While the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers deal with the departures of star players, the Toronto Raptors were able to retain a core that over the last several seasons has been among the most consistent in the league.
Despite the possibility of a shake-up, the Raptors brought their main guys back this offseason. Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka were free agents, but each re-upped on three-year deals. DeMar DeRozan is locked in until 2021. Toronto has its core for the foreseeable future, with the big moves involving a supporting cast the Raptors hope will help get them over the hump in the East.
In 2015, the Raptors advanced past the first round of the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. They made it to the conference finals, where they lost in six games to LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers. They lost to Cleveland again in the semifinals this past season.
A revolving door of “LeBron stoppers” — from James Johnson to DeMarre Carroll to P.J. Tucker — never yielded what they sought. This year, it will likely be Norman Powell, C.J. Miles or rookie OG Anunoby who draws the tall task. There are very few mortals who can credibly defend LeBron — Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green may be the only ones — but Toronto general manager Masai Ujiri has spent a lot of time and assets trying to find one, to no avail.
The Raptors have the best record in the East over the past four seasons, but they have never truly competed for the conference crown as LeBron dominated with the Heat and Cavaliers. Lowry and DeRozan have struggled in the postseason but they’ve also been let down by an underachieving group of role players. Outside of Powell, few, if any, were difference-makers.
That’s why the team traded for Ibaka at last season’s deadline. The Raptors will have a full year now to integrate Ibaka into their rotation.
Let’s take a look at last season’s depth chart vs. a projected depth chart for next season:
The role players have been shuffled: Miles will provide shooting that Carroll and Tucker did not, spacing the floor for DeRozan’s mid-range game and Lowry’s drives to the rim. Delon Wright should be ready to handle backup point guard duties after Cory Joseph was sent to Indiana for Miles. Anunoby, recovering from an ACL injury, may not be ready to be a factor in his first season but his defensive versatility is tantalizing.
Toronto, however, needs more from a frontcourt in which $129 million is invested. Ibaka is still benefiting from a reputation as a defensive anchor that he cultivated in Oklahoma City six seasons ago. He’s never been the same defender since, going from 3.7 blocks per game to 1.4 last season, and a Defensive Box Plus-Minus that dropped from 3.8 in 2011-12 to minus-0.5 in his 23 games in Toronto last season. He’s a notoriously limited passer and ball handler, but can at least spread the floor with his jumper. Still, Ibaka at this point is more Ryan Anderson than Paul Millsap.
Jonas Valanciunas is another issue. After a promising 2016 playoff run, he inked a new deal with the Raptors but regressed last season. He’s a good post scorer and rebounder but the game has evolved beyond that type of player. Despite the large investment they’ve made in him, the Raptors should consider bringing Valanciunas off the bench. The Milwaukee Bucks have done it with Greg Monroe and the Oklahoma City Thunder with Enes Kanter, repurposing their old-school centers as the focal point of the second-unit offense.
It would also allow the Raptors to better leverage Ibaka’s skills at center. Ibaka, a more versatile defender than Valanciunas, can better keep up with the switches while spreading the floor on offense for Lowry and DeRozan.
Bringing Valanciunas off the bench also would create a starting spot for Powell, who after two impressive seasons is ready for a bigger opportunity. It would give the Raptors a more versatile starting five, along with a different look to throw at the Cavaliers and Celtics.
Toronto didn’t have many choices this offseason. Lose Lowry and it drops out of the conversation in the conference. Let Ibaka walk, and the Raptors have wasted valuable resources used to trade for him in the first place. Ujiri did well to unload Carroll and trade for Miles. Role players can make a massive difference in the playoffs but the Raptors will need more from their key contributors if they’re to narrow the gap in the East.
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