Toronto Raptors Ready to Take Off – NPH Season Preview

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Toronto, ON- Dwane Casey refuses to predict how many wins the Raptors will have this season, but the goal is, and has been for some time, repeating as Atlantic Division Champions.

The 2014-15 NBA regular season begins Tuesday night with three games on the schedule, but fans north of the border have been eagerly waiting for Oct. 29th, when the Toronto Raptors host the Atlanta Hawks in the season opener.

There are lofty expectations this season, one year removed from a surprising run to an Atlantic Division title and the first playoff appearance in seven seasons.

On Oct. 28th, just one day before the Raptors opening game, coach Dwane Casey was asked to predict the record for the Raptors this season. Casey responded, “I think defending our division is a successful season, but I don’t think you can put a number on wins and losses,” Casey said.

Photo credit: The Toronto Star

Photo credit: The Toronto Star

Indeed, a repeat performance as Atlantic Division champions looks like a possibility, in thanks largely to weak competition. The Brooklyn Nets look to be the team to give the Raptors the most trouble this season. However, the Nets lost veteran Paul Pierce in free agency and Kevin Garnett and his wonky knees are another year older.

ESPN polled their experts from across the country, asking who they thought would win the Atlantic Division title this year. Out of 28, 26 of them picked the Raptors. Two picked the Nets.

This is not a Raptors team that is going to catch anyone off guard this year. The league knows the Raptors are a talented bunch, led by Kyle Lowry, fresh off his new four-year contract, all-star Demar Derozan, and a group of solid role players.

General Manager Masai Ujiri didn’t make any groundbreaking trades or free agent signings this off-season, but he brought back all the pieces that led to last year’s success. He also made a few smart moves to fortify the bench.

For the Raptors to have success this season-success, which described by forward Patrick Patterson at Tuesday’s practice, is “Winning more games than what we did last year and going further in the playoffs”- a few things need to fall into place.

Chemistry

Ujiri liked what he saw last year from the post-Rudy Gay Toronto Raptors, and decided to bring all the main pieces back. Kyle Lowry was the key re-signing, but the signings of Greivis Vasquez (two year-$13 million) and Patrick Patterson (three year-$18 million) cannot be overlooked.

Barring injuries, the starting five will remain the same from last year:

Starters PPG RPG APG PER
C Jonas Valanciunas 11.3 8.8 0.7 16.2
SG Demar DeRozan 22.7 4.3 4.0 18.4
PG Kyle Lowry 17.9 4.7 7.4 20.2
PF Amir Johnson 10.4 6.6 1.5 15.4
SF Terrence Ross 10.9 3.1 1.0 12.1

 

After Gay was traded, this group started a majority of last season’s games. Coach Dwane Casey will be sending them out again.

Expect more of what we saw last year: the backcourt of Lowry and Derozan attacking the rim, those Terrence Ross corner-threes, Amir fighting for every rebound, and even a few more scoring plays run through Valanciunas inside.

While there are no superstars on this starting roster, GM Masai Ujiri said he believes this group created a sense of team unity last year, “These guys like each other,” Ujiri said. “We have a chemistry, we have an unselfish team.”

Chemistry will play a big factor. There is no turnover in the starting roster, and much of the bench is returning from last season as well.

In free agency, Ujiri brought in James Johnson to use as a wing player off the bench. The GM also made a clever trade for guard Lou Williams, buying low after what was a poor season in Atlanta. That makes three ball-handlers in the second unit, led by point guard Greivis Vasquez.

The front-court will see the likes of Patrick Patterson, a stretch-four. Last season, his long ranged shooting wreaked havoc for big men who had to guard him. Tyler Hansbrough and Chuck Hayes will also see some time off the bench. Another off-season addition, Greg Steimsma, will help provide some much needed rim protection. Rookies Bruno Caboclo and Lucas “Bebe” Nogueira are still raw and will not likely contribute immediately.

The bench is deep, and has already helped the Raptors in the preseason. On Oct. 22, in an exhibition match against Israeli team Maccabi Haifa, the starters struggled in limited minutes. Casey put his faith in the bench, and they rewarded him. Greivis Vasquez contributed 15 off the bench and James Johnson added 10 leading the Raps to victory.

We’ve seen Patrick Patterson put points on the board, but it’s the newcomer Lou Williams who will add another scoring punch from the second unit. Williams struggled with an injury last season, but he constantly hovered around 14 PPG in his previous four seasons. In 2011-12, he finished second place for the NBA sixth man of the year award, scoring 14.9 PPG.

How the second unit meshes, and their ability to pick up the slack when the starters struggle, will play a big role in the Raptors’ success this year.

The progression of Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas

Coach Casey has been saying all preseason that the time for “potential” is over. Valanciunas, 22, and Ross, 23, will both be starters for the Toronto Raptors this season. While both are still very young, they will be expected to produce at a top level and play against the best competition in the NBA on a nightly basis.

Valanciunas spent much of his off-season working with a running coach and NBA legend Hakeem Olajuwon on his post moves. When asked about the big man’s improvement at the beginning of training camp, Kyle Lowry said he’s noticed a difference.

“I like some of the moves I’ve seen from JV,” Lowry said, “he’s ready to be a scorer now.”

The Raptors will need improvements across the board from Valanciunas, with an emphasis on rebounding, rim protection, and staying out of foul trouble, which consequently, will lead to more minutes on the court. If Valanciunas can keep himself on the court, the scoring opportunities will present themselves.

Terrence Ross was a bit of an enigma last year, but the Raptors hope he’ll find more consistency in this, his third NBA season. Ross shot 42.3% from the field, 39.5% from beyond the arc and 83.7% from the free throw line last season. While those numbers look good, he did it while playing the fewest minutes (26:39) of any of the starters.

Ross also had the tendency to disappear during some games, while exploding during others. Think back to that 51-point outburst against the Los Angeles Clippers on January 25th 2014. He followed that with games of 10 points, three points and one point. Another year of experience might help Ross pick his spots better. The skill and athleticism is there, but he still has to find a way to use it within the Raptors system to produce maximum results.

Both Masai Ujiri and Dwane Casey have said Ross was on a special diet this off-season, designed to gain weight and muscle, and that his coach got it from http://tophealthjournal.com/58/rapid-tone-diet/. During media day, Ross confirmed this.

He said he gained about 15 lbs. of muscle by “eating everything in sight” and lifting a lot. The weight gain was necessary, and we’ll see if he can use the added size to his advantage when guarding the better wing players around the league.

Can Demar Derozan improve on last year?

Demar Derozan was an all-star last season, and among the top-10 shooting guards in the NBA. From his rookie season, he has vastly improved in every facet of his game, year after year. He’s coming off a season with career highs in: PPG (22.7), RPG (4.3), APG (4.0), MPG (38:11) along with field goals attempted and made.

Demar Derozan at Media Day

Demar Derozan at Media Day

If you’ve read anything about Derozan, you’ve already heard by now that he’s a fierce competitor. In fact, when asked earlier this pre-season about last year’s game seven loss to Brooklyn, Derozan still sounded a little angry, “We’re going to need that to feed off of…how bad that hurt…losing game seven, losing by one point. Now we have that hunger to do it all again,” Derozan said.

Derozan was selected as a member of Team USA at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup. Playing with some of the best players in the world, he averaged just under 12 minutes a game for the gold medal winning squad. Derozan told reporters earlier this month he used the time to watch how other elite players conducted themselves and worked out on a daily basis. The experience gained from such a tournament could be important, but there are certain skills he’s also been trying to develop.

Derozan spoke often this pre-season about becoming ambidextrous. “I’ve been doing a lot with my left hand, basic things like picking up bags and carrying them with my left hand,” Derozan told reporters at he beginning of training camp.

He said he even started writing the alphabet with his left hand as well. On the court, he’s also working on dribbling with his left and finishing at the bucket with his off-hand as well. This could have an impact on his ball handling and finishing, but it’s yet to be seen what effect this will have in the regular season.

Another area Derozan should look to improve is his three-point shooting. Derozan shot 30.5% from beyond the arc last season. If Derozan can improve on this, he’ll move even closer to being an elite shooting guard in the NBA

Was Kyle Lowry just playing for the contract?

In almost all likelihood, the answer is a resounding NO. His teammates will tell you how much of a workhorse he is, his coaches praise his “bulldog” like persona, and the general manager believed the 2013-14 Kyle Lowry was the real deal. The proof? A new four-year-$48 million contract.

Courtesy: Raptors Republic

Courtesy: Raptors Republic

Lowry came into training camp in better shape than last, cutting some of the excess weight he carried previously. Last season, Lowry finished just outside the top-20 in the league in PER, essentially making him one of the top players in the league. He was an all-star snub, but still the best player on both ends of the court for the Raptors. Lowry set career highs across the board, and like Derozan, he’ll be expected to put up the same kind of results as last year, if not better.

Coaches and scouts have warned about Lowry’s attitude in the past, but that looks to be where those “attitude” issues remain. For the Raptors to be successful, Lowry has to once again, be the engine that powers the vehicle.

The Toronto Raptors enter the 2014-2015 with a healthy squad that largely resembles the roster from last season. It has been a long training camp, and the regular season is upon us.

“This is what it comes down to after a month of training camp. Now we have to be ready to go. It’s for real [Wednesday] night,” Dwane Casey said after practice on Tuesday.

On Wednesday night, the Air Canada Centre will be sold out, and Jurassic Park is back to host throngs of lively, rambunctious fans.

Much like last year’s playoffs.

Atlanta Hawks @ Toronto Raptors, Oct. 29th. Tip off, 7:30pm ET.

 

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