The 2015-16 Raptors established themselves relatively quickly as the second-best team in the East and set a number of franchise records on the way to their first conference finals. Fifty-six wins and a No. 2 seed were big leaps forward, and two wins against the heavily favored Cleveland Cavaliers proved that the Raptors weren’t hopelessly overmatched against the conference’s only true championship contender. The Cavs remain big favorites to make the NBA Finals for a third-straight season, but this year’s Raptors look like their top competitor should they lose a step.
Nevertheless, there are legitimate concerns over Toronto’s ability to match last season, let alone improve on it. The smart money would say that they have reached their ceiling. All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry is now 30 years old and looked exhausted throughout much of the postseason. His backcourt partner DeMar DeRozan turned 27 in August and should be entering his prime, but he has also upped his game considerably over the last few years and might not have much room to grow. Other key players are in or possibly past their primes, as well, and playoff hero Bismack Biyombo left for the Orlando Magic in free agency. The pieces are in place for a dip in form, or at least another year in which the Raptors fall short of the Cavs’ standard.
That’s not the worst outcome in the world. The NBA is a league in which teams that don’t look likely to win championships are often said to be wasting their time, but the fact is that we are now in a period where the favorite in each conference looks well ahead of the rest of the pack. Raptors fans loved last season despite the fact that their team was a massive underdog to the Cavs, and those two wins at the Air Canada Centre last May were major moments in the history of the franchise nonetheless. A team doesn’t have to win it all to be worth a damn. The Raptors, like many other franchises around the league, are trying to build a lasting culture. They can do that with several 50 win seasons in a row.
[The 2016-17 BDL 25: The key storylines to watch this NBA season]
So it’s not necessary to fret if they can’t match or improve upon 2015-16. There are worse fates than winning playoff series two seasons in a row.
2015-16 season in 140 characters or less:
Few had the Raptors winning 50 games. They won 56 & got further than they ever had before. Bar's been raised but for now, they can be proud
— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) May 28, 2016
LeBron James: "Much respect to these fans and this country. This Is unbelievable I've never been apart of something like this in my career."
— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) May 28, 2016
Did the summer help at all?
Probably not, on balance, although that doesn’t mean the Raptors had a bad offseason. It just wasn’t stellar.
Toronto’s avoided making a franchise-changing move occurred in part because their biggest summer priority required holding onto a player they already had. DeMar DeRozan will be back on a five-year deal worth $139 million, which some have viewed as a steep price for a player who struggled to create off the dribble in the less liberally officiated postseason. Yet the Raptors had to pay DeRozan in the real world, and many teams would have lined up to give such a contract to a two-time All-Star who has proven he will work very hard to improve his game. Toronto should feel great that DeRozan didn’t consider any other offers. He’s their guy.
The other biggest story of the summer concerned a player the Raptors lost. Big man Bismack Biyombo was terrific in the postseason as a rebounder, shot blocker, and rim runner. He was arguably their best player against the Cavs and parlayed that performance into an impressive new deal with the Orlando Magic.
It’s a loss. But it’s important to remember that Biyombo was a backup pressed into service due to the absence of starter Jonas Valanciunas and played well above his career averages in the playoffs. His absence is not going to make or break their season, and he is a safe bet to perform below the terms of his four-year, $70-million contract with the Magic.
Veteran forward Luis Scola is also gone, but he looked well past his sell-by date for long stretches of last season and should be replaceable.
[Follow Dunks Don’t Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball]
Nevertheless, the Raptors have to find serviceable frontcourt depth. The most likely candidate to fill that role this year is ex-Celtics big man Jared Sullinger, who lacks Biyombo’s defensive might but should serve the team well as a floor-stretcher. Sullinger looks like the starter at power forward, which would push LeBron non-lookalike Patrick Patterson to the bench. That’s probably a smart move given their relative strengths.
First-round pick Jakob Poeltl will also be asked to contribute off the bench, too. He put up big numbers in two seasons at Utah but is something of a rarity in the contemporary NBA — a traditional back-to-the-basket center who does not project as a top defender. Thankfully, the Raptors also got energetic power forward Pascal Siakam in the second round to help replace some of Biyombo’s positives. Don’t be surprised if both are rotation players before the season is done.
Potential breakout stud:
If the Raptors are going to make a big jump and mount a serious challenge to the Cavs this season, then it will probably be because 24-year-old center Jonas Valanciunas has made the leap. Now entering his fifth season, Valanciunas has established himself as a perfectly solid starter with PERs of at least 20.5 in each of his last two seasons. Yet he has never averaged 10 rebounds per game and can struggle with foul trouble. There is plenty of room to grow.
The ability is certainly there. Valanciunas is an able defender and rebounder, a quality finisher, and becoming more confident with every passing season. Nevertheless, there are reasons to think this is just who the young Lithuanian is. To be fair, injuries have been an issue at times in his career, including in 2015-16. But he has been tabbed for big improvement in each of the last three seasons and not yet met those expectations. Only time will tell if this year is different.
Lowry stays in his prime for at least one more season. DeRozan somehow makes another big step forward and improves his outside shooting. Valanciunas makes the leap the Raptors have been waiting for. Poeltl develops fast and becomes a serviceable backup. The Cavaliers see a dropoff, and the Raptors enter the Eastern Conference Finals looking like near-equals with a better than 40-percent chance to reach their first NBA Finals.
If everything falls apart:
Lowry stumbles after his long summer with Team USA and looks gassed far earlier than he did in 2015-16. DeRozan plateaus enough to be unable to make up the difference. Valanciunas doesn’t improve much and misses at least 20 games. No one steps up to fill Biyombo’s void. The Raptors take a step back by winning fewer than 50 games, getting a playoff seed between No. 4 and No. 6, and losing in the first round.
Kelly Dwyer’s Best Guess at a Record:
48-34, 4th in the East
Read all of Ball Don’t Lie’s 2016-17 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Hornets • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors • Washington Wizards
Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Golden State Warriors • Houston Rockets • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Minnesota Timberwolves • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Utah Jazz
– – – – – – –