NBA

Toronto Raptors season preview

The NBA season will be here before you know it and FanSided is here to get you ready. In the lead up to Opening Night, we’ll be previewing two teams each day, reviewing roster changes, discussing important players and challenges, and hearing the perspective of our FanSided site experts. Let’s get ready for basketball!

Inputs: Jakob Poeltl (C, NBA Draft pick No. 9); Pascal Siakim (PF, NBA Draft pick No. 27); Jared Sullinger (PF, signed for one year, $5.6 million); Fred Van Vleet (PG, signed for one year, partially guaranteed)

Outputs: Bismack Biyombo (C, signed with the Orlando Magic); James Johnson (SF, signed with the Miami Heat), Jason Thompson (PF, signed with Shandong Golden Stars); Luis Scola (PF, signed with the Brooklyn Nets), Anthony Bennett (PF, signed with the Brooklyn Nets)

Retained: DeMar DeRozan (SG, signed for five years, $139 million)

Biggest strength

It’s no secret that the Raptors’ biggest strength is their guard play. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan together form the best backcourt in the East (don’t @ me Cavs fans). And last year, they were inseparable. They went to the Olympics together, they played in the All-Star Game together, heck they even went to McDonalds together.

But the fact that they are joined at the hip can be problematic for Raptors fans. In terms of importance to the team, Kyle Lowry is way ahead of DeRozan because he’s a more well-rounded player. When the two struggled in the playoffs, people would put their shooting percentages together, even though that wasn’t indicative of the type of game they were having individually.

When Lowry struggles offensively, he usually finds a way to contribute defensively, or with spacing the floor. He’s more than just a point guard, he’s a floor general, and one of the league’s best at that. DeRozan, on the other hand, is primarily effective as a scorer. So when he has off nights as a scorer, he just becomes a defensive liability.

Here’s a stat regarding the two that’s truly eye-opening: during last year’s playoffs, the Raptors were 7.2 points per 100 possessions worse with DeRozan on the court. With Lowry on, they were 26.9 points per 100 possessions better. That’s why Dwane Casey didn’t hesitate to bench his shooting guard when he was struggling, and that’s why some of Toronto’s best scoring lineups include Lowry plus the bench.

For all of DeRozan’s shortcomings, there’s a reason the Raptors brought him back on a five-year deal worth $31 million per season. Having been with Toronto for seven years, he’s a leader, and one of the hardest workers you can find. Not only is he the heart and soul of this team, he has proven his worth as a high-volume post scorer. As you can see courtesy of NBA.com, he averaged more points on drive attempts last season than Russell Westbrook and LeBron James. While his 90s style offense is out of touch with the modern game, it works for him. And judging by his highlight-reel dunk attempts ahead of this season, he’s not going to change who he is.

As for Lowry, he’s not going anywhere. Some people may point to his age as a sign that he might regress, but don’t let that fool you. He has more miles on his body because he didn’t become a full-time starter until late in his career. And currently, he’s in the best shape of his life. At four years and $12 million per year, Lowry’s contract is one of the best values in the NBA, along with Stephen Curry. And after seeing DeRozan get paid, he’s going to work like never before in what will be the last year of his deal before opting out.

It’s not just Lowry and DeRozan that are productive. Toronto is extremely deep at the guard spots, and the great play of Cory Joseph and Norman Powell should serve to give the starters a rest. Those two are known for their defense, as well as their shot-making ability. On the heels of a rookie season that went way better than anyone expected, this year could prove to be a breakout for Norm.

Even though Joseph isn’t a notable three-point shooter, he attempted 1.4 of them last season, it’s something he’s been working on in the offseason. With the likes of Patrick Patterson and Terence Ross, Toronto’s bench lives and dies by the three. And if he can improve on that aspect, adding Cory to that mix of shooters would make them that much more lethal.

While the Raptors had a quiet offseason, they added a lot of warm bodies in search of a 15th man in the rotation. With Delon Wright likely out until late December, the leading candidate for that spot is Fred VanVleet. He averaged 1.8 steals per game and shot 38.1% from three, while becoming a great leader at Wichita State. It’s a wonder how he went undrafted, but the Raptors don’t care, especially after an impressive showing in Summer League.

If the Raptors hope to repeat their success from last season, it starts and ends with their guard play. As Masai Ujiri said during media day, “The way Kyle goes, we go. The way DeMar goes, we go.”

Biggest question mark

Even with more and more teams take a liking to small ball, that doesn’t mean they should ignore rim protection. The loss of Bismack Biyombo was a sad one for the Raptors faithful. Not only was he a fan favorite, Biyombo was a key piece of Toronto’s defensive identity. While the front office may have felt that $17 million per season wasn’t worth it, their frontcourt rotation remains a big question mark heading into this season.

As far as backup big men, it’s slim pickings. The next best option they have is Lucas Nogueira, who has a total of 35 games played to his name. Against the Denver Nuggets in preseason, in a game where Jonas Valanciunas scored 20 points, coach Casey admitted that the Nuggets’ bigs “kicked our butts”.

Of course, the Raptors addressed their frontcourt in the draft when they got Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam in the first round. Even if their careers pan out well, they are still unproven commodities at least this year. So far in preseason, Siakam has taken the attention away from Poeltl. Against the Warriors, he put up two blocks, eight points, and eight rebounds in 21 minutes. But he’s not expected to get significant playing time ahead of Patrick Patterson and Jared Sullinger.

The Raptors did upgrade at power forward by replacing Luis Scola with Jared Sullinger. Not only is he 10 years younger than Scola, he’s a monster rebounder. Just last season, he averaged 8.3, which was a career high for him. But as far as defense, he doesn’t protect the rim or move well on the perimeter. That can be partially chalked up to weight problems; just last season, he weighed in at 300 pounds prior to training camp. If he wants to play a big role this year, he should take a page out of Lowry’s book.

While he should earn the starting job over Patrick Patterson, it’s Patterson who brings more to the table. But the reason he has started 11 games over the last three seasons in Toronto is because his best attributes, three-point shooting and crunch-time defense, are most effective while coming off the bench. However, it’s easy to think Sullinger and Patterson would be a great pairing in small-ball lineups.

Offensively, they should be okay. Their most used lineup last season featured Scola, James Johnson, Lowry, DeRozan and Valanciunas, but they got outscored by 5.7 points per 100 possessions. Once they swapped out Johnson and Scola for Carroll and Patterson, Toronto steamrolled opponents by 41.3 points per 100 possessions. Because Carroll hardly featured, that’s a small sample size. But a full-strength Raptors team is a dangerous one to deal with.

As far as defense goes, what made Biyombo so effective was that he brought a game-changing defensive presence when Valanciunas wasn’t on the court. As things stand, nobody in the Raptors’ frontcourt projects to do that. And after seeing the way they got bullied out of the playoffs by the Cavaliers, that should be a concern.

What does success look like?

— Brian Boake, @RaptorsRapture, Raptors Rapture

The Toronto Raptors made huge strides in 2015-16. They won the most games in franchise history (56), and then survived some distressingly bad play from their stars to end up in the Eastern Conference Finals. Yes, they lost to eventual NBA champions Cleveland, but it was a stirring example of overachievement.

The Raptors will deem this season a success if two things happen — they match last year’s accomplishments and one or more of their young players makes giant strides. We’d like to see Bruno Caboclo or Lucas Nogueira push their way onto the floor after several years as understudies.

Make no mistake — the team is in Win-Now mode, and so it should be. The only major defection from last season was center Bismack Biyombo. Four of the starting five are back. The Raptors are a young team, with 30-year-old Kyle Lowry the elder statesman. Despite that, all the core players, and many of the rotation, have become playoff veterans.

The roster should be well-equipped to stand the rigors of the overheated NBA season, as depth is a major positive. For example, the newly wealthy DeMar DeRozan can sit in favour of second-round find Norman Powell or brilliant yet infuriating Terrence Ross. Lowry’s backup is ex-Spur Cory Joseph. There’s a logjam in the frontcourt.

Expectations across Toronto and indeed across Canada are very high for this team. Anything less than earning home court advantage with a strong regular season, followed by a lengthy playoff run, will be a disappointment.