Last season, the Raptors' roster was something of an ongoing experiment. Could a franchise aspiring to rise into the elite ranks of the NBA and contend at a higher level also feature a roster of young players whose value was still very much in question?
The Raptors of last season began the year with five players -- rookies Norman Powell and Delon Wright, the Brazilian projects Bruno Caboclo and Lucas Nogueira, and a low-risk gamble in Anthony Bennett -- who persisted as unknowns on the court. In that moment, the team had five starters and five bench players and then a series of questions marks. When injuries or foul trouble struck, as would inevitably happen, coach Dwane Casey would be forced to look down his bench and decide: could he play any of those aforementioned five guys?
The answer to this question was both yes and no. With someone like Bennett, it was a hard no. He was cut from the team mid-season and replaced with a more useful (less embarrassing) veteran presence in Jason Thompson. With Caboclo it was also a no -- he spent the entire season in the D-League. With the other three names, however, the answer was and continues to be somewhat harder to determine.
Right now, in late June, the situation for Toronto is different, but only slightly. They have only four starters (assuming Luis Scola is gone) and three bench players (assuming James Johnson and Bismack Biyombo are gone). This means right now the Raptors have seven "known quantity" rotation players from the original ten they started with last year. Now they have four of the six aforementioned deep bench guys (minus Bennett and Thompson). And, of course, two brand new rookies. That's the first and most obvious macro-level difference for the team.
The next difference begins on a more micro-level with Powell. As last season wore on it became abundantly clear that Norm is at least a rotation player. He's a strong defensive presence, he's tough and relentless and, most important, he's developing his three-point shot, which would make him absolutely invaluable to the Raptors. There is no doubt that for next season he'll be slotted into the rotation to backup DeMar DeRozan (and DeMarre Caroll, depending on matchups), while pushing Terrence Ross for minutes. Powell has turned into an awesome find for the Raptors.
The next difference is more of a question. To wit: where do the Raptors stand on Nogueira? At times it's felt like Bebe was ready to break out. He'd play in fits and starts and have an impact one game before disappearing the next. He went down to the D-League, he came back, he played in the playoffs, he was buried on the bench. Nogueira is under team control for the next two years on a deal that will pay him just under $5 million total. If he can become the backup centre to replace the departing Biyombo, the Raptors are sitting pretty. Having Bebe as a productive member of the rotation (along with Powell) on a below market deal, is the exact dream situation the Raptors want. Selecting the two new rookies, Jakob Poeltl in particular, puts the Raptors' faith in Bebe into question at least somewhat. But I'll get back to this train of thought.
The next two players should experience situations similar to that of last year. Delon Wright is still very much a talented point guard prospect playing behind two other very talented point guards. Obviously the Raptors are clinging to Kyle Lowry for all he's worth. He's the whole reason the team is where it is right now. The season after next will be the time for a referendum on that particular issue. What this means for Wright right now is a shrunken role with the Raptors, and, most likely, another year spent playing big minutes with the Raptors 905. There are just no minutes to be had for him unless the Raptors decide to move Cory Joseph -- incredibly unlikely since CoJo is also, to me, on a below market value deal. It sucks for him, but Wright will have to wait his turn.
Likewise, Caboclo is still two years away from being... something. At this point, it is a surety that he'll be with the 905 for all of next season. And, to be honest, we still don't know if all of the improvements he's made to his game will amount to anything on an NBA court. It's also clear that -- unlike Norm, Wright or even Bebe -- Bruno has very little trade value. He's still a total question mark for the Raptors, and to the league at large.
This means the Raptors are basically two for four with these young guys. To add Norm and Bebe to the rotation brings the grand total of presumably usable players up to nine. (With Delon and Bruno remaining largely out of sight in the D-League.)
Now, let's talk Poeltl and Pascal Siakam. For the former, as I implied yesterday, there's a problem of position. Poeltl is naturally a centre, which puts him immediately into conflict (so to speak) with Jonas Valanciunas for minutes. So, he's the backup centre. That's fine. Except that locks him into battle with Nogueira for minutes there. While Casey said Poeltl can play power forward, it seems unlikely that a player of Poeltl's size (even with, again, his acknowledged quickness) will be paired with either Valanciunas or, gulp, Nogueira. Something has got to give here: either the Raptors are going to rely on Bebe as the backup centre or Poeltl, not both.
For Siakam the equation is a little easier to figure out. He slots in naturally to the power forward position. And with the absolute absence of any other PFs on the roster save Patrick Patterson, Siakam becomes the de facto backup. From what we've all read about him, it sounds like Siakam's got two things going for him: a relentless motor and a desire to improve. He came to basketball later in life and has already jumped to its highest level. There's something to be said for that even as we acknowledge that NBA history is littered with dozens (hundreds?) of prospects who leapt into the league only to tumble out of sight shortly thereafter. Here's hoping for a better end with Siakam than that though.
Now, when you start to really stare hard at the Raptors' current frontcourt situation, things look thin. Valanciunas is a lock at centre, as is Patterson as, at the very least, the backup at power forward. The team will have Bebe and Poeltl duke it out for the backup centre minutes. And then decide either to bump Patterson to the starting lineup and play Siakam or get some other, bigger (and better) name to be the starter. If Poeltl and Siakam do indeed find minutes, that brings the roster up to 11 usable players, plus two in the D-League, with spots for two more.
I've documented all of this because, well, I'm still trying to work out how all of these pieces will fit together. For positions one to three, the Raptors have a logical procession of names: Lowry to Joseph, DeRozan to Powell, Caroll to Ross. The frontcourt continues to be an absolute jumble though, with only two known quantities and then questions, questions, questions. Who will the team play? Who will fill those last two roster spots? Where is all of this going?
Much like this past season, the Raptors as currently constituted are still in the middle of an experiment. They have talent that vaults them into the top half of the Eastern Conference. But they also have an even bigger pool of developing players. Can they attempt both -- contending and developing -- at the same time again? Will the investment they've made in some of these players pay off in a bigger way? Answers to those questions will be determined as next season begins.
For right now, my main question of the Raptors is simple: What's next?