(Toronto, ON) You wouldn’t be incorrect to say that the past two seasons have been really good to Toronto Raptors fans.
Surely there’s some success in failure, as demonstrated two years ago when the Toronto Raptors ‘drove’ the Cleveland Cavaliers to six games in the Eastern Conference Finals, the furthest the franchise has ever made it in post-season history.
The organization has made monumental strides since the arrival of GM Masai Ujiri, notching four straight playoff appearances while witnessing the metamorphosis of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan into perennial All-Stars. Ujiri certainly carries his faults – let’s not don the veil of ignorance here – but you would be hard-pressed to find another Raptors executive who has injected the franchise with such vigor and life, effectively bolstering the team’s appeal beyond the boundaries of the GTA and exhuming the pulse of the true Raptors’ fan base.
From spearheading the franchise to the aforementioned four consecutive playoff berths, to retaining All-Star-caliber unrestricted free agents and making tactical changes to the roster through heady trades, Ujiri has surely left his mark in short time.
But he’s approaching year five with the Raptors and fans have expressed some concern over the decision to keep the team’s core intact. Ujiri hasn’t indicated or shown signs of fronting a rebuild and even proceeded to ante up on Lowry and Serge Ibaka this past summer. It’s fair to declare the he and the front office are determined to keep the wheels rolling with the current core, and the offseason moves further substantiates the direction the franchise is headed towards.
Gone: DeMarre Carroll (Brooklyn), Cory Joseph (Indiana), Patrick Patterson (Oklahoma City) and PJ Tucker (Houston).
Key New Additions
(Basketball-reference.com, NBA.com & RealGM.com for statistics)
Here’s a take that’s not so hot: C.J. Miles is a really good three-point shooter. The Raptors shot 36% from three last season – good for 14th in the league – but there were some clear deficiencies on the perimeter that restricted the flow and ball movement of the offence. The two-headed scoring tandem of Lowry and DeRozan are commonly criticized for their iso-heavy, high-volume scoring style of play, but it’s not fair to solely place the blame on them. The Raptors struggled to connect from beyond the arc in the latter stretches of last season, most notably during the playoffs where they shot just 33%, grouping them in bottom six in that category. Part of the dip in 3pt% can be attributed to the inherence of playoff basketball – teams are allotted more time to scout opposing players and get a feel for their strengths and weaknesses – but a lot of it had to do with players not being able to make shots.
Miles shot 41.3% from three last season, an above average shooting year, but his percentages have habitually taken a hit in the playoffs.
The hope is that head coach Dwane Casey will continue to stagger Lowry and DeRozan’s minutes, allowing Miles the opportunity to play with both the starters and bench unit. Having two ball handlers who can effectively create their own shot is surely a plus for Miles and while Paul George fit that bill in Indiana he was only one player. Don’t expect Miles to create a ton of (good) shots on his own. Instead, his skills are most optimized as a catch-and-shoot player in the corner pockets. In essence, the southpaw is a major upgrade from DeMarre Carroll.
Slated to be a top-five pick before a devastating ACL injury derailed plans, Anunoby has shown flashes of brilliance during preseason play, most notably against the Chicago Bulls where the number 23 overall draft pick connected on three trifectas. Couple that steadily improving offence with inborn defensive abilities and you have yourself a bona fide ‘3-and-D’ guy, someone who you can rely on to guard elite wings day in and day out. While Anunoby’s defence is certainly unmistakable – he’s a 6-foot-8 wing with a 7-foot-2 wingspan who can guard multiple positions and isn’t afraid to get messy inside against bigger and stronger forwards- his offence is still a work in progress, despite averaging 17.6 points and 8.7 rebounds per 40 minutes with Indiana last season. Expect him to have an immediate impact defensively – the NBA is pick-and-roll heavy and requires versatile defenders, like Anunoby, to counteract its effectiveness by switching every screen – but be patient with his offence, as he is still nursing the health of his knee and probably won’t possess the mobility he needs to be effective off the dribble, at least not for some time. Once he fully becomes comfortable from a physical standpoint and adapts to the size, speed and strength of the NBA, there’s no doubt that Anunoby has a chance to be one of the top 3-and-D players of the future.
Aside from a few preseason and NBA Summer League games, I wasn’t entirely aware of McKinnie and the sort of skills he brought to the Raptors. Based strictly off the eye test, McKinnie, 24, is supremely athletic, can punch through driving lanes and create opportunities in small spaces and, surprisingly, showed the ability to knockdown the NBA three on occasion (went 5-11 from the 3pt line in preseason). Because the Raptors are relatively set with their guard rotation – we know who will be a part of it, just not to what extent in terms of the distribution of minutes and so it will be difficult for McKinnie to really earn some meaningful time this season. The 6-foot-8 forward already possesses the athleticism to make a real impact in the NBA, but it will be the fine-tuning of the other parts of his game that will determine his success.
Measuring the Toronto Raptors in the EC
The Eastern Conference isn’t very good, and it’s not so much because of a deficiency in talent – though that is invariably a direct influence – but because of the seismic shift of star power in the Western Conference. The Raptors have a really strong chance of claiming the top seed in the conference, if not one of the top three spots.
The Celtics certainly improved in the offseason with the addition of Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, but opening night shows that not everything is guaranteed. Hayward, a major headliner in the sports world this summer when he opted to leave Utah as a free agent for Boston – suffered a dislocated ankle and fractured left tibia against the Cavaliers. The injury effectively derails the Celtics moving forward as championship contenders, but the hope is Hayward can make a full recovery and return to action near playoff time, though it’s a bit of a long shot.
The Cleveland Cavaliers will always be in the conversation when discussing championship contenders, but with Isaiah Thomas slated to return in mid-December and the fact that LeBron James will be playing alongside net-negative shooters like Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose, there is surely a cause for concern surrounding Tyronn Lue’s team. Like Tom Brady, however, it’s not in anyone’s best interest to bet against King James (see 2016 NBA Finals), and the 2017-18 campaign should be no different.
The Washington Wizards have been impressive in post-season play and have a burgeoning backcourt in John Wall and Bradley Beal that can elevate the team to another level, but depth is still an issue for D.C., and it becomes intensely magnified during the playoffs. The Wizards, like the Raptors, however, have managed to keep their central core intact, providing them with another year of experience and another opportunity to mend old mistakes.
By no means were the Raptors one of the more active teams during the offseason. Instead, Ujiri doubled-down on Ibaka and Lowry, refused to make wholesale changes to the roster, and even brought in a proven scorer in Miles to complement an iso-heavy offence. The team is, essentially, relatively similar to last year’s club – though we will see how much of an impact Miles and Anunoby will have – but they also carry another year of experience together, another year to shift holes and repair mistakes, much like Washington.
The question surrounding the Raptors will always point towards their iso-centered offence, which with the right personnel can be effective against NBA defences. DeRozan has made steady improvements every single year, even curbing his shot attempts and focusing on dishing the ball during preseason (hey, you’ve gotta start somewhere). It will be interesting to see if he becomes a sort of de facto point guard for the Raptors during stretches, perhaps slot Lowry in the corners and utilize the 1-4 spread offence more often. DeRozan is already one of the top scorers in the league, but he becomes that much more of a threat when he embraces the playmaker role and uses his presence to shift defences.
Based strictly on what we’ve seen during preseason, the offseason moves by neighbouring teams, and the addition by subtraction of former players (I’m looking at you, Carroll), the Raptors are poised to make a serious run for the Eastern Conference championship, but much of that is contingent on the unknown surrounding Cleveland.
Record: (2nd in EC) 57-25 (following Hayward injury)
Opening game: Thursday October 19th, 2017: 7:30pm est.
Chicago Bulls vs. Toronto Raptors
Written by Jas Grewal
Edited by Drew Ebanks