With Toronto having hit a playoff wall each of the previous four seasons, this year will a huge turning point in the future of the franchise.
For a while during the 2016-17 season, the Toronto Raptors looked like a team ready to jump into the top tier of the NBA. In reality, though, that was just a glossy new finish over the same product we’ve seen for the past handful of seasons.
That isn’t to say that product was bad. Kyle Lowry remained one of the best point guards we constantly forget about en route to a top-10 finish in assists and a third consecutive All-Star nomination. His partner in crime DeMar DeRozan was quietly the league’s fifth-leading scorer at 27.3 points per game and was named an All-Star Starter for the first time in his career.
Deadline additions Serge Ibaka and PJ Tucker brought more veteran depth to what looked to be the most talented Raptor team of this era. By the end of the season, they earned some lofty company, joining San Antonio and Golden State as the only teams to finish in the top-11 in both offensive and defensive rating.
In finishing between fifth and fifteenth in just about every shooting stat, defensive FG%, points scored and allowed, blocks, rebounds, and turnovers forced per game, the Raptors were extremely well-rounded. While they didn’t have that dominant trait like some other teams, they were pretty good at just about everything…except for one. Toronto finished dead last in the Association in assists per game.
Lowry is a great floor general and offensive leader as his assist total would indicate, but that left a vacuum when he headed to the bench. Without Lowry on the court, Toronto’s assist ratio fell from 15.6% to 13.3%. Lowry’s absence led to a significant increase in one-on-one play and the percentage of field goals coming from an assist fell from 50.1% to 43.4%.
While that wasn’t the fatal flaw in Toronto’s team, it certainly came back to bite the Raptors. They finished the year with a 51-31 record, grabbed home-court advantage and the third seed in the East, but a limited Lowry from a February wrist injury put a damper on their postseason momentum.
Kyle Lowry to undergo surgery Tuesday morning to remove loose bodies from right wrist. Aim to return for playoffs. #WeTheNorth— RaptorsMR (@RaptorsMR) February 27, 2017
Despite his limitations, Lowry still shot a career playoff-best 46.2% from the field, but DeRozan was still asked to carry a much greater burden. While he averaged a respectable 22.4 ppg in the playoffs, his FG% dipped to 43.4% and he shot a hideous 6.7% from beyond the three-point line (that’s one for 15, if you’re curious).
Emblematic of his broader playoff struggles, DeRozan earned the dubious recognition of becoming the first player in league history to be held without a basket in a playoff game during a season in which they averaged over 25 points per game. With DeRozan struggling and Lowry not at 100%, Toronto faced a familiar postseason fate in falling to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Raptors limped into this offseason in the same predicament as the previous three. Something clearly needed to change for an aging team unable to summit the Eastern Conference mountain, but there was no clear path to improvement that got them to the title contenders they so desperately want to be.
Frank Gunn - Canadian Free Press
Take Another Run At It
The central problem for the Raptors this offseason was their lack of flexibility. DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas were already locked up for a combined $40 million per season and with Lowry, Ibaka, Tucker, and Patrick Patterson all hitting free agency, some tough decisions were going to have to be made.
Re-signing Lowry was their clear top priority, and they quickly locked him up on a three-year, $100 million deal. Lowry will be the seventh-highest paid player in the league in 2017, ahead of guys like LeBron, James Harden, and Kevin Durant. At 31 years old and with 765 NBA games under his belt, his age may become a problem as the deal ages, but it was a risk Toronto had to take.
Toronto also decided they had to re-sign Ibaka after having given up Terrence Ross and a first-round pick for him just five months prior. Three years and $65 million is a lot given Ibaka’s age and athletic decline over the past couple seasons, but they didn’t have much of a choice and it helps to have matched his contract timeline with Lowry’s.
With their top four players now accounting for almost $95 million per season, some cost-cutting moves were drastically needed. The first casualty was DeMarre Carroll, whose $14 million was sent to Brooklyn along with a first-round pick to help clear some space. Even with the added room, Toronto was unable to squeeze Tucker or Patterson back in, who both left for contenders in Houston and Oklahoma City, respectively.
To replace Carroll, Toronto swapped backup point guard Cory Joseph to Indiana for CJ Miles. Losing Joseph will hurt their already below-average backup guard depth, but Miles will be their likely starter at small forward and is a pretty solid all-around player. With their lone draft selection after the Ibaka and Carroll trades, Toronto picked OG Anunoby with the 23rd pick out of the University of Indiana.
Likely beginning the year as Miles’ backup and potentially growing into their starting wing of the future, Anunoby was a high-upside pick towards the end of the first round. At 6’8” but with a center-esque 7’3” wingspan, Anunoby has the body to grow into a very good hybrid defender. His athleticism and still unrefined offensive game show promise, and he has a good chance to develop into a solid player over the coming seasons.
Entering this season, the Raptors’ depth chart should resemble something close to this:
|Starter||Kyle Lowry||DeMar DeRozan||CJ Miles||Serge Ibaka||Jonas Valanciunas|
|Backup I||Delon Wright||Norman Powell||OG Anunoby||Pascal Siakim||Jakob Poeltl|
|Backup II||Fred VanVleet||KJ McDaniels||Bruno Caboclo||Lucas Nogueira|
Without Patterson, Tucker, and Carroll, depth will be a much bigger problem this season than it has been in the past. With 8.4 points per game last season, Norman Powell is their highest returning bench scorer, but there isn’t much obvious production elsewhere.
With Delon Wright likely taking over Cory Joseph’s backup point guard spot, passing may become an even bigger issue this year without Lowry on the floor. As Lowry’s production starts to decline, a strong backup will have to emerge and maybe the 25-year-old Wright is that player, but his career average of 1.6 assists per game leaves much to be desired.
If Wright becomes that backup point guard and one of the conglomeration of Pascal Siakim, Bruno Caboclo, Jakob Poeltl, and Lucas Nogueira emerges as the clear third big man, 50 wins is an attainable target. With as much upheaval as the Eastern Conference had this offseason, Toronto’s turmoil is almost cute and they project as a comfortable top-four seed with around 47 wins.
There is a path for this to go sideways, however.
If backup point guard and center remain a mess and either Lowry or DeRozan miss significant time, this team is a prime drop-off candidate. With young teams like Philadelphia and Milwaukee nipping at their heels, Toronto might begin to feel their pressure a year ahead of schedule. This team will still only go as far as Lowry and DeRozan will take them, but that window for contention is closing quickly.
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