In case you missed it, the Toronto Raptors got absolutely shitcanned by the Washington Wizards on Sunday which not only ended a disappointing series but was a coup de grace for a historical yet bewildering season.
What happened to the team that jumped to a 24-8 start? Where did Kyle Lowry go post inaugural All-Star nod? Why did the growth of both Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross stagnate? Where did that top-10 defense from last season go?
The fact is this season was a mirage. The Raptors aren’t who we thought they were (cue in Dennis Green). They were beneficiaries of an atrocious Atlantic Division and a weak Eastern Conference. Toronto, along with many other franchises, are stuck in the NBA’s Goldilocks zone. Not good enough to be a front runner for a championship, and not bad enough to be a lottery team and advance via the draft. Even though this team still won a benchmark 49 games and secured a consecutive postseason appearance, this team has a ways to go, as was evidenced by the series sweep.
It becomes an easy mental exercise to play armchair general manager and speculate who should be acquired and who should be scrapped considering their recent demise. However, this season wasn’t a total failure. There were some positives, but regrettably the negatives outweighed them.
Offseason Acquisitions: General Manager Majai Ujiri pulled off highway robbery again when he fleeced the Atlanta Hawks for the services of veteran guard Lou Williams and 21-year-old center Lucas Nogueira in exchange for an ancient John Salmons and a second round pick. That trade yielded a reliable scorer, the NBA’s sixth man and an interesting young asset going forward. Williams carried this team offensively for huge stretches and was a key cog in the early season. This team likely would have won a lot less games without him, however the green light he was given might have caused some issues with ball movement. As an unrestricted 28-year old free agent, he’s going to get a big pay raise – I just hope it doesn’t come from MLSE’s wallet. At $5,450,000 yearly Williams is a bargain relative to his productivity but anything beyond will lead to a sunk cost. That James Johnson signing wasn’t too shabby either ($5 Million/2 years)
Trade Deadline Omission: I’m so glad Ujiri stood pat at the deadline and refused to acquire a David West or Kenneth Faried. Would they be the difference against Washington? Perhaps. The best thing the Raptors have going for them is cap management and roster flexibility. To get over the postseason hump, Toronto needs a game-changing superstar who is burgeoning and young. Marc Gasol and Kevin Durant both fit that profile. No sense in wasting dollars and term for a second round exit.
The Bench: The Raptors echoed last season’s success with an excellent bench. Toronto finished the 2014-15 campaign with a top five bench, scoring 38.7 points in 19.7 minutes with a +6.8 differential as per hoopstats.com. Pattrick Patterson, Greivis Vasquez, Johnson and Williams were productive when needed and gave a boost to the primary unit.
Valanciunas 2013-14 – 11.3 ppg, 8.8 reb, 0.9 blk | 2014-15 12.0 ppg, 8.7 reb, 1.2 blk
Ross 2013-14 – 10.9 ppg, 3.1 reb, .423 % | 2014-15 9.8 ppg, 2.8 reb, .410 %
Both former first round picks didn’t regress this season but their growth and development stagnated. The numbers say it all. Valanciunas had a slight spike in his point total, but his blocking took a step back. And his rebounding waned a bit too. As a 22-year-old, supporters point to how the Lithuanian still has a bright future ahead. I might be in the minority here when I say it might be time to sell high. His defense and offensive creativity (see signature pump fake) are big question marks and if he is a future All-Star, these glaring weaknesses need to be remedied.
As for Ross, well what else can you say. This has been year three of the Ross experiment and the results haven’t been favourable. He has athleticism and can shoot; too bad he can’t dribble and get to the line. You kind of need those qualities and strengths in a small forward. I’m sure Ross is a nice guy and I think he has a career as a bench player – just not on the Raptors.
Lowry’s Exodus: I get the feeling that Lowry was on a personal quest to get an All-Star slot after years of rejection and when he finally received the recognition, decided to check out mentally. I can’t think of any other reason to explain his decline. Lowry’s MVP-caliber first half where he demonstrated terrific hero-ball, stout defense and passion was followed by a disappointing 2015. The former Villanova Wildcat and his $48 million contract was average at best for the past few months and it didn’t look like “his” team anymore. He got manhandled by Washington’s guards and had a combined 18 fouls in the series. Maybe injuries and fatigue were a factor, but I have more uncertainty then certainty about his ability to lead this team. That thought never would have crossed my mind four months ago.
Insanity – doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results (see definition for Coach Casey)
Here is a breakdown of your typical Raptors’ offensive play. It’s pretty simple. You get one of your guards to beat the opponent 1-on-1 and if he can’t, you dish it out to the corner to see if your teammate can hit a three. Alternatively, you can just toss a contested three with plenty of clock. The offense was as unsustainable as it gets even though they finished as a top-5 outfit with 104.0 PPG. Still, it was a big reason why the season ended in flames. It was a predictable and guard-heavy design with little if any imagination for getting bigs involved. As previously mentioned, the scoring was heavily predicated on three point shooting – the Raptors heaved up a ton of threes (25.1 per game) and made 8.9 of them for a .352 shooting percentage. Not exactly efficient. Maybe Casey was playing to the team’s strengths knowing that the bulk of their scoring and output was generated by the perimeter. Nevertheless, he largely ignored ball movement, screening and floor spacing. Oh, and the bottom ranked defense was non-existent as the Raptors allowed opponents to average the century mark per contest (100.9 per game).
Roster Management: This could be an a new article all together, heck even a damn thesis. Casey’s rotations and starting lineups were hilarious at times. Jonas Valanciunas having a career night with 18 boards and 18 points in under 35 minutes? Time to hit the bench. Johnson not playing against the Wizards even though he averaged 18 minutes in two wins? Nope, we’ll use him when the matchups are “appropriate”.