2016-17 record: 51-31. 3rd in the Eastern Conference. Wiped off the face of the earth by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round in a soul-destroying four game sweep.
Transactions: There are times when a loss in the playoffs is so demoralizing that it completely negates all the positives that came before it.
The Raptors were absolutely punked by Cleveland. There was no point in the series where they were even in it. For the all the talk of the Raptors having a LeBron stopper, he was spinning the Serge Ibaka’s face and feigning drinking a beer on the court and genuinely seemed to be having a good time while systemically destroying a team that had taken the Cavaliers to six games in the Eastern Conference finals just one year ago.
The Raptors looked defeated and disinterested from game one for the most part. Once Kyle Lowry went down in game two, the team had its heart ripped out and the rest was academic.
Raptors fans were understandably distraught. I live in Toronto and there were widespread cries for a tear-down and rebuilt. Scorch the Earth and start over.
You’d almost forget that this team won 51 games last season with the reaction of large parts of its fan-base.
But they were right in the sense that something does need to change in Toronto. The Raptors have been caught on the wrong side of the NBA math problem of trading 3s for 2s and were shot and spaced out of relevance by the Cavs throughout the course of their four game sweep. If the team is going to try to get over the hump, they’ve got to evolve from their isolation heavy, somewhat outdated offense and move out to the perimeter like a modern NBA competitor.
All of that was almost rendered completely moot though.
With the departure of general manager Jeff Weltman to the big job in Orlando, the franchise dodged a bullet that would have been far more damaging than the loss to the Cavs when Masai Ujiri opted to stay with the franchise after being openly courted by the James Dolan to become the president of basketball operations for the New York Knicks, replacing the ousted Phil Jackson.
Any NBA executive would have to have been tempted by the opportunity to rebuild a once great franchise in the biggest media market in the world. Ujiri would have further cemented his legacy as one of the best executives in basketball and with his history of savvy moves and an eye for talent, he would have been more than up to the task of bringing the Knicks back to respectability. He’d already won one Carmelo Anthony trade, I’m sure he could have done it again.
But he didn’t.
He opted to stay with the Raptors which was a huge boost to a franchise that even after two decades in the NBA is still seeking credibility in a lot of ways. They were always seen as kind of an also-ran and known more for being the team that Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Chris Bosh left rather than any kind of sustainable legacy of its own.
That all changed with Ujiri.
He took over the franchise and flipped Andrea Bargnani and Rudy Gay for assets that could augment the core of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and turned a 34 win team into a 48 win playoff team that took a Brooklyn Nets squad loaded with talent like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson to seven games and put the NBA on notice that Toronto deserved respect.
I mean Ujiri literally did that when he yelled “Fuck Brooklyn” in front of the Air Canada Centre before the series kicked off.
The next season saw the Raptors win 49 games before being swept out of the first round by the Washington Wizards, but the 2015-16 campaign saw the team win a stunning 56 games, take the second seed in the Eastern Conference and go on their best playoff run yet to the East final and take the heavily favoured Cavaliers to six games.
The Raptors were undeniably cemented as a top team in the East and one whose ceiling was at least 50 wins and the playoffs – and even in the wake of being humiliated by the Cavs in last year’s playoffs – that’s still their ceiling in the East.
That was unthinkable to Raptors fans just four years ago and it’s all due to the work of Masai Ujiri who took a franchise that nobody really took all that seriously and made it into one of the top teams in the East.
It’s not just reflected in the on-court product but in the way the stands are full every game, in the presence of a new state-of-the-art practice facility on Lakeshore Boulevard that Ujiri made sure was built and a G-League team based out of Mississauga to give the organization a constant development pipeline and stash young talent for the future.
Nothing else I could have said about this team would have mattered if Masai Ujiri had left Toronto because it would have done irreparable harm to the Raptors and set the franchise back in ways that would take years to recover from.
With Ujiri still in the fold, the team went to work in free agency and started by bringing back their biggest acquisition last season: Serge Ibaka to a three year, $65 million deal, which keeps the 28 year old on the team after a solid playoff performance where he averaged 14.6 points and 6.5 boards and was a key component of the Raptors first round victory over the Milwaukee Bucks.
As I wrote when Ibaka was initially traded to Toronto, he’s not the defender he once was. The days of leading the league in blocks and being arguably the best interior defender are gone. Ibaka has seen his blocks per game come down from an incredible 3.7 in the 2011-12 season – the year the Thunder went to the finals – to 1.6 last season in time split between the Orlando Magic and Toronto. His defensive box plus/minus has dropped from a 3.8 that season to a 0.4 last year. He’s not the presence he once was.
A lot of that regression has to do with a series of knee injuries that have robbed the Congolese big man of a lot of his former athleticism. There’s also the overall change in the basketball as a whole where big men are expected to play on the perimeter and Ibaka has had to focus more on the offensive side of the game and his perimeter play, which resulted in a career high 4 three point attempts per game last season where he hit 39% of them. I’d expect him to attempt even more threes this season as the Raptors have pledged to focus more on distance shooting and stretching the floor.
A factor that will limit Ibaka’s performance in Toronto is the continued presence of Jonas Valanciunas. In the modern game, Serge would be most impactful as a stretch-5. Even with his injury history, he can still protect the rim effectively if given more time to play inside and would likely restore his rebounding numbers as well – which have also fallen off over the past few seasons. Additionally, his shooting would allow the Raptors to space the floor and given them different looks than the comparatively immobile and limited JV.
Unfortunately the Raptors were not able to move Valanciunas so we’re going to see them play alongside together more often than not. The Raptors can still move Ibaka to the 5 in certain sets but with Cleveland committing to starting Kevin Love at centre and the league-wide trend toward small-ball, their optimal line-up would start with Ibaka at centre.
The team then continued the trend of “getting the band back together” and ended a lot of speculation by bringing back point guard Kyle Lowry on a three year, $100 million deal that affirms their commitment to the current Lowry-DeRozan core for another three seasons. For the people who wanted a rebuild and think that the Raptors have gone as far as they can with this core, this signing was much maligned. For the much more realistic basketball fans in Toronto – who remember that the ceiling for this team is still around 50 wins – it was a reason to celebrate.
DeMar DeRozan may be the most talented player on the Raptors, but Kyle Lowry is the most important. He’s the heart and soul of the team and the engine that drives it. Lowry approaches the game with a fiery intensity, is a tenacious and capable defender, has been to three straight all-star games and is coming off one of the best seasons of his career where he put up 22.4 points on 46.4% shooting including 41.2% from three point range and added 7 assists, 4.8 boards and 1.5 steals per game.
But he only appeared in 60 games due to injury and at 31 years old with a history of wrist problems and an assortment of other injuries, there’s always the fear of some regression due to wear and tear on the body given Lowry’s extensive history with physical ailments. The Raptors are going to need him in the line-up and at 100% more than ever given the changes that the team has undergone last season and if he misses significant time again, they lack the same depth as last season to weather the storm.
There’s also the matter of his historically poor playoff performances. As good as Lowry is during the regular season for the Raptors, he consistently falls off a cliff during the playoffs where his efficiency and ability to hit from deep crater every season without fail. He has the second worst playoff shooting percentage of all active NBA players behind only bench gunner Jamal Crawford.
The dichotomy between clutch regular season Lowry and inconsistent and inefficient playoff Lowry is one that has frustrated Raptors fans for four seasons now and something that he’s going to have to figure out if they have any hope of staying competitive in an Eastern Conference where they no longer have to only worry about LeBron and the Cavs but also a loaded Boston Celtics team and a rising Milwaukee Bucks squad and a Washington Wizards team that also appears poised to overtake them.
There’s also the fact that the same fiery attitude that makes him such an excellent competitor on the court has caused him to clash with Dwane Casey. It got really bad during a stretch in January and February where the team went 4-10 and Lowry publicly called out his coach and asked for help which ultimately resulted in the team getting Serge Ibaka.
Despite speculation that one or both would be gone this off-season, both Lowry and Casey are back with the Raptors. If they hit some hard times – which is entirely possible given some significant losses this off-season – it could be interesting to see if the all-star point guard, who has a history of clashing with coaches in his career, once again butts heads with Casey and what the results of that will be.
DeMarre Carroll’s time in Toronto mercifully came to an end this off-season when Masai Ujiri was able to dump him and the $30 million+ that he’s still due on his contract to the Brooklyn Nets. In order to accomplish that, the Raptors had to include their first and second round picks in next year’s draft and use their stretch provision to jettison the player they took back, Justin Hamilton.
The price was very steep but Carroll never fit in with the Raptors ISO-heavy system, seemingly couldn’t stay healthy and expressed his displeasure of his experience in Toronto on the way out. With the Lowry and Ibaka contracts potentially placing the team in the luxury tax, something had to give and since we all know that MLSE – co-owned by Canadian media giants Bell and Rogers – would never willingly pay that tax bill, Carroll had to go regardless of the price it would take to dump that deal.
It also opened up the room needed for the Raptors to land Carroll’s replacement when they shipped back-up point guard Corey Joseph to the Indiana Pacers in a sign-and-trade for swingman C.J Miles on a 3 year, $25 million deal.
In Miles, the Raptors are getting the player that they thought they were getting when they signed DeMarre Carroll two years ago. The 30 year old can give the team the floor spacing and perimeter threat that they desperately need with his range as he hit 41.3% from downtown last season. He’s also great on the corners like the now departed P.J Tucker as he hit 50.8% from that spot last season. Miles has also shown great improvement on defense and has the lateral speed and length to defend opposing wings. He really fills a major need that the team was looking to fill and will fit really nicely in the starting line-up.
Toronto also signed 24 year old K.J McDaniels in a depth move. He’s joining his fourth team in as many seasons after stints with Philly, Houston and the Nets and is averaging 5.3 points and 2.2 boards in 14.1 minutes for his career.
The Raptors saved their most important move for their future for last when they announced a 4 year, $42 million extension that kicks in for the 24 year old swingman next season.
Powell had initially broken out during the last month of the 2015-16 season when he won rookie of the month that April when he averaged 15.3 points, 4.4 rebounds and 2.5 assists over eight games including a 30 point, 9 rebound and 5 assists performance against the Brooklyn Nets. He ultimately didn’t factor into the Raptors play-off run that season.
Dwane Casey didn’t really use Powell a whole lot during the regular season but when he was given significant minutes, he responded well and averaged 15.6 points, 3.7 boards, 1.8 dimes and a steal in 18 games as a starter last season.
It was in the playoffs that Powell finally broke out though. He was the key piece to the Raptors first round victory over the Milwaukee Buck as when he was finally given significant minutes in game four he broke out, hitting four threes and adding four boards and four assists and following it up with a 25 point, 4 rebound, 4 assists and 3 steal performance in game five. Following that break-out, Norm stuck in the rotation for the remainder of the playoffs and finished the postseason with averages of 11.7 points on 42.7% shooting including 44.1% from three point range and adding 3.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.1 steals.
Powell is the most athletic player on the team with his leaping ability, speed and beautiful handle. He’s also one of the best on-the-ball defenders on the team. With the departure of P.J Tucker, Casey really has no choice but to finally give Powell major minutes in the rotation for an entire season and he will respond accordingly. He’s going to give the Raptors a ton of value and far outplay his contract and this will turn out to be the biggest deal that the team made all off-season.
2017 NBA Draft: With the 23rd pick in the draft, the Raptors selected O.G Anunoby out of Indiana who showed a great deal of promise throughout his collegiate career and is coming off a sophomore season where he averaged 11.1 points, 5.4 boards, 1.4 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks in just over 25 minutes a game.
Anunoby has an elite physical profile for a combo forward at the NBA level. He stands at 6’8” with an athletic and chiselled frame and an impressive 7’2.3” wingspan which will give him all the physical tools to effectively play the power forward or even centre position in small line-ups. The former Hoosier moves like a wing and is very light on his feet and can be play above the rim in space and offer up highlight reel finishes.
Offensively, he’s not someone you’d expect to generate offense on his own at this stage of his development as he’s a crude ball-handler and struggles to operate in isolation out of the pick-and-roll due to a high dribble. Anunoby does, however, have excellent footwork that allows him to attack an unbalanced defense with his long strides and powerful frame. He’s best suited in more of a compact role offensively as a spot up shooter, a straight line driver in dribble hand-offs or closeouts and as a rim runner in transition. He should also find some quality looks cutting off the ball to catch lobs or crashing the offensive glass for second chance opportunities, but I wouldn’t expect a huge impact from him on the offensive end at the NBA level until he’s able to develop better shooting mechanics.
It’s on the back-end that Anunoby will really shine as he’s got all the tools to be a difference maker at the NBA level on that end of the floor. His combination of size, length, strength and mobility give him all the key tools needed to be an elite level NBA defender and he was able to guard all five positions effectively at the collegiate level. He can wreak havoc with opposing teams offensive flow when he neutralizes opposing guards with his ability to get in a low stance and stay in front of smaller players with his lateral quickness. His reach makes him difficult to shoot over and he’s able to block shots on the perimeter due to his excellent closeout speed and frequently gets in the passing lanes. Anunoby will only grow as a defender as he gains more experience and his focus and reaction time improve.
There are some concerns regarding Anunoby’s health as his collegiate career ended with an ACL tear, but when fully recovered he’s really going to fill a need for the Raptors in terms of depth at the wing in light of the departure of DeMarre Carroll and P.J Tucker.
Outlook: The Raptors want to change the team culture and offensive system from an ISO-heavy one to one based more on ball movement and perimeter play.
It’s a nice idea and I really hope that it can work out for them, but the problem is that such a culture change is only as possible as the players on the floor allow it to be. Kyle Lowry, C.J Miles and Serge Ibaka can shoot from distance and Norm Powell will bring that skill to the line-up off the bench, but the focal point of the Raptors offense remains DeMar DeRozan and he’s a career 28.1% three point shooter and was 26.6% last season.
There’s no question that DeRozan is immensely talented. He’s a three time all-star and is coming off the best season of his career. His 27.3 points per game were fifth in league scoring on 46.7% shooting and he got to the line with great regularity as well as he was sixth in the league in free throw attempts. He also had a career high 34.3% usage rate en route to being selected as third team all-NBA which was the first such honour of his career.
He’s also a ball stopper.
Seriously, DeRozan gets the ball and that’s it. He starts the play and it’s all DeMar. 564 of his 721 made field goals were unassisted last season. 41% of his offense came as the ball-handler in pick-and-roll situations, 17.1% of his offense came off isolation plays, 9% in the post and 8.8% in transition.
DeRozan ranks among the league’s elite in every single one of those situations. He’s as good as it gets in the NBA as a pick-and-roll scorer, he’s in the 86.4 percentile in isolation scoring, the 78.4 percentile in transition scoring and only Isaiah Thomas scored more points on drives than DeMar DeRozan did last season.
The problem is that he’s got no range. 54.6% of his attempt were of the long-two variety and he only attempted 124 threes last season. 203 NBA players attempted more threes than he did. 339 converted threes at a higher rate than DeRozan did last year. To give you an example of how this impacts scoring, Steph Curry and DeMar DeRozan both shot 46.8% last season. Where they shot from made all the difference in the world.
For the Raptors to make the transition to a three point shooting team, DeRozan has to develop range.
There’s also the ball movement issue. The team averaged just 18.5 assists per game last season – the lowest in the NBA. Their best player thrives as a one-on-one scorer who takes matters into his own hands so much that Matt Moore of CBS Sports nicknamed him “Costco Kobe”. If the Raptors are going to develop a more modern NBA offense, DeRozan needs to abandon some of the more archaic facets of his individual game and start kicking it out to the perimeter on some of those drives.
DeRozan, like Lowry also struggles in the play-offs with historical inefficiency. While Lowry has the second worst playoff field goal percentage out of all active NBA players, DeRozan has the third worst. Nowhere was it exemplified more than when he went 0-for-8 in game three of the Raptors first round series against the Milwaukee Bucks. That kind of inconsistency from the team’s top two offensive options is simply unacceptable, especially as the Bucks and Wizards will look to close the gap on the Raptors this season.
There’s also the Jonas Valanciunas problem. Like DeRozan, there are elements of JV’s game that are very archaic in the modern context. Big men are now expected to have range, Valanciunas doesn’t. He’s also too slow to be effective against teams who can with shooting big who can space him out of relevance on the floor. The Raptors optimal line-ups defensively are with Jonas on the bench.
The Lithuanian big man can still offer up interior scoring and solid rebounding, but even then the Raptors are still trading threes-for-twos a lot of the time when they go to Jonas as a consistent option and his role on the offense has continually diminished out of necessity.
As long as he’s on the floor, he remains somewhat of an albatross to the team and that’s through absolutely no fault of his own. The game has changed around him and the most valued bigs in the league are the unicorn types who can stretch the floor with their shooting while still protecting the rim and that doesn’t describe Jonas.
The Raptors are also facing a significant problem this season in that of the teams that I see taking up the middle three playoff spots in the East – the Bucks, Wizards and Toronto – they are the only ones who have lost more than they’ve gained. The departures of Patrick Patterson and P.J Tucker are going to hurt.
Tucker’s 3 and D off the bench was essential for the team in their victory over the Bucks in the first round. While Norm Powell will likely inherit Tucker’s minutes off the bench, it was better to be able to deploy them both and enjoy the defensive versatility and corner threes that Tucker could bring to the line-up alongside Powell on the second unit. Instead he’s gone to greener pastures in Houston and the Raptors are far worse off for it. O.G Anunoby can become that player but certainly not in his rookie season and it’s unlikely he sees significant playing time consistently given Casey’s hesitance to play younger players.
An even bigger loss for Toronto Patrick Patterson. It’s no coincidence that the team played their worst ball of the season (including the aforementioned 4-10 skid) when Patterson was on the shelf. Even if his shots weren’t falling at times, the Raptors defense was far better with him in the line-up. When Patterson was on the floor, the Raptors allowed 102.5 points per 100 possessions which made them the 3rd best defense in the NBA. Without him, they allowed 106.5 points per 100 possessions which put them in the bottom half of the league.
There’s also the spacing and line-up versatility he offered. Patterson could effectively play the 4 or the 5 in small line-ups. His shooting range made him impossible for opposing defenses to double off. Neither Pascal Siakam, Bebe Nogueira or Jakob Poeltl will be able to offer spacing off the bench like that.
The young bigs are going to have to step up this season though. I think that Nogueira can emerge as a nice rim protector off the bench and Siakam’s ball-moving and offensive instincts show a lot of room for growth and we’ll see if Poeltl can show flashes of anything more in his second year.
There are also questions about who will succeed Corey Joseph as Kyle Lowry’s back-up. 23 year old Fred VanVleet certainly showed a lot of poise when Lowry went down with a wrist injury last season, but Delon Wright is taller, longer and more athletic and looks like the favourite to snag the back-up spot. If he can stay healthy that is.
The second unit as it is currently has way more questions than answers and that’s not even factoring in other question marks surrounding the franchise such as what becomes of Bruno Caboclo after an excellent campaign in the G-League? Isn’t his “two years away from being two years” away as one ESPN talking head put it at the 2014 draft almost up?
Overall, Patterson and Tucker were huge losses and while a bigger role for Powell can mitigate losing Tucker to an extent, there is no replacement for Patterson and the versatility and excellent defense that the brought to the team. That’s going to hurt their depth and second unit a lot. Things could get really bad if any of the young players who are going to be increasingly relied on with more minutes and bigger roles in the rotation suddenly regress or get injured.
The financial realities of the NBA have hurt the Raptors depth. Certainly much more than they have Milwaukee or Washington. Ultimately I think Toronto sits further back of those teams because of what they’ve lost.
I also doubt their ability to successfully remake their offense as long as DeMar DeRozan is the focal point.
Their ceiling is still 50 wins but with so much uncertainty in terms of their depth, I see them falling back of that and ultimately behind the younger and much more versatile and mobile Wizards and Bucks teams this season.
Come playoff time, unless Lowry and DeRozan can correct their historical inefficiency and Masai can can make some moves, this team doesn’t have a chance against Cleveland or Boston and I think it’s highly unlikely they’d get past Milwaukee or Washington. Given the way they play down to other teams’ levels in the playoffs even the Hornets or Heat could press them.
This is a team that is trying to completely overhaul its offensive scheme with way more questions than answers at depth positions. Such a radical change isn’t easy at the best of times, let alone with the departure of key second unit pieces.
That’s going to have a big impact going forward.
Prediction: 46-36. 5th in the Eastern Conference. Likely first round exit without a significant move.