We the North, or We the 5th Seed?

New Faces: Jared Sullinger, Jakob Poeltl (R), Pascal Siakam (R),

2015-16 Regular Season Record: 56-26

2015-15 Regular Season Achievements: 2nd: Free Throws. 3rd:  Free Throw Attempts, Points (Defense).  5th: Offensive Rating, 3-Point%,  2-Point% (Defense),

Leading Scorer: DeMar DeRozan, 23.5

Leading Rebounder: Jonas Valunciunas, 9.1

If all you needed was a 20-point scorer to get to the NBA Finals then the Toronto Raptors would be a perennial visitor to the June showcase. But the problem with the Raptors is they have a 20-point scorer/athlete who can beat you off the dribble, catch and shoot, finish at the rim and be a spectacular highlight player. But he is absolutely dismal in the playoffs. Last season, he shot 39.4% and 15.4% from three when playing the league’s best with everything on the line.

DeMar DeRozan got paid this summer. The Raptors will be a perennial visitor to the playoffs. But what then? The iso game DeRozan modeled after his hero Kobe Bryant is a vague strategy for greatness. Teams know how to defend an iso scorer. The Raptors, who depend on DeRozan for offense, in the postseason, find themselves, searching for an answer.

After DeMar DeRozan, (and Kyle Lowry), the roster takes a nose dive, which is not to say the Raptors don’t have good individual players. They do. But the collective output regresses to the mean which puts the Raptors in no-man’s land. Good enough to get to the playoffs every year but not good enough to play for the title. They have no one who can match LeBron James and no one who can defend LeBron James. As bad as DeRozan was in the playoffs, backcourt mate Kyle Lowry was equally catastrophic, 39.7% and 30.4% from three.

Last season, the Raptors were 29th in assists with no ball movement forthcoming. Predictable when you have players that hold the ball. The Raptors were 18th in defensive rebounding, an improvement from the year before, and 16th in total rebounds. You have to be in the top-10 in rebounding to have a title shot. The Raptors were 20th in 2-point field goal attempts. Three point marksmanship is their identity.

They were 29th in pace, a recipe for disaster. A slow team with the ball sticking. These are the numbers that will keep the Raptors from any kind of ascension.

How did G.M. Masai Ujiri address these problems? He had to pay DeRozan so Bismack Biyombo was the collateral damage. Biyombo wasn’t replaced. Jared Sulllinger was signed. Sullinger is an average power forward with a strong nose for the ball. He plays hard but is not dominant on offense or defense, 11.1 points, 7.7 rebounds. For a paint player, he shoots a dismal 43.9%.

The two rookies, Jacob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam, aren’t expected to help a contending team.

Last year’s $60 million dollar acquisition, DeMarre Carroll, has to give the Raptors more.

Carroll played in 26 games with numbers not befitting what the Raptors had hoped. He remained consistent in 3-point%, a 39% from long distance average, nearly identical to the year before with the Hawks. But his 2-point percentage was a measly 38.9% when it was 48.7% in Atlanta. One year in the system and injury free, Carroll has to go back to his efficient days.

The Raptors don’t have a power forward who dominates his position and space on the floor. Patrick Patterson averaged 4.3 rebounds last year coming off the bench and is expected to (perhaps) slide in the starting lineup without Luis Scola in his way. But Patterson is a bench player at best, unable to match up talent wise with the best power forwards in the league. (6.9 points, 4.3 rebounds).

Or, the Raptors may insert Sullinger into the starting lineup. Sullinger is stronger and more physical on defense but on offense he doesn’t offer much. Neither Patterson nor Sullinger are impact players.

I doubt Kevin Love  loses any sleep over the Sullinger/Patterson duo trying to keep him from scoring or rebounding.

Terrence Ross will give them his normal 10 points a game.  Cory Joseph, the Canadian and former Spur, can score his 8.5 points  but the collective bench isn’t enough to make the Raptors second unit feared. James Johnson, Delon Wright, Norman Powell and Lucas Nogueira have to be more than placeholders if the Raptors want any shot at knocking off the NBA champs.

Don’t misunderstand. The Raptors are going to win their division. But the familiar story about getting into the playoffs only to lose is their legacy because they don’t have rebounders and their offense isn’t predicated on ball movement and they don’t have a power forward that can dominate in the paint. I love DeRozan but he’s an isolation player. I love Lowry but his 7 assists per game is as good as it gets and in the playoffs Lowry has been a disappointment.

The fact is the Raptors don’t have anyone that the Cavs fear. Kyrie Irving is a more versatile scorer than Kyle Lowry, and shows up in big moments.  Iman Shumpert can stop DeMar DeRozan.  DeRozan and Lowry are the best the Raptors have to offer while the Cavs have LeBron James and Kevin Love. Jonas Valanciunas is nice but he is the third option. The Raptors are swimming upstream.

In the middle of November, the Raptors play a back to back game: at Cleveland, home against the Warriors. It’s the toughest back to back all year. The Raptors begin the New Year at the Lakers and then they travel to San Antonio. That is the norm for this upcoming season. The contending teams are spaced around the mediocre teams and the horrible teams.

Dwayne Casey has proven he can win in the playoffs.The next marker is proving he can get his stars to perform at a higher level than the regular season. And to beat LeBron James. Otherwise, the Raptors will be a  pretty nice Canadian story with the same resume come spring. Losers.

Prediction: 50-32

photo via llananba