Who are they building around? Toronto Raptors Season Preview

Starting Five: PG Kyle Lowry, SG DeMar DeRozan, SF Rudy Gay, PF Amir Johnson, C Jonas Valanciunas
Key Bench Players: G/F Landry Fields, SF Terrence Ross, PF Tyler Hansbrough, F Steve Novak, PG DJ Augustin, C Aaron Gray
Offseason Additions: F Steve Novak
Offseason Subtractions: PF Andrea Bargnani, F Linas Kleiza
FACT OR FICTION: Jonas Valanciunas is more important to this Raptors team’s future than Rudy Gay.
FACT. And it’s not even close.
In Toronto, the name on this Raps team (…if there’s a name at all), it’s Rudy Gay. He’s a career 18 ppg scorer, to go along with 6 boards and a steal every night. Gay can break opponents off the dribble and at any particular moment could shove it down his defender’s throat in a dunk that screams “two million views”. Most importantly, he’s still just 26 years old, despite starting his eighth professional season.
However, with the advent of advanced stats and daily video breakdowns, it’s become apparent (to some) that Rudy Gay is more flash than substance. If you thought he was a franchise building block, I wouldn’t blame you: he looks like the perfect prototypical basketball star. 6’9” with a massive wingspan, jaw dropping athleticism and a stunning mix of speed and explosive quickness. Gay isn’t afraid of being the first option on offense, as evidenced by his career 15.3 FGA per game. On paper, or even quarter to quarter, Rudy looks like a star.

The problem is…he isn’t. Though there is a lot to criticize about John Hollinger’s PER system, the merits are apparent: essentially, the statistic measures how well a player is managing his on-ball possessions. Throughout his career, Gay has registered barely above a league average 15 PER at a middling 16.1 mark, with a highwater number of 17.8 two seasons ago. Having watched Gay in his previous stop in Memphis and now in Toronto, the main problems with him are his over-reliance on the three-pointer (3 attempts per game on a league average .343 shooting percentage) and his existence in the middle of a gravitational sink hole for orange leather balls. Rudy has a negative turnover-to-assist ratio, which means sloppy ball handling, as well as his trademark last minute passing when he realizes “Oh crap, I can’t make this shot”. Defensively, Gay is merely average, but considering his size, strength and athleticism, he’s capable of being one of the league’s elite defenders. In short, the former Huskie is an extraordinarily frustrating player. He frequently shows flashes of greatness, but doesn’t seem to utilize his god given gifts to their fullest extent. It feels like if he just thought his game through more, he’d be one of the league’s truly dominant small forwards.

It’s not that Gay has no value—he certainly does. However, his possessions and contract pay him like an elite player when he’s merely a good player. His existence in Toronto is a remnant of Bryan Coangelo’s disastrous run as a chief Raps decision maker for the past half decade, as he traded for the SF before last year’s trading deadline. New GM Masai Ujiri has shown in his previous stewardship over the Denver Nuggets that he’s not necessarily going to stick with a player just because of his perceived value. Gay, who makes $36 million over the next two seasons, might be on his way out just as soon as he came in.

Thus, 21 year-old center Valanciunas looks like the future of the franchise. The 7-footer showed kernels of his buckets of potential last year, averaging 9 and 6 for the season, but 14 and 7 on .634 FG% and a remarkable .842 FT%. He could very well improve on those numbers this season with increased touches, as Andrea Bargnani no longer is part of the organization after an offseason trade to the New York Knicks.

Along with Valanciunas, the Raptors have a bunch of young talent. Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan (how can that be a real name?), Amir Johnson and Terrence Ross are all still developing (despite this being Johnson’s eighth season and Lowry’s seventh), who coupled with Landry Fields and Gay show a formidable Raptors front six. Offensively, there’s no doubt that this team can score, but without a facilitator like Jose Calderon in the mix anymore, there are some questions about how any of these guys are going to get the ball to begin with. Defensively, they too have promise with these six (okay, maybe five. Sorry, Landry) athletes that have the ability to run around screens and cover pick-and-rolls, but there are still huge questions at to whether or not they’ll be able to actually execute. This is largely the same squad (and coaching staff) as last season, which is a raptors team that finished 21st in defensive efficiency. Hopefully, without defensive sieve Andrea Bargnani getting 30 minutes a night (and the more willing Johnson and Valanciunas in his stead), Toronto can begin to make strides from there.

The Raptors are in the mix for the bottom two seeds in the Eastern Conference playoff picture along with the Atlanta Hawks, Washington Wizards, Cleveland Cavaliers, Detroit Pistons and the Milwaukee Bucks. Unfortunately for the Raptors, it feels like they have too many mismatched parts to truly compete for a 7 or 8 seed. There isn’t a dependable creator with the ball and too many ball stopping scorers, including DeRozan, Gay, Johnson, Fields and Ross. Coach Dwane Casey’s job is to try to make this all work, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Ujiri looks at this mix and decides to completely remake the team in his image.

Best Case Scenario: Kyle Lowry takes a big step forward as a facilitator and scorer (not to mention staying healthy) and makes sense of all the athletic scoring weapons he’s got on hand. The Johnson/Valanciunas combo develops into a great rebounding/shot blocking/defensive unit, with their swingmen performing admirably on the defensive perimeter. Gay is traded away to a desperate Milwaukee squad and like the Memphis Grizzlies last spring, Toronto actually gets better. The Raptors make the playoffs as a young team on the rise, rather than a unit that needs blowing up right away.

Absolute Apocalypse: The Raptors win a little too much merely on raw talent in the weak lower half of the Eastern Conference. They finish just a shot out of the playoffs as the 10-seed, but not high enough for a great lottery pick. Valanciunas, DeRozan and company stall in development and the Raptors aren’t any closer to building back up to a division winner as they were when I wrote this preview.

Expected Outcome: 3rd in the Atlantic, 10th in the Eastern Conference

Do you smell what MAMBINO is cooking? Check out the rest (so far) of our 2013-2014 NBA Season Preview series:

Central Division

Chicago Bulls
Cleveland Cavaliers
Detroit Pistons
Indiana Pacers
Milwaukee Bucks

Southeast Division

Atlanta Hawks
Charlotte Bobcats

Miami Heat
Orlando Magic
Washington Wizards

Northwest Division

Denver Nuggets
Minnesota Timberwolves
Oklahoma City Thunder
Portland Trailblazers
Utah Jazz

Northwest Division

Dallas Mavericks
Houston Rockets
Memphis Grizzlies
New Orleans Pelicans
San Antonio Spurs

Atlantic Division

Boston Celtics
Brooklyn Nets


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