Without an All-Star free agent signing this summer, the Toronto Raptors have flown beneath the star-crossed vision of most NBA analysts heading into this season. However, president and general manager Masai Ujiri made his moves to once again to incrementally make his team bigger, better and tougher. No one is going to push around a Ujiri built team.
While the safe number to project the Raptors at in the Eastern Conference is fourth and a few truly star-blinded talking heads have them in sixth, this team has improved on the roster that won a franchise record 49 games last season. It is very reasonable to set this year’s expectations higher and if one is optimistic, much higher.
Put those “the Eastern Conference is better” comments in perspective. Those same words are spoken every year and the NBA just doesn’t do that. Old players got older, new players still have to learn the game and the cycle continues.
Last season the Raptors starting lineup consisted of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Terrence Ross, Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas. This year, the Atlanta Hawks starting small forward DeMarre Carroll replaces Ross in the starting unit and the very durable Luis Scola replaces the often hurt Johnson.
The Raptors upgrade at starting small forward alone should be enough to raise expectations for this team. Carroll is the big physical small forward head coach Dwane Casey has been begging for these past two seasons. The junkyard dog, three-point shooter and defensive glue-guy of the Hawks represents a major upgrade.
“I am going to come out and be the Junkyard Dog,” Carroll said. “I actually told Demar that now you don’t have to fight with those big guys like LeBron James and Kevin Durant no more. You can just go out there and take this team to the promised land.”
Toronto gave Patrick Patterson every opportunity to become the stretch-four in their starting unit, but in the end it was the Amir Johnson-like play of Luis Scola that won over Casey. The good news is Scola has always been a far superior rebounder to Johnson and one of the Raptors biggest holes last season was an inability to secure the defensive boards. With both Valanciunas and Scola under the rim, those days of the starting unit getting killed on the glass should be over.
“I like what Scola brought, similar to what Amir brought last year,” Casey said. “He is a team defender. A smart defender. He is is where he is supposed to be. He knows the system. He knows the rotations. I don’t know if you would call him a defensive stopper or a defensive juggernaut, but it is not going to be easy. He is not going to make life easy for the offensive player.”
It doesn’t hurt that Scola may be the first player on the Raptors in a while who is truly comfortable in the post, knowing when to take advantage of smaller defenders and being a willing passer out of a double team or simply to a teammate who is in a better position to score.
“Luis has been playing the game forever,” Bismack Biyombo said. “He has the experience. He has a better knowledge of the game than I do and a lot of do in this room. Also, Luis passes the ball a lot more than shoots, so I love him for that.”
While Johnson was deservedly a fan favorite and did more for the team’s public relations off the court than anyone else – period, he was equally well known for his bad ankles. Johnson played large portions of every season through injuries that hobbled his abilities at both ends of the court. Scola, on the other hand, has been an NBA iron-man. It seems like he’s never hurt.
Ujiri’s moves this summer didn’t just benefit the starting unit. The reserves got a boost as well.
Cory Joseph has made his reputation as a gritty defensive-oriented point guard. While no one should complain about last year’s backup Greivis Vasquez’s effort or positive vibe, no one is lauding his defensive prowess either. Joseph simply fits the way Casey wants his team to play better.
It doesn’t hurt that Joseph comes from the NBA Champion Spurs program and started 33 games for the Spurs over the past two seasons or the fact he is a Canadian either.
“On the Spurs nobody gets anything handed to you,” Joseph said. “It helped me a lot. I’ve had to work for everything that I’ve got.”
It seems everyone has been impressed with what Biyombo has been able to show with the Raptors thus far. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, Toronto didn’t really have a backup center last season and a true rim protector who can set screens and rebound effectively has been a missing ingredient for a while.
“I think his offensive rebounding is elite, blocking shots he’s elite, defensive rebounding is going to get better and as a defensive player, he is really a solid defender,” Ujiri said. “We needed more physicality with our team, a screen-setter, a roller, somebody that will always challenge and put a body on guys and that’s what Biyombo does.”
Biyombo is the typical NBA big man who was drafted too young and only just started figuring things out towards the end of his rookie contract. Ujiri knew what Biyombo could do, however, and the Bobcats free agent was his very first call once the July Moratorium ended – even before he called Carroll.
Biyombo is still young, but he does things the Raptors couldn’t do last year and is someone they desperately needed to have on their bench.
One other move that should pay off for Ujiri was the move he didn’t make. Ross wasn’t shipped out of town after a sub par third season, rather, Ross was moved to the bench where he can continue firing up his effective three-point shot and hopefully develop some of the other aspects of his game against other teams’ second unit guys. With Joseph and Biyombo coming off the bench as defensive players, Casey will need the offensive firepower of Ross and Patterson and they should have big years. At the very least, that expiring contract should light a fire under Ross.
From the moment he arrived in Toronto Ujiri wanted to change the culture and the image of the Toronto Raptors. His team wouldn’t be known as soft and it’s a reputation he has been steadily chipping away at. This year’s additions of Carroll, Scola, Joseph and Biyombo are yet another step in that plan to become bigger, better and tougher. The Air Canada Centre has stopped being a place other teams expect to get an easy win or find a soft opponent and expectations are on the rise.
Stephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.