In all seriousness, even a causal fan would have to be raving mad to believe the Toronto Raptors are not the overwhelming favorite to win the Atlantic Division for the third consecutive season, a basketball insiders perspective is not required to come to that conclusion. However, Basketball Insiders season preview of the team does lay out more than enough detail to confirm Toronto fans are in for another very good regular season – playoff success to be determined.
Alex Kennedy sums things up as:
I still don’t view them as a championship contender. But let me make something clear: I do think this is a very good team that will win a lot of games this season and easily take the Atlantic Division crown. They won 49 games last year and I could see them finishing right around the same win total (or improving on it) this season.
That’s about as fair an assessment of the Raptors as you’ll likely be able to find. Predicting win totals is largely a mug’s game. There are just too many variables that are not in anyone’s control, but looking back at the last two seasons and the roster moves President and General Manager Masai Ujiri has made this summer, a range of 47 to 52 wins is pretty defensible, so Kennedy shouldn’t catch any flak predicting 49.
There were changes in Toronto this summer, so this version of the Raptors will be somewhat different, but All-Stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan will still lead this team, and not just in scoring. This is their team.
In effect the Raptors have swapped starting big man Amir Johnson, sixth man Lou Williams, backup point guard Greivis Vasquez and backup big man Tyler Hansbrough for starting forward DeMarre Carroll, proven veteran Luis Scola and the young developing Bismack Biyombo and Cory Joseph.
Joel Brigham confirms would should be obvious with:
Losing Amir Johnson hurts, but Toronto reloaded reasonably well by adding Luis Scola and Bismack Biyombo at bargain basement prices.
Jessica Camerato acknowledged the anticipated impact of Carroll:
The Raptors scored in free agency by landing former Atlanta Hawks glue guy DeMarre Carroll. The swingman adds instant toughness, grit and hustle.
There is a lot of resistance to the contracts handed out to Carroll and Joseph, however, with the NBA salary cap set to rise $40 million over the next two years, complaining about paying players should fall on deaf ears. The rules of that game have changed.
Joseph doesn’t get a lot of mention as an impact player anywhere and that’s a shame. The young point guard started 33 games for the Spurs over the past two years and that iconic franchise didn’t exactly suffer for it. He has a reputation as a excellent defender at both guard spots and he was a lot more efficient scorer than either Vasquez or Williams. As the Raptors new backup point guard, he fits in Coach Casey’s system a lot better than his predecessors.
The young developing Biyombo provides the rim protection Toronto has been missing and Scola, despite being 35-years-old, is more durable, healthier and a significantly better rebounder and scorer than the often hobbled Johnson who got a huge deal from the Celtics.
Interestingly, Basketball Insiders labels newcomer DeMarre Carroll as the Raptors best defensive player and they aren’t wrong. Head Coach Dwane Casey has been forced into teaching offensive-minded threats to be defensively aware players and has only had success in alternating seasons when he’s had the right pieces to put around his scorers. It isn’t easy getting players to focus on skills and responsibilities that are not in their strengths, but this year’s additions are going to make Casey’s job a lot more straightforward.
Moke Hamilton describes Carroll as:
He is one of the more valuable players in the league in that he can effectively guard any of four positions on the basketball court. If he has anywhere near the impact on the Raptors this year that he did on the Hawks last year, at the very least, expect him to receive a few more votes for Defensive Player of the Year, as he has that type of game-changing potential.
It’s easy to like what Ujiri has done in Toronto. He took a team mired in the NBA Draft Lottery for five years and turned them into perennial Division winners overnight. He has raised expectations so high in Toronto and with basketball analysts that his failure to take his team from sad-sack to instant NBA Finals contention has actually been drawing criticism. Toronto is still developing young players and success beyond trampling on the weak Atlantic Division largely hangs on their growth.
If Jonas Valanciunas can show consistent flashes of Arvydas-Sabonis-like play, then that would go a long way toward pushing the Raptors to the top of the standings. For now, though, they still very much seem a team in progress, but at least one that is headed in the right direction.
Reaching the top of the standings would be nice, but it isn’t the goal in Toronto. This team has set new franchise records for wins in a season twice in a row and is likely to do it again this year, but getting 50+ wins will feel hollow without some measure of playoff success. At least Paul Pierce isn’t in the Eastern Conference this year to haunt them in the first round.
In the simplest of terms, Ujiri has exchanged the outbound Lou Williams, Greivis Vasquez, Amir Johnson and Tyler Hansbrough for the inbound Cory Joseph, DeMarre Carroll, Luis Scola and Bismack Biyombo.