casey has earned a contract extension. Let’s be clear Casey still has a lot of work to do. However, Casey has earned the opportunity to grow as a coach with the Raptors.
The Raptors find themselves in a tough spot. They are an improving team with salary cap restrictions and key players looking for large pay raises. Bismack Biyombo, and DeMar DeRozan earning $2.9M and $10M respectively are due for large pay raises as unrestricted free agents. Both have a preference to stay with the Raptors however salary cap constraints will make it difficult to re-sign both at market value. The good news GM Masai Ujiri has a keen eye for talent and given this team a gifted young players who may be able to step-up. For example, Norman Powell. In Powell we have a 3 and D wing player, with jump out of the building hops. He made Paul George inefficient and gave the Indiana Pacers defense fits when he was on the floor. Jonas Valanciunas’ post-season was cut short, but before his ill-timed ankle injury, he was a man amongst boys. Growth is always good. Growth tells us these players are no longer scared of the big stage. Believe it or not, this team can get significantly better. I look forward to seeing what they are going to do next year.
The 4-spot was a combination of Patrick Patterson, and Luis Scola, neither of whom could get it done in the playoffs. They had their moments but ultimately it is their inconsistency that hurt the Raptors. This is a need Ujiri will have to address either in the draft, or through trades this off-season.
Although I raved about Casey earlier. This is a huge issue Casey has to address. He needs to know how to motivate his team and have them work through playoff jitters. There is no reason why the 1st and 2nd playoff series should have gone to 7 games. When they finally met the Cleveland Cavaliers the Toronto Raptors had played almost twice the amount of games (14 to 8). In game 1, they just looked gassed. Hopefully, after this year the team will be more confident and understand what it takes to close out teams.
Under a year ago, I wrote a piece discussing how Ujiri has set-us up for playoff success. The picture has changed with Biyombo’s emergence. The picture the Raptors had was a good one, but now, with a rising cap, a huge DeMarre Carroll contract and a Ross extension, decisions have to be made. Considering the Raptors have the 6 LOWEST payroll (you read that right), and that only twice in the past 13 years a team not in the luxury tax has won a championship, it may be time for Maple Leaf Sports Entertainment to bite the bullet and open up their wallets. Another tasty fact that shows the need to enter the tax, is that the remaining three teams all have a salary northwards of $90 Million dollars. They are the 1,3,4 highest payrolls in the NBA and have a salary $20 Million more than the Raptors. To put this in perspective, that is almost one maximum salary player more than the Raptors. If the Raptors had a max player worth his contract the Cleveland series would have been much more competitive.
Sorry guys, no ugly this year. I am a proud Raptors fan who sees room for improvement, but nothing so glaring that warrants the ugly-button. This was a fantastic season!
Until next year Go Raps Go!