A couple days ago, Bill Simmons said this. Then yesterday, Daily Dime said this. Both saying the same thing, one happens to come out in a more positive light. Such is the nature of our off-season thus far. The unquestionable “win” has been Kyle Lowry, who is the only proven commodity that the Raptors have acquired. The other two acquisitions – Fields and Ross – come with with question marks. For Fields it’s whether the pre ‘Melo numbers reflect his true ability, or whether it’s the post ‘Melo period that is indicative of his NBA trajectory. For Ross, it’s all the questions that accompany rookies. No more, no less.
Put all this together and you have the making of divided opinions on whether the team actually took a step forward or not. That debate is more or less settled once Jonas Valanciunas is factored in, and you have to say that the summer has been positive, despite the whole Nash debacle (which IMO, worked out for us). How much of a progression the team has made remains to be seen. Certainly, Casey is now more equipped to play his style of basketball with a defensive big in the middle, a point who can execute presses, and the team has loaded up (somewhat, at least) on the three-point shooting with Ross and Fields. They can also now claim to have true depth at the point guard position which hasn’t been there since Forderon.
As it stands, the X-Factor for next year isn’t Valanciunas, Ross, or Fields, it’s the players that we’re waiting on, DeRozan and Bargnani in particular. If this team does make a run for the playoffs, it’s not going to be on the backs of Ross, Valanciunas and Fields, it’ll be because Bargnani and DeRozan would carry the scoring load consistently, and elevate their defensive games to a point where their playing time doesn’t come at the cost of defensive compromise. So, as much as we’re dissecting the Raptors’ summer, it’s the players that were already here that will dictate where this team ends up.
For Bargnani, you can endlessly debate whether he has more to offer or not, whereas DeRozan is still relatively early in his NBA career, although popular belief is that by the third year you kind of know what you got. Looking at year three numbers for both players, you find many similarities. Comparable points, PER and WS/48 being the most noticeable. Bargnani made marginal improvements in his fourth year and it wasn’t until his fifth that he got past the 20+ scoring mark (I won’t touch what he did on the glass). Will DeRozan become a 20+ scorer this year and can Bargnani return to being a 20+ scorer while averaging more than 5.2 rebounds? Those are just two of the aspects that will determine whether the Raptors make any noise next year.
The importance of point production from DeRozan has been well-stated, and as a fourth year player he’s fast approaching “vet” status on the team, which usually equates to your teammates counting on you to play with a degree of consistency. His defensive woes have also been well-documented and Casey’s been very clear with him about how he needs to improve by monitoring his playing time in the fourth. This is a year where he’s going to have to answer a lot of the question posed to him by both his coach and the fans. Bargnani is a different story. Playing under the security of a big contract, he doesn’t have the pressure to produce and prove people like DeRozan. His offense was much more efficient in those first 13 games, and defensively he was, at times, one of the best players on the court. Despite meager rebounding numbers he managed for the first time since his rookie year to have a positive on/off!
There are signs that both players are trudging along in the right direction. It’s the pace of that trudge that is of concern. Six full NBA seasons for Bargnani and coming up on a fourth for DeRozan. Expectations are in check for the former and even the visceral feelings that dominated any debate surrounding him have died down to the point where you simply take what you can get from him, and accept the shortcomings. For DeRozan, though, the bar has to be set higher or we’re looking at perennial mediocrity. The Raptors can’t afford to have two players who will always tease and never put out.