Toronto Raptors All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are coming off career years and team President Masai Ujiri wants them to set their goals higher, to start thinking about championships as reported by Lauren La Rose on CBC Sports.
“What an unbelievable year for both of them,” Ujiri said of the duo. “They’re All-Stars, they get to the Eastern Conference Finals, they’re Gold medalists.
“When I texted with them and we talked about the championship, that’s where their minds should be, to be set. They’re building themselves to be that caliber of players. They should start thinking about competing to the highest level.”
The Toronto Raptors are coming off a 56 win season that saw them just two wins away from representing the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals and they head into this season with an upgrade at starting power forward as the Celtics leading rebounder Jared Sullinger steps in to replace the 36-year-old Luis Scola.
Both DeRozan and Lowry were Eastern Conference All-Stars for the second time in their careers last season. DeRozan (23.5 points per game) only trailed LeBron James for the scoring lead in the East. Kyle Lowry ranked as the third best player in the Eastern Conference in Sports Illustrated’s top 100 NBA players and he was noticeably better than the Cavs Kyrie Irving in this summer’s run to Olympic Gold in Rio.
While the Cavaliers will significantly outspend the Raptors again this season, only the width of the gap is left to be determined when the Cavs finally get J.R. Smith inked to a new contract, their advantage may not be as insurmountable as it’s perceived to be. Cleveland took first place in the East last season with just one more win than Toronto. It is only the presence of LeBron James that makes this team stand out in their Conference.
Head-to-head Toronto won the regular season series with Cleveland last year 2-1, taking two close games in Toronto and getting blown out at the Q. The Conference Finals took a similar turn with Cleveland winning two blowouts at home, then losing two blowouts at the Air Canada Centre before finally putting the underdogs away in Games Five and Six.
Unfortunately the Raptors were without the services of a healthy Jonas Valanciunas for the first four games against the eventual NBA Champion Cavaliers and Valanciunas only saw limited run in the final two games and it mattered.
More than even the points the Raptors starting center was putting up in the playoffs before he was hurt, Valanciunas did shoot 7-9 for 15 points in 36 total minutes over the final two games against the Cavs, Toronto missed his rebounding as Cleveland hammered Toronto on the boards 255 to 210 over the six game series. Valanciunas was averaging 15 points and 12.1 rebounds per game in the playoffs before he was hurt.
It should be noted the Raptors were bailed out on the glass at home by monster performances from Bismack Biyombo who grabbed 40 rebounds total in Games Three and Four of the Conference Finals. Unfortunately Biyombo only averaged 4.3 rebounds over three games in Cleveland.
However, where the Cavaliers are a veteran laden team, the Raptors are still building. Toronto’s anticipated nine man rotation this season averages just 5.3 years of NBA experience and the balance of the roster will have two years or less in the league.
“We have 10 players who are 25 years and younger. We are a growing team,” said Ujiri.
“Many things have to come together, but you had what we had last year.”
Toronto is going to have to be very lucky on the injury front or some of these young guys will need to take big steps in their development over the course of the coming season if the Raptors are going to challenge the Cavaliers when it counts in next spring’s playoffs. Unless of course Ujiri has something up his sleeve to add some proven veteran help by the trade deadline.