More like raptures.
OK, it’s not the end of times for a Raptors team that’s set franchise records for wins the past two seasons, but after two straight first-round playoff exits and another dormant — if not degenerative — offseason, Toronto faces a crossroads in 2015-16.
On one hand, the Raptors only had Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan for 48 games last season, won two-thirds of them and outscored opponents by almost four points per 100 possessions with that All-Star backcourt tandem on the floor. Now, Lowry looks to be in the best shape of his career, and DeRozan is entering a contract year.
Add DeMarre Carroll to a mix that includes fellow versatile shooters Terrence Ross and Patrick Patterson spacing the floor around freshly extended Lithuanian 7-footer Jonas Valanciunas, and Toronto may have modernized a roster whose fatal flaw was exposed by the Wizards’ small-ball lineup in their first-round sweep last season.
On the other hand, they lost Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams from a bench that ranked among the league’s five best and beloved dirty worker Amir Johnson from a defense that was already sliding into the bottom 10 in the second half of last season.
Has Toronto done enough to take the next step toward NBA legitimacy and advance in the playoffs for the first time since 2001? Or is this core simply not good enough? In which case, it might be time to blow it up. It’s judgment season for the Raptors.
2014-15 season in 140 characters or less:
Did the summer help at all?
Caroll was one of the NBA’s most underrated players last season, serving as the fifth starter on a Hawks team that won 60 games with four All-Stars around him. He shot 40 percent from 3-point range on more than 300 attempts and defended multiple positions for a group that allowed a respectable 100.7 points per 100 possessions.
Four seasons into his NBA career, Bismack Biyombo earned a bust label in Charlotte after the Hornets drafted him with the seventh overall pick in 2011, but he might actually be a bit underrated on a two-year, $5.75 million deal now from the Raptors. Opponents shot less than 50 percent at the rim opposite Biyombo last season, and he blocked three shots per 36 minutes for a defensive unit that operated at Golden State’s level with him on the floor (98.7 points allowed per 100 possessions).
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Toronto also added Cory Joseph, a third-string point guard who saw more time on the Spurs last season in the absence of Tony Parker and Patty Mills, for a hefty four-year, $30 million price tag. Joseph, 24, averaged 13.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 4.7 assists per 36 minutes last season, but only played about half that in San Antonio.
And then there’s Luis Scola, the Argentinian who performed admirably in stretches at age 34 on the Pacers last season. He’s signed to an inexpensive one-year contract.
So, yeah, the Raptors spent some money this past summer. Almost $100 million on those four guys, in fact. But they also traded serviceable backup point guard Greivis Vasquez for draft picks and lost Williams, Johnson and Tyler Hansbrough to free agency. That quartet is guaranteed a combined $40.6 million on their current contracts. Do the additions represent a significant enough upgrade over the subtractions to warrant more than twice as much in payroll? That’s no guarantee.
Go-to offseason acquisition:
It has to be Carroll, who earned a four-year, $58 million deal in free agency at age 29, a couple years after receiving a two-year, $5 million contract in Atlanta. He was a steal for the Hawks, averaging 11.8 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.8 assists in 31.7 minutes a night while shooting 37.9 percent from distance over the past two years.
Is that worth sextuple the salary? It depends on whether the space created by Kyle Korver, Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap and Al Horford in Atlanta shrinks in Toronto. Carroll shot less than 30 percent from 3 on fewer than 100 attempts combined in his first four seasons on the Grizzlies, Rockets, Nuggets and Jazz. Any regression toward that mean in the absence of four All-Star teammates would be problematic.
More likely, though, Carroll will continue knocking down triples with Patterson spreading the floor beside him. Along with Biyombo, he’ll also bring much-needed toughness to a defense that allowed 110 points per game in the playoffs. And when the salary cap balloons to $90 million in 2016, his salary may look like a fair price.
The Raptors were 8.1 points per 100 possessions better when Valanciunas was off the floor last season, and they gave him a four-year, $64 million extension this past summer. He is a solid rebounder and efficient scorer around the basket, averaging a double-double per 36 minutes for the past two seasons, but coach Dwane Casey couldn’t afford to play him more 30 minutes a night because of his porous defense.
Conversely, Biyombo is a force defensively who might be the league’s worst offensive threat when not dunking. Outside of melding Valanciunas and Biyombo together (Valanyombo or Biyonciunas?), Casey will have to strike a balance between the two at the center spot, especially without Johnson to man the middle in smaller lineups, because 7-foot Brazilian project Lucas Nogueira hasn’t been much help.
Contributor with something to prove:
A groin injury cost DeRozan 22 games in his first season after a breakout All-Star campaign in 2013-14, and his production and efficiency suffered as a result. Never much of a 3-point shooter, DeRozan shot just 28.4 percent from distance last season, and while he averaged 20 points for a second straight year, it took him an average of 16.5 shots to get there. His assists were up and his turnovers down.
DeRozan’s numbers crept back up to 22 points, five rebounds and almost four assists per game after the All-Star break, but his defense suffered. It appears Lowry has arrived this season with something to prove — averaging 24.2 points and 4.8 assists in 25.3 minutes during the preseason — but the Raptors will need DeRozan to step beyond his previous All-Star form, too, if they hope to advance past the first round. There’s no better time than the present for him to step up his game, particularly on the defensive end, since he can opt out of his contract next summer.
Potential breakout stud:
Most of Toronto’s roster is established — a positive in terms of weathering the ebbs and flows of the regular season, but that doesn’t speak well for their recent draft history (Nogueira in 2013 and Bruno Caboclo in 2014). This year’s first-round pick, Delon Wright, may break the mold, but won’t crack a deep guard rotation in 2015-16.
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Still only 26 years old, Patterson has shot 38.2 percent from 3-point range since coming over from the Kings in the Rudy Gay trade. With a 7-foot-2 wingspan, he’s perfectly suited to be a stretch four, and the two most often used lineups featuring him last season outscored opponents by more than 15 points per 100 possessions. With Johnson gone, Patterson will have a regular starting role for the first time in Toronto, and the only question is whether more minutes will translate into more production.
If Carroll does for Toronto what he did in Atlanta; if Biyombo can be enough of a defensive upgrade to offset his offense; if the next step in Valanciunas’ development is improved rim protection; if DeRozan enjoys a contract year; and if Lowry’s slimmed-down frame beefs up his production; then, the Raptors should be right back in the hunt for an Atlantic Division title, a top-four seed and homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs. They might even win a series this time around.
If everything falls apart:
If the defense suffers without Johnson, the offense dips without Williams and the new crew doesn’t fit quite as well as the old one, then the Raptors have some serious decisions to make, starting with what to do with DeRozan. Toronto already has eight-figure annual salaries committed to Valanciunas, Carroll and Lowry next year, and do they really want to make a one-dimensional DeRozan the highest-paid player of that bunch?
And is that a core that can ever do damage in the playoffs, or one just good enough to get there? And if DeRozan is no longer in the picture, he could merely be the first domino to fall as the north crumbles. In other words, apocalypse now.
Kelly Dwyer’s notoriously unreliable crystal ball:
45-37, seventh in the East.
Read all of Ball Don't Lie's 2015-16 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Hornets • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors • Washington Wizards
Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Golden State Warriors • Houston Rockets • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Minnesota Timberwolves • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Utah Jazz
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