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Ball Don’t Lie’s 2013-14 Season Previews: Toronto Raptors

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Toronto's twin towers pose during the Raptor media day (Getty Images)

After a long, tortuous summer filled with sunny days and absolutely no NBA news of any importance, the 2013-14 season is set to kick off. This means the leaves will change, the cheeks will redden, and 400-some NBA players will ready those aching knees to play for the right to work all the way to June.

The minds at Ball Don’t Lie – Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine, and Eric Freeman – have your teams covered. All 30 of ‘em, as we countdown to tipoff.

Kelly Dwyer’s Palatable Exercise

The .500 mark the Toronto Raptors managed to cobble together to end the 2012-13 season, an 18-18 run that came after the team dealt for shooting forward Rudy Gay (17-16 with Gay), should give the team’s fans hope for this impending campaign.

If one can look past the dwindling production of the late-season teams the Raptors were up against, the significant drop in offensive efficiency with Gay on board (less to do with Gay and the starting five, more to do with the lack of depth post-trade), and big additions to the East’s playoff core over the 2013 offseason, and any other number of warning signs, those fans will be fine. Just focus on the fact that a .500 record, spread out over 82 games, spits out 41 wins. And that the Milwaukee Bucks made the playoffs last season with 38 wins.

What these fans should and likely do know is that the Raptors are in a far more flux than one would think. Because former general manager Bryan Colangelo was shown the door, the new GM in Masai Ujiri has a roster that was almost entirely cobbled together by someone else, and that includes the head coaching hire in Dwane Casey. Even for perennial playoff teams (witness Danny Ferry’s work in Atlanta), these sorts of marriages rarely work out, especially when Ujiri would seem to be as cognizant of Gay and DeMar DeRozan’s efficiency failings as much as other seem to be. Or as much as Colangelo tried not to be.

Raptor fans don’t want to hear this, but the entire 2013-14 season will just be one long exercise in front office creativity (even if no transactions occur), and if it ends in a trip to the playoffs … how lovely.

It’s hard to imagine that Ujiri would want to build around Gay at any cost, much less the two years and over $37 million he has left on a contract Ujiri didn’t sign him to. And Casey, with a year left on his deal, will have to work wonders in the face of a franchise and fandom that is wary of the one-year wonder that Sam Mitchell pulled in an award-winning 2006-07 run when it seemed obvious that Bryan Colangelo would dump the incumbent coach when he was hired to run the Raps in 2006.

The Raptors very well could make the playoffs this season, and that’s a good thing, but it’s also a borderline necessary thing for a team that has as many unfortunate mitigating factors as it does promising traits.

For one, this squad is set to nearly pay the luxury tax for a roster that most have pegged flirting with that .500 record all year. This is no way to run a franchise, but because Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment’s former head executives let Colangelo run wild for so long (bidding against absolutely nobody to overpay DeRozan and Andrea Bargnani, dealing for Gay), this is the hangover they’ll have to literally sign off on. And while that cap figure drops to $58 million next year, that mark also leaves the Raptors without a starting point guard.

This is why Ujiri is most likely desperate to unload DeRozan and Gay for any sort of sensible compensation. Because while Gay’s shooting could improve this season with (literal) improved eyesight, the price for his production just isn’t worth it. Same for DeRozan, who scored 18.1 points per game last year only because he was allowed to shoot 15 times a game, as he’s set to make a whopping $38 million over the next four seasons. After four previous seasons that saw him miss out on the average Player Efficiency Rating marker.

In the meantime, as stated above, we could have a spirited (if well-compensated) little group to watch in Toronto.

Gay should improve, as should DeRozan (at age 24) slightly. Point man Kyle Lowry and coach Casey seemed to come to terms with Lowry’s tempestuous game and attitude late last season (Lowry being in better shape helped), and certainly Jonas Valanciunas should be a far more consistent, productive, and confident force after getting his feet wet during an up and down rookie season. Jonas’ burgeoning offensive game and rising ability to stay on the court should work wonders as he attempts to give his Raptors over 2700 minutes a year from now until 2023.

Then there’s Amir Johnson, a rock that does nothing but screen well, finish well, defend well, rebound well, and foul quite well.

Ujiri wrangled in some moderately priced holdovers, cognizant of the fact that a full on tank wasn’t in the offing with the payroll that Colangelo gifted him. Tyler Hansbrough and D.J. Augustin are probable one-year rentals, while Steve Novak (acquired along with draft picks for Bargnani) makes half of the NBA’s average salary over the next three years while acting as perhaps the league’s best shooter.

These aren’t moves to turn a franchise with, though. Picture Ujiri entering a front office with papers and garbage strewn everywhere, with files and folders spilling from every cabinet. This offseason was just about finding a place to put your briefcase down in a spot without a stain, and finding a desk that didn’t have a week-old pizza box taking up real estate on top of it.

While Ujiri sifts through the mess, his new team might make the playoffs, unless the new GM finds a taker for any number of the players that Colangelo brought in. Such is that strange Toronto Raptor timing.

Projected record: 38-44

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Rudy Gay and Amir Johnson take in the fights (Getty Images)


Tune In, Turn Up with Dan Devine

While only a handful of NBA teams each season harbor serious hope of hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy come late June, all 30 come equipped with at least one reason to keep your television set locked on their games. Dan Devine shares his suggested reasons for the season ahead.

Tune into the Raptors for … a starting five that really could be good enough to make some noise.

After Rudy Gay joined the Raptors in a three-way late January deal, the lion’s share of national discussion on the swap centered on how the deal impacted his former team, the Memphis Grizzlies – about “beer budgets” and redistributed responsibilities, about alleged CBA-inspired punting and the relative merits of advanced statistics in player analysis, and about whether a Grizzlies team that just traded away its super-athletic starting small forward would really be better off for the bargain. (They were.)

While all that was going on, though, something interesting was happening north of the border: a Raptors team that was 17-32 before the trade went 17-16 down the stretch after Gay’s arrival. And while his individual numbers were a tick or two above where they’d been before moving from Tennessee, they weren’t necessarily eye-popping – 19.5 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.7 steals per game on 42.5 percent shooting from the floor, 36 percent from midrange, 33.6 percent from 3-point land. What was different, though, was how the Raptors played when Gay was plugged into the lineup alongside point guard Kyle Lowry, swingman DeMar DeRozan, power forward Amir Johnson and center Jonas Valanciunas (more on him in a bit).

Quiet as it’s kept, that five-man unit mopped the floor with opponents during its 343 minutes together (which made it far and away the most common lineup used by Raptors head coach Dwane Casey last season, despite Gay only playing 33 games in Toronto). As a group, Gay-DeRozan-Lowry-Johnson-Valanciunas shot just under 50 percent from the field, 39 percent from 3-point range and 83 percent from the foul line, while holding opponents to 41/35/77 shooting splits. They scored at a rate better than the Brooklyn Nets’ No. 10-ranked offense while allowing four fewer points per 100 possessions than the top-ranked Indiana Pacers’ D. They outscored opponents in the paint by more than 10 points per 48 minutes, cleared the defensive glass at an elite level and generally performed much more like a legitimate contender than the lame-duck also-ran the Raptors have tended toward tossing on the court during their 18-year history.

Now, Casey gets to start the season with that group and, assuming health enough to be able to keep the pieces in the lineup, we’ll get to find out whether that fantastic season-closing output was the real thing or a classic case of small-sample-size theater. (Although, for what it’s worth, that 343-minute sample was enough to make Gay-DeRozan-Lowry-Johnson-Valanciunas the 29th-most-used five-man lineup in the league last year, according to NBA.com’s stat tool.) An apparent lack of deep shooting could compromise the group’s offensive spacing over the long haul, as Lowry, DeRozan and Gay have all been below average 3-point marksmen over the course of their careers, but Valanciunas and Johnson are both active screeners, strong offensive rebounders and capable interior finishers, which should help clean up misses and generate extra possessions. Plus, if that pair can team with Lowry in the pick-and-roll game to draw defensive attention with hard drives to the rim, Toronto’s wings could find themselves with cleaner perimeter looks or more open slashing lanes on the back-side of the action. (Also, and I know it’s become clichéd to mention it, it’s possible that Gay’s shooting becomes more accurate now that he’s gotten his eyes fixed.)

The top half of the East looks to be largely set, with the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers, Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks all likely to be battling for postseason positioning throughout the next six months. Whether Toronto’s improved enough to separate itself from the competition – the Detroit Pistons, Atlanta Hawks, Washington Wizards and Cleveland Cavaliers, probably – to firmly grasp one of the conference’s last remaining playoff spots figures to depend largely on how well this five-man unit performs over the course of a long, tough season. Based on what we’ve seen, though, there seems to be reason to be excited.

Honorable (“honourable”) mentions: The occasional Terrence Ross open-floor tomahawk; watching swingman Landry Fields and offseason addition Steve Novak get to pal around again on the bench (NOTE: may only apply to Knicks fans); the chance that Valanciunas reaches back into his Lithuanian All-Star Game past to take his relevant and current Borat impression to the next level.

Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion

NBA analysis typically thrives on certainty, a sense that a trained expert sees the truth and points fans towards the key issues and most likely outcomes. Yet, as any seasoned observer of the league knows, events often unfold in unforeseen ways, with players performing against predictions or outside of the realm of presumed possibility altogether. In fact, it may sometimes make sense to dispense with the pretense of predictive genius and instead point towards those issues that as yet provide no simple answer. In Eric Freeman’s Land of Confusion, we investigate one player per team whose future remains vague.

With wings Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan tying up considerable cap room for the foreseeable future, the Raptors have few ways of improving themselves without lucking out in the draft lottery. Their best chance on the current roster is 21-year-old big man Jonas Valanciunas, now entering his second NBA season. As a rookie, Valanciunas impressed enough to create hope for the future without playing so well that he appears to be a sure thing. On the bright side, he also earned MVP honors at the Las Vegas Summer League. Despite necessary room for improvement, Valanciunas could be the player to lift the Raptors back to the postseason.

The question, though, is exactly what it means for a young big man to progress into an excellent player in today’s NBA. No matter what numbers Valanciunas put up in Vegas, his development for the Raptors hinges on playing all-around excellent defense, rebounding, and scoring enough to serve as a moderate threat. Yet he struggled considerably with foul trouble as a rookie and still has much to learn as a defender. The Raptors effectively need Valanciunas to become a stabilizing presence on defense, but he’s also likely too young to accomplish such a thing this season.

The franchise therefore has to wait for a player to develop at a time when its high-cost scorers must justify their contracts. Although many teams feature rosters with players developing on different tracks, the hope is usually that enough of them overlap to create a contender. The Raptors, however, must count on luck.

Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2013-14 NBA Season Previews:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Atlanta HawksBoston CelticsBrooklyn NetsCharlotte BobcatsChicago BullsCleveland CavaliersDetroit PistonsIndiana PacersMiami HeatMilwaukee BucksNew York KnicksOrlando MagicPhiladelphia 76ersToronto RaptorsWashington Wizards

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Dallas MavericksDenver NuggetsGolden State WarriorsHouston RocketsLos Angeles ClippersLos Angeles LakersMemphis GrizzliesMinnesota TimberwolvesNew Orleans PelicansOklahoma City ThunderPhoenix SunsPortland Trail BlazersSacramento KingsSan Antonio SpursUtah Jazz

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