Coming in with their best season in recent history, the Toronto Raptors finished 2nd in the Eastern Conference with a 56-26 record last season. Despite losing to the Cleveland Cavaliers (the eventual NBA Champions), last year was definitely a success for the Raptors. With the outstanding back court of Lowry and DeRozan returning, they should be in for another big-time regular season. The East might be getting better, but it will be hard to knock Toronto out of the top 3 in the Conference.
Barring injuries, the real question facing the Raptors this season is: Can they knock off the Cavaliers?
Starting Lineup: Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll, Patrick Patterson, Jonas Valanciunas
In his 10-year career, last season was the first time that Kyle Lowry eclipsed the 20 points per game mark. This late bloomer is an outstanding player and is the catalyst of the offense. Lowry also had his best shooting season from three, where he was 38.8%. He is also a solid defender, and really leads the Raptors on both ends of the floor.
As the back court running mate for Lowry, DeMar DeRozan is another All-Star guard. DeRozan has been an All-Star in 2 of the last 3 seasons, and has averaged over 20 PPG in all three of those seasons. Despite not being a tremendously efficient shooter (he has consistently shot under 45% from the floor), DeRozan is excellent when attacking the basket and drawing fouls. Getting his three-point percentage up would be the next move for the star guard, but it doesn’t seem like that will change.
The talented small forward DeMarre Carroll sadly missed much of last season with an injury. After moving from Atlanta to Toronto, there was no major drop-off in production from him, and it is expected that he has another strong season this year. When healthy, Carroll’s ability to be a strong 3-and-D is very valuable on a team with their sights set on the Championship.
Checking in at the much-needed stretch-4 for the Raptors, Patrick Patterson fills his role well. With an average distance of 17.2 feet on his shots, Patterson spends much of his time behind the arc. While shooting 36.2% from three-point land, Patterson does an excellent job spreading the floor and leaving the lane open for penetration by DeRozan and Lowry.
Jonas Valanciunas is not the flashiest player on the court, but he does lots of things well. He is another double-digit scorer and works best with his back to the basket. With a field goal percentage of 56.5%, he is a very efficient scorer, which is important on a team with so many weapons. As a plus-defender as well, Valanciunas is an outstanding option for a competitive team in the Eastern Conference.
Key Reserves: Cory Joseph, Terrence Ross, Norman Powell
In his first season with the Raptors, Cory Joseph saw a massive drop-off in his three-point shooting down to 27.3%. This is not ideal for a back-up point guard, but Joseph is solid in his role. Lowry takes up a lot of minutes and often times the team does not fall off too much when he takes his rest. Joseph’s shooting is the key to his success, so having a positive season from deep would contribute a lot to the team.
Just about a double-digit scorer, Terrence Ross is an outstanding option off the bench due to his shooting and high-flying ability. Ross is very athletic and can use that on both ends of the floor to create opportunities for himself and the team. Along with his athleticism, Ross was a 38.6% three-point shooter last season, making him a nice wing player.
After being selected in the second round of last year’s draft, Norman Powell had a successful rookie season. He received just about 15 minutes per game and 5.6 points per game. Although these numbers do not jump off the page, his 40.4% from three does. This is a very impressive number from a rookie, and even more so when you notice that he shot 51.2% on corner threes, where he spends much of his time. The future is bright for this kid, so watch out for him to see more minutes this year.
With guards that excel when getting to the basket, the Raptors finished 2nd in the league in both free throws made and attempted. There is no reason to believe that this number will drop off this season, and it makes the team much better. Their ability to draw fouls and put the other team into foul trouble is not only key early in games, but in late-game situations when players might be fouled out.
They are also very careful with the ball, committing very few turnovers. Despite not being great at creating turnovers, holding onto the ball and maintaining a situation where they turn the ball over less than their opponents is huge. Free throw shooting and turnovers are vital parts of any team, but are even more important when the playoffs arrive.
For a team that shot 37% from three as a team, it is surprising that they ranked 19th in the league in 3PA. Although this is more of a scheming issue than a weakness, I think it is important to note. There are several really good shooters on their roster and they should be willing to let them go to work from behind the arc a bit more.
They also settle in around the middle of the league in rebounding. This would be fine for most teams, but not for someone looking to compete for a title. Working hard on the glass creates less possessions for the opposition and more opportunities for yourself, so there is no excuse to not box out on every shot and chase down those loose balls. It is the little things that lead to championship runs, and the Raptors need to be ready to win all of the hustle points.
There won’t be any drop-off from the Raptors this season, as they will likely go over the 50-win mark once again. I predict something in the range of 52-55 wins, so just a tad under last year, and yet another year as the #2 seed in the Eastern Conference. There are several teams that will challenge them in the playoffs, but making the Conference Finals would be an accomplishment.
With that being said, the only major question surrounding the Raptors this season should be: Can they knock off the Cavaliers?