Last Year's Record: 49-33
Key Losses: Amir Johnson, Lou Williams, Greivis Vasquez, Tyler Hansbrough, Chuck Hayes
Key Additions: DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph, Luis Scola, Bismack Biyombo, Anthony Bennett
1. What Significant Moves were made during the off-season?
For the Raptors, the significant move of the off-season was the free agent signing of DeMarre Carroll. The former Atlanta Hawks' swingman brings his sterling defensive skills to a Toronto team in desperate need of them. In addition, Carroll can shoot and move the ball well. He's also strong enough to play at the 4-spot in small ball lineups. Coupling him with a backcourt of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry (to say nothing of the long-bombing skills of probable new starter Patrick Patterson) should open up the floor in various ways for every Raptors starter.
Beyond that, the Raptors went out of their way to rebuild the team's defensive identity. That is to say, this year they may actually have one. After saying good-bye to Lou Williams and Greivis Vasquez, the team shored up its backcourt defense by signing Cory Joseph (and drafting Delon Wright). Then, with Amir Johnson gone, the Raptors brought it Biyombo, a legit rim protector, and Scola, a smart multi-faceted talent, to reinforce the front court. They even took a flyer on former number one pick (and Canadian!) Anthony Bennett.
2. What are the Raptors' biggest strengths?
Given the answer to the previous question, can we say defense? Let's say defense. Yes, while it feels crazy to say it, the Raptors now, on paper, boast a pretty strong defensive identity. The team should be able to go small, with James Johnson and Carroll, or play big with Scola and Jonas Valanciunas. The three-guard lineups can now feature Joseph, Lowry and DeRozan, which makes up in defense what it gives up in a Williams/Greivis-free offense. Or they can wreck havoc with Biyombo.
In an NBA where multi-skilled lineups and two-way players are valuable, the Raptors have taken steps to move in that direction. At the very least, the Raptors' defense is something to feel more positive about this coming season.
3. What are the Raptors' biggest weaknesses?
Still, there's no guarantee all of this is going to work out as predicted. While its clear GM Masai Ujiri has made moves to move the Raptors further along into the modern era, questions remain about the team's frontcourt and bench.
While it's true Amir Johnson was not the same player he was at his peak, he brought a rebounding and defensive intelligence that Patterson has not quite yet achieved. The undersized Patterson brings range, but he's not the strongest rebounder on either end of the court. Meanwhile, there are still huge questions regarding Valanciunas' ability to defend the pick-and-roll and anchor the team's defense at the rim. And what about Terrence Ross as the key scorer off the Raptors' bench and presumed wing defender they'll need when Carroll rests? I can't put big enough question marks here to cover that particular issue.
4. What are the goals for this Raptors team?
There's a steady narrative trend around the Raptors right now. Two years ago, the team reformed and made its surprising run to 48-34 and a close first round playoff loss. Last year, with high expectations, they drove to a 49-33 record despite a wonky second half to the season. Disaster in the playoffs followed, as the first round sweep by the Wizards last spring was something of a reality check.
For the Raptors this season, the goal is, as always, to prove they belong. The past two years the Raptors have been dismissed as a "just happy to be there" team. Many were not surprised when they lost to the lower seeded Brooklyn Nets two years ago. And still others were not shocked with John Wall and Bradley Beal ran over the Raptors last year. After the presumed favourite Cleveland Cavaliers, it's going to be a tougher fight in the middle of the Eastern Conference this season. Toronto will also not have an Atlantic Division-backed 4-seed waiting for them. They'll need to earn homecourt advantage the hard way. And they'll have to claw past some very good Washington, Milwaukee, Chicago, Miami and Atlanta teams to gain any ground.