It’s still early to be making predictions about next season, not that being early has ever stopped anyone, and it seems the Toronto Raptors failure to land a superstar player in free agency has bumped them completely off the radar down South. The Raptors just can’t get any respect for their anticipated defense of the Atlantic Division or their consecutive franchise record setting seasons.
It would take a very brave prognosticator to suggest Toronto is in any danger of failing to defend their Atlantic Division crown. That feat will likely be a wrap by Christmas. Their division is perceived to be that weak. However, ESPN is predicting a sixth place finish and five fewer wins than last season – explanations not in evidence and the seemingly weak logic for the Raptors finishing seventh by Cody Taylor of Basketball Insiders falls on the uncertainty of change.
Determining how successful they’ll be next year will hinge largely on how all of the new pieces come together. With the HEAT likely all returning back healthy and with the Bucks adding Greg Monroe and a healthy Jabari Parker, the Raptors will have serious competition in the middle of the pack in the East and could fall out of the top six.
Predictions at this time are made on paper and on paper, there can be no doubt the Raptors are better. Not a little better either, a lot better. No need look further than replacing the undersized and playing out-of-position Terrence Ross with the starting small forward from last year’s first place Atlanta Hawks DeMarre Carroll. Ross was often overpowered by bigger small forwards and the Raptors rebounding suffered greatly with him in a forward spot. Carroll solves those problems in a big way.
What gets overlooked, even by some of the stats geaks, is just how much better the Raptors have improved on paper. Will Laws of SI.com used players Win Shares from last year to project how their teams would do this year. Somewhat surprisingly, Toronto came out on top in the East with a projected total of 50 to 56 wins. That’s a win-and-a-half better than the Cavaliers and Bulls and two wins better than the Hawks. Under this method the Celtics project into fifth place in the East. So much for everyone crapping on the weak Atlantic.
While Laws method can’t take the intangibles into account, at least it’s objective and since no one has played a game yet, all we have is what’s on paper. Every team undergoes significant trials, tribulations and change during the off season. Just try to find a team that hasn’t.
In the Raptors favor with the four key free agent additions this summer is President and General Manager Masai Ujiri has brought in team-oriented guys, two-way players who won’t step on the offensive-minded toes of Toronto’s All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. Carroll signed a $60 million deal, but his focus is defense and helping DeRozan focus on offense.
“The most I can help this team is on the defensive end and really play offense secondary,” Carroll explained. “At the same time, I really do want to be one of the best two-way players in the league.
“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.”
Cory Joseph is significantly better defensively than either Greivis Vasquez or Lou Williams and a surprisingly far more efficient offensive player as well. He has backed up All-Star Tony Parker for the past couple of seasons in San Antonio and started 33 games for the Spurs over that span. He’ll slide into Toronto’s system backing up Kyle Lowry like it was made for him.
Luis Scola is a veteran with a very similar style to last year’s starting power forward Amir Johnson except Scola has been virtually injury-free during his NBA career unlike the often banged up Johnson, plus he’s a far superior rebounder and a much more versatile scorer. Scola could well be the missing veteran-player-link this team has needed to take that next step.
“I wanted to find a place where I could win and be a part of the team, be important,” Scola said. “I was trying to get options to see how close to a ring could I get, but I was also trying to be part of a team, not just be (there) – (not) a team (that) is going to be good but not playing any role. To me it was also important that I could be on a team that is strong, a good place (in the standings) team with chances to grow and hopefully chase a ring at some point down the line.”
At just 22-years-old, Bismack Biyombo provides the rim protection off the bench the Raptors have been missing, but he is also a solid defender, superior rebounder, good screen setter and he’s starting to get more comfortable offensively.
“I am really starting to get comfortable (offensively),” Biyombo said. “The game slowed down for me so much you know exactly where to be, how to set a perfect screen for a teammate to get open, how to position yourself to get the ball the right way. I am pretty sure people will be surprised because I still have a lot to show.”
None of these free agent additions need to provide much to the Raptors high-powered offense in order to contribute, but they all have the potential to provide more than expected and as Laws calculated with his Win Shares, if they only add what they contributed to their old clubs last year, the Raptors will be a better team. They deserve a lot more respect than a dismissive projected back-slide into a sixth or seventh place finish in the Eastern Conference.
In the simplest of terms, GM Masai 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.