An Offseason of Hits & Misses — Toronto Raptors Preview

Starting Five: PG Kyle Lowry, SG DeMar DeRozan, SF Landry Fields, PF Andrea Bargnani, C Jonas Valanciunas

Key Bench Players: PG Jose Calderon, SF Linas Kleiza, PF Ed Davis, C Amir Johnson, SG Terrence Ross

Notable offseason additions: PG Kyle Lowry, C Jonas Valanciunas (5th overall pick in 2011 draft), SF Landry Fields, SG Terrence Ross (8th overall pick in 2012 draft), PG John Lucas III

Offseason subtractions: G Jerryd Bayless, F James Johnson

Oh, what could have been. Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo came out swinging this offseason, setting his sights on Canada’s prodigial and 2-time MVP Steve Nash.  According to the always fantastic Marc Stein, Colangelo called Nash’s agent at 12:01 AM when free agency opened to sell Nash on returning to Canada.  Later, a 7-man Raptors contingent flew to New York, where Nash maintains an off-season residence, and pitched him on why he should suit up for the Raptors come November 2012.  Nash then met with officials from the New York Knicks, and later the Los Angeles Lakers.

Then, puzzlingly, the Raptors signed former Knick Landry Fields to a “poison pill” offer sheet, paying Fields $8.5 million in his final year.  The assumption that many, myself included, have made from that offer was that Colangelo, nervous that the Knicks would include SG Landry Fields in a sign-and-trade with Phoenix, Nash’s old team, made Fields a Godfather offer to come to Toronto, blocking the Knicks from pulling off the sign-and-trade for Nash. Well, that sort of worked; the Knicks did not get Nash…but neither did the Raptors, as the chance to play in La La Land with Kobe outweighed running the pick-and-roll with Jonas Valanciunas in Toronto.  Colangelo was left with an overpaid Landry Fields.

Well, Colangelo was able to turn the offseason around by acquiring PG Kyle Lowry, and he may turn out to be a better fit for this team than Steve Nash ever was.  Funny how that works, isn’t it?  It’s obvious that the speedy facilitator and deadly scorer in Lowry will help the Toronto offense, but it’s his presence instead of the sieve that is Jose Calderon that will really help the tema. The Raptors turned into a defensive-minded team under first-year head coach Dwane Casey, who was the d-coordinator for the world champion Dallas Mavericks back in 2010.  In just one year, the Toronto moved up from 30th in the league in defensive efficiency (the number of points a team allows per 100 possessions) to 12th in 2012. Lowry is tough all-around player who should thrive in a defensive system pressuring the other point guard.  He had a break-out year last year (pre-All Star break per game averages of 16 points, 8 assists, 6 rebounds, 2 steals) until a strange sequence of injuries derailed him in March.

The Raptors also will welcome Lithuanian big man Jonas Valanciunas, the 5th big in the 2011 draft who played in Europe last year.  Many had opined that Valanciunas, if he came out this year, would have been picked second overall.  The Raptors may have a steal with a a big who moves well, should thrive in the pick and roll, and help them in a big way on the glass.

Look, this Raptors team is young and talented.  Their starting 5 is good and will be better if Bargnani and DeRozan improve off of last year’s campaigns.  Ed Davis, Terrence Ross and the aforementioned Valanciunas are all very intriguing prospects that should have the freedom to grow and improve with a new point guard who will get them easier shots, especially in transition. Calderon, Linas Kleiza and Landry Fields (in just his third year, but one of the elder statemen at age 24) should be able to serve as heady veterans to keep the rooks grounded. This team certainly has the athleticism to continue their defensive improvements, as well as run teams into the ground with two fantastic point guards pushing the pace. 

Unfortunately, they are in arguably the best division in basketball, and certainly the one most overhauled from last year.  Brooklyn, Boston, and New York all got better.  Philadelphia swapped Iguodala for Bynum and lost Lou Williams, but they are still a talented team who made the second round of the playoffs last year.  In order for Toronto to thrive, everyone must buy into Casey’s system, and Bargnani needs to assert himself as a talent worthy of being selected 1st overall, as he was back in 2006. However, playing their four division rivals four times this season is going to drag down Toronto’s record. Combine that with them being a young team still trying to find their sea legs, it’s going to be tough for Toronto to get into the final 8–but it’ll be real fun watching them try. 

Best Case Scenario:  Young legs thrive north of the border, as the Raptors make it through the season with no injuries while their older division counterparts struggle to stay healthy all season.  Lowry finally shines for an entire 82-game season, as does Bargnani.  Valanciunas contributes right away and is a starter from day one, and both DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross give the team athleticism and scoring from the perimeter.  Landry Fields has the last laugh, as he reverts back to the player he was in the first half of his rookie season, cutting without the ball, cleaning up on the glass, and playing efficient all-around basketball.  Backup PG Jose Calderon is traded at the deadline for bench reinforcements, as PG John Lucas emerges as a competent backup.  A young, deep team, the Raptors become a League Pass favorite and surprise many by finishing second in the division and qualifying for the playoffs.  Bounced in the first round, a young team will only get better next year.

Absolute Apocalypse:  Kyle Lowry isn’t the answer at the point, and he struggles with staying healthy and clashes with the coach.  Neither Bargnani nor DeRozan can seem to put a complete season together, and Valanciunas is a lot more green than most expected.  Everyone was right about that Landry Fields contract — Fields looks like the player he was last year in New York, and isn’t even starting beyond the All-Star break.  The Raptors finish last in their division and plummet to the bottom of the conference, winding up with the fourth pick overall in the draft, which they have to send to Houston as a result of their trade for Lowry.

Expected outcome: 5th in the Atlantic Division, 11th in the Eastern Conference

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