Raptors preview: 26 questions surrounding Toronto, DeRozan, new offensive approach
Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are back to give it another go in the East
Some would say 26 questions about the Toronto Raptors is far too many. I am not one of those people. The Raptors might not have the buzz of the 76ers or Timberwolves, and they might not have the championship-caliber roster of the Rockets or Thunder, but their status in the very-good-but-not-great realm is what makes them interesting. The arguably absurd amount of questions that follow are meant to paint a picture of what it's like trying to compete without a LeBron James, James Harden or even Joel Embiid type on the roster, always in striking distance but never quite where you'd like to be.
How will the Raptors' reimagined offense work?
"Our goal is to create more assisted baskets," assistant coach and offensive guru Nick Nurse told The Athletic's Eric Koreen, adding that the coaching staff wants more ball movement, better spacing and more players touching the ball. You don't have to be into Xs and Os to have noticed the shift in the preseason -- almost everybody is launching 3-pointers with abandon, Jonas Valanciunas is often stationed on the perimeter instead of parked in the paint and DeMar DeRozan is looking to create for others more often.
This is in line with every league trend, but it is a major shift for the Raptors. They had the best offense in the league through mid-January last season, and coach Dwane Casey often deflected criticism of their approach by pointing to his personnel -- if he had great passers at every position, he'd encourage them to play more like the San Antonio Spurs; if he had great 3-point shooters up and down the roster, they'd fire away like the Golden State Warriors.
DeRozan said at media day that this is a subtle change, akin to a new haircut. This is underselling it. Toronto is acknowledging it needs to get out of its comfort zone. Given how poorly the old system translated to the playoffs, this seems wise.
Just how much should the ball be moving?
I am a sucker for pretty basketball. Aesthetically, I love teams that cut constantly, whip the ball around and keep defenses guessing. A coaching staff's job, however, is to win, not to look good. There is an argument to be made that the Raptors' low-assist numbers and reliance on Kyle Lowry and DeRozan was a feature, not a bug. Hierarchy is important, and every role player knew that his job was to fit in around the two stars.
Now, it looks like Valanciunas is going to be asked to be more of a passer and Serge Ibaka is going to be asked to be more of a driver. Spreading the playmaking around is a risk, and there will likely be some ugly performances while players figure out where they're supposed to be and what they have and haven't been empowered to do.
Can they survive their early-season tests?
Toronto will be trying to change its stripes while dealing with a difficult schedule. It will visit the Spurs and Warriors in the first week, and nine of its first 14 games will be on the road. If the new offense isn't working and it costs the Raptors some games, simply sticking with it will be a challenge. These changes weren't made because they want to have an awesome first month; they were made with the playoffs and the next few years in mind.
So, uh, will things be any different in the playoffs?
Any regular-season struggles will look like small potatoes if they can avoid what has happened in recent postseasons. Ideally, blitzing Lowry and DeRozan won't be as effective for opponents because the other guys will be more comfortable making plays. The plan is to be less predictable, without those awful cold stretches that raise the entire country of Canada's collective level of anxiety. There is no guarantee that this will play out that way.
Will DeRozan shoot 3s?
DeRozan has a complicated relationship with the 3-point line. He attempted 2.7 3s a game in 2013-14, but that number dropped to 1.5 the next season and has hovered around that mark since. He shot a career-high 33.8 percent from deep two years ago, but only 26.6 percent last season. The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor explored what Toronto's offense might look like if he could just become an average 3-point shooter, arguing that this alone could raise the team's ceiling. Raptors fans have been dreaming of this for years.
The key is not shying away from the shot even when it isn't going in. DeRozan needs to keep his attacking mentality, but it would change Toronto's whole ecosystem if he could make opponents think twice about leaving him wide open on the perimeter.
Who else will join the 3-point-shooting party?
With the exception of backup center Jakob Poeltl, it appears everybody -- even Valanciunas -- has been given the green light when open and in rhythm. Norman Powell, Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby, K.J. McDaniels and Lucas Nogueira have not proven themselves as consistent 3-point shooters, and it would help the offense if a couple of them could be counted on to knock down those shots come playoff time.
Can Valanciunas survive as they try to evolve?
This isn't just about extending his range. Toronto has beenfor years, but he has remained a subpar defender and passer. Everybody knows he was on the trade block, and if he does look good in the new system, he might just play himself out of town.
Is Lowry entering his Nash years?
Lowry missed 22 games last year, but that shouldn't take away from how wonderfully he played before breaking his wrist. By embracing the pull-up 3-pointer, the most important shot in today's game, and shooting it more efficiently than anybody, the three-time All-Star became even scarier in the pick-and-roll. This kind of evolution is how the clever 31-year-old can extend his prime until the end of the three-year contract he signed this past offseason. Remember, Steve Nash left the Mavericks for the Suns at 30, before he won his two MVP awards. He made his last All-Star team as a 38-year-old.
Are they tough enough?
. Casey loves physical, defense-first players who make opposing teams uncomfortable. Especially after losing P.J. Tucker in free agency, it is not clear that Toronto is going to be the type of team that can pull out wins the ugly way when its shots aren't falling.
Will DeRozan become more of a facilitator?
The Raptors have clearly asked him to do this, with Casey promising to use him more as a de facto point guard and challenging him to raise his assist rate. Given the attention that DeRozan draws with the ball in his hands, this makes all the sense in the world. It would be unwise, though, to expect him to transform into a Harden-like wizard overnight.
Will DeRozan become a more reliable defender?
My goodness, there are still so many questions about DeRozan, already an established star and one of the best shooting guards there is. But seriously, there is no reason why he shouldn't be a better defender. While he showed some positive signs late in the regular season, the agility, athleticism and footwork he shows on offense just has not been consistently visible on the other end.
How much better can Powell be?
Powell is hard to keep out of the paint, but his straight-line drives could be even more dangerous if he were better at manipulating the defense and finding open teammates. You have to love his athleticism, his defensive disposition and the way he battles bigger players, but there might beif he matures as a playmaker.
How do they match up with the Celtics and Wizards?
I'd argue the Celtics are more talented and the Wizards have a more solid starting five. To edge them, the Raptors need to be more cohesive all around, which leads us to …
Will the second unit still be awesome?
The Lowry-and-the-bench lineups have been spectacular over the past few years, but those lineups typically included plus-minus Hall of Famer Patrick Patterson, the shifty Cory Joseph and excellent spacing. Toronto must figure out a way to sustain that success with different, younger personnel.
How much will they miss Patterson?
Even when you consider his knee trouble, it is mind-blowing that Patterson signed for just $16.4 million over three years with the Thunder. He made his teammates better with his solid screen setting, versatile defense, outside shooting and willingness to move the ball. If Siakam doesn't take a major step forward, newcomer C.J. Miles is going to have to spend a lot of time at the 4 spot.
Have they finally found their answer at small forward?
Miles will be the Raptors' 14th opening-night starter at small forward in 15 years, following in the footsteps of Michael Curry, Jalen Rose, Joey Graham, Morris Peterson, Jason Kapono, Jamario Moon, Hedo Turkoglu, Linas Kleiza, Rasual Butler, Landry Fields, Rudy Gay, Terrence Ross and DeMarre Carroll. He is a great shooter and solid defender who rarely tries to do too much. They are surely hoping he will fit in, stay healthy and stick around, unlike all those other guys.
Was Anunoby the steal of the draft?
Anunoby has Draymond Green-like potential on defense, and I don't say that lightly. He's also raw offensively and coming off a torn ACL, so we might not have an answer to this question right away.
Is there a killer lineup here?
I love the idea of a Lowry-DeRozan-Powell-Miles-Ibaka unit closing games, but it's not as stretchy as other "Death Lineups" if Powell and DeRozan do not get more consistent from deep.
Can they survive when Lowry is on the bench?
While they performed admirably when Lowry was hurt last season, they still only had a plus-0.7 net rating when he wasn't on the floor. If DeRozan thrives in a more point guard-y role, that would help.
What the heck do they do about the center position?
Ibaka is best as a center, and the Raptors might not have gotten out of the first round against the Bucks if they hadn't moved Valanciunas to the bench. Poeltl deserves minutes, and Nogueira has at times looked like a rotation player when given a chance. Neither is proven, though, and it's hard to resolve logjams at the most overstuffed position in the league.
Will there be another midseason trade?
Valanciunas is the obvious candidate, but you never know what team president Masai Ujiri might do. Perhaps a couple of the young pieces could be packaged for a more proven player to strengthen the team for the playoffs.
Is there room for both VanVleet and Wright in the rotation?
Joseph is gone, and yet Toronto still appears to have an embarrassment of riches at point guard. It is obvious that Wright is ready for a proper role, but everybody has been raving about Fred VanVleet. Maybe Casey will get weird and play them together.
Is it Bruno's year?
Bruno Caboclo's physical tools remain ridiculous, but at 22 years old it's probably time for him to start looking like he knows what he's doing. Raptors 905 coach Jerry Stackhouse thinks he has to grow emotionally and, most importantly, he has to play.
Is McDaniels ready to be a rotation player?
Remember all those incredible blocks and dunks from his rookie season? I still believe!
Can they at least put up a fight against Cleveland?
Nobody expects them to win, but could the Raptors do to the Cavaliers what the Bucks did to them? If they cannot at least avoid blowouts and make Cleveland sweat, all these adjustments will seem inconsequential.
At the end of the season, what will people think about them?
OK, big-picture stuff: As a non-contender, they will not be judged solely by how far they go in the playoffs. What really matters is what kind of message the season sends. If the Raptors have a solid record but there isn't much development from the young guys, that's not enough. If they take a step back and don't entirely commit to their new style, that's not enough. There must be progress, not necessarily in terms of wins and losses but in terms of building on the foundation they have established.
If there is real excitement about what 2018-19 might bring, then 2017-18 will have gone well. If people are instead talking about how they'd only be a mediocre team if they were in the West and should consider blowing it all up, then it will not.
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