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NBA Toronto Raptors Bruno Caboclo

Are The Raptors Trying To Build Or Contend In 2016-17?

The Toronto Raptors evolved into Eastern Conference Finals contenders faster than anyone inside or outside of the organization could have reasonably expected when president Masai Ujiri started blowing things up three years ago and admittedly by accident turned a five year playoff drought around. However, on the heels of three franchise record setting seasons, Ujiri is still looking to build this team through the draft and the roster is so young, that it’s tough to tell if he really wants to contend in 2016-17?

The contrast between Toronto and the team that beat them in the 2016 Conference Finals is stark. Where the Raptors feature two players over 30-years-old (only by a few months) and one player with a decade of NBA experience, the Cavaliers are in camp with seven players over 30 and a decade plus in the league. Inexperience in Cleveland means Kyrie Irving (5 seasons), Iman Shumpert (5 seasons), Tristan Thompson (5 seasons) and even Kevin Love (8 seasons) and those players now have NBA Finals playoff experiences worth many regular seasons.

The Raptors only have five players in total with at least five years in the league and will start the 2016-17 season with seven players still on their rookie contracts and barely any NBA regular season minutes between them.

This year Toronto drafted center Jacob Poeltl ninth overall, forward Pascal Siakam 27th overall and added undrafted rookie Fred VanVleet to last year’s two draft picks and the previous year’s two rookies. Out of this group, only Norman Powell has shown he’s ready to contribute at the NBA level today.

Player                    Drafted     Age     Years Exp.      Minutes Played

Lucas Nogueira      16th        24             2                            248
Bruno Caboclo       20th        21             2                              66
Delon Wright          20th        24             1                            229
Norman Powell      46th        23             1                            725
Jacob Poeltl              9th         21             0
Pascal Siakam        27th        22             0
Fred VanVleet  undrafted    22              0

Admittedly Powell is special. He made the case he was NBA ready last season by taking the veteran James Johnson’s spot in the rotation after the All-Star break and playing 206 pretty impressive minutes for a rookie in the Raptors playoff run. However, head coach Dwane Casey will have little choice but to rely on the second round pick like he’s a veteran this season as Powell has the most real experience on the roster after his top eight players.

Nogueira looks like an NBA center prospect, but like the start of every other season, he’s injured again and this is a recurring theme. Injuries are the primary reason he’s played so few NBA minutes in two seasons. Relying on Nogueira to backup center might be a risk too far.

Caboclo was a project when he was drafted and he’s still a project. An enticing project to be sure, but not a player anyone can count on to be ready to contribute this season.

Wright injured his shoulder this summer and should be back sometime in December. There were signs he was going to be a legitimate third string point guard to start this season. Now that seems to be in doubt. Doubt only magnified by keeping the rookie VanVleet around.

Poeltl is easy to like. The rookie center should figure things out. It’s just Poeltl was supposed to be learning in Mississauga with the 905 and with Nogueira injured, the on the job training might start in Toronto.

The athletic forward Siakam has an even more intriguing (fun to watch) game than Poeltl, but like Poeltl, he was supposed to get eased into the NBA by playing in the D-League. Unfortunately, Sullinger injured his foot in the first preseason game and Siakam has been getting a completely unexpected look in the starting lineup with the regulars.

The lack of veteran depth in Toronto means Casey might be forced into using his inexperienced youngsters a lot more than he’d like to. It’s probably good for the rookies’ development, but it’s probably not the best way to run up the win total for a high playoff seed.

Even Casey’s top eight players include youngsters that are still figuring things out. After the All-Stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, Casey has to look to the ‘please don’t get hurt again this season’ DeMarre Carroll for veteran leadership and if these guys stay healthy, that’s a solid core who’ll win the Raptors a lot of games.

Then it’s forward Patrick Patterson in a contract year trying to regain/exceed the form he had when he arrived three years ago and Casey needs the 27-year-old forward to soak up a lot of minutes as a top perimeter defender, floor spacer and hopefully a lot more. Patterson has the tools to take his game to another level and through his “struggles” while still playing well, there are signs he could put it all together this season.

Cory Joseph, 25-years-old, has a year under his belt as the backup point guard and Lowry sidekick. This time the pressure of being relied upon and burden of extended minutes shouldn’t show so obviously midseason as it did last year. Also, it’s expected Joseph will rediscover his San Antonio three-point shooting form now that he’s adjusted to his responsibilities in Toronto.

Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross and free agent addition Jared Sullinger are just coming off their rookie contracts and all three have shown signs they could become stars in this league if they can find consistency in their games. Valanciunas just came off a huge playoff performance averaging a double-double, Sullinger buried the Raptors with a 25 point 20 rebound game earlier in his career, and Terrence Ross holds the Raptors record for most points scored in a game (51). None of these three players averaged over 26 minutes a game last season, all three might have to this year.

It seems like every year (except this one?), the Raptors GM would be asked about how many rookies and inexperienced players could his team carry and still be a playoff contender?  Apparently, the answer is quite a few. About half of his current roster looks ‘a little wet behind the ears.’ If injuries are minimal, the lack of veteran redundancy won’t matter. He’s got eight or nine guys who can bring this team back to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Maybe Ujiri is still looking for that right opportunity to turn some of this youth and inexperience into his team’s next star player by way of trade? But that isn’t the impression he leaves. Ujiri likes developing his own guys and the strategy can pay off big in the long term. It’s just the Raptors have set high expectations in Toronto for their fans and even their own players. It isn’t easy to build and contend at the same time.



Stephen_Brotherston_insideStephen Brotherston covers the Toronto Raptors and visiting NBA teams at the Air Canada Centre and is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.