Toronto Raptors: Prediction: 4th in the Eastern Conference
2014 Record: 48-34
Coach: Dwane Casey
G Lou Williams (trade), F James Johnson (free agent), F Jordan Hamilton (free agent), C Lucas Nogueira (trade), F Greg Stiemsma (free agent), F Bruno Caboclo (draft)
F John Salmons (trade), F Steve Novak (trade), G Nando De Colo (free agent)
Projected Starters: C Jonas Valanciunas, F Amir Johnson, F Terrence Ross, G DeMar DeRozan, G Kyle Lowry (7/10):
The thing that I really like about this quintet is how close they are in age. The oldest is Lowry, 28, just entering his prime, and the youngest is Valanciunas, 22, who is already a veteran of two seasons, as is Ross, 23. Similar to crews like Portland and Indiana (before The Stephenson Dissension hit them, anyway), they should get better and better the more they play with one another. The unquestioned leader is Lowry, who is all knives and razor blades both in his drives and his personality, and the rest of the group feed off his toughness. Lowry's overall shooting percentage is nothing to cheer about, but he did make a career-high 38 percent of his threes last season and 7.4 assists per game as well. He's the Chris Paul of the Eastern Conference in that, unlike most guys at his position, he refuses to concede anything in his own end and he'll scrap, even if it means picking up some unnecessary fouls here and there. Meanwhile, DeRozan quietly led the club in scoring and fit in way better than expected as a two despite not having that deep shooting range. Even though he has a slim build, he's an excellent finisher around the rim and gets to the line at a high rate. DeRozan isn't much of a defender and though he improved a bit, his frame makes it difficult. Ross took over the starting job after they traded Rudy Gay and he filled in capably, especially as a three-point shooter, he was so bad in the playoffs that two guys in the rotation leapfrogged over him in minutes.
Valanciunas is a versatile scorer with an expanding game but he has to find a way to stay on the floor more and be more assertive as a scorer. He's not lacking toughness, but has to get to the line way more than he does. He's just too much of an afterthought in their offense right now. Amir Johnson is in a similar spot but he's accommodated Valanciunas by taking his game further outside. The Raptors would do well to shift their offense toward an inside-out emphasis, especially since none of their perimeter guys are dead-eye shooters. But it's hard to get their bigs the proper spacing on the floor for those same reasons.
Projected Reserves (7.5/10):
One of the reasons that Valanciunas and Johnson haven't gotten typical starters' minutes is because there are so many capable guys in reserve and will continue to be. Tyler Hansbrough isn't the most skilled guy, but he'll bang around, give hard fouls and rebounds pretty well. Chuck Hayes is undersized, but he's also good on the boards and is a terrific post defender. Patrick Patterson plays the most of them all and is more of a stretch four --he led the Raptors in three-point percentage-- and he's underrated on the boards. Really, if Ross disappoints I can see Patterson starting at the three. The Raps also brought in Greg Stiesma, and "The Steamer" is similar to the Hansbrough mold, but he offers a bit more size. Another free agent signing was James Johnson from Memphis. He was very productive for the Grizzlies but inexplicably fell out of their rotation late in the season. He's another stocky guy who can't shoot a lick and gets his points inside, but he has good court vision. They traded for Lou Williams, who had the worst season of his career for the Hawks coming off an ACL tear, but he should thrive here as a scorer off the bench and won't have to worry about being a playmaker at all with Greivis Vasquez as the backup two. Williams is undersized, but knows how to drive to the basket. Vasquez was a terrific fit in Toronto as a throw-in for in the Rudy Gay cap dump, and his play was so inspired that at times coach Dwane Casey played him together with Lowry.
Some guys who'll have a tough time cracking the rotation include Jordan Hamilton, a three who played with Houston and Denver last year and can shoot the three okay but not do much else, free agent bust Landry Fields, Brazilian big man Lucas Nogueira (and his fantastic hair), who came over from Atlanta in the same trade with Williams, and draft pick Bruno Caboclo, another small-forward, also from Brazil.
Coach/Front Office (6/10):
The jury continues to be out on Casey and his X's and O's chops (he's notorious for not fouling in late-game situations where they're trailing), but General Manager Masai Ujuri had little choice but to reward Casey with a contract extension after the team won the Atlantic last season even though Casey was out-coached by Jason Kidd. Ujuri should've been a candidate for the league's Executive of the Year award for getting the Kings to take that awful Gay contract off his hands and he pulled it off a year after performing a similar trick with Andrea Bargnani and the Knicks. He's quietly building a very strong team north of the border, though it's a bit reminiscent of his Denver squads in that it's filled with many good pieces but lacking in that one superstar and the means to ever really acquire one. Ujuri is perhaps best known for the expletive he yelled to the crowd about about the Nets during a pre-playoff series rally, but the native of Nigeria had a very thoughtful, measured op-ed for The Globe and Mail about fellow executive Danny Ferry in the wake of his controversy for making (or reading, if you prefer) racist comments about Luol Deng. Ujuri's column exemplified in a way Ferry's own predicament. Just as the Raptors GM had one thoughtless moment, it shouldn't define him if all the other available evidence portrays him as someone altogether different.
Team Rating: 69.5
(2.5x Starters Rating + 1.5x Reserves Rating + Coach Rating) x 2 = 69.5
Did You Know:
The Canadian rapper, Drake, who has the official title as the "Raptors Global Ambassador," actually got the team in a bit of trouble over the off-season for tampering after he told a crowd to let Kevin Durant know how he'd be received if he came over as a free agent in 2016. Set aside for the second the notion that Durant would ever play for Toronto and focus instead on the aftermath, where the Raptors, so loyal to Drake for reasons that remain unclear, refused to dismiss him from his ceremonial post, choosing to just pay the tampering fine instead.
It's surprising that the Raptors would stick their collective necks out for Drake, especially when he has a well-established reputation for being a bit of a front-runner, with shifting loyalties depending on the current success of athletes and teams he's close to, such as LeBron James, Johnny Manziel and University of Kentucky basketball.
I can only imagine this act of good faith by the Raptors front office will cement their relationship for good and that Drake will be firmly on the side of "We the North," even if the Raptors face off with LeBron's Cavs in the second round. He'll be in Toronto's locker room to console his guys on a hard-fought series, won't he?