And the winner of the biggest disappointment of the NBA Playoffs award goes to…the Toronto Raptors.
Coming off of a franchise-best season in terms of total wins, the sentiment heading into the playoffs was overwhelmingly optimistic for players and fans alike. Sure, there was some regret in the fact they were only able to secure the fourth seed, and there was definitely some consternation over the peaks and valleys of a confusing season, but they seemed to be playing well at exactly the right time.
Life seemed good.
But, then the playoffs began and the Washington Wizards happened. And once again, as has been the case so often throughout their 20 years of existence, everything went dark.
In one of the uglier first-round sweeps in recent memory, the Wizards manhandled the Raptors, pinned them into submission and drained every last ounce of life from their previously vigorous bodies.
Now they enter the offseason battered and bruised, licking their wounds and with more questions than answers.
What The Heck Happened?
Well, to put it into simple terms, an already porous defense somehow became even worse in the playoffs.
Facing a team with one of the worst offenses in the league, the Raptors allowed the Wizards to score above the century mark in three of the four games it took to decide the series – for 117, 106, 125 points respectively. Somehow, the Raptors allowed the Wizards to become the “Showtime Lakers” for one glorious series.
Perhaps even more alarming than that was the lack of heart demonstrated over the course of that series. They got punched in the face, they laid down to recover, but they never got back up. A team that reportedly had the best chemistry in the league for much of the past few seasons suddenly seemed disinterested in the game, and in each other quite honestly.
It was a spectacular disaster, and one that should send shockwaves through the organization with enough force to initiate significant change. Clearly, the core of players Masai Ujiri and crew were banking on aren’t the guys that will carry this team to a championship. They lack toughness, and as Paul Pierce so eloquently put it, the “It Factor”.
It’s not that there isn’t talent on this team. There is plenty of that. The Raptors had one of the most efficient and potent offenses in the league last season — 1.066 offensive rating (fourth best). They shot the ball well — 50.5% eFG (eighth best). They protected their possessions better than almost anyone else — 12.8 turnovers per game (third best). And they scored 103.6 points per game (sixth most).
They have two All-Star caliber players making up their backcourt in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. They had the Sixth Man of the Year, Lou Williams, coming off of their bench. They have an up-and-coming player in Jonas Valanciunas. And they have a sturdy supporting cast in Terrence Ross, Amir Johnson, Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez. This is talent that two-thirds of the league would accept with open arms.
So if it isn’t a talent issue, then what is it? Coaching? Team composition? Player mismanagement?
Well, put frankly; yes, yes and yes.
There is plenty of evidence that Dwane Casey isn’t the coach who will turn the Raptors into champions, not the least of which is their recent playoff embarrassment, but I won’t focus on those in this examination.
I do think Casey has flaws, but I also don’t think they are hideous enough they can’t be hidden with a little concealer (talent). I’m fine with the Raptors bringing him back for the 2015-2016 season.
I also believe there was a fair share of player mismanagement last season that facilitated their demise. Lowry looked beaten into the ground by the time the playoffs rolled around, and had the Raptors put a little less effort into making him an All-Star earlier in the season, they might have had a much different point guard when it truly mattered. But I’ll give the Raptors’ coaches and front office the benefit on this as well that they learned their lesson.
To me, the biggest culprit of their colossal playoff failure was simply their talent composition.
Where Do They Go Now?
First and foremost, the Raptors need to add some defensive toughness into their lineup, especially on the perimeter.
Out of all the players who become free agents this summer, there is one name that simply oozes with defensive tenacity and violence — Patrick Beverley.
Beverley is a lot like Liam Neeson in the Taken series. He possesses a very particular set of skills–skills that make him a nightmare for people like you. Now, of course “people like you” in this context are opposing guards, and his “particular set of skills” is his unrelenting defensive presence.
But these are all qualities that the Raptors would greatly benefit from, and I think they should seriously consider going fairly hard after him in the offseason with the “easier path to finals is in the east” routine. I also think it would be okay for the Raptors to slightly overpay for him. I think Beverley has probably made himself a $5 million per year type of player, but to get him for $6 or $7 million wouldn’t be the end of the world either.
That would potentially create a logjam in the rotational backcourt with Vasquez and Lou Williams, but I would also argue that the Raptors shouldn’t be so gung-ho in their desires to bring Lou back. I really enjoy his game, but he doesn’t exactly exude the type of qualities I think this Raptors team desperately needs.
Assuming for a second they brought in Beverley on a $7 million deal, that would put their total salary at around $55 million, $12 under the projected cap and $26 million under the luxury tax. That’s quite a bit of cash to take a serious run at some quality players to solidify their frontcourt.
Just as there was one name I really loved to address their defensive shortcomings in their backcourt, there is one name I love to do the same thing for their frontcourt — Paul Millsap. Thank you for everything you’ve done Amir Johnson, but your services are no longer needed.
Millsap in a Raptors uniform instantly upgrades them in every possible way defensively, but also gives them some veteran savviness and leadership in their locker room. Someone that will police the team if you will.
The only problem is I’m not sure Millsap would have any desire to leave his situation with the Hawks to enter into an equivalent one with another Eastern Conference team, especially when the Hawks can offer him a better max deal.
Another name I could see filling that same role is David West–who has a player option–and that is actually a far more likely match as West’s future in Indiana looks tenuous with them trying to reboot their frontcourt with a younger group. He could be had on a much more cap-friendly type of deal as well, probably somewhere around the $10 million mark.
Many people have recommended the Raptors explore trade options relating to DeRozan, but I think his $9 million deal for the next two seasons makes him a steal. You aren’t going to replace his production for that money. He should stay. But the one player the Raptors should certainly explore trade options for is Terrence Ross. His inability to step up during DeRozan’s absence, when this team needed him the most, should be the last straw.
The time has come to either sell low on him or put him into a much further reduced role. With $16 million remaining under the luxury cap in this scenario, the Raptors should pursue free agent small forward Tobias Harris as their long-term solution. Harris is coming off of a breakout season and is in line for a nice pay raise, but he probably commands somewhere around $10 million per year on the open market. If his trajectory continues at this rate, that would be a huge steal in a few years. You take that risk and outbid everyone for his services.
After that, the Raptors should let everybody else walk. Everyone. That means not bringing back Amir Johnson, Lou Williams, or Tyler Hansbrough. It means saying goodbye to Landry Fields and Chuck Hayes. It means letting go of the inimitable Greg Stiemsma.
They would still have $6 million remaining to pay out before they reached the luxury tax in this scenario, and there are plenty of players available on the market to fill in their bench on the cheap. And even if it puts them above the line, if it meant a lineup that could help them legitimately compete for a championship, they need to pay that money.
The Raptors are definitely not as far away from a championship as it seemed this offseason. A few strategic moves could put them on the fast track to the Larry O’Brien trophy.