Last Season: 56-26, 2nd seed in the East
Off-season Gains: PF Jared Sullinger (free agent), C Jakob Poeltl (draft), PF Pascal Siakam (draft)
Off-season Losses: C Bismack Biyombi (free agent/Orlando), PF Luis Scola (free agent/Brooklyn), PF James Johnson (free agent/Miami)
Off-season Stock: They still have CoJo, so TAKE MY MONEY.
League Pass Team?: In theory? Sure. In practice? No.
The Raps reached several milestones last season. They won over 50 games for the first time in franchise history and also reached the conference finals for the first time, whereupon they took the eventual champion Cavaliers to six games. My initial instinct was to give Cory Joseph 100 percent of the credit for their breakthrough, but after weeks and weeks of poring over the analytical data, doing exhaustive film study and conducting hundreds of extensive interviews (both on the record and off) with players, coaches, scouts and personnel executives within the organization and throughout the league, my objective conclusion was that in reality Joseph was only deserving of 93.8 percent of the credit.
As I mentioned waaaaaaaaaay back in my Hawks preview, teams that take aim for King James' crown and miss tend to tumble back down in the standings. But Atlanta didn't win a single game against Cleveland in two postseason series. T-dot already took a couple from them last year. The perception I get is that people think they played above their heads last year and will be passed by Boston and perhaps Indiana, especially after losing Bismack Biyombo in free agency. I don't share that view. Biyombo had a few big playoff games for them after Jonas Valanciunas was out with a sprained ankle, but I feel his regular season contributions were overrated and that he'll largely be replaceable. As long as Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are healthy and productive and Valanciunas continues to incrementally improve, Toronto will continue to win a ton of games in the shallow East and be a tough out in the playoffs.
In fact, for you gamblers out there, I'd suggest placing a few shekels on Lowry to win Most Valuable Player. I know, it sounds crazy, but Bovada lists him as 66-to-1 and that's decent value. Think about it. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant will steal votes from each other and people will be loathe to pick either after they joined forces. LeBron James could take up to a month off to chill in Miami. Russell Westbrook is a popular pick, but no one's ever won MVP without grabbing at least a top-3 seed. That leaves Kawhi Leonard (10-to-1), Chris Paul (33-to-1 and my pick) and Lowry. If he averages 22 and 9 and leads the Raptors to a one seed, it's in play.
Lowry's playoff issues are well-documented, but he's their leader and a scrappy competitor at both ends. DeRozan is the more fascinating player to me. He's got the mobility to be a better defender, but he seems passive and uninterested too often. I don't buy that his lithe frame limits his potential in his own end because he has no problems getting to the line as much as he wants on the other end. DeRozan's got a reputation for barfing up a lot of bad, Rudy Gay-esque long-twos, but he's okay out there, not terrible. It's the threes he needs to improve on. He's also an underrated passer. I'm hopeful that the security of the extension he signed will unlock his game, but we'll see.
Valanciunas' career seems disappointing because he hasn't broken out to be the 20-10 guy everyone wants him to be. Dwane Casey gets flack for not playing him enough --and he doesn't-- but it's partly due to the Lithuanian big-man's propensity for foul trouble. Valanciunas keeps improving, he upped his PER to 22.6 last year, which is easily All-Star level, and he averaged 17.6 points and 12.6 rebounds per-36 minutes. He just has to find a way to stay on the floor and he needs to start finding shooters when doubled. If the Raptors are going to take that next step, it will be through Valanciunas' ascension.
The Raptors could also get a boost from DeMarre Carroll, who was never healthy last year. If he can ever get his body right and be the guy they signed him to be (the 3-and-D wing who was so valuable or the Hawks two years ago) then that should be enough to keep Toronto above the Celtics and Pacers. The trickier question for Toronto: who's their power forward? They signed Jared Sullinger, but I'm not a fan of his game at all. He's never shot it well from any range and doesn't score efficiently inside or provide much in the way of defense. The likelier option, to me, is to go small with either Patrick Patterson, who can space the floor, give Valanciunas more room to operate, and open the lane for the guards. He quietly led their rotation guys in net rating last year, both on and off the floor. Another possibility is second-year man Norman Powell, whom I like a lot. He really came on strong toward the end last year. Powell's an explosive finisher and can shoot it from outside. He can blossom into a 15 points per game scorer, whether it's as a starter or their sixth man.
Our guy Cory played a ton for the Raps last season, often in three guard lineups to close games. His jumper took a step backward without Chip Engelland's watchful glare, but for the most part he thrived with the added responsibility. He may never be a starter, but he's turned himself into a credible player and one of the better backup points in the league. Terrence Ross is someone they look to for firepower off the bench and he's as streaky as they come. He's just not the grinder on defense that Joseph and Patterson are. Lucas Nogueria has fun hair and an impressive all-five-vowels-covered-in-one-name ratio of 5:8, but the Brazilian big-man's career hasn't been impressive otherwise. He'll get the first shot to replace Biyombo, but I don't imagine the leash will be very long. They've got other options. They drafted, to some controversy, Jakob Poeltl ninth overall out of Utah. He averaged 17 and 9 for the Utes last season. With the 22nd pick they selected Pascal Siakam from New Mexico State, and he had even better numbers.
Admittedly, their lack of depth with the bigs is a concern. They're going to need one or two of their youngsters to show something and for Powell to take a step forward as well. Most of their core has been together for a while now, and that means something to me, and they've got two guys who can go for over 25 any given night, which most Eastern teams can't claim. I'm going to step on a limb and pick them to get the top seed. Whether it will allow them to upset the Cavs in the playoffs I think will be more up to Cleveland's hunger and motivation than anything else.