By: Dan Grant
With all the furor surrounding our beloved Blue Jays in recent months, it feels like the NBA season has come out of nowhere.
The new look Toronto Raptors debut this fine evening against the Indiana Pacers. Their look has changed in more ways than one, as they’ve got fresh uni’s to compliment the turnover in personnel. Take a look:
Not bad right? Just like Toronto, they’re incorporating elements of the old product, but with some stylish tweaks!
Other than the Drake jersey, which seems needless to me (but maybe that’s because I’m getting old), they’re really nice, actually. Simple, classic and effective.
Can the team be the same?
Unfortunately, where the roster is concerned, I’ve got a few more questions. Four to be exact.
1. Will the Defense Actually Be Better?
Make no mistake, the Raptors went into the off-season focused on upgrading their athleticism and defensive personnel, and the popular narrative says that they accomplished that. For a team that finished 3rd in offensive efficiency last season but just 23rd on the defensive end of the floor, the changes made were with the goal of becoming a more well rounded squad.
Cory Joseph is an excellent on-ball defender who will be a massive upgrade over the Greivis Vasquez/ Lou Williams shaped cloud of smoke that occupied the third guard spot last season. Terrence Ross has the tools to be a capable defender, and seeing more time at his natural shooting guard position this year should help him contribute more regularly. Kyle Lowry is basically a new version of himself, which should help him maintain his tenacity on both ends of the floor.
Prized off-season acquisition DeMarre Carroll is a minutes-eating workhorse, who should give the Raptors their first stalwart small forward since Jorge Garbajosa took a tumble into the basket support of the Boston Garden back in 2007. Carroll can play power forward in smaller lineups, shoots the corner three well, and doesn’t need the ball to be an effective player. He’s going to help.
So they’ve definitely acquired better defensive players. But will all of these changes add up to a better defensive team?
The main issue I see, is that while Carroll is a superior offensive option, he’s basically just filling the defensive void left by Amir Johnson. While it was definitely key to improve their perimeter defense by adding him, losing Johnson on the interior is going to hurt immensely. Bismack Biyombo was added ostensibly as a rim protector and rebounder, but can you see him playing 20-25 minutes a night? I don’t think it’s going to happen, unless the 23 year old makes a major improvement. Roughly 15 minutes per game is more likely for Biyombo, meaning that there’s still about 80 minutes to be filled in the front court. Luis Scola and James Johnson are the other forwards on the roster who might see minutes at the four; Scola is a great defensive rebounder (if past his prime) and Johnson is crazy athletic and both could contribute in spurts, but neither is a long term solution.
That means we’re going to see a lot of the Jonas Valanciunas-Patrick Patterson combination. While this pairing seems like it should thrive offensively due to JV’s soft hands and Patterson’s ability to stretch the floor, it hasn’t quite worked out that way. The ‘fit’ isn’t quite there for whatever reason and as defenders, both leave a lot to be desired. The numbers back this up, as you can see in this excellent piece from Tim Chisholm at Raptors Republic. I like Patterson as a rotation piece, but the biggest problems boil down to the fact that he’s undersized and can’t protect the rim at all. If he’s playing 30 minutes a night, he’s going to be exposed.
So is the defense better? Well it’s certainly not worse. For a team that finished 9th in defensive efficiency as recently as 2013-14, the additions to the roster should help shore up some glaring weaknesses from last season. But the interior defense might be a new (and huge) problem.
However, this potential weakness might be mitigated if the next question can be answered in the affirmative.
2. Can Jonas Valanciunas Make a Leap?
Jonas Valanciunas is the biggest wild card for Toronto this season. I wrote about him here, when he signed his new 4 year, 64 million dollar extension this summer. If he can make the leap from serviceable starter to above-average contributor, it’s going to be a boon for a Raptors team that needs someone to step in and fill the offensive void left by Lou Williams.
We’re off to a good start. JV had a fantastic off-season, leading his native Lithuania in the EuroBasket tournament, getting all the way to the Finals before falling to mighty Spain. He put up 16 points, 8.4 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game, despite only playing 27.5 minutes per contest. He also shot 59.1% from the floor during the tournament.
Honestly? It was more of the same from the skilled offensive big man. Valanciunas has shown that he can be an effective low-post scorer. His PER of 20.60 in 2014-15 ranked him 33rd in the entire NBA and 10th among qualified centres. His True Shooting percentage of .623 ranked 4th among NBA centres who played more than 25 minutes per contest, behind only Tyson Chandler, DeAndre Jordan and Rudy Gobert, none of whom have the offensive acumen that Valanciunas has often displayed.
So he’s talented and efficient. Great. Why did he only play 26.2 minutes per game last year? Why did he sit out so many fourth quarters? Why did the team go to him- often effectively- early on, and then completely abandon him as games went on?
The answer is three-fold: passing, defense and trust. The first two beget the third.
He needs to improve his passing. Full stop. He’s recorded just 141 total assists in 223 games played. Not even Stacy Patton was that much of a black hole.
One of the reasons the Raptors have to go away from him as games progress is that as teams start to throw a second defender at him, his complete lack of an ability to recognize and/or pass out of that double team renders him essentially ineffectual. Improving this, along with his mid-range game, would take his offense to an All-Star level.
When discussing his defense, we need to remember that Valanciunas is still just 23 years old. His team defense has been a work in progress so far in his career, to say the least. He’s indecisive, so he’s often late as a help defender, which lessens his ability to get weak-side blocks and contests. He has actually been a decent individual defender overall, and having Carroll and Joseph playing minutes on the perimeter this year should help him hugely, as it will limit the amount of times he’s hung out to dry. If Jonas can progress in these areas this season, we should see him playing over 30 minutes per game. We should see the trust-level increase. He is going to miss Amir Johnson more than anyone, and it remains to be seen if he can anchor the interior of the Toronto defense. It’s unlikely we’ll see a Valanciunas-Biyombo combination for more than a few minutes at a time, so Jonas’ continued development is essential to the Raptors success.
3. Can DeMar DeRozan Return to All-Star Form?
This is a hugely polarizing question among Raptors die-hards. Personally, I’m a fan of DeRozan’s work ethic and I’m a fan of the fact that he seems to love being a Raptor. I’d like him to stick around after this season. I don’t know if he’s a max-extension player or not, because what’s a ‘max’ player in the NBA anymore? John Wall and Reggie Jackson are getting equal money. Tristan Thompson just got 82 million bucks. Harrison freakin’ Barnes just turned down the same contract Valanciunas got. Things are in flux. DeRozan may well have leverage to land top dollar.
I’ve heard much clamouring by negative nelly’s that DeRozan should be dealt for assets, as his contract is expiring; but what could the Raptors realistically get for him? His relatively inexpensive contract means that it would be hard to absorb the salary of anything resembling an established star in a straight-up trade. Teams simply don’t trade unprotected first round picks or young, controllable assets anymore, and especially not for a guy that might walk at seasons end. So if you can’t get a star and you can’t get young talent and you can’t get a top pick, then what’s the point?
By any measure, DeRozan is a top 5 NBA player at the shooting guard position. That might speak to the lack of depth at the two, but that in and of itself makes him more valuable to Toronto than anything they could get for him in a trade.
The market is the market and DeRozan has earned himself a big pay day. If he wants it from Toronto, I’d like to see certain things from him this season. I need to see him be a leader on offense and at least average on defense. I need to see him stop wasting possessions on 20 foot contested jumpers, and consistently take the ball to the basket. I need to see improved range and a continued willingness to share the ball. In short, I need him to be at least the 2013-14 version of himself. That’s the floor of what he’ll need to be for Toronto to hit the 50 win plateau. And I have no idea if that’s going to happen.
Those three questions are the lodestones for this season. But what about beyond this year? Where is this team headed? that leads to our final question for today, which is really just the precursor to a hundred more:
4. Has this team already reached its ceiling?
Can this team realistically get any better with this core? And if so, how much?
What happens if the season starts slow? What if we struggle to defend in the post, struggle with injuries and/or just can’t compete against the improved Cavaliers, Bulls Heat and Wizards teams? Do we tear it all down? Build around Jonas, whatever Bruno Caboclo is, whatever Norman Powell might be, and incoming draft picks? Allow Masai Ujiri to truly put his stamp on the team, to start from scratch?
On the flip side, couldn’t we have an Atlanta Hawks season? Couldn’t we capitalize on the Cavaliers early injuries, the Bulls transition year and Randy Wittman’s ineptitude, shooting up to a 55 or 60 win campaign? If everything breaks right, I think it’s possible. But if that’s the case, do we deal valuable assets (such as our right to the Nuggets/Knicks pick in 2016 or our own first round pick) to go for it this season? Do we re-sign DeRozan at a high number and solidify this roster for the foreseeable future? If we lock in DeRozan on a max or close to max deal, do we have the room to add another free agent to the core? There are more questions than answers.
Maybe the answer is that all this is just treading water. If it is, well, you can only tread water for so long before you drown. At some point, you have to swim towards something. You have to either go for the other side, or turn back and start over. You have to hope that eventually the surrounding water starts to fade, and you can see hope in the distance.
I don’t know which way this season is going to go. I don’t know if we’re going to swim for it, or go back and begin again. Here’s hoping that this is the year we start to see the shore, whichever shore it is.