Drum roll please..
Yes, it's time once again for another edition of the RaptorsHQ Media Roundtable!!
For this latest edition, please put your hands together for our crew of special guests...
As some of our favourite voices in the Raptors' space, they help me dig into some of the big questions facing this Raptors' club as it begans its 2013-14 campaign.
1. RaptorsHQ: Let's start by stepping into the shoes of the man now in charge of the Toronto Raptors, Masai Ujiri. At face value Ujiri has a team that looks like a playoff contender, and the Raptor fanbase certainly could use a taste of the post-season. However he also has several potential franchise cornerstone pieces in next summer's NBA Draft and two key current players (Lowry and Gay) who despite any on-court success this season, could walk come July.
What direction do you think Ujiri will go with the club, and how long do you think he waits before making a move in one direction versus another?
Michael Grange: I think the first 20-25 games will be the point where his mind is pretty much made up. By that time the team will have had their first west coast swing under their belt; played the Heat a couple of times; seen San Antonio and generally got a pretty good sampling of what this roster can do. The advantage of taking a stable approach in the off-season is that there are very few excuses - returning the same starters and the same head coach should yield some improvement and signs that this is a group that can win a playoff spot. If they come out flat, heads should roll and the tanking for JaBari Parker should begin.
Eric Koreen: I find the win-big-or-lose-big philosophy a bit exhausting, since we have seen franchises like Indiana, Memphis, Denver, Chicago and others take the traditional path of progression. At the same time, Tim Leiweke came to Toronto with a championships-or-bust mantra, so this cannot be about consistent contending. For Ujiri, it has to be about titles. And I just don't think the pieces are here to turn this team into one that can be in the conversation.
So, I think Ujiri cuts his losses by mid-January or so, and looks to move Kyle Lowry and Rudy Gay, and maybe Amir Johnson and DeMar DeRozan. Ujiri has talked about the "karma" of going down such a route, but his mission, as directed by Leiweke, is pretty clear.
Ryan Wolstat: Masai told a couple of us recently that he has "thought of every possible scenario" so he won't be underprepared for whatever happens.
He's willing to give the group some time to see if the starters are as good as they've shown in a sample size that is only about 2.5 months total.
It will be wait and see for at least the rest of 2013. Then, they'll take stock, but my money would be the franchise looks to the future by moving players not in the plans for assets unless the record is tremendous by the New Year.
Duane Watson: While it's easy to come in and go all willy-nilly and start shaping this team in his vision, I think one of Ujiri's better qualities is his ability to evaluate situations. Even with his arrival in Toronto, which after getting the offer seemed like a no-brainer, he took time with that decision. I think it's going to be a while before he makes any moves, likely closer to the trade deadline so he can assess the roster. Particularly to see what pieces fit into his vision of what this ball club will be, (curious to hear what that is), I feel Coach Casey is part of that assessment too. Unless of course, there's a can't miss deal to be had, or the team suffers another horrible start like they did last year - then I expect some quicker changes. Most Nigerians are fluent in more than a few languages, yet I don't think Ujiri knows how to say "tank" in any of them.
2. RHQ: Eric, you mentioned several players who potentially could be shown the door if Ujiri decides to blow things up. There's been a lot of talk about the duplication of skill sets between DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay, so curious to get the group's take: if only one goes, which one is it, and/or, which one SHOULD it be?
Mike: It all goes back to a short-term or long-term view. If the the plan is to try and incrementally become better like Indiana has over the years then moving a player as good (or theoretically good) as Gay doesn't make sense. Where do you find a replacement? I'd keep them both. But if I had to choose I'd keep DeRozan as he's cheaper and almost equally productive and younger.
Ryan: It's a tough call. Gay likely always will be the better player, but his salary is twice as much now and next year and then probably $14.5/year vs. DeMar's $9.5 going forward. With Gay, you know what you'll get. DeRozan is still getting better and also is a long-time and proud representative of the city. That counts too.
I've come around on whether they can co-exist well together, especially if DeRozan's defence continues to look improved and Gay becomes a 37% or so shooter from deep.
If Gay agrees to a reasonable extension, I'd keep them both, otherwise, DeRozan probably makes more sense.
Duane: Are people still talking about this? It was a valid concern before Gay arrived in Toronto, but in the 33 games since he put on a Raptors jersey and retro Jordan's, his presence has only benefited DeRozan. They've had little issue co-exiting and Gay's proven ability as a scorer only attracts double-teams, or the opposition's top defender. If one goes, my preference would be Gay as his contract is sizable (yet harder to move), and his game has essentially peaked. Particularly if the pre-season play of DeRozan is indeed giving us a glimpse that he has taken his game to another level.
3. RHQ: It's pretty clear that until the direction of the club is decided, it's hard to answer one way or another on some of these so let's switch gears a bit. Jonas Valanciunas, future All-Star in your opinion, or simply a solid big man ala a Nene? What are you expecting from Jonas this season?
Ryan: There are some ridiculous C prospects on the way in the next few years, but I believe Valanciunas has more than one all-star appearance in his future. Dwight Howard moving to the West didn't hurt his cause and I don't see guys like Al Horford, Joakim Noah and Brook Lopez being miles ahead of him a year or two from now.
In terms of numbers this year, it all depends on how often his teammates look for him. With Rudy Gay and DeMar DeRozan taking a ton of shots, 15 PPG is out of reach for Valanciunas for now. He needs to get better on the boards, but an average of 12.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks for this year on 56% shooting seem about right to me.
Duane: I think you're being generous, calling Nene "a solid big man," but Valanciunas has the tools, toughness and tenacity to be that and more. His continual growth is legitimate cause for excitement; however he still needs to work on his defense, but who doesn't on this squad? The Lithuanian will have to climb the pecking order of centres like Hibbert, Noah and Lopez in the Eastern Conference to become an All-Star. But like Ryan said, he'll also have to fight within his own team at becoming an option on offense, as he gets limited touches in the half court set despite his post-game. This season, with more minutes I feel he can be close to a double-double player scoring 13 points and pulling in 9 rebounds a game.
Eric: I think he has a legitimate shot to be an all-star, but let's remember what that means now: An all-star centre does not have to be the focal point of an offence to earn that honour anymore. In the last few years, Hibbert and Noah have been all-stars, and they are hardly guys who you "dump it off" to. And that takes me to my grand point - if Valanciunas becomes a guy you can hang a top-10 defence on, then we're cooking with gas (I'm 70 years old, by the way). Last year, he was a world away from that. To be fair, Andrea Bargnani was one of his primary examples of how to play defence. If he takes a leap in that sense this year, he'll be part of the conversation before his rookie contract has expired.
Mike: I think he's got some All-Star seasons in him, maybe a few. Jamaal Magloire was an All-Star, as was Antonio Davis. It can be done. I love my Basketball-Reference comparables and if you look at this list --- rookie seasons by centres 22 and under in the last 10 years -- http://bit.ly/1aOPQVi -- Jonas is in pretty rare company. He had a very good rookie year last year and when some of a big man's most significant attributes are a positive attitude, willfulness and a high motor, it's difficult to put a ceiling on him. He needs to be stronger and a little more beastly on the offensive glass, but the defense will come soon enough. I think in terms of a ceiling he's probably not quite of a monster/talent to be an MVP or first-team All-NBA player, but he will be a 18&10 guy soon enough who converts about 60 per cent of his field goals and 80 per cent of his free throws. That's an all-star. I think 13 and 9 etc. for this season.
4. RHQ: What about the Raptor's other blue chip prospect, Terrence Ross? How bullish are you on his future in the league?
Duane: Moderately, particularly as he becomes so important to a very weak Raptors bench. I expected signs of growth at Summer League and saw very little. In the pre-season, he showed both extremes of Terrence Ross, the good and the bad. With his poor shot selection and lapses on defense, I think a big part of his problems are mental. He has the ability and athleticism, but I question if he has the ability to put it all together. It's times like this when it would be good to have a veteran player to take him under his wing, but there isn't. Ross just needs to start becoming consistent on some level and build from there - if he wants to be an impact player in this league, he has to figure it out.
Eric: Well, he's the most - read also: only - natural scorer off of the bench, so he should get a chance to shine. DeRozan and Gay cannot both play 40 minutes per night. However, Ross's pre-season did not show much growth, aside from the fact his shots went in 44% of the time versus 41% of the time last year. He still seems to telegraph his intentions, and he is still the most reticent passer on a team that includes Tyler Hansbrough. His pure shooting and athleticism are NBA skills, so the Raptors should keep running him out there. Until he shows a better understanding of the game, I'll remain skeptical.
Ryan: Not anywhere close to as bullish on Ross as Valanciunas. Like Duane said, he has all the tools physically... but the mental game matters too. does he have the drive or the concentration to be an NBA starter let alone star? The jury remains out, but he will get minutes and a chance to post some numbers as the seventh man and first non-big off of the bench.
Really, it's up to Terrence what kind of career he wants to have. Getting better with his ball-handling is the main non-mental issue that must be dealt with. At worst, he'll always stick around as a shooter off of the bench. At best, he lives up to those Michael Finley comparisons.
Mike: Is he as good or useful as Joey Graham? That's the question that I ask myself and the answer is: I don't think so. I think it's a lot harder to be a good NBA player than people realize and if the word is Terrence is not quite embracing that fact as of yet then it's hard to see him exceeding even modest expectations.
Stay tuned for Part II tomorrow...