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Toronto Raptors 2016-17 Preview: Can the Raps avoid regression?

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Toronto’s pursuit of sustained success starts now.

Indiana Pacers v Toronto Raptors - Game One Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

This post is Raptors HQ’s contribution to SB Nation’s league-wide preview series, spearheaded by Celtics Blog. You can check out other team-specific previews at our sister sites in the coming days, and we will continue to roll out individual player previews up ‘til opening night.

Team Name: Toronto Raptors

Last Year's Record: 56-26, Lost 4-2 in Eastern Conference Finals

Key Losses: Bismack Biyombo, James Johnson, Luis Scola

Key Additions: Jared Sullinger, Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam

What Significant Moves were made during the off-season?

In a summer that saw NBA teams throw gigantic free agent contracts at any player with four working limbs, Raptors GM Masai Ujiri managed to avoid the chaos of the open outcry. Of course, that can’t be entirely attributed to Ujiri’s will power. Toronto lacked the open cap space to make a significant foray into the free agent market, especially once the in-house business of bringing back DeMar DeRozan on a near-max deal (5 years / $139 Million) was complete. Instead of making a splash designed to lift the Raptors above pseudo-contender status, Ujiri opted for a stop-gap at the team’s weakest position, signing Jared Sullinger (1 year for the mid-level exception) to serve as a support beam on the bridge to summer 2017.

Unlike the host of much busier teams lower in the Eastern Conference pecking order, Toronto is banking on continuity, improved health and internal growth to be the catalysts of growth in the 2016-17 season.

What are the team's biggest strengths?

Call it ugly and painful to watch if you want, but the Raptors’ offense is about as effective as they come. Despite the seemingly endless critiques of DeMar DeRozan’s ISO and mid-range heavy style, and constant calls for Jonas Valanciunas to become a more prominent offensive contributor, Toronto remains a consistent model of scoring efficiency. During the Raptors’ three-year run of playoff appearances, Dwane Casey’s teams have finished ninth, third and fifth in offensive rating. It’s been done of the back of DeRozan’s elite knack of piling up free-throws, consistently accurate three-point shooting and the Daryl Morey-fication of Kyle Lowry’s shot chart.

Per NBA.com/Stats

Casey understand’s his team’s strengths and limitations scoring the ball. Toronto excels when DeRozan and Lowry are cutting into defenses and either setting up catch-and-shoot threes or hunting contact at the rim. So, that’s exactly what the offense revolves around – plenty of high pick-and-rolls engineered to get the Raptors’ star guards moving downhill with a head of steam. If an opening isn’t there on the first attempt, resets and subsequent tries usually follow. This is where some of the criticism of the team’s lack of creativity can come into play.

With three 20-plus PER players (Lowry, DeRozan and Valanciunas) comprising the roster’s core, the Raptors also tend to slow things down, knowing they can make better use of a low possession count than most opposing teams. Only the Jazz played at a slower pace than Toronto in 2015-16, but Utah scored nearly 4 points less per-100 possessions than its Canadian counterparts.

With the pieces at Casey’s disposal, Toronto can skate by without running fast-paced, ball-whipping sets that generate endless clean looks and sexy assist totals. It is by no means pretty to watch, and its simplicity can be exposed in the playoffs. But over the course of an 82-game regular season, the Raptors have found a way to perfect the imperfect.

What are the team's biggest weaknesses?

As mentioned above, the solvability of the Raptors offense once defenses tighten up in the playoffs is a major concern at times in the post-season, but on a full-season scale, the front court depth could be a tad problematic if things don’t unfold absolutely perfectly.

Here’s the projected big man rotation heading into training camp:

Power Forward: Jared Sullinger / Patrick Patterson / Pascal Siakam

Centre: Jonas Valanciunas / Sullinger / Lucas Nogueira / Jakob Poeltl

Valanciunas and Patterson are constants. The latter is a multi-tool defender with a must-respect long range shot, while the former has a chance for a fifth-year breakout after a dominant playoff stretch indicated he may be ready for more responsibility.

Behind those two lies a murkier picture, though. Sullinger will probably be a useful third big-man, and his ability to play centre will force the Raptors to experiment with some fun and funky small units. Sullinger, however, doesn’t bring the outstanding rim-protection the now-departed Bismack Biyombo did last year. On the opposite end of the floor, Sullinger doesn’t do the things that made Luis Scola a functional part of Toronto’s offense in 2015-16. Scola found a home making catch-and-shoot corner threes. Sullinger, a 27.6 career three-point shooter, hoisted just two of his 103 long distance attempts from the comfort of the corners in Boston last year. That safety valve is an important part of Toronto’s drive-and-kick offense, and there’s no proof yet that Sullinger can be useful in that role.

Then comes the real drop-off. Backing up Toronto’s veterans is a trio of unproven and/or unreliable big man options. Nogueira has teased Raptors fans with a soft passing touch and a strong lob connection with Lowry and Cory Joseph, but his spaceheadedness on defense is more than just a small, youth-rooted concern. And no matter how promising or skilled Poeltl and Siakam may be, they’re rookies. It’s safest to project little to no contribution from the pair of first-rounders, and accept anything beyond the minimum as gravy.

If injuries or inconsistent play strike the three pillars of the Raptors’ front court, it could get dicey for Casey as he tries to patch things together while also keeping the Raptors on track for a top-three finish in the East.

What are the goals for this team?

This might be the most interesting question hovering over the 2016-17 Raptors. Coming off the most successful season in franchise history (by far), the natural step in this position should theoretically be a run into the NBA Finals. But LeBron James’ existence tends to throw expectations out of whack. No one has touched him in the Eastern Conference for six years. If the Raptors’ players and fans are going to base their perception of this season on whether the team reaches the Finals, there will likely be an epidemic of disappointment in Toronto come June.

With the spectre of the Cavs in mind, a more realistic goal for this season would be to run it back and repeat last season’s success. The Raptors aren’t the Clippers. Where L.A. has plateaued in recent years, Toronto has just completed its first ascent. The next step is establishing last year’s bar as the standard. There’s still time for the Raptors prove 2015-16’s sustainability before the creeping narrative of stagnation takes hold the way it has in Los Angeles.

On a more micro level, the Boston Celtics are preparing to pose the kind of threat to the second seed that the Raptors didn’t deal with last season. Keeping the nipping Celtics down and securing home court in a potential second-round playoff series will be a tasty carrot for the Raptors to chase over the 82-game grind.

Is this the year Jonas Valanciunas finally makes good on his potential?

Jonas Valanciunas’ roll within the Raptors’ offense has been a contentious topic among fans and media for years. Few big men score from the post with as much efficiency as the Raptors’ fifth-year centre. In 2014-15, Valanciunas was the surest high-volume post scorer in the league, scoring north of a point per possession – a benchmark rarely reached even by the most bruising bigs.

But despite calls from legions of fans, Valanciunas’ usage rate (20.9) continued to lag well behind that of DeRozan (29.8) and Lowry (26.1). It made sense, too. As we’ve covered, the Raptors’ guard-centric offensive attack is reliable in its current form. Valanciunas’ touches in the post are nice ways to get easy points, that’s for sure. But because of his suspect passing out of double teams, there aren’t many options stemming from the designed Valanciunas post touch. A basket, a foul, a turnover or a contested miss are essentially the only outcomes you can expect when the big man receives the ball on the block. When you factor in that traditional post touches are inherently inefficient plays (JV dropped to 0.87 p/p last season), it hasn’t made sense for Valanciunas to figure into Toronto’s offense more.

In the playoffs though, Valanciunas started to round into form as a gigantic pick-and-roll target for his guards to find for exceedingly easy baskets. He’s a monster of a human, and few defenders in the league can slow him down once he rolls out of one of his thunderous picks. This is the key to unlocking a more productive Valanciunas. Pick-and-rolls are what Toronto’s offense revolves around in the team’s endless quest to get its guards into space. Converting some of those clunky post-ups into pick-and-roll finishes only stands to boost the Raptors’ efficiency and JV’s counting stats. In 2015-16, 66 players piled up more possessions as a roll man than Valanciunas’ 101. The number of guys who scored at a more automatic rate than his 1.27 points per possession? Just three: DeAndre Jordan (1.40), Hassan Whiteside (1.34) and Tristan Thompson (1.29).

With a higher volume of those unguardable dives to the rim, we might finally see the leap from Valanciunas we’ve been waiting for. That is, of course, if Toronto’s guards choose to look for him.

What of DeMarre Carroll’s knee?

Through the thicket of clichés tossed around at Raptors media day rose one piece of interesting news: DeMarre Carroll says he’s still working his way back to 100 percent from the knee injury that ate two thirds of his debut season in Toronto.

The hope for the Raptors is that a a preseason minutes restriction and a slow ramp up for Carroll will get him to that desired health status. It’s crucial for him to get there. Toronto isn’t blessed with the same front court depth it was last year. Carroll is of course a wing by trade, but some of his most successful spurts to start 2015-16 came with him manning the four in some stout Toronto closing lineups. Now that Biyombo, Scola and James Johnson are gone, Carroll is probably going to be asked to absorb some power forward minutes. If he’s missing games or playing through nagging ailments, that becomes a taller order, and Casey could be forced to turn to the likes of Siakam and Poeltl for spot minutes. That’s not typically the spot a 50-plus win team wants to find itself in.

Prediction Time!

Vegas set the Raptors over/under for this season at 49.5. This team should be better than that. Losing Biyombo will hurt, but he was not the kind of nightly force that those who only watched Toronto in the playoffs might assume he was. The Sullinger addition helps offset Biyombo’s departure some, and the rest of the roster remains in tact. Continuity counts.

Some regression is probably in store given the heights the team unexpectedly reached last year. That said, all signs point to Lowry, in a contract year, replicating last season’s performance in which he was a top-10 player in the NBA by every important metric. Factor in some internal growth from Powell and Valanciunas, and it’s hard to see six wins being lopped off Toronto’s franchise record total.

The prediction: 53 wins, 2nd-place in the Eastern Conference, repeat All-Star showings for Lowry and DeRozan, a slight uptick in Valanciunas’ production and an explosion of love for Norman Powell on basketball Twitter. In the playoffs, flip a coin in a second round Raptors-Celtics series. I’m not ready to make a call on that just yet.