2015-16 Toronto Raptors preview
Last Season: 49-33 overall, No. 1 in the Atlantic Division, No. 4 in the Eastern Conference. First round loss to the Washington Wizards in four games.
Returnees: Bruno Caboclo, DeMar DeRozan, James Johnson, Kyle Lowry, Lucas Nogueira, Patrick Patterson, Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas
Additions: Anthony Bennett, Bismack Biyombo, DeMarre Carroll, Cory Joseph, Luis Scola, Delon Wright, Andy Greer (assistant coach)
Subtractions: Tyler Hansbrough, Chuck Hayes, Amir Johnson, Greg Stiemsma, Greivis Vasquez, Lou Williams
SBN Affiliate: Raptors HQ
The Toronto Raptors finished with a franchise record 49 wins last season, one more win than the previous franchise record set in 2014. Unfortunately for Toronto, the regular season success has not translated to playoff glory - the Raptors have been defeated in the first round each of the last two seasons. This season, success will be defined by nothing short of a playoff series victory.
The Raptors are led by the All-Star backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. Lowry emerged last season as an All-Star starter in his ninth(!) season after struggling to prove himself during stints in Houston and Memphis. Despite the All-Star berth, Lowry's performance dipped significantly during the 2015 portion of the season as a result of injuries. He reached a nadir during the playoffs, averaging only 12.3 points per game on 32 percent shooting in the Raptors four-game loss to the Washington Wizards. The good news is that Lowry seems to have learned from last season and shed significant weight during the offseason in an effort to increase season-long durability.
Lowry's backcourt partner, DeRozan, has emerged as a reliable 20 point per game scorer and made the All-Star team in 2014. DeRozan does most of his work in the mid-range and at the foul line, averaging 8 and 7.2 free throw attempts over the last two seasons, respectively. Despite his scoring prowess, DeRozan has drawn criticism for his inefficient mid-range game, and for failing to involve other teammates in the offense. DeRozan's defense is also suspect.
In addition to their All-Star guards, the Raptors hope that fourth-year center Jonas Valanciunas can "make the leap" this season. Valanciunas averaged 12 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks last season in 26 minutes per game. He also shot 57 percent from the field and 79 percent from the line. The advanced stats are kind to Valanciunas - last season he led the Raptors' starters with an offensive rating of 122, a PER of 20.6, and 8.2 win shares. Valanciunas' bread and butter is post scoring, but he also scores well out of the pick-and-roll, and on offensive rebound putbacks. Many analysts believe that only the ball-dominant offense of Lowry and DeRozan has stopped Valanciunas from breaking out. That will have to change this season if Toronto hopes to improve.
The Raptors' offseason was highlighted by the signing of DeMarre Carroll. They hope that Carroll will jump-start a previously anemic defense, while helping to space the floor on offense. Coach Dwane Casey has also voiced a desire to regularly play small ball and Carroll should be able to function as a stretch four against certain matchups.
In addition to Carroll, Toronto acquired Luis Scola during the offseason to shore up its power forward rotation. The departed Amir Johnson left a large hole at that position. Presumptive replacement Patrick Patterson plays primarily as a stretch four and will have trouble replacing Johnson's defense and rebounding. Scola will be called on to fill that void occasionally.
As a team, the Raptors scored well last season, finishing No. 4 in the league in points per game and offensive rating but their style has not been conducive to playoff success. This season they will need to diversify their offense with the outside shooting of Carroll and Patterson, and further integration of Valanciunas. It is unclear, however, if DeRozan and Lowry can stay effective if the offensive emphasis is shifted away from the backcourt. Additionally, Raptors followers have questioned Casey's willingness to develop a cohesive and modern NBA offense, citing Toronto's simple playbook and resistance to giving his Lithuanian center additional minutes.
The Raptors had a middling defense last season, but that should improve this year. The team hired defensive specialist Andy Greer as a top assistant and, in addition to Carroll, acquired solid defenders Cory Joseph, Bismack Biyombo and Delon Wright. One concern is perimeter defense, where they will be thin when Carroll rests.
The Raptors play in the weakest division in the NBA and should win it by default, barring massive improvement from the Boston Celtics. But it may be tough for the Raptors to improve over last season; they have holes in their roster and despite some roster continuity lack a clear identity. Their biggest addition, Carroll, is a complementary player and will not be able to help them improve significantly if DeRozan, Lowry, and Valanciunas fail to gel on offense and Patterson fails to prove himself as an effective power forward. To make matters worse for the Raptors several teams competing for middle playoff seeds (e.g. the Milwaukee Bucks, Miami Heat, Celtics, and Wizards) have all improved. It will be difficult for Toronto to finish in the top four of the Eastern Conference again this season.
Key Schedule Dates
The Raptors have a brutal start to the season, playing 12 of their first 17 games on the road, but they will benefit from three homestands of six or more games later in the season. Toronto will only appear on national TV twice in the U.S. - Jan. 22 against the Heat on ESPN and Jan. 28 against the New York Knicks on TNT. All 82 games will be broadcast on national TV in Canada.
The Raptors will visit Portland on Feb. 4, while the Blazers travel to the Air Canada Centre on March 4.
The Raptors will be sporting new uniforms this season, designed by rapper and Team Ambassador Drake. Unfortunately, the team continues to use black, red, and white as its primary uniform colors, despite the fact that Portland and the Chicago Bulls have used the same color scheme since prior to the Canadian franchise's existence. One of the alternates does include gold, which is a nice touch.
They also have a new logo that can best be described as ...uninspired.
.@Raptors Looks familiar— Brooklyn Nets (@BrooklynNets) December 19, 2014
Yesterday's preview: Washington Wizards
Up next: Dallas Mavericks