After winning a franchise-best 56 games during the 2015-16 campaign, the Toronto Raptors’ expectations are sky high headed into the 2016-17 season. The team in the North has become more formidable each season under Dwane Casey’s direction, and dreams of finally making it to the NBA Finals seem a little less silly with every year this growing core remains together.
With two all-star caliber players coming off of career-best seasons in Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan returning, the Raptors will rarely be overmatched by an opponent. The backcourt tandem provides leadership, stability, offensive flow, and the ability to make something out of nothing when the offense breaks down as it has been prone to do in the past when the big men are playing poorly. Lowry and DeRozan seemingly take turns alternating between who gets to be Batman and Robin from game to game, and that one-two punch is essential to their success this season.
Pressure Lowry and DeRozan faced on both ends of the floor last season will be somewhat alleviated this season with a healthy DeMarre Carroll returning to the lineup. Carroll is not far removed from his time tearing it up as a member of the Atlanta Hawks, and if he can get back to playing like the junkyard dog he was down south then the Raptors should have one of the scariest perimeter units in the NBA. Carroll will add plenty of versatility with his ability to play as a traditional small forward as well as a small-ball power forward. With a plethora of wings at Casey’s disposal, possessing the ability to go small often, putting opponents in myriad uncomfortable spots with Carroll at the four is a huge plus.
The Raptors need center Jonas Valanciunas to speed up his development on both ends of the floor in order to have a realistic shot at contending for a championship while the window the current roster has opened remains as such. Valanciunas has proven to be an excellent rebounder and roll man in the pick-and-roll, but his game has yet to round into form in the post.
His ability to face up his man and attack the rim is workable particularly as his sweeping hook shot improves, but his inability to create any offense consistently when he catches the ball down low with his back to the basket limits how much the Raptors can work through the post. Toronto isn’t built to work through the post a lot, but to properly challenge the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference, the Raptors will need more balance than they have flashed over the past several seasons. Even though Lowry and DeRozan are tremendous at attacking off of the bounce, there’s only so far that isolation-heavy style of play can take a team. It might be asking too much of Valanciunas to take big steps on both ends of the floor this season, but that might realistically be what the Raptors need to make another leap.
Defensively, Valanciunas made strides defending the pick-and-roll by improving his positioning, but his footwork in space is still woeful and forces the Raptors into bad defensive rotations more than should be necessary. Having a guy like Carroll who understands gap schemes and defensive timing should help with some of the defensive issues on the pick-and-roll when Valanciunas is involved, but ultimately the big man has to be responsible for covering a man.
Possibly the only benefit to emerge from Carroll missing extended time last season was the early development of Norman Powell. As a rookie, Powell showed that he already belongs in the league, playing tenacious defense and proving capable of knocking down threes at a high rate while being able to attack his defender off the bounce following an over-aggressive closeout. If the Raptors happen to deal with wing injuries again this season, they won’t be starting from scratch given Powell’s rapid development.
Powell is not the lone guy providing quality bench depth for the Raptors. With guys like Cory Joseph, Patrick Patterson, and Terrence Ross returning, the Raptors possess enough firepower to enable Casey to manage his stars’ minutes during the regular season in the hope of having a fresh squad for what might be another showdown in the Eastern Conference Finals with the Cavaliers.
While the Raptors are entering the season with a lot of guys set in their roles, the team will enter the season with a huge question mark around the rim. They lost a high-quality rim protector in the form of Congolese giant Bismack Biyombo to the Orlando Magic, and Lucas Nogueira is the guy who will likely be asked to step up and attempt to fill this hole in the roster. With Valanciunas and new signing Jared Sullinger being a little slow-footed, Nogueira will be called on to man the back line and clean up messes when things break down in front of him. Biyombo was great at covering for his teammates’ mistakes, but with Nogueira still very much an unknown it’s tough to say if he’ll be able to handle the significant role that he will be asked to play.
The Eastern Conference still feels incredibly predictable and will likely remain that way as long as LeBron James remains healthy and in Cleveland. It’s going to be hard for even a squad as good as Toronto’s to knock off King James and company. The Raptors made the Eastern Conference Finals last season appear like a more closely contested series than it actually was by stealing two games in the middle, but it’s clear that the Cavaliers were head and shoulders above the Raptors when they decided to put their foot down on the gas.
Nothing should take away from the improvement the Raptors have made and will likely continue to make under this impressive core, but they are running out of milestones to reach outside of making it to the NBA Finals. Even if the Raptors fall short once again they should have plenty of things to be proud of if things go as planned this season, but good luck telling that to a squad with one audacious goal in mind.