Are the “young pups” ready for heightened expectations and will the “old dogs” learn necessary new tricks?
The Toronto Raptors 2017-2018 campaign officially kicks off September 25th when players report for the annual media day spectacle. Taking place at the BioSteel Centre, it will mark the first day of a pivotal season for the Raptors — where success will be determined by their collective ability to modernize an outdated and ineffective offensive philosophy while simultaneously introducing a plethora of young and relatively unproven talent to meaningful NBA minutes.
We’ve all experienced different forms of defeat or failure. Losing brings with it the opportunity to grow and learn. Many would tell you they learn more from losing than they do from winning — winning can breed complacency. What separates consistent winners from perennial losers is the ability to learn, grow, and adapt from defeats to acheive more favourable results down the road…the theme of the 2016-2017 Raptors squad, according to some if its players, coaches, and even top executives was complacency…
For a team with KING SIZED aspirations, that sort of mindset seems counterintuitive. How could a team facing such stacked odds opt for such a passive approach?
After the disappointing but much expected second round exit last season at the hands of The King and his men, the need for change was as evident as it’s been in recent Raptor memory…probably since the forgettable sweep at the hands of Washington. Man, was that a depressing series!
With that said, I remain at peace with Masai’s decision to retain the core despite the underwhelming playoff results, past and present. Continuity is often underrated and undervalued in pro-sports, but it is something Ujiri strongly believes in. The Raptors are not in a position to compete for the world’s most sought after free agents — Toronto will always have the “different country” hurdle to contend with and as a result, players will often choose big American markets like New York and Los Angeles. Not even money or an increased chance of winning is enough to convince some players to venture north. Because of all that, holding onto the star power we have been granted is of the utmost importance.
Retaining Casey was more of a head scratcher and while I still have my doubts about his ability to develop, sell, and implement a new “way of doing things”, now is not the time to kick and scream over a decision that was going to be scrutinized either way (GM’ing sounds like so much fun in a social media propelled world doesn’t it?!).
I was intrigued at the prospect of Jerry Stackhouse leading the proverbial “culture reset” effort — and wrote at lengths about my reasoning.
But, Casey is here until he’s not. And I’ll buy what Ujiris’ selling in that Dwane has earned the right to at least try to re-write the Raptors charter.
In an off-season that saw the likes of Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Paul George, Chris Paul, and Jimmy Butler change teams (and/or conferences), the Raptors opted for stability — albeit with the understanding and admission that philosophical changes were needed in order to take the next step. Losing Patrick Patterson wasn’t ideal, but again somewhat expected — although his eventual price tag came in at a rather shocking but somewhat market indicative AAV of$5,451,600 over 3 years . Pat-Man will earn less in each season of his new deal than he did in the final year of his Raptor deal. So much for the benefits of being labelled a “Box Score +/- Dream”. Patterson criticism aside, compare his new contract to Valanciunas’ salary for the next three seasons (2019-2020 player option) and you’ll pardon me for holding out cautious optimism that JV takes some major strides and the Raptors finally find consistent impactful ways to unleash their big Lithuanian. J…V…FOR THREE?!
2017-2018 – $5,192,000 / 2018-2019 – $5,451,600 / 2019-2020 – $5,711,200
2017-2018 -$15,460,674 / 2018-2019 – $16,539,326 / 2019-2020 – $17,617,978
Bringing back Lowry and Ibaka on cap friendly contracts, both in term and dollar, gives the Raptors a clear three-year window to contend. For a team that has wound up in its current position by accident, that is an enviable position to have, no? — Remember, the Rudy Gay trade was meant to trigger a rebuild. Even when he tries, Ujiri can’t tank. No way to win if you ask me, but more and more subscribe to the belief that one must sink before they swim.
This upcoming season marks the beginning of a youth movement for the Raptors. Players like Pascal Siakam (23), Jakob Poeltl (21), Delon Wright (25 – somehow today that’s a borderline veteran), and Norman Powell (24) will be given every opportunity to see consistent meaningful minutes…and perhaps the real debut of Bruno Caboclo? Throw in the likes of maybe someday healthy Lucas Nogueira (25) and rehabbing but highly intriguing rookie OG Anunoby — it’s clear just how flush this team is with youth, but are they ready for the grind of an NBA season?
In the past, figuring out the rotations was a rather simple exercise, even at this stage in the yet to begin season. This year however, with the infusion of franchise grown young talent and the acquisition of CJ Miles, one should expect to see a different brand of basketball at the soon-to-be Scotiabank Arena*
*whatever, it’s a building name**
**And no Scotiabank I STILL don’t want to sign up for a credit card. Not unless I get it now and can get on the horn tomorrow to cancel it after contesting the $5,000 in charges as “suspicious”. I just paid $30 for a beer, pop, and fudgscicle…suspicious, no?
Concession prices get me fired up. What can I say!?
***But what if you got TRIPLE POINTS for in-arena purchases with said promotional credit-card? Did I just invent a credit card that encourages the purchasing of these obscenely priced goods? Ergh. Earn points towards future tickets and merchandise?! Oh no.
LIFE-TIP: #JustSayNO to any and all “inappropriate advances” involving the attempted up-selling of $10 SPECIAL OR LIMITED EDITION plastic cups. It’s not worth the free refills and TOTALLY worth filming any potential child tantrum that results from the reluctance to get hosed — grown ups are always pleased to find video proof of them melting down over a bedazzled cup.
…But live life on the edge sometimes. Even if it’s as comical as sneaking in some Fun Dip — anything just to say “I Did That!”. Call it a convenience fee for the absurd pricing structure.
You’re sneakier than you think.
Behind Lowry, conventional wisdom says Delon Wright slots into the back-up role and Fred Randlett, shall we say, rides bi*tch? I’m a VanVleet fan too! But it’s Wright’s job to lose and with his length, athleticism, and ability to get to the rim — he’s simply a step up from VanVleet at this point. VanVleet is solid insurance in the event Lowry gets banged up, and will get consistent game action with the “DINO-5”.
It’ll be interesting to see how Wright assimilates into what will be unfamiliar lineups to him. Last season, he played the majority of his minutes with PJ Tucker and Patrick Patterson — two obvious departures from this season’s roster. Look for Wright and college teammate Jakob Poeltl to play heavy minutes together (the Utah tandem shared the floor last season for a total of 218:24 minutes and played quite well when you look at the analytics). I’m also intrigued at how Wright and JV would play off one another…mildly intrigued, if nothing more.
Norman Powell likely carries the highest expectations among the younger contingent based on the success he’s already had at the NBA level. He’s likely headed for a lucrative extension following this season, assuming he continues to be an impact player on both ends. Look for Powell to be an explosive bench weapon, especially when he can get out in transition — he is an absolute blur in the open floor. Like many of his teammates, he needs to continue to work on his three-point shooting, but even still, Powell has the ability to be a dark-horse in the sixth-man race. Finally, you have KJ McDaniels and Lorenzo Brown (two-way contract player) who could factor in from a depth perspective, but figure to get lost in the numbers game at the NBA level.
While the backcourt rotation comes off as fairly predictable, how things shake out up front is anybody’s guess…and all it starts in the middle.
Deadline and off-season rumours aside, Jonas remains an integral part of the Raptors puzzle. Could he be effective in a bench role? Perhaps more time away from DeMar, who prefers more space to operate? Whatever it may be, they need to re-discover the pseudodominant version of Valanciunas we saw in 2015-2016. Dare I say he would’ve been the difference in the Cavs series?! As admirable a job as Bismack Biyombo did filling in,
JV was playing some of the best basketball of his career against Miami. Unfortunately, suffering a sprained ankle in Game 3 essentially ended his playoffs (he was far from 100% in the two games against the Cavs).
Before the injury he was averaging 15 points & 12 rebounds per game, had offensive and defensive ratings of 120 & 105 respectively. He was really really good (highlights) and rediscovering how Jonas fits into the team’s overall equation, both on offence and defence is essential if the Raptors hope to evolve and contend for a Conference title — also helps his trade value, but more importantly – IT WOULD BE GREAT FOR THE RAPTORS!
As much as people say Valaciunas could benefit from time away from DeRozan, let’s not completely ignore the style changes required on DeMar’s end. DeMar is essentially the Raptor’s offence in a microcosm. Evolution in both parties’ games is needed and convincing yourself to entirely disregard the idea of having two highly effective scorers share the floor seems risky to say the least.
For Valanciunas, it starts with his ability to defend away from the basket. It’s why Ibaka finishes games at the five — Casey does not trust Jonas to satisfy the defensive responsibilities that come with being a big in 2017. He prefers Ibaka’s mobility, despite Valanciunas’ superior rebounding. In order to sell his coach on the idea of more meaningful minutes, on top of improving defensively Jonas’ needs to improve as a post passer and like DeMar, must avoid killing the ball when he’s in possession of it…shall I claim blame on many sides? (a welcomed example of the appropriate appointment of shared blame).
(Ibaka also has a tendency to kill the ball — I’m noticing a trend…)
As daunting an exercise as it appears to be, settling on a minutes distribution between Serge and Jonas is required in order to begin planning the other forward spots — pardon me for still mentioning “forward” in a time where it’s a league of guards/shooters, wings, and (stretch) bigs. Newly acquired CJ Miles will likely slot into the starting three spot, and has BIG BIG shoes to fill after DeMarre Carroll’s northern cameo. From Georgia Rags to Northern Riches, the self-proclaimed JYD 2.0 suffered from multiple glitches in his Toronto tenure, aided largely by several bouts with lower-body injuries. Miles should help solve the continued woes on the wing. He has a smooth stroke from distance and will help with floor spacing. Capable of playing multiple positions, Miles’ game provides Casey with several options in terms of lineups and usage. Goes without saying, but he will be counted on to take AND MAKE shots, an agreement on which, speaking about the latter portion, his predecessor forgot to sign off on.
Behind Miles, there’s Powell — don’t dismiss the possibility to Powell winning the starting SF spot — no matter how it goes, both he and Miles stand to play a ton this year. After those two comes two of the biggest question marks this season has to offer — OG and Bruno (sounds like an R&B collaboration).
Omitting Siakam from the “?” group is risky and constitutes putting heavy stock in a G-League playoff performance and moderately impressive summer. Having begun last season as a starter, filling in for Camp Hope alumnus Jared Sullinger, Siakam showed glimpses of the raw talent that prompted the Raptors to take him late in the first round. But a combination of a rookie wall and shortcomings in his game relegated him to the G-League where he helped the 905 capture a league title. Making a consistent impact at the NBA level is another story and whether Siakam is ready to do that in his second year is highly debatable at this moment in time — but he will get a long hard look in camp.
Caboclo remains an enigmatic presence…inconsistent play has hampered his development and character issues have begun to spring up, most recently his dismissal from the Brazilian national team for reportedly taking issue with the team’s rotations. Apologies for questioning the legitimacy of Bruno taking issue with playing time. Due to be an RFA after this season, 2017-2018 represents possibly the final opportunity for Bruno in a Raptors uniform. Two years away from being two years away has arrived for the so-called Brazilian Kevin Durant.
Joining in on the battle for forward minutes will be 2017-2018 rookie OG Anunoby…still rehabbing from a serious knee injury that saw him suffer multiple tears in his right knee. Expecting OG to return much before November would be idealistic, but when he does return and get up to speed he becomes another intriguing piece to the puzzle. At 6’8″ and sporting a 7’2″ wingspan, Anunoby brings length, athleticism, and hopefully the much coveted defensive option capable of guarding virtually anybody on the floor — something he has already stated he wants to bring to a Raptors squad in need of a flexible defender. In two seasons as a Hoosier (50 games in total), he put up some eye-popping numbers:
PER 100 POSS – 22.8 PPG/11.8RPG/117.7 ORtg/98.4 DRtg
ADVANCED – 21.9 PER/.620 eFG%/11.0 AST%/9.7 BPM**
**BPM represents a box score estimate of the points per 100 possessions a player contributed above a league-average player, translated to an average team. At 9.7, Anunoby ranks 14th all-time amongst Big Ten leaders, dating back to 1985-86 (Draymond ranks #2 at 13.11)
When healthy, it’s likely he winds up starting his professional career in Jerry’s World . Nonetheless, seeing how he factors into the parent club’s season long equation will be a story to keep tabs on once he gets the green light to resume intense basketball activity.
No matter how you slice it, this upcoming season’s roster is littered with intrigue and endless possibilities. Led by a promising core, motivated to prove they still belong amongst the East elites, can the Raptors replace the meaningful minutes and numbers lost in free agency with their stockpiled young talent?
G-League supremacy is nice, it brings with it promise for a bright future — but the present is here and the chance to reign over the Eastern Conference is now!
Let’s hold off on talking about next year— after LeBron stiffs Gilbert a second time causing a complete reshuffle of the East, one canonly imagine how easier the road will be to a Finals birth and subsequent slaughtering at the hands of Steph, Kevin, and all those Bay Area buttheads.
Just to have the opportunity to lose would would be met with open arms by us easy-going Canucks.
Excited for the season…
*files and data from nba.com, basketball-reference, and spotrac were consulted in the authoring of this Song of Ice and Fire…and dinosaurs? (cheap last minute reference right there to meet the one per post quota)