Blazersedge contributor Chris Lucia will be writing team-by-team previews over the next month as we count down to the start of the 2013-14 season. We begin in the Atlantic Division.
2012-2013 record: 34-48, No. 5 in Atlantic Division, No. 10 in Eastern Conference
If you're into highlight reel dunks, SportsCenter Top-10 plays and ridiculous displays of athleticism, then the Toronto Raptors just may be the team for you. Rudy Gay, DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross are among the league's elite dunkers. Just watch any Raptors highlight mix on YouTube and you're bound to be impressed by the athletic ability of these guys.
Dig deeper, though, and the big picture for the Raptors gets a little murkier.
Last year's top front office executive, GM Masai Ujiri, was hired from the Nuggets and already managed to send the perennially under-performing - at least in many Raptors fans' eyes - Andrea Bargnani to the Knicks for a package of essentially Steve Novak and some future picks. Gay is now the centerpiece of the Raptors' roster and is expected to perform at the All-Star level he's always shown glimpses of throughout his seven seasons in the NBA. The rest of the roster is sprinkled with effective role players but has no clear-cut pecking order yet.
Last year, the Raptors were a fairly nondescript team with no visible identity to hang their hat on, although they were excellent at shooting free throws and good at hanging on to the ball, which is a solid start. They do need to improve on their rebounding and interior scoring, as they were among the league's worst teams in those categories for the season. Another stat that stands out is Toronto's 9.9 fastbreak points per game, ranking them worse than two thirds of the league in that category. For such a young, athletically gifted group, these guys really didn't push the tempo much. If coach Dwane Casey can take advantage of the athletes on his roster and encourage his players to push the ball up the court, the Raptors could tip a few more contests in their favor by forcing less athletic teams to account for their abundance of offensive firepower.
Not a single player in the starting lineup shoots the three-ball at an elite level. In fact, Gay, DeRozan and starting point guard Kyle Lowry were well below average from outside last year. None of these guys has ever really been a huge threat from outside (although Gay wasn't shy launching 4 threes a game last year at a 33.6 percent clip) and Steve Novak is really the only consistent threat from behind the three-point arc on the roster. The problem is that he is slotted on the depth chart behind the man who will most likely command the most minutes (Gay) and will be competing for time with newcomer Austin Daye, who is five years younger and figures to fit better into Toronto's long-term plans. Don't expect the Raptors to effectively space the floor much this year unless one of the starters reverses his career trend and shoots the three-pointer effectively and efficiently.
The good news on the offensive side of the ball is that center Jonas Valanciunas is primed to have a breakout season. He clearly bulked up this past offseason and won MVP of the Las Vegas Summer League, which isn't always an indicator of future success, but the Raptors front office and fans believe he has the potential to develop into one of the league's best young centers. Valanciunas will be expected to fill major minutes at the five position, and it's up to him to capitalize on them.
Tyler Hansbrough brings a tough attitude and gritty play to the bench, but his numbers aren't eye-popping. Amir Johnson led last year's squad with 7.5 rebounds and will have to continue his decent rebounding to keep this team from getting destroyed on the glass. Having a solid backup behind him in Hansbrough should help, and Valanciunas earning more front court minutes should take a lot of the rebounding burden off Johnson. Last year Toronto struggled rebounding the ball, so this front court has to show some improvement in that area for the team to notch a few more wins. Quincy Acy and Ross have potential, but both are young and plagued with inconsistency. Landry Fields and D.J. Augustin both saw the quality of their play fall off a cliff last season. They will be scrapping with other young guys for minutes, and may fall by the wayside if they can't recover from their respective disappointing 2012-2013 campaigns.
So how will these guys win ball games? Last year, they only did a few things well on defense: defending the three-pointer and limiting opponents' fast break opportunities. Unless the Raptors manage to improve markedly on offense or can simply overpower teams with athleticism, they will have to get defensive stops. Sure, the stars could align and the young Raptors could maintain enough focus to play effective defense every night. They certainly have the raw potential. But this is unlikely, considering their youth and the general proclivity of the team to put more effort into offense.
Casey will have to really pull out all the stops to get this team into the playoffs and past the first round. Gay will need to step up and become the consistent All-Star the front office expects and DeRozan will have to prove that he's not just a streaky scorer. Johnson, Hansbrough and Lowry have to be capable veterans able to help manage games on both ends of the floor. Promising young players Valanciunas, Acy and Ross will have to prove they belong in this league and Fields and Augustin need to bounce back from the dropoff they both displayed last season.
Toronto probably won't click on all cylinders most games, but they should have enough offensive weapons to have a puncher's chance on any given night. That said, it's unlikely that this young Raptors team will be consistent enough to vault themselves into the top half of the Eastern Conference, as they are clearly a notch below Miami, Indiana, New York, Brooklyn and Chicago. They'll show flashes of brilliance, but they lack enough proven veteran presence to really contend and are a year or two away from truly making a splash in the east. Either way, though, Raptors fans can expect to be entertained -and likewise frustrated by - this team's youthful energy and raw athleticism.