Raptors Offseason Report: The North Chase


2016/17 Record: 51 – 31 (Second Round Exit)

2017/18 Salaries: $120,928,989 (Over The Cap Team) – full TOR cap situation – here.

Incoming Draft Picks: Nil.

Outgoing Draft Picks: BKN ’18 1st (15-30), PHX ’18 2nd.

Screen Shot 2017-10-07 at 7.35.34 am

The 2017 Raptors season finished in an unfortunately familiar fashion. After surviving the young Bucks down in Milwaukee, the Raps ran into a broom made in Cleveland, getting swept away in the Conference Semi-Finals.

The defeat to the Cavs wasn’t necessarily the issue (other than, you know, losing), but the disheartening outcome for Management was the way it occurred. After re-signing DeMar DeRozan and making trades for Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker, Toronto genuinely felt they had a shot at dethroning the Cavs.

Nope, they were wrong.

Conf. Semi-Finals Series
Cleveland59.3% EFG, 120.3 ORTG, 116.3 PPG
Toronto: 49.1% EFG, 104.5 ORTG, 101.0 PPG

The lone bright spot was Kyle Lowry, who averaged 20 points with eight assists in the two games he was healthy for. This goes in stark contrast to his previous playoff performances, where he has averaged 39% shooting across 52 playoff games.

This was supposed to be the roster that at least slowed James and the Cavs. Ibaka can defend the rim and shoot from range, allowing a modern Center option to complement the bruising J-Val. Tucker was brought in to be the perimeter stopper that could hit from the outside – what DeMarre Carroll was supposed to be. All of this to supplement an All-Star backcourt playing the best ball of their careers throughout the regular season.

But once again, the elite offense came to a screeching halt in the postseason, leaving President Masai Ujiri with many questions and few answers. With the progress that Toronto have made over the past five seasons, should the team try and keep up in the title chase, or hit reset and rebuild?

Ultimately, hitting reset was never really an option for Ujiri. The priority had to be retaining talent without ruining the cap sheet, which was mission mostly accomplished. Lowry was kept for a very fair three years and $90 million. Serge was kept for three and $65 mil. A smart sign-and-trade brought in C.J. Miles for three and $24 mil. The alternative was letting Lowry and Ibaka walk, making Ibaka a very expensive rental (Terrence Ross and a First Round Pick), leaving the team with no way to replace both players with equal talent and DeRozan completely alone. Toronto will have a strong, but expensive starting five.

It’s now up to Coach Dwayne Casey to increase ball movement and change some player habits.

Toronto ranked in the 96th percentile for points per possession for pick-and-roll ball handlers and isolation plays, 86th for the roll man, according to nba.com. In the playoffs, those play-types accounted for 36% of the team’s offense, for an average of 0.92 Points Per Possession. Toronto generated 1.03 PPP off screens, but those plays only occurred on 3.6% of Toronto’s possessions. In the playoffs, diversity matters and too often Toronto were predictable, which means guardable.

For a different outcome this year, Toronto needs to lean more on their unused strengths, whilst drastically improving their weaknesses. DeRozan and Lowry only scored 0.70 PPP as spot-up shooters in the postseason – horrible numbers considering the team had 24% of its possessions finished with this play-type. Lowry averaged 2.17 PPP off screens (!) but only got those looks on 4.8% of possessions. There will be some regression with increased usage, but nevertheless, those are still exceptional numbers. The acquisition of Miles will help, he was scintillating in the playoffs off screens – 2.33 PPP on 11.1% frequency.

The loss of Tucker will likely mean more pressure on DeRozan to defend, and Casey really needs to increase his accountability here. Double-D was a -2.04 in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus Minus, placing him 77th out of 93 Shooting Guards. Miles wasn’t a lot better, scoring -0.95. The best wing defender will likely be Norman Powell, who is still a work in progress offensively and is slightly undersized on the wing. As luck would have it, Powell just got an extension, locking him in for the next four seasons after this for a very reasonable $42 million. This is a win-win deal – Powell gets security and a decent deal before risking a tough RFA market and Toronto pay market price with the potential for Powell to provide an excellent ROI.

There is no clear path to the third star for this team. Serge Ibaka is a nice player, but he is a complementary piece at best. Valanciunas isn’t it either, and can’t seem to keep himself in Coach Casey’s good books. In a League where spacing and the three-point line is more important than ever, J-Val hasn’t been able to spread his range like a Marc Gasol or Brook Lopez. On the topic of three-point shooting, DeRozan needs to increase his percentage above the 26.6% he averaged last season. Among the top 10 scorers from last season, only Russell Westbrook had a lower eFG%. Toronto needs efficient offense from their high volume shooters in the playoffs, and this is the only area left for DeRozan to make major strides.

In the short term this team has slightly limited growth potential, but the opportunities to improve should be there. There is plenty of fresh blood waiting to prove their worth to the coaching staff. There is more talk from Casey that there will be more ball movement and three point shooting – essential for a team that finished 22nd in 3PA despite ranking 13th in 3PT%. DeRozan will spend more time as a facilitator, which should (hopefully) lead to more opportunities for Lowry and Miles to run off screens a la Golden State with Curry and Thompson.

All of this leads back to a team intent on competing, but without a roster that screams “Eastern Contender” the way Cleveland and Boston might. Ujiri has set the team up to continue to be competitive for the next few years; Lowry, Ibaka, Valanciunas and Miles all have their contracts end in three seasons. After that, it’s right back to that familiar crossroad – contend or revamp?

Until that point, We The North will keep chasing the ultimate prize.

Projected Starting Five:

Projected Depth Chart:
Screen Shot 2017-10-07 at 7.49.57 am

Overall Offseason Grade: B+

2017/18 Prediction: 53-29

Whether or not this squad is built to win 3-4 rounds in the Playoffs, it will still be a dynamite regular season team. With the continued weakening of the East, there should be plenty of easy wins to be had. Getting a whole training camp with Ibaka and Miles will pay dividends, and the new emphasis on shooting and ball movement should keep them in lock-step with other East Contenders. With Kyle and DeMar, the Raps still sport two of the best four guards out East, which will keep them in most games. If the bench proves to be ready, this total could increase further.

norman powell raptors

Player to Watch: Norman Powell

Powell finds himself as the likely first wing off the bench with Tucker leaving for Houston. He has had a few coming out parties in the past two playoffs but has yet to put it together for an extended stretch of time. Powell recorded a PER of 14 and a True Shooting percentage of 55.2 in 18 minutes per contest. He provides a tenaciousness and toughness to the squad that is otherwise missing, and will now be asked to provide even more. The depth chart doesn’t have a more proven player to take his place, so Powell must shoulder the burden.

1. Which young player will step up?
Delon Wright, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Bruno Caboclo, Jakob Poeltl. Not exactly your household names, yet they will likely soak up the bulk of the 2nd string minutes available, along with the aforementioned Powell and Lucas Nogueira. Someone will have to rise to the occasion, otherwise the workload will prove unbearable for the starters. With the loss of Patterson, Joseph and Tucker, Toronto has lost it’s three leaders in minutes off the bench from last year. Ujiri may feel compelled to make a trade for a more established vet, but trading another FRP might be too great a cost after giving away 2018’s First in the Carroll dump.

2. Can Valanciunas dominate in the middle?
With the revelation of small ball comes the realisation that the Center spot hasn’t completely died out yet. Only Cleveland and Boston look likely to start a non-traditional C at the 5 spot out East, which means J-Val should have suitable match-ups more often than not. Unless he can start extending his range – which doesn’t seem likely – Valanciunas will need to find new ways to contribute. Upping his assists over 1 per game would be a start, as would reversing his free-throw rate trend, which has decreased the last three years straight.

3. Will we actually see DeRozan and the rest of the team take more threes?
DeRozan has been unapologetic in his approach to the game, but this might be the year that he truly embraces change. DeRozan shot 38% from 16-23 feet according to basketball reference. Trading some of those long 2’s for an extra point just has to make sense at some point. The rest of the roster doesn’t seem to be as resistant to the triple, but efficiency will be questionable. Only three of the top nine shooters by percentage are returning this year, and VanVleet only attempted 29 for the year. Defenses will challenge the unproven Raptors to beat them with the long ball.

4. Will the Raptors keep to their new principals in the Playoffs?
For the past four seasons, the Raptors haven’t been able to bring their offensive efficiency to the post-season. Casey has been given the benefit of the doubt time and again, but it’s hard for a leopard to change its spots. There will be early pressure on the team to play with more motion and passing, but the playoffs will be where the true colours show. Can DeRozan and Lowry truly buy into a new philosophy, or will old habits die hard?

Info courtesy of:
Basketball Reference
Basketball Insiders
Real GM
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