After watching Game 1 of the NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs last night, a thought occurred: having tasted the delicious flavours of the playoffs this year along with the bitter swallow of elimination, what do the Toronto Raptors need to do to make it to the upper echelon of the NBA? Do they have what it takes?
Let's look at the key roster ingredients for success and decide how the Raptors' recipe can be improved.
To watch both the Spurs and Heat in the Finals is to see a damn fine collection of reliable shooters. The Spurs can run out a seemingly endless string that includes Manu Ginobili, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Marco Belinelli, and Patty Mills. (Bizarrely, the worst shooter of the bunch is probably Tony Parker, the team's most dynamic offensive weapon.) The Heat, meanwhile, have spots for Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier, Rashard Lewis (slowly stepping into the former Mike Miller role) and the best 3-pointer shooter in modern NBA history, Ray Allen. Couple that with LeBron James' stroke from beyond the arc, and it's hard to leave guys open anywhere.
Here's where the Raptors are: with Kyle Lowry, Greivis Vasquez and Terrence Ross, they have three solid range shooters. Ross in particular seems poised to become the key "3 and D" player on the team who can bomb from range and shut down the opposing team's best wing players (more on that in a second). After that, though, it gets dicey. DeMar DeRozan's game is still at its best when he is driving to the basket and getting to the free throw line, Amir Johnson's forays into 3-point shooting have been somewhat comical, and the collective skills of John Salmons, Landry Fields and even supposed specialist Steve Novak have been hugely underwhelming.
If you can't shoot from the perimeter, it's probably best if you can defend the hell out of it. For the Heat, this means a blitzing defense that rips through space to close out on shooters and limit penetration into the paint. It's the reason why Dwyane Wade, Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole and LeBron James, coupled with the heady Allen and Battier, can make it tough for every team in the league to score under its sustained pressure. The Spurs, on the other hand, may not have quite as many athletic monsters (save Leonard, and a touch of Green) and yet, they still, year after year, retain a strong defensive identity. You won't get open 3s against the Spurs, and you'll be funnelled to Tim Duncan or Tiago Splitter if you go diving into the lane.
What have the Raptors got? It starts with Lowry as the bulldog, never quit point man, and ends with Ross as an ascendant lock down defender. After that, the team gets a touch thin. DeRozan has the tools to be a great defender, but it comes and goes; Vasquez is mostly ineffective; and while Johnson has the foot speed, he's at his best acting has a help defender in the post. The Raptors were a top-10 defensive team last year, and barring disaster, will still be able to boast that stat in the coming season.
With the influx of European players in the early 2000s and the rise of Dirk Nowitzki - not to mention the "pack the paint" mentality of most teams post-Thibodeau - having a power forward that can shoot from beyond the arc is valuable for any elite team. The Spurs feature the versatile Boris Diaw and the singularly skilled (and lightly used) Matt Bonner to space the floor. Or, when going particularly small (as when Miami moves LeBron to the 4), will roll out Leonard at the bigger forward spot to create space. The Heat, of course, can play LeBron at the PF spot and typically rely on Chris Bosh (ironically so) for timely 3-point shooting.
Now the Raptors, after finally abandoning the Andrea Bargnani experiment and losing Bosh, appear to have given the green light to Amir Johnson in a bid to provide some valuable spacing. So far, the jury is out on whether this is a good idea. The real gem though is Patrick Patterson and his inside-out shooting ability. If Johnson ever gets even vaguely more reliable with his 3-point shot (let's get it over 35 percent, please), the Raptors would pack a powerful shooting punch at the 4-spot.
Let's use this as a catch-all term that sums up awareness, intelligence, and good decision making. These terms, alternatively, could be used to describe the entire Spurs organization; basketball IQ has never been a problem there. Everyone on the team from Duncan on down falls in line or is shipped out and that's that. Similarly, after a semi-rocky first year (and Finals loss) the Heat have doubled-down with some of the headiest players of all time (Ray Allen and Shane Battier), and have somehow managed to reign in some of the more random players on their team (Mario Chalmers and Chris Andersen, primarily). This is to say nothing of having extreme basketball genius LeBron running the show.
After losing to that veteran Nets team, the Raptors at times showed a loose grasp on their IQ fundamentals. The play of youngsters Ross and Jonas Valanciunas stands out as the most obvious area for improvement, with both making shaky decisions throughout the series or, even worse, no decision at all. Likewise, at times Vasquez could be known to play just a bit too confidently (i.e. recklessly). And the less said about the preponderance of 4-point plays for the Nets in that series the better. The final conclusion: the team needs to just plain sharpen up.
The Spurs are all over this one again with a bench that runs 13 players deep (plus, Austin Daye, but the Raps moved him out of town, so he doesn't count). They can run small with shooters galore, or stack up huge with Duncan and Tiago Splitter. They can run two PG lineups, or have Manu facilitate the offense. Sets through the high post and low post? No problem. And watch out for corner threes. Basically, any adjustment that needs to be made can be made. The Heat operate in a similar, if much reduced, fashion. They can run out small lineups and theoretically have the muscle for a larger presence (with Udonis Haslem and Greg Oden lurking), but the real reason for the flexibility rests on one pair of shoulders: LeBron. With James at Miami's disposal, the team can pivot its lineup around the opposition with LeBron filling in as needed in the post, on the perimeter from PG to C. It's quite a luxury.
The real win of the Rudy Gay trade (column mandate to mention Gay at least once) was the huge improvement it brought to the Raptors bench. With a keyed in starting lineup pre-trade, it was always a rather desultory experience to watch Fields and Tyler Hansbrough plod onto the court early in games. Obviously, there's been quite a turnaround. Still, even with Patterson and Vasquez (to say nothing of the somehow only 31 Chuck Hayes and the probably departing Salmons), the Raptors could use a reload on bench reinforcements. At the top of the list? After getting torched again and again by Joe Johnson in the first round maybe an upgrade at the 3-spot, with a bigger, stronger backup (a la a Caron Butler type player) would be advantageous. And while Hayes is lovable, mobile he is not. There is always room to improve here.
We can talk about the coaches here: the adaptive, hardass approach by Gregg Popovich and the fluid, modern thinking of Eric Spoelstra, or we can jump right into the vocal leaders on each team. The Spurs are obviously anchored by the legendary Tim Duncan, he who quietly and professionally goes about being the best basketball player he can be (while also making his teammates the best versions of themselves). LeBron, meanwhile, is the jack-of-all-trades force of nature for Miami who will do everything he can to win the game while also potently believing in his teammates (and getting them the ball) in key moments.
The Raptors rely on one voice on the court: Kyle Lowry. With him off it, the team tends to either bend to Vasquez's will or sag unconscionably. Now, Lowry's vocal stylings tend to wear out their welcome (see: Memphis, Houston) but somehow he and coach Dwane Casey have reached a happy medium. At the very least, a foundational pecking order has been established on the team. This is no small thing when you consider the ego and talent needed to push for an NBA championship.
And, failing that, sometimes it helps to just have the best players on the planet. The Spurs have Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. The Miami Heat of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. When you need a bucket, these guys can make it happen from anywhere on the court.
Can the Raptors get there? Presumably, the core three players are Lowry, DeRozan and Valanciunas (with helpful assists from Johnson, a quintessential glue guy, and Ross, a super role player with huge potential). Lowry brings shooting, ball-handling and a relentless will; DeRozan brings a vicious slashing game, a calm demeanour and effortless foul drawing abilities; Valanciunas has the potential to be a wrecker in the post on both ends of the court. This combination led them to a record breaking season last year and the first round of the playoffs. Yet, after watching Game 1 of the Finals and seeing the Heat and the Spurs personify the pinnacle of the modern NBA, just how far can they go next year?