Published on October 30th, 2013 | by HubSM Contributor0
Toronto Raptors are a Playoff Contender in the Eastern Conference
On the surface it would seem like a NBA team that won just 34 games and only added role players in the summer is underwhelming, but the truth is the Toronto Raptors won this offseason by upgrading their management to top-tier status with the hiring of Tim Leiweke and Masai Ujiri. These guys both have a history of making big things happen and their Raptors tenure will be no different. The Bryan Colangelo era left the franchise arrow pointing downwards (big-time…he reeked) but this new management group will have the Raps relevant very quickly. How quickly? Well for my money the landscape of the 2013-14 Eastern Conference offers a chance to make the playoffs as soon as this season for Canada’s team.
This article will look at the depth at each position, but let’s start with the guy who will be in charge of the on-court product. Dwane Casey is surely in a make-or-break season, as he has been given a chance by Ujiri to show he is the man who can lead this roster going forward.
Casey’s rookie season at the helm was the strike-shortened 2011-12 campaign where there was no legit training camp, no legit preseason, and no legit in-season practice time available for Casey to implement his strategies and schemes. Despite that the team took steps forward in several areas, especially team defense. This issue for Casey however is that last season when he had a full camp, full preseason, and practice time the team did not really take steps forward. In particular I was underwhelmed with the offense as I anticipated an improved O from the Raps with so much practice time but I simply did not see it. To be fair I would mention that injuries and roster changes mid-season likely played a part in that which is likely why Ujiri is willing to give Casey one more shot as the head coach.
Casey has more talent on both ends of the floor than he has ever had and more depth as well so I think it is fair for fans to insist on an improved on-court product this season. In fact when you look at how wide open the six, seven, and eight seeds are in the East I think it is fair to insist on a playoff berth for the first time since the 2007-08 season.
It is not like a mid-40s amount of wins will be needed to make the playoffs in the East. In the past decade (I took out the strike-shortened season) the East has had at least one .500 or worse team make the playoffs in eight of those seasons (21 teams in total have made the playoffs in the East with a .500 or worse record over that span).
Many fans are hoping for a tanked season so that the Raps can land one of the many top-tier talents that are available in the 2014 draft (good Canadian Andrew Wiggins sure comes to mind) but the NBA Lottery makes your draft slot such a crapshoot that it really does not pay to tank. The team with the worst record rarely wins the lottery. Actually in the 23 lotteries the worst record has won first overall pick just three times.
I feel like the Raps have never been a desired organization for free-agents because of their history of losing so I think making the playoffs is the key for this organization. Even a first-round exit (heck, even a sweep) would be okay because Leiweke and Ujiri just need a chance to sell the Raps as an up-and-coming playoff team going forward (key words are ‘‘playoff team’’) with an entire country backing them. I think just like that (*snaps fingers) the Raps would become a desirable organization for players and agents.
Let’s take a look at the roster…
Kyle Lowry was decent in his debut season for the Raps, but his potential is much better than that so I was disappointed. Things looked great for this season as Lowry was one of many Raptors that came to camp in great shape, but a recent injury to his ring finger on his non-shooting hand will have him wearing a splint for a little over a month. On the Brightside it is left hand, but still I was hoping for a better start to the season than a freak injury for Lowry. This is a contract season for him and historically players excel in those scenarios.
In the next few pages you will see why I think the season hinges on Toronto’s wing players (shooting guards and small forwards) but there is no doubt that for this team to be relevant this season a fantastic campaign will be required from Lowry. His back-ups are interesting, but Casey will need Lowry to be on the same page with him this season.
D.J. Augustin is a former lottery pick, but I can’t say that I am very optimistic about what he brings to the table. His skill-set seems to be similar to another new Rap PG, Dwight Buycks, and I would say that Buycks actually has the higher upside so there could be a battle for playing time when Lowry needs a breather.
Both of these back-ups can break down defenses and create for their teammates, but Buycks was a star in the Orlando Summer League where he earned praise and trust from several Toronto teammates so I would give an early edge to him despite his lack of NBA experience. Buycks is flat-out intriguing and I will be watching him closely. Many people I respect feel like the Raps got a steal when they landed Buycks who already has some NBA-ready skills (can attack off the dribble with his left or right).
If both back-ups show the ability to create for teammates then the minutes will go to the guy who is shooting better. At this point that would be a toss-up, but these two should push each other to be better. They could very well be important players because Lowry misses games annually so not only are back-up minutes at stake but there will also surely be games where these two are the only PGs available for Casey.
This position remains the same from last season. DeMar DeRozan is the top dog, but second year player Terrence Ross is showing in preseason that his game has improved and he is ready for increased playing time. Unfortunately Landry Fields will get playing time too; in fact Casey seems to have plans to utilize Fields as a ball-handler and facilitator so despite his terrible play in his career he is a highly paid player who will (inexplicably) continue to see action.
DeRozan is coming off a career-best season where he averaged 37 minutes, 18 points, and 2.5 assists per game. This guy has potential to be the face of the franchise, but despite coming off his best season he still has a lot to prove and a lot to work on. DeRozan is shooting a combined .434 the past two seasons, and his shooting has regressed annually at the Air Canada Centre.
As I mentioned before I think the wing players give the Raps their best chance to dominate individual match-ups on any given night, but the key word for all of these guys is “efficiency”. This is especially true on the offensive end where DeRozan is in the same boat as the other wing players in that his scoring needs to become much more efficient (no more volume shooting/scoring…Shooting needs to improve, same with decision-making).
Ross struggled as a rookie, especially with his jumper. The preseason ended with Ross on fire so there is cause for optimism that the lottery pick is legitimately improving his game. Despite the differences in contracts between DeRozan and Ross we could well see Ross get the nod over DeRozan many times if the Washington Huskies product can continue his development. In college Ross did not have a lot of structure or consequences for his play one way or the other, but under Casey he needs to play defense to his potential plus he needs to show consistency. His aggressive style and skill-set create a high upside for Ross so he is worth watching closely this season.
Fields has made just 38 of the last 163 shots he has taken from downtown. Yikes. He was just two for seven in the preseason from 3-ball range. When I talk about my excitement for the potential on the wing for this team Fields is not part of that. If Casey is serious about using Fields as more of a facilitator then his production could perhaps become interesting, but for now I see several better options on the wing for Toronto.
The Raps went 17-16 with Rudy Gay in their line-up. That projects to a 42 win team which would be plenty sufficient to crack the playoffs. The last 42 win team to miss the playoffs in the East was the 2004-05 Cleveland Cavaliers.
Gay averaged 20 points per game at the ACC where he shot .453 from the floor. He is fresh off of corrective eye surgery and will likely be a free-agent at the end of the season just like Lowry. Gay would need to opt out of his contract which would mean turning down $19 million from the Raps for next season, but players often opt out of the final season of their contract so that they can ink a long-term deal which would mean less money next season but a ton more over the long haul.
Gay has added a solid 20 pounds of muscle. He spent the summer with his trainer, and also with Hakeem Olajuwon. Many fans do not like Gay because they feel his efficiency is horrid (and it has been) but if he can learn some post moves from Olajuwon then his game becomes even more rounded which should allow him to become more efficient. If it is true that DeRozan needs to be better when it comes to scoring efficiency then it surely applies to Gay as well. While fans may wonder if Gay can improve it is worth noting that his fellow NBA players sure seem to believe that this guy is really good and can get even better.
Last season only a handful of teams shot a worse percentage from downtown than the Raptors. Enter Steve Novak. The veteran is coming off a down season from his standards, but in his career he has nailed 13 of the 23 shots he has taken from beyond the arc at the ACC so there is cause for optimism that he can be a sharp-shooter for this team.
In his career Novak shoots .433 from downtown. The last Raptors to have a season better than that were Anthony Parker and Jason Kapono back in the 2007-08 season.
All Toronto PGs have the ability to break-down Ds and create open looks for teammates so Novak could become a BFF for those guys. When Novak is on he is as deadly as it gets from 3-ball land.
Austin Daye has an interesting up-side. If Gay does leave as a free-agent then the Raps will have an opportunity for Daye, but this season he will likely be hard pressed to see a lot of action.
With guys like Amir Johnson, Tyler Hansbrough, and Quincy Acy available for Casey at the PF spot there is potential for toughness, physicality, and depth at the position.
I like Johnson, but I feel like he can be exposed if he gets too much playing time so I am all for measuring his minutes. Last season Johnson played a career-high 28 minutes per game, but his shooting efficiency, scoring efficiency, and NBA rating were all much lower than his career average. When the Raps can give the veteran short stretches of minutes he can use his terrific energy to play all-out and that is when he is at his best. Johnson is an energy guy who does not need plays run for him in order to be effective.
Hansbrough brings energy and physicality too. The Raps only added role players in the offseason but they bring things to the table that the Raps have traditionally missed like perimeter shooting (Novak) and interior toughness (Psycho T-Dot aka Hansbrough). Ujiri and Casey covet the energy that Hansbrough plays with so of the offseason additions it is likely him that has the best chance to get a lot of playing time.
Acy played in just 29 games in his rookie season for Toronto, but he had a pretty good preseason and Casey likes the energy he plays with. It is likely that Acy will see time at SF this season, but in a pinch he could still be a decent PF for small stretches of time too.
The Raps are potentially top-heavy at PG and C (next page) and have big potential on the wing, but the PF position looks like a place where the Raps may not get big stats. That will be fine with Casey if the position provides toughness in the paint. For years teams have run lay-up drills vs. the Raps as they have had no consequences for attacking the rim. The trio of Johnson/Hansbrough/Acy should improve that this season.
Aaron Gray has struggled with consistency in his career, but his biggest contribution to this team will likely be his work every day in practice as he takes on second year player Jonas Valanciunas. Gray feels that JV can be a top-tier C in the NBA, but he acknowledges that the big Lithuanian has areas of his game that need developing and Gray seems committed to helping the 21 year-old develop (especially on defense).
If Gray is not available to provide back-up minutes for Valanciunas than Johnson can play some C for Toronto.
If you have read my work in the past then you know I am huge on Valanciunas and his upside. Despite being just 21 the big fella has a ton of pro experience. He is one of many Raps that came to camp in great shape and with a lot of added muscle. JV was dominant in the Las Vegas Summer League where he was honored with the MVP award. This is a guy who not only likes contact in the paint; he is usually the one initiating the physical play.
Every season in the Association there are a small handful of bigs who average a double-double and JV is en route to being one of those rare assets. As a rookie JV averaged eight points and six boards vs. Atlantic Division foes. If the Raps are going to compete for a playoff spot this season than those numbers have to get much better, but the good news is Valanciunas can do it.
This position looks very top-heavy for the Raptors, but I am enamored with Valanciunas and his upside.
That is a look at the roster. I see a lot of potential, but there is one more thing to look at. As a team the Raps need to find a way to be much better outside of Canada. The last time the Raps had a winning season on the road was…well…uhmmmmmm…never. To make the playoffs this season I think they will need at least 16 wins on the road. If the Raps can go 22-19 at the ACC and at least 16-25 on the road that gives them 39 wins which will put them in the race for the seven or eight seed in the East.
Since the 2007-08 season (last playoff season for the Raptors) teams that made the playoffs in the East are averaging a 21-20 road record. The roster is full of high-upside players that need to play to their potential in order to make the playoffs, but big-picture stuff like getting better on the road will be crucial this season. Regardless of how the individual stats will look if the Raptors cannot play much better as a team away from the ACC then Gay and Lowry will likely depart and Casey will not be long for this gig.
I would certainly concede that the Miami Heat, Indianapolis Pacers, Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets, and New York Knicks will all finish ahead of the Raptors, but after that I think this Toronto roster can get in the mix. Last season’s playoff teams like the Atlanta Hawks, Milwaukee Bucks, and Boston Celtics all look very different at this point and may experience growing pains. If those teams take a step back that potentially allows a few playoff spots to be up for grabs.
I wrote an article last week about the Washington Wizards because I love their playoff chances (even more now that they have Marcin Gortat). The Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers are also very interesting, but I am looking for a squad led by Lowry, Gay, and Valanciunas (with a lot of shooting guard contribution too) to win 38+ games this season which will be enough for a rare Raptors playoff berth.