Heading into 2013–14, the Toronto Raptors are in the preliminary assessment stage of what looks to be a long-term transition period. Nothing like kicking things off with a sentence that could’ve been written any time over the last three years, amirite?
The Raptors have been mired in something close to an official rebuild since Chris Bosh bounced to Miami in the summer of 2010. Rather than commit to a full teardown, though, the front office opted to build on the fly around Andrea Bargnani and the five-year, $50-million extension he signed in 2009 (a mind-numbingly generous over-valuation offered by then-GM Bryan Colangelo). The result was three straight seasons in which the team failed to finish better than fourth in the Atlantic, and a seemingly never-ending promise to the team’s fanbase that change was coming, progress was being made. Ultimately that change came this summer, and it was the sloughing off of Colangelo in favour of reigning NBA Executive of the Year Masai Ujiri.
In one sense, then, the Raptors are right where they always seem to be: urging fans to be patient as they fight for one of the last few playoff spots in the East. But thanks to the measured, clear and consistent steps Ujiri and his staff took in their first few months in charge this off-season, for once it feels like the promised change might actually be coming.
Additions: D.J. Augustin, Tyler Hansbrough, Steve Novak, Austin Daye, Dwight Buycks, Julyan Stone/Chris Wright/Carlos Morais
Departures: Andrea Bargnani, Alan Anderson, John Lucas III, Mickael Pietrus, Sebastian Telfair, Linas Kleiza
For symbolic reasons alone, shipping Bargnani (and the roughly $22.2 million left on his contract) to the Knicks for Steve Novak and picks (second-rounders in 2014 and 2017 and a first-rounder in 2016) was a huge victory for the front office. Missing almost 50 games due to injury last season, Bargnani couldn’t find his rhythm when he did hit the court and became a magnet for the frustration and vitriol of Toronto fans. The Raptors were worse on both ends with him on the floor (-5.3 points per 100 possessions overall) and his numbers fell to near-career lows across the board. That Ujiri was able to turn a derided and injury-prone big man with a bloated contract into a stack of picks and a career 43.3 percent three-point shooter is flat-out astounding. Not to dump on Bargnani or anything.
The rest of the Raptors’ off-season (apart from amnestying Linas Kleiza) was spent handing non-committal, purposeful and needs-based contracts to role players. D.J. Augustin (one year/$1.27 million) is a former lottery pick and NBA starter brought in to fill out the bench behind Kyle Lowry. D-League standout Dwight Buycks (one year/$700,000 with a team option) has shown an effective drive-and-kick game in the pre-season and should challenge Augustin for the No. 2 PG spot. Austin Daye (one year/$1 million) will bring length and spot shooting to help space the floor, provided he can regain the stroke he flashed in Detroit to kick off 2012–13 (52.5 percent from deep in 24 games). And Tyler Hansbrough (two years/$6.5 million) is a hard-nosed, energetic forward who gets to the line, rebounds well, plays above-average post defence and twists opponents’ panties.
Again, no blockbusters here — just smart, thought-through moves all aimed at keeping the team flexible while adding some shooting and toughness.
- The starting line of Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas is set in stone — and should be — but can the Raptors get steady offensive production and prevent their defence from imploding when those guys need a breather? Lowry injured a finger on his non-shooting hand in Wednesday night’s pre-season win over Memphis. If he were to miss any significant amount of time this year (a distinct possibility considering he’s been sidelined an average of 13.5 games a season over the last four seasons), it could be catastrophic. Augustin shot a miserable 35 percent from the floor in 2012–13, and Buycks, while promising, has yet to see a single regular-season NBA minute. The outlook isn’t much better at the other four positions: Novak’s deep shooting will help spread the floor, but he made just one layup in two seasons with the Knicks; Terrence Ross is the bench’s closest thing to a genuine scoring threat and last season he needed the business end of a bazooka at his back to find the motivation to attack the rim; and Johnson and JV provide the team’s only rim protection. The bench offers some pieces that can slot in nicely alongside the starters, but the Raps are miles from having anything that could be called a second unit.
- Lowry, Gay and head coach Dwane Casey are all entering the final years of their contracts (though Gay has a player option for 2014–15). In Lowry’s case, the added incentive has already had a visible positive effect on his physique, and the same should be true of his play, but Gay is a little trickier. The small forward has a reputation around the league for his offensive inefficiency (he shot just 42.5 percent from the floor as a Raptor last season), and even if he improves drastically on both sides of the ball, he’d be hard pressed to find a team willing to pay him anything close to his $19.5-million option. Off-season corrective eye surgery may help him hit shots at a higher rate, but if he doesn’t play well, neither will the Raptors — a scenario that could see Lowry run for greener pastures and Casey let go for good.
- The continued development of Jonas Valanciunas. The young Lithuanian centre was outstanding as a rookie and should see a real uptick thanks to the natural evolution of his game and increased minutes alongside Johnson. Johnson’s mid-range game beautifully complements Valanciunas’s post game, and the make for a stingy defensive pairing (the Raptors allowed just 96.5 points per 100 possessions with both big men on the floor, better than Indiana’s league-leading mark). An excellent rebounder with touch around the basket, the motor to run the floor and athleticism to finish off the pick-and-roll, the 21-year-old Valanciunas is emerging as a genuine franchise cornerstone.
DeMar DeRozan. The four-year, $38-million extension DeRozan signed before the 2012–13 season would seem to indicate that he broke out some time ago, but questionable shot selection (and the subsequent knock to his shooting percentages) has seen the fifth-year shooting guard written off as a gunner for most of his career.
Contrary to popular belief, however, DeRozan doesn’t just settle for jumpers. His 427 free throw attempts last season (eighth in the NBA) are a testament to his willingness to attack the rim, and converting 83.1 percent of them is evidence of his excellent shooting mechanics. He has had a tendency to use his athleticism and body control to try to swerve around contact in mid-air, but a newly aggressive mindset may change that. Following the thumping of Memphis on Wednesday, DeRozan didn’t mince words: “I just don’t feel like anybody can guard me… I know I can score when I want to and I know I can create whenever I want to or get to the free-throw line.” This will be the season he proves it.
Scale of Decency:
Half-decent. The Raptors’ starting line is playoff-calibre, capable of competing for a sixth or seventh seed, but the bench still poses some serious problems. The potential for another year of post-seasonless transition is there, but at least Ujiri and his staff seem to have a clear vision for the future, and the patience and intelligence to execute it.
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