Twenty years ago, an up and coming R&B singer by the name of Mark Morrison released a smash single entitled “Return of the Mack”, a song that detailed an ugly breakup with his significant other, and how lost he became without her when it first took place. However, the song’s main theme dealt with triumph, a rejuvenated confidence, and a newfound swagger that was absent. Coincidentally enough, the Toronto Raptors celebrated their 20th anniversary in the league last season, but it ended on a bitter note much like Morrison’s relationship.
Consider how they got ousted by the Washington Wizards in last year’s playoffs, the breakup. A team that fired out the gate in late October, having the Eastern Conference’s best win-loss record for 59 days straight, ranking top ten in both offence and defence, became a shell of their former selves come April, when they completely abandoned what had gotten them to the dance in the first place. They resorted to an iso-heavy offence, a lethargic defence, little to no commitment on the boards and coaching strategies that were questionable to say the least. The Wizards were a team that many had the Raptors being victorious over in 6 or 7 games, but instead they were swept out of the playoffs for the first time in a 7-game series. How’s that for a milestone? It was later discovered that there was some in-fighting among players and coaches that added to their own demise. General Manager Masai Ujiri wasted little time and rebuilt the roster into a team that looks primed to make some noise in the East, but will they? It’s time to break down everything from their acquisitions to certain x-factors that will possibly make this upcoming season, one to remember.
From the moment draft night came in late June, Ujiri went straight to work. His first move was drafting Utah point guard Delon Wright, a lanky 6’5 wing defender who can also facilitate on the offensive end. With that pick, Greivis Vasquez was on his way out as he was traded that same night to the Milwaukee Bucks for the rights to their 2nd round pick, which they used on combo guard Norman Powell out of UCLA, an athletic wing defender who can penetrate the lane and finish above the rim.
So far they got the young talent down, now how about some experienced talent? Say no more. After having a breakout year with the Atlanta Hawks, the Raptors signed free agent DeMarre Carroll to a 4-year $60 million deal, making him the biggest signing in Raptors history (as far as first-time Raptors are concerned). A 3-and-D specialist is exactly what the doctor ordered, someone who can space the floor on offence and protect the wing on defence (which seems to be a reoccurring theme—spoiler alert!). Shortly thereafter, the Raptors also signed free agent point guard, and Canada’s own Cory Joseph, who had spent his career playing behind Tony Parker for the San Antonio Spurs. I’m not a rocket scientist but playing for a championship organization under the tutelage of Greg Popovich looks good on any resume!
The Raptors locked him up for what seems like a bargain $30 million under the new CBA agreement. To cover the interior they added shot blocker Bismack Byombo and for veteran wisdom they obtained FIBA legend Luis Scola, who is now coming off his 4th MVP performance in the FIBA Americas Tournament, which he carried his native Argentina to a silver medal. With the acquisition of all of these players, combined with the parting of certain players, it addresses the need that became absent by mid-season last year: defence!
New Philosophy on Defence
Head Coach Dwane Casey (who has often been the subject of criticism as a head coach) was clearly given the benefit of the doubt by Raptors management as Casey prides himself as being a defensive specialist, as proven by his work with the Dallas Mavericks when they won the title in 2011 by knocking off the Miami Heat in their inaugural season of the Big-3 era. With one more guaranteed year left on his contract, management came to the conclusion that it would make very little sense to fire Casey after last season’s debacle and losing money in the process, as they would owe him $8 million.
Instead, Ujiri decided to go after the players that would best fit Casey’s philosophy and parted ways with the ones who he felt would work against it. The expiring contracts of Chuck Hayes, Tyler Hansborough and Landry Fields were out the door with no hesitation; however the more daunting ones were none other than Amir Johnson and Lou Williams. Despite being the undisputed fan favourite, with his body breaking down Johnson would not be able to perform his defensive duties like he was once able to do in the past.
As for Williams, many saw him as the problem in Toronto. His shoot first ask questions later approach was seen as disruptive and many saw him as the culprit to Toronto’s adopted iso-heavy offence, as he was seen regularly taking up the ball to 3-point territory in late-quarter situations. Despite averaging 15.3 ppg off the bench, and earning the Sixth Man of the Year award, the risk was much higher than the reward in their eyes and he took his talents to the Los Angeles Lakers.
With all of these pieces seemingly in place, these new additions will look to complement the offensive talents of Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas. In addition to that, this will be a proving ground for Casey, as to whether or not he’s really the right man for the job, now that he has the necessary weapons at his disposal.
Comeback for the Backcourt
Both DeRozan and Lowry had shaky years to say the least. DeRozan went down early in November with a strained groin and Lowry played injured from January onward, taking on the burden of the offence as well with DeRozan out. By year’s end, both of those players were left with their own daunting questions heading into next season. Many are wondering whether or not DeRozan will return to the Raptors in 2016-17 as he will opt-out of his current contract after this season and enter himself in the draw for a big payday as the salary cap is expected go up. His camp is alleging that they are asking for a deal that will pay him annually in the $20-$25 million range. With less talented players who don’t even have an All-Star berth to their name getting paid $80million long-term, DeRozan is within his right to demand that amount, but the question is whether or not the Raptors are willing to concede to that amount, especially if they want to make room for Kevin Durant next summer.
As for Lowry—who signed an extension last year worth $48 million—enjoyed his first berth as an All-Star last season, but hit a wall after the midseason classic took place. Many took that as a sign of him being too comfortable, or only having a breakout year the previous because of the fact that it was a contract year for him. On top of Casey criticizing his conditioning and overall shape, Lowry made it a mission to lose some unnecessary weight, and he did so in shocking fashion, looking considerably slimmer than he has in quite some time. With an added focus on his health, Lowry is looking to rebound to become the leader that the team believes him to be. As for DeRozan—like Lowry—it is common to see many players elevate their level of play during a contract year, whether it’s to prove to their current team that they’re worth a raise, or to audition for other teams that are currently watching from the sidelines. Expect DeRozan to follow that same pattern, regardless of where he decides to go.
A nickname that Toronto has adopted due to its vibrant nightlife, endless amount of festivals to take part in, and the annual TIFF event that celebrates cinema from all over the world, Toronto has another event to add come February: All-Star Weekend. The NBA has evaded Toronto for quite some time when it comes to its annual extravaganza, but due to its ever-growing popularity thanks to “The 6 God” himself Drake, and with an added focus on expanding beyond borders, Toronto has become the first city outside the U.S. to host an All-Star weekend in league history. With Toronto being the 3rd-largest city in North America and being one of the most culturally diverse, it would only make sense that the league would strike while the iron is still hot.
Speaking of Drake, “The Boy” has been active as the franchise’s Global Ambassador. Whether it’s taking free-agent-to-be Kevin Durant to his first ever Blue Jays game, or debuting the new Raptors Jersey at his very own OVO Fest last August, he’s putting the rest of the league on notice that Toronto is a hotbed, and that will play heavily heading into next season. An ex-factor such as that will entice future notable free agents in wanting to sign with Toronto for years to come, as it will open their eyes to how rich of a basketball culture the city has. On top of that, when a player plays for the Raptors, they don’t only represent Toronto, they represent an entire country.
The Bottom Line
So there you have it. With almost every parameter covered (they are still in need of a top notch starting power forward), the Raptors will be in prime position to rebound. With the notable changes to their roster, look for them to not only top the Atlantic Division for a 3rd straight year in a row, but as well prime themselves for a top seed in their conference. On paper, it appears as the offensive production will take a slight dip, but it’s very possible that its level of efficiency will increase and the defence will do the same. Expect Casey to prove that he’s worthy of earning a 3rd guaranteed year on his contract, look for Lowry to prove his status as a top-10 point guard, and for DeRozan to seek the max deal that he deserves. All in all, look for this franchise to achieve some milestones this season and regain its swagger in the process.