2013-14 record: 48-34
Key Additions: Louis Williams, Lucas Nogueira, James Johnson, Will Cherry, Jordan Hamilton, Greg Stiemsma, Bruno Caboclo
Key Departures: Steve Novak
Projected 2014-15 Lineup: PG Kyle Lowry SG DeMar DeRozan SF Terrance Ross PF Amir Johnson C Jonas Valanciunas
I heard a story of a guy who drunkenly agreed to do the Chicago Marathon the night before the race. That year, he ran under 2:30, which for those of you who don’t know, is a phenomenal time. He didn’t just walk off the street, he was in good shape, but he also wasn’t doing marathon-specific training, making his run all the more impressive. The following year, he was properly trained, started the race well, and ended up running around 2:45.
I don’t usually like to start my previews with a parable, but this one just seemed incredibly appropriate considering the way the Raptors’ season went last year. They were playing okay, then they made some trades that looked like they were trying to tank, and surprise! Sub-2:30. I mean, 48 wins. The question is, do they regress from there.
I’m inclined to say yes, even though it pains me to do so. Watching this team and their fan support last year was the highlight of playoffs for me. I desperately wanted it to last longer. They played solid, yet fun basketball, with different players stepping up for various needed roles. They didn’t get worse coming into this year, in fact, their offseason additions make them a lot better, but I don’t see them replicating the success of 2013-14.
That’s mostly because so many players had career years last year. Both Lowry and DeRozan played out of their minds. Terrance Ross, a guy who averaged 6.4 per game his rookie year, exploded for 51 in a game, tying the franchise record. Valanciunas improved on his rookie line in just about every way. I don’t think that this team is filled with flukes, but for everyone to play at such a high level again, well it just doesn’t make sense.
The addition of Lou Williams is going to be big in terms of having some explosive offense off the bench. Last year he averaged about 10 points per game in a notch over 20 minutes. He has the potential to go off on every given night, though he doesn’t shoot the three as well as you’d like out of a player with his skill set. That’s where losing Novak is going to hurt. While he didn’t play much last season, when he did, he was over 42% from three, meaning that had to completely change the way the defense would structure their rotations. The Raptors are going to be lacking a guy who can do that this time around.
They’re also a bit lacking when it comes to depth at center. Stiemsma isn’t a bad backup necessarily, but he’s also not as strong as a really competitive second unit needs anchoring them down low. Look for Hansbrough to get some major time at center if Stiemsma isn’t performing better than he did last year. Then again, Hansbrough also isn’t the sort of guy who I want being the force on my bench’s defense.
Depth issues at certain positions aside, they did have seven guys average nine points per game last year, and they’ve added Lou Williams who should do the same. That means there’s rarely an offensive weak link on the floor, which should give opposing defenses fits. The question is just whether the strength will carry to both sides of the ball.
I’m not trying to totally bash the Raptors here, I do think they’re a very good team, I’m just pointing out the reasons why I’m hesitant about their success this year. As I have it pegged now, they’ll be the 5 seed in the East, but I expect them to make it past the first round.
X-Factor: James Johnson
Former Raptor James Johnson is back in the purple and black after not seeing much of the court in Memphis last year. He’s looking to be a legitimate rotation player here, and he’s slotted behind the guy who is likely the weakest of the starting five in Terrance Ross. The Raptors are deep, but if Ross stumbles and Johnson isn’t playing up to par, they could have some major depth issues. Johnson is going to have to prove he’s actually a NBA player who can play on both sides of the ball. If he does that, then this team’s second unit is going to be a major force.
Who Has The Most To Prove: Kyle Lowry
Lowry just inked a pretty payday by deciding to stay in Toronto as opposed to bolting for less-Canadian pastures. There was originally talk of him heading to the Heat, but that was mostly forgotten when it was no longer a certainty that Lebron would be in Miami. So Lowry stayed home and stayed on the team where he could be the guy. The problem with that is, he’s now the guy. He played really well last year, but he’s going to have to continue to improve if this team wants to be a legitimate contender and he wants to remain the best player on it.
Why They’re Worth Watching:
They have arguably the best backcourt in the league,1 a GM who’ll yell very angry things about Brooklyn2 and a budding superstar down low. If that doesn’t make for good basketball, you better be content with just watching the four Bulls/Cavs games this year.
Best Case: The team continues to improve on last year’s success, Williams ups his scoring output and Stiemsma bounces back to relevancy. 51 wins.
Worst Case: More than a few players regress, Valanciunas goes down with a major injury, and the success from last season feels as distant as the Jurassic period. 40 wins.
Projected Record: 45-36