After trading Rudy Gay early in the 2013-14 campaign, the Toronto Raptors looked like they were going to be in the position no fan base wants to see their team in – where they benefit more from losing games than they do winning because the playoffs are an unrealistic goal.
Then, all of a sudden, in one of the clearer examples of addition by subtraction we’ve ever seen in the NBA, the Raptors became one of the East’s elite teams upon Gay’s departure, despite receiving less than equal value in return. With the opportunities created by his absence, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry thrived, forming one of the league’s best backcourts. The players acquired in the Gay trade improved Toronto’s depth and the Raptors finished with the third-best record in the East.
With one of the younger teams in the league and everyone of significance back from last year’s surprise run, expectations are as high in Toronto as they’ve been in quite some time.
Basketball Insiders previews the 2014-15 Toronto Raptors.
Five Guys Think
The Toronto Raptors are a team on the rise and should be over the jitters that played a role in preventing them from reaching the Eastern Conference Semifinals last season. The fact that Toronto was able re-sign Kyle Lowery early in free agency, despite the presence of multiple suitors, bodes well for the franchise. DeMar DeRozan spent a large chunk of his summer working out with the U.S. Men’s National Team, winning a gold medal at the 2014 FIBA World Cup. DeRozan’s development as the featured gun is a pivotal part of the Raptors’ continued rise in the standings. Toronto should win the Atlantic Division and anything less than a second playoff appearance should be considered a disappointment.
1st Place – Atlantic Division
The Raptors were one of the few teams last year to actually make a meteoric jump in status, winning the Atlantic Division and snagging a top-three playoff seed behind the efforts of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, with the latter making the All-Star game and the former being snubbed. While the roster looks more or less the same, GM Masai Ujiri got a lot done in the offseason, re-signing a good chunk of the team and controversially drafting Bruno Caboclo, who nobody has any idea about in terms of how his game will transfer to the NBA. He isn’t likely to be a factor immediately, though, and the success of this team will have to come from the same places it did last year. They may not win the Atlantic again this season, but they’ll definitely make the playoffs and be plenty good in getting themselves there.
2nd Place – Atlantic Division
– Lang Greene
Last season, the Atlantic Division was the only division in the entire league that was won by a team that failed to win as many as 50 games and the only division that had two teams lose as many as 55 games. After the trade of Rudy Gay, Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas seemed to develop a synergy and chemistry that has been missing in Toronto since Chris Bosh’s departure back in July 2010. The result was the franchise’s second division title and new contracts for both Lowry and head coach Dwane Casey. Lou Williams will give the Raptors a seasoned veteran backup that can play either guard position. At this point, despite the upgrades that the New York Knicks have made, it would be wise to bet on the Raptors to repeat as division champions. What it will boil down to for them, though, is whether Lowry’s emerging as one of the league’s top point guards last season was motivated by a desire to secure a new contract that he has since received. If so, then the Raptors may regress. If not, with a more talented roster this season, improvement should be the natural product.
1st place – Atlantic Division
– Moke Hamilton
The Raptors had an excellent offseason, re-signing Kyle Lowry and acquiring Lou Williams without giving up too much. Throw in internal development from players like DeMar DeRozan (who was phenomenal last year), Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross and Patrick Patterson among others and it’s easy to imagine this team being even better in 2014-15 than they were last season. If Lowry and DeRozan can continue to play at a high level and Williams can return to his Sixth-Man-of-the-Year-candidate form, this team could be scary good. I believe Toronto will win the Atlantic Division once again and then proceed to make some noise in the playoffs.
1st Place – Atlantic Division
– Alex Kennedy
Unlike some of the teams that had surprising success last year, I don’t see the Toronto Raptors going anywhere. In fact, I think that they’re going to get better, but that’s a little bit more contingent on the health of their backcourt than I would like. Big threes have become so trendy in this league and I think the Raptors are that third top-tier guy away from being truly elite. Jonas Valanciunas is right there on the verge of becoming that, which is why I still view the Raptors as the cream of the crop in the Atlantic Division. This is a team with great chemistry that can really defend and that is going to take them a long way. They may not be on par with the Cavaliers or Bulls, but they’re so far ahead of where we expected them to be a year ago that there’s no reason to be concerned about that. Down the line, when the Bulls and Cavs start to falter, they could be peaking.
1st Place – Atlantic Division
– Yannis Koutroupis
Top Of The List
Top Offensive Player: Coming off his first All-Star appearance at just 25 years of age, there’s no questioning that DeMar DeRozan is the go-to guy in Toronto. Kyle Lowry does have the ball in his hands a lot and the offense does run through him, but DeRozan is the guy he looks for primarily on every play. DeRozan gained some invaluable experience going up against a veteran Brooklyn Nets team in the first round of the playoffs. Combine that with winning a gold medal with Team USA in the World Cup, albeit in a minor role, DeRozan looks poised to have his best year yet. The shooting guard position has become one of the weakest in the league, but in DeRozan the Raptors have one of the best on both ends of the floor.
Top Defensive Player: The Raptors boasted a top-seven defense last year in terms of points allowed per game and have a handful of players on their roster known more for their contributions on the defensive end than the offensive end. That defense was anchored by two defensive stalwarts in Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas; it would be quite difficult to give the top defensive player to one of them over the other, so we’re just going to split the honor among them. They’re both willing help defenders, active rebounders and capable shot blockers. However, both could stand to improve in staying out of foul trouble so that they can stay out on the floor for more than 28 minutes a night.
Top Playmaker: Seemingly on the verge of becoming a New York Knick after the Rudy Gay trade last year, Lowry became untouchable in quick fashion. The 17.9 points and 7.4 assists a game he averaged last season were career-highs and as a result he was rewarded with a long-term contract extension. He and Dwane Casey haven’t always had the most harmonious relationship, but the two have truly formed an understanding of each other now and a lot of it stems from Lowry’s increased unselfishness. Scoring may always be his top strength, but he’s now a player who regularly looks to make the right play for his team, not just himself.
Top Clutch Player: Building off the point made above, Lowry’s willingness to make the right play and trust his teammates has developed him into the Raptors’ top option with the game on the line. Not only can he break a defense down and create, but he can also score on his own in a variety of ways, whether it be inside or beyond the arc. The ball was in his hands as they had an opportunity to go to the second round in Game 7 against the Brooklyn Nets. While Lowry came up short and had his game-winning shot attempt blocked, he’s earned the confidence of Coach Casey to have the ball in his hands in that situation every time it arises.
The Unheralded Player: Part of the last class of high school seniors allowed to make the jump into the NBA, Amir Johnson has quietly put together a solid nine-year career with the end nowhere in sight. It took Johnson a while to find his niche, but he’s become one of the more underrated, blue collar power forwards in the league. He’s an integral part of the Raptors’ defense, and always plays efficiently and within himself. At just 27 years of age, the best years of his career could still be ahead, especially as he continues to jell and build chemistry with his teammates in Toronto, where he has been since 2009.
Best New Addition: In all seriousness, it very well could be rookie forward Bruno Caboclo. The Raptors were bashed for his selection initially, but after summer league it was quite evident that they had one of the steals of the draft and someone who is much closer to contributing sooner than later. Don’t be shocked if Coach Casey finds minutes for him often throughout his rookie campaign. However, Lou Williams is going to have a far bigger opportunity and role in the immediate future, so he of course is the best new addition in a relatively quiet offseason in Toronto in terms of new pieces coming in.
Re: 2014-15 Toronto Raptors Season Preview; Long Read ahead
Who We Like
1. Kyle Lowry: At 28 years of age, Lowry appears to have finally figured it out. He now has everything he’s wanted in his career: a featured role on a playoff team and a long-term contract that puts him among the highest paid point guards in the league. Those things had alluded him in his career up to this point because of his individualistic approach, but now that he sees the broader picture, he’s exactly where he wants to be.
2. DeMar DeRozan: DeRozan is well on his way to becoming one of greatest Raptors of all-time, among the likes of Vince Carter and Chris Bosh. He could even surpass them if he’s able to guide the Raptors to more postseason success than they were, which is feasible given that the Raptors have never made it past the Conference Semis. Under contract through 2017, it’s not unrealistic to think that DeRozan could finish his career with the Raptors. He has probably two more contracts left after this one, and based off of what the Raptors are building, they’re going to keep it intact for as long as they can.
3. Masai Ujiri: It’s really rare to see a general manager take over a mediocre team like the Raptors were when he was hired and be as patient as he was. He very easily could have justified blowing things up and starting from scratch. Instead, he watched, evaluated, gave things a chance and acted wisely and effectively when the time called for it. He’s locked up the franchise’s top two players to long-term contracts that are extremely reasonable and will have sizeable cap space to work with next summer, allowing him to tinker if the Raptors don’t take the kind of strides they’re projected to this season.
4. Dwane Casey: A lot of coaches wouldn’t be able to handle being on the hot seat the way that Casey was when Ujiri took over. They would have been caught up in asking for long-term security they hadn’t earned, and too worried about whether they’d be able to get another shot in the future. Casey may not have been able to get another shot at being a head coach if he didn’t make things work with the Raptors, but that fueled him. He never lost focus on the task at hand, and now he has everything he could want too: a long-term contract, a playoff team that he’s groomed himself from the ground up and national recognition that he is indeed a quality NBA head coach, not just a great assistant.
– Yannis Koutroupis
The Raptors are a defensive-oriented team, stemming from Coach Casey’s philosophies and principles. Despite being one of the younger teams in the league, they’ve gained a significant amount of experience together and should have a leg up on the competition from a chemistry standpoint, which far too often gets overlooked when predicting the kind of year a team is going to have. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are one of the best backcourts in the league and with another step forward this year Jonas Valanciunas could end up being regarded as one of the premier centers once the season has come to a close. As a team they shot .372 from beyond the arc last year, among the best in the league.
– Yannis Koutroupis
They’re short on elite-level talent, which makes the development of Jonas Valanciunas this year all the more important. Last year, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry missed a combined six games. It’s very rare to have that kind of fortune in this league, and if the Raptors don’t have it again this season, it’s hard to see who is going to be able to step up and replace their scoring. Their second unit is full of solid players, but only the inconsistent Lou Williams and Terrence Ross have truly explosive scoring capability. The rest are primarily role players. This team could really use a stronger third offensive option, ideally at the small forward position. They’d also really benefit from having more capable interior scorers. Valanciunas, Amir Johnson and Patrick Patterson are all good players, but aren’t the kind of guys you can consistently dump the ball down to for easy baskets. Maybe these things come from within since they are so young, but right now that’s a risky bet when trying to compete against the likes of the absolutely loaded Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls.
– Yannis Koutroupis
The Salary Cap
The Raptors are flirting with the $76.8 million luxury tax threshold, invested in a full roster of 15 players – of which 14 are guaranteed. Amir Johnson’s $7 million is mostly locked in at $5 million, and appears safe for the season. Both Jordan Hamilton and Will Cherry may have difficulty cracking the regular season roster, just guaranteed $25k a piece – but could end up in the D-League as affiliate players for the Raptors. The franchise should enter the regular season below the tax line at $76.1 million (barring trade or buyout). The Raptors spent a portion of their Mid-Level Exception on James Johnson, leaving $2.8 million. They also have their Bi-Annual Exception ($2.1 million), which would trigger a hard cap for the team at $80.8 million. Technically the Raptors can spend another $778k of their MLE, before locking in the hard cap. Given their already full roster, the team may have no need for either remaining exception. The Raptors also have three trade exceptions ($4.6 million, $2.4 million and $3.4 million), which won’t hard cap the team, but might push the franchise into the tax.
– Eric Pincus
The Raptors are the clear favorite for the third seed in the East to these eyes. This team had the sixth-best point differential in basketball after the Rudy Gay trade last year–better than the Rockets, Suns, Grizzlies, Pacers and Blazers. They were miles above any of the other realistic contenders for the third seed this year. What’s more, they kept everyone important, including coach Dwane Casey. Even better, all of the key players are young enough that we should expect improvement this year, with the exception of Kyle Lowry. They even added potentially undervalued but useful pieces in James Johnson and Lou Williams.
Everyone has forgotten about the Raptors. They don’t have a true superstar and they bowed out to the Nets because they were killed in a very specific matchup problem by Joe Johnson. But as a regular season proposition, they are a solid bet to improve on last year’s performance due to the youth of the roster. In particular, Jonas Valanciunas and DeMar DeRozan seem primed to take significant steps forward on both ends. While the lack of true superstar power and a pretty big hole at the three (especially on defense) could sink them in the playoffs, for the regular season the Raptors are solid indeed.
Lowry maintains his performance from last year, while DeRozan (who quietly ran a ton of pick and rolls last year) continues his development as a scorer and playmaker. Valanciunas transfers more of his physical tools into production on defense, Amir Johnson perfects his corner three and Williams thrives as a sixth man off the bench another year removed from ACL surgery. The Raptors, who ranked ninth in offense and ninth in defense after the Gay trade by points per possession, take incremental steps forward on both ends. This was a 50-win team last year by point differential even with the pre-Gay trade foibles. If this team improves just a bit on how it played after the Gay trade (a 54-win pace), 57 wins is realistic.
The Raptors had great health a year ago, which changes this season. They cannot afford an injury on the wing, and especially not for DeRozan. The expected improvements among the young players fail to materialize, and Johnson proves unable to provide major minutes at the three due to his poor shooting. That position remains a gaping hole.
– Nate Duncan
The Burning Question
Will the young Raptors develop enough internally to take the next step forward in the East?
The Raptors aren’t going to catch anyone by surprise next season. They have officially arrived and will not have the luxury of being overlooked by anyone anymore. They learned how to win last year; this season is going to be all about maintaining their improvement and getting even better as the spotlight on them grows brighter. Pressure is a con they haven’t had to deal with in several seasons, but it will be firmly on their shoulders this season.