What’s the Plan? is a weekly series where we look at the long-term outlooks for teams that aren’t immediately contending for a championship. This week, we’re looking at a team on the bubble of teams contending in the Eastern Conference, the Toronto Raptors.
I have some bad news for Toronto fans: the Raptors aren’t a championship team. In the Raptors’ best-case scenario next year, where Chicago needs to take a season to get used to Fred Hoiberg, Atlanta regresses after last season and everyone on their roster plays to their full potential, they could potentially be the second-best team in the East. However, anyone who thinks they’d beat a healthy Cavs team in a seven-game series has been enjoying a few too many Labatt Blues. The Raptors have a pretty good team, but they need to get better if they want to be in contention for a championship and if head coach Dwane Casey wants to keep his job.
The big move the Raptors made this offseason was signing DeMarre Carroll to a big four-year deal that made him the Raptors’ highest-paid player. The Raptors are expecting Carroll to maintain the level of play he showed throughout his time in Atlanta, and especially in last year’s postseason. The Raptors are paying him like a star small forward and need him to play like one if they want to take a step forward from their first-round sweep last season.
Carroll’s contract takes up a good chunk of the team’s cap space moving forward. Even with the cap going up next season, the Raptors are committed to pay around $55 million in salary if DeMar DeRozan and Bismack Biyombo exercise their player options, and that’s before considering the restricted free agencies of Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross. DeRozan could also easily opt out of that player option and look for a long-term deal that would cost Toronto a pretty penny if the team wants to retain him. That would limit some of the team’s flexibility, although again, the cap going up helps.
It’s always tough to make that leap from good to elite without a superstar or several legit stars on the roster, and the Raptors are a bit lacking in that department. Barring a surprising acquisition of a star via trade or free agency (or maybe they get lucky in the draft?), one way they can improve is through development of the players already on the roster. Valanciunas has the look of a solid center, and with only three seasons under his belt, he still has time and room to grow. If he makes a big leap and becomes an elite center, he’d do a lot to help push the Raptors to the next level.
Biyombo is also a player who could improve this season and help the Raptors get better. Biyombo may never be a prime scoring option, but his ability as a defender should be valuable to a team that really struggled on the defensive end last season. Some growth from Ross would be nice as well, as he was a major disappointment this past year.
Ultimately, the Raptors simply need to improve, and they need to do it fairly soon. Kyle Lowry is 29 and has a player option in 2017-18. If he opts out then looking for a long-term payday, Toronto will have a tough decision to make regarding his future. If the team hasn’t gotten good enough to contend by that point, they may be better off letting him go rather than paying him big bucks when he’s on the wrong side of 30.
Toronto is too good right now to think about blowing things up, but that point could come sooner than they might expect. Right now, they should be holding still to see how their team meshes and their young players develop, while looking to make some moves that could help push them forward. However, if things don’t go well and it becomes clear the team can’t get to the next level, management should be ready to pull the plug and start a sizable rebuild.