Toronto Raptors: Avoiding the Middle

For the Toronto Raptors, the upcoming season is a make or break year.  They were the only team in the East with nearly enough star power to compete with the Cleveland Cavaliers, which they showed by taking them to six games in the 2016 playoffs.

Just taking the Cavs to six games should be validating to the Raptors but they are still a long way from competing consistently over a full 7 game series against the Cavs.

After their season ended, the Toronto Raptors had a number of weaknesses to address and needed to nail all their personnel moves if they were going to compete for the 2-seed again next year.

Going into the offseason, the Raptors needed to find a starting power forward to play next to incumbent center Jonas Valanciunas.  It may be that they shift their backup forward, Patrick Patterson, into the starting role, but this does not help their defensive deficiencies at the rim despite his additions on offense.  The power forward they signed last year to start, Luis Scola, was clearly not the answer, and has already left to play for Brooklyn.

They also need to find a solution at backup center to play big minutes behind Valanciunas, or to start if Valanciunas is hurt.  After a breakout showing in the playoffs, last season’s backup center, Bismack Biyombo, suddenly became too expensive to retain and they let him go to Orlando for 4 years and $70 million.

To try and fix both of these problems, the Raptors signed former Boston Celtics power forward Jared Sullinger to the veteran Mid-Level Exception and drafted Jakob Poetl after his freshman year at the University of Utah.

Sullinger has never played a full NBA season at the potential he showed in college and Poetl doesn’t turn 21 until October.  In Sullinger, the Raptors get a player who can’t be pushed around on the glass, but he can’t defend his own position very well and his offensive game has plateaued.  Poetl is no doubt a good value for the 9th pick but he may not help them right away.  Neither one represents a good shot to play big minutes in playoff games or crucial mid-season games as they chase the 1-seed.

The Raptors still have a great all-star back court in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan was re-signed this summer.  Both will look to bounce back in a big way after their poor showings in the playoffs and will look to lead the team for years to come.

The Raptors have not had a full season with last year’s big free agent signee DeMarre Carroll.  When they brought him in they hoped he could play big minutes as a defensive stopper and use his potential to play power forward in crunch time.

Even if they can play Carroll at power forward, their starting young center has alarmingly plateaued.

Valanciunas will look to bounce back after a disappointing year that saw him only play in 60 games.  The hype for him was always based on his ability to score in the post, rebound, and potentially protect the rim on defense.  He has never averaged a double-double or more than 1.3 blocks per game.  This is a problem as teams shift to smaller centers who can run flat footed post centers who don’t hurt them on the glass off the floor.  There is still room to improve and the Raptors committed to Valanciunas over the more athletic Biyombo for a reason. He just has to prove it.

The bench, which can be very good, is also a place where they need to get better.  Patrick Patterson has always been a go-to option but good teams know how to hurt the Raptors on the boards when he’s playing.  Backup point guard Cory Joseph is a steal at under $8 million until 2019 and a larger role for him will probably be inevitable as Lowry ages.

The Raptors are mostly short on the wing.  Terrence Ross has never lived up to the potential flashed in that 51 point game two years ago and has never played defense at a consistently high level despite his athleticism.

Last year’s rookie shooting guard, Norman Powell, showed a lot of promise in his first year but he is still just 23 and has only played 49 NBA games.

Finally, there is the issue of whether or not head coach Dwayne Casey is capable of leading the Raptors to where they want to go.  Despite being extremely well-liked in Toronto and across the NBA, there are many who doubt his ability to use the talent he has at hand.  Last season was a make or break year for Casey and the fact that he got the Raptors to the Eastern Conference Finals helped his job security.  It remains to be seen whether or not he is the best option for the Toronto Raptors going forward.

It doesn’t help that the Boston Celtics can threaten to change the balance of power in the East.  Making no major acquisitions and returning the same team which wasn’t good enough last year may bring the Raptors closer to the middle of the Eastern Conference playoffs, and an earlier exit.


photo via llananba

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