After completing what was their most successful season in franchise history, the Toronto Raptors entered the off-season with a great deal of confidence. Winning a franchise-best 56 games and securing their first ever Conference Finals berth before losing to the eventual champion Cleveland Cavaliers in six games, the No. 2 seeded Raptors felt they had the personnel capable of making a deep playoff run and be considered title contenders. The first order of business was locking up Coach Dwane Casey, which they did when the two sides agreed to a new 3-year contract extension just days after their playoff elimination.
As far as on the players’ side of things, the Raptors’ #1 priority was re-signing free agentDeMar DeRozan. It was reported within the first couple hours of free agency that DeRozan had agreed to a 5 year, $139 million deal to stay in Toronto. Going into the offseason, the Raptors had four other players entering free agency (Luis Scola, James Johnson, Bismack Biyombo, and Jason Thompson). While Biyombo may have been the most critical of the bunch to the team’s postseason success, they simply didn’t have the flexibility (or possibly desire?) to offer him the 4 year, $70 million deal he later agreed to with the Orlando Magic. With the aggressiveness other Eastern Conference teams such as the Indiana Pacers (acquiring Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young via trade; Al Jefferson via free agency), New York Knicks(acquiring Derrick Rose via trade; Joakim Noah, Courtney Lee, and Brandon Jennings via free agency), Boston Celtics (acquiring Al Horford via free agency), and Magic (acquiring Serge Ibaka and Jodie Meeks via trade; DJ Augustin, Jeff Green, and Bismack Biyombo via free agency) have shown to upgrade their roster this offseason, will minimal offseason moves allow the Raptors to be as successful even with an improved Eastern Conference? Here are the keys to the Raptors building off of last year’s success:
Re-signing DeRozan and having Kyle Lowry in the third season of a 4-year contract allows the Raptors to continue trotting out one of the top starting backcourts in the NBA. It’s no secret the key to success for this team starts and ends with these two guys. Lowry’s bulldog-like mentality is the driving force for this team, while DeRozan’s versatility as a scorer is just as crucial to the team success. Having both of them back gives the team a great chance of not only duplicating last season’s success, but perhaps even exceeding it. Backing them up are one of the better backup point guards in Cory Joseph and athletic second-year man Norman Powell, who showed good flashes of immense talent in his rookie season.
With the possibility of Biyombo leaving in free agency looming, the Raptors did a good job in acquiring a big man in the draft; No. 9 pick Jakob Poeltl. The talented big man may turn into a really good NBA Center, however as a rookie he may not necessarily have the capability yet to provide consistent, quality production in the event that starting Center Jonas Valunciunasgets hurt again. Biyombo had four seasons of NBA play under his belt before coming to Toronto last offseason and when Valunciunas went down in Game 3 of the second round of the playoffs, Biyombo was able to step right in and provide great interior defense, shot blocking, and superb rebounding. It may not be wise to thrust a rookie into that kind of pressure-filled role. However, who knows, maybe Poeltl would thrive in that situation.
Health of Demarre Carroll
The Raptors’ biggest free agent acquisition last offseason, DeMarre Carroll, only played in 26 games last season due to a knee injury. The team signed him for his elite 3-and-D skills as one of the top perimeter defenders in the league, as well as someone who can knock down open three point shots. It’s easy to overlook how impressive it was that the Raptors were able to still win 56 games while Carroll himself missed 56 games. If Carroll is able to remain healthy next season and play more than 32 percent of the games, it’s quite possible the Raptors can be even more dangerous next year.
Another quality Power Forward
Coach Casey spent the majority of last season with Luis Scola as the starting power forward. However, in a career-low 21.5 minutes per game, the Argentinian big man put up his lowest points per game average (8.7) as well as rebounds per game average (4.7), with a career-low field goal percentage (.450). During the playoffs, Scola eventually lost his starting job to Patrick Patterson and endured nine DNPs during their playoff run. With Scola being a free agent and despite Patterson being as solid as he is, the Raptors would benefit by looking for one more quality power forward to add to their roster; preferably one who can bang inside, grab some boards, and play solid post defense.
Come to think of it, the Raptors’ current roster doesn’t have too many holes in it that would make any drastic changes absolutely necessary. However, simply standing pat may not be enough to keep their status as a top two Eastern Conference team with so many other teams having improved this offseason. Minor tweaks can end up paying huge dividends for the Raptors come next season. However, as we approach the end of the first week of the free agency period, most of the quality players are quickly going off the market. In order for this team to continue to compete and improve their status as contender, they must get creative and it will be interesting to see what moves they make in order to do so.
Spark Sports NBA Analyst