Occasionally throughout the season, we'll be engaging in conversation about the Raptors with other writers and bloggers. In this installment, Dan Grant from Same Page Team and I reflect on the good times of the summer, speculate wildly about roster moves, and try to make predictions as to how the Raptors will do this season. Enjoy. (PS. this entire series is inspired by the Yakkin' posts over at The Classical)
REYNOLDS: We are fast approaching the start of the season Dan and I must say: I'm pretty excited. What was your favourite Raptors-related moment of the summer?
GRANT: For me, it has to be Kyle Lowry re-signing. Last year's leap forward could have been a flash in the pan; with Lowry, Greivis Vasquez and Patrick Patterson able to leave in free agency, a successful core could have been gutted before you could say Zan Tabak. But it wasn't, because Lowry decided to stay. He's the lodestone for the Raptors now. His signing was the first domino that led to a strong off-season for a Raptors team with limited flexibility and gives this team a real long-term core to build around.
R: Damn, that's what I was going to say. All right, I also thought it was great to see both DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas in the FIBA World Cup. It's the kind of hurt locker of a tournament that allows for a player to develop their game with and against elite competition. Plus, Jonas and DeMar played against each other! You couldn't write a better narrative - despite Lithuania's sad annihilation at the hands of Team USA.
G: USA Basketball: annihilating countries with far fewer people and inferior resources since 1992.
R: Except in 2004 and 2006! Oh snap. Moving on, the roster is set (sort of): 15 guys, a rotation that rolls a mean ten players deep (plus whatever you would call Landry Fields at this point). It feels like the Raptors have most of their bases covered, but what do you think?
G: I'm cautiously optimistic. I really like the moves Masai Ujiri made this summer. Handcuffed by the Fields contract and Marcus Camby buyout money, he recognized the need for more size and front court depth, adding James Johnson, Lucas Nogueira and Greg Stiemsma. I love Chuck Hayes grit, but he played in too many big situations for this team last year.
Johnson can play the four in small ball lineups and allows them to have a bigger wing defender when needed. Another acquisition, Lou Williams, will help provide scoring and playmaking off the bench. This team relied heavily on its starters last season and was downright lucky with health. None of the Lowry-DeRozan-Ross-Amir-Valanciunas group played less than 77 games. Adding depth was the smart play, as it's unlikely they'll be able to remain so healthy this season.
R: I noticed you listed off Stiemsma as a lock for the team. He'd be the 15th man on the roster. You got no love for Will Cherry or Jordan Hamilton?
G: Oh I've got love for them, Hamilton especially. I just think Cherry, Bruno Caboclo and possibly Nogueira are going to spend chunks of the season in the D-League. Stiemsma gives the Raps a true back-up centre, someone that can play against the biggest bigs of the East. He'll help Toronto on nights where Valanciunas is either struggling or in foul trouble. He's got two elite skills - he bangs fearlessly and fouls ruthlessly. Couple him with the smaller Psycho T and the Chuck Wagon and Toronto has a frontcourt trio on the bench that other teams are going to hate playing against. In other words, I think Landry Fields should buy some nice suits.
Speaking of other teams, a lot of significant changes happened in the East this off-season. While they added depth, are you concerned that the Raptors might have been surpassed by their competition?
R: Let's be real: having LeBron in your conference basically means that, at best, you'll probably be playing for second. And yes, I realize his Cavs teams in the past didn't always rule the Eastern conference. But this version of Lebron with this Cavs team feels like the safest bet to own the East. Likewise, the Bulls with the addition of Pau Gasol and the return (please!) of Derrick Rose. Feels fair to give them the number two spot.
That basically leaves the Raptors battling with Washington for third. Both teams have some continuity on their side, but the Raptors are generally younger and rely on less injury prone players. And honestly, this may sound crazy but I feel safer going to war with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan in the backcourt this season than I would with John Wall and Bradley Beal.
G: A dinosaur eats a wizard every time! Jalen Rose agrees with you too. On a recent podcast, he ranked the top 10 backcourts in the NBA. He said his hardest decision was between those two, but he ultimately ranked the Raptors duo 4th, ahead of Washington. Dion Waiters and his swagger landed in the 7 spot, despite his assertions to the contrary.
R: Oh poor delusional Dion. I will say though that I'm not looking forward to the Raptors facing the Hornets (though I'm glad the old name is back). They went 0-4 against them last year and this year's Hornets team is stronger. So, have you circled in a first round Miami Heat matchup, with Chris Bosh forced to play multiple playoff games in Toronto in April?
G: That would be a ton of fun. I'm actually a Bosh apologist. He re-upped here in Toronto, gave the team seven years to build around him and it just didn't work out. Some people kill him for not coming out and saying he was leaving, but when Bryan Colangelo didn't get a commitment from him, he HAD to trade him - and he didn't. Not Bosh's fault. He also sacrificed four years of his prime and literally millions of dollars in salary to win two rings in Miami. The Heat might be better than people think - Dwyane Wade will enjoy getting back to 20 shots a game and the Riley/Spo combination is still in full effect.
My dream Raptors playoff scenario would be if the Knicks somehow made it and we were able to dummy them in the first round. I'd feel bad for Jose Calderon but I'd like to knock Bargnani out into a big vat of Primo Pasta and Sauce.
R: Ah, if only they could play the Knicks AND the Heat in one postseason. Just for old times sake. Anyway, let's stop talking about the postseason. We're gonna jinx something. Who's the breakout player for this team, the X-factor as it were?
G: Jonas Valanciunas is the leading candidate for a breakout year but I think the development of Terrence Ross might actually be the key to the Raptors season. James Johnson and Lou Williams will give him veteran support but if he can harness his talent on both ends, Toronto could really have a special player. He just needs DeRozan's work ethic to wear off on him.
R: That story was from a year ago, Dan! Of course the Raps need Ross and JV to step up. I just wonder what kind of steps they want them to take. On a lesser team, the whole roster and style would be built around what Valanciunas projects to be able to do in the post. On the Raps, he's a third or fourth (or straight up, a fifth, option). Ditto for Ross, in a different way. Does that change this season a little bit?
G: I don't think that's in the game plan, necessarily. If Ross or JV force it then fine, but that's not something that can be counted on just yet. I do think this is the best possible sort of environment; one in which both young players can develop at their own speed. The addition of so much depth helps two-fold; it's a cushion in case they fail, but it's also built-in motivation - the new guys are after their minutes, every day in practice, during every game. A successful team around talented youth lets them have the peaks and valleys that come with learning the NBA game, without having to suffer through long seasons of losing or being nailed to the bench on a good team.
Look at a guy like Rajon Rondo. People can't believe he was picked so late when they look back at his draft, but if he doesn't come in and play with three Hall of Famers off the hop in Boston, does he get that cushion that lets him develop into an elite guard? Nurture is more important than nature in the NBA and this current Raptors team could prove to be a great incubator for young talent.
R: Speaking of Boston, there was some recent wild speculation about the Raptors having, at the very least, the resources necessary to pull off a Jeff Green trade. Not saying we would want him, but is there even space for this team to make a trade?
G: I mean, there's always room for talent. To add Green, the Raps would have to include at least two players to make the money work, so there's definitely roster room to be had. Green would automatically start at the 3 for this team and with Amir Johnson's wonky ankle and impending free agency, adding another forward wouldn't be a bad thing. You can see various combinations where the trade would work salary-wise, but Boston would definitely be looking for at least a first round draft pick in return, plus expiring money. If Terrence Ross and/or Johnson himself aren't part of the equation, I say go for it. If only Landry Fields and Chuck Hayes are going back the other way, doubly so.
All these pieces floating around are interesting. Last year the Raps were a surprise, the feel good story. This year expectations are high and roles are going to be evolving. Even though the team's core is returning, it feels like they might forge a new identity for themselves this season, doesn't it?
R: I wouldn't quite say a new identity, just a solidification of the existing one. I think, barring injury, this team cracks 50 wins, has two All-Stars, and makes a reasonably convincing run at the Eastern Conference Final. And most importantly, I think they'll turn some heads. People won't just be dismissing Toronto outright.
G: I think the season will be an entertaining one but I don't know if 50 wins is a lock. The East has become more balanced, as opposed to the top-heavy editions of the past few seasons. The Raps are lucky to have Philly and Boston in their division but 50 wins flat would equal a fantastic season to me. The All-Stars thing, well who knows. Deserving players get snubbed all the time. But assuming Cleveland and Chicago are pencilled in at the top, playoff seeding will be of the utmost importance in the Raps-Wiz-Hornets-Heat-Pacers-Nets tier. Every game is really going to count this year.
R: Every game always counts, Dan. Are you suggesting otherwise?
G: Tell that to the 76ers.
R: Oof. Fair enough. But still, give me a prediction and then let's call it a day.
G: Alright. I've been bandying about two possible scenarios here. The pick everyone and their grandmother is making is that the Raptors will win the Atlantic division and finish either third or fourth in the conference. Well that might be likely but it's also boring! Nobody knows what the hell is going to happen once the season starts. To me, two other equally likely scenarios exist. One is that the Raptors come back to the pack in terms of team health, struggle a little bit against a generally improved Eastern Conference and wind up winning between 43-46 games. They still make the playoffs but as a 6- or 7-seed. The other much more fun scenario (for Toronto fans anyway) is that the Cavs take a while to gel and/or the Bulls struggle again with injuries and the Raptors, firing on all cylinders, manage to win 55 games and take the 2-seed in the conference. Screw it, I'm going with the second one. Eastern Conference Finals here we come! Go Raps.
R: A little rant-heavy, but there you have it. Enjoy the season!