Last season did not go as planned for the Toronto Raptors. Despite a franchise-record 49 wins, an All-Star appearance by Kyle Lowry, and a return to the playoffs, the team underachieved. The second half of the season saw only a gradual deterioration--of personnel, of spirit--before an embarrassing sweep out of playoffs. It was a sad time.
Fortunately, it was only temporary.
The NBA season began yesterday with a small handful of games that did not include Toronto. Tonight, however, we get down to serious business: the Raptors begin their 2015-16 campaign at home against the Indiana Pacers. Much within the Raptors organization has changed and many questions remain as to how this team will fare this year. To help us figure it all out, we asked a bunch of NBA and Raptor beat writers some questions about this year's Toronto Raptors.
James Herbert (@outsidethenba) of CBSSports.com
Eric Koreen (@ekoreen) of the National Post
Holly MacKenzie (@stackmack) of Raptors.com
Ryan Wolstat (@WolstatSun) of the Toronto Sun
Blake Murphy (@BlakeMurphyODC) of Raptors Republic
Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) of TSN.ca and TSN 1050
Herbert: The best move was signing DeMarre Carroll. My favo(u)rite? Nabbing Norman Powell with the 46th pick in the draft. The Raptors have historically failed to find rotation-caliber guys in the second round, but Powell could be different. He's a hell of a defender already, plus he's as athletic as anybody on the team. He has the potential to be more than a summer league phenomenon.
Koreen: Signing Bismack Biyombo. I don't think he will have the biggest impact of all the new guys — DeMarre Carroll will, duh — but Biyombo is a deterrent at the rim. It has been a while since the Raptors have had a player like that. For just US$3-million a season, that was a relative steal. Nice get.
MacKenzie: Signing Cory Joseph. It's easy to assume that the team wanted to have a Canadian on the roster, but focusing solely on where Joseph was born means ignoring the significant role that he will play for the team this season. Whether playing back-up point guard, or sharing the court alongside Kyle Lowry and taking pressure off of him, Joseph is the kind of defender the team has been looking for at his position. It's also been fun to see him play with a bit more offensive freedom during preseason
Wolstat: Getting DeMarre Carroll, even though his track record isn't very long, was a coup. He brings so many things that the Raptors badly needed - size, toughness, grit, shot-making, savvy, an edge - that it seemed like a no-brainer to me. Carroll was exactly what the doctor ordered for this franchise. Getting Biyombo and Scola from the bargain bin we're his shrewdest moves.
Murphy: Adding a D-League team. I know this isn't the sexiest answer, but I've long been a proponent of the deep-pocketed Raptors investing heavily in non-salary capped areas, and player (and staff) development is one of the foremost ways to do that. It may not move the needle this year but if done right, with the way the NBA and D-League seem to be going, this could be really important three years down the line.
Lewenberg: Landing a player of DeMarre Carroll's coveted skill set, at a position that's been a revolving door in Toronto for over a decade was a coup. That said, he didn't come cheap and his signing ate up most of the Raptors' available cap space, essentially putting an end to the Amir Johnson era. With a depleted front court, Masai Ujiri looked to the scrapheap for a replacement and came away with two solid, under the radar additions. Despite his advanced age and underwhelming stint in Indiana, Luis Scola can still play. Then there's Bismack Biyombo, who's defensive prowess is often overlooked because of his limited impact offensively - he's one of the best rim protectors out there. They'll make roughly $3-million apiece this season. Great value.
Herbert: Bismack Biyombo will be better than expected. While he was drafted two spots after Jonas Valanciunas in 2011, the Charlotte Hornets elected to let him walk rather than tendering him a $4.05 million qualifying offer. Biyombo is not even in Valanciunas' stratosphere offensively, but his defense means he might challenge the $64 million man for playing time. If this pushes Valanciunas to improve on that end of the court, the Raptors will be ecstatic.
Koreen: The perimeter defence. Carroll and Cory Joseph are really, really going to help there, especially given the people they are replacing. Perhaps Dwane Casey's system was not optimal last year, but they got beat cleanly so often that he was essentially powerless to make much of a difference.
MacKenzie: See answer one. Cory Joseph.
Wolstat: So far it has been Terrence Ross becoming a decent quote, but let's go with the Raptors actually winning a playoff round.
Murphy: If I told you it wouldn't be a surprise. (It's probably how much more entertaining the on-court product will be. This seems like a weird thing to pinpoint, but even though the Raptors were good last year, they weren't aesthetically pleasing - their offense was ugly and predictable, their defense oft-frustrating. Their defense will be much improved this year, the offense should be far more balanced, and the roster is filled with gritty/gutty/hearty/hustley players that are easy to root for.)
Lewenberg: Terrence Ross. That's right. Despite my best judgement, I'm betting on the fourth-year guard to bounce back from a truly terrible season. Ross is presumably healthy after battling an ankle injury last year and undergoing off-season surgery. Previously miscast as a starting small forward, he'll be coming off the bench and facing second-unit guys at his natural position. His jumper has been off in camp but, with the exception of Kyle Lowry, nobody's exactly shooting the lights out. That will come but he's showing a pulse on defence, which is encouraging. The opportunity is there (somebody needs to score off the bench), the pressure is gone and the motivation is obvious - he's in a contract year. What is Ross really made of? We'll find out over the next seven months.
Herbert: The promise of smallball won't quite deliver. While Dwane Casey seems ready to play two point guards together, there's no guarantee that Carroll or James Johnson will see a ton of time at power forward. It's early, but it looks like Patrick Patterson and Luis Scola are going to split most of the minutes at the 4 spot, with Anthony Bennett perhaps getting whatever is left over. Toronto might need to make more moves before Carroll gets a chance to create matchup problems in the frontcourt, barring injury.
Koreen: The ball movement. The Raptors are saying all of the right things about moving the ball this year, which makes sense given the parade of isolation plays that dominated last year. I still see too many poor passers on this roster — guys that struggle to make more than the most obvious of reads, and struggle to make those reads in a timely fashion — to have the ball zip from side to side and back again.
MacKenzie: The void left by Amir Johnson. While I expect Patrick Patterson and Luis Scola to move in and out of the starting lineup throughout the season, I think Johnson's familiarity with his teammates and ability to wok around their strengths/weaknesses will be missed. Perhaps more than initially expected.
Wolstat: DeMar DeRozan not having the type of contract year many players tend to have.
Murphy: This depends on expectations, really. If people are expecting meaningful contributions from Bruno or Bennett, then probably those players, but those would be unrealistic expectations. Otherwise, it's the fact that the Raptors made a lot of moves but will probably bow out in the first round of the playoffs once again. The moves were necessary and put the team in a better position to compete in the playoffs and fortify the core next summer, but I'm not sure they've elevated themselves in the Eastern Conference pecking order.
Lewenberg: The power forwards. Without a star or obvious starter at the position, Dwane Casey appears to be going with a committee approach. Patrick Patterson, Luis Scola and Anthony Bennett have each gotten a look with the first unit during the pre-season, while James Johnson and DeMarre Carroll give Casey a couple small-ball alternatives. He's got options, each of them bringing something different to the table, but none inspire much confidence in a 30-plus minute per night role. This has platoon written all over it, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, provided the front court rotation is managed effectively. The ever efficient Amir Johnson will be missed.
Herbert: People will start criticizing Masai Ujiri. Not saying it'll be fair -- what matters more is how they lose, if they do -- but there will be a serious sense of stagnation if there's another first-round loss. Especially if it resembles the Wizards series in any way. While Ujiri has done a great job with the Raptors, everybody ends up taking a hit if there is repeated disappointment. And boy, the last two years have ended badly.
Koreen: Kevin Durant will not come to Toronto as a free agent. (If they win a playoff round this year, he will also not come to Toronto as a free agent.) Also, Drake will be sad, but that is probably for the best, artistically speaking.
MacKenzie: Fans would be disappointed with the result, but not with the effort shown. I'm believing of DeMarre Carroll's declaration that this team will bring effort every night and looking forward to watching a return to a defensive first mindset.
Wolstat: It would be surprising, but not unthinkable. Clearly this group is lacking a star power forward and not too many teams can be real challengers without that piece. Either way, next summer will be a massive one for the franchise.
Murphy: Well, given my answer to No. 3, I would shrug. It might mean Dwane Casey loses his job, even if the team takes strides, because re-signing a head coach after three first-round exits would be a tough sell. But it shouldn't be too much cause for panic - Ujiri was always eventually going to remake the team in his image, and some unexpected success delayed that process. Now he's doing it, and whatever happens this year, they're going in the right direction and they've gotten there without a tear down.
Lewenberg: If the Raptors don't win a playoff round this year... Major changes are coming. While no one is saying it internally, the expectation for this coming season is as straight forward as ever - second round or bust. Should they fail to advance, the easy scapegoats (fair or not) will be the team's longest tenured members - head coach Dwane Casey and leading scorer DeMar DeRozan, who will both hit the open market next summer regardless. Pretty safe to say they're coaching/playing for their futures in Toronto. With money to spend and a roster full of moveable contracts, this could be a very different looking team in 2016-17, if things don't go according to plan this year.
Herbert: 50-32, tied for third in the East, out in the second round. I believe in Skinny Kyle.
Koreen: 45-37, fifth in the east and another first-round flameout. Maybe not as flamey as last year. Flamey is not a word.
MacKenzie: 45-37, fourth in the Eastern Conference and third time is a charm; there'll be more than a first round series played in Toronto this season.
Wolstat: 45-37 first in Atlantic Division, 4th in the East with a shot at third, win a round against Boston or Miami, lose to Cleveland in second round.
Murphy: 44-38, fifth in the East, with a first-round playoff loss. I am a negative person and you probably don't like me.
Lewenberg: 46 wins. Fifth in East. Eliminated in second round. There's not a lot separating the East's second-best team from its seventh entering the season, in my opinion. Could see the Raptors finishing anywhere in that range, so to be safe I'll slot them in the middle. The end result? Even though I have them winning fewer games, I actually think the composition of this roster is better suited for playoff-style basketball than in years past.