Offseason mailbag: What would be a successful season for the Raptors?

Programming note: I’m going away for the next two weeks, but normal coverage will resume this season with 10 things on Twitter (and reposted on Medium) along with the Weekly and Reaction podcasts on Raptors Republic.

Also, if anyone has any travel tips for Buenos Aires and Argentina as a whole, please share them with me on Twitter. I’m quite anxious and utterly unprepared.

I’m conflicted and confused about this season because their goals are almost entirely nebulous.

I’ve given up hope of beating the Cavaliers, and we’ve already been to the Eastern Conference Finals, so what’s left to accomplish? I guess they could not shit their pants for once and play passable playoff basketball, but is that really an achievement? Taking down one of Boston or Washington would feel sensational but what does that accomplish if they’ll ultimately lose to Cleveland? Would taking the first seed even matter?

I’m not trying to be negative. I’m aware of our history, and another 50-win season, another playoff appearance, another series victory, beating a rival, all of it would be tremendous. I guess I’m just spoiled, but it sucks to be stuck beneath a ceiling with our hopes capped by The King. For some reason it’s hard to enjoy the moment.

But I also didn’t want to throw away everything and start over. I know how good we have it with Lowry, DeRozan and Casey. I’m not taking any wins for granted because in a decade of watching the Raptors I’ve seen too many losses. These wins aren’t promised.

I guess all I want is for the franchise to make steps in the right direction. I hope to see the prospects take tangible steps forward and become difference makers in the rotation that excite us. I want to see maturation in Lowry, DeRozan and Casey as they correct their bad habits. I pray Masai Ujiri swindles the Knicks again.

Just give me something new in addition to what we already have to get us to hope again. That would be a successful season in my eyes.

Let me first address the Serge Ibaka shade from Biyombonesaw. He’s hardly been alone on this, but there’s been this growing sentiment that Ibaka was largely disappointing and ultimately lacking when it came to his fit on the Raptors. Some JVHIVE members even had Ibaka below Jonas Valanciunas, which is just laughable. Who closes games? There’s a reason for that.

This disappointment over Ibaka confuses me. It was made abundantly clear that we didn’t get the Defensive Player of the Year contender that blocked nearly five shots a game. His rebounding is a concern when he’s deployed at center. He’s not perfect and that should have been obvious from the start since Ibaka was traded for Terrence Ross and a shitty first-round pick. There are games where he’s physically lacking. This was known when he first arrived.

I’m also confused as to how Ibaka suddenly became so unsexy in the eyes of some (man’s a fucking snack). Ibaka isn’t flashy but he’s a center who can hit threes and reliably defend the rim. Isn’t that what we’re all fiending for? Isn’t this the modern center skillset that bloggers lust after? He shot 38.3 percent (1.5 for 3.9) on catch-and-shoot threes. That’s better than Kristaps Porzingis (37.2 percent), DeMarcus Cousins (36.7 percent) and just about every center outside of melting wax figure Channing Frye.

(And let’s be real: how many free agents actually wanted to sign here? Ibaka is pretty close to the best we could ever hope for outside of re-signings.)

Maybe the pessimism comes from his pedestrian advanced metrics. DRPM, PER, net rating — most of the stats point toward Ibaka being a decent starter and nothing more. Even the rim protection numbers are frighteningly average — he’s about the same as Valanciunas (the horror).

But I remain convinced that there’s just something that works with Ibaka in the right role. It feels right and it looks right, especially when he plays as the only center on the floor. He’s in the right spots for open shots and making the right reads to help at the basket. The pace of the game fits how Ibaka plays. He can be the trailer when Kyle Lowry pushes the pace and be a spacing threat when playing pick and roll with DeMar DeRozan.

Or maybe that’s just me wanting to believe that it works because that it simply should. Because if you were to craft the perfect player to complement Lowry and DeRozan, wouldn’t you ask for someone like Ibaka? Someone who can hit the three, get his own bucket when needed, finish efficiently around the rim, stay motivated even if he doesn’t get touches, anchor the defense, and provide shot blocking at the basket? It should work, right?

As for Vtec Papi’s question about the rebrand, I’m ready for “Luke Nogueira.” No more Bebe, no more Lucas. Give me Luke, which means only one thing in basketball: the lunch-pail white big guy that only plays because he tries hard. Think Luke Harangody or Luke Zeller (rip Zellers) or even Luc Mbah a Moute (not white but tries that hard). They’re not inconsistent finesse players that contribute when they feel like it. They’re here to sweat profusely on the court, grab rebounds, and crash into people. Luke Hansbrough was so prolific in this regard that they upgraded him to Tyler, a name that almost sounds cool but is also ultimately trying too hard.

Anyway, I really wouldn’t mind if Bebe played with a bit more physicality and determination is all I’m saying. No more pouting to the refs when a 50–50 call goes against him. No more letting Dwight Howard grab 20 rebounds. Play like you’re named Luke and therefore promised everything in life but nothing at basketball. Go bang the shit out of everyone, Luke.

I’ve long been a believer in Delon Wright. He’s definitely unorthodox but he’s undeniably effective. He makes heads up plays and he catches opponents by surprise with either his length or agility at least once per game. He’s a tall point guard that sees over the defense and sees how the play will unfold. He moves with purpose and poise as he snakes pick and rolls and slithers through defenders. It’s always going to take a bit of craftiness to overcome his shortcomings but I believe he’ll make it as a successful change of pace backup.

As for his game, I was pleasantly surprised with Wright’s shooting in the one Crown League game he appeared in. Wright’s release looked quicker and more fluid, although it’s still somewhat deliberate and flat-footed. Adding a reliable jumper to any degree — hopefully a three but even just the midrange — would make Wright that much more effective as a creator. The Raptors are already lacking in shooters and the paint will be packed if Wright’s out there with Valanciunas, DeRozan, and someone like OG Anunoby. I would try to find Wright as many minutes as possible with Norman Powell (炮炮), C.J. Miles, and Kyle Lowry.

On the whole, I see Wright as a good backup who is eager to pass and defend, which are two skills the Raptors lack. He should average around eight points, four assists, score with slightly below average efficiency, and split time 70–30 between being on and off the ball.

They should be the same or slightly better on offense. Who did they really lose on that end? Miles replaces Terrence Ross, Wright and Cory Joseph is a wash, Ibaka is an upgrade over Patrick Patterson, DeMarre Carroll was a wasteman that should have yielded to Powell since time, and P.J. Tucker shoots it like he has two fists full of big toes. They should be marginally better on offense so long as Lowry stays fit.

Defense is more of a concern, especially within a playoff setting. The same fundamental problems plague them. The Raptors continue to be weak at small and power forward, and are largely undersized as a team. We’ve seen this trend play out for each of the last four years, which points to this being a fundamental weakness of this core.

What they need is a disruptive and active force with an attitude to boot making up the shortcomings of the team at large. Bismack Biyombo filled the role beautifully but he was too much of an offensive liability. Tucker made enough corner threes to be neutral but he took less money to play in a better situation. We really lack in this department unless Anunoby catches on incredibly quickly.

At least we had options last season. Tucker was great, Carroll approached respectability, and Patterson was in a groove before he inevitably lost his confidence after his knee injury. Now we have nobody to check those bruising power forwards and the big bully-ball wings.

Those skilled combo forwards will really hurt the Raptors going forward. Pascal Siakam is built like Travis Outlaw which is to say he’s slender. Putting Ibaka on the perimeter jeopardizes our rim protection and his foot speed isn’t great (although it’s really not bad). Miles and Powell are mostly playing a position up as it is. DeRozan won’t get his hands dirty. It is what it is.

This becomes an even bigger issue in the playoffs when teams can scheme specifically for this weakness. I worry about our defensive rebounding and having to trigger chains of help defense when our tiny wings can’t contain the point of attack. Let’s say we face Milwaukee again: would we win that? We don’t even have anyone who can pretend to guard Giannis Antetokounmpo let alone LeBron James. Are we seriously throwing out an injured rookie and Bruno Caboclo? That’s more disrespectful than when James sipped a beer and spun the ball in his hands.

Both the Celtics and Cavaliers have more talent, and they should be favored over the Raptors in a playoff series. Having said that, there shouldn’t be that much separation between the three teams in the regular season.

Vegas thinks otherwise. Boston leads the conference at 56.5 wins, Cleveland trails at a respectable 53.5, and Toronto lags behind at 48.5.

The Raptors have two factors working in their favor when it comes to the regular season.

One, they have the most continuity and should therefore face less growing pains deciding on a style of play. They’re the same principle characters that have been here for four years, and building chemistry between two heady players in Ibaka and Lowry should be easily solved in training camp. Cleveland lost Kyrie Irving and added two ball dominant guards in Derrick Rose (who still thinks he’s MVP Derrick Rose) and Isaiah Thomas (who’s out indefinitely, sure to disrupt the hierarchy once he returns, and in the most important contract year of his career). Boston returned just four players and have to essentially build their entire system and pecking order from scratch. That’s all going to take some time.

Two, the Raptors have the least playoff ambitions and should therefore prioritize regular season success the most. Casey being on the perpetual hot seat also helps drive the priorities of this franchise. It shouldn’t be this way, but it would not surprise me one bit to see Lowry and DeRozan in the top-10 in minutes per game.

Are those factors enough to overcome the talent gap? It should at least make it close. I’ve got the Raptors ahead of the Celtics and slightly below the Cavaliers.

There’s really not a lot of choices here. You’re really asking me to decide between Miles and Anunoby, which isn’t much of a contest. Miles will be a nice role player that hits threes and give great quotes to the media, but that’s about it. There’s nothing too exciting there. Anunoby will be worse than Miles to start in terms of production, but I want to see how much athleticism he’ll retain post injury, I want to see how his defensive skills translate to the pro level, and I want to see that dry humor trip everyone up.

I don’t really see much of a difference.

It should be slightly harder for DeRozan, who averaged 36 points in three games against Boston last season. Crowder’s defense is really overrated in my opinion and Marcus Morris is a better option since lengthy limbs is still the №1 deterrent against DeRozan. Bradley is a terrific defender but DeRozan just took him into the post with ease.

For Lowry it should mostly be the same. Swapping Isaiah Thomas for Kyrie Irving is mostly a wash on defense. Marcus Smart remains Boston’s best bet against Lowry, although Smart’s annoying physicality tends to get under Lowry’s skin and therefore bring the best out of him.

Boston also didn’t add any rim protection, so they’ll still be weak in the paint. Al Horford is a mobile and intuitive defender but he’s too small and too weak to keep DeRozan and Lowry from attacking the rim. Aron Baynes looks like a translucent Fat Buu and he’s not doing shit.

The obvious answer is Powell, but does he even count as a breakout candidate? We know he can produce if given more minutes. Powell averaged 15.6 points in 18 starts last season shooting 49.8 percent from the field and 39.7 percent on threes. He should win the starting small forward spot and post similar numbers

Wright would be a nice surprise for a lot of people. A shoulder injury and tremendous depth at point guard kept Wright under wraps, but there’s a lot to like in his game. A creative pass-first guard who defends would be a nice change of pace from Toronto’s usual assortment of slashing combo guards.

The answer to all three is that the Raptors will pretty much be the same as last year.

I don’t think changing the culture is possible without shuffling the principle characters, and I think the “culture change” touted by Masai Ujiri was mostly said in the heat of the moment after a tremendously disappointing sweep to the East champs. Swapping out the supporting cast is fine, but Casey, Lowry, and DeRozan are still here. Ujiri chose to stay the course and for the most part, the fanbase has let everyone off the hook.

There won’t be any major stylistic changes this season (although I’m sure we’ll hear about more threes and more passing) but the Raptors should be able to play a bit faster with all these young players in the rotation. Powell and Siakam should both see an uptick in minutes and they’re both wicked fast in transition. Poeltl and Ibaka over Valanciunas should also speed up their pace.

Valanciunas played well in the tournament, this much cannot be denied. Lithuania overall was a huge disappointment as they dropped out in the first round but most of the blame rightfully went to their increasingly shitty perimeter production.

He finished the tournament with averages of 15.8 points (T-16th) and 12 rebounds (1st), on 60.4 percent shooting from the field (4th) in just 27.2 minutes per game. He was also a plus-49 in six games. Valanciunas also topped all of Europe in PER at 37.1. This is just a long-winded way of saying that Valanciunas was effective.

But I can’t help but discount his production against the lackluster opposition that Lithuania faced. They lost to Georgia and Greece, while winning over Israel, Italy, Ukraine and Germany. Who’s the toughest player Valanciunas faced out of that bunch? Zaza Pachulia? Ioannis Bourousis? Daniel Theis? And he lost to two of them???

The biggest positive is that Valanciunas looked slightly slimmer which allowed him to be more active. Otherwise, he was largely the same player with the same touch around the hoop, same sweeping right hook, same set-foot midrange jumper. There’s a few videos of Valanciunas hitting threes in practice but pretty much any NBA player can do that.

His 27-point, 15-rebound effort against a tiny German frontline was probably his best performance of the tournament. Notice his activity and assertiveness. Keeping a brutish 7-footer off the glass is difficult, and Valanciunas was able to create opportunities for his team by simply crashing the glass and moving bodies in the paint. Defenders in the NBA are obviously bigger, stronger, and quicker than those in Europe, but a more active Valanciunas as compared to the plodding statue that we saw last season could be a huge help.

Short answer: Casey and the rest of the organization should absolutely see the big picture and rest Lowry more often to keep him fresh for the playoffs. But they won’t.

Long answer: Casey clearly values regular season success (which makes sense since he’s seemingly always on the hot seat, at least in the minds of fans) and the dirty secret with the Raptors is that they’re only excellent when Lowry plays. A few DeRozan-led lineups have been decent, but the common denominator in all of Toronto’s success is Lowry. It’s also not easy to sit down someone as competitive and hard-headed as Lowry, since players want to maintain their rhythm and accomplish personal goals within a season.

Nike didn’t really fuck around with the Raptors uniforms as much as they did with teams like Minnesota (why are they just UConn with stripes?) so I don’t really feel any ways about it. That Sun Life Financial patch is ugly but that’s a tiny detail. That money for Lowry and Ibaka has to come from somewhere.

Both players should average around 30 minutes. The slight edge will go towards whoever ends up starting more games. For the record, I’d like to see Powell start since his activity is more useful in the starting lineup, and since Casey can find advantageous match-ups for Miles if he comes off positions the bench.

They’ll split time at small forward, while Miles picks up a few at power forward in smallball lineups, while Powell gets those backup minutes behind DeRozan.

I’m not saying Bruno is a lost cause, but does anything from this summer suggest a breakout?

  • Kicked off Team Brazil after pouting and refusing to enter a game
  • Skipped Las Vegas Summer League
  • Tossed up bare bricks at Wonderland
  • Had a great time at the beach

Does this spell a breakout season for Bruno? There opportunity is right there for him to capitalize but it’s not looking great.

I’m not going to pretend like I know much about him aside from seeing him lead Serbia at Eurobasket and the Olympics, but I’m a fan. Teodosic plays an attractive style where he looks to create for others as often as possible despite being a tremendous shooter. There’s an unmistakable flair and creativity to his game.

As with any veteran guard from the European circuit, I worry if his skills can overcome the gap in athleticism. Can he get his shot off against quicker defenders? I mean, he did against the United States in the Gold Medal match, so probably. Teodosic also cooked the Timberwolves in preseason one time. As a point guard, playing with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan is a dream.

Good question with a simple answer: Nobody is guarding LeBron. Our best bet right now is probably Powell, who at his best managed to be a pesky presence against James for limited stretches in last year’s sweep. Otherwise we’re throwing out literal children against the best player alive.

But honestly, let’s not pretend like Tucker, Carroll, or Patterson did much to slow LeBron, either. The only one who even made a dent against LeBron was Biyombo.

I’m assuming you’re referring to the conversation had by Them™ Twitter (shouts to Snottie), otherwise known as the advanced analytics self-help group.

One of them suggested that DeRozan should come off the bench, and the only resistance offered was that starters can end up sharing time with bench players if you carefully manage their minutes. The whole thing is moot anyway since it’ll never happen.

The suggestion is just plain disrespectful, but Them™ can say what they like. Regardless, this idea just doesn’t make sense. In what way would benching DeRozan help the Raptors? What purpose would it serve beyond upsetting your best scorer? Are you seriously going to bench DeRozan just to play Miles??? DeRozan is actually really fucking good.

This is hoodley.

DeRozan showed last season that he can be an effective primary ball handler. He used the pick and roll as often as any other guard on the team, and ranked second only to Lowry in terms of efficiency.

The only issue with having DeRozan initiate is that he’ll almost always look for his own shot first, before trying to feed his teammates. His role on the team is to get buckets, so he’s only doing his job when he tries to attack, but others get forgotten in the process. He’ll welcome almost every one-on-one challenge and only tends to pass when he faces double teams.

DeRozan is actually a decent playmaker when he wants to pass. He showed immediate chemistry playing with a pick-and-pop threat in Ibaka, where DeRozan would draw two off the ball screen, then find Ibaka open for three. His improved handle means he can keep his head up and survey the floor even in traffic.

It really just comes down to mentality, and it looks like the Raptors will move in a direction where DeRozan will be entrusted to facilitate more than just scoring next season.

“DeMar DeRozan, have him handle the ball a bit more as a point guard, a facilitator, a passer,” Casey said this offseason. “Kyle Lowry moving the ball a bit more, spacing up. We don’t want to give our whole ‘what we’re going to try to do next year’ away, but again it comes down to passing the basketball and better spacing more so, than we know, one-on-one play.”

I’ve explained this in a piece from July, so I’ll just copy that over:

Ibaka will play center, which leaves two forward slots to fill depending on if they need a score or a stop.
Going with Powell and Miles works best on offense. That combines the four best shooters on the team with three threats who can slash and score at the rim. But this lineup also happens to be extremely undersized and would struggle on the glass and with bulkier teams.
A defensive alignment could see Miles or Powell with a legitimate power forward like Siakam or OG Anunoby who can bring size and activity. Someone will need to clean the glass when Ibaka rotates over to contest shots.