The 2017-18 regular season is just around the corner and it’s a critical one for the Toronto Raptors, who will look to balance contending for home court in the East— and a deep playoff run— with developing ta glut of young players filling significant roles on the roster. Sportsnet’s NBA panel, featuring Eric Smith, Dave Zarum, Donnovan Bennett, and J.D. Bunkis weigh in on some of the pressing questions surrounding the Raps heading into the season:
Where will the Raptors finish in the East standings this season?
Eric Smith, SN590 Raptors broadcaster: Second or Third. Toronto’s primary core is very good and the addition of CJ Miles and the increased expectations for Norm Powell should all factor in. Honestly, you could make a case for the Raptors, Celtics, Wizards and Bucks finishing second, third, fourth, fifth— take your pick. It’s a crap-shoot behind the Cavaliers.
Dave Zarum, NBA editor: Third. The DeRozan/Lowry/Ibaka core is enough to lock down home court advantage, and if the Raptors’ young guns can produce off the bench then the ceiling is even higher.
Donnovan Bennett, staff writer: 2nd, behind the Cleveland Cavaliers.
J.D. Bunkis, SN590 co-host: Second behind only the Celtics. If there’s one thing the Raps have proven over the last four seasons its that they get it done in the regular season, winning 62 per cent of their games over that span.
Who is the most Important Raptor in 2017-18?
Smith: Serge Ibaka. You know what you’re getting from both Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. But Ibaka, in his first full season with the Raptors, will be counted on heavily on both ends of the floor. He needs to space things on offence and prove to be potent from distance, but he’s expected to make an impact defensively too. Can he be the athletic, intimidating shot-blocker and rebounder he once was?
Zarum: DeMar DeRozan. With the Raptors looking to evolve offensively, DeRozan will be asked to adjust more than just about anyone on the roster. If he’s able to make quicker decisions with the ball— especially passing out of double or triple teams— while maintaining the best elements of his game (attacking the basket, getting to the line, mid-range wizardry from the high-post) then the team will benefit greatly.
Bunkis: DeRozan. If this team is really going to change their style and ceiling it starts with DeRozan improving as a playmaker, adding a semi-respectable three point shot & committing on defence. Seems like a lot to ask, but he’s exceeded expectations every season.
Who is the team’s biggest X-Factor?
Smith: Norm Powell. Assuming CJ Miles starts, Powell’s production off the bench— a very young, inexperienced bench— could be a game-changer for the Raptors on any given night. He brings speed, athleticism, and a solid overall offensive package. But he can D his man up as well. He has the experience and chemistry with the starting unit, too, and will likely play starters-type minutes on most nights. If he plays as expected he’ll be huge for Toronto, but if he falters the Raptors could struggle with their depth. Hence, his X-factor status!
Bennett: CJ Miles. During Dwane Casey’s entire tenure in Toronto, the Raptors have been outplayed every night at the three position. This is the first time the starting small forward can be considered above-average. For a team that wants to shoot threes in volume, Miles matters given he’s the team’s greatest threat from deep— and he doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be effective.
Bunkis: The fresh-faced bench. There doesn’t appear to be a lot off offensive punch outside the starters, but the reserves could have an immediate identity as a “shut down” unit with multiple young guys who have a ton of defensive upside. If they can embrace that & keep pace with buckets from Powell & Lowry that’d be great.
Who is poised for a breakout?
Smith: Delon Wright. With Cory Joseph now in Indiana, the spotlight is clearly on Wright. Though Fred Van Vleet could still get some playing time, the primary back-up role is Wright’s. The organization is showing a ton of confidence in the young guard and his size, length, playmaking skills and confidence on the court should set him up nicely for a breakout season.
Zarum: Jakob Poeltl. Whenever he’s on the floor Poeltl seems to naturally find his way to opportunities around the basket and has the size and awareness to disrupt opponents on both ends of the floor. He should have a stronghold as the first big off the bench, where he’ll be an efficient, impactful player who could play his way into the starting lineup sooner than you think.
Bennett: Norman Powell. He’ll receive more minutes, a defined role, and more opportunity to look for his shot in the second unit. Guys who score in double figures, play elite defence, and shoot low-40 per cent from three and high-40 per cent from two make lots of money in this league. There is no reason why Norm can’t do all of the above now that his pathway to minutes is much clearer.
Bunkis: Delon Wright. He’ll get the CoJo minutes, and I expect he makes the most of ’em. Wright’s creativity and vision as a passer are exciting and important to the improved ball movement this team’s looking for. Defensively, he can be a perimeter anchor alongside Powell using his length, size and quickness to harass smaller point guards. Don’t let the braces fool you, the dude’s 25 and that helps.
Will Jonas Valanciunas be a Raptor by the end of the season?
Smith: If Shaq and Kareem can be traded, if Wayne Gretzky can be traded, anyone can be dealt if the right deal comes along. But that said, I think Valanciunas will remain with the Raptors. Simple logic says if a player is impacting his team in a positive way, why would you move him? And on the flip-side, if he’s struggling and not fitting in would there even be a market for him?
Zarum: Yes, if only because the market won’t be strong enough to warrant moving an asset playing on a decent contract. A log jam at centre with Ibaka, Poeltl, Valanciunas, and Nogueira could force the Raps’ hand and be motivation to make a move regardless.
Bennett: Yes. He’s still an above average centre in the NBA, and is still young, and is a hard worker on what is now a very favourable contract. If culture matters, JV is still around in June.
Bunkis: Yes. Raps have a fair amount of depth at centre, especially if you’re as high on Poetl as I am, but JV is still their best rebounder and an established weapon on offence. For all his warts it’s hard to imagine a deal involving him that makes the Raptors better this season considering how hard they tried dealing him this off-season.
What do you think the Raptors rotation should look like? Who starts at each position, and who is the primary backup at each?
Smith: Starters: Lowry-DeRozan-Miles-Ibaka-Valanciunas. Bench: Wright-Powell-Siakam-Poeltl and, when healthy, rookie OG Anunoby. But I think Casey keeps a tight 9-man rotation on many nights. The wild card: Van Vleet.
Bennett: Starters: Lowry-DeRozan-Miles-Ibaka-Valanciunas. Bench: Wright-Powell-Anunoby-Poeltl-Noguiera.
Bunkis: Starters: Lowry-DeRozan-Miles-Ibaka-Valanciunas. Bench: Wright-Powell-Anunoby-Siakam-Poeltl.
Will Bruno Caboclo be a rotation player this season in the NBA?
Smith: Not in the top 8-10 of Dwane Casey’s rotation. But could he get minutes from time-to-time (and not just garbage time/mop-up duty)? Yes. Based on last year’s finish with the 905 and some early signs from this year’s training camp, he looks more ready than ever.
Zarum: I don’t see it. Caboclo is getting burn in the pre-season, which should help his development, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he was supplanted in the depth chart by a training camp invitee like K.J. McDaniels, Kyle Wiltjer, or Alfonzo McKinnie, should any of those players make the team.
Bennett: No. Still a year away, and still too many accomplished NBA players ahead of him.
Bunkis: injuries could make it happen but even in that case he wont be an effective one. Bruno still looks a ways off from contributing on the regular.
What is the single greatest determining factor for the Raptors to be successful— or even improve— this season?
Smith: Ball movement. If the ball is moving, in theory, there should be more open shots. More open shots should eventually equate to more makes. More makes simply create a more explosive offence and makes you harder to guard as a team overall. And you would assume that will all add up to more wins.
Zarum: The youth movement. We know what to expect from the Raptors’ veteran core, but it’s the group of reserves being thrust into meaningful roles off the bench— Powell, Poeltl, Wright, Siakam, Van Vleet, Nogueira— who will ultimately determine whether or not the Raptors will truly contend in the East.
Bennett: Health. If one of DeRozan or Lowry or even Ibaka is out for an extended period of time, the Raptors are a lottery team. There isn’t enough experience or offensive fire power to combat losing their veterans.
Bunkis: I think we’ve all accepted this team isn’t beating the Cavs so I want to feel like the Raps are still building something, and not that they peaked and are now stuck in the middle. For that to be the case the young players need to improve and there has to be a noticeable commitment to a more modern offence. If Toronto sees the likes of Siakam and Anunoby grow, finish outside the bottom 10 in assists & add a few threes per game while maintaining or improving their efficiency from deep, I’m all smiles.