NBA Preview: Toronto Raptors

Toronto Raptors

Last Season: 48-44, 1st in Atlantic Division, 3 Seed in Eastern Conference Playoffs, lost round 1 versus Brooklyn Nets; Leading Scorer– Demar Derozan (22.8), Leading Rebouds– Jonas Valenciunas (8.8), Leading Assists– Kyle Lowry 7.4

Changes: Added– Will Cherry (Signed), Bruno Coboclo (Draft), Deandre Daniels (draft), Jordan Hamilton (signed), Lucas Noguira (traded for rights & signed), Greg Stiemsma (signed), resigned– Kyle Lowry, Patrick Patterson; Grievous Vasquez, Lost– John Salmons (trade), Nando de Colo (free agent– signed with CSKA Moscow)


Point Guard: Kyle Lowry, Grievous Vasquez, Will Cherry

Kyle Lowry should have been an All Star last season (Probably in favor of the Raptors own Derozan).  He averaged 18-8-5 with a PER just above 20.  He is a plus defender, and seems to have found a coaching staff and team where he fits in which had lead the Rockets to give up on him and ship him out a few years back.  Lowry is definitely a top 10 player, falling somewhere in the lower end of that list (I count 7 players who are definitively ahead of Lowry, plus Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose– then Lowry, Damian Lillard, and Goran Dragic all very close in some order).

Vasquez has been considered somewhat of a bust, due mostly to his top 10 draft spot in 2009.  But the Raptors resigned him (along with Lowry) this offseason at about 7 million per year to keep him as a more than capable backup.  For production, Vazquez offers more than most backup point guards in the league and compare favorably to some starters (Mario Chalmers for instance).

Cherry comes in an an undrafted free agent rookie.  He may not make the roster, and is unlikely to see many minutes, but is a young player, and he averaged 12 points per game with Cleveland’s Summer League squad so he may eventually work into a low minutes rotation spot.  Regardless, this is a major position of strength for the Raptors.

Shooting Guard: Terrance Ross, Louis Williams

Ross is a pretty average to sub-average starting shooting guard.  He is still young, and showed improvement from his first season to last year, so if he continues to develop he may still reach a higher ceiling that the Raptors projected for him with an 8th overall selection– this is another case where Ross would be being praised if he were a 2nd Round pick, but as a Lottery pick he has (to date) been a bust.

Case in point, Louis Williams who was drafted with the 45th pick in 2005– similar PER (14 compared to 12), points per game (about 10 each), and Rebounds (3 per each) to Ross, but he’s adequately valued due to never having been projected as a lottery talent.  Going into his 10th year, Williams is an above average backup shooting guard, or would make for a slightly below average starter.  I expect Ross and Williams will share minutes nearly equally, and either could start to about the same effect.

There may also be lineups where DeRozan plays down as a guard, assuming one of the Raptors other small forwards can earn court time.

Small Forward: DeMar DeRozan, Landry Fields, James Johnson, Bruno Cobolco

DeRozan was an All Star last season, though his was a spot that many thought he should have been pumped for some other borderline candidate.  He scores, and his PER is just under 20.  For several years DeRozan has been an intriguing, athletic young player who needed to put it together to really blossom in the league and with the removal of Rudy Gay and the addition of Lowry, he seems to have done just that.

DeRozan would be a top 10 shooting guard if you were comparing him to players at that position.  Comparing him to small forward is a much more difficult prospect (since Lebron, Durant, and Carmelo never shift down to play guard for instance), but my impromptu count lists him just at the edge of the top 10 even for small forwards, at either 10 or 11.

Landry Fields has shown a steep decline from his first few years (with the Knicks) to his production with the Raptors.  A big part of this is minutes which have dropped from 30 to 10 over the last two seasons.  I suspect the Raptors should try lineups where they shift DeRozan down to the two in order to play Fields more minutes and try to get closer to his rookie season production from him.  He is a plus defender, so he should continue to be a useful backup.

Johnson is an incredibly efficient player (PER of 18) despite scoring only fewer than 8 points and only 3 rebounds per game.  This is because he is an elite defender, having started in the crucible of the 09-10 Thibedeau Bulls.  Bulls fans had been intrigued by Johnson, and I suspect had he stuck with Chicago he would be filling a very similar what Jimmy Butler is now.  The Bulls traded him to Toronto in the draft they took Butler for a pick that became Norris Cole and was then traded through Minnessota and Miami for the draft rights to Nokola Mirotic.  Johnson played with Toronto, was traded to Sacremento for a 2nd round pick, signed with Atlanta, then the D League Rio Grande Valley Vipers, then the Memphis Grizzlies over last season.  He got a two year deal from the Raptors during the offseason.

That’s a very long tangent about a player who likely won’t get very many minutes this year unless the Raptors move DeRozan down to play at shooting guard, but it is a testament to the quality of defensive play Johnson brings that he continues to be signed by teams, and the Raptors are familiar with him from his first stint there.  In a league where you need to bring one quality talent, Johnson is limited by his single talent being “defense”  which teams value lower than had he been an ace shooter instead.  If you are looking for a player to project as the next Danny Green, Patrick Beverly style low cost breakout players James Johnson is a clear candidate– with the Raptors a playoff team last year he should be seeing more spotlight this year.

I don’t expect the rookie Cobolco to play– there just aren’t enough minutes at this position for the established guys as it is (barring injuries).

Power Forward: Amir Johnson, Patrick Patterson, Tyler Hansborough

Amir Johnson is a low points, high PER player known for his “tenacious” style of play.  I’ve found myself praising a lot of the Raptors current roster as high PER/ low points players during this preview, and its clear that they have built a collection of talented players who have come together well as a team to earn their high playoff seed last year, but you probably want more than 10 points from the starting players on your squad.

Patrick Patterson brings the same qualities as Amir Johnson– just under  9 points to Johnson’s 10, 5 rebounds to Johnson’s 6, and a PER less than a point less.  Hansborough (known as “Psycho T”) is known energy player off the bench with a PER just under 15.

Yes, that’s three players at the same position who are all “energy guys” with nearly identical PERs.  I don’t know if that’s a strength, but the logic of having three high energy high motor guys capable of being slid in and swapped out as soon as they start to tire to keep all of them fresh throughout the game is interesting if nothing else.

Center: Jonas Valenciunas, Chuck Hayes, Lucas Nogiera

Velnciunas is another player that his high draft selection is holding back the public perception of his performance.  He averaged 11 and 8 last year, which the Raptors will hope will drift up towards 13-15 and 10.  He has shown the ability to score in the high teens and has a career high 26, as well as a franchise record 18 rebounds (along with 17 points) in a game last year.  He averaged 15 and 8 in 9 games for Lithuania at the World Cup this summer.

Chuck Hayes is an anomaly in the league.  He is a 6′ 6″ center.   He has stayed in the league for 10 years, despite never averaging more than 7.9 points per game and being in the range of 5 or fewer most years, while guarding players between 3 and 7 inches taller than he is.  For comparison, Kobe Bryant is also 6′ 6″ as a guard.  Could you imagine Kobe guarding Shaq?  That’s what Chuck Hayes does for a living, and he has overcome a lot of limitations to find an absolutely unique career in the NBA.

That said, Lucas Nogueira is going to be thrust into a lot of minutes if Valenciunas ends up in foul trouble.  He averaged 5 and 5 in 20 minutes per game at Summer League, so the Raptors will be hoping he can grow into a plus defender as a backup center. This is a rare case where I think that Nogueira might get some minutes as a non-lottery pick rookie, especially since the Raptors don’t have and power forwards playing up candidates to take minutes at center.

Outlook: The Raptors are above average at two positions (point guard and small forward), with a strong mix of proven role players, young athletic former lottery picks, and guys who have been floating around the fringes of the league with high efficiency numbers and excellent defense.  The best case scenario involves Velenciunas or Ross developing to the next level, then the combination of Lowry/DeRozan leading them deep in the playoffs.  The worst case scenario involves the Raptors stars not being able to score enough points to make up for a roster otherwise filled with a lot of quality players who don’t put the ball in the basket often enough.  I really like this Raptors roster though, and I expect they will be a playoff team with the potential to make a run.

Note– posting this now for yesterday, will get to the Bulls later today or Tuesday.  Going to switch to doing these one team at a time.


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