The Toronto Raptors have won 97 games over the last two seasons, which is one short of the Eastern Conference’s two top winners, the Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks. That’s partly a testament to the strength of the Spurs and partly an indictment of the weakness of the East as a whole.
Eight teams from the West have won more games, with Golden State (118) and the San Antonio Spurs (117) having both won 20 more than the Raptors. But Toronto doesn’t play in the West, it plays in the East, and that’s what makes their season so much more intriguing than if they were, say, on the opposite corner of the continent in California.
WHAT HAPPENED LAST YEAR
The dino-themed team celebrated the sequel of their titular movie by clinching the division title for the second season in a row. This was an accomplishment on par with — well actually let’s just go with par. It required being average, literally.
The second-place Boston Celtics finished with a 40-42 record. The bottom two teams had a combined total of 35 wins and were two of the three worst teams in the NBA.
The division was so weak that the Southeast division could afford to make jokes about how weak it was. That said, don’t think that means that Toronto was average — they weren’t. They were decent. They were solid. But their 49-win record was fluffed up by the overall weakness of their competition.
They had some highlights. When DeMar DeRozan went down with injury, Lou Williams stepped up and played great. It was enough for him to win Sixth Man of the Year.
The Raptors reeled off 49 wins, enough to get them the No. 4 seed, where the Washington Wizards promptly and decisively swept them. Toronto went home after one round for the second straight year. For the Raptors to build on this group, a series win is an absolute must this season.
WHAT HAPPENED THIS SUMMER
Lack of defense doomed the 2014-15 Raptors, as they ranked 22nd in Defensive Rating and last among playoff teams, according to NBA.com. A good chunk of that was given up to opposing small forwards, as they surrendered the eighth-most points at that position, according to HoopsStats.com.
So the Raptors did the smart thing and landed a legit stopper in DeMarre Carroll. But it’s not just his ability to defend the 3 that the Raptors were after. According to his scouting report available on ESPN Insider:
An undersized power forward at Missouri, Carroll has added wing skills but has the ability to defend smaller 4s. Toronto figures to make use of that more frequently than Atlanta. Per NBA.com/Stats lineup data, Carroll played just 24 minutes at power forward during the 2014-15 regular season. One possible concern is his rebounding, which has only been average for a small forward. In bigger lineups, Carroll is more than capable of matching up with the opposition’s best wing scorer, filling a huge need for the Raptors.
If Carroll can be Toronto’s version of a poor man’s Draymond Green, then that would be a boon for their defense. The additions of Bismarck Biyombo and Luis Scola shouldn’t hurt either.
And Cory Joseph as the backup point guard should give the bench the punch it needs with Lou Williams headed to the Los Angeles Lakers and Greivis Vasquez in Milwaukee. The losses of Amir Johnson and Tyler Hansbrough, however, will be felt more keenly, particularly to the interior defense.
In sum, the defense got better, but the offense got worse. And the Raptors could be hurting for rebounds more than they anticipate, though, their 53.5 percent rebounding percentage in the preseason should allay those concerns some.
KEY PLAYER TO WATCH: DEMAR DEROZAN
Kyle Lowry is the best player on this team and will play like it. He’s been shredding the world during the preseason and has a dark-horse chance at an MVP run. He’s not a concern.
The somewhat underrated, though slightly-slow-of-foot Jonas Valanciunas (who received a four-year extension this offseason) will develop and score points in the paint. They’re key players for the Raptors, but with them, you have a pretty good idea of what you’re going to get.
DeRozan, on the other hand, is something of a crapshoot. When he’s playing within himself, he can be a game-changer, getting to the line at a 43.8 percent rate and knocking down shots. But last year, he sabotaged the Raptors as often as he helped them.
For the most part, he was an aid to the Raptors winning games, as they were 37-23 when he played. However, there were times he played badly and without restraint, and in those games, the Raptors were more likely to lose than win.
He notched 22 games with a true shooting percentage below 50 percent (which is really bad), and between true shooting attempts and turnovers used more than 17 possessions. In those games, the Raptors were 10-11. In the 11 losses, the Raptors were -82 with DeRozan on the court.
For Toronto to win, they’ll need DeRozan to play wiser, not harder.
Toronto is an easy favorite to win its third straight division, and something in the ball park of 50 wins is certainly doable. But can they get their first playoff series win since Vince Carter was their star player in 2001?
That’s a little more dicey. The Cleveland Cavaliers are going to be the cream of the East, to the surprise of no one. And then there’s this jumble of teams, of which the Raptors are one, without a whole lot of separation between one team and the next.
The Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks, Wizards, Miami Heat and even the Milwaukee Bucks will be contending for that top four seed. And with the NBA’s new seeding rules, a division win is no guarantee of a top four seed or of home-court advantage.
The Raptors’ season this year really won’t start until the playoffs do. The walk to the division title will be too easy to matter. But once they get to the first round, they’ll be good enough to beat anyone but not good enough to guarantee it.
Their ceiling is the Eastern Conference Finals, but their floor is another first-round fishing trip.