2013-14 was an unexpected triumph for the Raptors. It ended in cruel fashion at the fingertips of Paul Pierce, but that shouldn't take away from what was a very successful year. It didn't take long for the off-season to kick into high gear, as Dwane Casey was signed to a new three-year contract just days after Game 7 against the Nets.
There are many big questions left to be answered, but we're going to take a look back first and hand out grades for everyone from Kyle Lowry to The Raptor. Here are the first six:
Jonas Valanciunas: A-
Just like his rookie season, Valanciunas finished the year strong. He averaged 17 points and 11 rebounds on 58% shooting in April and showed signs of dominance in the first round against Brooklyn before fading in the last few games. Overall he showed a level of development that was gradual, if not exponential. That might be disappointing to some, but I think his progress was more than adequate.
His pick-and-roll defense remains a bit hairy, a factor that kept him on the bench in some fourth quarters (though that eased as the season went along). He cut down on his prodigious foul rate and tried - with some success - to become a "verticality" defender in the paint.
Offensively, he remains a great finisher around the rim (63% in the restricted area) and a very good free throw shooter (76%). Even so, Valanciunas' offensive repertoire is restricted to single acts. Ask him to do more than catch and finish and you're likely to see a turnover or exceedingly awkward shot. The big man can't catch the ball on the move and put i on the floor, and his post-up game remains a work in progress. (Hence the upcoming summer sessions with Hakeem Olajuwon.)
The inability to do much with the ball also contributes to Valanciunas' most maddening tendency: a pathological need to pump fake before shooting a jumper. It works against undisciplined defenders like Andre Drummond, but most players sit on the pump fake and wait for something to happen. If The Dream teaches JV anything, I hope it's to cut that out of his game.
I don't want to sound too negative. Valanciunas just turned 22 and has All-Star potential, especially in the diluted Eastern Conference. He's the team's starting center for the foreseeable future and I would be surprised if he didn't average a double-double next year. Valanciunas will be eligible for a contract extension after next season, and given the fact that JaVale McGee made $11 million this year, JV is going to get paid. Whether that final number inches close to max-level territory depends on whether JV continues to show the steady improvement we saw this year. I'd bet on it.
Terrence Ross: B
In his sophomore season, Ross gave us two of the year's most indelible moments: his 51-point bonanza against the Clippers and that incredible steal in Game 7 against the Nets. In between there were many highs and lows, though Ross became slightly more consistent and established himself as a lethal shooter. (39.5% from three).
After settling into the starting lineup following the Rudy Gay trade, Ross was a fairly consistent presence on both ends of the court. His wiry frame can let him down against bigger guards (like Joe Johnson), but he showed flashes of defensive brilliance against stars like Paul George.
Ross remains an unfinished product on offense. He's incredibly athletic, but struggles to get to the rim thanks to a shaky handle and lack of strength. At times he showed a nifty in-between game and even some previously unseen passing skills. He's still young (23), and there's a good chance Ross will develop into at least a solid starter. Ideally, he will combine his athleticism and shooting ability to become a Jason Richardson-type player.
Patrick Patterson: B
Not much was expected of Patterson when he was shipped to Toronto in the Gay trade, but by the end of the season the Kentucky product was a key rotation piece who often played 30+ minutes per game. Patterson is a strong, mobile stretch 4 that can both rebound and shoot threes. Patterson shot 41% from deep as a Raptor, and if he can continue to do that he will prove extremely valuable.
Patterson is a restricted free agent this offseason, so the Raptors will have a decision to make. While there is some overlap between Patterson and Amir Johnson, I don't think it's enough to let Patterson walk. Unless another team is willing to pay him more than $6 million per year, I'd love to see Patterson back next year.
Dwane Casey: B+
I think coaches get more unfair criticism than any other group in the NBA. Everyone with a Twitter account loves to rip coaches for their strategic errors, and everyone with an Internet connection seems to think they're the second coming of John Wooden. Dwane Casey is not immune to that criticism, and some of it is surely justified. He's not generally as creative as wizards like Gregg Popovich or Doc Rivers, but he's improved and deserves the benefit of the doubt.
While X's and O's are the most obvious element of coaching that's viewable to the public, it's far from the only thing coaches do. Running practices, managing personalities and getting the most out of every player are all critical parts of the job that often go unseen. From everything we know, Casey has done a great job on those fronts. All of his players seem to love playing for him and he obviously has the support of management, considering that he was offered a contract extension well before the season ended.
The Raptors have very rarely had continuity on the coaching front. It's time they do.
Chuck Hayes: C+
Based on expectations, Hayes' grade might even deserve to be higher. The man has legs as thick as tree trunks and is immovable as a post defender. He is also close to useless on the offensive end, other than a solid knowledge of his limitations and excellent screening ability.
By all indications he is a solid veteran in the locker room, albeit an expensive one. Hayes will be paid nearly $6 million next season, the last of a 4-year, $22 million deal he signed back in 2011. That's a lot, but at least the contract is expiring. If he can continue to be a leader in the locker room and a rarely-used post defender, he will have played his role.
Julyan Stone: Ummm...
I'm not sure what to say here. Stone played only 120 minutes this season and was far more often seen in suits than jerseys. According to Sham Sports, Stone's $950,000 salary for 2014-15 is unguaranteed if he is waived by July 7. If the Raptors need a little extra room to work with during free agency, I'm sure they would cut Stone.
That's all for Part I of the HQ's 2013-14 Raptors grades. Check in later this week for Parts II and III.