The Toronto Raptors start a new season with the goal of taking down the front runners in the Eastern Conference, the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Last year, General Manager Masai Ujiri pulled the trigger on trade deadline deals for P.J. Tucker and Serge Ibaka with the Cavs faltering in the regular season and hopes the East was wide open. He was sadly mistaken. Dwane Casey’s squad got by the inexperienced Milwaukee Bucks in the playoffs, but was destroyed by Cleveland in the Conference semi-finals. The loss was so thorough that it left everyone wondering if mere tweaks to the roster were enough to allow the Raptors’ style and talent to compete against the NBA’s elite.
Toronto retained Kyle Lowry with a three-year, $100 million contract but new role-players will have to step up for the team’s depth to be the strength it was in the past. The team paid up to keep Lowry and Ibaka, but in the off season the Raptors lost some key contributors. DeMarre Carroll was traded to the Brooklyn Nets, Cory Joseph was shipped to the Indiana Pacers, Patrick Patterson signed a free agent deal with the Oklahoma City Thunder and P.J. Tucker left to play for the Rockets. C.J. Miles inked a three-year, $25-million contract to take Carroll’s spot in the starting lineup and provide a more credible threat from 3pt range. For this team to stay in the East’s top four Casey will need to bank on the development of Toronto’s youth.
The loss of Cory Joseph opens up the backup point guard position to Delon Wright and Fred VanVleet. Both players excelled when Lowry was injured last season, but they’ll need to stay consistent for an entire year. This is such a critical role for the Raptors who like playing Lowry with another point guard in spurts and want to limit the all-star’s minutes until the playoffs if possible. Wright brings great length, defense and play-making ability to the floor but needs to prove he can shoot well enough to keep defenders honest.
Toronto will also need Norman Powell to continue his development as a quality combo guard. The UCLA alum will need to fill some of the minutes vacated by Carroll and get back to shooting over 40% from outside like he did as a rookie. Jonas Valanciunas needs to shake off a disappointing run but also regain Casey’s trust to play important minutes in the 4th Quarter. The team’s first round draft pick, OG Anunoby, has returned from a serious knee injury extremely early and could be a wildcard in the rotation.
At the end of the day, the season will come down to one looming question: Can DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry compete with Cleveland and Boston with all these secondary pieces but no third all-star? It’s a tough task, but the team believes more ball movement and 3 point shooting will allow them to keep pace in the Conference. Don’t forget, it might take time for Boston to build up chemistry with its new acquisitions while Isaiah Thomas isn’t expected to play for Cleveland until January because of a hip injury suffered in the playoffs..
The pressure is on for the Raps to start the season hot and prove their best days are not behind them.
Hear the Toronto Raptors open their season against the visiting Chicago Bulls, this Thursday night at 7:30 pm ET on Canada Talks 167.