There is an unmistakable quiet around the Toronto Raptors as they get set for their 21st season opener tonight against the Indiana Pacers. The Toronto Blue Jays’ ALCS run probably bears some responsibility for the lack of buzz, but the hope and optimism surrounding the Raptors’ season outlook isn’t quite at the same level as this time last season. Although they set a franchise record with 49 regular season wins last year, the only number that matters from last year’s campaign was the zero wins they accumulated from getting swept by the Washington Wizards, raising serious questions over whether the club is good enough to content in its current incarnation.
The off-season produced changes that seem to be more patchwork than outright renovation, with Amir Johnson, Lou Williams and Greivis Vasquez essentially being replaced by DeMarre Carroll, Luis Scola and Cory Joseph. The changes certainly make for a more defensively stable unit, but it remains to be seen whether they are a better team or not. The moves haven’t been enough to wash away the sting of last spring’s playoff collapse – that much we know.
So what is to be expected from this Raptors team this season? Grantland’s Zach Lowe predicted a landing spot closer to the bottom of the playoff field than the top within a new postseason structure in which winning the division doesn’t guarantee home court, but did acknowledge that the club had too much talent to miss the playoffs in the East.
Frankly, though, exact standing is not yet critical for a Raptors team that will need to prove their playoff bona fides whether they finish first, eighth or anything in between. The regular season is about heeding Dwane Casey’s defence-first mantra and learning to jell as a unit, all the while establishing their place within the Eastern hierarchy. Still, there remain plenty of burning questions to be answered as the season rolls along.
1. Who starts at the four?
The biggest question of training camp has only become a little clearer over time. Patrick Patterson had a pretty terrible pre-season, but still looks like the odds-on favorite to step into Johnson’s vacated starting power forward spot to start the year. Scola isn’t far behind on the depth chart, but clearly Toronto would rather have Patterson excel in the job as a potential long-term solution rather than the short-term fix that the aging Scola would offer.
2. Who replaces Lou?
In another case of short-term, playoff-focused memory, many Raptor fans seemed far too eager to let Lou Williams walk as a free agent on account of his disappointing playoff showing, easily forgetting his standout Sixth Man of the Year regular season campaign. Yes, he took low percentage shots too often and served as something of a ball stopper, but his 15.5 points per game last season won’t just come from anywhere. Carroll, the big ticket off-season signee, is probably the top option for easing the scoring burden on DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. However, Joseph and Scola also chipped in offensively during the pre-season, averaging nearly eight shots apiece to help balance the offensive load. Joseph will likely double as the first guard off the bench, but a lack of back court depth could give second round pick Norman Powell an opportunity with the big club.
3. When do we start worrying about DeMar’s contract?
DeRozan enters his walk year as one of the more intriguing pending free agents. After the season is completed, we will be heading into a summer where just about every team is flush with cash and surprisingly few top flight free agents are around to reap the benefits. That means after the Kevin Durant Sweepstakes play out (I think he delays another year with a big money one-year deal to stay in OKC), DeRozan is among the cream of the second tier crop that could cash in. An explosive scorer that won’t turn 27 until August should do well within the new cap structure, making him harder to bring back into the fold on a team-friendly deal. Fortunately, Masai Ujiri should have a better over-all feel on the direction of the team by then and how to best move forward. Early money says this is DeMar’s last year in Toronto.
4. What will be the 905 effect?
Amidst MLSE’s flagship Big Four franchises (sorry TFC, you don’t count for this), there is an outsized level of interest in the feeder team this year. As the AHL’s Marlies boast many of the Maple Leafs’ hyped future prospects, there is a fresh excitement in the new Raptors 905 D-League outfit. The 905 will afford Bruno Caboclo a platform to showcase the type of pro development he wasn’t afforded the chance to exhibit last year, while also ensuring floor time for guys like Powell and possibly even Delon Wright, Lucas Nogueira and Anthony Bennett. The Raps do boast some young talent with a reasonably high ceiling and it will be fascinating to see what having a local, club-controlled feeder team can do to spark those guys.
5. Can Kyle Lowry keep it up?
No Raptor was more celebrated in the pre-season than Lowry, who arrived at camp trimmed down and cut in a way that caught the notice of observers league-wide. Skinny Kyle then proceeded to lead the team in scoring by averaging 22 points, including a 40-point outburst against the T-Wolves. But it’s unfair to expect anyone to transform their game so dramatically, particularly a starting point guard who still needs to focus on facilitating and running the offence. Lowry should get a slight bump from his 17.8 PPG average from last season, but he will need plenty of scoring support as well.
6. Where does the club’s defence rank now?
Last season, even as the club set a franchise wins record, Casey’s defensive mantra took a hit as the Raptors dropped from seventh to 19th in points allowed per game. Pretty well every addition from this past summer, from the drafting of the long, wingspan-heavy Wright to signing Carroll, Joseph and Bismack Biyombo, came with an eye on bringing that defensive identity back to the club. In Carroll, the Raptors now have the type of elite perimeter defender that they’ve long lacked. Biyombo doesn’t carry the varied skill set to completely replace Johnson, but he does serve as an improved rim protector and interior defensive presence. Look for the Raps to bounce right back to the top of league defensive stats, which should go hand-in-hand with a drop in offensive categories.
7. Is the club’s core good enough?
This isn’t a question that will be answered in the immediate future, but stands as an important one nonetheless. Ujiri has now been at the helm of the team for two and a half years, but aside from the acquisitions of Carroll and Joseph, he has yet to put a firm imprint on the club as it’s currently constructed. Regardless of whether the Raps can make a strong playoff run this year and exorcise their first round playoff demons, they don’t appear to be on the level of the Cavs or Bulls and any talks of title contention would be pure fantasy. For every NBA team, that’s the end goal and first round playoff exits can get pretty old pretty quick. Don’t discount the possibility of some dramatic mid-season movement, with a major looming free agent (DeRozan), a talented young big whose stagnant development may begin to frustrate the front office (Jonas Valanciunas) and a major trade asset in place (the Nuggets’ or Knicks’ 2016 first rounder).
8. Will the Raps advance past the first round?
We’ll talk in April.
We kick things off tonight with the Indiana Pacers and a healthy Paul George arriving in Toronto for the Raps’ home opener (7:30pm, TSN).
Prediction: Raps 102, Pacers 98 (record this season: 0-0)