Last Year's Record: 48-34
Key Losses: None (unless Steve Novak and John Salmons count)
Key Additions: Lou Williams, James Johnson, tremendous optimism
1. What Significant Moves were made during the off-season?
The easy answer here points to the Toronto Raptors' trading of John Salmons for Lou Williams and Lucas Nogueira. Williams joins the team after a down year in Atlanta, but has the twin pedigree of a tremendous off-the-bench scorer and clutch player. Coupling him with fellow backcourt bench mate Greivis Vasquez suggests a potency at guard the Raptors have lacked for some time.
The real answer though is with respect to all the re-signing moves that General Manager Masai Ujiri made in an effort to keep this team, the winner of a franchise best 48 games, together. It was Ujiri who pulled the strings on bringing back should-have-been-an-All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry for four years at $48 million. He then went out and secured the aforementioned Vasquez for two years at $13 million and Patrick Patterson at three years and $18 million. It's the first time the Raptors have had some sense of continuity and momentum in over a decade. Speaking of which...
2. What are the team's biggest strengths?
The Raptors' biggest strengths coming into the season are chemistry and continuity. Since every NBA team loves to compare itself to the San Antonio Spurs, it's encouraging to note the aspects of the Raptors franchise that do actually fall in line with the Spurs' more storied philosophy.
The Raptors of 2014-15 boast a team that has now played together for a season or more with clearly defined roles for everyone on the roster. The new additions come in largely as supporting parts (Williams for scoring, James Johnson for defense) and the key players sound eager to build on the accomplishments of last year. What's more, the team's youngest starters, Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas, are now entering year three with a lot of the same teammates, coaching staff and organizational culture. For a young team, this kind of growth together is significant. It solidifies Ujiri's mission to build a winning attitude in what has long been seen as a "loser" city.
3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?
It feels unimaginative to say this but the biggest knock on the Raptors is their lack of a true superstar closer. Let me explain. In asking any Raptors fan which player should have the ball in his hands at the end of the game, the answer is invariably Lowry or DeMar DeRozan. These are the team's best players and the guys most adept at creating a winning shot. Still, while it is the correct answer, it is not necessarily the best answer.
Unfortunately, there are only so many "clutch" NBA players to go around. At best, a team hopes to avoid situations that call for last second shots and late game heroics. The Raptors are designed to be a balanced, deep, energetic team that can play stout defense and fire away efficiently on offense. But, ask those same Raptors fans if this team can go punch for punch with the knockout heavyweights in the league, and most will admit the Raptors aren't quite there yet.
4. What are the goals for this team?
The mandate for this Raptors team is clear: make it to the second round of the playoffs and challenge for a spot in the Eastern Conference Final. There are some obvious obstacles in the way of this goal: the reborn Cleveland Cavaliers, the restocked Chicago Bulls, and the resurgent Washington Wizards are also prime contenders to make it to the ECF - with the former two teams also favourites for the NBA Finals.
Still, the Raptors (and their fans) are past the "just happy to be here" stage. Toronto has long been operating as a middling NBA team, both competitively and culturally speaking. There have been other fairly recent playoff appearances, sure, but most pundits and prognosticators have never really taken the Raptors seriously. For this season to be a success, the Raptors will need to force the NBA media and basketball fans to acknowledge a singular notion: this team is for real.
5. Where does the team go from here?
It sounds greedy to ask for more, and foolhardy to jump too far ahead, but it's hard not to think on where the Raptors can go next. On the one hand, much of the team's young nucleus is signed to reasonable contracts for the next few years. On the other hand, how much farther can this Lowry/DeRozan-led team go?
Some have said that Ujiri has basically assembled the same team in Toronto as he did he post-Carmelo Denver; a squad of energetic moving parts and role players hungry to compete. The ceiling on that team was a first round playoff exit. It seems fair to wonder now, with the team ready to attempt its first serious playoff run in over a decade, if this team is good enough or just, sigh, good enough.