The Toronto Raptors have been one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference since 2013… at least in the regular season. The Raptors averaged 51 wins over the last four regular seasons, but they have consistently run into problems in the postseason. Even when they reached the Eastern Conference Finals in 2016, the Raptors needed seven games against inferior teams in each of the first two rounds. All four losses to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the ECF were blowouts. Last season, Toronto needed to come from behind against the Milwaukee Bucks before getting swept by the Cavaliers in the second round.
Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are both All-Stars, but their play has consistently taken a hit when it matters most. Toronto decided to stick with its core, though, by giving Lowry and Serge Ibaka three-year deals after giving DeRozan a monster five-year deal last summer. Some changes have been made around the edges, but the main players, along with head coach Dwane Casey, are back to try to take the next step.
Evolve or go extinct?
One of the biggest criticisms of the Raptors has been their offensive style. They rely on heavy doses of Lowry and DeRozan and getting to the free throw line a lot (sixth in FTA). They don’t move the ball much (27th in passes per game and last in AST%) and don’t take many 3-pointers (22nd in 3PA). While this has still created elite offense in the regular season, it has tanked in the playoffs.
There has been plenty of talk heading into this season about diversifying the offense to make it more successful come playoff time.
From Casey, per The Associated Press:
“It’s not going to be a 180, but there’s things we’ve got to do and must do offensively to be more efficient, a style of play where teams can’t sit on sets and sit on plays.”
“The conversation is more so the change so that when the playoff time comes, things can be different. That’s what the whole plan is.”
From DeRozan, per The Athletic:
“We can’t let nothing catch us off guard, and have to make adjustments come playoff time. We’ve got to be able to have that in our package during the season, so we understand how to do it, when to do it, so there’s nothing new.
“You’ve got to mix in a little bit of both (styles). Mix it up. People kind of overreact to it like we’re going to go from night to day. At the same time, we’ve just got to understand this is what we need to implement, as well as (continue to do) what we’ve been so great at, to make us even better. As long as we do that, we’ll be fine. We just need to put the IQ into the game.”
DeRozan has become a rather divisive player thanks to his old-school style. He is undoubtedly a really good scorer who has made strides in his game over the course of his career, but his propensity to fire tough mid-range jumpers, coupled with an inability to shoot from long range, can sometimes prove problematic. His 10.1 mid-range attempts per game led the NBA last season, and he is a career 28.1 percent 3-point shooter on only 1.4 attempts per game in the regular season. In the playoffs, he has made only 14 of 67 attempts from 3-point territory in 41 games.
DeRozan “isn’t going to become Klay Thompson overnight,” but the hope is the Raptor guard can take and make a few more 3-pointers. There were signs of life in the 2015-16 regular season when he shot nearly 34 percent from distance on 1.8 tries per game, but he regressed badly in the playoffs to 15.4 percent.
Toronto has made it a point to launch 3-pointers and move the ball more in the preseason. The Raptors rank second in 3-point attempts with a whopping 40 per contest, though they’ve connected at just a 26.9 percent clip. DeRozan has made two of his nine 3-point attempts in three games. The Raptors are making a point of shooting more treys, but the results aren’t there yet.
As for the ball movement, Toronto is middle of the pack in assist rate, but that is much better than being at the bottom of the league. Baby steps.
My name is Jonas
Jonas Valanciunas is a quality player, but there are questions about whether starting him and Ibaka together is the best idea. The way the league is going, Valanciunas’ skill set makes him an ideal candidate to come off the bench and feast against second units while Ibaka starts as the full-time five. This would open up the offense and give Ibaka more of an opportunity to protect the rim.
Toronto was outscored by 1.8 points per 100 possessions in 440 regular season minutes when Ibaka and Valanciunas shared the floor last season, per NBA.com. When Ibaka was on the court and Valanciunas was on the bench, the Raptors blitzed opponents to the tune of a plus-11.6 net rating in 272 minutes.
The Raptors didn’t enjoy that kind of success in the playoffs with Ibaka at the five, but they were still bad when Ibaka and Valanciunas played together. The big lineup was so ineffective that Casey moved Valanciunas to the bench after three games in the Milwaukee Bucks series. Toronto promptly won the next three games with Norman Powell in the starting lineup before everything went haywire against Cleveland.
It looks like Casey will go with the bigger lineup to start this season, but don’t be surprised if he changes things up if Toronto struggles. Also don’t rule out the possibility of a trade of Valanciunas. The Raptors have two young centers on the roster — Jakob Poeltl and Lucas Nogueira — who could soak up minutes either as backups or on-court complements to Ibaka if Casey wanted to keep using bigger lineups.
Powell showed flashes of brilliance throughout the first two years of his career, but he really broke out during last year’s postseason. He was a key in turning the series against the Bucks and enjoyed a career night in Game 5 of that series (25 points on 8-of-11 shooting):
Thanks to that and his potential as a quality two-way wing, Powell just inked a four-year, $42 million extension. The 2015 second-round pick may also wind up in the starting lineup. It was initially thought that Miles was going to be the starting small forward, but Powell has also gotten the call a few times in the preseason.
Casey hasn’t made a final decision yet, though either Powell or Miles would be a good option. Plus, the Raptors’ best lineup could include both of them: Lowry-DeRozan-Powell-Miles-Ibaka. Don’t be surprised to see that group closing games, and expect to see Powell make an impact on both ends this season.
What about the other kids?
The Raptors have a host of young guys who could play a lot this year. The 21-year-old Poeltl has a year under his belt and has played well in the preseason. Nogueria and Pascal Siakam earned rotation minutes last season. Delon Wright is set to back up Lowry with Cory Joseph gone to the Indiana Pacers in the Miles swap. Fred VanVleet may get backup minutes in the backcourt. Sadly, Bruno Caboclo still seems to be two years away from being two years away (at this point he might just be permanently away).
On a more positive note, 2017 first-round pick O.G. Anunoby has returned earlier than expected from a torn ACL. Anunoby projects to be a versatile defensive forward who can also shoot with range, and he could provide a spark off the bench with his energy and athleticism.
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