The 2014-15 NBA season kicks off tonight. The Toronto Raptors will begin their 20th season in the NBA tomorrow when they host the Atlanta Hawks at the Air Canada Centre. The last time the Raptors played a meaningful game there, it was Game 7 of the first round against the Brooklyn Nets. If you're here and reading this, chances are you don't really need us to recap what happened that afternoon.
Expectations are high this season for a franchise that's only been to the second round of the playoffs once in the history of their existence. After the euphoria of last year's brief playoff run, there's a feeling that this team is ready to take another step and continue moving up in the Eastern Conference standings. Or are they?
To find out, and get our predictions on record, we've assembled a lot of credible voices in the Raptors community to answer a few questions for our season preview roundtable.
1. Eric Koreen (@ekoreen) of The National Post. James Harden will shave his beard before Eric changes his Twitter avatar.
2. Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) of Raptors Republic. The person most likely to speak to me in Nathan For You quotes only.
3. Adam Francis (@adamfranchise), the founder of this site. We asked him back because you can never quit writing about basketball completely.
4. Ryan Wolstat (@WolstatSun) of The Toronto Sun. A huge 90's hip-hop fan, which means we'll need to have a conversation about the Bruno Caboclo-Nas thing at some point.
5. steven lebron (@steven_lebron). That's me.
Koreen: What this question really means, I think, is will the Raptors go over the luxury tax when it makes sense to do so without Leiweke, who represented a lot of what fans wanted from ownership (Do you like when I tell you what your questions mean?). Whatever you think of Toronto FC's splurge on three designated players, pushed for by Leiweke, at least it was an aggressive, expensive attempt to get better on the field of play.
So, will the Raptors spend once Leiweke leaves? Here is my hot take: It depends.
Frankly, I think there is still a reckoning within MLSE - between Rogers and Bell - to come. It is hard to say much definitely until that plays out. For now, it is business as usual for Masai Ujiri, who will likely be left to do his thing for the next few seasons. That, more or less, is a good thing.
Murphy: I really don't rate Leiweke's departure as all that important moving forward. From an MLSE perspective, sure, a one-and-done tenure from Leiweke is less than ideal. But, Leiweke has already accomplished what he was brought in for. He installed a very intelligent basketball mind at the top of the organization in Ujiri, he helped usher in a new branding strategy that has been a success, and he helped the team land the All-Star game in 2016. Short of navigating the often-rumoured re-branding, there's little else Raptor fans would have expected from him for the next few seasons.
Francis: I'm not sure we'll see much impact this season but when he departs. I am, however, worried we're going to see a return to the Raptors era where the club was an afterthought in the league and lacked the branding and business savvy to properly compete in the current NBA environment.
Wolstat: I don't think it will have any impact this season, because he'll be around at least for the first few months and possibly until the end of the playoffs (though I'd guess he's gone by March). The players all know he is going, so even if he bails during the season, they are professionals and it won't matter.
Long-term is a bit dicier. Leiweke was perhaps the biggest Raptors booster in the organization. The Raptors have long been a second-class citizen, when compared to the Leafs and Leiweke was treating them as closer to an equal because he recognizes how quickly basketball is growing and that demographics are changing.
Will the new guy be in tune with that as well? With the NBA's new television deal, it will be hard for anyone to not take the Raptors seriously as a force within the organization.
SL: I don't think it'll have a huge impact this season.
Long term, I think it will have an impact. Ujiri has said he wouldn't have come here if Leiweke wasn't here, so what does that mean in a few years if another opportunity presents itself, or if he doesn't get along with the new boss, or if he tires of the reporting structure at MLSE? Leiweke filtered those distractions out, and without him, there's a bigger threat to the stability of the team.
Koreen: His arms are long. Seriously, as the saying goes, you cannot tell who can play in summer league. You can just tell who cannot. Caboclo did not rule himself out of a decent career in Las Vegas, so that is good.
Let's pump the brakes on the Brazilian Durant stuff. If he develops, he should be a solid defender and he could have a reliable jumper - an off-brand Nicolas Batum. With extreme development, he could be a lot more than that. At the 20th pick, that is good value. It was a reasonable time to take a big swing.
Murphy: I dropped about 1,000 words on this after his summer league debut, but allow me to give it the tl;dr treatment: Caboclo isn't NBA-ready, but he's far closer than "two years away from being two years away."
The fact that the team is in a position to compete means that Caboclo's development this season will mostly be taking place off of an NBA court, either in the practice gym or the D-League (and boy, does not having an exclusive D-League affiliation hurt this year more than ever now).
I wouldn't expect much impact this season, but at the very least he stands to make any blowouts far more entertaining than they would be otherwise.
Francis: In summer league, you saw some of the skills and attributes that make him an interesting project down the road, but considering this club is expected to challenge for a top spot in the Eastern Conference, I'd be surprised to see him get much playing time except for in preseason and blowouts. This is especially true considering the acquisition of James Johnson.
So I'd say if he averaged five to seven minutes a game, and picked up a couple baskets, points and assists here and there, it would be in line with my what my expectations are for him this season.
Wolstat: Bruno was far better than anybody expected him to be at summer league, including Ujiri, who said he thought Bruno would score a bucket or two a game. That doesn't mean he is anywhere close to ready though and I expect him to be a good teammate who works extremely hard at practice and in the weight room. He needs to get stronger and to pick up the nuances of the NBA game. Both will take time. I think we'll see him late in blowouts and waving a towel on the bench.
SL: He showed off his athleticism when he got minutes during preseason, and I took a closer look at one of the games he played against the Knicks. Bruno is a long term project and I doubt there's a defined role for him this season. Long story short: I have no expectations for him this season. Long term: I think he will be a contributor in a couple of years. Also, he looks like Nas. I'm linking to this photo edit every time I answer a question about Bruno.
Koreen: Jonas Valanciunas. It has to be him, right?
He has played enough games at this point that he has to grasp what the Raptors are trying to do defensively. He has put on enough muscle that he should be able to bang with nearly any big man in the league. Plus: Hakeem's camp.
If he has not established himself as an above-average starting centre by the end of this year, it will be problematic for the Raptors, and perhaps time to start re-evaluating his ceiling.
Murphy: I don't know if anyone is really taking the leap, but Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas are obviously the team's two key potential breakout players. While the odds probably favour Valanciunas making more of a jump because his ceiling is higher, the development of Ross will make the biggest difference (mostly because Valanciunas is already quite good).
Ross flashed potential as a stopper last year and needs only to become more reliable at that end to have earned a low-end "3-and-D" designation. If he can become the guy defensively and improve his scoring off the bounce, the Raptors are suddenly pretty well-balanced around the floor.
Francis: That's a great question. I think most of the roster has already made the leap (ie. Kyle Lowry), or I'm not sure has a big leap to make going forward (ie. Amir Johnson).
Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas look like obvious candidates, but while I think we'll see another step forward from them, I don't think they, or anyone on this roster goes from being a role player to suddenly looking like a potential All-Star.
Wolstat: Jonas Valanciunas looked excellent at the FIBA World Cup this summer. As well, Lowry and Greivis Vasquez say they will be getting him the ball more. If that comes to pass, he should emerge as the third scorer, putting up close to 15 points a night. His rebounding also improved later in the season last year. I think he's two years away from really being a force, but he'll be much better this year.
SL: I think the obvious answer would be Jonas Valanciunas. He's already a very serviceable big man, but if he can develop his offensive game, and be more consistent on both ends of the floor, could his ceiling rise a bit further into a 20 points, 10 rebounds per game player? He's still young so you hope that based on what we've seen, that possibility is there. I'm hopeful the growth curve continues to trend up, and I'm very optimistic it will.
Koreen: His ascension to MLSE president and CEO, duh.
Murphy: There are so many ways for Drake to get involved. A custom introduction song for the team's home opener? An album release party game? Getting Amir Johnson to change his number to "The 6" (not 6, The 6)? All of these are possibilities, but my money is on Drake being the face of the re-brand. Even with the success of #WeTheNorth, I'd guess the re-branding strategy they put in motion last season is continuing, and they'll lean on Drake to take the new concepts public.
Francis: I’d say his future decision to do a track featuring Patrick Patterson.
Wolstat: News on the nightclub, of course.
SL: He just got a prayer emoji tattoo so the bar is pretty high. I still want to somehow influence him to release a line of BRUNOVOXO CABOCLO tees.
Koreen: Last year's starting five - Lowry, DeRozan, Ross, Valanciunas and Amir Johnson - combined to miss 13 games. If they repeat that good health, I will eat my Hedo/Bargnani/Bosh/Calderon/The Raptor Rubik's Cube. If they are as unlucky this year as they were lucky last year, though, they could slip below .500, despite improved depth.
Murphy: A Valanciunas injury. The roster is fairly deep but they're woefully thin at centers capable of playing more than 15 minutes without pulling your hair out. If Valanciunas were to miss an extended period, you're looking at an undersized and over-matched Chuck Hayes, a much-too-early Bebe Nogueira, or an exposed-in-big-minutes Greg Stiemsma. The second-best center on the team is Amir Johnson, but playing him heavy minutes at the five would be less than ideal for keeping him healthy in the long-run. A strength at the four position would suddenly become a weakness, too.
Francis: The club was pretty injury-free last year but has a slew of players who play a very physical style of basketball, which can lend itself to problems. A few of these players like Kyle Lowry and Amir Johnson, are incredibly important to the team’s success so key injuries I think would be a major barrier to a successful season.
Wolstat: You could say injuries every year, so I'll go with Terrence Ross not growing from the Brooklyn series. Sure, the team now has James Johnson to split some time with Ross, but the offence badly needs his outside shooting and there will be games where he needs to be a big factor. Ross cannot slip defensively either, even if he has new-found offensive responsibilities. Too many players forget how to play defence when they enhance their scoring output.
SL: Health and chemistry. The Raptors have depth but a long term injury to someone like Lowry or DeRozan would disrupt the team. As for chemistry, the team seems to genuinely enjoy being around each other, but chemistry is always a tricky thing. It's great to be around one another when you win 48 games, but what happens if DeRozan wants the ball more, if Valanciunas feels like he's not getting enough touches, if Ross wants a bigger role. There's been nothing to suggest this will be the case but again, dynamics within a locker room change as players develop and roles change.
Koreen: We like our progress to come in straight lines, so the easy answer is another division title and at least a first-round series victory.
It would be easier to get smaller picture, though: If Valanciunas and Ross improve, if DeRozan refines his game even more, if Lowry is the same player after receiving US$48-million as he was before it, this will be a good year. Nothing else is terribly important, although stuff may seem so at the time.
Murphy: A playoff series victory. After everything that was accomplished last season, the division or even a three seed don't matter a whole lot, and a first-round exit won't be looked at as a "thanks, that was fun" proposition. This franchise has won just a single playoff series in its existence. It's unquestionably the goal this year, even if they say they'll be aiming higher.
Francis: Regardless of regular season standings, I think the season would be branded a success if the club gets out of the first round of the playoffs. That would take things a step further than last year, and barring any major injuries, I think that’s a very realistic target.
Wolstat: Another division title, to start, along with a playoff series win. Knocking off a team in the second round should be a goal as well, though it won't be easy if the opponent is Cleveland or Chicago.
SL: For me, it would be an Atlantic Division title, a playoff series win, and the continued growth of our core players. A lot of what happens in the first round of the playoffs will depend on matchups, but carrying the momentum of last season and going a step further would be considered a success.