Enemy: Toronto Raptors
3SOB Forecast*: 36-46
What’s the story with Canada’s team?
To be honest, the Raptors’ story features a lot of common elements to their fellow 1995 expansion team, our own Memphis Grizzlies.
First and foremost, of course, the Raptors’ narrative has great feature of the unintentionally enigmatic Rudy Gay, who was shipped north of the border mid-season last year. His time spent in Toronto thus far appears to be an extension of what we witnessed from him in Memphis. He kicked off his Raptors career on a tear with five straight 20 point games, and a month later he was back to his inefficient scoring self, lowlighted by a 7-26 stinker about a month later. Over the offseason, he had eye surgery to correct a vision problem for which he apparently refused to sport corrective lenses. It will be interesting to see if his jump shot returns to him as a result.
There’s another guy in that picture above who looks a bit familiar, as well. Kyle Lowry’s name resonates quite a bit with a portion of Grizzlies history in its own right. The Lowry v. Conley saga was a well-documented battle for the Grizzlies’ point guard position seemingly some eons ago, loosely involving to the two being locked in a proverbial room. Lowry was obtained in a pre-season trade last year, which was a move that enabled Jerryd Bayless’s way to Memphis. By my estimation, the Raps are just a Hakim Warrick shy of reuniting the “Three Musketeers.”
Lastly on the the Grizzlies track, I would be remiss if I failed to mention that Toronto signed Austin Daye in the offseason, who is only about 1,000 film sessions and some nurturing away from being a pretty effective basketball player.
There’s a lot more going on in Toronto than just the Grizzlies’ castaways, however.
For the front office, out is former GM Bryan Colangelo, and in is Masai Ujiri. As his first act of heroism, he worked his magic against the Knicks again, by convincing them to take on the rest of Andrea Bargnani’s contract — something widely regarded as so toxic that it was considered un-tradeable — by only taking on the contract of Steve Novak in return, as far as “bad money” goes.
While a deep playoff run for the Raptors is unlikely, their mission for the offseason was clear: to get more physical. Tyler Hansbrough was brought in from Indiana as a start, but they have a ways to go in that department. Unless further moves are to be made, it’s going to take monumental development from second year big man, Jonas Valanciunas, to push the culture of the team in the right direction.
Who are they cooking with?
The Raptors as a whole will likely be a lot like they were last season, and are banking very much on the prospect of internal improvements with a year of continuity and a full training camp to get Gay worked into the swing of things. A lot of the moving parts seemed to set into motion for the team after the Rudy trade. The Raptors were a meager 16-30 pre-trade, and played .500 ball after to push their record to 34-48 to close the year.
The Rudy infusion into the lineup played a part in the rise to mediocrity, but was aided by a bunch of contributing factors including Lowry’s health and Valanciunias’s getting comfortable with the American brand of basketball.
Speaking of Valanciunas, chalk him up in the column of guys that have made the most of their opportunity at the Las Vegas Summer League. He averaged 18.8 points and 10 rebounds per game in summer play, with the only real blemish being his sky-high foul rate at 5.8 per contest. Of course, in Summer League you’re allowed as many as 10, so it was not a big deal, but you can’t get away with being to shove-happy when the real season begins. He’s joined on the front-lines by Amir Johnson, who was quietly the second leading Raptor in PER, and absolutely blew away the rest of his teammates (that played more than 10% of the team’s minutes) with a +14 net on court/off court rating.
While the front-line will not be a problem for the Raptors, what could pose some issues, is how willing the rest of the team is to ensure that the usage rates of Valanciunas and Johnson are high enough for them to make a difference. Seeing as the duo is sharing the starting lineup with three high-usage players, in Lowry, Rudy, and DeMar (the best shooting guard Rudy has ever played with) DeRozan, this can be a legitimate concern.
How do the good guys stack up?
(I will not speak ill of Rudy Gay, I will not speak ill of Rudy Gay, I will not speak ill of Rudy Gay…)
So, how about this weather we’re having, huh? Just kidding.
Toronto is a team in transition. With new management in place, expect to see several moves occur for this franchise over the next several months, much like we’ve already seen in the transfer of Andrea Bargnani’s nearly lifeless corpse to the Big Apple for 3 subway tokens, half of a Nathan’s Famous hot dog, and a slightly soiled 2000 World Series (“Subway Series”) program. I still like the Raptors’ side of that trade though.
Mike Conley vs. Kyle Lowry will be a battle worthy of Thunderdome as long as both players remain in the league for the obvious reasons that any Grizz fan worth their salt should already know about. Needless to say, Lowry’s bulldog-like tenacity is only outmatched by his personal vendetta against the organization that originally drafted him. In similar fashion, the Raptors’ new star SF probably has a burr under his saddle about the Boys from Beale Street as well. In any event, those two guys alone cannot beat the Grizzlies.
Enter Jonas Valančiūnas. (What? You thought I was gonna suggest DeMar DeRozan?) JV is definitely first-string, varsity material (see what I did there?) based on his solid performance in his rookie campaign, as well as his strong showing in Summer League. If the Raptors can get a stellar performance out of him, while keeping the Lowry/DeRozan/Gay trio from making horrific decision/choices with the ball, then they should have a legitimate chance of at least winning the contest in T-Dot based on the amount of athleticism and talent they can put on the floor. Teams with athletic frontcourts (Nuggets, Clippers, Hornets) have given the Grizzlies problems the past few seasons, and the Raptors clearly fit that mould across the entire starting lineup. Don’t be surprised if they keep things just close enough for one of Rudy Gay’s patented late-game heroic efforts to decide the game.
DANGIT KYLE WHY COULDN’T YOU BE HAPPY BACKING UP CONLEY?
Ok, that’s out of my system.
A quick glance at the Raptors’ roster reveals that the upcoming season’s result could fall anywhere between 8-seed purgatory and wow-how-do-we-suck-this-badly depths of despair. They could likely sustain a minor injury or two without a resultant freefall…’cuz they’ve got a bunch of “well, he’ll do” guys. Gotta admire the fact that DeRozan started all 82 last season, and played over 3000 (!) minutes while doing so…but…if a player as incomplete as DeFozan is your minutes leader and a principal focal point…well, you know what that means.
Kyle Lowry is good. Darned good. And tough as a chunk of granite. But the ego, ah, the ego. He’ll surely take it very personally when he plays Conley…but with Augustin the Mediocre as his backup, the Grizzlies, even with the nebulous current state of the backup PG position, should be fine at point. Elsewise in the backcourt, it’s Fields, Ross, and, uh, zzzzzz….whoa, wait, what were we talking about again? Oh, yeah, how Tony Allen could literally get bored playing these guys.
The frontcourt. Rudy Gay joke, hahaha, let’s move on. Amir Johnson, almost four fouls in 29 mpg. Yep, walking infraction…but a tough dude with some decent basket awareness on offense in the lane. After eight seasons, his head has bumped the ceiling, but he’s a serviceable player. It’ll be interesting to watch Ed Davis and Amir go at it for the few minutes it’ll probably happen-both players with great length and good talent…just gotta hope Ed gets it together at the FT line before these matchups happen. Valanciunas has intrigued pretty much everyone who’s watched him play, but his wiry frame will run into some substantial bulk in the form of Marc Gasol/Koufos/ZBo in the lane against the Grizzlies, and Qunicy Acy, while still super young and upcoming, is gonna have to back off that 5.6 fouls per 36 minutes rate if he expects to stay on the court against a skilled and sizable NBA team like the Grizzlies.
Guess I can’t crack any Bargnani jokes. Dang.
Over the last few seasons, the Raptors have given the Grizzlies more trouble than can really be explained. This is largely a result of the Grizzlies tending to “play down to the competition” during the long NBA season. This year’s Toronto roster does not inspire a great deal of fear for the Grizzlies. Lowry is a known quantity, who does tend to “punish” his former team. However, he has shown signs of slowing down and coupled with Conley’s development it appears the Grizzlies made the right choice between the two. Demar Derozen can score in bunches, but if there is one thing the Grizzlies are built to do it is take away a teams best perimeter scorer. Rudy Gay has blamed his poor shooting on vision problems and allegedly had surgery to correct it. Unfortunately for him (and Toronto), his lack of mental toughness cannot be blamed on his eyes. Unlike Lowry, Gay does not seem the type of player with the tenacity to stand up to his former teammates and make a statement. And if he starts to, look for Tony Allen to be shifted on defense to put a quick stop to it. Valanciunas showed a lot of potential in his rookie season, but in 2013-2014 I expect him to be outplayed by Gasol and Koufos. Beyond these four guys, the Raptors lack a great deal of talent and depth, something that will hurt them over the course of the season. Nonetheless, in the Eastern Conference, they could sneak into one of the final playoff spots. If the Grizzlies don’t “play down”, the two games against the Raptors should be Ws for the good guys.
While it is true that the Grizzlies won more games last season (including the postseason) than the Raptors have since March of 2011, the gap between the two squads is quickly evaporating. Toronto has three starters (Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, and Rudy Gay) who are all above average rim attackers that hold a decided athletic edge on their Memphis counterparts (Mike Conley, Tayshaun Prince, and Tony Allen). My lone concern about the matchup here is that Gay continues to settle for far too many three pointers (nearly 25% of his shots in Toronto last season), but with Memphis ranking as the second best percentage three point percetage defense last year and Toronto ranking as the 25th worst three point offense in terms of percentage, maybe just maybe Raptors not named Steve Novak will fully explore their interior potential. Speaking of potential, that is how Toronto will look to combat the elite front court that carried Memphis to the Western Conference Finals.
Jonas Valanciunas has impressed within NBA circles this summer, and was a sneaky good defender against big men with a similar skill set to that of Marc Gasol (32.5% of Gasol’s categorized plays were labeled either “spot-up” or “pick and roll”). He and Amir Johnson will fight tooth and nail in the paint, a mentality that isn’t lost when Toronto goes to its second unit with Tyler Hansbrough and Quincy Acy. The second year man out of Baylor averaged nearly 14% more offensive rebounds per 48 minutes than David Lee, the leagues fifth leading rebounder, and should benefit from a year of experience. Other than ex-Raptor Ed Davis, the Grizzlies will struggle to match the Raptors front court depth, thus leveling the playing field in the paint. In short, I believe the Raptors weakness (defense) will be less of an issue against the Grizzlies than the Grizzles weakness (scoring) will be against the Raptors. The Raptors have less front line talent, but the number of capable bodies will be the difference and allow them to split the season series with the Grizz, a step in the right direction for a team looking to break the longest playoff drought in team history.
When and Where do they square off?
November 13th: 7:00PM at the FedEx Forum
March 14th: 6:00PM at the Air Canada Centre
For more Raptors content, check out our TrueHoop comrades at Raptors Republic.
*3SOB forecast projections are derived from an average of the contributing staff’s predicted win totals.