Key questions for Raps ahead of season opener

. (Photo: Dave Sandford/Getty)

The Toronto Raptors begin their 20th anniversary season on Wednesday and, for the first time in recent memory, kick off a year with optimism. Playoff expectations are at an all-time high as the team hopes to improve on its first-round showing last season and potentially move into the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference—and, perhaps, the NBA.

With last year’s core returning and a bolstered second unit, Toronto appears to be poised for a solid run.

Here are some questions to consider ahead of Wednesday night’s tipoff.

What’s next for DeMar DeRozan?

He was selected too high in the draft. He would never develop a perimeter game. He doesn’t get to the free-throw line enough. He won’t ever live up to the financial commitment of his contract extension.

DeRozan has heard all of the criticism and year-after-year he silences the skeptics. Coming off a career season that saw personal highs in points, rebounds and assists per game, his deal is looking more like a bargain than a noose.

The USC product gained a ton of respect around the NBA last year as well—appearing in his first All-Star Game, leading Toronto into the post-season and winning gold with the American national team in the summertime. He was among the league leaders in free-throw attempts, a sign of increased aggressiveness, sure, but also a quiet nod from the officials. He’s at an all-time high.

For DeRozan to take yet another step forward—and for the Raptors to reach that next level as a franchise—defensive growth is now paramount. The dynamic scorer has to find a way to maintain his offensive touch and impact while taking the challenge to stop guys with that same intensity.

Good players continue to evolve and DeRozan, thus far, has been doing just that.

Why did Jordan Hamilton get cut?

To be clear, it had nothing to do with talent. The minute the Raptors waived him—just a few short days ago—there was no doubt that he’d be gobbled up by another NBA club. On Monday, Utah did just that.

Many in Raptor Nation believed Hamilton deserved to make Dwane Casey’s final cut ahead of Landry Fields. As documented in this space a week ago, Fields is still not 100 percent recovered from ulnar nerve surgery and rehab. He’s limited, offensively. But he can still defend, rebound and run the floor. That said, Hamilton can do all of that as well, and he’s got a decent stroke—from distance too. Yet none of that ultimately matters… for either player!

Simply put, Hamilton got caught in a numbers game. With Greivis Vasquez, Lou Williams, James Johnson and Patrick Patterson already comprising the core of the second unit, and DeRozan expected to log heavy minutes in the starting rotation (along with a potentially increased role for Terrence Ross), there was never going to be a great opportunity for Hamilton to play with any kind of consistency. Ditto for Fields.

However, Fields is an asset for the same reason many have grown frustrated with him: his contract. With a price tag that sits near $7 million, Fields provides the Raptors with payroll relief at the end of this season—when his deal expires—or he could become an asset in a mid-season trade that might require Masai Ujiri to take back a big-money player.

Most importantly, Greg Stiemsma adds some size, and grit, to a frontcourt that occasionally lacks just that.

What’s the biggest weakness on this team?

Rebounding was an issue at times last year. Though the Raptors were one of only a handful of teams that ranked in the league’s top 10 on both sides of the ball last season, their totals on the glass weren’t as impressive. Coach Casey has stressed the importance throughout camp and the pre-season of securing the ball. Toronto must rebound, collectively, much better in 2014-15.

But the greatest weakness of this team may be its greatest strength as well. So it’s probably better to use the term “challenge” instead of “weakness”.

With Lowry, Vasquez and Williams, there are few—if any— teams in the league that have the point guard depth that Toronto possesses. The rotation of wing players like DeRozan, Ross and James Johnson should provide a nice blend of athleticism, range and defence. And the core of big men is balanced, with Jonas Valanciunas, Amir Johnson, Patterson, Tyler Hansbrough and even Stiemsma.

The challenge, then, lies in Casey pressing the right buttons at the right times on a nightly basis.

Toronto is likely not a championship contender—yet. But the team is talented, and there are guys that will have to play a lesser role and see fewer minutes than they might with other organizations.

To this point, everyone is talking a good game—focusing on team success and cohesion ahead of personal agendas. There’s no reason to doubt the legitimacy of those words from any player, but attitudes can change and feelings can get hurt over the grind of an 82-game season.

Casey has talked about keeping a tight nine-man rotation. He has also said that players dictate their minutes and roles based on their play in games and in practices. However, there’s no denying how difficult the task of keeping everyone on the same page could become for Casey and his staff.

What will Stiemsma’s impact be?

He plays with an edge, isn’t shy about mixing it up under the hoop with anyone in the league, and he seems like a natural fit to back Valanciunas on nights when Toronto is faced with a legit big man on the other end of the floor. But the league is moving in a direction that sees many power forwards—and some centres—playing further from the hoop to stretch the floor that much more. Thus, Stiemsma’s time will likely be driven by matchups.

How many games will Toronto win?

The number doesn’t really matter. In fact, the Raptors could finish below their win total from last season and find themselves in a better position to advance when the post-season rolls around.

Toronto will not be flying under the radar this season; they’ll be getting the best from their opponents on every single night. And within their division and conference, they’re sure to see tougher games from the likes of the Knicks, Cavs, and Hornets.

No matter what the final tally is, the Raptors should be battle-tested and experienced enough now to set their sights on a second-round playoff appearance at the very least. That should be the bar at this point.

Three Quick Thoughts

1) The relationship between Casey and Lowry was never bad, but there’s no denying that it was strained at times as the two men learned each other’s strengths and weaknesses and accepted that they needed one another to succeed. A year ago, it looked like Lowry was on his way to another team. Now, he’s locked in with the Raptors, and with Casey and the coach’s philosophy and style. Maturity and growth!

2) That bond between Casey and Lowry speaks to the theme that has been present in Toronto since the beginning of camp: chemistry and familiarity. The Raptors have the same starting five that finished last season, and the core of the second unit is intact, too. But an under-reported asset is the return of the entire coaching staff. For the first time in a long time there was no change in the head coach’s staff. From video coordinators to assistants, everyone is back.

3) Look for some stretches of small ball from the Raptors this season—particularly in late-game situations. Casey liked to use Vasquez and Lowry together quite a bit last season (especially in the fourth quarter) and he’s now got another scorer—with speed—in Williams. Could those three play together with, for example, DeRozan and Patterson? That would certainly spread the floor and cause matchup problems from opposing defences. It’s not something you’d go to regularly or for long stretches, but for end-of-game plays don’t be surprised by the creativity that could come this season.

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