The Toronto Raptors 2013-2014 season can be defined by one word: optimism. The Raptors were left for dead after a 6-12 start and the trading of Rudy Gay. Yet they were able to parlay that trade into a 42-22 finish and a division crown. They had the best fourth quarter differential in the entire league, and second best in the past decade; no matter how much they were down by, there was a sense that the Raptors would be able to come back and steal away a victory. Their January 22 win over the Dallas Mavericks and their near nineteen-point comeback victory against the Portland Trailblazers are shining examples of this.
However, there is a catch to this 48-34 miracle season: Masai Ujiri now needs to maintain this sense of optimism while managing it. He needs to improve this team in a way that’ll help them get past the first round of the playoffs without compromising their long-term plans. The Raptors need additional pieces if they’re going to advance further into the playoffs and if they’re going to be considered true championship contenders; pursuing these pieces at the cost of player development for guys like Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross would hamper the team’s long-term plans as well as their chemistry. Locking up too much money into one player could also have adverse consequences. Hedo Turkoglu and Jermaine O’Neal are prime examples in Raptors lore of the risks of putting too much stock into a team’s present hype/short-term goals. They’re still a year or two away.
In saying that, there are positional needs that the Raptors have heading into next season that need to be addressed. Ujiri does have options that can aid both the team’s short-term and long-term goals. This balancing act will be a difficult task; he’ll be living up to his reputation as a great G.M. if he’s able to pull it off. Here are the needs that Ujiri has to address for the Raptors:
Re-sign Your Core Players
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There are three players that need to be resigned in order for the Raptors to build on this season’s success: Kyle Lowry, Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez. Lowry is the obvious one. He was the only starter who had a positive point differential in the playoffs. DeMar DeRozan was second with a negative 2.6 point differential. Lowry was the player trusted with their final shot of the season. Everything else is well known to Raptors fans: The crossroads he came to during the offseason, his relationship with head coach Dwane Casey, his play after the Gay trade, his all-star snub, etc. With all of these factors taken into account, this season seems to be evident of his maturation as a man and as a player rather than a big contract motivated aberration. Lowry is the lifeblood of this team. If the Raptors fail to resign him, their 20th year will fail to be a watershed moment into NBA legitimacy; it will instead serve as a testament to the teams two decades of mediocrity. Many analysts believe Lowry will earn around $10 million per year with his next contract. This puts him in Ty Lawson territory. With the value that Lowry has to this team, this would be reasonable for the Raptors. Again, resigning Lowry has to be the team’s first priority.
The team also has to be concerned about solidifying their bench. When Patterson and Vasquez came to the team from Sacramento, they filled two keys voids in the roster: The versatile big man and the legitimate backup point guard, respectively. Patterson has proven to be the most valuable acquisition in the season altering deal. He proved to be a boon for the Raptors on defense, the end of the floor where Casey places the most emphasis. When Patterson was injured for a stretch of 13 games late in the season, the Raptors defense was 2.7 points higher than their season average, good for 13th in the league if stretched out over the course of a season. They were 7th overall. Patterson’s a solid individual defender who has the quickness to guard fellow stretch fours that are en vogue in today’s league. His size and length allow him to contribute as a help defender. He would frequently be paired with Amir Johnson down the stretch of games to provide Casey with two reliable defenders during close games. On the offensive end, he’s a terrific mid-range shooter and can stretch the defense from the corners. He shot nearly 48% from the field and 41% beyond the arc as a Raptor. Patterson found a niche role with the Raptors as a floor-spacing big off the bench. On top of that, he’s only 25 years old. He still has time to develop a post-game and further diversify his role with the team. Resigning him should be of great importance for both parties. The same could be said about Vasquez.
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With the Raptors, he served as one of the best backup point guards in the league. He’s a savvy and gutsy passer. He served as the team’s trigger man during out of bounds plays in their series against the Brooklyn Nets. This had previously been an issue with players like John Salmons making the decisions. With Vasquez, he wasn’t afraid to throw it to Johnson with the team up and time waning, or throw it in the backcourt with Deron Williams lying in wait to try to tie the game. He pushes the tempo in transition, always looking for the open man or his own shot. He was the team’s gunner when playing alongside Lowry. He averaged 15.9 points per 36 minutes, a career high, while shooting 38.9% from long range. His lack of any semblance of speed or quickness makes him a liability on the defensive end, but he’s a nifty player who’s still only 27. Vasquez is far and away the fieriest player for this team, and he has expressed his love for this city and for this team. Retaining his services is a must.
Find another Wing
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Wing depth was a major issue for the Raptors. Salmons looked like he would be an effective veteran presence off the bench with his first month with the team… until he wasn’t. In his wake were two strictly one-dimensional players with severe limitations in Steve Novak and Landry Fields. Novak and Fields are almost certain locks to return, vastly overpaid as they are. Salmons however has a team option for $7 million that should be declined. Ross is still developing and showed promise as a starter last year. That and a need for long-term flexibility make marquee names like Luol Deng a non-starter.
The Raptors could go with the veteran mentor for this young team; A Salmons-type player who’s more effective on the court. Current Maverick and Raptors relic Vince Carter (a.k.a. Vinsanity, Air Canada Carter, the scourge of the earth,etc.) is a name that’s been thrown around as a possible addition to the Raptors 20th anniversary team. At 37, he would be on his redemption tour with the team he made his name with. For this reason, the move would make great business sense for the team while attracting increased media attention. As for the on-court product, Carter can still contribute. He basically averaged 12 points per game while shooting 39.4% from beyond the arc. His overall percentage was just above 40% and he’s obviously lost a lot of his athleticism, but he’s still a serviceable bench player who can help your team win ball games.
Danny Granger would provide a similar option for the team, although he’d come with more of a risk. He’s played in only 46 regular season games over the past two seasons due to various leg injuries and he’s 31. Yet there’s still value in Granger. He’s a career 38% three point shooter. In an admittedly very small sample, Granger’s per 36 minutes numbers stood at 17.8 points per game with the Clippers. He struggled in the playoffs, yet he still had his moments in both the playoffs and the regular season. His injury history would drive down his price on the free agent market, making Granger a low-risk high-reward prospect.
Other possibilities on the wing include Trevor Ariza and Thabo Sefolosha. Both have the quickness and length to be considered amongst the top wing defenders in the game. Ariza might give up a little weight, but both players would represent the Raptor’s best chance at guarding a LeBron James or a Joe Johnson. In their series with the Nets, Fields was the only player capable of guarding the big bodied wing. Yet, Fields only played for 26 minutes in the entire series because he has zero shooting range and is a minimal threat offensively. Playing him on the offensive end was akin to playing four-on-five.
Sefolosha would still represent a defensive upgrade, but he poses the same offensive problems as Fields. He does have two seasons of shooting at least 40% from the three point line, but he also shot 31.6% from that area last season. He’s a career 28% shooter from long range in the playoffs; that number dipped to 26.1% in this year’s playoffs. In fact, his offensive production was so anemic that he was replaced as a starter by Reggie Jackson at the end of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s playoff run for offensive support. Those two games were the first time Sefolosha hasn’t started a game he played in since joining the Thunder, and the first time he hasn’t started a playoff game since his first time in. Evidently his value on the defensive end was no longer worth his offensive production.
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Ariza offers more of a varied offensive game. He’s had four seasons averaging double digit scoring figures, with a high of 14.9. His three point shooting is virtually the same as Sefolosha’s, but he’s coming off his first 40%+ shooting season of his career, which doesn’t include his long-range marksmanship against the Pacers in the playoffs. Ariza may not be a knock-down shooter, but he offers more versatility than Sefolosha along with more bulk on the wing. The problems with Ariza are his role and the contract he would demand. Ever since landing in Houston in 2009 he has started 279 of the 321 games he’s played in. Not only would his presence take minutes from Ross, it will boot him from his starting role before the Raptors truly find out what kind of player he is. Also, he made close to $8 million last season at the end of a 5 year $33 million contract. He’s a necessity for the Washington Wizards, so it’d be surprising if that annual number comes down. Would he be worth it in the grand scheme for the Raptors?
Out of the available wings, former Raptors second-round pick P.J. Tucker looks to be the best possible acquisition. Let’s start with on-the court attributes: Tucker has completely transformed himself since falling out of the league in 2007. He took a career high 191 threes, and converted them at a 38.7% clip last season. He averaged 6.5 rebounds per game at 6’5. His free throw percentage was pushing 78%, and he averaged nearly 10 points a game. This should be a shock to longtime Raptors fans, and we haven’t even gotten to his true value. Tucker is a tank. At 225 pounds and possessing solid lateral quickness, he was tasked with shutting down the opposing team’s best player. In matchups against DeRozan, he limited the Raptors leading scorer to 30 points on 11-31 shooting in two games. He wouldn’t be bullied by players like Brooklyn’s Johnson, and he would represent the only viable option on the team for defending James. He should be obtainable via the mid-level exception; similar players like Sefolosha and Tony Allen are making under $5 million a year. That’s good value if Tucker can maintain last year’s play. He’s 29 and his main role as a three-and-D player on a playoff-contending team wouldn’t change, so there’s little reason to think his ascent will come to a crashing halt.
In terms of minutes and starting, Tucker can serve as more of a motivating factor for Ross rather than as a replacement. Last season was the only year he started throughout, and he only averaged 30 minutes per game. Salmons averaged 25 minutes in his first month as a Raptor, so there’s room for both Tucker and Ross. Tucker can be an effective 6th man with the ability to guard two’s, three’s and stretch four’s, so it’s very possible he and Ross could co-exist, especially since there wouldn’t be the same pressure to start him as an Ariza (see: contract.) Ross’s work ethic is perceived as lacking. Having fought his way back into the league, Tucker could serve as a role model for the young wingmen. Ross has all of the physical tools to accomplish great things in the N.B.A.; he just needs to continue improving through diligence and hard work. This is where Tucker could help bring value off the court to compliment his value on the court. Options worth looking at in the draft: bruising forward Jerami Grant, Glen Robinson the third and athletic wing T.J. Warren.
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Valanciunas is the team’s future down low. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, that is indisputable. However, the Raptors need size behind him. Chuck Hayes is too short, Patterson can’t be asked to guard low-post big men and Johnson is a tad too lanky. They need rebounding, toughness and defense from their backup five. Enter Emeka Okafor. The former second overall pick is 6’10 and 252 pounds. He has career averages of just under 10 boards, 1.7 blocks and 12.3 points per game. He’s known for his toughness and his presence at the rim. He’s also a veteran who can coach Val on his weaknesses on the defensive end. He’s coming off a major injury that cost him all of last season, so there are durability concerns. Due to this, Okafor should be another low risk/high reward target. His free agent price tag should be depressed because of these injury concerns. If Okafor works out, he’ll be a highly valuable bargain pickup that could help the Raptors in so many ways. He’s really the only free-agent center worth discussing. Jusuf Nurkic could be a possibility through the draft.
Despite the fantastic season, which led to the Raptors even being favoured to win a first round series by some sites (such as http://www.sportsbettingcandian.ca),the Raptors are probably still a couple years away from truly contending for a championship. However, if Ujiri can make some of these moves that benefit their team while preserving flexibility, the Raptors could be a mainstay as a NBA threat for years to come.