After two straight seasons in the playoffs with first round exits, the Toronto Raptors have made a ton of changes to get over the hump. Masai Ujiri, the Raptors’ general manager, made tough decisions to change the culture and outlook of the team’s direction.
This season carries mixed expectations after the tough sweep at the hands of the Washington Wizards. Can the Raptors finally top 50 wins? Can they get out of the first round? Or will we see a downward spiral?
The Raptors have reached a franchise-high in wins in a season for two straight years, with 48 wins and 49 wins respectively, leaving the franchise and the organization even more optimistic towards an upward trend.
In regards to the Raptors’ talent, they may have slightly downgraded offensively, by trading away their back-up point guard Greivis Vasqeuz, letting go of the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, Lou Williams, and also letting Amir Johnson walk away. But, the acquisitions in the off-season have boosted the defensive talent, and will make up for some of the production that walked out the door.
DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph, Luis Scola, and Bismack Biyombo are the most notable acquisitions, and are all two-way players. Each player aside from Scola come in with a defensive identity, known for either terrific on-ball defense, awareness, and or shot-blocking. Scola has surprisingly demonstrated good defensive fundamentals, and help-side awareness, mainly by drawing charges, and communicating with his teammates.
Offensively, Carroll and Joseph are both solid perimeter shooters, and adept at moving without the basketball. Carroll has demonstrated solid play-making ability, and Joseph has the ability to get to the rim at will. Scola, known as an offensive machine, is efficient and effective; working the elbow jumper, the screen-&-roll game, and with his back-to-the-basket. Biyombo is not nearly as versatile offensively as the other three, but a bruising finisher, and will grab extra possessions.
With these major acquisitions, the two-way characteristics label the Raptors as one of the deepest rosters in the entire league, making them almost two-deep at every position, leaning towards Dwane Casey’s desires to match-up basketball.
There are also major improvements to keep an eye for. Kyle Lowry is the biggest one; or now the slimmest one. Lowry trimmed his body significantly this past off-season, which was demonstrated in the pre-season. Lowry is much lighter, quicker, and much more explosive, which will allow him to heave his body throughout an 82-game season more effectively than last season. Lowry’s conditioning will also be a major improvement with the weight loss.
Jonas Valanciunas worked with Jack Sikma over the off-season, working on his offensive repertoire, and his defensive awareness. Valanciunas also showed off some new post moves in the pre-season, and quicker reads on the pick-&-roll and in help situations. However, we’ve yet to see all of it, as Valanciunas mentions he “doesn’t want to show everything yet.” Valanciunas will also be a major X-factor for the Raptors. With Carroll now on the floor offensively, and Scola who is also very capable at spreading the floor, the paint belongs to Valanciunas. With most teams following the trend in going small, JV must be able to capitalize, and punish smaller defenders. Defensively, again, with the new additions, expect less defensive breakdowns, which won’t fall onto JV’s shoulders as much as it has in the last couple seasons.
Terrence Ross is also going to be someone to keep an eye on. With Lou gone, Ross automatically becomes the first scoring option off the bench. Ross is not the hot pocket Lou is; he doesn’t have the ability to create shots with the basketball, nor draw fouls and get to the free-throw line. However, Ross might be a more consistent option on the perimeter, and twenty times the athlete, not to mention his natural attribute to defend. Ross has improved his ball-handling, exemplified during the pre-season, and has added significant weight and strength.With the new improvements, Ross has an improved ability to create outside of shooting on the perimeter, and running the floor, and to actually finish through contact and withstand a hit in traffic.
DeMar DeRozan may be the biggest X-factor. After sustaining his first major injury, the usually healthy shooting guard has been labelled one of the league’s premier shooting guards. DeRozan has improved his play-making ability and ball handing significantly. With the attention he’s going to get from the defense, DeRozan’s ability to read and make plays must be on point, especially with the offensive assets around him this season. DeRozan must return to pre-injury form. Not just the 20-points per game, but the 4-5 rebounds, assists, and his ability to intercept passes.
The Raptors have a new coaching staff, a new culture direction, the all-around defensive identity talent, and play in a conference lacking depth past the top 4 and 5. Is a 50 win season possible? Can they reach the 2nd round? Absolutely.
However, 11 of the first 15 games of the season are on the road. A lot is working in the Raptors’ favour, but the schedule fights strongly against them, especially with the schedule plotting strong Western conference teams in their way. The depth should allow the Raptors to fight through minor injuries. However, if they struggle out of the gate, and or if they sustain any major injuries to any key players, the chances at a 50-win season will quickly dwindle. I guess we’ll find out tomorrow.