The big Lithuanian is the key to Raptors bright future.
Last week the Know Thy Enemy series began with teams that are unlikely to present much challenge to the Hawks this year like Charlotte and Cleveland. A third team in that category will be covered later once some more of the dust settles on their summer moves. This week we start looking at teams that are improving and might be ready to make the jump into the playoffs starting with the Toronto Raptors.Last Season – 23-43 4th place in the East. An extremely forgettable season for a team in flux. Best player Andrea Bargnani missed 35 games and the team relied on its depth and d-league call-ups. Young shooting guard DeMar Derozan was the only player to start more than 80% of the games, but he actually regressed statistically shooting only 42% and still not adding range to his offensive game.
Off-season moves – The big move for Toronto is bringing over 2011 #5 draft pick Jonas Valanciunas to play center. His promise at the position and the subsequent restructuring of the lineup lead a lot of pundits to stake out space on the Raptor bandwagon. That wasn't the only big change the Raptors made.
Trades – The Raptors made several but the big trade solidified their PG situation by acquiring Kyle Lowry from the Rockets for Gary Forbes and a guaranteed lottery pick. Lowry is a strong PG and unlike the man who manned that position for the last 5 years in Toronto (Jose Calderon) is known to play defense. Their other trade was to give up on SF James Johnson sending him to Sacramento for a 2nd round pick.
Free agency – Nothing too splashing here, but a few moves were made. The Raptors sign John Lucas III who performed admirably in Chicago as the 3rd PG, which allowed them to let Jerryd Bayless sign in Memphis. Dominique McGuire was signed from Golden State and provides greater size at SF, but he's strictly a low usage role player off the bench. Finally they retained two of their own free agents in the slow footed but dependable big, Aaron Gray and Alan Anderson, a long distance bomber who impressed during a late season audition. And the one I saved for last was the signing of Landry Fields SF from New York to a large offer sheet that ultimately wasn't matched. I left it for last because the jury is out on whether they actually wanted to sign Fields or if they were counting on the Knicks to match the deal. Fields is a good young glue player, but at over 6M per season he's unlikely to produce at a level that ever makes that a good investment.
Draft – I think the Raptors draft of #8 pick Terrence Ross a 6-6 shooting guard shows the Raptors doubt that DeMar Derozan will ever become the SG they envisioned years ago. Some may know Ross best as the guy who's best friend (Terrence Jones) backed out of playing with him after he received a call from John Calipari, but he's a wing who played well from Washington and showed range on his jumper. In the second round the Raptors went with a classic strategy to find value. They drafted Quincy Acy a 4 year rotation player out of Baylor who's draft stock slipped because of tweener concerns. He's 6-7 235 and an excellent vertical. He's likely going to see some time at SF although his 1.8 blocks per game as a senior show he's probably more comfortable closer to the basket.
Their Roster – It's questionable whether Toronto has a star on their roster, although Bargnani was be touted for an All-Star spot prior to getting hurt. They have a solid group of players across the board many of whom just need to put it together.
Point Guard – Kyle Lowry is a 2 way PG providing strong defense and enough offense to be useful. He's even improved his 3 point shooting over the last few years. His career shows a pattern though of being super-sub and having the team perform better with him on the floor, getting a chance at starting, and ultimately losing the job to a more offensively fluid PG. In Houston, he beat out Aaron Brooks only to have a coaching change wipe out his progress as Goren Dragic fit Kevin McHale's plans better. Strangely in Toronto he's being brought in to replace Jose Calderon who's always been a good offensive PG, but is known to be weak on defense. If Calderon was younger and cheaper then historically he'd be likely to steal the job from Lowry. The Raptors wanted to deal Calderon but didn't find a taker. Expect his expiring contract to be dealt before the trading deadline to add assets to Toronto before he walks for nothing. John Lucas III comes in to ultimately backup Lowry as he did in Chicago where injuries made him more a 2nd PG than a 3rd stringer.
It's probably not going to be popular, but I give the edge to Toronto here. My main reason is that last year the Hawks went to Houston Jeff Teague was coming off his best game of the young season and Lowry devastated him defensively leading to one of his worst games of the year. Lowry has the strength and enough speed to take Jeff Teague out of anything he wants to do. Until they deal Calderon they should be able to match the Hawks with PG depth.
Wings – The likely starters for the Raptors are Derozan and Fields at first. The thing with this combination is that neither is a strong outside shooter. Fields shot well his rookie year but when the scouting film got around on him teams closed out much more effectively. The backups of rookie Terrence Ross and Linus Kleiza should be stronger with the outside shot. Mixing and matching would likely be the best policy, but egos may make that difficult to pull off. My prediction is that by late in the season Ross establishes himself as the starting SG while Derozan moves to SF and Landry Fields goes to the bench to become the 2nd unit glue guy. Until that happens expect the Raptors lineup to sometimes play solid, but often sputter and clunk.
The comparison with the Hawks at the wings probably won't go over well with Raptor fans, but I see it as a draw for this season. Derozan is horribly inefficient and Landry Fields isn't the underestimated secret weapon that he was a rookie and as such his production isn't really that thrilling. Ross is a rookie which will likely mean defensively liability. The Hawks are unsettled at the wings, but seem likely to bring strong shooting at the minimum. In another year this would be a clear advantage position for Toronto, but for now the shooting strengths of the Hawks negate the athletic strengths of the Raptors.
Bigs – Jonas Valanciunas looks like the real deal, but he's got some adjusting to do to the NBA game. Even so I expect him to be starting by mid-season as he allows them to play Bargnani on the perimeter where his game fits better. The rest of the Raptor bigs consist of the slow but long Aaron Gray, the athletic PF Amir Johnson who has sometimes been compared to Josh Smith defensively but never really put it all together, and Ed Davis, a late lottery pick at F from UNC who hasn't really shown that he's a keeper. The Raptors have the ability to mix and match making their bigs to provide length or athleticism.
The bigs are still an advantage to the Hawks, for now, but it is narrowing. Looking at his career splits, you'll see that Bargnani performs below his norms against Atlanta. I credit that to the athleticism of the Hawks front line making his life difficult. Josh has owned the front line matchups most of the time against Toronto. Zaza and Ivan strike me as an advantage to the subs. Once Valanciunas gets used to the NBA the equation can change. His length provides the thing that often aggravates Al Horford when he tries to operate in the block. If Bargnani is able to move to the 4 spot, his outside game could aggravate Josh Smith who historically has trouble staying at home on stretch 4s (often helping off too much). Much like on the wings I see one more year before Toronto puts it all together with the bigs.
Coaching – Show of hands, how many people wanted Dwayne Casey over Larry Drew as head coach 2 summers ago? If I remember right a preference for Casey was the sentiment of the chatter back then. I see these coaches as approximately a toss-up. I'm not a fan of Larry Drew, but I can't honestly say Casey would have outperformed what Drew has done these last 2 years.
Outlook – Toronto is really dangerous and could make playoffs. With time they should be quite solid at C and PF. I also consider PG a strength albeit unspectacular and likely to get overlooked in media coverage. Wings are their weak spot to mer, but that might be unfair. Their wings are okay, but not the stars that they supposedly should be. Between players getting used to the NBA and to each other, I suspect they are a year away from putting the right rotations together to get the most out of the team.
In a strange quirk the Hawks play Toronto less this year than they did in the shortened season last year. Last year the Hawks were 3-1 against the Raptors only losing the first part of a back-to-back when Joe Johnson had one of his worst shooting nights that I remember. This year we play them 3 times all later in the season which increases the chances they figure out their rotation, but the added time to gel should help the Hawks as well. 2 games are in Atlanta and one in Toronto and every match up comes after a night off. I feel confident that the Hawks are likely to win 2 of these games.
Overall I see the Raptors as just missing the playoffs and finishing 9th in the East with a record of just below .500. Hawks fans would do good to keep a respectful eye on the Raptors as they appear to be building a team that would likely frustrate the current Hawks lineup down the road. Of course, no one knows what the future Hawks lineup will be beyond this year, so maybe the Raptors won't become a match up thorn in our sides.