Well, let's just jump into part II...
5. RHQ: Let's talk a little more about DeRozan. Does he take a big step forward this season, or do we see pretty much the same DeMar as we've seen the past two? And based on your response (and gazing into your crystal ball), does he return to the Raps next season?
Tim: It's not a huge secret that I'm bearish on DeRozan. He's had blips, like being microscopically better at getting to the line last season, but overall his lack of widespread improvement makes it hard to believe that he's on the verge of any kind of real breakout.
My biggest issue with DeRozan is the fact that he's had three major flaws in his game since hitting the NBA - three-point shooting, ball handling and passing - and none of those problem areas have improved in any kind of meaningful way since he joined the Raptors in 2009. In fact he regressed in several key areas last year, like True Shooting Percentage, Rebound Percentage, Turnover Percentage and Player Efficiency Rating, while offering no substantial improvement anywhere else to compensate (before anyone says defense, the club let up 3.5 points per 100 possessions more with DeRozan on the court last year versus when he was off the court according to 82games.com, worse than in 10-11). No Raptor has played more minutes over the last three years than DeRozan has, and he just hasn't given his club a strong enough return on their investment in him in terms of his personal growth.
Whether or not DeRozan comes back next season depends on two (obvious) things. One, whether or not he has a breakout year that is worthy of a contract extension, and two, whether or not Terrence Ross can supplant him in Toronto's pecking order. Ross is a huge X-Factor in that regard because he doesn't even have to be empirically better than DeRozan to supplant him. In theory, he only needs to do the things that he should do well (play defense and hit threes) right out of the gate to make himself more useful to this Raptors squad than DeRozan is. DeRozan doesn't have the whole season to prove himself, either. If the Raptors feel skittish about his development in February, expect to see him shopped heavily in a package with Jose Calderon's expiring deal at the deadline. The last thing that the Raptors want to do is lose him for nothing in free agency after featuring him so heavily in their plans over the last three years.
The fact is that you can always make an argument that this is gonna be his year, and you could justifiably point to last year's lockout and new head coach for his regression, but he just doesn't strike me as the kind of player that the Raptors thought they were getting when the drafted him back in '09. It happens. I'd love to be wrong, because he's a good guy that by all accounts genuinely wants to be better, I just haven't seen enough to manufacture any substantial optimism about his upcoming season.
Dave: I've never quite understood all the flack that DeRozan gets. He, like Bargnani, is in a role that probably doesn't suit him, and, like Bargnani, would be better served as a supporting player in a perfect world (or on a winning team). To Tim's point about the areas of his game that are lacking, like perimeter shooting, I've been speaking to the Raptors coaching staff and guys like Gary Payton (who spends a lot of time with DeMar during the off-season, mainly because of his connection with Dwane Casey dating back to their days in Seattle) over the summer, and they all speak to the notion that you never want to drastically change a player's game. They know what his limitations are, and are continuing to emphasize playing to his strengths. They want him to attack the basket even more, draw fouls and double-teams at the rim. Surrounded by the right players, good things will come of that. So I see him taking a step forward, likely not a dramatic one- his scoring average should flirt with the 20 ppg mark- but don't expect to see a different DeRozan as far as his skill-set goes, or what he brings to the table.
Terrance Ross, and even Landry Fields, will pose a threat to him in terms of playing time (which save for maybe Barbosa, he's never had to worry about before), so it will be interesting to see if that lights a fire under him. But DeRozan is still a solid young player, he gets to the basket and will be at the free throw line even more this season, he's still only 23, and frankly I don't see why he can't become a reliable scorer for the Raptors for the next few years.
Ryan: DeRozan is an extremely hard worker and for that reason alone I think he'll be better. But, hard work can only take you so far and like Tim, I think there are too many things lacking in his game to expect a massive leap.
He can't hit threes and loves taking long twos, the least efficient shot there is. He doesn't handle the ball well, but, to his credit, still finds a way to get to the rim.
If you can't really shoot and can't handle the ball well, I don't see how you are going to be an elite SG.
Dwane Casey wants the team to speed up the tempo and that actually should help DeRozan fare better, given his athleticism.
Ross is going to eat into his minutes and I think the team will continue to pursue an elite small foward, with DeRozan, Calderon and one of the bigs being lured as the bait (the team was not willing to include all of that plus a first rounder to move for Iguodala or a true three this off-season but if you take the 1st out of the equation ...).
My guess would be DeRozan will be back next season only if the Raptors can't complete a trade. He will have to show a lot more to justify a big contract extension.
Joseph: I think we'll see an improved DeMar DeRozan in 2012-13, based on the fact that his work ethic, his athleticism and his extra year of experience makes it virtually impossible for him to regress from a disappointing 2011-12 season. But I also don't think we'll see the budding star Raptors fans once hoped for and I don't think DeRozan will take enough of a leap forward to justify a long-term extension.
DeRozan's desire to improve, his willingness to work and the fact that he genuinely seems to enjoy representing Toronto as a kind of underdog make him incredibly easy to root for in my book, and I think we'd all like to see him surprise us this year, but I don't think the fundamental basketball skills are there that are necessary for stardom.
If it wasn't for the presence of Terrence Ross, I'd have no problem keeping an improved and more complete version of DeRozan around without him even needing to become any sort of star or go-to guy. But Ross is better in virtually all facets of the game, is nearly just as athletic and almost definitely has the higher ceiling, so unless DeRozan takes a big step forward this season or Ross falls flat on his face, I don't see the point in using up valuable cap space to keep DeMar around or to keep minutes away from Ross.
6. RHQ: So we've talked DeRozan, Bargnani and Lowry, but what about Jose Calderon? Does anyone think he'll supplant Lowry as the starting PG at any point this year and if not, will he be the consummate pro he's always been as a reserve?
Joseph: I'm sure Dwane Casey will say that Jose Calderon will be given a chance to earn the starter's job, but come on, unless Kyle Lowry has to miss a game or his game randomly went in the shitter over the summer, there's no way Calderon starts over him.
I expect to see the consummate pro in Jose that everyone respects, and also expect to see Calderon thrive in a sixth-man type role as the leader of the Raptors' bench, where he should be. It wouldn't be the worst thing in the world to have Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas being spoon fed by Calderon as part of the second unit to start their NBA careers.
If Calderon's expiring contract can be packaged with a couple of young assets in a reasonable deal that nets Toronto an All Star for the future or that ever elusive elite small forward, then I expect the trigger to be pulled. But if there's no deal to be made and Calderon has a solid season off of the bench, I actually wouldn't be opposed to re-signing him to a more team-friendly deal next summer as the team's veteran backup point guard.
Tim: I'm a pretty big Calderon guy at this point. He's so steady and dependable, even if he is a tad unspectacular, and you can't argue with guy that has such a strong grasp of who he is as a basketball player. I think that in today's NBA he's a backup and the sooner he accepts that role the better he'll be able to understand his options going forward in free agency and beyond. If the Raps can't move him (and they are pretty locked-in to doing so) then I think re-signing him would be a great move at the right price.
At this point, though, I think the organization has moved passed him and is just looking for the deal to finish off his Raptors career with. Until that time, though, he'll be a great supporting arm for the young bench and he'll no doubt embrace that role until he's moved on. Calderon is a total pro's pro, and he can have such an impact on the young careers of Valanciunas, Ross that he might even be motivated to do so. Lowry's starting spot is in no danger, but Jose still has plenty to offer this team so long as he's on it.
Dave: I think this situation is different now than when he was splitting time with TJ Ford in that Kyle Lowry is, if not a monumental upgrade, clearly a member of that next tier of NBA point guards. So I don't see Calderon supplanting him as a starter at any point. I do think he'll continue to bring the level of professionalism to the job even coming off the bench, and while it has to kill him because he didn't necessarily play poorly enough to lose the job last year, you won't see that frustration boil over, at least not in public.
Ryan: The Raptors have made it abundantly clear (though they are being quite PC due to Calderon's long tenure with the club and ability to be a good soldier despite basically being traded for Tyson Chandler and likely nearly traded on other occasions) that Lowry is the guy.
He's the best player on the team and the new leader. The only way Calderon stars is if Lowry gets injured. Jose only has a year left on his deal, either they find a new home for him in a few months, or he plays it out in Toronto and gets to pick his next squad. Either way, he's not the type of guy that will make waves, especially not outwardly, as Dave mentioned.
7. RHQ: Alright, enough with the individual player questions, let's get at what everyone wants to know; bottom line - do you think this team make the playoffs next year?
Joseph: Short answer? No.
Longer, more hope inspiring answer: I think this team is good enough on paper, if healthy of course, to challenge for the Eastern Conference's 8th seed, and I wouldn't exactly be shocked if they did that at the expense of one of the other, possibly overrated teams in the Atlantic Division. But at the end of the day, I think everything would have to go right for Toronto in order for that to happen, and as recent history suggests, it's rare for everything to go right for this much maligned franchise.
I do, however, think the Raps will be in the playoff hunt for much of the season, and think that fans will be very optimistic about this team's future by next summer.
Tim: I'm going to go out on a limb and say yes.
Actually, I'm going to setup camp out on that limb by saying not only do I think that they're going to make the Playoffs, I think that they are going to make them easily.
Now, I don't mean that they are going to be a fourth or fifth seed. If this team makes the postseason it is as an eighth seed (seventh at best), but I do believe that by the time we hit the stretch run the team will be fairly secure in their postseason berth.
I'm bullish for a few reasons. One, I think that Kyle Lowry is going to have a transformative effect on this team. His defense and leadership at the point guard position is going to be a huge asset to this team this year, and his ability to hit threes and get to the free throw line will make him a very important linchpin in the team's offence. Two, I think that this team is very well balanced in terms of construction. They don't have a sure-fire All-Star, but they go ten deep respectably and they have positional insurance for guys like DeRozan and Davis who may or may not step up this year in a meaningful way. Three, I think the overall basketball I.Q. on this team has risen appreciably since last season, and more importantly I believe that the guys who are going to get minutes are guys that know how to play basketball at this level (most of them, anyway) and the team won't feel nearly as scattered in their sets as they have been over the last two seasons.
Most importantly, though, I believe in consistent defense. I believe that a team that really buckles down on defense each and every night puts themselves into a position to win a lot of close basketball games. To that end I think that the defensive upgrades that Colangelo made to this team this season were laudatory (although technically Jonas Valanciunas was acquired last season). Colangelo is a guy that has routinely looked to design his teams around offense, so his willingness to expand his vision, hire a defensive-minded coach and then actually give him defensive minded players is going to pay huge dividends this season and beyond.
The one (big) variable in all of this is that, as I've said before, I don't think that this roster is going to be the one that finishes the season. Whether it's a matter of moving Jose Calderon or packaging some of the youth to nab an All-Star or near All-Star, I don't know, but I think that the roster is designed in such a way as to allow for a big move to be made should the right player become available. Colangelo was not shy this summer about pursuing bigger names that he thought fit the culture of this team and just because the offseason is over doesn't mean that that pursuit has ended. He's ready to pounce and I believe that at some point over the next six months he's going to find a trade that he likes and that he can complete. How that affects this season's Playoff run remains to be seen, but that's my hedge against my prediction that this team makes the postseason. As constructed I like them, but I don't think they'll stay constructed this way for long.
Still, as of this moment I like how they've been built, they give off a very Raptors 2006-07 vibe, and in the crowded midsection of the Eastern Conference I think that their defensive focus will help separate them from the pack.
Ryan: I don't think so. I think this will be similar to the post-lockout shortened season when Vince was a rookie and the team was on the rise. They battled all year but ended up in 9th if I recall correctly and set the stage for the future as the franchise finally began to turn the corner.
Brooklyn, Boston, Indiana, Miami will make it for sure. Chicago, New York and Philly likely will as well. That means Toronto will be fighting it out with Atlanta, revamped Washington, Milwaukee and even Cleveland if Waiters is the real deal (call me skeptical) for one spot. So it's possible, but that's a lot of teams to beat out.
Dave: I'm with Tim on this one and I'm going with "yes", even though I might not exactly rush to Vegas and put money on it. Sure the roster isn't laden with All-Stars (or any, really) but it goes ten deep with talented dudes who can contribute, and a full training camp under Dwane Casey will benefit the Raptors young players. The new additions this summer all fill legitamate voids that became apparent last season (perimeter D, consistent shooting, physicality, etc.) If everything goes right (which, in fairness it probably won't) I can see them crawling into the 8th seed, and I don't see that big of a discrepancy between the Raptors and the other clubs expected to fight for that spot. Like Tim said, Kyle Lowry will make a major impact on this team on the court and in the locker room- the kind of leader they didn't have last season. And I truly believe that DeMar DeRozan is going to take his game to the next level, or close to it, and become the reliable go-to scorer the Raptors hoped he would be when they drafted him. Couple that with a healthy Bargnani, a stable of young, energetic bigs, the potential of Landry Fields playing like he did in his rookie year as opposed to last season, and there's a lot of potential. Is it the most realistic answer? Probably not. But it's more fun this way.
Ryan: I will add that if DeRozan proves me wrong and takes a big leap forward, the Raptors will make the playoffs.
8. Interesting, it seems we've got a split panel on the "making the playoffs" question. It sounds like everyone's in agreement though that this team has improved over the off-season and will take a major step forward in the upcoming season (barring injuries and all the usual caveats attached etc.)
So final question then, a two-parter that involves gazing into your respective crystal balls a bit; Has Bryan Colangelo done enough to stick around past this season and even with the improvements, does he have this club positioned to be one of the league's top clubs?
Tim: I think it would take a catastrophic meltdown for Colangelo not to be retained. He made the popular choice and hired a defense-first coach, gave the city defense-first players and has kept spending under control. He hasn't hit a home run by any means, but he's he's done enough to warrant a chance to let him see through his plan. Remember, when he arrived in Toronto he was tasked with retaining Chris Bosh and building a team around him. He's not under that kind of edict this time out. This is his roster, and he's it's intriguing, so I think that MLSE will let him continue to ply his trade in Toronto when the season is up.
Do I think they are positioned to be a top club? No, not even close. To be a top club you need top-level talent, and the Raptors don't have that today. Now, they have trade assets and some cap flexibility (as well as an aggressive GM), so they could improve their standing at any time, but you can't assume that cap space and trade assets will yield anything just because a team has them. As of right now Toronto is building on the 'star-less' Indiana model, which makes a lot of sense, but even Indiana was faced this summer with overextending themselves to keep certain players and that has cut significantly into their ability to import talent down the road. Eventually Toronto will need some A-list talent if they want to bust into the league's top tier, and as of right now they don't have that talent.
Joseph: As long as the Raptors show a steady improvement this season and are playing meaningful, competitive basketball late into the season (which I think they will be), regardless of whether they make the playoffs or not, then I assume Bryan Colangelo is going to be extended, given that I believe only a team option for 2013-14 remains after this season. If the Raptors make the playoffs and actually look like a legitimate team on the rise in the NBA, then it's a certainty.
As for the second part of the question, this team is nowhere near being one of the league's top clubs yet, but they have been positioned to take some big steps forward over the next couple of years. As presently constructed, unless Jonas Valanciunas is the second coming of Dwight Howard, I can't see this group's future ceiling being any higher than the recent ceilings of the Pacers and Grizzlies, which is more like second tier. As Tim alluded to, the Raptors will eventually need legitimate star power to break into the NBA's top tier, and as much as I like the potential of guys like Lowry, Valanciunas, Ross and maybe even Bargnani, I can't say I see any of them as future top tier talent.
The question then becomes can Bryan Colangelo and co. turn the tradeable assets and cap flexibility Tim spoke of into a star player? If they can, it changes everything.
Ryan: Unless the team completely flames out this year, Bryan will get his team option picked up. Don't forget, much of the board-level resistance to his work here disappeared with the removal of the OTPP.
No, the Raptors are nowhere close to being a top team. They need Valanciunas to be excellent, Bargnani and Lowry to play like they did in the best moments last year and either DeRozan or Ross to be above average NBA starters AND a player better than any of those guys, who isn't currently on the team, in order to become a top club.
Dave: While many were calling for his head throughout the course of 2011-12, BC did enough in this off-season, specifically bringing in Kyle Lowry without giving up any real assets, to keep his job beyond this season.
As far as being one of the NBA's top clubs, the answer is a resounding ‘Hell No'. That doesn't mean they won't be competitive, or that they won't be in a position to at least fight for a playoff spot this season and beyond, but this team is still a looooong way away from being considered anything close to elite. Right now their makeup is a ‘sum-of-the-parts' type of team, with no real superstar (or anything close to it) to carry the team when it needs it most. The good one's all have ‘that guy'. The Raptors don't, and until that changes, be it through a trade (although I don't think at the moment they have the cumulative assets to acquire a true top-calibre player) or free-agency (also unlikely any time soon), they'll be somewhere in the middle of the pack.