Third seed. That seems to be the general consensus where this team will finish next season. Right on top of the craptastic Atlantic division which now features a slimmed down Carmelo Anthony who, despite losing a brick-ton of weight, will no doubt use his new-found shape to execute even more pointless jab-steps before launching a jumper that’ll make Phil Jackson wish he was smoking a peace pipe in Montana while Jeanie Buss belly-danced to the tune of Black Magic Woman.

The loftiness of the Raptors aspirations do appear to have a hard ceiling, with the Bulls forming the popcorn part and the Cavaliers the brand new shingles.   Most Raptors fans are quite comfortable with this, knowing in their heart of hearts that though the Raptors are a good team, they’re not that good.  It’s much like settling for a job that pays above the median salary but well below what the executives make. It’s a good feeling where you want to pat yourself on the back, buy a barbecue, and perhaps even start a family where the kids’ names all start with the same letter.  That’s where the Raptors are,  snug in the top half of the Eastern Conference, perched up like a gargoyle just below two other gargoyles.

Not so fast, though.  There are threats in the conference which make that third seed look like a bit of a trap.  I’m sure I don’t need to remind the esteemed reader that both times the Raptors finished third in the conference, they lost, once because Jose Calderon couldn’t weigh a pass, and the other because Paul Pierce forgot to trim his fingernails.  If you look at the teams that are likely to be 4-8, it’s a shuffle between Miami, Atlanta, Washington, Charlotte, and one of Brooklyn, Indiana, and New York.  There are no guarantees in the first batch, and the second isn’t even worth talking about since they’re just prey for Chicago and Cleveland.

If the goal of next season is to climb out of the first round, the Raptors will have to beat a pretty good team.  Miami is obviously going to be decent, though I do think they’re going to get off to a slow start, mostly due to the shock of realizing that Chris Bosh is now their cornerstone.  Atlanta was fantastic last season and had firm grasp of the third seed right up until Al Horford tore his pectoral muscles like a dry twig.  Washington actually won a playoff round and arguably have the best backcourt in the East, the fastest with-the-ball end-to-end guard in the league, an experienced frontline, and can match the Raptors for that oh-so-special intangible of chemistry.  Charlotte, well, Charlotte could be had, and I’m thinking Charlotte becomes last year’s Washington for the Raptors where the Raptors would be angling to want to face them in the playoffs.

I have little doubt the Raptors will win the Atlantic and finish with home court, but even getting that far and throwing yourself into the playoff mix as described is going to be tough.  Why? Because teams aren’t going to let the success of last year simply repeat without doing something about it.  Adjustments, is where I’m going with this.  You got to make them as you grow older and realize that you can’t scale two steps at a time, and so do other teams when they face the Raptors.

The first adjustment teams will make is to test DeMar DeRozan’s jumper.  The 39% he shot between 10-16 feet is not going to cut it, or at least, shooting that percentage from that area isn’t going to net him 8 FTAs per game.  Teams will make him prove that he can shoot it before allowing him to drive.  The two wings that shot more FTs than him, Kevin Durant and James Harden, shot 44% and 46% from that range, and that’s probably where DeRozan will need to take his game to, in order for his drive game to open up, which Greg Mason talked about yesterday.  His tighter handles may yield him more blow-buy opportunities, but ultimately it’s his jumper that’ll need to improve.

Kyle Lowry will be game-planned for more than ever.  The man has enough talent to score against most defenses so I’m not worried about him getting his points – he has enough of a first-step, reads the defense well, and is physically able to bump off defenders to create space for a shot, even if he’s a tad bit off-balance.  Watching the tape, he was simply not respected enough as a three-point shooter last season.  Teams tended to cheat off him, especially in two-guard lineups allowing him to settle in behind screens for jumpers that he drilled at a 38% clip from three.  They will close him down more which doesn’t bother me much because his drive game is good enough to negotiate that.  Last year he took a whopping 6.3 threes a game, which was 2.2 threes more than the year before.  Long story short, he took more threes than he’s ever taken and hit them very efficiently, and if I noticed that, you can bet that NBA scouts did.  A reduction in 3FGAs is a certainty, it’s whether Lowry can compensate for that loss in points through other areas that’s going to be key.

Terrence Ross shot close to 40% from three last season and 54% of his shots were threes (Random comparison: 64% of Kyle Korver’s shots were threes and he shot 47%).  Having two guys like DeRozan and Lowry on the floor helps Ross tremendously, because there’s only so many players you can game-plan for.  Ross came into last season shooting only 33% from downtown in his rookie year, so he wasn’t considered a three-point threat for a big chunk of the season, with defenses  testing his shot more than seriously contesting it.   Given his success last season, you would think that that will change a bit, and as William Lou mentioned, he may be capable of the drive-and-punish more than he’d led us to believe.  One thing which is known is that he’s going to be treated like a three-point shooter coming into next season and will have to put the ball on the floor more than he has so far in his career.  Much like Sam at the Rail, Ross now likes to park himself in the corner, eye the game from a wide angle, and pounce when opportunity presents.

From a bench standpoint, Patrick Patterson’s preference to step-out for a the mid-range jumper, and Greivis Vasquez’s inclination for the floater, are now known more than ever.  What’s comforting as a Raptors fan is that both these guys are smart basketball players who can adapt to what a defense is giving you rather than continually forcing their game.  In truth, it’s one of the reasons I really like this team: there aren’t any dumb guys like Jamario Moon, Joey Graham, Andrea Bargnani, etc., that try to fit a square peg in a round hole without stopping to think, ‘Hey man, I’m trying to fit a square peg in a round hole’.

From an offensive setup, teams will try to get the ball out of Lowry hands and force DeRozan or Ross to initiate the offense.  Casey could respond by promptly inserting Vasquez, but it remains to be seen how sustainable a strategy that is, and it also depends much on what Lou Williams has to offer (Will’s got a thunderf**k of an article about him tomorrow).   My comfort-level in watching the offense run though DeRozan has increased because he’s shown he’s capable of either making the right pass and, other than the playoffs, gives the ball up when he needs to.  He’s may not ever be a point-forwardish ball-handler like Scottie Pippen or Kevin Durant, but he knows how to prevent the ball from being stuck (again, other than the Nets series).

Ross happens to have a tighter dribble than DeRozan and will find himself in positions where he’s going to be asked to more than just catch-and-shoot, which accounted for 52% of his shots last season.  He averaged 1.7 drives per game and 1 assist in almost 27 minutes a game.  Those are not flattering numbers, and to be fair, his role was strictly catch-and-shoot last year.  As his game evolves, the next step for him is to use that soft, feathery release in a pull-up or floater, because he has enough of a first step that he can evade a defender to get into the 7-12 feet range on either side of the court.  Rather than having to rely on Vasquez to move Lowry off the ball, it would be a tremendous luxury for Dwane Casey to have Ross be a ball-handler.  It should be noted with a fountain pen that James Johnson is an adept ball-handler as well, and could be used similarly, but simply doesn’t stretch the floor as Ross does.

Much like this lump on my chest, the defense is difficult for me to diagnose.  The Raptors were 5th in the NBA in January and February, but fell to 17th in the final quarter of the season, and finished the season at a respectable 10th place.  That poor defense carried over into the playoffs which didn’t bode well, and serves as a mild warning heading into next season.  On that front, James Johnson should help.  How the overall defense changes also depends on Bebe Nogueira’s impact off the bench and whether his rim-defense can start fast breaks (like JaVale McGee) , or whether his pick ‘n roll defense can force guards to pick up dribbles and cause short-clock situations.

At the very least, the Raptors have to improve their defense of the corner three, which they were bottom-third in defending from a percentage perspective in that miserable last quarter of the season where teams shot over 42% from the corners.  When you think about it, that three is a by-product of the opposition moving the ball well, usually after some amount of dribble penetration. As the season wore on, guys like DeRozan and Lowry paid the price for playing a career-high in minutes with 38.2 and 36.2, respectively.  This partially led to a leaky perimeter defense both in the later stages of the season and the playoffs, which lends some credence to the idea that their minutes should be monitored rather than being played to death as if Tom Thibodeau was head coach.   Ideally, you’d like to bring down DeRozan and Lowry’s minutes to around 32, which would mean they’re fresher for when it counts, and are also able to go harder on defense the time they’re on the court.  Obviously, the Spurs model of everyone playing under 30 minutes is ideal, but the Raptors may not have the depth to pull that off.

Heading into next season, there are tweaks to be made and preventive measures needing to be taken.  Most of all, let not the familiarity of the roster make us believe that key adjustments aren’t required.

  • Vimsanity

    Great article, Zarar. I was pretty surprised that DeMar only shot 39% from 10-16 ft last year, he seemed like he was money from midrange most of the time. It was probably a result of all the late shot clock or not-so-open shots he took at times.

    Also, I sure hope DeMar isn’t going to seize more ” blow-buy opportunities”. He’s got a perfect ‘good guy’ record so far!! And he’s married! Come on man! haha

    • webfeat

      There were games where DD would miss seven mid range shots in a row before settling in.

      • Vimsanity

        That’s true, he was streaky at times. But, to be fair, there were also games where he would catch fire and hit 4 or 5 mid-range shots in a row, so I thought that might cancel out a little. I guess 39% isn’t too bad for mid-range shooting anyways, just not on the elite level of Durant and Harden.

  • OakTree

    I really like the Raptors in the regular season, and I think a top 3 finish is a pretty good bet.

    The chemistry and confidence is already there, and with the early exit last season they should be playing with a chip on their shoulders. They have a great opportunity to start the season very well.

    Hopefully the NBA schedule makers play along and the Raps get their games against Cleveland, Chicago and Miami early, as the other top teams in the east will be peaking after the all star break.

    Also the depth of the roster is very good, which is another factor that makes them an excellent regular season team. Take any one player off the roster and the Raps are still favorites to win the Atlantic.

    The only players I’m really worried about losing for an extended stretch are Patrick Patterson and Amir Johnson. 2Pat is the player that would be missed the most. His mobile defense and ability as a shooter works really well in so many line ups. He doesn’t get nearly enough credit for the team’s record post Rudy Gay.

  • DDayLewis

    “That’s where the Raptors are, snug in the top half of the Eastern Conference, perched up like a gargoyle just below two other gargoyles.”


    • Roarque

      You’re not a fan of architectural hierarchies? A gargoyle is not just a gargoyle – there is a pecking order.

  • OptimalOptimist

    They were clips earlier in the summer with JV and Ross practicing PnR with each other. I expect Ross to become the 3rd option to initiate offense for the next season as we only relied on 2 guys (in the starting line up) to do so last season.

  • M1GO

    “the Raptors aspirations do appear to have a hard ceiling, with the Bulls forming the popcorn part and the Cavaliers the brand new shingles.”

    Stucco (popcorn) ceilings are generally used to hide imperfections. The Bulls are a DRose and Pau injury away from joining Indiana on the basement steps, looking longingly through the crack at the bottom of the basement door.

    Washington scares me. Bigs, guards, veteran depth and Paul Pierce…

    • Matteemo

      And as much as the Bulls are a Rose or Pau injury away from derailing, the same can be said for the Cavs with respect to Kyrie and Varejao

      • DDayLewis

        Love also carries injury concerns.

  • Matty Rosales

    Excellent Read. Good job with the article, Zarar.

    I am not worried about the skillsets of our players. Demar is constantly evolving his offensive arsenal. Lowry is well-rounded and can adjust to what most defences give him. Ross is an ever improving 3pt shooter with a chance to expand his game. Valanciunas has a good PnR game, along with flashes of some solid low post play. We know what we’re gonna get from Amir, and he’s the perfect compliment to our starting line up. Our bench might be the most polished offensive unit in the whole league.

    The area that I am worried about is how our coaching staff will run our offence. With all these weapons, it would be wise to spread the shots amongst all of our players, but at the pace the raptors play at, there aren’t enough possessions for each player to get meaningful touches on the ball. Seeing as how deep the team is and how high the fitness level is for most players, I hope Casey really ups the pace of this team so he can involve more players in the offence while keeping the FGAs high for Derozan and Lowry. I love Coach Casey, but he’s going to need to depend on the rest of his coaching staff to draw up some creative ways to utilize everyone’s offensive capabilities.

    • webfeat

      Hopefully DD’s efficiency will go up and his scoring will go down as the offense gets more distributed. In the second unit, I’d like to see fewer YOLO threes from GV as well.

  • webfeat

    >>Much like this lump on my chest, the defense is difficult for me to diagnose.

    Dude, get that checked out!

    • Roarque

      Zarar does have a reputation for dark, dark, batman dark, self-deprecation.

  • Roarque

    I see Bruno getting on the floor for 4-8 min by working hard and impressing Dwane with his defense – by December.

    • Mexiballer

      That would be nice but from what I saw in summer league it looked like he was 2 years away and will mostly see garbage time minutes this year. I prefer I was wrong and you are right.

      • Roarque

        I’m thinking that the surroundings he now finds himself in will, handled properly, accelerate his growth.

        And I believe that Masai will spend the money to handle this properly.

        • Mexiballer

          I hear you and no doubt Masai will do everything necessary to bring him along. I just didnt see that he is far enough along to play regular minutes in the N.B.A. this year. The learning curve looks steep and he has a lot of catching up to do. He has the potential but it looked to me like it will take longer then this season. December would be a nice surprise. It will be fun to see him play when ever he is ready.

        • Pyron

          For sure! It was the smartest move to bring him over and add him on the roster so that he can #1 learn the language faster, #2 learn the nba game, #3 get to know his team mates and #4 have proper trainers develop his body. I see him as 1 year away from being a bench contributor. Hopefully in the future he can crack the starting lineup.

  • Roarque

    “what Lou Williams has to offer (Will’s got a thunderf**k of an article about him tomorrow)”
    What a buildup – that’s like Bob Hope following Robin Williams on Johnny Carson. I don’t know how you do it but the hits just keep on coming. You two are one fine back court! Lowry and DeRozan for sure.

    • DDayLewis

      Thanks for the kind words. RIP Robin Williams.

  • noname

    Lmao a lot of “experts” have the raptors finishing 6th when they don’t even realize we are almost guaranteed a top 4 finish. A lot of people have the raptors taking steps back because we didn’t really add anyone. These are probably the same people whom bet against the spurs year after year. It’s not like the Spurs don’t really do much in free agency and rely on internal development and good coaching to shit on all the naysayers every year…oh wait, that’s EXACTLY how it is. And it looks like we are following in their footsteps. In all honesty, I don’t even have our raptors finishing 3rd, I have them finishing 2nd, IN FRONT OF CHICAGO, with a 56-26 record, and rose or gasol don’t even have to get injured for it to happen.

    Gasol is really getting up there in the years, and although a lot of people look like fools when saying someone is going to decline, I really don’t think Gasol is going to average 17 and 8 like last year, especially not since he has to share the frontcourt with Noah and Gibson.

    Secondly, Rose will have a good year if healthy, but don’t expect him to post the MVP numbers he had 3 years ago. He just came off injury, an injury that ended a lot of people’s careers, and although he looked great in the USA scrimm, I think thibs may finally take it easy on him (although I could very well be wrong about that). Also, he’s got new teammates who will want the ball thus I see him becoming a little more of a playmaker. Realistically, I have him averaging 18/7/3 this season, so he won’t really propel the bulls as much as people think IMO.

    Finally, the bulls bench has no depth. One injury to a key player and they are goners. The raptors are like 11 men deep (starting 5 + lou, vaz, JJ, Ppat, Hayes or noguiera maybe both, and will cherry looks like he could hold the fort down in worst case scenarios). After the bulls’ starting 5 (which I presume is Rose, butler, Dunleavy, Pau, Noah), they have mirotic, mcdermott, gibson, hinrich, and butler. Those are the only people I see that could potentially be key bench players. That looks like it matches up with the raptors pretty well, but they have no (or completely useless) 3rd string. And 2 of the players in the second unit are unproven against nba competition (mcdermott and mirotic) although I won’t bet against them struggling too much. In hindsight I guess the bulls have decent depth but the raptors top them IMO.

    So let’s compare
    Lowry = Rose (on offense, although I could be wrong about this)
    Lowry > Rose (on defence)
    DD >> Butler (on offence)
    DD < Dunleavy (overall)
    Amir > Gasol (on defence)
    JV > Noah (on offense, except playmaking, but Noah won’t be doing that as much now that rose is back)
    JV > Bulls bench
    Raptors chemistry and continuity >>> Bulls’ chemistry and continuity

    So overall these 2 teams are very close, but I see the bulls starting off slow because they have a lot of adjusting to do now that rose is back and that they got gasol. I think their slow start will be the golden opportunity for the raptors to surpass them and maintain that advantage. And this is all without considering the risk for injury on both sides. Here’s hoping everyone stays healthy (knock on wood!).

    Remember this prediction people and who made it, cuz I really believe the raptors can finish 2nd with a record of 56-26. Only behind cleveland because of their OOOOOPPPPP starting lineup and the love the cavs are bound to get from the refs (we all know that’s going to happen).

    Come playoff time, all bets are off. Cuz I’ve learned that ANYTHING can happen after what we saw in that Nets series.

  • Stef

    Happy to see the occasional Sam-at-the-Rail joke. A tradition lives on ..

  • Mexiballer

    I still think we could use a back up center with some real experience. Bebe looked weak in summer league and chances are he wont play that much if he doesnt show something more. What if J.V. goes down?

    I wouldn’t count out Brooklyn as being a team that will not compete for
    a top five spot or challenge the Raptors in the division. Brook Lopez is back and they now have a real coach
    that can get them playing hard and smart on both sides of the ball.

    Excellent article Zarar. Im not sure I would say that Ross has a tighter handle then Demar despite what the numbers might say. Derozan is regularly trying to cerate his own shot and attacking defenses with quick moves while moving through traffic. ( Yes..he sometimes does lose the ball for no apparent reason while driving through the lane).

    Ross is cautious, even timid, and takes almost no chances penetrating with the ball in his hands. Its hard to evaluate just his handle is because he rarely goes at his defender or penetrates the defense. Hopefully that will change this year and we will see just how good his ball handling is.

  • Tinmann

    I’m getting worried about all this optimism…………….

  • Alex Vostrikov

    oh boy.
    why not see some basketball first? predictions are fun, but didn’t we get burn before?
    what will happen if lowry slows down?
    I think, raps success has lots to do with lowry’s performance.
    this year, most of the teams will come prepared… no tank mode this year.
    I wish last year was no fluke…. right place at the right moment

    • Dr. Scooby

      absolutely the Raptor’s fortunes are tied to Lowry playing well, and teams are better and will be better prepared on defense. But since they play in the Atlantic East where fodder teams still exist in numbers, KL doesn’t have to bring it every game for the team to win

  • raptorstand

    Not one word about how Jonas is going to mature and be more patient when he gets in the low post. He will finally understand the defense and his role . He could take games over. Tross is going to mature and become the player that reads the drive and will be unstoppable at times. These players are the key to future improvement , That is the key for me for next years Raptors team. We know the commodities of Kyle and Demar, Improvement from Jonas and Tross, puts us chasing the #1 spot.

  • Tom

    I really think Toronto needs to run more this year.

    We’ve got enough depth, defense, and athleticism that we should really be able to use our defense to create offense.