The NBA season doesn’t start for another two-and-a-half months still, but with Summer League and the bulk of free agency in the rearview, it’s about the time of year where the focus shifts forward to the season that is to come. The 2013-14 campaign should prove interesting for the Toronto Raptors, who enter as neither a favorite to be competitive nor a part of Tank Nation. The Raptors, as they’re wont to be, are stuck in the middle.

But there are always reasons for optimism, and a smart yet patient offseason approach from new general manager Masai Ujiri leaves hope that the team is moving in the right direction. The Eastern Conference is such that a playoff berth is realistic, though the calls to tank for Andrew Wiggins will be frequent, loud and, of course, completely irrational. Player development, changes to the core of the team and a final evaluation of head coach Dwane Casey all loom as potential storylines for the season.

But let’s be optimistic today, as I highlight five things I’m looking forward to this year.

Playoff Basketball

Fact: I have never seen an NBA playoff game live. I’ve been to countless regular season Raptor games and have been a season ticket holder on two occasions (including right now, as a member of Raptors Republic), but the team hasn’t been strong for some time. I’ve been told the Air Canada Centre atmosphere for the previous playoff appearance was excellent, and I’m excited at the possibility of being a part of that next spring.

Of course, the Raptors have to get there first. On paper, the Raptors can make a case for a top-eight seed in the East. With a handful of teams tanking themselves out of the discussion, the Raptors will be battling with a few teams similar to themselves, those in-betweens, for the last few playoff spots. We’ll need to see a little bit of basketball from the Raptors and teams like the Pistons, Hawks and Wizards to see how everyone stacks up, as the East has undergone a great deal of change this summer.

But the possibility exists, and that’s exciting.

Jonas Valanciunas

I’d write about my hopes for his development, but our guest poster did a pretty damn good job yesterday doing just that. In short, I saw a lot of good from Valanciunas in his rookie year and in Summer League. Player development is rarely linear but it’s easy to get excited thinking about the numbers Valanciunas could put up next season. Even if the numbers don’t end up jumping off the page, he’s an excellent building block putting in the work to get better and it will be fun to see how he evolves.

Physical Games

Valanciunas, Tyler Hansbrough, Amir Johnson and Quincy Acy all getting regular playing time. That could and should be hell for opposing bigs and would-be penetrators, as each one of those bigs plays a physical style of basketball. Fouling and hacking isn’t a skill, but disrupting the offense of other teams and changing the thought process of opposing players certainly is, and this group should do that early and often. I’m not suggesting the Raptors go out and goon it up, but developing a reputation as a tough team to play against should get some additional eyeballs on the team and create for some interesting moments throughout the season.

The Next Step in Advanced Statistics/Analytics

When Ujiri took over, he cleaned house in the front office but held on to the core of the analytics staff in Alex Rucker, who shed some light on the team’s SportVu process in a Grantland piece last season. The Raptors appear to be ahead of the curve in their usage of advanced video analysis and it will be interesting to see if that’s visible on the court at times. It’s unclear whether Casey is the type of coach to embrace suggestions of that type, but as a lame duck coach he may be open to any advantage he can get, and SportVu findings can apply on both ends of the floor. If their work in this area can provide a way of making the whole greater than the sum of the parts, that could make point one above even more realistic.

The “Core”

Among all five-man units with at least 144 minutes played together last year (that’s three full games), the seventh best unit in terms of Net Rating (offensive rating less defensive rating) belonged to the Raptors’ starting unit. 343 minutes is a somewhat small sample but for five-man line-up data it’s appreciable, and the Kyle Lowry-DeMar DeRozan-Rudy Gay-Johnson-Valanciunas five-some was great on both ends of the floor. If that unit can continue to flourish, perhaps even improve in their second year together, than the Raptors will have a leg up at the start of each half. (Of course, this could mean a frustrating hockey-style substitution pattern that we saw at times last year, but we can cross that bridge when we come to it.)

Overall, there is sound reason for optimism for this season. There are those who feel anything less than championship contendership is a waste of time, but I’m firmly in the camp that just wants exciting basketball with a reason to watch down the stretch. Give me a tight race, some strong player development and a couple of home games at the ACC in a playoff environment, and 2013-14 will be just fine by me.

  • DDayLewis

    Blake, just out of curiosity; why do you think that 5-man unit was so successful? Personally, I see a sore lack of spacing on offense.

    • SR

      I’d like to know how much that net rating figure is inflated by the 8 or 9 garbage games at the end of the season, where the team reeled off a handful of wins against teams that had clearly mailed it in (also affects the W/L record with Rudy).

      It’s gonna be fun + interesting one way or another. Either this roster will get rolling (they should be fun to watch) and we’ll see how Ujiri works with what he’s got, or if they start as poorly as last year we’ll get to watch him rebuild a team from the ground up. I’m fine with either outcome.

      • DDayLewis

        That’s the thing about +/- stats; they measure way too much context to actually say anything about anything until you have a huge (like, 3+ seasons) sample.

        I looked at that net figure. Turns out, most of the success was on defense, where they were elite. On offense, they were merely average (which makes sense given how little shooting is in that lineup).

        • SR

          Interesting. Presumably, two things may help their offence a bit – Jonas’ developing game, and Casey having the opportunity to develop offensive schemes from the ground up to suit his personnel, rather than having to adjust on the fly like last year.

          I’d rather watch excellent defense and average offense than the other way around. A lot more potential that way.

          • DDayLewis

            The main problem is just a lack of shooting. JV and Amir don’t have great range (and you don’t want them shooting from outside anyway). Gay and DD are below average long-range shooters and Lowry is merely average. It’s not a recipe for a successful offense. Benching DD for a shooter (ie: Ross if he develops, or Fields if he’s healthy) will help tremendously. Also, as currently constructed, there will be a dearth of touches for JV because Gay and DD will use up ~55-60% of the offensive possessions.

            • mountio

              Havent seen the two words “Fields” and “shooter” in the same sentence in a positive way in quite some time. I like your optimism .. but Im not sure Landry will ever be a “shooter” again. Ross .. heres hoping, but dont think so with LF.

              • DDayLewis

                He had surgery to fix a serious nerve issue in his shooting elbow. I’m banking on his jumper improving based on that.

                But yeah, his last two seasons have been gawdawful

  • raptorspoo

    Jonas Valanciunas … Yes please!
    Physical Games – meh~
    The Next Step in Advanced Statistics/Analytics – sure, whatever
    Playoff Basketball – haha… not likely
    The “Core”- only if they’re going to blow it up

    Sorry Blake, I’m with the “anything less than championship contendership” crowd. Don’t want exciting meaningless games.

    • DDayLewis

      Really? So you won’t be happy if the Raptors make it to the playoffs? You won’t be watching those games?

      Jesus Christ. You’d think we were the Lakers or Spurs with the way our fans talk. Our shitty Raptors franchise have made the playoffs 5 times. We haven’t made it to the playoffs in 5 years, and playoffs aren’t good enough?

      Let’s all just re-calibrate our expectations a little.

      And this team as constructed should challenge for a low playoff seed. If you would like to offer up some reasons why they won’t, please do so with a more constructive argument other than “haha”.

      • rick

        And then what? Rudy Gay and Lowry leave after a first round exit and we’re left with no decent draft pick in a great draftand end up out of the playoffs again next year? I don’t see the point in that. I agree the fans have to be a little more realistic, but at least try to build a perennial playoff team!?

        • DDayLewis

          I’d advocate trading Gay for assets during the middle of the season (if there is a suitor, obviously). I’d extend Lowry now to lock him into a cheap contract (again, if possible) to keep his price down.

          This team, sans Gay, will still challenge for the playoffs. WIth the cap relief from shedding Gay, there is room to build this team come next offseason.

          • rick

            I agree with everything you just said except I’m not sure Lowry is the answer for the raptors, I think they need a guard who can really run the offence( if available obviously), but I certainly don’t think its worth mortgagin g teams future in order to make the playoffs thisyear, even if it means a chance that they will miss this year, for example if they trade gay mid season and end up in 9th or 10th place, at least they’ll have a lottery pick plus a lots of cap room a nd a solid core going into next season. I think patience is the key right now. Thoughts?fufutureplay

        • Rub

          Ujiri turned the nuggets into a contender without melo, jr smith, etc …

      • raptorspoo

        So that’s your goal, eh?

        We’re constructed to challenge for a low playoff seed (if we can even do that) yet we have maxed out on salary, hmmm.


        • DDayLewis

          You’re ignoring the very real possibility that Rudy Gay opts out of his player option this offseason. His production should be relatively replaceable.

          There’s also the development of Jonas Valanciunas.

          This team isn’t set in stone.

          But sure, go ahead with more refrains of your best argument; “haha”

          • raptorspoo

            Just to summarize your best argument… you’re saying there’s no real direction, you hope Gay opts out of his contract, and the team isn’t set in stone. o~k gotcha.

            Why not just blow it up and get rid of DD and Lowry in the process? Make’s more sense to me.

            • DDayLewis

              There is a direction. From Ujiri’s time in Denver, his style of management is clearly that of “manage the assets”. Tanking and going for it aren’t the only two plans in basketball.

              Trading demar would be great, provided we get something better in return. Lowry is productive, and now is the time for UM to buy low on him.

              The thing is, trading DD and Gay won’t be blowing it up. They aren’t the most productive players on this team. This team can win without them.

  • Mike

    So you want to go straight to World Champs? Not have a team grow together through the playoffs. Just buy a championship

    • raptorspoo

      Pretty smart comment buddy.

      But since you asked, I’d rather have a team that can grow together AND have a ‘chance’ to win the championship in the future (not just grow together). Like the Cavs, OKC, Minny, Golden State, Indy… just to name a few teams in that category. Hats off to ya if you think this core is going to win anything significant. Gotta say, you might be one of the most optimistic person I don’t know.

    • Guest

      Raptorspoo is right. This core won’t even get past the first round. Just maybe an 8th seed then getting swept by LeBron and co. or Rose and co.

  • DDD

    this season is gonna be good

  • Mugsy

    I get wanting to watch playoff basketball and appreciating the potential this current group has of getting there. And I would likewise enjoy the excitement and love to see a live playoff game. But I find it annoying how polarizing this debate is. People wanting to see how far this core goes, and hoping for a little playoff basketball are by no means irrational, but neither are those of us who think a (proper) tank would get us out of long term mediocrity.

    If this team stays together, in a few years (with the development of JV as the center piece) we may be a 2nd, at best 3rd round playoff team. Which is obv. damn good, but a long shot (ie. if JV becomes a top 3 center, and the rest continue production). However you blow up the team now, with THIS particular draft coming up and in a few years you’re a contender. Its a gamble, but so is anything you do in sports as a predictor of future success.

    Valenciunas and Exum at point guard leading the group- ooohhweeee. But seriously not to get off point here, for fans that have watched below average basketball since the vince carter days (thats right id slot the bosh era in there too, excluding maybe the one season) and watched GMs attempt big signings and big trades and all sorts of over-hauls, and re-tools and never get anywhere its understandable why fans get fed up and for once just want to blow it up right.

  • Andrey

    Hibbert was 17th pick and George was 10th. It took Indiana some time to be a contender. There are other ways to build a contender.

    • Tim W.

      Of course, the Pacers are an outlier and not a good example of anything. The chance of finding a player of George’s calibre at 10th and of Hibbert’s calibre at 19th is astronomical.

      • onemanweave

        Correct. However the chance of drafting a franchise player like LeBron or Duncan is also astronomical. Your theory is that there are up to eight such players available in this year’s draft. The chance of you being correct is astronomical.
        In reality, if you tank and draft a future all-star, you’ll have to tank a few more seasons and add more future all-stars to reach your Holy Grail of a championship. Astronomical odds. Then you’ll have to be able to hold onto them through a series of losing seasons. Considering TO’s track record in that department, chances border on astronomical.
        Finally, the chance you will concede that no matter what path an NBA team takes, the chances are at least one-in-thirty that they will fail. Probably higher. Those aren’t astronomical odds, just unlikely ones. I like good, competitive basketball — effort, defence, sharing the ball. After that, a championship would sure be nice and maybe the chances of landing that superstar would be greater if a few years down the road Wiggins saw that the NBA entry in his home and native land was an efficient, competitive franchise not some bunch of bozos mired in a series of tank jobs.

        • Tim W.

          Here’s the thing. Basic logic tells you that you have a better chance of drafting an elite player than trading for or signing one. Every player is drafted, but fewer are traded and even fewer sign as free agents.

          I already gone over the argument that you have to tank for several seasons, No you don’t. The Raptors have Valanciunas, already, and with the assets they should be able to get with the existing players, a multiseason tank shouldn’t be necessary.

          I think it comes down to the fact that you don’t care whether the Raptors compete for a Championship and would be happy with good, competitive basketball. We don’t share that view.

          If you would be fine with just playoff basketball, then a tank makes no sense because you don’t need an elite player or a contending team to make the playoffs.

          • onemanweave

            A tank makes sense if the team has a poor season and is in contention for a high lottery pick this year. I’m sure the GM has enough sense to be aware of that.
            A tank makes sense if a GM of a bottom-feeding team wants to trade this year’s first-rounder for one of the Raps ordinary superstars. I’m sure Toronto’s GM would jump all over it, but the odds of that happening are astronomical.
            However, unless opportunity or necessity dictate that course, a pre-determined plan to tank come hell or high water doesn’t make sense. There are a lot of smart people maneuvering to get a high draft pick this year. You would be one more.
            Your championship-or-nothing philosophy is admirable. It is shared with a few owners and GM’s of teams with more resources at hand to make it happen than our beloved Dinos.
            If a title is all that will make you happy, so be it. Sell the farm. Buy some futures and hope you’ve guessed right. The futures market has a lot of up-side. Also a lot of down-side.
            For me, Casey’s first season produced a lot more watchable basketball than the previous few. The team competed. It got the most out of the talent it had. Last year was a step sideways or maybe backwards. Hopefully they can take another step forward this season.
            The guy in charge now seems to have a pretty good head on his shoulders. If the opportunity to jump into the lottery this year presents itself, or is forced upon him, I’m sure he’ll make the most of it.
            However to determine right now that you’re going to get one of this year’s high draft picks by selling off assets for ten cents on the dollar isn’t sound strategy. You’re not competing in a vacuum. You’re competing with professional team managers who just might be aware that his year’s draft crop is a good one — although the belief that there are eight college kids capable of taking a team from mediocre to the title is a bit far-fetched.

            • onemanweave

              should be ‘this year’s crop is a good one…’.

            • Tim W.

              “There are a lot of smart people maneuvering to get a high draft pick this year.”

              No, there really aren’t. I’m not sure why this myth keeps getting traction, because the evidence shows that’s simply not true. It may change, of course, but at this point it’s not true.

              “However to determine right now that you’re going to get one of this year’s high draft picks by selling off assets for ten cents on the dollar isn’t sound strategy.”

              No, selling off assets for ten cents on the dollar isn’t a sound strategy. I agree. Of course, that’s not what I’m suggesting they do, so I’m not sure why you’d even bring that up.

              “although the belief that there are eight college kids capable of taking a team from mediocre to the title is a bit far-fetched.”

              The consensus is that there may be as many as five elite players and several more All Stars in next year’s draft. Right now, the Raptors have no elite players and no All Stars, so adding any of those would be an improvement.

              • onemanweave

                Smart is a relative term. Certainly there are loads of NBA gm’s who are ‘smart’ enough to tap into a strong draft if the opportunity presents itself. From what I read about MU, he’s probably one of them. You have hinted before that many/most NBA gms lack your insight into the building process required to produce a champion. I am the smartest person in the room when I’m home alone. Other times — not so much.
                Adding an all-star would be an improvement — enough to push them past Miami and others for your elusive CHAMPIONSHIP? I think not.
                There is no fast track to a title. There is no sure slow track to one either. To pretend that tanking — or not tanking — is a fail-proof way to get ONE is delusional or dishonest depending on how much you actually believe it yourself.

                • Tim W.

                  I never said tanking was a guarantee of anything. In fact I’ve consistently said the opposite. I’m not sure why you’d even bring that up.

                  As for your other comment, I’m not sure what to say. If I was the only person with an opinion, you might have a point. There wouldn’t be another NBA writer (whether professional or amateur) if I was. And forums wouldn’t have any arguments. So, again, I’m not sure I see your point.

                • onemanweave

                  Glad you have an opinion. That’s what this board is all about. However when you point out that the odds against slow-growth working well are ‘astromomical’, that pretty much leaves only one other alternative — fast growth (tanking).
                  My point is that the real Raptor gm may decide to see how the season unfolds before choosing the best course for the future. To continue try to pull the rug out from others with a different opinion than yours stifles the creative expression you say you’re trying to preserve.
                  Now, do you get my point?

                • Tim W.

                  No, I really, really don’t.

                • onemanweave

                  That’s OK. This wouldn’t be the first pointless discussion ever held on Raps Rep. LOL. I enjoy your writing and the work you put into this and how you’ve cut down some of the more blatant blood-letting on here.
                  I do not enjoy some of your not-so-subtle attempts to justify your opinions. Let the site breath a bit. State your opinion and move on. None of us are right all the time and that certainly includes you. All the best.

      • Andrey

        Kind of like how Jimmy Butler was 30th pick? And how Bulls got Noah who was 9th. Or how Bulls won the lottery in 2008 while being 11th in standing and got Rose. What about Marc Gasol (48th) and Z-bo(19th)? What about Houston Rockets? They never tanked. They finished in 9th standing three times in a row and then they got Harden, Parsons(38th), Asik and Lin. So they finished 8th, got beat by OKC but now they have Dwight Howard. I’m just saying there are different paths that Raptors can choose.

        • Andrey

          Of course you would need amazing luck. But you need some luck in any case.

        • Tim W.

          Butler, Noah, Randolph, Parson, Asik and Lin are not elite players. I’ve never said you can’t draft good, solid players outside of the top five, or trade for or sign them. Once the Raptors have acquired an elite player, there is a multitude of ways to fill out the roster. I would agree with that.

      • DDayLewis

        Here’s what’s astronomical; consider the odds of landing a top 5 pick with your reverse seeding, and how many average wins those seeds usually get:

        • Tim W.

          Now show a chart for how astronomical the odds are to sign or trade for an elite player….

          • DDayLewis

            Just off the top of my head:

            Lebron, Bosh, Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Shaq, Nash, Harden, Howard, Carmelo, Randolph, Paul, Garnett, Allen, McGrady, Carter, Williams (not the boatload we got in exchange for Carter).

            It’s okay. We disagree on this subject Tim. There’s not much point in rehashing the old party lines. You’re going to counter with “but they all went to big/warm/tradition-laced cities”. I’ll come back with a few refrains of “that doesn’t exist because you really can’t find a common denominator/it varies by player”.

            And we’ll be right where we started.

  • RapsFan

    DDayLewis is ma boy.. he is right nd a true raps fan like ME!

    • RapsFan

      also blake

  • Alberta Beef

    I was at the very last Rapor playoff game in Orlando. It feels like forever.

  • DDayLewis

    It’s cool that Peak shoes is sponsoring the Toronto Raptors Mascots.

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