• Matt Chin

The Key For The Raptors Comes Down To These 3 Questions


48, 49, 56, 51. Those are the Raptors win totals over the past four seasons. They’ve finished as a top-4 seed in each. They pushed the Cavaliers to six games in the 2016 ECF in the tightest Conference playoff matchup that Cleveland had during the LeBron/Kyrie era.Yet, the consensus around the League seems to be that Toronto can’t ascend to the next level.Their offseason is characterized by cash strapped financial decision-making and a virtual roster overhaul. The 2017-18 Raps over/under win record slotted at 48.5, according to the Westgate Vegas Sportsbook, and if Toronto is going to remain an Eastern Conference contender, then three critical questions must be addressed this season.

Can the Playoff Raps Succeed Like the Regular Season Raps?

The biggest knock on Toronto is their inability to translate success into the playoffs. They haven’t won a Game 1 in a playoff series since George W. Bush’s first term, or in their case, since Jean Chrétien was Canadian Prime Minister in 2001. They’ve been a regular season juggernaut, but their success hasn’t translated to postseason play.

They posted a 109.8 regular season offensive rating, which was sixth best in the NBA. But in the playoffs, their offensive rating fell to 101.3 . Before that, they posted a sub 100 rating in each of the previous two postseasons. Their reliance on isolation offense has earned the reputation of a team that is difficult to play against on a one-night basis, but easy to scheme for in a playoff format. DeMar DeRozan loves to overly pound the rock into the floor, which tends to grind the offense to a complete halt. At one point in the middle of the 2017 playoffs, Kyle Lowry had the worst playoff field goal percentage amongst all active players at 37.9%, according to Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated.

The playoff issues can be narrowed down to two categories: Spacing and Ball Movement. In the playoffs, Toronto was 15th (out of 16) in 3 pointers made per game and 12th in assists per game, via NBA.com. In a 7-game series format, teams have been able to zero in defensively on DeRozan and Lowry, resulted in Toronto struggling to find easy ways to score in the playoffs. Utilizing four or five shooters and playmakers on the floor is the only way to combat a lack of spacing, and Toronto hasn’t been able to break down playoff level defensive schemes. “Everyone and their brother knows we want better ball movement,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey said in July on Sportsnet 590 The Fan. “It comes down to passing the basketball and better spacing more so than, you know … one-on-one play.”

Casey is implementing a few significant changes to combat the spacing issues. He plans on putting the ball in DeRozan’s hands more frequently as a point guard to take advantage of Lowry’s vastly underrated off-ball shooting capabilities. Lowry ranked in the 96th percentile in spot up shooting (per Synergy Sports), while DeRozan has posted his highest career assist percentages in each of the past two seasons.

It may seem unconventional for a 6’7 shooting guard to take over quarterbacking duties, but having multiple ball handling playmakers on the floor is all the rage, regardless of their respective natural “positions”. Lowry offers unlimited shooting range, while DeRozan has always been reluctant to launch an open catch and shoot three. DeRozan’s added length allows him to scan and see over the defense when he handles the ball, and if he can begin to master LeBron James’ patented cross court jump pass, then Toronto will become insanely difficult to defend against.

In the 2017 playoffs, the Bucks and Cavaliers forced the Raps into unconventional matchups and blitzed them with hyper hostile double teams. Per Synergy Sports, Toronto’s 0.926 points per spot up shot was 15th out of 16 postseason teams. When role players hit their shots, it stretches out the defense. When they don’t, the defense collapses onto the best players, making it harder for those like Lowry and DeRozan to flourish.

How Will The Overhauled Bench Respond?

Raptors skeptics will point to a few critical role players who departed this summer. The bench has been completely overhauled, and replacing the productivity left behind by Patrick Patterson, P.J. Tucker, DeMarre Carroll, and Cory Joseph will be a major question mark headed into the season. Toronto will lean on a slew of young players and veterans to absorb the extra minutes.

Re-upping with Serge Ibaka meant that Ujiri had to part ways with Patrick Patterson, who had carved out a significant role during his four-year tenure across the border. Prior to the additions of Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, Toronto had outscored opponents by 14.8 points per 100 possessions with Patterson on the floor, per NBA.com. Pat Pat signed a three-year $16.3 million deal with Oklahoma City, igniting concern that Ujiri financially overreached by inking Ibaka $21.6 million per year. While Ibaka is the more prolific shot blocker and scorer, Toronto will dearly miss Patterson’s professional approach and versatile defense. Ibaka was thrown into the fire midseason last year, which is the biggest downside of making an impact trade deadline move. He now has a full offseason to incorporate himself as the third option, and will likely fill the stretch center role in Toronto’s most critical minutes.

***Per 36 minutes statistics via Basketball Reference.

3 and D specialists Tucker and Carroll left under unorthodox financial scenarios, albeit vastly different ones. Tucker reportedly turned down a higher salary in Toronto to play in Houston. He provided stable defense along the wing against Giannis Antetokiunmpo and LeBron James in the playoffs, but underwhelmed offensively in his half of a season in Toronto. The Raps have plenty of veterans to replace his gritty lead-by-example mentality, and perhaps their deep group of young wing players scared Tucker off. We the Northers will always consider Carroll’s four-year $58 million deal to be an albatross of a contract, but unloading his contract on Brooklyn yielded nothing of current value in return. Toronto will need to find their small forward of the future.

In order to fill the voids left, Ujiri has done a splendid job of retooling the roster with young developmental players, ranging from long-term projects to playoff rotational players. The bright future starts with Norman Powell, who the Raptors would love to get into the starting 3 spot if things work out. expected climb to 20+ minutes per game in his third season. Powell was arguably the Raptors best wing defender last season, but was buried behind Tucker and Terrence Ross. While Powell’s erratic jump shot (40% in 2015, 32% in 2016) has been a contributing factor to the overall spacing issues, starting the 23 year old could unleash him as a defensive bulldog. In a starting capacity, he could accept a limited complimentary offensive role, which could be the perfect formula to start feeding him more minutes. Powell has a tremendous ceiling and could easily grow into the defensive 3 and D maestro that Ujiri has been coveting since signing Carroll in 2015.

The addition of veteran CJ Miles has been overlooked- He’s is a lights out shooter (41% 3PT last season), and a reliably efficient defender (78th percentile in NBA overall per Synergy). Miles should provide an instant upgrade for Toronto’s wing depth, and will instantly become their best floor spacer. He’s three years younger than Tucker, and more dependable on offense than Carroll. Already accustomed to playing 22+ minutes per game, Miles can easily fill in at the starting 3 spot if unproven Powell lands in Dwane Casey’s doghouse. Toronto was 23rd in 3s made per game, and Miles was one of the top marksmen on the market. His 3-year $25M deal could end up being a bargain.

Delon Wright takes over at backup point guard with Corey Joseph’s departure to Indiana. After coming over from San Antonio, Joseph logged 160 out of a possible 164 regular season games in his two years in Canada. Meanwhile, Wright has logged only 54 career games through two low usage seasons. Whether Wright can handle an increased workload will be a major factor in his ability to hold onto the backup PG role. He offers more length than Joseph (+ 3 inches), a similar turnover rate (2.0/36 minutes vs. Joseph’s 1.9), and added beneficial shooting (34.9% from distance vs. Josephs 31%). The Raps would be smart to monitor Lowry’s minutes, meaning that Wright could be in line for 20-25 minutes per night. However, 2016 undrafted signee Fred Van Vleet showed flashes of having an advanced and mature game and could easily supplant Wright if things go wrong.

Developmental players OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Jakob Poeltl, and Bruno Caboclo are all intriguing prospects, and their continued growth will be significant for whether Toronto will remain relevant beyond this upcoming season. Toronto’s starters may be aging, but Usjiri has quietly maintained a proficient developmental program.

Can DeMar DeRozan Reach Another Level and Can Kyle Lowry Sustain His?

If normal player trajectory means anything, then DeRozan should be squarely in the prime years of his career as he enters his age 28 season. Coming off of his first All-NBA award, DeRozan has mastered the midrange game, routinely using deception, textbook footwork, and herky-jerky shoulder shakes to dominate helpless defenders from 18 feet and in. He’s an assassin when he’s able to get into the paint, and even Kevin Durant says that he’s spent part of his offseason carefully studying DeRozan’s crafty scoring skills in traffic. DeRozan is ultra productive as a pick and roll ball handler (.967 PPP) and in isolation scoring (86th percentile), per Synergy Sports. It’s the significant reason for why Casey wants DeRozan to assume a more ball dominant role, where his statistical efficiency should take a big jump.

DeRozan is spending his offseason trying to develop a more reliable three-point shot. His jumper has always been his weakest aspect of his game. He’s a career 28.1% three-point shooter on just 1.4 attempts per game, and has connected on only 236 distance shots in his 8-year career. Six players made more than 236 three pointers last season (Curry, Thompson, Harden, Eric Gordon, IT, and Kemba Walker). In the past, DeRozan has brushed off criticism about his inability to shoot defending his shot selecting by saying that he can get to the basket at will whenever he wants. From an analytics standpoint, an open 3 is one of the best shots that a player can attempt. Midrange jumpers are some of the least efficient. The fact that DeRozan is finally embracing these concepts could propel him to another level, or it could burden an already polished offensive game. DeRozan is a fabulous scorer, but in order for the Raptors to reach the Conference Finals again, he’ll have to be on the same level as offensive savants like Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, Isaiah Thomas, and John Wall. It’s not an easy task, but adding a trustworthy 3-point shot would help him tremendously.

Lowry’s reputation took a bit of a hit last season, after he missed 20 games and posted his worst defensive rating (109) since joining the Raptors in 2012. His playoff scoring and assisting numbers also took a tumble this year, falling to 15.8 and 5.9 respectively. Anticipating a fruitful 2017 free agency, Lowry was met with a quiet market, settling for a 3-year $100M deal to stay in Toronto, which still might have been an overpay given that Lowry had virtually no other offers on the table. Now 31 years old, Lowry will forfeit his floor general duties to DeRozan, but will still play a critical role in Toronto’s continued development. His defensive metrics have tailed off, and his lack of size is starting to catch up with him, but he remains a reliable defender in isolation and on spot ups.

How Lowry adjusts to his off ball role will dictate whether he fits into Casey’s newly founded system. He connected on 41% from distance last year, but only 13.6% of his shots were on spot ups. That percentage should skyrocket, but there is no reason to doubt that Lowry won’t flourish in his adjusted role. The defense will have to stay close to Lowry, who will benefit from running off of screens to free himself. Lowry will still have plenty of pick and roll opportunities, a category where he remains one of the most efficient scorers in the League. Staggering Lowry and DeRozan’s minutes would be a forward thinking measure that could keep a facilitator on the floor for all 48 minutes.

Conclusion

It’s debatable whether this group of Raptors is beyond their best days, but the fact that Toronto has sustained this level of success for half of a decade is an accomplishment alone. Historically, playing north of the border has been a non-priority for frontline NBA players, but the re-signing DeRozan, Lowry, and Ibaka over the past 14 months is a testament to the successful culture that they’ve build. Masai Ujiri is one of the most respected GMs in basketball, and when he allegedly passed over a chance to run the Knicks, it showed that consistent success can exist outside of the big American markets. That rationale didn’t exist fifteen years ago, and now Toronto as a city offers rowdy fan base in a diverse cultural hub that is attracting modern NBA players.

They should flirt with 50 wins and home court advantage so long as they can hold off the pesky Bucks and Heat. They’ll remain one of the more entertaining teams in the Eastern Conference. In his new role, DeRozan is a viable candidate to jump from 3rd team all NBA to 2nd team. I wouldn’t bet on them making it to the East finals, but in an odd year where the two conference favorites are simultaneously installing newly renovated lineups, the Raps still have a realizable opportunity to go deep into the playoffs. If Toronto can solve the three questions outlined above, then look out.

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