Building Eh Contender: A Toronto Raptors Preview
This year, for the first time, Hickory-High will be tackling the challenging of crafting season previews for all thirty NBA teams. Beginning today we’ll be rolling out these previews, one each day, leading up to Opening Night. This was a task of considerable size and complexity and it required the help of every member of our staff. The only guidelines given were that each writer approach team by staying true to their own style and the result is season previews of a difference sort. We hope you enjoy!
The Toronto Raptors are reportedly trying to “re-brand” their franchise after what has been a very disappointing half-decade (they have as many NBA playoff appearances over that span as your Saturday morning adult league team does), and while they will be changing their team colors and jersey design (luckily they drew the line at changing their Jurassic Park themed moniker) in an effort to rid themselves of their losing demons, they have quietly assembled a deep roster than looks like a playoff team no matter what colors they wear.
Below is the projected starting lineup for the 2013-2014 Raptors, a quintet that very much resembles last season’s, but has a year more of experience and an off-season to gain continuity. Not a single one of these players has peaked yet, and with an average age of 25, it is very possible that this team gets stronger as the season progresses and is playing its best basketball when the games count the most.
PG – Kyle Lowry (27 years old)
SG – DeMar DeRozan (24 years old)
SF – Rudy Gay (27 years old)
PF – Amir Johnson (26 years old)
C – Jonas Valanciunas (21 years old)
This roster may lack a “do-it-all” superstar, but it is loaded with one important trait that can be closely linked to success in today’s NBA: athleticism. Think about it: the Heat are back to back champs with the best athlete on the planet, the Pacers made a nice run behind their versatile stud in Paul George, and the Bulls/Thunder faltered after losing their most explosive athlete due to an injury. Heck, even the Spurs used the versatile ability of Kawhi Leonard to jump start their run through the Western Conference, and they are traditionally one of the non-athletic “boring” team that fundamentals their opponents into submission.
Slumps are a part of the game (especially over an 82 game season), but athleticism is one constant than can be brought to the arena, and teams that have an athletic edge have the ability to win every single night. Am I suggesting that the Raptors are going to make a 48 game improvement and become the first NBA team to run the table? Of course not. But could they win 44 games (the number that earned the six seed a year ago) and give the three seed in the East (Indiana for my money) all they can handle in a first round playoff series? Absolutely.
In addition to tremendous athletes in the starting five, Toronto has the ability to cap their regular season minutes with a very strong bench.
They brought in Mickael Pietrus at the tail end of last season and acquired Steve Novak in the Andrea Bargnani trade (a move that shows the Raptors are ready to move forward instead of continuing to try to justify drafting the seven-foot stiff with the first overall pick in 2006) to handle the perimeter shooting, theoretically allowing Gay and DeRozan to attack the rim instead of settling for triples (Gay attempted four three pointers per game last year after being dealt to Toronto). I expect Novak and Pietrus to spread defenses with consistency, but they aren’t the only potential game changes that will come off the bench. Quincy Acy and Terrence Ross proved that, in small segments, they are ready to contribute (both are only 22 years old), while D.J. Augustin and Tyler Hansbrough bring over a gritty tenacity from Indiana. Few teams in the NBA can go 10-11 players deep, something I expect to help the Raptors win those 8-10 minutes per game where both teams have their reserves in the game.
A playoff berth this season would be considered a success in Toronto, and after the top four teams in the East (Heat, Pacers, Bulls, and Nets), there is a lot of uncertainty. The Knicks will be in the mix, but they will lack consistency, much like I expect the Raptors to, and while they have more star power in the form of Carmelo Anthony, am I crazy to think they’d struggle with the depth and athletic ability of these Raptors? The other three playoff teams from a year ago lost big pieces (Josh Smith left Atlanta, everybody bolted from Boston, and Milwaukee is dealing with an entirely new back court) and while perennial losers like Cleveland and Washington took steps in the right direction this off-season, they may still be at least a season away from being a true threat.
Believe it or not, the Raptors finished last season only four games out of a playoff spot despite starting the season by losing 19 of their first 23 games and having six losing streaks of at least four games. If they can once again rank in the top five when it comes to fewest team turnovers, the Raptors have a very real chance at breaking the longest playoff drought in franchise history, and should only improve as the season progresses.
Fearless Forecast: Jonas Valanciunas builds on his impressive summer league and wins the NBA’s Most Improved award while leading the Raptors to a 44 win season.