It’s amazing to see how the Toronto Raptors transitioned from a projected lottery team to an expected division winner in the span of less than a year. I also find it strange that I’m slightly less excited at this time of the year than I was last year. It’s likely based on the fact that the playoff expectations surrounding the team make me want to just get there again and see the Raps prove themselves, however, there are 82 games queued up before they can do that.
The optimism surrounding the Raptors heading into the season is uncanny to the point where I’m really uncertain of how optimistic I really need to be to sound stupid. Can the Raptors win 50 games? Yes. The Atlantic? They better. The East?
If you know anything about Raptors GM Masai Ujiri, it’s that he’s not going to stand put during an offseason.
Aside from re-signing MVP Kyle Lowry, Masai ensured that he locked up Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez. The Raptors lost Nando De Colo, Dwight Buycks, Julyan Stone and John Salmons. He also somehow dumped Steve Novak’s contract and received a 2nd round pick in return.
In terms of additions, the first one happened at the draft, where Masai shocked the basketball world and took 19 year old Brazilian Bruno Caboclo. He also performed a miraculous trade for substantial value with Lou Williams and Brazilian prospect Lucas ‘Bebe’ Nogueria coming back while dumping the contract of Salmons who was to be waived. The Raps also reunited with James Johnson, who should prove to be a great player for the Raps off the bench. Finally, Will Cherry, Jordan Hamilton, and Greg Stiemsma were all signed to unguaranteed contracts – one of these three will grab the final roster spot in the next few days.
Thus, the roster stands at:
PG: Kyle Lowry, Greivis Vasquez, [Will Cherry]
SG: DeMar DeRozan, Louis Williams
SF: Terrence Ross James Johnson, Landry Fields, Bruno Caboclo, [Jordan Hamilton]
PF: Amir Johnson, Patrick Patterson, Tyler Hansbrough
C: Jonas Valanciunas, Chuck Hayes, Lucas Nogueria, [Greg Stiemsma]
Kyle Lowry is back. Stay excited that we get to watch the best point guard in the East soak up most of the minutes at the lead guard position. Look for Lowry to play approximately 30 minutes a night, as Dwane Casey had mentioned that that he does want to cut minutes and the depth the Raptors have certainly will allow that. Vasquez as the back-up point guard could log anywhere from 10-30 minutes on a given night, considering the fact that he often plays alongside Lowry and can be used as a two in certain situations. Adding Lou Williams in there makes Casey’s job even more difficult, as the combo guard is a streaky scorer who will have fluctuating minutes.
Expect the average minute distribution at the point guard slot to look something like this: Lowry (31), Vasquez (13), Williams (4)
DeMar DeRozan is one of the best conditioned athletes in the NBA. He logged 38 minutes per game last season, however that number should certainly decrease this season. There is no reason for him to have such a high usage rate with the added depth the Raptors have, and Casey has acknowledged this.
As it stands right now, Ross is the only other true shooting guard on the roster, however he will be the starting small forward. We could definitely see Ross being used here at times, but more so look for Lou Williams to log minutes as the back-up. The rotation will likely average out to: DeRozan (30), Williams (12), Ross (3), Vasquez (3)
I can’t remember a time where the Raps had so many options at the small forward position. While Ross will be the starter, James Johnson and Landry Fields can both be used in situations where bigger forwards are matched up against the Raptors. Having a big wing such as JJ is something the Raptors truly lacked last year (see: Joe Johnson vs Raptors, first round).
We will likely see a touch of DeRozan here as well. Unfortunately, Bruno is 2 years from being 2 years away, so I do doubt he will log too many meaningful minutes.
Expect something like: Ross (25), J.Johnson (15), DeRozan (5), Fields (2), Caboclo (1)
Amir Johnson is yet another player who could really benefit from a reduced workload, as his injury riddled season prevented him from performing at 100% in many instances. The trio of Amir, 2-Pat, and Psycho T will continue to absorb the minutes here, thus PF being the only position without any true differences from last season.
Expect the rotation to round out to: Amir (22), Patterson (20), Hansbrough (4), J.Johnson (2)
Jonas Valanciunas logged approximately 28 minutes per game last year. That number should go up this year as the prized big man continues his development. Expect JV to soak up most of the minutes, with Chucky Hayes and Amir picking up the rest. Nogueria is currently out with a bad groin injury, and it’s unclear when he will return. By the time he does, he will likely have a hard time working into the rotation. With that being said, he definitely has the potential to take Hayes’ minutes.
Minutes should be something like: Valanciunas (34), Amir (6), Hansbrough (4), Hayes (4)
Determining the Season: Things to Look for
The core group remains the same, the coaching staff is in tact and the Raptors are looking to build off the 48 wins they had last season. The depth the Raptors have this season is incredible. I don’t believe there’s been a team in the Raptors’ history this deep, which will help take a load off the starters and alleviate injury worries.With that being said, there are certainly some questions to be answered on who will be a rotational player and who’ll be giving high-fives for 48 minutes. Will players such as Lou Williams and James Johnson fit in with the synergy the team had both on and off the court? Will the Raptors have the same drive as they did last year to prove that they belong?
Eastern Conference Dynamics
With the changes in the East, it will be interesting to see how teams such as Cleveland Cavaliers mesh. Can Kyrie Irving still thrive when he’s not as ball dominant? Can the Chicago Bulls get Derrick Rose back to MVP form? Can the Pacers survive without the duo of Lance Stephenson and Paul George? The bottom line is that the Raptors just might be the most certain thing in the East this season, and that’s truly saying something.
Best Back-court in the East
DeRozan and Lowry were the best backcourt in the East last season based on a substantial number of metrics. The duo drove the Raptors’ success last season, and teams are starting to notice how good they really are. As teams account for this, how will the Raptors adjust?
Don’t think we’ve forgotten about all of the headaches Dwane Casey has caused the fanbase before attaining recent success. Can Casey establish a balanced mix between offense and defense? Has he improved his rotational decisions? Will he trust his young players to have more responsibility? Can he manufacture late game plays?
X-Factor: Jonas Valanciunas
Much like Kyle Lowry was the team’s X-factor last season, Jonas Valanciunas holds the keys to the Raptors taking the next step. People are starting to realize that JV is the Raptors’ most important piece. Having him consistently dominate both ends would significantly change the dynamics of the team.
What’s the next step for Valanciunas? Last season, he averaged 11.3 PPG and 8.8 RPG. If all goes well, those numbers should rise to around 15 PPG and 10 RPG. This would put him in the upper echelon of centers, and ultimately make the Raptors that much deadlier.
We should see some continuity with this team. Anything less than another Atlantic title would be a disappointment. I am going to go with a record of 51-31 for the Raptors as they should come out firing when game 1 comes around. It’s time to get excited, folks.